Isolated Thunderstorms

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from June, 2020.

I. Astrolabe, n.

“Your first semester
will occur during your flight,”
the dean explains.
His grey hair slicked back,
suit neatly pressed.
“The course will be broken down
into modules that you access
on your ship’s console.”

He walks in front of a whiteboard
covered in diagrams of
The orbits of Earth and Mars.
“The goal is for you to get adjusted to
the rigor of our program and
used to life within the confinements of
space travel.”

He holds up his hand, fingers splayed,
points with his ring finger
at the earth on the whiteboard.
“Following the Hohmann transfer,
your trip should take about six months.”
He drags his finger along a dotted line
that connects the Earth’s circle to Mars’s.
“That should be plenty of time
to complete your studies and
be ready to join our program.
Any questions, Emilia?”

I finish my doodle
of a western meadowlark
in the margin of my notes.
“No, sir.”

II. Histrion, n.

Hey Em,

I don’t know how long it’ll take for this message to get to you, let alone when the university will send out the batch of transmissions, but I just wanted to talk to you.

It’s possible your dean explained some of the logistics of this to me before you left, but his uniform was so loud, I couldn’t really hear half of what he said. I just nodded the way dad told us to when we talk to the cops. I realize that probably wasn’t the best move now.

When we came to your launch this morning, I was a mess. You may not have noticed, since I tried to be strong for you. You know, the whole stoic-man thing— you were the one who explained that to me in the first place, so I don’t really need to explain it, I guess.

We stood at the designated viewing area, and as the countdown echoed from the speakers, I felt the dam start to tear down. You were a small dash ascending into the blue sky, and I was so scared— my little sister was flying to Mars, and there was nothing I could do to protect her anymore.

I stood there long after your dash became a period became nothing. If it weren’t for Malik taking my hand, I’d probably still be out there staring at the space where you were.

I’m so proud of you, and I miss you so much.

Jon

III. Sunshiner, n.

Getting used to 
artificial days and nights
takes a while.

The tint of the windows,
intensity of internal lights change
with a clock set to DC’s time zone.

The cabin spins
slowly— enough
to simulate gravity.

I watch a glimpse of sun
not caught by the solar panels outside
scroll along the floor at midnight.

IV. Phlizz, n.

Hey Em,

Still don’t know when the university is sending these messages to you, but I hope you’re doing well. It’s been about a week since I sent my last message, just to give you an idea of my timeline. Do timelines matter when you’re alone in space?

Anyway, I have some big news: Tre’von is starting kindergarten next week! We went back-to-school shopping to get a dope first day shirt, and— is it still back-to-school shopping when he hasn’t done school before? I guess Head Start counts. Doesn’t matter, still excited. We got him a shirt with a rocket ship on it; that’s the point of the story.

He chose it from the rack, practically ran right up to it, and I said, “Oh you wanna go into space too?” And he looked at me all confused, so I added, “like Auntie Em?” He nodded slowly in that way you do when you don’t really understand, but you want to try on the shirt with a bedazzled rocket ship so bad. Who can really blame him?

I wish you could be here to see his first day, Em.

We all miss you terribly,

Jon

V. Nipe, v.

Sometimes,
when I can’t focus on the console,
I make it read the chapter out loud to me
while I go through a yoga sequence.

I get up from Shavasana
to take a quiz on the reading.

It feels like my consciousness
is tethered to that screen,
those quizzes—
check marks on a to-complete list.

Portioned meals
dispensed on timers—
enough to sustain myself.

Arbitrary measurements of time
tell me when to eat and sleep, but

there is no time here.

Sustain.
Enough.
Repeat.

VI. Summum Jus, n.

Hey Em,

Hope you’re doing well.

Tre’von’s first day of kindergarten went brilliantly! He wore his rocket ship with so much pride. He was so excited, he woke me and Malik up by running into our room and singing the Sesame Street theme.

The rest of the week, however, was a bit weird. I don’t need to tell you how good Tre is at making friends— that kid can talk to anyone about anything. Well, he heard about and saw other kids’s moms for the first time in a while. So, naturally, at dinner, he asked us about who his mom is. Just like when he started day care.

