Palo Alto Weekly 31st Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Young Adult

Cicada Summers

By Celeste Levy

About Celeste Levy

I'm currently in eleventh grade at Menlo-Atherton High School. I pretty much grew up in the library where my mother worked, and it was tucked away in those shelves that my love for reading and writing was born. When I'm not writing I spend my time kickboxing or teaching programming to the lovely girls of the MA Girls Who Code Club. I also love hiking and exploring the outdoors.


"Cicada Summers" was inspired by the long, hot summer evenings when the air seems to be standing still, and by my own thoughts on family, hard choices, and the complexity of relationships. In my writing I always hope to capture the distinct emotions of moments and events, not only during action but during calm- when the setting is at its purest.


Judge's comments

In this story about childhood cut short, young Sonora and Cricket decide to run away from home rather than continue to clean up the messes made by their alcoholic mother. The tone of the piece is especially noteworthy, capturing at once the languid late-summer setting and the fraught atmosphere in the protagonists' home.
-- Nick Carter

It was a burnt-summer evening, all right. Sitting on the dusty back porch Sonora could feel the sweat pooling behind her knees and dripping down her calves. She sat in her usual perch, two steps from the top and tucked against the corner of the banister; the wood was worn here from years of cradling her curled form. Cicadas sang in the golden-yellow evening. Summers around here were like floating in a river -- slow, gentle, drifting. Sometimes they seemed to never end.

Sonora heard the slightest rustle behind her, like the whisper of wind against willow branches, and looked up from picking at the faded blue paint of the porch.

"What is it, Cricket?" she asked.

Cricket was a small girl, too, smaller even than Sonora. She wore her dark brown hair in two braided pigtails that she tugged on when she got nervous, which was often. Her tied back hair revealed cheeks smattered with freckles and a pair of the biggest, brownest eyes in the county. Doe eyes, Sonora called them. Too sweet for her own good. The two girls were cousins by blood but had been raised as sisters and friends. There were too many boys around these parts -- the girls stuck together like glue and made a formidable pair when they cooperated.

With steps as light as feathers, Cricket floated across the porch and sank onto the step besides Sonora. She said nothing, but Sonora could feel her velvet-soft eyes staring, wondering. Cricket was always trying to read her mind and had unfortunately become rather good at it.

"We shouldn't have to stand for that sort of thing, Cricket," Sonora said, examining the dirt wedged underneath her fingernails.

"Oh, Sonora. She's just in one of her moods," Cricket sighed. "You know how it is."

"Yeah, I know how it is. I know, and that's the problem. Have you ever thought that maybe we shouldn't have to know about this sort of thing? She's my mother..our mother. She's supposed to take care of us, not... We're not supposed to be taking care of her." Sonora had let open a flow of words, rushed and anxious and angry, but now fell silent. She pulled her arms in around herself and leaned into the warm evening sun.

"She says she's sorry, Sonora," Cricket pleaded quietly.

"Oh, does she?" Sonora shot back smoothly. "Because right now I hear you sayin' it and that ain't the same thing."

Cricket paused. "You don't want me to go get her? Sonora, I.." she trailed off.

Sonora laughed -- it was a quiet, dark laugh. She was too young to laugh like that, she was too small. It seemed almost foreign coming out of her mouth.

"Naw," she answered. "She'll come when she's good and ready. I'll hear an apology from her own goddamn mouth and I still won't forgive her. But I wanna hear her say it."

Cricket sighed. Her heart was too big, Sonora thought, too willing to forgive. She loved Sonora's mother after everything, after each letdown, each hurt. Sonora didn't forgive that easily. She figured one of them had to hold the people in their life accountable. And Cricket was younger, by only a few months, but Sonora felt it. She had to look out for them.

"You know we could g-" Sonora started, as she had started a hundred times before.

"No," Cricket cut her off abruptly. They had had this discussion countless times since the afternoon months ago when the letter had arrived. In Sonora's eyes, it offered them freedom. A new life with their grandmother in California. A chance to be happy, to be children, to be free. To Cricket, it was blasphemy. Heartless. Abandoning your family was worse than death.

"We could be happy," Sonora said quietly.

"Please, Sonora. You know I'll go if you do, but please. We can't leave her on her own," Cricket whispered and tugged on her braid. Watching her, Sonora's heart broke a little more. She nodded and the two sat in silence, listening to the music of the evening.

Minutes passed and eventually Cricket drifted off the porch, patting Sonora's hand before she left. Sonora stayed curled in her corner -- she could sit here for a good long while before she got restless. She watched the flies buzz in the slanting evening sun. This was the only lullaby she remembered.

- - -

It was nighttime before Sonora heard someone approach again. The dark sky hadn't yet chased the warmth out of the ground and the crickets still sang to each other from the fields, but the sun was long gone. The footsteps were heavier; the porch creaked to announce their arrival. Sonora didn't move, didn't look.

"You gonna come inside?" a dry voice asked. "It's getting late."

