A to Z Challenge Reflection

This reflection will be a short and sweet one. This was my first time participating in the A to Z Challenge, and I am a proud completionist! It was an extremely fun challenge and a great addition to the Introvert Playground. I will likely do the challenge next April as well.

The folks at A to Z Challenge ran it flawlessly, and as a first-year I don’t have any criticisms.

I would only like to thank the challenge,  because it got me back into consistent fiction writing and inspired me to open up Short Fic Fridays on my blog so I will be able to continue that adventure.

Finally, congrats to all other participants and completionists. We survived! J

Much love,

Christina

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A to Z: Zenith

James McClane followed his mother back to the house, dipping his fingers into his amber waves of grain, letting his fingers get rough and covered in fine fibers of barley.

Back at the house, his mother helped him unpack his little bag. The pot, the loaf of bread, the handful of raisins. She helped him silently, not chastising his lack of preparedness, only rushing so they could finish before his father woke up.

James munched on the raisins and broke off an end of the bread. He could hear his brothers upstairs, milling about, and his sister whining at them for being too loud. The kitchen looked and felt like a dream. James really hadn’t expected to be back so soon, if at all. His journey hadn’t even gotten him off the property. So much for mountains.

James worked hard, diligently, every day into every night. His family grew older around him, all left the farm but him. He married Betty on a Sunday and went back to work on Monday. They had their son, who went to college in New York, the first time James ever left the state. Michael graduated, lived happy with his beautiful wife. They didn’t want any children, it seemed. James fell ill.

Betty fed him hot soup that helped warm him very little. They had lots of hope, so much it spilled out their home and filled their field. It was their best crop in years, and James was too sick to harvest. Michael had come home to help them pick it, and he even brought his old girlfriend Susie Q. and her daughter to pitch in.

“They look like a nice little family out there, don’t they?” James whispered to his wife, watching the three of them out the window. Betty smiled at the soup. “Bonnie won’t like that.”

“Sure,” Betty said, stroking his hair, a faraway look in her eyes. “Ah, it’s just like when they were kids, isn’t it?”

“Just like when we were kids, too.”

The barley swayed in the breeze. The little girl crushed a head of barley in her hand and tossed it in the air, dancing in it like rain.

“I’m going to let you rest and go out to help them,” Betty said and kissed his forehead. She opened the window. “Holler if you need anything.”

James smiled after her as she left the room, and then he was alone. Betty appeared out the window moments later with an armful of apples. The lot of them sat and munched them together on the patch of grass, wowing as Michael tossed his apple in the air and caught it behind his back. The little girl tried to repeat it and ended up throwing it too high, but Susie Q. caught it just before it hit the ground—they laughed and cheered.

As the sun climbed closer to the center of the sky, James wondered if he too had ever had a zenith. His life seemed to have run in a straight line, just like his geometric rows of barley. Did he ever peak? His proudest moments seemed to have all been about his wife or son.

For the millionth time he wondered if life would have been different if his mother never stopped him from running away to the mountains and the sea.

“Would have starved,” he muttered, then chuckled at himself. He must have thought the country was much smaller than it was. Raisins and a loaf of bread, a pot without matches. Yes, probably starved. God, he didn’t even bring water.

But what if he hadn’t starved? Would he have liked the mountains, and the ocean? Would he have still been a farmer for his whole life? Would he have lived in New York, like his son? Would he even have a son? He probably wouldn’t be married to Betty.

The little girl laughed, drawing his eye back down to his little family. His wonderful wife, so caring and loving, so happy and sociable. His son, so successful, smart, perfect. His friend and her daughter, close enough to be family to James, both also so compassionate.

The barley swayed, glimmering like gold under the midday sun. “Probably,” he whispered. “There was probably a better life somewhere. Probably a worse one, too.”

James felt rather calm, a strange sort of happiness. He liked his life. It wasn’t remarkable, but also wasn’t terrible. He had a good family, a good farm, and lived in the middle of amber waves of grain, and while things perhaps would have been different if he had run away he realized then, in the sunny bedroom, that he didn’t mind that.

