Story: Waking Up To Silence

By: Chloe Spencer

enjoy_the_silence

Concentrate. Breathe. Focus. Jacqueline stared at the whiteboard. Her eyes flickered as she watched the lecturer’s hands, moving from left to right, top to bottom. It was as if her professor’s hands were dancing around the equation she had drawn, moving at the pace of a slow waltz. But still, Jacqueline could not understand.

Now the symbols were moving off of the whiteboard, slowly circling above her head in the air, like musical notes from a classic cartoon. Only the symbols weren’t playing sweet music, they were humming. Jacqueline raised her hand and she squeezed her eyes shut as the humming drilled inside of her head, slowly rotating through her ears.

Jacqueline? Jacqueline, what’s wrong?”

With a ping, the buzzing receded. Trembling, Jacqueline’s eyes shot open as she slowly lowered her hand and surveyed her surroundings. The symbols were back on the board. Multiple eyes stared at her.

It’s my head again, Dr. Roberts,” Jacqueline admitted quietly. “Can I please be excused?”

Dr. Roberts passive aggressively pursed her lips and shrugged, her eyes rolling towards the floor. “It’s your tuition money.”

Jacqueline mumbled a thank-you underneath her breath as she scurried out of the room. She didn’t make it far before the ringing started again. Her quaking knees crumbled beneath her. She could feel cool droplets of sweat surface on her clammy skin. The hum was growing again, building pressure in her left ear. Suddenly, she was spinning. Or was it the hallway? Or was it her brain, swiveling on the tip of her spine? She fumbled inside the front pocket of her backpack, but couldn’t find her Valium bottle. She swore, pressing her wrists against her eyes.

Introduction to Artificial Intelligence,” a familiar voice commented. “Yes, that one always gave me headaches, too. But for different reasons.”

Eyes widening, Jacqueline raised her head. Standing above her was a young woman, slightly older than her, wearing a silver maxi dress that pooled around the bottom of her feet. She smiled softly, crouching down to Jacqueline’s level. She raised her fingers and pressed them into Jacqueline’s ears, hooking inside the canals. Suddenly Jacqueline felt a calm, numbing sensation inject into her skull, pulsating through every neuron inside her brain. Her eyes rolled around in her head, but the room stopped spinning. When she closed her eyes, the girl let go, sitting back on the floor. Silence thickened between them.

Then Jacqueline laughed. “And I thought today couldn’t get any worse.”

The girl flinched, frowned, and lowered her gaze to the floor. Jacqueline glared at her, venom in her eyes.

Why did you come back, Vara?” Jacqueline demanded.

The girl fumbled with the silver plated bracelet on her wrist. She opened a panel, withdrawing colorful neon symbols, and releasing them into the air. “I’m just going to wait until you calm down.”

I’m not going to calm down,” Jacqueline snapped. “You said that you would never come back.”

Sometimes things don’t go according to plan,” Vara responded, blinking. “Think about all the variables that impact the outcome of the equation.”

Are we seriously discussing algebra right now?”

I need your help,” Vara said, her eyes pleading. “You’re the only one who can help. And if you help me, I can cure you.”

Cure me?”

Precisely. I’m the only one who can cure this,” Vara said. “Your medical technology is too frivolous, overpriced, and—dare I say—primitive.”

Jacqueline gazed at the symbols flickering as they circled around her head. She touched one of them with her finger, and pulled it closer to her body. In her hands she twisted it around, before releasing it back to its twirling companions. She recognized the symbols, and what they meant. How could she not, when Vara was once so much a part of her life?

You’re serious about this,” Jacqueline said, grimacing at the ominous sentence hovering in the air. “You do know how much trouble I could get in, right? I mean, forget expulsion; you might as well as just ship me off to a maximum security prison now.”

You are correct. But remember, there’s a great award associated with this risk.” Vara said. Then she smiled. “Tell me, what do they think it is? What you have, I mean.”

At first they were unsure. I’ve been seeing an audiologist and an ENT, and they’ve narrowed it down to Meniere’s disease.” Jacqueline said. “They told me that I could lose my hearing. Not now. Later down the line.”

