WSTA, Sect. Q, patient H-293775481: Welcome to Hrshwth

Submitted for Contest #96 in response to: 

Write about a character who has to rely on the hospitality of strangers.

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Arrived in Hrshwth. Gate connection in approximately five minutes, the automated voice chimed.

Metz felt tremors down her spine as she stood to shuffle on the landing of the ship. Oof. Her back ached. Her neck ached. Her hands… her whole body ached from remaining in her seat the past 18 hours for the landing process. The whole seven month flight was easier than the last half-day. If Metz had been bathing in a second story tub when it finally fell through the rotted floor and shattered with her still in it, she would have been in less pain. Her teeth felt like they had receded into her skull, her lower back ached as if from impact, and pain shards of broken porcelain stabbed every joint they could find.  

To say the least, Metz was offended by her human condition—at the Human condition as a whole, really. Somehow, Humans had managed to migrate lightyears from the Solar System to the Webb, they had transhuman augmentation, and even quasi-immortality technology (for the uber rich). Yet, they hadn’t managed a cure for mundane ailments like cancer, brain disease, and autoimmune disorders. Metz suffered from a genomic autoimmune disorder. In her opinion, it was high time for a change in Human priorities.

That’s why I’m on this ship, she consoled herself.  In truth, Human priorities had not changed since the days when Humans were on Earth; the pursuit of wealth prevailed. 

Fortunately, when Humans thought they had “discovered” the Webb Planetary System, they were introduced to their new exoplanetary Webb neighbors on planet J. Webb-112,358,132,134 d who had, in Metz’s opinion, superior prioritization: the Hehe. 

The Hehe—pronounced Heh-heh without resonant sound, like the wind laughing, as the saying went—were the most intelligent species in all of the known planets. They had Caninae skulls atop even larger Avian torsos, with no visible neck between them, and no tail. Though invisible, their necks had nearly 180 degrees of impressive rotation. Their moist skin boasted an array of vibrant colors and patterns, coated with an invisible layer of velvety fuzz. From their bodies sprang four long, muscular limbs that each ended in three extensive, slender digits. Their hindlimb joints bent the opposite direction of Human knee joints, while the joints of their even lengthier upper limbs were hypermobile. Hehe were both quadrupedal and bipedal as it suited them. Behind the shoulder joints of their forelimbs, Hehe had what appeared to be undeveloped wings of light bones and cartilage, connected across the back by a thin layer of skin. When startled, this system would lift like an impressive, fanning collar. Hehe evolved as the dominant amphibian species of the hot, humid planet Rss’sh for millennia. Adult Hehe stood 2-3 meters tall when bipedal, weighed roughly 300 kilograms and were approximately 2 meters long.

Unlike Humans, Hehe cared little for space expansion, preferring intellectual exploration instead. When Humans bargained for settlement on the five other ‘uninhabited’ planets in the habitable zones of the Webb, the Hehe merely asked if they could study their new Human neighbors. Hehe medical science outpaced Human medicine—even in the far off TRAPPIST-1 System. Yet another Human conquest, Metz thought.

Hehe medicine was the reason Metz left Webbē for planet J. Webb-112,358,132,134 d, named Rss’sh by its Hehe inhabitants. Well, that, and the trade alliance between Rss’sh and the other Webb System planets. 

In elementary classes, long before her illness reared its ugly head, Metz had learned about the Webb System Trade Alliance (WSTA). The planets, Webb b, Webb c, Rss’sh, Webb e, Webb f, and Webb g were glorious proof of the interspecies thriving brought about by galactic expansion. Metz had dreamed of being an astronaut, an interplanetary diplomat, or even a first wave scientist so she could explore new planets herself. 

Welcome to Hrshwth. Gate Connected, the ship announced.

Now riddled with pain, inflammation, and the sustained threat of organ failure, the only new planets Metz would ever see would be the ones in her own planetary system, serving as a cog in the WSTA. But, even visiting those planets sounded debilitating now. 

For middle and lower class citizens, the best option for medical treatment was to enlist as a WSTA “patient” (test subject), if they were medically stable enough for travel. Hehes were fascinated by the challenge of adapting their medical knowledge to suit other species. Humans, Hehe, and other species were frequently transported to Rss’sh from elsewhere in the Webb as part of this exchange of knowledge for medical treatment… and whatever else Humans requested. It was a much better deal for the Humans, Metz thought. But, I’ll go with whatever gets rid of this disease.

Please exit the ship. Welcome to Hrshwth.

