Fiction from Michael Sasso

Photo: Clark Young

Charlotte’s Quantum Ride

On a summer day in 1989, Charlotte bafflingly avoids certain death and slices through the solid block of Time. The six-year-old is given a narrow glimpse of things immutable and true, present and ever-existing: No matter how you fool yourself into looking to the alleged past or the so-called future, she sees events that are, which is, who am. On that day, she sees that which will, to her, one day be, but which always is and is and is.

Charlotte lives in a big house with a Jacuzzi and a bathroom no one ever uses. It’s on two acres of property that abuts vast New England woods to the south and an even larger estate to the north. Her kindergarten classmates are all the same pinkish color, and she never asks for a toy that she doesn’t eventually get. Poor people, hungry people, people in serious pain: they all happened sometime before she was around, when the world was black-and-white and there were no remote controls. It’s impressive, her insulation from most of humanity.

She rides her bike, bright green and black with white handlebar streamers, up and down the quarter-mile driveway. Charlotte’s ten-year-old brother, somewhere near, kicks a soccer ball. Sunshine makes both the metal of the bicycle and the dark hair that falls to her shoulders hot to the touch. A breeze stirs the trees’ billion leaves and makes them sigh. In spite of her insulation, despite of the fact that it’s the kind of day that could make the most jaded soul forget about death, her heart is not light, her mind is not zen.

But why? How can it be?

The nervous heart is impossible to avoid, when you consider her family. Take, for example, that when juice is spilled on the Persian rug, the world has gone to hell. Her straight-A brother’s first (and only) B+ is worthy of furrowed brows and panicked investigation. The invisible angst that her father brings home every day silently exhausts him. Whatever it is that vexes him, Charlotte feels its relentless, scaly pulse. The grown-ups’ worries may be material, having to do with new money or the burden of the American Dream, but for Charlotte, her disquiet is more elusive. It’s just that the walls of her well-decorated home are always on the verge of collapse, so it seems; disaster crouches, ready, at the dawn of each day.

As for that day in ‘89: Charlotte is wearing the novelty slippers, giant pillowy things that look like cartoon sneakers, given to her by her grandmother. They are her favorite possession, for the soles are a full inch of memory foam on which her forty-two pounds bob; to walk on them is to float, lighter than air.

Her mother has given in, letting her wear them outdoors, in the yard, on trips to the store. But not in the woods, and not on your bike, she warns. Charlotte doesn’t remember the warning, or she doesn’t care. Or maybe it’s an act of defiance, a challenge: What wrong thing, what badness, can come from this? She wears them as she pedals.

The last stretch of driveway is a steep hill—steep to Charlotte, anyway—flanked by ancient oaks and a patch of wild blackberries. The drive levels out as it opens onto a busy two-lane country road, double golden lines down the middle. On the far side of the road, just after the pavement ends, a deep ravine drops suddenly. From its floor grow maple trees which, at street-level, open up their branches wide, wide as if offering up their hearts to the skies.

Charlotte likes to cruise full-speed down this hill, then slam the brakes at the bottom—a quick, hard, reverse-pedal action mastered while still on training wheels—sliding to a halt, leaving rubber on the pavement. On this particular day, for a dozen lazy trips to and from the crest of the hill, Charlotte ruminates on her mother’s raised voice and her father’s incessant brooding. As if she can flee the family’s next disaster and the screaming urgency that is sure to accompany it, she decides she’s ready for the rush and the thrill; she decides to go down the hill.

She gets up some speed, lets gravity do the rest. She watches the oaks zip by on either side. A Buick passes on the street, then a minivan going the other direction. Her pink helmet slips back on her head. When she tries her braking maneuver, it doesn’t work, not this time, not in the tractionless slippers, and she keeps going. Accelerating still.

There is panic, a quick squeeze of her heart and a diaphragm that forgets to bring in air. She brakes harder, to no avail. The clichés are true: time slows; vertigo stretches out the space between each tree, and between her and the golden-striped road. Even with all this extra time, there isn’t enough to devise, let alone execute, a new plan to stop. Even as a bright red Jetta speeds by, she never considers steering into the woods or leaning over and crashing now.

Then the furniture delivery truck, with its momentum of seven-hundred-thousand pounds per square foot, approaches. Her panic does rise, breaking through a ceiling she hadn’t known existed. Then it abandons her completely. Void of other options, for the first time in her six years, she altogether relaxes. Ride the course out—ride it, ride it, and let whatever may come, come. It is all there ever is to do.

From her vantage point, as well as from the truck driver’s (if he were to notice in his periphery the little girl on the green and black bike zooming towards his wheels), and from any other rational place based on Euclidean geometry, the truck should strike her. That is also to say, when you press a hand to a wall, it should not slip through the paint and sheetrock as if both were vapor. But as the physicists know (which is reason to believe it may even be true), there is the possibility, however infinitesimal, that the hand will pass through. The septillions of atoms, and each of their smaller parts, might vibrate in just the right way that they dance around each other, never colliding, zipping by in an act of perfect, random choreography, the macro bodies passing through each other like ghosts.

