Relief (or Perpetual Anxiety of the Modern Millennial)

hairpulling

Like every tale of misadventure in Aliah’s life, this one started with her being paralyzed by guilt.

Would you like to donate to Hurricane Irma relief?

“Hon, just go ahead and press a button. It ain’t that serious.”

“You’re not in my head, Dray!”

She imagined her fiance rolling his eyes behind her. Didn’t make any of this easier.

Trips to the supermarket shouldn’t be this difficult, especially at the self-checkout with all the shopping completely done. But the last couple weeks had been nothing but a tug-of-war between her bleeding heart and her blood-drained wallet.

“I’ve already donated twice, right? You saw me?” she said, pleading for approval with her eyes. “I don’t need to give any more.”

Just as she was about to press NO, he had to open his mouth.

“Well, technically,” he said, accentuating his words the way he did when he was about to screw with her, “the last time was for Harvey recovery. This is for Irma.”

Her heart sank.

“But…”

“And I’m sure next week it’ll be for Jose. These hurricanes really are on a tight schedule lately.”

“But…”

She could tell Dray was enjoying this. He found her millennial anxiety of constantly needing to do more, help more, exhausting and hilarious in equal measure. He moved up behind her, his lips right up to her ear.

“Look at it. It’s mocking you. I need your money. You pitiful grad school money!”

“Dray, I swear to god, if you keep on…”

“It mocks me! It tasks me! It tasks me!” he started in his ridiculous Khan voice. He even unbuttoned his shirt for the full Ricardo Montalban effect.

Out of spite–to herself or to Dray or to the bank, she didn’t know–Aliah pressed YES. Deciding to not feel like a total weakling, she decided Dray would have to use his smart mouth in other ways to get back in her good graces.

But of course, the first thing she did at home was go online and express her anxiety. Her 2,432 friends on FB understood. She got 40 likes on Twitter. A bit relieved, she researched what else she could do. The solution seemed so simple, yet exotically satisfying.

“We’re going to BnB an aid worker,” she told Dray after a bout of lovemaking.

“You wanna say that again?” he replied, enough of his strength returned to be genuinely pissed.

“Don’t be salty, babe,” she said, pulling up the woman’s profile. “She’s heading to Texas and just needs a place to stay the night.”

“I don’t believe you, Liah.” His body dropped to the bed. “And when does this chick arrive?”

“Um…in a couple hours.”

His expression alone was payback for what had happened in the store.

Alternating between salty, sour, and bitter while they straightened their apartment, Dray suddenly became sugary sweet when Lynette finally arrived.

“Anything we can do to help,” he said, trying not to eye the half-black, half-Filipino beauty. Although in her mid-thirties, Lynette wore a tank top well, her toned body a tell-tale of the work she’d done in so many places.

“The floods after Katrina and Rita, the destruction in Wilma. Matthew. Dean. I’ve done aftermath relief to them all,” she said, on a first name basis with each catastrophe as if they were past lovers. “So many people need help, and it’s hard to consciously turn away.”

“Wow. I wish we could do more,” Dray said in full fanboy mode. Aliah side-eyed him, wanting to hit him with the tray of cookies.

“Hey, you’re doing plenty letting me stay here. A lot more than most, I tell ya.”

“You must be independently wealthy or something,” Aliah said, a bit envious herself.

“Ha! Or something. Sometimes you get by, by getting by.” A perfectly mysterious answer.

Aliah thought she would feel better by having Lynette there, but she sensed that supermarket anxiety return.

“You know, you could always come with me,” Lynette offered, specifically to Dray.

“Naw, we got work and…”

“Yes!” Aliah said, interrupting Dray, and surprising everyone in the room, including herself.

She got her grad advisor’s okay to take a week’s break. Dray just laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.

“You do you, babe.”

By the time they reached Texas, she felt pumped. “Look at you, girl. Not all heroes wear capes,” Lynette had told her, giving her daydreams of being a superhero anyway, of walking across No Man’s Land like Wonder Woman, of single-handly fixing power outages with her magical Giving Hands (copyright Aliah Comics).

To her slight disappointment, Lynette and her first assignment was pet rescue. “Hey, pets need heroes too.”

Their very last home of the day had once been a lovely single level ranch-style. That was before the flooding. Now, its beauty stood muted, its walls covered with leaves whose decay gave the impression of autumn. But make no mistake, it was rot.