Peace filled his lungs. His family’s laughter filled his ears. A smile eased itself across his face.

The wind blew bits of barley through his window. A normal life, but a good one. Maybe, James thought, rubbing the barley between his finger and thumb, his whole life had been his zenith.

A to Y: Yore

Sam couldn’t believe their luck. Not only was the bagpipe set a minimal part of the museum exhibit, and not only did they have to pick it up them self, and not only were they given the whole thing in one piece in nothing but a plastic bag from a grocery store, but they missed the last bus of the night.

They collapsed on the bench and the bagpipes sighed in their lap. They knew they could call a cab, or just walk, but they decided they needed to take a break before they could bear taking another step. The expensive, giant, useless instrument was heavy and awkward to carry, and Sam just wanted to throw it on the ground and dig their heels into it. It was only going to be in the museum to show a modern set of bagpipes as compared to the ancient set in the “Instruments of Yore” exhibit. It wasn’t even important. There wasn’t even any history.

Sam closed their eyes and held their head in their hands, their elbows joining the tangle of pipes and plaid in their lap. When they finally raised their eyes they nearly screamed in surprise—a man was sitting next to them, a disheveled man with clothes that matched the bagpipes and skin nearly as black as Sam’s (though, very few people are as dark as Sam). Sam fought the urge to run. The man smiled, and his mouth smelled like the subway.

“I was wondering if you were alright, Ma’am,” the man said. “Are you alright?”

Sam nodded, not quite looking in his eyes.

“Is that a bagpipes?” he asked. He must be fifty, maybe sixty, Sam thought. Sam was barely twenty. They searched for another person, for help, but the two of them were alone on the darkening street.

“It’s for a museum,” Sam said, and their voice cracked. They tried to keep their face neutral but weren’t sure how they were doing. The man kept his hands folded in his lap, but somehow that scared Sam more.

“Mind if I play it?” the man asked. “I used to play; my mom bought me one when I was little.”

Sam handed him the bagpipes, and his grimy fingers grazed their wrist. Sam couldn’t imagine telling their boss that they let a strange homeless man play the museum’s bagpipes. They didn’t care at the moment, as long as the man didn’t try to touch them.

The man played pretty well. Better than Sam expected. Amazing, even. They played a jumpy dance tune for nearly five minutes, his hands squeezing the fabric and adjusting the pipes as he went. It seemed like he may go on forever, which Sam may not have minded, but he suddenly succumbed to a coughing attack. The coughs were wet, violent.

“Sorry,” he said, between hacks louder than gunshots. “Pneumonia, I think. Thank you, Ma’am. That took me back.” He was smiling with smelly teeth. “See you around.”

The man left. Played a beautiful song and left. Sam made it back to the museum and even had time to arrange the bagpipes behind the display glass. In the end, though it was scary, they were glad they had met the Bagpipe Man. Now, in the halls of sculptures and crowns, even the useless modern bagpipes in the “Instruments of Yore” had a bit of history to them.

A to X: Xenia

Bonnie had recently taken up meditation. She sat crosslegged on the kitchen floor while her bagel toasted, breathing deeply.

As they always did when she cleared her mind, her regrets flooded her. She wasted her money for an artsy degree she doesn’t use, she broke Michael’s heart, she never calls her mother, she—

Inhale…exhale. She tried to clear her mind, to focus on the color of her eyelids, the feel of her wrists on her knees. Positive energy. Body filling up with white light, mouth exhaling dark smoke.

She moved one hand to her stomach, right below her bellybutton and pressed firmly. “Xenia,” she whispered. “Xenia…Xenia…”

The bagel popped out the toaster and she jumped, eyes snapping open. Craig was there, perched on the counter, watching her with a smile.

“You’re pretty when you meditate,” he said, then hopped down to get a plate for the bagel.

“How long were you there?” Bonnie kissed his cheek that still smelled like stage makeup and rummaged in the fridge for the jam.