Charlotte reaches the far side of the road, not struck and perfectly solid, handlebar streamers flapping wildly. The truck rumbles away, the driver none the wiser. Perhaps it is because of her uncanny survival, the ability to be a ghost, that suddenly Charlotte is aware of all moments in her lifetime, and of some thousands beyond it—like seeing an endless length of film, but where each frame is cut out and stacked on top of each other, making a translucent series of infinite moments, each their own entity, and yet one great mass of happenings.

As the front wheel of her bike leaves pavement and finds the road’s shoulder, Charlotte can see her living room’s Italian sofa—an enormous, swollen thing bought on credit—and that in six years’ time, it’s being fought over, one of copious contested spoils. She hears the grown-up voices get louder and louder. Then her father moves out. Subpoenas issued, lawyers hired, money burnt, nighttime tuck-ins and bedtime stories forgotten. A great black hole opens up in Charlotte’s house. First it eats her dolls, then the rest of her toys. It sucks up her brother’s optimism, too. The last night in the house, she cries in her brother’s arms, but it feels like it’s he who needs consoling.

Charlotte’s well-to-do comforts fall away, just like her bike is falling out from under her back in 1989. Six-year-old Charlotte is hurtling off the edge of the cliff, into the air. That’s when she sees the new houses, one for Mom and one for Dad. Both small with chain link fenced-in yards, each a museum of stolen things. The bloated Italian sofa ends up at her mother’s, looking ridiculous in the narrow, low-ceilinged den. A number of her mother’s first edition books, which her father has never and will never read, line the shelves at her dad’s. In either house, her brother broods and resents and forgets about when he used to let Charlotte host toy-china tea parties for him.

Charlotte gets good grades, has lots of friends, and is a decent softball player. In 1999, some of the mystery of sex is revealed, its allure nearly snuffed out, when Charlotte gives Jared Oldrin a hand job in the basement of her mom’s house. Her wisdom teeth are removed. She scores a 1380 on the SATs. She concludes that her parents are aging backwards, becoming more selfish and less rational by the day. Her brother is arrested for selling dope.

When the towers fall, her second cousin sees the smoke from her house in Stamford. A lot of real people, most of whom thought their day was to be as banal as the one before, are incinerated, crushed, or suffocated. More planes take to the skies, and some of Charlotte’s peers—just old enough to enlist—are on them. Full of American troops, they go east to kill and be killed. But all of that is background noise: seventeen-year-old Charlotte is struggling with calculus; she is in love for the first time; she learns that her college fund was spent on divorce attorneys’ fees.

Kindergartner Charlotte’s bike is gone, snagged by a branch when she collides with a tree. She tumbles through the web of branches, twigs nicking her, stealing away her left slipper. She plummets, nearly headfirst, and sees more.

At the height of the 2020 pandemic, Charlotte’s mother is surrounded by the goggled, gowned, and masked. Family is not allowed in the room. It makes no difference, for grown-up Charlotte is in a hospital three hundred miles away, also infected, in dire condition, hooked up to tubes and fluids and wires, struggling to breathe.

Charlotte’s husband, whom she would have distrusted in her youth for being optimistic and generally well-adjusted (which happen to be the reasons she loves him now), hoofs around at home, rubbing down door handles with alcohol, rocking their newborn daughter in his arms, and periodically weeping. Six-year-old Charlotte of 1989, through entangled particles, an arm stretched through the mass of Time, rests a hand on his shoulder. His heart becomes lighter. He smiles without knowing why. Their baby stops crying.

Little Charlotte sees that, to her surprise, verge-of-death Charlotte knows the exact moment when her mother will pass. With her knowing comes a sweet sense of peace, and an odd relief—for entwined with it is knowing how her own end will come. The sense of peace stays; this knowledge evaporates completely.

The pandemic kills her mother, spares Charlotte, and bankrupts the dive bar that her brother opened, owned, and loved. A year later, he tries to kill himself. He recovers. He and his girlfriend move in with Charlotte’s nuclear family. Charlotte’s child, Nadia, never hungers for an adult willing to play.

Nadia is told only good things about her late grandmother. When Charlotte’s dad comes to visit, he and Nadia find in each other perfect playmates. Adult Charlotte is charmed to see that her father’s reverse-aging is complete, and instead of altogether childish, he has become perfectly childlike. His eyes are as full of innocence and wonder as Nadia’s. Six-year-old Charlotte has seen her father like this before, when he played with her a mere two years ago.

Nadia grows up with few toys, no pillow-slipper comforts. For how could she, with jobs so scarce, only two of the adults work full time; the five of them in a three-bedroom, one of which is Charlotte’s home-office; her kid’s bed a fold-out in the living room next to her uncle’s weight bench? But the house is full of love, love, love.

