Lost Cassandra

by Holly Hearn

Cassandra waded through her malaise to the replicator. She ordered a chai latte, refusing to admit that this would be the most interesting thing she’d experience today. And the next day, and the day after, and the day after…

Mug in her thin hands, she shuffled over to the wall to wall glass windows. Outside, a white hot, tiny star was tethered to a spiral of plasma by its own life force, circling the drain and bleeding into an unknown.

Staring stoically into the abyss, she sipped her latte. There was no soundtrack for this spectacle, save the undercurrent hum of the generators, though she’d long since gotten used to those. The power for the station came from solar panels pointed at the lone star and its parasite; eventually it would run out.

Everything ran out in the end. It had been five years since her only companion died. Suicide, blew himself out of an airlock. She tried not to blame herself, but did wonder if he’d still be here if she’d been more accommodating.

No one else would be along. The slingshot trajectory from the next nearest base passed directly through the black hole’s event horizon, making any approach impossible. It also made transmissions back home impossible. Nobody knew she was still here. Cassandra would have normally retired by now from her position as the station’s chief astrophysicist, but as it was she’d given up collecting data ages ago, and now pottered about aimlessly in a desperate attempt to drown out the ticking of her life, slipping like so many grains of sand through her grasping fingers.

Suffering the silence no longer, she put on some music to fill the air around her. It would be another day of basic maintenance on the life support systems, followed by existential poetry. Until the music faded.

“Incoming transmission.”

“Don’t be silly,” she murmured. “Any transmission heading this way would get sucked in by that damned black hole.”

“Play incoming transmission?”

Cassandra halted, brushing a silver lock behind her ear. It was exactly this sort of interruption she’d longed for, and now feared. The moments slipped past. Her heart raced.

“Play incoming transmission?”

“…oh, fine, go ahead.”

Static filled the void she preferred to plaster with music, but eventually a voice struggled through.

“Cassandra! Cassandra…”

Her heart stopped, lodged in her throat. The voice belonged to a stranger. She’d never heard it before, but they knew her.

“Cassandra, I hope you’re listening. I’ll start with the most important part, in case I get cut off: I love you. With all my heart.”

The stranger was female. Cassandra wracked her brain, but could not think of anyone who would have such a deep connection to her. She never married, never loved anything but her work.

“I’ll never give up, I’ll never stop searching. You’re my everything.”

Cassandra felt herself relax, a tension she’d barely realized unknotting itself as she warmed to the genuine feeling in the woman’s voice. She stood frozen, drink forgotten in her trembling hands. She wouldn’t risk missing a single word, the first thing said to her in five years and the first thing ever said to her that moved her.

“I know you could be anywhere in time or space, or maybe you’re everywhere in time and space. I don’t know. But I know I still feel you beside me when I sleep at night, I know you’re somewhere waiting. I love you, and I’m coming for you, Cassandra. I’m coming.”

“End of transmission.”

Cassandra’s insides were tangled, emotions she didn’t realize she had swirling and constricting her. Above the din rose hope. Someone was looking for her. Someone who would devote their life to finding her. A shaking hand released its grip on the mug to reach up and brush away the foreign object that escaped from her eye and raced down her cheek.

“Computer,” she whispered. “where did this transmission come from?”

“Origin unknown.”

“At what point did you detect the transmission?”

“Within one astronomic unit.”

“What? There’s nothing that close by…”

Her eyes drifted to the window, watching the molten spiral spinning lethargically as it sucked the life from the nearby star. The appearance of the black hole had cut them off from any supplies or chance of returning home, but had also opened up the possibility of jumping across time and space. Several expeditions had departed for the singularity in the name of why not, she remained behind…just in case.

What if something finally escaped?

Cassandra spent the rest of the day playing the transmission over and over again. She fell in love with the voice, heart full of hope and head full of ideas about who this person could be. Each day she listened to the transmission. Each day could now be the day she was found.

Holly Hearn is a multi-genre fiction writer and budding poet. Her favourite genres are horror and sci-fi, and she enjoys writing flash fiction. She is also the founder of Itchen to Write, a group for Hampshire, UK writers. Follow her on Twitter @hearningcurve and read more of her work, including her book reviews, at ashandfeather.com

The Bookstore

by Goody Niosi

Madison started small: a packet of chewing gum and a candy bar from the 7-11. And even then, she only did it on a dare.

“Bet you’re too scared to steal anything!” Barb had said.

“No I’m not.”

“Oh yeah? Prove it!”

So she’d gone in, wandered up and down the aisles and when she was sure the clerk was busy ringing through a customer, she’d slipped the items into her pocket, then walked casually to the magazine rack, leafed through Teen Vogue, put it back on the rack, shrugged, and waved her fingers at the clerk as she pushed the door open.

She was sweating, her legs trembling.

“So?” Barb asked.

Madison emptied her pocket. “No big deal,” she said.

“Sure isn’t – like that’s all you got?”

“Well why don’t you go in there if it’s no big deal?”

“Can’t now – not two in a row. They’d get suspicious.”

Madison decided “never again.” It wasn’t worth it. She looked behind her all day, expecting to see a policeman with handcuffs. Would she get expelled from Junior High if anyone found out?

She didn’t think about stealing again until she lived on her own with a roommate. Brigitt was struggling between night school and a minimum wage job as a cashier at Wal-Mart. Madison worked at a Hallmark store in the big mall at the north end of the city.

They split the rent of a small basement suite and shopped together for food. Most nights they ate eggs and toast or mac and cheese. One Friday, while they cruised the aisles of Loblaw’s looking for specials, Brigitt slipped two cans of salmon inside her bag.

“Won’t they know?” Madison asked.

“No – we’re good,” Brigitt said.

