Issue 195 – December 2022

2420 words, short story

The Lightness


Trish is only a month along when the Goolan parents die.

She doesn’t speak Goola well enough to understand the details, but the point gets across. A freak accident. Stupid. Meaningless. The kind of thing that makes you pay attention to randomness, to fragility.

When she finds out, Trish goes to Annie because she has no one else, not on this planet, not even on Earth.

“Oh god, poor girl,” Annie says, wrapping Trish in a hug. Trish doesn’t feel sad, she feels nothing, so it takes her a moment to notice the moisture on her face, to realize what it means.

She cries into Annie’s neck with no idea what the tears are for, whom they belong to, or if she can even claim them as her own.

Nursing school.

A last-ditch effort in her late twenties to find a career, to make money, to capture some stability.

It was IV drug administration that derailed her.

She had three chances to get it right, but she kept having sterile breaks. Hands below her waist, not using alcohol wipes on the tubing, turning her head so her sterile field fell out of her peripheral.

Stupid mistakes, small oversights.

Trish knew that if they would just let her through, she’d figure it out, she’d be a great nurse. Her patients in her clinicals loved her, especially the geriatric patients who just needed someone to care a little. When Trish gave them their heparin injections or changed their wound dressings, they blamed her for the pain involved, furious that survival came at a cost. But all you needed to do was take a minute, get them a miniature can of ginger ale, listen to them complain for a bit, and they brightened, they fell in love with you. Trish could do that. She could be that person, could take that time.

But there were barriers to being a nurse, non-negotiable.

She had no idea what to do with her life when she received a message from Annie about Goolans needing surrogates. It wasn’t an offer, not even a suggestion. Just a comment, offhand, something to talk about with an old friend, each message taking a full twenty-four hours to get from Goola to Earth.

Less than a month later, Trish had a child inside her.

Trish helps out at Annie’s basket store during the week.

The baskets were once made in a small midwestern town, the kind that’s economy was based on a single business. When the basket business bellied up, the entire town did the same, swept away like debris in a storm.

The baskets sell like crazy on Goola, though. Annie gets shipments every month from Earth, but the supply is drying up. They’re handmade, only a finite amount left.

Once they’re gone, that’s it.

The Goolans see the baskets as exotic, strange. The baskets sit in Goolan homes, always empty. They stick out starkly against this planet’s single-colored walls, straight edges, every material smoothly transitioning into the next.

Annie loves to mythologize the town, the baskets themselves. Trish wonders if this is to sell more baskets or to make Annie feel like she’s doing something nobler than selling empty things to aliens who don’t know any better.

“In the town these baskets were made, they had a hotel that was shaped like a basket. It was giant,” Annie loves to tell customers in rough, jagged Goolan, making her arms wide to indicate the size of the basket hotel. “You could see it from a mile away.”

If you’re a Goolan family with a child that has human DNA, you’re sometimes allowed to skirt Earth’s incredibly restrictive Goolan immigration cap. So, they pay human women to carry their children, hoping the baby will be their ticket to a new life on Earth.

Trish didn’t understand the process when she agreed, just saw the dollar amount on a piece of paper. She was running, like the Goolans, just in the opposite direction.

A golden-haired human nurse took Trish’s vitals before the insemination.

“Do they test the babies when they get to Earth?” Trish asked. “Do they make sure?”

The nurse nodded as she wrapped the blood pressure cuff around Trish’s arm, pressing a blue button on the vitals machine. “Blood test. It’s a very fast process.”

“And what if it was negative, no human DNA? What if it turned out they lied?”

“Then they aren’t allowed to stay,” the nurse said, stopping there, not saying a word about where they go. The vitals machine beeped and the nurse removed the blood pressure cuff. “114/70, pretty good.”

Trish wanted to say that she knows how blood pressure works, that she went to a year of school, that she was almost a nurse. But almost doesn’t count for anything. She didn’t have a degree, nothing to point to, no solid object that says she learned a single thing.

“Good to know,” she said.

Out of curiosity, another surrogate comes into the basket store one day.

Trish approaches her, asks her how far along she is.

