A Symphony of Cicadas
Author:Crissi Langwell

Eight



I could feel Jane come up to me in quiet kindness as I sank onto the pew in front.

“You know it isn’t always going to be about you.” She sat down next to me, folding her hands in her lap. We both faced forward, the statue of a dying man on a cross looking down at us. “They’re going to move on, live life without you, forget certain details about you as their lives keep going.”

“I know,” I whispered. “Coming here was a mistake, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. Her sarcasm was gone, replaced with a seriousness I had never experienced from her. I sensed she would answer any questions I had in the moment, but I was so confused I didn’t even know where to start. After a few moments of silence, I decided to begin with the most obvious.

“Is the idea of God a lie?” I asked, turning toward her. She smiled.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked, more confused by her lack of a definitive answer. “How can you not know? You’ve been dead for years!”

“First, time is relative. To you it felt like years since our paths last crossed, but to me it varies from feeling like a mere moment to feeling like an eternity. Second, we still exist even though we’re unattached to our bodies. The fact that we don’t just evaporate into a vast nothing tells me that there must be a force greater than ours. Have I seen God? No. But I feel Him, and I believe in Him, and that gives me hope that there’s a reason behind all of this.”

“Like the hope those people were given about where I am in death, even though it’s nothing like where we actually are,” I muttered.

“You could see it that way,” she said. “Or you can believe like I do, that this isn’t our final destination. I can’t help but think there’s more to this, that we haven’t seen all there is to come.”

“But you’ve been dead for over a decade! I know to you it’s ‘all relative,’ but in human time, almost fifteen years have passed since you were alive. And you still haven’t seen God? You’re going to tell me that, despite all that, you’re still waiting for something more to happen? What if this is all there is?”

“Rachel, if every person who died had a spirit in the afterlife, wouldn’t this place be crawling with them? And yet, how many spirits have you come across?”

“Two, including you,” I admitted. I hadn’t thought of that. “So where are they?” I asked her.

“That’s the part I don’t know. I can only assume there’s a Heaven. I’ve felt the pull toward something unknown out there, a feeling that entices me to leave all this behind for something much bigger. But I’m not ready yet. I loved the world, and despite appearances, the world loved me. So I stick around just to see life unfold without me, and find my own sense of Heaven in that.”

“Do you know where my son is?” I asked her.

“Maybe Heaven? Maybe a reality that differs from this one? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t worry about him. Nothing can happen to him if he’s already dead,” she said, not even trying to be gentle about the truth. Despite my own lack of life, the mere mention of his death made me wince.

“I can’t help but worry about him. This is the first time I’ve ever been away from him. It kills me that I couldn’t protect him in life and he died as a result. I don’t know how he’s handling death, if he’s scared and alone like I was, or what. I want to find him, but I feel helpless because I don’t know the first place to start.”

I stopped there, even though there was more to it. The bigger truth was that I felt torn. The mother in me, the woman who loved her son more than life itself, wanted to race to the ends of the earth to find him and make sure he was safe. But a deeper feeling had taken root, overwhelming my maternal instincts, and it wanted me to stay where I was. My desire was to stay close to the people who were still alive and see how life went on without me. But that desire was being translated into a mess of jealousy, longing, sadness, anger, and frustration, a war of emotions as I viewed the people I loved—maybe even loved more in death than in life. And yet, as close as I got to them I still felt separated from them. Just remembering the way John looked through me while in the church filled me with an unquenchable thirst to be noticed. Even though I now had more power than I had even attempted to discover, I missed how it felt to be human, to feel emotions on a lesser scale and tethered to the earth in my body. I missed being in John’s arms and how it felt when he breathed into my hair. I missed the sensations I took for granted in life, like being cold or hot, hungry or tired, and all the other feelings that I once dreaded.

Amidst the reality of my death was the somber awareness that being around those still alive was more important to me than knowing where my son was. I tried to tell myself it was because he was okay. After all, he was already dead. I ended up okay after death, so why shouldn’t he? But truth be told, I had no idea if he was okay or not. And while I was worried, I was afraid to leave behind everyone I loved in life to go search for him. Besides, I didn’t even know where to start.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jane said, interrupting my thoughts. “I know the perfect distraction for you. But first, you really need to get out of that dress.” I looked down at my wedding gown, then gave Jane a sheepish grin. I closed my eyes and concentrated, envisioning myself in a different outfit. It took just a moment for the weight of my wedding dress to be replaced by the feel of a lighter fabric. I looked down and smiled at the filmy yellow material of a sundress, a color that had washed out my complexion in life whenever I had attempted to wear it. Now, my skin radiated a brilliant gold next to the sunshiny hue.

“Okay, ready. Where to?” I asked her.

“That, my dear girl, is a surprise,” she smirked, grabbing me by the wrist and pulling me into a vortex of speed, darkness, and light. The dramatic lighting and silence of the church was left behind, soon replaced by the sounds of laughter and music, flashing lights, and the smell of cotton candy and popcorn. My eyes adjusted to my surroundings and I grinned at the scene around us.

“A carnival?” I squealed. “That’s your distraction?”

