Gypsy Moth Summer
All I really heard was “accident” and “your brother.”
The music vacuum had clued me in that something was wrong. There was no Carole King, no Don McLean, not even The Eagles, playing on the eight-track. I squinted over at my dad, but he was looking down at a single caterpillar defiling the steering wheel. Despite the breeze coming in through his open window, his face and scalp shone with sweat. He wore his blue, button-down Oxford shirt and had removed his navy tie. Without mom to iron our clothes, all his shirts had waves of wrinkles down their sleeves.
From his seat beside me, he began to speak quietly about Jesus and heaven. I twisted my friendship bracelet on my wrist. My classmate Kurt and his pretty, blonde mom raced past us in her red Mustang, and the voices of The Stones blared into the air. I fell into the bassline.
The week that followed blurred into hymns, awkward hugs from relatives, and constant wading through a wriggling sea of black suits. Right up until the family viewing, I just blinked, waved, and swayed. Faceless mourners sang “Be Not Afraid.” Timmy was fearless. Tim-Buck-Two ran faster and punched harder than any boy I’d met at Parker Middle School. When that fierce, eighth grader, Ginger Watkins, pushed me down near the bike rack, Tim demanded that she “back off.” My brother was too tough to die.
But I couldn’t deny the white-skinned, stiff-fingered reality of Tim’s open casket. Or the empty chair we set aside for my mom in the first row of seats. I asked my father if the gypsy moths would be crawling all over the ground at the cemetery—whether there would be caterpillars in Tim’s grave—whether the moths had invaded the South, too, and could eat the palm trees outside of mom’s hotel. My dad frowned and patted me on the top of my head, like he did with Erin, our Border collie.
After the funeral service, he sent me to my Aunt Bridget’s house for the night. I wanted to go home and get my Nikes, my diary with the brass lock, and Tim’s jean jacket. But Dad kept driving.
Aunt Bridget gave me a hug and one of her long, soft cotton nightgowns. It smelled like flowers. I was wearing it when the yellow dial phone on the wall in the hallway rang. I peeked around the guestroom door, and watched shock pinch my aunt’s face.
“For how long?” she asked.
Before she hung up, I knew my dad wasn’t coming back for me.
Tan, winged gypsy moths lay egg masses on my aunt’s picnic table. Caterpillars stained the trees black. Caterpillars fed on the bark. They fed on the sunlight. They fed on my fear.