Imagine that,” Vara murmured. “It would be like being lost in space. Sound doesn’t travel through space, you know.”

I know. Were you always this condescending and insensitive?”

I apologize,” she responded. “I forget how much humans read into things.”

So I think that what you’re implying is that it’s not Meniere’s disease,” Jacqueline said slowly. “Is that the case?”

No,” Vara replied. “I think that you developed it from that time we went spelunking in the caverns of MOA-192 b.”

Jacqueline’s eyes widened. “When we were facing off against the Gregarnok?”

Exactly so. And remember the device that they placed on your head?”

That suction cup-spider they slapped on me after they bodychecked me to the ground? How could I forget?”

Well, my team obtained that weapon. We researched its capabilities and what it can do to carbon-based lifeforms. My technician, Rodar–you remember him, I assume–he helped me develop a method to reverse its effects. That’s what I did to you just now.”

I stick my fingers in my ears to fix my tinnitus?”

It’s not quite that simple. We’re short on time, so I would rather not explain.”

Jacqueline sighed. She squeezed her eyes shut and buried her face in her hands. When Vara had left, she swore that she would never again get involved in extraterrestrial affairs. Of course, she figured that she would have no need to. When Vara took off, that was the end of it. No more floating in the vastness of space; she was anchored to the earth. But just seeing Vara now made Jacqueline want to float away again, back to the stars.

Okay, Vara,” Jacqueline said slowly. “You have a deal. I’ll help you out.”

Vara beamed. With a swirl of her hand she gathered up the symbols again. She returned them to their rightful place within her bracelet, and took both of Jacqueline’s hands eagerly. She squeezed them, unable to express her gratitude in words. Jacqueline could feel her heart balloon within her chest.

Don’t fly away, she told herself. Not again.

#

On Barnhardt Avenue, a group of beach-ready frat bros clamored around the entrance of the local ice cream shop, Igloo. Vara glanced by it longingly, slowing her pace as they walked by it. Jacqueline ignored this. She jiggled her house keys in her pocket, trying to take her mind off of what she needed to do.

Her house was about a block away from Igloo, at the other end of the road. It was a white duplex rambler, desperately in need of a roof repair. Her mailbox was always crammed full, but she knew that most of that wasn’t hers. Her neighbor, a sorority girl, was severely addicted to online shopping.

When they entered the house, Vara breezed over to the kitchen. She fumbled in the fridge for a can of orange soda. Jacqueline was surprised at how, after fourteen months, Vara could still be so familiar with everything. Vara probably knew exactly where her awful bronze-striped underwear were: in the bottom third drawer of her dresser, on the left side.

Jacqueline sat down at the countertop. She grimaced at the mess her roommate, Charlie, had left in the sink. The blender was filled with murky green water, turning black from the light of the sun. Kale smoothies again? That girl needed serious help.

Vara removed the bobby pins from her buns as she took a deep gulp from the can. Her purple hair tumbled down onto her shoulders. She ran a finger over her bracelet, switching off her cloaking device. Her skin changed to a dusky red, the color of a faded lipstick. Her irises yellowed and formed jagged edges.

I forgot the feel of the bubbles,” Vara said, taking another sip. “The burning-tingling sensation.”

Jacqueline set her backpack up on the countertop. She sat down on the kitchen stool and removed her laptop from the bag. As she booted up her computer, she noticed Vara staring at her, waiting for commentary.

What?” Jacqueline asked, confused. “You know, you could’ve taken soda with you when you left here.”

There wasn’t enough room on the ship,” she said. “I wish that I could have though.”

Jacqueline typed in the password to her computer and sharply inhaled as she saw the dreaded rainbow wheel of death. “Fuck me.”

Not interested.”

Not you,” Jacqueline retorted, her cheeks glowing red. “My computer has to run another stupid update.”

Vara laughed sharply. She tapped her fingers against her bracelet and projected a screen in front of her face. It levitated above the countertop.

