Science Fiction & Fantasy




What If the Whole Camp of Kids Learned How To Liquefy?

When she melts, it’s like a balloon collapsing, but fast. Her body turns to an inky puddle, a pool of shadow.

Then, in a snap, she goes clear. Shimmering.

When all the other children are asleep, when the guard is looking at something else, when the camera eye is on something else.

That’s when this happens. When she becomes a shadow, then a shimmer, and slithers out from under her thin silver blanket, onto the ground.

She can slide, fast fast, between gray sleep mats with kids snoring, gray sleep mats with kids crying, she can slide past a gray sleep mat where one boy pulls up the corner to bang his head on the concrete floor, she goes fast under the bars of the cage where they sleep, then under the canvas walls of Tent 4B, out into the open, where starlight picks at the skin of night so high and far while she’s down on the ground sliding her shimmery self under the barbed wire fence that keeps all the children’s tents inside its prickles, and she’s loose in the wide night, fast fast across the desert she slips, over the big wall and down hundreds of miles south toward her mami.

Just a flat shimmer running over the ground and quick as a blink she’s in her mami’s house. She can ripple over anything of her mami’s and become it. One night, she became her mami’s shoes. She could feel the whole weight of her Mami on her, it was heavy, and sweet, and she loved that feeling, it was so comfortable. She could feel her mami’s whole foot sink over her. Then, her mami sat down and pushed off her shoes, and the girl was back in her cage. Some kids were joking, they were playing a game with their fingers, each finger was a different family member, they had their fingers talking to each other, and curling over each other for pretend hugs or kisses, and that’s how they were, awake and waiting for their breakfast.

Good. She’d gotten back in time before the count, before the guards started shouting. The kids on the mats around her barely looked up from what they were doing because a lump of a girl under a crinkly blanket where before there was only air, was normal. At least, for this place.

She’s been slipping away, then re-appearing, each of the nine nights she’s been here.

Once, she became an earring. She felt the warmth of her mami’s earlobe as she traveled all the way through her mami’s flesh.

But when Mami pulled that earring out, she was right back here again.

Every day, whether she’s trying to hold hands with a kid she likes, or sucking her breath in to make herself skinny so she won’t brush against a kid she doesn’t, whether she’s holding out her wrist so her plastic stripe bracelet beeps the shower-entrance machine quick and neat, or whether she’s shivering with her clothes back on, coming out the other end of the shower room, shaking with rage and embarrassment that she had to get under the hard jets of water again with girls she doesn’t even know, there’s one thought she plucks like a harp string: have to see Mami.

When it’s nighttime, when it’s safe, have to run clear and fast to her, see if she’s still sad. Every time the girl comes to her mami as a shimmer, her mami’s the type of sad that’s nervous and tired, putting a few stitches into her sewing, then setting it down to boil a pot of water, then forgetting it on the stove because she’s busy standing at the window pulling the hairs at the tops of her eyebrows, which sometimes come out.

The girl had heard water boil over before. Seen sewing unfinished. But pinching eyebrow hair between fingernails is something new.

She wants her mami to know it’s her, she’s there. So Mami won’t be sad or nervous. But she can’t turn into an air horn with a little girl’s face. She can only turn into this silent shimmer that covers the ground or covers the things her mami wears.

One boy in the camp who’s a few years older, who sat by her in the eating tent and told her how to act and what to do, who taught her a few words of English when she first got in, he’s heard about her trips. A few of them. She told him about them because he seemed nice.

The girls around her never ask her where she’s been, probably because that question is buried under mountains of questions that surround them every time they all wake up in this same place again.

Well, it was a mistake to tell that boy. He went from nice to bossy. Mean.

“Show me how to do that,” he says. “Show me how to do that melting thing or else I’ll pinch you real hard right here on your side where no one will see, and you’ll get in trouble for yelling and crying. Show me how to do that or else I’ll mash your toes with my foot when no one’s watching.”

He hasn’t actually done anything, yet, but she feels like he will. So she’s made up her mind. Today, at breakfast, she’ll say, “I won’t help you unless you promise to teach someone else.”

Guess he has a mami he needs to see, fast fast, but he shouldn’t get something good just for being mean. He’ll need to share what he gets from her to make good come from his bullying.

When breakfast comes, she says, “I’ll only teach you if you promise to teach someone else.”

“Yeah, ok, fine,” he says.

The next problem: How does she explain how to make this change from a body to an inky flow to a clear shimmer? The only way she knows to do it is to breathe her thoughts into shape. Can he do that? And what if there’s never one quiet moment in the boy’s tent where his cage is?

Then someone will see him, and try to trap him as liquid, or burn him up, or something.

Unless, unless.

“I want you to teach everyone in your tent,” she says.

But she’s thinking bigger. What if the whole camp of kids learned how to liquefy? She can already see it, a night in the future: A whole camp full of children collapses into pools of shadow, then goes clear. She hopes they can slide outside and then slither up the walls of the tents. So that, together, they can cover the entire camp with their warm shimmer.

Her older brother back home once showed her a picture on el internet of how her country looked from hundreds of miles above the earth.

She hopes when they cover the camp their shimmer will be so hot and bright you can see the light from space.

She hopes her mami will drop her hands from her eyebrows, walk outside at night and look north. Even though she’ll be tired, just wanting to sleep, something will pull her outside. She’ll look north and see a glow. A warm radiance. Maybe she’ll stare at it long enough to see it pulsing, like the beat of her very own heart.

Maria Kelson

Maria Kelson. Headshot of a Chicana woman with long hair, brown with fuchsia highlights, wearing a crocheted fuchsia jacket, outdoors in afternoon sunlight, in front of greenery with orange blossoms, looking slightly up and left, smiling into the camera.

Maria Kelson writes speculative stories and crime fiction. Her mystery novel-in-progress won the Eleanor Taylor Bland Award for Crime Fiction Writers of Color from Sisters in Crime. Short works have appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, About Place Journal, and at As Maria Melendez, she published two books of poetry with University of Arizona Press. She believes every writer on earth should either teach or take multiple online Clarion West workshops, because they are the absolute best (being that they saved her imagination during lockdown). Connect on Twitter: @mkelsonauthor.