“Can you think of anything better?” she asked. I shook my head with a smile as I surveyed the grounds. I recognized this place; we’d traveled to the boardwalk carnival in Santa Cruz. I hadn’t been there since I was a child, and I flashed back to when my parents had packed up my sister and me for a weekend trip to the rides and roller coaster on the beach. I remembered how the three-hour car ride had felt like an eternity, though the soundtrack of Genesis singing ‘Home by the Sea’ and ‘Illegal Alien’ through the tape deck helped us to sing the time away. Years later, that album still transported me back to seven-years-old, when our only view was of the ocean as we went round and round on the Ferris wheel. And now seeing the same view, I felt seven-years-old again, the excitement inside me hard to contain. I watched the people traveling from booth to booth, trying their hand at shooting targets to knock down ducks, or throwing darts to pop balloons. The dings of the bells filled my ears as someone won a prize. A carnival worker handed a lady a bouquet of balloons and she thanked him with a hug. Then, without warning, she floated into the sky as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“What?” I asked, unable to believe my eyes. “But I thought...” It was Jane’s turn to be sheepish.

“Okay, so you know how I said I don’t know where everyone goes when they die?” she asked with a grin. “It’s not exactly a lie. I really don’t know what comes after this. But I do know where some spirits go when they’re not ready to leave the world. Usually it’s places that are filled with happiness and lots of other people. When I died, that’s all I wanted to find. That’s how I discovered this place. Apparently I wasn’t alone.”

I looked around. Now that I knew what I was seeing, it was clear that there were more spirits here than just us. Among the carnies and the laughing families in the living world, I caught glimpses of those in my own world hitching a ride on the fun. A group of boys ran past us, joined by two more they couldn’t see who wore cropped pants and button-up shirts from another era. Spirits joined the living on the colorful rides, nabbing untaken seats just before the ride began. As if they were a little brighter, I was soon able to spot the dead from the living. Some wore old-fashioned clothing; others wore the styles of today. They all seemed to be having fun.

“Come on!” Jane prompted, grabbing my hand and pulling me to follow her through the crowd. I laughed as I followed, getting wrapped up in the vibrant colors and delicious smells, the sounds of ringing bells and laughter becoming a part of us. Jane grabbed a tuft from the top of an unsuspecting child’s cotton candy and placed it in her mouth. With only a slight hesitation, I copied her action and placed the stolen pink cloud in my mouth. I was surprised when the brightness of the sweet candy sparkled with flavor on my tongue, just as it had years ago as a child.

“We can still taste food?” I asked, and she laughed.

“Of course we can! Can’t you hear, smell, and feel? Why can’t you also taste?” I immediately grabbed another handful of cotton candy from a kid passing by, this time a baby blue, and stuffed it in my mouth. A hot dog lying on a cart became my next meal, and I savored the way the hot juices exploded in my mouth with each satisfying bite. All the foods I had resisted as I worried about calories and getting fat were now beckoning me to indulge in a feast of culinary abandon.

“I never thought anything could taste so good,” I said in between bites of nacho-cheese-covered tortilla chips, popcorn, and chocolate-covered ice cream, inhaling the feast I had laid out in front of me. Jane had her own spread of forbidden foods in front of her, gorging on pizza and a hamburger as if she hadn’t eaten in weeks.

“I know!” she exclaimed with a full mouth, making it come out in a garbled answer. Holding her finger up, she chewed for a few more moments and then gave a hard swallow. “When I was a kid, I was totally fat,” she told me. I blinked in disbelief.

“But you were so thin when I knew you!” I exclaimed. I’d only seen her with a lean frame, her appearance showing no hint that weight had ever been an issue for her. I had a hard time envisioning her as anything heavier than the healthy weight she now carried.

“Trust me, I knew how to pack on the pounds. I guess I just loved food so much I didn’t know how to say no. The worst part was that my mom and sister were naturally thin. I took more after my dad who sported a gut almost all of my life. My mom was always on my case about food, comparing me to my sister. ‘You’d be so pretty if you just lost the weight,’ she’d tell me. ‘Look at Tabitha; why can’t you be more like her?’ she’d ask, holding me up to an impossible goal. My mom would limit my foods and hide the sweets from me. But I knew where they were, and would constantly skim off the top, sneaking in bites of hidden candy and feeling guilty all the time. When she had me put the dinner leftovers in the refrigerator, I’d take advantage of the food in front of me and help myself to another serving. My favorite snack was a heaping spoonful of peanut butter and ice cream. Food was my addiction, and because of it I got up to two hundred pounds by the time I was fifteen years old.”

“So how did you stop?” I asked her, picking at the nuts that covered my ice cream. I could relate to the love-hate relationship with food all too well. Like every woman I had ever known, I’d fed into the impulse to be thinner and more fit, especially as my wedding approached. Thing is, even when I’d lose the five pounds I had set my mind to, it never seemed enough. I’d end up losing and gaining the same five pounds over and over again, all the while certain that those few pounds were a screaming billboard on my thighs and waist. But even as I thought about my own struggles, I knew they were small compared to the struggle with obesity Jane was detailing.

