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The Stars Are Cold

Dan was colossally, phenomenally tired. His entire body seemed paralyzed with the weight of sleep, his head heavy with the fuzz of broken thoughts. He could not by any means imagine keeping his eyes open for one second longer.

And yet he lay awake.

Dan tossed restlessly, pounding his pillow in exhaustion. Again and again the terrible question flashed through his mind, pressing against inside his lips and threatening to burst out in a scream or a sob. Why?

At last he stood, swaying dizzily with denied sleep, his hair rumpled and his face agonized in the darkness of his room. Dan crossed, staggering, to the window and stared out at the stars. There they twinkled, faint pinpoints of white against the ebon sky, millions and millions of light years away. Distant and cold.

Just like his parents. Dan clasped his hands against his chest, squeezing his fingers until the joints popped. He wanted to take his anger out on someone, even himself--he felt compelled to manifest his inward agony on something physical. In the old days people tore their clothes and poured ashes on their head. Dan wanted to rip his hair out.

Dan's family was dying. No--it was already dead, had been dead for a very long time. Only now they were becoming aware of what a rotted corpse it was.

The teen wanted to cry, here in the privacy of his room, but he seemed incapable of tears. His eyes were hot, his mouth as dry as his mother's words to his father in that last argument over supper, only seven hours ago. And his father's reply had been drier still.

Mom's ironic answer had been tinged with bitterness, Dad's to that with resentment. And it escalated in leaps and bounds until they were yelling, shouting, screaming at each other. Dan sat frozen, staring, his fist locked around the pepper shaker, his entire body so tense he felt he would explode. Something huge and dead had invaded his stomach, leaving no room for food.

"And look what we're doing to the kid!" Dad shouted, gesturing at Dan. "Our only kid, and our words are killing him, you can tell! He can't live with our hate!"

"Neither can we!" Mom yelled, angry tears streaming down her face. "We can't live like this anymore!"

Suddenly utter silence fell. Mom and Dad stared at each other, and Dan stared at both of them. The hand holding the pepper shaker began to tremble. Some door had just slammed shut, utterly and irrevocably. No going back.

"So that's what it's come to," Dad said quietly.

Mom nodded. "There's no other way, Mike," she whispered.

Dan stood and stumbled away from the table, dropping the forgotten pepper shaker on the floor. This was it. The end. His family was dead. Divorce was the worst word in the English language.

They had known better than to call him back.

Now Dan shakily ran a hand over the prized possessions set by the wall. The shelf of trophies, the guitar and sheaves of music, the picture of a friend at school, a pretty girl. Only a few months ago, these things had been of utmost importance to him--grades, music, sports, girls. What did they mean now?

Continuing his tactile journey down the wall of the room, Dan came to his corner desk, littered with papers and textbooks, pencils and pens. He sat down and reached out to click the desk-lamp on, by long habit graceful even in the dark, hitting the switch on the first try.

For several long moments Dan blinked in the abrupt brightness, letting his eyes adjust. And then he stared at the homework laid out in front of him. He'd made a dozen mistakes in that algebra--not paying very good attention.

Dan was sitting there trying to concentrate on variables and exponents when his mother rapped lightly on the door and slipped inside, almost two hours after the explosion at supper. He only glanced at her, then looked sharply away, scribbling furiously on his notebook.

"Dan, honey, I'm sorry," she said softly. "None of us wanted it this way."

Dan put down his pencil and clasped his hands in his lap, still not looking at his mother. He nodded once.

"Your dad... he's staying at a motel in town. We... we don't know what exactly is going to happen now, Dan, but it's going to be all right."

Liar, Dan contradicted silently. Nothing would ever be all right again, not in his family.

"Look, Dan," she went on desperately, "I know this has hurt you. It's hurt me, too, you don't know how much. But it's really better this way, better to get rid of the hate."

Get rid of Dad, the problem, you mean. How would that get rid of hate? It would still be there, just scabbed over and ignored.

He said nothing.

"I know it seems hard, but sometimes love dies. We can't live without love, Dan."

