I saw him on a walk after Learning. I don’t usually interact with long people, but when I saw him brush his shining black hair from his eyes, I was transfixed. I waited around the pool until he came off the stand.
“My name’s Cali,” I said. He towered over me. I hadn’t been able to see how tall he was from a distance. My whole body tingled. I shouldn’t be doing this.
“Can I help you?” His voice was soft, with a hint of an accent. Maybe Thai? I’d query it in Learning tomorrow. “I’m off shift right now, but I suppose I could answer a quick question.”
“Oh, I’m not a pool patron,” I said too quickly, trying not to let my face grow hot. “I’m new in town,” I said. I regretted the lie instantly. “But I thought you looked about my age…” far from it. He was teenaged and I was three.
“My name’s Kusa. I was about to go join my friends at the park. Do you want to come?”
I smiled and nodded.
His friends sat in a grassy field on bleach-spotted towels with ragged edges. “Hey guys, this is Cali. She just moved here. I met her at the pool.” He pointed around the group. “This is Ali, Greg, Alfons, and Nadya.”
“Come sit down,” Ali called to me. “Where did you move from?”
What could I say that would inspire the least curiosity? “Missouri.”
“My aunt lives in St. Charles,” Alfons said. I smiled and nodded as if I knew.
I leaned back and stared up at the sky. I listened absently to the conversation around me, enjoying its existence more than its content. They talked about people I didn’t know, bands I didn’t know. I’d never “hung out” before. This was only my tenth day of Free Time, a rite of passage when a brief person turned 3.
“We must be boring you!” Ali said.
“I’m just quiet. I like to listen,” I said.
“What do you do for fun?”
I spent all my days in Learning, and all my evenings working with all the other brief kids. I studied physics… I could make that work. “I like the stars.”
“Cool, you’re into astronomy?” Ali asked. “Do you have a telescope?”
“Something like that, yes.”
They went back to talking of current events and new movies. I watched Kusa, though I tried not to be obvious. When he smiled at me, I felt like Einstein was watching because time dilated.
Later, Ali and Nadya left for work. Greg had dance, and Alfons had to pick up his sister from tae-kwon-do.
“I should go too,” Kusa said. He rubbed the back of his neck. I thought he seemed a little awkward, but what did I know about long people? I studied his face. I’d watched couples kiss in videos. I tried to recall them. I wanted to get this right. It was Sunday, and I wouldn’t have Free Time again until Saturday, a small eternity.
“Do I have something on my face?” Kusa asked.
I leaned over and put my lips to his lips. At first he jumped, but not away from me. My body was on fire, but my brain fired furiously logging and analyzing the event. The texture of someone else’s lips, soft muscles under the skin. The musky smell of his sun-baked sweat. The warmth of exhalation against my cheek. I pulled away.
“What… what was that for?” He stammered. His cheeks were rosy.
“I like you,” I said. “I’ve got to go,” I stood up and left. When I peeked over my shoulder, he was still watching me, his mouth gaping a little.
“So what did you do with your afternoon?” Disa asked. It was time for evening calisthenics.
“I met a boy,” I said. “What did you do?”
“I went- wait, a boy? A long boy?” She smiled and blushed.
“Yea,” I said. “And his friends.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I didn’t tell them I was brief, if that’s what you mean. I said I was new in town.”
The teacher led us in our evening calisthenics. Brief people age about five times faster than long people, which means we grow much faster. Though I’m small compared to a long 15 year old, I’m extraordinarily big for a three year old. I hated the calisthenics, but then it was better than the alternative. Before they developed the regimens for the early brief people, they would get terrible muscle cramps and strained tendons. Sometimes calisthenics were nice after a long day of Learning, hooked up to those machines and staying still for so long, but most days it was still a chore.
“I won’t get to see him for a whole week. Will he forget me by then?”
“Not if you made an impression. Did you?”
I felt my face burning brightly and I giggled. Disa giggled too and soon I fell out of the posture.
“Disa, Cali, is there a problem?” the teacher said. His face was stern. It was easy to stop laughing, looking at a face like that.
“No. Sorry sir.”
After calisthenics, there was second dinner. I told Disa everything—about the bands, about the slow, silly way they talked sometimes, knowing it was silly and not minding. We talked about it until the sleeping bell sounded.
Monday and Tuesday passed. Wednesday dragged on for an eternity. Three times the Learning machine recorded my mind wandering. On Thursday it was four times. I focused my mind razor sharp on Friday. If the machine logged three days of poor performance, I might lose my weekend Free Time. Late morning and evening calisthenics classes passed too. I told Disa everything there was to tell, and after that we speculated and pondered and finally invented wild fantasies.
The Learning session on Saturday morning passed a second at a time. At last it was 11:30; I think I never left Learning so quickly.
