Stars so Sharp They Break the Skin

5,000 words

Ginny’s hand is on Cal’s face. She’s smiling with red-rimmed, squinting eyes. The bedroom is tuned to a light blue-green and her map of Cuba has been shifted onto the east wall, between the two windows. Where it was, there’s now a feed of a sunny backlot baseball field, from his home city-state of Detroit, with the sound turned down. He’s not in her bed, same as he’s never been. He’s lying in a hospital bed.

“Hey,” she says. “Relax. I sent for the hospital. Doctor 3000 is here.” Above him, an extension of the doctor, grown from the back of the bed, reaches some of its many limbs toward him.

“Morning, Cal,” it says.

“I promise you, I tried to stay away,” Ginny says. “Didn’t I?”

Doctor 3000 nods its entire body save for the parts inside of Cal. “She did.”

“The hospital’s been out by the pond this whole time. Doctor called and said you were in a coma. So, I told it to bring you here.” Ginny holds up her hand. “I thought I could help.”

“Doctor 3000,” says Doctor 3000. “I didn’t spend four years in 3000 school to be called Doctor.” A green light flashes on the bed to indicate that humor has been employed.

Cal has questions, but all that comes out of him is a hiss and coughing. And coughing. And coughing. Until his head hurts. Doctor 3000 jams a pair of nozzles up Cal’s nose and a numbingly cold mist shoots into his sinuses and lungs. The urge to cough comes less often. Cal lies back, trying to catch his breath but afraid to breathe too deeply, lest the whole thing start again.

Doctor 3000 digs into Cal’s body like a baker kneading dough. “I had to extract quite a bit of potassium from your body before reviving you,” the doctor says. “But don’t worry. Afterward, I shoved it back in, mostly where I found it.”

Cal swallows hesitantly. He tries again.

“… last … night.”

§

“I went ice skating last night. By myself. There’s a huge pond out behind the new housing development. They haven’t razed the woods yet and you’re all alone out there.”

He’s back there, in an arena walled by the gnarly old silhouettes of skeletal oaks and ashes. They burst in cauliflower blooms onto the navy sky. Beneath his blades, the surface is smooth and solid obsidian. The only sound the wind carries his way is the barking of a dog shut out of a warm house and its soft comforters, thick with down.

“Ice skating. Really by myself. Three in the morning. The only one on the pond. But it was so nice. I really liked it.”

“It sounds wonderful,” she says, rubbing his arm from the driver’s seat. “We’re here. Be careful. The parking lot is slippery.”

He was a reader, once, but that was before. He goes to the bookstore now because she goes. She dips in and out of random chapters until the display fogs start to gray the whites of her eyes. He reaches into covers, or books of art or photography through poster-sized fields. It’s not that he can’t read anymore, there’s nothing wrong with his brain. It’s just that it doesn’t interest him like it once did.

Ginny finds him in an aisle in the back of the store. She’s got a print-out of a long, white, coffee table book in her hands. “C’mere. Check this out,” she says, whipping her head toward the nearest bench. They sit, denimed legs pressed up against each other. For one second, the smell of her soap is the only thing in his world.

Ginny shows him the cover. “Kintsugi Warriors.” There is a woman against a white background. She’s as black as Ginny, but her skin glistens with oil. She is nude. The tops of her breasts are in view, but not her nipples. Her hard face stares at Cal, daring him to look away. Her shoulders are a rainbow of wires, connecting her body of very real flesh to her arms of very real-looking flesh. It’s a stunning photo and Cal feels a quick loss when Ginny opens the book and spreads it across their laps.

Many of the photos inside follow the theme of the cover. A nude man or woman looking natural in all ways except for the join where prosthetic meets body. Or, strangely, where the original body part meets the body. Even there, bioluminescent tattoos, embedded cable, or an exposed artificial knee tricked out with chrome, show off the join of a reattached limb. In one corner of every picture is printed the subject’s name and rank and service branch. Toward the back, there are pictures of people with completely unnatural looking prosthetics. A sort of zebra leg. A jaw that looks like it came off a car engine.

