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About

about my writing

I’m writing the change I want to see in the world. I’m writing a future without capitalism and realistic paths toward that future. I’m writing disabled and neurodivergent characters—as an autistic and ADHD author—into realities where they find acceptance, understanding, and accommodations. I’m writing landback, protection of biodiversity, environmental justice, and reversal of climate change. And although I’m prone to throwing in a pinch of [science-based, rationally designed] magic, you’ll find that, in my stories, the greatest power of all is not a supernatural ability but the power of organized people.

 

My debut solo project is a science fantasy novel series about the downfall of capitalism in a fictional country based on the present-day United States. I’ll release it for free as a serial on my website and as a self-produced podcast. I make no guarantees about the audio quality, but if you’re like me and you read with your ears instead of your eyes, the book will be consumable. 

 

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Books

books

The Ghosts of Gadolin

I am currently writing The Ghosts of Gadolin with Samuel Clamons, PhD. This is an anti-imperialist YA sci-fi novel with eco horror vibes like Annihilation, centered on an emotional journey of neurodivergent self-acceptance like Every Last Word or Something More (2023). 

The Venefice Novels

Stay tuned for news about my first solo novel--a new-adult science fantasy trilogy about the downfall of capitalism in a slightly different modern-day. For fans of R. F. Kuang's Babel: An Arcane History and Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry for the Future.

Fact ignites fiction in this first-of-its-kind anthology of speculative tales by Caltech and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists, engineers, technologists, and students. Experts at the frontiers of their fields, along with renowned Caltech alumni such as David Brin, S. B. Divya, and Larry Niven, present stories about alien astrobiologists, AI parenthood, a quest to preserve our histories beyond the heat death of the universe, a heist to steal engineering secrets from an ancient monk-scientist, the recovery of a long-lost phase of the human life cycle, the demise of Earth’s first intelligent species—billions of years before the rise of humanity, and much more! Available now in Ebook, paperback, and audio.

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Stories
The Bittersweet Magic of Neuroplasticity

the bittersweet magic of neuroplasticity

RACHAEL KUINTZLE

“There is no magic any more,

We meet as other people do,

You work no miracle for me

Nor I for you.”

—Sara Teasdale, excerpt from “After Love”

You were so important when I met you. Every time you made me laugh, I felt my brain cells build new receptors and carry them down their axons to my synapses, imprinting your voice into my mind. You were the first person I could talk to about everything, the first to inflict me with all-night conversations that made me fall asleep at the microscope the next afternoon. I revealed my obsession with carnivorous plants and my grief for the memories burned with my childhood home. You shared your fear of watching your parents get old and tried to convince me that humans have free will. When you challenged my preconceptions, neurons budded new dendrites and branched out, learning you, keeping you, and I wished my hand could grow extra fingers to hold your hand more entirely.

 

For a time, it seemed like every moment was unforgettable. My lovestruck brain was riddled with the norepinephrine hormone, which, besides ruining my sleep and appetite, increased my capacity to make memories of us. Dopamine and natural opioids lit up my central nervous system’s reward circuitry till I couldn’t imagine life without you. The oxytocin I produced in your arms made me feel secure.

 

Then a year into my neuroscience PhD, you moved three thousand miles away to become a nuclear engineer in California. I understood that there are only so many opportunities to become such a thing. I was stuck in Boston, chasing my own dream.

 

It turned out that the fiber connecting us had poor tensile strength, and neither of us was willing to make the professional sacrifices necessary to close the distance. You said that as soon as a good job opened up near Boston, you’d take it in a heartbeat. But you didn’t have time to search, and none of the positions I suggested fit your criteria. I secretly resented that you never asked me to transfer to a closer university. You would have said it was too much to ask, and you would have been right. But I thought selfishness was part of love. I thought it would have meant that you needed me as much as I needed you.

