by Jackie Snax
Rising tides, the wreckage of a post war Philly, and one family's journey to reunite.
|Five Hours Before:
“This is what we’re selling, people. Familiarize yourself with it. Get to know it. Its bulk. Its smell.”
Tye was very pointedly not looking at Lemon, who was nudging her repeatedly.
Up ahead at the front of the office, Mr. Dougherty was showing them how to put on a backpack. To be more specific, he was showing them how to put on the Explorer SSX 5000. She could even be more specific than that. She knew the thermal duracity of it (it could survive on both Pluto and (parts of) Mercury). She knew about all the features - the included water bottle, or ‘chuga-gallon.’ The water-proof fabric. The durability of it. She had a video saved on her comp where someone literally threw this backpack into a volcano, and it stayed intact and did not go up in flames as it sunk beneath the surface. She had another video, where the backpack fell off a cliff and into a river while attached to a dummy, and then it went over a waterfall. It was fine, after. Because obviously after all that, that would be priority #1 - did my Explorer SSX 5000 make it? Tye knew everything about this fucking backpack.
It was her job to call people on the phone and to tell them one or two of these facts before they hung up on her.
Well, that wasn’t always true. Every now and then she’d hit someone who cared, and when they cared, they cared - ‘gear snobs’ always wanted to see all the videos, hear all the facts, so for that one in one hundred person she hit every now and then, she had to keep herself refreshed. And that meant going to these pep courses where the boss - who had definitely been that one in one hundredth person in a younger, fitter life, and remained a (now stationary) gear snob - told them to just touch the backpack, every now and then, really know the backpack.
“Feel the backpack,” Lemon hissed in her ear, “Feel it enter you, slowly. Don’t just caress it - let it caress you.”
“Shut. Up.” Tye hissed out the corner of her mouth, biting down on the inside of her cheek. Mr. Doughtery caught her eye, though, and something bitter passed through his face, and Tye’s heart sank.
“Ahem. That’s all. I hope this was useful to some of you,” Dougherty said, before he put the backpack back on its little front-desk throne and slunk back into his office. Tye watched him go, feeling a familiar jolt of fear, even though she knew, logically, he couldn’t just fire her because she’d laughed at him.
Lemon pinched her side. Tye swung around, punching her shoulder hard enough to raise questions about meaning it as they meandered slowly back out towards their cubicles.
“Ouch!” Lemon whined, “Come on, you’re no fun.”
“That poor old man thought we were laughing at him!” Tye snapped.
“You mean your boss thought we were laughing at him,” Lemon corrected, correctly, and Tye glared, “and we were,” Lemon added.
“No. You were. I was listening intently; you were the one dragging me into it. Not that he gave a damn about you doing anything wrong.”
“Hey, unfair!” Perfectly fair. Lemon’s dad helped run AedosDynamic. She could probably take a dump on Mr. Doughtery’s desk and he’d just sigh, exhausted. Then maybe glare at Tye.
They reached their cubicles, back to back, and Tye put her headset on, smoothing her skirt out as Lemon flopped onto her chair and wheeled backwards towards Tye, legs splayed, head back. Tye kicked her gently away with her flat foot (no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t handle high heels enough to confidently make them part of this mask) as she dutifully opened her number list and pressed ‘continue.’
“Hello, my name is Tye, and I’m calling you from AedosDynamic, here to talk about the -”
Tye didn’t even pause, reaching forward and pressing ‘continue’ for the next number while Lemon stared blankly at her own monitor, bored and petulant.
Tye hadn’t been sure they’d get along at first, Lemon being a rich white girl whose parents had literally looked down at her yellow haired baby head and thought ‘Lemon is a perfect name,’ and then of course Lemon being raised by these people her whole life. Honestly, Tye still wasn’t sure they got along. She definitely wasn’t sure she really liked Lemon, much as she willingly hung out with her at work (and maybe made out with her only two times and they were high both times so it barely counted anyway).
