A Photon Takes the Shortest Path

By ALEX FOSTER

Every second, somewhere in the universe, a star explodes. All life within a trillion miles is condemned to apocalypse, all love forgotten. A supernova spits up a photon, a dribble of light, which rolls onward to another star and another before its path is intercepted by a giant, flailing planet Earth.

On which an ambulance, spraying its own red and blue photons into windows and lower eyelids, rockets down Michigan Avenue. Inside, a twenty-two-year-old woman sits upright on a stretcher, looking all around, proving her physical haleness by screaming at the top of her lungs, because until fifteen minutes ago, she didn’t know that she was pregnant, though she’d felt ill for some time, and then her water broke in a Starbucks bathroom.

At a moment of relative simultaneity, our photon is pulsing through clean air, through airplane windows and white linen kites. It skims a lake and pinballs in a web of sleek skyscrapers.

The woman, admittedly, would not have boasted a fully harmonious relationship with her body before all this; now, minutes after giving birth, things have devolved into open hostility. She’s clawing at her legs. She’s stubbing her toes on the steel door frame. Life is an improbability. It’s an unlikely confluence of pharmacological and genetic circumstances to be eight months pregnant and not realize. The ambulance swerves. She’ll be sick. It doesn’t help that she’s hungover. That her few bouts of morning sickness in the months past could be so easily blamed on margaritas and boxed wine.

She closes her eyes; a trillion particles of light rush at the ambulance’s rear window, and at the fore of this stampede, our little photon crests over the masses. It locks its sights, not on the woman in the ambulance box, but on the newborn child beside her, braces itself, strikes the ambulance window and… pings off the reflective glass, into oblivion.

It is a different photon that transmits through the glass and pierces the waking eye of blooming Dahlia.

#

Dahlia never loses that twinkle in her eye, which is, at six years old, pressed to the socket of a telescope that she plugged straight into the noontide sun. Her mom said not to do this. She said doing this would blind her within a fraction of a second. But her mom isn’t watching. And she was wrong, it seems, because it isn’t until after Dahlia breaks her gaze and looks around the porch that she feels somewhat at a loss for faculties. While actually staring at the sun (and she boasts of having done this for way longer than a fraction of a second), she feels a terrific thrill, an extrasensory eruption of electrical power, as if the sunlight is being ingested by her eye. Is this brief moment of dynamite worth the ensuing medical fallout and all the heartache that it works upon her poor mother?

Again, Dahlia maintains, it wasn’t brief. She stared at the sun for quite a while.

#

On that day, the day she sees the sun, much will change, but until then, Dahlia lives happily with her mom on the west side of Chicago, where she listens to honking cars and uses her two functional eyes to watch the moonrise beyond distant smokestacks.

She and her mom live in an apartment. It’s a small apartment with one bedroom, one bathroom, and a medium-sized galaxy under her mom’s bed. The longest recorded spacewalk in this galaxy is one minute and eleven seconds—the galaxy does not support oxygen, and if an astronaut like Dahlia tries to inhale, the space dust makes her cough. Dahlia calls this galaxy the Dust Zone. The Dust Zone is abundant in precious minerals, but to harvest these, one must avoid space debris, gum wrappers, and sesame seeds.

Dahlia is five years old. Her mom’s skinny friend still visits occasionally, though soon those visits will cease. The skinny friend drops two grocery bags just inside the door, plops herself down on the kitchen counter, and exclaims, “Tits and clits, it’s fucking cold out there!” A bottle of wine is opened. The two young women paint each other’s toenails while Dahlia eavesdrops from the Dust Zone. Her mom asks, “How’s your older brother?” and the skinny friend says, “Fucking some art school chick. Forget him.” Her mom asks, “Do you like your apartment?” and the skinny friend says, “I’m beyond ready to live on my own.” Her mom says, “I’m sure work is tiring?” and the skinny friend says, “Another day, another dollar. I’m taking two weeks PTO to party with Steph and Kara in Miami. I’d have invited you, I just thought you’re probably—” “I have my hands full here.”

The friend says, “How’s Dahlia?” and then there is a long pause, and the friend says, “I read that some of the elementary schools on the north side have really good support for kids like her.”

