Content Warnings: childhood trauma
"The Glow" by Kayla Bashe
3,000 words, Short fiction
CW: childhood trauma
“I’m fine for the hike,” Savvy keeps saying, “no, really, I can make it.”
Paraden and Kaz and Mimmo keep saying it’s all right either way. Savvy knows they’re all telling the truth. Their friendliness buffets her through the glow-bond like she’s trying to keep her footing in a windstorm, in three feet of surf.
Even so, none of them look troubled by the steep hill, and she feels like it’s strange of her--of her body—to be in pain. Kaz’s golden aura mimics the sunlight as she strides confidently uphill, pointing out the scientific names of local wildflowers. Mimmo buzzes with energy, flapping their hands every time the shape of a tree catches their attention, darting to stand on their tiptoes and kiss Kaz on the cheek. And Paraden looks like an elf-king, a dryad boy, perfectly at home in the wilderness. She’s not sexually attracted to him the way she is with Kaz and Mimmo—their glow bond is platonic—but she wants to craft a sonnet about how beautiful she is, or turn him into a lead character in her next story.
“We can eat some of the donuts you brought us,” Kaz offers, her new freckle tattoos sparkling in a way Savvy wants to touch.
Mimmo, adjusting their goggles: “Path looks steep. We’ll be going slow anyway. Won’t miss much.”
But it’s Paraden who just shrugs and tosses his willow-green hair and says, “Well, if you’re sure,” and that’s when Savvy bites her lip and decides to push through it. The lights on her knee brace are glowing yellow, warning illuminating the latticed 3D-printed polymer. High pain levels imminent due to changes in weather pressure. She shifts her skirt down on her hips and tightens the brace straps. (Probably should have gotten the option that automatically dispenses pain relief, but she didn’t want to trouble them by asking for it.) “I can make it. We’ll have fun.”
“You’ve never had a good view of the city before, have you, pretty girl,” Kaz teases, leaning down to tug Savvy’s braids. Savvy leans into the contact. Six months ago, Kaz and Mimmo found a trembling runaway and brought her into their community living space, because they looked at her glow colors and knew she was theirs. Savvy will still never be used to that easy, unconditional love.
Mimmo keeps scampering ahead, crouching down to investigate crystalline rocks or climb trees, then hurrying back. They catch Kaz’s statement and grin at Savvy. “Kaz took me there our first anniversary. I kept looking at the solar panel farms, you know that? They kept trying to point out the sunset, and all I wanted to see was the colors.”
Paraden runs a hand through his hair. “I remember that. You were sketching for hours, saying you wanted to make me a sculpture based on the way the rainbow blended into the twilight.”
“And I did,” Mimmo says, puffing up with pride as they twirl.
Paraden raises an eyebrow. “Right, and someone passed out in their studio.”
“I’m getting better at that. You’re helping me get better at that.”
“Eating and sleeping. It’s a pattern I strongly prefer people to follow.”
Mimmo turns to Savvy. “Anyway, the day we found you? The light looked exactly the same. I was getting a future-flash, and I didn’t even know it.”
“I hope we can watch the lights together today,” Savvy says.
After a while, it’s Kaz and Mimmo leading the way, Savvy behind them trying not to limp, Paraden lingering and making sketches.
“Savvy, you ever seen one of these before?”
She frowns at what Kaz is pointing to. Workers in the Underground weren’t allowed to see trees. They distracted developing citizens. She’ll never have Mimmo’s automatic knowledge of plant allies or Paraden’s skill at mixing herbs, but she can still try and learn. “Pear tree?”
Mimmo shakes their head. “Apples. But they’re both green, so you’re close!”
“I bet if I pick you up we’ll be able to reach some good ones. Are you cool with that?” Paraden asks Savvy.
As long as he puts her down really, really carefully. “Sure.”
The problem is, he’s more focused on the apples than on her. And when he steps forward, a thick branch is too close to her head. Savvy panics and tips backwards. When her heavy knee brace catches him in the head, he drops her. She rolls into an awkward landing and ends up sliding down the cliff side.
“Savvy, hang on!” Paraden cries out, throwing himself at her. “Grab my hand!” She lunges upwards with all her might and just manages to grab his fingers.
Then his feet lose their hold. They slide down into the ravine. It’s long and bumpy and she feels every rock she rolls over. By the time they land at the bottom, there are scuff marks on her brace. Even trying to wiggle her toes hurts like a gunshot. She wants to cry, but the tears won’t come.
“Shit shit okay.” Mimmo tugs at their goggles. Savvy can tell the strap doesn’t feel right, because they just end up flapping their hands.
“How’s the shoulder?” Kaz asks, leaning down.
Mimmo switches from flapping to cracking their knuckles. “Actually…Savvy, can you climb part of the way up?”
Savvy tries to stand. Her knee joint feels like it’s screaming, and she collapses, giving involuntary voice to her pain.
Kaz exhales through the gap in her teeth. “You should have told me it was getting this bad.”
