There are stars in the sky.
You don’t always have to see something to know that it exists.
Atlas of old knows this, for he carries the weight of the entire world and sky on his back.
It’s a groaning weight; the human heart is a heavy burden to bear alone, and he has to carry billions upon billions of them.
Sometimes, he catches glimpses of the sky above him, and sometimes, like right now, he can see the stars.
Sometimes, it’s enough.
A different boy named Atlas, an Atlas of new beginnings and feet planted on the ground, knows this, too.
The only difference is that he’s never seen the stars before.
He likes to think that they are beautiful, and sometimes he wonders if the stars find him beautiful, too.
No one on the planet of Iccathea has seen the stars in one hundred and eighty-seven years, so each person keeps their own version of what they might look like close to their hearts.
Atlas doesn’t have a clue as to what the stars are supposed to look like, except for that maybe they are rose-colored. And beautiful. They must be beautiful.
His little sister, Miranda, believes that the stars resemble the creatures known as solar cats, and when she’s asked about it, she’ll just shrug her shoulders in the way little kids do and say, “They’re both so elusive; what else are the stars supposed to look like?”
Atlas can never find it in his heart to argue against his sister’s unique brand of logic. If she says that the stars looked like the solar cats that haunt every alleyway in the city they live in with their lantern-bright eyes and needle-thin teeth, then by all the constellations in the sky, that’s what the stars look like.
His mother claims that the stars look like little fires dancing across the sky.
His father says that the stars look like death.
There is a reason why no one on Iccathea has seen the stars in one hundred and eighty-seven years.
This reason comes in the form of people with hearts as black as burning oil. People who breathe through lungs that are more corrupt than everyone’s on the planet combined.
People who have forgotten to look up.
People who have turned off the stars.
Faceless. Nameless. They’re peering through glass windows with white knuckles and stern frowns as things go up, and as things come down, as they attach values to all of these heavy, human hearts.
They have their own burden to carry, but instead, they give it away.
Atlas doesn’t know enough about these people to despise them or to hate them or to even think anything of them at all.
All he knows is smog. Yellow skies. Smog. The outline of Iccathea’s three suns through the haze in the early mornings. More smog. Old face masks with holes in them. Face masks without holes in them because Atlas always tries to look for the bright side of things.
“It’s a real pit stain of a sky,” his best friend P.J. likes to say with her head tilted upwards and her eyes narrowed, as if she were daring the sky to defend itself, and Atlas can’t help but to agree with her.
It is a real pit stain of a sky.
There is a bright side here, too; he’s sure of it.
Atlas thinks it's cruel, that his parents had named him after a man who once held up the entire world and the entire sky with his own bare hands when he can't even see the sky for himself.
It’s also cruel of his parents to leave nothing behind but scorched lungs and the whisper of fire and death and sickness behind, but he doesn’t have time to dwell on this because he’s only seventeen years-old and suddenly he’s supporting himself and his sister instead.
Looking back on it, he thinks he would have preferred the sky.
At least he would have gotten to see it.
The stars are solar cats and fire and death.
The stars are beautiful.
The stars can be anything you want them to be.
Atlas wants everything to be okay again.
Somewhere along the way, Atlas trades his vision of stars in the sky for a fire in the hearth and for food in his belly.
If Atlas looks back on it even further more, this fire, this sickness, has been following him like a shadow for a while, especially after it consumes his parents.
There’s a fire when P.J. punches someone in the face for him, after they make fun of his hacking cough. He doesn’t know to properly thank her so he tries to bake her cookies but he ends up burning them instead and they come out looking like lumps of coal.
“It’s the thought that counts,” P.J. says in an uncharacteristically soft voice, and Atlas wonders, not for the first time, what the stars would look like to her.
There’s a fire in the lab at his school one day when he’s too busy trying to save his and P.J.'s chemistry grade but P.J.’s too busy scheduling knife fights in the parking lot with other students and various gods alike because she doesn‘t know how to not be angry, and because she doesn’t care that much about her chemistry grade.
To be honest, Atlas doesn’t really care that much about his chemistry grade, and in turn, his chemistry grade doesn’t care about him, either.
