TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Leigh Hellman. Leigh is a queer/asexual and genderqueer writer originally from the western suburbs of Chicago. They are a graduate of the MA Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After gaining the ever-lucrative BA in English, they spent five years living and teaching in South Korea before returning to my native Midwest.
Leigh’s short fiction and creative nonfiction work has been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, VIDA Review, and Fulbright Korea Infusion Magazine. Their critical and journalistic work has been featured in the American Book Review, the Gwangju News magazine, and the Windy City Times. Their first novel, Orbit, is a new adult sci-fi story now available through Snowy Wings Publishing. They also have a historical fantasy piece included in the SWP anthology, Magic at Midnight. This is “The Circle of Least Confusion”.
“You sure?” Hyungbae’s hands—fingers thick and lined with nicks and slices that’d long since scarred over—twitched at the strap buckles. “That it has to be like This?”
He wasn’t looking Frances in the eye, wasn’t asking them because he already knew the answer. The room was stuffy and damp, naked concrete slabs prickled with sweat like slices of microwaved meat gone cold on a counter. No windows, no barriers, nothing extraneous left to get in their way. Just Hyungbae and his team, dripping through their thin shirts against the hot whir of the machine.
The one door in the whole place creaked open, then lurched shut. Hyungbae glanced up at it. Frances watched a drop trail down from his hairline; it curved around his eyebrows and under his glasses and ran smooth down a bare, blotchy cheek until it hooked under his jaw and disappeared.
Frances reached up and secured the double-latches at their shoulders themself.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
Then it was a snap-surge of heat and light—a million flashbulbs exploding in a broom closet—that caught Frances by the throat and ripped them out of time.
It’d been raining that day, Frances remembered. Muggy like lukewarm cream-of- something soup and it’d left the world soggy in its wake. They’d brought an umbrella—stamped with some corporate brand they’d collected from a forgotten promotional event—but the rain sheared off it. No wind, no breeze. Just wet and muck, like waddling through the bottom of a marshy lake.
They hadn’t meant to be there. They’d missed their first bus and stuffed their way onto the next one, already behind on where they were supposed to be. They couldn’t hear the driver, couldn’t make out the pitchy automated voice that kept a polite tally of their stops. Thought it was Schiller but actually it was Schubert and by the time they’d elbowed their way off it was too late.
The rain seemed heavier this time around, like it’d been compressed in the time stretch. Everything smelled fresh and sour all at once; Frances ducked under the faded awning of a closed cafe to get out of the storm.
No umbrella this time. Frances shook themself off like an under-groomed dog. Damn.
Not that it’d matter if they were soaked. That’d probably make it easier, in the End.
A bus was coming—would be there soon—and they had to beat it.
The park wasn’t even really a park, more like an overgrown corner where the prairie had wheedled its way back up through cracks in the cement sidewalks. Frances wondered if it was crowded, usually—especially on shiny summer days when the schools were off and the trees blotted out the harshest slats of sunlight. Maybe it was filled with noise then: gleeful shrieks and barks and music and laughs, bodies running and chasing and falling and getting up again. They’d come back once—the two of them—on another rainy day when the October air found its bite, and maybe Frances had asked then, too.
Maybe it always rains here, Frances had joked while curling their fingers Together.
Maybe it just rains for us, she’d poked back with a loose, fluttering smile.
Frances shook themself again, full-body from neck to ankles and out through their knuckles. It didn’t matter, didn’t change anything. Time—the past, the future, the in-between and back again—wasn’t some cancerous corpse laid out for excisions and extractions; it was a graphite slate coated in chalk smudges, illegible but still there. The dusts of memory wafting up into the sinuses to make sure you don’t forget, even after you don’t remember.
It’s gotta be like this, Frances wiped the rain from their eyes. There’s no other Way.
They circled the block, ignored the stares and tried not to come off as reportably suspicious. Ticked off the details—date, time, location—and choked down the panic that someone had hit the wrong key somewhere along the way. Maybe this wasn’t the right day—hell, maybe this wasn’t the right year. Maybe the software was buggy or the algorithms had typos or maybe it was just a fluke, just a one-in-a-trillion bad shot,
Oh, never mind. There she was.
Sandrine? Frances had sounded it out the first time, like chewing through a pine Cone.
It’s French, she’d said, tucking a few curly sprigs into her silk head wrap. We speak French in Haiti too, you know.
Frances hadn’t known, but didn’t let that stop them.
