The Consequences of Microwaving Styrofoam
by Leah Ning
We meet when we’re sixteen, and the Spark pops bright orange between us the moment our eyes meet. I don’t want to be friends with her. She’s strange and aloof and unkind. But the Spark is the Spark, and everyone saw it, so soon I’m alone. No one else wants to be friends with her either, so they draw away from me by association.
Now she’s the only one who’ll share a lunch table with me. We sit as far apart as possible, me with my sandwich dripping jelly onto the plastic bag I’ve placed carefully beneath it and her loudly slurping microwaved tomato soup from its Styrofoam bowl. I think about telling her she shouldn’t microwave it and don’t. Maybe if it kills her I won’t have to bother with her or that fucking Spark.
It occurs to me that maybe I, too, am strange and aloof and unkind. It also occurs to me that maybe she’s not the reason no one wants to be friends with me.
I search for ways to get rid of the Spark in incognito browser tabs, rubbing at wrists that weren’t sore before we Sparked. Google just brings up dry Wikipedia pages on the first appearances of the Spark fifty-seven-point-five years ago and chirpy blog posts by Spark-bonded best friends for life who just can’t get enough of spending time together. I pretend to gag even though I’m alone in my room and it’s 2 a.m.
Yeah, my Spark was definitely an excuse for my “friends” to get away from me.
At lunch, she massages swollen wrists over her half-finished soup. So that’s what I’m feeling. I don’t want her pain any more than I want her friendship, and I tell myself that’s why I wonder if eating from microwaved Styrofoam can cause swollen wrists. I wonder if making friends with her will make me someone worth being friends with. Maybe if I’m a good friend.
I scoot closer along the plastic bench, shiny with years of bottoms scooting closer, and quietly tell her that maybe she shouldn’t microwave Styrofoam because it might make you sick.
She informs me that some Styrofoam is actually microwave safe and invites me to fuck straight off.
I scoot back along the bench to my carefully placed baggie, littered with gobs of strawberry jelly, and it occurs to me that just because we are both strange and aloof and unkind doesn’t mean that we’d make good friends, Spark or not. My wrists throb.
She looks at me from the corners of her eyes and asks if I’ve ever considered putting less jelly on my sandwich.
I inform her that I like that much jelly and invite her to fuck straight off.
She tells me her name is Kelly.
I tell her mine is Arthur.
I silently promise I’ll be a decent friend even if I don’t like her. Maybe it’ll even turn me into a good person.
We don’t date. Everyone assumes we’re dating anyway, because Spark-bonded so often do. But we don’t date.
I come to love her in a slow and hesitant way that has nothing to do with romance. She keeps on microwaving her soup in the Styrofoam bowls provided by the school cafeteria. I keep on using so much jelly it drips from my sandwich in big wobbly splats. The soreness in my wrists, and a new one in my ankles, comes in implacable waves I’m beginning to get used to. I don’t ask about it. She doesn’t bring it up.
We are both still strange and aloof and unkind, but somehow we soften when we’re together. It occurs to me that maybe that’s what the Spark sees. I start to resent it a little less. But only a little. We don’t get a Spark-bonded group. We just get us, eating lunch on plastic benches shiny with nothing as deep as scooting toward or scooting away. They get shiny because they’re used and that’s all.
I shove those thoughts down and resolve, again, to be less of a shit. At least Kelly doesn’t hate me. At least I’m starting to hate myself a little less. But only a little.
A few weeks after we meet, she invites me, not to fuck straight off, but to come to the park. I ask her to do what. She says just to be. Just to look at the stars and be. I say yes. What else do you say when your only friend invites you to hang out?
She’s already laying on the grass when I get there, staring up at the constellations and gently massaging her wrists. I still don’t ask what’s wrong with them. I settle down beside her and ask if this is what she meant by just being. She says yes, and adds that shutting the hell up usually helps. So I shut the hell up and I look at the stars and I guess I see what she means. The ground is hard and the dew soaks into my clothes and I shiver but I see what she means. The sky isn’t full of that mysterious Milky Way spatter you see in pictures, but there are still little pinpoints of light there in the darkness that I suppose I could come to love.
