After the Twilight Fades
A dense population of trees stand guard at the end of the field, and it would be so easy to slip into the wilderness and
Solange looks around nervously, then hoists herself over the metal rim. She wriggles a bit. The coffin is tight. Her eyes point blankly at the ceiling, as she struggles to get her breathing under control. No one is coming in. Marcia promised—Sleepies know Solange has paid her enough. She waits until her breaths come slowly, evenly. She imagines them misting the lid of the coffin, which in reality leans up against the wall, temporarily disabled. Then she closes her eyes. She forces her toes to stop wiggling, her knees to stop jumping. She forces her hands to unclench. Soon she’s asleep. She dreams of planets.
* * * *
It’s stupid, but there it is—it’s not the pain, or the fear, or the embarrassment of being raped in a tool locker by your younger cousin; it’s Mickey’s teeth glinting in the low light that Solange can’t get out of her mind. So white, she remembers thinking.
She should get back to her dormitory. She’s been off-shift for more than an hour. But she’s a mess: there’s blood at the side of her mouth and down her legs, her smock is torn, and she can’t see it but she thinks her face is blotchy with crying. If people see her they’ll ask questions, and she doesn’t want to have to talk to anyone.
She levers herself to her feet and takes an experimental step. It hurts a bit to walk, but it’s not that bad. Looking out the small window in the tool locker door, she can see a woman walking a catwalk above the eucheuma pool and occasionally taking its temperature. Other than that, and a bar of light from Uncle Matt’s office, there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. Ducking her head, she pushes open the door and heads for the showers.
Solange doesn’t know when Mickey got so strong. He hadn’t been when they were kids. Marcia could usually give him a good pounding. Solange had tended to run whenever any of the cousins looked her way when they were in a violent mood. Even when they’d caught her, she’d usually got away again with no more than a bruise or two. But back in the tool locker, she was pinned securely, and no amount of twisting seemed to help.
When she bit the hand covering her mouth, he laughed. His eyes glittered. “Madwoman,” he said.
The pain that followed was brief. Solange tasted blood and felt it trickle down the back of her throat, but Mickey seemed absorbed in what he was doing.
Shortly after, he sat back. Manic energy had given way to his usual air of self-satisfaction. Solange drew herself into a crouch and turned away, trying to shield herself from his view. She wasn’t quick enough to hide the fact that she was crying.
“It wasn’t that bad, Sol,” said Mickey.
Solange realizes that she’s cold. The water has automatically shut off, and there’s nothing left but a pink puddle around her feet. She collects her clothes and does what she can with them—if she ties her smock on the right, the damage isn’t so obvious. She can mend it later.
She makes her way back to her dormitory through corridors dimmed for the night, and mostly empty. The few people she does encounter glance at her and then away, uninterested. If the floors and walls suddenly blinked out and there were nothing between them and the stars but space, they probably wouldn’t notice that either. Most people never notice anything.
Five cousins sleep in the same room as Solange. Elara and Karen stand in the hallway engrossed in conversation. Hallie works night shift, and Callie is probably asleep. Levana, the new girl who moved in after Marcia moved out, is reading, judging by the light coming from her bed-place. Solange manages to avoid them all and climbs the ladder to her own bed-place, two up on the left. Sleep doesn’t come.
After some time staring at the ceiling, she pushes herself out of bed, climbs down the ladder, and lets herself out into the corridor. She walks nowhere in particular. It takes up the time.
* * * *
It’s been two days. For the past two mornings, Solange has arrived at work early for lack of anything better to do with her nervous energy. Her head feels as if it’s been in the desiccator, her arms and legs are weak, and she can barely feel her fingers. She’s tested the same spot’s salinity five times in a row; she’s ruined a new plant with clumsy fingers; she’s almost tumbled into the nama pool. Occasionally, a speck of light dances across her field of vision.