Various methods of exploring the Dust Zone are developed. Sometimes Dahlia prods planets with her space stick. Most progress, though, is made by slimy, brown rovers, retrieved from the sidewalk after summer rains and loosed upon the Dust Zone en masse. They return to Dahlia on the other side of the bed, dragging long black hairs (her mom’s pride) and brunette hairs (Dahlia’s messy burden), as well as blond hairs, red hairs, and once even a green (all of unidentified ownership). For those brave rovers that never return, a tasteful memorial is held.

In the evenings, while Dahlia explores, her mom watches lectures on her computer about discovering new life working from the comfort of home as a licensed insurance representative.

#

Dahlia rides in the cockpit of her mom’s shopping cart. With her hand up to her cheek like a radio, she shouts, “Asteroid ahead,” which she heard on Buzz Lightyear: Star Command.

Behind Dahlia, her mom holds her own hand up to her cheek and is saying, “No, Daddy, she’s fine. We’re just at the supermarket.” Dahlia shoots her ray-gun finger at the spiral pasta for her mom to add it to the cart.

“Yeah, she used to bring groceries over sometimes, but I haven’t seen her since she moved in with this b-school guy, and honestly, she’s a very selfish person.” Dahlia shoots at a tentacle-faced dragon fruit, but her aim is off, and plain potatoes are added to the cart instead. “I’m signed up to take the test in June. You saw I sent you the registration bill?”

The supermarket is so bright it makes Dahlia nauseous. “I’m spacesick,” she mumbles. She vomits all over the groceries. Her mom shrieks. “She just threw up a little. Daddy, I gotta go.” Her voice softens, “Sweetheart, are you alright?” Dahlia twists around in her seat as much as she can, like a spring unfurling, and hugs her mom’s waist.

#

Dahlia’s grandparents visit often. They pick Dahlia up in the morning and take her to the planetarium where children under 1.15 meters can climb on Saturn’s rings. They’re the ones who buy her the telescope that she will later use to stare straight at the sun. They also buy her sour slime, which she eats to gross out her grandfather. She and her grandma do staring contests in the backseat of the car. When they get home after their excursions, they find her mom still at her desk, with textbooks open, carried through the day by sheer will and inertia.

The week Dahlia’s mom passes her state insurance-board exam, they throw a party at the apartment. Everyone comes: Dahlia, her mom, Grandma, and Grandfather. At 7p.m. (party time), her grandfather is watching baseball in the living room, surreptitiously sampling the party snacks, and her mom is napping. “Sweetheart, wake up,” her grandma calls, “We’re ready to celebrate you.”

When her mom comes out of the bedroom, Dahlia shouts, “Look—Grandma gave me glitter!” Her mom’s smile sparkles like a trillion stars, even though she isn’t wearing any glitter herself. Or any makeup at all to cover the acne on her face. And she’s wearing pajama pants, and her long black hair’s a mess. She opens a bottle of wine, but Dahlia’s grandparents don’t drink. She looks lonely, pouring one glass for herself, so Dahlia shouts, “More for you!” She just wants her mom to smile. But for some reason, her mom goes pale and looks away, and when she looks back, there is a different sparkle in her eye.

“Lily, she’s joking,” her grandfather says. Dahlia’s mom sits on the couch, her cracked bottom lip trembling. She wipes her eyes on the sleeve of her sweatshirt, pulls her legs up to her chest, and bites her knee.

“Lily?”

“I didn’t want a party,” she says. 

Dahlia’s grandma hugs her, saying, “Oh, Lily, sweetheart. You’re doing such a great job,” but Dahlia’s mom says, “I didn’t ask for any of this to happen.” She can’t stop crying. Dahlia runs to the Dust Zone and sets a new spacewalk record.

# 

Dahlia grows bigger. A few weeks after her sixth birthday, she tries to fit under the bed and scrapes her back against the frame, and at first she worries that the Dust Zone is contracting, but then she notices the change in her body relative to other objects: her pink jean jacket is getting tighter; she can almost reach the Diet Coke shelf.

