Nosebleed again. I dab it with a tissue, but this time, the blood looks more black than red. Perhaps it’s just the flickering streetlight playing tricks with my eyes as it wages war between light and dark.
“Did you enjoy the movie?” Samantha asks, slipping an arm through mine. She presses herself to me, but I barely feel it. Still, I catch the scent of lavender on her skin, maybe a hint of lemon. The smells remind me of Earth.
“Yes, I enjoyed it,” I say, though I barely recall seeing a movie. Was it in black and white? I thought they stopped making those centuries ago.
“Do you want to walk down by the shore?” she asks. It’s only our third date, but she already clings to me like some space barnacle. Still, I wish I could feel her warmth against me; I could use an anchor in this place.
“The shore. Yes,” I say, and she leads the way. Her heels click on concrete as we walk, and I count her steps in my head. For some reason I lose track around twenty, which not long ago seemed like such a small, insignificant number.
The shore proves not to be much to look at, just some cracked asphalt running along a band of water more stream than river. Samantha calls it beautiful, but I picture a real body of water in a place I barely remember.
“Is your nose okay?” Samantha asks. It’s only our third date — or is it our fourth? — but she already knows about the nosebleeds.
We stop underneath a lamppost that flickers. While Samantha strokes my face with a hand that feels like mist, I wonder why no one on this damn planet fixes all these bulbs. She whispers, “Tell me more about Earth.”
The blood flows more steadily from my nose now, more forcefully than the sad stream beside us. I can taste salt and copper on my tongue. I wipe the blood away with a hand, but when I look at my palm, I see nothing but the shadows cast by the flickering light above.
I awake in a white, sterile room feeling hung-over, my head a whirl. My mouth wants for water, but I find nothing beside the bed except a man in a chair looking at me with slits for eyes.
“What happened?” I ask.
“We had to call you back,” the man says. He has a balding head that shines under all the lights in the room. None of them flicker.
“It was only a month. You said I’d be there at least three.”
“Your nosebleeds concerned us but you seemed otherwise okay, so we let you stay. Then we noticed you drifting.”
“Drifting? How come?”
The man shrugs. “Something must have gotten discombobulated in transmission. Not all your molecules got put back together correctly over there. Sometimes it takes awhile for us to notice. If it was easy to zap a person halfway across the galaxy, I’d already be rich.”
I sit up and notice the silver tracking band on my wrist. “What about now? Did you put everything together correctly this time?”
The man shrugs again. “Let’s hope we got it right.”
“Shitty technology,” I say, unclasping the band and tossing it to the linoleum floor. My entire body hurts: eyes, bones, even skin. “Next time I leave Earth, I’ll take a ship.”
“Be lucky you didn’t end up like our first test subject. He’s a billion pieces in space now. At least you got to date a pretty girl and go on a quick vacation.”
I have trouble remembering her name. Samantha. That’s right. She hated when I called her Sam.
“Now what?” I ask.
The man points with his clipboard. “You can collect your payment from the aide outside the office. Thanks again for your participation in our program.”
I walk on wobbly legs from the room, answer a few questions about how I’m feeling (the aide seems unpleased by most of my answers), and exit the building.
As I walk, I take the check from my pocket, unfold it, and count the zeroes. It will be more than enough to pay for two years of college, well worth the month away from home. Plus, I even met a pretty girl, though I can’t seem to remember if she had brown or blonde hair. Maybe black.
My nose starts to bleed.
Shane D. Rhinewald was raised and continues to live in Western New York. He’s a public relations professional by day and writes speculative fiction by night (except when there’s hockey on TV, of course). His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Big Pulp, and the Short Sips anthology.