Escape Pod 522: Bioluminescent Memory (Artemis Rising)
Welcome to the 2nd Annual Artemis Rising, a celebration of women and non-binary authors.
By Victorya Chase
“Riley’s a Godsend, isn’t she?” Lily asked.
We were standing in the doorway of our daughter, Absidee’s, bedroom watching her sleep. She started to stir, face contorting in the fear of a nightmare surfacing, when Riley put a glowing paw up and patted her on the cheek. Her face immediately softened.
I sighed. How was it that Riley could do what I couldn’t?
Four years ago I gave birth to our daughter, a blessing and symbol of our blessing. Absidee was a fairy tale in each and every laugh and gurgle. But, a child who had nightmares so terrible she’d wake us up with her screaming even when she was too young to talk. We kept her in our bed, and still she couldn’t sleep. Absidee shouldn’t have been aware of anything terrible, not in the overprotective home of two first-time mothers.
When Absidee turned three her pediatrician warned us about the long term effects of helicopter parenting, especially with both of us hovering like news copters at a crash. Since birth she had slept with us, the crib at the end of our bed empty most nights, her screams waking me and her little body lashing out in night terrors. We conceded to her own room. This only meant that her yells echoed down the halls. At four she was lingual and no longer spoke in just the gurgling speech of babies. I heard her murmur the name from her dreams and realized my trauma was transferred through the womb; the umbilical cord a pump of memories into her tiny growing body.
I had never even told Lily the name of my abuser no matter how many times we spoke in hushed tones about the experiences I somehow survived. And suddenly it was on the lips of Absidee.
Bioluminescence started as a way to track FIV in the feral cat community. Cats were captured, tagged, given the glowing gene, and then set free. Ultimately, this created a new breed of cat. Sleek-furred glowworm green and blue animals ran all over town. Shelters teamed with these radioactive felines.
Lily brought up the idea of getting Riley first, not that Riley was Riley then. She was a stray among a number of strays in cages lining the walls of a shelter. As much as humanity could grow in science, conscience was much harder. Absidee had just spent her first week in her room, a painful experience for us all. Lily held her while we walked from cage to cage, examining the animals. Many paws reached out to us, but Absidee only reached back for Riley—a pale green glowing tuxedo cat with eyes bright from knowledge behind them, not the genetic markers spliced into her forbearers.
I was slightly scared of Riley. There was something to her, something familiar. She guarded Absidee fiercely and never left her side. When I held Absidee, which wasn’t too often, Riley was always there, circling me, as if waiting for my gene to kick in. The one that saw my child as the enemy. As a punching bag.
I loved my child with a ferocity I never thought possible, but each day was a struggle that my past not become her future. Could I look at her one day with hatred, my love spoiled? Would I be capable of hurting her?
Absidee was leaning against a doorjamb while examining me from top to bottom with her deep brown eyes. I saw in them a mixture of curiosity and sadness. By her side sat Riley, her gaze matching Absidees. Riley was more a parent than I could be.
“Do you see this?” I asked Lily.
“See what?” she asked.
I wanted to explain that our daughter was examining me, perhaps questioning me as much as I was. Then Absidee let out a coo that tore through my thoughts, walked over in her toddler drunken man walk, and clung to Lily’s leg. Lily lifted her and held her tight while Riley wound her way around us. I could have sworn her purring stopped when she reached me.
“Do you think something else happened to those cats when they got that night light gene?” I asked Lily.
“Like, maybe it made them more intelligent or something,” I said.
“Cats have always been more intelligent than we give them credit for. More aware,” she said, rolling over to face me. “What’s this about?”
I didn’t tell her that my nightmares had returned. They were intermittent, but there. And my mother lived in those dreams. It’s where I was trapped. Alone. There was no hope, only that blackness of the soul and so much fear. I’d been waking up crying with no one to comfort me. Lily slept through everything. She could tell in the mornings though, by the bags under my eyes bigger than Absidee’s diaper bag, that I’d had a bad night.
“It’s just-” I said, trailing off. I never knew how to make her understand my world when hers was so different. We were a Venn Diagram with only one point touching.
She enveloped me in her arms, holding me, and breathed warm air into the nape of my neck. It was her way of trying to protect me, to put me into her womb of love.
That night was the worst one yet. This time it was the car we had lived when I was child, just the two of us and my mother’s cat. There was always a cat. The cat was caged in the front seat; I caged in the back. I was suffocating, scared and dying before I awoke sweating. There was no way I could get back to sleep, because even waking I was there and felt the bars burning my skin. The only thing that could calm me was late night talk shows and peppermint tea. The tea a gentle warmth that drifted up to my nose while some celebrity plugged their historical reenactment of a school shooting. I couldn’t tell which one.
Just as I was being lulled away from my nightmares there was a shift of weight on the couch. Riley had joined me.
“Not standing guard tonight?” I asked. She had never spent a night away from Absidee. She was either curled up next to her or sitting in the doorframe watching me pace back and forth, peering in to see if our nightmares were synched.
