Debt – Cass Francis

It’s ridiculous how fast the world changes—like something out of a song, where a twist of phrase leads you into a totally different place, where before you know it you’re starting to wonder whether it’s even the same song anymore. @isaac_almeida24, with sandy hair & a broad chin had to walk away, reset, & drive home. He runs a hand through his hair. Still wears the gold wedding band, though it’s almost been a year, the weather too warm for the season. No snow. No ice. Not even much rain—more like a dry fall than a winter. Except it’s flu season & of course his youngest, sitting in the seat next to him with a paper mask over her mouth—her baby pink lips—her makeup, inexpertly applied, smeared—got sick. Terribly so. But no matter because he managed to walk away, reset, & save her. & they sit next to one another in the car, him driving because he still can’t get used to the self-controlled-car thing—neither of them talking much.

“We must have run across someone with the flu,” he says, pale blue eyes scanning the road. “You got sick.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she says, pushing a strand of black hair from away from her mask. Her tone is huffy—normal for her age, so @isaac_almeida24 doesn’t press it.

“Of course, you didn’t, baby. But it happened all the same.”

He thinks of her health, so different from the pro-reset hour before—he can still picture her in the backseat puking into a grocery sack, shivering with fever, pale as the winter moon. He can almost still smell the sourness of the vomit, even though he isn’t completely sure it still counts as something real—something that existed—now that he has reset. Now that he broke all the rules and ignored all the warnings left by his late wife telling him that messing with the linearity of time is dangerous.

She would have done the same thing, he tells himself.

She would have done anything to keep her youngest child alive. & she would have done it again & again if need be, damn the danger, he tells himself.

His youngest points out the window. “The glass,” she says.

He follows her gaze—all the windows of the buildings they pass are screens shimmering with digital ads for bright & gleaming goods & services, some of which make @isaac_almeida24 blush—though his youngest seems unfazed, even amused, rather than scandalized. The usual holograms play around the buildings & business signs—a smiling bearded mechanic cartoon climbing up the sign for an auto repair shop—but the window ads are new, something that must have slipped through the break in time during the last reset.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” he mutters to his daughter.

“It’s like we’re in the future.”

@isaac_almeida24 chuckles, trying in vain to match her light mood, her innocent fascination with the changing times.

She lay defenseless & shaking on a hospital gurney, her body raging with fever as if she was being burned alive from the inside out. Doctors swarmed. Nurses pushed him from the room. & then later after hours or what felt like hours of pacing and hand-wringing, a doctor came out & squeezed his shoulder & told him the bad news. “I’m sorry,” the doctor said, & @isaac_almeida24 felt weak, sick, dizzy. He didn’t even think—just numbly took his wife’s contraption, the Spinner, from his pocket, pressed the button & spun backwards in time, until before the flu, before his youngest daughter got infected, before all the tragedy that seemed to be destined to take her reached up again to grab her and steal her away from him.

& then he thought of his wife, & his whole body stiffened with guilt & shame.

He thinks of her on the drive home, his hands tightening around the steering wheel. He thinks of her with guilt & shame because deep down he knows that she wouldn’t have done what he did—break time & reset it so that their youngest child wouldn’t die. He knows she wouldn’t have because she didn’t. She chose instead to walk away without doing anything. She believed that nature was important to preserve, important above all else, & breaking the laws of nature was like taking out a loan or buying something on credit. Breaking time, breaking the laws of nature, meant you were building up more & more debt in the world—& before long some force more powerful than you will come collect.

@isaac_almeida24’s daughter has died six times—twice before her mother left & four times within the past year.

*      *      *

How would experiencing death this way affect them, his daughters? @isaac_almeida24 worries that they’ll never understand it the way others understand it—with permanence, as something final & not meant to change. As something meant to be respected. With every reset, his youngest becomes sweeter, more innocent, believing that everything always works out for the best. On the other hand, his oldest—@LuLuSea—becomes darker. She seems to not understand the tragedy of it—that destruction is permanent & leads to sorrow & mourning. @isaac_almeida24 fears that she has lost respect for life.

At home, he stands in @LuLuSea’s bedroom doorway. “Good,” he says, “you’re already packing. We’re going to head out to the cabin for a few days.”

“Not me,” she says.

She’s throwing clothes into a suitcase without folding them—a sign that she’s more interested in making a point than actually going anywhere. She has @isaac_almeida24’s own sandy hair & his wife’s matter-of-fact stubbornness. “What do you mean, not you?” he says.

