Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Shock of Birth

“They didn’t believe me,” I said. “They didn’t believe that I wasn’t supposed to be here—that I woke up wrong.”

I lost track of time again. My attention shifted toward the floor, drawn to a crack in the tile. It was causing quite a ruckus in my mind. The cup of tea I was holding had long gone cold, the light in the room growing dim.

Sometime, a long time ago, someone dropped something heavy on the tile, and it was never the same.

“What does it mean to wake up wrong?” Sarah pressed. I could feel her breath on me, circling me, touching my skin. I could feel my fingers against the porcelain of the mug. The sun was setting, and I could feel my eyes adjust to the changing light. Only this skin, these fingers, these eyes—they weren’t mine. No one ever understood when I told them. They always gave me the same look, wide eyes, open mouth.

“I woke up in the wrong place,” I said. “I was somewhere else, some other life somewhere and then I was here, in this life. The bed I woke up in was wrong. My room. My age. My parents. They didn’t like being told that they were wrong. My teacher didn’t like it. The kids at school.”

Wide eyes. Open mouth.

“They want me to lie. And I won’t.”

The lights in the room came on. I wondered how long it took shuffling through dark rooms before people started putting suns in their houses, before they stopped depending on the one outside.

“Australia is gone,” Sarah said. “Now there’s only ocean there. No one believes me.”

I got up; I did it so fast my head felt light and for a minute I was wobbly. I held onto the back of the chair to get my bearings. “I’m going to my room,” I said.

Sarah watched me. I had hurt her somehow. I felt a pang of guilt, but didn’t act on it. As I walked out the room I remembered that I had left my mug on the table. I was supposed to put it in the kitchen, but my pride stopped me from going back.

There weren’t many cars on the freeway. Orange and yellow painted the early morning horizon, edging against the black. The eyes of the world were opening: yellow and orange twisting around dark colored clouds along the horizon, slowly claiming the still black sky above, the sleeping people below in their houses, just starting to wake to their busy days, their lives waiting just a few hours ahead of coffee and toast.

Michael slept in the back, huddled up in his usual position. Every once in a while, his whole body would twitch, and then he’d turn in the opposite direction. He did this dance for the last four hours, facing away from me, and then toward me again. Right now I could see his face, underneath his mass of curls. He seemed peaceful; a few hours ago he was yelling obscenities at me and trying to hit me with his clenched fist. I had to tie his hands behind his back.

Michael had a nervous habit of playing with the sleeves of his shirt or working the tail of his watch in and out of its loop as he talked, head lowered only when he was saying something that he felt was too aggressive. Even when he cursed he would only look at me for a second before whipping his head away.

His choice of clothing was similar to what I remembered. He wore his pants baggy, but his shirts were tight around his bony frame and wide chest; his sleeves were loose around his wiry arms. His pants were ripped at the bottom from dragging; they were too big for him, and he often stopped mid-step to fold them up one or two times so the denim wouldn’t catch under his shoe.

He was twenty now, a college student. Half what I was when I’d been pulled out of my body, half what I was now. In the morning half-light, his dark skin appeared darker. This skin that wasn’t mine appeared very pale in comparison. “What do you want?” he asked.

• • • •

“No,” I said.

Dr. Stevens seemed genuinely surprised by my response. His face was usually stolid when he talked and asked questions. But every once in a while, for a moment, I could see a reaction find its way from his brain to his face muscles and reveal genuine emotion.

“I never said I didn’t know them,” I said.

“Yes, but you did say they were wrong. Did you mean that you felt that they weren’t your parents?”

“No. I never said they weren’t my parents. You don’t listen.”

“Elaborate,” he said. “Explain it to me now.”

“I said they were the wrong parents.”

“Yes?” His face was blank this time. It would be a while before another emotion was clever enough to escape, a while before another one would be shot and dragged to the back of his mind where he left the bodies. I looked at his wall of books. Thick books with leather spines. Hardcover books with golden type on the sides of them. They were all related to psychology, except for one, hiding in the corner, thin and worn. A paperback. Anne Rice. The Vampire Lestat.

