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Speculative Science Fiction Suspense

“Don’t you remember?"


I frowned, drying the last dish. Opened the cupboard with deliberation.


Is he gaslighting me…?


No, Evan would never do that.


He’s not that type of guy.


Head games? Not in twenty-five years of marriage.


Standing in the kitchen doorway, arms akimbo, mouth agape, eyes wide.


“June 4th, 1989. Remember? Officials finally yanked him out of the way.”


What the actual hell.


I hung the dish towel on the oven handle, feeling as though I was moving through syrup.


“Want some coffee?"


I turned back to the cupboard, grabbed a jar of coffee, popped the seal, inhaled deeply—hoping the aroma of Italian Roast would serve as a potent stand-in for smelling salts.


“Deb, are you listening…?"


“Sure”, I called over my shoulder.


My shaking hands spilled coffee grounds on the counter.


Between us, Ev was the history buff, but…this?


I may not know my Hegel from my Engels, but this I knew for sure: in late spring 1989, my senior year of high school, two weeks before graduation, I saw Tank Man die.


Not dragged to safety by members of The People’s Liberation Army, as Evan asserted.


How could he get something so horrific, so newsworthy, so terribly…wrong?


Our old electric coffee pot gurgled to life with burps and belches.


“Deb…” his hand touched my shoulder.


I jumped. Tingling snaked from my shoulders to my fingertips.


“Babe! What’s the matter…?” Gently, he spun me around.


His eyes widened even more. “You’re whiter than milk!”


I reached for two ceramic mugs.


“Never mind that”, he said, steering me towards our kitchen table.


The coffeepot burbled and hissed.


Under the table, I squeezed my hands together, trying to steady my quaking hands.


“Holy shit, Deb, you’re shaking!”


His look of concern was genuine. My eyes searched his face. He looked worried…not like a husband playing a cruel memory trick, some game of history switcheroo.


“Evan”, my voice fractured into a whisper, “that’s not what I remember. At all.”


I wanted to look up into his eyes, not down at the grain of our farmhouse table.


“OK, well, what do you remember…?”


I gulped, remembering the scene. “White shirt and black pants. His smeared body. Blood streaks on the road. Ev, I saw the tanks run over him.”


Evan blinked. His face screwed up like a cubist painting.


“What?”, he exclaimed, “they pulled him out of the way! No one got run over…”


I recoiled.


What. Is. Happening?


Anxiety nibbled at my stomach.


“Evan. I clearly remember the protestor at Tiananmen Square. He stood defiantly, in front of a line of tanks. After a standoff lasting a few minutes, the front tank started to creep forward—there were four of them—and they ran right over him!


Our front door burst open.


“Aunt Deb! Aunt Deb! Look what Mommy bought me!”


My five-year-old niece, Gretchen, came barreling through the kitchen, a plastic Barnes & Noble bag swinging from her little hand.


Grateful for the interruption, I got up from the table and went into the adjacent living room. “Ohhh, let me guess…” I pretended to be stumped. “Could it be…books?”


Gretchen squealed. “Yes! Yes! Six of them! Come see, come see…” She grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the couch.


I looked back at Evan. His look of confusion teetered between astonishment and dismay.


My younger sister, Jennifer—twelve years my junior (Mom called her “our happy accident”)—walked through our front door, arms laden with her own B & N stash.


“Who’s the asshole blocking your driveway…”


“Mommy!”, Gretchen stomped her foot, still holding her bag of treasures. “No bad words!”


We burst out laughing.


“Want some coffee, Sis? Just brewed some.”


Jennifer dropped her purse and bags on the couch. “Yes! The line at Starbucks was insane, so I didn’t get my daily fix…”


By the time I got back to the kitchen, Evan had gone.


***

“Sweetie, let me get some coffee for Mommy and me first. Then we can look at your books, OK?” I tousled the top of her head.


“OK, Aunt Deb…” She walked over to the closet and drug out her hot pink beanbag chair.


I swear I detected a slight eye roll from that little stinker.


“Want some juice?” I asked her.


She plunked the bean bag chair in front of our flat screen and put one hand on her hip, looking towards the ceiling.


“Hmmm. Do you have Kool-Aid?” she asked.


I grinned. As a rule, Jen kept artificial ingredients a million miles from her only child but made allowances for my occasional bad-for-you indulgences.


Now, it was Jen’s turn to put her hand on her hip.


Like mother, like daughter.


“Geez, Deb, for someone with a Ph.D., you sure don’t make smart health choices…”


“Ha! Well, as you know, my degree is in particle physics…not nutrition”, I retorted.


Gretchen settled down into the pink blob. “Want some animal crackers, too?” I asked her. “Yes, please!” she replied, her sunny disposition an effervescent constant.


I walked over to the closet to retrieve her plastic lap tray. Lined with books, puzzles, a candy chemistry set, and an LCD writing tablet, the built-in shelves were slowly morphing into Gretchen Central Station.


Settling her in front of the TV with the crackers and drink, I posed the usual question: “PBS Kids or Disney+?”


Nature Cat!” she answered.


“PBS Kids it is…” I clicked on our smart TV and maneuvered to the appropriate channel box. A riot of neon colors filled the screen. I found Nature Cat and gave her the remote to pick the episode.


Jen followed me into the kitchen, which now smelled like my favorite café in Meyrin. I turned off the coffee pot.


Almost as if reading my thoughts, Jen asked “When are you leaving for Switzerland?”


