The Front Line
In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today.
The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.
My ass sticks to the thick, hot plastic seat of a waiting room chair that is unable to accommodate the spread of my hips. The AC groans with effort. It’s 68 degrees in here, but my body runs hot. I squirm in discomfort, inadvertently pushing my shorts up my crotch. My thighs pop out like sausages heated to bursting. Thick with sweat, their dimpled roundness lays bare for the judgmental stares of those seated around me. Leaning to my side, I lift a butt check and ungracefully dig the shorts out of my crack. It takes longer than it should. I glance around nervously, but no one’s looking. I’m just another big girl whose body has become armor.
“You weren’t wearing panties,” the officer replies impassively.
I don’t sleep in underwear, so I don’t answer, but the unspoken accusation hangs in the air. This was my fault.
That was two years and two hundred pounds ago.
There are three other women in the waiting room, only one like me. She is nearly my size and wraps her arms self-consciously around her belly. Legs too thick to cross, she presses her knees together. She’d be more comfortable if she’d just spread ’em, even in these tight-ass chairs. I smile in commiseration, but she looks away. She will learn to take up space, or she will die.
“Monique Renée?” The nurse calls my name.
I roll myself out of the chair, and the nurse tries not to stare.
Instead she says, “That’s a really pretty name.”
“That’s why I chose it,” I answer, squeezing past.
“Were you conscious when it happened,” the investigator asks.
“I was awake,” I answer.
“Did it hurt?”
“Any idea why it chose you?”
I shrug. “Because no one cares what happens to a Black woman’s body?”
I sit in another white room now, flat on my back, legs spread, pelvis tilted. The top of the doctor’s head is barely visible below my belly.
“Your BMI is high,” the doctor says as she scrapes and swabs. “You need to lose weight.”
“There are other health implications . . .” she prattles on, and I zone out. She doesn’t understand. If I shrink myself, I will be crushed.
“Well, things seem normal enough down there,” she says as she emerges. “They say that once the initial trauma passes, women like you can live quite normally with . . .” she hesitates to find the words, “. . . the remnants,” she concludes.
Women like me?
I want to grab her and shout, PLEASE, I’M A SUPERWOMAN! But I bite my bottom lip instead. None of this feels like superhero treatment. I promise to walk every day and drink more water. I dress quickly and head across the street for a venti iced mocha latte, extra whip.
There are five people in line when I arrive. A young Black boy, maybe fifteen, struggles with large hands to dig coins out of skinny jeans.
The barista sighs impatiently. “Five fifty. You got it?” Her name tag reads “Brandy.”
The boy digs deeper into his pockets, pushing the tight denim further down his ass, revealing more of his crisp white boxers. There are sneers of disgust from the other customers.
“You don’t have it.” Brandy cancels the order and gestures for the next customer.
I step forward. “I can pay for him . . .”
“I said I got it, bitch!” the boy shouts at the barista.
At that moment, two cops enter the coffeeshop, and a stillness descends.
“What’s your name?” I whisper to the boy, eyes planted on the officers.
“Dante,” he responds.
“Dante, baby, please take your hands out of your pockets now. Slowly.”
The officers’ hands hover over their guns. They take in the frightened, nervous faces of the patrons, the baristas nervously ducking behind counters. It doesn’t matter that they are the ones creating the fear. Their eyes hone in on Dante.
Dante stares back, wide-eyed but defiant. “You gonna shoot me over some coffee?” he challenges.
Brandy tries to speak. “It’s okay . . .”
I push the boy behind me.
Patrons and staff drop to the floor.
The first bullet hits like a punch to the gut. It slams my liver into my lungs. Belly fat absorbs the impact and enfolds the bullet before it can pierce my skin. I double over as breath is pushed violently from my body. My knees crash against the hard linoleum, threatening to shatter. The second bullet hits my shoulder blade, and the impact sends me sprawling across the floor. The bullet bounces away and is lost in my mass of hair. I crawl towards Dante to shield him with my body. But I am slow, and I am tired.
Two shots later, the trigger-happy cop is restrained by his partner. The echo of gunfire rings in my ears, joined by the screams of frightened bystanders.
“You feared for your life,” one cop coaches the other.
Dante sits frozen, back against the counter, shaken but unharmed. I reach him and wrap my arms around his trembling body.
The officers notice me now. “Shit, how are you still standing?”
“I’m unarmed,” I respond.
“She’s one of those,” scoffs one.
“No paperwork,” the other replies with a shrug. They shove me out of the way to cuff the boy.
As they drag Dante away, he looks at me, perhaps for the very first time. “Hey, lady, I don’t even know your name!”
I know you don’t.
Not for the first time, I watch cops stuff a teenager into a squad car, decidedly better than a hearse. As they drive away, I help myself to a cup of drip before staggering home for a bubble bath and some Ben & Jerry’s.
I pass the thicc sistah from the waiting room. She gasps at the bullet holes in my clothing, the scent of gun smoke and death dripping from my pores.
“I’m off duty now,” I tell her. “You got this?”
She doesn’t answer.
“The Front Line” copyright © 2020 by WC Dunlap
Art copyright © 2020 by Eli Minaya
WC Dunlap draws her inspiration from the complexities of a Black Baptist, middle class upbringing by southern parents, and all that entails for a brown skin girl growing up in America. Equally enthralled by the divine and the demonic with a professional background in data & tech, she seeks to bend genres with a unique lens on fantasy, fear, and the future. WC Dunlap’s writing career spans across film, journalism and cultural critique, previously under the byline Wendi Dunlap. You can find her writing in FIYAH, Lightspeed, PodCastle, Christian Century, and in the upcoming anthology Whether Change: The Revolution WIll Be Weird. Carnivàle is her first long-form fiction published serially via the Broken Eye Books Patreon, Eyedolon. WC Dunlap holds a BA in Film and Africana Studies from Cornell University. She is the proud mother of a young adult son and two British Shorthair familiars. Follow WC Dunlap on twitter @wcdunlap_tales.