Aliah’s gag reflex tried to betray her.

As she bent in a corner, a brown and white Shih Tzu crawled up to her leg.

“Hey, look what I found!” she told Lynette, proud.

Lynette examined it, a mischievous smile on her face. “Now this is more like it. This’ll fetch us a good $500.”

“But…what!!”

Lynette sighed at Aliah’s naivety. “Sometimes you got to get by to get by. This dog’s owner’s abandoned it. I’ll find it a good home and use the money for the relief effort.”

“So that’s how you afford to go all these places, huh?” Aliah said, petulant and proud of it.

As they rode, she imagined herself in the store again, her finger indecisive. Green button or red? Give or not?

“I’ll pay it,” she said, not looking in Lynette’s direction.

“What?”

“The $500. I’ll pay you it, and find dog’s owners. After I do, I’ll find my own way back home.”

Lynette sighed. “Help yourself, hon.”

Dray was wrong. There was no such thing as giving too much.

Aliah felt a whole lot better.

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Perfection Not Guaranteed

dead-fly“Your card…open it!” Brail said, childlike.

They had everything. So finding the perfect gifts got increasingly difficult every year. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries– a rising tide of anxiety.

“You like it?” he asked. “The poem? It’s Yeats. Let me read it for you,” he said, reaching.

“No! Honey, it’s perfect…” She pulled it out of his reach.

Suspicious, yet keeping his smile, he yanked it from her.

The card, full of Hallmark sappiness and Yeats romanticism, was just the way he’d sealed it, except for one thing.

“A fly?!” A dead fly, its juice oiling up the card, lay right above his signature. “But…this wasn’t here before!”

She grabbed his hand. “I don’t mind. It probably just slipped in before you sealed it. Honey, it was beautiful.” She accentuated the last word, making Brail imagine a dead fly between her lips.

“But not perfect. None of this is.”

They were in a nice restaurant, but seated near the johns. They’d gone to the opera, but sat in the nosebleed. Nothing could ever be just right.

She squeezed his hand, drawing his attention back to her dark, intense eyes. “Doesn’t have to be perfect. Remember our first anniversary? We couldn’t even pay for the dinner.”

“Yeah, but…”

She silenced Brail with a finger to his lips. Her mischievous smiled widened. She reached behind her head and her carefully blonde locks. “One good thing about the drapes not matching the carpet, right?”

She wouldn’t, would she? Not like that dinner years ago…

Cass dropped the hair onto her steak. The fuss she made with management? Grade-A ham. Worthy of the opera. Within minutes they had a better table, and samples of the best wine on the house.

They sipped to life. “As long as we’re together, perfection is guaranteed.”

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The Perfect Swing

the-walking-dead-negans-bat-lucille-replica

Malik practiced his swing in the mirror.

“Perfect,” he whispered to himself. He put on his cleats and jersey. He played with his cap’s position on his head. Maybe his wife didn’t take the office baseball tournament seriously, but he sure as hell did.

“Babe, I’m about to go,” he said over his shoulder. No answer.

Not this shit again.

He found her at the kitchen island, shadowing a paper heap of bills. He tried to kiss her neck but she rolled it away.

“I can’t believe you’re still doing this, considering all the work we need to do around here.”

Bambi lived her life in a cloud of stress. One afternoon at home couldn’t fix all their problems, repair all the pipes, pay all the bills. Besides, he was hardly the only one who’d been slack in their duties.

“Well, did you call the insurance people like I’ve asked you to five fucking times?” he threw back at her, making her lips pucker the ugly way they did when she sucked on candy. About the only thing she sucked on.

“Yeah, thought so.” Triumphant. Ground single! “Listen, I’ll be back and I promise we’ll grind it out. These are the championships.”

“Whatever.”

Being married…what a trip. Hadn’t always been like this. Once upon a time, she’d have begged to go with him, see him play, cheer him on. Lately, she’d become a Debbie Downer. A Suzy Sourpuss.

He didn’t feel sorry for her, though. He hadn’t been the only one staying out long nights.

He made his way to his car, ready to roll. He stopped, aghast.

“The fuck is a wet towel doing on my seat?!” he yelled over his shoulder.