Cal didn’t have a rank or a service branch. He worked for a company and one day he and some coworkers from other divisions agreed to a kingly benefits package in exchange for trying to destroy one another using weaponized psychic trauma. As a side effect, their tiny war nearly dismantled reality.

Cal looks to Ginny. “What do you think?” she asks. His face is hot and getting hotter as she stares at him. The meat of his bottom is pinched between his bone and the hard bench. He can smell the pumpkin spice issue of People magazine from all the way over here.

“Weird,” he says.

“Is that all?”

“Yeah, I guess. What do you want me to say?” Cal feels awkward enough talking with his doctors about his deformity. To have Ginny, of all people, confront him about it makes him wish they had never saved him.

“I don’t know. I just thought you could maybe relate.” She shows him the cover again, points to the first word. “Kintsugi is about showing off the repairs. Accepting them as part of your history.”

His head says, Please, can we talk about any goddamned thing in the world beside this? His mouth says, “I don’t know how that would apply to me. My … issues aren’t physical.”

She removes the book from his lap. Replaces it with her hand. “I’m sorry if I offended you.”

“You didn’t. I don’t get it, exactly. That’s all.” His consciousness has been transferred to his left leg, just beneath her hand.

“It’s hard to tell with you,” she says.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t. You don’t have anything to be sorry about. I’m the one who should be sorry.” Her eyes are wet. She leaves for the restroom. He passes the time until her return wondering how he can cut the night short without seeming like he’s been affected by this mortifying exchange.

§

Your brain isn’t the part that got hurt. Your brain should be working properly. But they say things about trauma. Your brain wants to protect you from the shock. Maybe your brain is protecting itself. Maybe it hurt you and is ashamed to face you openly and honestly.

Sometimes you sit alone in your room after dusk, with the aroma of the roast beef under your desk cooking itself in the bag from the store. Your room seems black, but your shaded window on the south side glows weakly on its south side. A screen that’s getting ready to put on a show. You try to relax, drift back to when it happened, the injury. Pieces too small to even be called snippets flash. They flash so quickly, you can’t describe them. Like they’re only feelings with light. You’re afraid to try too hard to nail them down, afraid in your desperation you’ll assign something that isn’t true and the real thing will forever be replaced by the collage you used to cover the truth.

§

He’s standing outside Ginny’s car in snow deep enough that it keeps finding its way under the tongues of his shoes. The car glows in the streetlights like it’s electric blue instead of that dull silver that Ginny is sick and tired of. Cal thinks about going skating again tonight after his world goes to sleep. It’s nice out there. The sky is crisp. The stars are sharp, one even cut him the other night.

When he skates, he holds his arms out to his sides, bent at the elbows, and he rides up and down on the winter wind like that. Even as it goes through his thin pants so he’s cold enough to want to go back inside. But in his head, it’s always, Five more minutes. Five more minutes.

She’s between him and the car. His face smiles before his mind knows why. She’s between him and the car. The little cardboard basket of steak fries from Henry’s is between him and her. The little cardboard basket of steak fries from Henry’s is between Ginny’s gloved hand and Ginny’s ungloved hand, the one she’s eating with, the left one. The ketchup is between the fry and his first finger, the fry is between his teeth, nothing is between Cal and Ginny.

“That was so nice of you,” he says.

“I care about you,” she says. She says it like she loves him. Not like someone she’s looking after. Like someone she once didn’t know and now wants to spend the rest of her life with. He wished that was how she really felt. He wishes he wasn’t only part of a person, that he had something to offer. He looks down at the fries, once more between them, and takes another.

§

Doctor 3000 is skilled enough and kind enough to keep its many arms out from their line of sight while it’s worming around inside Cal’s heart.

“You didn’t go skating last night,” Ginny says. “You’ve been out for quite a while. Before that, you were dead for hours.”

One of Doctor 3000’s eyes shifts above Cal’s head.

“Well, at least for an hour and a half,” Ginny says.

“… how …”

“How are you alive?”

Cal nods.