No worries. We can still look this up.”

Okay. So the official name is the Moreno Memorial Research Lab and Observatory,” Jacqueline explained. “Otherwise known as the Radio Yard. But you know that, right?”

I do,” Vara responded, typing the name onto the screen. “I interned with you there, after all. When I was still a ‘student.’”

That was before the place was finished,” Jacqueline said. “A lot has changed since you left. Security stepped up immensely after the opening ceremony. I’m talking armed guards that patrol the halls. They don’t want anyone or anything getting into the control room.”

Vara giggled. She chugged down the rest of her soda and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

That’s not going to be a problem,” Vara said. “I’ve got my gear, remember? Besides, you are Doctor Bello’s protege and you have key card access. I doubt that someone is going to stop us from going in there.”

Jacqueline winced. “I’m only ever in the control room when there’s other people around. And I’m never allowed at the controls when Bello isn’t there. Plus, there’s the whole issue of bringing you along.”

What do you mean?”

Anyone who is visiting the facility now needs to fill out a background check within three weeks of their visit,” Jacqueline explained. “You can’t just waltz in there even if you’re with me.”

Drat.”

Jacqueline nodded. She watched as Vara pulled up schematics of the Radio Yard and its surroundings. Vara tapped the screen and a series of red buttons appeared.

These are all the security cameras and checkpoints,” Vara explained to Jacqueline.

Great. We’ll know exactly where we’ll get caught.”

No,” Vara protested. “We’ll know what to be aware of.”

She tapped the screen again, and the red buttons disappeared. Now yellow blocks and lines criss crossed through the building. Vara’s eyes narrowed as she began pressing, zooming, searching.

What is that?” Jacqueline demanded. “What are you trying to do?”

Nothing,” Vara said. “I’m just…”

Suddenly the screen expanded, and a list of names and pictures appeared. Vara pointed her finger down and the screen adjusted to show a new set of names and respective pictures. Vara continued scrolling. Jacqueline’s eyes widened when she saw her own picture.

That’s the employee directory. What are you…?”

Vara smiled, stopped scrolling, and selected a picture. Jimena Lopez. Jacqueline only saw it for a split second, but she could tell it was her because of the curly pixie cut.

You’re not,” Jacqueline cried out, gaping.

Vara stepped away from the screen, ignoring Jacqueline. The screen twisted, and from its paper thin edge, projected a turquoise light onto Vara’s body. The screen moved up and down, slowly removing pieces of Vara’s appearance, until finally “Jimena” was standing in Jacqueline’s kitchen.

Vara smiled, running her fingers through her new curls. “Now all that’s left to do is to grab her security code.”

Vara! What if she’s actually at the observatory? How do we explain a clone?”

We’ll just have to try our best to avoid her then, if she is there.”

Jacqueline shook her head. She could feel the humming noise slowly approaching her ears as anxiety filled her body.

That won’t work. It’s too risky.”

It will work, and we don’t have a choice,” Vara snapped. “I’m sorry that I can’t come up with a better plan on such short notice.”

Then we’ll have to wait until we can think of something better.”

No!” Vara stomped on the ground, nostrils flaring. “We can’t wait! This has to happen tonight! The fate of my people is at stake! The lives of millions of Flutarions are hanging in the balance right now as you waste my time with arguing!”

Jacqueline slapped her hands down on the countertop, aggravated. “If you were going to impersonate somebody and steal the security codes, why did you come to me to begin with? Why the hell do you need my help?” she suddenly felt the tears rise in her throat and she shook her head. “Why did you come back and bother me again?”

Vara recoiled, like Jacqueline had slapped her. Jacqueline started to cry, burying her face in her hands.

I was getting over you,” Jacqueline sobbed. “I really was. And like a fucking supernova, you show up and blow everything apart.”

