A Place of Desolation

This short story was inspired by a dream I had in 2012 where I was immortal and lived through technological advances, new families, the advent of the space age and more. The dream caused me to think about what it would feel like to be truly immortal. Initially, it would be viewed as gift… but it would end up a curse when all you knew — not just who, but what — fell away from you. Losing your loved ones is difficult enough, but as time marches on, there would be no trace of the very fabric of who you are. This story was written in 2012, re-discovered in 2014 and lightly edited.

Winding his way through the blackness of the night, he gazed out at the glittering stars that extended all around him, each star a representative of the miracle of life. Part of all matter, stars were made up of gases and metals that coagulated together to burn brightly, a beacon in the midst of a never-ending darkness that threatened every fiber of your body with its crushing stillness.

Looking out at the universe from the safety of home, one is easily awed by all the stars and planets out there, coupled with nebulas as wide as the eye can see, black holes spinning mass into nothing, comets zooming left and right… but for all its beauty, the universe is a place of desolation.

Blackness ruled the universe. Nowhere else was the feeling of solitude so acute. Drifting out aimlessly, no destination in mind and no whisper of a wind in sight.

The stars take on a menacing glare. A twinkle of sun and fire and dreams and life, taunting mercilessly. Out there as if a light at the end of the tunnel, a twinkle of what was and is, but forever unreachable, unattainable when all around you the air was still with blackness that threatened to crush all hope out of your body.

And among the stars laid life. Life was out there, crawling among the surface of planets. Minuscule organisms, multiplying and dividing by the billions, with no idea of their purpose in life, just repeating the same actions over and over as the engine of life. Others, prowling the landscape, at the whims of the baser needs to survive: food, water and shelter. Unaware of the greater mysteries of life. Incapable of love or understanding. A biological robot, but living nonetheless, among the splendor of the world around them.

And intelligent life. Ancient civilizations racing among the stars amongst the newborn, gasping as wood erupts into fire. Killing by the millions, procreating by the billions. Each life, independent and special, born to die with a unique history in between. Full of life, laughter, love, loss, loneliness. And every one of these lives a mote of dust in a speck of time in a scintilla of the void.

Loneliness. That was the world he knew, the world that had led him to this place. Turning and turning, no end in sight, the oppressive sound of silence crushing him. Years had gone by in a flash, years that by this point were a drop in the bucket.

Loneliness gripped him every second of his aimless adventure with no destination in sight. Just the blackness of the skies, the tantalizing twinkling of stars and the utter stillness. Loneliness is an abstract concept until you find yourself in the middle of it, staring at its uncompromising brutality in the face, helpless to even stir up the most mundane distraction. It would drive anyone insane — that is, unless loneliness had already eaten every part of his soul.

He had no one in his life. They were all gone, mere wisps in the desolate landscape of time and place. Everyone he had ever known, loved, laughed and sang with, were no more. There were no more dances in the kitchen, sunlight dappling the tile. The rustling of hair swaying to the cadence of a song, the laughter bursting forward from romance and the wide-eyed anticipation of life to come. The joy at holding your own creation in your hands, to shape and mold into a living, breathing representation of yourself. The wisdom and serenity that came with age, bringing about a quiet satisfaction.

The shared experiences and understandings that bound him to everyone were gone. Not just gone, but hopelessly gone, with the remnants of what he once knew also felled by the unquenching thirst of time. No amount of money, of travelling, of seeing the sights of worlds and wonders of nature, could replace that shared connection with someone else, as he know all too well. So eventually, he had tried to take matters into his own hands.

His 10th suicide attempt had led him to this day.

His first time was a few years after losing his wife.

He had once been a little boy, like everyone else. The same hopes, the same desires, the same dreams. He could remember running through a grassy plain outside his home, dancing with the butterflies, the light blue sky above stretching to what looked like the end of space above. Endless possibilities. The shy smile of a girl in school, her brown hair softly, gracefully propelled by the turn of her milky-white face, turning as her smiling eyes flicked over, connecting with his —

But he wasn’t a boy anymore. He was a man, a very old man at that, one who defied all conventions of science. Up until that fateful day, he had been just like any other man. He had married a beautiful wife and had two young children running around that gave him unbridled joy to raise.

They had lived long, plentiful and happy years. From the first moment he spotted her running in the rain to class to her last panting breath in bed, he had loved her wholly. He had loved her more than he thought possible, a love that developed and deepened over time. For a while there, he had questioned not having the sort of love that drove a man mad and was popularized in culture, but had come to realize those kind of loves were fleeting, fueled by lust and animalistic desire. The kind of love that lasts is one with a strong foundation, with mutual respect and admiration, a love sowed and allowed to bloom.

It wasn’t until his fifth decade that it became apparent his youthful boyishness wasn’t dissipating. Unlike his peers, so many of whom were starting to combat failing eyesight, balding or graying hair (or for a few unfortunates, both), slower metabolism, or a creaky body, he had shown no signs of aging. At first, it had been attributed to diet, health, exercise, genes… until finally, it couldn’t be ignored any longer. He endured a blizzard of tests, all inconclusive. No one knew the cause or when it had started. Made all the more perplexing was that he still hurt with everyone else — cut himself and he bled along with the pain that was a constant reminder of one’s mortality. Starve himself, and his stomach would send out pangs.