Sonora wanted to shudder at the sound. She remembered when that voice had sung her lullabies and whispered secrets in her young ears; memories so faded she sometimes thought she had dreamt them up. "Depends," she said bitterly. "You gonna keep pretending nothing's happened? That you're an apple-pie mother? Because in that case I think I'll stay out here, thanks."

She turned at last to face the figure standing behind her. The face wasn't so much wrinkled as oddly distorted; blue-gray eyes lined with thin blonde lashes looked out at Sonora from amidst a wild tangle of dirty-blonde hair, fading to grey along the scalp. Her mother's face was bloated and her body seemed weak, delicate. It was hard to look at; Sonora remembered how her mother had used to look. She had been a beauty when Sonora was younger. Lots had changed since then, lots had happened.

Her Mama shifted, trying so hard to hold herself casually that she looked strange, contorted.

"I told you, baby, it was a mistake. It was a mista.." she was cut off by a vicious look from her daughter.

"A mistake?" Sonora asked darkly. "What, you just tripped and landed with a bottle in your hand? Someone forced you to leave, to leave on Cricket's birthday, and wind up half-dead drunk at a grimy bar two towns over?"

"I wasn't.." Sonora's mother started weakly, but she couldn't even finish the lie. It drifted out of her mouth, unfinished, and fell fluttering onto the ground between them.

"You were passed dead out on that bar floor, Mama. The bottle was still in your hand, don't act like I'm stupid and pretend you're still sober," Sonora spat. "You ain't been sober a day in the past year. You ain't worked, you ain't cooked. You ain't done nothin but entertain a parade of men and bottles. And Cricket, she loves you still after you leave her on her birthday, after you leave us practically fending for ourselves for the past year," Sonora was yelling now, her voice heavy and ringing in the thick summer air. "You think we deserve this? You think we deserve to have to drive all night to pick up a sorry excuse for a mother?"

"And how do you think it is for me?" her mother cried back. Her temper was quick when she was challenged, she flipped from apologetic to furious to lord-knows-what at the slightest moment. "Comin' home knowin' you're not gonna talk to me, knowin' my own daughter hates me? You don't give up on family, Sonora. You don't give up on your own mother. I've done the best I can for you."

Sonora felt temper pooling in her throat and wanted to cry out because that was her mother's temper, hot and messy and irreversibly in Sonora's blood. She squeezed her eyes shut and balled up her fists.

"This ain't the best you can," she whispered. "This ain't the best you can and you're right, I don't give up on family. But unfortunately for you, you don't get that name anymore. We deserve more than you."

Silence weighed heavy on the porch for one moment, two. The cicadas hushed their music; all was still as the world considered what had been said, what would happen next.

"We're going to Grandma's," Sonora said finally. "Cricket and me, we're leaving until --"

"No! Please, honey, please you can't!" her mother's face cracked, melted; she moved to clutch her daughter's hand but Sonora jerked back from the touch.

"Please," her mother said again. She was shaking almost imperceptibly, leaning towards Sonora with desperate, imploring eyes. "I can get better, I promise I can, but not without you! Not alone, I can't do it alone, I can't, I can't, I need you two here with me. Please," her voice broke and she began to cry.

Sonora stood tall and still, watching the shaking figure in front of her with a distant, haunted expression.

"Stay the night, please," her mother choked out. "Think about it again in the morning but please, please don't leave me, not right now. You're my daughter, you're...I can't do it alone. You owe me this much, please."

Sonora let out a breath, shutting her eyes in the summer night. She nodded, once, then turned away. Without looking at her mother, fingernails cutting into her sweaty palms, Sonora brushed off the porch and indoors. Hearing the screen door slam behind her, she went to find Cricket.

- - -

Hours later the country had gone quiet and still; the warm night air cast the old wooden house with the silent blanket of a summer's eve. In Sonora and Cricket's room the older girl lay awake under their rough woolen covers, feeling Cricket's small form rise and fall slowly next to her. Lifting one corner of the blanket she slipped barefoot from the bed and out of the room. Feeling the rough wood under her feet, Sonora crept down the hall towards the only other doorway. It was closed but the house was old and the walls were thin. Hardly breathing, Sonora put her ear to the door.

Through the splintered wood Sonora heard her mother's quiet weeping. It was muffled, probably into a blanket, but Sonora had heard the sound often enough. She sounded so broken and so very, very alone. The stifled sobs called for someone to take her into their arms, soothe her, brush her hair out of her tear-stained face. They called for forgiveness.

Something in Sonora's heart twinged, and then settled, stronger than before.

Softly and without a sound she turned and walked back down the hall. Slipping past the creaky floorboards she drifted to the broken-down bed and put a hand on Cricket's shoulder.

"Wake up, Cricket," she whispered, shaking her cousin gently. "We're going, come on. Wake up."

Cricket stirred and sat up, blinking in the near-darkness. She brushed her hair out of her face and looked up at Sonora.

"Where are we going? Oh, Sonora.." Cricket's voice was tired but understanding. What she saw in Sonora's eyes was enough answer for her, so she threw off the covers and slipped out of bed.

"We're going to get what we deserve, sweetheart," Sonora said. "There's nothing for us here. We're going to find a life we deserve."

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