 

Romantic attachment isn’t all that different from addiction. But knowing that didn’t make it easier for me. You were gone, and my reward circuitry experienced diminished activation, and my brain’s stress system went into overdrive in the extended amygdala. Each time one of us visited the other, it was, for me, a drug relapse—a temporary high followed by unbearable withdrawals. And there was no end in sight.

 

I don’t know how long it took me to notice that you’d stopped being my oxygen and started being carbon monoxide. When you claimed you loved me, it took my breath away in a new sense. My lungs didn’t know the difference; they filled and emptied with their usual rhythm. But I was suffocating, and I realized I’d have to find a way to let you go.

 

We called it a mutual decision, though I think it cost me more. The opposite of symbiosis, we separated our lives in order to grow. And over time, biology did what seemed to me impossible: it transformed lovers back into acquaintances. Your absence crept into the directories of my mind and began deleting files one by one. The image of your face was reduced in resolution. Whole minutes passed without a single thought of you, then hours, then days. Receptors at the synapses of the cell network storing our memories were slowly recycled, broken down for spare parts. Dendritic trees were pruned, neuronal processes retracted like hands letting go, slowly erasing the evidence of your impact on my life.

 

But traces of you will persist indefinitely. Memories are tangible things—they live in the organization of our neurons. Strange, to think that my physical brain contains remnants of your influence, like scars. I don’t think about you all the time anymore, but our past is tangled up with other circuits in my mind. A song comes on the radio, one that was popular during our relationship, and it’s like time travel.

 

There are certain smells, too, that can still access the emotional network preserving your two-year contribution to my biology. Fewer smells now than before. The aromatic compounds in jasmine used to speak of our walks in spring, when the tangled vines all over campus bloomed synchronously. After you converted me into a coffee drinker, the vapor of my daily dark roast smelled like our morning commute. In the years after you left, the jasmine continued to bloom, and God knows I kept drinking coffee, till their scents were redefined in my brain’s aroma dictionary. Now coffee just smells like the start of my day, like emails and optimism.

 

But some scents still belong to your memory—curry, because you cooked Indian food several times a week; the laundry detergent you used; your shampoo. The deodorant I wore back then, before I switched brands. I still have a half-used stick in a drawer; I take it out now and then because it scratches a hard-to-reach itch in my brain.

 

Oh, how I used to marvel at your ability to rearrange the very atoms of my mind. As a romantic, I pretended this was a special truth, but as a scientist I knew very well that every memorable thing—a sunset, an annoying tune, a burning house—has the same power.

* * *

Copyright © 2018 by Rachael Kuintzle

An earlier version of this story was published with the title “Two-Body Problem” in 2018 in California’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction from Z Publishing. The current version was first published in 2023 in Inner Space and Outer Thoughts: Speculative From Caltech and JPL Authors from TechLit Publishing.

Teaspoons

teaspoons

RACHAEL KUINTZLE

Water pours down the back of Ari’s head as she steps out of the hot spring, facing away from me, to the east. The curved rays of the sun set her blonde ponytail on fire, reminding me of a photograph from a family trip when I was too young to form memories: the granite face of El Capitan’s Horsetail Falls lit by a winter sunset, the plummeting water supplanted by lava.

 

It makes me forget, for a second, how gross the water is.

 

We towel off, grab our bags, and trudge a mile back down the Willamette Valley trail in squidgy flip-flops while our shadows hop along the trunks of the Douglas firs. Each step flings mud up on the back of my swim trunks. There’s a stream not far from our tent, where we rinse off the dirt and specks of black algae still clinging to our skin. The ambient temperature is sinking rapidly, and Ari shrieks in protest when I shake the water out of my shoulder-length hair, splattering her with freezing drops. After laying our towels out on the campsite’s wood picnic table to dry, we hold each other to get warm, bare skin on mostly bare skin, rough with goosebumps. I rest my chin on the top of Ari’s head, and the chattering of her teeth vibrates our skulls. When I press her closer for more efficient heat transfer, my fingers create radiating white impressions on her beet-red upper back.