As the bay doors opened, her breath caught in her throat. Her stomach was a tangle of extension cords jammed into the same surge protector; not from any specific stimulus of awe or wonder, but because it felt like a pivotal moment. For Metz, this was the moment when her life would finally change. She wished she could share the moment with Ogdul and Cleahn. Great Volans, Metz already missed them. 

When Metz left Webbē, she had not intended to meet anyone on the ship. The flight was merely a necessary transition between her previous life and her fresh start on the eastern coast of the Hrshwth continent. It was supposed to be just seven more months of acceptable misery in a life of acceptable misery. A final chapter where Metz’s pain would drain her energy and snatch away contentment at every opportunity; the cramped room and rehydrated meals would do away with any remaining happiness. 

Upon discovering that her bunkmates were enthusiastic, hyperactive fraternal twins, Metz truly doubted that she would survive the trip. But, within a week, Metz, Ogdul, and Cleahn became inseparable. There was something magical about the twins. 

Ogdul, a vibrant orange and yellow Hehe, was a newly licensed engineer who’d landed an apprenticeship with an architect in western Hrshwth. Her brother, Cleahn, couldn’t let her just leave him alone on Webbē, so he taught himself a curious new branch in botany in the hopes of scoring his own job on the new planet. Whenever he told Metz this story (he did, many times) his deep purple swirls flared burgundy with barely contained excitement. The two had never been to Rss’sh before and were eager to see their ancestral planet. 

Both siblings talked nonstop. It wasn’t incessant chatter. It was more musical—like lilting laughter or a babbling stream. They had a way of making any conversation simultaneously more interesting and more comforting than idle conversation had any right to be. Perhaps people learned to talk like this when they came from large families. 

For seven months Metz had been absorbed in their nonsense chittering. It was the happiest Metz had been in a long time. Perhaps ever. 

Please exit the ship. Welcome to Hrshwth, the voice repeated in Thsst.

Thsst was the popular language dialect across all regions of the planet Rss’sh. It was common across the Webb to speak Human languages and Thsst.

Metz’s eyes stung. She desperately wished she could share this singular, exquisite moment with her two beloved fools, but they had already said their goodbyes. Now Ogdul and Cleahn were waiting for their own entry ship at a station on the periphery of orbit. They would land on the other side of Hrshwith in a few hours. Metz would take the next part of this journey alone. 

Please exit the ship. Welcome to Hrshwth. The ship sounded as excited as Metz felt. 

Metz watched as the doors settled into their hatch to form a walkway. Webbalight flooded into the bay through the open door. She heard the chugging noise of the escalators connecting the various floors powering on, and the bustling of people gathering their immediate belongings. The rest would be transported to designated final destinations via the rapid delivery systems. 

The heat of Rss’sh crept into the ship. The extreme humidity formed beads of condensation at the edges of the bay. Metz collected her things and lumbered toward the nearest escalator. As soon as she crossed the threshold between the ship and the gate entrance she was wading through the air rather than walking. Nonetheless, there was a spring in her step—a minute difference between the gravities of Webbē and Rss’sh. This should help my back, she thought.

Metz quickly found the WSTA processing for new arrivals. The procedure was shockingly disorganized. A herd of WSTA patients ambled around the waiting zone until their patient code was called.

Awaiting her turn, Metz’s eyes drifted to her surroundings. She had seen Hehe architecture before—on Webbē she’d visited duplicates of stoic Hrshwthian learning centers and insulated northern Hithwissee hotels. But, there was something quite literally otherworldly about standing in the halls of a genuine Hehe complex.  

The room seemed more expansive, the thick, glasslike ceilings high, impressive, and flooded with webbalight. There were no doors in sight—a shared theme across Hehe designs—hallways ending, instead, in what appeared to be abrupt walls but were actually a sequence of partial walls that zigged and zagged from the left and right in a visual overlap. This provided Hehes with a continuous path of motion between rooms, whereas doors would be quite awkward for the species. Hehes possessed limited torso rotation. As such, doors that required a full-body rotation to close had never been considered. Upon meeting Humans, Hehes quickly mastered and improved handsfree doors for both Hehe and Human use across the other five planets. Hehe regions of Rss’sh, however, remained doorless for the sake of efficiency.

“WSTA, sect Q, patient H-293775481,” a registry droid intoned from the checkpoint, first in Thsst, then in a Human language.