This damn well better not be something nasty, he thought, bringing it to his nose. It smelled of bleach and cleaner.

“It’s supposed to be to help with the blood.” his wife said behind him. “And I didn’t forget to call the insurance company.”

He realized he’d forgotten his bat, as he turned to see his wife’s perfect swing.

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Monument

tree-847914_1920The tree had always been an eyesore: crooked, knotty, balding from some disease of the past. But no one would’ve called it monumental.

Not until the accident.

Nae heard the cry at her house, at least mile away. When she and her mom arrived, the truck lay crushed into the tree, metallic rock candy.

“My babbyyyy!!!”

The little girl lay ten yards away from the scene, her body twisted in less angular ways than what she’d been riding. Joyriding in the truck bed because there was no room with her cousins in the cab, she’d gone flying when the Chevy lost control for just a second. No one else got a scratch. Her body was covered with nothing but.

Granny always said luck didn’t care, chance didn’t discriminate. Seemed to Nae that the saying only applied to people left out of the cab.

On the morning of the funeral, people older, sicker, weaker than the dead girl got into their silent cars, each affixed with flags, to mourn a death so random it made one question the direction of the wind, the time of the day.

Since Nae was technically a cousin too, she got to ride with her mom in the procession. Along the road to the church, the tree stood, lurking, scraped but barely battered. Always there because it had always been there.

The line came to a halt. Out of the first limo, the girl’s mother jumped out.

“You son of a bitch! Cut it down! Cut it down!” she screamed at the house sitting on the hill. The old white man–owner of the property, protector of the tree–looked out his screen door with his wife. They fixed electronics for a living. The man had seemed nice enough when Nae’s mom had gotten her TV repaired after the screen started going white. He did a few thing and told them to leave the TV running overnight, to let the solder set, and eventually, the static would go away. He’d been right. Voila.

“That old asshole ain’t gonna do it. He said it’s his tree and his granddaddy planted it and he’s sorry. Typical…,” Nae heard her mother utter. She looked at her daughter and chose not to finish the thought. The resentment in her mother’s voice surprised Nae. It sounded old, venomous, an animal on its deathbed remembering every wound of its past.

The dead girl’s father dragged the mother back into the limo and they continued on to the church.

Nae kept her eyes on the tree in the rearview, watching its leaves blow east in the bitter northern winds.

That night, Nae took her mom’s car without asking, and drove back and forth along the road leading to her house. She looked at the tree from all angles, trying to give it a chance to change her mind about it, to dissuade her from hating it with all of her might.

No, it didn’t technically hurt anybody. But as a symbol, as a reminder to something dead and twisted, of broken dreams and a promise of eternal taunting, it deserved a death. It needed it.

She stopped and opened the trunk. The chainsaw took three cranks before it began to sputter and whine.

“The hell are you doing?” the old man screamed from behind his screen door halfway through her assault. “Stop that now! That’s my tree! My pappy planted that tree. It’s practically a monument!”

Nae couldn’t hear him. She didn’t care. A tree wasn’t a person. It shouldn’t get to live after taking another life. It shouldn’t remain standing just because that’s the way it had always been.

The old man marched out of his house, shotgun in hand. A loud cracking sound filled the air.

Not the shotgun, but the tree.

The old man had no time to move out of the way.

Luck. It didn’t care. It doesn’t discriminate. And the static doesn’t always go away just by leaving things be.

Sometimes the tree needs to be cut to let the roots die.

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Right-Hand Man (horror short story/flash fiction)

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Breaking his arm the way he did–and in front of his dad no less–left Jermaine all kinds of salty. Not on a football field or as a result of some extreme macho dare. Naw, it had to happen at his dad’s first contract job in a month, when money was already tight, after his dad swallowed his pride enough to let Jermaine tag along in the first place.

“My right-hand man,” Dad had said, giving Jermaine the slick side of a five that morning before strapping him up with a tool belt and boots. A couple hours later, Jermaine watched in slow-mo as his hammer did a video-game ricochet out of his hand, off the nail, then the scaffolding, and finally back into his face, causing him to fall backward and land on his arm.

Instant fracture. “Boy, don’t even worry about it,” Dad said between bouts of furious face-rubbing when he didn’t think Jermaine paid attention. Jermaine knew the deal; he felt the shiftless tension at home. Mom already had that look in her eyes of being fed up with Dad’s unreliable ways, the uneven movement of someone already weighing her options and finding the scales pointing to GO.

