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art by Junior McLean

outer rims

Toiya Kristen Finley is a pseudo-academic and a geek, but not necessarily in that order. For many years she was a professional graduate student, but now she spends her time in her native Nashville, TN as a freelance writer, game writer, and editor. Her work has appeared in Nature, Fantasy Magazine, Electric Velocipede, Sybil's Garage, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2010 Edition. She is the founding and former managing/fiction editor of Harpur Palate.

*out'er rims*, n. *1*. areas of continents flooded in 2014 by rising sea levels due to climate change; the resulting regions.
Why she brought the kids one last time would be the question always troubling her, never finding its reasonable answer. She told herself she wanted them to see the shore before the world changed again. After all, no one regretted last chances unless they weren't taken. Six years earlier she'd thought of visiting NYC, the bistro where she met her husband, to honor his memory. But she fussed over the budget. Her last chance passed her by, after half of New York City had eventually been submerged by the encroaching Atlantic.
She wouldn't rob her children of one last stay at the place they spent summers with their father. Branden and Shannon were more excited about the world changing than losing the shoreline. Where will the land be next year? One day the whole world'll be underwater! they said, but they could imagine such things because they would be far from here when the storm's eye came roaring up from the gulf.
Shannon's head lolled against the door crushing her afro puffs, and her neck bent down on her shoulder. Yet she could sleep anywhere at any time, even during the biggest move of her life, and dozed in the back. Branden popped gum in the front passenger seat. He leaned his chin on his sharp knee and looked out the window at the highway. Normally, she would tell him to keep his shoes off the seat, but he was relaxed when he talked about things she thought should unnerve an eleven-year-old boy.
"Where's everybody gonna live?"
"Good question. Maybe they'll stay with family or friends like us before they find their own place."
"Everything's gonna get crowded real fast," he said. "The country keeps getting smaller and smaller. One day there won't be room left."
"Well, when that time comes, maybe we'll live on the moon," she said.
He twirled the bubble gum around his tongue and smiled and went back to the view outside. "All those trees'll be gone." No sadness. No longing. Just a fact.
They were minutes away from the shore when she saw a figure laboring with a sedan on the shoulder of the road. The car slowed and she pulled over. Branden spun away from the window. Under those long, straight lashes, his eyes bulged with disbelief. "But he's a stranger!"
She violated every rule she'd given her children about people they didn't know. "He's having car trouble. I'm sure he's trying to get out of here, too."
She lowered the front passenger's window. Branden slinked down in the seat. "You need help?"
A young man emerged from under the hood. In the humidity and car's heat, sweat sealed his hair to his forehead. Trees shadowed him, but the redness around his pupils made the blue look like marbles protruding from his eyes. He glanced away from her and down the road, as if he couldn't believe she'd pulled over, either. "There's a parts place off Exit 6. If you could take me, I'd be much obliged."
Branden pouted and rolled up the window.
"Act right," she said.
"Ma'am, I really, really appreciate this," the young man said from the backseat. "Especially with the flooding coming."
"Where you headed?" she said.
"I don't know. Midwest somewhere, I guess. I'm tired of hangin' around the outer rims. Who knows when the next bad storm's comin'."
"I heard that." Her son wouldn't stop staring at the young man. "Turn around, Branden," she said under her breath.
In the rearview window, the young man closed his eyes. He leaned back and angled his face towards the roof, maybe to pray. With eyes wide, his lips parted.
"Mom," Branden said, "he's shivering."
The young man complained of a headache. He scratched his chest until his arms weakened and fell at his sides. But the guilt hadn't come to her yet. She'd take him to a hospital. If she hadn't picked him up, he'd be lying on the side of the highway. The worst that could happen, he'd be admitted; they'd make sure he was evacuated as a patient. But he could be discharged before then. It could be simple heat exhaustion. He'd walk out of the ER in a few hours and be on his way.
Guilt didn't catch up with her until she saw the white tent in the hospital parking lot and the officers directing traffic. A policeman wearing a surgical mask stopped her. He grabbed his walkie-talkie when he saw the young man in the back.
"Can I get you to park over here, ma'am?" Park away from the ER, where doctors in blue suits and large square hoods waited with pens and clipboards.
She nodded at the policeman. Her son sat up. He put his feet on the floor.
"I'm sorry," she said.
*2*. an area at the edges of a greater part or whole: He banished the thought to the outer rims of his mind.
