Oh, you guys are in for a treat tonight. I will say nothing, so as to not spoil it for you. But I will tell you that Jess finished this up while suffering from an amazing roller derby injury. She got this to me while she was prepping for surgery. Yes, this is how much talent she has while in crazy pain and on drugs.
by Jessamy Thomison
Tabby wouldn’t have so many questions about her powers if her mother had made it through the cancer. She guessed not, anyway. According to Aunt Vera, her mother Peggy had been the strongest pusher in the family, maybe even the strongest one the family had ever produced. If she’d lived, she would’ve taught her daughter how to push right. She could push her way through anything, alive or dead, Vera said. She’d pushed the wheel lock right off their car when the repo man came on his motorcycle to take it. Snapped the metal like a potato chip, scared the life out of the biker and saved the car. All while the Aunts cowered in the house, clutching the babies and praying. (Tabby thinks Vera made up the praying. There wasn’t much of that around the house, not that she remembers, anyway.)
When he’d come for the car, Peggy went on out on the porch and faced him down like it was nothing. After she broke his locks and his bike, he yelled all sorts of things at her and started up the stairs, bringing a knife out of his vest pocket as he climbed. Vera said Peggy didn’t budge an inch, not when he cussed a blue streak, not when he moved towards her, and not even when he raised the knife. She just steadied herself on the porch rail and pushed on him until he couldn’t remember what the hell he wanted out at the farm in the first place. Peggy herself drove him back into town after that, gentle as a lamb and just as polite as he could be. She kept the knife, Vera said.
Tabby would have been four or five when that happened. She could almost remember that day. Something about the Aunts crying, a strange man in their car, a long beard that she was just desperate to pet. It had looked like her stuffed cat’s fur. But nothing else about her mom’s way of pushing stuck with her, and Peggy was long gone. Had been since Tabby was six. The kind of cancer that took you quick, a sort of a blessing that she didn’t linger. Or so they said.
People were kind enough about it at the time, especially in the family. And while it wasn’t something she wanted to tell every single busybody, Tabby knew that you can eventually get used to not having a mother, if you’re the right kind of kid. She was, and she did. She kept her brothers in line, too, right through their daddy showing up, taking them to live on base with him, and then dragging them through every military town in four states for the next ten years.
The Aunts had mostly stopped speaking to them, breaking all ties after Daddy took Tabby and her brothers and left the state the first time. But the push usually skipped generations, and nobody (apparently) had expected one of Peggy’s kids to have much to speak of. They might have tried harder if anyone had known…
It was hot and dry that year, and Daddy’d been stationed in Tucson, training pilots since he couldn’t fly himself anymore. Even in the hundred-degree heat, Tabby would drag the phone out on the back steps into the baking sun, the phone cord straight and taut across the hall at neck level, with all its spirals pulled out straight. She’d sit for hours and ask Vera all the questions she could think of. Vera had been a little drunk most of the time, so she got some good answers. But once Daddy got the long distance bill, that was it. No more Aunt Vera. No more stories about her mom. And no help with her pushing.
Maybe if somebody had been around to teach her right then, she could have grown her skills, learned how to do big pushes, like Peggy’s. But no one was, and so Tabby’s push was left to wither in the desert heat. For the next thirty years, she was left with the same stunted little talent that had first popped up in Tucson. It worked best on small things: pieces of paper, leaves, water drops, animals, smaller children. The smaller and lighter the object, the more she could push on it. She couldn’t do the head work much at all, not the way Vera said Peggy could. She could maybe make somebody a little happier, a little nicer, for part of an afternoon. But she couldn’t turn a Hell’s Angel tame. And she couldn’t do much with her manager, or her husband. Lordy, Wade was going to be pissed if she didn’t bring some groceries home tonight. Tabby stopped even trying to think about her mom, and took a second to reflexively beg God that Wade would get a load that would take him out of town next week. Not that he’d be able to take it, not as sick as he was. She was just used to hoping he’d leave for a little while.
She was supposed to be working a double today, but the slack between the late lunchers and the early-bird dinner specials was stretching out long and empty. No tables, no tips. No tips, no groceries. No groceries, one angry husband at home tonight. Trying not to think about Wade was what had brought on thoughts of her mom in the first place.
