When The Dead Stay With Us
Read an excerpt of speculative fiction about literally carrying your dead loved ones with you from the SciFri Book Club pick ‘New Suns.’
The following is a short story by Darcie Little Badger titled “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath” from the collection New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By People Of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl.
New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By People Of Color
Hand stretched toward the bedroom ceiling, Kelsey climbed on her wooden footstool. “Here, Pal,” she called. A shimmer—a tiny Fata Morgana, light bent through not-quite emptiness—flowed across the ceiling, down her arm, and around her shoulders. Pal’s weight lessened hers; an alien gravity drew all last breaths from Earth.
“Good boy,” she said. “It’s work time.”
She hopped down from the stool and used her bare foot to push it against her bed, a twin-sized, twenty-year-old mattress on the wooden floor. If repairs to the farm and the three-story white elephant of a house hadn’t bled her of every cent she earned, Kelsey might have bought a proper bed, something with memory foam instead of metal springs. She didn’t need a frame. Never had. But with every passing year, it became more difficult to sleep on a creaky, lumpy, tilted beast with steel bones and two hundred generations of dust mites woven through its skin.
Kelsey shut off her bedroom light and stepped into the hallway. As her pupils expanded, she navigated by floorboard creaks. Twenty footsteps to the staircase. Thirteen steps to the ground floor. Her father had constructed the house by hand; there were no coincidences. He built the number thirteen into the foundation thirteen different ways as a monument to his patience with the superstitions of the seventh generation settlers who once employed him.
It had been a modest farm. Just a vegetable garden, one acre of corn, and thirteen bleating sheep. Enough for two new farmers, both retired from early-life careers, to manage. Now, all that remained was the last breath of the sheepdog Pal.
And, of course, the farmers’ daughter.
After breakfast, a bowl of joyless shredded wheat and almond milk, Kelsey left the house; her car was parked across a grassy acre once used for grazing. “Nearly a full moon,” she said, as if Pal could appreciate the view. When Pal was alive, he used to bound across the countryside, free, and then sprawl belly-up on the ground, panting.
He couldn’t do that anymore. He couldn’t even see the sky.
Outside, Kelsey always carried Pal in a backpack to protect him from falling into the void. She secured the backpack in the trunk of her car before slipping into the driver’s seat. It was a twenty minute drive to work with no traffic, one benefit of a very early morning. Because the hospital never closed, the best time for herding was that sweet spot between late night and early morning: 4:00 a.m. Despite the redeye hour, a thirty-person crowd waited outside Maria Medical Center, filling the long rectangle of grass between the parking lot and street. Some sat on picnic blankets or collapsible lawn chairs. Others stood. All watched the marble, chimney-like chute jutting from the hospital dome. As Kelsey parked in front of the vigil keepers, she recognized several regulars who enjoyed witnessing last breaths rising, like smoke from a pyre, into the vestiges of starlight.
The new faces might be mourners, waiting to say goodbye. Last breaths rarely lingered near their cooling bodies; if they weren’t captured immediately, they drifted away, indistinguishable from other shimmers trapped in the labyrinth of medical departments.
From the book, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. Copyright 2019 edited by Nisi Shawl. Reprinted by permission of Solaris, an imprint of Rebellion Publishing Ltd.