The Day I Didn’t Get a Pet Nebula
by Effie Seiberg
On the day I turned nine, I didn’t get a pet nebula.
I’d really really wanted one, just like the one Shelly had. And I’d been talking about it FOR-EVER, so Dad could have the time to save up for the one in the pawn shop, and I’m not usually patient enough to talk about anything that long. I told him how responsible I was and how I could take it for walks and trim its dust wisps and everything. I made him breakfast when he got home from his shift a bunch of times, and even did the dishes after to prove how responsible I was.
“C’mon kiddo, you know that’s not possible,” he’d said, ten rotation cycles before my birthday. We were at the wobbly kitchen table and he was helping me with my physics homework after dinner, so everything still smelled like tacos with neutron star shavings and spray cheese. The chapter was all about distortions of spacetime, cosmic strings and black holes and whatnot. He leaned his head on one tentacle, like he was too tired to hold it up on its own. Even his work shirt looked tired, like the frayed thin patches were struggling to hold his tentacles in. “A pet nebula isn’t happening.”
“But Daaaaad, I’ll be nine, which is totally old enough to take care of one! Haven’t I been responsible lately?” I rearranged my face into the most mature expression I could think of.
“You have, and I’m really proud of you! But most nebulas keep making stars, and then you have a houseful of stars to look after. It’s not like you can neuter a nebula, kiddo, and we don’t really have the room. Even a planetary nebula that doesn’t make stars needs more space than we have to be happy. You wouldn’t want to have an unhappy nebula, right?”
He obviously didn’t get it. I could totally keep a nebula happy, that was the whole point! And if it was about money…
“What if I add my own money? Grandma always sends me some and we could use that to-”
“Kiddo, you need to save your money for something more important. Let’s get back to the homework and do problem number 4 before I gotta get to work, hm? Oh, and I’ll be late coming home, I’m taking on an extra shift. Now, let’s see here. What kind of spacetime warping will occur when two cosmic strings are parallel?”
I let him walk me through the rest of the problem set, but I hadn’t given up. He was probably taking on extra shifts to pay for my nebula. He’d done that before, when I was little and really really wanted a comet ride. He’d denied it up and down, gave alllll the reasons it wasn’t gonna happen, and then, for my birthday, we went to the petting zoo and I got to ride a sungrazing comet. So really, I’d thought the nebula was a sure thing.
Every rotation cycle after school I’d take a detour home to Miss June’s pawn shop. Miss June kept the nebula in the window where it would scurry from side to side, its wispy pink and teal and orange body filling up with stars that would occasionally plop out and roll around the window display. Someone had pawned it about five cycle clusters ago, which was really lucky because I never thought I’d get one that cheap! Not that it was actually cheap, but like, you know, more affordable than usual. You didn’t need to be at like Shelly-levels of rich to get one.
Four cycles before my birthday I was standing at the pawnshop window after school as usual, my tentacles up on the glass and my breath fogging it up in front of me. The nebula squirmed around like it did when it was extra active, and extruded out an adorable little green protostar. The star rolled to the side of the window, bounced off a big piece of dark energy and hit a globular cluster straight in the middle, which made the cluster’s stars scatter and knock over a pair of cosmic strings.
The crash was loud. I would definitely have to housebreak it once I got it home.
“Hey kiddo,” called out Miss June from behind the register when she noticed me standing there. “You gonna take this nebula off my tentacles sometime soon? It’s making a mess.”
“I think my dad’s gonna get it for me for my birthday! It’s next cycle-group, so not that long,” I told her, and she’d smiled.
Two rotation cycles before my birthday, my dad sat with me to look over the bits I’d gotten wrong on my physics homework. He had bags under all eight of his eyes, and I could tell that getting up early to go over it with me before he went on the late shift was hard for him.
“78 on homework is pretty good, Dad,” I said. “See? It even says great improvement on top! It shows you how hard I’m working.”
“You sure are, honey. I’m proud of you.” He gave a tired smile and wiped a tentacle over his face as though he were trying to keep himself from falling right back asleep.
“Proud enough to get me a nebula?” I gave him a huge grin.
“We talked about this, kiddo. We don’t have the room. And nebulas are expensive.”
More faking me out. I was getting a nebula for sure, especially with all these extra shifts he’d been working.
“I’m doing great though. I don’t need to review this now.”
“We’re still going to go over the ones you missed,” he said. “It’s still important.”
I knew for a fact that Shelly’s parents didn’t make her sit with them all this extra time to go over homework. As long as she passed her classes, that was good enough. Lucky Shelly.
But at least, I’d thought, I’d soon have a pet nebula like she did.
I studied really hard, and the next rotation cycle had my physics test. It felt ok, like the stuff we’d gone over was sticking in my head.
And then, on the start of my birthday cycle, my dad woke me up, opened my dark matter curtains, and brought me banana pancakes in bed. He gave me twenty credits from my grandma and a box covered in polka-dotted wrapping paper. And inside was… a moon.
A cruddy old moon, dented and pocked with craters and shedding moon dust everywhere, tied into the box so it wouldn’t start orbiting around anything.
