A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers

Hannah and Melanie: sisters, apart and together. Weather workers. Time benders. When two people so determined have opposing desires, it’s hard to say who will win—or even what victory might look like. This stunning, haunting short story from rising star Alyssa Wong explores the depth and fierceness of love and the trauma of family.

 

There was nothing phoenix-like in my sister’s immolation. Just the scent of charred skin, unbearable heat, the inharmonious sound of her last, grief-raw scream as she evaporated, leaving glass footprints seared into the desert sand.

If my parents were still alive—although they are, probably, in some iteration of the universe; maybe even this one—they would tell me that it wasn’t my fault, that no one could have seen it coming. That she did this to herself. But that kind of blame doesn’t suit me. Besides, they had always been exceptionally blind to matters regarding Melanie. They didn’t even notice when the two of us would take to the sky together, Melanie blowing currents back and forth beneath our bodies, weaving thermals like daisy chains. We used to make sparks dance at the table, and our mom never said a word about it, except that it was rude to do things that other people couldn’t in front of them, and also that we needed to learn to talk to people other than each other.

Melanie was better at everything than I was, the stormy bit and the talking bit both. She could split the horizon in two if she wanted, opening it at the seams as deftly as a tailor, and make the lightning curl catlike at her wrist and purr for her. She could do that with people too; Mel glowed, soft, luminescent. It was hard to look away from her, and so easy to disappear into her shadow.

But when things got too bad to ignore, the air in the house dark and crackling with ugly energy like the sky before a monsoon, she dug in and refused to leave. I was the one who abandoned our coast for another, promising I’d be back soon. And then I was the one who stayed away.

 

The day my sister ended the world, the sky opened up in rain for the first time in years, flooding the desert wash behind our house. The snakes drowned in their holes and the javelinas stampeded downstream, but the water overtook them, and the air filled with their screaming as they were swept away.

I’d tried to take a taxi home, but the roads disappeared in the flash flood, so I struggled out of the swamped cab and slogged the last two miles.

Melanie was outside, a small, dry figure in front of the ruined shell of our parents’ house. She wore the only dress she had left—the rest our mother had burned when she’d found them. The rain bent around my sister in a bell shape, and electricity danced in her hands, growing bigger and bigger like a ravenous cat’s cradle. Some time ago, lightning had shattered the cacti in the yard, splitting them in two and searing them bone-bare. Only their blackened skeletons were left, clawing upward out of the water like accusing fingers.

I know she felt me coming. Maybe it was a tremble in the dry ground beneath her feet, or a ripple of energy through the water that crashed around my waist. She glanced up, her eyes wide, bruised circles.

I remember that I yelled something at her. That time around, it could have been her name. It could have been a plea, begging her not to do what I could see was about to happen. Or maybe it was just “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

The world hiccupped, warping violet, legs of electricity touching down around me, biting at my hair, singeing anything still alive beneath the water. I barely felt it.

“Why did you come back?” were the last words she said to me before she went up in flames, taking the rest of the universe with her.

 

It was simple, Melanie had once told me. “Here, Hannah. Pay attention, and I’ll teach you how the future works.”

She drew the picture for me in the air, a map of sparkling futures, constants, and variables; closed circuits of possibilities looped together, arcing from one timeline to another. I saw and understood; but more than that, for the first time, I saw her power as a single, mutable shape.

“That’s beautiful,” I said.

“Isn’t it?” Melanie traced the air with her finger, tapping a single glowing point. “Look, that’s us. And here’s what could happen, depending on . . . well, depending on a lot of things.”

Options chained like lightning strikes before my eyes, possibilities growing legs like sentient things. “If it’s that easy, why don’t you change it?” I blurted out. “Shape it to make it better for us, I mean.”

Her eyes slid away from me. “It’s not that easy to get it right,” she said.

 

The day my sister ended the world, I was on a plane home for the first time in years. I’d managed to sleep most of the way, which was unusual, and I woke up as the plane was descending, a faint popping in my ears. It was sunset, and the flat, highway-veined city was just beginning to glimmer with electric light, civilization pulsing across the ground in arteries, in fractals.