The walls and floors were seamless, shaped from large, smooth stones of many colors. Corners were rounded rather than angular. It was as though a pile of dissimilar rocks and sediment had been somehow melted together and then lovingly sanded into the present shape of the room. This was, in fact, the rough process of Hehe architecture in Hrshwth, though the process spanned a few thousand years. Hehe molded and perfected their surroundings in incredible feats of conservation.

“WSTA, sect Q, patient H-293775481,” the droid repeated.

As Metz’s senses took in her incredible surroundings a feeling of nostalgia, for a time and species she had never been, washed over her. Metz plucked a long strand of dark curls from her cheek and tucked it behind her ear—a compulsive tick indicating deep thought. 

“W—nt h—lp with th—t?” A voice of whispering wind asked from somewhere above her right ear. 

Metz rolled her neck at a diagonal to locate the source. A Hehe of sapphire blue with swirls of every imaginable shade of green and blue was peering down at her with dark, misty eyes from a quarter meter higher. 

Gesturing toward the red ring of light glowing from Metz’s left interface bracelet, the voice whispered with more gusto, “You’re in the new medical group, right? I’m an intern for Section Q. I’m supposed to help new arrivals.” Each syllable was surrounded by whooshing and h-sounds to approximate vowels and hard consonants. “I’m Whss-hh,” she said. It sounded like cold water making contact with a hot skillet. 

“Whiss-huh,” Metz tried the name on her tongue. It tickled. She liked it. “Nice to meet you, Whss-hh. I’m Metz.” Metz responded in her best full-Thsst.

Whss-hh’s eyes crinkled and the lighter rings of swirling green framing her eyes moved downward along her snout, smiling. 

“Welcome to Hrshwth, Metz—”  

“WSTA, sect Q, patient H-293775481.” Metz thought the droid’s volume had increased. 

Whss-hh nudged Metz. “Is that you?”

Metz brought her attention back to the present. She rotated her right wrist to view the interface from the wristband. Solar winds! Metz swore. She’d  forgotten to save her patient code to the banner-view. 

Most people—Hehe, Human, and presumably other species with rotating forelimbs—wore metallic interface bands on each wrist. Modified bands and implants existed for transhumanist fanatics and those with disabilities or limitations. The bands were typically an inch or two thick, with a light banner-view display of notifications and time conversions rotating around the surface of each band. 

Many people chose a specific color for the backlight of the bands indicating their status, position, or medical needs. Red-FF4500 indicated WSTA travel. Most red spectrum lights indicated something along the lines of health and medicine. A forward flick of the wrist would extend a 2D holographic interface along the palm of the corresponding wrist. An upward push of the wrist produced a 3D hologram, complete with light refraction cloaking for privacy, suspended a few centimeters above the skin. A similar simultaneous push of both wrists produced a hands-free, cloaked 3D hologram that remained suspended at the user’s eye-level until manually exited. 

Flick. The interface screen projected along the length of Metz’s palm. Her patient code should be saved in the shortlist. Gah! Humans had too many identity number sequences to remember them all. One for travel, one for birth registry, one for patient status, one for annual accounting… The list never ended. 

Ah! Got it! Metz found her patient code… If only she could remember the number sequence the registry droid had called. Memory failure was yet another symptom of Metz’s disease.

Leaning as far upward as she could, Metz whispered to Whss-hh, “uh… do you remember what number they said?” Metz thought she saw Whss-hh swallow the hint of a smirk. Great. 

“WSTA, sect Q, patient H-293775481,” Whss-hh said, with that infuriatingly perfect Hehe memory. 

“Got it,” Metz said coolly. She shuffled forward to allow the registry droid to scan their patient code from the interface. Metz was officially a Section-Q patient.

As she turned to exit the gate, Whss-hh’s whisper found her again. “Wait! Can I get your things?”

Metz was torn. She thought about Whss-hh’s smirk when Metz couldn’t remember the patient code. She didn’t want this clearly competent stranger to think even less of her.  But, she was exhausted. Besides, who cared what a stranger thought of her anyway! Metz was on this planet for a cure, not for one person’s opinion. 

She lifted her bag as best she could for Whss-hh to retrieve it. 

“Yes, thank you.” 

She smiled to herself. Ogdul would be quite proud of her. 

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NAMES & VOCABULARY: 

Metz: (Metz), Main character, human.

Ogdul: (OG-dül), One of the fraternal Hehe twins on the ship with Metz. An engineer and architect’s apprentice. She is orange and yellow.

Cleahn: (KLEE – on), The other twin. A botanist. He is deep purple.

