Gravity Causes Them To Orbit
A Short Story by Jim McCollum
Written using the suggestion "Orbit"
Originally featured on 09-27-2007
As part of our series "Alternative Universals"

“The weather was wild, howling through windows and rattling blinds, the chooks almost lost their shelter, and clothes came to life, their flight cut short by sod-making rain. Though a rare occurrence, I like to see clothes fly, as it creates a sense of freedom. That is until such time as they need to be washed.”

—W.J. Kington



She loved him in the darkness. The box fan rattling in its cage, the furious shouting from the street, her voice, humming and whispering, all commingled in the air. Oren warmed up slowly; she kissed his neck, she moved her hand on his collarbone, on his chest, and softly bit his ear. She coaxed him and he began to hold her with more strength, his arms cradled her. She strained back against his grip; she liked to feel that his hands would not break apart. Oren’s hands began to move on Sarah’s body, his eyes open, and his lips closed in silence.

Sarah wouldn’t let her husband touch her head. She had not become accustomed to the scars. Love-making felt new to Sarah, the physical sensation of it had warmth she hadn’t felt before; a fearsome new pleasure she had never known. A dull, deep feeling resonated deep inside her, and made her smile in the darkness, when Oren held her, his head over her shoulder, but also made tears well up in her eyes. She would not weep in front of Oren. She had made that rule for herself.

Sarah knew the changes following the her fall, or “the accident” were not easy for Oren, but there were still times where she just needed to talk, letting it spew out in long-train-sentences. She would detail each minute from her appointments with her psychiatrists, the results from personality tests, or, in a weaker moment, fear that the trauma to her head had irrevocably changed her brain. Sometimes she would talk just to hear herself speak, to help process what was occurring in her own body, in her new voice, her post-accident voice. She would talk to old photographs of herself, explaining what was happening in each shot. She was both a student and a teacher at once on the subject of her own life.

Sarah did not know that Death was coming for her.

After sex, Oren had easily fallen to sleep. He had begun drifting off even before they were finished, mumbling occasionally out of place words given the circumstances. Sarah could not sleep. She watched Oren, his eyes closed and his lips barely spread. She tried to breathe with him, matching her breaths to his own, but still, sleep eluded her. Sarah could hear the sound of a car horn in the distance, perhaps trumpeting another tragedy. Shouts and sounds of the city had quieted, and now she could hear the clicking of a bicycle wheel and the sound of can and bottles being shaken. Looking out the window, she saw as a bearded homeless man emptying the recycling crates on the curb into his own plastic sack.

A glass of cool water might help her to sleep.

Downstairs, she walked through the furniture, to the kitchen. She sipped from her glass in the doorway to the living room. A peculiar thing, her dog-eared copy of Homer’s Odyssey did not sit where she had left it, but lay ever so slightly askew.


The next morning, Sarah watched through the kitchen window as the wind swept in, stripping the hooks off the line and sweeping the clothes up for a brief second of freedom. One of Oren’s pin-stripes courted a white blouse with a pirouette in the air. She had a plate in her hand, and she returned to washing the dishes. Rain drops fell on the roof of the house. When she retrieved the clothes from outside, the rain had weighed them down, grounding their flight in the mud and the grass. She returned them to the washing machine, so they could be made clean again.

Sarah had always been an independent woman. She had always detested waiting for anyone, including her husband, to help her. She hated to feel helpless, or incapable. If she had waited for her husband to come home that day she had decided to take the old ladder and clear out the rain gutters, perhaps she would not have fallen and hit her head.

“Who’s there?”

A sound like someone tapping a penny on metal came from upstairs in the master bedroom.

No one answered her.

Upstairs, Sarah noticed that someone had, almost imperceptibly, pressed down on her pillow. Upon examination, she thought she could make out the shape of a tiny hand; five points, like a star.


Oren returned home from work that day, and kissed Sarah on the cheek. He busied himself with opening the mail that had come in the past couple days, but he had not opened. Sarah chopped vegetables and made dinner, frying vegetables, meat, and noodles in a wok.

“How was work today, honey?”

“Fine, and the doctor?”


Oren put down the mail.

“I just don’t know, he keeps giving me these tests, I don’t know if I should keep going. I never seem to score any differently.”

“Well, if you want to stop going, stop going.”

“I didn’t say I wanted to stop going, I just said I didn’t know if I should stop.”

Oren sighed, got up and kissed her on the cheek. “I don’t know, baby, I just don’t know.”


Mid-afternoon the next day, Death appeared on the front lawn while Sarah watered the flowers. Death wore a yellow dress with white lilies on it, and had a small orange ball that she bounced on the ground. She had blond hair tied into a ponytail with a band made up of white beads. She had a clear, infectious laugh that rang high, like the sound of bells, a slightly metallic note in the highest range.

“Oh, you startled me, you're the girl from down the street, right?” Asked Sarah.

“No,” Said Death.

Death watched Sarah move the metal watering can over the bed of flowers.

“Well, can I do something for you?”

“Would you like to hear a story?” Death asked.

“I suppose I could.”

Death continued to look at Sarah.

“There once was a baby bird who tried to learn to fly and fell out of the nest. Her brothers and sisters told her to wait for their mom to return, but the bird had not listened. How cold the world felt without her brothers and sisters nestled around her!”

