Content Warning: Depiction of Death or Terminal Illness
Xe was an ordinary person, who lived an ordinary life. Xe had a job that didn’t pay quite enough, a smartphone that wasn’t quite new, and paid xer bills on time. Mostly. On the weekends, xe would sometimes go to church, and sometimes, stay home and watch tv with the kids, exhausted from work.
It seemed like there was always something missing. Xe had a family who loved xer, and friends that would send memes in a group chat from back in the day. Although they hardly met in person now, those friendships seemed stronger than the ones xe dealt with every day. People at work were friendly, and everyone went out friday nights to the bar, and brought their partners along, too. Xe still missed those old friends, two towns over, now, who understood xer past, and reminded xer of the good times. Not that times were bad now.
Xer partner was loving, and the children caused enough chaos every day to pass the time quickly, if not always pleasantly. Soon, school would come up. There was a schedule, a calendar on the wall with everyone’s important information. The family had a routine at night- playtime, dinner, tv, reading, bed. And in the morning was xers- shower, breakfast, commute, work. Xe knew xer partner worked hard to keep things on track, and was lucky to have someone whose skills complimented xer own. Xe was never good at being organized.
Still though, that hardly scratched the surface of the deep unsettling something that slithered through xer thoughts. Sometimes, xe thought xe was afraid of God, and found excuse after excuse to miss church services, until xer partner put a holiday service in bright letters on the calendar, and they all went again. And it was fine. Xe wasn’t afraid, after all. Xe liked church, and felt silly for not going for so long. God loved xer, God would protect xer. Yet…
The church reminded xer of a dream xe had as a child. A dream of a city with towering spires that loomed in the distance, bending like light with unnatural architecture, brimming with a presence of voices echoing just out of earshot, and a dark sky, which was covered in stars brighter than city lights. The bells rang, and sometimes xe remembered that dream, and shivered.
Xe tried xer best to forget it completely. It was a comfort to socialize with the rest of the church community, and besides, the children loved Sunday school. They always brought home macaroni noodle art projects or Popsicle stick arks. And having time for xer partner and xer together, without the kids was nice, even if they didn’t say much to each other.
Then weeks would go by in a blur, work and sleep and home and children pouting and sex with xer partner and work and driving in the car and sleep. All the rush felt good, really. Distracting. Like drifting by under the surface of rushing water. Xe would suddenly wake up in a nightmare, with the moon looming bright as a dream, and trees in the neighbors’ yard leaning like terrible spires in an impossible place. Time stopped.
Xe felt terrified. Xe had to piss, but couldn’t leave the bed. Couldn’t wake xer partner. All the identifying markers were gone and it was just xer and the moon, and the lingering dream subsuming consciousness. Alone. Paralyzed in the darkness, xe was the darkness, a shadow, a ghost, stripped bare of reality.
Was it real? What was that place? Why did xe dream of it? The questions were overwhelming, so xe distracted xer thoughts with the blue light of xer smartphone screen and an endless stream of information, social media. Xer heartbeat slowed again to normal. An hour later, xe managed to stumble to the restroom to piss, and drank some water from the faucet. Xe laid down again, careful not to disturb xer sleeping spouse.
Needles of jealousy prickled xer, as the scrolling through pages of social media became obsessive. It felt good to be angry, and xe let it fill xer heart. Surely xer partner was hiding something, something from the past, an old flame trying to reconnect, a cryptic relationship post that was not about xer. Yes, that’s what it was. Jealousy. Why couldn’t xer partner just be devoted enough? Then xe wouldn’t have to think of all this.
Xe fell asleep, finally, eyes tired from stress and strain and blue-light from the phone screen, then woke up again for work. The routine consumed xer, and the jealousy, and the dream. Xe started fight with xer partner, and the anger filled the emptiness. Mostly.
Weeks passed. Months. Xe and xer partner made up, and love filled the emptiness. Mostly.
Sometimes, driving in the car was the worst. Alone, xe had thoughts xe didn’t want, always breaking in on the edges of consciousness, darting in under the shadows of passing semi-trucks, cascading over the windshield like frost on a cold day. Xe couldn’t wait to get to work, and let the pettiest of concerns take xer thoughts, constantly.
Xe’s child started a preschool course. They did lots of art, painting and drawing and coloring. Xe was scared for them and proud of them, all at once. Xer child was following the path xe had followed, so long ago. Xe and xer partner were doing the right things.
“Look what I drew.”
Xe smiled, saying “Great job…” Before really looking at the paper waved in front of xer face, but then he saw it and the smile froze on xer face. Tall dark spires looming at impossible angles in front of a cold blue moon, and a bell ringing in silent fury while an array of shapeless people at the bottom looked on.
“It’s our house.” Xer partner said, “Isn’t our child becoming so good at drawing?”
“Yeah.” Xe answered. But xe felt sick. The sinking feeling inside xer stomach compounded with the beating of xer heart. “I just have a headache. Sorry. It’s great.”
Then xe ran away upstairs to the bedroom, knowing xe disappointed xer family, the shame hot on xer face. Panic. Xe took a shower. The water drummed like xer still-racing heartbeat. What is wrong with me? Xe thought. What am I so afraid of? God? Death? But those words didn’t seem right, somehow. Nothing seemed right.