Whss-hh: (WHISS – huh), Final Hehe introduced in the story. She is blue and green.

Hehe: (“Heh – heh”), Said like laughter with minimal throat activation and no vowel sounds. A reasonable fictional race of amphibians, given the type of planetary system they inhabit. Any similarities between the Hehe and other fictional races is coincidental; Similarities between the Hehe and prehistoric Earth animals is intentional. Full description in paragraph 6.

Thsst: (“Thist” [Like thistle without the le]), the dominant language of Rss’sh. It is the origin of all other Hehe language dialects. It is popular across the Webb to speak a combination of Human and Thsst languages.

Hrshwth: (HERSH – with), the largest, most centralized land-mass on Rss’sh. All Hehe originated from here. The majority of the Hehe species remains in Hrshwth because of the warm climate. Rss’sh is a warm planet, but the equator has the warmest and most consistent temperature. 

Hithwissee: (HITH – wis – see), A specific scientific group of Hehes who live in climates too cold for Hehes for the sake of scientific research. They have been there for centuries now and, while they have not physically adapted, they have formed some cultural differences and nuances. Especially in architecture for climate control.

Rss’sh: (ERus – sh) [The first syllable Rss sounds like ‘er’ and ‘russ’  

smooshed together], Name of the planet Webb-112,358,132,134 d in the Thsst language of the Hehe. 

Webbē: (WEB – ee), Also known as Webb-112,358,132,134-e or Webb-e, Webbē is a planet in the Webb Planetary System, centered on the K-dwarf star (sun) Webba (J. Webb-112,358,132,134 a). On this planet, one day is 36 hours.

(The) Webb: the Webb Planetary System, centered on the K-dwarf 

star/sun  J. Webb-112,358,132,134.  The habitable zone planets are: Webb-112,358,132,134 b, Webb…c, Rss’sh, Webb…e (Webbē), Webb…f, and Webb…g. Humans live on each of the habitable planets. There are other, unnamed, uninhabitable planets in the Webb System.

Webba: (WEB – uh), A K-dwarf star, also known as  J. Webb-112,358,132,134 (A) a. This is the “sun” of the Webb Planetary System. It is the brightest star in the system. The “a” position of this star is used in the common name webba to differentiate between The Webb (a planetary system) and the Webb A star. 

Webbalight: (WEB – uh  Līt), Light from the Webba star. the Webb Planetary System equivalent of sunlight.

J. Webb: is a fictional telescope a few tech generations after the real James Webb Space Telescope.

TRAPPIST-1 System: a real planetary system around a red-dwarf star with a number of habitable zone planets (like planet Earth) in orbit.

Great Volans: An exclamation of incredulity like “Holy Cow!” or “Good God!” derived from the name of the constellation Piscis Volans, meaning “flying fish.” Upon the rediscovery of this name, Webbē meme culture co-opted it with the addition of various expletives and adjectives. Alternative versions are “Holy Volans,” “Great Flying Fish,” and “What in the Volans?

Solar Winds: Solar winds are like feces, they serve their purpose but nobody wants to deal with them. When said as a swear, it means “ah, shit.

Reedsy.com

Le Pneu Michelin

Submitted for Contest #95 in response to: 

Write about someone finally making their own choices.

Reedsy.com

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Le Pneu Michelin

Tw: abuse, child abuse.

I retract my fingertips into the sleeves of my puffy, silver coat. An easy feat, as I still haven’t quite grown into it these past three years. It’s a crisp Sunday morning in late fall. In Oklahoma, autumn mornings are nearly winter and yet autumn afternoons blaze with the heat of summer awakened by a thousand fireworks on the fourth of July. My palms and my ribs are damp with sweat — from my nervous fidgeting or the turning of a cool morning into a hot day, I don’t know. I don’t take off my coat. he sheer volume of the coat doubles my size. It makes me feel like a powerful, wintery queen, the silver shining like fresh frost on grass. T My family, however, calls it my Michelin Man suit. “Nunc est bibendum,” Bibendum, the Michelin Man, says to me. Bibendum hides my layered dress and jeans under its silvery folds.

It is undoubtedly my favorite coat. Wearing it now might give away my plans if He ever paid attention to me. But he doesn’t see me, not as a person. To him, I am a child-size laborer. One of the many pawns under his control. For once, this will be to my advantage. I shuffle across the stripped, splintering floors of the mudroom, my coat rustling against my movement. I push my hands out of my coat sleeves to pull on my work boots and some gardening gloves. 

