Science fiction always begins after an unethical decision. For the greater good, greater bad, greater neutrality of some alien race who may or may not have feet or heads or elbows. Or people who may or may not have butts or faces or conscience. Great heroes to save lovers, brothers, whole worlds, cats in trees. Villains with death rays and bottomless pockets to build death rays. Little squeaky things to add flavor. Bright blinky things and chrome. All the chrome that ever existed ever. Lasers and flightsuits and catsuits and artificial gravity.
Artificial everything. Artifice. Aliens that bleed all the colors of the rainbow but laugh and cry just as humans do. Cry for the cat in the tree. Or the vengies in the skronblat. The fliffles and piffles and all their blaaaaaaarg.
The heroes, the villains, the squeaky aliens, they’re all reaching for the same thing. There, on the horizon or across the stars. So close, impossible to grasp. Unobtainium.
But what if they caught it. How long until it slips through their grip or burns fingers/claws/tentacles to ash? Would they be able to keep it, even for a moment?
Cure-all. Something to calm the raging, wailing, swinging mind. Something to destroy the mind. From the inside out, like the blood the bandage fails to keep tucked away. Out of sight, out of her mind. Out of all of our minds.
Silvery-white, light as a feather. I could craft it into a crown, its spires like jagged mountain peaks, but the metal, so soft, warps with the heat of my fingers. It melts and drips down my face like pale honey. The heat, the light, the air, it dulls the shine, turning it silver, then dusky, and finally, black. Like tar.
Can lithium make a person? A personality? Does it bring to a high sheen what was already there, or create it anew. I can almost see it, a lattice of shining metal within her. It turns the bruised, blue-black veins to strands of pearls. It’s everywhere, her heart, lungs, bones, hair, brain, eyes, smile. It, she, shimmers from within.
But then there was too much water in her lungs; too little outside of it. The lattice’s spiderweb threads melt and join in a hateful glob in her chest. It puddles in her eyes, too, and the brain behind them. Deep, into the white matter. It crystalizes and grows the same jagged spirals on my lithium crown. Parsing, ripping, the connections her brain has had since birth, since my birth, since she decided to stay when she longed to go.
I can see it through her eyes, the silver-white, now tarnished, now dusky, then black.
// Event Horizon
Something has happened. The conditions are just wrong/right enough for a hero/villain to spring into action. Sometimes they volunteer. The Big Bad comes knocking at the door or sprawls out in the backyard and someone has to do something. Maybe there’s a chosen one, maybe there’s a prophecy or an experiment or a special eclipse. Maybe an accident. Maybe an everyman.
Maybe he’s ready to risk it all for planet and pride—his optimism alone could power a sun. Or he doesn’t want to be a hero. Maybe he digs his heels into the carpet/soil/chrome mesh until the very last moment.
The event horizon, inky black or blinding white, like water or lightning or fire, opens before him and he has no choice.
For days she languishes, medically induced sleep as the lithium destroys everything. Her hand is an IV pincushion, all bruised and taped. Beside her a machine opens and closes like an accordion. It’s breathing for her.
Then she is airlifted away. We can’t follow so my sister gives her a yellow stuffed duck—the Easter present from weeks before. It will follow her through hospitals, rehabilitation, home, psychiatric ward, home, psychiatric unit, home, psych ward, home.
Ducky is his name.
He’s been hugged, squeezed, spilt on, thrown, used as a weapon, lost, found, lost again, given a hospital wristband, found. He smells like hospital even when he’s not been there in years. Lost in the wash, in the dryer, in a communal shower, on a shelf, in a cabinet, at the bottom of a suitcase, in a car, under a sheet.
Nurses have combed hospitals, physical therapy rooms, and laundries. They have made wanted posters and claimed that he goes on walkabouts. He loses himself.
But he’s always found.
As a rule, outposts are doomed. If it’s an intergalactic war, they’re on the border. If it’s a disease, patient zero is there. If it’s a man-made toxin or virus, Dr. von Mad-Scientist works there. At the beginning or the middle or after the event’s over, the hero/villain travels there to prevent or fight or cure or witness or get the cat out of the tree or stare in awe at something. To understand how to move forward, he must seek out the past no matter what. A pilgrimage.
It might be of his past or the past of his people, personal or universal. And the hero may or may not realize at this point that it all relates back to him—either by direct cause and effect or the looser terms of space-fate. But this doesn’t mean he’s a puppet of the universe.