Xer partner assumed xe had a rough day at work, and made xer food, and laid with xer at night, close like partners should be. But after, once xer partner fell asleep, xe stayed awake long into the night, dreading sleep xerself. When had this strange vision first appeared, even?
Xe remembered, it was long ago. Maybe xer first real memory, even. Playing outside with xer siblings, all of them working on something in the yard. Xe built piles of grass, quickly, so xer younger sibling wouldn’t come knock them over before xe was done. Xe pulled up some grass, and looked up, into the sky.
It was dark. Spots of light danced in his vision over the darkness, and spires twisted and scaled at impossible angles. A large, white-blue circle was rising, and the buildings rippled and grew like things alive. Xe saw xer siblings before it, playing, oblivious. But it was getting closer, as each shadow grew and elongated, the gaping darkness of the fantastical city grew too. Soon, it would swallow them all… Xe screamed, and there was only darkness.
From the xer mother, xe knew xe had suffered a seizure. Of some kind, and xer family was very worried. They rushed xer to the doctor, but no one found anything wrong, and after some hugs, fast food, and rest time, xe could mostly forget about it. For a long time, xe was scared of the dark. But also, for a long time, nothing out of the ordinary happened.
Xe couldn’t recall clearly when the first dream came to xer. Maybe they happened gradually, and worked their way into a regular occurrence. Maybe xe had managed to forget many upon waking. It seemed natural, at first. Like a thing everyone dreamed of and everyone saw. When had xe become afraid of it?
Xe couldn’t place it. But now, xe was quite afraid of it. It threatened xer regular, successful boring busy life in a way xe couldn’t describe. It beckoned to xer. It made xer feel crazy, for imagining something so beautiful and so sinister.
Xer heart pounded with the fear and anticipation of a great decision. Xer partner slept next to xer. The children were also asleep. They needed xer. But xe didn’t care.
Xe texted xer partner, ‘don’t worry, left for work early.’ Got in the car. Wide awake. The moon was bluish white, the stars glittering. The darkness shifted around xer. Xe drove out, aimlessly at first, then to the highway. The highway went anywhere.
Towards the moon, place names whized by, meaningless. Xe stopped at a gas station, devoid of life in the cold air. Breath hung suspended like a small cloud in the cloudless, bright-dark sky. Hope and adrenaline filled xer with enough wonder that xe did not think of everything xe left behind. Only the road, and the lowering moon as it sank into the sky. Xe sped on with increasing anxiety.
If nothing happened before dawn, xe knew, xe would have to turn back. Possibly forever.
Hours and hours of driving. Bags under xer eyes. The sky grey, just barely grey around the edges of the world. The lake glittered ahead, and the moon began to sink into it. Xe knew the name of the lake, once, but it didn’t matter now. It stretched on to the edge of the horizon, to the edge of the moon. Xe got out of the car, didn’t shut the door, and stared at it with awe rising like bile, like fever in xer chest.
Xe could still turn back. That perfectly imperfect life was waiting for xer, the spot on the bed xer partner always saved for xer, the comfort of God and Death and work and the glorious chaos of children loving xer with their whole being. Xe hesitated.
A night bird called out over the empltiness, and the slow waves of the lake lapped against the shore-rocks. Delicious nothingness awaited. Ripples of the moon and infinite starlight. The wonderous abstractions of madness, or hope. What will happen to everything else? Xe wondered.
‘I love you and the kids.’ Xe texted. Then dropped xer phone on the gravel. The car was still running. The phone screen lit a square of unnatural light in an outline of the case. Xe walked down to the rocks and the water, then started running, before it was too late.
Before xe could change xer mind.
Jumping in was a shock of coldness, and xe swallowed water that tasted like green and mud and sand and bark. Xe saw the moon through the water, and surfaced, swimming towards it like a beacon. Xer body felt numb, face wet, hair stringy and xe could feel the bottom of the lake yawning into unfathomable depths below. Xe swam on, lead arms, burning lungs.
The towering spires loomed above xer at impossible angles, behind a dark sky lit by spikes of light and the long shadows of the utopia, glorious and otherworldly, as xe reached out towards the infinite. Darkness consumed all. The moon withered away into a pinprick of watery light. Xe didn’t expect it would hurt this much. Drowning.
Shadows had no feature, and could move through the distorted towers and incredible archways of the building with ease. Shadows drifted through the bluish light that was not moonlight, without a trace. Shadows lived in harmony, and without need, without body or gender or self. Shadows stuck out in jagged rows to stare at the sky, at the call of the great bell.
The stillness was wholesome and calming. The spires twisted and shifted, and shadows stretched down to the ground, softly. To see everything in grayscale, etched with blue where the great orb struck, was a relief. Shadows stood still, in familiar shapes of people, shadow hair and shadow profile and shadow arms that had no meaning.
This place was a graveyard, hollow with darkness.
About the Author
Evelyn Torres lives in Wisconsin with her family. She enjoys long walks on the beaches of Lake Michigan for inspiration and scrolling through reddit.