During the second pandemic (a worldwide surge of a new and ruthless variant), the Internet goes down for days at a time. They are ordered to stay home for nearly five months. Even when they hate each other—when all they have are paper books and useless smartphones to eat their time; or when Nadia leaves sharp Lego bricks for unsuspecting feet to find; or when Charlotte’s brother’s girlfriend threatens to leave him and runs into the dangerous unknown, coming back nine hours later to be forced to quarantine in their bedroom alone for sixteen consecutive days, throwing bodily waste out the window, taking her meals through a hatch her boyfriend cuts into the door, taping over it a black trash bag at all other times—the clan loves each other. You might even call the place zen.

When the third pandemic hits, the whole family gets sick. Foreheads glistening, feverish and shaking, valiantly they maintain dumb hope. When they regain their health, Charlotte gloats, Nothing compared to ’20! But to sixteen-year-old Nadia, the illness is simply a nuisance. She is restless and in love with a boy who lives two towns away. With the Internet as unreliable as it has become, the teenage couple takes to writing each other flowery paper letters, each in a modern blend of cursive, print, and drawn emojis. The wait time between correspondences is excruciating. They might as well be living in the Nineteenth Century.

Over the years, whenever gloom begins to edge its way upon Nadia, she finds herself studying her mother when she is unawares, when she’s washing a dish or running data on her computer. Charlotte sees herself through her daughter’s eyes and is struck that Nadia’s impression of her is like that of steady, pulsing ocean waves. Even as Charlotte’s crow’s feet deepen and her hair thins, to Nadia she is always the same, enduring being. This makes it hard for Nadia to believe in death, even though she knows a score of people who have died. This quality keeps disaster at bay.

Beyond her daughter’s teenage years, things get hazier from Charlotte’s pink-helmeted Now. There is her father’s death, then her brother’s, her husband’s, her own, even her daughter’s—none of which are at the hand of a virus. Later, there are the inevitable wars between the great superpowers. They surprise everyone for having taken so long to finally come. Generations later, there is shrieking annihilation, hot and loud; Charlotte and her family and everyone else are (re)united in the refulgent kiln of the sun.

Her shoulder slams into a broad, strong branch, and it catches her. She’s suspended upside down, covered in scratches, leaves stuck in the air vents of her helmet. Her bike is in the branches just above her, one wheel sluggishly revolving, the whole thing threatening to fall onto her and knock her out of the tree for good. The ground is dangerously far below. Precarious as she is—above the ravine floor, just below the road—her heart is not anxious. She does not cry, she does not holler for help. She knows they will come.

First comes her brother, searching, shouting her name. When he looks over the edge, Charlotte can see the panic in his eyes. He runs and returns soon with the grown-ups.

All of Mom’s love spills into the ravine, keeping the branches from snapping. Dad reaches in a big gorilla arm. He can just reach the little bike. He hauls it up to the road. Mom can swear she sees her baby slipping from the tree’s hold. Charlotte’s brother is asking about calling the police, the fire department. Dad says, No, no time.

Charlotte watches the three of them have a short, sober discussion. Then, they go to work.

The brother, who feels the plan gives him too much responsibility, ignores his fear. Mom holds Dad tightly by the waist of his jeans and plants the heels of her Reeboks on the ground. Dad grabs the trunk of the nearest tree with one hand for support. With his other hand, he lifts up his son by an ankle, then lowers him into the ravine. Inverted like a bungee jumper, hanging inside the tree, the boy feels like an action hero. He can reach her! He hugs his kid sister around the ankles as tightly as he can. The grown-ups pull them both to safety, fishermen hauling in a truly bizarre catch.

No one cheers; there is no self-congratulation for this rescuing triumph. Cooperation gives way to shouting. You could have died! You could have died! Dad curses and curses and takes the remaining slipper from Charlotte’s foot and hurls it deep into the woods. They check Charlotte for injuries, brush leaves off her little body. Mom’s tears are angry and elated. The brother, suddenly aware of how frightened he was to be hanging over the ravine, vomits in the road. Then he calls his sister a big idiot, a total moron. The parents scold the boy now. Don’t speak that way! She’s only a child. And why weren’t you watching her? From him, blame shifts to the mother: How could you let her wear the slippers outside? Then to the father: Your ridiculous mother gave them to her.

The plagues of the far future, the domestic upheaval of the near, and even the hugs and kisses Charlotte receives in mere moments, might as well be aeons away. The ground is firm beneath her stocking feet. She smiles from ear to ear, her heart never lighter. Her family wonders how she can be so glib, so serene, when all about her on this perfect day is conclusively perfect badness: scolding, blaming, berating, begrudging, and blaming some more. The sounds of the chaos of the End of Days.

Oh, if only they knew.

Formerly a filmmaker, Michael Sasso left Los Angeles and the media industry in 2017. His mélange of experiences since includes substitute teaching, instructing yoga, being a nanny, and tending bar. He also paints, draws, and builds things out of wood. Sasso is a graduate student in English at Rutgers University-Camden. Find him on Instagram @MickSasso.

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