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art by Melissa Mead

This Always Happens Here

Richard Larson was born in 1984 and is a New Yorker by way of St. Louis, MO. His fiction has appeared in Subterranean, Strange Horizons, ChiZine, and many other venues; a reprint is also forthcoming in Wilde Stories 2011: The Year's Best Gay Speculative Fiction. He also regularly reviews books and movies. Visit him online at www.rlarson.net.
Tommy is a boy who lives inside a snow globe.
When you shake the snow globe, Tommy's arms fly into the air and he spins around, laughing. His parents refer to this as his job--the requirement for living inside the snow globe, where life is perpetually wonderful. "When someone shakes the snow globe," they told him when he was younger, "your arms must fly into the air and you must spin around, laughing."
But while Tommy may be laughing, he isn't happy. At least not always. Tommy is secretly in love with the uniformed man who works for the train station at the other end of the snow globe. The uniformed man directs you to your seat if you can't find it, or if you're pretending you can't find it so that you can enlist the help of the handsome uniformed man. This is what Tommy always does, fumbling for the ticket in his pocket even though he knows exactly where to find his seat, because it's always the same seat. Tommy is only truly happy with the uniformed man's hand in his, hoisting Tommy into the train and waving goodbye as the train heads back to the other end of the snow globe.
The snow globe has a clearing, a cottage, a decorated pine tree, and a train station. Tommy is standing in his usual spot in the clearing when Sarah, the girl who lives in the cottage, pokes her head out of her kitchen window. "Hi, Tommy," she says.
For the longest time, Tommy didn't know anyone even lived in the cottage. He doesn't know what Sarah's job is, because even when someone shakes the snow globe, she just stays inside the cottage. It probably doesn't even snow in cottages. And if he raised his arms into the air inside a cottage, he would probably scrape the ceiling. What if someone shook the snow globe at the wrong time? What if he wasn't ready?
"It's not snowing," says Sarah. "What do you do when it's not snowing?"
Tommy usually just thinks about the uniformed man. He waits impatiently for the next time he's able to take the train. "I look at the sky," says Tommy, only telling Sarah part of the truth. "I practice raising my arms into the air and spinning around, laughing."
"Oh," says Sarah. She slips back inside the cottage. Tommy hears a frantic clanging of pots. Then her head is back in the window. "Would you like some soup?" she asks.
The soup has carrots, which are Tommy's favorite. Tommy eats the soup and Sarah asks questions like whether he likes his job and how long he's been in the snow globe. But Tommy can't remember not being in the snow globe. "A while," he says.
"Do you ever think of leaving the snow globe?" asks Sarah. She watches Tommy eat the soup, her hands folded patiently on the windowsill. "Even for a little while? Sometimes I get sick of always making the same old soup."
Tommy suddenly drops his bowl of soup into the snow. He looks around to make sure no one heard what Sarah said. His appetite is completely gone; an unsettling feeling has filled his stomach, leaving no more room for soup.
He asks, "Why would you want to leave the snow globe?" But he knows the answer. He has seen it in the faces of the people shaking the snow globe. Those people would know what to say to the uniformed man, while Tommy doesn't know what to say at all. All he can do is keep doing his job--keep taking the train across the snow globe and keep coming back home to the clearing to raise his arms into the air, spin around, and laugh.
The uniformed man watches Tommy approach, and he breaks into a smile when Tommy is near enough to notice. "Tommy boy," he says affectionately. "Where are you off to today?"
Tommy feels instantly warm inside as soon as he sees the uniformed man, even though he has misplaced his scarf and the wind is a sheet of pressure pushing him forever backward. He is carrying brightly wrapped packages of holiday gifts that he's supposed to bring back to his parents. Always the same packages. "Oh, the usual," he says.
The uniformed man laughs like this is a funny joke, and he automatically takes Tommy by the hand because this is what he always does. "Let me see your ticket, young man. We'll find where you need to go."
There are so many things Tommy would like to say to the uniformed man. Where is he from? Does he like it here in the snow globe? What would he rather be doing instead of helping people find their seats on the train? But when it comes time for the uniformed man to hoist Tommy into the train car and wave goodbye, all Tommy can do is wave back weakly as the uniformed man becomes smaller and smaller in the distance, the train winding the bend around the lavishly decorated pine tree. Then the uniformed man is gone again.
"Why so glum?" asks Tommy's father as Tommy arrives in the clearing. Tommy drops the brightly wrapped boxes on the ground in the clearing and his mother begins to open them slowly, giggling and clutching them to her chest, which is her job in the snow globe. She always giggles the same way.
"I'm not glum," says Tommy, stomping through the snow to his spot by the tree.
His father's job is to stand next to Tommy with his hand resting protectively on his son's shoulder, telling him about all the important things that a man must know in order to succeed in the world. Both of them look off now into the impossibly expansive white distance. "You look glum," says his father, his hand resting on Tommy's shoulder.
"Have you always lived in the snow globe?" asks Tommy. "Do you like it here? Where did you meet mom? How did you first tell her that you loved her?"
The words fall out of Tommy like lumpy snowflakes tumbling too fast through the air. But his father is unfazed. "We do our jobs well and we have a good life," he says. Then Tommy's father sighs now like he is about to transfer a heavy burden. "I met your mother when she was just a girl, in another snow globe," he says. "Her job was to hang laundry outside in the freezing cold, wearing only rags, while the rich family in the mansion next to her warmed themselves by a fire. That was no life for a woman like her. Look how she giggles now! All these presents!"
They both look over at Tommy's mother for a moment, her face a mask of childlike wonder. Tommy can't imagine that she ever hung laundry while wearing only rags.
"How did you save her?" asks Tommy.
"Well," says his father slowly. "I broke the snow globe."
