Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Super-Luminous Spiral

Even though your creative fiction professor fawns over Joyce, you don’t understand the copy of Ulysses you checked out from the library, so you hide behind it while you stare at your classmate whose skin flickers.

His blue and green skin is speckled in spirals of twinkling lights. When you stare long enough, you realize the spirals spin like galaxies. Part of your brain should tell you he is abnormal, but it does not.

He stands up and reads his assignment. He reads poetry. This is not a poetry class. You are not sure what the poem is about and you are not sure what his voice sounds like, but you now want to cry. You try to think of a literary great to compare him to that you studied in one of your literature survey classes. Wilde? Auden? Dickinson?

After class you approach him and gush, “Your poetics remind me of Dickinson.”

He smiles at you and says he thinks your work is brilliant. Your work is not brilliant. You have a B- in this class.

You ask the galaxy boy, “Which story are you thinking of?”

He tells you he loves the story about Sister Briar, the nun who plants flowers in the convent garden in the shapes of profanities. You have not read that story in class. You don’t think your professor will like it because there are no extended mythological metaphors. It does not strike you as strange that the galaxy boy knows about it.

• • • •

You want to impress him, so you take him to an eighteen-plus club. The bouncer slaps the green plastic bracelet on your wrist that marks you as under twenty-one. The bouncer does not look at the galaxy boy or check his ID. The bouncer does not give him the green bracelet or the orange one.

When the galaxy boy dances, his green and blue swirls course faster over his body. Women and men come to dance with him. They offer to buy him (and you) drinks. He accepts, and you sit on a bench with strangers who can’t take their eyes off him. He doesn’t take his eyes off you. As you drink the bitter whiskey cocktail, you focus on preventing your face from grimacing. You tell him the cocktail is good.

He asks you why the nun in your story writes “cunt” and “twat” with the flowers rather than other swear words. Unlike every other voice here, you have no problem hearing him over the pumping dance music. You say that you picked vaginal words because you’re heterosexual. You laugh and stop when he does not. He asks you why Sister Briar picked those words. You think, and you say it was her self-expression. He smiles at you, and you realize you’re not heterosexual. His eyes are gold.

• • • •

You have been accused of gayness ever since you decided to major in English. You joke that you chose the major to pick up chicks, but the truth is you wanted to write mystery novels. Then your professor sniffed at the idea of genre, so you decided to write literary fiction instead. The switch wasn’t all his pretentiousness—since your professor taught you to read slow and careful, Fitzgerald moves you in a way Connelly does not.

But Connelly excites you in a way Fitzgerald does not.

• • • •

Your saliva is thick with well whiskey and you stumble after the galaxy boy toward the school. The campus is dark and deserted. An industrial cylinder belches clouds into the sky and its rumbling fills the campus. It towers over the class halls and you never noticed it before. He climbs up the parking structure’s cement stairs. The only car on the roof is a sleek black sedan. He has the keys and you follow him inside.

When your hands are on his body, you realize his skin is not green and blue—it’s transparent. When you clutch handfuls of his hips, the green and blue galaxies are squeezed away from your grasp and burrow within his body. New stars bloom in their place. You expected his galaxies to be cold, but they’re almost painfully hot. He has lube and condoms in his car. There are two holes between his legs and he wants you to fuck the back one. You don’t, because as soon as you’re inside of him, you come. You apologize and he tells you he loves you. He holds you on the back seat. There are still stars in front of your eyes.

• • • •

The next day, you ditch both intro to economics and Depression Era lit. You print out your Sister Briar story in the campus library for fifteen cents a page and slouch in a corner behind a fern. A red pen clenched in your right hand scrawls across the printouts and by the time the library closes, the whole story is red. You take it to your dorm and re-type it while drinking cheap cafeteria coffee. You sleep two hours and when the library opens at seven you’re there, printing the story again and you retreat behind your fern with your pen. Before your fiction class starts, you’ve printed out the third draft in forty-eight hours. You feel like a real writer. You smile at Ulysses as you turn the pages you aren’t reading.

