Noah reads the headline from today’s Baltimore Sun: “Get Ready For Brood X: The Once-Every-17-Year Cicada Swarm Is Coming.”
The last time Noah heard the chirping of Brood X, a petite girl in a blue nightie slowly opened the door, from inside her hotel room. She had small hips and a baby’s face, looking nowhere near the twenty-one years old her ad claimed her to be. He washed himself in the bathroom, and saw the tourniquet and needle on the floor.
She drove him in his PT cruiser, zigzagging down Orleans Street. He’d given her the keys, though he didn’t know why. “I always wanna’d to drive one of these,” she said, slurring her speech.
He hadn’t known about the teenage runaways, controlled by predators and pimps, cycled through hotel rooms, not knowing what man would come in next. He hadn’t heard of the women smuggled across the Pacific from the Chinese countryside, who thought they’d be waitressing or cutting hair.
He’d lost count of the dimly lit places he’d been to. Crumbling Baltimore hotels, neon massage parlors, strip bars on The Block with stairs leading underground. The women inside, dark circles under their eyes, asking if he wanted to join them in the “back room.” Him nodding and pulling bills from his wallet. The emptiness he felt afterward, the vow he’d make each time to never go again.
Seventeen years ago, Noah and the hotel girl walked to his car, his keys in her hand. He saw the cicadas, dangling from the Ash trees, clinging in sheets across stucco walls. The snap of their bodies under his sneakers. Jeweled red eyes wrapped in translucent paper wings. The unstoppable buzzing and screeching that penetrated his windshield.
“Oh wow oh wow,” she said, head bobbing, as her hand slipped from the wheel.
Her blood mixed together with his on the dashboard, shards of glass in their hair.
In the ER, on the gurney next to hers, he watched the girl sleep, white gauze taped to her forehead.
“You could’ve died,” the nurse said, stretching a tourniquet around his arm. She stuck a needle in his vein, hung a clear bag of fluid on a pole. The girl had the same fluid, same needle.
“How’s she doing?” he asked, pointing to the girl.
“She’ll be fine tonight.” The nurse looked at the track marks on the girl’s arms. “Though I’m less certain about tomorrow.”
* * *
When Noah was a kid, his father brought home colorful medallions—gold, silver, purple, pink, and blue. His father taped them to the wall, and they gradually spread across his parents’ room. He asked if these were video game tokens, and his dad laughed. “They’re sobriety coins. One for each year I haven’t gotten drunk.”
Noah puts the newspaper down. It’s been seventeen years for him. Not one hookup. His medallions will arrive soon. A billion of them, erupting from the earth, sheathing the entire city with their clumsy, crinkled bodies, and their glorious thundering sound.
Eliot Li lives in California. His work appears or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, The Pinch, Flash Frog, New World Writing, Cleaver, and Gordon Square Review. He has a fledgling twitter account @EliotLi2.