I had another three-week stint coming up at the Hadron Collider—an ongoing project that I felt privileged to participate in, especially as an American.


“Next week”, I replied, pouring coffee into her mug. A gift from one of Evan’s students, it was emblazoned with a ridiculous image of Abraham Lincoln’s head atop a half-naked posing bodybuilder with the words “History Buff” underneath.


I refilled my mug featuring the blue and white CERN symbol on one side, and my name—also in blue—embossed on the other.


“Where’s Evan?” she asked, taking a sip.


She must have seen his Volt in the driveway.


“Probably in the den. He said something earlier about grading papers.”


My tongue felt as though it was sticking to the roof of my mouth. Anxiety buzzed around my stomach as I remembered our earlier conversation. Was it the look of incredulity on his face making me nauseous—or the clashing history accounts?


“And, seriously Deb, who is that asshole parked in front of your driveway…?”


I walked over to the living room window. As soon as I widened the blinds with my fingers to look out, a sleek black SUV pulled away.


Government plates. Tag began with “D”.


“Hey, we gotta scoot soon”, Jen called from the kitchen. “Play date in an hour”.


I turned to Gretchen. “How much longer, kiddo?”


“Almost over”, she answered.


I went back into the kitchen. Jen was rinsing out her mug. “Good coffee, Sis. Thanks”.


The chirpy voices from the TV fell silent.


Gretchen skipped in, swishing B&N bag in hand. “Are you ready Aunt Deb?”


I smiled. “Totally ready!”


“Gotta pee. Be right back.” Jen was already through the doorway, heading upstairs.


Gretchen pulled up a chair beside me, heaved her bag on the table and sat down. One by one, Gretchen took out each book, carefully pronouncing the title and (trying to) the author’s name.



Finally, Gretchen pulled out book six—the cover awash in pink and blue, depicting monsters chasing two cubs in a dream bubble above a sleeping bear.


The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream by Stan and Jan Berenstain”, she announced triumphantly. She began to put the book in the bag when I snatched it back out of her hand.


“Honey, you mean Berenstein”, I corrected, emphasizing the “steen”.


Gretchen looked at the cover. “S-t-a-i-n.”


Her niece looked confused. “Isn’t that pronounced stain, Aunt Deb?” Gretchen sounded it out with a long A, rhyming it with “rain”.


Jen came back from the bathroom. “Okie dokey, sweetie, time to go...” She headed into the living room.


I followed Jen, book in hand, shaking it almost accusingly at her back.


Stain? Since when are the Berenstein Bears…Berenstain?”


She whipped around, squinting. “What?”


“This”, I pointed. “This...book. Why have they changed the authors’ names? And the names of the bears?”


She stared at me and took the book, her eyes never leaving mine.


Finally, she looked down. Read the cover. Looked back up, one eyebrow arched.


“Uh, Deb, it’s always been Berenstain…”


What the actual fuck.


My swirling stomach lurched towards my throat.


Gretchen came in, put on her shoes, took the book out of her Mom’s hands, and placed it back in the bag with the others. “Thanks for the snacks, Aunt Deb!” She hugged my legs.


Jen faltered towards me for a hug. “I’ll call you later, Sis” she said into my hair.


She headed out, looking back at me before she closed the door behind them.


I shook my head. The song “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring started playing in my mind.


I swear, there was an 80s song for everything.


I went back into the kitchen, still shaking my head—either in utter disbelief or in an attempt to dispel the cognitive dissonance.


My stomach refused the idea of more coffee, so I reached for the mug to pour down the sink.


The blue text of my name, Deborah, rippled and curled. I rubbed my eyes.


Good God, did I have a minor stroke…?


Slowly, the lines solidified.


Instead of Deborah, the name read…


Debra.

July 27, 2022 21:02

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12 comments

Ron Davidson
14:56 Aug 02, 2022

Janet, I enjoyed this story. I like your voice and the colloquialisms you use. It draws in the reader and attracts them to your characters. Nice work! -Ron

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Janet Boyer
16:52 Aug 02, 2022

Thank you so much, Ron! 🙏 (Btw, that's my husband's name). 😀

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Ron Davidson
16:55 Aug 02, 2022

That’s good…It is hard to forget the spelling of Ron! 😂 😂 😂

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Janet Boyer
17:53 Aug 02, 2022

HAHAHA right?! 😂 His given name is actually Ronnie...and he despises it. 😁

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Lily Finch
16:08 Aug 01, 2022

Thanks, Janet, for the fun read. As a kid, we always debated between -stein and -stain too. Pretty good story! LF6

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Janet Boyer
16:25 Aug 01, 2022

Ohhhh interesting! You, too? 😯

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Graham Kinross
13:31 Aug 01, 2022

I had an argument with one of my friends once about whether it was bernestain or bernestein, I think I lost the argument. I like that this was alternate history more than some of the stories that responded to that kind of prompt. Simple, solid idea, well done.

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Janet Boyer
16:23 Aug 01, 2022

Thank you! Berenstein vs. Berenstain is a big debate with The Mandela Effect. 😀

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Stevie B
15:57 Jul 28, 2022

Janet, very creative and original. This was a fun read for me.

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Janet Boyer
16:00 Jul 28, 2022

Thank you for your kind words, Stevie... and for taking the time to read my story! 🙏

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Stevie B
17:15 Jul 28, 2022

It was well worth the time.

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Janet Boyer
20:16 Jul 28, 2022

So kind of you. 🙏

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