“Why can’t my perceptions of reality be real?” She asked the universe instead of me. “Why?”

“Sometimes I reach out into the sky wishing that maybe just this once the laws of reality suspend and I finally touch a star,” the woman with thick glasses lazily sighed to herself in the back alley.

Her arms displayed stories sketched with scar tissue; her features blurred her age to be somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five. Frizzled and backlit by a nearby floodlight,  we sat in silence and gazed upon the Dance of the Summer Night Moth to the popular summer hit tune Crickets, Frogs, and Seventeen Year Cicadas

The thick sick-sweet air of Richmond, Virginia, swam its way into the throats of the city. An unrelenting hot breeze carried browning magnolia petals.

I closed my eyes and imagined them on a tree somewhere, glistening with fresh dew settled into the herbaceous, yet delicate blossoms. I waited for her to speak again: the shifting shadows of various alcohol-saturated worlds colliding short of sobering existence in this alley on the Southside. 

The sweaty warmth beaded into temporary gemstones on the woman’s arms as she stared up at the sky.

“Why can’t my perceptions of reality be real?” She asked the universe instead of me. “Why?”

Route 60 north along the southern shore of the James River carved out thin slips of neighborhoods – we stood on the edge of Old Town Manchester and Woodland, listening to the cars trickle over the 9th Street bridge.

“May,” I interrupted and lit a clove cigarette against all reason in the heat, “just tell me what you saw.” I pulled the acrid dry heat through the thick humid air into my lungs.

Her eyes shifted toward me without moving her head before she looked back at the river. “Let’s walk along the river. It’s easier if I show you.” She shook her head, heaving her shoulders forward as we began toward the floodwall.

The sugary paper on my lips and analgesic smoke on my mouth and tongue revived in this light night haze me as we proceeded. Shockoe Bottom and MCV lit up downtown, reflecting off the James River as the city slipped into quietude for the night.

“I saw them over here,” She murmured, increasing her pace.

“Saw what?” I widened my step to keep up. But the trail descended into the riverbank through the Woodland neighborhood, and the pavement gave way to a dirt path. Soon she turned right and headed toward the river. “May! Wait! Don’t go in the water!”

“They’re calling me. I can hear them!” She shouted back as the cicadas grew louder – drowning out her slurred voice.

“Who’s calling you? May!” I picked up the pace, running and dropping the clove cigarette to the ground – the scattering embers mixing with the imagined glow of fireflies.

At the end of her trail, I lost her to the flat rocks rising above the James and the reflections of moonlight off the glassy pools and streams of water. Across the passage stood the monolith of Belle Isle: the abandoned hydroelectric plant.

As the cicadas continued to cry static against the light-polluted night, I leapt across the rocks.

“May?” My voice vanished amongst the white noise of flowing water and insects.

Across the rocks, movement startled me – a flash of hope.

“May?” I shouted toward it. Then, the giggle echoed inside the hydroelectric plant. “May! The plant isn’t safe at night! You don’t have light!”

“They’re in here!” She shouted back, but the woods around me no longer carried the sounds of cicadas or frogs. As I neared a broken window, the kudzu and thick leaves shrouded the ground from the clouded moonlight.

I stepped inside the old powerplant, the gravel and glass crunching beneath my feet. Above me, a human figure loomed on a platform, its hands clutching the second-floor window.

“May!” But the figure remained fixed.

“You see them too.” May stood behind me as my heart galloped inside my chest and ears. I turned and nodded to her as her crunching footsteps moved beside me.

“Who is that?” I turned my head back to the figure, then back to May.

“That’s one of them.” She whispered.

Taking a deep breath, I groped blindly for May’s hand as a pit in my abdomen grew and threatened to swallow my courage whole. “Hello?”

“They don’t respond,” May corrected me.

“You keep saying ‘they.’” My eyes darted around the hydroelectric plant’s swallowing darkness, the dripping water from within the old turbines echoing. “Where are the others?”

“They’re scattered around Belle Isle. Unmoving like that. Before they were stiff and climbing – asking for me to come back. Bring someone to witness. Told me it was all real.” A smile spread as she laughed, and her crazed eyes took it in. “You see them too!”

We climbed the rusting ladder and stared at the exoskeleton – the hollow eyes and open slit down the back of the figure – so similar to us in shape. “May…” My stomach lurched as I examined the brittle shed hands, eternally clenched to their final surface. “We should leave.”

“What are they?” She poked the brittle skin as it crumbled and broke apart with her curious touch.

“Hungry,” said a choir of voices as all sound drowned in the screams of cicadas.

This short story was originally posted on Coffee House Writers on August 22, 2020. Minor edits include adjustments to formatting.

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