“I mean I’m not going to the cabin. I’m not going anywhere with you.”

She knows that he reset, @isaac_almeida24 realizes. He doesn’t know how she knows, but she’s always been a smart one—always used to tag along with her mom to classes & the lab, & so probably picked up some ideas there. Maybe she can tell from small changes in the technology surrounding them. Maybe she just notices a flicker of light, a change in the wind. “Where are you planning on going, then?” he ventures.

“Like you don’t know.”


She throws down a bundle of socks and slams her mother’s left behind notebooks on top of the pile in the suitcase. “I’m going to find Mom.”

@isaac_almeida24 shakes his head, has to swallow & look away down the hall. She takes his hesitation as either skepticism or a challenge & puts her hands on her hips, defiant, chin out. He shakes his head again & can’t meet her gaze—what good is a father who can’t even look his child in the eye? “Honey,” he says, “we talked about this—your mother. She’s dead, & there isn’t anything we can do about it.”

“She’s lost,” says @LuLuSea, “& you’re too much of a coward to go after her.”

He ducks away into the hallway. “Get packed for the cabin.”

“& you don’t care.”

“Get packed. I’m not kidding around.”

As he heads down the hall, he can hear her groan & zip up her suitcase in a frustrated huff. He goes to the living room, wanting to turn around & scream, “Your sister just DIED,” but instead he closes his fists & swallows again to diffuse the anger, the pain. No tears in his eyes. Instead, strangely—madly—he wants to laugh. He holds that in too, making it to the quiet of the living room.

The windows of their house are also digitized, & the screensavers cast eerie pink & green pixelated light across the beige carpet. He’s sure he can change them to a more natural curtains or blinds, or even plywood, but he doesn’t know how & doesn’t have time right now to fool with it. His youngest is sitting on the couch, running her fingers through her black hair. She seems so much more delicate than @LuLuSea—who’s older & therefore bigger but also just seems more powerful, more volatile. His youngest is a candle flame. His oldest is a wildfire. But maybe his perceptions are off because he has so recently seen his youngest so sick, her eyes sunken & her face flushed & her skin clammy gray as if she was about to turn to dust right in front of him. Beside her packed pink suitcase on the couch, she’s sitting with her legs folded underneath her, her head leaning back and her black hair fanned out around her like a thrown-back veil. She’s not wearing her mask. “We don’t have to go,” she says.

“I’d feel better if we got away for a few days. Just chilled for awhile, you know.”

She looks like she wants to say something else. @isaac_almeida24 waits for the words. “Is she really dead?” she finally whispers. “Like gone forever?”

He sighs. Nods. “What matters is that we’re together. Getting out of town for a few days will help, I promise.” He makes himself busy by going to the window & pressing his finger to the glass until the alternating green & pink changes to white blinds that ripple a bit, as if real & pushed by a cool breeze. “We can talk about it, though,” he says, “on the drive. It’s good, sometimes, to talk about these things.” His mouth is dry, his heart pounding from the lie. “It’s healing.” He turns around. “Where’s your mask?”

“Daddy,” she groans.

“Put it on. We’re not taking any chances.”

*      *      *

The girls sit in the backseat as they drive up to a gas station—the last one on the way to the cabin. The youngest picks at her mask. @LuLuSea keeps her arms crossed, a stony expression on her face. The windows of their car don’t play any digital images—either their car is too old a model for that, or there are laws about that sort of thing being a distraction for drivers. The girls can only watch the countryside rolling by and listen to the music through their implants. @isaac_almeida24 can only watch the road. He pulls up to a pump & gets out, makes accidental eye contact with the guy on the adjacent pump and nods guardedly, & says to the girls, “Wait here.” As if they’re going to go anywhere. As if they have anywhere to go.

“He hasn’t said a thing, not the whole trip,” @LuLuSea says as soon as her dad has closed the door & is out of earshot.

“He’s just tired,” says her little sister, picking at her paper mask, snapping the elastic. “& probably scared.”

“Of course—he’s always tired & scared. He’s never going to tell us about her. about what happened. Never. He’s too much of a coward.” @LuLuSea looks over at her sister, who stares out at the gas pump, numbers scrolling higher & higher & a celebrity news video playing on the screen. “You should press him again—he listens to you. He can’t say no to you. You should ask—we deserve to know.”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“I have—he doesn’t listen to me.”