Riley sniffed at my tea, almost putting her whole face in and closing her eyes either from the steam or the catnip mixture in the tea. Lids still at half-mast, she lay next to me and pushed a paw against my lap.
Riley had never been a family cat. Since day one the glowing animal had been exclusively Absidee’s. I reached out to pet her green fur, wondering how she felt about lighting up. How all cats must feel. It had to have changed their vision. No longer could they be the perfect predator, not when they couldn’t hide in the darkness. Maybe she couldn’t sleep either, a terrible fate for a cat.
She pushed her head into my hand and the color of her fur changed. A deep red replaced the green normal to her.
“And what is this?” I asked, taking my hand away, my print still visible in her fur.
Riley lifted the paw that had been touching me. It was also red. She licked it and it went back to green. Her tiny face stared up at me with true concern. Although, I was probably projecting.
She nudged me again. Her body was so warm. I set the mug down and ran my hand down her back.
“Don’t be afraid,” appeared in a red glow. Nothing makes someone more afraid than being told they shouldn’t be, especially by a ten pound glowing animal. I shifted away from her but she crawled into my lap.
When Absidee was three, right after Riley became part of our family, Absidee would hold her by the neck and drag her around the house and Riley couldn’t stop purring. She was sat on, thrown into the tub, pelted with various objects, and was fine with it all as long as Absidee was the perpetrator. I would get errant swats just for standing too close to Riley.
Riley cleaned the words off her back and pushed me again. I lifted my arm, hesitant, and she took the initiative to rub her body under my hand.
“It’s not easy,” was on her back.
Riley had already begun cleaning herself. I went to pet her and she swatted me, and then nudged me when she was back to her green self.
“You’re not her,” was what appeared.
I began to big ugly cry. That it was now three a.m. and a glowing cat was telling me something I needed to hear over and over again was too much.
Riley nudged me but I couldn’t move my hand, only hold it up. She rubbed herself against it.
“Penny,” was all that appeared. I began crying so hard I could no longer breathe and fell into a fit of coughing.
I didn’t get my Riley, a tuxedo cat named Penny, until I was fifteen. Cats didn’t glow back then so she was a normal tuxedo cat that appeared in the rain. She wasn’t even supposed to be my cat. Like everything else in the house, Penny was expected to love only my mother. My mother even kept Penny isolated in her room with her for a month to make sure they bonded. However, the minute she was released from her cell, she leapt into my arms and never left, purring in my ear. My mother tried to kill her many times for that betrayal, just like she had done with previous cats that were supposed to be hers. Somehow Penny survived until I moved out. By then all her energy had been spent. Once I was truly safe, at least physically, she passed on.
That memory made my crying worse, even if it all made sense now. Riley was a grandchild or great grandchild of Penny and thus had her memories. She held in her body all the trauma connected to me. She held the memories of protecting me. Somehow our histories, our genetics, stayed entwined. Just as Absidee inherited my pain, Riley had inherited Penny’s.
This meant it didn’t end. There was no escape. Riley had to have been over three generations out from Penny, and she still carried all those memories. I wondered if she remembered being thrown off the balcony. Or how much she vomited, me holding her trembling body, after she was fed Miracle Grow. Or how many times I cried into Penny’s fur, or bled into it, or the times she bled on my clothes.
This was my legacy to Absidee, my mother’s legacy to us all. Suffering.
“We can change it,” appeared on Riley’s back. I could barely see through my tears. The words were refracted in each eyelash filled with grief.
“But how?” I finally choked out, almost in a primal scream.
Riley curled up next to me, one paw glowing red touching my pants. Already she was asleep, or feigning it. I felt a hand on my shoulder and jumped. Riley shifted and we both turned to see Lily.
“You okay, sweetie?” she asked.
I was too startled to speak. She leaned over to hug me, my sobbing only getting worse at her gentle touch. I felt Riley jump up behind me and rub against Lily. Her light shifted from green to blue.
“Together?” Lily whispered.
Riley mewed and ran off. We followed her to Absidee’s room where she was nuzzling against the back of her neck, wiping a nightmare away.
“I swear her back just said ‘together,” Lily said, yawning.
“It’s a good word,” I said, leaning into her. “A real good word.”
About the Author
Victorya Chase is a writer and a teacher. She has taught doctors how to write poetry. She has taught fiction classes to university students. She has taught adults how to write about themselves. She loves creative writing research and has published in that realm. She has also presented at conferences across the country, both academic and in the speculative realm.
About the Narrator
Serah Eley is the original producer, editor and host of Escape Pod. She mispronounced her name as Steve Eley at the time, but has since realized that life is much more fun as a woman, and came out as transgender in 2015. Serah lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her two spouses (she prefers “spice”), Sadi and Cat.
So if there were ever any betting pools on what happened to Steve: the dark-horse winner is “changed sex and joined a committed lesbian love triangle.” She is, obviously, still Having Fun.