“Happy birthday!” he said. “You’ve been so responsible lately I figured you could handle it.”
My face fell. “Oh. Um. Thanks.” The dust tickled my proboscis and I just barely managed to not sneeze.
“I know you’re disappointed, kiddo,” he sat on the bed next to me, “but I told you, a nebula wasn’t gonna happen. We can’t afford it. Moons are really cool though! I had a moon when I was about your age. I named it Rocky and it followed me around everywhere I went. You should take it to school and show your friends!”
Sure, like that was ever gonna happen.
When Shelly got her nebula, she brought it to class and gave stars out to everyone. I lost my star when I tripped on the way home and it rolled into a black hole, which I was still mad about. The point was, what was I gonna do, hand out little moon rocks at school? Nobody wants moon rocks.
“Just be sure to come home in time for us to go over your physics homework,” he said. I grunted in response.
A moon. A stupid crappy dusty moon that didn’t have wispy beautiful colors, didn’t make stars, didn’t wanna cuddle… nothing. All it did was orbit.
I was in a bad mood all day at school. I was grumpy when my lunch voucher got me a pizza with gamma radiation topping, even though I like pizza with gamma radiation. I was grumpy when I got an 85 on my physics test, and when I thought about how proud Dad would be I got even grumpier.
Shelly got a 65%.
“That sucks, I’m sorry,” I told her, but she only shrugged sadly and said “whatever, it’s not like my parents will care. Besides, it’s not like they’ll be around enough to even find out about it.”
And for some reason that made me grumpier still, though I couldn’t quite figure out why.
I walked home from school, and didn’t even pet my neighbor’s comet through the hole in the fence like I usually did. Instead I grabbed a chunk of ice that had broken off the comet’s back and tossed it on the sidewalk in front of me with a scowl, then kicked it along as I kept going. Eventually I wound up passing the black hole, the same one I’d lost Shelly’s star to. Stupid black hole, sitting there and sucking everything good into it. Even a star is better than a cruddy old moon. And anyway, you’d never find a black hole in Shelly’s neighborhood all the way out on an outer galaxy arm. Why couldn’t my life be more like Shelly’s?
Frustrated, I kicked the piece of ice I’d been playing with into the black hole’s gravity well. It made a satisfying zzzip sound right before it crossed the event horizon and stretched itself out into a long icy streamer. Kinda neat. I looked behind me and there was nobody to yell at me, so I looked around to see what else I could fling into there.
In went another chunk of ice, then another. I found some alpha radiation on someone’s front lawn and bounced it off of some electrons I found in my pocket. Took a few tries until I got it to bounce into the black hole. Then I tossed in the electrons.
None of it made me feel any better though. It was so unfair! Why should people like Shelly have all the luck, getting nebulas and having a pool in their backyard and going on fancy vacations to different galactic clusters. Why couldn’t that be me? I was stuck with a crappy moon and crappy vacations that were just staying with my grandma and crappy sneakers with holes in the toes and soles that flapped. I’ve always had sneakers that were falling apart. The motto was, if you can duct tape em back together, they’re still fine.
I sat down on the sidewalk, untied my sneakers and eased them off my pseudopods, They stunk, and even the duct tape was starting to wear through. I tossed them into the black hole too. Their laces waved behind them until zzzzzip they straightened out and stretched longer and longer as the shoes got sucked in. Good riddance.
For a split second I thought someone was watching me, and maybe I was gonna get in trouble for tossing stuff in a black hole, but when I looked around I couldn’t see anybody. So I kept going.
I dumped out my backpack and let everything roll around. The moon thudded onto the sidewalk when I opened the side zipper. I guess Dad had slipped it into my bag this morning when I wasn’t looking. The whole bag pocket was now gray with moon dust, and so was everything else. The moon gave a quiver, and started to roll towards me like it was considering orbiting.
I was sick of it. I was sick of everything. I started throwing more stuff into the black hole. Dusty gray pencils, a dusty gray apple I didn’t eat at lunch. My dusty gray 85 percent math test, which made a crinkling sound before it hit the event horizon and was stretched into oblivion.
Stupid moon. What was even the point? I didn’t want it orbiting me, letting everyone see that I was forced to get a crappy moon instead of an awesome nebula.
I picked it up and turned it around, thinking I could maybe bowl it into the black hole. As I was trying to get the perfect grip, a splotch of icy sea melted a little in my tentacles, combining with the moon dust to form a thin mud. Ugh.
But there, on the back, was something I hadn’t noticed. Carved into the surface out of a million pin-prick craters were the words “There’s always light in the darkness, even if you can’t see it yet. May the phases of this moon light your way. Love, Dad.”
The writing was a little wobbly, which meant he’d done it himself. He must’ve gotten hundreds or even thousands of meteorites to hit at just the right angles, one by one.
When had he even found time to do it? Between his extra shifts? No wonder he had so many bags under his eyes.
And I suddenly realized, Shelly didn’t have that. Her parents were always traveling for work, and she always talked about how they loved to play meteorball and spent a lot of time at the club without her. They didn’t really pay a lot of attention to her. They would never put in that kind of time my dad did, like the way he sat with me for my physics homework every single night, to make sure I really got it. My dad actually cared how I did on my physics test.