• • • •

After class, he takes your new draft and reads it on the bench outside the English department. He says the tension is higher and the imagery is beautiful. He loves the new ending where, after she’s caught, Sister Briar spells out “suck Satan’s cock” in the garden using lighter fluid and lights a fire that ultimately destroys the convent.

He says some other things, but you don’t hear him. You feel simultaneously wired and exhausted. You want to sleep, but you know you couldn’t if you tried.

After thinking that, you find yourself walking with him into your dorm. You haven’t given him your key and don’t question how he gets in. He breaks one of his teeth out of his mouth and melts it into a cup of microwave-heated water. When you drink it, it tastes metallic and sweet. You fall asleep and don’t wake for another two days. In your dreams, you fuck him in his car. His head sticks out the window, and he’s looking at the stars.

• • • •

Even though there are no mythological metaphors in your Sister Briar story, you turn it in to your professor. He gives you an A and comments that all that time reading Ulysses paid off. You think he’s making fun of you, but you’re somewhat flattered he noticed.

• • • •

You want that thrill of creation back. It’s clear to you—to use a mythological metaphor—that the galaxy boy is your muse. You buy him flowers—violets, which Sister Briar used to write the word “pussy”—and wait for him in the courtyard outside the English department. You haven’t even said the word “bisexual” to yourself, but you desperately want to date him openly.

He walks out of the hall talking to Lucia Olmeda, and they’re holding hands. Lucia sits in the front of the creative fiction class and is always raising her hand but doesn’t always have the right answer. Her work is fine on a technical level but rarely has any heart. She couldn’t write a character as dynamic as Sister Briar.

He doesn’t even glance at you as they walk by.

• • • •

You make a light rail trip out to Walmart specifically to buy a matchbook. When you return to your dorm room, you burn the violets in your roommate’s metal trash can. The smoke detectors and the sprinklers go off and you scramble to stuff you and your roommate’s laptops under your coat. The whole dormitory is evacuated and the fire department comes out. You say it was an accident and cry a little and somehow avoid eviction.

• • • •

In the library, you start typing a story about a kid whose parents are divorcing. It reads like you’re parading a pathetic diary excerpt as a short story intro even though it’s nothing like your life. You delete the draft and when you leave, you’re surprised to find it’s dark out.

You walk to his parking lot to see if he’s there. His black car is, and it’s rocking. You know you’re not going to like what you see, but you walk by anyway. He’s bent over, leaning out the passenger window, and Lucia is fucking him with a dildo. Her skin glows like it’s covered in stars.

• • • •

You ditch all of your classes except for creative fiction. Lucia has shaved her hair off and now she sits with him in the middle of the classroom—some kind of compromise, you suppose. You watch them behind Ulysses, and in its pages, you’ve carved a four-by-seven-inch block where you’re stashing a Connelly paperback.

Lucia doesn’t raise her hand until she volunteers to present her story. It’s about a scientist mourning her dead wife who decides to have her brain transplanted into a dolphin’s body and eventually forgets she was ever human. You begrudgingly admit her story is great, but believe the professor will say it’s too genre. He doesn’t, and lectures the class about why her story is better than many recently turned in.

You try to catch the galaxy boy’s eye, but he does not look at you.

• • • •

You ask your roommate if he wants to swap blowjobs and he is surprisingly receptive. When his dick is in your mouth, you realize you never made the galaxy boy come. You feel a wave of uselessly late embarrassment.

Afterward, you write a closed-room mystery at a fancy dinner party, but the characters are stilted and the plot twists make no sense. You stop the story mid-draft with, “They realized the gods did it and everyone went home.” Getting off didn’t help.

• • • •

Lucia is back in the front of the class, asking an increasing number of irrelevant questions. The galaxy boy is trading stares with Brandon Lipski, a trans guy who writes exclusively about his allegedly amazing older girlfriend.

You approach Lucia after class. “He dump you, too?”

Without looking at you, she says, “The only good stories I write now are about cheating.”

