Slim slides through the underground exhibit’s glass tube, straddling the width of the conveyor belt with her Converse sneakers. The terrarium’s inhabitants wink at her through the thin, slick barrier, fuzzy circles pulsing red, orange, and green. Brightworks thrive down here, where silence is plentiful and there’s plenty of dark to light up.
Slim is tired. She doesn’t want to be at the Museum of Found Beings, where she’s gone on field trips since childhood. As far as she’s concerned, there is nothing new to see. But even though she’s visited the brightworks a thousand times, their home is a place where she can hear her own thoughts. The bullies are probably still next to the lionmelian cages upstairs, laughing.
Yo Slim, why you so fat?
Slim, I think you forgot to eat this morning! Oh wait, nah, you good.
She doesn’t notice anything strange until a third of the way through the tube, when movement catches her eye. Every other time she’s been here, the small beings in the tank stood still. Now, they are bouncing slightly—not to any rhythm Slim can discern, but to some shared beat of their own. She senses a collective gaze, though they have no eyes with which to watch her.
In the time it takes Slim to search her memory of past visits, the brightworks have begun to dance. They wriggle and spin amongst themselves, coalescing before diverging again. They arc the semicircle overhead, vivid colors trailing tails like comets. Play.
Slim looks around, even though she knows she’s the only one in the tunnel. Are the animals supposed to act like this? She’s never seen one in the wild, given that they’re going extinct. And she can’t recall any description of this kind of behavior.
The brightworks seem to be performing, as if they don’t feel caged, but gleeful to have a stage and audience for whom to show off. If the bullies were here with her, Slim’s not sure the animals would be dancing. In fact, she’s pretty sure they wouldn’t be. Her classmates’ harassing energy dampens everything else in the room with them.
Slim feels as if the conveyor belt speeds up as the circular sparks leap and bound. The brightworks dance even harder, whirling and pinging off the glass with a mirthful force. She taps a section, and four flock instantly to the spot in a kaleidoscopic frenzy. They are ecstatic, free, and wondrous; youth and pure joy.
She doesn’t belong upstairs, but down here is a spot she can call home. She’s different from these little light fairies, but they see her and know her spirit. They would never call her names. Slim finds herself wishing she could take the entire terrarium home for company every night.
When she gets to the end of the conveyor belt, Slim stumbles onto the static grey carpet, then runs the exhibit’s length to jump back into the tunnel.
Stefani Cox is a speculative fiction writer and poet based in Los Angeles, as well as an MFA candidate in UC Riverside’s creative writing program. Stefani’s work has been published to LeVar Burton Reads, Speculative City, and the anthology Black from the Future, among other outlets. She has received fellowships to Hedgebrook and VONA, and previously served as an associate editor at PodCastle. Find her on Twitter @stefanicox or her website stefanicox.com.