Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Sparks Fly

“There’s a dark side to sloths,” she said, using her straw to plumb the ice at the bottom of her glass, flicking red-blonde hair out of blue-blue eyes. “Sometimes they go to grab a branch, but accidentally grab their own arm, and then fall to their deaths.”

“Because of the mossy fur?” I guessed, also guessing at the best way to put my hand onto hers on the bubbled-glass patio table. I could see her suntanned legs underneath and it put sparks under my skin. Fortunately her phone was in her purse, which was beside her chair, and probably far enough away that I wouldn’t fry it.

“Could be,” she said, deadpan serious. “Or maybe it’s no accident at all. They might just be depressed because they’re the slowest animals in the forest, and they’re covered in smelly algae. Suicidal sloths.”

She gave me a squinty look, maybe because the Sugar Bowl patio was soaking up the last of the late-summer sun and we’d both forgotten our sunglasses.

“I don’t believe you,” I said. “I don’t believe that’s a thing. Is there video evidence?”

“Arthur. Come on. Who would watch something like that? That’s just fucking terrible.”

“Sloth snuff,” I said, putting my hand onto hers, consolingly. It looked clumsy there. And sweaty.

She looked down at our hands and smiled a not-quite-even smile that sent a static tingle up and down my spine. I gave the phone sitting on the top of her purse a check-up glance. So far, so good.

“Sluff,” she said. “We created a genre.”

• • • •

The date was going really well so far. Her name was Christina and she was studying Veterinary Sciences, which was how favorite animals came up, and I was sort of crazy about her.

We met by chance, which is the same as fate. She worked at the Sunterra a few doors down the strip from Lendrum Liquor Depot, where I worked in the back, moving boxes and avoiding phone lines and computerized cash registers. The manager, Erik, knew about my condition, and we’d been friends since elementary school in Mill Woods, so he claimed faulty wiring the one time a shoplifter really pissed me off and I accidentally fried the circuit board.

Christina was the reason I went to Sunterra to get lunch most days, and once in a while I actually made a bit of conversation with her without fouling up the debit machine at the till, and then one day she came to the liquor store. I helped her find a bottle of Apothic wine for her mom, proving her mom’s poor taste in wine. Then we stood there and talked, me holding the bottle like a too-obvious phallic symbol. For once it seemed like everything I was saying was the right thing to say. We agreed on drinks after work like it was the easiest thing in the world.

“She’s cute,” Erik said when he came back from break and heard my news, rolling up his plaid sleeves to resentfully don the work shirt. “I know who you mean. That one cashier with the red hair, right?”

Erik had black hipster glasses and a mountain man beard and a line of poetry tattooed on his forearm. His three loves were basketball, scotch, and the girlfriend who packed him Tupperware lunches. I was always jealous of those. And the girlfriend.

“Are you going to tell her right away?” he asked. “You should probably tell her right away.”

“I don’t want to,” I admitted. I wanted to go on a normal date with a normal person who thought I was normal.

“You’re going to have to tell her you’re a sparkhead, buddy. You’re already way into her. You really think you can keep it locked down?”

• • • •

Flash forward to the date: I still hadn’t told her. I concocted some ways to break it to her while she was away in the bathroom, but when she came back she wanted to order beers, and I figured that could only help. We ordered pints of Steamwhistle and toasted to all the dead sloths. The waiter frowned at his phone as he left, jabbing at a frozen-up screen.

Christina told me about growing up in Calgary with four brothers, one of whom nearly shot her left eye out with a Nerf bow and arrow when she was young. After a few weeks it healed up and somehow actually improved her vision in that eye, so now she wore one contact on her right eye instead of wearing one eye patch on her left.

“How about you?” she asked. “How many siblings do you have?”

“One of me was enough for my parents,” I said, not saying that they feared the sparkhead gene would show up again and they would have multiple tots demolishing desktops, laptops, telephones. Setting off the car alarm at three a.m.. Shorting the neighbor’s Christmas lights. Putting the electricity bill on a rollercoaster.

“You were a brat, huh?”

“I broke a lot of stuff as a kid,” I said. “My parents, uh, they shipped me off to this bat-shit survivalist uncle most summers. Had a cabin in Victoria. Only place I couldn’t wreck anything.”

