Tracy woke up early, before sunrise. Tom had assured her they could leave at dawn, and she waited for the first sliver of sun as a sprinter waits for the crack of a pistol. She tiptoed down the stairs, arms wrapped around suitcases, and gently deposited them by the door. When morning came, she would rouse her husband with breakfast in bed if that’s what it took. They were leaving.

She’d learned the house well enough that she could navigate in the dark. The stairs creaked, as they do under the strain of desperation. She prepared excuses, “Couldn’t sleep, just wanted to get an early start,” and felt safe knowing that soon she would have a hundreds of miles buffer. As the last duffelbag dropped into place, she noticed an underline of light from the kitchen, and shadows of footsteps.

“Oh hi, I hope I didn’t wake you,” she rehearsed. She muttered the words with different shades of mock surprise as she worked up the courage to act nonchalant. “I thought I could sneak a piece of that delicious chocolate pie.”

She opened the door and acted startled to see the little old man sipping tea and making notes at the head of the table. Her surprise became real as she realized who it was. This was David, her husband’s father. “Oh hi,” she said. She couldn’t say anything more. He said nothing at all.

She didn’t want any pie. She pulled a glass from the cupboard and poured some water from the flap on the front of the fridge. She drank it in a few gulps, and filled her glass again. “I haven’t seen you since the wedding. How have you been?”

The man made no reply. He batted at his teabag a little, and resumed sketching whatever diagram or schematic happened to be on his mind. She wondered if he could hear her, or if in his brilliance the passion of his work overrode all senses. “Do you love your wife?” she asked. “Do you love your son?”

He stood up. “I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.” He threw his teacup in the sink, breaking it. As he stormed back to his basement workshop, he knocked more plates off their shelves and onto the floor, and slammed the door behind him.

As Tracy cleaned up the mess, a piece of glass found its way in her finger. “I’m sorry I’m so clumsy,” she rehearsed. “I just wanted a piece of that delicious chocolate pie.”

“You should have turned the light on,” her husband said. “You should have done everything different. Apologize to Mom right now.”

“I’m sorry,” Tracy said again. They were words his mother understood.

 

As much as she loathed his family, in the interest of peace, love and calenders, Tracy consented to a week in their moldy old mansion with their moldy old selves. Thomas assured her that they would be on their best behavior for the holiday season, and though she didn’t believe that he had any control over his domineering father or his mother’s infectiously low self-esteem, she didn’t want him to suffer alone. She didn’t want him to suffer at all. Were it feasible to legally seperate him from their bloodline, she would gladly file the paperwork.

“They’ll be fine, I promise. They’ve mellowed with age.”

She would become a notary if it would speed up the process. A quick law degree from a small, local college should be easy enough, if that would help.

“I worry that if I don’t maintain good relations with them, they’ll write me out of the will.”

His mother greeted them at the door and hugged her only son violently, with the full body contortions of a fish accidentally flopped up onto land. She embraced Tracy more gently. “Thank you so much for coming. You don’t know what this means to us.”

“Oh, great,” Tracy affirmed. The woman needed constant affirmations, as she recalled. “Glad to be here.”

“Daddy’s in his study, but I’m sure he’ll be out for dinner.”

She insisted on carrying Tracy’s bag through the labyrinthine corridors of their empty home. With the added weight, she moved slowly, but she would not allow Tracy to take over.

“I’m fine,” she insisted, with a sudden burst of venom. Tracy did not push the issue. She glanced at her husband, but he didn’t seem to notice anything was wrong.

“Aren’t you going to say, ‘Thank you?'” he prompted as his mother dropped her luggage at the foot of a bed. Tracy swallowed and repeated the words, which the old woman didn’t seem to hear.

“Oh and Mom, can you make me a hot chocolate? You make the best hot chocolates.”

Between the electronic murmurs of medicinal apparatuses, Sandy heard the sound of her own heartbeat. It was not in sync with any of the other noises, nor did it seem to belong to her, but she felt it vibrate across her chest, deeply and firmly like longing. Her grandfather’s heart seemed so shallow in comparison, shrill and underfoot, announcing its presence as a U-boat might announce an enemy ship. He would not die until he wanted to. He would lie here beeping forever out of spite.

She felt that maybe she should grab his hand. She had never touched her grandfather before, but now, when he wasn’t conscious, she thought that maybe she could steal this last bit of life for herself if she gave it a vessel. “You kids have it easy these days,” he had said at every opportunity. “With your social media and your video games, you don’t even have to talk to people anymore.” This could be the first time in ten years he hadn’t lambasted her in a tone of envy and resentment for existing in the modern age.