He was watching me and playing with his white beard streaked with black. I tried to picture him at a time when his hair still had his color, but no matter how many wrinkles I took away from his face, I could not change his hair. It was always white with black streaks, wild and bushy.

“They were wrong because I was wrong. They’re Daniel’s parents, but I am not Daniel. I am supposed to be someone else.”

“Who are you supposed to be?” he asked. He was staring at me, a blank canvas to be painted on.

“You won’t believe me.”

“Just tell me what you believe.”

“I’m Michael. I was stitched into this life.”

“That is a very interesting word: ‘stitched.’ Please continue.”

“I went to sleep. I had a nightmare. And when I woke up, I was in the wrong place. It was the wrong year, the wrong city, the wrong house, the wrong bedroom. I came back to the wrong body. And now I am trapped here with you, answering your questions, watching you scribble in your pad. I am here, wondering what combination of words would make a sane man believe me. And I am here, knowing that even if you did, even if you abandoned your sanity and believed every single word, you still couldn’t help me get back. And it would be a waste. It would all be a waste.”

For a moment I thought I could see Dr. Stevens’ hands shake. “You are quite a precocious child.”

“I am not a child.”

“You know what we do at this institute?”

“I do.”

“We study people that think the world has been edited. There’s someone here that believes there’s more than fifty states in the U.S. and one of them got erased. There’s a girl that swears there’s an entire continent missing, and an adult man that believes his sister didn’t exist before this year.”

“I’m not like them.”

“Really? If you’re here, who is in Michael’s body?”

“I don’t know yet. He hasn’t been born.”

“And you don’t find that convenient? Where will he be born?”

I looked up at his eyes and saw the truth written plainly there. I could tell him the future I knew, but what if that future didn’t come? I glanced back over at his bookshelf and looked at the little book in the corner again, pressed hard against the shelf wall, sandwiched in by books and wood, kept in place by the laws of matter. As incongruous as it was, it was still a book. Still binding and paper.

“Where?” he asked again.

• • • •

When I didn’t answer right away, Michael huffed and kicked the back of the passenger’s seat. It was midafternoon now, which meant winding backroads with only two lanes to avoid being seen. This particular stretch of road was empty, long periods with no cars, the bare hills merging with blue sky.

“Northern California,” I said.

“Why are we going to North California?”

I’d watched Michael long enough to know he was different. It was little things. Like how he chose to wear his hair. I always kept mine cut. His teeth weren’t as healthy as mine. He seemed to worry less about what he wore than I did.

His grades were lower but not much lower than mine when I was his age. His friends were the same for the most part, with a few exceptions. He had grown into a subtly different person, and he had conversations with people I never did and liked people I never liked. But it was the eyes that really separated us. If I stared at them long enough, I could see that he wasn’t me, that some other person was living behind them. Same face, different insides.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I have no intention of harming you.”

He said nothing, and I wondered if he could see into me the same way, sense my insides. It should go both ways, a thing like that.

• • • •

“Shock of birth,” I said.

The building was colder than usual. Dr. Stevens rubbed his hands together to warm them, and it sounded like sand paper against wood. The furrows in his brow told me that he was actually interested.

I said, “In Nepal the elders tell the children that the soft spot in a baby’s head is from God’s hammer, to make the baby forget its past life. For Plato, it was the act of entering the body that made a person forget. The shock of birth.”

Dr. Stevens was rubbing his hands together again, and this time it reminded me of a childhood memory. My mother bent over, sweeping the floor with a broom with a broken handle. Dried sorghum bristles against ceramic tile. As I listened it occurred to me that there were so many things that sounded similar. The thought unnerved me.

“I didn’t enter this body from birth. I was thrust into it in its adolescence. And so I retained all my memories.”

Dr. Stevens rubbed his hands together. Sandpaper. Bristles. Folders in filing cabinets. “So how do you explain that?”

“Pythagoras had another theory about reincarnation. He believed that there was a river. The souls would bathe in that river before entering another body. The ‘river of forgetfulness’ it was called. This was an agreement, a law among spirits.”