We’ve treaded this water before, so we went over the talking points again, and even tried to fruitlessly explain surrogacy. He got quiet and made this face— it just broke my heart, Em. He had never made that face before, but it was aching with pain.

Malik says we should talk about it. I’m not sure how to even start. You’d be helpful about now.

Missing you,

Jon

VII. Imperturbable, adj.

Summer internship:
an apple orchard in Yakima,
experimental crops in mineral deposits,
spreadsheets and graphs.

They called me
a problem solver,
cool under pressure,
promising.

My mentor
wrote a glowing review,
recommended me for the program
trying to make Mars habitable.

VIII. Quank, v.

Hey Em,

There’s so much to tell you, but it’s all dammed up. There’s so much noise, it’s hard to find the signal, sort it into manageable parts.

I couldn’t sleep the other night, probably just the changing of the seasons. But, I got up to get a drink of water, and as I went down the stairs, I heard this sound. A guttural cry. It only let out a couple times, but I saw the origin: Tre’s door.

I inched up to it, slow and quiet. There was faint rustling of sheets, high-pitched breaths.

There are times when dad-instincts take over. No rulebook, no manual, no flowchart. You just do— like an aching autopilot.

I opened his door, peeked in, saw him laying in bed, one leg out from under his covers. In the faint glow of his nightlight, there were wet spots on his pillow. He looked at me.

“Hey Tre, you awake?” I whispered. He nodded. “I had a bad dream, could I sleep here for a bit?”

He sniffled, nodded, wormed over to make room on his bed.

I didn’t say anything else. There was nothing I could say. My son was hurting, and I would do whatever was needed to help him.

I hope you’re not hurting too.

Jon

IX. Guntz, n.

Sometimes,
when I look out of the window,
see the vast void of the galaxy,
stars whose names I can’t quite remember,

I feel the excitement
that’s waned since launch—
that feeling of endless possibility,
that vision of
skyscrapers standing tall
in a Martian sandstorm.

Then the cabin revolves,
and there is abyss,
bone fragments poke out
of red sand dunes.

X. Hench, adj.

Em,

I’m hoping that it’s just taking a long time for data to travel across the solar system, and that these messages are finding you well.

I’m going to give you some good news this week. Since Tre’von’s going to school now, I’ve decided to get back into acting. Now, believe me, working on the production team was great and had a way more manageable schedule, and I’m so thankful they were able to find an arrangement that kept me involved, but I’ll be honest: I’ve missed being on the stage, the makeup, the lights, the crowd.

Our theater held auditions for our upcoming production of Les Mis, and your big brother is going to be the first Black Jean Valjean in the Ave’s history! Really. In a century, I’m going to be the first one.

Just practicing with the soundtrack after getting the role tired me out, so I have to start exercising more consistently. Cardio is the worst. You don’t have to do cardio in space, right?

Wish you were here,

Jon

XI. Anent, prep. and av.

Episodes of effort
are followed by
sagas for lethargy.

My console dings,
notifications
build up.

But I can’t
get up
to read them.

XII. Summa Cum Laude, adv., n., and adj.

Em,

I can really feel the distance between us now, and knowing that it has to be normal, at least for some time, is difficult. Writing these messages makes me feel at least somewhat closer to you, however tenable.

So, some more good news. Tre’s class had a spelling bee this week. Not like, national-spelling-bee level, of course. Maybe spelling bee is a strong term for what it was. It was mostly naming the letters of the alphabet when shown, and reading or spelling short words.

His school made it an event instead of just a test in class. There was cheap catering, the PTA brought in some desserts, the kids got name tags that hung around their necks like the real thing. So cute. Kids weren’t eliminated, but earned points for correct answers on their first attempt, and the crowd cheers for everyone, obviously.

Tre’s face. His smile after he’d name his letters, read those words. He shined, Em.

