Distant Sky – Autumn Martin

Content Warning: suicide, self-harm

The City is darkening, the streetlamps dim; it’s an attempt to remind us that curfew is only a few hours away. The lights lining the avenues slowly extinguish themselves each night until they go out. Though it’s usually an annoying inconvenience, tonight it will give me just enough time to say my goodbyes before I sneak to the spaceport under the cover of complete darkness. I glance up, and my eyes drink in the pinpoints of light in the sky only barely shining through the thin cloud cover. My thoughts drift to the Red. I see it up there, that one of those stars is Red, and it’s not actually a star but a glowing planet. Like Venus, or Jupiter.

I’m nervous; the Red that’s there calms me, and I visit it.

The memory starts like this: 

It’s me and the Red. I’m floating in it, steeping in it, but I’m also wrapped in it and breathing it in, swallowed by it for a moment of eternity before the scope of my existence widens and I feel my mother’s soft breath buffeting the hair on my neck. And her index finger, then her hand enters my field of vision, pointing to the threads that the Red has been distilled into. The sky, she says, and then her finger moves and points to the shapes floating in the Red, and these are what we would call trees. Then I watch my small hand reach out and I’m touching the Red gingerly, feeling the slightly raised bumps of embroidered sky stitched onto a white tea cloth.

There is nothing before myself in the Red. It’s a part of me. I think it is me.

This first encounter happened before my sixth birthday, but the hand in my memory constantly changes: now, a hand not yet mine calloused from work. Yesterday, my nails were chipped and ragged from scrubbing dishes. Other times, the hand of an infant, chubby and soft, or that of an elder with skin wrinkled and thinner than tissue paper. Unlike mine, Mother’s hand was always the same in the memory, elegant but worn. Always…    

Mother’s new hand materializes in my mind’s eye and I force myself to focus on the police patrol passing by until it’s gone. I lower my head and watch the sidewalk that leads to Arinya. 

Arinya and I have been friends since we were desk mates in grade three. She had pigtails tied up with blue bows, a few missing baby teeth, and a gold star next to her name on the chalkboard; ostensibly, a star that was supposed to migrate to various names depending on who had the top percentages each week, but stayed by her name for the duration of the school year. Her toys at home included a set of incredibly plush teddy bears with various body parts and patches of fur missing, a telescope she used each night after curfew, and a fish tank housing her pet turtles Shelly and Scaly.

It’s almost unfathomable that this will be the last I see of her, and the feeling is exacerbated when I remember that I can’t tell Arinya that I’m leaving forever. She hasn’t seen the Red, so I know that she won’t understand why I need to go; I know too that if I tell her, she’ll try to convince me to stay. If that happens, I’m not sure I’ll be able to resist staying.    

Arinya answers the door when I knock, and I notice how much longer her hair is now. I had forgotten how gorgeous she is. The smile that spreads across her face makes my heart skip a beat. 

“Hey! What a nice surprise. Great timing, too,” she laughs, “Grandmother just fell asleep, so we can chat in the living room.” I nod and follow behind her, removing my shoes at the door and realizing I forgot that I’m wearing multiple pairs of socks to save space in my backpack. Hopefully it isn’t noticeable.

She’s in the kitchen, reclining with her back against the countertop and waiting for the electric kettle to boil. I lean next to her and ask her if she’ll finally be going to University next year. She nods excitedly and explains that her grandmother’s application to be put into a government care facility near the Medical Academy was approved, and that as long as Arinya’s test scores remain high, the State will allow her grandmother to live there for free. This is exciting news — usually the waitlist time for such care facilities is longer than the years one has left to live after retirement — and I congratulate her. We hug. It feels nice to hold someone; the physical intimacy is reassuring, soothing. Too soon, the kettle begins to whistle, and we step back. Arinya pours the boiling water over our tea bags and we talk while it steeps. 

“How is your mother doing?” Arinya asks me. It’s a question I had anticipated, answer rehearsed in my mind but stuck behind the lump in my throat. I quickly sip the hot tea to distract myself. The silence is punctuated by the clinking of spoon meeting porcelain as Arinya stirs an absurd amount of her monthly sugar ration into her drink.

“She’s fine. About the same as usual.” I’ve burnt my tongue. Somehow it makes the lie less painful. 

“I’m glad to hear that.” Arinya sips her tea now, having waited for the steam to thin before taking a drink. 

