The sun is near setting. Day has dragged on. Perhaps because sleep on the rowboat was so momentary and restless, haunting him. He’s not tired, just exhausted and drained and will sleep when he is ready.
He’s standing beside Hannigan, leaning against the parapet. The ground is far below, the streets littered with unmoving cars and bent and twisted lampposts, ash in mounds feet deep and delicate layers blown away by the faintest wind, then blown back again by the very same whispers. Much of the city is blackened, charred. Beneath the setting sun—wherever it is within the leaden sky—shattered glass glistens to the horizons like countless stars fallen from the sky and discarded throughout the masonried wasteland. The windows of office buildings and skyscrapers and shops along the streets lie shattered in jagged pools of infinite reflections. The world reflects the world, from the ground to the sky and everything between. It would be beautiful if it wasn’t so oppressing, so blinding.
“Why are we here?” he asks. Ash lands on the back of his hand and hood of his coat. At least it softens his footsteps.
“To see what has become,” Hannigan says.
“Of those who survived. Most of them. There’s still a few, like me.”
“And what are you?”
“Sane, I suppose. Mostly. My life may exist within a hologram, but it’s something, and it’s beautiful, and isn’t that enough to keep us happy? Something beautiful. I miss her.”
“So do I.”
Hannigan turns and stares at him.
“Someone else, someone I can’t remember. But I’m getting closer. She’s somewhere, here.” He stretches his arms out wide, fingers pointing outwards, and spins a slow circle. “Somewhere. Why are we here?” he asks again.
The sun is nearly set. He’s not sure how he knows; he can feel the sun vanishing, a tinge of warmth taken from the day, and with it, the light he forgot the sun brought. “I don’t like being outside at night. Are there jukeboxes nearby? Do they glow crimson?”
“There’s one a few blocks west, and no, it doesn’t glow crimson. It doesn’t do anything. It sits there, soundlessly and glowlessly. Is that all you fear? Jukeboxes?”
“I’m afraid of not remembering. That’s all. No. I’m more afraid of being forgotten. If she’s still out there, I don’t want her to forget me. I don’t want to slip away. I don’t want her to force me out of her mind, to the shadows, when there’s already so much darkness in this world.”
They stand in silence until the sun sets and darkness settles over the city, shadowed mounds and shapes and peaks rising out of the obscurity like black gloved hands reaching through night. The world suddenly feels much larger, like he could walk forever without moving anywhere at all, without ever finding daylight or answers. The wind gusts silently; it does not howl through the gutted cityscape, does not rattle traffic lights hanging precariously on one wire or two, does not sweep newspapers and magazines down streets, when flames have turned most to ash. The wind just gusts, felt but unheard, cool but carrying slightly warm ash and the scent of smoke and sulfur.
“There will be stars tonight,” Hannigan says. “No one can explain why, or how it is, or where the ash-filled sky escapes to some nights. Such nights would be the nights of miracles if they didn’t occur so regularly. You’ve seen the stars, haven’t you?”
“Maybe,” he says. Was that a memory or a dream? Green Lanes, the most intensely bright stars, searing white and burning his eyes until he forced himself to look away, and even that was not easy. It will not be easy tonight, if the stars do return from wherever they hide.
“Just wait then. They’ll be here.”
“How will I know when…?” Then he sees fire in the distance. Invisible on a night when other light exists, when a city does not slumber in darkness, tonight the flames cannot be overlooked by how brightly they blaze within the gutted beast.
“The flames burn before the stars. Clockwork, if clocks still worked. If time still mattered.”
He cannot see the flames, only their glow spread far and wide, a dome of red and orange in the otherwise black city, the shadows of heat pressed up against buildings and flickering among rubble and ruin, warming what cannot appreciate warmth. He hugs himself, shivers. It’s colder up here, where the wind blows and ash settles and gathers. He shuts his eyes to the night, sees the distant flames against his eyelids, feels the lone pocket of life and warmth in the cold world.
“They don’t carry the flames. It’s purely symbolic and not at all practical. Stars are made of flames. To think, symbolism survives when so much else has died. And they might not even realize and appreciate the symbolism.” Hannigan sounds like he wants to be angry but can’t find the energy, like he has thought this thought too many times before and has worn himself away because of it. “At least I know what I’m doing when I watch my dead wife dance with a dead version of myself. At least I grimace at the irony.”
He barely hears; he’s too busy watching the clouds melt, burnt to nothingness by the stars behind them. Pockets of crisp, black air dotted by shimmering white specks. Those pockets spread ever so slowly, into wisps and strands and cavities of speckled darkness. Soon the clouds are wisps rather than the sky, and those clouds are drawn thinner and tauter until they snap and vanish. The sky, in every direction, is a seamless slate for his artwork alone. He has never seen so many stars, does not know where to begin looking at them or how so many can shine at the same time. He sees, yet is not quite sure he believes. He’s almost too close to the sky, as if it will collapse onto him or he will float up into it. .
“See?” Hannigan asks, but he’s not staring into the sky. Rather, onto the city below.
The world is visible beneath the stars. Minutes ago unable to see the streets and cars and ramshackled stores and restaurants, moments ago unable to find the shoreline and its miles of ports and ruined towers teetering over city and sea, so briefly ago unable to see anything other than Hannigan and the gray sky and twinkling glass, he now sees people roaming the streets. They climb and crawl over cars and wander down debris-laden sidewalks. They sway back and forth, stumbling into phone-booths and benches and piles of ash. Some lay on the ground. Some kneel. Others stand still, as if statues themselves. But all stare upwards, necks cranked painfully toward the sky. Not the sky, he reminds himself, but the stars. They’re staring at the stars while not seeming to notice each other.
