Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams






An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me . . . Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? . . . And suddenly the memory revealed itself.

 — Marcel Proust

Nebula Award NomineeMadeleine remembers being a different person.

It strikes her when she’s driving, threading her way through farmland, homesteads, facing down the mountains around which the road winds. She remembers being thrilled at the thought of travel, of the self she would discover over the hills and far away. She remembers laughing with friends, looking forward to things, to a future.

She wonders at how change comes in like a thief in the night, dismantling our sense of self one bolt and screw at a time until all that’s left of the person we think we are is a broken door hanging off a rusty hinge, waiting for us to walk through.

• • • •

“Tell me about your mother,” says Clarice, the clinical psychologist assigned to her.

Madeleine is stymied. She stammers. This is only her third meeting with Clarice. She looks at her hands and the tissue she is twisting between them. “I thought we were going to talk about the episodes.”

“We will,” and Clarice is all gentleness, all calm, “but —”

“I would really rather talk about the episodes.”

Clarice relents, nods in her gracious, patient way, and makes a note. “When was your last one?”

“Last night.” Madeleine swallows, hard, remembering.

“And what was the trigger?”

“The soup,” she says, and she means to laugh, but it comes out wet and strangled like a sob. “I was making chicken soup, and I put a stick of cinnamon in. I’d never done that before but I remembered how it looked, sometimes, when my mother would make it — she would boil the thighs whole with bay leaves, black pepper, and sticks of cinnamon, and the way it looked in the pot stuck with me — so I thought I would try it. It was exactly right — it smelled exactly, exactly the way she used to make it — and then I was there, I was small and looking up at her in our old house, and she was stirring the soup and smiling down at me, and the smell was like a cloud all around, and I could smell her, too, the hand cream she used, and see the edge of the stove and the oven door handle with the cat-print dish towel on it —”

“Did your mother like to cook?”

Madeleine stares.

“Madeleine,” says Clarice, with the inevitably Anglo pronunciation that Madeleine has resigned herself to, “if we’re going to work together to help you I need to know more about her.”

“The episodes aren’t about her,” says Madeleine, stiffly. “They’re because of the drug.”

“Yes, but —”

“They’re because of the drug, and I don’t need you to tell me I took part in the trial because of her — obviously I did — and I don’t want to tell you about her. This isn’t about my mourning, and I thought we established these aren’t traumatic flashbacks. It’s about the drug.”

“Madeleine,” and Madeleine is fascinated by Clarice’s capacity to both disgust and soothe her with sheer unflappability, “Drugs do not operate — or misfire — in a vacuum. You were one of sixty people participating in that trial. Of those sixty, you’re the only one who has come forward experiencing these episodes.” Clarice leans forward, slightly. “We’ve also spoken about your tendency to see our relationship as adversarial. Please remember that it isn’t. You,” and Clarice doesn’t smile, exactly, so much as that the lines around her mouth become suffused with sympathy, “haven’t even ever volunteered her name to me.”

Madeleine begins to feel like a recalcitrant child instead of an adult standing her ground. This only adds to her resentment.

“Her name was Sylvie,” she offers, finally. “She loved being in the kitchen. She loved making big fancy meals. But she hated having people over. My dad used to tease her about that.”

Clarice nods, smiles her almost-smile encouragingly, makes further notes. “And did you do the technique we discussed to dismiss the memory?”

Madeleine looks away. “Yes.”

“What did you choose this time?”

“Althusser.” She feels ridiculous. “‘In the battle that is philosophy all the techniques of war, including looting and camouflage, are permissible.’”

Clarice frowns as she writes, and Madeleine can’t tell if it’s because talk of war is adversarial or because she dislikes Althusser.

• • • •

After she buried her mother, Madeleine looked for ways to bury herself.

She read non-fiction, as dense and theoretical as she could find, on any subject she felt she had a chance of understanding: economics, postmodernism, settler-colonialism. While reading Patrick Wolfe she found the phrase invasion is a structure not an event, and wondered if one could say the same of grief. Grief is an invasion and a structure and an event, she wrote, then struck it out, because it seemed meaningless.