“Not long. I didn’t want to disturb you.” He began making coffee. “Who’s Xenia?”

“It’s the Greek concept of welcoming guests.”

Craig laughed. “Look at you. A redhead girl of Belgian descent with a Spanish name using a Greek word to meditate. So worldly!”

“Oh, hush.”

They turned on the radio and began breakfast with soft rock and a brief waltz around the table.

“The Greek concept of welcoming guests,” Craig said as Bonnie polished off the first half of her bagel. “Are your parents coming or something?”

“No…”

“My parents coming?”

“Silly! No.”

“Well, what guests are we welcoming? Friends?”

“I don’t know.” Bonnie kissed his nose. “None, I guess. I just thought, well.”

She looked down at her tiny belly.

“We’ve been having trouble, so I thought maybe it would help, that’s all.”

Craig melted. He stood slowly, wrapped his arms around her from behind. “Darling…I love you.”

“I love you too.” Then she turned, quick and violent. “Why isn’t this easy? Why is every single thing difficult? Why couldn’t we have just dated out of high school, and got married after college, and had a baby easily, and both have stable jobs and a good income?”

She ran her hands down her reddening face, rushed to her purse on the kitchen table and pulled out a hair band. She threw her hair up in a bun then gave a frustrated huff, her hands planted on her hips.

“I know it’s not all supposed to be easy,” she said, her voice softening. “But it would be nice if something was. Like, anything.”

Craig touched his lips, nodding. He put his coffee on the counter, then went to Bonnie and took both her hands in his.

“Hey. Let’s go do something. I have an idea that will cheer you up.”

Bonnie pulled on a sweatshirt and they walked together into the crisp morning. It was a fine, rosy October morning that convinced Craig to walk instead of taking the subway. They chatted on the way, and Bonnie slowly brightened up. They talked about Shakespeare, architecture, the history of paprika, and pottery. Bonnie told him about the time she took a pottery class. Craig told her about the party in San Diego when his castmate didn’t smash the break-away vase.

“It ruined the whole scene!” he said, and she laughed so loud it echoed off buildings.

They were a rainbow, walking down the street: Bonnie’s orange hair, pink top and yellow shorts complemented Craig’s blue jeans and green button down. They brightened up the city patchwork of silver and black.

“Here,” Craig said, stopping short by the playground. It was empty, except for one grandmother and a young boy. School was in session, of course.

“The playground?”

“Yeah! I thought, maybe, you would want to—”

“Go on the swings?”

They smiled wide and ran for it, racing each other across the woodchips. Craig won by half a second, his hands grabbing the chain links of the swing and making it jangle. He pushed off and soared, even though the set seemed too small for his body, even though he swore the frame began to sway with his weight.

Bonnie caught up to his height soon, and they swung together in the cool air. Bonnie’s wild hair, pulled back for once, revealed her closed blissful eyes and huge smile. When she opened her eyes she caught Craig’s gaze and laughed. Craig laughed with her, competed with her to swing higher.

As they swung together, Craig decided he would like to marry Bonita, his best friend, the one he had once dubbed Bonnie the Brave, the one who never stopped dressing like a kaleidoscope. He would ask her soon, he told himself. Maybe today.

A to W: Walk

When James McClane and Betty went on their first date, they decided to take a walk around the square. They poked their noses in the pet store, shared a milkshake, and ended the day by the fountain that never ran. The still water was clear and rippled in the wind, making the bottom full of coins shiver.

James still hated the small town, but hated it less when Betty was around. She liked going to the places that faded into the background. She knew which waiter at the diner would give her a discounted root beer. She had secret rocks by the pond where she hid a pack of cigarettes and matches of different sizes that she took one-by-one out of her father’s study. She and James shared one on their first date, both trying not to cough more than the other.

Betty made their town seem big. James let her lead him all over the dirt roads, and he reciprocated her efforts by teaching her harmonica. She sewed holes in his pockets, he opened her jam jars, she assured him his moustache was even on both sides, he practiced on his sister’s old doll until he could French braid her hair. They were a single unit in a matter of weeks, an amalgamation of their strengths and weaknesses.

