Lightning Dance sat next to Willa Bernardi on the side of the road. Rain splattered down around them, damp and uncomfortable, and the heavy smell from the gutter wrapped the air. Dance balanced a cigarette between her gloved fingers; its red tip glowed in the dark street. Somewhere in the distance sirens blared through the city. The police, ambulance, fire brigade: everyone came, and also probably the media.
Dance had pushed her mask up off her face, and without it she looked almost too human. She was beautiful, but faint lines of cynicism marked her mouth and eyes.
Willa huddled further into herself. She tried not to shiver in the chilly air. The rain had plastered her hair to her face. She’d lost her shoes somewhere, and her frozen feet were scratched and muddy. Her blue satin dress, which she’d thought so beautiful — which she’d thought made her beautiful —was ruined, the material stained and torn. Willa stared at her toes and wriggled them.
I gave up the memory of my first kiss to fix the carburetor. It uncoiled from my mind like a constrictor that’d just figured out it was strangling a steaming pot of chicken soup, or the way an unclasped belt loosened and released a pair of tight hipster jeans from some skinny hips, maybe even Osmond’s.
Sitting in the attached garage surrounded by smudged grease, crumpled car parts, and a snot-filled rage that oscillated between “No, I’m fine” and “What the hell does it any of it matter” I pictured that kiss as it slipped free.
It’d been awkwardly delivered by a girl in seventh grade, behind Hamilton Elementary School, where they parked the buses they didn’t have the funds to fix anymore. Her name was Abby Silver. She’d kissed me with open eyes and rubbery lips, and whispered my name, “Phillip?” as she pulled away.
The red string around Mom’s ankle does not lead to Dad, and Dad doesn’t have a red string at all. But she makes him laugh with his head thrown back, and he makes her smile the way I do at Ria Ruiz, the prettiest and smartest girl in not just my class but the whole first grade—so they must be in love, no matter what the Old Man in the Moon says.
“I hope I’m like you when I’m older,” I whisper one night, as Dad tucks me in.
He smiles and lifts his brows. “Bald?”
I scrunch up my nose. “No. I mean I don’t want a string, like you. I don’t want the Old Man to tell me who to love.”
Dad looks down at his unburdened ankles for so long I nearly fall asleep. Finally, he presses a kiss to my forehead. “Sweet dreams, Weilai.”
Kris has a talent for making toast come out perfectly every time. Never burnt. The rest of us yearn for a superpower so practical.
Ryan has incredible parking-space karma, but only after he has already parked. He’ll circle round and round the block, finding nothing and more nothing, and eventually give up and take that one empty space six blocks away. He’ll bundle up against the cold, scarf wrapped all the way up to his chin and hands shoved deep in his coat pockets, and walk the six blocks to the restaurant. And without fail, just as he opens the door, a parking space will open up directly in front. Once, he ran back to his car to move it closer, but the empty space had been claimed by the time he drove there. The parking spaces are taunting him.
I hugged my daughter, Ashley, when she returned home from school crying. She told me she was scared of going to the bathroom alone,because of Bloody Mary, and had wet her pants on the bus ride home. I wiped her eyes and kissed her forehead.
“The kids in my class said Bloody Mary would steal my soul if I said her name three times in the bathroom mirror,” she said rubbing her eyes.
“Bloody Mary doesn’t exist, Sweetheart. She’s a story people made up to scare each other.”
“But Mom, you said I would make friends with the kids here if I looked for the good in them. How can they be good if they try to scare me?” Her sobs receded into the focused expression of a child trying to make sense of the world.
“Trust me, Hon, everyone is capable of being good. Even not-real Bloody Mary could be nice if she wanted to be.”
Amelia fingered an unruly hair into place, willing her locks to stay safely tucked under her scarf. She prayed the stylists cleansed the utensils between appointments. Last thing she wanted was to pick up another tangle. Although, Dye for a Change was the highest rated Psychosomatic Hair Syndrome recovery shop on Karma-Yelp.
The bell clinked against the metal door like wind chimes. Burnt hair mixed with the distinct chemical scents of nail polish, astringent, and hair spray assaulted her as she entered.
Most nights the alley behind Beamon’s Bakery is just an alley.
The street lamp bleeds piss yellow light, casting jagged shadows around the overflowing dumpster and discarded boxes. The walls are tagged with gang signs, claiming territory that was never theirs, yardage, bodies, souls, rights.
Some nights a transient clears away the broken glass, the random detritus, to squat for the night. Setting up camp here has its own rewards. The warmth that seeps through the bakery walls and through brick facing chases away the chill, but not the ghosts. This is the drawback, you see. The alley is never as vacant as it may seem at first, never as lonely as one may wish. The price of physical warmth is the chilling of your soul.
The Archivist held the three remaining beads in her left hand. Images flickered across her visual cortex: an unknown woman’s face, a sunset on a planet she couldn’t name, the dazzling color of a sea she no longer had the words to express. The beads felt cool and impersonal in her fingers, though what they contained was neither. She had only these few memories left and she no longer remembered if they were hers or someone else’s.
Around her, the machine chugged and whirred. The metal tubing that encased her pod vibrated. The glowing core rose in front of her, spinning slowly around its vertical axis.
In his future, I see a fish. It swims very near the white sand of the sea floor a few feet below the surface. Bright tropical sun pierces the clear turquoise water. Through his eyes I watch the fish for the entire six seconds, until time runs out and my consciousness is returned to the present.
I open my eyes and study him. He’s an attractive man with a kind face. He looks back at me expectantly from across the sitting table. Atop the checkered tablecloth sits a crystal ball, a bronze candelabrum with a trio of lit scented candles, and a few other useless props. I draw a deep breath, inhaling the smell of eucalyptus and mint, and try to decide which lie he would like to hear.
I heard that Hershel Schmulewitz, that blockhead, has also presumed to ask for your hand in marriage, which gives you two proposals to consider. Now, you needn’t worry that this will be a sentimental or a wheedling sort of letter. You already know how I feel, and I suppose Hershel’s not so much of a blockhead that he doesn’t feel the same way. I’m simply writing to lay out the reasons, plainly and concisely, why it would certainly be more to your benefit to marry me.