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Circumstances Notwithstanding

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It is 1964 when Carmen first realizes she likes girls. 

Of course, it’s less of a realization and more of an answer to a question to she hadn’t realized she'd been asking. All of those times when she knew there was something off about her—not because of when she was from, but because of the way the other girls talked, the way the movies talked (more and more, as they went back). She remembers Hannah gathering the girls together to discuss which of the boys was cutest, and wondering what in the world she was supposed to be judging by. Maybe, she thought, she was just more thoughtful; she cared about a boy’s personality, not what he looked like. Or maybe she was just too young! Maybe they’d calculated her age wrong, and she’d understand it all soon enough. After all, she was only what? Eleven, twelve, thirteen?

Or it could be the timepiece. Maybe it was some sort of as-yet undiscovered symptom of Butterfly Syndrome that stopped her from thinking about boys in that way. Some bizarre effect of the aging backwards that broke something in her.

It is 1964, and Carmen is lying in bed and trying to memorize the face of a girl she’d seen heading into some coffee shop in town that day, and all of the pieces slide into place. The Rubik’s cube completes itself.

It is 1964, and this fact is rather unfortunate. She knows there is a word for how she feels, doesn’t know if it’s the right one for this period. (That’s why she won’t tell anyone, she decides. She has to blend into the time.) 

She is scared. In a single instant, it goes from excitement at solving this puzzle to cold, sharp fear, because she knows there are words for how she feels, and she knows not all of them are kind ones. And she sees the way people look at her, already, she knows she is not welcome everywhere she should be. And to add this, on top of all of that—to know that if she was to be herself, was to acknowledge this thing that sits in her chest, that she would be even less welcome—it scares her.

Carmen does not know how old she is, but she thinks she’s too young for all of this.

***

It is 1951 when Carmen first realizes she likes Petra.

That’s not true. She has been friends with Petra since as far back as she can remember, since before their first jump, and to say she didn’t like her until now does that friendship a disservice.

Let’s try again:

It is 1951 when Carmen first realizes she loves Petra.

But that isn’t true either. Carmen has loved Petra for years, at this point, has loved the way she watches her and the way she talks to her, loved every minute by her side and smiled and nodded when people joked about how inseparable they were. This is something different, in a way that's difficult to put into words.

Let’s try again:

It is 1951 when Carmen first realizes she wants to kiss Petra.

The two of them are sitting on the lower bunk in their dorm room—Petra’s bunk—and talking. Petra is complaining about the ODAR-sanctioned schoolwork, and Carmen finds herself distracted by her the curve of her face, the brown of her eyes, the shape of her lips as she talks.

She moves closer to her, so they are sitting close enough together that their legs are touching, sharing warmth. Nothing else happens. Carmen can still imagine it happening.

To reduce it to the physical makes it feel silly and shallow, like Hannah talking about boys. It doesn’t feel like like that. Maybe that’s why Carmen would prefer to say that the realization is that she loves her. It would have felt better that way, more pure, more poetic. But this is not a poem; this is a teenage girl realizing something she’s known for a long time.

***

It is later this same year, and they are walking back to their dorm from class. The sky is soft and pink-blue, the sun just starting to set, and it is nothing other than beautiful. Petra is also beautiful, but this is irrelevant. Carmen tries to tell herself that it is.

A bird sings softly in the distance. Petra takes her hand.

Neither of them acknowledge this.

They used to hold hands all the time, of course. They were children; they held onto one another. Petra held onto her. They could still be children, but Carmen doesn’t think so. And she doesn’t need Petra to hold her hand when they jump anymore, hasn’t for years, but in this soft, pink-sky moment, she needs Petra to hold her hand now.

They walk back to the dorm building. In their quarters, the same soft light is glows through the window, filling the space. The rooms around theirs are emptier than they should be; too many kids in the hospital. But the sun is setting, and Petra is smiling, and this moment is beautiful.

“Lord, I'm tired,” Petra says, and drops Carmen’s hand to cross the room and sit on her lower-bunk bed.

“Me too,” Carmen says, mostly to say something. She is standing there, looking at Petra—staring, really. She wants to say something, to do something, to be closer to her. But instead, she climbs up the ladder to her bed, and tries her best to fall asleep.

When she finally does, she dreams about Petra’s hand in hers.

***

Petra should be awake by now, shouldn’t she? It’s almost 8:00.

Carmen pulls the other sock on and stands up, now fully dressed, walks to the bed where Petra is still sound asleep. “Petra,” she says. She shakes her. “Petra.” Petra doesn’t even open her eyes.

Carmen sits on the edge of the bed and gives her a full-on shove. She startles awake, eyes wide, and says, “What the hell, Carmen?”

“You’re gonna be late,” Carmen says. Then corrects herself, “We're gonna be late.”

The rain pounds down on the roof in a steady rhythm. It’s been storming all week; they have to hurry to their classes huddled under umbrellas, and both pairs of Carmen’s shoes are damp from trudging through puddles.

Petra groans. Carmen stands. “Come on,” she says. “I, for one, want to eat breakfast before first period.”

