An essay by Tina Eikenboom, as provided by Sarena Ulibarri
Art by Shannon Legler
I set the room on fire–I didn’t know what else to do. Two bodies slumped against the dresser. A woman and a man. My roommate and her obnoxious boyfriend.
Stephanie and Jason.
I shook their names out of my head. Corpses now. How I had overpowered them both, I didn’t quite understand. Strength like I’d never known before ran through my arms.
My heartbeat seemed to echo through that grungy rental house while I packed a hasty bag, set fire to the curtains and bed sheets, and drove. I stripped my bank account at the gas station ATM: $400, it’s all I had, twenty twenties now stuffed into my purse. Some strawberry blonde dye and a pair of “reading glasses” and I would be unrecognizable, Clark Kent-style. Though none of it mattered until I could get rid of this car. Surely my license plate would be all over the billboards soon, texted to every phone.
My phone. I took a longing look, then placed it in front of a semi-truck’s wheel at the pump next to me, and lingered until I heard the sick crunch of glass and circuits. The semi’s exhaust billowed into my face.
And then I drove, and I drove, and I drove.
Where should I go? Canada–no, too far, too many questions. I had a friend in Kentucky–would she hide me? I hadn’t even talked to her in years. Some no-name town off the highway where you could rent a room and work for cash, that’s what I needed. Those places still existed, right? I headed toward Wyoming.
Four hundred dollars wouldn’t get me far, but still, I drove, I drove, I drove.
As my gas gauge slipped toward empty, I thought maybe prison wouldn’t be so bad. I could read, I could work out. Maybe the weird super-strength that put me there would come back the first time another inmate picked a fight, and I could be Queen Butch. What good had I been to the world anyway? Just another rent-payer, gas-buyer, phone-checker, traffic-jammer. A million others just like me had managed to live their adult lives without accidentally killing the person they shared a house with. And over what? Some stained carpet and owed money, some rude words and misused photos.
I pulled off the road, hid my car behind some bushes, and tried to sleep, the murder re-playing through my mind on a loop.
I dyed my hair in the diner bathroom and then ate eggs as streaks of orange ran down my cheeks. The TV next to the pie display case switched from game show to news. Here it comes, I figured, my name in lights, my fifteen minutes of infamy. Wanted: murderer.
My house in flames filled the screen. Not just the room with the bodies, but the whole house. The trees in front blazed like oversized tiki torches. Shots of brave firefighters, concerned neighbors. A stoic anchor explained that three people were presumed killed by the fire.
My roommate’s picture scrolled onto the screen, her pixie cut and gapped front teeth, then her boyfriend with his goofy hipster glasses and too-broad shoulders. And next, it was my face that appeared. Not as murderer, but as victim.
I squeezed my coffee cup so hard it cracked in my hands. I don’t know where I got this kind of strength.
Except, yes, I do.
I suddenly realized where I had to go.
Back the way I came, among familiar stores and signs. I listened to the radio for any mention of my name, but the news had moved on to other atrocities. I parked my car in a dealership lot and walked to the Mad Scientist’s House.
It’s what we had always called it, this big fortress of a house on a hill near the edge of the city. All it was missing was a permanent swirl of clouds and lightning around the tower. It had been abandoned most of my life, but recently someone had bought it, a friend of a friend of a friend, so I got invited to the housewarming party. The new owner had totally played along with the house’s reputation. He had a faux time machine in the basement, a hundred multi-colored bottles and beakers lining the walls of his office. The party had been a fun time. The parts of it I remembered, anyway.
I climbed over his black wrought iron gate and hiked up the hill to bang on the front door. A few minutes passed, and then he answered the door wearing a 40s-style fedora and dusty suit. I tried to remember his name. Something that started with a D.
I dispensed with the formalities and launched right into, “You made me do something awful.”
“Codswallop,” he shouted. Then, “Er, sorry, just got back from a trip. I mean, no, I’ve done no such thing.” He cocked his head at me. “Do I know you?”
“No,” I said, and pushed past him.
A candy jar full of quarters and nickels rested on a table in the foyer, as though money meant so little to him he could give it out like mints. I took a handful and stuffed it into my jeans pocket. He took no notice.
As soon as he’d shut the door behind us, I rounded on him. “That stuff you made us take at the party, does it have any … side effects?”
“Oh, yes!” he said brightly. He tossed his hat onto the banister and motioned for me to follow him. “Please, tell me what you’ve experienced.”
