Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams





En route to visit my girlfriend in Indiana, I pull over at a rest stop in Illinois to wash my face. It is not my first mistake of the day, but it is the biggest.

The bathroom is full of people. I see them before I place my glasses on the sink. I realize I am flinching after my body is already tight with worry; she will be enraged if I am late again. Children with juice-stained mouths are at the sinks on either side of me. A middle-aged woman with a deflated handbag scolds them. They scream, she screams, all of it rising above the rush of the tap. The water smells vaguely sulfurous, like the Fountain of Youth. I hear the rapid escalation and de-escalation of the hand dryers, and when the family evacuates the bathroom, it aches with the relief of emptiness. I press my hand to my forehead, my cheeks, my jaw. I breathe deeply. Face dripping over the sink, I reach for my glasses. My fingers scrabble over porcelain and close over nothing.

I wipe the loose water from my skin and lean in toward my reflection, my nose nearly touching the mirror. Pulled and bluish, like a fish on the verge of floating. I continue to grope around for the glasses that are no longer there. I drop to my knees and feel. Nothing. Not even the slapstick crunch of glass and wire beneath an unlucky palm.

I run my hands along the walls. More tile. Swinging door. A glass case that is covering a map of the state. Vending machines. Doors. I follow the sound of children’s voices, the digital jangle of their video game.

“Excuse me,” I say at the woman’s shape.

“Can I help you?” she asks. There is a game-over chirrup from the direction of the kids, a yelp of disappointment.

“My glasses,” I say. “I think one of your children took my glasses. They were on the sink in the ladies’.”

Her voice is flat. “They wouldn’t do that.”

I have gone about this all wrong. I have accused when I should have asked for help. “Please help me,” I say. “I can’t see anything. Please just ask the children.”

“Good luck,” she says in a clipped voice.

“My guy keeps dying, Mom!” one of them shrieks as the van door slams shut.

• • • •

I return to the welcome center. It’s an overcast day, so the building is hard to distinguish from the sky.

In the bathroom, I touch everything. I scoot over the tiles on my knees. I feel the crevices, trying not to think about any of it too hard.

No spare pair. No contacts. She warned me not to be late, and not only am I going to be late, I am trapped along an interstate with no way to continue my journey. I could call her, and tell her what happened—as per her rule about keeping her informed—but the idea makes my stomach blossom with anxiety. Should I call the police? Is this a police matter? At least, then, the officer would explain the situation to her. She could not accuse the police of lying to her; she certainly wouldn’t yell at them. “Here is Officer Harris,” I could tell her. “I will let him tell you about this comedy of errors.”

I sit against the wall and close my eyes. My floaters drift against my lids.

The door opens. Someone comes in, pausing long enough to tell me that she is curious about me but doesn’t want to be rude. She leaves me for a stall and pees for a long time, hard and decisive, like a horse, or like she’s been holding it for a long distance. She flushes, washes her hands at the sink farthest from me. Then:

“Are you all right?”

“This is very embarrassing,” I tell her. “I’ve misplaced my glasses. I think they’re here, somewhere.”

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, you poor dear. Let me help you look. Where were they?”

“On the edge of the sink,” I say.

She drifts like a peach phantom up and down the row, humming a song to herself. She does not pause anywhere, and before she talks I know what she’s going to say.

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “There’s nothing here. I’ve gone to every sink.” The heat on my face is tears, but I don’t know it until she says, “Don’t cry! Can I call someone for you?”

I imagine it, the call. The friendly woman handing me the phone, and my girlfriend’s voice on the other end, acidic with suspicion. Who is that? Who is calling me? Who are you fucking? Where are you? I told you not to be

“No, no,” I say. “I’m fine. Thank you for your help.”

She awkwardly touches my shoulder. I can hear the rustle of her leaning over, the dry hiss of a delicate chain striking the synthetic fabric of her blouse. She has the mushroomy smell of a bra removed after a long day.

“I hope your afternoon gets better. I believe it will. Do you pray?”

“I think it will only get worse from here, to be honest,” I say. “And no, I don’t pray.”

“I’ll pray for you,” she says. “Better than a phone call, even.”

The door slams. Someone else will be along presently, I think. I dig into my pocket and locate a loose pill small as punctuation. I take the Xanax. When I am feeling calmer, I will have someone call her for me. I take another Xanax. A man, preferably, though I will have to leave the bathroom for that to happen. I take a third Xanax.

• • • •

Outside the welcome center, I feel along the wall and sit on a bench. The sun has come out. The highway traffic sounds both calamitous and purposeful, as though everyone is escaping an apocalyptic event. I could be sitting here as a wall of fire creeps toward me. Or a horde of zombies.