They paid for their Kraft dinners, a loaf of bread, a tub of margarine, a jug of skim milk, and a bag of apples. They walked out, Madison certain she would hear an alarm. Nothing.

That night they ate salmon salad sandwiches. “Best meal ever!” Madison said.

They didn’t steal food every week – just when money was extra scarce – or when one of them craved something special.

One day Brigitt came home with a new T-shirt tucked under her sweater.

“Tell me you didn’t shoplift that.” Madison said.

“I did so.”

“Holy cow! What if you get caught?”

“You have to take off the tag – that’s all,” she said.

“But what if they’re watching?”

“You take it into the dressing room.”

“What if they have cameras?”

“Look for them. They won’t anyway – for sure not in the smaller stores.”

One Saturday afternoon, they walked into a busy gift shop on Queen Street West. Its shelves were crowded with small stuffed animals, colouring books for adults, replicas of old Toronto streetcars, and photo place mats. Earrings and bracelets hung from a wooden rack.

Brigitt tucked a set of earrings into a pocket. Madison slipped a bracelet into her bag. They took a couple more pieces each and walked slowly out of the store. They had taken about a dozen steps when they heard “Hey! Thief – Stop!”

They ran. “Split up!” Brigitt gasped.

Madison turned a corner, reached into her bag, flung the bracelet onto the sidewalk. She fumbled in her pocket, dug out two pairs of earrings, threw them behind her, ran around another corner, tore across a street and ran and ran.

She ran down an alley, past overflowing garbage bins, dodged a skinny grey cat, and barrelled to a stop at a door, slightly ajar. She walked down a dark, narrow hallway and into a bookstore. At the raised front counter, an old man was bent over a book, glasses sliding down his nose, white tufts of hair sticking up over his ears, a dim light bulb painting a round sun on his smooth, bald skull.

The man looked up. “You’re back.”

Madison nodded.

“It was inevitable, you know. You can’t escape your plot line.”

“But I don’t want to be a thief! I don’t want to go to prison! I don’t want any of it – the gangs and the recidivism and all the horrible crap that goes on inside jail.”

The man shook his head. “I wish I could help you. I can’t. You need to go back now. I can’t sell a book missing its main character.”

He pulled a volume from under the counter. The Reluctant Thief. He opened it, laid it on top of a stack of magazines. “Just slip in.”

Madison stared at the open pages of the book. “How does it end?”

“I can’t tell you that,” the old man said.

She walked toward the back of the store.

“Don’t be stubborn, Madison. Don’t make me use force. This is your second escape – I won’t have you doing it again.”

He reached for her. Madison grabbed a book, opened it – and jumped.

“And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts – his sisters and his cousins and his aunts.”

Madison stood in a group of more than a dozen women dressed in nineteenth century bonnets and crinolines.

“Where am I?” she whispered to the older woman closest to her.

“Oh!” the woman said. “Who are you? You’re not in costume!”

“I know – but what…”

“Are you in the wrong book, dear?”

“Sort of.”

“Well – I suppose you can be a sister or a cousin or an aunt.”

“Of who?”

“The admiral. Can you sing?”

“Not well.”

“You may just have to mouth the words.”

“To what?”

“HMS Pinafore of course.”

“You’re joking.”

“Oh no – only the main characters get to joke. But it’s great fun and you get to rest a lot being in the chorus.”

Madison learned the sisters, cousins and aunts bits of the chorus quickly enough. But all the free time was boring and she considered her options – back to The Reluctant Thief? Or should she try Harry Potter. Hogwarts would be such fun. But escaping the pages – that was only possible when someone opened the covers.

She could only hope that a Gilbert and Sullivan fan entered the store before the pages yellowed and faded with age.

Goody Niosi began life in the film industry as an editor and later, a director. For the past twenty years, she has worked as a freelance journalist and has had five books published focused mainly on biographies. In the past year or so, she has fallen in love with the short story form. You can find her random ramblings on her website: goodyniosi.com

Breaking Ground

by Tianna Grosch

Flower buds poke gentle heads above ground to seek the sun’s stretching fingers. She throws her own fingers high above her head, reaching as far as she can until her shoulders pop and crack. Throwing her head back, her hair falls over her back like a cascading waterfall, rippling.

She breathes fresh air smelling of final frost and sets to work breaking ground, the teeth of her shovel biting deep into the dirt. She digs until her palms blister against the wooden handle, until they are scraped and stinging.

The hole is as big around as a fire pit, perfect for roasting marshmallows or summoning demons. She empties a box of kindling into the pit. She rummages inside another box until her fingers touch something soft. A stuffed animal, big beady eyes and stitched fake fur gazing up at her.

She throws it in the hole and pulls out a box of matches. She strikes one match, the smell of sulfur lingering in the air as she tosses the little flame into the pile and watches the fire expand, hungrily devouring its fuel.

The box contains old love letters – scraps of paper confessing undying devotions. It contains dried roses, hung upon a wall and forgotten. The box contains secrets and things better forgotten. A strip of cloth, a bit of lace. A leather-bound journal with its spine cracked and cover faded.

All of it belongs to the fire. Its flames lick and smile. She watches it burn and her lips curl. Tendrils of smoke caress her, tracing across her hips, playing with strands of hair, circling her eyes. She becomes clean, unburdened by what once held her down.

The fire crackles until it has finished its feast.

She will return under the cover of darkness. She will take off her shoes and walk through the pit, to feel what her past secrets have become. In the dead of night, a chorus of springtime frogs and crickets will serenade her as she dances in the ashes.

Tianna Grosch lives in the woodlands of PA, works as Assistant Editor at Times Publishing Newspapers in Bucks County, and received her MFA at Arcadia University this past May. Her work has previously appeared in New Pop Lit, The Odyssey and Loco Mag, and is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine and Paragon Journal. Follow her on Twitter: @tiannag92