 

“You’re pretty burnt, Ari.”

 

“Ugh,” she scoffs, pulling away, “We should have brought something stronger than SPF 30.” She bends over to open her drawstring bag and extracts a sweatshirt.

 

“I think it was user error. You’re supposed to reapply once in a while.”

 

She pulls the sweatshirt over her head, covering her black bikini top and muffling her voice. “I can’t believe we fell asleep in the sun,” she says, and her face pops out the neck hole.

 

“That’s what we get for trying to bring work with us . . .”

 

The only thing we learned this afternoon was that technical science articles are not leisure reading material.

 

Ari shivers and holds her arms, shifting from one foot to the other in a chilly dance. When I reach around her lower back to draw her closer, she winces, now conscious of the sunburn.

 

I offer to apply aloe vera. Grinning, she unzips the tent, and we crawl inside.

 

* * *

 

As fun as it was to get out of town and hang with Ari, I’m glad when the weekend is over and I can go home to my dog, to which she is allergic, and my routine.

 

I always set an alarm for 6:30 a.m. but usually wake up a few minutes before. First thing, I take Chess out for a run on the trail behind my house. Chess is part black lab and part border collie. Though I do enjoy her namesake board game, I actually named her after my mom, Fran, whose full name is Francesca. Chess was the runt of a litter of nine puppies abandoned at the Goodwill, and the only one still unclaimed when I wandered into the Eugene Humane Society on a whim. As soon as I laid eyes on her I felt she was meant for me, though of course I don’t believe in that sort of thing.

 

After feeding Chess, I shower, make coffee, check email, sometimes click on one of those NPR news notifications that I accidentally signed up for, and FaceTime my mom. She has middle-stage, early onset Alzheimer’s. We got the bad news four years ago, when I was four years into my dissertation on small molecule catalysts of Amyloid β-peptide plaque degradation—in other words, I was trying to develop a drug that could safely stop the progression of Alzheimer’s. My mother’s diagnosis was a coincidence none of us were prepared for.

 

At 8:30 a.m., I ride my bike 2.5 miles to campus, rain or shine. My roommate and fellow post-doc researcher—Graham—has a car, but I’m not as fond of working noon to midnight. I head home for dinner around 8:00 p.m. All day I look forward to drinking a beer while I watch a show or two with Chess. If Graham gets home when I’m still awake, we share a joint and chat or play a video game. But lately I seem to need more sleep than I used to.

 

After my mom’s diagnosis, I dreaded going to bed. Every night I stared at the ceiling, alone with my thoughts, knowing I couldn’t help my mom no matter how much I wanted to. How many hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists had worked on Alzheimer’s over the last century? Was I really going to be the one to find the cure? Thinking back, I hadn’t entered the field under that delusion. I’d been happy with the idea of making an incremental discovery that might hasten the crawl of progress. I quickly learned that the normal pace of science isn’t good enough when someone’s life is on the line, right there in front of you.

 

I hated the weekly, hopeful questions about my research, my father frustrated, trying so hard to understand jargon he hadn’t given two shits about before it started killing his wife. Mom just believed in me too much. Before long, the pressure began to affect my science; it’s hard to be unbiased when you want so badly for results to turn out a certain way. So I rode out the last two years of my PhD and gave up Alzheimer’s research. Now, as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Oregon, I use my skills to identify novel agricultural applications of various plant hormones. My research could still do some good for the world, but no one expects it to save their life.

 

Things got worse for a while, after I changed my field of study. My dad acted as though I was the only one who could help her and was choosing not to. I couldn’t bring myself to explain that his unmerited hope was strangling me. My mom . . . well, she made it harder, because she couldn’t remember that I’d changed fields. For a long time, she thought I was still working on a cure for her disease. I only corrected her once. I’ll never forget the look on her face, like she’d just received her diagnosis for the first time. The next morning, when she asked about my research like usual, I wondered momentarily if there wasn’t a merciful God out there.