After the first day of work, returning to her dormitory more exhausted than she’s ever been, she climbed to her bed-place and lowered herself onto the mattress, grateful and expectant. But sleep didn’t take, and she no longer expects anything. Instead, when she isn’t working, or in the canteen trying to force down a meal of some sort of seaweed that she can’t really taste, she walks. After a while, the corridors all start to look the same. She tries to hold distinguishing details in her mind—this pine has a broken lower branch; that door is painted red—only to have them slip away. At one point, she finds herself standing in front of a door, hand hovering over the button, unable to decide whether it leads to her dormitory or not. Solange is no great reader, but a word floats to the surface of her mind, familiar from old stories: lost. So that’s what it means, she thinks, and wonders if people who live on worlds bigger than this ship feel like this all the time.
Mickey has been acting a bit nervous around her. Solange supposes he is wondering whether she’s going to lodge a complaint against him. But that seems like a lot of work. She can’t prove anything, and if she could, Uncle Matt is her boss and not likely to thank her for venting his chance of grandchildren into space. Anyway, what’s in it for Solange? She just wants to get some sleep.
Still, she hasn’t discussed this with Mickey—he hasn’t asked, for one thing—and for the past day and a half he’s leapt up like he’s suddenly remembered an urgent errand if he found himself so much as working the same pool as Solange. So she’s slightly puzzled when she looks up from reeling in a line of mature eucheuma to see Mickey on a catwalk not five meters from her, and looking in her direction.
“Sol,” he says, with an impatient edge to his voice, as if Solange has failed to respond the first three times he’s said her name. “You should get that looked at.”
“What?” says Solange.
With a few quick strides, the catwalk ringing under his feet, Mickey covers the distance between himself and Solange. He grabs her left hand and stretches out her arm, underside up. Then he drops it, quickly. The line she’s been hauling on has cut deeply into the flesh just below her elbow, and her forearm and both hands are bloodied. The far side of the line bleeds into the water for a good meter and a half. “Oh,” says Solange. She hadn’t noticed.
Mickey takes a step backward and holds the hand that touched Solange’s away from his body awkwardly, as if it doesn’t belong to him. “Shit, Sol,” he says.
After some seconds, he says, “I’ll walk you to the hospital.” This decision seems to cheer him up immediately. With brisk authority, he takes her by the elbow—the uninjured elbow—and steers her toward the supervisor on duty. Solange can’t recall her name, but she’s struck by the woman’s resemblance to her cousin Elara, who sleeps one bed-place down from Solange. She shakes her head to clear it of the sudden frightening conviction that they are, in fact, the same person.
“I’m taking Sol to the hospital,” says Mickey, displaying her injury. “I think she’s in shock.”
Elara—no, space it, not Elara—winces and flicks her eyes slightly to one side. “Ouch,” she says. “I hope that doesn’t feel as bad as it looks.”
“I don’t think she can really hear you,” says Mickey.
Solange can hear fine, although there are odd echoes, as if the supervisor is speaking through a metal tube, from a long way off. Still, an excuse not to talk to somebody is an excuse not to talk to somebody. Solange lets herself be led quietly to the hospital.
The medic whom Solange eventually sees makes Mickey go away before starting on her arm. Which is nice. He gives her an anesthetic which is probably useless—she can’t feel the needle pierce her skin in the first place—and sews up the cut. Then he tells her to wait in the recovery room for half an hour. “Let me know if you have any problems,” he says.
I can’t sleep, thinks Solange. If I don’t get some sleep I think I’m going to die, I need help…
“Hm?” says the medic. His face is arranged in what is clearly meant to be a friendly expression, but Solange can see the evil underneath. Light glints oddly off of the glass and metal instruments. It must mean something. The medic is Uncle Matt in disguise, looking for an excuse to dock her pay.
Solange shrugs and follows the signs to the recovery room.
The walls of the recovery room are a cheerful blue, and there are seats with padding. A knot of women sit talking near the door. A boy with a bandaged foot is playing a game on the wall console, and looks up when Solange walks in. She takes a seat in the far corner, and runs her fingers along her arm, wondering if she can tell where the stitches are by touch alone. She can, with effort. But it’s hard to stay interested. Her cousin Marcia is talking to her.
Solange shakes her head. Focus, she thinks. But there really is someone talking to her, and it really is Marcia.
