Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams





Mike and Jessie were walking in the park. The trees high above their heads stretched to touch each other, their leaves letting only the tiniest slivers of light through.

Mike watched the freckles of light spot Jessie’s brown face, her shirt, her arms. He tried to snub them out with his fingers.

It was a long day for them. They’d spent a few hours walking around the park, just talking. About old dreams and new ones, black riots and urban decay, the secrets of their hearts and the mysteries of the universe, the time Mike introduced himself through a mutual friend and his palms were so clammy that Jessie knew immediately how nervous he was.

They always talked a lot. Mike was amazed that they always found something to say. It was a little less than two years, but he thought once grad school was over, he would ask. He thought she’d say yes.

They made another lap around the park. By the time they decided they needed to walk back home—a full forty-five minutes away—they were way too tired to make the journey. They considered a cab, but Mike had a better idea.

“Why don’t we teleport?” he asked.

“What now?” She laughed. She was giving him that smile she gave when he was talking crazy, that would spread across her face, her eyes wide, her eye brows raised in steep arches.

“Hold my hand,” he said, and he didn’t wait. He grabbed her hand himself. “We can do it.”

“What makes you think we can teleport?” she asked.

“I believe,” he said simply.

She laughed at him again. “You’re crazy.”

Mike didn’t know how far he was going to take this. But it was Jessie and he didn’t worry about seeming silly. “Close your eyes and picture home,” he said. “On the count of three, we will jump forward and we will be there.”

He looked at Jessie, and sure enough, she closed her eyes. She was smiling and he wished he could read her thoughts, but that was another power entirely.

“One,” he said. He tightened his grip on her hand. “Two.” He felt a warmth in his stomach, his knees were bent, he was extra aware of the grass beneath his feet. “Three.” He leapt and he felt Jessie leap with him, their bodies synchronized. They were in the air for no more than two seconds and when they landed, their feet hitting the ground at the same time, there wasn’t the familiar soft crunch of grass. There was the hard thump of their feet against pavement. When they opened their eyes, they realized they were home.

• • • •

Jessie looks back on the day often. She remembers how weak her knees felt once they had made the jump; he had to hold her up to keep her from toppling over. She remembers his face, the flashes of abject terror, shock, and then euphoria. And she remembers the warmth in her belly, like she was glowing from the inside.

She remembers her neighbor Greg from 34C, halfway up the stairs to their apartment building when they arrived out of nowhere.

“Oh, I didn’t see you two there,” he said, turning when he heard Mike’s joyous scream. “Everything okay?” He looked from Mike to her to Mike again.

“Holy shit,” Mike said, as if in answer. And then more screams.

Jessie’s sitting on the couch, reliving the moment, her legs pressed under her, an open book in her lap.

Mike walks into the room. “We should try again,” he says.

Jessie glares at him. If Jessie agrees, this will be the twentieth time they’ve tried. They have all been failures.

Mike keeps a calendar where he crosses off the days since it happened. Many markers are spent in the attempt to keep a record; the markers start out strong, with vibrant confident lines, and then they sputter and falter and only the blood-crawling squeak against the paper remains. Mike tries many colors. Blue. Red. Green. Magenta. The ink runs out of all of them. And still no jump.

The first dozen attempts are at the park, trying to find the right spot, wearing the right clothes. Jessie must always be on the right side. They try time of day. It must always be late afternoon. They try the weather. The day must be cool and clear.

Mike recites the exact words to himself. He writes it down. He puts the words next to the calendar on the wall. He remembers Jessie’s words, too. It must all be perfect. They go back to the park and relive the experience word for word. When they do this they sound like play actors reciting lines.

“Why don’t we teleport?” Mike asks.

Jessie rolls her eyes. “What now?” she asks and the laugh is hollow, mocking.

“You’re not trying. You have to really try—”

“Jesus, Mike.”

“—Now we have to start over.”

Soon after that, Jessie refuses to go back to the park. But Mike keeps asking to try in other places. At home. When they go out to restaurants. At the movies. Jessie obliges, but each time her shoulders slump a little lower. She hates it. She hates it so much.

“You’re killing me,” she says. “Why does this matter so much?”

“Why wouldn’t it matter?” Mike says. “What would matter more?”

A day later, he asks her again and she almost throws a book at him, pulling back at the last moment. “Leave it alone, Mike. Can’t you just leave it alone?”

• • • •

Sometimes Mike wonders if he imagined it. But it can’t be. Jessie was there.

He gets so suspicious of the whole thing that he starts to wonder if even Jessie is a figment of his imagination.

