Transcript: This story is by KJ Snyder. They told us “I don’t want to be a famous writer – I want to be an honest writer.” KJ is a member of the Writers Guild of America East for journalistic writing. Now they writing sketch comedy right here in Chicago. This piece is “Lifting Water”.
Dr. Kelper’s hologram held his chin, scrutinizing me. “You know you can’t take a vacation, Leah.” He said. “We can’t.” “I’m not on vacation.” I said. “A different environment helps to-” “We’re ten years away from total annihilation. NASA says every hour we don’t set something in motion, our options become more and more limited.” He said.
“Do you honestly believe I’m not working as hard as I can to find something that-” Dr. Kelper interrupted me. “But this isn’t on you. This is on us.” “I believe I will be able to work better with some isolation.” Dr. Kelper interrupted me. “This is a team effort to stop the twins.” “Again, I am doing this because it will help the group,” I said. “I’m sorry, Leah,” Dr. Kelper interrupted. “I know that much of the blame the twins has been laid on you – that was a PR mistake we made – but I’m getting a lot of pressure to have something we can tell people we’re working toward. It’s mass panic.”
“Dr. Kelper, this meeting is a waste of time. I’ll be back on base in a week. I’m only here because it could help. If I determine that it doesn’t, then I’ll come back sooner.”
“The rest of the team is worried that you’re about to quit.” “If I’m not able to work on a solution, then I will. I’m singing off.” I removed my headset, and looked around my bedroom – the old wooden desk, the peeling canary wallpaper, an overly-full closet of the scientific journals I wrote in my adolescence.
I did need a vacation, but this wasn’t it. Eight years ago, my theory of co-orbital black hole configuration led me to discovering the twins, two black holes spinning around each other, propelling through space. I’ve worked toward finding something that could save us from them.
It was a desperate move to come back to my childhood home, but this is where I became a scientist, where my curiosity sparked. Here could be the inspiration for a solution on two black holes, hurtling toward our solar system.
In the kitchen, my mother sat in front of a bucket, plucking feathers from a dead chicken. “So, we killed Sandy?” I said. “Yep. Tomorrow, I want your help killing Carla. They’ve gotten too aggressive.” She said, not looking up. “Are you hungry?”
“I don’t need you to make me anything.” I said. I opened the refrigerator. On it still, my mother pinned two articles on me from the Lafayette Daily, Lafayette Teen Wins Prestigious MIT Scholarship from 2018, and Lafayette Native Given Research Grant with NASA from 2021. I had taken down the third article, Lafayette-born Scientist Discovers Threat to Humankind. I disagreed with that title. The twins weren’t a threat to humankind. They threatened everything.
“I was just watching the news.” My mother said. “How did that go?” I said. My mother didn’t usually talk to me about news. She prefers the rustic life. She makes her own bread, jars her own jams.
“She says she not hungry and starts making a sandwich,” my mother said, plucking feathers. “But, I was watching the news and the Catholic Church doesn’t think you’re lying anymore. The new pope says that when the twins lift everyone up, it will be into the arms of God.”
“We won’t get ‘lifted up.’ Once the twins get close, our atmosphere will-” “You’ve told me before, Leah.” She said. “I just thought you’d want to know.” “Well, I’m figuring out how to stop the twins. So, tell the new pope sorry for not letting everyone get wrapped up in God.”
“I thought you liked keeping up with the news.” She said, returning to her plucking. “The last time I opened my news portal, I saw there’s a mural of me, naked with the twin black holes as my boobs. I don’t need any more news, I need focus.”
My mother laughed and dropped a fistful of feathers into the bucket. “That’s kinder than some images people have made of you. Speaking of, since you got home, I have barely seen you. If you want to spend the rest of your days hiding in your room getting yelled at by Kelper, that’s your decision. I don’t understand it, but I won’t stop you. What I won’t accept is why you don’t let me make you a better lunch than a PB&J.”
