First thing in the morning, their vibrations wake her. Flossie doesn’t mind it. She’s an early bird anyway. She pushes the covers away and pulls back her hair as she climbs out of bed. The sun is up, just barely. Her curtain flutters in the muggy morning breeze. Flossie crouches beside her bed and reaches far back, until she finds the box, which she pulls toward her and opens once it is in the light of her room.
They live under her bed, the three glowing orbs, each about the size of an egg but perfectly round, that she keeps in this battered cigar box that used to hold her grandmother’s button collection and is among her prized possessions.
When she opens the box, they chirp a wordless, musical greeting as one. Flossie knows that they’re trying to say something to her, and it kills her, and she can’t get it, nothing at all, but she loves the orbs. David, Amy, and Mimi, she calls them. Truth be told, they look the same and she can’t tell them apart, but she loves them the same, and there are always three, rolling a centimeter off the bottom of the box, dazzling in their light, humming away. They begin a melodious, soft humming as they float into the room.
“Good morning,” she whispers. The humming gets louder, and Flossie smiles. She lets her hand hover over the orbs, and warmth like the small flame of a candle travels up to her skin. “I love you.”
Three simultaneous, tinny chirps in response.
She likes to think that they love her too. In her book where she records the movement of the orbs, their noises and patterns, she has written that she often hears this sound after she tells them that she cares, or shows some other form of verbal affection. Rain makes them hover higher than normal, and pulsate. The theme song to a particular tv show makes them beep hysterically and bounce in place, so now, when she watches, Flossie brings the box to the bed and lets the orbs out and they whirl next to the computer screen. When they watch tv with her, the orbs’ golden light goes pinkish. They make contented sounds like sighs, the sort that she’s heard a baby make when she’s picked up by her mother and puts a cheek against her shoulder.
Flossie doesn’t want Zach, her roommate, to hear the orbs or to hear her talking to them. He did once and she, in a moment of panic, said that she had been praying.
“Oh,” Zach had said, eyebrow raised, in an amused and surprised way. He shrugged. “Cool. Well, I can keep it down if you need.”
“I’m fine!” she’d been quick to say as she closed the door again as politely as possible. She’d spent a long time chatting with the orbs that morning and she always felt like something of them stuck to her, their energy or their light or even a trait she wasn’t aware of. She was worried Zach would notice something strange about her.
Flossie creaks open the door and groans internally. Zach is in the kitchen, phone held at eye level, narrating his morning for a video he’ll upload later. He’s in his pajamas, his hair mussed, looking adorable. Flossie has lived with him for over two years, and she knows he actually does wake up like that. He’s up early, probably on his way out to do something interesting he’ll record for his followers. Flossie tried to hate it for a little while, and Zach by extension, but honestly, it’s a little envy inducing. And Zach is nice. He remembered her birthday and last year and left her a cupcake on the kitchen counter with a little note that she still has. They shared beers together that night and played Trivial Pursuit in the living room.
She tiptoes out and to the fridge with a small wave, and his eyes flicker over, and he winks. Zach is cute, she knows, but somehow, as always, she ends up being immune to charm and looks, and laudable sweetness.
Flossie pours a bowl of cereal and goes back to her room. She sits on the floor with the box beside her, eating while she reads the news and watches the orbs from the corner of her eye.
The one she is calling David for the moment nudges the side of her foot, and she smiles at it. It leaves a patch of gentle heat there, that travels up her ankle and calf.
“What do you want, silly?” she asks. The orb bobs in place in a way Flossie can only think of as cheeky.
There is a knock on her door and the orbs scurry back to the box, which Flossie pushes under the bed.
“Come in,” she calls.
Zach cracks the door and sticks his head in.
“Hey, what are you up to today?”
“Well, my friends, you know the guys on the channel, and I are going bowling today. Going to do a quick shoot then just drink some terrible beer and eat nachos and maybe hit up the arcade. Want to come?”