Dad was sure he’d lost the job. Having an uninsured minor at a construction site doing work? Dad counted the minutes until he got the call to kick rocks. To his surprise, though, Mr. Thule, proprietor of the Thurston House, the building under renovation and construction, did not want to immediately fire him. But he did want to see him and his unlucky son.

“Great,” Jermaine mumbled to himself. The last memories he had of the place was being in pain, his father crouched over him with a concern that pushed the pain deeper, past his bone. And above his father’s head, between them and the darkening sky, stone monsters smiled and whispered.

Something rubbed him the wrong way about the Thurston House, and try as he might not admit it, he knew that unease had fed into the accident and his broken arm.

As he and his father walked up the entranceway to the old place, Jermaine’s skin crawled again. The spidery arch work seemed to move. The ugly gargoyles stared down with dull eyes.

“And this must be the bad luck bear,” Mr. Thule joked through brown lips. Jermaine smiled politely and shook his hand through his cast. He’d asked his Dad if Mr. Thule was blind because he always wore huge shades. “Some people just weird like that,” his Dad replied, anxious.

“Mr. Thule, I’m soooo sorry about bringing my son to work with me and having this happen. I promise–”

“Don’t even worry about it. Accidents happen!” he said all-too-jovially. “Your reputation as a fine craftsman tells me tells me this is a minor blip. And as I said before on the phone, I will pay ALL your son’s medical fees.”

“That’s…that’s really not necessary. We couldn’t accept,” his father started hesitantly, as if hoping not to be stuck with a dinner tab after only ordering appetizers.

“I insist. Besides, brother to brother,” Thule leaned close to Dad, the same way old men told dirty jokes, “if we don’t help each other, who will?” The smile widened even more. A wink was implied behind the opaque blackness of his shades.

“I hear that,” Dad agreed sycophantly.

It was as good as settled. Thule turned to Jermaine, and he felt like a hot, dark light shined on him. “I don’t see any signatures there, young man!” The way Mr. Thule ended his sentences on a high note grated Jermaine–he’d never known any black man to speak like that, and it threw him off–as did having his lack of friends pointed out. “Why don’t you let me be the first?”

Jermaine really didn’t want to, but his father eyed them intently. Mr. Thule reached into his pocket for a marker.

Two circles. A triangle underneath. Four vertical lines.

“There you go. Just a sign of good luck I learned from my time in South America!”

“Gee…thanks.” Jermaine looked at it. There was something familiar about it, something he knew he’d seen before, and often. Some recognizable yet hidden in plain sight, a puzzle waiting for him to squint the right way before the pieces fit.

“Once again, thank you very much, Mr. Thule. I promise not to let you down.” His father and Thule’s voices faded into the background, as Jermaine studied his cast, wracking his brain for something that refused to come.

 

 

“Your broken arm’s not contagious. Go talk to her,” his dad nudged him, obviously now in a much better mood.

“C’mon, Dad, don’t start,” Jermaine whispered back. They sat in the doctor’s office, waiting for the chief administrator to come back from lunch and take the check Mr. Thule had cut them on the spot. A few chairs down sat a girl he recognized from school–Sheila, was it?–and Jermaine had made the mistake of letting her catch him glancing at her.

Most girls like an admirer, but nobody likes a creep, his mom had warned him.

“Mr. Grace,” a woman called from behind the paned glass, and Dad got up and went to the back, not bothering to ask if Jermaine wanted to come with.

Jermaine sighed. Despite his best efforts, he found himself glancing at Sheila one last time, only to find her staring at him. A “caught ya!” smile crept on her face.

Jermaine bowed his head, and the next thing he knew Sheila was sitting next to him, her casted left arm brushing against his casted right one.

“You’re being creepy,” she said, making sure to stare at the side of his face.

“I know,” he muttered. “Sorry.”

She snorted. “Dang, I was joking. Unclench, man. You don’t mind me sitting here, do you? You weren’t going to come to me.”

“Uh, sure.”

“Sure you mind, or sure I can sit here? Be specific, man.”

He felt trapped. She placed a hand on his leg.

“Just. Joking. Sorry, I forget people who don’t know me don’t get my sense of humor. I’m Sheila, by the way.”