The images flashing in Tommy's head are of his father sneaking across the snow globe to rescue the woman doing laundry outside the mansion. The woman is shivering, desperately cold as she waits to be rescued. She knows Tommy's father is coming, because how could he not come for her? How could she live this way forever? And then there he is, peeking around a tree, fallen snow gathered ridiculously atop his cap. He resembles a boy having just escaped from a collapsed igloo. He says, "Come with me," and they run and run, even as the people in the mansion scream at them from the windows to come back and properly finish their jobs. There is a steely look in his father's eyes as he holds Tommy's mother's hand and they don't slow down when they come upon the dome of the snow globe, even as someone begins to shake the snow globe and his mother tries to go back to finish hanging the laundry because that's what she always does.
"What happened next?" asks Tommy.
His father just gestures out at the clearing, the pine trees, the cottage where Sarah is probably cooking something delicious. "We were given new jobs," says his father. "In a new snow globe. We aren't suited for much, you know. We were made for snow globes."
"That's it?" asks Tommy, frustrated, trying to ignore the hurt on his father's face. Life here in the snow globe--the life his parents have given him--isn't so bad, he tells himself. He should be grateful. But then why isn't he happy?
"What are you going to do today?" asks Sarah, poking her head out of the window of the cottage. Wonderful smells float out into the clearing, distracting Tommy from his mission.
"Oh, the same old thing," he says, lying.
Today is the day Tommy is going to reveal his secret feelings to the handsome uniformed man. He is going to say things that aren't a part of his job at all, and then maybe the uniformed man will take him by the hand and he'll say, "Come with me," and they'll run and run with steely looks in their eyes until they find somewhere better, inventing new jobs for themselves in a place beyond snow globes. Maybe breaking out of a snow globe is part of growing up. Maybe everybody does it.
Sarah has made another soup. She reaches outside and hands him a bowl. "Carrots again," she says. "Your favorite."
"How did you know?" asks Tommy, accepting the bowl and quickly going to work on the soup. Who knows when he'll save soup again? At least not soup like Sarah's.
Sarah blushes. "Well, I asked your mom. And I also saw how you loved the last one."
Tommy finishes the soup. It makes sense that Sarah would ask his mother what type of soup he liked. Was this Sarah's job, to make him soup? If so, she'd want to do well at her job, so she would have to make a soup that he enjoyed.
"Thank you for the soup," says Tommy, playing along for Sarah's sake. He gathers his things, preparing to trudge through the blizzard to retrieve the brightly wrapped packages and then go to the train station--and then never come back.
"I'll make soup for you whenever you want it," Sarah says eagerly. "I could make you soup forever, if you want. It could just be the two of us here in this cottage, with all this soup."
"There must be something better for you to spend your time doing," says Tommy distractedly, even though he knows that sometimes you have no choice but to do your job if you want to stay in the snow globe. But as Tommy makes his way across the clearing, he glances back--something he has never done before--as if to say goodbye to the clearing, the cottage, his parents waiting forever for the brightly wrapped packages. And he sees, finally, that Sarah's job is not to make soup at all. Her job is to stand outside the cottage and gaze longingly after Tommy each day as he walks away, desperate tears sliding down her cheeks and freezing to her skin before they ever reach the ground.
"Tommy boy," says the uniformed man. "Where are you off to today?"
Running down the highest mountains to the endless valleys below. Off into the night sky, chasing stars. Swimming across the sea to somewhere warm where they haven't heard of snow.
"I don't know," says Tommy.
The uniformed man is reaching for Tommy's hand but now he hesitates, half-reaching, their hands so close but still with so much space hanging there between them. The smile on the uniformed man's face cracks just the tiniest bit. "Well, let's see that ticket."
"I don't have a ticket," says Tommy.
Now the uniformed man's smile is completely gone. The hand has made its way back into the pocket of the fancy uniform. "What do you mean, Tommy?"
"I think about you all the time," says Tommy. "I stand there in the clearing and I think about you. You could hold my hand always if you wanted. It doesn't have to be just when I have a ticket for the train. I'd like to hold your hand forever."
Tommy feels like he has just put something huge out into the world and now there's no going back. Everything will be different from now on. Maybe now he can do whatever he wants when someone shakes the snow globe.
The uniformed man looks up and down the platform. The train whistles, about to depart. "That's not the way it goes, Tommy," says the uniformed man. "That's not my job."
"But you always smile when I come to ride the train," says Tommy, like this should mean something. The uniformed man just shakes his head. "You need a ticket to ride the train, Tommy. But look, here you go, I have an extra ticket right here."
The uniformed man points at the train car--not grabbing Tommy by the hand this time, not hoisting him up--and the uniformed man doesn't wave goodbye when Tommy winds the bend around the lavishly decorated pine tree, heading back to the other end of the snow globe. The train ride takes almost no time at all, but to Tommy it is forever.
"How was your day, son?" asks Tommy's father as Tommy approaches the clearing, carrying the brightly wrapped packages that his mother has been waiting for.
Tommy is about to say exactly what kind of a day he has had. He will talk about all kinds of unfair things like why the train only goes to one place, why the brightly wrapped boxes are always empty, why you only have to walk a short distance to find yourself right back where you started. But someone shakes the snow globe just at that moment, and Tommy watches, horrified, as his hands fly into the air and he spins around, again and again, laughing the whole time.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 20th, 2011


A friend wrote something on Twitter last winter about how she felt like she was stuck in a snow globe, referring generally to how much snow was falling outside her window, but I was struck by how sad the metaphor could potentially be; after all, being trapped in a snow globe means being trapped in a world where nothing ever changes. Then I pictured Tommy standing there in the snow and I wondered what he would want if he wasn't stuck in a snow globe. He took over from there.

- Richard Larson

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