“I saw Mickey and he told me you were here,” Marcia is saying. “It’s been such a while since we’ve seen each other, hasn’t it? You don’t need to wait until you cut yourself open to visit, you know. That looks nasty. How’d it happen?”
“Rope burn,” says Solange.
“You look awful,” says Marcia. And she begins to talk about herself, and her important job at the freezebox. The way she goes on, you’d think no Sleepy would ever survive to make planetfall without Marcia’s personal help. Never mind that Marcia will be long dead by that point. Solange doesn’t care, but at least now she barely has to pretend to be listening. Withdrawing her attention is a relief, and it’s unpleasant to have it snatched back.
“A coffin?” says Solange, slowly working through what Marcia has been saying. “Like Sleepies sleep in.”
“No, dumbass,” says Marcia, “an ornamental planter coffin. What do you think?”
“And it’s sitting empty?” says Solange.
“Yes!” says Marcia. “So anyway, the temperature was rising, and we were getting ready for the transfer, and we were all so worried that we were going to lose him, and that hasn’t happened, you know, for more than eighty years—”
“Can I… see it?” says Solange.
“What? The coffin?” says Marcia. “You’re hardly authorized personnel.”
Solange forces herself to think. And realizes, with a sort of terror, how difficult it is. “I’ll pay,” she says.
“I can’t do it,” says Marcia.
“Thirty dollars,” says Solange.
This shuts Marcia up for a few seconds. It looks good on her. “Why?” she eventually says.
“Marcia, I need to. Please,” says Solange.
Marcia considers. “It’s really, really forbidden,” she says. “Okay. Come tomorrow, before your shift starts. Thirty dollars. Up front. No discounts.”
* * * *
After finishing work—light stuff, meter-reading mostly, nothing that needs two fully-functional arms—Solange goes back to her dormitory. Elara is there talking with Karen. Solange doesn’t want an audience; doesn’t want to talk to Elara at all, really, but restlessness and urgent need soon force her to interrupt.
“Elara, I need a favor,” she says.
“Yeah?” says Elara.
“Will you lend me thirty dollars till payday?” says Solange.
Elara snorts. “Pull the other one, Sol.”
“No, I’m serious,” says Solange. “It’s important, I’ll pay you back right away, I promise.”
“You promised to pay me back right away when I lent you five dollars,” says Elara.
“I paid you back,” Solange says.
“It was nearly a year,” says Elara.
“I mean it this time,” says Solange. “I just—”
“No,” says Elara, and turns back to her conversation with Karen. And that is that. None of the other cousins is going to feel any differently, even if any of them have thirty dollars, which seems unlikely. There is no point in hanging around here. Solange lets herself out into the corridor and walks.
It will be evening soon, but for now the corridors are still bright. Solange passes people, all of whom—cousin, co-worker, neighbor whose name she can’t recall—glare at her under lowered eyelids before looking away. The faces begin to run together. The corridors curve sharply, turning in on themselves; it’s no wonder Solange is lost. The bursts of light at the edges of her vision hurt her eyes.
“Sol! Hey, Sol!” says Louis. He’s happy to see her. Whether he is real or a trick of her overtired brain, he has grown several centimeters since she’s seen him last, all spindly arms and legs.
“Hey, kid,” says Solange. “Are the parents in?”
“Yeah,” he says, and one of him keys open the door of the home-place, yelling, “Ma! Dad! Guess who’s home!” Another five of him run off in different directions, making the corridor ring with the echoes.
Solange walks into the kitchen. It’s full of steam. Ma pops and flickers like an image on a broken screen. “If I had known you were coming, I wouldn’t have just made nama soup,” she is saying.
“What have you done to your arm?” says Dad. “Doesn’t Matt take care of his workers?”
“It’s just a rope burn,” Solange tries to say. She can’t hear her own voice so she’s not sure whether she’s spoken or not.
“You never come and see us anymore,” says Louis. “I have to eat nama soup all the time.”
“You know you always fought with Sol when she lived here,” says Ma. “You still fight with her if she stays more than two hours. Maybe if you didn’t she’d come home more often.”