Her mom grows more serious. She starts tying her hair half-up-half-down, then 100% up, then shaves it off. Her parents are appalled. She tells them that long hair was unbecoming and it got in the way of her headset when she made sales calls for her insurance rep job. Dahlia pets her mom’s scalp, until her mom says that that too interferes with her sales calls, and she wraps a bandana around her head. At the supermarket, Dahlia points her ray-gun finger at the dragon fruit. Her aim must be improving, because her mom says into her headset, “Yes, sir, it’s my pleasure. I’ll send the invoice shortly,” and adds a dragon fruit to the cart. She has explained to Dahlia that if they are to move to a school district with the right resources in time for kindergarten enrollment, she needs to do a lot of business. That means taking calls at the supermarket, sending emails from the park, and working on her computer into ever later hours of the night, while the moon floats up the apartment window and Dahlia sleeps in the sofa chair beside her desk.

The sofa chair doesn’t grow. As Dahlia gets bigger, her sleeping position un-grows, becomes more fetal. She comes to know neck kinks and backaches. But she doesn’t complain because she likes being next to her mom. Indeed, as her sleepless hours extend, she comes to rely all the more on the company of her mom’s keystrokes, until one night the keystrokes stop.

“Go sleep in my bed,” her mom says. This is an invitation and a command.

Her mom’s bed is a vast, cold, empty world that smells like cigarettes. The pillows are asymmetrically stuffed. She tosses and turns for about thirty seconds, then throws the blankets off and marches back. “I can’t. I can’t,” she says. “I can’t alone.”

Her mom thumbs a pimple under the fold of her bandana. “It’s not like I chose this situation.”

So Dahlia returns to the bedroom and sits on the hardwood, fuming, waiting for her mom to come, vowing not to fall asleep. She flies at near lightspeed through hours that seem to her like seconds, and suddenly she feels her mom lifting her up and getting in bed with her. They hold each other, and Dahlia sleeps soundly, dreaming of floating specks and the galaxy below.

#

This works for about one week. Then comes the Friday morning when she wakes up at dawn, having been moved from the floor to the bed but not accompanied. Her mother’s side of the bed is still made. Dahlia feels cheated. She tip-toes into the living room to find her mom sleeping on her computer keyboard. Dahlia kicks the desk, waking both her mom and the computer and rattling three empty beer bottles.

Her mom murmurs: “Go back to bed.”

Dahlia won’t. She’s embarrassed at having fallen asleep alone the previous night. She feels combustible. Her brainwaves go haywire. Then her stomach flips. She walks quickly to the bathroom, leans over the tub, and throws up a mixture of SpaghettiOs and milk, glossy in the flickering bathroom light.

She has to step around it when she decides to climb into the tub.

There’s a shower caddy in the corner, and on the top shelf rests her mom’s razor. She jumps for it, then shakes the caddy, then tries climbing up, scaling the bathtub’s wall. Everything tumbles. The vomit is hard when it hits her face.

She feels her mom hoisting her to her feet—a feeling theoretically indistinguishable from a momentary deepening in the pull of gravity—and she throws up again.

In the days that follow, there is much bickering among the adults over Dahlia’s safety. Bygone incidents—old scrapes against the Dust Zone ceiling and coughing fits after record-setting spacewalks—are suddenly recast as red flags. While these discussions persist, her mom doesn’t let her out of her sight, and though Dahlia resents her mom’s distrust, she savors the attention. “I didn’t mean to hit my head,” she says. “I was trying to reach the razor. To use it on myself.” This puts no one at ease. Her grandma is the only person who asks what she planned to do with the razor. Dahlia says, “I wanted to shave my hair to look like Mom.”

After a few months, the static electricity dissipates, the adults are able to talk about Dahlia’s welfare without sparks flying, and her mom returns to her old work schedule. Dahlia feels cold again.

She remembers an old phrase, from when people were happy, and says it to her grandfather: “Tits and clits, it’s cold in here!” Her grandfather is taken aback. He shoots up from the couch like a much younger man and exits the room to talk to her mom. That’s when Dahlia, all alone and colder than ever, pulls on her mom’s sweatshirt, takes her telescope outside, and stares straight at the sun. 