Every time a large truck rumbles by, the bench shivers beneath my thighs. My phone is in my purse, my purse is in the car. I should just get my phone and call her and get it over with.

I don’t move.

The traffic travels along the highway like a droning procession of insects, sunlight glinting off the vehicles’ chassis. Then, a single car breaks away; moving toward me like a gleaming thread fraying from a rope. Music throbs from the car before it crunches to a stop and the door opens. The footsteps suggest a long stride, and the figure moves past me in a beat of color. The owner of them does not angle toward the bathroom, but to the vending machines. There is a clink of coins, a metallic hum, the crinkle-crash of a candy bar being dropped. The footsteps start up again, and stop directly in front of me. The owner is tall, and dressed in something blue and structured, like a suit.

“Hello,” a voice says. A man’s voice, I think. The best possible development. She would never accuse me of sleeping with a man.

“Hello,” I say.

“You need help?” he says.

“Yes,” I say. “But, how do you—”

“You’re sitting here looking at nothing,” he says. “Or everything? But probably nothing.”

“I’ve lost my glasses,” I say. “I’ve lost my glasses and I can’t drive without them. My vision is very poor.”

The bench creaks a little as he sits down next to me. He presses something pillowy, but with a firm center, into my hand, and I bring it close to my face. A Milky Way Midnight.

“I don’t eat candy,” I say.

“You should eat it anyway,” he says.

Someone walks toward us and goes into the bathroom. I should ask her about the glasses, I am thinking, even as she walks back out and gets into her car. When she pulls away, I sigh.

“Where were you going?” he asks.

“To Indiana,” I say. “To visit my girlfriend.”

“Have you called her? To tell her you’ll be delayed?”

“I’m afraid,” I admitted.

“Afraid of what?”

“Of what she’ll say.”

“What will she say? Have a bite.”

“She will yell at me for being late, for losing my glasses. Evidence.”

“Evidence of what?”

“Of not loving her properly.”

The chocolate stings my throat; it is sweeter than anything I’ve eaten in years. I swallow without chewing well. There is the promise of a choke, but it passes, though the painful lump of nougat reminds me all the way down.

“You could walk to her,” he suggests.

“Walk from here?”

“Sure. That’s proof that you love her, if you come toward her on your hands and knees.”

“You want to me to walk on my hands and knees?”

“It’s just an expression,” he says, though he doesn’t sound as though means it.

The man in blue takes my hand. His is soft and warm and a little damp, as if he’s just finished washing dishes. We stand, and the wrapper drops from my fingers. We go down the sidewalk, past the dog-walking patch and the picnic tables and the fragrant trash cans. Past my car, which sits obediently where I left it.

We drop off the sidewalk and onto the pavement. He walks me along the entrance ramp to the interstate.

“I don’t think we’re allowed to do this,” I say. “I think the police will stop us.”

He does not answer. From the strip of gray stretching out before me, I can tell that he is guiding me down the shoulder.

A car drives by with its window down, and I hear fluttering ribbons of sound: top forty shredded by speed. The autumn trees that line the highway are backlit by the sun, bokeh-bright and pixelated. The shadows are harder to read: murky, indistinct. The feathery tips of tall grasses scrape dryly against my jeans.

We are walking in gravel before I remember that I left my phone behind, in my purse, in the car. I pull back a little, but his hand is firm, and we continue to move forward.

This feels like a dream, in that I always go blind in dreams. I both know and don’t know what’s around me. I perceive it but can’t see it, precisely, sense it but could never describe it. Also, something always follows me as I make my way around the dreamscape: something stepping after me in the dark. Except no one is following me now; the man in the suit and I are walking into the future together.

“This will be a good story,” I say. “A good story to tell, one day.”

If he agrees, he does not say.

• • • •

One recent morning, I woke up with something in my right eye—a tiny cluster of shapes that, after a millisecond’s pause, followed the direction of my gaze. It looked, in turn, like the contents of a petri dish in a news special about Ebola, then like a tick scuttling just out of reach of my peripheral vision. Before I made an appointment to do something about it, another one appeared in the opposite eye. I drove to my longtime doctor certain I was on the cusp of losing my vision blotch by tiny blotch.

His office had a plastic model of an eye on the filing cabinet, with the name of a prescription drug printed across the base. He lifted the eye to show me, running his finger along the cord of nerves to swipe away a layer of dust. He demonstrated where the floaters lived and explained what they were: the shadows of tiny, desiccated strands of the eye’s vitreous humor that clung to each other like survivors of a shipwreck in a wide and lonely sea.

“You’re a bit young to have them,” he confessed. “The worse someone’s vision is, the more likely they are to get them earlier in life. But they’re inevitable, floaters. Everyone gets them eventually.”

