Andy was ten years old the first time he heard the trees ablaze with cicadas. He thought it was the trees themselves burning with invisible flames. He ran inside his family’s double-wide and told his father to get some water to put out the fire in the maple he liked to climb. His father, slumped in the recliner watching a ball game, just shook his head and laughed, “It’s the damn cicadas, you dummy. There’s no fire. Now leave me be. Go on back outside.”
Andy shuffled into the heat that felt somehow hotter with the incessant sizzle of cicadas charging the air. He picked up a rock and threw it as high into the branches of the maple as he could, hoping cicadas would billow into the sky like clouds of smoke and fly away. He heard the rock rattle through the limbs. The tree kept humming like the power lines of the giant towers that grew out of Miller’s Field where he and his older brother, Alex, jumped their bikes over tractor ruts. He threw another rock toward the tree, but it didn’t make it into the branches and landed with a clang on the corrugated roof of his father’s work shed. The door to the shed flew open.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Andy’s brother Alex yelled.
Andy looked down at the ground and said, “Sorry. I was trying to put out the fire.”
Confused, Alex walked out of the shed holding what looked like a box wrapped in red wrapping paper. “What fire?” he asked.
“It’s not a real fire. Least that’s what Daddy says. He says it’s scadas. I thought I could scare them off with rocks.”
“Scadas? Oh, you mean the cicadas. No, you can’t scare them. Momma says you just got to tolerate them,” Alex said.
“Why do you have that present?” Andy asked.
Alex looked at the “box” he was holding and started to laugh.
“Oh, it’s not a present. It’s a box kite. I made it myself from scratch out of willow branches and some old curtains Momma threw away.” He held the box kite proudly in front of him so Andy could get a better look. “I got a book from the bookmobile that showed me how to make one. I thought we could go down to Miller’s Field and try it out,” Alex told Andy as he secured the kite into the basket on the back of his bike with rubber bands. “The book said a box kite can go way higher than those old Ben Franklin kites. I made a big spool of baling twine from all the scraps I found down by the town silos.”
“Can it get to the moon?” Andy asked, wholeheartedly believing that maybe the best kite could fly that high.
“No, dummy. A kite can’t go that high. Just a rocket and some astronauts,” Alex said, noticing by the look on Andy’s face that his tone had been a bit too harsh.
Alex was only four years older than Andy, but he had lived through and seen a lot in those four years. Like the time when Andy was barely two, and all he wanted was to be held by his mother, who was taking an unnaturally deep nap in the middle of the day. She was trying to make up for the sleep she had lost working overtime at Gavin Power. When Andy began to cry at the foot of his parents’ bed because he couldn’t climb up to be next to his sleeping mother, his father burst into the room and growled in a low voice, “How many times do I gotta tell you? You ain’t allowed in here when your momma’s restin’.” He yanked Andy up from the floor by his left arm and carried him the way a child carries a doll out the sliding glass door of the bedroom that opened onto a patch of dirt where the two boys played. Beneath the rusted and swing-less swing set, Alex was playing war with a battered battalion of Army Men that he had found in front of the abandoned single-wide next door. When he saw his father holding Andy by one arm and shaking him up and down like an old-fashioned school bell, he ran through the rows of soldiers he had meticulously lined up for battle and headed straight for his father’s legs, hitting them with all the force a skinny six-year old boy could muster. Surprised, his father dropped Andy to the ground and kicked Alex away just as he would a stray dog.
“Well now,” he chuckled, “maybe we got ourselves a future football player. Today ain’t your day though, boy,” he said before turning to go back inside.
When Alex finally reached Andy, he didn’t bother trying to move him. Instead, he just wrapped himself around Andy’s body and held him until they both stopped crying.
In those four years, Alex had come to learn that his father believed in teaching hard lessons to his sons on a daily basis, all in the name of manliness. A quick backhand to the mouth followed by an insult was, at least by his father’s way of thinking, the same as a blacksmith constantly hammering the blade of a sword to make it harder and stronger. And since his mother’s job—the only source of income after his father lost his job for reasons that were never made clear—was forty miles away in Gallipolis, Alex and Andy spent more time being forged by their father than being cuddled by their mother.
“Sorry, Andy. I didn’t mean to call you a dummy,” Alex reassured him. “Heck, maybe one day those astronauts will find a way to make a kite that can reach the moon. Who am I to say? Let’s go see how high we can get our kite.”
Alex led the way through Millersville to Miller’s Field. It was always hard for Andy to keep up with his brother because his own bike was a smaller hand-me-down that required him to pedal three times for every one of Alex’s. But if Alex noticed Andy lagging too far behind, he would stop and wait for him to catch up. And he made sure that both of them stopped and walked their bikes across every street crossing in town, even though there were only three such crossings and fewer than a thousand people in the whole town. If there was ever going to be any real danger with traffic, it would be during harvest when the trucks would convoy in from every farm within a thirty-mile radius to drop off their loads at the co-op silos.
But harvest was at least three weeks away, so the town was summertime quiet, and in less than ten minutes Alex and Andy were crossing the wide wooden planks someone had stretched over the drainage ditch between Uptown Road and Miller’s Field.
