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Cyclical

Tanya Breshears is a designer and programmer, living San Francisco with an opinionated Australian Shepherd and two motorcycles. This is her first professionally published story. She can be found on Twitter @maybefriday.
May returns to her familiar place to grieve, a moment she once spent on a sunny hillside, flat on her back with her face to the sky, fingers twisted in the grass like she might soon be flung off this spinning planet. She supposes it's telling that her most comforting moment is a human one.
May argues with her superiors, insisting on a post on Earth.
"You won't learn anything from humans. Their minds are hopelessly clouded," she is told, time and again.
But May is very good at her job, and she has been planning this moment a long time. She spends all her political capital, and so to Earth she comes, in a form assumed after much consideration: black hair and green eyes, and one slightly crooked front tooth. Humans cast a doubtful eye on perfection, after all.
As a child she watches her small cache of human films again and again, holed up with the dusty Earth television set her uncle once procured at a junk sale. Mae West, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland. She stares, mesmerized by the many lives they each lead, a kaleidoscope of experiences and people and places. And the human world: the sun and the sky, even in black and white, so terrifyingly brilliant in contrast to the subterranean labyrinths of home.
When she chooses May as her own name, her parents are not pleased, but tradition dictates that her preferences stand.
She settles on a diner in a small human town for her deepest observational work. The peculiar nature of human life is far more apparent in such a setting, she tells herself, though the influence of the films she's watched time and again cannot be ruled out.
Humans' sense of time: fascinating.
A human's life is a rushing river: a moment, once lived, is rendered forever inaccessible, except by the poor substitute of human memory. Even worse, their futures are opaque, hiding anything from placid waters to treacherous rapids.
So different from May's own life, an ocean of moments available at her fingertips. Childhood, old age, youth. Some moments are safe and familiar as pebbles on a beach, edges worn nearly smooth with handling, while others she dare only experience once, their edges jagged and cutting.
To speak with humans requires careful judgment of what they do and do not know, and to respond accordingly. And so May's brethren consider it a waste; why not simply commune with a goldfish instead?
May watches the same people come and go, day after day, growing just slightly older, perhaps a bit more cynical. She observes in fascination their surprise by breakups and deaths, jokes and friendly squabbles. She speaks only when necessary, careful not to display knowledge a human in her circumstances shouldn't have.
"More coffee?" A carafe hovers in May's peripheral vision.
May's hands seize around her mug, and she loosens her fingers with care. She fixes her gaze on a stray crumb of toast on Formica, and pushes the mug toward the edge of the table. "Yes. Yes please."
The waitress huffs a laugh. "Well, only if you're really sure." The burble of coffee fills the silence. May takes a deep breath, and looks up. Freckles, curling hair escaping a ponytail. Still so young: not even thirty, yet.
Shannon. Shannon, who she's known all her life.
Who won't even know May's name for twenty-two more days.
May keeps careful notes: when she first learns that Shannon has a cat, that her birthday is November 17th, that she lives on Dorland Street. She does her best to live these moments in human order, so she doesn't get mixed up, but she can't help reliving some of the most important ones.
Shannon ekes out time for a lunch break today, and sits across the table from May, skewering fries with her fork and swirling them in ketchup. "So, how many of those journals have you filled up by now?"
May pulls her notebook closer. "Eight."
Shannon chews. "Let me guess. You're an undercover government agent, keeping tabs on our hotbed of criminal activity."
"Not exactly."
"Is someone in this diner a secret crime boss? Don't worry, you can tell me. I'm discreet."
May pauses, and then leans forward. "Well." Her voice drops to a whisper. "Three-fingered Joe wasn't always a line cook."
Shannon laughs hard enough to sputter over her fries, and May doesn't say that she only meant he used to sell weed in the parking lot behind the K-Mart. Instead she has a new entry to add to her notebook: "The power of surprise to create humor." Her notes are detailed, but do not capture the satisfaction that zings through her blood when Shannon laughs.
One warm summer night, they sit on Shannon's porch, drinking gin and tonics and waving away insects. Shannon isn't on the early shift for once, and she's warm and loose with this bit of freedom.
Alcohol affects May's forgery of a human body, too, and the careful hold she keeps on her own knowledge grows looser. She proposes hypotheticals, each more thinly-veiled than the last.
The ice in Shannon's glass rattles with her indignation. "Well, if you already knew everything that would happen, wouldn't you try to change things? Otherwise, what's the point?"
"What if you couldn't change things?"
"What, like you have no choices in life?"
May shrugs, a human affectation she has come to adore. "You can't change what you had for breakfast yesterday, but it was still your choice."
"But that's because I already decided."
"But what if you had already decided everything?"
Shannon scoffs, but silence stretches out like warm taffy.
May traces the condensation on her glass with fingertips that seem more natural than her own, by now.
"Sure wish I knew what was coming, sometimes," Shannon sighs. The question in her voice is nearly imperceptible, but May has been studying human speech patterns for a long time.
May knows: that Shannon will soon have her first child, named Mandy, that Shannon's mother will grow ill and die before the girl is born, that after long nights at the hospital under fluorescent lights sitting next to IV drips, Shannon will begin to avoid doctors herself, and that in twelve years she will die of a sickness that could have been diagnosed sooner.
May knows these events are already laid out like a series of dominoes, and cannot be changed.
And yet.
May pauses. "Just. Go to the doctor, please. For checkups. You never know."
Shannon watches her, maintaining eye contact just a little too long, and then laughs, raising her drink to her lips. "You worry too much."
It's true, because May knows too much, and to watch humans sit bored or oblivious when disaster or joy lurks around the corner is to white-knuckle her way through many of her moments here. But she laughs anyway, and the conversation grows light again.
May savors the bubbles of the tonic on her tongue, the chirp of grasshoppers in the brush, laughter as warm as the heat still radiating off the sunbaked soil. She repeats this droplet of a moment as if it could permanently soak into her skin. An inoculation against the inevitable future.
May finally relives the day Shannon dies, an inappropriately sunny Tuesday in a stoic beige building.
From her hospital bed, even now Shannon laughs, though it's become a light and wheezy thing. "I sure do hate hospitals."
May sits on the edge of the bed, and touches Shannon's fingers. "I know."
The sun dips low in the sky before Shannon speaks again. "You've always been different. But I've never asked."
May tilts her head. "I've always appreciated it."
Shannon coughs. "Humor me now. Different how?"
May reaches for the right words. "Imagine remembering the future."
"Not another metaphor," Shannon groans.
"The universe exploded billions of years ago. We're all just chain reactions, since then."
"Do you really believe that?"
Silence trickles by. "Usually."
Shannon's eyes drift shut. May leans closer, and whispers. "I also don't come from Earth."
A faint smile crosses Shannon's lips. "Now that, I believe."
May returns to her familiar place to grieve, a moment she once spent on a sunny hillside, flat on her back with her face to the sky, fingers twisted in the grass like she might soon be flung off this spinning planet.
Usually she inhales the warm air and breathes a sigh of relief at the familiarity, the predictability.
But for now she longs to be on that rushing river, with a mysterious future and an abandoned past, living always in that one shining, irreplaceable, blissfully unaware moment humans call the present.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 20th, 2017


I read an account of aphantasia, the inability to visualize things in your mind's eye, by someone who thought that was the common experience until well into adulthood. I was fascinated by the idea that we could have such differences in how we sense the world, and I thought, what if that were true of time? the article.

I've also often wondered about the space between a certain outcome becoming inevitable, and when it actually comes to pass. How often do we live that without knowing it?

- Tanya Breshears

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