“I know.” Oh, why did he have to admit that? “I’m Jermaine.”

“Yeah, I know. Cast bump.” She held up her left arm, waiting for Jermaine to meet it with his right one. He did with a thump almost as loud as his heart.

“Cast bump? Did you just make that up?”

“I’m creative that way. Hey, I like those.” She pointed to the marks on his cast, which he’d suddenly forgotten after spending the last hour going crazy analyzing. “Do mine like that.” She confidently walked up to the office sign-in and took the marker. Jermaine’s eyes followed every step.

“Uh sure,” he said with a bit more assuredness than he had at the beginning of their conversation.

Two circles. A triangle. Four vertical lines.

Drawing with his left hand was difficult, and he was sure what he’d drawn would look like a mess, but when he finished it sat perfectly. Nearly identical in every way, angle by angle, inch by inch.

“Thanks, J. You mind if I call you J?” That “caught ya” grin again.

“Nobody calls me that.”

“You calling me a nobody now?” she needled, seemingly relishing keep him on edge. “Told you. My friends get my humor. And you’re going to be my friend.” She started to furiously scratch her left arm. “Does yours itch like this?”

His right arm didn’t, but suddenly his left one did. He tried to scratch it with his cast.

“You must really like me to be copying me like that. Why don’t you take that marker and write down your number too?”

Two circles. A triangle. Four vertical lines. And Sheila’s number.

Jermaine couldn’t keep his eyes off his suddenly lucky cast on the ride back home.

“My right-hand man got game!” his Dad teased, looking at him every now and then from the driver’s seat.

Jermaine rolled his eyes. Not even dad-humor or the insistent itching from his left arm could affect his mood.

In his room, he debated how long he should take to call her, but luckily she took the decision out of his sweaty, shaking hand. His basic-af Samsung rung, and he answered after two rings.

“I would’ve given it three rings, but that’s just me,” she said, starting the conversation off the same way every conversation would be between them, Jermaine imagined.

They talked about school, their summer, and the troubles within the confines of home. He pretended the ignore the sound of her parents arguing in the background, and thankfully she returned the favor.

“I think I must’ve caught something from you. My arm won’t stop itching.”

“Only thing you caught from me was a whiff of that high life, little boy.”

“You fine, but you ain’t all that,” he said in humor. The line went silent.

Uh-oh. His heart raced and he felt the beginnings of a sweat. Had he gone too far?

Finally, she started laughing, maniacally. “I didn’t think you had in you, J. I’m bringing out that snark!”

Relieved, he dug the nail of his right thumb into his pointer.

“Ouch!” she said. “It’s like I just got pinched.”

He looked at his right hand, and then his itchy left. Being young, he believed in karma and kismet and all that junk in a boyishly romantic way, but there was an eeriness creeping into his consciousness he didn’t find comforting.

“Listen, gotta go. Holla at me tomorrow, alright,” she said, hanging up.

Going to sleep had taken longer than usual, yet when it happened, it happened hard. He found himself dreaming of Sheila, just as he figured he would. They kissed and became one, she the left side, he the right. Their hearts beat outside of themselves, like a clock hiding on a high shelf. Conjoined, they walked outside, under twin, dark globes, beaming down upon them a dark light that felt too hot to be moonlight.

The twin moons reminded him of the eyes of a stone monster on high, looking down upon him over his father’s shoulders, telling him his fractured arm would be replaced by something stronger. Something better. Something a part of a bigger whole.

Now they were in a field, the middle of which stood one structure, with its spidery arch work and windows from which nothing ever reflected.

He started to back away, but with every step the invisible force, the all-seeing blackness, ripped at him and Sheila, tearing them apart tendon by tendon, cell by cell. Agonizing pain seared throughout his body.

“Ain’t no going back, chap! Either you in or you out! Your happiness is in HIS hands now!” said a voice in an unbearably high pitch at the end of each sentence.

Jermaine woke up in a cold sweat. He expected, hoped, that his left arm would itch, but it didn’t. Instead, the sensation of soft, invisible brushing of the fingertips of his left arm–a nervous tick to her as much like the squeezing of his fist had been to him–made him know that Sheila was also awake.

His phone sat on his dresser. This time it was he that called. This time it was she that answered after two rings.

