An Inch of Courage

[fiction]

Ten days after her latest chemo treatment, thirteen-year-old Sylvie sat where she always sat, in her room. Even though her legs, at this stage in the cycle, were strong enough to carry her outside, she would not go. She sank back into the corner of her bed, trying to ignore the sway of the empty, late autumn branches as they threw shadows onto her curtains.

She didn’t like to look outside. Germs lived out there. Germs meant danger.

Sylvie had enough of danger in the last six months. She reached for her bright pink phone. Maybe playing a game would take her mind off things.

As she turned the screen toward her, she saw a large, black Woolly Bear Caterpillar clinging to the top of the case. 

“Whoa!” Sylvie dropped her phone, drawing her fingers away from the threat of any outside germs. “Where’d you come from?”

The phone bounced onto the rainbow-striped afghan her grandma made for her when she started chemo. The bristly caterpillar fell off mid-air, bounced onto the afghan, rolled once, then found his feet. With a shake of his head and body, he trundled over to the phone.

She didn’t like to look outside. Germs lived out there. Germs meant danger.

As he walked, Sylvie noticed a shining silver piece of wire bent near the top of his head. It almost looked like a headset but, she thought, that would be silly. Bugs don’t wear headsets.

The caterpillar reached the phone, bent its head and touched one of the strange silver antennae to the port. The screen flashed empty-white, then letters appeared one by one. They spelled: “I came from the future!”

Sylvie stared at him. “You what?”

More wiggling and more letters ensued. “I’m from Dr. Oliveira’s lab. From one-hundred years in the future.”

“Well go back,” Sylvie shook her finger at him. “You can’t be in here. You’re a bug. I’m sick.”

More wriggling and more letters ensued. “Dr. Oliveira wouldn’t have sent me if it could hurt you. She sent me to help the whole wide world that’s out there.” He turned then, and started marching toward the curtain. “Good news! There’s still some light yet. I wonder what grass looks like.”

“No,” Sylvie said quickly. “Don’t. I don’t like to look out there.” Because, she added silently, the bigness of it all makes me feel small and afraid.

At the thought of outside germs, she reached for her jar of Anti-Germ-Gel and rubbed some on her hands.

The black Woolly Bear Caterpillar went back to the phone. “Does your doctor say it’s okay to leave the window open and go outside, at least, a little?”

Because she didn’t like the fact that the answer was yes both times, Sylvie said nothing. She shook her gelled hands once to let them dry. “How did you get inside my room? I don’t have the window open.”

“Dr. Oliveira and her quantraption sent me back in time.”

The new word distracted her, making her more curious than afraid. “Her what?”

“A quantum-contraption. She built it to open corridors in time—those are called wormholes.”

“Wormholes?” Despite herself, a half grin lifted her mouth. “You’re not a worm. You’re a Woolly Bear Caterpillar.”

“True!”

“That’s kind of a funny name, because you aren’t a bear and your hair isn’t wool.”

“Again, true. The scientific name is Pyrrharctia Isabella, but call me Harc. It’s right from the middle. Don’t be afraid. I don’t carry poison or disease. And I am very soft.” He tipped his bristly head invitingly. “Give it a pet.”

“I can’t.” Sylvie pulled her hands in toward her chest protectively. “Why didn’t Dr. Oliveira come?”

“The further back in time the corridor stretches, the smaller it gets,” he curled, touching his tail to his head. “You have to be this small to travel a century.”

“Ah.” She sat back, studying Harc. “Shouldn’t you have a stripe or bands, or something? You know, to predict the weather?”

“That’s exactly why I’m here. The bigger the black band between the caps, the colder the winter. Look at this coat. I am nothing but band, no caps at all.”

Sylvie raised one brow. “And this means?”

“A quantum-contraption. She built it to open corridors in time—those are called wormholes.”

“No bands. No change. There’s nothing but cold, frozen, and glacial climate to predict here. Not one strand of brown.” He wriggled, shimmying all of his unvaryingly black hairs. “Pure ebony, tip to tail.”

“So,” Sylvie pressed her lips together and resisted looking outside. “I thought climate change meant that it gets hotter and hotter?”

“It can. It depends on the future. The one I came from is cold enough to freeze your thorax off.”

“So, you’re saying, there’s a mini-ice-age in the future?”

“In this one, for now. The future is changeable.”

“Is it?” She leaned forward, studying him closely. Her voice dropped to an urgent whisper. “What happens to me? Am I sick forever? Do I die?”

The center of Harc’s back lifted slightly, then dropped, almost like a shrug done without shoulders. “Dr. Oliveira didn’t tell me anything except your name. She said: A courier with too much knowledge throws off the mission.

“Fine. I’m not sure I want to know anyway.” Sylvie sighed. “So, you came from the future to tell me that it’s going to snow the stripes off all the Woolly Bears?”