“Okay,” Dr. Stevens said. “Seems like a complicated explanation, when a simple one would do.” He let the implication hang between us. You’re delusional, he was saying, but didn’t have the courage to say out loud. He looked up at the clock. “That’s time for today. I should go see what’s going on with the heating system.”

As I was walking back to my room, I saw Sarah standing by my door. “I talked to Jacob from down the hall, and he said that he was the one that told Dr. Stevens that a state was missing.”

“Oh,” I said, but I was distracted.

“Yeah,” she continued. “Only he said that in his timeline—that’s how he said it, his ‘timeline’—there were also only fifty states, but one of them was Alaska.”

“Alaska,” I said, repeating the word. It sounded made up.

I opened my door and went inside. Sarah followed me in. “He said that it was actually two edits, not one. Alaska and the Californias.”

I picked up the quilt from the bed and wrapped it around myself. “Aren’t you cold?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Not really. But I know what’s wrong.”

“What’s wrong?”

She walked over and sat on the bed. “October’s missing this year, and the heating system hasn’t caught up yet.”

I sat next to her on the bed. “There is a question somewhere in the back of my head that I want to ask you, but I don’t know what it is.”

“I wish I could find it for you,” she said with a half-smile. “It is strange that there is a whole world behind people’s eyes that you don’t get to see.”

“It is. But I wonder if you would be able to find it in the back of my head. I am having trouble myself.”

“Have you seen your parents lately?”

“Yesterday.”

“What did they talk to you about?”

“The same thing they always talk to me about. Have I given up on this ridiculous story? Am I ready to come home? So on. So on.”

Sarah had a habit of biting her bottom lip. It was a completely asexual process, like the way some people crack their knuckles. “What were you just thinking?” she asked.

“I think they’re right. I should have kept quiet.”

“You know, I believe you.” She was silent for a moment, biting her bottom lip. “If you find the other Michael what will you do?”

“He isn’t Michael.”

“I was thinking, wouldn’t it be better to just live this life. If he is born in your body, that wouldn’t be his fault. The rest of us have to live with what’s missing. You should try living as who you are now.”

“Of course you’d think that,” I said. “You’re insane.” I regretted the comment as soon as I said it. Over the months I had made it my personal mission to upset Sarah. I didn’t want to, but I felt a pull toward hostility.

The hurt on her face twisted my stomach. “There’s a whole continent missing, Michael. People, animals, plants. You’re not so special that you can step on everyone.” Then she left and we didn’t talk again for twenty-five years.

• • • •

Time is sneaky. When you are not looking, it runs away from you. When you find it again, you are so far from where you were.

Storm clouds had settled over the desert landscape. It wasn’t raining, but the promise was there. Michael was quiet in the back seat, but I could hear his breathing over the engine of the car, the sound of the wheels gliding against the tar beneath it, over the sound of the wind that continued to hit against the windows. It was making quite a ruckus in my mind.

When the car started to slow, he noticed. “What’s happening?”

I didn’t answer. Instead I turned the steering wheel toward the desert, toward the stretching nothingness, toward the man I used to be. The brakes screeched, the wheels spitting up gravel. The turn had pushed him up against the window, and he let out a grunt before he took in a sharp breath, a harsh thing that whistled through his teeth. I could hear him clearly; I was so tuned to his every response, like the volume was turned up on him alone.

I continued to drive until I hit a rock or a lump of dirt and the car stopped. I pulled up the handbrake and opened the door. My own breath was wild and hard, and I could feel my chest swell and sink like the belly of a giant. When I opened the backseat door, and I reached in to pull at the boy’s collar, he let out a noise of comprehension. He screamed out but it was not my voice. It was the voice of a stranger.

I threw him into the dirt. I was surprised by my own calm, how the rage bubbled deep in me. He looked up at me, delirious and confused. His hands were still behind his back, so he pulled himself along, backward, his legs kicking up dust and gravel.

“Who are you?” I stepped forward toward him as he tried to scurry across the parched earth. The setting sun and the storm clouds cast everything in shadow, but I could still see his eyes, sparkling with a sheen of tears.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I don’t know what this is.” His mouth opened to say something more, but then he just shook his head. “Please,” he begged, “I just want to go home.”