 

But eventually, she forgot I was a scientist at all. Ironic, since she was the one who got me into science in the first place. Some people complain about their kids asking “Why?” all the time, but it was the other way around for me. I couldn’t eat an ice cream cone without my mother asking why it was cold, or ride a bicycle without her asking how it stays upright. She turned every conversation into a physics lesson, as if she didn’t do enough of that as a high school teacher. So I got into the habit of asking why, and at some point I learned I could get paid to figure out the answers.

 

She’s still asking questions, but the difference is she doesn’t know the answers anymore. And I’m still asking questions, but not the one that really matters.

 

The fact that I feel guilty every day of my life doesn’t mean I regret my decision. I did the necessary thing—joined the victim role, since I couldn’t be the savior. And I got a dog; I put my whole self into keeping her healthy and happy. That is something I can do.

 

* * *

 

My phone rings at 8:36 p.m. on Saturday night. Chess is competing with the game controller for my attention, and this is causing Graham to win. The ringtone clashes with the game music till the call goes to voicemail. When Graham’s victory becomes official, I reach for my phone, but Chess intercepts my hand with her favorite toy of the moment: an octopus squeaker plush missing half its arms. We play a vicious game of tug of war to the soundtrack of frenzied squeaking, and another tentacle meets its maker. That it has so many little pieces to rip off is, I think, the main reason Chess loves it so much. I make a mental note to buy a mending kit and regenerate its limbs.

 

The doorbell announces the arrival of our takeout order.

 

“I’ll get it,” Graham says, and pauses his TV show.

 

Chess already had her dinner, but I give her a rawhide bone to chew on while we eat.

 

Graham and I move a pile of mail, notebooks, and keys from the table to the counter and set our places by snapping wooden chopsticks and laying them on paper napkins. Two bites in, my frantic dash to the fridge sends my chair skidding across the wood floor with a horrible scraping sound. I fling the door open, grab a gallon of milk, and pour it directly into my mouth. Graham is laughing.

 

When the flames in my mouth have faded to embers, I wipe my eyes and return to the fridge to stare at its uninspiring contents. I’ll have to find something else to eat for dinner. My hand wanders to my pocket and pulls out my phone, which displays the voicemail notification from earlier. I don’t recognize the number, but I press play and pin the phone to my ear with my shoulder as cold air continues leaking out of the void.

 

“Hello, this is an urgent message for David Moreland,” the recording begins. “This is Dr. Fields from PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center. Please call back as soon as you can at 541 . . .”

 

My hand freezes halfway to a questionable block of cheddar as Mom’s face flashes in my mind—but of course, she wouldn’t be here in Eugene. I shut the fridge door, dial the number, and wander down the dark hallway to my room while it rings. My mind races, trying to figure out what has happened.

 

“Yeah, hi, this is David Moreland. I’m returning a call from, uh, Dr. Fields?”

 

The receptionist puts me on hold. After three minutes of pacing in the dark, the elevator music stops and a female voice says, “Mr. Moreland?”

 

“Yes, this is him,” I answer, bringing my phone back to my ear.

 

“I’m afraid I have some bad news,” she begins. “Your friend, Ari Kanellis, has a parasitic brain infection, likely contracted at the Terwilliger Hot Springs last weekend. She said you were there as well. Have you experienced headaches or nausea since returning from your trip?”

 

* * *

 

I don’t remember seeing Ari dip underwater. When she leaned back against the side of the pool, her ponytail got wet, but I don’t know when or how she got water on her face. I never splashed her . . . I think. I never heard of Naegleria fowleri this far north. But I’ve seen the news stories—every summer, it’s found in a new area. Oh god . . . maybe I got water on my face—did I? For the life of me, I can’t remember. How could we have been so careless?