Wade would have been happy if she’d had Peggy around to question, just because he always wanted her to push bigger things. The maddest she’d seen him in her life (and that was a tough call) was when they’d gone up to that horse racing track in Kentucky and she hadn’t been able to push the horses. Not enough to make them win, anyway. She sat there in the bleachers covered in slick, cold sweat, her headache rising like a bad wind, sending out her push as hard as she could. Wade watching her through race after race, tearing up his losing tickets, but not moving another muscle because he wanted it to work so bad. She was going to give him his longshot winner, his cheat sheet, his shortcut; was going to make up for a life he felt hard done by, even back then, at 26. So long ago. They’d been babies, really. The horses had moved their ears around like radar dishes, trying to find where she was coming from, what she was doing to them. But they hadn’t run any faster.
He’d hit her so bad when they got back to the motel that the people in the rooms on both sides had called the police. Her nose bleeding, she swore to the woman officer she didn’t want to press charges, and eventually they’d turned off the blue and red lights, and the two of them were left alone. He apologized to her and she apologized to him. To him! But she’d wanted it to work, wanted to be his right answer.
She would be, later, just in a smaller way. Little things, that was the key. A few years ago, he had the bright idea of taking her to the greyhound tracks down in Florida, and Wade had finally become the winner he’d dreamed of being. They went often after that, him telling her which skinny dog to push, until it had nearly killed her. The push had a steep price, especially when you used it over and over, day after day, for the length of your endurance and your husband’s patience. It took nearly a month to heal after pushing that hard, every time. Wade had always run through the money by the time she was better.
The morning after the horse races, Tabby rode home to Tennessee flat across the back seat, nursing a wrist and cheekbone that would both turn out to be broken, and bruises so bad that she’d quit her job rather than go to work all blue and purple and green.
She got another job after that, she always did. When jobs were this shitty, people were always leaving them or losing them. This restaurant alone had gone through a half dozen waitresses in the few months she’d been here. Part of it was the manager. She’d worked for worse, but not by much. Here he came up behind her, thinking he was going to surprise her, catch her slacking off.
“Time enough to lean is time enough to clean, Tabby.” Close enough behind her she could smell his wintergreen Skoal.
“Hey to you, too, Billy. Bus tubs are empty, I wiped down the tables and the line, rolled silverware, did the salad prep, swept and mopped out front, filled the bread baskets, topped up the ketchup bottles and took care of the counters. What else you got that needs cleaning?” Kind of a dangerous question, but she was in no mood. Not with Wade wanting groceries. Which he couldn’t eat anyway.
“Well…” he had to think. “I see a lot of cleaning to go around that last table.”
“Yeah, Billy, but the lady’s still eating. I can’t very well go clattering my broom up under her baby’s highchair.” She could be sweet and reasonable with him today, she had that much left in her.
“Damn kids. They can make more mess with a handful of crackers than my dogs do rolling in roadkill.” She shook her head at him, grudgingly admitting that he had a point. “As soon as the bitch takes her brat and clears out, you get that section spotless, right?” She took back the idea that Billy had ever had a point in his life.
“Right. You know I will.” Tabby started slowly wiping down the already-clean counter, trying to do absolutely nothing while giving the appearance of activity. It worked well enough. Billy took himself back to the kitchen and left her alone.
The woman, the last customer, was reading a vampire romance novel while she finished up her fries. It was true, Tabby saw, napkin shreds and cracker crumbs were scattered in thick pasty lumps spreading out around the highchair. The boy in it was quiet, beating his last Captain’s Wafer into a wet pulp with one fat hand, and his mom was taking a little break. Tabby didn’t begrudge her the table—nobody else was waiting for it—or the modest mess. That was what kids did, and it wouldn’t take long at all to make the traces of her and her little boy disappear.
Tabby watched the mother and son with just a tiny splash of envy. The boy was adorable; about nine months old, bright-eyed and shiny-bald as a hard-boiled egg. He’d smiled a lot during the meal, and flashed a gummy grin at Tabby damn near every time she’d brought his mom more unsweet tea. The mom was tired looking (who wouldn’t be with such a lively little one?), but she and the baby were very neatly dressed. They looked happy together. Or mostly happy, as happy as anyone normally gets to be. Tabby was ready to be that happy. It wouldn’t be long now.