Vara lowered her head, calmly placing her hands behind her back. She nervously averted her eyes and shuffled her feet on the floor. It was how she stood when she was overwhelmed; it was how she had stood when Jacqueline first met Vara, in her freshman dorm. They had been roommates, and after she had discovered Vara’s secret, they had become close friends (and then later, lovers.) Vara had been a Flutarion Defender, a researcher and mercenary sent to Earth to study humans and their technology. She had eagerly invited Jacqueline to join her on her adventures out in space. Side by side they had battled Flutarion enemies while discovering extraterrestrial wonders unknown to humans: planets swallowed by black holes, stars bright enough to light an entire galaxy, fields of purple comets like lilacs.

Fourteen months ago, Vara’s mission ended on Earth and she was reassigned to fight back against the Gregarnok, who were growing in power. Jacqueline had pleaded with Vara to take her, but Vara had shot her down at every attempt. Her responsibilities and loyalty to her people overpowered whatever love she had for Jacqueline. Vara had once been so affectionate and kind, but within those last few months on Earth, she had turned into a heartless automaton, suddenly incapable of understanding empathy. The night before she left, Jacqueline had laid in bed and sobbed in a grief-stricken pain. Frustrated, Vara had thrown off the covers and hovered over her, her fists on her hips.

“This was never meant to be forever,” Vara had scolded her like she was a child. “Everything has to come to an end, whether we like it or not.”

Jacqueline had fallen silent then, sniffling. In that moment, she couldn’t think of what else to say. The woman that she loved was leaving her, and didn’t seem to give two shits about how she felt. Vara hadn’t fought to keep her apart of her life; she was content to make Jacqueline only a memory. All the declarations of “I love you” and “I can’t live without you” suddenly meant nothing. It had torn Jacqueline apart from the inside out and she had struggled to reassemble herself. With Vara back, the tough exterior Jacqueline had built up had evaporated almost instantaneously. She hated it. She hated being vulnerable with someone who didn’t deserve her. Each tear she shed burned like dripping candle wax.

I’m sorry that my return upsets you,” Vara whispered, closing her eyes. “You know that I couldn’t take you with me. You belong here, on Earth.”

I don’t need you to tell me where I belong,” Jacqueline cried. “You don’t get to decide these things, Vara. You can’t just toss aside all my feelings. I’m a person, not a machine.”

Vara exhaled, shaking her head. “I couldn’t take you with me. That wasn’t negotiable. I couldn’t act like it was. It wasn’t me rejecting you. It wasn’t a reflection of how I felt about you. It was me trying to not lead you on.”

Jacqueline sniffled. “You did a piss poor job of that.”

I can understand that now.”

Jacqueline wiped away her tears, unable to look at Vara.

Would you really want that, anyways?” Vara asked, softly. “Travelling in a cold metal clunker, across the vastness of space? I mean, I know that our adventures led you to believe it was fascinating and fun, but it’s not. I mean, you’re just continuously drifting through emptiness.”

It wouldn’t have been empty,” Jacqueline whispered. “That’s what you don’t get. You see emptiness. I see a life that I get to live with you. And that’s far from empty.” she lowered her head. “And if you don’t realize that, it means you really don’t feel the same as I do.”

I guess I don’t,” Vara admitted. “But I still need you for this.”

But why?”

I don’t have the confidence that I’ll be able to handle this all on my own,” Vara whispered. “You have no idea what these monsters are capable of.”

Her eyes watered, and she slumped to the floor. She held her head in her hands, her shoulders shaking. Jacqueline moved to sit down next to her. She traced the cracks in the tile floor, her fingernails scratching up the dirt, like dried blood.

You didn’t plan to come back here, did you?”

Vara sobbed, shaking her head.

What happened, Vara? Where’s the rest of your team?”

She sniffled, wiping her eyes. “Gone. Except Rodor. He wasn’t on the ship when it happened.”

When what happened?”

When the Gregarnok blew up the ship,” she whispered. “They stormed it and torched it. My teammates and I scrambled to the escape pod but… they didn’t make it. And I couldn’t make it back to Flutaria with what little fuel it had. So I came here.”