 

On my bike, I don’t have the luxury of speeding, but I run a few stop signs and this confers some illusion of control. My heart is pounding from adrenaline and my vigorous pedaling. My hair whips around my head and I realize I’ve forgotten to wear a helmet. Smoke from wood-burning stoves nearby seasons my anxiety with a pinch of nostalgia. I watch the road for nails, screws, glass. My face and arms sting from the contrast of the frigid air and the hot capillaries in my bare skin; my fingers ache from the cold. I long for the jacket hanging by the door at home, and for the gloves stored in the WINTER CLOTHES box in my closet. Somehow, I’ve failed to notice the beginning of autumn.

 

The hospital is less than two miles away. I feel silly locking up my bike, irreverent; the potential theft of it pales next to the potential loss of a human life. But my hands, despite their shaking, have executed the task before I finish my thought.

 

I get directions to Ari’s room and am startled to see a middle-aged couple, whom I presume to be her parents, sitting at her bedside. I know little about her family, other than where they live: Phoenix, Arizona. I wonder how they got to the hospital so quickly.

 

Ari is unconscious—asleep, I hope. There’s a heavy plastic blanket on her body, a thin vinyl cap wrapped around her head and buttoned under her chin. The woman lets go of Ari’s limp fingers, which are peeking out from under the blanket, and wipes away the fresh tears that slip down dried trails when I enter the room. My appearance has disturbed her emotional equilibrium—that mental state equivalent of fingers gone numb with cold.

 

The man’s eyes are red and swollen. He stands and sticks out his hand. “Are you Ari’s boyfriend?”

 

I’m not at liberty to describe my actual relationship to their daughter, which is a form of sexual symbiosis that we revert to between romantic attachments. It happens that Ari was just dumped by her boyfriend of four months, with whom she was previously convinced she’d been in love, and the weekend camping trip was her idea for getting away from it all. I realize she hasn’t informed her parents of the breakup, which would make our status all the more arduous to explain.

 

“No, a friend,” I say, shaking his hot hand; I half-expect a sizzling sound when my ice-cold palm makes contact. “Dave. You’re her parents?”

 

“Yes,” he replies, and then gesturing to himself and his wife, “Terry and Marge.” He eyes me suspiciously, and sits back down.

 

I awkwardly shift my weight from foot to foot, wondering whether I should take a seat too. “How’s she doing?” I ask, surprised by how calm my voice sounds.

 

“Well,” her mother answers, with a perfunctory swipe at the now steady stream of tears, “they say she’s lucky, because they caught it early and she’s responding so well to the treatment.”

 

Terry adds, “The new drug is supposed to have a sixty percent success rate for patients like Ari: early diagnosis, young, healthy.” He stands again, and starts pacing the room.

 

“We have lots of reasons to hope,” says Marge, fidgeting with the ends of her sweater sleeves. “They said that less than a year ago, the survival rate for this type of parasitic meningitis was only one percent.”

 

They cling to these statistics like life rafts. I ask how long Ari’s been asleep, and they explain that she’s been put into a medically induced coma to reduce brain swelling, that her body temperature was lowered to ninety-three degrees Fahrenheit to preserve undamaged brain tissue. From the conversation that follows, I learn they arrived yesterday to visit for Labor Day weekend, and thank god for that—they had to twist Ari’s arm to get her to the hospital when she began vomiting and complaining of a splitting headache and stiff neck. Of course, Ari thought they were overreacting, but they’re from the South, where PAM—primary amebic meningoencephalitis—has become endemic in the last two years. The warming climate, combined with the last decade’s widespread flooding, created prime conditions for the parasite’s spread. People wear CDC-approved nose plugs in the shower, Terry says, but I can’t tell if it’s fact or hyperbole.