“I’m not staying for dinner,” says Solange, or thinks she does. The kitchen is far too small to pace in. She bumps her elbow on the garbage chutes when she turns around.
“I don’t see why flaber ankle vosh,” says Dad. “Jimma hoozy lambert skiff?”
Three Louises are running in tight circles around Solange’s legs. She can’t put her feet down without tripping. They are poking her in the knees with something sharp. “Stop that,” she says.
Solange manages to catch herself on the counter before she falls. But the gravity’s stopped working; if she lets go she’ll float off into space forever. She tightens her grip. “I just need thirty dollars till payday,” she says.
“Of course, dear,” says Ma.
* * * *
Solange is sleeping, when a sudden noise floods her nostrils with panic. She leaps out of the coffin and retreats to the opposite corner of the room, as if her distance from the thing will prove she hasn’t touched it. She balances defensively on the balls of her feet. It’s only Marcia.
“I came to tell you that the techs will be here in five minutes,” says Marcia, her eyes widening with innocent bewilderment. “What were you doing?”
Marcia could have told her how much time she had in the first place. She’s come to see what Solange is up to. “I was sleeping,” says Solange.
“I could see that,” says Marcia.
“I was tired,” says Solange.
“Tired.” Marcia manages to convey with her tone that she knows exactly why Solange has spent a month’s wages for half an hour in a room with a malfunctioning coffin. “I’ll bet you -were.”
Solange can’t tell whether she’s bluffing or not. Marcia has always been able to play her. But it was good to sleep.
Marcia keys the door, opening it for them, and they step out into the polished corridors of the freezebox. There is sensation in the soles of Solange’s feet as she walks.
“You’d better hurry back, anyway,” says Marcia. “You want to get some breakfast before your shift starts.” Solange is silent. Marcia looks at her penetratingly. “You’re not having breakfast, are you?” she says. “You can’t afford it, can you?”
Solange doesn’t answer. They turn into a more crowded corridor. Well-scrubbed workers in blue uniforms like Marcia’s go about their tasks, and Solange smoothes her stained smock unhappily. “I’ll get you something from the canteen here,” Marcia offers.
“I should go,” says Solange.
Marcia frowns and lets the subject drop. “I’ll see you then,” she says. They have reached the main hospital, where Solange is perfectly inconspicuous. Marcia turns and keys the door that will let her back into the Sleepy unit. Solange keeps walking the other way.
By the time she arrives at the seaweed farm, her shift is starting. There isn’t time for breakfast even if Solange could afford it, which she can’t; she’s resolved to stick to one meal a day until she’s paid Ma and Dad back. She can feel her hunger now, though, and her exhaustion, for the first time in days. She is still on meter-reading, which is good because it requires walking around the pools. If she had to stay in one spot, she’d fall asleep for sure. As it is, she has to bite the inside of her cheek to stay awake.
None of that matters. The important thing is that when her shift is over, she can return to her bed-place, and the dark.
* * * *
Solange lowers herself onto her mattress and lies back. She closes her eyes and wriggles a bit, imagining metal walls tightly around her. Then she is still. Her breathing is slow and regular. She dreams of planets.
On planets, the sky is so high that ten men, each as tall as Uncle Matt, could stand on each other’s shoulders and not reach the top. Masses of water move through it and when they collide, water falls from the sky with crashing noise and flashes of electricity. Strange animals live on planets without any human tending. A person can walk on a planet for days or years without turning, and never reach a wall.
Solange is asleep. In her dream, she will only be awakened on a planet. She will smell the alien, living air, feel the alien earth beneath her feet. She will be awakened reverently by blue-clad people, also aliens, generations distant. Ma, Dad, and Louis; Elara, Marcia, Mickey, and Uncle Matt; the medics and the techs will live, grow old and die, and Solange will sleep through it all. She’s different from them. They’re warm, but Solange is cold.
A dense population of trees stand guard at the end of the field, and it would be so easy to slip into the wilderness and
He’s been building up inventory for a while in preparation for the gift-giving season. Phalanxes of pocket robots stand on his bookshelves, his eating counter,
I feel the tack prick harder than it did this morning, because with T there was something abyss-like that might have swallowed me, had he