Sex Tips For The End Of The World

Fiction, Prose

Fiction by Nicole Beckley

For a moment she thinks of her ex-husband, Dan, how crazy they were, how immature. How they’d knocked his bed off the shaky cinderblock frame a few times, climbing on top of each other. How her mother had cried at the sight of her in a wedding dress. “So grown up,” she’d said. How the thin crystal vase had smashed against the floor when she discovered Dan cheating with his ex-girlfriend. How they made love in their narrow bathtub with no water during an electrical storm when she was scared.

Julia

Everybody always says that if they knew the world was about to end they’d rush out and have a lot of sex. Or at least do it one more time. Why not, right?

But the idea that her last time would also be her first time rifled Julia. Why had she waited so long? What had she been waiting for, exactly? Up until now she thought she was waiting until she felt some kind of, well, love. Not that she’d never been in love. She’d felt some version of love before, or at least

infatuation. Definitely infatuation. She thought it was just a matter of time until the love thing happened. But now she was 29 and the world was ending.

Like really ending. Definitely, probably ending. Everybody said so. It could be a few weeks, or maybe six months, tops. CNN put it at 97 days and had a countdown clock continuously running, even if it said, “based on best estimates.” Every morning local KRON anchors in blazers reported the latest polls about when people thought it would be over. There was only so much time left.

People had seen things. Or at least they said they’d seen things. Not in her neighborhood, not in Bernal Heights. Nothing ever really happened there. But in other places. Every night the Weather Channel had a new report — 10 people in San Diego seeing a falling meteorite the size of Mazda Miata; a half dozen folks claiming a sinkhole had opened right in front of them in Tampa; unseasonable pounding hail in Wyoming. Not to mention the unrest. So much unrest.

Of course a lot of people were skeptics. Didn’t sinkholes and hail happen all the time? Wasn’t there always unrest? They didn’t believe it, didn’t leave their jobs, didn’t blow all their money on luxury items or vacations, didn’t do too much to change their lives. They wanted to know how anyone could be sure it was the end. It didn’t seem like anything was happening. But Julia knew it had to happen sometime. Maybe it was being 29, but to her it felt like the end of something.

She chided herself. Why hadn’t she done it with Charlie, or Miles, or hell, even Luis while she’d had the chance? Probably because she’d been the sort of straight-laced teen who thought she should wait until college when she’d have her own room and no parents were lurking around. And she’d been the sort of twenty-something who studied hard and never drank, and told herself no, don’t, and went to grad school for communications. Those guys, Charlie and Miles, had all been fine, they’d liked her anyway, but she never felt anything, never felt the things that people sang pop songs about. Never stayed up half the night thinking about them. Never wanted their scrawny bodies. She wanted to feel some kind of passion. And so what was she supposed to do?

Now she felt aggravated that she’d been so careful, cautious, intent on waiting for the perfect thing, and it was all going to end. And what was she looking for? Perhaps it was guys who were not interested in her. Perhaps it was guys from other people’s stories. Movie stars and men with hard bodies who couldn’t be real.

The only real men of her infatuations, when she was 21, were a pair of cousins from Phoenix, Raoul and Stefan, who played soccer and did shirtless crunches in the dorm common area, and invited her friend group to watch their soccer playoff games. Once the older cousin, Raoul, danced with her at a costume party in one of the campus row houses, and she laughed and put her hand on his chest and he pulled her in close and twirled her with a muscled arm, and she thought it might be the beginning of something. Like something she’d seen in the movies. But he slipped away for a drink and didn’t come back, leaving her in a homemade Glinda the Good Witch getup miles away from her dorm room.