Should always brings up bad memories for Savvy. Why didn’t you tell us you were a Glow? Why did you pretend you were one of us? Why is everything you do wrong? “I’m sorry, she says automatically, “I’m sorry I’m sorry—”
Mimmo leans over the edge, their glow brightening to comfort Savvy’s distress. “Hey, shh, it’s okay. I promise it’s okay. You’ll tell us next time?”
Savvy’s own glow extends from her body, the two trails of light almost meeting. The connection soothes her, and she feels calm enough to breathe and wipe her tears. “I just wanted to have a good picnic and a good hike and not drag you all down.”
Kaz hovers on her tiptoes, hyper-eager to reassure her. “And we still are having a good time! I’ve been meaning for you and Paraden to spend time together alone, but I can never fit it on the bond-space calendar. Socialize, interact, don’t freeze to death.”
“She’s joking,” Paraden stage-whispers.
Mimmo finishes adjusting the straps on their goggles. “We’re going to get our hovers from the charging station at the base of the mountain. We’ll be able to tow you back to the city, and then have a doctor look at you.”
Once they’re alone, Paraden regards her critically. “Why do you think I’m going to hurt you, Savvy?”
“You’re upset that I’m scared of you,” she interprets.
“No, not that. It’s just…I don’t understand you, and that weirds me out.”
Her connection with Kaz and Mimmo made instant sense to a confused girl from the underground. They’re bonded to me by the glow and by love. But other than the glow, how is she bonded to Paraden?
“I’ve breathed about it, I’ve analyzed my feelings. I’ve decided I’m mainly confused. And, yeah, maybe a little upset.” He shrugs. “I just…I like predictable patterns. You’re unpredictable. I can’t model you on a computer…you don’t follow a schedule the way Kaz does, and I didn’t grow up with you the way I did with Mimmo.”
“I feel the same way about you. I don’t understand how someone can go to bed early every day.” She shifts, trying to find a less painful position, and settles for propping her leg up with her vest. “I’m jealous of you, too. From what Kaz and Mimmo said, you stood out so much. You couldn’t hide underground until it became impossible for you to fit…you left when you were still young enough to have a childhood. Everyone could look at you and know you were a Glow.”
He snorts, bitter. “Yeah, look at me and beat the shit out of me.”
“Something bad happened to you?” She can’t imagine anyone hurting someone so beautiful.
“You know how they are. Hating anything different as soon as it shows itself. Hating color and light…they said I hurt them, just by existing.”
“Fucking bullshit.” At least they have their hatred of the Underground in common.
“I’m jealous of you, too. Not because of how Kaz and Mimmo are about you. I know they still love me, just as they still love each other. But you escaped so much. No laboratories, no treatment facilities…The Underground would welcome you back, if you wanted.”
“You—don’t say that.” All her muscles feel tense and sore, making the pain in her leg even worse. She focuses on the sharp, bullet-impact feeling in her kneecap, retracting as much of her glow aura as she can back into her body.
He winces. “Shit. I went too far. There had to be a better way to put that. What do you want from me? How can I make it better?”
At least he wants to help. She looks down at her hands. In the underground community, everything was bought and sold, especially light…especially kindness. Glows were in danger not only because they could create free light, but also because they could love and express themselves in ways different from the norm. Underground, sharing secrets could get you killed. But they’re sitting under the open sunset, the fresh wind-song of the trees and fireflies cocooning them. She wants to tell him the truth, even when talking frightens her. “I’m bad at asking for what I want, or when I want people to act differently. Promise you’ll just…listen for a while?”
“I’ll try. Thank you for listening to me, Savvy. Even though I’m probably taking shit out on you that should wait for a facilitator.”
She twists her fingers. “I need you to hear me.”
“I know you hurt. What happened to you…it hurts me just to think about, how you’re always so dizzy from the gene modification treatments. Kaz said she used to be scared you wouldn’t survive, and it scared me to hear about that, too.”
“That’s a pattern you have,” he points out. “You’ve tried to make your biorhythms as unreliable as possible, but you’re scared all the time. Even when the worst is already over.”
“I know. And it’s a pattern that’s been taking a while to change. I spent most of my life trying as hard as I could to be invisible. Underground…I didn’t know what I was hiding, I just knew there was something wrong with me. Something wicked.” He’s still listening, not looking away; slowly, gaining confidence, she lets her aura diffuse from her body, brushing against his. “We read about people who weren’t as good as the community, became bitter, and picked up weapons. I knew I was like them. We read about women who never learned to love their community-assigned husbands and poisoned the community-assigned wives of other men, and I knew I was like them, too. The worst was never over because I could never stop hiding. Sometimes I’d crawl into one of the unused access tunnels close to the surface and just scream. Let the glow pour out of me, cry for hours in a pool of my own wasted light.”
For a long moment, Paraden is silent. “The tunnels by the cafeteria?”
“With the graffiti of human organs?”
“You know that area?” Technically, their years in the Underground overlapped, but she’s never really thought about how much they might have in common.
“I was tall enough to climb up there, the year before I left.”
“We should have instituted something. If you scream here because society hates you, and you’re too young or too disabled to look for a way out, mix leftover berries with your tears and write your name on this concrete wall.”
