Fiction Friday–A Tiny Space Opera

hubble1This is another flash fiction story from a Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge, which he apparently posted in 2015 and I happened upon it in 2016 or something and thought it was current so I wrote half of a thing, and then finished it in 2017. Here’s the thing. Note that I read basically no space opera/military sci fi/battles in space thing, so please do not write to me telling me that I got space opera wrong. Also, because this is the internet, the grammar error in the first sentence is deliberate and I’m not fixing it.

 

Me and my platoon strapped ourselves into our seats and snapped our face masks in place. Hyperdrive jumps are liable to get bumpy on exit and re-entry, so we all checked to see that the barf bags were handy, and each of us hoped that we wouldn’t be the one who had to use one (and then get roundly mocked for it).

The commander and the pilot were up front, programming the hyperdrive. I put my head back and tried to go to sleep. They’d sounded Reveille hours before the usual roll out, ordered us to ready for maneuvers. Nobody, not even the commander, had been told of the mission beforehand. The element of surprise was vital, we were told. No leaks. Surprise attack. We’d storm their shores and end the war. We weren’t the first to trip off to battle, just the next wave. Commander said he’d have orders when we came out of hyperspace.

We all bit down, the pilot engaged the hyperdrive, all of our insides lurched backwards and then caught up. The ship went dark, and all that all of us felt was eerie nothingness for an unknown period of time.

And then–lurch, shudder, and an alarming cracking noise from elsewhere in the ship–we were out of hyperspace. We braced ourselves, unbuckling from our harnesses and going for our guns, sure that we were dropping into a firefight and were about to go out the gangway.
Instead, nothing.
Silent space.
We looked sideways at each other, out of power and out of knowledge, just dumb stupid soldiers who didn’t know what to do if they weren’t fighting.

We could hear the commander cursing at the pilot, double checking coordinates. We waited.

And then, we were descending, entering atmosphere, watching the sky change color, become something recognizable as sky. We were ordered to shelve our weapons. The ship landed, the hatch opened, the air hissed outward. We exited the ship by the gangway, blinking in the bright light. It didn’t look like we were going to die today after all.

The commander pointed towards the…well, off toward some direction on the compass, anyway where he could see the rooftops of a town, maybe two klicks away. We formed up and fell into step. Nobody said anything. Nobody knew (except the commander) if we were deserters, if we were lost. Just that, so far at least, we didn’t seem to be dying today.

Fiction Friday–“Something Scary”

A writer I follow, Chuck Wendig, often posts Flash Fiction challenges on his blog on Fridays. I got this one from a January post, so I can’t submit a link to it in his comments as he says to do, but I’m posting it here anyway because fuck writer’s block. Since Wendig is mostly a science fiction author, I decided to try writing a science fiction-y story.

 

Morning routines should be routine. Even when you’ve got a chronic, potentially life-threatening illness, there are certain things that just always happen, and a morning routine is one of those things. Even if–especially if–your chronic, potentially life-threatening illness is kept in check by (among other things) a neural net of brain implants in your cerebellum and temporal lobe that keep you breathing, blinking, standing, walking, talking.

Wake up, coffee, toast, update neural software, brush teeth, shower, get dressed, make lunch for later.

That is my routine. Every morning.

I like routine.

And then one day. Just some stupid regular Tuesday.

Wake up, coffee, toast, update–

stutter stutter stutter blank

Wake up, coffee–but there’s already coffee. I already made coffee but I have to make coffee again.

Coffee, toast, up–

circle circle circle circle blank

No, brain, I already made coffee, why are we making coff–

Some corner of my brain knows that this is not the routine but I can’t–

coffee toaste up–

blue blue blue blue

I am crying now. Coffee toast coffee toast what was wrong why can’t I stop–

update

cycle cycle cycle cycle

Somebody help me, somebody come check on me–

error error error error

blank

Flash Fiction Friday: The Scary Stuff

DSC01787.jpgWriting Prompt: “Remember a time when you were scared, where you felt like you were experiencing something strange/supernatural/preternatural. Something scary, something real.”