But the fact was, Tye sucked at being who she’d decided she was for this job. Her stockings itched. Her butt bones hurt from sitting all day. Sensible pencil skirts were insensible for movement, not to mention existence. And bras that cupped each individual tit - something Tye honestly hadn’t bothered with since her wedding, seventeen years ago - were like the devil’s itchy wire rimmed hands always just grabbing at her, poking her, not comfy, no, nope, not good at all.
And more than anything, it was the absurdity of it all, and the fact that without Lemon, she was alone in recognizing it.
Tye dialed again. This time, shockingly, she got someone who was willing to listen - a little old lady whose granddaughter camped all the time, and what do you know, her birthday was coming up soon. Tye started rattling off statistics as the woman started to ask how much it was, hoping to convince her before that shocker landed on her mind.
Lemon licked her finger and started reaching towards Tye, who immediately kicked back off her desk and flowed dizzily down the hall, a few of her other coworkers glancing up as she went by.
The woman asked how much it was. Tye finally told her. She apologized profusely before hanging up.
The scooting had inadvertently brought Tye back to the front. She stared at the Explorer SSX 5000 vacantly, the thing propped reverently up on a special desk that faced them all, like a judge. It came with plasticky clean bright gear - The chuga-galon, of course. Some incredibly expensive trail mix and granola bars. Compass and maps. A stupid little sleeping bag and a stupid little puffy vest that was bright orange and so ugly and she wanted it so bad.
Then she looked up and caught a glance at her reflection in the tinted glass windows into Doughterty’s office, expression bored, head back, legs splayed, and she immediately scooted back to her desk, shame running through her.
She’d meant to be a certain kind of person for this job. She had constructed her mask, her character so carefully. She was gonna be Tye Baker of the Microsoft Community Tower - raised clean and practical, lover of organization and baking - a hobby that just went so zanily with her last name! Right! That was funny! She’d imagined laughing about it by the water cooler. She was gonna learn how to bake! Bring a pie into work every now and then! Smile emptily, but in a friendly way. Impress people. Not! Be! This loser fuckup!
Tye clicked through to another number. Blah blah blah blah blah.
Lemon mimed choking, and then mouthed the word ‘lunch?’ hopefully.
The truth was, Tye was very bad at being anything other than who she was. The true Tye down beneath wasn’t good at being covered up by anything, even something useful and grown up, like this lie. And that was where Lemon came in. Lemon was, at the very least, also a loser fuckup, even if her fuckups had had almost zero consequences. She was ‘sour’ enough (haha) to make this place bearable. She said out loud what Tye, the Real Tye, was thinking.
And the real Tye was frankly being smothered by this. The real Tye needed someone to say the shit running through her head. She honestly couldn’t stand the alternative of simply being silent, letting herself be entirely smothered by a lie she sometimes doubted even worked. Literally couldn’t stand it, couldn’t keep it up, because god knows, she’d tried. Was trying. Constantly.
It was difficult to exist here. Tye hadn’t really taken that into account when she’d initially been planning this. When she’d first put the work and effort into constructing this mask - paying off a tower dweller to use her mailbox, dutifully thrifting and then stitching up her work clothes, memorizing empty facts about the school she’d gone to and what her fake parents did, facts she had literally never once had to whip out because no one here cared two shits about you at all.
No one cared. No one.
“It’s all worth it,” she reminded herself. Looked at the pictures of Xena - some printed out on the company printer, some stiff dignified shots from school back when they weren’t saving and could afford school photos. One of her as a baby, Dom wrapped around both of them. The other an old one of both of them, together, Xena in her best clothes, her chubby face dimpled up with smile; Goober leaning loyally against her, tongue lolling. At sixteen, she still sort of looked like that toddler - at least to Tye. Chubby and dimpled, same as she had been as a squirming babe puddled in Tye’s arms. Perfect.
Tye sat up. Pasted on a smile. They can hear whether or not you’re smiling, Dougherty always said. Clicked ‘next.’
Blah blah blah blah.
Three Hours Before:
Xena had four pencils lined up in descending order of length on her desk, all with the engraving facing upwards, all touching. She had three notebooks in her backpack. Two binders. One comp.