“I felt you when it happened. One second I’m in a deep sleep, the next my body has a spasm that throws me out of bed.” She rolls her sleeve up, shows him the dark bruise on her elbow. “It was worse last week. Like I dipped my arm in ink.”

Last week.

§

Ginny’s pet bird is a framed portrait of a bird inside a cage in her living room. And she thinks he’s crazy. Cal feels like there’s something to understand about it that he can’t understand. Every third time he thinks about the bird, fear shoots through him. What if it’s a real bird, but appears as a painting to Cal alone? What if it only sounds like a painting? But it doesn’t work like that, his … deformity. That’s just his weirdness shining through.

Its name is Styler, Ginny’s pet parakeet. The bird in the portrait is a dodo.

Suddenly, her hand is on his face again. He’s standing in her bedroom. She doesn’t say things like, “You went there again,” or “You were gone,” anymore. They both know it past the point of remark. She doesn’t even look at him, just touches his face as she walks by like activating one of those lamps at his grandmother’s place that works by static electricity.

This is what’s damaged. There are stimuli, person-to-person negotiations, which would have previously brought out an aspect of Cal that is now no longer there. He doesn’t exactly black out. His prosthetic kicks in and carries his blank body through the motions. He remembers those bits of life later, like one might remember a poorly constructed advertisement. Then he’s what’s left of himself again.

The prosthetic works as well as one would expect of a prosthetic that had never before been attempted.

§

Ginny’s hands are usually cold. He is always amazed how perfectly American her English sounds and how perfectly Cuban her Spanish sounds. Her bed is smooth, like in a hotel. He’s close enough to her to have seen her bedspread many times, not close enough to have ever seen her sheets.

Even with her little paunch, her shape’s too good for the garbage she eats. She pours Listerine on her toothbrush before brushing her teeth. She listens to so much piano jazz, they’ll have to tear out the carpets after she leaves to get the sound out. In her face, he can still see the little girl she once was, even as her hair is beginning to grey. Like a banana going from green to brown without getting to enjoy a day or two of just being yellow.

“You’re creeping me out again. Will you please stop staring at me?”

“Sorry,” he says.

§

The war was fought in twelve minutes between twenty-four people on thirty-six sides. Forty-eight was supposed to come into the mix, but the Warporation’s experts got scared and talked peace among themselves before it got that far. The whole thing had been an experiment in what could be done in the field of psychiatric warfare. They hadn’t taken seriously the idea that human consciousness shaped human reality.

The soldiers, Cal and his severely damaged comrades/enemies, had each been about to split into forty-eight subsets of themselves. If the world survived to see what sixty might have been, there probably wouldn’t have been anything in this part of the universe for physics to hang itself on.

He was never good at physics, anyway.

§

Ginny always talks to Cal’s therapist after a session. Even though he’s sitting in the waiting room, it feels like he’s standing naked in front of both of them while they discuss his shortcomings. The ride home is the quietest trip of the week. He looks out the window like he did when he was a kid, picturing himself out there, running so fast he can keep up with the car, leaping over squat orange personal fueling stations, pop-up kiosks, any obstacle that gets in his way.

§

He’s skating. The wind’s picked up. So damned cold, if he smiles too long, his teeth will crack.

At some point, he was smart enough to change into his boots, but not smart enough to bring his skates. He’s afraid if he goes back home now, the moment will be lost. So, he does it old-school, slides across the ice on his soles, like when he was a kid. Before his mom got a pair of hand-me-downs from a cousin in a state he’d never seen. It’s not the same. But it carries the past with it, which is something. And it’s infinitely better than turning back for home.

§

Cal is overwhelmed by the idea of Ginny. Gin and Tonic Ortiz. In part, it’s the love he feels for her. The all-consuming schoolboy love he’s never felt for anyone before, where even his thoughts outside of their shared world try and introduce themselves to the idea of her. What would she think of his little socialist city-state back in Michigan? Their ideas of family as armor? How would she feel about the dog he’s been wanting to make? Would the dog get along with Styler?