I want to ask what’s wrong with her wrists and decide that would ruin the moment. Maybe I should ask. Maybe asking would make me a decent friend. But she asked me to shut the hell up and just be, so I do that, and maybe that also makes me a decent friend.
Eventually, she turns to me, arms crossed over her chest, and says we should’ve brought a blanket or something. I turn to her, also shivering, and ask hasn’t she done this before, and she says no. We look at each other for a moment before cracking up at the sheer idiocy of a dark night on dewy grass with nothing between us and the cold. We don’t grab each other’s hands. We don’t decide to cuddle up for warmth, hoping it’ll lead to more. Our laughter doesn’t fade until we’re left staring into each other’s eyes. We get up and leave, because it’s fucking cold and we’re not in love, just two Spark-bonded idiots who forgot a blanket the first time we went stargazing where you can hardly see the dark for all the electric lights.
Next time, I bring a blanket, and a tarp to keep the dew out. She laughs at me. We lay there and look at the stars like two blobs of jelly on a carefully placed plastic baggie. This time, we don’t get cold early, and I feel like I’ve done something real and good for the first time in a long time. Doing something good kind of feels nice. I think maybe I could keep doing things like this and be happy.
We meet up every night to look at the stars, in the same spot in the same park. My parents don’t stop me because they’re just happy I finally Sparked with someone. I don’t ask why hers don’t stop her and she doesn’t volunteer the information. She just lays next to me, always staring up, always massaging swollen wrists. My chest hurts like fire and I don’t know if it’s her or me. I don’t ask about that, either, but I hate myself a little less every time she wraps up in the blanket I bring.
And then she’s sick, because of course she is, because why wouldn’t she be? She’s sick and, as she put it, finally fucking dying. I don’t want to hear it, but I listen anyway. She doesn’t seem sad or afraid or angry. Just tired.
Part of me wishes we’d never met. Part of me thinks it would’ve been easier to keep on being strange and aloof and unkind. Part of me wishes I could’ve gone right on not liking her, not sitting with her at that shitty cafeteria table, not warning her about microwaving those Styrofoam bowls of soup.
Of course that’s not what got her sick. Those bowls really are microwave safe. I checked.
I go to her house to help take care of her and it turns out she’s been sick for longer than she said. We met up in parks because she didn’t want me to see the hemodialysis machine she’s been using since she was five.
I ask her why she didn’t tell me.
She says, through the twitching at the corner of her mouth, that she just wanted to have a normal goddamn friendship for once.
When I get home, I tell the Spark I just wanted a normal goddamn friendship too.
The Spark doesn’t give two shits what I have to say about it.
But the Spark doesn’t have a say anymore. Spark or no Spark, now I have to stick with her, because she’s my best friend. My only friend.
I pack some clothes and go to her house. My parents don’t question it. Hers don’t either. We’re Spark-bonded and that’s all there is to it. I think they’re relieved to have the extra hands anyway.
Over the next six months, I learn how to use the hemodialysis machine. I learn the exhaustion that follows the hours hooked up to the machine. I learn to sleep sitting up even though her parents offer the couch. I learn to wake up for small noises, because she tries to muffle screams in her pillows when her muscles cramp up at 3 a.m., and she feels it before I do. I learn that end-stage kidney failure can cause personality changes and that she wasn’t always strange and aloof and unkind.
I learn that the last time we saw the stars together was the last time she was able to get out of bed on her own.
I learn that I don’t need as much sleep as I thought I did.
I learn that not everyone gets a kidney transplant, because even being Spark-bonded doesn’t mean you’ll be a donor match.
Why didn’t the Spark bond her with a match? I remember that flash of orange and I hate it even as I hold her hand through another batch of cramps in her legs. When it’s over, I massage her wrists like she used to do when we stargazed in the park, and she cries as it eases both our pain. I swallow the lump in my throat until she goes to sleep because I’m pretty sure that’s what a decent friend does.