This was pleasing. But it was only pleasing, she did not need it, and that was an important distinction.
Up ahead, the teacher passed in front of the window. She paced - was always pacing. That was pleasing, too. She’d tried to explain this to her mother once and Tye had assumed - it’s pleasing because you can still see shadows, sort of, can definitely see light and dark, and you like knowing where she is - and then gotten stuck on that (the way that seeing people tend to get stuck on the seeing thing), not really fully listening when Xena tried to say that yes, that was nice and all, but really it was the fact that the light changed at all, that she spoke, walked, and shifted the lights. She opened her mouth and the world altered. That was cool, right? Cool.
Goober was making a snuffing, glugging noise. That meant one of two things, and if she was eating something found on the floor of the classroom, that wasn’t too hot, either.
Xena kicked her lightly, some kind of weird secondhand embarrassment rising up in her gut. Next to her, a new girl named Troya, who’d in a stroke of luck been made to sit next to her (the only empty seats were next to Xena but still! Luck!) giggled. Goober snuffed and jumped a little. The noise resumed.
Xena covered her face with her hands. She didn’t really know why this got to her. Goober licking her junk in the classroom. It just felt a little too much, sometimes, like they were the same person, her and this dog. They slept in the same bed, hung out with the same people (Mom and Martha and also the band teacher, and sometimes even the school librarian). They ate at the same time, bathed one after another, her before dog, but the same water to save. Goober walked her to school and home. Goober’s existence impacted everything in her life - whether she got hit by a car, whether people were too scared to come near her, everything.
Goober had even entered Xena’s life exactly when her world shifted the most. ‘Seeing’ Xena, little chicken that she was, into anime and painting and weird little kid things like collecting dead birds, had gone into a little cocoon, and when blind Xena had blossomed out on the other side (the real Xena), Goober had been there. Her mom had looked down at her little cocoon daughter, soon to emerge legally sightless, quietly lost her shit for a while, and then, when she’d heard of pit-mastiff puppies being sold on the edge of Mt. Danu market, promptly stormed over there and bought the biggest, fiercest looking one.
So far as she was concerned, Goober had been there since the beginning. They were the same. They were.
So in a way, Xena herself was slouched over in the middle of the classroom, licking away with the loudest, most shameless slurpy noise ever. Nope. Nooope nope nope nope.
She kicked Goober again. This time, Goober growled. She felt the room shift. Troya’s giggle turned into a hiccup. Wonderful.
The bell rang even though the teacher wasn’t done, was in the middle of a lecture, so Xena stayed seated, waiting politely as the rest of the room rose around her. Goober stretched, her spine popping, and the teacher said in a defeated voice, “Thank you for waiting, Xena, but you can go.”
Xena dutifully rose and packed her stuff. Grabbed Goober’s special harness and allowed herself to be tugged along with the flow of people. Goobs didn’t have to be told where to go - they’d done this enough times Goober knew. Locker first - remember your comp and jacket, remember to take your waterbottle home for washing, remember your flute - and then out with the rest of her classmates, past the security guards with their now uncaring metal detectors, past the crowds of loiterers still hanging around, still with things to hang around for. Out, stop, cross, turn, walk, descend. Swipe, let go of Goober so she can leap over, push through the clicking claw of the wheel, walk to the left, sit. Wait. Listen.
Voices, echoing. When it was silent she could sometimes hear little claws pittering away, the spark and fff of a cigarette being lit, the lapping of the water that was always a few feet high these days in the divots between the tracks. Now it was just noise. Couldn’t hear anything else except -
The rumble first. Then the blare. Then the waves, water rolling forward, sometimes a grizzly warm spray around her ankles. Then it was all louder, more, a pressure building in the air, and then a burst as the hot wind of it broke. the el screeching up to the tracks, subway river in a frenzy. The el changed the world, too. What was left of it, anyway.
Board. Sit. Scratch Goober’s ears because she’s a good girl. Listen to the television - violent Mt. Danu district rioters showing no remorse over the death of young Candace Englebright, killed last week in a train derailment caused by - stop listening to the tv. Wait silently for-
It took Xena a moment to realize that was directed at her. But sure enough, a pillar of shadow, a person in her little bubble of space. Troya. Troya, the new girl.
