Open Blue

They told me, years later, that the guy had an entire galaxy in his mind. It was populated by nebulae and stars, planets and moons, some of them harboring life, others barren and wasted. He spent essentially all of his life cataloging his inner galaxy, and for all intents and purposes he was catatonic. His family took him for a vegetable. They’d pack him into the car for family trips and do things like sit him in front of mountain views, dip his feet in flowing streams, anything to get him back to the world, back to them, none of them realizing that he already had a world, or rather several trillion of them, and that every ounce of brainpower he had in him had to be devoted to exploring this galaxy, or else he’d be lost and insensate for the rest of his life. He’d tried to blind himself to the galaxy before, to come out and into the world, but he’d seen nothing but unending, featureless┬áblack. Heard nothing but the howling of an infinite wind. So he went back to his inner planets.

I guess I met him in 2005 or thereabouts, back when I was a grad student complete with bright eyes and bushy tail. They’d never gotten him beyond the occasional blink of his eyes, over there, at the center he’d been moved to, when his family had had enough of the family trips and the visits with experts and the hope that something would change. I’d take a lot of notes at first, observe vitals, notate scans, but eventually I just started coming to visit.

A lot of the technology was still nascent, and I remember picturing to myself, there at the foot of his bed, what this room might’ve looked like under the same circumstances 10, 20, 50 years before. What help could be given him, if it’d even be given. The doctors now did these scans mostly to placate the family, to assuage the inevitable guilt they’d accumulated after placing him in a home and coming first to visit daily, then weekly, then monthly, then only on holidays. I took to coming in on my days off from class, reading to him first from Kafka, then Wallace, then Murakami.

At that geologic scale of minute fluctuations of the body and micromovements, you begin to assemble in your mind a mental timelapse of the hours you’ve spent with the person, translating every twitch into something meaningful, prophetic even.

Sometimes I’d come in with a cheap bottle of gut rot and tell him about my day, pretend that he was drinking with me and commiserating, all the while popping mints after a finished bottle and accepting coffee when the nurses would offer it, not really needing it but not wanting them to smell the alcohol on me, to realize just how pathetic I was to be drinking midday and not facing any of my problems.

I’d been in and out of school, never settling on one thing in particular. Married and divorced before age 30. Aimlessly wandering in general, while doing my best to convince myself that the answer was right there, around the corner, or maybe after the next drink.

I knew this guy couldn’t really hear me, that even if he could it’s not like he could relate, but I kept coming anyway. I’d get a good feel for the nurses and orderlies as they’d come and go over the years, which ones actually gave a shit and which would be a problem–the ones who’d put him at risk of bedsores or worse. It sounds stupid, maybe, but he became like a little brother to me. I didn’t have any siblings of my own and had cut off all contact with my parents, so I guess he was really the only family I had.

He retreated from the world, physically left it, by degrees, intentionally, so that he could live in the world of his mind. I mean that in the literal sense. He didn’t wither so much as disappear gradually, nearly imperceptibly, to the point where I can hardly describe it even now, all these years later. But he did, he left of his own accord, bit by bit, until one day I came in and he was gone. He’d faded to the world inside his mind, physically departed, unalterably escaped, and he’d left me a note. Not a physical one, mind you. A mental note. He told me to find him. He didn’t leave coordinates; he left activities. He said I could find him in a night walk just past the edge of town. He’d be in the tire track of a motorcycle ride under open blue sky. Clear and vivid in the otherwise fading remnants of a dream broken by daybreak.

 

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Where the Sun Used to Be

He woke up on the bathroom floor of his room in the locked ward. His legs, when he could move them, had strings tied around them, at the ankles. The strings rose up to the ceiling and stopped in the far right corner of the room. The tension on the strings was great, as if a team of elephants were pulling them in the opposite direction.

He could see a sliver of light coming through his bedroom’s sole window if he crawled away from the bathroom, but a sliver is all it was. He scratched and clawed at the strings and his legs as if he were a wild animal stuck in a trap.

He could see the light, but not the source of it. He was filled with the knowledge that the sun wasn’t merely out of sight, but it was out of existence. He called for help, but his parched mouth couldn’t utter a syllable. He was naked and so attempted to cover his shame behind the curtain that separated bedroom from bathroom, but this was not effective.

For a moment, all he saw was his room filled with water, over his head and nearly touching the ceiling. When his vision became antediluvian again, he found that the unbreakable strings had been given some slack. Even so, he couldn’t pull pants over them, so instead he put on his largest shirt and tugged on the bottom of it until he was decent.

The ward was empty. Not in the figurative sense of there only being a couple nurses and patients, but empty empty.

Every time he got near an exit, the strings pulled him back. He found a pair of scissors at the nurses’ station and tried again to free himself, but the strings withstood even the sharpest of blades.

When he looked out the solitary window in his room, the passing cars and people moved like they were fighting their way out of quicksand: slow and morphing into their surroundings. Coming back to his room one day, he looked for his window but it was gone. The section of wall that covered where it was looked like it had been there since the hospital opened.

He ran the water to wash his face, but the water avoided his hands like a cat hunkering down to avoid a pet. When he put both hands directly under the faucet, the water ran upwards and settled at the ceiling.

The next day, he woke to see portraits covering the room’s walls. They were all of him, usually sleeping but also trying to break free of his strings. The paint on all of them was dry, and each portrait appeared to be very old. Every night he took them down, and every morning they appeared on the wall again. If he destroyed a painting, the painted carcass would be gone by dawn with two more in its place. He thought of the mythical Hydra.

He let the ceiling-bound water go until it covered his head. This was no use, though, as a drain opened on the ceiling and sucked up all the water. When he stopped eating for weeks, he’d wake up with a full belly.

Once he rolled his ankle and could not move. Next morning, his foot was outfitted with a professionally secured ankle brace.

All the while, the unbreakable strings remained. He tried to tangle the strings by walking from room to room, crisscrossing here and there. Not only did the strings not tear, they began following him like a leash that could go taut at any moment.

He searched inside for fear, but there wasn’t any. There was a feeling like a cup condensing on the outside while bone dry inside. He spent days recalling words that fired at random in his brain:

Raisin–Dried, wrinkled. Can be eaten.

Sunset–Milky window. Fades away.

Time–Fluid and unruly. Can’t be trusted.

The next morning, he came to on a cold tile floor that left a grid on his back. The people had returned, but they couldn’t see him. He took his things and left the hospital.

He no longer had a name. He no longer had a shadow. But he’d always have the strings, stretching up, higher now, perfectly straight, up past the clouds and beyond where the sun used to be.

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