And then I realized I’d thrown my physics test into a black hole, and he would want to see that. And then I realized I’d thrown my sneakers in too, and this was the stupidest thing I’d done in maybe forever.
Crap crap crap crap. I had to figure out a way to get it back, but how? Nothing comes out of a black hole but Hawking radiation.
I still had my birthday money from my grandma though. So I stuffed everything that hadn’t gone into the black hole back into my backpack and ran in my socks, skipping around stray planets and a big dark energy puddle, until I got to the pawn shop. I crossed my tentacles and…there they were. Two cosmic strings, still glittering in the window. They gently hummed and pulsed. I tried not to look at the nebula, which was still wiggling in the window beneath them looking all cute next to its little hundred credit price tag.
I looked for a price on the cosmic strings and didn’t see one.
“Hey kid, happy birthday! It’s now, right?” said Miss June, always cheerful from behind her register. “You look too blue to be here for that nebula. To be honest with you? It’s not worth the hassle.”
I could tell she was just being nice. Obviously nebulas are worth the hassle. I mean they’re nebulas!
“So I’ll bite. Whatcha here for?” The light winked off the bifocals that only covered four of her eyes.
“Um, how much are the two cosmic strings in the window?”
“Forty credits for the pair. Not selling em as singles, you lose all the value that way.”
My twenty wasn’t enough. And even if she were selling them as singles it would do me no good. I could’ve crumpled down and cried, right there.
“Why so glum, chum?” she asked, leaning over the counter.
I sighed. “I guess I can’t afford em then. I only got twenty.”
She looked me up and down. “Tell ya what, kiddo. I’ll give you a special birthday deal if you want it. Twenty bucks and a piece of collateral, and I’ll let you rent em. Bring em back within… say… a cycle-group? And you get your collateral back. No interest. How ’bout that?”
I could’ve hugged her, but then I realized I didn’t have anything to put down for collateral. Nothing but my moon. I couldn’t think of anything else, cuz it’s not like she’d want my busted old jacket or backpack or anything.
I didn’t expect it, but I really didn’t like the idea of leaving my moon with Miss June. Like it was a piece of my dad or something, which is stupid because obviously my dad isn’t made of moons. But what else could I do? So I fished it out from my bag and held it for a moment, then plunked it down along with the twenty. I grabbed the two cosmic strings from the window, careful to keep them crossing each other and not parallel, and ran.
Back at the black hole, I set one cosmic string to root firm in the ground so it wouldn’t move, and slowly maneuvered the other string until it went parallel to the first one on the other side of the black hole. They were weirdly slippery to set up and it took a few tries until I got it right. But as soon as they snapped into parallel position, spacetime between the two strings warped and started to tick backwards.
I saw myself running backwards to the direction of the pawn shop, and then several minutes later, saw myself running backwards back to the black hole. Then my physics test un-flung itself from the black hole, and next came the apple, some pencils, and my shoes. I waited until my shoes were back on old-me, then yanked the two strings out of position.
Old-me looked at new-me for a split second before old-me disappeared. My old backpack disappeared too, because new-me was still holding it. Or the newer version of it, which was weirdly heavy. Anyway, everything else clattered to the ground. I picked everything up, put my shoes back on, and ran back to the pawn shop.
Miss June looked at me weird for a beat or two, then it looked like she figured out what had happened. “So I sold you the cosmic strings, huh. And you’re bringing them back because…?”
“You rented them to me for twenty credits and my moon for collateral. I guess I got the moon back?” I checked my backpack, and yep, there it was, in the side pocket. And it occurred to me to check my pocket, and there were the credits too. I grabbed them and gave them to Miss June.
“Thanks for your honesty, kiddo,” said Miss June as she arranged the two cosmic strings back in the window display, careful to keep them from going parallel. The nebula snuggled up to one of them and rubbed its side on it. Man, nebulas were cute. Maybe I could get one some other birthday. Or when I grew up.
“Did you get what you need, honey?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, reaching back into the side zippered compartment and brushing my suckers on the moon’s pockmarked inscription. It felt good, having it back, like something had been off and hadn’t clicked into position until just now.
“Yeah, thanks” I said. “I’ve got exactly what I need.”
And I went home to show my dad my physics test.
About the Author
Effie Seiberg is a fantasy and science fiction writer. Her stories can be found in the “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” special edition of Lightspeed Magazine, Galaxy’s Edge, Analog, and Fireside Fiction, amongst others, as well as on PodCastle and Escape Pod.
Effie lives in San Francisco. She likes to make sculpted cakes and bad puns. You can follow her on twitter at @effies, or read more of her work at effieseiberg.com.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, a voice actress, and a force of nature. She is responsible for creating the epic fairytale fantasy realm of Arilland, and dabbling in a myriad of other worlds beyond. Her award-winning writing has been published for multiple age groups across all genres. Host of “Princess Alethea’s Fairy Tale Rants” and Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow every year at Dragon Con, Alethea also narrates for ACX, IGMS, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. Born in Vermont, Alethea currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and the magic, wonderful world in which she lives here: https://www.patreon.com/