When I was a kid, I used to creep out of my bedroom at the top of the house, descend five flights of stairs into the basement, climb up on the washing machine, and creep out of a window that had a broken latch and didn’t stay locked.
I couldn’t have told you why I did this, exactly. I was a kid, and it was forbidden and exciting. I liked the way the air was cooler and fresher at night. I liked being the only person awake, walking through a neighborhood with no one else but me, the raccoons, and a couple of foxes. I liked the way shadows pooled under bushes and on the lea side of garages. And it was always hard for me to sleep, as a kid. It felt like I was always awake and never sleeping. So I broke out of the house, and I walked.
Sometimes, I would walk to the park about a mile away from my house and play. There was a pile of equipment on top of a hill in the center of the park—swings and a jungle gym and a metal slide that gave uncareful kids second degree burns on their butts in the summer. I would walk there and sit on the swings and swing back and forth, tilting my head back, watching the stars rock in and out of my vision. Sometimes I’d lie on the bottom of the slide and just stare up there. I don’t remember thinking about much—not about how far away they were or about wanting to travel among them or anything like that—just that staring up at the blackness made the static in my brain feel quiet.
This one time, though.
It was a usual night. I’d snuck out and was swinging on the swings, and was just thinking about heading home, scuffing my feet in the gravel to slow the swing down, when I happened to look down at the hill instead of up at the sky and there was a man there. He was lying flat on his back, in overalls and heavy work boots, hands laced behind his head. I could see the shadow of prolific whiskers across his cheeks and down the front of his shirt.
I froze. I had never, not once, seen another human out on my late night wanderings. Sometimes a car, but never someone out walking. Not even an insomniac dogwalker. Being able to forget that other humans existed was part of why I liked going out.
The man didn’t move.
I wondered how long he had been there, and then realized that he must have been there longer than I had, and that I just hadn’t seen him when I arrived, because if he’d walked up the hill while I was swinging I would’ve seen him. He’d just been there, not moving. Had he been listening to me? Was he asleep? Was he dead?
I hopped off the swing and took a few steps toward him, stopping at the end of the playground gravel, trying to see his face. Was he awake? Was he dead?
I couldn’t see his face. He still didn’t move.
I should leave, I thought.
I took a few hesitant backward steps, moving away from him. I didn’t want to turn my back on him.
At the edge of the playground, I turned and ran. There was a soccer field between me and the street and I sprinted across it, faster than I ever had during soccer practice. When I got to the sidewalk, at the true border of the park, I turned and looked, wanting to make sure he was where I’d left him.
He was. I could see the tan of his boot’s soles in the moonlight. But he was moving. He was…expanding. Rising up. He was taller than the playground equipment. His arms were out, huge and growing, and his shadow fell like wings over the soccer field. He took up the whole sky. I could feel him staring at me, like a mouse feels the eyes of a hawk. I have no idea how long that moment lasted. It could’ve been seconds or hours. I didn’t move, couldn’t breathe.
And then he was gone, wings rising and disappearing, the stars re-emerging. The hill was empty.

West Wing Weekly, the Ladies, and Stories

westwing“You have to know what the stereotypes are in order to avoid those stereotypes.” –Jonathan Green, Visual Director for 2016 Porgy and Bess revival