Grief, thinks Madeleine now, is an invasion that climbs inside you and makes you grow a wool blanket from your skin, itchy and insulating, heavy and grey. It wraps and wraps and wraps around, putting layers of scratchy heat between you and the world, until no one wants to approach for fear of the prickle, and people stop asking how you are doing in the blanket, which is a relief, because all you want is to be hidden, out of sight. You can’t think of a time when you won’t be wrapped in the blanket, when you’ll be ready to face the people outside it — but one day, perhaps, you push through. And even though you’ve struggled against the belief that you’re a worthless colony of contagion that must be shunned at all costs, it still comes as a shock, when you emerge, that there’s no one left waiting for you.

Worse still is the shock that you haven’t emerged at all.

• • • •

“The thing is,” says Madeleine, slowly, “I didn’t use the sentence right away.”


“I — wanted to see how long it could last, on its own.” Heat in her cheeks, knowing how this will sound, wanting both to resist and embrace it. “To ride it out. It kept going just as I remembered it — she brought me a little pink plastic bowl with yellow flowers on it, poured just a tiny bit of soup in, blew on it, gave it to me with a plastic spoon. There were little star-shaped noodles in it. I —” she feels tears in her eyes, hates this, hates crying in front of Clarice, “— I could have eaten it. It smelled so good, and I could feel I was hungry. But I got superstitious. You know.” She shrugs. “Like if I ate it I’d have to stay for good.”

“Did you want to stay for good?”

Madeleine says nothing. This is what she hates about Clarice, this demand that her feelings be spelled out into one thing or another: isn’t it obvious that she both wanted and didn’t want to? From what she said?

“I feel like the episodes are lasting longer,” says Madeleine, finally, trying to keep the urgency from consuming her voice. “It used to be just a snap, there and back — I’d blink, I’d be in the memory, I’d realize what happened and it would be like a dream; I’d wake up, I’d come back. I didn’t need sentences to pull me back. But now . . .” She looks to Clarice to say something, to fill the silence, but Clarice waits, as usual, for Madeleine herself to make the connection, to articulate the fear.

“ . . . Now I wonder if this is how it started for her. My mother. What it was like for her.” The tissue in her hands is damp, not from tears, but from the sweat of her palms. “If I just sped up the process.”

“You don’t have Alzheimer’s,” says Clarice, matter-of-fact. “You aren’t forgetting anything. In fact it appears to be the opposite: you’re remembering so intensely and completely that your memories have the vividness and immediacy of hallucination.” She jots something down. “We’ll keep on working on dismantling the triggers as they arise. If the episodes seem to be lasting longer, it could be partly because they’re growing fewer and farther between. This is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Madeleine nods, chewing her lip, not meeting Clarice’s eyes.

• • • •

So far as Madeleine is concerned her mother began dying five years earlier, when the fullness of her life began to fall away from her like chunks of wet cake: names; events; her child. Madeleine watched her mother weep, and this was the worst, because with every storm of grief over her confusion Madeleine couldn’t help but imagine the memories sloughing from her, as if the memories themselves were the source of her pain, and if she could just forget them and live a barer life, a life before the disease, before her husband’s death, before Madeleine, she could be happy again. If she could only shed the burden of the expectation of memory, she could be happy again.

Madeleine reads Walter Benjamin on time as image, time as accumulation, and thinks of layers and pearls. She thinks of her mother as a pearl dissolving in wine until only a grain of sand is left drowning at the bottom of the glass.

As her mother’s life fell away from her, so did Madeleine’s. She took a leave of absence from her job, and kept extending it; she stopped seeing her friends; her friends stopped seeing her. Madeleine is certain her friends expected her to be relieved when her mother died, and were surprised by the depth of her mourning. She didn’t know how to address that. She didn’t know how to say to those friends, you are relieved to no longer feel embarrassed around the subject, and expect me to sympathise with your relief, and to be normal again for your sake. So she said nothing.