I went back to the room I shared with three girls my age. I picked out a favorite summery blouse from the closet we shared. It was too tight in the bust. My breasts had chosen to come in recently. I hated it. I didn’t want to grow up and have to work all the time. I found another shirt with a little more stretch.
Perhaps my new development would be enticing to Kusa. It was strange to ponder my appeal. Disa had entertained fantasies of some brief boys. I never had. Someday I’d have to pick one to have children with. Every time I even tried to fantasize about one of them, that’s where it ended. With Kusa, I could be anyone.
I hurried out of our campus. I paused near the pool to catch my breath. I hoped he would be working. What would I do if he weren’t?
When I arrived, he wasn’t in the chair. My heart sank. I felt weak.
“Cali?” Kusa said from behind me. “I’m still on shift for another 15 minutes.”
“I’ll wait,” I said. I smiled so hard it hurt a little, but I couldn’t stop.
“Want to go hang out?” He asked after his shift.
“Maybe you could show me the town,” I said. We took the bus downtown. I’d only been there a few times, and mostly for laboratory field trips, so I was genuinely curious. We went to his favorite hot dog stand (I wasn’t impressed) and to his favorite spot by the river. The barges drifted lazily past the park bench. Kusa put his hand on mine. We leaned close and he wrapped his arm around the small of my waist.
I met Kusa the next day and every weekend. I told him I took classes during the week. I invented more lies when the days grew shorter and long teenagers returned to school. I didn’t know if he could accept me as a brief person, and I didn’t know if I cared if he could. It was so simple this way.
The days grew shorter yet, and the leaves turned ochre and fell from the trees. We sat on the bench by the river for hours in the cool dry air. Barges puttered by. Birds dove and swam and flew. The waters shimmered past in eddies and ripples, reflecting the fiery colors of fall.
“Don’t you have autumn in Missouri?” Kusa asked one day. His cheeks were rosy with autumn chill. His warm breath was just visible in the air.
I was only two years old the last time it was fall—a ten year old in long years. I had never had free hours to enjoy the seasons before, either.
I shrugged more casually than I felt. “We have to appreciate good things while there is time.”
In November, it was Kusa’s 16th birthday. I wondered if I’d live to see my own. I’d pondered what I should do for his birthday for weeks.
Amongst brief people, even half birthdays are major events. Should I do something sexual? Beyond concerns of crassness, I had serious reservations about whether or not things would fit. He was very tall, and I was so small. But then what? I had no personal money to buy things, and little time to myself to make things. I discussed it endlessly with Disa, and queried the net in spare moments.
I taught him a dance. Disa and I invented it one day after calisthenics. Most of the moves were part of our stretching routine. It was probably klutzy looking; Disa and I had fallen over laughing at its oddness a dozen times. I taught it to him, in the middle of the pizza parlor, in front of his giggling friends.
In January, I celebrated my own half birthday, though not with Kusa. Long people didn’t care about all those milestones. It was also time to start preparing for my four-year selection, when I would pick a research topic.
“You seem distracted,” Kusa said. It was snowing. A thin veneer of ice had formed at the rivers edges, catching the snow. On the trees around us, thousands of tiny branches glittered.
“Do I?” I said. I still didn’t know what to tell Kusa about the selections. My half-birthday also signified the halfway point of my free year. In six more months I wouldn’t have time for Kusa. It had never occurred to me before. A year had seemed an infinite time to fall in love again and again.
“I’ve been worrying about college,” he said. “I wish my grades were better.”
In a way, he had a selection of his own to worry about. But, like always, he had time. I nodded.
I couldn’t assuage his fears, and he couldn’t assuage mine. But I could be here, for now. We kissed. His breath was hot against my cold face. I touched my cheek to his icy cheek.
“I love you,” he said. I think I’d loved him since I’d first seen him on that lifeguard stand. My heart felt heavy.
In March Disa picked a study group in Trondheim, Norway. When she turned four in June, she would spend a month studying there. Then she would return to our brief campus, which was more set up for our needs. Once she returned, she would be considered an adult. It wasn’t required, but it was expected that she would pick a mate before she turned four and a half.
“Mate selection is as important as research selection,” she told me at calisthenics. “We each have an intellectual and a biological legacy to leave behind. You should start thinking about it too.”
“I still haven’t picked my research topic. There’s still a lot of time.”
One Saturday in March, the buds on the tulip trees were just beginning to open. I wished the seasons would cycle faster. I felt out of sync with the world. Kusa and I sat on our pollen-coated bench in the damp, cool breeze.
“How is Disa?” Kusa asked.
“She’s fine,” I said. Disa and I hadn’t spoken in a week, longer than any time before.
“Is everything alright? You seem wound up.”
My life shot forward, while his idled in the daisies. For a moment, I felt so resentful. But he smiled and it all melted away. I stroked his cheek softly. A little weak stubble had grown in. He was growing up, too, but too slowly.