There’s a fire when he and P.J. both decide to drop out of school at the same time because it just isn’t worth the fight, and when P.J. eventually gets kicked out of her house, because it just isn’t worth the kicking and screaming anymore, too, and she ends up moving in with Atlas and Miranda in their parent-less house that smells like the apocalypse.
There’s a fire when Atlas gets into his first fight with Miranda, his little sister who doesn’t believe in the stars that look like solar cats anymore. She’s locked that part of herself into a box and hid it under her bed, along with all the worn out masks with holes in them and clothes that are missing too many buttons.
There’s a fire when the scientists declare for the forty-second time that all of Iccathea is facing an environmental disaster, and when going to a hospital suddenly becomes a death sentence.
There’s a fire here, there, and everywhere, and suddenly it’s hard to find a bright side in all of this.
Suddenly, it’s getting harder to breathe.
It’s too much.
It’s a heavy burden to carry, and it’s too much.
“We need to get out of here,” P.J. says one night as they sit curled up on the sofa, and the tone of her voice leaves no room for doubt or second-guessing. No room for searching for silver linings. The electricity has been shut off for days, and soon heat and water will follow. It’s a similar situation everywhere in the city, as people come to terms with the values they’ve been given.
Miranda lies on the floor asleep with her back turned away from them, her breaths rattling like bones between her lungs.
It sounds like eleven years. It sounds like death.
“Where? Where can we go?” Atlas asks, and it’s a question that is spread thin across the edges of the universe and the cracks in the broken lights that litter the city they live in, one every heart carries.
It’ll be a mass exodus. Everyone will be thinking of the same thing.
They’ll be lucky to even get out of the city.
“What about Fye? Y’know, that place with a fireball hanging in the sky? It’s the closest planet to us. Cheap, too.”
“That place is a tourist trap.”
“Okay, what’s your big idea, genius?”
“What about Earth? Like, where your family is from.”
“No way, Atlas. That place is almost as bad as it is here. I’ve told you about Hong Kong, right? Where my parents grew up.”
“We’ll think of something.”
“You’re right. We’ll think of something.”
The stars can be anything you want them to be; meaning, they think of something.
It comes right around the time when Atlas has almost given up, when the hearth and his belly are empty. When Miranda doesn’t look him in the eye anymore. When two jobs become three and then none at all.
It comes in the form of P.J. triumphantly marching into the kitchen one day, waving three shiny, silver Space Travel tickets in her hand.
“I almost had to kill someone to get these,” P.J. says, and Atlas believes her wholeheartedly. “But you know what this means?”
“It means we can leave,” Miranda says in a quiet voice, and it’s hard to miss how her eyes shine.
“It means we can leave.”
The planet is called Greendome, and it’s far away from Iccathea and its pit stain of a sky.
Instead, the sky looks like a dream, and the whole planet seems to be breathing.
A breath of hope. A breath of fresh air. A breath of life.
Miranda can look Atlas in the eye now, and there’s color back in her cheeks. There are no more holes. P.J. doesn’t look as if she wants to fight the sky anymore.
Suddenly, they can all know more than smog and yellow skies.
(You can breathe now, Atlas).
I’ll make you breakfast out of stardust, and we’ll call this planet home, sings an old, old song from the radio they found in the attic as they dance around in their new kitchen, their dinner almost entirely forgotten.
There is a fire in the hearth, food in their bellies. Visions of the stars return to their eyes, because none of them ever forgot to look up.
Everything looks bright, and they call this planet home.
There are stars in the sky.
Atlas can see them now, as he sits huddled close to his sister and P.J. from where they sit in the heart of a field.
In the distance, he can make out the old farmhouse they've completely transformed. It hasn’t been lived in for years. They quickly change that, and soon the space becomes filled with old songs from the Milky Way and a special kind of warmth.
It’s nighttime now, and all three of them can only look up at the sky and the stars above them with their hearts and lungs full.
It’s a view none of them have ever seen before up until a few weeks ago, and isn’t that the best kind of view?
A view you never thought you could have for yourself.
A view you’ve always carried in your heart.
The stars can be anything you want them to be.
The stars can be solar cats and fire and death.
The stars can be beautiful.
Atlas can see this now.
There are stars in the sky (and they are beautiful).