“Yeah. Dr. Oliveira’s lab is in snowy, downtown Brasilia.”

She blinked. “Brasilia? In Brazil? Isn’t it hot there?

“It used to be, sure. But now? Not at all. Which is why we need the best minds on this project. Which is why we need you.”

“Me? Why pick me? I’m sure you got the wrong name. I can’t change the future.”

“Look, kid. All I know is that Dr. Oliveira sent me to talk to you. That means you’re vitally important.”

“But I’m sick.”

“Yeah. In your body. But your courage isn’t sick. It’s just not participating.”

She leaned forward; all this bossy talk ruffled her. “What do you mean my courage isn’t participating? Chemo is scary stuff.”

“It is. No question. But maybe if you can take tiny little chances with your courage, it might help you with your body. And then, maybe, the whole world.” Harc wriggled around, dipping his head around, as if trying to see his tail, first on one side then the other.

Sylvie eyed him, lifting a brow. “What are you doing?”

“I’m checking for change. I just altered the timeline. I told you that you can change the future. Now, I’m seeing what happened.”

“Nothing happened. What did you expect?”

“Exactly what I got: an adventure. Now, let’s get to the ‘action’ part.”

“Action? What can I do? I’m sick. I can’t do anything.”

“But your courage isn’t sick. It’s just not participating.”

“You can think. You can come up with ideas. You can work your courage—a little here, a little there. Your courage can change the future.”

“Courage can’t change the future.”

“Not just anybody’s courage. Yours. There’s only one way to find out. You gotta get stronger so you can think about how to fix things.” Harc looked up at her. When she said nothing, he tipped his head toward the darkened window, then back at her.

“Wow. It’s late. Let’s sleep on it, kid.” Harc stretched his little body upward, then walked toward the top row of the afghan before turning in a circle three times before settling down. “Time travel is tiresome work.” 

Sylvie nodded. After a few minutes, she set her head on her pillow and closed her eyes. 

When she woke, she saw Harc still sleeping.

She watched him, thinking how much concentrated courage he must have to be so small and to have traveled a century just to see her. Reaching out, she stroked the soft, pure black hairs along his back.

The soft bristly hairs tickled against the pads of her fingertips and made her skin tingle a bit. She looked over at the bottle of Anti-Germ-Gel, then back at Harc. Maybe one more pat, she thought. He told the truth. He was very soft.

Sylvie petted him again, then instead of reaching for the gel, she touched the curtain, pushing it to the side. She saw the early morning silver and slate clouds filling the sky. Those, she thought, looked like snow clouds. She looked at the half dry, gold and green grass, covered in yellow, red, and brown leaves and wondered why she never noticed all the variations of colors in nature.

Maybe, Sylvie thought, touching the glass, I could ask my doctor about going outside. Every once in a while. Nothing risky, mind you. But just enough to take a chance that I might enjoy a sunny day, before all the colors stop being colorful and turn to white.

One fat flake of snow tumbled slowly past the window. She watched it fall.

Maybe, she thought, my courage does need a little exercise. While I’m at it, so does my online library card.

Picking up her phone, she tapped the screen and entered her library’s website. In a few more taps, she ordered two books—one on climate change, and one on the care and feeding of Woolly Bear Caterpillars.

It’s not like we’re best friends or anything, she thought. But Harc did come a long way and he needs a more permanent place to sleep. I mean, it’s not like I can send him home. Not unless I figure out what a quantraption actually did and how to build one.

Or, she thought, how to power it. It probably took a lot of energy to run a time machine under the best of circumstances, but in the middle of a mini-ice age, neither solar-power or hydro-power would be available. 

Maybe, she thought, my courage does need a little exercise. While I’m at it, so does my online library card.

Hm, she thought. I wonder if I could generate electricity from snowflake-power, if there is such a thing.

She tapped her phone, writing a note to herself so she wouldn’t forget to check whether her idea existed yet or not.

When she looked back, she saw Harc. He hadn’t moved, but she saw a difference. Three of his hairs now shone a bright shade of gold. They stood out from all the pure ebony, like treasures.

Whoa, she thought, Harc was right. Courage can change the future. 

She paused, realizing something. Not just any courage changed the future. My courage did. It participated. 

Sylvie gave the sleeping Harc a congratulatory pat with her index finger. As she watched, two more black hairs changed to gold. 

Sylvie smiled, pushing back the curtain. She opened the window half an inch, watched the snow, and thought courageous thoughts.

The ninth daughter of a surgeon who accidentally cut off the tip of his index finger, Virginia Elizabeth Hayes developed a keen eye for the absurd at an early age. Her work can be found in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Driftwood Press, filling Station, Gravel, and Stoneboat. Her novels, short stories, and novellas are available at Amazon KDP, as well as her memoir-cartoons: The Princeling Papers: or, How to Fight Cancer with Colored-Pencils and Kittens.