He has free will, first and foremost, so when he sees the horror of the inciting event, he just might have no idea what to do.
Dead Man’s Float //
When she returns home, there’s a honeymoon period. She smiles and heals and we push her around in a wheelchair. She clings to my father like never before. Her hair is almost all gone—what remains is long, wispy, tangled. She is like a child now, the doctors say, but they don’t tell us about the brain damage. Or maybe my father doesn’t, to protect me. Maybe.
I rush her in physical therapy, in eating, in living. I want her to walk. Normalcy.
She tries. Then her smile falters. She says she’s bad, devious. She says she only married my father because he makes a good salary. That she would have left if she hadn’t had children. That she shouldn’t have had children. That we’re rotten. That we’re helpless and stupid. That she hates us. That I’m going to hell.
She refuses to eat, sometimes. She is scared of the cats, of the horses, of my sister, of me. She sneaks out of bed to clean, convinced we’ll beat her if she does not. Bent over in the wheelchair, she pulls herself along with her toes, even though we tell her not to. Even though the hunched posture hurts her. Undoes weeks, months, of physical therapy.
I clean for her. She goes behind me. I don’t do it right.
Sometimes I have to pry her from the railing on her bed. She clings and cries and refuses to start the day, to see the doctor, to look me in the eye. She says she is worthless. She says she will starve herself to death. I can’t stop her from crawling back under the covers. She throws Ducky at my head.
Maybe I lack conviction.
The first time my father took her away to the psychiatric unit, she screamed. She took off her seatbelt and opened the car door over and over until he had to use locks designed for children to keep her in. He blamed it on medications interacting with each other.
The second time she went willingly, grinning at me. Her hair is mostly back now, but there are still hollows in her cheeks. She’s a ghost. My father blamed it on a UTI.
The third time I am away. While she exercised in the pool, she tried to drown herself. Dead man’s float. My father blames everything that cannot be attributed to her.
I return home in shock, but I’m not surprised.
The journey has begun. The hero/villain meets colorful characters who befriend and challenge and vex him. Maybe they all have a beer together, then decide to tackle the Big Bad as a team. But, because it’s the second act, they have no chance of succeeding. And that’s all well and good. Among them there is a mentor, a love interest, a false friend, an idiot, and an agent of the Big Bad.
Popcorn Ceiling //
The swath of ceiling above the couch is small and ugly. Popcorn-pocked, off white, looming. The clock ticks in the corner and currents of air from what was once the dining room roil around my new bed. Dining room. Hospital room. It dissects the house; she’s directly at the center.
I try to hear her breathing, but there is only the tick tock tick tock. Has she stopped breathing? Should I check? I am paralyzed, too tired to sleep, too awake to get up. Pinioned.
Surely I’d hear the squeak of her wheelchair if she got into it. Wait. We had to take that away again. If we hadn’t, we’d find her in the garden, crawling up the stairs, or in the pool—floating as dead men do.
I’d hear that. Definitely. I am her sentry, a guard meant to sleep on duty as if my mere presence would keep her honest.
But will it?
Surely if she wished it she could bash her head into the tile floor, or drag herself to a bottle of pills. I’d never know because the ceiling is crushing me to the couch.
I long for sound other than the tock tick tock tick, for this ceiling to be different. But how? If the popcorn plaster was smooth, would I be able to hear her attempt? Air rushes from the hospital room; air rushes in and out of my lungs.
She’s breathing, she must be. I can hear someone breathing, above the ticking.
But that’s just me.
Please, let me not be responsible for whatever happens.
// Recursive Error
The hero/villain clashes with the Big Bad. Momentary battles that show him just how out of his depth he is. He’s missing something that would allow him to win. He keeps trying, keeps reaching for it, but it’s missing or corrupted or doesn’t yet exist. He tries within an inch of his life, the mentor is murdered, the love interest is captured, the false friend runs, the idiot presses the wrong button, and the traitor has betrayed everyone.
There’s a black hole opening up. The Big Bad tosses the hero in, and there is only darkness. Because the black hole absorbed everything else.
Who Eavesdrops the Eavesdropper? //
Stand close, but not close enough. Hear, but never get the whole picture. Listen to what they don’t say, read between the air quotes. Hear the cadence, don’t look them in the eye. Ever. Be inconspicuous, but resist the urge to wear dark glasses or poke holes in your newspaper. Because that’s creepy. Listen. Watch. Have a notepad, but never write anything. Stroke your chin, fix your hair.