I’ve been listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast in which the two hosts watch one episode of the West Wing each week and discuss it. (Side note: If you like political drama at all, The West Wing is totally worth your time.) The hosts are Josh Malina (who also starred in the show starting in the…fourth season?) and Hrishikesh Hirway, who also hosts the podcast Song Exploder, and they regularly bring in former castmates and writers to talk about their experiences on the show. One of the people they talked to during the first season was Janel Moloney, who played Donatella Moss, Josh Lyman’s secretary. And she said something that got me thinking.
Basically, from day one, one of the things that Janel put into Donna’s character as a primary motivating factor was the idea that Donna was in love with Josh. Episode directors independently came to the same conclusion early on and planted the seeds of Josh’s love for Donna, but for most of the series, these feelings were only ever implied, not acted upon. And Janel noted (almost casually) that even though she knew that Donna was in love with Josh, she was not eager to have that story play out, because as soon as it did, Donna would lose a lot of avenues for where her character could go. If Donna and Josh started dating, that would be the end of Donna’s story, because she would have to quit her job, and of course Janel would lose her job too. Later (after Janel became a cast member, instead of just a recurring character), the character of Donna got new arcs and grew a lot as a person. But early on? Dating Josh (the most obvious storyline that basically everyone wanted) was the worst possible thing that could happen to Donna.
Sharon Lawrence, who played ADA Sylvia Costas on the 1990s police drama NYPD Blue (which is also totally worth your time), said something similar. She was cast in the pilot, in what was not supposed to be a recurring role (kind of like Janel Moloney, now that I think about it), but was brought back as a recurring character and potential love interest for Detective Andy Sipowicz, and eventually became a cast member. And I love Sylvia Costas the character. She’s smart, she’s outspoken, she doesn’t let anyone push her around. She faces her fears and doesn’t let them rule her life. She’s one of the few female characters in a male-dominated show (and a female professional in a male-dominated profession), and she’s this wonderful shining light of femininity and strength. But once she married Andy Sipowicz–and especially after they had a baby–she faded away. As Ms. Lawrence put it, the mystery of her character was basically solved by her marriage to Sipowicz, and there wasn’t much place else for her to go, so she was written out. (I hope I’m remembering what she said correctly, it was an interview that she did for a DVD extra for one of the NYPD Blue DVD sets, which doesn’t seem to have made it to YouTube). Her femininity, her female-ness as a character, worked against her, even though they told a story for her that millions of women have experienced: Sylvia had a baby and then went back to work, and then wrestled with her desire to stay home with her kid instead, and eventually decided to do that, before going back to work as an ADA much later. And that’s something that a lot of parents (moms and dads) struggle with, and it was nice to see it depicted on screen. But it was also a shame to lose such a wonderful character.
By contrast, Jill Kirkendole, a female detective on NYPD Blue, was a mom from the beginning, and a love interest to basically no one (she dated a male ADA character for awhile but I don’t remember that being a primary arc of the show, just something that was sort of happening in the background). From her very first case in the squad, her experience as a mother was something that informed her work as a detective, gave her an ability to read people and understand them. Gave them a way to understand her, too, when she was trying to get information out of somebody. Her experience as a mom informed her work as a detective in a way that Greg Medavoy’s status as a dad never seemed to inform his. She also made friends with another female member on the squad (Diane Russell) and that allowed for some female energy and Bechdel-passing episodes.
It’s one of the things you don’t think about in stories until you’ve seen and read a lot of stories: The bones of so many stories are the same, and the beauty shows up in the way that they’re told. And sometimes it’s just the nature of the stories, the nature of narrative. Joseph Campbell has examined this to an extensive degree in books like The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I remember learning in high school about the seven different types of stories (man vs man, man vs world, man vs self…I forget the other types). There’s a certain amount of same-ness, or of parallel-ness, that’s unavoidable. But then there’s the same-ness that’s bad and unhelpful. Why are so many brown-skinned characters terrorists? Why are so many black male characters drug dealers? Why are so many white women mothers? Why do so many fantasy books take place in a feudal English Tolkien-esque landscape?
Representation matters, as I’ve heard over and over on the internet. And it does. There are so many different stories being lived right now, so many people having so many different lives. They all deserve to be a story, to tell their story, to see their story (in one way or another) represented in popular media, whether that’s a television show or a comic or a novel or a video game or a history book. Our capacity to speak for ourselves is enhanced when we see characters who go first, who speak our stories for us, who validate our existence and experience. But in the obverse, our capacity to empathize is enhanced by knowing another person’s story. This is to say, diverse stories don’t just matter to marginalized people who need more stories like theirs. Speaking as a white person, reading stories about and essays by and tweets of people of color has helped me alter my perspective enormously when it comes to the question of racism and race in the United States. Were those stories written for me? No, not always. Maybe almost never. But art and stories make eavesdroppers of all of us, and Junot Diaz and NK Jemisin have taught me things that I never would have had occasion to know otherwise.
The thing about representation is, for me at least, it’s almost never an obvious thing. Maybe this is because I can find stories that are close enough to me to get by; maybe it’s because I tend to be a little oblivious to subtleties. But you go through life, not necessarily cognizant of what you’re missing, until someone smarter than you comes along and shows you this character, and you didn’t realize how badly you needed to see this thing that you didn’t know existed. Who knew I needed somebody like Amy Farrah-Fowler on The Big Bang Theory? (At least up until she started falling in love with Sheldon, at which point I lost interest in the entire series.) Who knew how badly I wanted to meet Jessica Jones, before she arrived? Certainly not me. Why have I been so fixated on needing a Black Widow movie? I’m not even entirely sure, but apparently there’s a gap in my life that only Scarlett Johansson can fill.
I’m tired of female characters who stop being on television the minute they become mothers. I’m tired of female characters whose primary story arc is falling in love with the leading dude. One of the reasons why I love The West Wing is the fact that it largely resisted those tropes for most of its run, and as a result, many of the female characters from the first season survived all the way to the last. As I try to get back into writing my own fiction, I don’t know how much I’ll fall into these tropes myself because of failures of imagination and empathy, or how much I’ll be able to dodge them just because I’m a different person writing different stuff. Nobody wants to think that they’re writing stereotypes, and yet somehow our collective artistic unconscious ends up full of stereotypes. Sometimes we don’t even know they’re stereotypes until someone cracks them open, like an egg, and reveals they’re hollow.