The other part of the overwhelm is that he’s able to love this way at all. Cal had assumed this was one of the things he’d lost in the war. At the beginning, there were lots of things he was worried he’d lost, but each thing he’d fretted over popped up—rapidly at first, then with less frequency—until this love was maybe the last thing he’d been concerned with.

It was wonderful. He was happy to have it in his life. To have her in his life, even if nothing more would ever come from it than eating fries outside in a snow-smothered parking lot. Or sitting in her bedroom on a Sunday afternoon when nothing’s going on except for bacon-and-egg breakfasts (she calls his daily oatmeal a rut) and the Sunday supplement read by glass-filtered sunlight.

The best parts are when he’s the most dead. When he keeps what he is at the front of his mind the entire time he’s with her. When hope isn’t a thing. The worst parts are when she makes him forget what he is and then he remembers. Cal sees humiliation as a laughing kickboxer who never ever misses his stomach.

§

Your world is black until you think you’ve gone blind. You remember yourself for a flash, when you were whole, as clearly as if it was a photo. And then it’s the war and EVERYTHING is happening. EVERYTHING that has ever happened or will ever happen is taking place in that instant. EVERYTHING crushed into the space of a single confining universe. You snap back to the present. The stars leap back from out of nowhere, they pierce you like an electric shock.

Your heart races; you’re standing still in the middle of a frozen pond. You had forgotten about a terror so strong it could shut off your mind. Knowing that it really happened, your mind wants to shut off again. It gives you shivers the cold can only envy.

Your feet scoot across the ice like a child’s. You make it to the edge, you find your way to your car, you sit behind the wheel, wondering if you’ll be in any state to drive in ten minutes time. Or ten days. You tell the car to drive you home. It hasn’t driven in so long, it fumbles for its own keys.

Your brain has been on your side all along.

§

Cal’s personality was wounded during the war. A piece of it had to be amputated. He can’t point to where it was or tell you what it did. It’s like … The whole thing is a swirling, morphing mass and the way he feels its absence is that it’s … It’s like when it was whole, it filled the container it was in. And now it doesn’t quite fill it. And sometimes, when he shifts suddenly, the imbalance throws me off. Him off.

§

“Sooo …” Ginny starts, on their way to the Siblings in Arms Charity Shop, “are you going to tell me what happened to your face?”

Of course. Cal stops short in the middle of the intersection. Opens his coat, lifts his shirt. The tiny little cuts that dot his face are mirrored all over his body.

“Do you get it?” he asks.

Ginny moves her head slowly back and forth. She looks for cars. It’s a quiet town on a Sunday morning. “I don’t. You, like, walked through a thorn bush naked?”

“No, it’s the stars. Last night, while I was skating, they jumped out at me, so sharp they cut me. You don’t understand. The universe is how it is because that’s how we choose to see it. The war messed with some of us. Sometimes things work differently for us.”

She’s staring at him.

“See Orion?” He passes his hand over his tight stomach. “I mean, I know it’s backwards, but that only makes sense, right?”

Her fingers go to his red speckled skin, the fingers she eats fries with. The soft ridges of those fingertips catch on the broken Braille of his canvas. Every nerve he has crackles.

“You’re saying the stars cut you, and it wasn’t something you did to yourself, Cal?”

There’s a car horn. A vehicle swerves around them. The driver offers helpful advice. “Get the fuck outta the road!”

“I’m not a guy who wants to hurt himself, Gin. I’ve been hurt enough.” Some anger he’s easily kept in check for months rises from the swamp of his psyche.

She looks from his torso to his eyes. From his jaw to his ear to his eyes. From his ungloved hand to his eyes. There’s something inside of Ginny that he’ll never find if he has a lifetime to look. She seems fragile again. When he talks about himself, she takes it like he’s talking about her. All he wants is to hold her in his arms. He can’t do this anymore.

“You know, Ginny. You don’t have to be here. I mean, if you’ve got a better life going on somewhere, go to it.”

“You want me to go?” she says. He can barely hear her over the screech of tires somewhere nearby.

“I’m just saying, I think I can do this. I mean, as well as I’m ever going to. You don’t have to … mind me.”