After grad school she worked as a freelance communications consultant for industry trade publications like Plastics Today and Frequent Canning, housed inside San Francisco’s Scandium Publications Tower. While the building loomed large with its glass and steel façade, she was never comfortable riding the elevator up its 44 floors. Never able to distance herself from the thought of earthquakes. Chances for disaster always hung in the back of her mind. She preferred instead to work on her own from her studio apartment, unless she was doing a client presentation. Despite the appearance of independence, she ultimately was just by herself a lot. Once she’d gone to a summer night showing of “Top Hat” on her own and when she handed the ticket to the usher, an older man with a bushy black mustache, he asked, “Are you here by yourself?” She’d nodded. “Really? You’re pretty enough not to be alone,” he’d said. She didn’t know what to make of that. She was just alone.

She wasn’t insecure about her looks anyway. Her parents gave her brown wavy hair and delicate features, a fine nose, dark eyes. She wasn’t willowy or wispy, she was strong. But she’d put a mental barrier around her body. Should she share it with someone she didn’t feel anything for? Just for the experience? Just to know? The idea frustrated her. It became her policy that when other people, friends, the occasional client, mentioned sex she’d nod or laugh knowingly, even if she didn’t really know. She just wouldn’t mention it.

One night she went out to Ciriano’s with some neighbors from her apartment complex. “Julia, this is Brandon, he’s our trainer,” one of the neighbors said. Julia looked over to a tall lean guy with dark hair and a deep dimple on one side that made his face look slightly off-kilter, mischievous maybe, handsome. Julia leaned in when he talked about his business. “You wouldn’t think it, but people figure if the world’s gonna end, they want to be in shape. I have more clients than ever,” he said.

When the neighbors were tired they went home, but Julia stayed. She didn’t want to go back home to her darkened apartment, with its gingham curtains and unwatered plants. She didn’t want to be alone, kept company only by the scrolling countdown clock. Plus, it was rare that she was this close to an attractive stranger. The waiter refilled their water and Julia put her sweaty palm against the cold glass. The candle on the table flickered as Brandon asked what kind of music she liked, if she had any pets, if she was asked to pick up and move anywhere tomorrow would she do it.

“Why not?” she said.

“What if it was Poland?”

“I don’t know anything about Poland,” she said.

“But would you go?”

“I guess so,” she said.

“You’d just take off?”

“Yeah, see the world,” she said. She was always most brave in hypotheticals. She had a recurring daydream about traveling the world by hot air balloon. Floating along through the clouds and arriving in a new and distant place. She only felt comfortable with the risks of daydreams.

“But what if you were with somebody?”

“What if I wasn’t? Or what if I met someone there?”

He half shrugged at this, noting the point, and then ripened to a smile.

“Optimism,” he said.

She smiled, “Or fantasy.” She looked at his defined jaw and shoulders, curious but not wanting to stare. She glanced at the other pairs of people in the restaurant, watching the candlelight dance on intent faces, wondering how many of them would wake up together. Trying to figure out what she was doing, if there was any substance here, if that mattered.

“What about children?” he said.

“What children?”

“Don’t you want to have children?”

“I mean, maybe,” she said. Truthfully she couldn’t envision that, didn’t feel a maternal urge, but strangers don’t like to hear that you don’t want to have children. Strangers like to hear about possibility.

Outside the sky turned and a light mist found a new form in wet drops. The steady beat of rain began to sound.

“It’s starting to rain,” she said, “I’ll have to get a car before everybody else tries to get one,” she stood up to go.

“You’re leaving?” he looked at her, “Is this just how this ends?” “Usually,” she said.

 

Grace

Every Thursday afternoon Grace turns in her weekly love advice column and selects the handful of messages she’ll respond to for the next week. Her column, Peace, Love & Grace, has around 800,000 readers, but whenever someone asks her about readership, Grace tells them it’s a million. It sounds better.

She’s been writing the column for six years, though before that she wrote a similar column under a different name — Lorna Lace’s Love Advice. It was more tongue-in-cheek sex advice for an alt-weekly and hardly anyone wrote in, so she’d make up most of the letters herself, writing as “Forlorn in Fargo” or “Impotent in Indiana” or “Frisky Kitty in Fort Knox.” At least with the new column the people writing in are real, even if the hosting site, PoolBreak.com is aimed at the social elite, reading poolside from phones and tablets.

