In the morning, Mrs. Anderson said: “We’re all just dustbins. You and I are no different from cobwebs or used paper plates. Everything inside us gets swept away by the wind eventually.”
By afternoon, Principal Lopez was standing in the back of the classroom as Mrs. Anderson told her students it’s actually all more complicated than that. She hadn’t meant to scare anyone, she said. Then she explained how time passes slower in the mountains than it does at sea level, and how a person would be half as old if they lived on Mars because Martian years are twice as long as Earth years.
Afterwards, Yolibeth broke the ice when she blurted out that she was glad she didn’t live on Mars, because if she was still five years old, she wouldn’t be allowed to sleep over at Olivia’s house. Unfortunately, Olivia couldn’t stop imagining everyone she loves sucked up into a vacuum cleaner.
After school, Olivia’s mother argued with her eldest daughter, Kassie, about a trip to Disneyland. Olivia knew there was no cutting in as soon as Daphne shouted, “because I said so, Kassandra,” and Kassie proceeded to yank open every drawer in the kitchen. She tossed out saucepans and placemats, measuring cups, spatulas, forks, a cake knife, and two pizza rollers Olivia had never seen before.
“What are you doing?” Daphne cried.
“Whatever I feel like.”
For a while, Daphne chased madly after the misplaced kitchen utensils.
Olivia absconded to the living room. She emptied all the school supplies from her backpack onto the couch before trolling around the house for camping essentials. In the garage, she grabbed a plastic yellow flashlight her father keeps under his workbench. She filched one of her sister’s Tiger Beat magazines from a dresser in Kassie’s room — an older edition so that hopefully Kassie wouldn’t notice it was missing. Through the window to the backyard, Olivia could see how her mom restrained Kassie in a bear hug.
Taking advantage of the newly abandoned kitchen, Olivia swept a half-eaten stack of corn tortillas and six boxes of Very Berry juice into her pack. She couldn’t find the peanut butter, so she settled for an apple and two individually wrapped slices of American cheese. Finally, she stuffed in a small quilt Daphne had sewn out of Rolling Stones t-shirts, and she wedged a pillow from bed under her armpit.
As she left the house, Olivia taped a page of her mother’s stationary onto the back of the front door: “Gone to recycling hike. Please tell dad I need (1) my tent, (2) new AAA batteries and (3) peanut butter. Love, Olivia.”
The path around the recycling station and up the hill seemed longer without her dad leading the way. Olivia thought about discarding juice boxes, and maybe even the pillow, but she resisted and didn’t expend a single supply except for the slice of cheese she ate sitting at the overlook of San Francisco Bay.
When the sun slipped momentarily behind a wall of fog, Olivia panicked thinking she’d misunderstood Mrs. Andersen’s lesson. Time passes slower or faster at the top of a mountain? Then she reminded herself that big bodies of mass, like the Earth, speed time up, so if you run away from them — up a mountain, for example — time slows down. She couldn’t remember how the sun factors in (and whether she was getting too close), so she was glad when the dull yellow orb ultimately disappeared for good under a blanket of thick marine layer.
It’s hard to tell when you’ve reached the top of a hill. The terrain’s not triangle-shaped, and unless you’ve got an instrument for measuring down to the ocean, you can’t really be sure. So, when she’d hiked up to the spot where the trees grow crooked out over the side of the precipice and the signpost reads 1.5 miles, Olivia laid the Rolling Stones quilt off the path and tried to listen closely to her heartbeat as it adjusted to a new pace.
“I would have come with you,” Chris said, straining to unscrew the top off a fresh jar of peanut butter.
“I couldn’t wait,” Olivia told her dad. “We could turn to dust down there at any minute.” She was scanning the edges of a marina in the distance, shaking her head at all the people rushing toward their demise. “Time passes more slowly the higher you go, so we get more time up here.”
Chris held the open jar of peanut butter out for his daughter, who dug in with her pointer finger. “Weren’t you worried about the rest of us down below?”
“I knew you’d come find me.”
“Good thinking,” he agreed.
Olivia arranged two corn tortillas on the quilt and spread peanut butter over them with her fingertips.
Her dad scratched his mustache playfully.
“We might need to go back for supplies from time to time,” Olivia said. “We’ll go quickly. And maybe we can tell Yolibeth and her family — and Kassie and mom, of course — to come up too. Why didn’t you bring the tents?”
“Because I’m looking forward to my dust phase,” Chris answered.
Olivia screwed her chin up at him.
“Seriously,” Chris said. “Think of all the fun dust gets to have.”
“What’s so fun about dust?”
“Are you kidding me?” Olivia’s dad sprouted up to his feet, and stretched his arms out wide, spinning like a weather vane. “Dust is everywhere. You land on a dog’s ear, and you get to take a walk through the park. You get caught in a storm and you can fly over oceans, maybe end up in the Sahara Desert. Don’t forget about space dust, of course. And just imagine you wind up in a little girl’s nostrils and you get to hang out with her all day, no matter where she goes,” Chris said, snuggling his nose up to his daughter’s. “Gross,” Olivia demurred, grinning in slow motion.
Jordi Torres Barroso was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and studied literary translation at Brown University. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Bat City Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Rumble Fish Quarterly. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife, Genzie, and their son, Pablo.