Conversation. About life, about loss. About why she won’t eat anything. Why won’t she eat anything?! Rip hair from follicles, but don’t. Be calm. Keep your voice low. Someone’s listening. Dark glasses, really?
She’s speaking about someone not eating, then she got real quiet, dammit. Who’s not eating? Why? Lean closer. It’s her mother. She’s not eating. Is the cooking bad?
My cooking is fine, thank you, and I don’t believe you’re really reading that newspaper.
Then why won’t she eat?—
—Who knows? Do you?
If I did, why would I have to ask?—
—Why would you care, it’s none of your concern.
Are you an abusive daughter? Do you beat her? Starve her?—
—If I starved her, why would I be concerned with her not eating? Listen to yourself. You hear all. You understand nothing.
Is it cancer?—
—Are you serious?
—You think you can fix this somehow. That you know better?
Blunt force trauma?—
—Are you accusing me of something?
I don’t think you have the right to be here. I think you should leave.—
You disgust me.—
—Well, good for you. Can you get her to eat?
How could I when I don’t know what’s wrong?—
—Then welcome to my world. Now get the fuck out of it.
// Black Hole
The hero/villain is trapped. He’s gone beyond the event horizon. Floating in a black abyss, he is both part of the universe and not. It might crush him; it might preserve him. He’ll definitely run out of air. Everything is calm and silent, so much so that he can almost see beyond his world and into the next.
“Have you always been this cold?” //
There’s no way out. Time has warped around him. He could be here for an eternity, which might be only a few instants on the outside. Everything is so quiet—he could reach his hand into another dimension, lose himself. Would he be needed or wanted there?
“You’re just not a nurturing person.” //
But there’s always that glimmer of hope. A secondary singularity, deep within the crushing black.
“Don’t worry. No one ever means to drive a parent to suicide.” //
He uses the rest of the air or fuel or sheer willpower he has to find that singularity. And he escapes.
Lava Water //
Water, like lava, rolls down pink skin. Down in the crevasses, over valleys, down the drain. She flinches and I change the stream. The temperature. The setting. She bares her animal teeth. Run (my animal brain). Warm. Lukewarm. Cool. Coolish. Soap. She recoils from water-lava. Clean her as she cleaned me. Years ago. I cried. She cries.
Dodge-parry-thrust-parry-parry. Splash. She grapples for her cane. I grab the showerhead. We both go down.
She gets up first. Naked crawl down the hall.
Scream it after her. Heat of lava-water. Heat of tears. Wander. Cry. Full-throated, crackling. Lower register. Later, laugh at it. Sounds like a foghorn, or a freshly downed cow. Leg broken in three places. Crying for ma, or maybe for the neat bullet Farmer Joe will put behind her right eye.
Laugh. Made a funny sound. Can’t stop laughing. That’s not funny. Laugh. Can’t—
The hero/villain has made it to the middle of something. Big or small. Cataclysmic, mundane. External, internal. It doesn’t matter. All that does is that the hero/villain is there, witnessing, acting, trying to right/wrong whatever’s wrong/right. Things look grim. The heroes are tired; the villains have run out of death rays. The battle is going badly—maybe the robot lovers have been separated, maybe someone is dead, maybe the spaceship is going down or the planet’s about to explode or the cat’s in the tree again.
Then, out of nowhere, the motivation from the first act comes roaring back. All the horrors, all the action, all that optimism or desperation or rage.
She’s refusing to eat for eighteen hours at a time. My father swears to her that at the twenty-four-hour mark, she’ll go away, for the last time. I peel apples for stuffing, just out of the room so I don’t see her eyes. Every nineteenth hour, she takes a bite of yogurt. My father resets the clock.
A pastor who doesn’t know us stops by. My father tells him this is a small stumbling block. That she’ll be better tomorrow.
That’s not true. She has eaten a bite of yogurt every nineteenth hour for the past five days. She has never starved herself like this. This time she will succeed. I set down an apple, half-peeled.
My father says if she does not eat by tomorrow, he’ll call the police. No other choice. She also refuses to get up, passively resists those who try to move her. Dead weight. But it will be better by tomorrow.