She heats a frozen bean burrito in the microwave and takes it to her desk. The PoolBreak.com offices, inside the Scandium Publications Tower, aren’t huge, but on days when it’s not foggy there’s a nice view of the bay from the 38th floor conference room and Grace can linger there before downing her lunch. Lately it’s been nothing but fog. Like everybody Grace has heard that it’s supposed to be the end times, and it seems like the weather’s decided there will be no more clear days. Grace finds that to be the most depressing, even more depressing than some of the messages that have been coming in. Messages from people who want to make public confessions while they still can, or who want to apologize to wronged lovers, or want her to recommend what their last words should be.

 

Dear Grace — Years ago I told my wife that she was my first, but truthfully there were two others before her. It’s been weighing on me. Should I admit this to her before it’s too late?

 

Dear Grace — In these modern technological times, how does one feel anything other than isolation?

 

Of course Grace doubts the whole end of the world thing. Seems like some sort of hoax. But it’s provided an uptick in her readership. Everybody wants to know what they should do. Though if her readers knew what Grace’s relationship history was actually like — an early divorce, a handful of one-night stands, a live-in boyfriend who stole some money from her, as well as an heirloom Stegel’s diamond pendant necklace — they might not think of her as a trusted authority on love. Or successful love anyway. You can pack a lot of life into 35 years.

 

Dear Grace — I been having an affair with my boss for two years. He wants to promote me to the Seattle office and move with me there. I don’t want to hurt my husband, but this is a chance for a new life while there’s still time – should I do it?

Yours, Taking Chances

 

Dear Taking Chances — Honey, you’ve already hurt your husband by cheating on him for two years. If you deserve the promotion, take it, but think about leaving the boss behind.

 

Who was she to be giving advice? That’s the kind of thing her landlord Gary would say. He’d remind her that he’d been married to his wife Caroline for 37 years, had four children, and never forgotten an anniversary. Big deal, so you own a calendar, Grace always wanted to say, but didn’t. She’d just nod and collect her mail — bills, women’s mags Reveal and Fit XXO, coupons — whenever she saw him in the hallway.

If she wanted to smoke, which she frequently did now, she had to walk a block or two away from her building. Gary frowned on smoking, but she’d always thought it looked cool and if the world was ending, why couldn’t she do it. She’d walk up to Union Street, sit on a bus stop bench and close her eyes, picturing a slow-motion action reel — her, dressed in all black, red hair waving, walking away from a burning building, pitching a lit cigarette behind her. That was her best fantasy version of the end. But she couldn’t actually be convinced. Also, she was three stamps away from earning a free large espresso drink at The Roastery and the world needed to continue so she could redeem it. She liked enticements involving something free.

In the latest batch of advice messages there’s one that catches Grace’s attention. There’s no sender contact information, just a letter “J” and it’s unclear if it’s an initial or the mark of being sent from a smartphone. Grace can’t be certain. Grace gets a lot of letters from women who want to know what’s “normal” — something their lover or ex-lover said or did. But this one asks a different question.

 

Dear Grace — I haven’t dated very many guys, four maybe, and while they’ve been nice people, I’ve never felt attracted enough or in love enough to sleep with any of them. Now I’m 29 and I’m worried that I’m never going to have sex. I’m a rational and independent person, but maybe I’ve been too much of those things. I feel like I’m missing out on a part of life. Not to sound vain, but I think others consider me likable and attractive, but I’ve never felt crazy about someone who was also crazy about me. Other people tell me that attraction fades, but is it fair to never experience it at all?

J

 

Is it fair? Of course not. Grace shakes her head. There’s no fair. Everybody just takes a shot and hopes for the best. And when that doesn’t work out, take another shot.