I didn’t tell her how many times my parents had to move, or at least have me switch schools, because whenever my condition came to light, the paperwork followed. When I was a kid I had a really hard time locking it down.

Christina leaned forward, conspiratorial. “Last summer I worked at the animal lab on campus,” she said. “I accidentally killed a whole tank of tiny fishes on my first day. I dropped it and it totally shattered. I even stepped on some of them.” She made a face. “I dream about them coming to get me, sometimes. Like, fish revenge.” She grinned. “That’s my clumsy dumbass story. You know, to make you feel better.”

She looked so earnest and mischievous at the same time that I just wanted to confess. I wanted to tell her everything, even about the time I almost stopped my grandma’s pacemaker.

“For me it’s more just . . . Electronics. I’m bad with technology.”

“Maybe you’re just old school,” Christina said. “That why you don’t have a cell phone?”

I thought about telling her it would be liable to explode due to me being a sparkhead. But then she would either bail, like most girls, or try to turn me into a sideshow friend, like a few girls, or weirdly fetishize it, like that one girl who said she liked her sex anachronistic.

Instead, I squeezed her hand, kind of sly. “I shouldn’t need a cell phone to connect with people, right?”

• • • •

She left her phone in her purse through three beers, which was super impressive, and when they shooed us off the patio we found stupid reasons to keep holding hands in the parking lot. A car pulled in and had to swerve around me.

“I was going to pull you out of the way,” she said, disappointed.

“Save my life?”

“Yeah, it would have been so fucking romantic.”

We made out right there in the parking lot. I was hoping she wouldn’t notice my halfway stiffie, or the fact that the headlights on the car behind us started flashing like crazy when tongue came into play.

“I actually just live two blocks away from the Sunterra,” she admitted when we came up for air. “My life is pretty much my house, campus, Sunterra. Just, like, a tiny triangle.” She gave a small drunk-sounding giggle. “Sad, right?”

We started to wander down the block. An old guy up ahead was panhandling. I felt for change in my pocket, because I wanted everyone in the world to feel as good as I was feeling.

“Not sad,” I said. “I only live three blocks away from the strip. Could even, you know, walk you home.”

She grinned and swung our linked hands in a way that made my stomach flip and probably made the nearby WiFi waver. It was time to tell her. Now.

“Oh.” Christina was suddenly frowning. I followed her gaze. The old guy had baggy blue coveralls with reflective strips, and a Sharpie-on-cardboard sign. Sparky. Can’t Bank Online. Need Change.

My stomach dropped.

“Let’s cross here,” she suggested, nodding her perfect head towards the opposite sidewalk. “It’s not, like, a thing or anything. But I just got this phone two days ago. Really don’t want to risk it. You know?”

I had to swallow a few times before I could answer. “Oh, yeah. Makes sense.”

I squeezed the coins in my pocket as we jaywalked to the other side, and the old guy gave me this accusing kind of look, and I could have sworn he knew what was up, knew about the static swirling around my arm hairs.

• • • •

But by the time we passed Lendrum Place, I had it locked down. We held hands under a whole row of streetlamps and not a single one flickered. Christina and me were laughing at the stupidest things. It all felt too perfect for me to mess up.

We stopped in front of the house she rented with a gaggle of classmates from university. The lawn was overgrown and strangled with dandelions.

“Do you guys share one machete?” I asked. “Or does everyone have their own? You know, to hack a way to the door and back.”

“Don’t judge our burgeoning ecosystem,” she said. “Want to come in for a bit?”

Of course I wanted to come in for a bit. More than pretty much anything. I took another look at the front, debating. It was an older place, fifties construction, and in a nice neighborhood, so hopefully there was no alarm system to set off.

I could keep it locked down. Right?

Christina bit her lip, looking kind of sheepish, thinking I was hesitating for some other reason entirely. That did it.

“Yeah,” I said. “Definitely. Lead on.”

There was an electronic lock on the door, definitely not from the fifties. Those could be finicky, so I hung back and pretended to be concerned about her empty flowerbeds while she skipped up the stairs and punched in her code. I followed her in. She kicked her shoes off into the dark; one banged against an air vent.

“Just a second,” she said, swiping on the lights on her way down the hall. “Bathroom. I’ve been holding it like, whoa.”