It wasn’t that Madeleine’s friends were bad people; they had their own lives, their own concerns, their own comfort to nourish and nurture and keep safe, and dealing with a woman who was dealing with her mother who was dealing with early-onset Alzheimer’s was just a little too much, especially when her father had only died of bowel cancer a year earlier, especially when she had no other family. It was indecent, so much pain at once, it was unreasonable, and her friends were reasonable people. They had children, families, jobs, and Madeleine had none of these; she understood. She did not make demands.

She joined the clinical trial the way some people join fund-raising walks, and thinks now that that was her first mistake. People walk, run, bicycle to raise money for cures — that’s the way she ought to have done it, surely, not actually volunteered herself to be experimented on. No one sponsors people to stand still.

• • • •

The episodes happen like this.

A song on the radio like an itch in her skull, a pebble rattling around inside until it finds the groove in which it fits, perfectly, and suddenly she’s —

— in California, dislocated, confused, a passenger herself now in her own head’s seat, watching the traffic crawl past in the opposite direction, the sun blazing above. On I-5, en route to Anaheim: she is listening, for the first time, to the album that song is from, and feels the beautiful self-sufficiency of having wanted a thing and purchased it, the bewildering freedom of going somewhere utterly new. And she remembers this moment of mellow thrill shrinking into abject terror at the sight of five lanes between her and the exit, and will she make it, won’t she, she doesn’t want to get lost on such enormous highways —

— and then she’s back, in a wholly different car, her body nine years older, the mountain, the farmland all where they should be, slamming hard on the brakes at an unexpected stop sign, breathing hard and counting all the ways in which she could have been killed.

Or she is walking and the world is perched on the lip of spring, the Ottawa snow melting to release the sidewalks in fits and starts, peninsulas of gritty concrete wet and crunching beneath her boots, and that solidity of snowless ground intersects with the smell of water and the warmth of the sun and the sound of dripping and the world tilts —

— and she’s ten years old on the playground of her second primary school, kicking aside the pebbly grit to make a space for shooting marbles, getting down on her knees to use her hands to do a better job of smoothing the surface, then wiping her hands on the corduroy of her trousers, then reaching into her bag of marbles for the speckled dinosaur-egg that is her lucky one, her favourite —

— and then she’s back, and someone’s asking her if she’s okay, because she looked like she might be about to walk into traffic, was she drunk, was she high?

She has read about flashbacks, about PTSD, about reliving events, and has wondered if this is the same. It is not as she imagined those things would be. She has tried explaining this to Clarice, who very reasonably pointed out that she couldn’t both claim to have never experienced trauma-induced flashbacks and say with perfect certainty that what she’s experiencing now is categorically different. Clarice is certain, Madeleine realizes, that trauma is at the root of these episodes, that there’s something Madeleine isn’t telling her, that her mother, perhaps, abused her, that she had a terrible childhood.

None of these things are true.

Now: she is home, and leaning her head against her living room window at twilight, and something in the thrill of that blue and the cold of the glass against her scalp sends her tumbling —

— into her body at fourteen, looking into the blue deepening above the tree line near her home as if it were another country, longing for it, aware of the picture she makes as a young girl leaning her wondering head against a window while hungry for the future, for the distance, for the person she will grow to be — and starts to reach within her self, her future/present self, for a phrase that only her future/present self knows, to untangle herself from her past head. She has just about settled on Kristeva — abjection is above all ambiguity — when she feels, strangely, a tug on her field of vision, something at its periphery demanding attention. She looks away from the sky, looks down, at the street she grew up on, the street she knows like the inside of her mouth.

She sees a girl of about her own age, brown-skinned and dark-haired, grinning at her and waving.

She has never seen her before in her life.

• • • •

Clarice, for once, looks excited — which is to say, slightly more intent than usual — which makes Madeleine uncomfortable. “Describe her as accurately as you can,” says Clarice.

“She looked about fourteen, had dark skin —”

Clarice blinks. Madeleine continues.