For a moment she thinks of her ex-husband, Dan, how crazy they were, how immature. How they’d knocked his bed off the shaky cinderblock frame a few times, climbing on top of each other. How her mother had cried at the sight of her in a wedding dress. “So grown up,” she’d said. How the thin crystal vase had smashed against the floor when she discovered Dan cheating with his ex-girlfriend. How they made love in their narrow bathtub with no water during an electrical storm when she was scared. How she eventually, inevitably left. Grace starts mentally composing her response, what she’ll post in her column the next week.

Dear J — is it fair? No, honey, nothing about life and love is fair. Over the years many letter-writers have asked some version of this question: will I ever find someone to love me? I wish I could reassure you and tell you “Yes! For sure! It will happen and be magical!” and we could move on, but the truth is I can’t tell you that; we don’t know. What I can tell you is what my grandma used to say: there’s no real magic, there’s only taking chances. Grandma Nena took up riding a motorcycle at 67 and traversed the whole west coast. Her husband had died, her kids had moved away, and she didn’t want to sit at home being a widow. She took a chance and created a new life for herself. This might seem like an odd anecdote, but there’s a reason for it – Grandma Nena didn’t want the rest of her life – she lived to be 93 – to just pass her by. She knew that there was a hint of “irrationality,” as you might call it, in what she was doing, but she was willing to ignore rationality for a better, richer life.

My guess is that the thing that’s holding you back is the thing that holds us all back – fear. Fear of rejection, heartbreak, unreturned emotions, fear that you’re not attracted enough to someone, or you’re attracted too much, fear of making the wrong choice. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things to be afraid of, my dear virgin, but living your life isn’t one of them.

Clearly this is not a decision you’re rushing into. It’s something you’ve thought about. A lot. And in these darker times of ours, we need love more than ever. There’s nothing wrong with looking for someone to love. There’s nothing wrong with taking a chance. Take a good look around. Is there someone in your life who turns you on? Someone who you turn on? Don’t worry about being “in love enough.” Forgo the fear. Buy that motorcycle.

 

Back at home Grace waters the flowers in her windowsill planter. Her chrysanthemums won’t really bloom until late autumn. By then the world may have ended. Grace shakes her head. It’s going to end sometime. She pulls out her pack of cigarettes and walks a few blocks to sit and picture it all going up in flames. And to get a stamp toward that free espresso.

 

Ava

It wasn’t the first time the world had ended. The world ended all the time. It just depended on where you were looking. (And maybe what you were looking for.) That’s what Ava knew, anyway. She had abilities. She was open enough, receptive enough, could sense things.

She studied star charts and birth charts and learned to interpret signs, the way her mother and grandmother taught her. Mystics often begat mystics. She read palms and tarot cards at parties, for people who wanted to touch some partition, to run their hands along the edge between this world and whatever came next. And what did come next? That she didn’t really know. She’d never made it across any divides.

Sometimes she was hired for events by companies that wanted off-beat entertainment, something different to mix up a happy hour or company party. She’d been a dancer when she was younger — jazz, ballet — she was used to holding people’s attention. She’d stretch her thin arm across a table and run a delicate finger over someone’s love line and let her hazel eyes meet theirs. The moments always felt intimate, even in a party atmosphere.

She brought her tarot deck and personal business cards to the swank first floor lobby of the Scandium Publications Tower. She’d been hired for some Friday happy hour entertainment. Club chairs sat on modern polished tile, bold geometric patterned rugs lined the doorways, a few pieces of faux taxidermy – antlers and jawbones – rounded out the décor. She chose a table in the lounge area, near the fireplace. It was summer, but summer in San Francisco was frequently fireplace weather.

People always wanted to know the future, but especially now, when the present was so chaotic, and the future was, well, what was it? Uncertain at best.

