Falling Stars

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A man stands on a bridge smoking a cigarette. Above him, the infinite universe watches with absolute ambivalence. Below, a gaping hole in the cracked and desolate ground waits patiently like the open jaws of some stoic predator. All he has to do is let go.

Submitted: August 24, 2016

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Submitted: August 24, 2016

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d. The night was all they knew. They turned on the lights to ward it off, those pale-eyed lamps that stood sentinel on the streets of Afterlife, but the lights were getting dimmer all the time, and the night was creeping in through the glass. He struck a match with his thumbnail, lit the cigarette caught between his lips. Inhaled. Breathed out, slowly. He leaned back against the railing and watched the curl of grey smoke wind its way up towards the stars. The night was their old enemy, the remnant of an age from before their sun died, and now it surrounded them on their crumbling Eden, their city that drifted dream-like through the emptiness of space. Night had engulfed them, so deeply that he felt as if he could simply reach up, fingers outstretched... touch heaven itself.

But the night didn’t bother him. He flicked the cigarette

with his thumb and let the ash fall past his feet, down into the dark. He had never seen the sun. He had seen people, eight thousand, nine hundred and eleven of them wandering the straight-line streets of their former paradise, but sometimes they were eight thousand, nine hundred and eleven too many. Sometimes the heat became unbearable, and the metal ceilings seemed to press down until he could hardly breathe, and the only company he could keep was that of an unsympathetic universe, an eternity that simply did not care.

So he would slip away, stand on the bridge, smoke, and look up at the countless multitudes of stars that were so utterly impassive to his existence, so wonderfully and beautifully nonchalant to whether he fell in line or fell off the edge of the world.

He pinched the cigarette between his finger and thumb and put it to his lips again. Inhaled. He watched the orange glow burn down the white, and lazily blew out the grey smoke that came from such colours. He found himself smiling again, perhaps because there was nobody around in the ruins of the park to wonder at the man standing, smiling, on the wrong side of the railing of a small bridge over a dried-up stream; perhaps because, as he looked up at the stars, it was impossible to deny the existence ofbeauty in all its transcendental coldness, of something that had been there long before them and would remain, long after they had burned their grasping, greedy fingers on its light.

He inhaled.

A long time ago, or perhaps only in some vague silhouette of a dream, his mother had told him about the stars. She had tucked him into bed, smoothed the blanket with her hands – a mother’s hands, the fingernails not yet painted metallic grey or black or whatever uniform or fashion now dictated – and pointed out through the small window in their dormitory. When a person dies, she had said, they become a star. They don’t feel pain or sadness, hunger or loneliness anymore, and they aren’t afraid of anything because nothing can ever hurt them again.

He blew out another curl of grey smoke, and though he didn’t know if she really believed that, he liked to. It was comforting to imagine that beyond the grey concrete and grey-faced people he had grown up with, a child in the corroding sanctuary the remnants of humanity had built for itself, some small beauty remained. That even those husks of human beings who worshipped dead gods and prayed to a man corrupted by power and his own sense of importance, those former people with their blank expressions and glazed eyes, need only wait until their meaningless existence expired to experience the sublime. That even his mother, who now tied back her greying hair and painted her nails and glossed her lips rouge and wore the long, black overcoat of some faction of their society or other, the overcoat that swept behind her like the shadow he had once been, could find redemption. Could be better, brighter, more brilliant. She could be beautifulagain. If only they would look up, just once, just to see that host of lights glittering in an endless sky. But nobody seemed to look up anymore. Nobody seemed to care.

He inhaled again and sharply snatched the cigarette from his lips. The rust was beginning to flake under his hand. Maybe this time he would do it, maybe not. It was getting easier and that scared him a little, but it also smeared a grin on his gaunt face and made his heart pound. Balancing on the edge, one hand on the railing and the other holding a cigarette, made him feel, and that mattered more than anything. He exhaled.

They said if a piece of rock the size of a penny fell through their sky, all eight thousand nine hundred and eleven people, from the workers in the offices to those in the sewers, every official, widow, child, even the president and his militant Angelica, would die. He looked around at the broken paths and the blind lampposts, at the swathes of concrete where the grass used to grow and the bare, cracked tiles beneath him where a stream used to flow. It was hard to imagine how anything would change.