“Yeah, I had the same dream…” The rest of the conversation with Sheila must’ve happened, although Jermaine couldn’t remember it while he walked alone in the night.

At some they decided to go, to meet up there, to squint into the darkness, until the pieces of the puzzle would finally fit into place.

The Thurston House wasn’t within walking distance of his home, yet he’d gotten there within an hour. Dream time while awake, the slow leaking of moments between phantom worlds.

“What is this place?” Sheila arrived from his left, her nightgown just as sweat-stained as his t-shirt.

He wanted to answer, but realized he probably didn’t know any better than she did, or the other kids who suddenly appeared, with casts on their right or left legs, with bent fingers or crooked noses, with ribs that made it hard to breathe.

All with one thing in common other than a broken core. Two circles. A triangle. Four verticle lines.

“You’re home, at a pre-reunion, if you must,” Mr. Thule said, appearing at the entrance, once again ending his sentences a pitch too high, hiding behind glasses a hue too low. He took them, revealing eyes that were even blacker than his shades. Hot eyes that made the cool night air give up its moisture. “Unique parts of a whole, come together to help usher HIM back into this world.”

A squirming sound emanated from the sky, of a thousand squid-like arms reaching for a long-closed door. Sheila and Jermaine grabbed each other’s unmarred hand, two parts trying to become one. Their fingers felt clammy and slick.

Jermaine looked at the symbols on his cast again, seeing the face he’d refused to see before.

Mr. Thule now stood in front of him. “I see you brought a friend. Good chap. He welcomes one and all!”

The symbols, like everything else if you looked hard enough, formed a face. A face tired of being ignored. A face ready to open its jaws in exultation. A black, old face ready to take back what belonged to it.

“You two can be together, you know? In HIM. All of you made the decision to come here on you own. All ya have to do is say yes one more time. What’ll it be, right-hand man…

Two eyes. A nose. And a thousand arms reaching down to hell.

 

 

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Like Himmler

d11e883dfdf3246808cd509644734544-broken-inside-dark-photography

Her sweet Timmy left that summer to stay with his Dad’s and had come back different. Not a major change, but a perceptible shift, like in one of those newspaper puzzles where you had to identify everything wrong. An odd word here. A sideways glance there. One morning, out of the blue, he stood in her doorway, blank faced and fully dressed.

“I don’t want to be like Himmler,” he said, waiting for approval.

“Himmler? Like Heinrich Himmler?”

“Yes, momma.” Still waiting.

“That’s… great.”

Timmy gave her a plastic, ruby red smile, and just as quickly disappeared.

Kathy felt relief, but a dull, saturated sort that only heightened her senses.

Without thinking, she dressed and put on her slippers. She walked to Timmy’s room to find it empty, the bed made, everything in its place. So…neat.

Timmy had become such a neat little boy. Her eyes almost stung from imagined antiseptic.

She walked to Amber’s room and found the door closed. Her “Adoption…love is family. My skin color is just a shade of love” poster hung lazily from three of its corners.

“Just because you’re different doesn’t mean you can’t learn,” she heard Timmy’s stern voice.

“But, he didn’t mean to do anything wrong,” Amber said, whispering a plea.

“He was made wrong.”

Kathy opened the door. Timmy and Amber sat on the floor in Kathy’s old scrubs, their face covered with surgical masks.

“What the hell is going on?” Kathy demanded. A box sat in the center of the room, a blue-white haze rising from its seams.

“Don’t be mad, Momma! Timmy told me Senor Bear had been stealing from my piggy bank. We’re just punishing him.” Amber’s head bowed submissively.

Kathy opened the box, instantly losing the ability to breathe from the mixture of ammonia and bleach. She pulled the children outside.

“What the hell were you thinking? You could’ve been killed!” She grabbed the kids with all of her fading might.

Timmy dropped to the floor, using his weight to escape her grip. He broke down in tears.

“I don’t want to be like Himmler, Mom!”

“What does that even mean?” Her patience was at an end.

“He dry-heaved and fainted. He couldn’t stand to watch them being killed. Not me, Momma. I wanna be strong!” he said through tears of failure, of an emptiness of his heart he couldn’t identify, let alone fill. “I just wanna be strong!”

“Me too, Mommy,” Amber said, her brown skin wet with sweat.