No one knew. The doctors marveled at him as an unnatural specimen that could change the face of humanity. He spent many years feeling like a petri dish and even survived kidnapping attempts by people who didn’t let morals get in their way of the desperation to find out the secret of an immortal fountain of youth. But he had persevered, and despite the challenges of staying young while the one you loved grew older, it had never really been a challenge. She was the one.

Shortly before she died, she had urged him to keep loving. She had given him permission to move on and knew the implications therein. It wasn’t as if she was telling her counterpart at 100 years old that he could move on, knowing he would only have a few decades at most before he, too, would be felled by time.

No, her love was immortal, and not only was he immortal, he was perpetually ageless. A tear ran down her cheek, and he held on tightly to her hand, neither confirming nor denying the permission, instead too consumed with the hopelessness that comes with wondering who else could possibly fill a void that seemed all too expansive.

When she left, he walked around in a daze for months. He tried to move on, but the hole in his heart was too much. He may be youth on the outside, but inside, he was as old as his birthdate said he was. And in his mind, he had lived a full life. He had lived a life as his biology had told him to — to have a childhood, to emerge into an adult, to have a family. To be satisfied, both personally and professionally, to watch his children produce children of their own, to enjoy the beguiling calm of old age. But now his betrothed was gone, and what laid before him wasn’t his own canvas that was beginning to run out of room to add more brush strokes of life, but rather a new canvas — a fresh one, the old one ripped off and hung up in the annals of memory, with the paintbrush poised over the white sheet of rebirth, poised to make the first slash and tell a whole new story.

Except he didn’t want a new story told, he came to realize in a startling flash of comprehension. When you get that old, the youthful ideas of immortality, of days stretching on and on to no end, enjoying the new technological marvels, whiling the night away with friends… when you get that old, you realize that immortality beckons that of a curse, not a gift. Time had washed away many friends, due to distance, both real and figurative, or death. Making new friends, new connections, forging new strong bonds at that age is hard. Harder than anything, harder to the point you just don’t want to try. No, what he wanted now was to slip beside his love in their dreams, ashes wafting up into the skies — a final jump of joy.

But that wouldn’t come, and here he stood, in the pouring rain atop a skyscraper. Just standing, looking out at the chaos of the world around him. Building piled over building, criss-crossed ad nauseam with highways, a city that never slept, a city that had millions awake and millions asleep at any point. Standing higher than any human should ever have been allowed to stand, looking at the horizon, littered with lights of civilization.

The first breath of air was inhaled by thousands in this city every moment, every morning, suffusing the sunrise with exuberance; the last exhale by the side of loved ones grieving capping the night with a melancholy song. Marriages, broken hearts, promotions, addictions, failures, successes… life was being lived, but he was tired of life, so tired.

It had been years since his love was lost, and he had fashioned some sort of life out of the pieces she left behind, but it was only an illusion – a life that was meant to ferry one to the gates of the river Styx. Not a life that stretched forever beyond him, rife with possibilities that he cast aside.

So here he stood, contemplating all this, contemplating what he could do with his immortal life. Instead of being billowed with confidence, a twinkling eye set toward the future, all he could conjure up was a deep fear. Fear of moving on from his love, and not just moving on, but falling in love with someone else. But that love was doomed to fail too, doomed to put him where he was now. You can only live for so long before you lose all hope and despair pervades every ounce of your body, he thought. Why get to that place? He had a taste of it now, and he didn’t like it. He wanted to let go, and he was going to put his immortality to the test.

He stepped off the ledge, and began his dizzying descent down, hurtling to the pits of hell cackling like a mad man, insane with the prospect of relief. Gathering momentum as he went down, all around him disappeared into a blur, and a thought flashed through his mind: Fear. Not the fear of before; not the abject loneliness he was in, not the fear of loving and losing many millennia over. No, fear of death. Fear of his story, his song, coming to an end. And in that instant, he knew he wanted to live.

He dozed, the constant whinging pain of his tortured stomach and starved brain long-ago reminders that he was still human, whatever else could be said. There wasn’t much else to do. Half-asleep, memories of his life kept flitting by him, torturing him with their memories. Even having rendered himself close to immune from emotions, the lingering vestiges of what was still managed to send a small shockwave through his heart every time a new image flashed up.

He had nothing else to think of to fill the space, to occupy the time and keep these reminders at bay. There was nothing out there for him to dream about. He had experienced what were just dreams for generations upon generations of his ancestors. He had seen the impossible, had experienced the impossible. His mind was a blank canvas, unable to stop the intrusion of his seminal memories.