The gloves slide across my damp fingers but stick on my sweaty palms. Some things are like sweat, they reduce friction in some ways and increase it in others. At this moment, I feel both free and stuck. My thoughts are a jumble of excitement and terror, future plans and anxious memories. They all lead to me here, now, in the mudroom, protected only by a puffy coat. Nunc est Bibendum. Now is the time to drink. I can only hope my decision is the first kind of sweat.

The final straw happened nearly a month ago. 

I had invited Christina to my house. It was a rare, momentous occasion because I was not usually allowed to have friends over. This was not a stated rule in our home, rather a consequence of my human condition. It’s hard to have time left for friends when you reap the many consequences of your laziness, conniving, and greed. Somehow, I had managed to avoid my own nature just enough for this playdate. My enthusiasm was all-consuming as He answered the door to welcome my friend. 

My excitement was doused with liquid dread as soon as I saw her face. I knew that look. I wore that look. It crept across her pixie features with every step she walked across the graveyard of machinery and rust to our house. Maybe seeing the ripped screen door and the crumbling, weathered wood siding sealed the deal. Or, perhaps, it was seeing him. It didn’t matter. Christina peeked inside to find me. By the time we locked eyes, I knew. She was not coming in.

“I…” she stammered. 

I shuffled forward and attempted to offer a winning smile. Maybe she would change her mind. Maybe she would still talk to me in school after this. I was mortified. I should never have invited someone to this place.

“I… just wanted to say I can’t come over today,” her words whooshed out in a high-pitched rush. 

Crestfallen, I froze. My smile froze. I became the silver ice queen. I pushed away my disappointment. I couldn’t blame her; I couldn’t let him see any emotion.

“Thanks for letting me know,” I responded in a monotone voice. “I’ll see you at school?” I raised one hopeful eyebrow to punctuate the raised pitch of the question.

“Yeah,” Christina said. She smiled apologetically. “My mom is waiting in the car. We have… we have to go somewhere. Now.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Have a good day.” I said. It was stupid, but it was the only thing I could think to say. I was like those greeters at Walmart. I was a greeter in my own doorway. Well, his doorway.

She turned on one heel and raced back to the safety of her mom’s van. I worried she would trip on a rusted tailpipe or a mangled mower blade, but she didn’t. I noted that their car was from this century. The paint was silver, sparkly like my coat. That was good.

He closed the door. I fought off tears and stiffly turned to go to my room. 

“Where are you going?” he accused me.

My chest tightened. “To my room. To draw?” I half-stated, half-requested.

“No. You don’t have anyone coming over, so you’re going to go do chores. Go to the kitchen. You’re a spoiled brat. That’s why people don’t like you. Maybe if you do enough chores, you’ll learn to be a good enough friend that people will want to stay.”

I deflated like a Pirelli tire punctured by a nail. I knew he was right. If I was good enough, if I was worth it, people wouldn’t be bothered by our dump of a house. My dad wouldn’t scare them. If I was enough, they’d only see me and not where I came from. 

Somehow, at the same time, a small voice — not a voice, more like a spark when both ends of jumper cables touch, a spark with the small, burning zing of a habanero pepper rocketed from somewhere in my stomach, through my limbs and into my throat. My ears were on fire, my eyes burned with salty tears. My vision blurred and my knees wobbled.

“That’s not it.” I said with a calm that could slice metal. 

“What?” His voice was dangerous.

Even my terror couldn’t restrain the explosion of wrath wracking my body and controlling my mouth. I raised my voice. “That’s not it. She didn’t leave because of me. She left because of you! You terrified her. You’re huge and you’re scary and…” My voice continued to climb in volume and pitch, equal parts fear and anguish. “It’s not me! I am a good friend. She was excited to see me until she came here. Then she saw you. She saw this place! Because of you, our house is scary. There’s holes in the floors, nails in the walls. None of your ‘projects’ are fini—”

I choked on the word ‘finished’ as my feet left the floor. I should have used my time to move out of the warpath instead of digging deeper into trouble. A rookie mistake. Instead, I was now suspended in the air by my shirt collar, his tobacco breath and hot spittle flying in my face, my ears ringing from a voice louder than a tornado siren. I have no idea what he said. I remember looking into his dead eyes. They were at odds with the pulsing, red rage filling the rest of his body — as if the demon controlling my father was now disinterested in the game he started, and couldn’t be bothered to watch as I was beaten. But, there was no demon; just the father who loathed me so thoroughly that even hating me wasn’t worth his full attention. 