You haven’t tried that. “But you’re able to write? You’re finishing stories?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

When you go home, you write a story about a middle-aged man who hates his generic suburban life and cheats on his wife with a female business rival. You finish a draft at three in the morning and start a story about a married couple staying together for the kids and the husband cheats with his wife’s sister while doing coke. At nine at night, you finish your first draft and write a new story about a serial cheater in a sex addicts group who thinks he’s found the one (a woman in his group) and then cheats on her with an ex-wife. You are writing new content almost as fast as you can type. You don’t know how you’re able to do that, but you’re smiling for the first time since you bought the violets.

You think you’ve ditched all your classes until your roommate comes home drunk and you realize it’s Saturday. He paws at you. You tell him not now and start a new story.

• • • •

Lucia sends you a Facebook message on Sunday and asks you how many stories you’ve written. You tell her you’ve written five since Friday. She tells you she’s written twelve stories since he left her. You tell her none of your stories are as good as the one you wrote when you were with him. She says none of hers come close to her dolphin story. You joke about how long you’ll wait until Brandon writes cheating stories.

Lucia tells you she has an idea. In forty minutes, she emails you a call for submissions flyer that she made. It’s for an anthology titled “Ultimate Deception: Tales of Adultery.” She’ll email the flyer to all active English professors in California and request that their classes send submissions to promote inter-collegiate collaboration or whatever.

She wants a roll call sheet of the galaxy boy’s exes.

• • • •

On Monday, you’ve made Sister Briar the other woman in your latest cheating story. The story is mediocre compared to the original one, but you work on it anyway.

It occurs to you that you’re not sure when you last showered, but you figure if it was a problem, your roommate would have said something. Instead of getting meals from the cafeteria, which were paid as part of your tuition, you walk to the gas station across the street and buy chips.

You ignore all your emails except the ones from Lucia. She forwards you all of the responses she has so far. There are multiple questions about how many submissions are allowed, and Lucia is telling people to send everything they have.

Your fingers are covered in chip dust on Tuesday night when your roommate tells you to get out of the room because he’s going to have sex with his new girlfriend. You move to the hall and write out there.

Lucia updates the submission list. There are now 316 submissions from twenty-one different people.

Alone in the hall at night, you don’t think about the words flying from under your fingertips across the Word document. You think about the galaxy boy, bent over in his car beneath twenty-one random English undergraduates. You can hear your roommate and his girlfriend.

With no outlet, your computer dies, and you have no paper.

You consider typing in the notes app on your phone, but it’s at nineteen percent and you realize it will also soon die. You use it to google local cafés, but they’re all closed. You know the library is closed too, but you take your dead laptop and walk over anyway.

The sliding glass doors of course don’t budge for you. You walk around the back and try the emergency exits. They’re also locked, so you walk back to the front. Holding your laptop in both hands, you lightly rest it against the glass. Then you lift it, bring it down in a swing, and stop the momentum at the last second, again leaving it to rest against the glass. It’s too valuable—not because of its price but because of the stories it holds. Stories that might one day be good enough to show him. You set the laptop on the pavement, swing back your left fist and punch the glass. The glass is bulletproof and your hand breaks.

You call 911. It occurs to you that the hospital is open twenty-four hours and someone there would probably give you paper. This suddenly seems like a bright idea.

• • • •

The ambulance drives you to the hospital without sirens and the paramedics walk you to a nurse who walks you to an assigned room. Your vitals are examined and you ask for paper. You’re sent for x-rays and when you return you ask for paper. You’re hooked up to an IV of antibiotics and given a couple sheets of copy paper. You scribble your story with your right hand, your left hand ignored on the bed beside you.

A doctor arrives. She looks at your left hand; she talks about casts. You ask for more paper. You’re sent two floors down for more x-rays. When you return, a nurse draws your blood, and you don’t question it. Then they ask you to pee in a cup, and that gets your attention. They’re testing you for inebriation.

You get your paper, get back into bed, and keep writing.

Your left hand is cast up and they tell you they’re admitting you to the hospital. You don’t ask why. More tests are run—they take more blood and the doctor gives you a physical and they put weird nodes on your head to look at your brain and nodes on your chest to look at your heart. You email Lucia from your dying phone and ask her to bring you your chargers for your phone and your laptop.