When his friend Alex comes over for dinner, Mike tries to confirm his suspicions while Jessie is in the kitchen. “I’m married to a woman about this high, right? Light brown eyes? Dark skin? Can be a little judgy sometimes?” He says the last part a little softer than the rest.

Alex just looks at him.

Mike waits for an answer, the cold doubt creeping up his spine.

“That was a great dinner, J,” Alex says, looking past Mike. Then he looks back at Mike and points at him with his fork. “You fucked up.”

Mike turns and sees his wife. He has no idea how long she’s been standing there. But she makes a face he has come to know well and he knows that she knows that this is about the jump again.

“You’re welcome, Alex,” she says and then leaves the dining room.

• • • •

It isn’t that Jessie doesn’t care about the jump.

She just sees it differently than Mike. This thing wasn’t supposed to happen. It was an accident of the universe. To want it to happen more than once, in one life, is crazy. Isn’t it? What would be the odds? And why would you need it to happen again? How practical is teleporting if you can’t predict it? It is a silly thing, really. A silly little thing.

Yet Jessie still looks back on the day in amazement. Sometimes, in rare moments, she relives it. It is special because of its elusiveness. Because it doesn’t explain itself. For her, it is damn near divine. And she finds it empowering to have experienced it. She is of a small order who knows a secret. She and Mike have glimpsed behind a curtain. They have precious knowledge. Shouldn’t it bring them closer together?

She tries to talk to him about her thoughts, but it seems to just excite in him an unhealthy obsession.

“We should keep trying, then. Try to master it.”

“No,” she says, and it isn’t a rebuttal of the idea itself. She just doesn’t want to master it. She likes it where it is, something distant, to look at only when needed. She doesn’t want it to be her life. It is just a jump. A beautiful jump, yes. But it doesn’t deserve worship. Worship ruins all the best things.

• • • •

Mike wants to tell everyone.

He thinks about telling his friend Alex—“Yo, I teleported.” “Hey man, once with Jessie, I jumped from the park straight to my house!” “Al, you remember that movie about teleportation you hated? Jumper, was it? Yeah, well, me and Jessie . . . we did that.”—but it never sounds right. He thinks about telling people on the street. He thinks about just screaming it from the window of their apartment: “I teleported!”

He did try that once.

“So what?” a neighbor yelled back.

“Well,” he said, but he couldn’t think of a good answer.

Then a day comes when Mike walks into his room and his calendar has been taken down. He looks around and he finds it in the trash bin next to his work desk.

“You threw my calendar away?” he asks Jessie a moment later.

Jessie is reading a book on the couch, her legs folded under her. She looks up at him and he can feel what’s coming. “Stop counting,” she says. “I’m tired of you counting.”

Weeks later, she walks in on him standing in the middle of the bedroom. His knees are bent, his arms in front of him like he’s getting ready to box. His hands are bunched into fists. His face is full of lines, scrunched up in deliberate concentration.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

He looks at her, embarrassed. “Nothing,” he says.

“Yeah,” she says. “Right.”

• • • •

Mike believes he has a lot to be angry about. Jessie doesn’t care about the things that matter to him. She doesn’t try to understand where he is coming from, how much he needs the calendars, and the hope.

Sometimes he wonders why he’s stayed. This is a big question for most couples, but it is an even bigger question for Mike. He wonders if it is because of the jump or because of the love. He knows he loves her. This has never changed over all the years and the fights and the makeups. But he keeps thinking, maybe he stayed because she was there when the miracle happened. Maybe he hopes that if the miracle happens again, it will all be worth it. The years. The fights. The makeups. Love doesn’t always keep you where you’re supposed to be. But the miracle might have. Maybe all that’s left is the miracle. This thought scares him.

Why does it even matter so much? He doesn’t know. But he feels it every day. He comes home from work and he thinks of the jump. He is chilling with friends and the jump pops in and out of his consciousness. He is holding his wife and the jump is there, hanging in front of his eyes like an existential carrot he cannot catch.

He looks at his life and there is the jump, an island unto itself, surrounded by an ocean of monotony. Even when he is in a big moment, on the crest of some big wave, he can look out and see the island, and it calls to him, but he knows he cannot get there and it laughs at him. Vicious searing laughter.

• • • •

“I’ll make it up to you,” Mike says.

He has forgotten their anniversary again. “Sure you will,” she says.

It is not that she cares so much about these things. She is not that kind of sentimental. It is the fact that for years Mike has religiously crossed off each day on the calendar.