There was one thing he could dream about. Death. Even coming now, it would be a sweet reprieve from the curse that gripped his body, that doomed him to despair. It didn’t matter whether he was in a teeming mass of people, preparing to witness a beautiful sight. It was no different to him than the position he found himself now, unable to go anywhere, to do anything. To him, he hadn’t been able to do anything for so long, he hardly minded the circumstances he found himself in now.

He dozed. Thought about waves crashing on the beach, the setting sun hanging low in the skies, spitting out purple, red, yellow and pinks that splashed along the sky, parrying with clouds that were constantly dancing among themselves, creating beautiful murals on a soft, velvet beach that stretched as far as the eye could see, pristine and untouched except by the normal ebb and flow of nature. And at the bottom of his eyeline, as much as he tried to avoid it, he knew what was there: a single, solitary foot. Petite, with graceful curves spreading out from the ankle and ending in five little petals of roses.

That foot was connected to the one to wake him up wholly for the first time since his first wife had passed. He had been betrothed to others in the intervening years, had fathered children whose bloodlines now extended itself to all parts of civilization. He had lived. Oh, he had lived, and he had many a day of despair, too. The despair invaded his life, growing to define him even as he struggled to throw off the yoke of expectations. Could have. Should have. Would have. But what use are these words when it all ends in what was?

It had taken this one perfect little foot, connected to this one perfect little leg. The hem of her patterned yellow dress swayed in the ocean breeze, the crackling smell of the ocean and fading sunlight lending a vibrancy to a dress that bespoke a time of innocence, of wonder, of delight. Her wide smile, the dimples framing her deep blue eyes that would one day beckon suitors to drown inside of.

He was alive, finally alive again. The sea gates that had surrounded his heart, protecting against the lapping and whitewater seas of emotion had opened. The parched sand hungrily drank its full as he stood on the rocks, arms splayed and chest wide out.

He was young again, ready to tackle the world with two little legs perched on his shoulders. Prior decades became yellowed bits of paper strewn about the floor, fluttering up once in a while to remind him they had happened. But she was always there, a fresh piece of paper, clean and stark white. Taped up on the wall, colorful scribbles a beacon of hope.

His first family hadn’t met the end these crumbling bits of paper memories did, either. They rested in a framed picture, his first wife dominating the picture with her smiling face and the love that had given him the confidence to stay alive after that first attempt. But it was also that love that had driven him to more. He had come to learn that her picture, with his sons, was best viewed through glass.

But that piece of paper that had colorful bits of crayon strewed about was unprotected.

Carousel music blared once again in summer. Frigid weekend mornings in the fall beckoned. Winter storms meant hot chocolate. Rainy springs were opportunities to dance.

That’s what his daughter had meant to him.

She should have experienced all that life had to offer. The silly, invincible years of teenagehood. Her first kiss, her first love. Her first paycheck, her first child. Her first grandchild.

Going gray once more was untenable. So for his 10th try, he decided to do something radical. He would go out to the sun and melt into it. A black void joined with the very definition of life would be the answer. Nothing could stand against the boiling fires of creation. That which was dead inside would be dead outside, fueling the engines of life.

But he had forgotten he was immortal. He had forgotten that the number 10 was the number of the cosmos. The model of creation.

His eyes snapped open. He looked around, but it was the same sight he always had. And yet, something was different. It was imperceptible, but it was there. It was almost as if it was a hint of something that had yet to arrive. Then, he felt it pass over him, a small rumbling that reverberated through a body that had been starved for feeling for far too long.

He scrambled. Hurriedly pushing and pawing for his wrist, searching for his transponder. It was there, his mind frantically assured him, as it had always been there any time he had checked for it, or merely felt it embedded in his skin. There was no way it could have spilled out of its secure container and gone spinning out into the nether regions. He felt the small orb gently protruding from his skin and caressed it for a moment. Then he activated it and saw it flash red. He sagged with relief.

Then the thought occurred to him. He was relieved. He had hurried to activate his transponder. And yet nothing had changed, or would change, for him in his life. And yet, here was this small burst of hope, a ray of sunshine breaking through dark and stormy clouds, that let him know he was still alive.

But what passes for alive? To him, alive simply meant functioning. His heart was pumping blood as normal, his brain was functioning logically, but he was merely biologically alive. That was his curse, as his life had long been drained from his mind.

Suddenly, a shock wave sent him spinning uncontrollably back, pushing him faster than he had traveled in the last several centuries. Bright lights slammed into his eyes, evaporating in a starburst as he screamed from the pain, all too accustomed to the darkness that had enveloped his soul.

His momentum was arrested, jerking him to a stop suddenly. He laid there, dangling, his arms splayed out in front of him, his head lolling back, twisting away from the harsh glare of the lights. He slowly slitted one eye open, gasping as even more white light invaded him. There it was, the outline of a large behemoth that was about to take him back. Back to civilization and all that he had tried to leave behind time and time again.

The gods were unmerciful once more. It would have been better to stay out here, spinning in the black nothingness, where the outside matched the inside.

But the stars continued to twinkle. This time, instead of taunting mercilessly, they offered a new beginning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s