But the beauty was lost on me. The clouds outside felt heavy, and my heart wouldn’t stop drumming in my chest. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what.

I felt like I’d seen this before.

Time stuttered, and outside, it began to rain.

 

If I could knit you a crown of potential futures like the daisies you braided together for me when we were young, I would.

None of them would end with you burning to death at the edge of our property, beaten senseless in the wash behind the house by drunken college boys, slowly cut to pieces at home by parents who wanted you only in one shape, the one crafted in their image.

I would give you only the best things. The kindness you deserved, the body you wanted, a way out that didn’t end with the horizon line ripped open, possibilities pouring out like loose stuffing, my world shrieking to a halt.

I would have fixed everything.

 

The day my sister—

No.

The day I ended the world, the very first time, my plane touched down early and I sprinted to catch a cab before the impending monsoon swept the city. This time around, I made it four miles from the house before a six-car pileup—tires slick, drivers panicked in the storm—stopped traffic entirely. It took everything in me not to shunt the water aside in front of everyone else, to stumble into neck-deep currents and anchor my feet to the asphalt below. It took forever to get home, and when I did, Melanie was not there.

An hour later, my sister’s body floated up in the new river behind our house, covered in bruises, red plastic cups bumping at her bare feet, and lightning spiked white-hot through my chest, searing the ground of my heart into a desert. All I could see were cities burning, houses shelled, every regret and act of cowardice twisting through me into blinding rage.

And in that moment, perfect power was bright in front of me, a seam in space, in time, across myriad axes. I stretched out and grabbed it, and split the world in two. Its ribs reached out to me, and I reached back.

 

“You can’t change this, Hannah,” my sister’s ghost said as I tore the sky apart, shredding the fabric of air, of cloud, of matter and possibility. The lightning danced for me now, bent and buckled for me the way it had only done for Melanie before.

I will, I will. I will fix this.

“You can’t,” my sister said. “It’ll end the same way. Differently, but the same.”

“Why?” I screamed.

The world crashed, bowed like wet rice paper, spilled inward. Our parents’ house a crater, the flame that was Melanie nowhere on the brightly lit grid of eventualities. No, no, no. Wrong again.

“I never meant to hurt you.” Her ghost sighed as my hands blindly rearranged the components of reality. “I didn’t mean for you to see it. This was never about you, Hannah. I wish you’d realize that.”

 

The week before my sister ended the world, I didn’t go home. I stayed in the theater and broke every plate, every mug in the green room, hurling the shards in the faces of every person who’d come to court me. I blinded my agent, I crippled my director, I hamstrung the rest of the actors with porcelain shrapnel. Gale-force winds whipped around me, a crushing power at my back, the storm building behind my pulsing temples, and I blew out into the city, heading downtown.

At Melanie’s favorite bakery, where we’d ordered donuts as big as our heads the last time she’d come to visit, I ripped the boards out of the floor one by one, sending them flying through shattered windows. Icing splattered, electricity scorched wood and sugar alike; the scent of ozone was ripe and acrid in the air.

“Hannah,” said my sister’s reflection in the glass pieces on the floor. The gentle weight of her phantom hand on my shoulder burned, and time tugged at me again. “That’s enough.”

 

The blame circles back, hungry, and I recognize my own voice hissing from its mouth. Your fault, Hannah. All your fault. You could have stopped this, but you were blinded by your own ambition, your own selfishness; you let the haze of the city—the toxic glamour and crystalline cold—seduce you away from the people you love. And it was true. Even once in flight, the taste of glory lingered on my tongue the whole way home, sharp in the stale cabin air.

But Melanie and I had talked, we’d Skyped. Even if it had been through the computer screen, why hadn’t I seen the storms at home crackling on the horizon, their dying sparks reflected in my sister’s eyes?

 

“You’re being selfish,” my sister’s latest iteration said as I whipped the storm into a dark frenzy over the barren mountains. I couldn’t remember if the body in the wash this time was hers, or if that was a memory by now. “Hurting yourself over this is just a way of trying to get control over something that was never in your—”

Shut up. Shut

“—something that was never yours to control—”

up. Shut up.