“This is what’s left of those who survived,” Hannigan says. “Most were lucky enough to die in the discord that followed, and some, like me, were unlucky enough to survive with a semblance of sanity, and then there are those below us. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Perhaps more.”
“What happened to them?” he asks. This time he cannot attempt to guess.
Hannigan laughs without humor. “You think I know? If we can’t explain ourselves to each other, how are we supposed to explain the entire world? They went insane, is what happened. They lost everything, every piece of themselves and their minds. Now they’re stargazers, and when the stars don’t shine the gazers don’t stir. I don’t even know how they’re still alive. Some think it’s the stars keeping them alive, that they’re feeding off the burning suns so far away. Sound crazy to me, so I rid myself of belief. Nothing at all. I just observe. Nothing makes a bit of sense. They don’t eat. They don’t talk. They don’t do anything other than gaze at the stars.”
“Are they dangerous?”
Hannigan shakes his head. “We don’t exist to them. But they still terrify me.”
He runs a hand through his hair, begins to speak but doesn’t know what to say. He glances at the pile of guns. “These are the things you shoot? These…people?”
Hannigan nods very slowly, his eyes shut. “They aren’t people. The human part of them vanished. They’re aware of nothing. They do nothing. They are nothing. Humans have to interact and eat, do the things that humans do. These things…they consume the galaxies and care for nothing else. They’re stargazers now. Mindless stargazers lost to what they learned, or saw, or think they know. The people part has been lost, so when I shoot, I shoot to stop the misery. I shoot husks who will hopefully rediscover themselves, when their souls travel elsewhere. The only one I’m hurting is myself, a little, and I’m used to the pain. They may be harmless, but they’re not good for the world. We can’t rebuild when stargazers roam our cities.”
“Rebuild?” he asks, surprised by the notion and that Hannigan even cares. Having seen enough, he sits down with his back against the wall. “You think we can rebuild?”
“No. Not really. Too much has been lost. Too many of us. Maybe I should travel elsewhere, somewhere with trees and mountains and streams, somewhere without these corpses and walking corpses, but I’d have to leave all this behind. My history, my hologram wife, my wines and spirits, my iron and steel, and I’m not ready to move on just yet. When I die. I’ll move on when I die.
“Now, to be a bad host, I must sleep. You can have a few sleeping bags if you like, or you can just move on. And don’t ask me about moving on with you. I’m alone now, and forever. That’s how life is. Tragic, isn’t it?”
He nods while staring at the sky. The stars. “Like a play. A song. I’ll take a sleeping bag. I’ll leave tomorrow, early, and travel with the sun. I rather avoid…them.”
“Do what you please, but don’t pity them,” Hannigan says after a long span of silence, both men within their sleeping bags on the rooftop, on their backs as they study the sky. If you look closely enough, the stars form patterns and paint pictures with only two colors.
Constellations, he recalls, but none he recognizes or remembers. Even if he could remember, he’s sure the constellations are nothing like they once were. At some point, everything changed, including the stars in the sky and how they brighten the world. Constellations altered and shifted, dispersed and reassembled. Everything changed, including those who study the sky.
“Don’t pity them,” Hannigan repeats.
“The dead. Everyone other than us. Pity us, we who still walk this world.”
He’s playing piano in an empty room. A stage, wooden and only a foot off the floor, occupies the middle of the room, and on that stage rests a piano, black, and a bench, padded, black, and he, lost in the music and hoping to be never found, sits on that bench.
The room fades, walls vanishing for thee ndless darkness of space. Multi-hued cosmos and stars of billions and trillions. Luminous gas giants, red dwarfs and neutrons and the supergiants They will live fast and die young and regret nothing. Supernovas will shake the fabrics of the universe. Perhaps a black hole will form, and perhaps everything will disappear into it.
It’s sometimes good to disappear.
He’s watching them vanish now, from his piano bench at the room’s center. The stargazers, blinking out of existence one by one. Their shadowed forms wander the room. The floor is tiled, and their footprints invisible. Shadows vanishing into the shadows of space.
The stars, the stars, the stars. That’s all I ever wanted. Not the stars themselves, but to look at them, to see them, with someone who matters. Harvest moon, my moon, my stars. The star-touched eyes I saw from afar.
He studies the room with his eyes, fingers still pressing keys and keys still making music, and sees no one. Even the shadows are gone. Space surrounds him, endless and still growing.
Every so often a red or orange leaf rustles across the room and tumbles into space, from which it came. Someone once said it is always autumn in space, since both are endless.
When he glances up from the piano, she’s there, watching him. But she disappears so quickly he’s never entirely sure it’s her, or anyone. Fleeting her. A glance over her shoulder. He’s already forgotten her face when he tries so hard to make the memories part of him, more than just buried inside and having to be unearthed. So much effort. He’s so tired. He wants, only, for her to stop disappearing. If the music continues, and it does, then shouldn’t she stay as well? She can depart when the music concludes, when the silence of space settles in and the supergiants swell and the neutrons become black holes and everything is finally, and endlessly, lost.
He plays until his fingers hurt and bleed and blood stains the white piano keys. A sacrifice, he thinks, only he doesn’t know what he has lost or gained. He has too much blood. He opens his wrist on a jagged key and gives his lifeblood to the music, blood splashing with every note. He gives everything he is, always and eagerly and foolishly.
They sang a song together, once. He’s forgotten the words and the sound of her voice. It wasn’t a happy song, but the best songs rarely are.