It was the last round; he hadn’t missed a single question. They were naming letters shown on sheets of paper. It was Tre’s turn, and the teacher noted Tre’s accomplishment, and said he was going to get a challenge. He was so excited for the challenge. They held up the paper, and Tre squinted at it for a second, before saying, “That’s not a letter!” He thought for a second. “That’s a nine! MWAH HA HA HA!” He seriously did the Count’s laugh and everything. Malik and I were dying.

Tre was right, of course. He won the competition and got a certificate with his name on it. He was so happy, he couldn’t let go of it from the moment they handed it to him, and the audience erupted for him, to when he had to brush his teeth to go to bed.

I’m so proud of him. All of those hours of Sesame Street were worth it!

Jon

XIII. Ambiate, v.

There’s a future
where humans are not tethered to
one planet.
There is
so much universe to traverse,
so much to learn.

I can be
a step there.
My research
can build the foundation
that launches the human
race out of this star system.

XIV. Pandemain, n.

Emilia,

I’ve focused on good news the last couple weeks, because I needed to reframe myself. This last month has been really hard on all of us.

You know how Malik has been at his accounting firm for forever? Well, there was an opening for a management position in his department, and Malik, being a total Hamilton, applied for it, because he was more than capable of the work. He was passed over, because of course he was, and some white guy got the position. He says he’s fine with it, but I see the way he sighs after he finishes his coffee before going to work.

Tre has been lowkey struggling in school. Not academically— he’s a genius like you. He soaks up everything at school and regurgitates it to us at dinner. But, I still hear him cry in his room some nights. He still asks questions about his biomom maybe once a week, pausing after retelling one of his classmates’s stories about their moms.

And, his teacher is taking a race-blind approach to her curriculum, because we’re “all one big human race.” I was about to tell you at the beginning of his school year, because she said that in her welcome letter. I even typed it, but deleted it, thinking I was blowing it out of proportion. But it’s there. The books she selects for story time are about white people and by whites people. Malik told me to bring it up to her if it bothered me, but I don’t even know how to start that conversation.

Why is it that every decade or so white people think they’ve solved racism? They elect a black man president one decade, they get rid of century-old confederate statues the next. Every time, they pat themselves on the back and move on. They don’t seem to realize that there are still people in positions of power that will turn their strides of progress into steps into inches. It happens every. time. 

I hope you’re doing well. 

Jon

XV. Kvetch, v.

The console dings as more messages arrive.
I don’t remember how long I’ve been hurtling.
There’s probably some math I could do to figure it out,
but what’s the point?

There’s a red dot somewhere that I’m going to land on.
That’s what they tell me, anyway.
A recording of a voice tells me about acclimation techniques,
but can lungs really learn new tricks?

I don’t remember what my voice sounds like.
When I try to speak, nothing comes out.
The console dings again.
How long have I been laying here?

XVI. Barney’s Bull, n.

Emilia,

I am exhausted. Are you too?

Rehearsals have really picked up, and I feel like I’m on a perpetual treadmill. I wake up, get Tre ready for school, drop him off, then rehearsal goes all day. It’s more intensive than I anticipated. I get home in time for dinner, which Malik has to prepare most nights, and as soon as dishes are done, I crash on the couch. Malik has to wake me up so I can go to bed. Bless him.

Maybe I just need a new rhythm to land. Some kind of routine to take root, you know? I just feel like I’m tumbling haphazardly. Taking so much time away from the stage really made me rusty. But the thing is, I can see how to do all the things. I know how to do them. My body is just slow to get back up to speed.

I can feel the progress happening, but it’s a phantom. It’s there until I look for it, then it’s gone. Nowhere to be seen. Gotta just believe it’s there, I guess? I know you don’t do well with the whole “lack of observable evidence and data” thing, but you can imagine it, right?

Jon

XVII. Foot-Hot, adv.

At fake-sunrise,
instead of a ding, the console says
our voyage is halfway to our destination.

I’ve done barely any of the assigned modules.
I lean up, my back stiff.
When did I last stretch?

I sit in front of the console,
a mountain of messages populate the screen.
So many from Jon.