Zach smiles at her. She’s studied him over the last few years, both in person and watching his videos. She reads the comments his followers leave and must agree. His teeth are perfect.
“Cool. Leaving at noon. Does that work?”
She knows Zach isn’t interested in her like that. He’s busy, and he brings over people, good looking people, sometimes the same one months in a row, but it never quite sticks. He cried, once a lot at 2:00 AM in the bathroom. One of the guys from the channel came over then, sat with him for a while. Zach just wants, she knows, to make sure she doesn’t sit at home too much, to reach out and be nice to a friend. She wishes she could tell the people who follow his videos that they don’t even know the best part of him.
When Zach closes the door again, Flossie pulls the box back out and inspects the orbs for any damage she might have caused closing the lid too quickly, but they’re fine. She touches each of them briefly. Right now, they are soft and remind her of small balloons filled with hot water, though sometimes they go ice cold.
“Hey guys, I’m going out for a bit,” she says.
They spin quickly in a circle, their golden light flashing. It makes Flossie think they’re nervous.
“I’ll be back by early evening. We can still watch our show together, even.”
The anxious purring tapers off slightly, and the spinning slows until the orbs are hovering again in a triangle, making beeping noises in a pattern that flows between them. She thinks they’re talking about Zach. They get excited when they hear his voice, moving more quickly, making different formations, making different sounds.
“Yes, with Zach and his friends. I’ll bring you back something, okay.”
When Flossie goes somewhere interesting, she brings back a small souvenir and sits it in the bottom of the cigar box. The noise that follows when she tells them this is like a wave, passing from one orb to the other in a circle. Flossie grins and gently closes the lid. Today is going to be a very nice day.
Flossie hasn’t been bowling since she was a teenager and a gangly boy took her on a date to a bowling alley. She had been nervous the whole time, and the clearest memory from that day is darting to the bus at the end of the date after a hasty goodbye while the boy stared at her, mouth open.
She’s surprised today, in the company of Zach and his friends and their partners, that she is much better than she remembers. Of course, she is not nervous now like she was on that day twenty years ago, knowing that a date is happening and that she is somehow a part of it. She’s in second place after Kevin, one of the guys Zach makes videos for his channel with, a tall and gorgeous man with a sharp jawline and ample black hair that today he wears in a red bandana. At first, he had intimidated her, but now, she’s used to Kevin and his beauty, and his cool demeanor, so different to Zach’s. Each strike and resulting cheer makes Flossie blush again, but everyone is nice. She’s not a drinker, normally, but starts to feel more at ease after a third glass of beer and doesn’t mind that people are joking with her and telling her that someone needs to finally kick Kevin’s ass.
Zach is making a show of being bad at bowling for the video, putting up the bumpers and rolling the ball with both hands like a child, swinging it exaggeratedly behind his knees. Flossie likes Zach’s friends, and the videos are funny, but Zach himself she likes better at home, where he’s still friendly and kind, but much quieter, and is good at the science questions in Trivial Pursuit and sometimes reads magazines about cats. She knows he loves them and has heard a lot about the beloved tabby he had as a kid. She’s thought about asking him if he’d like to go to a shelter and get one.
Flossie finishes her fourth watery beer while talking to the wife and girlfriend of two of Zach’s friends, her mind half back at home on the orbs. She knows that they’re fine, but she always feels a nagging sense of guilt when she leaves them, and her mind jumps to worst case scenarios when she can’t be with them. She imagines returning home to find the box empty, nothing but gold dust in the bottom, like they have disappeared, or worse, the orbs still, dim, and cold, unresponsive to her touch or her voice. It sends a shudder through her, and she has to make herself come back to the conversation.
The game ends, Kevin the winner, but not by much, and Zach in last, mugging as a phone is put up to his face. The outing is much nicer when the filming stops, and they get more beers, and lots of food from the concession stand. Flossie is happy to go quiet and listen to everyone else talk. She’s never known this many people who are funny, good looking, and kind. Zach sits next to her and doesn’t make a show of drawing her into conversation, but lets her observe and chime in when she feels like it, which she appreciates, but Kevin watches her closely. When the group moves to the arcade for games, he hangs back with her. Flossie’s heart speeds up.