 

Their child, Michael, asked out Susie Q. his junior year of high school, and on their first date they decided to take a walk around the square. They landed at the diner, where they shared a basket of fries and talked about the cycle of human misunderstanding, the meaninglessness of waking up, their favorite places to be alone. They went to the fountain, and Susie Q. stole some coins when no one was looking. Michael thought she was dangerous, sexy, dark.

They drove to the middle of the cornfield and smoked a cigarette together. Michael breathed in lightly and held the smoke in his mouth. Susie Q. sucked on it like a straw, and Michael’s mouth went dry watching her.

She wore long sleeves every day, even in the summer heat, even with shorts so tiny they were closer in shape to a bathing suit, and halfway through their first date she told him why, unprompted. She rolled up her sleeves to show what she called her “battle scars,” her eyes flat and unwavering, her voice strangely proud as she described the sharp objects and excuses she used. Michael held her hand as she spoke, though it didn’t seem like she needed much comfort. He wondered what made her so sad. He wondered if he would ever be so sad as to follow her lead.

 

Years later, Michael asked out Bonnie after their first dance class. He was still technically dating Susie-Q.-turned-Sue-Anne, but their relationship was crumbling with time and distance and he didn’t want to miss his chance with the redhead who leaned into his nervous hands. On their first date, they took a walk around Central Park, ended up sitting by the pond and talking about their hopes for college, their majors, their roommates. She laughed like wind chimes.

Bonnie was easy, happy, bouncy. She missed home but loved New York. She missed her old friends, and talked far too much about a boy named Craig whom she swore she never dated. Michael bought her ice cream and pizza and candy, until she told him she wanted to pay for herself. They did the dance class for awhile, then pottery class, then poetry, Bonnie leading him from activity to activity with the attention span of a small dog. Michael let her lead him, captivated by her optimism, her love of folk music, her passion for Scrabble and her failed attempts to shuffle cards. She taught him the fun of watching muted horror movies while playing ill-fitting music, and he taught her how to cook everything from eggs to steak-tip salad. They ended their first year a Renaissance couple, jacks of all trades and masters of some.

 

Craig’s first date with Michelle actually went swimmingly. They went for a walk around their college campus and she gave him his first joint, which made him cough for five minutes straight and then get so dizzy they had to sit on a bench for awhile. Craig was sure he was blowing it. Michelle liked this new boy, she was already addicted to his innocence. She wanted to be his first everything. She was tired of being single, and she could tell Craig was, too.

They ate at the dining hall, since it was “fake money,” and then walked more in the quad as the sun set over the rolling hills. Michelle walked him to the soccer field as Craig’s woozy mind processed the feel of wet grass tickling his ankles. They chatted about the beauty of the sky, the loneliness of school, the fact that orientation had been rather over-the-top.

Michelle brought him under the bleachers and told him to lay down. There was already a blue tarp there, and a pillow, though both seemed years old. Michelle explained she knew about them from her older friends who also went to their college. Craig was having a hard time comprehending her words, as her voice had such an interesting texture to it he only wanted to listen to its rise and fall, its smooth rumble and its harsh whisper.

Michelle told him to lay still. She wanted to do all the work. Craig laid on the rustling tarp, his head on the dirt-caked pillow, and stared through the bleachers at the moon as Michelle made love to him. He held perfectly still, as she asked. Vaguely, he realized he should have told her he was a virgin. Vaguely, he realized he wasn’t wearing a condom and had no idea about Michelle’s history or chances of getting pregnant. But as she lifted his hands off the ground and placed them on her body, all thoughts were wiped clean from his mind. It felt nice, to not worry about anything. Craig decided he wanted to remain worriless as long as possible.

