Speed by Maria Kuznetsova
“Right there,” I said, squeezing Bone’s arm. “Do you see that?”
“I’m not sure,” he said as he stuck his head out from the palm tree a bit more. “Maybe I saw something, maybe I didn’t.”
We were spying on my parents. This was something we started a few weeks ago, when I noticed that they were worth spying on. My parents and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Gainesville, Florida. There were two remarkable things about it. One, the proximity to the swimming pool, and two, an oversized closet that Papa had turned into a lab, where he stayed up all night working on his inventions. During the day, I went to school, Papa worked as a physicist at the University of Florida, and Mama worked at a nail salon because it was hard for her to get a better job with a math degree and almost no English. We had only been in America for two years. I knew things weren’t exactly perfect at home – there were always cicadas flying in – but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Then I discovered that my parents had a secret. One night, a cicada crawled up my leg and woke me up. I rubbed my eyes and noticed that my parents were not in bed. I crept toward our bedroom door and peeked out through the crack.
“I’ve done it, Sveta,” said my father. “I’ve finally done it.”
I could see from the way Mama stood that she was skeptical. She didn’t exactly have faith in my father’s inventions and I couldn’t blame her. There was the time he tried to cure her chronic foot pain and gave her a sixth toe that took months to fall off. Another time, he tried to make me understand algebra but made me an expert on the Italian Renaissance instead; all I could do for weeks was paint frescoes and apologize to my teachers. Worst of all was when he tried to summon my dead grandmother so he could apologize to her for leaving Kiev, the Motherland; on the brink of death and with her returned dementia, Babushka Polya wandered around our apartment for weeks, not knowing who any of us were, until she mercifully walked into the woods behind our house and did not return.
“Are you sure? Are you really sure, this time, Igor?” Mama said.
“Positive. My darling, I know I’ve let you down, and I really want to make it up to you. This will be just what we need.”
“No side effects? I don’t need any more toes…”
“None at all. I’ve been practicing on myself for weeks now, and I’m perfectly fine.”
“Okay. All right. You know I love you, it’s just – ”
“I know the circumstances are not ideal. I didn’t bring you to America so you could work in a nail salon. But until we figure this out – this will tide us over, bring us closer together.”
“I want that. You know I want that.”
Mama leaned in to kiss Papa and I scurried back to bed. The next day, I repeated the conversation to Bone. And then I spied on them them, going to sit by the pool after work, like they always did together. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. But then I saw it – my father, handing my mother something small that she put it in her mouth, and then him putting that something in his mouth, too.
They just sat there like statues until the sun started to come down and it was time for dinner. At the dinner table, they seemed almost the same, to an untrained eye, but I knew something was up. A blanket of serenity had settled over them. They kept looking at each other as if they shared a secret. When Mama asked me if I’d like canned tuna in my mac and cheese, I thought she was going to start laughing, she looked so damn pleased.
After witnessing similar antics for the past few weeks, I had convinced Bone to be my co-spy. I guess I shouldn’t have been too pleased with myself because it didn’t look like he had much going on. When he finally agreed to join me, he had been trying to trap a lizard in a can of Pringles.
“Now look,” I said, tugging on his shirt. “Look how they just sit there.”
He shrugged. “Just tired after a long day at work. My mom does the same thing, only with a bottle of wine.”
“This is different.”
“Fine, then. Let’s go up to them. Have you tried that?”
“Going up to them right after – they get in one of their drug-induced trances or whatever.”
“I don’t know, it seems – ”
“Come on,” he said, grabbing my hand. We tried to approach our targets as casually as possible. I pretended to be fascinated by the pool and kicked at the water a few times.
“Mr. Shmotkin, Mrs. Shmotkin,” Bone said, nodding at them gravely. I tried to look into my parents’ eyes. They were completely glazed over. I remembered the D.A.R.E. officer who came to our classroom every few months, warning us of the depravity of drugs. I thought, a marijuana pill? Could it be as simple as that?
“My children,” Papa said, placing his hands together in a dome shape. “You are such wonderful children.”
“We’re so proud of all you have accomplished. It’s not so easy, being twelve,” said Mama.
“Thanks,” I said, and then I led Bone away so we could jump into the far end of the pool. I squinted up at him in the water. True to his nickname, he was bony as hell, with big brown eyes and spiky hair. He was my only friend, the only Russian I knew in a neighborhood of black and Mexican kids who didn’t know what to make of me. Bone’s mother also worked at the university, in a lab. Sometimes, she’d drink with my parents, but mostly she stayed away. A row of dumpsters stood between our apartments.
“I didn’t believe you until now,” Bone said, “But something is definitely going on. They seem, like, totally loopy.”
“Something is beyond up. I haven’t seen them look that happy in years,” I said. I wasn’t that old, but I used to be younger. I thought of us in Kiev, walking along the banks of the Dnieper eating ice cream, how my father would say the most ridiculous things, making my mother laugh and laugh.
Though they weren’t laughing then, they sat there holding hands and looking utterly content. I wanted that for myself, so badly. I wanted to go back to Kiev, where I was the queen of all my friends. Where no one laughed at me for my mismatching clothes or for the sloppy (but free) haircut that Bone’s tipsy mom gave me routinely, and where I didn’t wake up sweating or with a cicada crawling up my thigh.