Something small and mean wakes up in me. I say “Why not now? Today?”
When they look at me, I tell the pastor the truth, how many days it’s been, what she’s been doing, not doing. I make it impossible for my father to smile and say “It’ll be better tomorrow.”
I challenge him. Call the police now. End it.
He calls them. I return to my apples. The officers arrive, then the EMTs. I peel apples and wonder what devil lies beneath my skin.
The hero/villain gives it his all, his best and worst, and drives back the Big Bad once and for all. Maybe he sacrifices himself. Maybe he burns himself to a crisp in the very attempt. Maybe he disappears forever. Maybe it’s really heroic. Maybe it’s small and mean and cowardly.
But I’d like to think he’s on a beach somewhere getting an unintentionally lopsided tan.
Remembrance // Encephalon
These are true. //
From the very first she encouraged me to read, to write, to explore. Every week she took my sister and me to the library with the huge white columns and negotiated with the librarian to let us take home fourteen books each instead of seven. She won. The library is no longer a library. It’s an extension of the local community college where I tutored students while I took care of her. //
She only wore makeup to church and recitals. //
She woke us for school each day with music, booming from the living room, up through my floor. Sometimes it was Enya or Saturday Night Fever or American Woman. She danced to it, like a go-go dancer or a ballerina or an 80s glam rocker. //
She took lithium for most of her adult life, longer than my sister and I have been alive. I both knew about it and didn’t. If she ever takes it again, it will kill her. //
Each week she brought us to a book store where we could buy one book. The store’s name escapes me, but it’s gone, replaced with a designer shoe store. I still have all the books. //
She was learning piano. //
After I saw Star Wars for the first time, I paraded around in one of her white slips and she said I made a great Princess Leia. //
// In grade school, I confused fantasy and science fiction—I wrote about a dragon, destined to be a queen, and her adventures as a freighter pilot in deep space. My father still brags that I think like an engineer.
She used to muck stalls and garden in a bright blue bikini before she read about how sun exposure damaged skin. Then she insisted we wear long linen shirts and pants we got from Goodwill. It was a contest—the more unfortunate the pattern on the shirt, the better. The salt of our sweat and the sun bleached them all gray after a while. I wear her hat when I garden. //
She wore big, round, 80s style glasses when she drove. //
The first time I saw the nursing facility she lives in, I grayed out. The second time I broke down at the nurse’s station. I couldn’t even get to the mouth of the wing where she is. A nurse held me until I got control over myself. The nurse smelled of cigarettes, and I apologized for being weak. //
During the first hurricane I can remember being scared for, the power went out immediately and I cowered by her side. She brought out a deck of cards and we played rummy. //
She has a beautiful smile. //
She played in a band with my best friend’s mother and a guy named Duane. She affected a country twang that a life spent in Virginia and the Panhandle hadn’t given her and warbled through Patsy Cline and all the songs in Annie Get Your Gun while she strummed a guitar. My friend and I clapped our hands over our ears and howled like wolves. //
When I was three and again when I was five, she tried to kill herself. While she was away, my grandmother took care of me and my sister. After that, we moved to the country. I didn’t know the real reason for the move until I turned twenty. //
// While caring for her, I stopped writing fairytales. I stopped writing altogether, and it bothered me that it didn’t bother me. My sister suggested I restart with the old, copy and paste something. I laughed, then, frenzied, wrote a thousand words about a young man who finds out he’s an accidental clone. The next day I wrote a thousand more.
I never learned how to ride a bike, but she taught me to ride a horse. //
She braided my hair down to my waist every morning until I started third grade, then she taught me how to do it myself. //
I have her eyes. //
One day she helped me with a ballet routine. She did three turns in a row and kicked the fridge. She limped a step or two, then laughed at the look on my face. We laughed until I couldn’t get enough breath. //
She was teaching herself yoga. I’m learning it now. She joked that her favorite position was corpse, and I think of her in class sometimes when my mind is supposed to be blank. //
My father visits her every day. I admire his strength. //
// I deal with my issues better when they’re in a galaxy far, far away.
She watched cartoons with me every time I asked. Even during my Inuyasha phase. //
She made the best cheesecake in the world. //
I write love letters to her in my head and leave them behind me like bread crumbs. //
Jessica Borsi lives, writes, and works both in Miami and on a farm in the Panhandle. She is currently working toward an MFA in Fiction from Florida International University.