The Absence of Hope

by Percy Unger, age 15
The Absence of Hope Percy is a 9th grader. She loves theater, painting, and writing short stories.

“The stars were punch-outs in the blackness above her, sometimes it hurt to think about space. She could think herself out of the earth, through the blue ring of atmosphere and even further beyond, looking down. If she willed it, it was possible for her to imagine herself growing more distant, shrinking, fading into… what?”

The stars were punch-outs in the blackness above her, sometimes it hurt to think about space. She could think herself out of the earth, through the blue ring of atmosphere and even further beyond, looking down. If she willed it, it was possible for her to imagine herself growing more distant, shrinking, fading into… what? She stopped there, unable to visualize anything more. She returned to the night now, wet grass and a slight frostiness. The flowers were curled into themselves, huddled and chilly, hugging themselves closer. She was damp but decided not to care. She fell back into the cool foliage, choosing to embrace the discomfort. She wished she had someone to share this with. Someone as young and idealistic as she was, right at this very moment. She ached for someone perfect, knowing she was alone. She let herself drift away to think crazy, hopeless thoughts.The stars blinked and remained steady. Now she was only empty and abandoned, the romanticism faded but lingered at her edges. She felt she could cry, or maybe she would laugh instead. Moonlight played in the shadows. She sat up and felt the pressing moisture on the fabric at her back. She wanted companionship, love, a hand to hold, a mind that would absorb her thoughts just as she meant them, spin them with poetry and return them to her. The moment of such youthful, breathtaking, painful joy faded into dim and threadbare sadness. She pushed herself off the grass and began to walk ponderingly towards home.

He could hear music as he lay there in the meadow. He opened his arms and spread out, looking up. He liked knowing he was alone there, far away, he could think silly things but make them beautiful in his head. He loved nighttime in this way, he could be isolated but alive. He felt like there was a chasm in his chest filled with inexplicable elation, he was flying as he lay smiling in the dark. He soared. All the same, he was aware that he wanted someone else here. They could laugh loudly in this place. Recklessly, without abandon. He could see him and that someone else falling into each other, down, laughing, laughing, warm together in the great, wide openness. The music played on. Violins, maybe a flute. Pretty music that dwindled and then surged with his thoughts. He closed his eyes and fell back into himself. His eyes opened, he was opaque again, no longer dreaming. He sat and regarded the world at large for a moment before lifting himself up and cementing himself back into reality.

Carefree. Brimming with wonder. Life was serious now, but she could still appreciate beauty as she always had. It was her superpower. She could endlessly enjoy small things: the smell of home, a petal, sunlight through tall trees. She was an adult, though still young. She had escaped bitterness thus far and probably always would. People around her moved in generic patterns, only partially awake and still sleepy. There was sunlight and people, faint sounds of cars and friendship and leaves rustling halfheartedly. The world was bright and still miraculous but in a solid way. There were no more uncertain fairies brushing by in the twilight, no longer any bursting flashes of happiness to be found lying exultantly in the weeds. She wished now for those things, but there were concrete tasks to be completed, responsibilities to assume.

Sometimes he still heard music, internal snatches when he least expected them. He had grown and matured, but some of his innocence remained. His life was busy and cluttered, like his mind. Some of the poetry had drained from his thoughts. He thought now in prose, at least most often. He had a job and a small, constraining office that looked out on the ocean. It was a cubicle, but his mind often strayed beyond its thin, gritty walls. He was a “real man,” but he frequently felt still like the teenager who had worshiped the beauty in sunlight and the fire of dusk. He was someone who loved old books and read them in big, drafty libraries with muted light fraught with dust dripping through the windows. Even in groups he felt isolated. He didn’t fit with other people. Rarely did he have the time to explore new worlds from the comfort of a large chair.

