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Fragments of a Falling-Out

Floris M. Kleijne casts stories out into the world from the safety of a 200-year-old farmhouse in the Dutch river district. Almost forty of them have been caught, and printed in publications like the Writers of the Future anthologies, Galaxy's Edge, and Little Blue Marble. This is his ninth appearance in Daily Science Fiction. Search for "Kleijne" on the site to find the others, or visit floriskleijne.com for even more. His first novel, which unexpectedly turns out to be a Dutch-language thriller, will be published early in 2021.

and maple syrup in my mouth. A diminished stack of pancakes sits between us on the kitchen table. I glance around me to estimate the time, a habit as deeply ingrained as blinking, or biting my nails. I haven't worn a watch or carried a cell phone in years; they don't last beyond the first shifting of the day. Sunlight strikes the wall behind Marjorie, not the hesitant yellow of morning, but full-bright.
Lunch, then; our kitchen window faces southwest.
Marjorie's face seems calm across from me, but she clenches her cutlery in white-knuckled fists, and I recognize too well the controlled smile playing around her mouth, the state she reaches after hours of simmering.
Days we fight, the fight always comes first.
My stomach clenches with apprehension. Are we heading towards another of our apocalyptic shouting matches? I don't, I cannot know what hurtful thing I've done to upset her so. But that won't keep us from escalating, from whipping word welts on each other's souls. I squeeze my eyes closed, trying to keep the emotional exhaustion at bay that threatens to overwhelm me.
It's so hard. So hard.
I'm so sick of this.
A huff of annoyed disdain escapes Marjorie.
"What is it this time?" The second the words leave my mouth, I know it's the wrong thing to ask, the wrong tone to take. I tried to ask an honest question. I've told her about my shiftings, of course. But in our years together, Marjorie still hasn't fully grasped what they mean: that the chains of causality driving our lives, so obvious to her, are often invisible to me. I chose my words to remind her, aimed for a light tone, but my frustration has seeped into my voice.
Marjorie stabs at her pancake. "This time?" Mocking emphasis weighs down her voice. "You decided for me. Again." Her mouth works, and her pancake is a mess of shreds in a pool of syrup. When she raises her head to face me, her eyes are blazing, and tears leak down her cheeks. "Try putting yourself in my shoes for once. Try to imagine how you would feel if my family treated you the way yours treats me!"
My shoulders sag. This again. Worst part is, I don't know what happened, but she probably has every reason to be upset. Her family have welcomed me with open arms, taken me in like one of their own; taken more of an interest in me, in fact, than mine ever have. But my folks, the entire dysfunctional lot of them, treat Marjorie with indifference at best, open disdain at worst.
So now at least I know what this is about, more or less. I should really ask her what exactly I did to upset her. I open my mouth to respond, not knowing yet what will come out. I'm only vaguely aware that my understanding of where she's coming from has drowned in indignation at her attack. I hate it when she asks me to put myself in her shoes.
It can only get worse from here.
"Don't ask me to
shield my eyes against the bright sunlight falling into our living room. The other drape is open, bathing the bookcase in soft yellow light.
Mid-morning, then.
For the thousandth time, I thank the Fates that my shiftings never extend beyond a single day, as if the night resets my sense of temporal direction. Sometimes, I believe it's the only thing that keeps me sane. It's definitely the only thing that enables me to have a passingly normal life. I can always piece together my days in retrospect. And wing it during.
My phone is in my hand, the McGraw Sibs app group open. I read the final lines of chat.
Oh, shit.
My sisters have decided to throw Mom a surprise birthday party. I've already replied that Marjorie can't attend. This must be what she was furious about just now. Will be furious about in a few hours, over pancakes. Working out the correct tenses always gives me a headache.
"Honey?" I call out with clammy palms as I walk towards her study. "Susan and Lisa are throwing a birthday party for Mom."
I hear the tension in her voice, like she must have heard the cautious concern in mine. With a sigh, I plunge ahead.
"Don't worry, I've told them you can't make it," I say to her rigid back.
Marjorie's silence, after the harsh click of her laptop slamming shut, lasts until
the salmon skies of early evening. Judging by the twin steaming mugs of tea on the coffee table, it's close to eight-thirty, and we're about to post-mortem our fight.
Knees drawn up under her, Marjorie sits curled up in her corner of the couch, facing me with a softer, kinder expression than I have any right to expect.
"Alex, I can even see why you might have done it."
Even later, then; the post-mortem is well underway. I wonder if I've apologized yet.
"The bother of chasing down a sitter on such short notice--what were your sisters thinking anyway? But I think you wanted to spare me another evening with my in-laws, didn't you?"
She looks at me earnestly, and I shrug with an uncomfortable smile. That may have been my reason, but I honestly don't know. That part of my day, the moment I decide for her, must be at least one more shifting into my personal future.
"And I love you for it, I do. But you have to understand: these barriers they've thrown up against me? If I'm ever to break through them, I need to face them. Keeping me away from them, however well-meant, makes it worse."
I know she's right. We've talked--and fought--about this often enough. I'm all but inured to my family's social ineptness, their apparent self-centered disinterest. But to Marjorie, it feels like a personal rejection, like a slap in her face. Trying to protect her does nothing to improve their bond, and everything to widen the rift. By shielding her, I make things worse.
I know she's right, and I say so, and I apologize.
Then we hug and
the garden lies in shadows. A fresh cup of coffee rests in my hand, my second, judging by the taste in my mouth. The rapid-fire clicking of Marjorie's laptop keyboard streams from her study.
My phone sounds the double-drip of an incoming app. The McGraw Sibs group.
"Hey bro, we wanna throw Mom a surprise b-day bash Saturday week. Can you make it?"
I close my eyes and wipe my hand over my face. Not this, not now, not after all I've just been through with Marjorie.
But I haven't been through it yet, not in their timeline. This is the start. What I answer now triggers everything else.
Susan and Lisa are both online, waiting for my response. I cast a wistful look at the kitchen. I wish I could change what I seem to have done. Tell Marjorie about the surprise party, ask her what she wants. Let my sisters know we'll both be coming.
But who am I kidding? Their future lies in my past. I've already been through the fallout. All I can do is give the response that causes it, thumb in the answer that first sprung to mind.
Ride the rails of my predetermined bloody life.
Part of me resents my sisters for putting me in this spot. And I've learned to hate how my family affects our relationship. But I see no way out of our catch-22. The distance between Marjorie and my family members is impossible to bridge without closeness.
The cause requires the effect.
Like I needed to see the effect on Marjorie to know what my response should have been.
My thumbs freeze above the touchscreen.
What if....
I've made myself believe over the years that I can't change my past along with their future, because to me, it's already happened. But is that true, or merely a cowardly rationalization?
Truth is, I've always been terrified of trying.
"Alex?" Susan apps.
I know what I'm supposed to answer. And what it leads to; has already led to, for me. But I don't know yet what I will answer now. And the choice is easy, really, now that I've allowed myself to consider it. Anything to break our cycle, to step out of our cursed pas-de-deux.
I feel a determined smile shape my mouth. Madness is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. But for me, perhaps, sanity is changing what I have done, in defiance of the result.
"Hang on," I thumb back with shaking hands. "Let me check with Marjorie."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 27th, 2020

Author Comments

Most couples who fight don't have different fights, but consecutive instances of the same one, disguised as unique quarrels by the clever application of pretexts. Achieving harmony's not about solving the pretexts, but about changing the endless ritual dance of challenge and response. Does your relationship ever feel like it's stuck in a time warp?

- Floris M. Kleijne
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