This woman beyond Cantor's hood respirator did her best to force a polite smile. She rubbed her left thumb with the cracked nail of her right index finger. A bit of dirt clung to the cuticle. Dr. Cantor would rather have a child sitting in front of her, or at least a teenager. She could tell them she was a disease detective who got to wear moon gear, watch them grin or giggle in respect, and downplay the impending rage of water and sickness. But this was her first time wearing the level-4 suit. This woman, with her teeth set firmly against her lips, felt the threat of the hood and the mask.
Cantor felt pushed to find any hint or clue before these people were forced to evacuate, mixing with another population. And already the disease was spreading. This illness that looked like malaria and blossomed in the warm climate. This illness with seemingly airborne transmission and no mosquito bites. The woman in front of her tried to keep her stare on the table, but she'd glance at Cantor's rubber gloves. Crease her eyebrows at the hood and respirator protecting Cantor from the air she breathed.
She thought of all the ways she could make this woman less uneasy, help her drop her guard in this atmosphere. Make her more relaxed so they'd have some flow to the conversation, a greater chance to suss out an answer in an insignificant detail she wouldn't share otherwise. The only way she could consider them connecting was as black women with so few of them living here now. But they weren't sisters talking over coffee. From the stiffness in her shoulders and the frantic tapping of her heel to the floor, the woman made it clear that Cantor was not on her side.
"I'm... sorry we've made you wait," Dr. Cantor said. "Lots going on." The left corner of her mouth crinkled up, but she didn't know if the woman could see it.
"It hasn't been a fun few hours, I'll admit." She leaned in and raised her eyebrows with her voice. Cocked her chin.
"It's all right. I can hear you fine." It was Cantor who sounded hollow.
The woman leaned back, but her shoulders were still stiff.
Cantor glanced over the pages on the clipboard. "Ms. Burrell, you're from Portland, Tennessee, correct?"
"Yes. We're planning to go up to Ohio."
Cantor grinned like a fool. Burrell's eyelashes fluttered and her eyebrows frowned.
"My aunt lived in Clarksville," Cantor said. "I don't run into many people from the area. I used to spend summers there. My mom put me and my brothers on the 9-Rail."
"9-Rail?" Burrell shook her head. She managed her first real smile. Of fondness. "Haven't thought about the 9-Rail since it went underwater."
"Yeah. Guess you can tell I haven't been home in years."
"Where was home?"
"Alabama. Mobile," Cantor said. "Yeah... Went to school in Milwaukee and decided to stay. But Clarksville, I don't think I've been there in fifteen years."
"You wouldn't recognize it. It turned into a real city almost overnight."
Cantor laughed. "Man, I loved my aunt, but being trapped in that podunk town?" Burrell laughed with her.
"I'll miss it," Burrell said.
And Cantor composed herself. "Where'd you meet Don Jackson?"
"Is he... ?"
"He has a very high fever."
Burrell unclasped her hands and pushed herself forward. "We were on our way back from the shore. His car broke down. I just wanted to help him out, especially with everything going down. I didn't want him to get stuck, or worse."
"When did you notice he was sick?"
She shrugged. She looked down, grinded her lips together like she was having a conversation with herself. "He was working under the hood, you know? And it was hot. He was sweating, and his face was red, but... I don't know. He was in the car maybe ten minutes? He seemed really tired."
"Did he tell you how he was feeling?"
"He said he felt really hot and he was getting a headache. He really couldn't say much."
"And how are you feeling?"
"Fine, considering. Can you tell me anything? When can I get my kids out of here?"
The clipboard fell against the desk. Cantor couldn't look at her head on. Her eyes darted back and forth, back and forth seeking the response that would give Burrell some comfort knowing she and her children would be okay. Burrell stared, demanded an answer from her. "I understand how difficult the circumstances are, but you'll have to stay for observation." And that was the most Cantor would force herself to say. She wouldn't let this woman know that her good deed could leave her whole family dead in a day.
Only Dr. Alagiah was in the makeshift lab. When the disease first manifested malaria symptoms, he'd kept his team optimistic. But as it proved itself to be contagious, the lab became haunted. A place they wished they could avoid. A place for work in silence as the weather reports hung over their heads.
Dr. Alagiah's expressions, even behind the protective hood, were clear. "We've received... We need to... " He dropped his head.
"Dr. Alagiah?" Cantor said.
He closed his eyes. "We got word we're to pack."
When his eyes opened, Cantor found the filtering around her face insufficient. She choked on the fresh air. "We have no idea--"
"We don't get more time. This didn't come from the CDC."
"We're going to abandon them?"
Dr. Alagiah cupped her left elbow in his palm. His arm stayed steady, but the rest of him shook. "They're hoping... it'll be the end of the disease. It's spreading too quickly in this heat--"
"With everybody evacuating, they're assuming everyone who's infected is here... or dead already."