Save them for later.
I open the program and speed-read the modules,
guess the answers on some quizzes.

Whatever it takes to catch up.
In my periphery, I see
several meal trays pile up.

I wake up with my head on the keyboard.
Not sure when I am.
The console shows a progress bar at 55%.

XVIII. Mihi, n.

Dearest Emilia,

It would be an honor to have you in attendance at the premiere of the Ave’s production of Les Misérables next month on Friday, the 15th of November.

Sincerely yours,

Jon

P.S. I know you can’t make it, because space and stuff. I just wanted to make to gesture, because you mean so much to me, even when (especially when?) you’re on the other side of the solar system. The theatre said we all get to reserve a few seats opening night, and after Malik and Tre, we all decided you were the obvious choice. There will be a seat with your name on it.

XIX. Simit, n.

Everything feels determined,
stuck—
spirals within spirals.

A current takes you.
You
gasp, jump.

Your father
takes you to brunch downtown
one Sunday
during your grad program.

He comments
on how proud he is of your achievements,
before pausing
to remind you to make sure you're eating.

You look at the meal trays
stacked by your desk—
two days worth—

think of the cost being wasted
before
thinking of your own health.

XX. Puckerbrush, n.

Emilia,

One of the things that frustrates me about the way Dad raised me is the lack of emotional expression. You’ve told me about this, of course, but no amount of awareness on my part really gets me out of this straightjacket.

Malik was raised the same way, which shouldn’t be too surprising. I think all boys are all given these lessons. They’re in the air.

It doesn’t help that both of our schedules are so busy now, and its easy to become isolated, set up barriers across all lanes of traffic.

I brought this up to him years ago, when we were anticipating Tre’s birth. We agreed to try to raise our child, regardless of gender identity, so that they should feel comfortable expressing whatever they’re feeling. We didn’t want them stuck in the same restraints that we’re trying to escape.

But, it’s not the explicit teaching, which we have done. Its all the static that he picks up outside of that. He sees Malik and I suffer in silence. He sees us bottle it up.

Then he emulates it. It’s clear when I can hear him cry in his room, but then pull it together when I come in to check on him. He always says he’s okay.

How do you break a cycle for someone when you can’t break it yourself?

Jon

XXI. Satisdiction, n.

In undergrad,
I wanted to master everything.
I read the old textbooks,
watched all the supplemental videos I could find online.

I was competitive.

In this spiral cubicle,
I don't see the benefits of overexerting myself
for some letters
in a spreadsheet I will never read.

I am competent.

XXII. Bumptious, adj.

Elimia,

One of the nice things about theatre is the opportunity to escape the real world and inhabit a different person for a while. Sure, you may be a poor fugitive constantly on the run for a vindictive cop, but it’s a different rhythm from your actual life.

The person playing Javert exudes their confidence constantly. Even when we’re not in a scene. They just have this aura of superiority, like it should be an honor that they grace our theatre with their talent. Some holier-than-thou thing. Just like Javert.

It makes playing against them easier at least.

Two weeks until opening night! Wish you could be there!

Jon

XXIII. Sprunting, n.

I don't know what this feeling is.

Always seemed like a distraction
from work that needed to be done.

Saw others on campus
take inefficient routes to class,
check their phones while studying.

Never felt like I was missing anything
until I was so isolated.

To walk around a park or downtown.
To hear about their day, tell them about mine.
To have conversations with no set goal, no endpoint.

I don't know what feeling is.

XXIV. Delenda, n.

Emilia,

Balancing time between work and home is difficult. It must be even worse for you, having them be in the same place. I can at least try to leave work at the theatre when I go back home. I don’t know if you’re really able to do that as well. I hope you’re capable of balancing somehow, since it’s been months now.

Our director had an epiphany while on a hike in Olympic last weekend, and has decided to make some… tweaks… to Les Mis. I’m all for revivals changing the original text, the thing is a century old, but a week before opening night doesn’t seem like the best time for those changes to come through.