He flicked the ash down into the gaping hole in the tiled riverbed, wondered if he was the first to look down into that darkness with a heavy heart, and filled his lungs again with smoke. They said there had once been trees in the park. Huge things, full of green, with leaves that whispered in the artificial breeze and fell, brown and crackling, before blossoming again. He had never seen a tree. But then, there were many things he had never seen. What had the sun looked like in the glory of its life? What was a flower? A thunderstorm? He breathed out slowly, through his nose, as his jaw tightened. He had seen the Angelicabeat a woman to within an inch of her life, watched her blood be trodden down the street by people who pretended not to see. He had tasted the copper of blood and fear when a man, with nothing in his eyes, had punched him for speaking against their society. He had closed his eyes and felt a warm breeze glide through his hair, just long enough to imagine that for one moment he was somewhere else, anywhere else, anywhere that was real. He had felt the lips of a woman on his own, had smelt perfume and cigarettes on her skin; and yet, he had never seen a woman cry. He had never heard waves crashing against rocks or birds singing or music playing. What did a snowflake feel like when it melted on the tongue, or to look up and smile as droplets of water fell from the sky?

He put the cigarette to his lips, his hand shaking a little. Inhaled, blew out the grey smoke. Such things were myths, fairytales told to children, memories that even the elders, who shuffled around and muttered like drunks, could not recall. He would never see such a thing as a flower, or a snowflake, or a blade of grass. Sometimes he prayed for another living thing, just one, to challenge the concrete; just one thing of colourto defy the lifeless grey that was spreading, cancerous, through everything, as if the night was bleeding all colour from their world. He lifted a hand in front of his face, what was left of the cigarette burning between his middle and index fingers. Even he was turning grey; slowly, surely fading into nothingness.

He put his hand back behind him on the railing. It was cold, and his arms were beginning to go numb. Soon he would have to make the choice, he knew, or the choice would be made for him. His body would betray him and down he would tumble, down into the abyss that gaped, jagged-toothed with broken tiles, beneath him.

How many times had he slunk away to that bridge, smoked a cigarette and looked up at the stars? How many times had he stood there, leaning forward, teetering on the edge of that unfathomable darkness? Somewhere at the bottom, far below their concrete world, he imagined vast pools of recycled water that lay like mirrors, like the lakes in the stories of his childhood. He imagined steel mountains and grassless meadows filled with abandoned machines, rusted shapes illuminated by some eerie ghostlight. Down his body would tumble, down past the sewers and the tunnels and the exiled who slid needles into their black veins, down past the prisons with their skeleton occupants clutching at rusted bars, down and down and down through the levels of the society that they had built, until finally the metal floor would rush up eagerly to meet him and then... nothing. He took one last lungful of grey smoke.

His mother had told him that he could be anything he wanted to be. She had smiled, a gesture that he had not seen for a very long time, and put her cool hand against his cheek. She was beautiful. But that was before. He breathed out, felt his fingers begin to slip on the railing. When he was fourteen and still in school, they caught him smoking his first cigarette in the bathroom. The taste was awful; he had coughed and pulled a face as the others laughed, but the feeling... good and bad at the same time, like nothing else, his fingers tingling, his chest tightening with breathless excitement. He remembered the sound of the bathroom door slamming open, the sadness in his mother’s eyes when they told her, but the excitement was swelling in him again. He knew that the same sadness would touch her eyes when they told her, even now, even behind the glaze that had crept over them like night. One day the visage would crack, the dome above them would shatter and the stars would fall, one by one, like needles of light.

But he would be gone. It was time. The rust flaked under his fingers; the coldness of the railing began to fade. He took one hand off and flicked the cigarette away, watched the tiny orange glow disappear into the darkness, engulfed.

When a person dies, they become a star, she had said so lovingly. He remembered the softness of her hand as she stroked his hair, the warm numbness of sleep spreading through him like water. Does it hurt? he had asked, and she had smiled, shook her head. No, he heard, and the breeze was gone and the birds hadn’t sung for a very long time and all he could hear was her voice, all he could see was the love in her eyes as she soothed him to sleep. There’s only light, and happiness. And you won’t be afraid of anything, she said, and he let his fingers slip from the railing as gravity took hold of him. He closed his eyes

 

because nothing can ever hurt you again

 

and fell forward and down as birds sang in his head and a flower bloomed in his chest

 

goodnight, James. I love you.

 

and was gone.


© Copyright 2017 TomWilliams. All rights reserved.

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