“Ali and Alfons and the others are going to a concert tonight. I know you’re usually busy in the evenings, but–”
I had calisthenics. But to hell with that, I’d dance at the concert and make up for it. “Sure.”
Kusa illuminated. “Great!”
“Cali! Kusa!” Nadya cried in the crowded hall. All around me, hundreds of teens in trendy, flesh-baring outfits mingled and danced. My own sweatshirt and jeans seemed out of place.
The opening band came on. The kids roared. I didn’t know who they were, but I roared too. Alfons elbowed me. I looked down and saw a flask, of alcohol, I assumed. I’d never drank. I took a deep, burning drink. I coughed and passed it back.
By the time the main act appeared, I had taken two more swigs, and the world was swimming. I hung my arm over Kusa. I didn’t care about the music, so it was easy to ignore the loud performance. In the cacophony and crowd, it was a little like being utterly alone. We kissed. His lips tasted like the burning alcohol as well. I ground against him. He held me around my waist. I wanted to be with him. I didn’t want to be with any brief boys. Why couldn’t I choose Kusa?
Kusa slid his hand up under my shirt. My ragged breath against his face told him I had no objections. I felt his rough fingertips on my nipple and moaned. I wanted to be with him. I broke the kiss and took him by the hand away from the roil of teenagers.
I led Kusa into a handicapped bathroom. I could tell he wanted me. I peeled off my sweatshirt and my t-shirt. He tried to take my bra off, but eventually I had to do it for him. He kissed my neck. I stood topless next to him, feeling tiny. I think he was even taller than when we met. I undid his belt buckle and he groaned softly. I kissed him. I was hot all over. He reached into his pants. The old panic returned. That would never fit. This would never work.
This would never work. I had to be an adult in a few months. I stopped. I didn’t know what to do.
“Do you have a condom?” He asked, his mind where it ought to be. His face looked exactly as it had when I’d first met him. My own pictures from last summer looked so different. We were out of phase. I picked up my t-shirt and pulled it on as I ran out the door.
I ran three straight miles back to campus. Disa stopped me at the gate.
“Where have you been? You missed calisthenics.”
Now that I’d stopped running, my stomach turned. I vomited in the bushes. “Let’s not talk about it.” She came over and stroked me on the back.
“Where is your bra?”
I didn’t see Kusa the next day or the next weekend. Finally I couldn’t ignore his texts and messages. We met on our park bench. Dogwood blossoms spotted the banks of the river.
“I’m sorry I upset you at the concert. I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you in a state like that.” I could imagine the look on his face, that hangdog puppy face. I gazed at the dogwoods instead.
“I was the one that dragged you to the bathroom,” I said.
“There are some things you don’t know about me,” I said.
Birds twittered. I didn’t even know where to start.
“Have you ever heard of brief people?” I asked him.
“Aren’t they research people? I think there’s a campus of them not too far from the pool… Wait… you?”
“I didn’t know they were allowed to leave.”
“We don’t often, but we are encouraged to explore the world some before we enter our research career as adults, since there are things the machines can’t teach us. As adults we’re free to explore as we like, but we have little time…” Time. “You’ve probably seen brief people without knowing.”
“So… how old are you?”
“I’ll be four in the summer.”
He exhaled as if struck. “God.” There was silence. “Will you even live to see my age?”
“Probably. But probably not twenty.”
“I still love you,” he said. “I still want to be with you.”
Tears brimmed in my eyes. “It isn’t that simple. When I turn four, I’m an adult. I have to start my research career.”
“And I have to start having kids.”
“No one can make you.”
“No, that’s true. But I won’t be able to have kids after I’m nine or so. To sustain our numbers, I should have at least two.”
“That’s stupid,” he said, his voice turning to anger. “What’s the point of breeding people that don’t live to see twenty? What kind of life is that?”
“It’s my life,” I said gently. “Did I not deserve to live?”
“Oh… I’m sorry…”
“I’ve wondered the same thing before. But I get to do exquisite research. Because of the structure of our brains, we learn much faster. When I turn four, I get to join almost any research project I want to. We’re the ultimate researchers.” I’d been dreading my adulthood, but telling Kusa about it, I was excited at the opportunities.
“You can’t do that kind of research and live a normal life?”
“Right now, the two are mutually exclusive. Though I’m sure someone’s doing research on it.” Somewhere, ambulance sirens rang out. “So you see we really can’t be together. Even if you were willing to have kids now, I don’t know what that would mean. And I probably won’t be there when you turn thirty.”
“I don’t care, I don’t care!” He shouted.
“I do,” I said quietly. He seemed so like a little boy. I would continue to age. It would only become more so. I had caused him so much pain with my adventure. But I’d been younger than him when I started. We had started in phase.
I kissed his head. “Goodbye.”
He didn’t say anything, but I could see him softly shaking as I walked away from the park bench.