Jacqueline held her breath. She remembered each of their names and faces. She remembered laughing with Gorgor while repairing the ship; daring Tarvek to slam back another shot of Welsovkian vodka at a party; shrieking with joy while her and Ipa starboarded past the moons of NOV-19. These memories in her mind flickered, switching to images of their frozen, lifeless bodies floating in the darkness of space.

Tears burned at her eyes. “I had always hoped to see them again some day. I still remember the day I said goodbye to them.”

At least you got to say goodbye,” Vara said. “I watched them get slaughtered. Gorgor used the last of his strength to throw me in the escape pod.”

A sob caught in Vara’s throat again, which she swallowed. She pleadingly looked at Jacqueline.

That’s why I need you,” she whispered. “I hate to admit it myself, but I am too scared to do this alone. Please save my people. Help them, and I’ll heal you.”

#

Bzzzzzzrt. Jacqueline struggled to hold her eyes open against the bright green light of the scanner. When the green checkmark flashed on the screen, she proceeded through the metal detectors. The guard nodded to her as she passed. Swallowing, Jacqueline returned a smile. She turned to watch Vara.

Let’s hope her disguise works, Jacqueline thought.

Vara casually approached the scanner and opened her eye. It took longer than expected for the scanner to work, but eventually the checkmark popped up. Her counterfeit badge allowed her to skate on through. Vara beamed, flashing a wide toothed grin at Jacqueline, who shook her head.

Jimena is not nearly that sunshiney,” Jacqueline muttered under her breath. “She’s got an Evanescence sort of vibe.”

A what sort of vibe?”

Just act like you would rather be dead than be here.”

Oh. I can do that,” Vara said, then wrinkled her nose excessively and narrowed her eyes.

Why do you look like you’ve smelled the most horrendous fart in your life? Look, just mellow out and let’s get this done. Do you have everything you need?”

Vara smiled coyly. “This asinine security system couldn’t find my tools even if it tried. Get me to the control room and we’ll get this taken care of.”

They rounded a corner and passed a couple of researchers who smiled at them politely. Jacqueline warily eyed the guards huddled around a massive wall of security monitors. She caught her and Vara in the upper right hand screen just before they walked out of frame.

Oof!”

Jacqueline’s attention snapped back to the path in front of her. She saw Vara standing back, alarmed, as a researcher fumbled for her glasses and her papers on the floor below.

I am so sorry,” Vara cried out. “Here, let me help you.”

Oh thank you,” the researcher murmured, taking Vara’s outstretched hand and climbing to her feet.

A chill crept up Jacqueline’s spine when she recognized the researcher. It was Madeline Farmer, one of the newer interns. She also happened to be one of Jimena’s best friends.

Jimena?” Madeline said, shocked. Her amber eyes magnified. “I thought you weren’t supposed to be here this weekend!”

I… uh…” Vara’s cheeks pinkened, unable to think of what to say. “I… picked up an extra shift?”

Madeline arched a brow, confused. “How’d you manage to do that? The profs here are really strict about the schedule.”

I had to ask her to help!” Jacqueline blurted, grabbing Vara’s shoulders and motioning her forward. “Professor Bello needs me to be ready to present for a, uh, academic conference next week and I want help organizing my data.”

Wait, what? What academic conference?”

The one in Pasadena, California!” Vara cried out.

Uh yeah, it’s kind of an obscure one,” Jacqueline rambled, continuing to push Vara forward. “So we’ll just be on our way. Sorry about bumping into you, Madeline!”

They hastily moved forward, ignoring Madeline’s cry of “Wait!” and rounded the corner. Jacqueline squeezed Vara’s hand and she squeezed it back.

We still have plenty of time,” Vara whispered. “Let’s get to the control room.”

Finally, they found it. A long hallway, consisting of metal circles, stretched before them. At the end stood a tall glass door, with the number one etched on it in frosty white font. Four cameras, one at each corner of the hallway, pointed in their direction. Vara dug into the pocket of her lab coat and withdrew a round blue sphere. She pressed a button on the side of it. Suddenly the cameras shorted out, bluish sparks flying forth from their lenses, and they fell limply forward like ragdolls.