“How’d you even know I was pregnant?” the girl says, a smile, gesturing at her baby belly.

“Wild guess,” Trish says.

Her name is Hyley, is already in her third trimester. She has a sad story similar to Trish’s. She needed to get away for a while, was lured in by the easy money.

“Easiest job interview I’ve ever had,” Hyley says. “I had a functional womb, so I guess I qualified.”

Trish wishes she could give the baby to someone else, another couple looking for a sliver of a chance to come to Earth, who’d be willing to pay. But the DNA won’t match. That bond is the only bargaining chip most Goolans have.

“They do have abortions here,” Annie says. They’re in the basket store after hours, spreading out what little is left. Annie says that there might be one more shipment coming, but then that’s it. “I had one, you know. An abortion. On Earth, I mean. A human baby.”

“Do you regret it?” Trish asks.

“Nope. Well . . . no, I don’t think so. It was a hard choice, though.”

Trish picks through some of the merchandise. “My Wife is A Basket Case” stitched onto baseball caps, socks with tiny little baskets on them. She picks up a small basket on top of some basket-themed sweatshirts, improperly shelved. She’s surprised at the lightness, doesn’t know what she was expecting.

“Did it hurt?” Trish asks.

“The abortion? Well, yeah. I did the pill, it was a rough night, I’ll tell you that. But the father was a crackhead, I was poor as shit. There are different kinds of hurt, you know? I took on one hurt to avoid another.”

Goolans wait weeks after a death to have a funeral.

Trish attends out of obligation because she doesn’t know what to do, what people want out of her.

She’s the only human there.

She sits in the back, tries to mimic everyone else, always a few seconds behind. She stands, bows, does the best she can with her short fingers and single head.

Afterward, two older Goolans walk up to her, their necks held down, a sign of shyness, a humble pose. She instinctively knows that these are the grandparents of the child inside her. She wants to say sorry, how bad she feels. They gurgle and click in Goolan. The taller one, perhaps the grandfather, touches Trish’s belly.

“Life,” he says in garbled English, one of his heads edging closer as if to listen.

“Yes, life,” Trish says, touching her stomach. “Inside.”

“Good?” he asks.

Trish is uncertain what he’s inquiring about, the health of the baby or if the surrogate contract is still valid or something else.

“Yes. Yes, everything’s good,” she says anyway because she’s going to say it’s good no matter what, because it’s the lie she’s prepared to tell.

“Was that basket hotel real?” Trish asks one day after hearing Annie tell the story for the thousandth time. Trish still doesn’t understand Goolan, but she’s started to pick up words, especially those she’s heard repeated over and over.

“Of course it was real,” Annie says, ringing out an elderly-looking Goolan buying a pink basket in the shape of a heart. Trish doesn’t even know if Goolans have hearts in the traditional sense or if something else pumps their blood. “A hotel shaped like a basket? Who would make something like that up?”

Trish and Hyley hang out a few times, but don’t have many shared interests to draw from while pregnant. They drive around, talk, try sex once, but neither feels up for it. They get themselves off instead, lying next to each other, heads tilted so they can barely see the other out of their periphery.

Afterward, they turn on the TV, flip through channels until they find a Goolan dub of an Earth movie.

“I’m thinking about keeping mine,” Hyley says, eyes held on Bill Murray on the TV. She doesn’t need to understand the language to know he’s talking about ghosts, about busting them, about putting them in little boxes because they annoy people, because they don’t belong among the living. “I don’t want those slimy, two-headed fuckers to have it.”

“Do you think the Goolans getting the kid will be bad parents?” Trish says.

“Doesn’t really matter to me. It’s growing in me, we’ve bonded. It feels like it’s mine. That means it is.”

One last shipment of baskets. If Annie’s sad, she doesn’t look it, but Trish doesn’t want to search too hard, doesn’t want to think about what this last shipment means.

The two of them unpack the baskets, try to spread them out on the mostly empty shelves to make the store look full.

In one box Trish finds a few baskets with writing on the bottom, signatures written with a fast-wristed, sloppy sharpie.

“Who is this?” Trish asks, handing one of the baskets to Trish, signature side up. “The people who made the basket?”