“Doctor Kelper. And this is brain food, not lunch. It’s just to keep me going.” I said. “Let’s both take a break.” My mother heaved the bald chicken on the counter. “Can we go for a swim?”
We have a lake outside our house. It’s more of a watering hole – a crowded ecosystem of water spiders, frogs, germinating algae, turtles, snakes, and water flora. The lake, deceivingly small, introduced me to scientific observation. As a child, I stuck a metal pole into its mud to measure the water’s rise and fall. My mother encouraged collection of butterflies, but I went on to track butterfly population, their prefered conditions for reproduction and metamorphosis.
Despite my fascination with the lake, I avoided swimming in it as a child. It felt like a violation to enter its waters, an unnecessary disturbance to the ecosystem. I felt protective of it.
I stood on the dock, applying sunscreen. My mother treaded water. “What, Leah, afraid of melanoma?” She said. The Louisiana sun had never bothered her. “You said we were taking a break.” I said. “We are!” She waded toward the center of the lake. Across the water, I saw the metal pole from long ago. The water had risen higher than any notches from that first summer of scientific discovery. Even as far away as the twins were, their gravity was affecting the water on Earth, tugging at already rising sea levels. I didn’t want to think about the chaos of the coastal cities, the death tolls.
I lowered myself into the water.. “I remember you had a project for this lake.” My mother said. “Which one?” I said. “I have all my journals in my closet.” “This one was recent. Do you remember? A few days ago – maybe it was a joke to you – you said you wanted to study – what was it? Pupa of the butterflies? Something about gravity?”
“Just a passing thought.”
A little after midnight, I sat at my desk, pouring over theoretical models. Hours of wearing my headset had given me a headache. We still didn’t understand the basics of the twins. How could a black hole move? What stopped one from cannibalizing the other?
I took off the headset, slumped over and pressed my burning head to the desk’s cool wood. An impossible thought struck me, that if I could somehow keep my head pressed to the desk, I could make it through tomorrow morning’s conference with Dr. Kelper. He would again ask me what progress I had made, and again I would have to grind through the impossibility of a black hole, particularly two that had been somehow sent spinning through the cosmos, vacuuming up celestial bodies.
I needed some air. I looked out of my window, down at the lake.
Outside, the crickets hummed unaware of the inevitable end. Our chickens were asleep and quiet in their coop. I floated on my back in the water, gazing at the night sky.
What if an alligator ate me tonight? I thought. What would that headline be? Since the news of the twins broke, journalists who had hoped to achieve glory and prestige had given up mid-career to find other, more rewarding callings like birdwatching, mountaineering, or storytelling. The few journalists who remained felt held to their profession by a sense of duty to the public, or else were raving lunatics with nowhere else to go.
There would be two headlines. I thought. ‘Scientist who Discovered Twins Black Holes Dies from Alligator Attack,’ or; ‘Lying-Leah Eaten by Christ-sent Alligators, Thank God.’
Tears formed in my eyes. I wanted to talk to the lake. “I’m sorry, lake. I wish everyone would get lifted up. The twins can take all us humans. We’ve had enough time here. But it should leave you, your water spiders, your mud.”
I tracked mud into my room, and swung down the bucket my mother had used to collect feathers. I put on the VR headset and powered it on. Once it signed me in with a scan of my retina, I was ready to leave Dr. Kelper a hologram memo.
“Dr. Kelper, there is no earthly power that could knock the twins off their course. I’m not going to be available tomorrow morning, or any other morning. I’ll be killing a chicken, or starting a study on pupal butterfly development under nonnormative gravity. I’m ceasing communication and tendering my resignation. Find someone else to steal work from.”
I set the chicken bucket in front me, broke my headset in two, and let the pieces fall.
Karolyn Blake is an actor and improviser in Chicago with a passion for dogs, laughter, and inclusive spaces. She is a founding member of the Shrews Improv and proud to be a singer in the Shanty Shipwreck Show. You can see and hear her every month in Starlight Radio Dreams, recorded live at Mrs. Murphy and Son’s Irish Bistro and available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded.