FICTION

VERSIONS OF US - FICTION AWARD

Kelsie Bennett

They’re laid out on the hood of Kara’s grandfather’s ‘67 Impala, the classic cherry red type that could hold its own in a car auction if its paint job wasn’t so scratched and if Kara and Selene didn’t spend every Saturday night slowly pressing dents into it. Selene is smoking slower than usual — the stars are really out tonight, and she wants to watch them wink before her grey cloud gets in the way. She doesn’t know anything about constellations, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re beautiful.
“I went to this lecture last week,” Kara says, and Selene lolls her head to the side to watch the words come out in a puff of smoke. “About, like, the multiverse? I think it was for astronomy and astrophysics. Real interesting.”
She sticks her cigarette back in her mouth after that, and Selene gets stuck staring at her, all long black hair and spindly limbs and rough edges, even though she knows Kara won’t continue until Selene acknowledges what she’s said. Kara’s always got off-the-wall stuff like this on her mind; the new apartment she moved into last spring is right off of the Princeton campus, and she’s constantly sneaking into lecture halls even though she isn’t enrolled. Selene’s tried to talk some sense into her before, telling her that if she’s so interested in what these professors have to say she should just buck up and apply already, or at least look into a community college. The advice always goes ignored. It frustrates Selene, because Kara could do so much better than a barista job and open-mic nights. Deep down, though, she thinks she gets it — Kara just wants to know things for herself. She doesn’t want to have to prove it to anyone else.
“Tell me about it, then,” Selene says finally, since Kara is almost down to her cigarette’s filter and making no moves towards grabbing a new one. Selene’s own smoke is smoldering in the ashtray they’d brought out, forgotten.
“Turns out the multiverse and the universe are different things. Which I guess I should have expected, but.” Kara finally wisens up and puts out her stub of a cigarette, and once the smoke dissipates, Selene has no choice but to look her in the eye.
“So the universe, in theory, means everything, right? But we don’t really use it that way. When we talk about the universe, we usually just mean the stuff that our Big Bang created. Because we’re narcissists, or whatever.”
“How do you remember all this?” Selene can’t help but ask. “Do you take notes at these things?”
“What? No.” Kara blinks at her, then seems to reconsider. “Sometimes I bring a notebook so it looks like I’m supposed to be there, but no, not usually. I don’t write anything down. It just sticks.”
“Right, sorry.” Selene doesn’t understand how Kara’s mind works, not in all the years since they’d met in high school and certainly not now. That’s probably how they’ve put up with each other for so long. “So, the multiverse?”
“The multiverse is a group of all those universes,” Kara says. “Like, everything our Big Bang made, and everything every other Big Bang made in every nook and cranny of space. And since it’s always getting bigger, the multiverse could basically be limitless.”
“That’s a lot of aliens.” Selene squints up at the stars. She imagines them moving like UFOs.
“Yeah, we talked about that.” Kara’s eyes are wide as she stares up, like she expects the sky to open up and swallow her whole. It’s incredible, how she never hides her wonder. “There could be aliens that look just like us. More likely than not, actually.”
“You’re talking about parallel universes.” Selene’s watched the Discovery Channel before, okay.
“Yeah.” Kara grins at her, and that alone sends a rush of satisfaction through Selene that makes her toes curl. “God, I love that idea. All those possibilities branching off of what we know? Off of each other? There could be so much out there, and the version we’re living is just one of the infinite sides of the dice.”
“Die. Singular,” Selene corrects automatically, then feels like a jerk. She looks away and reaches for her pack to distract herself. She’s less twitchy after she lights up and takes a drag. “You really think there are parallels of us?”
“Wouldn’t it be kind of self-centered if I didn’t?”
Kara is probably the first person ever to tie egotism and parallel universe theory together, and Selene takes a second to
listen to her own heartbeat in her ears, because God. Kara shouldn’t still be fascinating after all this time. She shouldn’t.
“The professor didn’t talk about this at the lecture, but.” When their eyes meet again, there’s something imploring in Kara’s, and Selene recognizes the shift in her voice. This is the part where Kara runs out of facts and turns to her own mind instead, where she becomes vulnerable. This is the part where Selene gets to see the side of her that she bottles up until Saturday nights, all the thoughts she keeps close to her chest and under her pillow and tangled up in the wires of her own head. “I think there’s something nihilistic to that. We could get struck by lightning and turn into superheroes and save the world here, but in the universe next door, we might be grocery baggers. Whatever we do, we’re doing it differently somewhere else. So however this ends up, it doesn’t really matter.”
As soon as she’s done talking, she looks a little lost, and Selene has to ball up the hem of her shirt in her fist to keep from reaching out and touching her. It’s easier once the expression wipes clear, but the wisp of hair falling over her eye is still ridiculously tempting. Selene bites the inside of her cheek.
It takes her a minute to realize Kara is waiting for her to speak. She feels heat on the back of her neck and hopes her silence wasn’t too obvious. “Yeah, that could be true.”
She must not pull it off, or maybe Kara’s known her too long. “You think it’s bullshit.”
“I guess I’m more of an optimist than you.” Which is something Selene never thought she’d say. It’s easier, though, sweeter on her tongue than what she really feels: that parallel universes or not, lightning-struck superheroes or not, what they have here matters. Selene doesn’t know how it possibly couldn’t, not with the toes of Kara’s battered Converse swinging just out of reach of Selene’s own and the way her eyes look like liquid gold in the light of Selene’s cherry, not with the end-of-autumn breeze giving them goosebumps and how Kara is curled in on herself against it, almost post-coital.
This matters, whether Kara likes it or not. The other versions of them will just have to deal with it.
“If you could look through the mirror,” Kara asks, “what do you think our parallels are doing?”
Selene’s mind immediately flicks through a dozen different scenarios she can’t fathom saying out loud. “Desk jobs, probably,” she says, and hopes it won’t get called out for the cover it is.
Kara lets out a little snort even though it was a bad joke, and Selene wonders, wildly, if there’s any parallel version of herself that isn’t as desperately in love. The thought makes her heart clench. It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.
Maybe there are versions of them where things went the right way. Versions where Kara dated boys in high school, and maybe Selene tried that out too, but they still went to prom together and made out in the backseat of this very Impala. Versions where they didn’t even meet until they were thirty, but then it was love at first sight, and they got married in a tiny field in upstate New York and honeymooned in Paris. Versions where they were each other’s girl-next-door, and then came knocking that sticky-sweet summer romance. Versions where Selene somehow plucked up the courage and said something years ago like she should have, instead of watching every guy come and go from Kara’s life and knowing it’s too late.
She doesn’t even need that. She’d readily take a version where she never falls in the first place. So long as it stops her throat from going dry every time Kara so much as smiles.
She must be making a face, because Kara says, “What’re you thinking about?”
“That it’s fucking cold out,” Selene answers, because she’s never going to be brave. Not in this universe, not in the next. “Drive me home?”

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