She looked back, at where Senor Bear sat in a darkening cloud, wearing his finest lace, arms spread in friendship.

“Daddy says I need to be strong…”

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The Other Side of the Wormhole

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You need to live more life. You need to see more things. Then you’ll be ready to go with us and take on the stars.

A family of philosophers and adventurers, of raiders and conquerors, and that’s the best advice they could muster? Sadie tired of the wait. Being treated as an oddity suited her even less than actually being one. She refused to have to live more in order to earn the opportunity to finally feel alive.

Taking as many credits she could poach from her mother’s interstellar wealth, she left her world behind and did the only thing that made sense to a girl with longing and limited means.

She stowed away on a starship. The ISS Charon.

“Sadie, I wish you could stay up with me and witness the captain’s midnight address,” gushed Bean, the roughneck who’d become her liaison to this new world. She wore the most beautiful streak of pink through her temple, with skin the tone of Haitian sand. “It’s so amazing. His view of the cosmos would blow your mind.”

Sadie sighed, frustrated. Not at the fact she’d continue to miss the captain’s address–she’d been on enough space birds to know how overrated they could be–but that she couldn’t be with Bean another quarter cycle. The computer took an automatic roll at night, and Sadie couldn’t afford to be caught and exposed, a rich rat on a ship of starving cats. She slept behind a panel in the bulkhead, invisible to the computer’s invasive eyes.

“Why don’t you tell me about it in the morning?” she said, smiling at Bean, unsure of the emotions that had evolved their two-week voyage, but knowing that she’d kill to never let them go.

“Sure thing,” Bean said, giving Sadie a friendly kiss, taking less than Sadie had been willing to give. “But something big is going to happen tonight. I can feel it.”

She waved bye, and Sadie locked herself in the bulkhead, in a dark place within the ship and herself, just inches of alloy away from the pleasures of life she longed to endure.

After a while, she closed her eyes and slept. She dreamed of her and Bean, of black nights in the presence of quasars and twin black holes, swirling and coalescing until they collapsed into each other, becoming one, dark matter exploding in the abyss.

BOOM!

Sadie awoke, startled. It was Bean, knocking at the panel.

“What are you doing?” Sadie asked, her heart in her throat. Had she been caught? Had Bean been forced to rat her out?

Bean motioned to her to come out. “You have to see this!”

“But Bean, I can’t…”

“It’s okay. You can come out now. Nothing else matters right now but this!”

The words sounded like the anthem to a fantasy. The ships stinging cold told her she was alive, but something had changed. The light seemed to hang in the air, dulled as if a haze. As Sadie and Bean moved through the corridor towards an observation deck, their motion felt slow and labored.

“I don’t understand,” Sadie said, observing the after images of her hand’s movement in front of her face.

“Look!” Bean said, grabbing her hand and pulling her to the glass.

In front of them was a swirling halo of light, purple and orange, blue and red, then white, anchored by an overwhelming darkness.

“Warning. Wormhole event.” The computer whined.

A wormhole. It was one of those physical improbabilities that people like her family lived to find, exploit, and ravage for riches. None had been known to exist for more than a microsecond, but here one sat, its flanks open in an embrace.

“I told you we would find it, my children. Look into it, into the eye of a cosmic god. Embrace its wisdom. We’ll soon become one with it,” a voice said over the comm. Sadie recognized it as the Captain’s. She also recognized something else: she was on the ship of a madman.

Many people got Deep Space Fever after years in travel. It was the belief in a higher plane of understanding from being in something so vast, so empty, that existence itself delivered its secrets.

She felt the gravity shift.

“Bean…?”

“We’re going in,” her love said to her, the expression on her face that of a child with a ticket to heaven. Her innocence was the very thing that made Sadie fall in love. Now it broke her heart.

“Bean, we..we can’t! We have to get to an escape pod!” Sadie tried to pull Bean, to no avail.

“Isn’t this what you wanted, Sadie?” There was disappointment in Bean’s eyes, causing Sadie to lose her breath in the thick, slow ether. “To know more. To see more. Now we get the chance. Together.”

Live more life. See more things. Everything she’d ever wanted, right there in Bean’s embrace.

On the other side of the wormhole lay the great unknown. A new world, a new galaxy. Maybe the far future or a time long ago forgotten.

Suddenly Sadie missed the comfort of home.

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