“— and dark, thick hair, that was pulled up in two ponytails, and she was wearing a red dress and sandals.”

“And you’re certain you’d never seen her before?” Clarice adjusts her glasses.

“Positive.” Madeleine hesitates, doubting herself. “I mean, she looked sort of familiar, but not in a way I could place? But I grew up in a really white small town in Quebec. There were maybe five non-white kids in my whole school, and she wasn’t any of them. Also —” she hesitates, again, because, still, this feels so private, “— there has never once been any part of an episode that was unfamiliar.”

“She could be a repressed memory, then,” Clarice muses, “someone you’ve forgotten — or an avatar you’re making up. Perhaps you should try speaking to her.”

• • • •

Clarice’s suggested technique for managing the episodes was to corrupt the memory experience with something incompatible, something as of-the-moment as Madeleine could devise. Madeleine had settled on phrases from her recent reading: they were new enough to not be associated with any other memories, and incongruous enough to remind her of the reality of her bereavement even in her mother’s presence. It seemed to work; she had never yet experienced the same memory twice after deploying her critics and philosophers.

To actively go in search of a memory was very strange.

She tries, again, with the window: waits until twilight, leans her head against the same place, but the temperature is wrong somehow, it doesn’t come together. She tries making chicken soup; nothing. Finally, feeling her way towards it, she heats up a mug of milk in the microwave, stirs it to even out the heat, takes a sip —

— while holding the mug with both hands, sitting at the kitchen table, her legs dangling far above the ground. Her parents are in the kitchen, chatting — she knows she’ll have to go to bed soon, as soon as she finishes her milk — but she can see the darkness just outside the living room windows, and she wants to know what’s out there. Carefully, trying not to draw her parents’ attention, she slips down from the chair and pads softly — her feet are bare, she is in her pajamas already — towards the window.

The girl isn’t there.

“Madeleine,” comes her mother’s voice, cheerful, “as-tu finit ton lait?”

Before she can quite grasp what she is doing, Madeleine turns, smiles, nods vigorously up to her mother, and finishes the warm milk in a gulp. Then she lets herself be led downstairs to bed, tucked in, and kissed goodnight by both her parents, and if a still small part of herself struggles to remember something important to say or do, she is too comfortably nestled to pay it any attention as the lights go out and the door to her room shuts. She wonders what happens if you fell asleep in a dream, would you dream and then be able to fall asleep in that dream, and dream again, and — someone knocks, gently, at her bedroom window.

Madeleine’s bedroom is in the basement; the window is level with the ground. The girl from the street is there, looking concerned. Madeleine blinks, sits up, rises, opens the window.

“What’s your name?” asks the girl at the window.

“Madeleine.” She tilts her head, surprised to find herself answering in English. “What’s yours?”

“Zeinab.” She grins. Madeleine notices she’s wearing pajamas too, turquoise ones with Princess Jasmine on them. “Can I come in? We could have a sleep-over!”

“Shh,” says Madeleine, pushing her window all the way open to let her in, whispering, “I can’t have sleep-overs without my parents knowing!”

Zeinab covers her mouth, eyes wide, and nods, then mouths sorry before clambering inside. Madeleine motions for her to come sit on the bed, then looks at her curiously.

“How do I know you?” she murmurs, half to herself. “We don’t go to school together, do we?”

Zeinab shakes her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know this place at all. But I keep seeing you! Sometimes you’re older and sometimes you’re younger. Sometimes you’re with your parents and sometimes you’re not. I just thought I should say hello, because I keep seeing you, but you don’t always see me, and it feels a little like spying, and I don’t want to do that. I mean,” she grins again, a wide dimpled thing that makes Madeline feel warm and happy, “I wouldn’t mind being a spy but that’s different, that’s cool, that’s like James Bond or Neil Burnside or Agent Carter —”

— and Madeleine snaps back, fingers gone numb around a mug of cold milk that falls to the ground and shatters as Madeleine jumps away, presses her back to a wall and tries to stop shaking.

