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A Jar Full of Secrets

Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she's left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Nature: Futures, Cricket, and elsewhere [including Daily Science Fiction from time to time -JL]. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com.
There are secrets in the air tonight.
On nights like these, the humidity weighs them down and keeps them from floating up to the stars. They snag like luminous cotton balls on Mr. Roberts' too-tall grass and bob along the edges of Chesapeake Pond, pulsing their eerie glow until the morning dawns and the summer sun melts them into unintelligible wisps.
Mrs. Kirton offers us twenty-five cents per secret, plus a flat dollar to lie about who sent us out, but she's not the only one. Derby and I have been secret-catching long enough to learn that half a dozen grown-ups on this block alone will pay up for secrets--their own or someone else's. The others sit inside with their televisions, pretending not to notice over the roar of late-night talk shows, or gather on back porches to sip their drinks and complain about all the ways that things were different back in their day: In their day, kids respected authority. In their day, secret-catching was considered impolite.
Derby says they're scared of us. They don't like that, in a single evening, kids like me and him and Ugly Joe can fill a jar full of all the sticky, slimy, unsettling things that they try so hard to keep hidden during the day.
We fill our nets with white lies, tiny and iridescent, that gather together and cling to one another, forming pale and sickly-sweet clumps. Pink-tinged embarrassments that are warm to the touch. Sparkling yellow and orange surprises-yet-to-come. Pulsating, green-glowing jealousies. Dull-gray corporate information and statistics, numbers and figures, formulas and legal jargon.
And then there's the others. The ones we don't talk about. The ones that we don't sell, even to Mrs. Kirton. Even when she snaps open her purse and holds up the billfold and asks us if we're sure we didn't catch any more. Even when she asks point-blank why the Jeffries family is moving or why she never sees that nice young man that Margot Hackley was dating anymore. Even when she squints out from her front porch and asks, "What about that red one there in Mrs. McGregor's bushes?"
The reds are too hard to catch, we tell her. They sting, we tell her, and that part's true.
Then me and Derby shove the coins in our pockets and duck away, waiting in the shadows until Mrs. Kirton draws the shades.
The red one in the bushes isn't hard to find. They never are, when you know where to look.
The reds leave scars and welts. They burn and sting and leave slow-healing wounds. They're dangerous. Unpredictable. But left alone, they'll cause even more harm. We stare at it, uncertain and afraid.
"Go on." Derby nudges my ribs.
"I got the last one. It's your turn," I say.
We each stand on one side of it and creep closer. On the count of three, Derby slams the jar over it, eyes squeezed shut, braced in case it bursts.
When the lid is secure, we rush away with our nets over our shoulders, running blindly through black alleyways and zig-zagging through moonlit trees till we reach the old boathouse on the pond--the one where they found the body the last time the reds grew too strong.
The others are already there, their jars in their laps and their voices low. The floorboards creak even when no one's touching them, and the wind creeps in through the gaps in the walls. Everything's lit blue and purple by the furiously darting secrets that ping against the sides of our jars.
These are ones we don't want to catch. Ones we don't want others to find. Ones that whisper the names of those we love: parents, siblings, friends. Ones we destroy to protect them.
On cue, hands reach into jars. They come back with blue and purple light fighting to break from beneath their fingers and buzzing in high-pitched annoyance.
Now, the real work begins.
The purple of a forbidden rendezvous. An email exchange. A lie. They crunch like glass between our fists and bleed from between our fingers like rotten jelly.
The blues are next--cold, with stingers like needles. They rattle like pillboxes from hand to hand, chattering with words like depression and illness and psychosis and addiction, finally falling silent as we crush their sharp appendages.
Finally, all that's left is the red, glowing and pulsing in Derby's jar, threatening to burst in a flash of hot pain, leaving nothing behind--no proof, no witness--but the hurt. Together, we pass the jar around and listen to its buzzing, sharing the reminder, the warning.
Then Derby and I lower it beneath the floorboards to bury it with the other reds. There, it's dark, where the sunlight won't fade them. There, they can no longer hurt us.
As morning sunlight streams through the forest, we replace the floorboards and gather our nets in our speckled hands, until next time. The night is done, the secrets are kept, and we leave with nothing but their stains.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, July 15th, 2020
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