exfoliate by jenny downing

Shelby hefted the door across two old sawhorses and measured it out against the drafty slab they’d been using. That done, she went back to her workshop for a screwdriver, her electric sander, and the portable generator she’d rigged from odds and ends.

The new door would be a good one with a little effort. She’d rummaged it off a ruin in the drained suburbs a few dozen miles away. She removed the hinges—real iron—enjoying the work and the antique screwdriver in her hand. Soon her forehead was stippled with sweat.

She took a breath and cursed the morning heat. Her brother Buzz was still back in his wreck of a bedroom, sleeping off last night’s good time.

A tempest of leaves dropped off the willow as the wind kicked up. Stretching and brushing the detritus from her curls, the jaundiced scales crumbled under her fingers as she checked the forecast with her iC.

The data sprang into view. Current temperature: 32 degrees Celsius, a predicted high of 37, sunny and dry. Same as every day for the last ten days, except a little cooler. She did not check the news.

Her notifications were set to let her know if anything new on Adiona hit the net—Shelby, like at least a billion others, was hooked on everything and anything to do with Interstellar LLC’s attempt at the first human grand tour of the solar system.

Usually, her iC chirped at least a couple times each day to let her know there were new videos or blog posts from the crew, but it had been almost a week since they were forced to execute an emergency huddle after an unexpectedly bad solar flare. There had been some confusion as to whether or not everyone had made it inside the hardened shell module in time, and according to Interstellar, communications with the ship had been spotty and limited ever since.

Feeling the sun on her skin was a reminder. She needed to double-check their water tanks for leaks, and tend to the solar panels on the roof.

But first, she needed her sunhat. Even slathered in SPF 90, her ginger complexion would turn cherry if she wasn’t careful.

After some hunting around the bungalow she found the hat stuffed in one of the secretary desk drawers—Buzz must have “put it away” during one of his drunken cleanings. The hat was old and garish, wide brimmed, with a riotous, nautically themed mélange printed on the polyester fabric. She would have gotten rid of it years ago, except that it had belonged to their mother.

Most of the things she would have wanted to hold on to, her mother included, had vanished in the storm surge when hurricane Joshua mauled the New England coastline and basically wiped P-town off the map.

Shelby realized her hands were balled into fists, and forced herself to take a breath. The hurricane had been five years ago, and she wasn’t going to waste her day off moping around.

Still, she surveyed the living room, the cheap, foam-stuffed couch, the coffee and dining room tables, the water-damaged barrister bookcase—all unsold foundlings from Shelby’s gig as a salvage agent. Everything, their home included, had once been abandoned as battered and hopelessly imperfect.

Sometimes these reclamations filled her with pride. Sometimes.

Back in the yard, Shelby plugged her sander into the generator and started working on the door’s flats. The angry racket brought Buzz trudging out with two mugs of instant coffee.

Shelby frowned, switched off the machine, and took one of the mugs. “Thanks, I guess. I don’t know how you drink this stuff hot, especially during the summer.”

Buzz shrugged. “It’s almost November, Shell.” He’d put on a stained T-shirt and jeans to go with his sandals and greasy hair.

She took a sip, grimaced. “Laundry day?” She pointed at his shirt.

“Can we spare the water?”

Shelby huffed, acknowledging the point. “I’ll check when I look for leaks. From the coffee, I assume you were able to do the shopping?”

“You didn’t notice after you got home?”

“I came in late, though not as late as you. Took a shower and fell into bed, didn’t bother eating. What time did Chase drop you off last night, anyway?”

“No idea, but I deserved a little fun.” Buzz stretched and groaned. “My ass is still killing me from the ride into town and back.”

“Sorry to make you go,” Shelby deadpanned. “I was working.”

“Yeah, well the bike needs some TLC. The trailer too. The chain skipped every time I changed gears, and I think the trailer has a flat tire. Also, rice has gotten crazy expensive, so you’ll have to settle for millet.”

“Again?” Shelby took a deep breath, and kept her voice even. “Maybe you could cut back on the drinking? It would save us some money. I could also use some help around here. The solar panels on the roof need cleaning, and a couple of them need their wiring mended.”

“Come on Shell, ease up.” Buzz said. “I’m not great with the manual stuff. You know that.” He half turned away from her, sipping his coffee and looking toward their dusty driveway. “I’d probably end up breaking stuff you’d have to fix.”

“Well you can’t just sit around all day. You need to do something.”

“I will,” he sighed before walking back into the house.

Shelby swallowed a stream of invective. It wouldn’t do much good to browbeat her brother. He’d just retreat into a bottle. Instead, she finished off the coffee and fired the sander back up. Then her iC sprang to life with an alert. News on the Adiona.

The headline felt like a punch to the gut.

ADIONA: CHANG DIAGNOSED WITH ACUTE RADIATION SICKNESS

Braden Chang was the ship’s resident botanist and life sciences officer, responsible for maintaining the ship’s garden while experimenting with horticultural methods in low gravity.

A quick scan of the reports didn’t make Shelby feel better. While Interstellar’s press release offered optimistic language and motivational quotes—including lines from Sagan, Freya Stark, Hugo, and Earhart—unnamed sources had stated the obvious. The mission might need to be aborted.

Smoke. The sander was still crewing on the same patch, ruining her find. Shelby cursed, turned the machine off and threw it to the ground. Then she grabbed the door where two of the hinges had been, clutched it so hard her fingers hurt and her shoulders shook. She shut her eyes against the morning.

She wanted to flip the door off the sawhorses. She wanted to find a hammer and use it on something fragile. She wanted more—

“Guess you saw the news.”

She turned and blinked. Buzz was a few feet behind her, head bowed.

She couldn’t bring herself to respond. Buzz put a hand on her shoulder and Shelby calmed down a hair, released her death grip, shook out her hands, and opened her mouth. Her jaw popped. “I’m fine.”

Instead of walking away, Buzz surprised her by picking up the sander and replacing the spent paper with a new patch.

“I checked the water tanks. No leaks, but we’re running a bit low.”

He switched on the sander to soften the edges of the crater.

“Hey,” she shouted. “Pay extra attention to where I had my hands. I don’t want my finger grease ruining the finish.”

“Got it,” Buzz hollered back.

She nodded and went to get her ladder, rubbing her eyes as she went. The solar panels wouldn’t mend themselves but she’d get it done, and they’d finish the door before sundown. She repeated her mother’s old mantra quietly with each step.

“You fix the things you can.”


Copyright © 2017 William Delman
Image credit: exfoliate by jenny downing. Creative Commons BY 2.0


William Delman by Tony SaccoWilliam Delman‘s work has previously appeared in many fine journals, including SciFan, Salamander, The Massachusetts Review, and Bastion. New work is forthcoming from or available in NewMyths.com, The Arcanist, and Stupefying Stories. William lives in The Witch City, Salem, Massachusetts, and can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/the2417project, and occasionally on Twitter @DelmanWilliam.