“So,” asks Kevin quietly when everyone else is several yards away. He puts his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. Flossie feels his eyes linger on her for a moment. “What’s up with you two?”
“You and Zach.”
“We’re roommates. Same as ever.”
Kevin watches her out of the corner of his eye for a second and then nods, turning away.
The night that Zach cried so hard in the bathroom after the break up, she’d woken, scared for him and not sure what to do. She was pacing her room, running her hands through her hair, when she heard the front door open and peeked out into the hall to see Kevin, soaked from a heavy rain and slipping off his wet shoes at the door. They looked at each other as she pointed to the bathroom but didn’t speak. As the crying on the other side of the wall died down, Flossie had sat on the floor in her room with the orbs and calmed. She went into the kitchen and made two cups of tea that she left outside the bathroom door. In the morning, they were cleaned and on the draining board.
Today at the bowling alley, as they walk behind the group, Kevin watches her a little in the same way he did that night standing in the door, assessing, but not judgemental.
“Okay. Cool,” he says. “That’s what I thought, actually, just…I don’t know. I was worried, after his last break up. You, uh, remember. I sort of hoped he was with someone nice. Someone we trust. Well, thanks for keeping an eye on him. We appreciate that.”
Flossie feels her face flaming with an all consuming blush.
“We appreciate you,” says Kevin, now looking for the first time slightly flustered himself as his eyes dart away from Flossie briefly and his cheeks get subtly pink. “And he really likes being your roommate.”
Flossie doesn’t know how to respond, so she nods and then looks down at her shoes until Kevin walks away. Belatedly, she mumbles to herself that Zach doesn’t need someone to watch out for him. She knows that despite the fact that he sometimes cries, that when he thinks no one’s looking his frown is heartbreaking, that he’s tough. But Kevin probably knows that, she figures, and is just glad that someone is there when they can’t be. Just like she is glad that Kevin and the others can be with Zach when she isn’t.
As she watches Kevin sidle up to his boyfriend and wrap an arm around his waist, she realizes it’s the first time all day she’s forgotten the orbs, and it makes her homesick. She is happy now, but home, the orbs floating next to her while she watches tv, and hearing Zach in the other room; that is her happiest, and she fills with longing for that safety.
Later, when Kevin wins a stuffed elephant at a claw game, he whispers to his boyfriend for a moment and then comes over and gives it to Flossie, who blushes again.
“Thanks,” she mumbles, mortified to feel the whole group watching, but her mouth has lifted in an embarrassed smile.
“Well, you’ve got to name it after me,” says Kevin.
“I guess I can do that.”
Zach grins at her and drags her to play something else.
They get home shortly before sun, which tonight is muggy and smothered by clouds, and Flossie rushes to her room as Zach stands in the foyer still taking off his jacket and shoes. She throws the stuffed animal on top of her covers and dives under the bed. Reliefs overtakes her as she feels the orbs greeting her with their whirling before she even opens the box. The orbs float out on a wave of warmth and give a few flashes of light in greeting as they glide through the air over to her.
From the other side of the door, Zach calls out.
“Hey Flossie, are you hungry? Want to order something?”
Mimi nudges her wrist and Flossie smiles, pulling the elephant down from the bed to show the three.
“Sure, just a minute.”
Heather Whited is originally from just outside Nashville, Tennessee, and after many changes of her major, somehow graduated from Western Kentucky University on time in 2006 with a degree in creative writing and theater. After a few years working and traveling that saw her hanging out on no few than three continents and gave her the chance to try vegetarian haggis, Heather returned to Nashville to obtain a Master’s degree in education. She now lives in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches in the public schools and at Portland State University. When not writing, she plays on a trivia team, spends time with her dog, does not go camping, ever, and tries not to think too much about the vegetarian haggis.