In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today.
The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.
Sela held her power tight, cranked up her headset, and sauntered into the corner market. She needed fixins for a relaxing night in her new apartment. She’d skip unpacking tonight, just curl up with a bottle of wine instead. Some cheese. Salami. Maybe some fancy damn crackers. Anything to erase her day on campus. The student who moaned “That Black Bitch failed him,” though his work was always late. The security guard who tried ejecting her from her own office as she ate lunch at her own desk. The greybeard provost who poo-pooed such minor complaints while students staged walkouts and die-ins.
Maybe she’d get lucky. Maybe the little shop would have pita chips. Burrata. Prosciutto.
She brushed past the cashier, a portly man placing crackers and cookies above the counter. Black hair and skin dark enough to be a foreigner, light enough to be a good ol’ boy in the summertime. He paused, arm hovering on a shelf, as Sela entered. She felt him appraise her leather tote, sleek trench, smooth pumps. She nodded, hoping to disarm the simple, nondescript man.
Color swam across his eyes. Gossamer strings of thought pulsed around his temples, beckoning to her, even without opening her power to them. Dull ribbons wound in and around each other in a sick, mesmerizing miasma. Calling her, inviting her to grab them. To hold his thinking in hand, to crush the slurs that thrummed and churned through his mind. It was a web of revulsion, outrage, and fret that rivaled her frustration, fatigue, and fury. This man she’d never met, never known, never harmed, directed such disgust at her. Today, where concern should be, where empathy might lie, she felt only pity and pique. She wanted to pull apart his balled beliefs, each point collapsing into itself, until his thoughts and impulses were nothing. Today, it was tempting, though she knew it would bring her no peace to hollow him so. The fallout would be too great. The cleanup too tedious.
Sarah McLachlan sang through her earbuds, jarring her from the mess of his musings. Sela shook off the urge to assess the man. She banished her thoughts, feigned a smile, and continued along the wall of ice cream novelties.
The man’s eyes mounted her back as she avoided boxes and cans on the floor. If Sela turned, she’d find a glance to nowhere. Instead, she pushed fists into her pockets. Pumped Janelle Monáe into her ears.
“Hey, kid. Check on that spade.”
The cashier didn’t mean the garden tool. Sela couldn’t be bothered. At the rear of the store, a stock boy looked up from stacked milk crates. Olive skin. Black curls. She recognized him immediately: Sociology 401, despite being an undergrad. Julian. He nodded briefly at the cashier, and she braced for his reaction. His eyes shifted between cashier and instructor, then he shook his head at the man and returned to stocking soups and pastas.
His thoughts formed a corona. As the colors danced with each other, brightening and deepening with each dip and bounce, a knot released inside her. She expected a reflection of the man’s thoughts and found the opposite. This man foisted his burden onto a young, open mind. The boy’s impressions nearly glowed, but with each glance between him and the man, Sela watched the vibrancy fade. She tried harder to contain her urge to ride the tendrils of power deeper into the man’s mind.
“Kid.” This time, the cashier jerked his head toward her. No mistaking it.
“He wants me to follow you around,” the boy said.
Sela let out a deep sigh. Her feet hurt. Her tote dragged. Everything felt thick, and again she just wanted to throw off all weights. But Julian’s forced complicity was too much. She just wanted to sit still on her balcony with that cool, crisp, buttery glass of chardonnay. After all this, she’d drink the whole damn bottle. This man didn’t deserve her time, her business, or her rage. But he was here, on the way to her new home.
“Move fast. Please?” Julian said. “I gotta finish this aisle and get home to finish your paper.”
Sela’s calm evaporated. She was sick of turning the other cheek. Tired of bottling her frustration. Fed up with managing her pain, burdening her student, shouldering someone else’s idiocy. Angry to bury it all yet again, the umpteenth time for the day, much less the week. Nancy Sinatra stalked into her ears. Aretha would be next in the playlist. She passed the wine section and grabbed a bottle of Kentucky bourbon. She needed the balance of a single block of ice suspended in amber fire. She tucked the bottle into her tote, longing for quiet payment before heading to her new condo across the park.
She made her way to the front of the store, the aisle where her student still sat on his doubled milk crate. With each step, her heels echoed against the tiled floor. As each note sounded, she stood slightly taller, stronger. The boy’s thoughts had dulled, but still the colors trilled magenta, goldenrod, orchid, azure. Her fingertips brushed across his brow as she passed. He shivered as a diaphanous cord clung to her fingers, and she examined the wisp of thought. Devoid of color now. Featherlike. Milky.
Sela cast his memories away while he stared, unseeing. She was careful not to discard anything more than the ephemera of her presence in the store. She would see him again. She wouldn’t allow any lasting impacts.
Then she marched toward the clerk, folding and refolding her wrath. The man hovered by the door, feigning interest in the store display. Aligning already arranged chocolates and gum and magazines. He was poised to pounce at any movement from her. Her hand slid to the counter, then reached up to pluck at the man’s temple.
He recoiled too late. He fell motionless the moment Sela’s fingers met his pallid skin. She tugged at his notion of her, at his remarks to her. Her earlier disgust returned, noting the way his dull whims nearly infected the boy. She began prying at the jumbled heap. How easy it would be to keep pulling. How enticing to empty this man of all hate, cruelty, and disdain. Those thoughts ran deep, so deep within him, such action would leave him naught but an empty shell. A golem of pain. So she heaved at his use of the racial epithet, yanked the kernel of its origins, and finally wrenched free his concept of insult altogether. For tonight, this seething, thrumming opaque mass was enough. With a wry smile, Sela headed through the door.
Outside, she flicked her fingers, and flitted his thoughts away. She paid them no mind as she crossed the street and entered the park, just as they dissipated into the cool night air.
“Sela, Thief” copyright © 2020 by Zabe Bent
Art copyright © 2020 by Eli Minaya
Zabe Bent spends her days navigating urban street design. She is currently writing a novel on time travel, in between short stories about her expansive Jamaican family, all while procrastibaking in Brooklyn and Atlanta. Find her online via Instagram and Twitter.