As a kid, I'd go on evening walks with my parents. When I’d spy a dry exoskeleton or two still clinging to trees, I’d carefully pry off their paper-thin shells and collect them in an empty Altoids tin — tiny terracotta insect molts, fully intact. When the tin was full, I brought it to school to show my cool classmates. I pronounced cicada with a hard ‘c’ and none of them ever bothered to correct me. Instead, they just popped their gum and smirked at my too-thin limbs and ugly red rims. Once a week, we’d traipse up to the second floor for library period, the ancient frizzy-haired librarian a prime subject of their ridicule. They didn’t know that I’d visit the library while they were at recess and the librarian would shuffle over and pull out heavy volumes of the fairy books for me: red, green, blue, purple. She’d gently smile at my love for reading as I sat in the corner and lost myself in fantastical worlds far beyond the cruelty of schoolchildren.
On this day, they gathered around me, eyeing my precious tin and urged me to throw the contents at her: Do it now! Toss ‘em at the old witch! What are you waiting for? I could sense the window of their approval rapidly shrinking, so I grabbed the tin that creaked open like a coffin and pelted her with the shells. She froze, her hunched shoulders folding like a crumpled paper crane. She seemed brittle, hollow, and so small. The cool kids snickered at her growing distress, mimicked her arthritic fingers, theirs bent at the first knuckle while my face flushed, suddenly too aware of what I’d done. I tried hard to ignore the sad wrinkle between her eyes that deepened with humiliation as she looked down at her faded pink sweater now littered with the hideous shells I had so painstakingly collected, then flung at the one person who had shown me kindness — so eager I was to belong to their impenetrable circle. The nightmares haunting me nowadays always take place in those elementary hallways lit by sickly fluorescent lights that flicker to cast a sterile green glow, perhaps to match the molten shame that still clings to me.