The air was thin and frozen. Time felt like something silly, but also pressing, as she made her way down the side of the empty highway. The grass crunched pleasingly under her feet, but she wasn’t only a forlorn daydreamer anymore. Mundane things like treadmills and shoelaces and orange juice were a part of her. She could fold back into past buoyant thoughts easily, but in her day-to-day existence she did not. She was still young, not bitter, but she had a yearning for something that was always out of reach. She wore sweatpants and ate tabbouleh salad in the lunchroom, and her imagination livened the monotony of office work in a small town. When she sat at noon every day with her plastic fork and the muddy snow melting outdoors, she would imagine herself away to a forest or on top of a mountain looking into the sea. Everything in her mind glistened with impossible beauty and a faint, sad knowledge that none of it would ever be as splendid and untainted. She knew people thought of her as distant and aloof. She was. She wanted more, more of something. Was she pretentious for feeling this way? She didn’t know. Some days, she still hiked far away from everyone and watched the sun set in the cold. She was happy then but lonely. She had phony friends, but she knew they were fake. It was mutual. She had never found anyone who shared the glory and the grandeur of her inner self. Someone who could understand the flashes of joy she derived from lying alone in a garden or staring out a window at the rain. Life happened, and she lived inside herself.

She noticed only because the sun was dimming. She loved the sun because she could count on it and because it was beautiful. Her sunrises were paler, faded. She thought it was just her imagination waning at first, but then it grew whiter and increasingly washed out. News reached her little office on the outskirts of the world a few hours after it had become cause for panic elsewhere. She heard and put down her plastic fork. Solemn, resigned. It made a small sound on the folding table. She stared and then sat silent as the chaos surged, until they told her she needed to leave to get in line.

The line was much less than that, a messy horde. In corners, people huddled trying to believe it wasn’t true. In town halls all over the world, in schools and parking lots and community centers people gathered. All around them rose the clear bubbles they waited to board, huge, perfectly round, life-preserving prisons. Apparently they’d known for years and had been working out this system. He was angry at first, then frightened, and finally indifferent. It was probably better this way, he reflected, the horror of not knowing was put off until the final moments. It was now more than ever he wished he had someone to care so much about. Someone to comfort and to comfort him, someone to climb into the future with, whatever it looked like.

Now it was haphazard. An escape method was available, it was there to take or leave. Push the green button and theoretically you were safe. People all around him found each other and latched on. They needed to feel that they would not be forgotten. Sparks flew and buttons were pressed. Momentous decisions were made perhaps without thought, but there wasn’t time. Often, choices were unexpected. Familial ties that had worn thin, fraying over the years, snapped suddenly with the shutting of the doors. Heartbreak spilled and tore through millions, chasms opened where before there had been love, trust, kindness. He stood straight, and they paired him with a woman from nearby he’d never met. Strange, how someone could live one neighborhood over, and he didn’t recognize her face. There were only enough bubbles if everyone had two or more people. This was it, and he was oddly emotionless. The doors closed, and her hand came down on the button. The bubble clicked and rose into darkness. They were alone but together, and he pressed his face up against the side. The end.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. As they lifted away, she was silent. The earth grew fainter, and the pain inside her swelled. The world, her world, with its breezes and smooth stones, its flower petals and warm sand that could stick between your toes. She missed rivers already and forests and beaches, mountains and the jungles she had never seen. It all looked so tiny to her. She felt tiny, miniscule. Why bother to build a bubble. She couldn’t possibly live without snowy mornings or the sound of raindrops falling on wet leaves. The smell of a lake in nighttime or the feeling she had sitting high up in a tree. But living she was, inexplicably. It didn’t feel real anymore, but it was. The world drifted from view and she realized now that she was crying. Space unfolded itself before her and now she was in the midst of something she had imagined forever. It was nothing like she’d thought, but it fulfilled all her wildest dreams. Everything was bigger, actual, so much less abstract. She cried in earnest now, guttural sobs that racked her body and propelled her to the curved floor. It fit her body perfectly but the unresponsive glass beneath her could never compare to dirt, or grass, or sand, or layers of decomposed forest. It was artificial, nonliving forever.

