He was down in the sky-room on the night his mother died. It was a basement built for the end of the world. There were reinforced walls and almost complete darkness. The circular panel of glass on the ceiling was the only reason the room wasn’t a swallowing void of black. He could watch the sky from underground.
He had no understanding for the reason the basement was built. Was it so that when the world ended, everyone could watch through their circular panels how the sun engulfed their Earth?
As he inspected the night through that little slice of the ceiling, it made him think of a story his mother had told him about the frog who sat at the bottom of the well. All the frog did was look at the sky, thinking that it only stretched to the slick, moss-covered edges of the well, no further.
To the frog, the well was its entire world. It knew not of monstrous oceans and towering mountains, only that pale blue sky and the fairy-floss clouds.
He had never seen monstrous oceans or towering mountains either.
He wanted to reach his hands towards that sky with the whispers of a forgotten promise. If his fingers could catch onto the slivers of wind, maybe those particles of air could fill up his bones in a sluggishness of heat. It could lift him into the sky, ride him off his muck-stained boots, melt him into the night among the winking of stars.
He would rotate with the moon and the sun as they came together for an eclipse. By then, his bones would have turned to ash, his consciousness stripped bare – a tree whose raw, new flesh was free for tempests to ravage.
His brother told him not to go down into that room.
“Why?” he asked. His brother was like the moon, needing others’ light to reflect his own, without it, he was cold.
“Because it’s not the end of the world,” his brother replied.
“But I like watching the sky from there,” he said.
If he could spend his days looking up, he would. Most of the time, he became lost in the vastness.
His best friend had eyes that glittered like stars, so he called her Star-eyes. He had never seen the colour of nature, only that of the sky. He wished that his childhood could be him and Star-eyes running through a field of pastel flowers. He always thought that would be beautiful.
He could forget how his father yelled, and his brother punched, and his mother stayed silent. He didn’t have to think about when they each retreated to their rooms, one after the other; sore throat, then bloody fist, then sewn mouth.
The plates would be shattered, and carefully, with his tiny hands – still encased in baby-soft skin, unlike his brother’s leather-beaten palms – he would gather up the pieces of a marriage long empty.
The crude edges dug into his life-line. He winced, dropping the fragments of porcelain. They multiplied, his blood lining where it had been torn. He didn’t look down at his hand, only inspected the damage.
He was a child who played with smashed porcelain instead of tattered, hand-me-down bears.
He never spoke of it to Star-eyes, who thought his parents slept in separate rooms because his dad snored, and his brother was always angry because that was how boys were meant to be at seventeen.
When they finished school, they walked hand in hand along the lines of tall, cement buildings washed dark by the recent rain. They splashed in puddles and walked and walked until they reached a cracked road that was dark.
It was the only dark road they had seen. All their roads were white.
Here, there were houses made from red brick with their walls painted blue. He and Star-eyes would push open the strange doors. “It’s called wood,” Star-eyes said. “It’s made from trees.”
“Trees?” he said, dumb-founded. He had only heard about trees in his mother’s stories. “That’s where fairies lived.”
“Fairies aren’t real,” Star-eyes said, crinkling her nose.
“I think they’re real.”
Inside the house, there was a yellow couch. No one was meant to have furniture like that anymore. Everyone had dull, grey chairs. There were pictures hung in gold frames of happy, smiling families who were gone now.
“What is this?” he asked.
“It’s a photo,” Star-eyes said. “It captures a moment I think. Everyone had to stand still when it was taken.”
He was confused by that. Why did moments have to be captured? What was the point of having such a reminder of the past? What if one day you were happy and smiling, but the next day you were sad. Wouldn’t you feel sad when you looked at the photo of when you were happy?
He wondered how his family would look in a photo. Could his mother conceal her deafened ears? Could his brother rid his face of those harsh lines and smile instead? Could his father imbue sun rays into his eyes to make it look like some darkness wasn’t eating him alive?
If they snapped a photo in that moment where all of them could pretend, would they know it was a lie? Was that what photos were? Lies? A moment in time where everyone could costume themselves up to play a role.
“I want to leave,” he said.
Star-eyes shrugged. “Okay.”
They walked along the dark road until it became white again, forgetting about those mismatched houses because the ones they lived in were identical.
Star-eyes was dead now. She had been one of the first.
He had been with her when it happened.
They were holding hands again as they walked home, when suddenly her arm jerked, and she collapsed, dragging him down with her.
Her eyes were open, but they were dead eyes. Her mouth was open too, with black insects crawling through the gap of her missing front teeth. He scrambled back onto his feet, but knelt again to grab her hand.