The elevator doors opened and closed and people started to fill the lobby, soldering up to the bar stations for glasses of beer and champagne. She waited, slowly observing the mix of office workers — middle-aged men in slacks and button-downs, young girls and guys in jeans and hoodies, women of indeterminable age in ballet flats and stylish shawls. They came to her in small groups of two or three and waited their turn, curious to see what the cards would say. She’d read their countenances, giving steady looks and relaying what they needed to hear.

When the crowd thinned, a young woman approached by herself. She was dressed simply in a black shift dress and grey sweater, with almond-shaped eyes, meticulously arched eyebrows, and brown hair pulled back tight into a bun. She carried a well-worn satchel, once black turning grey.

“Have you done this before?” Ava asked her.

The woman shook her head and Ava motioned for her to sit at the table.

“What’s your name?”

“Julia,” she said.

“Well, this isn’t scientific,” Ava said, “It’s just for fun. I’m going to show you three cards, which represent your past, present, and future.”

“You know there’s going to be a future?” Julia asked.

Ava smiled and fanned the cards against the table. “Select three,” she said. Julia pulled the cards and Ava flipped them, studying Julia’s face. “Hmmm, you have a tendency to overthink things, I’d say. This card,” Ava pointed, “is your past, the Page of Swords. It can symbolize some mental restlessness, like maybe you’re not challenged enough.”

Ava paused and Julia gave a nod.

“And this one,” Ava slid a card with an image of a man holding a chalice with a fish inside it, “represents your future. It’s about creative beginnings, maybe receiving a kind of new message that you need to hear, and it’s about synchronicity, two things rising or flowing at the same time. Does that make sense?”

“I’m guessing it will,” Julia smiled.

“Don’t mind the fish, that was probably the illustrator being cute.” Ava picked up the last card, “This one though is the key, your present, the Nine of Swords.” The drawing depicted a man in bed, face in hands like he’d just awakened from a nightmare, his wall lined with a rack of swords.

“That’s a little scary,” Julia said.

“It’s anxiety, fear, the things holding you back. It’s like you have something to solve, and figuring it out is the only way to master your anxiety.”

Ava caught a nervous wave cross Julia’s forehead. She stayed silent, trying to read her for a slight moment.

Julia exhaled and laughed, “That seems right.”

Ava reached across the table to Julia’s hand and pressed her thumb into Julia’s palm, the way her dance teacher long ago had done to her before a recital. It felt calming, reassuring, like things were going to be okay.

“Just relax,” Ava said, “Loosen your wrist, let your fingers go.”

Ava waited patiently while Julia hesitantly let her hand go slack. It took her a minute, she resisted, holding stress in her fingers and the base of her palm.

“We can’t be in control of everything,” Ava said. She gave Julia’s fingers a squeeze. “Have a little trust, let go.”

Ava felt the point of heat where their hands connected and held firmly for a few long seconds before slowly pulling her grasp away, moving the pressure down Julia’s fingertips. Julia gave a slight nervous laugh.

“It’s alright,” Ava said, “You feel okay?”

Julia nodded, and her eyes met Ava’s for enough of a moment that Ava felt assured she was okay.

“Thank you,” Julia said, wrapping her satchel over her shoulder. Ava watched her wander back into the small crowd until more people migrated in and she couldn’t see her anymore.

 

Mary Beth

In the four years since Mary Beth had been at Reveal magazine, she’d written hundreds of lists: how to spot a heart-breaker, what not to wear to a New Year’s Eve party, the best hair trends to seduce your wedding date, six things your gyno’s not telling you, 17 ways blondes really do have more fun.

She was good at it, but every time she’d read her name — Four hot ways to spice up your night tonight, by Mary Beth Scarino — she’d cringe a little, wished she’d used a pseudonym. Especially now when she was tasked with writing short churn and burn articles about how to make the most of the world ending – which romantic movies to stream on Netflix, what hair products to stock up on, tips for end of the world sex. (On this last one she’d only come up with a couple: Try something new! There’s literally no time like the present, and, Do it!)