Lucia arrives in the morning. You plug in your laptop and continue your story on it. You don’t type up your handwritten pages because that seems like a waste of time. You need to go forward—you need to write more. Lucia sits in your room and is writing on your half-used copy paper.

The doctor returns wearing a surgical mask. She introduces herself to Lucia, who absently greets her. The doctor sits down next to you, her graying hair in a tight bun.

“Can I get your attention for a minute?”

You glance up at her from your laptop.

“Your body appears to be in severe distress, more than what we’d expect for a broken hand.” She pulls a picture from a file and gestures to a graph. “Your heart rate is elevated and your body has a severe hormone imbalance. Many of the hormones we’re detecting are associated with stress and the fight-or-flight response, but simple stress does not explain everything. There are strange spikes of activity in specific parts of both your brain’s frontal and parietal lobes.”

“Okay,” you say. You want her to leave so you can go back to writing.

“The most alarming part is this.” She shows you an x-ray of a left hand. But instead of a faded white skeleton hand, the bones glow beyond the borders of natural anatomy, with black shadows obscuring part of them, like the x-ray is a sky full of crescent moons. She shows you a second x-ray, and it’s the same; the crescents positioned slightly differently. “We thought something was wrong with the first machine, but the second machine showed this as well. Your hand is reflecting x-rays in this bizarre way, and we have no idea what it means. Whatever it is, it’s not safe.”

She gives you a piece of lined paper. “I need you to write a narrative of everything you did in the last seven days so we can attempt to determine a cause.”

“Don’t bother,” Lucia says. It’s her front-of-the-class voice. “Whatever it is, the galaxy boy did it to him. I probably have it too. So does Brandon Lipski.” She whips out her phone, taps on it, and passes it to the doctor. “And so do these twenty-one people.”

“The galaxy boy?”

“He’s in our creative fiction class.”

“What’s his name?”

Neither you nor Lucia can answer.

• • • •

The next day, you, Lucia, Brandon, and twenty-one undergraduates are in tents in a field out in the middle of nowhere. You don’t know the address of your field, and you’re not allowed to know. They’ve taken your phones.

Four police SUVs are stationed in a distant perimeter around the tents. They’re waiting.

In the communal tent, everyone’s pens are scratching. Fictional people are being cheated on; affairs are discovered; lives are ruined. A hospital employee brings a ream of paper, but it’s not enough. They also brought sandwiches that are left untouched. A therapist is trying to get people to talk about their feelings, but no one cooperates.

You tell the undergraduates that you have no extra paper, but there’s a chip receipt in your pocket. You’re saving it for when you need it. You stole Lucia’s printouts of the anthology submissions and you’re tearing out a found word story.

Sometimes you ask questions to no one. “What did his voice sound like?” “What was his poetry about?” No one answers.

When night comes, the light hooked up to the generator is left on. No one sleeps. Everyone writes.

You happen to glance up from the printouts to see a subtle change in the light outside—a soft glow of constellations.

You get up and run out of the tent. He stands in the field—a blue and green aurora against and part of the night sky. He stands within the perimeter of the police vehicles and none of them stir. His gold eyes are looking at you.

You’re overwhelmed—you have so much to say; so much to ask. You have imagined this moment since the violets.

“I’ve written some new stuff,” you say.

He says he’s happy for you.

There’s noise coming from behind. You’ve been spotted. Lucia and Brandon and everyone see him and they’re running, and they’re all talking at once, and they’re all reaching out for him. You reach for him, too—you were here first.

He smiles at you. You touch him with your right hand, and he falls into glittery pieces that scorch you. You fling them away. Everyone scrambles for the pieces, and quickly drop them. You and Lucia and Brandon and twenty-one other undergraduates stand around the pile that was him. You can almost hear his laugh in the wind, but you’re not sure what it sounds like.

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Cameron Van Sant

Cameron Van Sant

Cameron Van Sant is a pansexual transgender writer of speculative fiction. His short stories can be found in Capricious Magazine and the Queerly Loving Volume Two anthology and he has written non-fiction for You&Me Magazine. He lives in Sacramento, California with his partner. You can find him on Twitter at @cameronvansant.