He was still shaking. "But we'll have more time after the storms."
She threw the clipboard to the asphalt.
Already, the exposed had been pushed deeper into the hospital. Precautionary measures, they'd been told, to protect non-infected patients. No windows here. A vast, cavernous waiting area with the TVs turned off. To conserve power, they were told, in case there were difficulties during the evacuation.
Cantor and her colleagues collected some samples to take with them. Maybe the blood would reveal answers after the flood, once the disease had been drowned in this outer rim. And the CDC would have a point of attack should it rise again and make its way north. These people were helpful, all things considered. They'd laugh at themselves for being afraid of the needle or picking the worst time to be stuck in a hospital. But when they looked at Cantor, she could feel them screaming, Please, please let me go now. I'm not sick.
And at what point would they realize no one would come for them? The doctors and nurses would no longer check on them. The disease detectives would be gone, too. What then? As they realized they'd be left to go under?
Her colleagues didn't make eye contact as they worked as quickly and methodically as they could. They sweated behind their hoods. They said as little as possible. Cantor began to entertain a thought pricking her conscience--what will happen will happen. She could ignore it at first. Kept it at bay with rationalizations about her job and the nature of the disease. But these people... She saw the moment when they realized they were alone. When they freed themselves from this room, but all transportation was gone. When the tidal waves rose up to devour them. Worst-case scenario, she told herself, she at least tried to do something. She wondered if she were being selfish, but she didn't let that bother her for long.
Her daughter draped across her knee asleep and her son sitting next to her vacant-eyed and kicking the wall beneath his chair, she watched Cantor approach her with detached weariness.
"Ms. Burrell, may I speak with you alone?"
*3*. OUTCASTS; forgotten or unseen persons.
Did he ask about them? He'd meant to. But he couldn't remember. Now he was sure he was awake because he wasn't shaking like this a minute ago. He came in and out, in and out, until being asleep was like consciousness. Then he'd open his eyes and find he'd been to another world and just returned to this bed. When the pain from the headache let him turn his head, he saw all the people in the room like him, stuck in hospital beds, infected with the same damn thing. But they'd multiplied. There was more sobbing. More vomiting. Did he ask about them? Did he find out if they were okay? She had been so kind to give him a lift. Were they still here? Did they get away from the storm, or had the storm passed? The CDC people, he didn't see any now. They were never not around, giving him their "Don, how're you doings?" even in his sleep. Perhaps he'd asked one of them about that family in his dreams. He would ask now if he could find anyone. At one point, when he could recall being awake, the CDC angels swarmed the room. Their bulbous heads peered into him. Their vacuum-hose wings swooshed even when they stood still. They poked him with their plastic blue skin, asked him lots of questions. He didn't remember a mosquito bite. He didn't feel any, anyway. He was thankful for that. Mosquito-bite itches drove him crazy, and his arms were jelly now. He wondered if some other insect had done this. Mites seemed to be running up and down his arms, his legs, his chest, under his skin when he was in the backseat. And the little boy was angry with him for getting in the car. They were on their way out of this place, and then he came along with his bugs. Did the insects jump off him and onto that little girl? To their mother? To the boy? A woman whimpered and moaned across the room. He listened to his own bed twitch as his limbs rumbled and threatened to snap at the elbows and knees. He wished they would. Then he couldn't feel them anymore. He wanted to apologize. He really should apologize. He killed them. The blues said the family was still here. They were being checked on and poked up, too. If he didn't make them sick, he'd forced the storm on them. Perhaps this was the storm raging in his bones. Like old people used to say they could tell a storm was coming by the creakiness in their joints. He wished it would hurry. He waited for the waters. In this bed he was alone. But if he was going to die, he wanted the sea to pick him up and carry him out where he could drown with everyone else.
*4*. ANATHEMA; the accursed. [2014-15]
He pushed his sister's head off his shoulder. She slapped his arm. Her eyes were still closed. "Quit it."
"You're hot," he said.
"I'm not, Branden," she said.
"You're heavy."
Mom talked with adults in the chairs near the corner. Three men and a woman. They were strangers. He didn't understand why she trusted them all of a sudden.
"When we leaving?" his sister asked. She put her elbow on the armrest and used her hand for a pillow.
"Be right back, Shannon."
Mom and the adults shook and nodded their heads at each other. All talked at the same time. Their arms swirled and chopped at the air. Their fingers pointed to interrupt.
"... if we're sick? We get outta here, we'll just make everybody sick and spread it--"
"But there's no reason to know that we are. We won't make it if we don't leave--"
"Go to the media. There's got to be a reporter following a storm here."