The revisions have meant that I have to spend more time at the theatre in order to learn the new lines, new blocking, new sequences. That means I’m spending less time at home. I can tell Malik is getting stretched pretty thin with taking up more of the everyday tasks. I do what I can when I can, but it’s not enough. I know it’s not enough. He says he can handle it. He always says he can handle it.

Tre’s been acting out more now, too. He’s never bee an unruly kid; you know that as well as I do. I’ve been working at the theatre his whole life, and it had never really been a problem before. But, when I started working longer days this week, he became more distant. He’s even started sharing less about his school day when I ask him about it.

Something is off-kilter here, and I need to figure out how to find equilibrium again.

Opening night is this Friday. Wish me luck.

Jon

XXV. Downcycling, n.

When I wake up, I drink a glass a water
that used to be my urine.

The first time was a challenge, I'll admit, but
it's a necessity, and logically must be accepted.

When you think about it, though,
everything is recycled.

The metal and wires in this ship were repurposed
from old electronics which were made

from the devices before them and
material excavated from the Earth's crust.

Everything comes from something,
then gets reused to adapt to the current state.

XXVI. Tinkerman, n.

Emilia,

Opening week has been exhausting. We’re running an eight-show-a-week schedule for the remainder of November, except for Thanksgiving of course. 

One of the factors that makes this particular run so tiresome is our director’s fickleness in settling on what they want. The last-minute epiphany wasn’t the only change they’ve implemented. They keep saying the dynamic isn’t quite right, and keep changing the ensemble night after night. While I’ve had to perform every night so far, much of the other cast was replaced by understudies at least once to see how that would, as they put it, “shake things up.” There is a weird electricity that runs through the cast when things change so suddenly. I don’t know if that’s a positive or not, but I’ll take it.

Malik and Tre sat by your empty seat near the stage. The last couple weeks have been rough, but it started to feel worth it when I saw their faces. Malik’s face so full of prideful tears. Tre’s eyes. This wasn’t his first musical, he’d been to a couple when I was working in production. This was the first time he saw me act though. His eyes were so full of awe. Have you ever seen someone so evidently out of their body? So palpably transported into a story? Eyes wide, mouth agape.

At the end of the first act, I peaked at them from the edge of the stage, and it took Tre a few seconds to land. He then excitedly looked to his left at your seat, then right to Malik. I couldn’t hear him, but I could see his mouth flying a mile a minute, his arms waving like he was trying to fly back out of his seat. Malik joined his excitement and flapped his arms too. I love them so much.

Wish you could have been there. I miss you.

Jon

XXVII. Manners-Painting, adj.

Realizations come
like gusts of wind in a storm.
They knock you down.

My eyes strain to see
the full progress bar.

A countdown clock widget,
recently added to the hud, says
seven days remain.

Fourteen notifications still
in the mail app, all from Jon.

Saving them for later,
meant later never came.
What kind of sister am I?

I read them
all.

XXVIII. Chop-Chop, n.

Emilia,

This will probably be the last message you get from me for a while. I know you’re busy with work for your program, and while I’ve benefitted from writing to you, it might just be putting some undue burden on you.

The show wrapped, as well as my acting career is seems. It turns out, the last-minute changes to the play were intended to artificially inflate the cost from investors so that the director could pocket the excess cash. The theatre was already struggling financially, so we thought the Thanksgiving weekend shows would cover it, but it didn’t do well enough to keep it all afloat, especially with so much money funneled out.

There isn’t another community theatre in the area, not one within driving distance at least, so I can’t really act anywhere else. I’ve had a few days to process it, and it’s not the worst thing, really. The schedule that we were subjected to at the Ave was a strain on all of us, especially Malik and Tre’von. I honestly wasn’t sure if I would do another show after seeing the effect it had on them in the first place.

Seeing Tre’s face light up that first night, the excitement emanating from him made me realize I want to bring that to other kids like him. So, I’ve decided to try become a drama teacher. Central has an online program to get the teaching credential in drama, and I think with my career history, there might be a way to expedite the program. I don’t really know if that’s possible, but it would certainly be nice if it is.

