The Nightmare, a Flash Fiction by Justin A. Burnett

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The trails we walk are suspended over the park by white columns. An awning shades us from the glare of the sun, and intermittent staircases spiral down to the grass some ten meters below. From our elevated vantage point, we converse without interference from the sounds of children chasing each other gleefully through the grass.

“When you get to the top, the wind is fierce and the oxygen thin; you want to rest, but you must press on,” my uncle says about his recent ascent of Kilimanjaro. My mother and grandmother are in high spirits, breathless with his account of the mountain, while I keep losing the thread of the narrative to scan the park below for a glimpse of my children. The others spring from behind trees and run laughing through small clouds of orange and yellow butterflies, their shirts and jackets mixing ripe reds and blues with the natural shimmer of flowers, but my own are nowhere to be seen. Dizzy, I sag against one of the columns supporting the veranda.

“I can’t find my children,” I say. My mother laughs at my uncle’s description of a hyena. My grandmother hasn’t heard me and nods serenely, content with the momentary happiness of her own children.

Suddenly, my youngest appears from behind a hedge. My heart swells with relief. I wave at the boy. The neverending chase that passes for sociability among children has ruddied his cheeks, but he smiles wide, passing his gaze from knot to knot of adults scattered in shadows along the path–he’s looking for me, so I call his name. Finally, he finds me and waves.

I decide to walk down to him, but in the middle of my step towards the nearest staircase, something happens. My foot doesn’t return to the pathway as it should. I lift my other foot as the nauseating thrill of falling rises into my chest. Have I miscalculated a distance? Am I about to tumble over the edge of the pathway and into the foliage below? I grab the pillar to regain my balance. Somehow, my feet continue to rise.

I look up at my mother, uncle, and grandmother–each face mirrors the surprise I feel but cannot see. Their bodies, like mine, drift above the pathway, hovering like a feather in a tender breeze. I’m not–we aren’t–falling. We’re floating. Along the path ahead of us, people cluster around the columns or cling to the dangling edges of the veranda. A shocked murmur fills the clear, warm air.

“What’s happening?” my mother asks her brother. “Why is there no gravity?”

“It’ll come back soon,” he says with sudden seriousness I am inclined to fear.

Yes, it will come back soon indeed. All things in this world right themselves; a great many important people doubtlessly labor tirelessly to correct errors such as this, and we must not doubt human ingenuity.

Faith. Have faith.

The sickness of falling hasn’t left, and my heart races madly, but still I cling to the column, more comforted than before. No one seems unduly alarmed, and I even hear the faint trace of nervous laughter drifting down the line of bodies floating under the cloth like sea creatures in a fisher’s inverted net. Yes, this will all be sorted out soon. Just wait, my children.

My children.

I look down into the foliage, and my youngest–four years old–has already cleared the highest hedge by several meters. My eldest is still out of sight. I shout his name. His flushed cheeks pale with slow panic. How could someone restore gravity? Who has power over such immutable forces of nature? I find the calm of faith quickly dissolving as my son drifts slowly to the sky. “My children!” I scream, “someone help my children!” Faces turn, and I can sense fear spreading like electric cold through the adults clustered against the columns. Soon, my baby reaches the tops of the trees, reduced to a black silhouette against the spread of white sky in a clearing between branches. Clouds mask the endless void behind them, and I think of the sun, the planets, the galaxies beyond tucked in the folds of inconceivable distance and dark.

We can not hold the columns forever any more than we can reach the dark–we’ll let go, eventually, and we’ll never make it to the stars–all will shrink and shrink and vanish into unfamiliar forms until we are finally eaten by the sun. Someone begins to scream, and the scream multiplies.

“Hang on, son! Daddy’s coming!”

-Justin A. Burnett

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