The world ended with a bang, folding in on itself, the lines of the horizon collapsing like soaked origami. Our parents’ house turned to glass, to fire, to energy sparking ripe and rich for the taking. I drained it, pulling it deep into myself until the house was empty, our parents gone. And then there was nothing but me and my sister, her imprint, her echo.

Melanie’s ghost sighed. “I expected better of you,” she said.

The void roared back to life, and tossed me out again.

 

So back to the city again, rewound further this time. Back, past the donut shop, windows never scorched, pastries never eaten. This time I didn’t break anything. I went to auditions, cooked rice and fried eggs for dinner, and worked until my muscles screamed for me to stop, then worked more. For a week, I didn’t speak unless I was using someone else’s words.

The night before boarding the plane, I found myself whispering my secrets into the frigid night air, combing the space between skyscrapers with my tongue.

The city madness was getting to me.

I passed through the same airports like a shade, the route now familiar as the curve of my sleeping cheek in my weary palm.

I did everything right that time, and arrived home to find that the thunderstorm had demolished the airport, preventing anyone from landing.

 

The next time, I ended the world by myself, during a power outage. Life blinked out, softly, and screamed back into being.

The void spit the kitchen knife out at my feet, onto the floor of my Bushwick apartment, a taunt echoed in my perfect, intact wrists.

You selfish bitch.

The cycle remained unbroken. Gentle sparks kissed my hands in the dark, glinting off of the blade. My blood roared in my ears.

Again, then.

I reoriented the knife.

 

“Hannah. How many people are you going to destroy before you give up on me?”

 

Five times, five lines, lead and edges and crushed pills all yanked out of me, spit back further and further each time. I lined them up on my windowsill like the rejected possibilities they were, and let time spool itself out.

Not my fault, not my fault. I’d tried so hard, first to knit the cycle closed and then to slash it to pieces. But still the end danced away from me, the world bleeding into its next cycle.

“What the hell are you doing?” said my roommate for the fifth time, leaning against the doorframe as he did in every iteration. My sullen eyes saw his every possibility splayed out before me like a fall of cards: roommate disappearing into the bathroom to find his medications gone; roommate leaving for work and returning too late; roommate blackened and burned as the apartment went up in smoke; roommate helping me into bed and turning the light off before heading back into the kitchen to bundle up all of the knives.

“Thinking,” I croaked. My hands itched with electricity, sparks I couldn’t control dancing across my fingers.

“You and your weird sleight of hand shit.” He sighed and tossed me my iPhone. “Your phone is ringing.”

It took me a second to realize that the stupid anime song filtering out of the speakers was the one that Melanie liked, my ringtone for the home landline. But it wasn’t her on the phone. It was my mother, who told me that Melanie had drowned in the pool in the backyard during a freak rainstorm, one that had ruptured from an empty sky. My heartbeat slowed, each second syrup-thick.

“But I thought I had more time,” I whispered into the phone. It was true, I was supposed to have a few more days to think of things, to fix them—

“No one knows when God will take us home,” said my mother. “He’s in the Lord’s hands. Always has been.”

In my grief, I’d nearly forgotten about my sister, and in my absence, my apocalypse had shifted course without me.

 

The world ended anew with a shuddering sob, and I hit the ground running. This time, I touched down two weeks, two agonizing weeks, before I would board my plane, and the first thing I did was book an immediate red-eye home, hoping that if I got there early, I wouldn’t be too late.

 

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

 

“What’s life like in the city?” Melanie had asked me when she’d come to visit me, the spring before she died. I’d holed up in my dorm room to practice monologues for my senior showcase until my lungs burned, which probably meant I hadn’t been breathing properly anyhow, and Melanie had demanded that we go outside. We’d gone downtown, where well-dressed students and decently-dressed visitors crawled the streets, looking for artisanal french fries. We’d settled in a donut shop about as big as Melanie’s closet back home and were crunched up, knees to chests, on the inside windowsill.

She’d looked good, wearing the pale pink sweater I’d secretly sent her for her birthday, fingernails painted the way they never could be at home. But she’d also looked so tired, sallow almost, her face lined with the weight of our parents’ words.