“What the hell are you talking about, ‘mind’ you?” More horns. Shouting.

“I know the things you say to me, all the nice things, they’re what my therapist tells you to say to me.”

“What?” Car doors are slamming.

“I’ve always known. I know I seem stupid because I’m off, Ginny, but I’m not stupid. I know you have to say that stuff so I’ll, I don’t know, heal faster, I guess. But you know what? It hurts. It hurts like hell. It’s like you’re teasing me with this. You don’t think being alone for the rest of my life, being like this, is torture enough? You have to remind me every day I can’t be with a woman? You’re killing me, Ginny. I can’t take this anymore.” It’s hard to make his point with the guys screaming in his face.

“… no …” Some helpful hand is on her arm, leading her back to the sidewalk.

“Please, just go. If there’s anything in there that’s ever respected me, even a little bit, please leave me alone and give me some peace.” Cal’s too big a guy to be shoved, but he’s steadily pushed out of the first traffic jam this intersection has ever seen outside of a collision.

Cal never raised his voice, he never swore. In her mind, he screamed at her. In his mind, too. Tears run in wobbly rivulets to their jaws, dropping to their smooth coats to shine until they’re thawed. When he’s done, she stays. He’s the one who leaves, pushing through a group of people who are just trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

§

His pension from the Warporation covers his bills. To get out of the house, he volunteers at the charity shop, sorting donated clothes. Throwing away the stuff that’s too torn or soiled to be sold.

Dennis sounds mad at Cal, but Cal isn’t bothered. He doesn’t view Dennis as an employer but as an equal. Besides, he’s got a few other things on his mind today.

“Your reject pile is way too big, bro!” Dennis says so the shoppers in the front can hear him. “People are gonna want to buy most of this stuff. They can get the stains out or dye them. Sew ’em up, patch ’em, stick on a coupla buttons. It’s not up to us.”

“I didn’t think people did that anymore,” Cal says, quite honestly.

“You make too much money to know what people do. All you’re doing here is keeping food out of needy people’s mouths and overworking the incinerator.”

Cal wasn’t aware the rejects went to an incinerator, but looking at them again, it seems right that they do.

§

You sit alone in your room, but it doesn’t mean as much because you’re alone all the time now. The squirrels that spent their October trying to scratch their way down from the attic are winter-silent tonight. The only sounds they make—slow breaths, soft breaths, slow breaths—are too quiet to work their way through your ceiling. You hear only the slicing wind outside the window, the vibrations, pitching up and down, of faraway traffic. Most of an order of Henry’s is stinking up the room, having been tipped into the wastebasket beneath your desk.

The walls radiate cold through their goosebump pores. There’s a space heater in the corner for nights exactly like this, but you’ll shiver for now because the orange glow would reveal too much. You look longingly once more to the pale window shade. You try to relax, drift back to when it happened, the injury.

The only thing you see is Ginny’s face.

Again.

Again.

§

He prints an analytical motor, which is free if it doesn’t work. He asks it to determine why he cries sometimes for no reason. Three days later it tells him, he cries whenever he hears a voice make the “ntk” sound, as in “don’t care,” or “Bundt cake.” Cal sobs uncontrollably as he transfers his money to the motor’s designer.

§

He walked in on her in the bathroom once. Ginny was on the toilet, brushing her teeth violently, pajama bottoms puddled about her feet. The room smelled of Listerine and pee. She continued to brush, watching him with a mild curiosity while foam dribbled from her mouth onto her dark, unshaven legs. She looked so lovely. Her apartment felt more like a home than anything he’d ever had back at his place.

§

As cold as it felt in his room, it isn’t so cold out here. The wind has calmed. The ice is dark in the moonlight. The water below has crept closer to the surface. It’s been a couple of weeks since Cal’s been out on the pond. He’s been afraid, remembering the EVERYTHING. But tonight, his soul has turned dark enough that he’s ready to throw himself back into the fray, into the EVERYTHING, into the war, into oblivion.

He’s skating.