My body went slack. I turned my thoughts as inwardly as I could — the best preventative measure I had. Blows landed with less profundity when I disconnected from all feelings. I was a numb snow queen, a Michelin girl of rubber. I could drink glass and nails like Bibendum and still not shred.

I returned to full sensation when my back collided with the wall. The wind was forced from my lungs and my back became a lattice of sharp, shredding pain and dull arches. My pants filled with wet heat. He laughed, deep and harsh. A dry sob forced itself from my lips, eerily similar to his laugh. I heard my mother’s voice from somewhere outside of my tunneled field of vision. A peaceful, intense dovelike cooing blanketed the air. I thought she was speaking to me, trying to soothe me. I wanted to rebuke her, but I couldn’t breathe. 

Then I recognized the imperceptible note of ambiguity in her voice. Like a hostage negotiator, her soothing tones had no real emotion; nothing too weighted. She was talking to him, despite the consequences she might face herself.  Maybe he had gone a bit overboard. Yes, I was unforgivably disrespectful; perhaps I deserved a longer, more lasting punishment. He could put me down so I could receive my real consequences. 

Somehow, my mother succeeded. Perhaps he did not realize her agenda. More likely, her agenda didn’t matter in the wake of his power. He was the ruler of his domain and all things could be used to his advantage.

I felt the pull of gravity as he released my shirt collar. I felt the sharp stabs across my back lengthen into deep, tearing sensations as my feet lowered to the ground. I felt the tickle of tiny spiders across my skin, and then the stickiness of sweat. My shirt stuck to my back in some places, other places were slick. I reached my arm around myself to wipe the sweat off of my back. My hand came away red and sticky. Where had that come from? I looked behind me at the unfinished wall. Nails from the construction in our dining room jutted from the wood frame, the tips of some shining with wet blood. At the sight, I felt nauseous and woozy. Le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle. The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles. I was not, after all, the indestructible Michelin girl. I could not drink up my obstacles.

In the mudroom, I clench my fists remembering my shame. My fear disgusts me, the phantom sensations of the nails in my back tingle nearly a month later. My defiance was my downfall. My resilience failed me. But, I am, once again, the Michelin Man, the winter queen. I have made up my mind and I will not fail. I cannot; my best armor protects me.

My plan, however, is unravelling. 

I spent the weeks it took my nail wounds to heal huddled in the middle school library during lunchtime, plotting my escape. I’d begged my mom to take us away from this place for years. But, no matter how many “accidents” she suffered through, she couldn’t. It must be an adult thing. So, I would leave on my own. I knew better than to ask her to come with me, but I couldn’t leave without telling her. I needed permission to go… and I needed her help.

Today, I was supposed to go to church with my mom. Instead of going home after church, Christina’s mom would pick me up. I planned to stay with them until a caseworker helped me find a new place. Despite my accompanying embarrassment, it was in my favor that Christina and her mom saw where I lived. They were credible people, not a fairytale snow queen or an animated pile of tires. My imagination wouldn’t save me, but these people could. My mother was in the car with a few of my things, waiting to take me to church. Things were going smoothly until I opened the front door to cross the threshold. 

“Where are you going?” He sneered from the living room over the din of the television. My stomach flopped. What is it with this doorway that turns things for the worse? I paused.

“I… I’m going to church with Mom. I figured I need church, with as bad as I am.” I managed to keep the tremor out of my voice. 

He chuckled. I felt a dash of pride, thinking my answer had humored him enough to let me go.

“No you’re not. Church is for good people. You’re still working off the last time you ran your mouth. Get those fancy clothes off and get out to the yard. There’s still glass and rocks in that three acres. You’ll keep working until I say there’s none left.”

The blood drained from my face. If I was old enough, I would have cursed. “Yes, sir,” I said. I pushed the door closed and turned around to change my clothes. THINK. I screamed inside my head: THINK! I could not stay here for another day — another minute, even!  

As I changed my clothes, a thought struck me. He made a mistake when he ordered me outside; I could still leave. I stopped changing and put my clothes back on. Then I rummaged through my drawers for some of my remaining clothes. I didn’t care which. I found some jeans and a long sleeve shirt — perfect for yard work — and pulled them on over my church dress. The dress bunched up all around me. If the situation weren’t so dire, I would have laughed. Resigned to the look and praying for a miracle, I trudged quietly toward the mudroom. I would leave out the back door. I hoped my mom was still in the car and hadn’t come inside looking for me. His back would be to me if he stayed in his chair. 

