Few questions in the English language can truly end the world as you know it.
“Do you love me?” he asked, not knowing the answer—unsure if he even wanted to know.
“Is that your son?” they gasped, as their forks and knives fell from their hands to the table and floor.
“Where is he?” she screamed; she shouldn’t have waited so long to ask.
Each question is the origin point of vastly different diverging parallel universes, is a forked path in the woods with a multiplicity of exits:
I love you. He’s wearing a dress. He’s gone home.
You repulse me. Yes that’s him, why is he wearing a dress. He’s lost in the woods.
There’s one more question, one that no one thinks about. A question that everyone asks at many points in their lives, that most people answer automatically, without considering its meaning or implication. A question that has the power to uproot all things from beginning to end.
“Who are you?”
I am never coming back, Gabe wrote. NEVER never NEVER never never. He tore the page out, tossed it down to the floor, and stamped his foot on it. His boot left a brown treadmark that blotted the ink.
He sighed, then took a deep breath and tugged the ragged remaining thread of paper out of the notebook’s coil and put it, and the torn dirty page, into the garbage.
He raised his pen to the next page and began again.
Hypothesis: I am going insane.
Where am I going? What am I going to do? It feels like part of me is dying. Is that true?
I’ve lived here over 10 years, and I’m finally able to leave. What’s keeping me here?
His eyes flicked back up over the paragraph, snagging on the accidental rhyme. “Nope,” he muttered, and tore that page out too. This time he didn’t bother to clear out the remains.
Hypothesis: I have finally lost it.
He paused, and looked out the window. It was still dark out, but he could see the neighbouring rooftops laid out flat, like cardboard cut-outs. Behind the houses, the hills rolled and broke like waves beneath the half-lit sky.
He gazed back down at the page.
This, this here is my reason to leave. This is what I’ve been waiting for.
Because of this town, I have gone insane.
My evidence: Everyone else here already has.
Gabe went downstairs and had cereal at the kitchen island. His mom sat across from him on the couch. She faced him, but was focused on her laptop, eyes lit up and blurred by the screen. Gabe coughed once, twice. If she noticed, it did not show. He picked up the still-warm empty mug from where she had left it on the island, and clattered it against the counter. His mom stopped typing and looked up.
“What?” she mumbled with a yawn.
“Good morning,” he stated.
His mom paused, then her eyes darted back to the screen and her hands to the keyboard. “G’morning.”
Gabe filled his water bottle from the filter, and then left soon after at 7:30, spiral-bound notebook tucked under one arm. The sun still hadn’t quite yet risen, and Fern Crescent was still mostly unconscious. Gabe passed dead houses with leaf-strewn front walks and frosted lawns, stepped across sidewalk slabs riddled with veins of moss, and passed under the bare, low-hanging boughs of the oaks lining the road.
The walk to school stretched long through the town—but not long enough to drive. The town, Timber Ridge, cut a five-kilometre square grid into the mostly-flat, formerly-forested land beneath the Ridge it was named after. It didn’t show up on some maps. Even Google had skipped it when they photographed for their Street View application. With rain and cloud as the skies’ two weather settings, the town rarely had tourists. Sometimes the sun faded into view on the less overcast days, but those were rare and impossible to predict—lack of a dedicated weather person for the region ensured that.
Gabe’s commute cut across town along the two main streets, named Cascade and, unironically, Main. He turned left at the single, blinking red light. As he got closer to school, the houses he passed began to revive and awaken. Engines rattled to noisy life in the next street over, and old wood creaked as doors swung open and feet padded over porch boards.
Timber Ridge was not the town people moved to, to raise children, find a job, or retire. The town’s only visitors were the occasional forest biologist or rare Sasquatch hunter, who had to stay at hotels over two hours’ drive away in the city.
The town’s only educational institution, Border Community School, combined all the grades, shoved them together into six decrepit, chalk-yellow concrete classrooms. It was also the biggest and busiest building in the whole town, but that was because it was also home to the Ridge’s lumber museum and the town hall, which had monthly meetings in the gymnasium.
The school halls were empty and smelled faintly of chalk dust. Gabe frowned and checked his phone. 8 a.m. No class yet. School started early in the Ridge, but most of the students got there just before the start of class. Socializing was a pastime kept to after school and weekends. By grade 12, it seemed to involve making out, getting drunk, and Gabe didn’t want to know what else. He didn’t take part in social life in the Ridge, partly out of boredom, partly because he was never asked to join, but mostly because solitude suited him just fine, and all his classmates knew it.
He looked around the hall. There was 20 minutes until the first class, but still, there should have been at least one other person in the school.
“Mr. Mears?” a voice called out behind him. He flinched and turned around at the sound of his name, then sighed.
Ms. Plum, the new school counsellor—an aberration to the town’s no visitors—stood outside her office, flicking her fingers up at him in a gesture that was halfway between a beckon and a wave. It was obvious what she wanted to talk about. Graduation was just a couple months away, university acceptance and rejection letters were in the mail, and Gabe had been avoiding her all semester.