Bone left for dinner, but I followed my parents back to the apartment, hot on their trail. They stepped into the closet, giggling like teenagers. They didn’t even know I was there. It was like I didn’t exist. I heard something that sounded like unscrewing, followed by Mama’s laughter, and then they left the closet holding hands and slipped into the bedroom, and there was no doubt about what would happen next. For once, Papa forgot to lock the closet. I had never been inside before.
My eyes went bright as soon as I stepped in. There was a fish tank with a giant two-headed lobster in it. A clock with each number written over a photo of my grandmother in her youth. A scale shaped like a conch that glowed neon purple then green and then pink and then back to neon purple again. An entire vase swarming with cicadas. A yellow flower that had toenails for petals. But there was no time to get distracted by my father’s secret world. I was on a mission. I saw it on the counter, a little vial of blue powder. A pair of tweezers was next to it.
For about three seconds, I debated the merits of taking a powder that I didn’t know anything about. Then I thought of my parents at the fake blue water, how peaceful they looked. I licked my finger and stuck it into the powder, swishing it around my mouth before swallowing it. It tasted bitter and tangy. I blinked a few times, waiting for happiness to settle over me.
That was when Papa stormed into the closet, with Mama following behind. He was in a panic.
“Oh, Yulia,” he said. “Please tell me you did not swallow any of that.”
“Oh, Yulia!” Mama repeated, throwing up her arms.
“I just had a little. What’s the big deal? You guys have been doing it every night.”
“No, no, no…” Papa said, putting his head in his hands. Papa was always ready with a solution. This, I had never seen him do.
“Maybe – we can make her throw it up,” Mama said. She rushed toward me and shook me around, trying to tickle the back of my throat with her finger, but all it did was make me realize she hadn’t held me in such a long time.
Papa shuffled around the closet madly, opening and closing drawers, vials of strange powders flailing left and right. Then his body was still as he accepted defeat. He turned to me.
“It’s no use,” Papa said. “There is nothing we can do now. Let’s take her to the pool. You like the pool, don’t you, my dear?” He said, trying to push the panic out of his voice, but it only scared me more, reminding me of how he’d try to calm me down after I threw a tantrum as a little girl, asking things like, “Some ice cream would cheer you up, wouldn’t it, honey?”
I nodded dumbly and followed them to the pool as he explained. He told me that he and Mama had been feeling so tired lately, so overworked, that they were desperate to slow down. That he had found a way to make a pill that made a minute feel like an hour, that sitting by the pool for thirty minutes now made them feel like they were resting for a week. Which was exactly what they needed. They were finally happy again.
Right around this time, the world was starting to feel funny, not blurry at its edges, but fast and razor sharp. I saw that Mama had brought Bone at some point, and he sat next to me with his hands on my knees, looking solemn – when did that happen?
Papa tried to explain that the blue powder I took was a speed powder, that he and Mama needed to take just one granule of it to counteract the slow pills at the end of one of their trips to the pool. What I had taken – whatever amount – would speed up my life thousandfold, and there was no use trying to counteract it with the slow pills – it was just that potent.
“What happens now?” I asked Mama, who had tears in her eyes. She gave me a blunt, straight-faced answer, but it sped me by. “That was always your problem,” she said, “You stubborn girl. You always preferred to do things on your own. You never asked permission…”
“You are just like your father,” Papa said, with something not unlike pride in his voice.
Even Bone, my best and only friend, was on the verge of collapse. He said, “I just really wish you had consulted me before making that decision.”
That was when things began to get really hazy.
Mama said something, then Papa, then we were all sitting in a circle holding hands as the sun disappeared completely; the air was still thick and hot as butter, and the palm trees on the other side of the pool seemed to lean toward each other longingly. A cicada crawled toward my foot, and that was when everything started flying by.
We got up from the pool and then the sun came up, and I was in a different house on the other side of the town, and my parents and Bone were driving me to my high school graduation. That night, at a party, Bone handed me a beer and kissed me near a tank full of starfish. I was a veterinarian, of all things, which was strange because I never much cared for animals – where had that come from? And then Bone and I lived in a ranch house in Sarasota, with this army of soft St. Bernards and a beautiful little girl. When Mama, white-haired and sleek, came over to watch the girl, I realized that Papa was gone forever and I never got to say goodbye. Then Bone and I were driving across the Keys, our daughter nearly adult, and I looked out and saw the flat, teal water, the flimsy bridge that connected all of these gorgeous, craggy islands, and I knew I would never see anything more beautiful. And Bone, whose face had filled out and whose brown eyes had turned into perfect puddles I could jump right into, said, “It’s really something, isn’t it?” And then we were in a cabin in the mountains and I saw him, my one and only, covered in wrinkles and absolutely perfect to me, and I felt a pain in my chest and then I was in a hospital bed, in Mequon, Wisconsin of all places, with Bone and my daughter and her two little children hovering over me and I heard myself say, “I wouldn’t change a thing. Except I wish we had more dogs,” and then I was rising up, I was floating through space, the night was black and roomy and the stars were so bright my eyes stung, and I was nearly at the sun when I realized I was hovering over a kidney-shaped swimming pool in Gainesville, Florida, where a young version of me who had taken some blue powder she was not supposed to take was looking into the eyes of her mother and saying, “What happens now?”
I watched as her mother put a hand to her daughter’s cheek, her sadness momentarily replaced by clarity as she said, “Now you live.”
Maria Kuznetsova is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has received a Special Mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize Anthology and appears or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review, Ninth Letter, The Southeast Review, The Brooklyn Quarterly, New Ohio Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and elsewhere.