That left me in the entry, standing underneath an ornate fixture with an Ikea light bulb. I could feel the whine of the television in the next room. Stereo system under the window. Two refrigerators in the kitchen, one a mini. Microwave. Electric stovetop. Walls with wires everywhere, but well-insulated.

I found it helped if I could take stock of everything right off the bat.

“Um, you okay?” Christina was back, wiping her hands on the backs of her jeans.

“I’m great,” I said. “Just a little drunker. Than I thought.”

She grinned. “Puss puss.”

“Hey.”

It was Wednesday night and her more studious roommates were asleep, so we agreed the responsible thing to do was go to her room to watch a movie. She told me to go snag the Coronas from the fridge while she fired up Netflix. The appliance stuttered when my hand touched the handle, so I got in and out fast.

And now I was thinking about getting in and out. Netflix. I didn’t have it myself, or a television, for that matter, but I knew it was sometimes code for sex.

I stepped into her bedroom, which was not dissimilar to Erik’s college student combo of Ikea, cast-offs, and stuff from home. Christina was busy hunting for the remote but waved me, a little shyly, towards the bed. She had Lion King pillows not quite hidden by the bedspread, and on the wall there was a corkboard plastered with photos of friends and family. She was so normal it hurt.

I got a whiff of her hair’s grapefruit shampoo as I went past to sit down on the edge of the bed. That was a problem. I felt a static shiver and then a jump, and then the plasma screen snapped blank.

Concentrate, motherfucker.

“What the fuck?” Christina muttered, as the screen fizzed back to life. “Okay, Despicable Me 2? I’ll explain the, like, plot intricacies of the first one. So you understand what’s going on. Basically the bad guy is now a good guy.”

“Got it,” I said, trying not to think about all the technology all around me, the wires stretching everywhere like a spider web. Alarm clock, laptop plugged in to charge, one working speaker, one not-working speaker, the television, an iPod or something in her dresser drawer, the phone in her pocket.

I was going to keep it together, because I really liked this girl. I really did. We’d just spent three hours talking about shit all, talking until they kicked us out of the Sugar Bowl. You can’t do that with just anyone.

And at first, I kept it together. We sat on the bed, a little awkwardly now that the buzz had worn off, but then the Corona brought it back and she ended up with her head notched under my chin, in a way that didn’t seem that comfortable. By the time the Despicable Me kid’s birthday party was either saved or ruined, we were kissing again.

The TV lasted another minute, then blanked out, but Christina assumed I rolled onto the remote. She snuck her hand up my shirt. It felt cold, but I was warm, too warm. When our teeth ticked together in a badly angled kiss, her alarm clock went off full volume.

“Oh my fucking god,” she groaned. Not in a sexy way. We both lunged for it at the same time; she got to it first and yanked it out of the wall. It kept blaring, one of the standard bleating noises that you hear in the movies.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Hate. This. Thing.” She slammed it against the bedframe and it went mercifully quiet. “Marisa’s going to kill me. Super light sleeper.” We were sort of tangled together on top of the bed, now, and my fingers were crackling so bad I was sure she’d feel it any second. We lay there, quiet, listening for roommate footsteps. I thought the mood was totally killed, but then she put a finger on my lips and made it this sexy kind of silence, like we didn’t want to get caught.

And it was on again. I kissed up her neck, trying to find my way to her bra clasp with my free hand. She gave me two tries before she unhooked it herself. I was raging hard by this point, and sort of worried about an early exit scenario, when she stuffed her hand down my pants.

Everything went off. The lights flashed on, painfully bright, then off, then on, and her phone started wailing out a ringtone from beside the bed, some hip-hop hook cranked up to eleven, and the top drawer of her dresser started rattling like crazy.

Christina bolted upright, eyes wide, hand still gripping my prick but now in a painful way.

The lights wouldn’t stop strobing like the world’s shittiest rave, no matter how hard I concentrated, and her phone wouldn’t stop ringing, even though nobody was calling, and the shuddering rattling dresser drawer got louder and louder. I buried my head in a Lion King pillow. I shouldn’t have come inside. I should not have fucking come inside. We could have gone on a picnic, or something, somewhere where cell reception was supposed to be shitty anyways, and there weren’t wires everywhere, strangling me, stringing me in all directions.