“Please,” he said. “Wake up.”
Her skin crumpled into dirt, spreading across the white path. He searched for her eyes, praying they hadn’t become dirt as well. Her eyes that once resembled the night sky instead grew a stem with tiny thorns. They tore through her irises and pupils, blooming with two red roses.
He gasped because he hadn’t expected flowers to look like that. The bright colour so similar to the blood that was rushing in his ears. He had knelt there in the dirt, hands cupping the roses. The remains of his best friend.
Now the world rushed about trying to stop it. People dropped left and right. His maths teacher had been halfway through an equation when the chalk pinged against the blackboard ledge and snapped. When the students looked again, their teacher had been reduced to a mound of dirt crawling with grapevines.
They were sent home early that day. The next morning half the seats in their uniform classroom was empty. People ran down the street screaming that it must be the water causing it. No, it wasn’t the water, it was the air.
He hadn’t known what to think of the world. He used to think chaos was a dark road, or a yellow couch in a house with blue walls. Walking past dirt and flowers was a sign of death. Nobody touched the flowers in fear that the petals would fill their lungs with thorny vines.
He touched them because he was curious about what it would feel like for nature to blossom within him. He had asked his mother once why there were no flowers or trees anymore.
He read about times when people were carefree. They wrote stories with ink on lined paper, made up worlds that didn’t exist. They ran paint brushes on canvases to show the world their heart and soul.
“Why don’t we have it anymore?” he asked his mother.
“Art,” he said. “And nature.”
“Because they’re different,” his mother replied. “Where there is difference, there will be suffering.” She had said it as though she was reciting a manifesto.
He never asked again.
Eventually, everyone stayed inside. His father’s temper only got worse, but he didn’t have the energy to pick up broken plates. He didn’t want any more scars on his palms. So he stayed in the sky-room. Even as his mother dissolved into hydrangeas. His father had been mid-yell, and then… silence – that was an odd thing coming from him.
It had been at the cusp of night, the final minutes of sunset. The sky was the only way he could see colour.
The basement door opened and his brother trudged in, turning on the lights. It was too blinding. “Wake up,” his brother said.
“I’m not asleep,” he replied.
“I thought you would cry.” Yes. Because he was the weak one. The emotional one. The one who touched the flowers of dead people and thought childhood was running through fields.
“Are people meant to cry at the end of the world?” he asked.
“It’s not the end of the world,” his brother said.
“So it will get better?”
He lay there watching the night sky. His brother stood with his arms folded over his chest. He could hear his father sobbing upstairs. What did those sobs mean? The guilt must feel like a parasite eating his organs until he was left with only the husk of a body. Instead of flowers overtaking his eyes, it would be ash, and then roaring flames.
He missed his mother with a sting, like a small cut in his flesh. He would ignore it now. Then later, when he was all alone, he would dig his fingers in, stretch it open until blood was gushing in fountains. His brother would try and put pressure on the wound, but it would be too late, the cut would have ripped open his arteries.
His brother would shake him and say, “Why didn’t you just cry?”
He didn’t know if it was his imagination, or that the stars were really rotating, with each glint of their crystalline bodies sparkling like sun rays. If he could reach for them, touch them one last time before the sun swallowed the earth, it would be enough.
Maybe he could catch a star mid-supernova and implode with it so he wouldn’t be burnt alive.
“Come on,” his brother said. “It’s bedtime.”
“I’m staying here,” he said. “Right here.”
“Then I’ll stay with you.”
They lay apart, shoulders untouching. If his brother was the moon, then he should be cold, but he melted the goosebumps on his skin.
A person stumbled over their glass panel, body disappearing into small white flowers before they even hit the ground. The whiteness spread over the glass, blocking out the stars.
White. The colour of their roads and floors, the colour of their clothing.
He closed his eyes, wanting them to be yellow like the couch, or blue like the walls, gold like picture-frames, red like Star-eyes’ roses, orange like the fire of his father’s grief, red like his brother’s anger, but also his strange warmth.
He dreamt of colour in his dreams. Maybe as his consciousness was drifting, his body too would degrade into the earth. Or maybe he would awaken the next day and leave his home to find a changed world.
One with moss-covered buildings and roads bursting with flowers. One where trees could grow again and fairies could exist.
He would look after his mother’s hydrangeas and Star-eyes’ roses. He would take his brother down the path him and Star-eyes had walked on, to that house with the blue walls and show him the photos in their golden frames.
They would lay on the rickety back porch at night and look up at the sky. When a shooting star shot across the landscape, he could wish away the grey buildings and white roads.
Just him. The flowers. And the stars.