“Um,” Xena started, then swallowed, “Hello?”
“Your dog is so cool! Can I pet her?”
You’re supposed to say no to that. “Yeah! Sure! Absolutely!”
Then she willed everything to go alright. And it sort of did! Silence while Troya tried to pet Goober, who ducked her head away dutifully every time, finally growling low in her throat, ending the attempt. This is where Troya leaves.
Troya laughed. “Whoa, tough stuff, eh? One of my dogs is like that. I bet you’re a big softie, though.” This last part said in a schmoopy kind of voice, so it probably was not directed at Xena, but she still felt her face heat. Goober was definitely not a big softie. Neither was she.
“I’m Troya, by the way. I uh. Dunno if you caught that. I’m new here. So, yeah. Hi.”
There had been too much silence, Xena realized. She had made it awkward. She had fucked it up.
“I live here,” she said quickly as the el thankfully pulled to a stop.
“Oh,” Troya said in a weird voice, “Uh, ok. See you in class tomorrow!”
“Right,” Xena said, “Bye,” and then she got off around ten blocks away from her house, defeat boiling her bones.
Two Hours Before:
“- a train derailment caused by an intentional blockage on the tracks, in which rioters refused to move despite police direction.”
“You know, Harper, I just don’t understand these “Mt. Danu” protesters. All were paid an - I dare say - rather hefty sum for their “houses” when the land was bought by SkyLife corp. Now, why not use that money to simply buy a unit in the tower being built? It’s not supposed to be as expensive as many of the other towers, anyway. Why so insistent on continuing grounder life when a ticket to ‘higher’ living, excuse the pun, has literally been handed to you?”
“That was years ago, Porter. You know, I think that’s what this is really about. They didn’t invest the money in any way towards anything useful, like, for instance, housing that’s not going to be underwater in a matter of decades. Now none of them can afford to move into the tower, and instead of blaming their own bad planning, they’re blaming the rest of the city. Holding out for another handout, maybe.”
“No, but some of them truly do seem very devoted to the idea of continuing to live in their current, crumbling ground houses. If they wanted another handout I think they’d be asking for that; they don’t seem to have any shame in any other area, so why not? They seem to truly desire a continued existence in their own decrepit, ancient neighborhoods. Some of these houses haven’t even been updated since 2020, 2010 even! Most aren’t even designated, state-approved living spaces anymore. Why aren’t these people fleeing skywards at the first opportunity like the rest of us?”
“You’d think the floods would encourage it, at the very least. Ground level flooding has only been worsening in the last few years, and it’s only a matter of time till we pull a Florida and the water just stays.”
“You know, I know it’s horrible to say, but I’ve sort of been looking forward to that!”
Laughter. Actual laughter.
“Like - no more of these rioters, no more big grounder vs ‘uppie’ controversy, and hey! It’ll be like Venice! Anyone else remember Venice?”
“You’re so old, Porter!”
Tye was clenching her fists so hard her stubby, bitten down nails were reaching her palm, sparking little shots of pain, not enough, don’t do it don’t do it you dumbass don’t -
She stood up. Walked calmly over to the craft’s snack counter. Leaned forward. Whispered - “Pardon me, Ma’am, but do you think maybe you could turn that shit off?”
The lady at the counter’s eyes widened. She glanced once at her coworker, who shrugged, uncaring, continuing to flip through something on her comp. They turned that shit off.
“Oh thank you, honey.” Tye said, smiling once before walking back to where Lemon was sitting, staring at her eagerly like she was gonna put on a show, always like she was gonna put on a show, why.
“I love it when you get all political,” Lemon said.
“That wasn’t me getting all political,” Tye said shortly. Because it really wasn’t. No one at work had ever seen that, she’d been able to hold that back, thank god. Anyway - Badger Broadcasting was discredited and hated by quite a few people, many of which didn’t get ‘political’ the way Tye got political, when she got political.