• • • •

She cancels her appointment with Clarice that week. She looks through old year books, class photos, and there is no one who looks like Zeinab, no Zeinab’s to be found anywhere in her past. She googles “Zeinab” in various spellings and discovers it’s the name of a journalist, a Syrian mosque, and the Prophet Muhammad’s grand-daughter. Perhaps she’ll ask Zeinab for her surname, she thinks, a little wildly, dazed and frightened and exhilarated.

Over the course of the last several years Madeleine has grown very, very familiar with the inside of her head. The discovery of someone as new and inexplicable as Zeinab in it is thrilling in a way she can hardly begin explain.

She finds she especially does not want to explain to Clarice.

• • • •

Madeleine takes the bus — she has become wary of driving — to the town she grew up in, an hour’s journey over a provincial border. She walks through her old neighbourhood hunting triggers, but finds more changed than familiar; old houses with new additions, facades, front lawns gone to seed or kept far too tidy.

She walks up the steep cul-de-sac of her old street to the rocky hill beyond, where a freight line used to run. It’s there, picking up a lump of pink granite from where the tracks used to be, that she flashes —

— back to the first time she saw a hummingbird, standing in her driveway by an ornamental pink granite boulder. She feels, again, her heart in her throat, flooded with the beauty of it, the certainty and immensity of the fact that she is seeing a fairy, that fairies are real, that here is a tiny mermaid moving her shining tail backwards and forwards in the air, before realizing the truth of what she’s looking at, and feeling that it is somehow more precious still for being a bird that sounds like a bee and looks like an impossible jewel.

“Ohh,” she hears, from behind her, and there is Zeinab, transfixed, looking at the hummingbird alongside Madeleine, and as it hovers before them for the eternity that Madeleine remembers, suspended in the air with a keen jet eye and a needle for a mouth, Madeleine reaches out and takes Zeinab’s hand. She feels Zeinab squeeze hers in reply, and they stand together until the hummingbird zooms away.

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” murmurs Zeinab, who is a young teen again, in torn jeans and an oversized sweater with Paula Abdul’s face on it, “but I really like it.”

• • • •

Madeleine leads Zeinab through her memories as best she can, one sip, smell, sound, taste at a time. Stepping out of the shower one morning tips her back into a school trip to the Montreal Botanical Garden, where she slips away from the group to walk around the grounds with Zeinab and talk. Doing this is, in some ways, like maintaining the image in a Magic Eye puzzle, remaining focused on each other with the awareness that they can’t mention the world outside the memory or it will end too soon, before they’ve had their fill of talk, of marvelling at the strangeness of their meeting, of enjoying each other’s company.

Their conversations are careful and buoyant, as if they’re sculpting something together, chipping away at a mystery shape trapped in marble. It’s easy, so easy to talk to Zeinab, to listen to her — they talk about the books they read as children, the music they listened to, the cartoons they watched. Madeleine wonders why Zeinab’s mere existence doesn’t corrupt or end the memories the way her sentences do, why she’s able to walk around inside those memories more freely in Zeinab’s company, but doesn’t dare ask. She suspects she knows why, after all; she doesn’t need Clarice to tell her how lonely, how isolated, how miserable she is, miserable enough to invent a friend who is bubbly where she is quiet, kind and friendly where she is mistrustful and reserved, even dark-skinned where she’s white.

She can hear Clarice explaining, in her reasonable voice, that Madeleine — bereaved twice over, made vulnerable by an experimental drug — has invented a shadow-self to love, and perhaps they should unpack the racism of its manifestation, and didn’t Madeleine have any black friends in real life?

“I wish we could see each other all the time,” says Madeleine, sixteen, on her back in the sunny field, long hair spread like so many corn snakes through the grass. “Whenever we wanted.”

“Yeah,” murmurs Zeinab, looking up at the sky. “Too bad I made you up inside my head.”

Madeleine steels herself against the careening tug of Sylvia Plath before remembering that she started reading her in high school. Instead, she turns to Zeinab, blinks.

“What? No. You’re inside my head.”