“I guess I just became aware of the way people were looking at me and how I was being judged by my weight. When my mom did it, it was one thing. But eventually my friends started hanging out with me less, a swimsuit was the most terrifying contraption in the world, and I kept growing out of my pants before they were even broken in. I found the motivation to change when I realized that no one wanted to be around the fat kid, not even me.” She smirked, popping a French fry in her mouth. “Of course, you got to see how that turned out.”

“You mean the drugs?” I asked.

“Yup. I started out with the best of intentions, cutting my meals in half and avoiding all foods that made me want to binge. I began taking walks around my neighborhood and riding my bike everywhere. I even began to see some weight loss. But you know how the teenage years go. Someone introduced me to speed, and I realized I could lose weight even faster while also experiencing this incredible adrenaline rush. With that came my liquid diet of tequila. And soon I was on a constant high with whatever I could get my hands on. I traded one addiction for another.” She took another bite of food, this time chewing much slower before she washed it down with a drink of soda. She then looked at me and grinned. “I guess that’s one of the reasons I love it here so much, because of the food. It’s my favorite part. I can eat whatever I want and never get sick or full, or even fat. And I can actually enjoy my food because there’s no guilt. I think it makes it taste even better that way.”

I looked off to the lights of the Ferris wheel as it turned its lazy rotation against the darkening sky. The blinking red, yellow, and blue held their own slow beat, beckoning me with a hypnotic pulse as they went around and around. I held Jane’s hand and felt only the slightest pull as we left the feast of junk food and found ourselves sharing a seat at the top of the ride looking out across the whole of the carnival.

At the highest point, the park looked like glowing embers. We could hear the faint metal sound of the roller coaster whipping around the tracks, screams echoing in an ebb and flow of fear mixed with delight. Carnies called out from unseen games, their words not quite audible to us as they got lost in a sea of noise. The whole carnival was alive, filling us with that void in our afterlife, feeding us the heartbeat and pulse of blood we were missing as we pretended to be a part of it all. In the distance I could see the spirits of those who had passed, rising and falling into the night sky, plunging against the stars while holding dozens of balloons.

“I think I could stay here forever,” she said, and I agreed.

We studied the view in silence on our slow journey around the wheel, catching our breath at the jump in our bellies as it picked up speed, and taking in the gusts of air that rushed past our cheeks and through our hair. I closed my eyes and leaned back, reveling in the moment of being off guard, out of control, and at the whim of the ride. But in the back of my mind was John, his unshaven face and sad eyes staring back at me in abandonment. Even further behind him was Joey, his evaporating image haunting me with the knowledge that I still hadn’t found my son. I opened my eyes and looked at Jane. Her eyes were still closed as the wind whipped her short hair away from her face. A small trail of tears was traced from her eyes into her hairline, the constant rush of air pushing it back from her face instead of down her cheeks. I realized the Santa Cruz carnival was her escape, where she hid from all the demons that haunted her in life and followed her into death. It was here that she was able to leave them all behind, even for just the moment. But did we ever really get to leave behind these hurts that ate at our souls while we were living? Judging by the emotional stream on her face, I guessed not. I took her hand again, and she opened her eyes and smiled at me. The tears evaporated as if they never existed.

“I can’t really stay here forever,” I told her, and I saw the slightest quiver in her smile before she squeezed my hand.

“I know,” she said.

“I have to find my son,” I told her.

“He’ll find you when it’s time.”

“I need to stay with John,” I whispered. Her smile was wistful.

“I know,” she repeated, whispering the words back to me. We let the weight of that statement hang between us in the moment. I knew I was willing myself to be weighted down in the afterlife by focusing on the living. I was beginning to understand even more what Aunt Rose had described to me, the addiction that takes place when surrounded with those we loved in life, and how much heavier it became with time. I knew that on this Ferris wheel I was being presented with a choice – to walk away or to run back into the addiction. I knew that I was making the wrong choice. But I didn’t care. I realized that no heaven was truly perfect unless I could see John’s face every moment of the day.

“What happens when he moves on?” she asked me, and I flinched.

“Then I’ll be happy for him,” I lied. “I only want him to be happy.”

“Then let him live,” she pleaded. “The longer you stay with him, the longer it will take him to recover from the loss of you.”

And in that statement, my decision was sealed. I didn’t want him to recover from me. I wanted him to miss me every day, just as I missed him. Jane sighed when she saw the shift in my face.

“You know where I’ll be if you need me,” she said, squeezing my hand again, this time in defeat. I smiled back at her, grateful for her understanding.

“I wish we had been better friends in life,” I told her.

“We’re friends now.”

I looked away, peering past the carnival where the darkness of the mountains met up with a purple sky peppered with stars. I could feel the pull inside of me as my mind turned to John, but I realized I needed more time. I glanced back at Jane, but she had already left. I swung to my side, lifted up my feet, and stood up. Placing my foot on the metal bar that separated me from the open air below, I took a deep breath in and exhaled.

“Here goes nothing,” I said to no one, then pushed off with a jump into the air.