I don’t know the rules. All I know is this:
I wait until the cicadas start screaming, shedding skins that cling to tree trunks. I wait until the humidity is so thick I can cut it with a butter knife.
And then I ride my bike to the old house where I grew up. And they’re there, appearing and disappearing like clouds across the lawn.
Sometimes they can see each other. Sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they can move objects. Sometimes their hands pass through walls and they sink through chairs.
I can’t tell if they’re solid or vapor, if they’re in my world or if I’m in theirs.
I don’t know why they all end up here. I don’t know why it’s only for a few days.
I don’t know the rules. All I know is this: I keep coming back.
I’m the only one left now. The only one alive. As they left me, one by one, I found myself compiling lists. Who was gone. Who was left. Places I’d go once the town cleared out. Ways to stay sane.
And then, all at once on a sticky August day, it was just me.
So I went home, like I always did, because I had nowhere else to go.
I saw my mother first. She was sitting at the end of the dock. Her feet were dangling in the water, but I didn’t see any ripples. She looked young, like the photos I’d seen of her in her twenties. Her hair was long and thick, and she had a smile on her face that I’d never seen. Serene. Happy.
I called her name but she didn’t move. She couldn’t hear me.
I saw my sister next. She was wrapped in a blanket on the couch downstairs, watching TV. She could change the channel and I heard her laughing at commercials for online dating and breakfast cereal. The TV’s screen was blank, but I could hear it.
When she was fourteen and I was ten, I’d walked in on her during her first kiss. She was mortified, and I told our mother. She and Henry Walker were in that same spot on the couch, wrapped in the same blanket. Henry wasn’t there now, but my sister looked fourteen again. I watched her watch TV for over an hour.
From then on my family appeared all over the property. My father in the mossy fishing shed, baiting his rod. My grandmother pulling weeds near the tomato garden that she hadn’t planted in years. My cousin, the one I didn’t like, brushing her teeth in the shower. The cousin I did like choreographing a dance routine in the living room.
Over time, I stopped jumping when I saw them. But I didn’t stop talking to them, staring at them. My voice just sat heavy in the air, unanswered.
I stayed home for the first few years, but they only came in the summer. After a while, it was too hard to be there without them. So I claimed a house in town, a bike ride away, knowing that when the August heat came, I’d be back.
I’d seen shows about being the last person alive, back when there was a TV to watch. They roam and roam and they find someone else. They start again. They make a new life.
But it’s just me. And I’m not roaming.
I don’t know how to get through to them, or if that’s even possible.
All I know is this: I’ll keep coming back, summer after summer, hoping that one day they’ll hear my voice, turn their heads, and see me.
Madeline Anthes is an ex-Clevelander living in Bucks County, PA with her husband and two funny-looking dachshunds. She is the acquisitions editor for Hypertrophic Literary, and you can find her work in WhiskeyPaper, Third Point Press, and Maudlin House. Find more of her work at madelineanthes.com, or follow her on Twitter @maddieanthes.
Lead image: “Brood V 17 year Magicicada periodical cicadas” (via Flickr user Dan Keck)