That’s going to set off an alarm,” Jacqueline cried out, sprinting ahead. “We don’t have much time, let’s move!”

They nearly banged into the door, and Jacqueline hurriedly punched in the keycode. With a burst of air, the door shot open and they pushed their way inside. Vara used the sphere to disable the cameras within the control room. She then tapped her bracelet, using it to seal the doors shut.

That should hold them off,” she said to Jacqueline. “Start up the control panel.”

Jacqueline sat down in the egg shaped chair before the control panel and wall of monitors. Her fingers flew across the keyboard, typing in the password. The technology and equipment at the Moreno Memorial were state-of-the-art, but it couldn’t compare to the memorial’s crowning achievement: the Moreno Radioscope, a 600 meter radio telescope that was capable of sending the most powerful-known signals into space. Now, Jacqueline was at the helm of the controls for the Moreno. She could feel her hands trembling at the thought of being in so much control.

Concentrate. Breathe. Focus. Jacqueline pulled up the program which controlled the radio frequencies. The familiar green waves bounced across the screen in a steady rhythm. The screen suddenly rattled and shook as the alarms blared over the intercoms.

Jackie, move aside,” Vara cried out. “You’ve got the program up, now I’ll take over.”

She scooted Jacqueline out of her seat and removed another device from her lab coat. It was a rounded remote, almost like a taser. It whirred to life, and shot out multiple wires, which launched into the computer mainframe. She tapped on her bracelet and pulled up the schematics on one screen, and something else on the other. Jacqueline’s eyes widened. That was one of the Gregarnok battleships, orbiting just beyond Neptune. She could recognize it by the jagged panels curling around the body of the ship. But it was the largest battleship she had even seen. It was the mothership.

There they are,” Vara hissed, narrowing her eyes.

The screen with the waves flickered, glitching and buzzing. Vara slid her fingers up her bracelet, and the wavelengths shortened; the amplitudes and troughs expanded, spreading away from point zero.

Guards appeared at the glass door, pounding on the panes and shouting, demanding to get through. Vara glanced over her shoulder in alarm. She tapped a panel on her bracelet and a phaser gun materialized in the air. She grabbed it, then tossed it over her head back to Jacqueline. Jacqueline snatched it with an expert precision, aiming it at the guards.

Back up!” Jacqueline shouted. “You’re not getting through these doors!”

A guard smirked and reached for the passcode. He recoiled with a shout as it shocked him, green sparks spitting out of the panel.

Keep them back,” Vara cried out. She tapped a few buttons on her bracelet and her disguise evaporated. “I’m diverting all energy to getting this to work!”

The room began to rotate, swiveling around slowly in a circle. On one of the screens, she could see the radioscope was twisting around. Jacqueline knew where Vara was aiming it.

I’m in position,” Vara yelled over her shoulder. “Hang on!”

She beat her fist against her bracelet and a blaring sound erupted from the room, shaking it. The guards screamed in pain, their hands clapping over their ears. Jacqueline dropped her gun and tried to cover hers. The sound pulsated, shooting out like a bullet, piercing the atmosphere. They could not see the sound, but from watching the mothership on screen, they knew it had reached it. The ship was rocking; the lights flashing rapidly. A few panels burst into flames. The ship inched away from Neptune, moving further from the solar system.

They’re turning away!” Vara screamed, horrified. “They’re going to hyperjump! It’s not strong enough!”

Then max out the power!” Jacqueline shot back. “Hurry up!”

Some of the screens were breaking, spontaneously exploding. The girls covered their heads as glittering pieces of black glass rained down. Jacqueline winced. The buzzing sound was back again, the decibels growing. Jacqueline cried out wordlessly, dropping to her knees. Vara turned to face her and tried to get her off the ground. Jacqueline shook her head, unable to speak.

Don’t stop, she mouthed.