For the second time in her life, she gets to ride in an ambulance. Just like last time, her mom is screaming. In Dahlia’s right eye, the one that saw the sun, her mom’s volume is translated into a beautiful fluxing quasar of every shape and color overlaid, so close it’s as if the image is a sticker on her brain. This screaming quasar is all that she’ll ever see out of her right eye for the rest of her life.

Dahlia is moved to her grandparents’ house in the suburbs. She’s enrolled in kindergarten at their local K-12 Quaker school, Forest Oaks, which, her mom agrees, will be able to respond to her needs better than any city school. She lives in her mom’s old bedroom, which is basically a giant Dust Zone. Sometimes her grandfather even calls her “Lily” and then shakes his head real hard. He tucks her in each night and rubs her back until he thinks she’s asleep. When he leaves, she sits up and presses her face against her child-locked bedside window and stares at the moon in a smattering of oak leaves, but with only one eye, she can’t tell what’s in front and what’s behind.

#

Dahlia learns to read in a special classroom with select students from various grades. Each student is unique: Terry speaks only in vowels; José and Samantha chew pencils and erasers, respectively; Dahlia shouts, throws up sometimes, and is half-blind. When a visiting superintendent asks her teacher which of these conditions come from childhood injuries and which come from “F.A.S.,” Dahlia blurts out, “F-A-S: face! Is something wrong with my face?” and her teacher gives her a star for spelling.

Weekends are for Dahlia’s mom. Each Friday, she picks Dahlia up promptly when school lets out at 3:14. “Tell me your week,” she says, and as they drive downtown, Dahlia recounts everything she’s learned since Monday. Which is a lot. Her favorite subject is science. She shouts from the back seat, “Mom, did you know there’s no sound in space, the astronauts talk by writing notes on paper airplanes, and when they miss their targets, the airplanes drift sideways forever and ever,” or “Have you seen, Mom, that electricity in balloons can make your hair stand up in lines, I think they’re called Victors, or it can make your hair poke through the holes in your helmet if you’re someone who wears a helmet in school like one kid in my class, Jay-Jay, who has seizures, which are also electricity?”

The year passes. Dahlia is such a good student that the school lets her keep coming through the summer. One Friday her mom picks her up at 3:14 and says her usual “Tell me your week,” but Dahlia says no thanks. Her mom tilts her eyebrows in the rearview mirror. “You don’t have to,” she says, “but please?” Dahlia holds her palm over her dead right eye and looks out the window. “No,” she says.

She doesn’t know how to tell her mom that in school that day, her teacher put black construction paper over the classroom windows and turned off all the lights and told the students that every star is a sun, that suns flood the universe like drops of water in an ocean, tumbling over one another, some are Phoenician purple suns, others are white like giant pearls, some suns are ten times hotter than ours, and a thousand times bigger, and a million times brighter, but the warmth and pull and light of all these suns is drowned out by our own, which is the warmest, most attractive, most luminous Sun because it’s Ours, claiming us from the expanse and wrapping us up in its heat, and it occurred to Dahlia that this was exactly and precisely how she felt about her mom.

#

That summer, Gary begins to join Dahlia and her mom on the weekends. Gary tells Dahlia he loves science too. Dahlia and Gary watch NOVA Kids and eat dry Kix straight from the box (which, ever since Gary came, has been kept in a cabinet instead of residing in a grocery bag on the floor).

In order to make room for Gary, Dahlia must move from her mom’s bed to an air mattress in the kitchen, her loneliest sleeping arrangement yet, but she doesn’t mind, because on mornings after Gary sleeps over, he makes pancakes in the shapes of Jupiter (O) and Mars (o).

#

In the spring of second grade, encouraged by Gary, Dahlia begins borrowing books from the school library. She’s not a great reader, so her favorite books are advanced, high school physics texts, as these have the strangest illustrations. Sitting behind the bookshelves, she traces diagrams of particle-wave duality and thinks about colors.

One day, she finds tucked into her favorite book a sheet of glossy magazine paper, which, when unfolded, shows a woman without any clothes, on all-fours like a crab, surrounded by men pouring champagne on her chest. The caption says XXXTEENS, and someone has written a note in marker: “YOUR MOM.”