“Still,” Lemon said, “No one I know goes all ‘radical’ like you do.”
Tye had no idea what to say to that.
The rest of the ride passed in silence (praise whatever unholy ghost managed that) as Tye tried to calm down the rage simmering in her gut. The AedosDynamic hover-trolley dropped her off before Lemon, as it did every day. This was a lucky twist of fate, as it allowed her to wait on the tower dock and wave goodbye, as she did every day, as the trolley rounded the traffic circle and then soared off up a highrise.
When it was just a speck she turned, pretended for a long moment to be searching for her key card in her pockets in case for some reason one of her coworkers was still watching, made brief eye contact with the lady at the front desk (who smiled a little too knowingly), and then dialed in the combination of numbers assigned to Gerty’s doorbell.
Gerty buzzed her in without bothering with the intercom. It was Friday at six. She knew who it was. Tye remained composed until she was across the lobby and in the elevator, and it was there that she shut her eyes, squeezed them tight, crossed her fingers hard. Please, please, just let her be in a good mood this time. A rich mood. A generous mood. Generous here meaning - ‘please just let her stop exploiting me and realize she’s doing fine and doesn’t need anything extra this week.’
Gerty answered the door in a velvet purple robe, makeup so solid it made her look edited, unreal, limp pink hair curled and sprayed for whatever was planned tonight, and Tye’s mail already opened and examined, fanned out in her hand. All bad signs.
“You got a raise,” Gerty said in one sighing exhale, smiling slightly.
“I did indeed,” Tye snapped, “I was really looking forward to using that money to maybe buy meds for my diabetic daughter, or food for our table, or maybe pain killers for me, for my headaches, because I’ve been getting them lately, but my guess is you have another idea.”
Gerty’s pristine eyebrows raised, haughty little check marks, “If I didn’t,” she said, “Maybe I would, now. Maybe I’d have one just because you annoyed me. I’m doing you a huge favor, you know.”
Tye sighed and was surprised her whole lungs didn’t pop out with the force of it, “I,” she said, “am aware.”
“I don’t have to let you use my address. I could call those AedosDynamic people up right now and tell them you’re a liar, tell them where you really live, but I won’t, because I’m so charitable.”
Tye raised her eyebrows high at that one.
Gerty giggled. “Also because you’re going to give me a raise, too.”
“Fine,” Tye said, shaking her head, “Fine, fine, fine.”
Gerty smiled. Her lipstick was just outside her lip line, a film of pink around the deeper red of the center. It was also on her teeth, a little. “I’m glad we understand one another,” she said. Tye hated her.
But she still took out her comp. Scanned her identichip, keyed in her code, and transferred this week’s share of her money over to Gerty under Gerty’s watchful eyes, funding whatever Gerty was up to this week that wasn’t already being covered by her other allowances.
What else could she do, really?
One Hour Before:
Xena kicked off her shoes, heard them thunk against the wall, unlatched Goober, and then collapsed onto her couch. Stayed for a while, smelling the familiar home-romas, letting her sweaty feet tingle dry in the air, her shirt a second skin of damp fabric on her back. It had been too hot for three days now, but today hadn’t seemed that bad when she stepped outside this morning. Apparently she’d just needed to spend twenty minutes exerting herself slightly while outside in the afternoon, when all the heat simmered, saved up and sloshed around between the big mirrored towers, stinking up the ground below.
She waited for a moment longer before stretching, grabbing the remote off the side table and flipping their small television on and pushing play on what she knew was a rerun of her namesake, warrior princess. Ma’d been watching it last night, and she knew coming home to it again would make her happy. Tye was always so happy to see Xena doing the things that she herself liked to do. It was a simple, consistent way to indulge her mother, whose voice had been getting harder and thinner lately, more brittle.
She did a few more stretches, checked her blood sugar levels, took a regulator tablet when they were off, as expected. Changed into one of her dad’s old T-shirts and some boxer shorts, put some rice and beans with carrots and onions on the stove, fed Goober, sat down to watch and-
She felt it. She swore, later that she felt it like pressure against her ears, like something, something light as cobwebs, but pushed through her senses in a burst. The beginning.