 

Years later, Michael woke up in Susie Q.’s home in Nahant to the sound of a giggling child. Susie Q. shushed her daughter, told her that their guest was still sleeping. After a breakfast spent bonding with the adorable girl, the three of them went for a walk. It was so easy to fall into this version of Susie Q. She was far less angry, and her arms, though peppered with faint scars, were whole and uncut. She still liked her screamy music, but was very careful which songs she played around her daughter.

She didn’t smoke at all anymore, and her little job paid for her little house and little girl. She said if Michael helped pay for bills and groceries he could stay as long as he like. Michael, who already loved her daughter, did.

Though it felt improvisational, they followed the usual script of a rekindled friendship. They would stay friends, they decided, both knowing that was temporary.

 

Bonnie and Craig decided that after both their marriages fell apart in various tragic ways to remain only friends, both knowing that was temporary. After quite some time both living in Craig’s small apartment, they went on a first date. A walk around Central Park.

They took a horse carriage, sipping at coffees, chatting about careers and tours and disasters and successes, how tired they were of New York City, Craig’s dance classes and Bonnie’s broken shoes. She insisted she didn’t need new shoes but it was decided—shoe shopping.

Bonnie giggled as Craig had her try on a set of ridiculously high heels and strangely-shaped sneakers with vibrant colored laces. He then pulled out a pair that she loved, that fit her perfectly. They laughed about how much it reminded them of Cinderella.

That night, laying side by side on Craig’s bed so close their noses touched when they smiled, they laughed about how after more than twenty-five years of friendship they were only now having their first date. Technically. Bonnie sighed about all the things they went to, adjacently. They went to prom together, but with different dates, for example.

Craig said that that was okay. That life isn’t a movie, and there are no finish lines. That prom is silly anyhow, and that they both wanted different things for a long time, until now, he hoped. Bonnie said that she had wanted to kiss him a million times in high school. Craig said that when he met her in first grade he thought he loved her for awhile. Bonnie lamented again the time they had lost.

Craig told her not to worry about the past. They were here now, however broken the paths were behind them. Bonnie asked if he would be angry if she was still sad about Michael. Craig said no, as long as she wasn’t angry if he was still sad about Michelle.

“Are we broken people?” Bonnie asked, scooting closer so she could hug Craig close.

“In a good way, yes.”

Craig held her for the last hours of their first date, remembering all that had led up to that moment, from their exes to their parents to their ancestors, back to the beginning of human history. The chances that they’d even know each other at all were so slim that they had to forgive the universe for not letting them be together until now.

Craig breathed in the scent of her hair and smiled, thankful that they had finally fallen in love with each other at the same time.

A to V: Vacancy

Warning–slight adult content, nothing graphic. PG-13 at most.

 

Michael McClane didn’t know where to go, so he just sat in his driveway, his truck running but not moving. He wanted his parents, but he couldn’t go home with bad news, not with his father as sick as he was.

“I could go,” Michael said to the empty truck. “And just pretend I’m there to visit Dad. Mom would understand.”

Well, sure, but he didn’t want his mother knowing, either. He was the success of the family, the one who went to college, the one who married his beautiful girlfriend and moved to the city, the one with the job that paid a lot of money and didn’t require calloused hands. He wanted his parents to remain proud and unworried, even if his life was worrisome and nothing to be proud of.

Is this because he wanted kids? Was that so strange to want, eight years into a marriage?

The front door of their building opened, and there was Bonnie, avoiding looking at his truck and running to the corner where she called for taxis. She wore black pants and a brown jacket. She moved so delicately, walking toe-first. One arm was raised in the misty twilight and a taxi stopped for her.

“I could stay,” Michael said, but it was the last thing he wanted to do. He didn’t care if his entire wardrobe, computer, and life was in that apartment; he was never going in there again.

Not here, not home. Where, then? Michael took out his phone. So many of his friends were mutual friends of his and Bonnie’s. He wasn’t ready for them to know. No, not a coworker. No, no, definitely not Bonnie’s family. No.

Sue Anne. Sue Anne? Last he heard, Sue Anne was in Massachusetts. Not too far from New York; he could probably make it there by midnight. Michael McClane needed a place to stay. He put the car in drive.

