She's in a tall tree, too scared to move. She'll fall if she shifts even a little bit. It's dark, but she sees things; maybe the tree is glowing, or maybe there are lanterns—she's not sure. She sees people beneath, looking up. Some of them seem familiar, but she can't remember their names. Others are strangers. They call for her to come down.
Her mother is down there, looking up like the others.
Please come and get me, Mommy! I'm afraid!
Instead her mother just sits down against the tree and cries.
People begin to drift off, in twos and threes, until only her mother is left, her back against the tree, crying into her hands. Sybil cries too; and her tears fall at her mother's feet.
When will morning come?
She looks down again, and sees her mother walking away now, following the others.
Sybil smells the burning and wonders if there's a cattail fire by the creek; then she realizes . . . the tree . . .
She looks around wildly as her branch shivers and then cracks . . .
"Sybil!" someone calls.
"Sybil, c'mon!" She can't see because of the smoke. She rubs her eyes, then realizes that she's in her own bed.
"Do you want breakfast?" her mother asks softly from the doorway. Her body is in shadow, a small dark shape against the bright rectangle of light in the hallway. "I can make pancakes."
"Uh, sure," Sybil replies.
She shivers, trying to shed her dream the way a dog shakes off water.
At the kitchen table Sybil picks at the pancakes.
"Do you feel okay?" her mom asks. Sybil still has the feeling of the swaying branch under her; she wants to tell her mom about it—to ask what it means. But she knows her mother will shrug and say: "Dreams are just dreams, sweetie, they don't mean a thing . . . you shouldn't worry so much!"
"I'm alright." But to Sybil the words come out wrong, sounding like she is annoyed about being asked. She looks up to apologize, but her mother has turned toward the sink, scrubbing the skillet. Sybil looks at her mom's thin housecoat and her small, rounded shoulders.
Her mother puts the skillet in the drainer, dries her hands and walks into the other room without turning around. Sybil hears the TV switched on—it's time for the game shows to start; then the soap operas will come on later.
Sybil puts her plate in the sink and runs out the back door without a word. The metal spring jangles and the screen door bangs against the side of the house. Sybil runs across the yard, squeezes through a hole in the back fence and hops down on to a narrow dirt road. She stops and sniffs: in the summer the county sprays the road with oil to keep down the dust. Sybil loves that smell, sharp and sweet at the same time; some days it's so strong she can taste it; she can feel waves of it coming up from the road.
Across the dirt road is an open field and a patch of woods—scrub pines, oak trees, hollies and lots of thorny bushes.
The morning is hot and sunny, and Sybil hears the cicadas singing; all summer the fields have been filled with their sound—a high-pitched hum with a staccato clack-clack-clack over the top. It seems to Sybil that there are millions of them: their constant chirrup becomes a living part of the air; it comes from every direction—from near and far, everywhere. Some mornings there are so many dead ones on the ground it's hard to walk without crunching them.
Sybil walks down the dirt road and turns at the rutted truck path that cuts through a clutch of oaks into the field where the old fishermen lay out their huge dragnets and paint them with hot tar: it's to protect them from the salt water, her dad told her once. The fields are empty today.
Zigzagging across the stubbly weeds she comes to the steep bank that descends into the cutting valley where the railroad used to run. She slides down the clif—her worn sneakers are like skis—to the bottom of the cut, picks her way around a flock of dark and shiny holly bushes and jumps across a pond of still, green water pooled alongside the raised gravel track bed. It's shady here, much cooler than in the field above.
She walks down the track bed, toward the bay, to where the thorny bushes throng together to form a dense green curtain of sharp spikes. It's more like a circle, really, than a wall, because there's an open space inside where a person can hide. This is one of Sybil's best hiding places. It is cool and quiet and hidden.
A narrow tunnel leads through the wall of dense bushes to the space inside. Sybil shimmies inside the opening and crawls down the path quickly and quietly. She's most of the way out before she sees someone sitting there, in the clearing.
Sybil freezes—but a squeak of surprise escapes as she backs up into the tunnel again. He's against a tree, about ten feet away, almost directly facing her, staring at the ground in front of him. She doesn't see him move at all; it's as if he didn't hear her. Maybe the clatter of the cicadas is so loud even down here in the ravine—that it covered her approach.
Sybil can't see him very well from where she is crouched: her view partially blocked by bushes. She doesn't get closer—but she won't retreat, either. After a while she says "hello," but her voice sounds small.