“Well.”

“So.”

She pulled herself to her feet, and they stood side by side, looking out. She imagined their silhouettes. There was light inside but outside only obscurity. She didn’t know how, it emanated, not piercing their surroundings at all, simply existing. The bubble shone dully in its own glow. She thought of what was going on out there, in space, that there was so much she was unaware of. She thought of what had happened somewhere in the distance, she no longer knew where, and then she decided to stop thinking.

They stood until they broke, and then he cried while she comforted until she couldn’t not cry anymore. Then he held her until they were sobbing together as one. They sat and drowned in common grief, mourning their lostness and the absence of hope that they both felt so sharply. Up here, they were so detached, so incredibly isolated, but now they also had each other, they were two people who so completely shared the same experience.

For days, there had been a glow from some eerie distant world, their own but no more. They were here now, and that was behind them. The glow seemed to settle into itself then, to subside and taper before it melted out of sight completely. Like a puppy getting ready for bed, the waning sunlight began brighter and gradually its energy drooped until it had vanished calmly and they were left in darkness. There was still a pale and cloudy light that radiated from inside the bubble. They were deserted now.

The reality set in. It was hazy at first, surreal. Then the awareness hit them, but still they remained in their own misty worlds of isolation and forgotten dreams. Did survival truly matter any more? What was the point of continuing to endure living if you could only meander through darkness full to brimming with stories to tell no one would ever hear.

They decided together without speaking that they would simply live until they couldn’t. They didn’t ration or conserve. Somehow they were able to breathe. They didn’t cry anymore. They didn’t talk. Once she opened her mouth as is if to say something, but it closed after a split second of heavy expectation, and she retreated once more into her own mind. Hours later, or days or a year or a lifetime, a fragment of a poem stumbled across his lips. It was accidental, a mistake from another existence, but it was a rock thrown into water. After the poem, there was quiet. She stared.

“I.”

“Oh.”

“Do you?”

“No! Yes!”

“I’m…”

“I’m so.”

“I know.”

“Are you?”

She nodded.

“I’m glad.”

“It’s beautiful up here. Sad. I’d always imagined it would look like, well, not quite like this.”

“I understand.”

“You do?”

“It’s real up here, not a dream. I can’t — think myself down.”

Something from outside grazed the bubble. She took his hand, and they stood together, like on their first day. The glass of the pond trembled and broke, and then the two of them struggled to retain the air to make their thoughts into language. Words tumbled into sentences that were strung together like precious beads on a necklace into paragraphs and then pages. Words upon words that crowded into and on top of one another. The ink of broken silence blurred as they twisted sound into meaning from where before was only stillness. They shouted sometimes because they could, and then they whispered until they couldn’t articulate words. It was a release, an explosion. A torrent of suppressed emotion that had been kept hidden for no reason at all. But here it was, here they were. Trapped, but free nonetheless. They talked first of the past, of what they had left behind, what they missed, and what they hadn’t realized was important. Of people and places and the indescribable indistinct quality of clouds. Once, he sang. She clapped, and the sound of her hands against one another in the midst of infinity was at once intimidating but independently perfect. They discussed poetry, art, literature, elite, and perhaps supercilious forms of enjoyment before they spoke of simple joys one had encountered like little buried treasures in the past world. Something new surfaced in the bubble now, a small bit of happiness had dripped its way into being. With this later followed companionship, affection, tenderness, and eventually love which was expressed and then explored as the two of them glided silent between the stars. It was just what she had hoped in an entirely unexpected setting.

Finally, there was someone on the other end of his thoughts. As a teenager, when he’d lain smiling in a moonlit meadow, he had taken himself seriously. Later, but still so far away from the present he had reflected, slightly chagrined but still faithful. It was funny to him that now in this situation, so strange and unlike any place he’d ever envisioned, somewhere where his life chances were so slim and escape could not be considered he could be so gloriously happy. The pieces of his own individual puzzle seemed to fit into place even if the smooth, outside edges would never be configured. He’d always been told to put the corners together first and then fill in the center, but here he could break the rules recklessly. The whole puzzle might never be complete, but he had some parts connected and the section of the image he could see now was almost too brilliant already.