I feel good about the career change, don’t get me wrong. The idea of a stable, predictable schedule that should— SHOULD— allow me more time to spend with my family sounds relieving.

We’re going to be alright. I hope you are too.

Jon

XXIX. Simi-Dimi, n.

Dear Jon,

I am so sorry I never responded to any of your messages. You shared so much with me, and I didn’t say anything. I got stuck in my head for a while, and then I went all in on my work as I always do. But, there are no excuses that will suffice justification for my inaction.

I can’t believe you kept writing me every week for so long even though I ghosted you. I kept meaning to read to your messages, I really did, I just— You are an amazing brother, and I appreciate you so very much. You are never a burden to me.

Time gets really funky in space. Like, they attempt to mitigate it with some artificial lighting that brightens and dims with the ship’s perception of time, but knowing that it’s artificial, that time is a measurement that we created to make sense of a chaotic universe, just starts a whole different spiral about the line of demarcation between what is socially constructed and what exists naturally. Humans create so many arbitrary categories that they take to be fact— like race and gender.

Just like on Earth, you can still feel the implicit biases while isolated in a box flying through the solar system. So much of the materials I had to read for this program were just like what you said Tre (so proud of him by the way!) had to read at school— by white people, for white people (men, in this case). They’re also old, because history, and they’re full of the usual sexist tropes, the subtle erasure of women from the development and audience of scientific research, and it’s apparent that they still have not tested their devices on women or non-white people in the design process. The sensors they use for the automatic taps still don’t sense my skin that well. The console is supposed to have a face ID system for easy log in, but the camera doesn’t detect my face well either. Sorry for that tangent. It’s been a long six months.

I can’t believe you got the lead role in Les Mis! That’s so incredible! I wish I could have been there! Mom would be so proud of you! I remember how she made us go to all of your school plays. She’d always have some sort of bouquet with her, and as soon as you came out to bow, she’d throw it at you, even when you were just in the ensemble. And now you’re going to be a teacher?! I’m so proud you!

I’m so glad Tre seems to be growing into a proper genius. He’s going to ask a lot of questions, because all geniuses do. I’m sure it can be frustrating to have to have what seems like the same conversations over and over (I felt that way with my college-aged students a LOT), but if the questions are being asked, then there’s still some space that he needs to fill. You have been so patient and understanding, and that’s all you need to be right now. As long as you and Malik are there for him, and he knows you’re there and will still be there in the future, I think everything will work out. 

Again, I am so sorry for not responding, especially since your last message was almost three months ago. You must have worried that I died or something. I’m not dead. And I appreciate you putting so much time into writing to me, it made the end of this flight so much better. I wish I had read and responded to them throughout the trip. It probably would have helped me keep it together.

I like you, I love you, and I miss you.

Em

XXX. Lifemanship, n.

Hey Em!

It’s so good to know you’re not dead!

You don’t need to apologize. Really. I know your program is really intense— that was one of the few things that registered when your dean told me about what to expect after you launched. I knew that I needed something to tether me to you, and I thought you might need that connection too, even if you weren’t able to respond at all. Again, I have no idea how any of this space communication stuff works.

I was able to get into Central’s teaching program for winter quarter, and while they didn’t let my experience exempt me from any classes or credits (fair), my experience allows me to work through the courses a bit quicker. They’re all online classes, some proctored tests, some essays. The schedule is flexible, so I’m able to work on assignments when I have time, which tends to be during the day when Malik is at work and Tre is at school. This schedule is way more manageable than the theatre.

You are so right about what Tre needs from us. Since I’ve been home more, he hasn’t been as distant. He still asks questions a lot, because genius, but he definitely seems to become calmer the more we talk about surrogacy and his biomom. It’s still difficult, obviously, but it’s hard work that needs to be done, not dismissed.

Talking through difficult conversations with Tre inspired Malik to have those kinds of conversations at work too. He still has his job, which is good, and they’ve started a task force to look into analyzing the biases in the hiring and promotion systems within the company. It’ll take months for anything to happen on that front, if we’re lucky.