Annie examines the baskets, lets out a slight snort. “Hardly. These are members of the family who owned the basket company. Never made a basket in their life.”

“And people wanted to buy baskets with those people’s names on them?”

“It was a selling point, actually. Made them more collectible.”

“Why them, though?”

Annie shrugs. “It was the name on the front of the building,” she says, handing back the basket. “A name they knew.”

Trish takes it, finds a place on the shelf among the other baskets without signatures. It wouldn’t matter to the Goolans. They couldn’t read English, didn’t know who these people were, didn’t know that the words held any weight.

Trish still thinks about being a nurse.

Maybe when she gets back to Earth, she’ll go back to school, finish up, get her degree. Not that she was ever passionate about nursing specifically. She just needed a program that would pay better and offer night courses so she could still work full-time. It was just the best option.

Still, Trish likes the idea of going back.

She likes the idea of finishing.

Hyley texts Trish a month later. “Ended up giving them the baby, got paid. Guess I didn’t really want the fucking thing after all.”

“Heading back to Earth then?” Trish texts back.

“Might as well,” Hyley replies. “Doesn’t much matter.”

Later, when Trish masturbates in her bed, she wishes Hyley were there again. Not because she wants to have sex with Hyley. She just wants a witness, someone to know she’s here, alive, that she’s feeling good, even if for the briefest moment.

The Goolans buy the last of the baskets.

Liquidation sale, everything must go.

When Trish walks into the store after it closes, she finds Annie sitting on the floor. There are chairs left, the Goolans didn’t buy those, but the floor makes sense, somehow. Trish sits next to Annie.

“I did it,” Trish says.

“You did? What? When?”

“Just now. Just came from it.”

“Proud of you,” Annie says, her tone probing, trying to figure out how Trish is feeling. “Did they tell you how long it would be?

“Anywhere from one to four hours before the cramping starts.”

Annie slides her hand under Trish’s, gently squeezing Trish’s fingertips. They’re swollen, water retaining, but it’s hard to tell because Trish doesn’t wear rings, because there’s nothing for the swelling to push up against.

“You wanna spend the night at my place?” Annie says. “I’ll make you a comfy spot on the couch. Blankets, snacks, the whole thing. It’ll be a rough night, but we’ll get through it together.”

Trish nods. “Yeah. Yeah, thanks. Just need a minute.”

Annie nods. Trish doesn’t know why, but she feels as if there’s something left to be found here, something she needs to understand. She considers the empty shelves that once held empty baskets that would go into Goolan homes and continue to be empty.

“Does this depress you?” Trish asks, nodding in the direction of the shelves.

Annie shrugs. “It had to end sometime. Even if the baskets kept coming, eventually I would have had to make the choice to go back home. This is better, nothing left. I can’t imagine dragging all of my shit back with me, ya know?”

Trish nods.

She knows.

“Seat belt on, okay?” Annie says. It’s a rental craft, small, only big enough for the two of them. “You can take it off when we’re out of the atmosphere.”

Trish does what she’s told. The ship jostles and rocks as it takes off, feeling like it’s going to explode with them inside. This is the worst of it, the beginning, breaking through the atmosphere. Trish closes her eyes, places a hand on her stomach. She thinks of things lost and things gained, gaps filled, how sometimes what looks like a hole is really just an opening.

There’s a sound, like ripped paper, a pressure against her skin, a weight. But it’s brief, and before she knows it, the hard part is over, they’re out of the atmosphere, on their way back to Earth, back home.

“You’re safe to unbuckle,” Annie says.

“You sure?”

Annie smiles. “Positive.”

And with that Trish’s seatbelt is off. She’s traveled in space before, but after the rough push through the atmosphere, she finds herself surprised by the lightness, the lack of gravity giving her no choice but to be pulled gently upward. Out of her seat.


Author profile

Alex Sobel is a psychiatric nurse who writes when he can find the time (almost never). His writing has appeared in publications such as Electric Literature, The Saturday Evening Post Online, Dark Matter Magazine, and Daily Science Fiction. He lives in Toledo, OH with his wife.

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