It was not long after dawn when I found myself suddenly passing through one of a swarm of small towns that materialize out of the plains. Some are good, some are bad, most are just one more small town; this one was buzzing. Not a person in sight, nor a car with inflated tires parked on the main road. Actually buzzing.
I rested for a moment in the shade of an empty shop, setting down my pack and taking a drink. I found myself examining the brittle husk of a dead insect, clinging to a nearby two-by-four. Twisted and translucent, it was a carapace of layered plates like armor, rent asunder from within. I realized what it was, Not dead, just a shell left behind. Cicadas, they’re called. I remembered somewhere hearing they lived underground for the first eighteen years of their lives.
It had stuck in my mind, the idea: Eighteen years in the cold and darkness, alive without feeling, until some indefinable call woke them from their slumber, and sent them crawling for the surface. White and pale, little more than worms with legs, they had felt the first touch of the sun, and left their skins behind, trading the earth for wings, two decades of silence for a voice that could drown the world.
Imagine to one day be able to cast aside all you did not want to need, and fly away. Imagine that. I laughed at myself, Imagine being jealous of an insect. Why should I be jealous, though? Isn’t that what I had done. Maybe I wasn’t flying, but I had at least climbed free of the darkness.
Convinced the husk had shown me all it was likely to, I let my eyes wander. Someone had pried loose the boards over one window, and shattered it. I noticed a large piece of unbroken glass on the ground. It was upside down, so it took me a moment to read. Since 1879. What had the faded name on the sign been, when I walked up? I searched my memory, and found it: Beaufort’s.
Someone’s great-great grandfather had started this store, and five generations had worked there, maybe more. Then the last of them had been force to board up the windows and walk away. The whole town seemed to be that way. Main Street was a long line of beautiful brick buildings, quaint edifices, each and every one shuttered and boarded up. To their fronts clung countless cicada husks. Husks on husks.
The town was buzzing, but it was dead. A pity cicadas don’t make a beautiful noise, the kind that would make us all anticipate their awakening. Wouldn’t it be something if they sang like nightengales, and we spent the long years waiting for them to come out and sing. Still, I guess they don’t play their music for our ears. Perhaps to their own, it’s a symphony. A million-strong ode to the joy of leaving their husks behind. They’d flown like the people who once walked the street.
They’d flown into the light, though, whereas the people had flown from everything they’d ever wanted to somewhere else. Flown, not by choice, but because they could stay no longer. I pulled the flashlight from my pack and shined it around inside. Looters hadn’t left much intact. It looked like it had been a store at one point. The far wall was painted with big red letters: Go Huskers!
And they say the universe has no sense of humor.
I smiled, if sadly, and turned to leave. I’d lingered too long in a graveyard, and gazed uninvited into the crypt of a century of dreams. I shouldered my pack, and realized it felt heavier than it had when I set it down. Then I started walking. Like Beaufort’s, most of the old shops had been broken into, and had gaping holes surrounded by broken piles of lumber and glass, where once had been a wide window or tall doorway.
Scavengers had come and devoured the corpses of the fallen, I thought. It didn’t take too long to reach the edge of town; I was a walker, after all, and the town was small. It would have been a decent place to spend the night, but there’s something disconcerting about sleeping in the ruins of someone else’s dreams. Personally, I’d rather sleep in a crypt. Still, even as it faded behind me, I couldn’t leave it behind. I was carrying the weight of it with me.
Maybe, I thought, maybe, they broke out, not in. That was nicer thought, wasn’t it? That all those generations of dreams had not died, been abandoned? No. They hadn’t died, they hadn’t been stripped and left for dead. They’d just realized they didn’t need their husks anymore, and burst free of them, flying free in search of a new sun. Go Huskers!
I continued along, chasing the morning sun, and realized my pack was not all that heavy, after all.