Vara nodded and then returned to the control panel. Jacqueline grappled to stay conscious. The lights overhead were flickering, breaking. She could see that the floor underneath the guards in the hallway was cracking open, splitting apart like a torn spiderweb. They scrambled to leave the building. The alarms blared louder, and now red lights were flashing all around them. The ringing and buzzing in Jacqueline’s ears was almost deafening, but still, god damn it, she could hear.

Concentrate. Breathe. Focus.

She pressed her cheek against the cool tile floor, digging her fingernails into the grout.

Concentrate. Breathe. Focus.

She watched as the Gregarnok mothership split in two and explode, fiery green and blue embers illuminating the shadows of Neptune’s moons.

Concentrate.

She felt the ceiling panels of the facility crash down upon her body; she felt a torn piece stab into the back of her calf.

Breathe.

She watched as Vara turned to her, horrified, and scramble towards her.

Focus.

Vara’s face blurred into an incomprehensible kaleidoscope of colors before finally fading to black.

#

Water. Dripping. Cold. Jacqueline woke up to the sound of silence. She was curled up underneath silken white sheets, and an open bay window allowed her to see the beach outside. Gossamer yellow curtains blew gently in the breeze.

She looked directly above her and saw Vara applying a cool washcloth to her forehead. Her crinkled eyes relaxed once she realized Jacqueline was awake. Her disguises were gone. Her natural pink skin glowed in the sunlight.

Vara’s mouth moved but no sound came out. Jacqueline shook her head. Vara stopped, blinked, and then mouthed the words slowly.

How are you feeling? Vara asked.

I can’t hear.

I think it’s gone completely.

No shit?

Vara smiled. I was worried. You slept the whole way here.

Where is here?

Vara paused, then tapped on her bracelet to bring up a map. She pointed to a dot on the map. Coos Bay, Oregon.

How the hell did we get here?

Dragged you out of the building. Found a car. Hotwired it. Drove.

How long have I been out?

Days, Vara responded, swallowing.

You didn’t go home?

Vara sighed. She shook her head. I asked them to give me time.

Time to what? Jacqueline asked.

Fix you.

Do you know how to, at this point?

No, Vara admitted. But I can try.

That’s fine, Jacqueline protested, raising a hand. Don’t bother.

What?

It doesn’t hurt anymore, Jacqueline responded. The ringing. It’s gone. It’s so… peaceful.

Vara was stunned. You’re deaf. Isn’t that scary?

It’s not like I’m dead. Jacqueline winked at her. Plus, you’re here with me. Right?

Jacqueline reached out for Vara’s hand and squeezed it. Vara’s cheeks reddened. She lifted Jacqueline’s hand and kissed her palm.

Can I change my prize?

What?

You said you would fix my hearing if I helped you, Jacqueline said. Well, I am shit out of luck now.

Vara giggled. What is your wish?

One more trip, Jacqueline said. Just one more trip around the sun, and we’ll go our separate ways.

Vara was surprised, but then her gaze softened. I can do that. Her smile broadened as she spoke, nodding, growing more enthusiastic. I can definitely do that, oh hero of my people.

Jacqueline laughed. She watched the sun climb up over the hills, bathing the sandy beaches in its honey orange hue. Vara climbed next to her on the bed, nestling into her side. Jacqueline rested her hand on her shoulder, inhaling her earthy smell, like rainwater and roses.

You were wrong, Jacqueline told her.

I was wrong about what?

You said that I would feel lost when this happened, Jacqueline said. But for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.

Vara snuggled underneath the blankets, wrapping her arms around Jacqueline’s abdomen. Jacqueline couldn’t hear her, but could feel the vibration of Vara’s laughter against her chest. With a pang the realization of her deafness was sinking in. Sure the tinnitus was gone, but she thought of the realities ahead. No longer able to enjoy the velvety softness of Vara’s voice; the musical chime of her laughter. She would have to learn sign language, or another form of communication, to interact with others. Suddenly it was overwhelming.

But then Vara kissed her nose, and combed her fingers through her dark hair, and Jacqueline willed herself to relax. Not today, she told herself. You don’t have to worry about this today. Live in this moment.

Concentrate. Breathe. Focus.

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