Not the way he did before. He doesn’t feel the good things he felt before. He doesn’t like it. But then, he’s not skating the way he did before, in wide arcs, lapping alongside the snow-thick banks, light blue beneath the predawn sky. This morning he’s racing, racing, racing. A straight line. Toward the center of the pond.

The stars are not out in the numbers they had been. Blinded by the light of the half moon, many of them have shrunk back, behind the curtain folds of deep space. Centimeters beneath Cal’s skates, bubbles of air wiggle like guppies. The ice turns wet.

He leaps into the air.

He comes down.

He goes through.

The shock is immediate. His body flushes the air from its lungs. Whatever his earthly concerns were moments ago, they are so far gone, they might as well never have been. There is only now. A nervous system so overcome with sensation it pushes past agony into physical confusion. Everything is bad. Everything is so fucking bad. He isn’t given the mercy of knowing it will all be over in a moment. There is something more than black. A complete negation of the senses.

He is in the twelfth minute of the war. He is meeting Ginny for the first time across the field of mind. In the twelfth minute of the war. He is whole for the last moment of his life. Whole or not, his mind is so damaged at this point in the conflict, he doesn’t really understand that Ginny is the enemy until she is tearing him open. For a quick second, Cal is two people, his current self, and a tiny proto-human something else, both screaming and trying to understand what is happening to them. Ginny’s face twists into the shock he should be feeling. Her wounded mind bleeds into the hole she’s made in him.

Ginny and Cal, together, become the most beautiful thing there is.

§

“I’m sorry if you were trying to die. I was so freaked, I called before considering your feelings.”

He shakes his head. “… was …” shallow breath “… trying.” breath breath, “Not now.”

He stops to gather his strength. She waits patiently for the next hour. “I remember,” he says. “What happened. The war.”

She puts a hand on his arm. “I don’t. Not most of it. And I don’t want to remember.”

“But you remembered me.”

“I did. You were the one good thing.”

“Why did you let me think …”

“I figured you’d hate me. I maimed you. Turns out you hated me anyway.” She laughs a little.

“I don’t hate you,” he says.

“Funny way to show it.”

“I just couldn’t understand … how anyone would want to be with me. The way I was. Am. Thank you.”

§

She wants to show him her work. And so, here they stand on the surface of a pond that is frozen solid while nearby thermometers read 52 degrees Fahrenheit; T-shirt weather to the locals. The hole where Cal fell through has been patched by something that looks like an enormous snowflake, four feet across. He rubs his foot over it. It feels no different from the ice around it.

“You don’t think people will wonder this summer why a pond is frozen?”

Ginny laughs. “Who cares if they do? People aren’t our bosses. We’re all co-managers.” She stomps her boot heel against the hard floor below.

He smiles. There’s plenty of time for another cold snap, but they stand out there for a while, surveying the dry, brown landscape, breathing the warm air, letting spring enter them.

“Come skate with me, Ginny.”

§

His doctor suggests that, after some light broth this afternoon, Cal should take a stab at getting those muscles moving again.

Cal reaches tentatively for Ginny’s hand. She meets him more than halfway. Pulling it over nutritive sacs attached to him like leeches, and the squirming remote monitors of Doctor 3000, he rests her hand upon his freshly damaged chest. He closes his eyes. They’re both still.

“Oh!” Ginny says, pulling her hand away. “I wanted to tell you, I’m going to be a grandmother!”

?????

How the hell long has he really been out?

She projects an image from her palm. He blinks to focus. Squints. The image is of her birdcage. She zooms in, far below Styler’s perch. There, at the bottom of the cage, sits a tiny framed portrait of an egg.

Through sheer grit and pluck, Matthew Sanborn Smith turned a sad New England childhood into a sad south Florida adulthood. His fiction has appeared at Tor.com, Nature, Chizine, and Aliterate, among others. He is an occasional contributor to the StarShipSofa and SFF Audio podcasts, and was a constant contributor to his own podcast, Beware the Hairy Mango. He has two giant children and a passion for ideas. Learn more at matthewsanbornsmith.com.

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