The cicadas emerged in cycles. Thirteen years, seventeen years, although they weren’t always prime numbers. The pattern depended on the species, the locale. The broods driven by mysterious rhythms. The summer sweltering and thick with their calls. The insects’ short lives. The instincts that drove them.


The park sat across the street from Linda’s apartment. A dusty playground. Net-less basketball hoops. A weedy baseball diamond. A perimeter of oak trees, and in their branches, the cicadas. Linda’s window open, and on the floor, the broken air conditioner her landlord had promised to fix. At night, the cicadas masked the park’s voices. In the morning, sunlight glimmered on the gutter’s broken glass—bottles, vials. On her nightstand, an alarm clock. The Bible she’d been given at her confirmation and was finally going to read. A chef’s long boning knife.


The first murder earlier that spring. The thaw come and gone. A schoolteacher in the riverbank grass. Her belly slashed, the mess of her guts. A feast for the scavengers. The forsythias’ yellow blooms fell over her as the coroner zipped the body bag. Crows called from nearby trees. The cicadas still underground, but Linda imagined them stirring from their long hibernation.


She went to work every day. Her existence justified in keystrokes, submitted reports. She tried to be positive, but her kindnesses faded beneath the office’s toxicity. The last weekend of the month christened “pink-slip Friday”—coworkers given a cardboard box, an hour to pack, and a security escort. Monday’s grim jokes. At least parking was easier. At least there was more space in the break-room fridge. The cicadas arrived with the summer’s heat. Linda heard them in the morning and again when she returned late in the early evening. Their daytime songs softer, sadder. Before bed, she read her Bible, but never more than a few pages at a time.


The second woman discovered in an alley dumpster. A disemboweling that led to speculation—the murderer a butcher, a surgeon. A man in tune with the body’s workings.


Thursday nights meant line dancing. Country music, melodies Linda didn’t mind, lyrics she ignored. She learned the basics—the mambo, the slide, the stomp, the stroll. Dan from sales had talked her into coming. There were usually eight or so of them, a handful from her department, others from shipping and HR. Their numbers sometimes thinned after pink-slip Friday. Linda was skeptical at first, but in time, she grew to enjoy the pack’s security, the freedom of surrendering to the stomped boots and clapped hands. She bought a cowboy hat, her face masked by the brim’s shadow. She sipped a beer or two but didn’t drink as much as the others. Their official rule—no work talk. Their unofficial rule—no woman walked to her car alone.


A university student next. A late-night jog three blocks from Linda’s apartment. The student’s heart missing. A trophy, the police said. A blood trail through the park. Linda imagined a shadow moving as she slept. The organ still warm, a wrapping in soaked newspaper. The killer’s breath masked by the cicadas’ drone.


Sometimes Linda slept with Dan. Dan was married, but his wife didn’t dance. Dan was polite and gentle and quick. Linda told him she didn’t mind, which was the truth, kind of. He said he’d buy her an air conditioner, but he never did. When the cicadas were at their loudest, he told her he couldn’t see her anymore. The guilt, his wife, the child he rarely talked about. He didn’t want to make promises he couldn’t keep. “Like the air conditioner?” she asked. He stopped coming to line dancing. She returned the Bible to her bookshelf. The knife remained on her nightstand.


The mayor appealed for calm and vigilance. The police with a composite sketch, a thin face, glasses. Jokes at the water cooler that he looked like Dan, laughs that ended with the discovery of a teen nailed to a tree. Hollow sockets where her eyes had been. A news conference, and the mayor wept.


When Linda danced, she almost forgot about the killer.


Gun sales sored. Locksmiths worked dawn to dusk. Linda expected Dan to call or at least stop by her cubicle, but he never did. She broke down and bought her own air conditioner, but she only used it one night. The unit’s ill fit on her windowsill, its rattle louder than the doorknob’s click. She removed the air conditioner and set it beside her landlord’s broken unit. Instead of sleeping, she listed to the sirens. The voices from the park. The cicadas.


She read articles about the cicadas. The entomologists’ debate—was the cicada’s internal clock set to the rhythms of the Earth? Or were their hibernations dictated by the alignment of planets and galaxies, a dance choreographed from space’s deepest reaches? Linda felt her feet on the ground and gazed toward the smog-smeared stars, knowing which answer she’d pick.


She pulled up to her apartment. The night thick, the heaviness of a rain that wouldn’t fall. The clouds veined with lightning. A handful of men beneath the park’s trees. Linda tipsy, her hearing dulled, the bar’s thudding music. On the dance floor, her cowboy hat and boots brought the safety of the herd, but that wasn’t the case here. She climbed out, the key alarm pressed, a honk and headlight wink. She slid off her hat. Sweat on her forehead, this terrible heat. A man stepped from the park’s grass. The man tall, thin. He remained on the sidewalk, a shadow among deeper shadows. She balled her fist, her keys protruding between her fingers. Her heart drummed, a stealing of air. She glanced back. The man didn’t swayed. Drunk. A sleepwalker. Mad. Around him, the wide oaks, their fullness like black clouds that had settled upon the earth. Within the clouds, the thrum of cicadas. The pulse sang in her chest. Her body an instrument of bone and sinew and hair. She opened her mouth, and the song lifted into the all and everything of the night.


About the Author

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays, and his work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, and The Best Small Fictions. His most recent books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53), Communion (essays, Dock Street Press), and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five--Bookmarked (nonfiction, Ig Publishing).