Flash Fiction

Another piece written 5+ years ago, for my zine, which is now an e-book, but I didn’t put this piece in the e-book. Disclaimer note that this is short fiction.

The only thing my mother left that day was the dirty dishes in the sink. I’ve wondered about that for years. If you plan to kill yourself while your kids are at school––if you plan to go down in the basement and hang yourself from a rafter––why do you clean the whole house from top to bottom, finish the laundry, put everything exactly in its place––but then leave the dirty dishes in the sink? It’s just bizarre. She didn’t leave a note, which was also a little bizarre, considering how meticulous she was generally. All that was left was an immaculate house with dirty dishes in the sink. And if you plan to kill yourself, why would you do it when you know it will be your children that find you? I mean, come on. We come home from school to an empty house and assume that Mom is running errands. Grab Nilla Wafers from the cupboard. Argue over whose turn it is to do the dishes. Go down to the basement to find the football––and there’s your mother, looking like a grotesque parody of a piñata. It was like some major kind of fault line in Time, with the dishes sitting there between Before and After. Sometimes I could hear her talking, behind a closed door, through the phone just hung up; leaving a message on the answering machine just erased. We all drifted around the house like ghosts, pale and sad, and I felt like there was more than one death lurking in the corners of the house. Nobody wanted to touch the dishes. They sat there for days. I came downstairs to find food at three in the morning, and the light when the refrigerator door opened threw the dishes into sharp relief, dark shadows high on the wall. And suddenly I hated her, hated the continual reminder, hated reaching back to the time of Before. Without realizing it, I hurled her dishes against the wall, shattering, exploding.
I want to destroy you, destroy myself, banish the ghosts that haunt my every step, every movement, every thought. Shatter your image out of every cup and saucer. I will take the jagged shards and carve your name on my wrist so that with every beat of my pulse I can kiss you, every single beat for the rest of this life you left me in. This dark and interminable place where at any moment I will trip and fall into an abyss, a pit from which nothing returns. And I recognize it now, the pit that you fell in, and I don’t know if I can avoid it. I don’t know if I want to. And the only reason I don’t is because I hate you. I loved you so much and it never made a difference; I want to stop loving you so much because then the hate will stop too. It’s a good thing you’re dead because if I saw you again, I might kill us both.