He led me into the office with all the beakers and bottles still lining the walls. Either he hadn’t taken down the decorations or, as I was starting to suspect, they weren’t decorations after all. He shifted a stack of papers and dust rose in a cloud. The guy had moved in less than a month ago–how was there already this much dust? Whatever his name was, I decided I’d call him Dusty. It seemed appropriate. He balanced a pair of tiny glasses on his nose and poised a pen over a notebook.
“Please, sit, tell me what your symptoms are.”
I didn’t. Instead, I smashed my fist into his oak desk and it split in half, the paper piles avalanching in toward the broken center.
Dusty clapped his hands. “Marvelous!”
“No,” I said. “Not marvelous. What have you done to me?”
“I’ve done nothing, my dear girl,” he said. “I simply made the serum available. It affects everyone differently, you see. Things did get out of hand with everyone taking it at once. Made it quite difficult to make scientific observations.”
My memories of the party were blurry, but I remembered accepting the drink, assuming it was simply a new cocktail. And then I remembered … running up the walls and doing flips … watching someone literally swing from the chandelier … seeing a man jump off the balcony and land halfway down the hill unhurt. All things my brain had later ascribed to strange dreams, drunken confusion. They came back into focus now, not dreams at all.
I lunged toward Dusty, but reeled myself back. I didn’t need another body on my hands. Besides, if this was real, then maybe that meant …
“That faux time machine in the basement, is it actually faux?”
“Why no!” he said with that same brightness he’d had earlier, as though he was simply delighted someone had discovered his secrets. “Would you like to see it?”
The time machine looked like cross between a sensory deprivation tank and an Iron Maiden. A fire hazard of wires spiderwebbed out of it. Dusty flipped a switch on the wall and lights blinked on. Sparks danced out of the wires.
“I killed someone,” I confessed. “I want you to send me back to before it happened, so I can stop it from happening.”
“That’s not exactly how it works–”
I cut him off with my hand around his throat, holding him up against the machine.
“I’ve got nothing left to lose,” I said. “The world thinks I’m dead, and as soon as they realize I’m not, I’m dead anyway, and I can take you with me. Send. Me. Back.”
I dropped him. He slumped to the floor, sputtering for a moment, then leapt to his feet and started manipulating an ancient-looking control panel. Lights flashed, dials spun. A moment later, he gestured to the machine.
“Well,” he said. “At your leisure.”
“Don’t you need to know when it happened?”
“Do you know?”
“Then the machine will know.”
I turned toward it, and stepped up the rickety metal stairs to fit myself uncomfortably inside. The door swung shut.
I stood in front of the house I rented with my roommate, Stephanie. Stephanie, whom I’d known since middle school; Stephanie, who never did the dishes; Stephanie, who couldn’t seem to date a guy who wasn’t an asshole; Stephanie, who collected heart-shaped rocks and lined them up on our kitchen windowsill.
Stephanie, whose blood I didn’t want on my hands.
Shouts welled up from inside the house. I stood dumbfounded for a moment, disoriented in time and space, and then I came back to myself, kicked open the locked front door, and raced down the hallway to the scene of the crime.
I had the towel wrapped around Jason’s neck. Stephanie clawed at my back.
“Hey!” I shouted, but no one turned to me. I reached out and grabbed my own shoulder, threw myself across the room.
Everything happened so fast. A few inhumanely strong punches, some overturned furniture, and then I stood there, panting, looking around at what I’d done.
Two bodies slumped against the dresser. A third lay sprawled next to the closet.
My own dead eyes stared up at me.
I stood there for a moment, trapped in the paradox, not sure if I was a ghost, not even sure which me it was that lay dead.
I set the room on fire. And then I got into my car and I drove until the flames, the Mad Scientist’s House, and the whole city disappeared behind me.
Tina Eikenboom is a real nobody. You’ve never heard of her, or met her. Unless maybe you went to high school with her. Or community college. If you ever lived next door, you might know her as that girl who plays music too loud. Tina’s not her real name, but it does start with a T, and if she has too much to drink, she might accidentally tell you what it is.
Sarena Ulibarri is a graduate of the Clarion Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop at UCSD, and earned an MFA at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Weirdbook, and elsewhere. She is editor-in-chief of World Weaver Press. Find more at sarenaulibarri.com.
Shannon’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://shannonlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“Cocktails at the Mad Scientist’s House” is Copyright 2018 Sarena Ulibarri
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Shannon Legler