It felt like she could fly, like the bubble had opened, and she could spiral through space. That was the problem. She wanted to skyrocket, to leap and bound through a wide open space. But they were shut in here, closed off, stale. The worst was that it would never be any different. They would stay like this for as long as forever lasted. She wanted room to dance, room to spread out her soul knowing her emotions could reach into faraway places before she herself could get there. At the very least, she needed to feel that the possibility of change, or variety or escape was remotely a possibility. But here she was, surrounded by nothingness. Sounds echoed in the bubble, but she wished that when she dropped something, the outside would be affected too. She hated that her surroundings were so cold and oblivious, so impassive and untouchable. She had wanted children in her time spent on Earth, but that was just another door this new life had closed for her with the pressing of a button. She had wanted kids, so she could raise them in the past world, she could teach them how to tell wildflowers apart and how to skip stones. How to appreciate butterflies or the smell of the forest or the sound of other people’s happiness. It was unthinkable, bringing someone new into this settled existence of blank space and numbing insignificance. She needed at least a glimmer of a potentially different reality. But that candle had burned down long ago and was stiff with congealed wax. Up here, there were no matches with which to relight it and no way to get any more. What she truly wanted was hope, and hope was gone.

Still, they were not jaded. Love made them buoyant, but they knew a change was necessary if they were to retain their sanity. Then again, why was that such a concern? A decision was reached after endless discussion. They turned it over and over as they continued to float through eternity. After a while, it seemed the only option.

It took days, weeks maybe. Measures of time were unimportant now, the concept of the Earth’s revolution around the sun had vanished with both of those celestial bodies themselves. It was risky, but was it riskier than the hasty decision they had made before, idealistic, uninformed, naive. It was dangerous, irrational, enormously stupid. They cut a hole. Plastic sawdust piled at the floor. They took turns sawing at it with whatever small tools they could find. The absurdity of the risk elated them with its being so absolutely out of the ordinary. They had found human connection in each other, but the expansiveness of life had disappeared. This ridiculous alternative terrified them with how singularly enticing it was.

Her turn was the last. They had cut a rectangular groove in the thick plastic so deep that if moderate force were applied to it, it would give way. She shook him by the shoulder, gently, but with an urgency that was simultaneously meaningless and present. He came awake slowly.

“Now. It’s ready.”

This registered. He blinked the sleep away. It took him a moment to remember where he was, even after so many instances just like this. They walked to the rounded wall. She looked at him. There was half a smile on her lips, but her eyes were wet. He looked back, and his throat felt stiff with helplessness, resignation, regret, love, anticipation, anguish. Flutes played tremendously in his head, the violins reached a panicked crescendo. The space outside seemed to pulsate with everything pent-up that could never happen. Together they pushed the worthless piece of plastic into the extreme. It fell noiselessly into the void, pathetically flimsy in the depths of the universe. He had always thought that in books, when people’s lives flashed before their eyes, it was just fantasized wordplay, but he could see now all the nights in the cold, the people he had known, the characters he had resonated with, and the dreams he had cherished. She nodded, and they gripped hands as they flung themselves wordlessly into the outside. There was a sigh — of relief, elation, gladness, pain, or sorrow and then they were gone, forgotten. The black dust and the stars rose up to greet them. The open bubble still bobbed through the boundlessness, not above where they had fallen but simply somewhere in relation to them. The existence of everything continued as it had, and with a plunge into the unknown, two people who had lived so vividly were instantaneously erased. Somewhere a star exploded and elsewhere a planet turned on its axis, slowly, methodically, spinning unceasingly over and over itself, unnoticed and undisturbed.

 

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