Alex leaned his bike against the stone gatepost from the original farm that the first settler, Josiah Miller, had cultivated before there even was a Millersville. Now the only “crops” growing in the field were the ten-story tall high-voltage towers that stretched toward the horizon all the way to Gallipolis. Once a month a man wearing a county worker’s uniform would spend the day—rain or shine—mowing the field with a huge bush hog until there was nothing left but big clumps of grass that would yellow and smell after a week. Alex had timed his construction of the kite so that he would be able to fly it just after the field had been mowed.
“It’s just right,” Alex said excitedly. “Not too wet or clumpy. And the wind’s perfect.”
Alex carefully removed the kite from its rubber band moorings and tied the loose end of his baling twine to a wire and a fishing swivel that formed a V coming off one of the four spars.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s get to the middle of the field and away from these power lines.”
After a couple of minutes, Alex turned and handed Andy the kite, which was nearly as big as Andy himself.
“Okay. This should be good. Now I need you to hold onto it while I start running. Once you feel a tug on the kite, you need to let her go. Whatever you do, don’t keep holding her. Just let her go as soon as you feel a tug.”
“Okay, Alex. I’ll be good,” Andy said nervously.
“I know you will,” Alex said with a big smile. “Okay, here I go.”
Alex turned away from Andy and ran as fast as he could, trailing the twine out behind him. Andy watched carefully as Alex got farther and farther away. He looked at the kite to see if it was moving at all, then back up at Alex who was far enough away that he looked like a small kid himself. Before Andy could look back down at the kite, he felt it move slightly in his hands, and just as Alex had told him, he let the kite go and watched it shoot up into the air. Andy started to yell, “Yay! Yay!” And like an echo from a distant canyon, he heard Alex yelling too.
Slowly, Alex walked back to Andy, who was mesmerized by the kite climbing higher and higher into the sky. While Andy knew it couldn’t reach the moon, he wasn’t sure that it couldn’t get close.
When Alex finally reached Andy, he asked, “What’d I tell you? Look at it! Can you believe how high it is?”
“Can it reach space?” Andy asked.
Alex just laughed. “I think if I had enough string, maybe,” he said. “You want to try holding it?”
Andy’s eyes, which had been squinting like half-moons against the bright sky, bloomed into full moons when he looked at Alex. “Really? You’d let me?” he asked.
“Sure. But you have to promise not to let go this time. Before I wanted you to let go, but this time you’ve got to hold it real tight. Otherwise, she’s gone,” Alex explained.
“I’ll be good. I’ll hold on real tight,” Andy said excitedly.
“Okay then,” Alex said as he stood behind Andy and lowered the spool down to him with both hands. “I’ll hold it with you for a minute. When I count to three, though, I’m letting go.”
Andy put his two small hands around the ends of the spool as Alex held onto the middle.
“Okay. Get ready,” Alex said. “One . . . . two . . . . three! Hold on!”
But as soon as Alex let go of the spool, Andy lost his grip with his left hand. The kite flailed wildly, first to the left toward the middle of the field, and then sharply to the right toward the power lines.
“It’s pulling me away!” Andy yelled. “Help me, Alex!”
The kite veered closer and closer to the power lines that sliced across the sky.
“Alex!” Andy yelled again as he struggled to gain control.
It was in that struggle that Andy believed he could hear the sizzle of the power lines and the whine of the cicadas merge and become one awful noise. And deep within that noise, Andy thought he heard something else, something screaming, like the fox his father purposely swerved to hit with his pickup one day when he was driving Andy to school. “No better than rats,” his father said as he squealed the tires and drove off. When Andy looked out the back window, he could see the fox spinning in circles in the middle of the road, its mouth opened and screaming, before it dropped to the asphalt.
Suddenly, Alex came up behind Andy, grabbed both of his hands and pressed them hard against the spool, enveloping Andy with his own body. Together, the two brothers held on as Alex walked them both deeper into the heart of the field and away from the power lines, away from the noise.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Alex said between deep breaths. “We got it.”
They stood for a time, Andy wrapped in Alex’s arms. Together, they felt the tug and pull of the wind on the kite as they coaxed it high above their imperfect world.
After a few minutes, Andy asked, “Will the scadas ever go away?”
“For a time,” Alex said. “But they’ll be back. It won’t be for seventeen years, though, but they’ll be back.”
“Will we still be here when they come back?” Andy asked.
“Here? You mean in Millersville?” Alex asked.
“I mean with Daddy and Momma,” Andy said in almost a whisper.
“Let’s hope not,” Alex said wistfully. “You know how old you’ll be the next time the cicadas come around?”
“Well, I’ll be thirty-one and you’ll be twenty-seven,” Alex said as he readjusted their hands to get a firmer grip on the spool.
Andy tried to imagine what it would be like to be as old as twenty-seven. To be a grown up like his father and mother. To maybe even have a boy of his own that he could take care of.
Andy made a promise to himself right then not to raise his son the way his father had raised him and his brother by beating lessons into them on a daily basis. A promise that he would be there for his son unlike his mother who always seemed to be absent even when she was home. He promised himself that he would take care of his own son just like Alex took care of him. That he would always slow down when his son couldn’t keep up when riding his bike, and that he would make his son walk his bike across street crossings, and that together they would fly kites in a field where the sky was always blue and always open and quiet for miles.