And then I go right on swallowing that lump because her parents are there, and who wants to comfort some teenager they barely know when their daughter is dying? It’s about her. My mouth tastes like metal and I want to scream, but it’s about her, it’s about them, and I think keeping quiet is about the only thing a decent friend can do.
And then she’s dead, because sometimes that’s what happens.
Sometimes you stay awake as long as you can, knowing your best friend is going to die and she’s going to do it soon, and then you fall asleep and wake up barely able to breathe. Sometimes, when your muscles scream and your chest feels like someone shattered all your ribs, you hold her hand and you don’t call her parents even though you know she’s going, because all she could say to that idea was don’t.
Sometimes the way you realize that dying can hurt is when the Spark spills the deep screaming wrongness of failing organs into your body, and you feel like it’s been five hours but it’s only been thirty seconds according to the red digital readout on the nightstand.
Sometimes you pass out and wake to the bone-chilling wails of a father who’s found his daughter’s corpse lying in the room where her crib used to be. The hand in yours has gone cold and just stiff enough to scare you, and you remember the pain, and half of you, maybe more than half, wants that pain back, but the only feeling you can dredge up is the hot, sick guilt that you couldn’t hold on long enough to bear her down into the dark.
Sometimes you pack the only nice black clothes you own in your overnight bag because the look in your best friend’s eyes last time you went home was tired, tired all the way down to her bones, all the way down through her veins and into her heart, and that told you all you needed to know. Sometimes you don’t need the Spark to know someone is done.
Sometimes you let the tears of someone you’ve come to call second mother seep into the worn fabric of your favorite t-shirt because the man you call second father is outside smoking and can’t really speak or move. Sometimes those tears will remind you of the dew that soaked into your clothes the first time you lay in the grass of a certain park and watched the stars for the first time and then maybe some tears of your own will leak out and you’ll wipe them away before anyone can see, especially her, especially those dull half-lidded eyes she’s left behind in place of the bright ones that laughed with you about how neither of you thought you’d need a blanket in the cold.
Sometimes that’s what happens, and oh god, I hate the fucking Spark. The absence of soreness in my wrists is a void. I wish I’d never met her. I wish she’d never died. I wish she’d come back, because I don’t think I can sit on that plastic bench in the cafeteria by myself and eat my over-jellied sandwich without checking, for the millionth time, whether her Styrofoam bowl is microwave safe.
The box arrives five days after she dies, and at first I can’t bring myself to open it. Maybe I’m afraid to see what’s left of her. Maybe I’m afraid that when I do, I’ll have to stop pretending I don’t feel anything.
When I finally cut the tape with my house key, it’s just the same drop of ash set in glass that everyone gets when one of their Spark-bonded dies. I convince myself it’s not enough of her to matter. And then I have to let my mom put the necklace on for me because my hands won’t stop shaking. She doesn’t say anything when I grab her keys and head out the door. She doesn’t have to.
I find that picture-perfect Milky Way splatter at the top of a mountain where the city lights don’t reach. I figure she’d like to see these stars. I figure maybe, for the first time since I packed that first overnight bag for her house, we can just be even if she’s not really here.
I put out the tarp and blanket — she’d laugh at me if I forgot them — on the grass in front of my mom’s pickup and lie back.
I’m not the only one here watching the sky. Some lie in pairs, pointing and murmuring at the occasional shooting star. Others take messy notes while they peer into telescopes. They all seem about a million miles away and at the same time so close it’s uncomfortable.
I want to massage wrists that don’t hurt anymore, so I rub my thumb across the painted glass drop instead. Maybe if she was here we’d have a good laugh. Maybe she’d like to see all these stars, scattered across the darkness like billions of white Sparks bonding planets with passing asteroids.
Or maybe she’d tell me to shut the hell up and stop thinking so hard.
It occurs to me that without the Spark, without her, I wouldn’t be here in the warm summer air watching shooting stars with a bunch of strangers. And the stars are beautiful even without her, the second splat of jelly on my carefully placed blanket.