Straight out of journalism school she’d thought Reveal would be a good gig, that she’d move on quickly, but finding something full time was difficult and she still had thousands in student loans to pay off. It had been fun at first too, she was talking to real adult women about their sex lives! Though she often also had to do things like call up dermatologists and fact-check which types of lube were best for sensitive skin.

Her boyfriend Adrian’s tech bro friends didn’t take her seriously. She and Adrian had been together a year and his friends still didn’t respect her work. “You just make this stuff up, right?” they’d say, and Adrian would wave them off and tell them to leave her alone. But it bothered her. Even once they were back at home and Adrian would lay his curly head against her chest and remind her not to listen to those jerks it didn’t ease the tension.

After all, was this going to be her legacy? Would she be remembered for writing things like “put an ice cube in your mouth before putting your cold lips on his neck,” or “slide an elastic hairband around the base of his shaft for added sensation.” She hoped not.

At night she and Adrian would wrap their down comforter around them and watch “14 Years,” a reality show about a family who’d spent 14 years running a cruise ship line. They’d only been back on land a handful of times. Lately the episodes were focused on passengers who wanted to take a final cruise before the world ended. For the most part the passengers were hopeful, they wanted to have a few days of fun. She and Adrian hated the idea of cruises, being locked on a little boat for days on end, but they liked watching others do it. They would only let themselves watch the CNN countdown clock once a day, in the morning. They didn’t want to see it at night. They wanted to sleep as peacefully as possible.

Outside their apartment window rain pounded and the wind whipped power lines against the side of the building. They pulled the comforter over them and Adrian rubbed his forefinger over the small dark birthmark on her shoulder.

“It’s a family birthmark,” Mary Beth said, “My mom has it and Brandon has one too.”

“It looks like a state or country, or Australia maybe,” Adrian said.

She laughed. When she and Brandon were kids they thought maybe they could chart a course somewhere using these birthmarks. Like maybe these were maps printed on their bodies. They’d traced the shapes and held them over sections of the world, searching for the right place, never quite finding it.

“When’s your next training session?” she asked.

“Wednesday morning. Your brother is kicking my butt. He makes me run sprints across Crissy Field.”

“It’s good for you,” she smiled. After a lower back injury had prevented Brandon from swimming senior year of college he’d gotten serious about training and Mary Beth often sent him new clients. Plus, she figured it was a good way for Adrian to get to know him.

“He told me what to get you for your birthday,” Adrian squeezed her knee. “What did he say?”

“Can’t tell you,” he put his hand over his mouth.

Mary Beth pried his fingers away from his lips.

“Those Fire & Brimstone Fitness people have been all over the place lately,” he said.

“They’re always out there, they’ve been training for the end of the world forever.”

“Yeah, but there are a lot more of them now.”

Mary Beth’s shoulders tensed and Adrian put a hand on her arm and changed the subject.

“I think your brother’s seeing someone,” Adrian said. “This girl stopped by last week when we were doing legs.”

“Was she all blonde and fake tanned?” Mary Beth sneered at the type of girls her brother typically dated. Anybody would be better than his previous girlfriend, Amanda, who completely disrupted their family Christmas last year by bringing her Chow Chow puppy, which growled and snapped at everyone, and then making Brandon leave early because she didn’t want the puppy to be away from its regular bed for too long.

“No, just regular, dark hair, cute.”

Mary Beth nodded, surprised. Though who would want to be alone right now? With the world being what it was. Unpredictable.

“Yeah, he got excited when this girl showed up and he started making the workout way more challenging. I’m all for his happiness but my calves were on fire.”

Mary Beth laughed, “Hope she can keep up with him.”

“Okay, he’s not that tough,” Adrian patted himself on the bicep.