On my way to the back door, I heard his chair groan from the living room as he shifted his large frame. I froze, once again, the ice queen. Without turning to look at me, he hurled insults across the house, “You thought you were so smart, getting out of your chores with church, didn’t you? You’re a sneaky little liar. Now you’ll do more work once the yard is done. Maybe you’ll learn your lesson.”

I composed myself, almost not trusting my voice to respond evenly. I had to say something so he wouldn’t be suspicious. I needed to keep him in that chair. 

“Yes, sir,” I said as evenly as I could. “That’s probably for the best, sir.” I waited. When he didn’t respond, I quickly shuffled through the dining room and kitchen to the mudroom.

Once there, I caught the sparkling reflection of morning light on my silver coat. I couldn’t believe I almost left without it! This literal beacon of light steeled my resolve. I pulled it off the coat hook and nestled into its protective layers. Now, he wouldn’t see my dress under my clothes. If he saw me as I sneaked towards the car, he might wonder why I wore my favorite coat to do yard work. But, I doubted that. He wouldn’t know my favorite coat, or even care. 

“Quit dawdling! Get out there.” His loud bark startles me. My already racing heart revs and my breath leaves my lungs. I jump. Act normal! I chide myself for being startled. Though, I suppose I am startled any time he raises his voice. You never know what will follow. 

I am out of time for any more reflection. Before he has cause to check on me, I open the back door, step into the chilly, humid morning air, and slam the door. Bang! I need him to hear that I’ve gone outside so he doesn’t follow me. I hesitate on the lawn for one last moment before sealing my decision with irrevocable action. Then, I walk to the car, each step closing the gap between me and the other choice, between me and freedom.

Inside the car, I’m met with my mom’s puzzled expression. I must look ridiculous. 

“He said I couldn’t go to church because I’m still in trouble,” I offer as an explanation. 

My mom nods, understanding. 

“I can’t go back,” I beg. 

She nods again. 

Tears pool in the bottom of my eyes. I am not a noble, wintry queen, I am not an impenetrable Michelin Bibendum. I am a terrified, broken little girl. Nunc est bibendum. À votre santé. Now is the time for drinking. Here’s to your health. She puts the car in reverse. 

“You won’t go back. We are leaving.” She decides. 

Le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle. The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles.

——————————————————————————————————-

Reedsy.com

“Get a Life, Chloe Brown” A Buddy-Read Breakdown

My best friend and favorite bookstagrammer, Paige, recently asked if I would join her for a “buddy-read” of a fiction novel with a chronically ill main character. Paige even offered to send it to my home address, free of charge. I love my best friend, fiction, and diverse representation. I also appreciate not needing to leave my home because that requires putting on pants.

Honestly, it was probably the best deal I’ll receive in this lifetime. The catch: it was a romance novel. 

No, I’m not a neanderthal or a snob. I am actually a sucker for romance! I just … struggle with romance plots that aren’t Victorian era. I even struggle with some VR (Victorian Romance) because, you know, I prefer character equality, communication, and diversity.  

In fact, that’s how Paige hooked me on the book. Get a Life Chloe Brown is a rowdy, realistic romance from the perspectives of a chronically ill black woman and a rough-around-the-edges pasty ginger artist. In the real world, chronically ill people aren’t seen as fully human. We don’t have lives, much less love lives; And black women are so often under-treated and marginalized in medical communities that chronic diagnoses are withheld, regardless of symptoms. Pair that with the beautiful mind of author, Talia Hibbert, and you have one hell of a romance novel.

If ya wanna buy the book

 

Writing Modern Romance and Healthier Relationships 

I thought Hibbert toed a fine line between expecting your partner to fix/make you and being able to compliment and improve one another. I liked this. There was a balance between steamy (I mean, very steamy) romance and honest vulnerability. It made the relationship between Chloe and Red feel tangible and earnest rather than suffocating and edgy.

That said, the sex scenes are so graphic! At first I was affronted. As a words/quality time person, I felt left out of the text during the steamier scenes. I couldn’t identify with that kind of sex. I don’t think that’s a missed mark on the author’s part as much as my personal preferences. 

I don’t know that the deeper meaning in Red and Chloe’s relationship would have made such an impact without the shock factor of Hibbert’s language. As the characters’ relationship deepens, I Hibbert mixes language of deep love and deep lust, capturing the duality of human romantic fascination. 