The slam of a car door startles me out of my thoughts and I decide it’s time to go. I roll up the blanket and tarp and put it back in the bed of the pickup. When I turn to get in, my eyes meet those of the man who’s just left his car. The Spark, that goddamn nosy Spark, flares up bright orange between us, glinting off the painted glass drop at his neck before fading back into the dark. We don’t say anything — not yet — but I see his eyes on Kelly’s glass and he sees mine on his.
I decide it won’t hurt to stay a little while longer. I decide it won’t hurt to make a new friend. Maybe this guy puts as much jelly on his sandwiches as I do. And maybe, with some time, it won’t hurt so much to see the stars.
Good morning, good day, good afternoon and good evening, and welcome to PodCastle, the flying castle of fantasy fiction. I’m your host, Matt Dovey, and I’m thrilled to welcome you back for another year of stories with a new PodCastle original story: THE CONSEQUENCES OF MICROWAVING STYROFOAM by LEAH NING, narrated by Peter Adrian Behravesh, formerly of this parish.
And what a year this new year will be: 2023 is PodCastle’s 15th anniversary, which in internet terms makes us Tom Bombadil, I think, having lived through at least three ages of the world by keeping to ourselves in our peaceful little corner and telling stories to anyone who passes. I will do you the kindness of not singing these host spots henceforth–it would be single-handedly responsibly for a cataclysmic crash in audience numbers if I did, I think–but we do have better plans than that for celebrating this year: chiefly, if all goes to plan, hearing from every past editor-emeritus again, with a series of special Tales from the Vaults episodes.
We’re also excited to announce, as we start this 15th year, that our publisher Escape Artists is now officially a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation, furthering our commitment to invest everything we do back into the stories and the creatives involved, and hopefully making the business aspects of the whole endeavour more stable. It shouldn’t make a whole lot of difference to you lot, to be honest–we’ll still be here every week, telling you stories in just the same way–but there’ll be a small bonus metacast pop up in your feeds soon to tell you a bit more about it, or go check escapeartists.net for a post with more details.
…aaaaand welcome back. That was THE CONSEQUENCES OF MICROWAVING STYROFOAM by LEAH NING, and if you enjoyed your heart being broken just now, you’ll probably also appreciate Leah’s previous story with us, episode 679 PULL, which left a lot of people sobbing in May 2021 when it came out.
You don’t really get to choose who your friends are, do you? You get to steer it to an extent–certainly you can decide who isn’t your friend, establish your boundaries and stand firm by them–but ultimately a good friendship is a slow-cooking stew of similarity, or at least well-fitted differences, seasoned with shared experiences and warmed over a fire of circumstance. Circumstance of where you lived, where you sat in the classroom or on the bus, what you had in common. You can’t force any of that, really; you can’t strongarm your way into someone’s life and insist that you’ll be friends. If you can’t choose who your friends are, though, you can certainly choose who you are to them: what you’ll do for them, how you’ll stand by them and support them, how you’ll remember them. And a good friend does make it all so much easier to bear.
About the Author
Leah lives in northern Virginia with her husband and their five pets: two cats, a dog, and two sugar gliders—all of whom are exactly as cute as they sound. She spends her non-writing time drawing, playing video games, and learning to make delicious new foods. Her short fiction also appears in Writers of the Future Volume 36, Apocalyptic (Zombies Need Brains), and Cossmass Infinities. You can find her @LeahNing on Twitter and on her website, leahning.com.
About the Narrator
Peter Adrian Behravesh is an Iranian-American musician, writer, editor, audio producer, and narrator. For these endeavors, he has won the Miller and British Fantasy Awards, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Ignyte, and Aurora Awards. His interactive novel is forthcoming from Choice of Games, and his essay, “Pearls from a Dark Cloud: Monsters in Persian Myth,” is forthcoming in the OUP Handbook of Monsters in Classical Myth. When he isn’t crafting, crooning, or consuming stories, Peter can usually be found hurtling down a mountain, sipping English Breakfast, and sharpening his Farsi. You can read his sporadic ramblings at peteradrianbehravesh.com, or on Twitter @pabehravesh.