 

Bonnie stopped the taxi at the motel about two miles from her house. She, too, didn’t want to go back to the apartment. The sign above the hotel blinked “VACANCY” in neon blue. She went inside, and asked for the Wu room.

“Right away, Mrs. Wu,” said the woman at the desk. Bonnie wrinkled her nose but didn’t correct her. It didn’t matter, anyway.

Craig was already in the room, watching television under the covers. He smiled halfway when she came in. She shut the door and sat beside him in the bed. He was silent. They sat still for a moment.

“Oh, Craig,” she said and burst into tears. Craig held her until she said something unintelligible, garbled by her tears, and shrugged him off. She wailed into a pillow, and Craig looked at his blanket-covered toes, unsure how to comfort her without a hug. Eventually he got her a glass of water and a bit of toilet paper to use as a tissue.

After awhile, Bonnie laid down and asked Craig to hold her, which he did. He nestled his body behind her shaking frame and held her firmly, inhaling her scent, certain it was the last time he’d be able to be with her like this. Their bodies glowed under the flashing neon sign and the muted television.

“I’m sorry,” Craig said.

“For what?”

It flashed in both their memories—Michael shouting, “What the hell is this?” and dropping his keys on the floor.

Craig and Bonnie were always very careful. Michael was supposed to be out of the house for a week, but he came home early. A surprise, for his loving wife.

Of course, it was just about the worst time for him to come home. Craig and Bonnie had been sleeping with each other for months already, starting just a couple years after Michelle’s death and just two weeks after Craig landed his dream job on Broadway. He had burst into Bonnie’s life with a smile full of nostalgic optimism, and Bonnie couldn’t resist. Her life had become beige, an endless cycle of a boring job in the day and making up excuses to not sleep with Michael at night. She still loved Michael, yes. But here came Craig, everything she ever wanted, and yes, she loved him too.

Anyhow, they had been together countless times by then. That night though, last night, Bonnie asked for the one thing Michael wouldn’t do.

“Nothing too painful,” she said before Craig could react to her request. “Just…a little. I mean, we can use scarves or something.”

“Anything you want, Bonnie,” Craig said, kissing her nose, laughing. “We can try it, anyway, see how it goes.”

And so, at Bonnie’s request, Craig tied her arms and legs to her bed with scarves. They would save the blindfold for another time, they decided. Baby steps.

He kissed her lightly, and as he became more comfortable he began to find her restrictions enticing. He could tease her, he could reach every part of her, he was free to do as he pleased. And Bonnie wanted this! Craig felt happy, hungry for her. Craig kissed her more, his mind groggy.

The bedroom door slammed open.

Then Michael roared at them, frozen in the doorway. Craig turned his head and only saw Michael coming right for him. Craig’s veins flooded with adrenaline; he leapt off the bed.

“What the hell are you doing to her?” Michael paced to the foot of the bed, shoulders hunched and rolling like a tiger. His large hands were in fists.

“Michael, wait,” Bonnie said, out of breath. She squirmed against her restraints but they held her in place.  “Wait, you don’t understand—”

Michael punched Craig square in the face, sending Craig against the wall and nightstand. A glass of water toppled and spilled on the carpet, the alarm clock hung off the front of the table by its wire. Craig clutched his face, then took his hand away for half a second and was greeted with a second blow. He was sent to his knees. Michael kicked his chest and Craig coughed, fell to his side.

“Michael!” Bonnie shouted, eyes streaming with tears.

He came to her, began untying her hands. “Honey,” he whispered. “Honey it’s okay, you’re okay, now.”

“I know,” Bonnie sputtered, trying to get a better look at Craig’s injury. “You just…you just like…is he…?”

Michael’s eyes widened, then his jaw set. He untied one arm then paced away to force her to untie the rest herself.

“Ah. Now I understand,” Michael said, surveying his struggling wife and her beaten lover, the latter squirming helpless on the floor. Michael pointed at Craig. “Get him out of here, now.”