Her hand let go, and the jig was up. “Arthur, what the fuck is going on?”

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “Really.”

She swung upright, tapping furiously at her phone. I saw her face in stop motion as the light flashed off and on, morphing from confusion to anger to confusion again. She looked over at the dresser drawer with a horrified expression.

Concentrate, motherfucker.

Her phone went silent and the lights settled, on, but the dresser wouldn’t stop rattling. I watched, hypnotized, as she walked, hypnotized, to the shaking drawer and pulled out the culprit. A purple vibrator bucked in her hand.

She stared at me. I stared at the vibrator, because it was easier than meeting her eyes.

“What the fuck, Arthur?” she said, softly now.

Roommate Marisa was hammering at the door, asking if she was okay in English and then cursing in Spanish.

“I’m a sparkhead,” I said. “Surprise?”

A dead silence in which Christina looked pissed. And worse: hurt. She tightened her grip on the shuddering vibrator.

“I can, uh, I can pay you back for that stuff. I mean, not the dildo, that should be fine, but—

The purple vibrator smacked the wall a millimeter off my head and then I was pushing past Marisa and out the door, fumbling for my shoes as the entry’s lights went disco, as the microwave in the kitchen started bleating loud. I ran for it barefoot, holding my shoes under my arm, and every single streetlamp popped and fizzed out as I went.

When I finally stopped, I was in the park, away from lights and wires and humming things. I thumped my head against the wet trunk of an aspen. It made me think of her sloths, and I got it, now, why they grabbed their own arms. It was a hell of a lot easier than stretching for a branch that looked out of reach.

• • • •

I slept in the next morning, or tried to sleep. Mostly I lounged on my bed and stared at the analogue clock hung up on the stucco across from it, dreading one o’clock, when I had to go to work and tell Erik all about last night’s disaster. When I had to walk past Sunterra on the way.

At 12:53, which was the absolute closest I could cut it, I pulled on my jeans and my burgundy work shirt with its cheerful little We ID Under 25 tag. Today I was going to ID anyone who so much as looked at me.

Like a puss puss, I took the long way around to Liquor Depot, slouching through a dumpster-lined alley to the loading door. No chance of seeing a girl with red-blonde hair and blue-blue eyes through the wide Sunterra windows, fake-smiling and bagging groceries with devastating efficiency, or else, if no one was at the till, sneaking a crossword in.

Erik was selling a regular his first mickey of the day when I came in. As soon as the guy shuffled out, clutching his vodka in one hand and scratching at overgrown chest hair with the other, Erik retrieved the Febreze from under the till and made a few generous arcs to clear up the cigarette smell. He had a sly kind of grin on his face.

“Wild night, huh?”

I wondered if my hair was sticking up in back, or if my eyes were still red. “I fucked it up,” I said. “Like, big time.”

“So I hear, buddy.”

“So you hear?” My heart went off like a jackhammer. “From who? From her? From Christina?”

“She came in this morning,” Erik said, stuffing his hand down his pocket and rustling through receipts. “With a list of damages.”

My heart slowed down and my guts flip-flopped. “Oh.”

“Here.” Erik unrumpled a piece of paper and handed it over. “And maybe stand away from the debit while you read it. It’s already being sketchy today.”

I took the paper, mentally kissing my next paycheck goodbye, and started to read the blue ink chicken scratch.

Hey jerk, so my phone is still under warranty and as long as I don’t tell them I was hanging out with Mister Lightning Butt that should be fine. And Marisa says her laptop is now super slow, but it was like that before so whatever. But you did fry my alarm clock and two light bulbs and my printer, which was new, so BASICALLY you owe me a whole lot of lunches. I’m off at three today if you want to get started? PS. Sorry I almost dilcapitated you. Haha.

“Dude!” Erik waved his hand in front of the note. “I said away from the till.”

I looked down and saw my arm hairs all standing on end. “Sorry.”

But I couldn’t wipe off my grin as I headed for the back with about a billion sparks under my skin.

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Rich Larson

Rich Larson

Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and now writes from Ottawa, Canada. His short work has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon, featured on io9, and appears in numerous Year’s Best anthologies as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Apex. He was the most prolific author of short science fiction in 2015 and 2016. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com.