We chat for a while about different things: novels, celebrity drama, upcoming elections and the depressingly cold weather, preparations for moving to the Academy. Eventually the conversation turns to our childhoods, slumber parties spent counting stars and the scrapbook collages we made, the teddy bears we tormented with Arinya’s grandmother’s sewing kit and all the silly inside jokes we had. I wonder if she’s thinking about how close our hands are on the sofa cushion, too, but I have something more important I need to ask her. I pull my hands into my lap, tug at a loose thread on my jacket sleeve.

“Are you happy?” The question leaves my lips before I fully realize; my gaze rises to meet hers and she’s looking at me so thoughtfully, I have to stare back down into the bottom of my empty cup. A thin crack traverses the cream-colored ceramic.  

“I… well, yeah. I am happy. Of course, becoming a doctor isn’t my first choice but…” Arinya leans back on the sofa cushion, smiles. “It’s good money, you know, and Grandmother will be taken care of— I hate to say it, but it’s a huge weight off my shoulders. I feel like… like I can finally start living for myself. You know?” She smiles at me, and I smile back at her.

I hate myself for the twinge of jealousy I feel.      

“So, um, I’ve been meaning to ask…” Arinya looks at her hands now, chips away a speck of sky blue fingernail polish. “Did you— did you ever find that thing you’ve been wanting to show me?” Arinya fidgets, places her empty mug on the coffee table. I set mine next to hers. 

“No,” I lie. If I show it to her now, she wouldn’t understand it – and even if she did, it’s too late. She has so much to keep her here, so much tying her down.

“Ah. Well,” I can hear the disappointment in her voice, “I’d love to see it if you ever do come across it.” A smile. 

“Of course.” I glance out the window at the streetlamps and realize that I’ve stayed longer than intended. Arinya takes the mugs into the kitchen as I force my sneakers on over my socks, and I thank her for the tea and the company. We stand facing each other, her in the door frame and me in the hallway. 

“Well, I guess I’ll see you around. You should come by again soon, okay?” Arinya says to me. She glimpses down, at my lips, then at my hand as it grips the strap of my backpack.  

“Of course,” I say again, as if visiting Arinya soon were an obvious fact. Now there’s no tea to wash out the lump in my throat. We hug, and as we pull away Arinya’s hand stays on my arm and slides down it, to my hand, where it rests and she holds it for a moment that feels so much longer. I just stare at it, uncomprehending, and when I look back at her she’s so beautiful and smiling, and we just look at each other and I imagine what things could be like in a world where I stay here, with her. 

“Take care of yourself, okay?” 

I nod, and Arinya lets go of my hand. The glimmer of hope I felt is gone, stamped out inside me as reality hits. I say see you later and turn, face flushed and tears brimming in my eyes. I make it down a single flight before the sobs are wracking my entire body. I run outside and crouch, back against the side of the apartment building, crying and crying, eyes shut tight. The rough bricks scratch the back of my jacket, making a hypnotic, rasping noise as I rock myself. I summon the Red to comfort me, and I nestle within it.  

The Red exists outside of the threads, beyond the tea cloth and my Memory and the color my dreams are tinted in. The story is short, broken and unremembered. My mother left for a planet colony soon after my birth — someone must have cared for me then, I remember warm hands and chasing chickens and glasses of milk at breakfast — a planet colony with a Red sky.

She was forced to travel there: to do what, I don’t know. Mother never speaks, never spoke of it, as if trying to forget or deny it. But there are ways of knowing, of guessing what happened. A miniscule government check every month; nighttime screaming, thrashing, choking fits, hands flying and if they hit you, it’s not her fault, she can’t control it. In the morning, she would mutter curses under her breath as she limped to the washroom, followed by exclamations that she didn’t know where they came from. 

Many things went without explanation, but even when I was young, I knew something unspeakable happened to her there. So much so that the only memento she chose to return with was an embroidered white cloth endowed with the Red, the painful memories of that place softened for her by the fabric it was sewn into. So horrific that she used medicine to forget, but so important that she shared a piece of it with me – the sky in a shade not found on Earth.

In the Red, I am everything and I am nothing, my skin turned to mist mingling with the Red, becoming it. A pleasant numbness spreads through my body – am I crying or laughing? Totally aware of extreme oblivion, my body torn into a million tiny pieces, and yet still I am whole: myself the stars forming constellations, myself the constellations forming galaxies. I am the Red, the Red was me. I was the Red, the Red is me. I will be the Red, I will be the Red. The Red doesn’t exist. Wait. No, it doesn’t. No, does it? I press my fingers into my eyes, harder, harder. Ball my hands into fists so my fingernails don’t stab my eyelids, harder, harder. Red, where did you go? Red, why can’t I find you? I see myself in a recurring dream, desperately rummaging through labeled cardboard boxes, crying and gasping for breath. Then, relief as I find it and clutch it to my chest—

Ah, there you are.