“I don’t want to make him mad.”

@LuLuSea sighs, disappointed & letting it show. She doesn’t say anything for a moment or two, though, instead watching out the window. Her father is a nervous man, glancing up & down the road & at the strangers coming & going to the gas pumps & the convenience store. He’s small & scrawny with boring sandy-colored hair—like her own. “She isn’t dead,” @LuLuSea says. She doesn’t know whether she just can’t hold in her frustration any longer or whether she wants to screw up her goodie-two-shoes little sister or whether she’s angry at her father for never listening or whether she’s desperate to get her mother back. “She’s just lost,” @LuLuSea continues when her sister doesn’t say anything. “Lost in time. & every reset when Dad breaks time, he creates more loops, & it makes everything more complicated. He makes it harder for Mom to find us & for us to find Mom.”

“Dad says she’s gone. Gone for good.”

“He’s lying. Or he just doesn’t know. But I’ve read the journals. I know & I think he does too, somewhere deep down, & that’s why he gets all pissed—”

The door opens. Chirping birds. Rustling leaves. Passing cars.

@isaac_almeida24 climbs into the driver’s seat. The girls are quiet.

*      *      *

The truth is that he will probably start bawling, talking about her. After all, sometimes he starts bawling making coffee, walking into the backyard, picking up a can of beans in the supermarket. How could he get through some speech about her to his daughters, to her daughters? There is no way to explain the truth behind it, anyway—the truth that she wasn’t a good person, wasn’t a caring person. Wasn’t a good mother & might have loved them—might have loved him—but in the end didn’t care enough to not leave. To put them before work, before ambition. He will start bawling. Then he’ll start ranting, & the girls, or at least the youngest, will start crying. & no doubt it would turn into some argument between him & @LuLuSea.

A few days ago, he overheard them together in the bathroom, @LuLuSea straightening her sister’s hair & saying, “You know, he posts stuff on social media using her accounts, like as if nothing happened. It’s severely weird & creepy. Kind of pervey, too. He’s acting like she’s still alive. Like he knows that she’s still alive, & he’s waiting for her to come back.” @isaac_almeida24 became teary, hurried from the bathroom as if fleeing from the scene of a crime.

It’s true. He posts as her sometimes. As @Sierra, so that her followers out there in the world, all the strangers who only know her as a name & ideas & passion about knowledge think she’s still here. Think she’s still alive.

@isaac_almeida24 is compelled to do this the same as he’s compelled to reset to keep his youngest daughter alive. He doesn’t know if it will really mean that he’s perverted—corrupting the laws of nature & putting himself & his family, his entire world, in danger. He doesn’t know what he owes nature, given that it has stolen so much from him & is still hungry, still trying to take more.

He does owe them an explanation, though. His daughters. She was their mother.

They deserve to know that she loved them.

Or loves them?

Or will love them?

He doesn’t have the words to describe this situation just like he can’t tell you how the windows display digital video, how the Spinner works, how & why his daughter keeps dying & why he keeps having to save her. He’s not like his wife was. He’s not smart. He’s not particularly curious. He doesn’t have eyes that shine with burning suspicion at every question that claims to have no answer.

“I don’t know what happened to your mother,” he admits suddenly, as if alone in the car, as if alone & feeling the tears coming & desperate to keep them at bay—to keep his mind & vision clear, to make it where he’s going. “I don’t know,” he repeats.

They’re about five minutes from the cabin, weaving down an unpaid road through the campgrounds. The girls weren’t expecting him to speak, so he feels their surprise and hesitation to say something that would put an end to his speaking mood. But he has to tell them something, even if it’s wrong. “I can tell you about her, though. That’s one way to keep her here with us—to talk about her & remember her.” He swallows.

He begins to speak.

*      *      *

Your mother used to get up at eight o’clock every morning, sharp. She did everything with a schedule. If it wasn’t on the schedule, she couldn’t do it.

Late at night, @LuLuSea and her sister tromp through the woods, headed for the lake in the center of the campground.

@isaac_almeida24 is in the shower when they sneak out, his mind numb and reeling from the events of the day, replaying what he said about his wife as the water ran lukewarm across his skin. The drain makes a tortured choking noise. He can smell the girls’ strawberry scented shampoo and his own mountain fresh scented body wash. He turns off the water & listens to the silence broken only by crickets chirping outside & water dripping from the showerhead. He pulls back the curtain, steps out of the shower, dries with a towel, preparing to go to bed.