Dahlia closes her dead eye and rereads the note. The script is fast, the ink shiny and thick. It smears. “Hey,” she exclaims. “What’s this? What’s this about? What…” the librarian, Ms. P, hasn’t yet succeeded in teaching her to speak at library volume. Pressing her good eye into an empty slot in the bookshelf, she tries to spy the person who wrote the note; she looks for someone watching her and giggling.

Everyone in the library is watching her and giggling.

She gets embarrassed. “Sorry for shouting,” she whispers loudly.

#

Gary leaves.

#

Dahlia enters third grade. Her mom’s Friday pickups get pushed back from 3:14 to 3:30, or 4:00, at which time she presents Dahlia with her new Gary-for-the-weekend. It’s always Gary-for-the-weekend who drives them home, because Dahlia’s mom is no longer supposed to drive.

Sometimes Gary-for-the-weekend ignores Dahlia. Other times, he teaches her to make Pop-Tarts or remove stains from the shag carpet. He often has tattoos on his arms and even sometimes on his face.

She asks him, “Why is the sky blue? What comes after nitrogen?”

And he says, “Don’t scream. I’m standing right here,” or turns to Dahlia’s mom and says words Dahlia’s mom instructs Dahlia not to repeat to Grandma and Grandfather.

One Saturday morning, tired of Gary-for-the-weekend eating more than his fair share of pancakes and refusing to make them planetary, Dahlia says, “Gary-for-the-weekend, you keep getting worse and worse.”

Without looking up he says, “What’s wrong with this kid?”

“Sweetheart,” her mom says. “I told you, his name is Russell.”

They continue eating.

Dahlia glares at Gary-for-the-weekend. He masticates like a hydraulic press. His nostrils gape like black holes. She lifts her spoon and flings it at his enormous head. The round end strikes him just below the eye.

He dives for her across the kitchen counter. Plastic dishes clatter to the floor. She smacks his head and jumps back. Then she receives a hard shove in the side, not from him but from her mom, who tries to pull him off the counter. He takes a swing at her that sends her stumbling into the wall opposite Dahlia.

He stands, looks at Dahlia cowering in fear, then at her mom and says, “Control your spaz, Lily.”

“Get out,” Dahlia’s mom says, but he’s already picking up his boots. He says, “You two need help,” and leaves.

After they hear the building’s front door open and shut downstairs, Dahlia approaches her mom. Her bandana is on the floor. Her head looks naked in her hands.

“Sorry,” Dahlia says.

Her mom stares at her in disbelief. She says, “I spend all week in this apartment alone, doing my stupid fucking job. For you. Why can’t I have one friend without you chasing them away. Why did I get stuck with you?”

#

On the last Friday in November, Dahlia’s mom doesn’t come to school by even 4:30, so after waiting an hour with no supervisor, Dahlia leaves on her own. A photon always takes the shortest path; Dahlia walks to the freeway. In fall boots and an army-green coat, she navigates through town to Half Day Road, so named for its crossing I-94 a half-day’s hike from the city, and when she reaches the freeway overpass, she runs down the side of the on-ramp, bookbag bouncing, to merge onto I-94 heading south.

The freeway is beautiful this time of year. The grassy roadside ditch she follows is filled with broad oak leaves. To Dahlia’s left, up on the elevated road, the cars sling by like sparkling comets. Across the Midwest, the autumn air is cooling, but on this highway, painted in orange streaks of angled sun, so much activity stirs the air, keeps it humming, and warms it from the center. Engine noises wrap around Dahlia in stretched doppler strings, unseen grasshoppers chirp by her feet, and Dahlia, with one working eye and hair blowing across her face, is overcome by an intractable sense of big things just beyond her periphery, which are quantum and gravitational gears spinning heat through void, her planet moving to a formula for chaotic construction she’ll never understand any more than a chipmunk darting across a freeway.

She walks for several hours hidden from the cars, but eventually the ditch ends and she is forced to climb up an embankment and continue in full view along the road’s gravel shoulder. Walking beneath the streetlamps, she watches her shadow repeatedly swing up from under her shoes, grow from the length of a child to a woman, to a spindling, and dissolve into the ground. Very quickly, the honking begins, and Dahlia ignores it. Then comes the shouting.

“I’m fine,” she tells each driver. “Leave me alone.”