As her hand brushed against his, his eyes opened widely. He stared up at her without recognition. In a moment, after he had taken in his surroundings and his grandchild, he scowled, choosing one of his ready-made conversations. He had paid his way through college waiting tables. “Why don’t you pay your way through college waiting tables?” He had gotten married at twenty-two to a women he’d talked to twice. “Why don’t you get married? What are you waiting for?” He had beaten and shamed his wife and children at every opportunity. “I want to be a great grandfather.”

Sandy held her grandfather’s hand in her own, as he was too weak to pull away. She let her heart pulse against his circuitry, hoping the vibration would knock something loose, and she would get the apology she and the rest of the family deserved.

“I forgive you,” he said in his final breath. She continued to hold on.

The letter made its instructions clear. Parents are to drop their children off at X location at Y time, in order to make Z as easy as possible for all of ϴ.

“You should consider yourself very lucky,” they said. “We pulled a lot of strings to get you into this high school, and you are going to make us proud.”

The child waited in the chair, alone, as instructed. The parents left after a brief and dispassionate kiss, which left a dry spot on the forehead still a minute after they’d gone.

“Ah yes! Hello, here you are. Can’t hide from me, now can you?”

The child said nothing as the administrator entered the room, but the man seemed to be waiting for an answer. “I cannot hide,” the child eventually said.

“That’s right! I see why we let you in here.” The man’s jocular smile shifted away as he got down to business. “Academically, you have done well. We feel confident that you will fit right in at St. Ringo’s. However, for your needs, we’re going to ask you a few questions, so you can get optimized attention for your individual learning style. Shall we begin?”

The child nodded, though the man did not look up from his paperwork to notice. “First off, name and gender.”

“Leslie Douglas. Female.”

The man shook his head. “I’m sorry, that’s not what I have here. We’re going to go with Douglas Leslie, male. Next, what are your sexual preferences?”

The child sputtered a moment before repeating, “I’d like to be female, if that’s okay.”

“Very good. ‘Forced Feminization.’ That’s more common than you might think. But I’m afraid I’m going to need more details. Top or bottom?”

The child said words, and accepted the approval they invoked, one by one. There were no wrong answers. He took his seat in a classroom designed just for him and felt proud to be accepted for all his perversions and hangups, designed just for him.

The breakup had been painful for Charlotte, as her life had been tangled up in Greg’s. She wasn’t on the lease and had no legal recourse but to get gone. He was very clear.

“C’est la vie,” she said, and her accent was perfect. She was proud of her French accent, even in more complex sentences.

An envelope tumbled through the street with a gust of wind. It seemed to have come from nowhere, likely escaped from a bag of unsecured trash, but it was printed on a high quality paper, and clearly marked urgent in enough languages that it caught the attention of a polyglot like Charlotte.

The envelope had no return address, nor did it have an intended recipient, and Charlotte, having no address and being not at all the person she had intended to be, decided she had every entitlement to this mail, more than anyone she knew.

The paper was tough, almost leather. The seal holding it closed seemed to be metal, not a familiar one, maybe beryllium? She strained as she tried to to pull it apart. It was hot to the touch, and she had to hold the missive against her shirt. The rip of the stack of papers clanged and echoed in the city around her into fragments on the ground. She gathered them, and held them together:

“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
敬启者
A QUIEN CORRESPONDA
À QUI CENA CONCERNE
AMBAYE INAWEZA WASIWASI
ご担当者様
SEHR GEEHRTE DAMEN UND HERREN
[…]
DON TÉ LENA MBAINEANN
AL KIU GI POVAS KONCERNI”

Every page contained a single phrase, and even though she didn’t know all the languages involved, she quickly flipped through the several sheets of paper, enjoying the Rosetta Stone she had found. She quickly learned several translations of the following letter:

“YOU HAVE BEEN USING THE SUN WITHOUT PERMISSION. SERVICE WILL TERMINATE ON AUGUST FIFTH. PLEASE MAKE ANY NEEDED PREPARATIONS.”

She read through the German version a few times, getting her tongue around the sounds. The grammar seemed archaic, but she felt confident in the phrases, and moved onto the Korean, which she had learned to read in her year abroad. She wasn’t sure if she was getting the intonations quite right, but she felt that a native speaker could probably decipher her accent if she repeated herself slowly and loud.

All the romance languages were interesting to compare, especially the Romanian, which she had never before come across. She hoped they rolled their Rs, because she purred them seductively, and they sounded brilliant. If Greg heard, maybe he would take her back.

“Je suis tellement chanceux,” she said as she ran back to the old apartment. “Fare permisiune.”