Mike’s hand is on her chest, right above her breasts. He follows the rise and fall of each breath, his hand light on her skin. “I’m sorry,” he says.

Jessie’s pissed. Why? she thinks. Because you’ve let this thing get so big that there isn’t any room for anything else? This stupid little thing.

But then she thinks there is something deeper in his apology beyond the forgetting. She thinks that he is saying sorry for many things. For all he has ever done that can’t be undone.

She doesn’t know if she is right. So many things go unsaid between them. But more importantly, she doesn’t want the truth to ruin the joy she feels in this moment. This moment that she believes that Mike is better than he actually is. Because reality is arbitrary. Because it doesn’t matter as much as the feeling. And she doesn’t have enough good feelings to let one slip away.

She tries to sleep but Mike’s hand feels heavy on her chest now. It is hard to sleep under so much weight, under this nagging feeling at the edge of her consciousness that this is the rest of their lives. Dancing around this little thing. Forever just out of reach, pulling at them. They’ve been married for four years and she is already breaking. What will be left of her after four decades?

It will always need to be fed, even when they are both trying to ignore that it’s there. Because these things take up too much space. There is no equivalency. No end to the feeding of these little monsters.

• • • •

Jessie takes Mike’s hand off of her chest and turns away from him.

“I said I was sorry,” he says. “I will make it up to you. I promise.”

But Jessie says nothing. Her breathing is the only thing punctuating this silence. This silence at the end of things.

Jessie is thinking of leaving. Mike knows this. There are so many regrets. But it is too late for regrets.

He is thinking of the jump even now, but it is swirled in there with the guilt. All the things he was unable to do for Jessie, the man he was unable to be. He still wants it, but now he wishes he could close his eyes and zero in on that want with his mind and send it off to some distant planet where it cannot hurt them anymore. But that seems even more impossible than that day so long ago.

In the end, if Jessie leaves, there will be nothing but the jump. And he doesn’t want to be alone with it. It will destroy him.

The old cliché of the light at the end of the tunnel. Mike laughs at it now. It is a fiction. There is light where he is. It is dim. It continues to dim. But there is no light ahead of him. All he sees is darkness.

• • • •

Two months after Mike and Jessie split, he returns to the apartment to pick up a stack of books Jessie decided were his and an old fedora he’d left behind. These are the final remnants of their shared world, the last excuse for them to see each other ever again.

Jessie meets Mike at the door, looks him up and down. He has dark circles under his eyes. He hasn’t cut his hair in weeks, it seems. A matted and unkempt beard covers the lower half of his face.

“Let’s do it again,” Mike says.

“What?” Jessie looks at him for a long time. The question is rhetorical. She’s heard him. She just hasn’t decided what she will do.

“One last time. For the road.” Mike waits for her to reject his offer, or get angry and roll her eyes at him. Or slam the door in his face. But she doesn’t do any of that.

“Okay,” she says.

“Okay?” he says, surprised and relieved. “Okay. Close your eyes. And picture home.”

She closes her eyes. This is the last time ever, she tells herself. A goodbye gift in honor of the thing that destroyed their lives. But even as she is thinking this, she can feel something frozen inside thawing against her will.

He believes then that she still trusts him—a trust he thought she had thrown away—and this gives him all the strength he needs to try again. He reaches out and grabs her hand.

“One,” he says. He holds her hand tighter. Jessie can feel all the hope in this grasp, all the want, and she surprises herself by responding, gripping his hand tighter as well. This shocks Mike and he feels his stomach tighten.

“Two,” he says.

They gasp aloud. This time feels different somehow. They can feel their hands merging. They feel the combination of all the times they’ve tried and failed and all the times they were too scared or angry to try. They feel their collective moments, a vibrating corporeality that squeezes tight around them, pulsing. They feel the release of the Earth’s gravity. There is nothing to hold onto. Nothing but each other. And it is perfect. It feels right. They can feel the hope of something beyond what they know; they can feel the universe as a solid, living thing, calling to them, urging them forward.

They say the last part together, Jessie’s voice unusually powerful, Mike as loud as a trumpet blasting over an ocean of years.


Cadwell Turnbull

Cadwell Turnbull

Cadwell Turnbull is the author of The Lesson and the upcoming No Gods, No Monsters. His short fiction has appeared in The Verge, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Asimov’s Science Fiction and several anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019. His novel The Lesson was the winner of the 2020 Neukom Institute Literary Award in the debut category. The novel was also shortlisted for the VCU Cabell Award and longlisted for the Massachusetts Book Award. Turnbull lives in Raleigh and teaches at North Carolina State University.