 

Once they finally got her to Sacred Heart, they had to beg the doctor to test for it. He was convinced it was the flu, despite the revelation of Ari’s trip to the hot springs; after all, the site in question is five hundred miles north of the nearest reported N. fowleri incidence. But he ran the test, and treatment began as soon as the new drug arrived, an hour later, by helicopter.

 

Marge asks if I can contact Ari’s boyfriend, and I explain that he and Ari have broken up. They likely infer as much as they care to know about my role in their daughter’s life based on this information, because they ask no personal questions afterward.

 

A nurse enters the room to check on Ari. Terry and Marge request an update, but nothing has changed in the ten minutes since the last evaluation—her vitals read as they should. As he scribbles on his clipboard, my ears focus on the heart monitor, a messenger returning every second to report: she’s alive.

 

I approach the bed and feel a punch of guilt. But I hadn’t any reason to suspect a risk, and anyway, it wasn’t my idea to go to the hot springs. I hope she’ll be okay. My eyes sting with a failure to produce tears. I touch the blanket, near Ari’s leg. It’s cold—full of chilled circulating water to keep her body temperature low. The only exposed skin on her body, her neck, is peeling from the sunburn, despite the aloe vera. I resist an urge to reach out and peel her.

 

I leave with the nurse, Jalen, to get tested. After I fill out the paperwork, he takes me into an examination room and measures my blood pressure and weight, checks my pupil dilation. Finally, he asks me to change into a hospital gown, then to lay on my right side on the table with a paper sheet covering my lower half. When he returns, I’m asked to pull my knees to my chest. I feel a wet force on my back as he cleans a small area to prepare for the anesthetic injection. It hurts more than I expect, but the drug takes effect quickly. After warning that I’ll feel an uncomfortable pressure, and fulfilling that prophecy, Jalen’s got a fresh aliquot of my cerebral spinal fluid in a sterile tube, and it’s over.

 

Jalen assures me the assay won’t take more than fifteen minutes, and leaves me in privacy to change. I relocate to the waiting room and pass an agonizing half hour in a struggle to relive last weekend’s dip in the hot spring with single-second resolution. I convince myself that my face never got wet; still, I’m terrified. My head begins to hurt. I pull out my phone and Google “brain-eating amoeba.” WebMD says it can be found in untreated well water, aquariums, and indoor dust. Fuck WebMD.

 

My test comes back negative. I hail a ride service, as I’m not supposed to engage in strenuous activity for at least twelve hours.

 

I finally cry after returning from the hospital, but the reason mortifies me. I’ve felt this way once before: when I learned my mother’s disease wasn’t familial. Tucked into bed with Chess on my feet, enveloped by the smell of burning dust from the heater’s first shift of autumn, I cry because it could have been me.

* * *  

 

Ari was the thirty-sixth person to survive the infection after the introduction of the new amebicidal drug. However, I think the term “survived” is too generous in Ari’s case.

 

The first and last time I see her after she’s regained consciousness is at her apartment. I call her parents to see how she’s doing, and after communicating the bad news, they ask if I want to see her. Of course, they have to offer, and I have to say yes. I don’t think about whether I want to.

 

Ari smiles when I step into her bedroom. It’s a different kind of smile than the one she normally makes when I enter her bedroom—it’s an innocent, radiant smile. She drops a large puzzle piece, and presses her fists to her chest with delight. I ask if I can sit down, indicating the chair at her bedside, and she answers, “Yeah,” though her tongue seems to get in the way.

 

“Hey, how are you?” I ask, and I’m ashamed by my condescending tone.

 

Ari grins and exhales in a gurgling laugh, craning her head back to her shoulders. “Puppy,” she says suddenly, pointing to the uncompleted puzzle on the serving tray over her lap. The head and front paws have begun to take shape, and Ari seems very proud of this.

 

“Good job, Ari,” I say, smiling too brightly. I feel queasy. I reach for a loose puzzle piece, and she claps and vocalizes when I fix the dog’s ID tag in place. Then she grabs another piece and begins to hunt.

