“Madam President, the delegation is ready.”
Gloria didn’t glance towards the doorway, instead stroking the smoothness of a shot glass between her thumb and forefinger. “I hate Awakening Day celebrations. Have I mentioned that, Clarence?”
“Every year, Madam.”
She sighed. “It gets harder every time. You think some things will get easier as you age, but they don’t.” Not when her own daughter had just turned nineteen. Nineteen. The age Gloria had been when her world shattered.
“Many people mourn on this day, Madam.”
“Many, meaning people above fifty. The young ones don’t understand. They didn’t lose anyone.”
“Then help them understand. You have that power, Madam.”
Gloria rubbed her knuckles against her forehead, adjusting the leaded tiara on her brow. “I could. I haven’t broadcast in a while.” Not since that crisis with China last summer. “It’s just… personal.” Too personal. Too painful.
“That may be why it works, Madam,” Clarence said softly. “You’re not going to offend the delegates. They already know what you endured.”
Gloria rotated the glass against her palm, then set it down. Clarence said nothing as he followed her down the hall and out into the Rose Garden, where the dignitaries waited.
She made no preamble. “I don’t share much of myself. I know that’s strange these days, when memories are traded so often that people forget what they experienced personally. I need to share my memory of Awakening Day, as difficult as it is. I need people to understand, to remember, even after I am gone. Open yourself to me, just for a few minutes.”
The people in the crowd looked at each other. Most reached for the shielding hats upon their own brows. The older people did not. She caught their stolid stares. They had lived it once; they didn’t need to experience it again.
She removed the tiara. Immediately, a murmur of other thoughts stroked against her brain. Words, impressions, recollections, the beefy taste of a hot dog smeared with mustard.
Gloria closed her eyes and fell into the memory of herself at nineteen, and broadcast it to the nation.
Dear God, she hated calculus. She groaned as she slammed the college textbook shut. The heavy clap of pages sent loose papers skittering across her desk. Downstairs, her mother sang as she started dinner. Gloria moaned. Why did Mom always do that? Didn’t she have any clue how annoying it was?
Even worse, it was Journey. One of those god-awful power ballads. Mom could actually sing and hit those Steve Perry high notes, but still. ANNOYING. Especially since Gloria had a B on her last calculus test. A freaking B. She had to do better on the test tomorrow or her GPA would be screwed.
“Mom, can you please keep it down?”
Mom kept on singing. She never listened, not when she was really into it. Once, back when Gloria was in high school, Mom had been singing the Bee Gees when she brought over Dennis Sharpe for a study date. Their only study date.
“Mom, come on,” Gloria yelled.
Sudden heat gripped her skull in a giant vice. The world blackened. Gloria gasped, the sound loud, echoing. Her fingers clung to the glossy hardness of the textbook cover. The heat continued to press inward, lapping the inside of her nostrils, filling her mouth, seizing her tongue.
And then the fire was gone.
Gloria collapsed against her desk, gasping for air, for sanity. She blinked rapidly. What the hell just happened? Was she shot, sick? Her fingers raked through her hair, expecting blood or burned flesh or something, but her scalp felt fine. She stood, legs quivering.
The house was quiet.
“Mom?” she called. The chair screeched as she shoved it back. She staggered down the stairs, leaning on the banister. “Mom?”
Her mom laid sprawled face-down on the kitchen floor. Gloria didn’t even need to touch her. She knew Mom was dead, somehow. She just knew. Still, she knelt on the floor and tugged Mom up by the shoulder. Her eyes were vacant, her jaw slack. Thick blood oozed from both nostrils. Gloria touched her own head again. The fire. Mom had felt it, too.
It killed her.
Then the others began to broadcast.
“Oh God, oh God!” Gloria recognized the voice of the woman who lived across the street, as clear as if they were feet apart. Then the images came. Blood. Bodies sprawled out, like Mom. Crashed cars. Screams. Chaos.
Underneath it all, a soft chant, the accent lilting yet clear. “Sorry. Sorry. So sorry.”
Gloria curled up against the cabinets and screamed, again, again, again, relishing in an auditory sensation loud enough to drown out the voices in her head.
She shuddered as she forced herself from the memory. Gloria opened her eyes, grief strangling her tongue for several long seconds. It didn’t matter how old she was. She still missed Mom’s tight hugs and that lingering scent of her jasmine perfume.
Many in the audience sobbed, even those who had not shared in the memory. The delegates did not, but sadness lingered in their broad, black eyes. When they landed here, they had not expected their attempt at mass telepathy to be so devastating to the human mind.
They had not expected millions dead, or the tidal wave of grief and rage that came next.
“On Awakening Day, we remember when our minds awoke to the potential within,” Gloria continued, her voice hoarse. “But never forget what our hearts lost.”
She reset the tiara on her head and closed her eyes, embracing privacy as she imagined her mother finishing her song.
Beth Cato resides in Arizona with her husband and son. Her work has appeared such places as Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Stupefying Stories. For information on her latest projects, please visit www.bethcato.com.