I’m glad you were able to get through your work and survive it. According to my Earth calendar, you’re supposed to be landing soon. You’re going to do tremendous work on Mars. You are an inspiration, truly. I am so proud of how much you’ve accomplished.

I like you, I love you, and I miss you.

Jon

A Morning in Kroa

The sun rises over the Haurathon, the centerpiece of Kroa. Its spire shoots out 1000 feet above the neighboring buildings. The Haurathon is used as the symbol for Congress, who use it to decorate their lapel pins, our flag, our money. You are to never forget about the Haurathon or Congress— they own you.

Sunrises are my favorite part of the day. The way the sun peeks at Kroa, like it’s wincing, makes me feel seen. It looks at me directly, tinted in the haze of the green fog dissipating from the streets. I think the beauty may be in the way Congress’ night poison rises with the sun, like a final battle cry to the heavens.

“Aja. It’s time to wake up,” I say to my sister. She’s sleeping on the couch, as she does almost every night. Her feet stick out of a mound of blankets covering the couch cushions. 

White stitches stretch out where we sit every night. Our family has had that couch since both our parents were alive; I guess that would be at least eight years or so. The dark green upholstery, the color I remember old fir trees having, has faded a lot since then, too.

Aja rolls around under the blankets, making tired groans. She says half words and flails her arms. Usually, it’s around this time that I pick up one of the blanket edges to help her out. This morning, I do not.

There’s a picture on the mantle
in a simple black frame
with four people in it.

One was
a woman with a black ponytail
and wrinkles around her smile
and small, green eyes that asked you how your day was,
          and was Mom.

Another was
a man with a thick beard
and a lumberjack’s flannel shirt
and thick arms that would hold you up to see over the crowd,
          and was Dad.

The smallest was
a girl with brown eyes
and small hands that held an old 3DS
          and was Aja.

The last one was
a girl with dyed purple hair
and a shirt from a cyborg-punk band no one listens to anymore,
          and was me.

The corners are chipped and faded.
Dust layers tint the grass’ green hue.

I sit cross-legged on the coffee table, facing the window, the couch on my right. The Haurathon dominating the view. I can feel steam from my coffee graze against my chin out of the mug I made Mom back in school. It’s wide, the sides thick and lopsided. The purple paint starting to peel around the edges. Coffee stains line the rim on the inside, no matter how much I scrub it.

“Boa, any help would be appreciated,” Aja grumbles.

“You’re 14. You can figure it out.”

“Not when the blankets travel between dimensions!” Two mountains erupt under the blankets.

“There are only three dimensions, dummy.”

“No lines think there are squares, Boa.”

I pause, sip my coffee, bask in the bitter grip in the back of my throat. “Still dumb.”

“Boa! Please! I’m dying!”

“No you aren’t.”

“I can feel Death’s cold hand on my neck. He’s dragging me into the abyss! Boa! Take care of Cat for me! Noooo!!!” Her plea fades.

“Super dumb. Cat doesn’t even need us.”

“Fine.” Aja sits up, blankets cocooned around her.

Cat sits in front of the window, staring at us. She gives me a disappointed meow, stretches her forelegs, saunters off, her chin up. 

“Cat hates you,” I say, taking another sip. The sun starts to give definition to the clouds. I can see shapes forming, green and white clusters.

“Cat loves me,” the blanket pupa replies. “She could not live without seeing my beautiful  face.” The blankets peel away, and Aja emerges. Her short, black hair sticks out in all directions. She reaches her thin arm out of the oversized shirt she wears to bed and grabs my mug. She takes a sip and recoils harshly. “Nope. No. Still no. Never. How!? Why!?”

She quickly puts the mug back in my hands. “Get up. You’re going to be late for class.”

She lets out a long, exasperated sigh. “But I’m sick!” she counters, giving two well-paced coughs into a blanket. “I think I should just stay home and rest,” she continues, putting one of the blankets back over her head.

“You literally said the same thing two days ago.”

