Around the world, astronomers are killing themselves, but they leave no clues behind them as to why. In a state of panic, the government implements curfews to keep people from being outside at night and looking up--just in case. But your curiosity gets the best of you. You buy a telescope.
The president signed an order to stop digging individual graves for the astronomers who were committing suicide. Your sister turned off the TV in disgust and slammed the door on her way out of your apartment. That night, your bartender refused to discuss the matter, gesturing to the full tip jar. “Opinionated bartenders don’t get paid,” she whispered. Your cat was willing to listen to you, but he fell asleep as you talked.
“Why is it only the astronomers, Paddy?” you asked. “What do they see that we don’t? And do you think we’ll get to visit the mass graves when all this blows over?”
When the night skies cleared in November, no longer fussed with overcast keeping the ground warm, the president signed another order. Curfew was at sunset.
Your sister made signs out of cardboard and glitter and wore them around her body.
“Government can’t tell me what to do!” She shouted, gently shaking the excess glitter back into it’s bottle. She invited you along in her after-hours protest. You refused to go with her so you could bail her out of jail the next day, which you did.
Your bartender became looser with her lips, now not so concerned about losing tips. “No one drinks well in the sunlight hours.” She invited you to drink more, buy a bottle or two to take home. And some shot glasses. And don’t you need a couple of kegs, just in case of a surprise party? Though you hated to see her disappointed, you said no because you needed an excuse to come and see her the next day, which you did.
The sun started to set. The sky grew red. Even when the last string of sunlight licked the edges of the clouds, it was only with different shades of scarlet. It missed the gold it once held. Seeing the reds turn to gray made you realized how much you missed the colors in between.
You passed by the shops on the way home. All were closed. Some of the smaller businesses tried to stay open, but the cop cars mosied by. The owners saw them and flipped their signs:
“we’re fucking closed”
Handwritten with a sharpie.
Made for no one to read except the cops who patrolled at night.
The police roamed in partners, each watching the other carefully to make sure they didn’t look up by accident. Just in case.
They didn’t look up.
No one looked up.
No one was allowed to look up.
Above your head, a light bulb flashed on. No one could see it--they couldn’t look up. But that was the point, after all.
At home you sat on the couch in your boxers--the ones with no useable elastic left in it and a hole ripped across the entire seat. Your sister asked you why you even owned them when you complained. “There’s no point in new underwear when there’s only the cat at home.”
The couch had lumps. Lumps you never noticed protruding out so much before. They were harder than you remembered too, and you wondered if it was really old filler, or if this was where the remotes went--eaten by the cushion. Digested, but never passed. Paddy liked to rest his chin on them, so you never bought another couch. What if the rigid chin-rests were what kept him there next to you?
In the morning, as soon as the dawn broke, you woke up. So did everybody else. Everyone was desperate to find hours now that they had lost the ones at night. They needed alarms, but your eyes shot open as soon as the sun crept in through the window. It was as if you’d been awake the whole time, but kept your eyes shut to keep out the darkness. Did time even pass? The hair in your beard, longer and grayer, said yes.
Paddy jumped off your lap as you stood straight up from the couch.
You visited your sister. Her curlers were still in, peeking out from underneath a tinfoil hat. She offered to make you one, but you refused because your thoughts weren’t as interesting as hers--at least that’s what you told her. She shrugged and nodded her head, agreeing with you completely. She didn’t catch the smirk on your face. If she did, she’d know how you appreciated her innocence and her authenticity. Since you were children, you relied on her honesty, and she had never let you down before.
You visited the bar--or rather, you visited the bartender. She drank with you now. Anything to make it look like sales didn’t drop as much as they really did. She told you her boss was a dick. “Who’s ever heard of a quota at a bar?” She didn’t look into your eyes, where you were certain affection lingered just behind the surface. If she did, she’d know you just like to talk to her--to hear the rhythm of her words, soft and subtle.
You bought two bottles of chardonnay and a keg to take home. There was an opening for a hug as you say goodbye. You don’t know why you didn’t take it. The eye contact, prolonged and steady, was begging for a break in body movement. Instead, she shouted that she’d see you tomorrow as the door swung shut behind you.
All the shops were open still. Sunset wasn’t for hours. The hobby store was the opposite way from your house, but you walked there anyways. It was the only place you had seen telescopes before.
A very tired man stood underneath a sign written in large, black words:
He slumped over the counter, resting his eyes in the palms of his hands and letting tuffs of stringy brown hair weave through his fingers. To the right, you saw boxes and boxes of telescopes, all lined up and thick with dust. He didn’t say anything when you brought one up, the original color of the box visible only where your fingers laid on it.
He just laughed. Loudly.
This on its own would have been alarming, but the film of salt water glossing his eyes humanized him. Every tear that escaped him whispered “If only I had your balls, man.” You knew he wouldn’t tell anyone.
You used the rest of the daylight to set it up. The instructions weren’t clear, nor were the pictures. But you could do this. At one time in your life, you had assembled furniture, computers, and drones. Hell, you constructed an entire shed--with shelving!--for your ex-girlfriend’s parents. Ignore that the wind blew it down and crushed the dog a week later. You still did it.
Everything was ready by nightfall. You snuck onto the roof of your apartment building, telescope in tote, when the sky had completely faded to black.
What could all those astronomers have seen to make them want to die?
Your notebook sat beside you, the corner of the pages lifting lightly in the breeze. A pen sat on top to jot down any quick notes, anything that could help everyone know--just in case you ended like the astronomers.
The city didn’t bother funding electricity to street lamps anymore. The horizon was lost between the ground and the sky, and slowly, windows in apartment buildings vanished as their lights went out. Above you were all the stars, the missing gold from the sunsets. It was here, thick like wet beach sand spread across a stone. Your eyes watered and bounced from star to star, all at once and hardly moving.
The cops didn’t look up, didn’t see you standing on the roof that night. With all your discipline, you pulled your eyes from the beauty above to the rubber ring of the telescope eyepiece.
You focused on the moon, on stars, on planets. The rings of Saturn distinct and crisp. The craters of the moon deep and rough.
You studied them for hours, your mind laying amongst the celestial bodies.
You didn’t have to wait for your sister to see your smile to tell her she was important.
You didn’t have to design excuses to visit the bartender.
You didn’t have to quit engineering after the dog died.
Or follow all the rules in school.
Or go to college--or graduate.
Or sit on a lumpy couch for the cat.
You knew it all now. The texture of the moon, scarred, like your heart. Your entire life as still as Saturn’s rings looked.
They found your body in the morning.
You left your notebook on the roof.
Only one line, scratched with a broken pen.
But no one could read your writing.