After this has happened three or four times, she sees herself grow—taller, thinner—against the bright white ground. She turns to acknowledge the twin beams, like a U.F.O., from the car that’s come up behind her.

The car stops. A man gets out. He approaches, backlit by headlights. She rubs her eye to see him through the glare. As he steps closer, his face materializes, with eyes magnified in oversized glasses, peering down at her.

#

The inside of his police cruiser smells like fresh-cut leather. His radio plays quiet rock, occasionally interrupted by dispatcher static. They roll past a traffic accident, red and blue lights pierce the darkness on all sides, and he says to himself, “Damn, looks like a fifty jay three,” and chuckles. Dahlia wonders what sort of person laughs after telling himself a number. Eventually, traffic picks up. Dahlia, hugging her backpack, examines the strange controls on the dashboard. She doesn’t tell him that she’s never sat in the front seat before.

“How’s the temperature?” he asks.

Dahlia nods.

“I’m Alan,” he says.

Alien, thinks Dahlia.

“Do you think your mom’s at home, Dahlia?” the alien asks.

Dahlia talks into her backpack. “I don’t know.”

He turns down the music. “Why isn’t your mom driving you tonight?”

She sniffles. Her nose is running. She’s afraid if she lifts her face from her backpack, a string of snot will follow. “Why doesn’t your mom drive you?”

The alien smiles. “My mom’s old,” he says. “She’s not supposed to drive anymore.”

“Same,” says Dahlia.

“My mom lives far away from me. In Florida. You know Florida?”

“The Sunshine State.”

“There you go.”

“Is your mom your sun, too?”

“No.” He frowns. “I’m her son. She’s not my son. You understand? I’m her son.”

“I’m not stupid,” she says. She looks at herself in the sideview mirror: her meager upper lip and small eyes, one brown, one blue. “I just have a disability.”

She clenches all the way to her mom’s apartment building. As soon as the cruiser stops, she opens the door and walks quickly away. But he follows her. Standing on tiptoes, she presses buzzer 2B: “Lily & Dahlia Jones.” Her mom never changed the placard. The stoop lamp flickers, and their breath shows only in the dark. A motorbike backfires in the distance. The alien looks around, growing unhappy.

Finally, Dahlia’s mom opens the door. She knits her acne-mottled brow and pulls her nightgown up to cover her chest, revealing bruises on her plump thighs. She blinks at Dahlia. Dahlia blinks at her. The rush of electricity is like the time Dahlia looked straight at the sun.

Dahlia drops her backpack and buries her face in her mom’s hip.

The alien, in an irritated tone, says, “I found her on the side of I-94.”

“He abducted me,” Dahlia sobs.

“What were you doing on the highway? Where are Grandma and Grandfather?” Then with a start, her mom says, “Wait. What day is it?”

Dahlia tilts her chin up, snot smeared across her lips. “Friday.”

“Fuck,” her mom says, ignoring the alien. She wipes Dahlia’s eyes. “Okay,” she says, “It’s okay. Nothing happened. Hey.” Dahlia sobs harder. “Hey, tell me your week.” Dahlia doesn’t answer and her mom shakes her. “Dahlia,” she says, “tell me your week—” Suddenly there’s a third hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t touch her,” her mom says.

“Ma’am, you and I need to talk.”

“Why?”

“You let your daughter walk alone on the highway, and now I see you shaking the hell out of her.”

“She wandered. She has a disability.”

Another man’s slurred words tumble down from the second-floor landing. “Whas happening down there? Is there a problem?” 

Dahlia’s mom tells the man it’s nothing.

“Who’s that?” asks the alien, raising his voice.

“It’s Gary-for-the-weekend,” says Dahlia, wrapping her arms tighter around her mom.

“Gary? Who the fuck is Gary? My name’s Jared,” shouts Gary-for-the-weekend. “Where are my pants.”

“Sir, come on down here,” demands the alien, clutching his belt, while Dahlia’s mom tells the man to stay put. The alien suggests without kindness that Dahlia wait by the lamppost. There’s a loud thump upstairs, as if someone is playing hopscotch. Then a crash. “Fuck.” A zipper is heard. “Son of a bitch, I swear to God.”

