The Likelihood of Nothing
by Madeleine J. Lloyd
At the far end of the park, where the grass gives way to hollowed-out trees, there is a bench. Twisted from the wrecked hulls of airships, it rises from the dirt like skeletal ivy. Viewed at the right angle, it all but disappears against the curtain of shadows, even as it shimmers in its obsidian-enforced paint. All in all, the perfect memorial for Souls Lost in Space.
HERE LIES THE END OF THE WORLD
reads the sign that stands opposite, rotting on its rusty spine. The words are light-bleached and spiteful as they glare at the bench, whose metal still shines bright after all these years.
Sometimes — not as often as the pristine bench, mind you — people bestow the sign with flowers. Strangers in their black coats come to hover at the edge of the universe, clutching their too-bright bouquets like flotation devices. More often than not, the flowers are yellow, as though they’re trying to bring summer back to the place the suns forgot.
When these people arrive, flowers exploding against their mourning coats, they flit around the decrepit sign like bees. They stroke it with flighty hands, searching for something they are never going to find, so preoccupied with their thoughts that they not once notice it yielding beneath them like a touch-starved child. Before too long, however, their anxious feet win the war against their heart, and they retreat from the bank of the lapping darkness. So back to the bench they go, and it is there they lay their offering.
Settling back into place, the sign would think — if, of course, it were to think — how different they are to the ones they’re pursuing.
Those people go to the bench first. They can wait for entire light cycles, as they try to keep their world-weary feet from ceding to their curiosity. The illumination bulbs humming in the grass float between breezy white to warm, sun-down amber and back again, before they so much as twitch.
Occasionally, these people talk to the sign. They spill their hearts to it as if it were their oldest friend, blanketing that lonely piece of wood in their lives and thoughts and ends. The people who come after talk to the bench, with all its shining paint and sparkling plaques and sweet-smelling tributes. Most people, however, don’t talk at all.
Years ago, when the sign still gleamed against the florescent lamps and hadn’t yet learned to bend to the solar winds, a pair of boys who were neither restless nor resigned came to visit. In their easy, pastel clothes completely devoid of both black and yellow, they wound along the path from the dock, bathed in bright laughter. That was the first time the park had heard laughter. Sometimes, when the wind is too fast for safe flying, it almost sounds the same as it whistles through the slats in the bench.
The first boy, hair plaited into a crown about his head, curled himself into that bench. His shoes lay forgotten under the seat and his toes tucked beneath him, giggles ricocheting in the silence like a hail of shooting stars. It was the other one who went to the sign, draping his still-soft hoodie over it as if he was protecting the eyes of an innocent. Neither boy left until the park warden came crashing over with talk of paramedics on his tongue.
The sign would maintain — again, were it capable of doing such a thing — that where a person chooses to go, first visiting The End of the World says a lot about them.
Last week, the bench boy returned to the park, except he didn’t look like a boy anymore. In fact, he more resembled the hard-faced men who came carrying their briefcases in place of flowers. The crown had fallen from his hair, which was now cropped to his skull, and his aurora clothes had bled to grey. He still went to the bench first, and he still curled his feet beneath him like a cat.
Once, a woman spent hours telling the sign how her cat curled up in the sun. This boy-man, glowing in the lamplight, was likely as close to a sunbathing cat as the sign would ever get. He pulled a golden ring from his finger and laid it to rest in front of his face on the wrought-iron arm. He lifted his red-stained eyes to the stars without a sound. The space once filled by his laughter throbbed. The sign would have spoken to him then, if it could.
But it could not. All it could do was hold that no-longer-a-boy’s hand as he unfurled himself before the end of universal knowing. It could only whine as he let go and disappeared into the night. It could merely jostle back into its foundation and wait for someone to follow, once he was gone.
Only now, days later, does the other boy come calling. He isn’t a boy anymore either. He is still wearing the hoodie, though, which has faded to a murky heather. There’s a hole in the pocket that his fingers pick at, and another in the hem of a sleeve which would be perfect for hooking a thumb through. The neckline is pulled tight against his face, and he slopes towards the End of the World with his nose buried in the fabric.
This time, he doesn’t take it off to drape it over the sign. He just stands next to it, still with his back to the abyss, but there is no boy for him to laugh at on the bench. He stays there anyway, silent, and watches the empty space. His nose digs deeper into his jumper.
BURNS flares across his shoulder in burgundy letters. The paint, it seems, started to flake off years ago, leaving speckles in the print. If reassurance was a thing a sign could want, it would have found it in the negative space that blooms as the not-boy presses his ribs back together.
After only a minute of stoic observation, he drifts to the bench. His feet remain firmly on the ground and he stares only at his hands. He doesn’t cry. From within his holey pocket, he produces another ring. This one doesn’t catch the fluorescence like the first but rests solid in his palm. He plucks the gold ring from beside him with his left hand and holds them together for a moment, side by side. Then he stows them away, slipping them into the front pocket of his jeans.
In the next moment, his phone rings. The asteroid of a noise screeches through the empty park and he jolts. Fishing it out, he stands and turns his back again. His fingers shake at his side.
“Oh, no. You want the other Mr Burns.”
“I am... was — sorry — his husband.”
“No, don’t worry about it.”
He exhales as if he’s been punched. Then, without another glance, he tucks the phone away and proceeds back up the path to wait at the ferry port. As the solar winds catch through the park, the first flecks of paint begin to fall from the bench. Beneath, it is dull grey. The obsidian still shimmers even in the dust.
Had the sign been a human — and a human inclined to academia, at that — it would have been a philosopher. It would have gone then, to sit on the bench that it so envied, and it would have stared at the Nothingness it was born to guard.
The likelihood of Nothingness would have sparked galaxies in its mind, as it tried to figure whether this place really was The End at all. After a while, it would have concluded that it didn’t really matter. At least not to those on this side of it. Then, it would have directed all its philosophical might into concocting a Possible World in which those two boys-turned-men (The Boys Who Came Back) might have reunited again. If the sky was clear, and it could get to the shop before dark, it might have laid its own bunch of sunshine at the foot of the bench.
Copyright © 2017 by Madeleine J. Lloyd