IRL romance offers the part of us that hungers for the other person and wants to rip their clothes off, and another part (the arguably sustaining part that makes) “the hunger to rip said person’s clothes off” worth it, time after time. It’s that hunger to be inside their brain and understand how they work and all the idiosyncrasies that you love about them because if you know how they work, you might just figure out how to work that way and be better yourself. These equal parts love and lust, they flow into each other and fuel each other and it’s so real and healthy! So, I think Hibbert really just wove true connection, love, and physical touch together in this piece.

Around page 210, I stopped reading and texted Paige, “Like, I’m uncomfortable with it but I’m also shocked by how realistically and beautifully Hibbert writes [romance]. Like, I don’t like the details but the delivery is primo.” My inner valley-girl aside, I think this sums up my opinion of Get a Life Chloe Brown. 

Hibbert wrote notable characteristics of healthy relationships beyond the sex scenes. For example, all real couples flirt via email. I’ve decided it. (Just kidding!) Bust seriously, relationships need ample healthy doses of communication and humor. Email is a nerdy and textual way of fulfilling that need and it was consistent with the “Chloe” and “Red” personalities. 

Red’s Relationship Abuse and Chloe’s Response

Kelly: As the child of an abusive father and ex of an abusive partner, it is difficult for me to think clearly about Red’s backstory. There is a lot of pain, guilt, and self-doubt in abuse. The abused person will always ask themselves how they have earned the wrath of the person they love. “What did I do to deserve this? IS something wrong with me.” It is made even more difficult when you know you are human, fallible, imperfect, and have made mistakes in your relationship. Hibbert wrote Red as a man who felt all of these things. He was in recovery, but he couldn’t help but hide from the world the way Chloe did after her illness. They had both been hurt by the things and people they looked to for love. 

Red’s story of abuse is sometimes as difficult to capture as Chloe’s story of diversity. Men who are abused in their relationships are underrepresented. They are not cared for. Their community tells them to “get over it,” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” (literally an impossible feat, by the way, as they would be standing in their boots and tugging upward on them, attempting to hover in the air like a regular Houdini). But Red’s abuse was raw and inescapable. It was in the reader’s face as much as it was in his. It is heartbreaking and gut-wrenching that anyone — especially a person as compassionate, sensitive, and kind as Red — would have to retrain their own mind to see themselves as something other than the garbage their abuser convinced them they are. Hibbert doesn’t shy away from writing this. She embraces it. And she embraces the power within Red — within any victim — to overcome. 

Equally important, Hibbert wrote Chloe and Red’s best mate as a compassionate people invested in Red and his well-being. I think this is what makes the fictional relationship between Red and Chloe so real (and healthy!). Chloe listens to Red, she aches for Red, she reminds him that he is a stellar artist, a brilliant man, and a worthwhile person. She was also a mature enough person to recognize when Red’s survival instinct took control of his rational thought, and patient enough to help him work through it. She was tough though her compassion. It isn’t always easy for Chloe, but it is always worth it. 


Paige: This past year, I’ve read a lot of romance. The genre as a whole is doing some really great things and tackling difficult subjects. I’ve read quite a few where the main female character has suffered some form of abuse, whether that’s gas lighting, sexual abuse, phyiscal abuse, or any other type of mental abuse.

What I really appreciated about “Get a Life, Chloe Brown” was that it demonstrated that in abusive relationships, the man isn’t always the aggressor. This is something people don’t usually think about and it’s important to give all victims a voice, so I thought it was extremely important that Red represented the male perspective of being the one abused in this instance. It also opened up a healthy conversation between Chloe and Red to help demonstrate how past abuse can affect your relationships with others.

For me, Chloe did a good job more often than not in the way she kept in mind his past struggles when Red would act a certain way. She was patient with him and tried to see things through his perspective. One of the lines I absolutely loved was, “Red,’ she whispered. ‘You don’t always have to be okay.’ She leaned closer and pressed a kiss to his cheek. He was still for a moment. But then he looked at her, and smiled, and murmured, “I know. But I am okay, with you.”

Wrap It Up

All in all, I think Hibbert wrote a fun, snarky, relatable romance with diverse, under-represented character demographics, character growth, and healthy, (sometimes steamy) relationships. With a gripping intro, “Interesting things always seem to happen on Tuesdays,” and quippy one-liners like, ““she hid guilt about as well as the average family dog,” she keeps the reader’s attention and pushes them to grow even as they delight in the throes of romance. 

If you want to read more about our thoughts on chronic illness representation in Get a Life, Chloe Brown, check out Paige’s blog.


Paige is the kind of best friend who shows her true feelings at your wedding. 😉