“Oh,” said Sarah, “that’s a very sad story.”

Death looked confused, “It’s the truth.”

“It’s still very sad.” Sarah watched Death, and smiled. She walked up the stairs to her porch. “Bye bye sweetie.”


When Oren returned home, Sarah already had dinner made. She set out two plates of spaghetti and spooned thick, red marinara sauce on top of them. Her hand began shaking, and she dropped the bowl. She tried to steady herself on the counter but fell to the floor. Oren came in as her vision became blurry. Although she could she his face contort as he shouted into hers, she could not hear him, and she could not answer him.

Sarah awoke in a hospital bed the next night. Oren sat at the window looking out, and Sarah could see his reflection, a moment of him deep in thought. Oren had become thinner, Sarah noticed, his cheeks sunken in. Dark circles had formed under his eyes, under his eyes that reflected the lights from the city like two polished obsidian orbs, dark and vacant. Sarah moved her arm and made a noise.

“You're awake,” Oren said.

Sarah smiled, “Mostly. What happened?”

“You're going to be fine, honey. You just suffered an extreme type of panic attack. The doc said your body is still adjusting to trauma, and recommended that you take it easy.”

Sarah smiled, “Thanks, how you are doing?”

Oren paused, “I’m tired, Sarah.”

“Come over here beside me,” Sarah moved over in the hospital bed, “Come over here.”

Oren walked over to her bedside. She reached up and grabbed his hand, pulling him down to her.

Awkwardly, he put his arms around her.

“I’m afraid for you,” he said, “and there’s nothing I can do. It’s almost unbearable.”

“Shh,” Sarah said, stroking his hair with her hand.

She placed her hands on his back. She could feel the tension in his shoulder muscles and down into his back, they tightened and squeezed; she could feel his breathing, little, short, ragged gasps.


Death visited Sarah again the next day. Sarah sat on the couch in the living room, reading. She had left the door open as it had been an unusually warm night, and a particularly beautiful morning, with a hot sun that she had not felt for some time. Death leaned into the door, moving her feet over the threshold to the house.

“Hello again,” Said Sarah.

“Hi, you look tired.”

“I’m feeling tired, but it’s nothing for you to be concerned about. You should be smiling, and playing outside.”

“I wanted to come and tell you more of the story that I told you yesterday.”

Sarah smiled.

“The little bird that fell out of the nest was very confused. The world seemed much bigger down on the ground than it had in the nest. She tried to fly, to get back up the tree to the nest. She could see it, so very high up in the tree. She wanted to be back in the nest with her brothers and sisters, even though they pushed her out of the way and did not let her eat. She just wished she was back up in the nest where she belonged!”

“It’s still a very sad story,” said Sarah, “Do you make up stories with happy endings?”

“I don’t make up stories,” said Death, “I wish I could. Maybe I’ll have another part to this story tomorrow, I never know the end myself until it happens.”

Oren and Sarah lay in bed together. Rain formed long trails down the window of their bedroom, and the smell of it evaporating off the road came in through the open window. Oren had a reading light on, but he had begun to snore, his book open, and his thumb still keeping his place. Sarah tried to push him, to wake him. His book fell from his hands onto the carpet, but he remained asleep. Sighing, Sarah turned out the light.

That night, the air became so cold that Sarah woke up. She walked over to the window and shut it. She got back into bed beside Oren and tried to move close to him, to take some of his warmth.


Death came again the next day. She came in through an open door, and sat down on the living room couch.

“Oh, you need to knock before you come into peoples’ houses.”

“I’m sorry, I came because I wanted to finish the story I was telling you.”

“Well you still need to knock.”

Sarah sat down on the couch beside Death.

“What’s wrong?” asked Sarah.

Death looked down at her feet.

“The bird waited at the foot of the tree. She thought she could hear the sound of her mother chirping from the nest high in the tree. She became very tired and she fell asleep. The night became very cold and the little bird’s body so chilled that she stopped breathing and her heart stopped beating.”

“Your stories are all so sad!”

“I don’t know any stories with happy endings. I wish I did, but I don’t.”

Sarah waited for a moment, and then smiled.

“What a sad little girl you are,” she bent down, and hugged Death, pulling her close to her.

Death rested her head on Sarah’s breast for one, brief moment.

“Please don’t touch me like that,” Death pushed Sarah away.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” said Sarah, but Death turned and ran.


Sarah followed Death out the door. She took the front steps in one stride, tipping over a flower pot. She tried to reach out to grab the little girl running across the street. As Death reached the other curb, Sarah reached her arm out.


Sarah’s voice was cut-off. A man driving a beat-up white pick-up truck was holding a cup of coffee and changing the station on the radio and didn’t see her. His truck hit Sarah squarely in the head.

The man got out of his truck, tossing his coffee on the ground. His chest heaved.

“Oh my god! Are you okay? Is she okay?” He spoke to the little girl pushing on Sarah’s body.

“Not again,” the girl was crying, “don’t do this to me again.”

“I’m calling the ambulance.”

“You made it last time,” Death whispered, “Don’t die.”

Death leaned over Sarah, frantically pushing down on her body, trying to wake her, but she could already tell Sarah was gone.

Read More By Jim McCollum

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