“So there’s nothing I can do about them? I just have to think I’m seeing bugs for the rest of my life?”

“The Romans actually called them ‘flying flies,’” he said. “But in Latin, of course. Whatever’s Latin for ‘flying flies.’ Isn’t that funny? Flying flies? Like there’s any other kind. Anyway, at some point your brain will adjust to their presence, and you’ll stop noticing them.”

But I could not. As I looked out into the bright day, or stared at my computer screen, the shadows cast by the dead jelly of my eye continued to flit and made me think that insects were darting past me. I was constantly jerking my head to the side to avoid them, as if I were cowering before a raised hand.

• • • •

“I’m thirsty,” I tell the man in blue. We have been walking for what feels like hours, and I can no longer see the outline of the rest stop in the blur behind us. He sits down in the weeds and wildflowers and draws me into his lap, as if I were an infant, and tilts the ridged mouth of a bottled water between my lips. I take long pulls but never feel quite sated. In the air I smell the faint burning of rubber, the hot grease of fast food, and a fresh, breezy core: nature, persisting through everything mankind can throw at her. Someone tosses litter from a passing car, and whatever it is clatters down the embankment near us. I release the bottle, and it burbles and squeals.

“Sometimes,” I say, startling myself, “she grabs my arm, hard.” This sounds so minor, and I try to explain. “There is no love behind that touch and it’s the worst thing.”

From the tree line, something yelps in pain and then falls silent.

“Do you have a phone?” I continue. “She told me to call her if I was going to be delayed, but also she told me not to be delayed at all, and I don’t know if she will remember which instruction is more pressing. Sometimes she tells me that she hates me, that she has always hated me, but then the next day she says that she’s never said that. Is it possible to do terrible things and not remember? Do you think something is wrong with her? Do you think she’s sick? In any case, I think we should call her.”

He doesn’t say anything. I feel soothed by my plan for a few breaths before a needle of anxiety plunges through my sternum. Even if he were to call, I’d have the same problem. Even though I have never been interested in men, not even a little, she very well could accuse me of cheating on her and changing sides. Betrayal squared.

“Never mind,” I say. I press my face into his suit jacket, which smells like a campfire.

He rocks me. The cars whiz by like bees.

• • • •

Once, in the city of her birth, my girlfriend became angry at my exhaustion and abandoned me at a carnival at dusk. “I don’t want you here. You should leave,” she said, and disappeared into a crowd of people. I sat down on my suitcase and pulled out my phone, but there was no one to call, so I opened up my book and read by the flickering lights of a nearby ride: the Matterhorn, which tooted a vaguely Bavarian song as it swung screaming patrons in an elliptical orbit. As I strained to decipher the text, I was reminded that when I was a child, my doctor told me that my eyes were bad because I read so much beneath my blankets by the beam of a dying flashlight. I had cried, because I loved to read and I thought he was telling me I had to stop.

She found me there, hunched over unread pages. She was furious that I hadn’t come to find her. As I dragged my suitcase through the dust and watched the back of her head, I remembered his response.

“All I’m saying,” he’d said, his voice rising above my tears, “is if you keep reading by dim light, your eyes will fail you, and there will be no one to blame but yourself.”

I tried to listen. I really did. But there are just some things you can’t help doing.

• • • •

Anything can happen on the road. That’s what my dad always said, the reason he insisted on buying me a jack-and-lug-nut multitool and a tiny red backpack full of army rations and a set of flashing battery-operated flares for emergencies. (Maybe if I’d been thinking straight the first time it all went sideways, I would have laid myself down in the dust with a circle of those lights around me, a blinking fairy ring no one dared step inside lest it make them invisible, too.)

The man in blue laughs. Well, not laughs, precisely. It’s more of a chuckle. I didn’t know anyone did that, actually chuckled, but he does, and my head taps against his chest with every pulse of sound. As if I’m his heartbeat and he’s thinking about someone he loves.

I don’t know what’ll happen if I keep following him. I do know what’ll happen when I show up at her doorstep. My dad also used to say, Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, but what he didn’t understand was that not-knowing always leaves room for hope.

• • • •

We stand up and keep walking. With every step, something in my cardigan pocket knocks against my hip, and I draw out a tangle of keys. When I squeeze them, their teeth bite, like a devil I know. I lean back and hurl them toward the tree line. I don’t hear them land, but a pocket of birds bursts into the sky as though a bomb has gone off.

The man in blue murmurs something low.

“What?” I say.

“Have you heard the story,” he says, “of the woman who saw nothing?”

“Ha,” I say. “Is that my story?”

“N-o,” he says slowly, as if the joke is lost on him.

“Tell me the story of the woman who saw nothing,” I say.

