Erst Island

Erst Island

1. Your proximity to the subject in blood earns you zero proximity in seating. If you make the food after church, the viewing area around Erst Island will be too crowded when you arrive. Pack lunches beforehand and store them in the fridge.

2. Remember to make two pickle and mayonnaise sandwiches. Toast the bread. Wheat, not white. Triangle cut. Sarah has other weird tastes, but this is the one that everyone remembers. No one will eat them, and you’ll toss them later. But you’d feel awful, wouldn’t you, if tomorrow was the day your sister emerged and you had nothing for her.

3. Ignore the voice in your head that tells you she’s not coming out.

4. Arrive early at a green park beside the railroad. Although the rails remain, no trains run on them. Any that did would become stuck like flies in amber.

5. Claim your spot under the peeling sycamore tree, split trunks like conjoined twins determined to go their separate ways but joined at the knee. Underneath, two pools of shade resemble a filled figure eight.

6. Realize the lab groundskeepers moved the chainlink back another foot this week. Tug the blankets farther back. Discover a gnarled root under the new position. Perch there anyway. Watch your father settle into the softer seat.

7. Enjoy the absence of talk while it lasts. The birdsong peace of this place dwindles as pews empty and last-call carousers rub sleep from their eyes.

8. As another regular arrives, open the app for the Erst Island Negative Matter Laboratory livecast. Check the report on Sarah’s progress. Shrug off the déjà vu sense that there’s no difference from last week’s.

9. Peer at flying glass in the drone footage. That sharp shuriken shape. Will it hit her eye? Its edge glints, a centimetre closer than last week. Hard to tell from the weird angle. The drone gleaned this image from a reflection off a shoe-shaped plane of glass near a crack in the lab’s outer wall. Sarah is in mid-air dive over a fragmenting table, arm out, fingers splayed towards a lever on a wall, jaw limned orange by immotile flames. Everyone who visits studies her leap and that lever. Tries to work out where it’s all going to land. Some will tug out phones and look up papers that sift through the variables — pressure waves, stillness concentrics, unknowables such as Sarah’s reflexes — and grow quiet.

10. Watch your father’s face as he regards the scene, ignoring (or pretending to ignore) the dronecast. Listen to his silence, different from anyone else’s.

11. When he’s like this, your aunt says, he’s looking through the glacial destruction for the spot where he turned around, his arm and shoulder under the injured rookie, Lamar. (You hear Lamar is now a stock broker.)

12. Notice your father’s blinking has changed, eyes glittering more than normal.

13. Be startled when he asks you a question, something he never does. Ask him to repeat it.

14. Say yes, you’re sure Sarah knows how proud he is of her.

15. (Tell yourself this is an acceptable untruth.)

16. Chew the inner flesh of your cheek as tourists arrive, a hurricane of chatter and hyperactivity.

17. Keep your peace as one of the inevitable explainers, self-nominated docent on a blanket for two, points and prattles. How things went wrong, how the fire department had no idea what it was getting into, how the rings of bent time keep expanding like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond. How events close to the core continue to slow. How if that girl — girl, not firefighter, not woman, not Sarah — hits that switch, she can abort some kind of feedback loop and stop the expansion. How if that girl misses the switch, it’ll take her so long to land, rise, turn and try again, that in the meantime galaxies will merge and our Sun will balloon. How the ripples of stillness will keep spreading until all of Earth is under its spell. Eventually.

18. Think about the meaning of eventually. How, in this case, it means: long after everyone at the park is dead, eons before the first sea boils.

19. Listen as the explainer buffaloes through technical questions, challenges that have even physicists scratching their heads.

20. Look elsewhere as the woman he wants to impress detects the edges of his YouTube expertise.

21. Realize with goosebumps that if you ever talk to Sarah again, you will have become the older sibling.

22. Put your hand on your father’s shoulder when an onlooker, voice energized with cool bro cheer, marvels at lab workers and firefighters, some fallen, some still falling. Eric, masked face and protective hat still visible through the gap in the flooring, one gloved hand reaching for, well, anything, palm impaled by a splinter the size of a kitchen knife. Keith, face still disintegrating under the pressure wave from where the wall exploded.

23. Squeeze your father’s shoulder as the conversation becomes a round of betting on whether Sarah makes it.

24. Tell yourself, as you pack again, that it’s for the best, in some ways. Where your sister is, near the core, everything looks like it’s at a standstill. The maths says it’ll be decades before anyone knows whether she hits that switch right or not. Parents shouldn’t outlive their children, and, look: here’s Sarah in a time capsule.

25. Ignore your father’s expression, the one he’s worn since he turned back with Lamar while the only child who ever wanted to be like him pushed forward. The I-will-not-tremble look that says this place isn’t a time capsule; it’s a cemetery.

The story behind the story

Graham Robert Scott reveals the inspiration behind Erst Island.

A story might enjoy several lives before it’s enjoyed by a reader. Erst Island started as imagery in a dream, of a storm-like event and firefighters racing into it, time slowing the farther they progressed. That month, the folks at Flame Tree Press had a time-themed flash-fiction prompt, so I tried to do that image justice. The story I wrote then — a traditional, third-person, past-tense narrative — didn’t work. I still couldn’t tell you why, but I knew it. I fiddled with it some more after the deadline passed and came up with a second version that also didn’t work, probably because I still had the first one in front of me and on my mind. I tried a third version. A fourth. Might have been a fifth. I put it away. A year passed. I belong to a cadre of flash-fiction writer friends who get together virtually every two weeks. We look at a prompt created by the previous winner and then all take a shot at writing a story in one hour, after which we pick a winner. It’s an informal affair, carried out over Facebook and Google Docs. One week the prompt was a bleak painting of people marching towards a mouth, titled ‘Toward the Unknown’. The person who posted the prompt said we could pick either the title or the image as inspiration. The title called to me, and at once the old image from Erst Island returned to my mind’s eye. And so I wrote an entirely new take on it. My instinct to write it as a second-person, present-tense list story? It was mostly an order to myself to get out of the previous rut in every way possible. Which worked. With a few minor changes, that is the version that now appears in Nature Futures. And yes, it won the contest with my friends.

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