The Eyes of Abraham

When the Wolves Come Out of the WallsI sit very still in the center of the bed, trying to not make creases in the hotel bedspread. Daddy is pacing and mad and I don’t want him to see me so I stay very still. My shoulder and my ribs hurt because he picked me up by my elbow and I hit the side of the door, I think by accident, on the way in here. I was under a blanket when he brought me in. It was supposed to be a secret. Nobody was supposed to see me. But I guess somebody did. He’s just finished yelling out a crack in the door at the cops, telling them that he was in here and I was in here and he had a gun in here and if they tried to mess with him at all, he’d kill me first. Then he slammed the door and locked it and started pacing.

I am not even blinking, hardly even breathing. But I’m glad to he said this because at least we’re telling the truth to each other. He’s telling the truth. He’s not telling me that everything is fine out of the side of his face and smiling at me with blank eyes. He’s not buying me popcorn and Mickey Mouse ears and making me wonder where he’s hidden the whiskey or how long until he buys more. He’s not making me check under the bed for hiding places for when the whiskey does show up and he gets all red-faced and shouty and sweaty. In this moment, threatening to shoot me, my dad might be the most honest he’s ever been.

He pauses in his pacing to look at me, and I look at him. I hope he sees that I am being good. That I am being quiet. That I don’t need to be shot today.

He puts the gun down on top of the TV and sits next to me. He pulls me on his lap and I go, even though it doesn’t feel right, even though the muscles in my legs are so stiff that they hurt, even though I don’t fit on his lap like I used to.

He pats the side of my head with a big, soft palm. “Don’t be scared, baby. We’ll get out of this. It’s okay.” He wraps his arms around me and all I can see is his grey cotton shirt and all I can breathe is the smell of his sweat and his cigarettes.

“Daddy?” I ask, my voice muffled against his chest.

“What, baby?”

I sit up on his lap so I can look at his face. “If you shoot me, will I see Mommy?”

His fists tighten, one around my arm, the other around my leg. I squirm and try to curl up so he can’t hit me in the face but he shakes me and forces my body flat, off his lap, flat on the bed, his whole body over mine, one of his big hands moving so it’s over my chest and pinning me. He doesn’t care if he’s pinching or pressing or hurting. I can feel his breath in my face and I look in his eyes that my mom says look so much like mine and I know that however much he loves me, there are other things that he wants more. That he’d trade me for.

“No. You won’t see your mom. You won’t see her because she’s in hell. She’s in hell but if I kill you you’ll go to Heaven with Jesus, you’ll go to God and wait for me, right?”

I nod a little, as much as I can. “Right.”

“Don’t ever mention your mom again.”

I nod again. “I won’t. I’m sorry.”

He stands up and I roll on my side, the air coming between us, back into my lungs, and I realize I’m about to pee my pants. I roll off the edge of the bed and land on my feet and head for the bathroom.

“Leave the door open,” he calls to me, and even though he’s a boy and I’m a girl I do what he says. He’s holding the gun again. Standing next to the window and trying to move the curtains aside just the tiniest little bit to see what the police are doing.

My mom is dead. My mom’s dead and that’s why we’re here. My dad picked me up from school on Monday and said she’d been in a car accident, so the court case was over, and what did I think about going to Disneyland? I said okay even though it wasn’t, and we drove through Utah and Nevada, and we had to stop at a Wal-Mart to get me things because Daddy hadn’t brought any clothes for me and he said we couldn’t go by the house, and when I started to cry about my guinea pig and about Mommy he hit me on the side of the head and said not to cry, because we were together again and were going to Disneyland and we were going to have fun and be together forever, that nobody could take me away from him. He said he’d call the neighbors about the guinea pig, so I took a deep breath and stopped crying, and tried to not think about Mommy.

I’d always wanted to visit Disneyland and my dad knew it. But the castle wasn’t a real castle and the pirates on the Carribbean ride were just robots and Winnie the Pooh was just a guy in a suit. But whenever Daddy saw me looking sad, he’d ask what I had to complain about, this was Disneyland and I had to have fun. So when he handed me hot dogs and popcorn and soda I ate them, even though I don’t like soda and I couldn’t taste the popcorn.

The rides were fun though, especially the fast ones like the Matterhorn and the teacups where I went so fast it spun my thoughts out behind me and left them behind for a little while. Being with my dad always made me feel like I was trying to hold a bubble in my hands, but now it was worse, now I had nowhere else to go, with my mom gone.