I try not to remember that the dream is only that.  

I sit quietly in the Red, balled up in a small corner of its vastness. But the Red isn’t really red, no, not like anyone who hasn’t seen it would think it is. It’s red in the sense that “red” is how I can explain it to someone who has never seen it, never been engulfed in it; red is only the frame of reference through which to attempt to communicate it. Like explaining butterflies in a world where only sparrows exist, or the ocean to someone who has experienced water only through rain and shallow muddy puddles and the drops that land in their mouth, gaping open to the sky.

The pressure on my eyes isn’t sustainable — I hear Mother’s voice echoing through the Red, telling me to stop, that I’ll poke them out one day and then who will take care of her? So I ease up on it and open my eyes, forgetting that there’s no point to it now. The streetlamps have dimmed considerably, and the darkness surrounding them is tinted Red at the edges. I shoulder my backpack, run my fingers through my hair, and set out for Andro’s. 

Andro’s is the restaurant that my friend’s mother named after him. There had been a different name there, years ago, but it was changed when Andro changed his in grade 10. And before that, it wasn’t a restaurant but a pub, and its name wasn’t a name but a word that no one really knew how to pronounce or what it meant — a word I have long forgotten. Strange that I can’t remember it, considering that I worked there then, when the monthly checks weren’t enough to cover rent anymore, and Mother’s meager savings from before she left had run out. She was the one that got me a job there by cashing in a favor with the owner, whose brother had traveled to the planet colony at the same time she did.

“Doesn’t talk much, that one. Not even before we left to go—” she points up, “—you know. You can see in the way he looks at you, though, he knows what’s going on. Maybe even better than most,” she had explained to me in one of her few moments of clarity. To work there, I had to leave school a few hours early each day so that I could sweep and clean before the evening rush. I cried when she told me — I knew for sure that Arinya would find a new best friend in the hours I was missing each day. 

“It’s okay baby,” she had said, patting my hair. “Do it for me. Please, do it for me.”

On my first day, the pub was dead slow. My mother’s friend stood at the counter polishing cups, setting cylindrical glasses glittering like diamonds in a row. His brother, the pub owner, pulled me into the back office and explained my duties to me – wiping tables, refilling napkin holders and ketchup bottles, sweeping up peanut shells and bottle caps and dust tracked in from the street. He ended with a warning about speaking to his brother, my mother’s friend, the bartender: asking about what happened there is off-limits. 

“Besides, it’s not like he’ll tell you anything,” the pub owner had said, leaning back in his chair. “He doesn’t really talk anymore, not a damn word, so asking won’t get you any answers, anyways. It just makes him nervous, so don’t even try. Got it?” I gulped and nodded, had a broom and a wet rag shoved into my hands, and got to work. 

I was new to the Red then – relatively speaking. Mother wouldn’t talk to me about it; the tea cloth had been gone for several years; none of my friends or peers knew about it. I was alone with the Red, and only in my mind, and I didn’t understand it. I was scared, but also I loved it, but also I really wanted, really needed someone to talk about it with. Someone like me. Someone that understood, not necessarily that understood the Red in the sense that they could explain to me why and what it really was, but that understood what it was like to have experienced it.

And so, on days when the pub-owning brother would leave to deposit cash in the bank or pick up a keg from a local brewery, I would stand in front of the bartender, sweeping and my eyes leaving the floor only to steal brief glances at him, speaking in as gentle a voice as possible, what did you see, what did you see. A vague question: I’m not sure what I wanted to hear. Maybe that he had seen the Red, too, or maybe a clue as to why exactly my mother acted so differently from Arinya’s grandmother, or even a few words describing what she was like before that place changed her. Or if she ever mentioned me; it didn’t have to be by name, just the suggestion of a child, of someone waiting for her that she misses dearly, would have been enough. 

He usually just stared at me, past me, eyes glazed over and blood-shot. Somewhere far away. 

One day, as I whispered to him, he suddenly contorted and looked at me, not past me but at me and I thought I could see that he understood, and I saw the Red in his pupils, in his irises and growing, covering the whites of his eyes and spreading outward, running down his cheek and up through to the roots of his hair — I felt a heavy hand fall onto my shoulder. 