She pauses. “But the blankets are warm, and comfy, and I named this one Gerard.” She pulls out a quilt Mom made. It has red and white squares alternating in rows.

“No you didn’t. I named them Margaret before you were even born.”

“You were three!”

“Shut up. Go get dressed.”

She gets up, walks away slowly, leaving a trail of blankets in her wake. “I’m doing this under protest.”

“You know not to tell those jokes. They’ll hear you.”

“Whatever you say, Boa. I don’t think Congress has enough interest to keep track of what every apartment is saying all the time.”

I look at my coffee; it’s almost gone. I feel a chill growing in my fingers. “That’s what everyone said when the night poison started.” 

My eyes are fixed on the bottom of the mug.

Sunset.
Orange cirrus clouds
          streaked the mauve sky.
Tiny stars awaken,
dance above the rooftops.

You joked
about curfew,
and I laughed.
          I laughed.
                    I laughed.

Night.
Green stratus clouds
blanketed the roads.

Echoes
of doors and windows locking shut
bounce off the walls and sidewalks and stoops,
and I got inside.
          I got inside.
                    You didn’t.

“I know, I know, I know. Roads dangerous after dark. Stay inside, Aja. You don’t need to remind me again. This isn’t The Hunger Games.” Aja’s annoyed voice and the sounds of brushes falling on the counter fly out of the bathroom, the door wide open. The light seems brighter than usual. I look away.

“I’m sor—”

“You don’t need to do your passive-aggressive apologizing, Boa.”

The roar of her hair dryer punctuates the conversation.

I look at the dregs of my coffee. Stains like layers of earth spiral to the bottom. Droplets stuck in place like fossils. I tilt the mug, watch them collapse, fall into a puddle at the bottom. Persistent coffee grounds swim around.

I hear Aja walk out of the bathroom, the light out. Her bedroom door creaks and clacks shut. 

She never understands. No one ever does. I’ve been told a thousand times that it wasn’t my fault. I’ve heard it from hundreds of faces; none of them have helped. My guilt is cold coffee I can’t swallow.

I was turning six,
and she baked a chocolate cake,
even with her two-year-old crying the whole time.

I remember the chocolate frosting and them smiling at me.
They sang to me.

The cake was delicious.

“When do you get off tonight?” Aja asks. Her black boots announce her approach.

“I’m opening, so I should be off around four.” I get off the coffee table and walk to the kitchen to wash the mug.

“Great, so you’ll cook dinner. Awesome. Thanks!” Aja quickly grabs her backpack and moves toward the door.

“That would only be the case if you somehow clean the apartment before I got here.”

“Bring home some fries, and it’s a deal.” Aja sticks her hand out to shake. She smiles confidently.

“Deal,” I shake her hand. “Go learn things.”

“I always does. I learn real good.” Aja grabs her keyring from the basket by the door. She uses Dad’s old Super Mario keyring. It’s faded, the colors starting to become a uniform red.

“I swear, Aja. Another F and I’m calling Skynet,“ I say, pointing a soapy scrub brush at her. 

“They’ll never find me. I’ll go off the grid. I’ll live off the land with my trusty bow, relying solely on my archery skills and stealth to stalk my prey.”

This isn’t the Hunger Games, Boa.”

“Shut up. Bye.” She smiles, turns to the door. Her red coat swishing behind her.

It doesn’t take long for me to give up on scrubbing the stains out of the mug. I place it on the drying mat next to the sink and get ready for work.

It never takes much time. The beauty of working in the kitchen of a restaurant is that you don’t have to doll yourself up for the public if you don’t want to. Management likes it when you do, as they can force you to do more jobs that way, but it’s not a strict rule.

I put on some worn-in jeans and a red shirt with the restaurant’s logo on the left breast, “Rodwell’s” in some modernist font inside a neat, blue rectangle. It’s starting to fade, but they change designs every two years, so I think I’ll be fine.

I check the mirror before I leave. I try to make my hair go in one direction with a brush. It’s futile, so I put on a black beanie. Hat hair seems like a good enough excuse.