A Room of One’s Own
By Tochi Onyebuchi
Mary had been 82 forever.
She was not slow in navigating her kitchen but deliberate, always on the precipice of forgetting where she’d put a thing or whether or not she had left the stove on or what page she sought to resume her book at, but always, in the end, catching the thought before it shattered on the floor. What was lost, was lost, though, and she felt the occasional pang, more like a fumbling, when she would look upon a portrait of Malcolm X on the wall or thumb through the pages of her gilt-edged Bible and feel like this should make her think of something. It was never just a portrait of Malcolm X. It had found its way to that wall, one armchair so angled that she could look up from her reading and catch the man, fingers to chin and cheek, staring imperially just over her shoulder. The gilt-edged Bible was never just a gilt-edged Bible. Some of its pages were dog-eared, some wrinkled from years of fingertips sliding against them.
But the peace that attended her time in the kitchen had come to her because she always kept herself from trying to discern the “why” of things. The comfort sustained her.
So when the little girl with the missing eye walked in from the living room, one pigtail perfectly curvilinear, the other frayed and askew, Mary did not ask why. She did not reach for the medical supplies in her bathroom to clean the space around the void on the child’s face, nor did she try to figure out all the imperceptible ways in which her kitchen and her reading room and the hallway to the door had changed. It had always been this way. So, together, Mary and the little girl ignored the finger painting that ran along the walls of the hallway and the discarded dolls that suddenly littered the floor.
She had always known this child.
Mary had the little girl on her lap and was reading to her from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when a teenaged girl in an oversized tee and compression leggings appeared with her feet up on Mary’s couch. Noise bleeped and trssshed from her Nintendo Switch, and a mess had blossomed on the floor. Not like the little girl’s innocent, puerile chaos. Mary knew what Marya was doing: leave me alone but pay attention to me. A vision flashed to life in her mind of her own legs, one stretched out along the length of the couch, the other draped over its back, chewing loudly, reaching without looking into a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and, after popping a fistful, futilely wiping the crumbs on her shirt. The shirt had been shorter, tighter-fitting, and she’d wanted to show off her legs. In her hands hadn’t been a Nintendo Switch but a magazine. The look on her face reading it had been just the same.
Begrudgingly and out of habit, she began to swipe up some of the loose papers and magazines around the couch, muttering to herself in Arabic, just loud enough for Marya to hear, while the little girl busied herself with the pages of a book that had fallen from the bookshelf behind Mary. When Mary heard a shredding sound, she whipped around mid-task and let out a sigh of resignation before moving as quickly as her body would allow to save the tome from further destruction.
“Manon, we don’t do that, do we?” Mary said to the child. The little girl’s face crumpled. Her bottom lip trembled. Marya came over, the Cheeto stains gone, and scooped Manon into her arms, bouncing her and murmuring affection in Arabic.
The kitchen awaited cleaning, but when Mary approached, Windex having materialized in her hands, Maria stood in her way. A full face with high cheekbones and narrow eyes that darted to all corners of the room. She was soaked.
“Here, let’s get you cleaned up,” Mary signed to the 35-year-old Mexican woman, after putting the Windex down on a nearby table.
Mary knew exactly which towels to use and how to scrub the hair that, dripping, came down just past Maria’s shoulders. Flecks of blood sat on Maria’s scalp, but they quickly withered under Mary’s assault. Whatever trauma Maria had passed through to arrive here left her too shocked to undress herself, so Mary did it for her. She peeled away the leather jacket and the blouse, making sure to gently move Maria’s broken left arm to get it free of its sleeve. Pants and undergarments next, then it was all in a pile that Mary would attend to later. Over Maria’s slender, water-pearled shoulders, Mary draped a robe.
“You’re safe here,” she signed.
The question glistened in Maria’s eyes: who are you?
There was a crash outside. She flinched; Maria did not. Turning over her shoulder, Mary shouted at Marya in Arabic to watch Manon and not let her climb on ledges again. Maria did not take her gaze from Mary.
“Where am I? What is this place?” Maria asked without opening her mouth.
Mary signed that this place was home. Then she slowly brought Maria to her feet and led her out of the bathroom, around a corner, and into the kitchen where Marya stood hunched over a bowl, stirring the cookie dough inside with a thick wooden spoon while batting away the finger Manon kept trying to plunge into the goo.
Maria broke away from Mary and nearly slipped on the tile floor on her way to the refrigerator. On the door, magnets held curled photographs. With her undamaged arm, she took one away and held it close to her face. In it, she saw herself and her daughter and her sister, all dark hair and skin the color of a mesa at sunrise. Maria’s shoulders spasmed. She pressed her forehead to the refrigerator door and wept.
Marya and Manon looked on in sympathy, realizing at the same time that, as children, they couldn’t possibly know how to make Maria stop crying.
Mary put a hand to Maria’s shoulder. A moment’s pause was all it took for Mary to marshal the knowledge of the languages she would need to tell Maria what had to be told. Cooing in French to Manon, chastising Marya in Arabic. But how to comfort a particle physicist?
“You’ve died,” Mary signed, her back to Marya and Manon.
Just as it seemed Maria had returned to herself, shock swept her once again into stillness.
But Mary continued. “This place is the result of quantum coherence.” A pause, then, “no, not wavelength collapse. There is a universe where you survive your car accident. Many, in fact. You escape the twisted metal, you swim to the surface and await rescue. That means that there is a reality where you die, and that branch of the tree ends. Quantum decoherence. Then you, that you, ends up here.”
Maria slipped her broken arm out of its enclosure and moved it to sign, and Mary realized that it only looked broken. Of course, Maria could feel no pain here. “Is this heaven?”
Mary smiled, as though to suggest that was the wrong question. “I guess all cats do go to Heaven.”
With a nod of her head, Mary indicated the two girls in the kitchen. “Manon was killed playing with her father’s gun. And Marya died from an overdose. She wears those long, baggy shirts so that you don’t see the track marks on her arms.”
“And you?” Maria asked.
The answer comes to Mary, as though it had been there all along. Always in the last place you look. “I forgot how to breathe.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I don’t know. I feel as though I’ve always been here. And that Manon has always been with me, and Marya too. I can try to reach past the limits of my remembering, but there is no peace there. I think, in my life, I was someone who was needed, and I fulfilled that need, and I am doing so now. I think this is my portion. You’ve known this too. But you were always the skeptic, even as a little girl.”
“You knew me when I was little?”
Breath left Maria’s lungs at the realization. She stared, wide-eyed, at Marya and at Manon. Then squinted, searching for something and flinched, as though struck, when she found it.
At Maria’s side, Mary said, “When we die, sometimes we die alone. And our last moments are attended by hurt and sorrow. And we fear that there is only lonely night ahead. I think I am here to assuage that worry. You are not alone, never alone, even here. Now, come. We’re making cookies.” Then, she added, with a wink, “they’ve been waiting for you. Even if they don’t know it.”
Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of the young adult novel Beasts Made of Night, which won the Ilube Nommo Award for Best Speculative Fiction Novel by an African, its sequel, Crown of Thunder, and War Girls. His adult fiction debut, Riot Baby, was published by Tor.com in January 2020.
Us in Flux is a series of short stories and virtual gatherings that explore themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination in response to transformative events. Every other Thursday, we’ll publish an original piece of flash fiction, then we’ll host an interactive virtual chat with the author and a special guest the following Monday at 1:00 pm Arizona time (4:00 pm Eastern).
Our next story, “Skating Without Streetlights” by Tina Connolly, will be published on May 14.