Dazed, I was vaguely aware of hastily counted, crumpled dollar bills being shoved into my hand and the owner’s husband pushing me out the back door and into the alleyway. And don’t come back. The pub closed shortly after, no one knew why, but I didn’t have to explain to Mother that I had been fired. Andro and his mother moved to the city soon after and she bought the place, gave me a job sweeping and bussing tables – and strictly only after school and on weekends, she had said, in the way adults do when they warn you not to touch a hot stove or that too much candy will make your stomach ache. She paid me more than the old pub owner ever did, and made sure that I was fed every day, even when I didn’t have a shift; I think she could tell, somehow, that I oversaw my own meals at home. 

I find myself in the alley behind Andro’s, totally unchanged since I last saw it months ago. Andro’s is one of the few restaurants allowed to be open this late, by special permission of the City: a privilege only granted to the City Council’s favorite eateries and bars. I worked here with Andro for years, from grade six until just before graduation when my application to receive pay working as my mother’s full-time caregiver was approved. It helped that I often waited on Council members during their publicly-funded, “Boozy Tuesday” dinners in the private room; they all knew me by name and frequently asked how my mother was doing, words slurring as they tumbled clumsily from their lips.  

I pull up an empty milk crate and sit by the dumpster, across from the back door that leads into the kitchen. Andro takes too-frequent smoke breaks, and I know that, regardless of how busy it is — and, by the muffled sounds of voices and clattering dishes, it seems packed tonight — he’ll be out for a smoke in thirty minutes or less. 

I rest my elbows on my knees and lay my head on my hands, palms-down and my thumbs pressing into my closed eyes. Should I try to tell Andro about the Red? Should I tell him I’m leaving for good? Would he try to stop me? Would he even care? Or would he understand why I’m leaving, and ask to run away with me, the two of us striking out for a different world, together, one where… where we…

Feeling myself blush to the tips of my ears, I release the pressure I’m putting on my eyes. They ache deliciously and I can see the Red again, not only in the darkness under my eyelids but also when I open them and peek out at the world. The lightbulb above the backdoor frame illuminates the alley in a warm yellow light that blooms out around it like an aura tinged Red at the edges. Would Andro be able to see the Red if I told him what to look for, if I helped him find it? If I took him back to my apartment, into the bathroom, pulled back the shower curtain and let him see it? 

Could I do that to him? 

I hear the door open and bolt to a standing position, and immediately feel like an idiot. It’s one of the old chefs, leaving for the night – in their own words, “I’m too goddamn old and have worked here too goddamn long to stay out this late.” We share a nod and they disappear around the corner, apron slung over their shoulder, interrupting the white of their chef’s coat. I stare at the space they had just occupied in the alley – it’s weird, knowing you’ll never see someone again, and weirder knowing that they might not realize that for a while. 

I hear the back door open again, and Andro steps out, watching the lighter’s flame as it brushes the end of his cigarette. His bright red apron isn’t flashy to me — it seems hollow in comparison to what I use it as reference for. Andro takes a moment to see me — I step towards him as he looks up. He takes a drag of his cigarette and then smiles at me, allowing the smoke to gestate in his lungs. He blows the smoke up and out, and I watch the cloud rise and dissipate. We hug. 

“Andro, it’s so good to see you,” I say. “Busy tonight?” He laughs because he knows I know the answer. 

“Oh, not at all. Some shady figure hanging out in the back alley scared everyone away, thank god.” We laugh and he extends the cigarette to me, offering it. The end glows bright orange. I shake my head. He takes another pull. 

“What makes you stop by, anyways? Hungry?” I want to tell him why I came by, and that I’m leaving and that he’s welcome to come with me and that actually, I really, really want him to come and that we should swing by Arinya’s apartment on the way to see if she’ll join us, too. Because I remember how badly I don’t want to be alone with the Red, with its infinity of uncertainty.

But it would be selfish to ask him to come with me. The restaurant will be his in a few years — after all, it bears his name — and he loves his mother too much to abandon her without notice. And I respect them both too much to really consider asking. So instead of speaking and letting the words I want to say spill out of my mouth and shatter into pieces on the alleyway concrete, I hug him again. He doesn’t say anything, and we just hold onto each other. When we separate, I tell him the truth of my leaving forever framed as a less severe lie: that I came because I don’t know when I’ll see him again. I tell him that I’m sorry. He throws his cigarette butt onto the ground and crushes it underfoot. Extinguished.  