"You're crazy," Mom said. "I'm sure they're outside somewhere, on high ground."
"Why'd you tell us if you don't expect us to do anything?"
"I'm confused about the options," Mom said.
"Only one option we--"
A shock spread through all five of them. Like the worst secret in the world got told and everybody was gonna get in trouble for it. They were scared. Adults. In a panic.
Mom jumped from her seat and grabbed his hand. "I need you to go wait with Shannon." Her eyes were shiny. The little lines around her mouth got deeper.
"Is that man dead?"
"I don't know."
"Are we sick?"
She didn't say anything for a moment. "I don't know."
Branden tried to free his hand from hers. She shuddered and let him go. "Please, just wait with your sister. Don't tell her. Don't tell anybody."
His chest itched. The itch crawled all over his stomach and his arms. He scratched, but he knew it wouldn't go away. Whatever that man had, whatever those weird doctors asked him about, he had it, too. He wanted to get away from here. But did he want to give the rest of the world this? It jumped onto him from that man. And it would jump from him to person to person to person until everybody on the planet died.
"You know you're not supposed to be in grown-up's business," Shannon said.
"Stay away from me!" he said.
Shannon rolled her eyes. She crossed her arms and looked at Mom.
"I'm sorry," Branden said. He sat next to Shannon, but he pulled his arms and legs close to his body.
All the adults came together. Branden watched them get angry and sad. Some of them cried. They hugged. Then they tore pieces of paper and handed them around. They all wrote on the bits of paper and handed them to an old Latino man. They talked some more, and the next thing Branden knew, Mom got him and Shannon and told them to stay with the other kids no matter what.
The quiet boredom in the room was gone. Branden immediately wanted it back. The men picked up couches. They ran towards the exits with them and rammed them into the doors. Shannon wrapped her arms around Branden's neck. Kids cried for their parents. They huddled into each other and screamed with each bang. Adults shouted directions at each other. They told their children to stop yelling because everything was going to be okay.
Hot breath and tears slid under his collar. Hair got in his mouth as kids held onto him and rubbed their faces on his shirt. The sickness hopped from person to person, and it wouldn't matter if they got out of the building or not, if they got away from the storm. Mom watched them bust the doors open. She rubbed her chin when the chains fell, staring out with that same look she had when the man in the backseat started to shiver.
The adults grabbed tables and chairs and pounded through the doors. They pulled their kids from the pack crying in the corner and threw them over their shoulders or ran so hard they dragged them across the floor.
"Mom!" Shannon said.
She turned to them and frowned. "Hurry! Stay with me."
Outside the waiting room, furniture crashed through windows. The hallways burst in shards. Mom pressed Branden and Shannon to her sides, hunched over them and kept them near the back of the group. "Shouldn't have told them. Shouldn't have told them," she said to herself.
Parents pushed their kids through the windows. But their clothes and skin snagged on the glass. Some pounded on the walls until the walls turned red. "Don't look don't look don't look don't look!" Mom said, and they fell to their knees at the sound of heavy boots.
"Don't make me go through the window!" Shannon screamed, and she cried.
Men with thudding voices yelled in the halls. They said they'd shoot. They said to get down. They said to move back in the room, and Branden heard their fists hit cheeks and chins.
"Were they gonna shoot us anyway?" he said.
"Just get down," Mom said. "Just stay here."
"Were they?" Branden said.
"I don't know."
"We're not sick. They have to let us go," Shannon said. "Make them, Mom."
"We are sick. We're gonna kill people. But I don't wanna stay. Should we stay?"
"Mom--" Shannon said, but Mom was staring down the hall at the men with guns. She mouthed something to herself. Her lips moved faster than the words could make sense.
She pressed them to the floor. Then she bowed her head, too. With his eyes tight to the floor, not seeing anything, he heard Mom say, "I thought it was important, that's all. You didn't need to see it. We wouldn't have changed... .We make it out of here, you take care of you. Can't be any other way."
He thought the adults had figured it out. He thought Mom told them what they should do. He wanted her to say we're sick, but we can still live. But he lied to himself. He wondered why you take care of you couldn't keep her from giving that man a ride.
Branden shivered again. He wasn't sure if the sickness made him do it, or Mom's fear rubbing up against him. But the cold and wet tickled his scalp, and he knew it was the wind bringing the rain through the broken windows.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 8th, 2011

Author Comments

I've always been interested in the ways idioms and slang change, evolve, or fall into disuse. What's going on within the culture? What historical influences shape language? While the story is not about the genesis of the term "outer rims," I was looking to illustrate how a certain set of circumstances and events could alter a society's perceptions of people and its environment.

- Toiya Kristen Finley
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