Zeinab raises an eyebrow — pierced, now — and when she smiles her teeth look all the brighter against her black lipstick. “I guess that’s one possibility, but if I made you up inside my head and did a really good job of it I’d probably want you to say something like that. To make you be more real.”

“But — so could —”

“Although I guess it is weird that we’re always doing stuff you remember. Maybe you should come over to my place sometime!”

Madeleine feels her stomach seizing up.

“Or maybe it’s time travel,” says Zeinab, thoughtfully. “Maybe it’s one of those weird things where I’m actually from your future and am meeting you in your past, and then when you meet me in your future I haven’t met you yet, but you know all about me —

“Zeinab — I don’t think —”

Madeline feels wakefulness press a knife’s edge against the memory’s skin, and she backs away from that, shakes her head, clings to the smell of crushed grass and coming summer, with its long days of reading and swimming and cycling and her father talking to her about math and her mother teaching her to knit and the imminent prospect of seeing R-rated films in the cinema —

— but she can’t, quite, and she is shivering, naked, in her bathroom, with the last of the shower’s steam vanishing off the mirror as she starts to cry.

• • • •

“I must say,” says Clarice, rather quietly, “that this is distressing news.”

It’s been a month since Madeleine last saw Clarice, and where before she felt resistant to her probing, wanting only to solve a very specific problem, she now feels like a mess, a bowl’s worth of overcooked spaghetti. If before Clarice made her feel like a stubborn child, now Madeleine feels like a child who knows she’s about to be punished.

“I had hoped,” says Clarice, adjusting her glasses, “that encouraging you to talk to this avatar would help you understand the mechanisms of your grief, but from what you’ve told me it sounds more like you’ve been indulging in a damaging fantasy world.”

“It’s not a fantasy world,” says Madeleine, with less snap than she’d like — she sounds, to her own ears, sullen, defensive. “It’s my memory.”

“The experience of which puts you at risk and makes you lose time. And Zeinab isn’t part of your memories.”

“No, but —” she bites her lip.

“But what?”

“But — couldn’t Zeinab be real? I mean,” hastily, before Clarice’s look sharpens too hard, “couldn’t she be a repressed memory, like you said?”

“A repressed memory with whom you talk about recent television, and who suddenly features in all your memories?” Clarice shakes her head.

“But — talking to her helps, it makes it so much easier to control —”

“Madeleine, tell me if I’m missing anything here. You’re seeking triggers in order to relive your memories for their own sake — not as exposure therapy, not to dismantle those triggers, not to understand Zeinab’s origins — but to have a . . . Companion? Dalliance?”

Clarice is so kind and sympathetic that Madeleine wants simultaneously to cry and to punch her in the face.

She wants to say, what you’re missing is that I’ve been happy. What you’re missing is that for the first time in years I don’t feel like a disease waiting to happen or a problem to be solved until I’m back in the now, until she and I are apart.

But there is sand in her throat and it hurts too much to speak.

“I think,” says Clarice, with a gentleness that beggars Madeleine’s belief, “that it’s time we discussed admitting you into more comprehensive care.”

• • • •

She sees Zeinab again when, on the cusp of sleep in a hospital bed, she experiences the sensation of falling from a great height, and plunges into —

— the week after her mother’s death, when Madeleine couldn’t sleep without waking in a panic, convinced her mother had walked out of the house and into the street, or fallen down the stairs, or taken the wrong pills at the wrong time, only to recall she’d already died and there was nothing left for her to remember.

She is in bed, and Zeinab is there next to her, and Zeinab is a woman in her thirties, staring at her strangely, as if she is only now seeing her for the first time, and Madeleine starts to cry and Zeinab holds her tightly while Madeleine buries her face in Zeinab’s shoulder, and says she loves her and doesn’t want to lose her but she has to go, they won’t let her stay, she’s insane and she can’t keep living in the past but there is no one left here for her, no one.

“I love you too,” says Zeinab, and there is something fierce in it, and wondering, and desperate. “I love you too. I’m here. I promise you, I’m here.”