The sound of the cicadas has grown above her, swelling up from the surrounding fields. It comes first from the right; then it swirls like dust blown by the wind and now it is from the left. Even so, she hears flies buzzing in the clearing, and leaves rustling overhead. The man says nothing.
"You don't scare me, mister!" she says; her voice is braver now.
She inches out of the tunnel again, halfway, and looks closely; she sees beetles and ants and other bugs crawling on him.
She comes all the way into the clearing and stands up, taking a few steps toward him.
How can anybody stay still with bugs all crawling over him like this? Grownups can't stand bugs on them.
She remembers when her mom dropped her cigarette trying to swat a caterpillar and almost burned up the screen tent.
She steps a little closer, peering and squinting again, trying to understand.
Something is strange.
Then she stands up, swaying dizzily, staggering as her legs buckle beneath her, her arms swing and her hands grasp wildly at the air. Only half the man's body is sitting there; he's been torn in two, his lower half is missing from his left shoulder down across his chest to his right hip.
There's a jabbing feeling behind her eyes, and an electric zap tingles across her forehead, like a shock, and suddenly she's afraid. She falls to her knees and pukes onto the sandy ground, retching again and again.
"You're dead!" she rasps between heaves, not looking at him, struggling to catch her breath as she spits saliva onto the sand.
"Oh!" she breathes. "God, you're—it's horrible!"
She struggles to calm herself, to catch her breath, and though her retching stops, she keeps on crying and spitting on the sand.
She looks up at the man again. She can't help herself, its as if she's answering a command. But she looks at his shirt to avoid seeing his face. The shirt looks short-sleeved and soft, she thinks; it looks new. She wonders what it was like when he first put it on.
Such a nice shirt.
Sybil decides it was a gift from someone, and wishes she knew who bought it for him.
A picture of the man's wife forms in Sybil's mind, like a movie: she's blonde and slim and pretty, like somebody on TV.
Probably his wife. I bet she is beautiful, and smart and kind.
I wonder if they were truly in love with each other?
She will be very sad when told about her husband. She will ask herself: "Who will teach our son to throw a ball, or read to our daughter, or comfort her during the night?
'Oh!' she will say, 'and he'll never again come home to me at the end of a long day!'
Thinking of this Sybil cries even harder, falling onto her side; her crying becomes a kind of keening wail. She hears the cicadas join along with her, matching her note for note, and feels their scarifying noise vibrate inside her chest.
Sybil rises from her kneeling position with jerky, grotesque movements. It's like she's watching herself, but from the outside; her crying has stopped.
She walks toward him with a lump in her throat; the trees around her shadows, as if her eyesight is failing and blurry at the edges. The cicadas are a strobing, drumming rhythm pushing her forward. She finds herself standing over him; crouching, bringing her face to the dead man's level.
How lonely his death must've been; his face is so sad.
She takes his hand and puts it to her eyes, wiping away her tears. He is cold.
Sybil reaches out to touch his face, first feeling the ridge above his eyes. She can feel the weariness still in his brow and the worry that is no longer his. She traces his nose, and the swirl of his ears, and she knows he doesn't like the way his ears look—he never did, and he's been bothered by it all his life.
Her index finger traces under his chin from side to side, feeling his stubble, and she knows he overslept and had no time to shave this morning—in fact, he'd almost missed his flight . . .
Then her fingers go to his lips, and she shudders, for the moment of his death lingers there. She feels his outrage in that moment; his lips retain the fury of his last sound.
She hears him try to warn the others "Stop him! Stop them—look!" but it is too late. The explosion races at him across the cabin, atomizing the passengers ahead of him, and the concussive force blasts him through the cabin wall and clear of the plane itself, tearing him into several pieces. His last sound—he who always spoke gently to others, and who sang in his church on Sundays—is a guttural shout filled with disgust and rage and anger.
Though his scream is short, Sybil is unprepared for it. She falls backward and the impact knocks the wind from her; she's unable to catch her breath. She feels darkness closing in around her, the sunlight dims and all sounds cease as she slips away.
Groggy and in pain, she regains consciousness quickly, but the memory . . . she wonders if it was real. She looks over, hoping this had just been another dream, but the man is still there. The bright sun still shines above the leaves.
Her footfalls echo against the silent houses of her neighbors as she runs home. She bursts breathlessly through the front door.
Her mother turns silently from the TV; her eyes are red from crying. The news is on.
Sybil looks out through the open door to the baking, sunlit street and points.
"Mom, I found something in the woods!"