The tv blipped into a harsh, high pitched beep for a bare few seconds. Goober stopped chewing on her rawhide and whined as the television went off with an electric crackle.
Xena groaned. She clicked the remote a few times and considered getting up to try to fix it. This happened sometimes, so it wasn’t weird, not really, though something tickled at the back of her consciousness, something uncomfortable. A certain stillness.
It was then that Tye burst in through the door, though, and Xena didn’t dwell on it.
“HELLO MY LOVE!” Tye yelled at the top of her lungs, and Xena braced up her arms immediately, giggling as her mother flopped over the back of the couch and onto her, squeezing her tight and pushing a kiss onto her cheek.
“Ma, Ma I can’t breathe! Stop it!” but she could, of course. She hugged her mother back, snickering as Goober butted her head between them and started licking Tye with a ferocity that suggested she hadn’t seen her in months, paws up on the couch for leverage. Tye let out an abrupt raspberry noise, pushing away, “Enough! Enough with the tongue! I missed you too, bud.”
Tye rose and Xena heard her mother’s back crack in several places, a small huff of discomfort the only sign of a hard day at work, but it was there.
“What’s that I smell?”
“Just rice and beans.”
“Oh sweet pea, your rice and beans don’t have a ‘just’ in front of them. I could eat em every day.”
Xena laughed, “Good, because that’s what the menu looks like for this week.” Mistake! Mistake mistake oh fudge -
Tye was quiet for a moment. Then - “I got a raise at work, managed to hide it from Gerty, so we can actually go shopping real soon. Maybe even get some takeout sometime this week, really splurge.”
“Nope! None of that, I’m a grown person making my own money and I get to splurge when I wanna.”
Then fabric rustling, a snap of elastic, and “Ahh! Freedom!”
Conversation forgotten. “Ma! Are you changing in front of me?”
“Xenaaa!! This goddamn boob destroyer has been squeezing the stuffing outta me for hours now, I’ve been waiting forever to get home and it’s not like you can see me-”
“Privacy, please! And the window - someone could look right in and see you!”
“I give you privacy! You’re the one with your own room! And wait wait, see,” she grabbed something from the other side of the couch, a swoosh of fabric from the pile where Tye normally kept her clothes, “and oh, there we go, I’m dressed! No more naked Mom in the living room.”
Tye collapsed back on the couch and rested her head on Xena’s shoulder for a moment. In the last year, Xena had grown to almost her mom’s same height, and tragically, seemed to still be growing. Along with a bulk and girth she had definitely inherited from her father, she knew even same-heightedness gave the effect of her towering over her scrawny string bean of a mother, though they were both ‘short’ by average standards. Tye felt very small and frail right then though, her recently buzzed hair nothing but a downy fuzz over the delicate egg shell of her skull, her brain, where all of her existed, where everything that charged Xena’s world lived.
She sighed and pushed herself up after just that moment, just that second of rest. Then she grabbed the remote and clicked a few times, grumbling when it didn’t immediately work.
“It’s gone out again,” Xena said, reaching for her backpack.
Tye, unlike Xena, immediately stood up and went over to the little thing, poking around at it. Xena put an ear bud in, powering up her little comp, intending to do homework, but it was dead. She pulled the charger out of her bag, plugged it in, but there was no little victory noise that meant it was charging, no little hum of electricity at all.
There were noises outside, though.
And that’s when it happened, the first shots, three of them in quick succession followed by screams.
Xena turned to her mother, cold dread in her gut. This was unusual in Mt. Danu, sure, it was more of a family neighborhood than anything, closely policed by the citizens themselves - but it wasn’t unheard of, shots, not really. Tye let out a noise and then said quickly, “It’ll be ok, baby, that was a long way away and had nothin’ to do with us.”
But then there was a hammering on the door, fists pumping, frame rattling, and Martha from next door was yelling, “Tye! Tye, you there? Xena!”