“It’s okay,” he tells me, though his voice is thick with sadness. I’m glad he’s not asking for an explanation or a list of reasons or what my mother will do without me. I think Andro understands that sometimes, you just know that what you’re doing is best for you, even if others don’t get it. He asks me if I want a hot meal before I leave; I tell him that I don’t really have time, and that I’m not really hungry, anyways. He nods, pulls out another cigarette and starts smoking. And suddenly we’re back to before graduation, and he’s complaining about fussy customers and huge dining parties that leave miniscule tips, and I’m shaking my head right along with him and enjoying the sound of his voice. 

He grinds the butt of his third cigarette into the concrete, and we both know that he should be getting back to work now; it’s been too long — his tables are either being left waiting or are calling over other servers with annoyance to fill their drinks and deliver their checks. Without really planning to, I grab both of his hands in mine. They are delightfully warm. We look at each other in surprise.   

“Andro, I…” I start, not sure where the sentence will end but knowing what I want to say. Wishing that I had told Arinya I was leaving, that I had had the courage to tell her something like what I’m about to say to Andro. He looks at me expectantly. 

The back door opens, and we immediately drop our hands. Not a word spoken between us; we see that the other understands through a shared glance. Andro’s mother emerges, cigarette between her lips, already lit. She looks at the two of us, assessing the situation, and takes a pull on her cigarette. I can tell Andro is wondering, too, how much she saw. I greet her, knowing that my flailing little wave simply oozes nervousness; if I felt like I was back in high school with Andro before, I feel like I’ve reverted even further now, back to being an awkward pre-teen.  

“You aren’t the one that got him hooked on cigarettes, are you?” she says to me, half-joking. I shake my head. “Good. And you better not start, either. Absolutely terrible for you.” I, of course, agree, assuring her that I’ll keep far away from it. She turns to her son. “Andro, get the fuck back in there. I’ve been covering your tables for the past twenty minutes. God, my head.” She massages her temples, cigarette tucked between her index and middle finger. 

Andro turns to me. It’s awkward now — the goodbye we almost had is dead and gone, the corpse of it rotting and bloated, stretched out dead in the air between us. “So, I’ll, uh… I’ll see you around?” I say, knowing how stupid I must sound. Andro nods — he knows that if our goodbyes felt more final, his mother would want an explanation — replies, “Yeah. I’ll see you.” And then he disappears through the backdoor and it closes and it’s just me and his mother and the way the smoke from her cigarette mingles with the halo of light around the alleyway bulb. Beautiful and ugly and then gone. 

I tell Andro’s mother goodbye, too, and she tells me to stop by anytime for a plate of food. I thank her and head out onto the street. The spaceport is at the City’s limits; if I walk at a steady pace, I should be able to get there before dawn. The streetlamps are almost completely extinguished now — it’s okay, though, because I’ve memorized the way in my mind through walking the route every day for months. Even before I knew I was going to leave. Even before I found the Red again, the distant sky spilling out of my mother’s wrists, running down her hand, and dripping off of her fingers to pool between the bone white tiles of the bathroom floor.

Just like the tea cloth, I thought, even before I realized that she was dead. Before I retched into the bathroom sink and bile splashed up on the mirror, ran down my t-shirt and relief followed sharply by guilt washed over me. I pressed my fingers into my eyes. I didn’t have to take care of her anymore. She didn’t care enough about me to stay. She’s gone. She’s gone. She was forced to go. She forced me to stay. I can live for myself now; I want someone else to live for. I have so many questions. She couldn’t answer them. She didn’t try to answer them. I could feel the possibility of knowing, of something better, spill between my fingers, the stardust that is myself slipping out faster as I clenched my fist and jammed it into my eye until I was dizzy. 

When I finally opened them again, I saw the Red on the floor reflected in the mirror. And I knew. 

I went into autopilot then. Pulled the splattered shower curtain shut, left a note apologizing to whoever found her. Changed my clothes. Mechanically filled my backpack with necessities, added a couple of faded photographs. Andro and me, Arinya and me. Smiling, happy. Memories. The Red hovered in the darkness filling the corners of my bedroom. And then I was gone, off to find the ones I loved, and Mother was alone with it congealing beside her. 

When I push against my eyes now, I see her strong, gentle hand in my memory morph into the Red-stained thing that blends in with the threads of the tea cloth as she points to them. This time, my hand is mine, as it was when Arniya held it, as it was when it held Andro. 

I open my eyes and the City is completely dark. I walk confidently along the abandoned streets, swallowed and dwarfed by it.