All the things that my friends expected me to say—the city’s great, it’s exciting, I’m so lucky to live here, I love it—flashed through my head. So did the things I’d never told anyone, that I couldn’t tell anyone, because they wouldn’t want to hear it. How the loneliness was crippling; how I’d been fired from three part-time jobs by now; how every day, on my way to class, I walked past the same madman in the tunnel moaning for Jesus, a mess of languages spilling from his bloody lips, past a banner ad that read: GET AWAY WITHOUT LEAVING NEW YORK.

“It’s different,” I’d said at last. I don’t know who I am without you, I didn’t say.

“I understand,” Melanie had replied. I could tell that she did.

 

I have followed the path back, again and again, to that first stream of possibility. The events lined up so neatly that I could do them in my sleep, and sometimes did. They always led back to the desert monsoon, slogging through the water, my sister disappearing in a pillar of flame.

Why didn’t you want me there to help you? I wanted to ask. If you were this far gone, why didn’t you ask me to come home? I never got close enough to reach her through the wet-dust wind that snarled and roared around us, snatching my voice away.

 

There are timelines I don’t think about.

There is a timeline where the power never touches me, where I make it home in time for the party at the neighbor’s house, where a college boy’s hands are around my throat, not my sister’s, my legs kicking around his waist. Melanie scorches him to pieces, blackens him, shatters the boulders in the wash, and howls until her voice bleeds. Her tears fall into my eyes, sizzling and evaporating on contact, as the sky yawns above us, hungry, broken.

There are others, too, reaching back further along the daisy chain, when we were younger: slipping on ice, light cracking hard through my head; the agonizing sting of a scorpion on my arm, the stiffening of limbs, sudden tightness in my chest; Melanie in a dress for the first time, sobbing as our father screamed at her.

And forward, along the lines that branch out, fuzzing the borders of the future’s shape: knives, dented, rejected by my gut; police sirens wailing, gunshots ringing into the crater where my city used to be, the scent of burnt sugar; a plane that never lands safely, erupting into flame on the runway.

I only remember these as faint echoes, like a story someone told me once but whose details I’ve forgotten. Did they happen? Yes. No. The chain frays, spreads out like roots, possibilities endless.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

 

When Melanie and I were little, we’d lie on the carpet in the winter and warm our soggy feet by the radiator. This was when we still had a bad habit of jumping into snowbanks, exasperating our mom to no end. Melanie had just begun to learn how to melt shapes in the snow, the finest spark at the end of her index finger.

“I wonder why we can do these things,” Melanie had said, closing her fist around the lightning glinting across her palm.

I grinned at her, reaching out to catch a bit of stray static dancing down her arm. “Dunno. Don’t you think it’s cool to be special? It’s the one thing no one else can do but us.”

She wagged a foot at the radiator. “It’s kind of lonely, though.”

“At least you have me.”

“I guess so,” she said. “That’s better than nothing.”

I tackled her to the ground and we spent the next ten minutes hitting each other with stuffed animals.

 

My sister always dies before the world ends.

The sky is marred with the scars of my efforts, and I am so, so tired. The storm hums in my veins, one more cycle in many. I can’t count them anymore, numbers constantly in flux, ticking higher with each potential breath.

I wonder if this is what Melanie felt like every day of her life, so ripe with power, always at the precipice, always afraid to push in fear of making things worse.

This time around, I’m on the floor of my apartment, staring at my cell phone in my hand. My roommate is out and I’ve already missed my flight home. I let it pass, money evaporating into the void, meaningless.

Somewhere in the southwest, Melanie is walking out of the house, or is about to, her heart roaring with wildfire, lonely, alone. The sparks dance purple in her hands, lightning like veins through her arms.

You can’t fix this. It was never yours to control.

But my hands fumble over the touch screen, thumbs sliding wet over her face on the contact screen. She’s programmed in the same stupid anime ringtone I have on my phone, and it jingles inanely, all synthetic voices and pre-ordained sound.

I wait, mouth dry, my body shaking like the sky above the Mojave before it rains. Painted in brilliant, feverish strokes in my head, the daisy chain grows.

 

“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” copyright © 2016 by Alyssa Wong

Art copyright © 2016 by Rovina Cai

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