“You’re lying.” The mouth I was using was dry, the bubble in me coming to a boil. “You took my body. You took my life. I’m going to take it back.”

“What?”

“Do you know what it is like to have everything stolen from you without knowing why? I’ve been trapped here, in this body. Do you know I had someone I loved?”

There were many names for it. The hammer of God. The shock of birth. Drinking from the river of forgetting. It all meant the same thing. When a soul reentered a body, it could not keep all the memories of where and who it was before. You had to give up something. You had to give up everything you once were.

He was shaking his head again. “If you let me go, I won’t tell anyone. I swear.”

I couldn’t see his face then. It was obscured by his hair, the storm clouds, and the coming dark. But the fork was there in front of me just the same, the potential to walk this all back or take it to the bitter end.

“Please,” he said. “I swear.”

He seemed to be holding his breath as I decided. There was no sound but the wind. “Okay,” I said and took a step forward. “Let me help you up.”

Moments later the storm clouds departed, so suddenly that the setting sun that replaced it collected on the surface of the world like a light from heaven, painting everything with the vibrant orange of stoked embers. It was beautiful to see it as it happened, to see the world change.

• • • •

After many years I finally tracked down Sarah. She was on the top floor of an old apartment building on York Island. She recognized me right away. Her apartment was small, her dining table only inches from her stove. She moved on her small feet the way I remembered and went to the fridge and pulled out a pitcher of water. She grabbed two cups from her cabinet, returned to the table, and sat across from me.

“It’s been so long,” she said. “You’ve changed a lot since I last saw you. But you also haven’t changed at all.” She was smiling. She was still so beautiful.

“How have you been?”

“I got better, if that’s what you’re asking. It was really bad for a while, when I was in college, but I’ve been taking medicine. Dr. Stevens died a few years back, you know? He was always wondering where you went off to.”

“You still notice edits?” I asked, looking into her almond eyes.

“Don’t keep track anymore.” She eased back in her chair, sighed. “Most of the time I forget what I’ve noticed.” She poured me a cup of water and slid it over to me. Then she poured herself a cup. She put her hair back into a ponytail and took a sip of her water. “People take for granted that the world works the way it does. No one walks and questions the steps they take. They never think: ‘this floor might not be solid; I could take this step and fall to the center of the Earth.’ No one worries that one day gravity will be reversed and everyone will helplessly fall into outer space. I’ve been trying to learn from them. Trust everything, even if my memory tells me differently. When people tell me there’s always been only ten months in the year, I don’t even blink.”

I nodded. “Smart.”

“And you?” she asked. “Did you ever go find yourself?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“No?”

“A couple years ago the town I lived in disappeared. The people are gone.” It was the truth, however convenient.

“I suppose all our stories end that way,” she said, true sympathy on her face.

“I was terrible back then.”

“You were,” she said. “I forgave you a long time ago. For my sake.”

I nodded. “I’m still sorry,” I said. “And I’m grateful to be forgiven, no matter the why.” We drank our water in a companionable silence. We were both so much older now, but the years had been kinder to her. I hadn’t been able to settle down anywhere, and it showed in all the small ways a body and soul deteriorate without roots. I considered the possibility of settling now, and for the first time in a long time, I liked the thought of it. “You know,” I said, “I’ve been looking at the edits a different way lately. And it has helped me.”

She asked me to explain and so I did. I said it wasn’t the world that was changing: it was us. We were moving, leap-frogging from universe to universe, each one different than the one before, with less stuff in it, or different stuff. We remember what we can of those other worlds, and we forget, too. But here’s the important part, the part that has been helping me lately. Every new world we enter gives us an opportunity to be different, to leave parts of ourselves behind, to be better. It is okay to want that, to let some things go. A body is just a body, a world is just a world, but who we are now, on the inside, is what matters. It matters. We can let go to make space for who we can become.

“That’s beautiful,” she said, and I could see in her eyes that she meant it.

Cadwell Turnbull

Cadwell Turnbull

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