 

While our hands work, my mind wanders. The woman in front of me is a mere fraction of the Ari I met two years ago during my first week at the University of Oregon—the hipster computer science grad student in the corner of The Daily Grind café with her longboard leaning up against the wall. After ordering my coffee, I walked over and asked if I could sit next to her, because it was the only empty seat in the room. She didn’t answer; she was absorbed in her code, couldn’t see or hear me. I’d come to know that very little can faze Ari when she’s coding. I remember feeling invisible beside her. I remember feeling irritated by her ignorance of my existence.

 

Ari is looking at me as if waiting for a response. My mind replays the word she just said without my conscious hearing. It sounds like “cheese,” but the consonants stick to her palate, and the long vowel stretches her mouth like a hockey puck. She’s hungry, I guess.

 

Marge brings in a tray with apples, string cheese, and a sandwich. “Supposedly she can’t taste anything,” Marge says. “I think she just likes to peel the string cheese.” She looks old, exhausted; her eyes are empty. They’re missing the hope I saw her drowning in at the hospital.

 

Shortly after my visit with Ari, her parents move her back to Phoenix, where they will care for her until they need to be cared for themselves.

 

I’ve never been a religious person; I identify as an atheist and have rejected spirituality in general. But it turns out there was a part of me that believed in some kind of hardware-independent “soul,” and that part of me died with Ari’s frontal lobe. She didn’t teach me anything grand about love, or even friendship; I didn’t elevate our relationship to something it wasn’t after she changed. But she made truth for me what I’d only known before in principle: that we are merely our atoms, and their arrangement. That the soul has mass, can be measured, can be physically destroyed, in whole or in part.

* * * 

 

Two years later, my mom doesn’t remember my name. She recognizes me most of the time, though it might take a while. She calls me “Dan” on her good days and “Bobby” on her bad days. Bob is her older brother, who passed away nearly a decade ago.

 

I’ve taken some time off work to help my dad care for her, during what the doctors say are her last few months. It’s a colder winter than usual in my hometown of Denver, Colorado. My dad never brings up my career change anymore. If I had to guess, he’s realized that if the world’s top scientists haven’t found a cure by now, there’s no way his son could have.

 

When Mom feels up to it, we hang out in the kitchen doing the kinds of science experiments she used to do with me as a child. We mix water and cornstarch to make oobleck, a non-Newtonian fluid, which she loves squeezing through her fists. We drop food coloring into a pie pan full of milk, and she laughs as we chase away the colors with a Q-tip coated in dish soap. I toss a lit match into an empty plastic water bottle, then set a freshly peeled egg on the opening; her eyes widen as it gets sucked inside.

 

When my mom feels very poorly, I sit upstairs by her bed and talk to her. On clear days, I explain why the sky outside her bedroom windows is blue. On stormy days, I teach her about lightning, thunder, and wind. When we can see the stars, I tell her they are giant balls of very hot gas that sometimes explode and fling atoms out into space. She smiles when I take her hand and explain that we are made of tiny atoms created inside of stars. My mom gets to learn all over again the beautiful truths about this world that made her fall in love with physics, the things she taught me, which infected me early on with curiosity and wonder. The things she taught her high school physics students, which inspired so many of them to become engineers and astronomers. She learns them all over again, for a brief time, every day.

 

I’ve found that it is possible to let her go a little at a time. There’s a strange kind of peace in the realization that she is divisible; it gives me permission to mourn the part of her that doesn’t exist anymore, while still cherishing every moment we have left. She loses herself in fractions, according to Zeno’s paradox: half is gone, then a quarter more, an eighth . . . . I say goodbye to her in teaspoons, as her soul is conveyed, piecemeal, to rest.

* * *

 

Copyright © 2023 by Rachael Kuintzle

This story was first published in 2023 in Inner Space and Outer Thoughts: Speculative From Caltech and JPL Authors from TechLit Publishing.

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