As she looked at the pair, careful to keep wiping the counter on auto-pilot, Tabby saw the boy reach and grab for something pushed down into the crack between the plastic cushions of the high chair. He hooked it out, popped it into his mouth, and swallowed it, quick as a flash. Tabby saw his happy expression go away. The boy’s eyes and mouth opened hugely in distress, his throat started working up and down, and his arms flailed silently. Tabby realized he was choking. His mom hadn’t noticed yet, still caught up in the book with big red lips sprouting fangs on the front cover.
Tabby had to do it. She knew it would cost her, but she dropped her dishcloth, looked at him straight and tight, and pulled together all the energy she could find. She reached out, found him, felt his throat straining, felt the obstruction, and with her full attention buried in the neck of the boy in front of her closed eyes, she PUSHED on something small and hard inside him. She didn’t have time to make it gentle, just a brute force shot at him like a gun.
If anyone had been watching her, they would have seen her eyes squeeze tight shut while the hair on her head and arms briefly stood up, like fur on a furious cat. She sucked in her own deep breath as she felt the push hit, energy streaming from her and running right through him, tangling around the obstruction in the tiny windpipe and carrying it away in an instant. Way too much force. Something whizzed out of his mouth (a penny! It was just a penny!) and hit his mother’s arm across the table. Probably going to leave a little bruise on her, Tabby thought, sagging back down into her shoes.
The boy gulped in half the air in the restaurant, and started to let out a huge, terrified scream. The woman was on her feet before he’d even finished the inhale, her book dropped to the floor beside her. Tabby could see the real pain and fear in the boy’s scream register on his mother’s face, saw her focus go as narrow as Tabby’s own had been. The mother scooped him up without pausing to unstrap him, sliding his belly and limbs easily past the highchair’s restraints. She grabbed her purse with her off hand, threw bills on the table, and made for her car without taking her eyes off the screaming boy. The vampire mouth grinned up from the book on the floor, totally forgotten.
Tabby would’ve smiled too, but she was taking the backlash from the push full in the head. She clutched the counter with both hands and felt the sickness dribble down out of her skull and leak all through her body. If she could ride this part out without throwing up, she stood a better chance of dodging the migraine coming right behind. She sucked air and waited for the first part of the shock to finish. Her knees were loose, and she felt like she might lose the fight with her stomach.
She hadn’t held anything back from that push. If she’d calibrated, tried to manage it better, the boy could have choked to death while she fiddled. It had been the right choice, and he’d be fine, but she probably wasn’t going to make it through her shift. And forget about getting groceries. Not that Wade really needed anything. Tabby breathed and counted her pulse beats, waiting for them to slow down.
The doctors only gave Wade months now. Certainly less than a year. She thought that sounded about right. He hadn’t wanted more radiation, refused it right out, and so his crappy old trucking company insurance had eventually paid for a part-time, minimum-wage home health aide. The lady working tonight wasn’t bad. If Tabby went home right now, as soon as she could drive again, the aide would still be there for almost four more hours. She could sleep this one off in her own bed. Wade wouldn’t like it, but there wasn’t much left he could do to her.
She breathed more slowly, not needing to put as much effort into holding her lunch down. Tabby figured she might have almost outlasted the nausea. Not much longer. She could hold on. It was kind of funny, Wade always thought she exaggerated this part. He just wouldn’t believe her, no matter how many times he saw her on her knees in front of a toilet, then in the bed and sick for weeks afterwards. But little things could take a lot out of you. All those useless rounds of radiation, for example, had done to him a version of what pushing—especially too much pushing—did to her.
If Billy came back out, she could tell him to call one of the other girls in early, she was sick and she was leaving. If he wouldn’t do it, she’d quit on the spot. Maybe even if he would. She hadn’t really wanted to take this job, but Wade had still been well enough a few months ago to hurt her. He wasn’t now.
What was the home health aide’s name? Natalie? Nelly? She’d give Wade a bath, put him in his bed early if Tabby asked her to. Her feet and legs were firming up underneath her. She noticed she was less dizzy. She might just leave. She could go home and not even see Wade all night. It wouldn’t make any difference.
His cancer, not at all the quick kind like her mother’s, was well advanced by now. It didn’t need her pushing it to keep going. It had barely needed it to start. The bad cells, the ones that had turned into the cancer, were about as little as things came. They were so tiny in the beginning, just one teensy push had turned them a different direction, made them change. She’d tried it out the same night she thought of it. Little things, almost the littlest things of all. And the life insurance wouldn’t hurt. Maybe she’d move to Florida after it was all over.