I finish peeing and flush and wash my hands. The hotel room phone starts ringing. Daddy paces in front of the television, gun in his hand. I perch carefully on the edge of the bed and resume my posture of not being a bother, of not being there at all. Of hoping that, if I get invisible enough, when the policemen pop the bubble I won’t be the one on the receiving end of the results. I can see the tension building. I can see that something’s going to happen, even if the cops can’t. He doesn’t have any whiskey. He doesn’t have any whiskey and his hands are shaking. The phone keeps ringing, long past the eight rings I’m used to hearing. I count. I can’t help it. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.

Daddy picks up the phone. “Yeah, here I am.” His eyes light briefly on mine, looking flat and green, like the ocean he took me to. “I’m fine, she’s fine. We just want to get out of here.” Pause. “You can call me Abraham.”

When he says this, I know that I’m dead. My dad’s name is Russell. I don’t know where Abraham has come from, but I know all the things that my dad does when he’s mad or drunk, and they’re bad enough. Abraham might do new things or different things that I can’t stop. My father is still talking and I vaguely understand that it’s about me and my mother and how much everyone’s trying to hurt my dad but my ears have cottoned up so I don’t really hear what he’s saying. Knowing that I’m going to die is drowning everything else out.

My dad hangs up the phone. And paces. I can see his lips moving and I hope that he’s praying. He rests his elbows on the television, his back to me, and bows his head.

I see the muscles in his arms bunch up and I try to bolt, but my legs aren’t under me and he’s faster. Faster than me. Always has been. I fall on my side as he lands on top of me on the bed and pins my hips between his legs. His left hand is over my mouth and my nose and I try to scream but all that comes out of my mouth is a snuffling noise. I grab his wrist with both my hands and the tendons in his arm are stiff like wooden dowels and his hand doesn’t move. His other hand still has the gun and he presses it to my temple and I freeze, the cold steel of the gun hurting my head, then it gets warm, the metal turning the same temperature of my skin.

I can’t move. I can’t breathe. His hand over my face is so large that I can feel one thumb on my ear, his four fingers lost in my hairline. I can’t even blink, my eyes are wide and fozen. I stare at his face which is in a grimace like an angry chimpanzee, all his teeth showing and his eyes almost shut. All I can see is a glimmer of green around his pupils. My vision starts to go black around the edges until all I can see are his empty, empty eyes.

His tears drip onto my face and the gun clicks as he pulls the hammer back with his thumb. He can’t see me anymore. I try to pull his fingers off my mouth, to turn onto my back, to do something to change this situation. The noise that comes out of my mouth is a high whimper. I can’t look away from his eyes, so finally I squeeze mine shut. I wait for either my breath to run out of the gun to go off. I feel like time has paused around us, like we’ve been here forever. There’s no cops outside, no hot California sun, no memories of Disneyland or road trips, no 5th grade back in Longmont. Only his legs pinning my torso and the warm muzzle of the gun at my temple.

The gun fires and the world gets dark and heavy, a weight on my chest and my shoulders and my head. I think I’m dead and that death is dark and smothering. I wait for something to change. For Jesus to come find me or my mom or something.

Then I realize I’m breathing. I realize I can hear my heartbeat against my ribs.

I squirm to one side and sit up. My father slides partly off the bed. His eyes are open and empty, a sea gone quiet. I can see the whites of his eyes now. His cheeks and next to his nose are still wet with tears. I scoot away when I see the blood on both sides of his head. I follow the blood with my eyes to the wall. There’s more colors than I expect. Red and dark red and grey and white. I slide off the edge of the bed.

My dad has locked the deadbolt and the bar lock. I have to stretch to reach it. I pull on the doorknob with both hands and heave backward with my whole body weight before the heavy door groans open. I blink in the bright California sun, and step over the threshold. When my eyes adjust I realize that big heavy guns and full-body shields and robot helmets with dark visors are all staring at me. I can’t count them. If they’re saying anything I don’t hear it. I stand still and stare at them.