“There once was a woman who had the same nightmare every night: that a monster slept next to her, purring, burbling blood. The monster would sometimes wake and give her gifts: stars, pearls, the pith of tangerines, and she tucked them under her pillow. When she woke up, she went about her day, but every night she returned to sleep and thus to the monster’s side.

“One night, she dreamt that she handed the monster the eyes straight out of her own head. The monster put them in a jar. Every night after that, she arrived into her dream with new eyes, and handed them over to join the others. Soon, the jar was full of them, round and unblinking as jawbreakers.

“And with her eyes so captured, like a selkie without her skin, the woman knew that she had no way of leaving. Upon waking, she wondered why she’d given them over, but she never had an answer. It just always seemed to make sense.”

The candy bar lurches against the base of my esophagus. “What did the monster look like?”

“Oh, the monster was terrifying. It had claws sharp as time and teeth filed to bony points. It had the eyes of an octopus and the head of a queen and the belly of a bear and an albatross where its heart should have been. When enraged, it would make a horrific screaming sound that caused the house around them to tremble—”

And I can feel it, then, the foundation shuddering beneath the monster, a shuck shuck shuck like an earthquake. I can feel the heat of its breath.

“—and everything would smell like metal and burned hair and fear.”

And yes, it does, it does smell that way. The pavement trembles underneath my feet. I gasp and pull, and his grip tightens.

“Let’s go down into the ditch,” I say. “Wait for it to pass.”

“No.” His voice is calm. “Stay right here.” He guides my body until I am standing on the edge of the shoulder. He leans into my hair and drops a whisper in my ear: Sh-hh-hh.

The trembling grows more agitated. I whimper. “You have to trust me,” he says. “I’m the only one that’s here. You have to trust me. There is no one else to trust.”

“Please let me go,” I say.

My ears pop from the force of the eighteen-wheeler that screams past us, blasting its horn. I smell the rank sweetness of manure and hay, and I know what’s in the back of that truck: bristly, terrified pigs, being carried to their deaths. The spray of gravel and dirt stings my face. I begin to weep.

“Stop, stop,” he says. “Sweet girl, don’t cry.”

“I can’t help it,” I say.

“But you can,” he says. “You can help it. You know you can. I told you to trust me. Why are you crying?”

“Because I don’t think I’ll ever see the world right again.”

“But glasses can be replaced. I will deliver you to your girlfriend, and she will deliver you home,” he says. “All will be right.”

I cannot imagine her driving me back, but I suddenly have an image of being bundled, sightless, onto a plane, of looking out a plane’s window and seeing nothing but loose snarls of blue and white and brown. Will they tow my little car, I wonder. After a few days, will they take her away? Put her in a lot until she is deemed abandoned, where she will be shipped off to a more responsible owner?

“You never told me the end of the story,” I say, as I kick off my shoes. “Of the girl who saw nothing.”

“Oh,” he says. “Yes. The girl and the monster got married. The end.”

• • • •

Cold strains through my sweater. The light is getting gold and thin, as if we are drifting to the upper level of the atmosphere.

“The sun is setting,” I say. “Earlier and earlier these days.”

“Yes,” he says, “but we need to keep going. Indiana’s not coming to us. It has roots. You are the moveable object.”

I tilt my head back and open my eyes as wide as they will go.

“Step to your right,” he says. “There’s a deer.”

I tilt my head down, eyes watering, and see the shape of it. The broken body is massive, corkscrewed, utterly still. We drop down the side of an embankment, and my face is level with its opened gut: the dark, unknowable silhouettes of its organs; the aluminum bite of blood; the rancid heat of organic matter turning. I hear the titter of flies. They flutter past my face like animated dust, and I cough.

“I love her, but she makes me afraid,” I say.

“Maybe she loves you because she makes you afraid,” he says.

The buzzing fades. He rises up to the shoulder and brings me along with him. The pavement feels like the damp cornstarch sand that lives beneath the tide—solid, unless you stand on it too long. I think about the miles in front of me. It feels impossible, and yet, isn’t that love? An impossible thing, taken on inch by inch?

“It’s sort of beautiful, when you think about it,” I say to him. “Walking along the road, to her. It’s like a movie. We’re gonna get to her, and you can explain what happened. She’s gonna be so happy I’m there, and she’ll listen to you, I know it.”

Silence. A breeze strokes my open palm. I lift it to my face, cupping the bright chill of my cheekbone, and then turn back and forth along the empty highway. Somewhere in the distance, a car flips on its headlights, and then another, and then another, like streetlamps going on at dusk.

I keep walking as the light drains from the sky. Within minutes, the whole world has closed its eyes on me.

Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, LA Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the World Fantasy Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. In 2018, the New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as a member of “The New Vanguard,” one of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.” She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.