He actually smirks. “I hated standing out,” he says, at last. “Never thought about how I would have hated being invisible, too. Do Kaz and Mimmo know any of this stuff?”
“I figured they guessed. I mean, they found me hiding in the solar farms, half-starved, unable to walk because my leg muscles were so fucked…I just…when I talk about it, it comes back. I remember things I didn’t even think of as bad when they were happening, and I’m like, damn, that’s fucked up.”
“Same. I mean, I was too young to remember much, but…” He squints, trying to think of a word. “Do you ever get—like—flashes of bad things?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like when you’re playing a holo game, and you unlock a video loop…I mean, I know you don’t game because of your joints. But it’s like you’re suddenly unlocking the shittiest secret ever.”
“Exactly, and it’s like…I didn’t want to know that. Thanks, brain.”
They both laugh, their chuckles causing magpies to take flight in the trees overhead. Her purple glow stretches away from her body like it is dancing, and his pink glow spreads over the ground around him; for a moment, they overlap, creating sunrise-vibrant magenta. Even though the cold wind is starting to pick up, the sky darkening, Savvy feels braver.
Paraden swallows, his shoulders tensing. “Hey, Savvy?”
“Yeah?” Hopefully he hasn’t seen a coyote.
“Know anything to help with pain?”
She thinks about meds, wishes she had some. But, no, she was in the residential sector, Paraden escaped from the scientific sector. He’s probably had enough of drugs, no matter how helpful. “Try counting your breathing. In for seven, out for seven…hold for four? I wanna say hold for four.”
“Count for me?”
She counts, keeping her voice slow and measured. Warmth like sunlight moves over her skin, the sensation of their glow auras blending as they help each other. After a few minutes, he seems less drawn, the color back in his face.
“Want to be done talking about trauma now?”
Secretly, Savvy feels glad about not being the first one to back down. It’s silly, but the underground community turned everything into a competition; she still feels the need to compete at times. But she also feels glad that they can go back to being just Savvy and Para, and not the woman who fled starving and hurt from an underground city and the boy who was banished from those tunnels as a child. “We can definitely be done.”
“So.” Despite his pain, Paraden manages to lounge. As if propping up his arm with both their vests is a choice and not a necessity. Savvy no longer thinks of his poise as an air of superiority. “Kaz’s tits.”
Some things are practically universal. Savvy cracks a grin. “I see you Kaz’s tits, and raise you the freckles on Kaz’s tits.”
Footsteps, and Mimmo waves down at them from the clifftop. “Hello! Good to see you’ve survived!”
Savvy shrugs, ostentatiously casual. “We’re survivors.”
“We are, aren’t we,” Paraden agrees, his voice barely audible; they share a look.
“So what did you talk about this whole time?” Kaz seems proud that her plan worked.
Savvy pulls on her braids. “Umm.”
“Mostly Kaz’s tits, right?” Paraden says with a smile. She appreciates him covering for her.
Mimmo bounces, excited. “We have a surprise for you. Stay there and we’ll bring it!”
A moment later, Savvy hears the artificial whir of air engines. Then the hover buggy touches down in the canyon, and she lets out a gasp. “You rented a whole hover buggy? Don’t you need a hover buggy to move those sculptures for your show next week?”
Kaz shrugs. “Mimmo is using my hover ration. I can carry some of my costumes to the theatre and make multiple trips.”
Behind their goggles, Mimmo’s eyes dance with excitement. “We have a surprise for you. Both of you.”
In the hover buggy, they have have ice pads and a jury-rigged electro-stim setup. Soon her knee is blissfully numb from electricity and cold. By the time they reach the top of the mountain, she’s well enough to limp out on her own two feet.
“Wow. This is…wow.”
They’re at the top of the mountain, and Kaz and Mimmo have spread out a picnic blanket so they can all get comfortable. They even have matching pillows for Savvy to rest her knee on. Below, the city sparkles like a jewelry box. She can see the grand tree that grew at the center, its branches whispering in the wind, sheltering the communal living buildings beneath. On the outskirts of the city, stained glass solar panels glitter under the starlight, every facet of the color wheel harmonizing.
“I know, right? I almost forgot how beautiful it was up here.” Kaz murmurs. “It reminds me of our family.”
Paraden understands what she means. “All the different colors and patterns, but we combine.”
Mimmo rests their head on Kaz’s shoulder. “My sculptures, your costume design, your painting, Savvy’s poems.”
“Our glows,” Savvy whispers. The teenager she was, the one who hid under her bed and tried to burn out her hidden evil with endless running through damp tunnels, would never have imagined being so free. Feeling so seen.
Without discussing it, they hold their hands to the stars. Savvy watches her rippling purple smooth out the edges of Mimmo’s jittery electric-blue, which melts in gentle sweetness under Kaz’s white-gold strength. Paraden’s rose pink, a light that spreads to surround their auras. Below, the stained-glass solar panels transmute rainbows in the wide and open dusk.
Kayla Bashe is a writer/poet/interactive theatre devotee and a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. Their work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Liminality Magazine, and Cricket, among other places.