From behind the wall of armor steps a robot. Then he swings his gun behind him and lifts his visor and I see that he’s a man. He half-hunkers down to get closer to my level and smiles gently. “Hi, honey,” he says. “Are you hurt?”

I look down at myself, then back at him. The sight of my shirt makes my stomach and my liver try to trade places.

He holds out a gloved hand. “Come here, baby.” I step towards him and he scoops me up, so fast my whole body stiffens and I want to bolt. Then I’m distracted by the other robots—I know they’re police but I keep thinking of them as robots until they take off their helmets—charging into our hotel room and shouting with their guns out. It’s like TV. But the policeman who’s holding me is walking briskly away, arms protectively around me, holding me close to his torso. His vest is stiff and implacable, the pockets chunky against my knees. His belly feels like cardboard, or like the soft-not-soft stuff they use to carpet the school playground. Nothing like the fleshy softness of my father’s. He talks into his radio as he carries me past police cruisers and more police cruisers and more police cruisers. I hear the harsh squawk of radios talking police language that I don’t understand. Everyone seems tense, standing behind car doors, hands on hips or on guns, but the further away we get from the hotel room the more I see clusters of men just standing around talking.

The policeman adjusts me so that I’m sitting on his hip. “I’m Sergeant Hassan,” he says, smiling at me. “Can you tell me your name, hon?”

I look at his face, at his black black eyes, at the small tracks of sweat lining the inside edges of his helmet. It feels like I haven’t said anything for years. I tried to say things to my dad but that didn’t count somehow. “Shea,” I manage to say from the back of my throat.

When he smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkle. “Hello, Shea,” he says. “It’s good to be able to meet you.”

We arrive at an ambulance that has its back doors open and two people in blue shirts waiting and a stretcher inside. Sergeant Hassan tries to hand me to the woman in blue, but my fists have wrapped around the edges of his vest and won’t let go, so he clambers awkwardly up and sits on the stretcher and coaxes me into sitting beside him. He has straps around his thighs and I slip my hand through one. Now that he’s here and he’s nice and I’m safe, I don’t want him to go anywhere.

“I don’t think any of the blood is hers,” he says to the woman in blue. I sit tensely while her hands in dry rubber gloves move swiftly to take my blood pressure and put the cold stethoscope under my shirt on my back. She tries asking me questions, I think, but my ears have cottoned up again so I don’t say anything. She shines a light in each of my eyes and gently fingers at the tender places on my cheeks where my dad’s hand was, then massages my scalp. Then she climbs out of the ambulance to talk to another policeman who’s taken off his helmet. It’s just me and Sergeant Hassan on the stretcher. I don’t want to talk anymore. Maybe never again. My dad’s dead and my mom’s dead so I assume I’ll stay with Sergeant Hassan forever. And be safe.

After my mom and me left my dad, at first it was good. It got better. I got to sleep in my own bed all night. I never got woken up. My mom, who had moved to Longmont to be with my dad and so that he could be near his family, started talking about moving back to Wisconsin to be near her family. Started talking about going back to school. She smiled sometimes. Started talking about next summer, next year. It was like she could see the future. I couldn’t see it myself, but I thought it was nice that she could. It made me feel like maybe I could think about going to the water park in the summer.

And then my dad came and picked me up from school, and everything sucked in close again. I tried to imagine tomorrow and couldn’t get there. There was only ever the next hour, the next meal, the next night. I couldn’t see into the future like my mom could. When I blink, I see my father’s eyes, stamped on the insides of my eyelids.

I want to sit here with Sergeant Hassan forever. But I don’t think they’ll let me do that. Grown-ups always want to take you somewhere. And maybe my sergeant doesn’t want to stay here on this gurney. Maybe he wants to leave. I tighten my grip on the strap on his leg and he looks down at me. I look up at him. “Now what?” I ask.

He looks down at me, and his eyes look sad and old. He thinks for a long time, until I think maybe he didn’t hear me after all. “It’s going to be hard, Shea,” he says, “But I want you to learn to laugh again.” My confusion must show on my face, because he pulls me into a hug. “One day, it’ll be okay,” he says. “I promise.”