Stars are the most massive, furious objects that can be seen with a naked eye. They burn so immensely hot that they fuse matter and are so gargantuan that the pull of their gravity keeps objects named after the gods prisoners. They are so impressive, so astounding that when they die they engulf everything around them in fire. Their corpses, (black holes) EAT LIGHT.
They live for billions of years. Without the shine from their fury, there would be no life.
Yet all of their hatred is but a feeble whisper in the great void that they reside.
You can count stars, but have you counted the distance between them? With all of their massive fury screaming into space they are but specs to an indifferent infinite nothing.
We stare up at the sky because someone needs to witness the gods themselves lose to the monster that is time and space.
Malcolm Steadman was done speaking. The question that was written on the white board said “things I need to work on”. The group’s leader, a very tall and lanky man named Terry with an overly polite demeanor and an unkempt beard looked awkwardly towards Malcolm. After a silence that would make even the dead uneasy, Terry brought a dry erase pen to the board.
A list of the things that the other “residents” had volunteered were neatly written across it. “I can’t look myself in the mirror”, “I need to get to know someone before they get to know me”, “I am a fraud”, these were the honest and raw things that Malcolm’s peers had said when it came to be their turn. When they were done, Terry thanked them for opening up, told them that they were very brave and “that he knew this was not easy”, then he took his neon pink marker and summarized their confessions. “I am not good enough to be loved” was written on the board after a woman sitting next to Malcolm explained why she had thought about committing suicide. She explained how her husband would leave her any day now for someone better than her, and why she thought she was so worthless. She held the floor for ten minutes, openly weeping for eight of them. Terry condensed it to seven words. Then it was Malcolm’s turn. Terry wrote “Afraid of space and stuff” on the board. Malcolm did not disagree.
Terry did not thank Malcolm.
They were gathered in the entropic communal space. Plastic chairs with steel legs, the kind you could find in any classroom across the United States, were arranged in a circle, the tables had been moved to the side. Terry brought them all here, this was a mandatory “activity” that all new residents had to complete. There was a dozen seated and Malcolm was one of the last to sit. “In a circle” terry explained, “everyone is equal. We all have the opportunity to look at our peers without obstruction”. Everyone, without fail, looked at the floor. Everyone was too ashamed for eye contact. Terry had then grabbed a dry eraser from the board and handed it to the person on his left. “When you hold this, you get the floor, don’t be shy, no one is judging. You may talk for as long as you like” Terry said, his gentle voice almost too quiet to be heard. After someone was done letting the room know about their vulnerabilities, the eraser was passed, until finally it came to Malcolm. Did Terry not read his file? He had to know this was a mistake. Malcolm spoke, and when he was done, for the first time in the meeting, everyone made eye contact with him. Everyone stared. The air of shame and sadness had lifted for just a moment, and it was replaced with a perplexity that flirted with offense.
Malcolm did not return his peers’ gaze. Behind Terry the ancient CRT television, set to whatever channel refused to come out of the cold war, played The Incredible Hulk with Lou Farigno and Bill Bixby set on mute, a setting Malcolm was astonished to see it had. Malcolm stared at that. He was not certain it was any better than the awkward and confused gazes. Terry had the eraser back from Malcolm. “Before we are done, we are going to replace what I put down for you with something real. You are not in trouble Malcolm, I know this is hard, but think about how brave everyone has been. They all trusted you with their secrets, trust yourself to tell us yours.” Terry handed the eraser to Malcolm’s right. Malcolm nodded and no one made a noise. On the television, a green, half-naked Lou Farigno wrestled with a bear.
Being social in this environment was as surreal as the deaf and muscled actor covered in green body paint howling in silence on the screen. Everyone knew that the other had tried to end their lives. Small talk was even more superfluous here than it was on the outside. This “activity” was the easiest way the ward had to get the obvious out and get the residents talking.
The person next to Malcolm described how his family had abandoned him for coming out of the closet. Everyone close to him shut him out of their lives because he was finally honest and open about his sexuality. Holding back tears, the man next to Malcolm declared that the thing he was most ashamed of, was that he wasn’t strong enough to keep living after that. He felt like he had let the gay community down by trying to kill himself. Terry thanked the man and wrote “let down self and others” on the board directly under Malcolm’s “Afraid of space and stuff”. Malcolm felt a terrible sinking feeling in his core. Why was he here?
Beside and around him were people with real trauma and hardship. Malcolm could’t eat cereal without thinking about the vastness of the void. The man beside him was here out of desperation. Malcolm was here because he substituted toll-free numbers for therapy. The truth of the matter was that Terry was being too kind to Malcolm. Malcolm felt like a monster.
On the screen Lou Farigno had bested the bear. Next, a commercial for Life-Alert, the emergency pager for seniors, played at zero volume. Malcolm watched as seventy year old actors with no experience pretended to break their hips.
The eraser made its way to the next person.
Malcolm felt bad for the circumstances that brought him here. He felt ashamed. He did not, however, feel bad for the rant about celestial indifference that he unleashed manically upon the crowed. He was asked to be honest about his problems, he was asked to share what he could not share with others, and he did. Was it ridiculous? ABSOLUTELY. Was it possibly insensitive to his peers that were in need? Probably. But it was the truth. The fact that stars were putting up a losing battle against the cold blackness of space terrified him.
A woman, in tears, explained how she had lost her father and son in a car crash and lost her job in the same day. On the TV footage of puppies swarmed a bowl of dog food.
Okay. Maybe Malcolm should feel bad about his rant.
With the eraser back in the hands of the person that started, the circle was complete. Terry moved the eraser back to Malcolm and with encouraging eyes asked “One more time?” Malcolm held the eraser.
“I-I was eating cereal. I don’t know what kind, some sort of knock off brand of Alpha-Bits but with shapes of stars. It made me think of”- Malcolm paused, now self-conscious that he was doing it again. He took a deep breath, and tried again. “I’m not normal, and that terrifies me. I tried to do everything I was ‘supposed to do’, and I failed at each one of them. I have no degree, no house, and I have no kids…” Everyone was staring at the ground, no one but Terry was looking at him. A green Lou Farigno flexed in silence. “I know that sounds silly, but being average, being normal was important to me. I never questioned life and just didn’t want to stand out. Now? Everyday I question everything. I can’t take it, I am not who I thought I was”.
Malcolm had expressed, in full and complete detail the vast array of epiphanies that haunted him to random operators and customer service representatives before, but this was the first time he had admitted his true anxiety out-loud. Terry walked to the white board, erased “Afraid of space and stuff” and replaced it with “I am afraid that I don’t fit in”, then thanked Malcolm. Terry told Malcolm that he was brave.
Bill Bixby was walking with his back turned from the camera, a solitary thumb pointed upward for a ride that would never come.
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I choose Pinkfloyd’s “Nothing else matters” for this chapter. Thought it would fit.
So now Malcolm is telling the truth…I see.
“Nothing Else Matters” would be perfect for this chapter 😀