It was a different head wrap today—thicker like cotton and patterned in neon paisley swirls—and Frances couldn’t remember it. Probably hadn’t really been paying attention to it then, because why would they? You don’t know what’s gonna matter until it all matters.
They remembered the greasy puddles, the potted flowers wilting in the humidity, the lone bike rider cutting between bumpers on the slick asphalt like they had nothing left to lose. They remembered the cling of wet fabric against Sandrine’s arms, the splotches of mascara around her eyes, the slap of their own plastic sandals as they darted out to catch her before she fell.
But most of all, Frances remembered the way Sandrine looked after. Staring at their hand around her wrist like it was some clever vine abracadabra-ed to life. Blinking up with bright, sharp eyes that hit Frances like a sock full of silver dollars. It was over already—Frances knew that in the rewind—then and there.
Folks that say things like to say: it only takes an instant. Maybe that’s true; but it’s all the rest of the instants that prove it. Sandrine and Frances had had a lot of them—a lifetime of instants, short as it was—but it still wasn’t enough. It still ended, crashed and burned or sputtered out or got hacked off by the world’s meat cleaver. Ended and there was no going back.
Only there was.
She was close now. A few more strides and they’d crash into each other, thirty seconds and thirty feet too soon. Frances could hear the bus brakes squeal as it veered towards the curb.
They angled their shoulders like they were going to slip past her, then jutted out at the last second. It surprised Sandrine—threw her off balance and spun her around so her back was to the street.
“What the hell?” she shouted over the rain and it landed like a slap across Frances’ face.
Frances swallowed back an apology; it went down bitter. They wanted to spin around and spew out all the apologies they’d never said for all the mistakes they’d never admit to, take back all the lies they’d thought wouldn’t matter, fill up all the silences they’d let spool out because they thought it’d be for the best. But time wasn’t like that.
No other way.
So Frances turned—to hurl an insult or scoff or do something else that would seal this bad second-first impression—but missed the railing around the little garden instead. Their legs tangled in the chains and the rest of their body followed; they landed sprawled out in a bed of bent coneflowers.
“Oh no!” It was a soft lament for the plants, who hadn’t done anything to deserve this, out of Frances’ mouth before they could stop it. That was one mistake. The other was looking up, hearing the sound and following it to Sandrine’s lips as they spread out into a giggling smile.
Behind her, the bus lurched and another Frances tumbled out of the exit doors. They fumbled a bit, like there was something they were supposed to be waiting for, but Sandrine wasn’t there to be caught. After a couple of bewildered turns the other Frances started trudging away to the next stop, sandals flapping heavy as they went.
“Are you okay?” Sandrine offered a firm hand.
Eyes—sharp and bright—blinked down at Frances.
Damn, they ground their molars and hissed through their front teeth. Damn, damn, damn.
Frances double-tapped the screen on their wrist navigator and it all jerked silent and still. Or rather, still enough at this time speed. Like a shutter run backwards from its quickest exposure; so fast that it was slow again.
“Objective unsuccessful.” Frances’ mouth felt like it was full of syrup, but they chewed out each syllable crisp and clear. “Reset and wind back, two minutes before the last stretch.”
The stillness sucked away and everything reeled impossibly forward and Frances was gone—already days and years and ages on—but somehow they could still feel
Sandrine’s gaze crackling in their bones.
Frances landed feet-first on the other side of the lab door, dry as a stale loaf of bread. It took a minute for the force to drain from their skin, but once it did they punched in the security code and waited for the buzz-in.
The room was stuffy and damp—too many bodies in a windowless space—and Hyungbae glanced up as the door creaked open.
“You sure?” Sweat collected in his beard, clung to it like rain on the edges of leaves. “That it has to be like this?”
Frances sighed, sat down and strapped themself in. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
Rob Southgate is the co-founder of Southgate Media Group, home to over 100 podcasts, blogs, and video channels. He is a professional actor in commercials and films, a professional podcaster, and a professional public speaker. He is currently preparing the debut of his first book that is self-published, and busily booking a national tour of the SMG Podcast Marathon. Rob loves sharing ideas with others and creating opportunities for his creative associates. Along with his wife, Martha, Rob started SMG as a creative outlet and a way to incorporate all of their interests and their past experiences. If you think Rob has a lot going on, ask him about his amazing daughter, Molly. Rob is an entrepreneur with two Bachelors degrees in business and an MBA in Marketing.