A crack of thunder sounded and a bright flash of lightning filled the window. “C’mere,” Adrian pulled her in close and they held each other for a breathless moment, listening to the rain. A briefer fainter burst of lighting flashed and Adrian smoothed his palm over Mary Beth’s dark hair.

“I’m going to be a redhead soon,” Mary Beth whispered, “for an article.”

Adrian wrapped his arms around the base of her ribs. “I always wanted to be with a redhead,” he said. He held her tighter and put his feet against hers, kissing her softly against her cheek.

“You’ll get your chance then.” She coaxed the curls out of his eyes with her fingertips, ran her hand through his hair, thought about what their kids might look like. Dark hair and blue eyes and tiny freckled birthmarks.

“After that, you should go back to being you,” he said, “while there’s still time.”

 

Julia

It was happening. Everything was shaking. Walls, bedposts, knees, spines. She tried to relax. Tried to calm her mind; it was spinning, keeping the rhythm, listening to the pounding, the driving hail, the thunder claps, the gusts of breath.

Maybe it had been inevitable that she’d seen Brandon again. That he’d taken up a regular post outside her apartment training her neighbors, and that she’d stopped each time and chatted about his business, his family. Had she read his sister’s articles? A few. And what did she think? She had many new hairstyle ideas. And that their chats had stoked what she already felt stirring. Some current of possibility, hope.

When her neighbors had to cancel one day he asked if she wanted to go to Crissy Field to do a workout.

“Nothing too rigorous,” he said.

“It can be rigorous,” she said, “I can handle a challenge.”

“Fair enough,” he smiled.

They sprinted across the green toward the water, her lungs filling with cold air, feet navigating around where the soil had eroded into tiny sinkholes. She caught his dimpled profile, wet with the moist air, and felt some lightness in her chest, some blink of excitement. They ran until she felt her heart pumping hard, did deep squats until her thighs burned. Brandon held her ankles to the ground while she crunched across her body. He gently adjusted her form, moving her hips slightly with his hands, and she felt the warmth of another body touching hers.

She studied his calm demeanor, his easy guidance, his form-fitting t-shirt. He told her crunches were hard for him; he had a tender lower back, an old injury. He winced at the mention and she felt a touch of pity; that even perfect bodies have weak points. She thought then of pressing her palms to his back, radiating heat, providing some relief. She thought of soothing a long -felt ache, and when he offered his hand to help her up she took it and wanted to keep holding on.

They’d left Crissy Field and the earth had shifted slightly. They’d felt it, everyone had felt it. There was some tremor, some shake, some needle moving somewhere. They’d held each other’s gaze, a faint bolt of uncertainty moving across their faces; they couldn’t be afraid of it. The sun had dropped and it grew darker and darker until they couldn’t hardly see past each other.

Now here she was in the dark, holding tight, staying steady, glad not to be alone.

“Still here? Still with me?” Brandon said, reaching his hand into hers.

She squeezed it, catching an exhale between her heart and her throat. It was soothing to hear his voice, to know how close he was. Some part of her felt like she was melting, spreading, radiating heat. She felt a surge of energy, of recklessness. A tremble between fear and hope held in her body and she wanted to break it wide open. How long would she feel like this?

Up, up, up. She thought of herself in the hot air balloon, floating above, climbing higher. She put her mind in another place to ease the dull pain, the weight against her. She pictured herself sailing through the air, hair loose in the wind, cool breeze tickling her skin. To be free and flying and unbound. Ahead of her she could see only a bright, blank whiteness.

A lightning flash hung in the sky for a second. She wondered about how many other people were out there in the dark doing as they were, waiting to open their eyes, glad to see the light again when they did.

 

Nicole Beckley is a writer and performer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Fiction Southeast, Litro UK, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, 7×7, Tribeza, and The A.V. Club, as well as in many small theaters and on at least one public access channel. She’s at work on a linked story collection titled Perfect Miss. She holds a B.A. in Urban Studies and Communications from Stanford University.

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