Tye was at the door in six short strides; there was a fumbling as Martha fell forward, and Tye’s voice when it came wasn’t her mom’s familiar twangy, joking brightness, it was all a hardness she hadn’t heard much in her life, but had always known - because everyone, everyone her mom’s age had that, the war voice, the neutral hard drop and -
“Martha, speak clearly, what is it?”
“They’re gonna gas Mt. Danu!”
Xena stood up. Her legs seemed like a separate part of her, foreign and unstable. Goober was at her side in a second, roving around her, she could feel the disquiet coming off her dog in waves.
“Martha, shut up,” Tye said hard, “I swear, the Mt. Danu rumor mill can be so - you’re scaring my daughter! Look at her!”
Xena very quickly composed her face. She forgot, sometimes.
“It’s true! You two gotta run, they’re pulling people out of their houses, they-”
“Martha. Martha, stop that, right now.” Martha stopped that right now. “Listen to me.” Silence, Martha’s shallow breathing, Goober pacing. “We’re gonna go, we’re gonna get Bet Waters from next door, and we’re gonna check out what’s happening. And it’ll be bad, but it won’t be that, because that’s ridiculous, alright? And Xena - you’re gonna stay here, you’re gonna keep the lights off and the door locked, and you’re not gonna answer it for nobody but me, we clear?”
“Yes,” Xena said immediately, “I - Ma, do you wanna take Goober with you?”
“Absolutely not. She stays with you, always,” Tye said, as Xena knew she would, but still. Worth an attempt. Tye and Martha left, Martha whispering in a hushed, frantic tone.
She sunk to the floor eventually, there in the corner by their useless outlets, Goober still pacing back and forth in front of her, whining every now and then.
But as she sat, the door seemed to get closer and closer, the wall against her back flimsier, until finally she rose, picked her way into the bedroom, but left the door open - not hiding, just a step back, a layer between here and there. Goober got up on the bed and stood in front of her, facing the door, growling low.
One yell, shut off quickly. More shots. More screams. Getting closer. Xena ran her hands over her blanket. Soft and worn in familiar places, lint rolling under her fingers.
Her own breathing was so loud. Her own heartbeat. How could she ever hear anything but her own cacophonous body? Sobbing, outside. Another scream.
Xena could remember the day she’d come home to find her father dead, slumped over near the couch, his legs at odd angles and his arms crushed inwards like he was trying to keep his soul inside. She’d just been a kid, hadn’t really known, had run next door to find Martha for help after shaking him, yelling his name. But the moment right before, when she’d tripped over him, turned on the light and squinted, known ‘wrong’ without knowing what, how bad. Without knowing the exact details of what had changed she’d known then that she had entered the divide, the line between ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Grey space charged with soundless horror - what, what to do, fumbling motions, his heartbeat, where to check for his heartbeat, for his breath, but nothing, no, no more. It had stopped. And as soon as that knowledge was there, then, then the world had shifted.
Martha hadn’t been much better, but she’d been better - ran and gotten Hava, a nurse down the street, who’d examined him with careful hands and spoken to Martha where Xena couldn’t hear them. She’d been next to her father, crouched down, holding his cold hand. He always had cold hands. It did not strike her as strange. It did not strike her as strange. It did not mean anything, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing -
Martha had babysat Xena when she was younger, and she’d put on that voice when she talked to her next, but Xena had heard the truth underneath, had heard what was really happening with ‘why don’t you come over and I’ll call your Mama.’
But she’d let it be, she’d shut up, she’d watched a dumb cartoon while Martha cried and pretended she wasn’t crying, redialed Tye’s number calmly and methodically and gotten the answering machine each time. Hava - a virtual stranger before that day - had sat on the couch with Xena and held her, making calm, pointless commentary, distracting her, and Xena had welcomed it, had talked about nothing right back. She had tried to return to that middle, because ‘after’ meant-
More shots. Xena put her head between her knees and breathed. Thought about the air filling her lungs - great, soft bags, processing and collecting oxygen, putting it in her blood, taking it to her brain, where the world lived. Where the world lived.
There was a crash as the door flung open. Goober exploded into barks, bounding forward from the bed. Xena screamed.