“I’m coming!” Petra says, sitting up more fully. “Give me, like, ten minutes.”

Carmen should refuse; by all logic, she should leave right now before the dining hall runs out of anything worth eating. But Petra’s her friend (her friend, nothing more, nothing else). She can’t just leave her. Not to mention the weather is particularly brutal today, judging by the noise it’s making. She’d rather stay out of it as long as she can.

“Okay,” she says. Carmen grabs an umbrella; Petra throws on some real, period-appropriate clothes; and they head out the door together, moving quick. The rain rushes down around them, making a satisfying sounds as it hits the top of the umbrella. In her rush, Carmen only grabbed one. Petra walks close beside her to stay underneath. 

It’s hard to see through the sheets of precipitation, but it feels as if the ODAR property is empty of life; everyone tucked away inside somewhere, and she and Petra might as well be the only people in the entire world.

Carmen can feel the heat from Petra’s body, close up against her. Her feet follow the paved path without thought, even after only months living in this year, and she watches Petra’s face. She’s staring again, she realizes.

But then Petra is staring at her, too. Their eyes meet, and that old fear grips Carmen, that she is reading this wrong, that Petra will realize what’s going on and she will find out just how badly this could go if her little secret is discovered.

They’ve stopped moving, just staring, looking, Petra’s face is so close, she could just—

All of a sudden, Petra kisses her

It is quick and timid. After, she and Carmen meet eyes. The shared uncertainty, the tension, is as thick as the rain in the air around them, and as Carmen dares a smile it dissipates.

This is something.

***

They don’t tell anyone else.

Not even from ODAR—not even Van. It’s not that Carmen doesn’t trust him, but this is theirs. If it were relevant to something, maybe. But it’s not. What they do during their free time is not ODAR’s business, as much as some people might like it to be. 

It isn’t as if they’re the first of the project’s kids to wind up in a relationship. Carmen had heard all too many times the stories of this Tier 1 boy who got caught sneaking into the girls’ dormitory, or that Tier 2 couple who got caught making out at some club. When you have thirty years’ distance between you and the strangers on the street, there aren’t a lot of options for teen hormones to latch onto.

Carmen always told herself that they weren’t like those other kids. They could still be professional and careful, keep whatever the hell was going on separate from their work as blossoming ODAR agents. At the very least, they wouldn’t be stupid enough to get caught.

Until they are.

It’s nothing, really. Something small. But something small for them is the same as something huge for their straight peers.

It’s late. Petra has another hour of classes at the facility, so Carmen has to head back to the dorm alone. She gives her a quick kiss goodnight before turning to leave the building.

And there, halfway down the hall, clearly watching them, is the second-in-command of ODAR.

Petra thinks more quickly than she does. “Good evening, Ms. Roberts," she says. Play it off, Carmen thinks. Act like it was platonic. Act like it wasn’t the direct results of months and months and months of pining. “What are you doing here, ma'am?”

“Routine inspection,” Roberts says. “But I am rather curious what you girls doing here. I would have thought the program had stricter curfews than this." Her tone is light and teasing, but something twists in the pit of Carmen's stomach. 

Does she know? Could she possibly?

"Nothing,” she says, and it was supposed to be casual but it comes out quiet and as terrified as she feels. “We're not doing anything. I was just leaving, actually.”

Roberts looks at them another moment and says, “I…” Another pause. She takes a few steps closer to Carmen, so that the three of them are standing together at the end of the hall. “You two  be careful, alright?"

“What are you talking about?” Petra asks. She isn't a very good actor.

Roberts shakes her head a little. “Nothing," she says, her tone a neat-perfect mimic of Carmen's earlier.

The Rubik’s cube clicks into place. 

Is she...? Could she possibly...?

“You’re...“ Carmen starts to say.

Roberts shakes her head, and Carmen isn't sure whether she's denying it, or—or what? Wishing it away?

"Goodnight, girls," Roberts says.

Carmen feels guilty. Which is ridiculous, because it shouldn’t be her feeling guilty; it should be the people who made them have to hide who feel guilty. But she is.

“Goodnight, Ms. Roberts,” Carmen says. She casts a glance towards Petra. They’re safe, for now.

***

"Where are we going to be in ten years?" Petra asks. She's laying on her back in bed, just beside where Carmen is sitting, staring up at the bottom of the upper bunk. 

"Well," Carmen says, looking up from her studying, "in '60 we were staying across town, right? The newer facility?"

Petra scowls. "You know what I mean. What does our future look like?"

"I don't know," Carmen says.

Petra sits up. "But just—Carm, what do you want it to look like?"

Carmen takes the edge of the scrunched-up blanket in her hand as she thinks. "I don't know. I assume we'll still be with ODAR."

"But do you want to be?"

"I don't know."

"Isn't that sort of fucked up? That we don't get a choice?"

“Petra..."

Petra sighs. 

Carmen wishes she could take back everything she just said, reverse the clock one more time and tell herself the exact perfect thing to say to stop Petra from sliding further and further away from her.

Petra takes Carmen's hand. And as Carmen meets her gaze, their fingers interlock in that same familiar grip. For now, maybe, it's enough.