• • • •

Madeleine is not sure she’s awake when she hears people arguing outside her door.

She hears “serious bodily harm” and “what evidence” and “rights adviser,” then “very irregular” and “I assure you,” traded back and forth in low voices. She drifts in and out of wakefulness, wonders muzzily if she consented to being drugged or if she only dreamt that she did, turns over, falls back asleep.

When she wakes again, Zeinab is sitting at the foot of her bed.

Madeleine stares at her.

“I figured out how we know each other,” says Zeinab, whose hair is waist-length now, straightened, who is wearing a white silk blouse and a sharp black jacket, high heels, and looks like she belongs in an action film. “How I know you, I guess. I mean,” she smiles, looks down, shy — Zeinab has never been shy, but there is the dimple where Madeleine expects it — “where I know you from. The clinical trial, for the Alzheimer’s drug — we were in the same group. I didn’t recognize you until I saw you as an adult. I remembered because of all the people there, I thought — you looked —” her voice drops a bit, as if remembering, suddenly, that she isn’t talking to herself, “lost. I wanted to talk to you, but it felt weird, like, hi, I guess we have family histories in common, want to get coffee?”

She runs her hand through her hair, exhales, not quite able to look at Madeleine while Madeleine stares at her as if she’s a fairy turning into a hummingbird that could, any second, fly away.

“So not long after the trial I start having these hallucinations, and there’s always this girl in them, and it freaks me out. But I keep it to myself, because — I don’t know, because I want to see what happens. Because it’s not more debilitating than a day dream, really, and I start to get the hang of it — feeling it come on, walking myself to a seat, letting it happen. Sometimes I can stop it, too, though that’s harder. I take time off work, I read about, I don’t know, mystic visions, shit like that, the kind of things I used to wish were real in high school. I figure even if you’re not real —”

Zeinab looks at her now, and there are tears streaking Madeleine’s cheeks, and Zeinab’s smile is small and sad and hopeful, too, “— even if you’re not real, well, I’ll take an imaginary friend who’s pretty great over work friends who are mostly acquaintances, you know? Because you were always real to me.”

Zeinab reaches out to take Madeleine’s hand. Madeleine squeezes it, swallows, shakes her head.

“I — even if I’m not — if this isn’t a dream,” Madeleine half-chuckles through tears, wipes at her cheek, “I think I probably have to stay here for a while.”

Zeinab grins, now, a twist of mischief in it. “Not at all. You’re being discharged today. Your rights adviser was very persuasive.”

Madeleine blinks. Zeinab leans in closer, conspiratorial.

“That’s me. I’m your rights adviser. Just don’t tell anyone I’m doing pro bono stuff: I’ll never hear the end of it at the office.”

Madeleine feels something in her unclench and melt, and she hugs Zeinab to her and holds her and is held by her.

“Whatever’s happening to us,” Zeinab says, quietly, “we’ll figure it out together, okay?”

“Okay,” says Madeleine, and as she does Zeinab pulls back to kiss her forehead, and the scent of her is clear and clean, like grapefruit and salt, and as Zeinab’s lips brush her skin she —

— is in precisely the same place, but someone’s with her in her head, remembering Zeinab’s kiss and her smell and for the first time in a very long time, Madeleine feels — knows, with irrevocable certainty — that she has a future.

Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar is the Nebula-nominated author of The Honey Month, a collection of poems and very short fiction written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey. Her poetry has won the Rhysling award three times and the Richard Jefferies Prize once, and her story “The Truth About Owls” is presently a Locus Award finalist. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Uncanny magazine and is forthcoming in The Bestiary, edited by Ann VanderMeer. She writes reviews for NPR, Lightspeed, and, narrates fiction and poetry for Uncanny’s podcast, edits Goblin Fruit, and has occasionally been known to deadlift genre professionals. She is also, with Scott Lynch, Liz M. Myles and Michael Damien Thomas, part of Down and Safe, a Blake’s 7 podcast. She divides her time and heart between Ottawa and Glasgow. Find her online at or on Twitter @tithenai.