Do you still love me, or do I remind you too much of Dad? Dan wondered. Do I still love you?

"Dan, at least look at me. Let me know what you're thinking."

He did look at her then, raising his head slowly, and he saw the sudden flash in his mother's eyes. Yes, he did look too much like his father. What would happen to him? "Please, Mom, please... leave me alone," he whispered hoarsely.

She nodded quickly, eyes filling with swift, hurt tears, and left, closing the door behind her.

I still love you, Mom. But will your hatred for Dad turn into hatred for me?

Dan sighed now, almost reached out to turn the lamp off, but changed his mind and grabbed a pencil. He opened a drawer and rifled through some old papers, found what he was looking for, and lifted it out. He plopped it on the desk, opened it, flipped through, and paused suddenly.

It seemed such a sissy thing, to keep a journal, but he'd started it in fifth grade, forced by a school assignment. After a while he'd discovered he enjoyed it, enjoyed putting his thoughts into words. He felt almost compelled to keep it up through junior high and high school, but he only wrote down moments that were important to him, sports victories, a compliment from a teacher, a new song idea for his guitar, a conversation with a pretty girl.

An entry dated almost this exact day the summer before. Saturday, fishing with Mom and Dad. We go out together so little anymore. I caught four, but had to throw three back. Mom and Dad were awfully quiet. They never spoke to each other, and hardly at all to me. I wish I knew why.

"Well, I know now," Dad murmured grimly, and flipped through to the first clean page. He wrote the date, the day, the obligatory "Dear Journal," and then inscribed only one sentence.

My family is dead.

He stared at the words for a moment. It looked so harsh and cold in black and white, so easy to read, to say aloud. My family is dead. Just like that. Good-bye, love and comfort, good-bye security and solid foundation. My family is dead. What else matters?

Dan reached to turn off the light, suddenly desperate with panic. He missed, burned his hand on the bulb, yelped in pain and hit the switch off center. Nothing happened and he punched it again, breathing hard with frustration and irrational terror.

The light went out.

Dan sat in the darkness, the burn throbbing on his hand, his heart burning as it throbbed. At least he couldn't see those awful words anymore. He ran a trembly hand over his face.

His chin and nose--they belonged to his father. The hair, too, at least the curl, though he owed the blondish-brown hue to his mother, along with his eyes and lips. From his mother he'd also inherited the talkativeness, the love of music, the predilection to do well in school. From his father had come the quiet stubbornness, the sensitivity to what others were feeling, the slight bloodthirstiness in the taste for sports, especially basketball.

Would he ever play basketball again?

Dan belonged to both of them. He couldn't choose, if it came to that. But would they grow to hate him as they had grown to hate each other? That stupid Oldies song was running through his head, "Bye-bye love, bye-bye happiness. Hello, loneliness. I think I'm going to die. Good-bye, sweet love, good-bye."

Dan moved back to the bed and sat on its edge, staring out the window. Was this all there was to life, just shallow pleasures and activities for a short time, until suddenly all was stripped away? If not in life, then when you died, it would all go away. And what would be left?

Was there anything left in Dan's life? The teen stared out at the cold, distant stars, feeling instinctively that there had to be something more. Maybe that's what happened when everything got taken away. Maybe that's the only time you could really see, as if your real eyes are on your heart and they're blinded by the things Dan usually thought were important, music and grades and sports and girls.

But what else was there? What? God was dead, wasn't He? Scientists had proved, hadn't they, that everything happened by accident, and nothing mattered except survival. But did survival really matter that much?

Not to Dan. If the scientists were right, nothing mattered.

Nothing at all. Dan drew up his knees and pressed his face against them in despair. His family was dead, and nothing mattered.

The End

Comments: This is perhaps the first story I've ever written that doesn't have a happy ending. I wanted to give it one, but it didn't feel honest. This was the only way I could really end it, and I find it rather unsatisfying. It's also different from my other writing in that it's realistic, short, and didn't take a lot of sweat and tears to generate--it just sort of came.

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