She’d get up at eight. Breakfast at eight-fifteen—always with one cup of black coffee. At eight-thirty she dressed—always jeans & a plain t-shirt. On weekdays, she left the house by nine to go to the lab or her office until class—made it to campus at nine-thirty. She usually taught on Tuesdays & Thursdays at ten, one, & five, & on Mondays & Wednesdays she had lab classes. The rest of the time she was working in her lab or in her office, working all the time on her research. You remember. It was pretty much around the clock there for awhile. But she’d be home by six, unless she had a night class. I always cooked, kept the food warm for her.

“Just stop dying,” @LuLuSea says, half joking, as they march through the woods.

“I can’t,” says her sister. “I don’t do it on purpose.”

@LuLuSea carries the Spinner, careful not to press the button yet. “I know,” she says. “It’s like fate.”


“You have to die.”

“Everyone dies.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Sticks snap, leaves crumple, & acorns burst under their feet. @LuLuSea worries that their father will hear & come racing after them with a shotgun, but she smiles a bit at the irony of him accidentally shooting her sister. But then @LuLuSea imagines the pain & blood & she sickens. Tries to walk quieter. “It’s sad, though, & kind of unfair that you keep dying & making it harder to find Mom.”

“I don’t want to make it harder.”

“I know,” @LuLuSea tries to soften her voice—tries to communicate to her sister that she doesn’t mean to accuse, that she means to comfort. That she just wants things to turn out right, that she just wants things like they were before their mom left. @LuLuSea looks over at her sister hurrying along in the too-heavy coat, no paper mask, her lips baby pink & her cheeks flushed in the chilly air. “I don’t mean it’s your fault. I mean it isn’t your fault—that’s why it’s unfair.”

She showered at ten & was in bed at ten-thirty. Read or did other stuff, kept herself occupied until midnight, when she’d turn out the light & try to get some sleep. At first, the schedule was so annoying. I mean, at first, when we were dating, I thought it was charming & eccentric. Then we got married & I thought it was maddening. But after years I guess I grew used to it & started depending on it, & realized I guess since she left how much it meant to me, how I had grown accustomed to that—to having that control over time…

They stand at the edge of the lake, the dark sky spotted with stars & wispy gray clouds that floated in the reflection on the surface of the water. The reflection of the clouds looked like smoke suspended in the shimmering blackness. The girls stare, frozen as if staring at the edge of the world. Crickets, leaves, wind. The Spinner spins in @LuLuSea’s hand, & both girls breathe plumes of frosty air & the cold water trickles against the muddy shore.

“I’m scared,” says @LuLuSea’s sister, her voice so frightened that it’s almost all breath.

“You’ve done it before.”

“It feels different this time.”

@LuLuSea knows what she means—there’s something about the dark & somber peace of the lake, the woods, & the distant cabin that makes this moment seem different from all that has come before.

Her sister takes the first step forward into the water, her jaw locked with determination.

*      *      *

@isaac_almeida24 howls when he makes it to the lake, sees the water lapping his youngest daughter’s small body against the shore. He tries to revive her. He tries to reset. But the Spinner is missing and the air won’t go into her lungs and stay there and it’s no use, it’s no use at all, and by the end of it he’s sobbing like a child. He carries her back to the cabin, lays her on the kitchen table, & calls the police. & then he doesn’t speak—he won’t say a word to them. He won’t say a word to anyone. The police take him in for questioning. They suspect him for awhile, but can find no proof. The girl’s death is ruled an accident, and her sister probably ran away, not knowing what else to do. The police cannot locate her. They send @isaac_almeida24 to a hospital, where he stays in the psych ward for a few weeks, then is transferred to a facility out in the country, somewhere safe, somewhere quiet, somewhere peaceful. He talks rarely, but he posts online regularly.

“Death is natural, but nature is a cycle,” he posts as @Sierra. The doctors monitor his accounts carefully, looking for clues about his condition. “For every ending, nature owes us one beginning.”

Other than that, he spends the days staring at the doors as if waiting for them to open.

He stares at the windows as if waiting for the pixelated light to flicker.

Stares at the clocks as if he’s waiting for the time to change.




Image: via pxhere



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