“Stay there, please. I’m okay,” her mom calls up, letting go of Dahlia, who reaches after her.

“Who’re you hiding, Lily?” he shouts. “I’ll fuck him up.”

The alien is grunting into his radio as he pulls Dahlia backward. The radio buzzes. Her feet leave the ground, and her stomach drops. The quasar in her dead eye flares frantically. She cries for her mom to save her, but her mom just stands there yelling, so she kicks the alien’s shin, and he says, “Ma’am, I’m serious now. Tell her to cool it.”

“Who is you, man?” shouts Gary-for-the-weekend. “You screwing Lily?” Louder and louder, the alien demands order, but the hollering upstairs won’t stop. “This fucking guy is asking for it.” Pain radiates through Dahlia’s ribs, as if her body’s being torn apart. The alien threatens Dahlia’s mom. “Give me back my daughter,” she shouts over him.

“Alien! Alien!” says Dahlia. With each step away from the house, she can feel the strength of her mother’s pull fading. She cannot bear it.

“I’m going to write you up for endangerment,” says the alien.

“Here I come,” says Gary-for-the-weekend.

Her mom stands under the flickering light, watching Dahlia get dragged away.

#

Even a very small mass, small enough to carry to a lamppost or through childhood, can and will, under extreme conditions, release an unconscionable amount of energy. At the convergence point of the sound of approaching sirens and the sight of her mom being shoved from the doorway by an enormous Gary-for-the-weekend, Dahlia’s potential is activated. She spins around in a superfluid vortex and unleashes a storm of sudden and incredible pain on her alien abductor. His glasses break, fracturing his engorged eyes. His radio falls. He clutches his crotch. Dropping Dahlia, he cries, “Holy!” and this is the last thing she hears before her head greets the cold, hard ground like an old friend.

#

The next few moments blur. Dahlia feels the sweep of red and blue lights. Gary-for-the-weekend stumbles out of the house and is immediately ushered to the side by three aliens. A few more stand over Dahlia, hushedly arguing with one another about what happened, speaking in numerical codes. Leaves rustle. The pavement is cool. Empyrean gears rotate the stars. “I’m seeing stars, Mom,” Dahlia whispers, and the arguing abruptly stops.

“What’d she say?” one of the aliens asks. “Is she alright?” “She wants her mom.”

“I’m seeing stars,” she says again. A warmth descends, its hands around her, as her mom’s head enters from the east.

Dahlia squints. “Mom?”

“I’m right here.”

“You should move,” she says. “I’m probably gonna throw up right now.”

All the aliens step back. But her mom doesn’t move. She sinks into the constellations spinning overhead, in depthless expanses, in Dahlia’s eye. There is a lake in the night sky, where photons flow in waves of quantum flux, and every particle of light can still go anywhere, be anywhere, defying roads and walls, twirling through crushed opal dust zones and surfing on the wings of paper airplanes to the corners of the universe. But when a photon reaches the sidewalk outside 217 Mayall Street, its path appears to all observers so direct that it’s as if it never had a chance of leading anywhere else, anywhere but where Dahlia is right now. She sees the light and blinks. It is nearly midnight, and she is nine. Her mom is not much older herself, but to Dahlia at that moment, she glows.

“Mom,” she asks, “how did I get here?”

Her mom leans in, surrounded by aliens in the breeze, and kisses Dahlia’s forehead. Like a sun refusing to explode. “I brought you,” she says.

 

Alex Foster has an MFA from New York University. His recent work has appeared in Witness and The Evergreen Review.

A Photon Takes the Shortest Path

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November 2022 Poetry Feature: Anacaona Rocio Milagro

ANACAONA ROCIO MILAGRO
Because there weren’t any fireflies in the hood / as a child i imagined roaches were angels on a / mission. To save lives, they’d crawl into the mouths / of the chosen. Initially i found them disgusting. / They’d infest my Fruity Pebbles cereal. i’d pluck / them out

Coconut and Bananas

ROMANA CAPEK-HABEKOVIC
A couple of days ago my husband returned from the grocery store with a pound of bananas and a small coconut. The bananas were perfectly ripe for consumption, and I put them in a fruit basket.