 

Hours later, in the hotel with blinking blue Vacancy, Bonnie sobbed into the blankets. Craig rubbed her back. His face hurt still, but his nose didn’t seem broken and his teeth were all in place. His eye would be bruised in the morning though, he was sure of it.

“This isn’t how it was supposed to happen,” Bonnie said after her sobbing had died down. “I feel so empty.”

No more Michael…why couldn’t she just pick one thing and stick with it? She looked over her shoulder, and Craig smiled sadly at her. It was enough to bring on a second fit of tears.

 

Around two in the morning, Michael’s pick-up pulled into Sue Anne’s driveway. She emerged from the porch in a bathrobe and slippers.

“Hush,” she said as he came to the door. “My daughter’s sleeping.”

“Thank you so much, Sue Anne.”

“Sure…and hey,” she said, taking his jacket from him and smiling. “It’s Susie Q., again.”

A to U: Universe

The universe didn’t care. It went on moving at fantastic speeds. Gravity kept pulling at it, or not. Comets shot through it, or not. Stars burned, planets spun, atoms burst, or not. It didn’t care. Matter changed forms. Things were created, then destroyed. Deep blackness was perforated with specks of something, bits of carbon and hydrogen and light. The universe went on.

One tiny corner of a tiny galaxy of the enormous universe was this planet, mainly blue, mostly rock, but full of life.

This life took different forms. One form of life was called human. They were large and strong, but not the largest nor the strongest. They were rather bright, when they tried to be. Their manner is hard to describe. Sophisticated. Destructive. Intelligent. Short sighted. Violent. Loving. Enduring. Yes, that is perhaps the best word. Enduring.

The humans, today, live in a strange time. They were killing their planet, and they knew it but weren’t stopping it. They were trying to spread love and hope through bullets and exclusion. They spent hours upon days upon weeks discussing the shades of brown they came in and which god, if any, was real.

However, they endured.

They found ways to live without a limb, without a heart. They found ways to capture live images to remember later. They found ways to capture live animals, wild and sharp-toothed, and make them their friends. They found ways to survive hunger, they found ways to survive war, they found ways to help each other, and themselves.

They never stopped trying, not even when it seemed hopeless. Not even when it was hopeless. They were an incredible force of nature.

The universe didn’t care. It never does. It let itself be pulled by gravity. It let things be created, then destroyed. It let the busy, loud, violent, loving, enduring, breathing, fighting humans live on Earth and do as they pleased with it. It didn’t care.

Every human, at some point in their short lives, realizes this. They may be driving their giant machines, or lying in their beds, or playing with their children, or sitting in the rain. They realize in this moment that nothing matters, that the universe doesn’t care about them. Most of them wake up the next morning and are okay with that fact. Some don’t.

Michelle had this thought after the worst few months of her life, after a crying, hissing human ripped its way out of her body and tormented her endlessly. After its birth shortly came its death–they called it “Sudden Infant Death,” they said it had no cause. After its death her husband came home and hugged her stiffly. She didn’t know how to react. He had barely met their son. Three out of the four weeks it was breathing he was gone.

Michelle was driving away from her husband when she realized the universe didn’t care about her. Part of her argued that it did, but she knew it wasn’t true. She was a meaningless speck, with a streak of bad luck, that the universe didn’t care about.

That settled things, for Michelle.

She drove until she could make herself cry. She didn’t want to die with dry eyes. It only took a moment, then she pressed the pedal to the floor of the car like they do in the movies. 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 miles per hour.

Her life flashed by in a series of hims. She only recognized them by number, until Craig, and then Riley. Riley….

The universe went on moving. Gravity kept pulling at it, or not. Comets shot through it, or not. Stars burned, planets spun, atoms burst, or not. It didn’t care.

In a small corner of the universe, on a small road on a small planet, Michelle Wu’s car collided with the forest. The steering wheel hit her, and she made some gasping noise. A disappointing last word, she thought, and then she was gone. And the universe went on.