“Good morning Mr. Mears,” she began, as he stepped into her office. “Are you having a good morning?” The way she made eye contact on the “you,” her irises glinting, unsettled him.
The entire conversation, in fact, was unsettling. Ms. Plum spoke in a very familiar tone—she acted like the two of them had talked many times before.
“Well my dear?” she asked as she sat at her desk, leaving him standing on the other side of it.
“Um. Yeah. It’s good,” he replied. “How’s yours?”
She continued as if she hadn’t heard his question. “So, I’m just doing some check-ins with everyone.” Her mouth began to curl into a smile, but then she broke eye contact to look down at a form on her desk. “You know, your graduation is coming up soon.” She paused again, and when Gabe didn’t respond, she continued. “So, how is that?”
The question hung shrivelled in the silence between them, like a rotting apple.
“I get that, as your new counsellor, you might not be comfortable talking to me.”
Was it appropriate to call her the “new” counsellor? “First” seemed a better fit, given that town hall had only announced the position and hired her in January. Regardless, it was evident that she had little formal training in counselling.
She finally looked away from him and pulled some pamphlets out of her desk drawer. “There are some great, really great, community colleges in the city.” She offered him the pamphlets. He saw pictures of men working at construction sites, cutting plywood, looking over blueprints.
“Hmmm?” she said—though it was another malformed question, more noise than word.
He took the pamphlets from her hand with a quiet “thanks,” and left.
Classes that day passed quickly and without incident. After school Gabe worked in the town library, which was actually just an unused corner of the lumber museum with a small table and half-dozen bookcases. Since there was never any work to do in the library, he usually volunteered around the rest of the museum, cleaning glass displays, dusting the ancient furniture and cases. He drew the line at building exhibits, but fortunately the curator, Mrs. Cason, had no interest in updating or changing anything in the museum. It was as though she saw the layout of the building itself as its own, immutable exhibit.
After half an hour of dusting, Gabe’s throat was dry and his eyes were sore. Mrs. Cason walked over to him, offering a glass of water.
“Thanks, but I’ve got my own,” he said, grabbing his water bottle from his bag.
“Oh, of course,” she replied with a weary chuckle. “You have that thing about tap water.” She drank the glass instead.
His gut squirmed as he watched her down all of it. “I just prefer to filter my water first,” he muttered.
“Well, I’m sure you know our groundwater is quite clean,” she repeated. She had said the same thing every time the topic had come up over the past year of working together. “No need to filter. But it’s your choice, of course.”
Gabe put his bottle back and left soon after. The nice thing about the small museum was that his shifts were always short. His dislike for Mrs. Cason wasn’t helped by the fact that she was also his grade 12 teacher.
The following morning, Gabe arrived at school a few minutes late.
He popped his head into his classroom, trying to determine if he could sneak in without being noticed. Row after row of desks paraded up to a peeling white wood table. Most of them were empty. The students who were there sat silent and focused on the front of the room, where Mrs. Cason was standing.
As Gabe darted into the room, she briefly opened her mouth to speak, then snapped it shut and sat.
Gabe stared at her, and looked around at the rest of the students.
She picked up a permanent marker and pad of paper off her table, then placed them back down and made no further move.
“What’s going on?” he asked, the question almost unnecessary.
The two of them paused there like that for fifteen or so seconds, he waiting for her to speak, and she for…well, for whatever she was going to do. He was about to leave and go find whoever else was in the building, when she did something. Mrs. Cason got up again, and adjusted her glasses. And then crumpled to the floor like a fallen piece of paper.
Gabe inhaled sharply without thinking, and gagged on the air. He walked across the room to her body and coughed twice. She’d hit her head. He looked around, but the other students were still silent and looking forward. If their eyes hadn’t been open, Gabe would have thought they were asleep.
“Hey!” he yelled at the students.
The girl sitting closest to him, Chelsea, slowly blinked, and unfocused her eyes, then looked down at Gabe and frowned.
“What—?” she began to say, then stopped as she saw Mrs. Cason’s face.
Gabe looked back down at her. She was breathing, but her eyes were closed and she wasn’t moving. “Do you have a cell phone?” he asked. “Call 911.”
As she talked to the operator, Gabe sat back on the floor and pushed against the wall, hauling his legs up to his chest.
When they first moved to the town, Gabe had nightmares most nights of shadowy creatures creeping down from the Ridge and through his bedroom window. No amount of locking the window or covering it with curtains seemed to help, though the nightmares faded in time and were forgotten.
Three years later, when he was 10, Gabe had a single dream about the Ridge. But this wasn’t a nightmare, and this vision stayed with him.
He would lie frozen on his bed, head turned and looking out the window at the jumbled, forested hills. The Ridge was high, and looked bigger than in waking life. Dream Gabe recalled learning at the lumber museum that the Ridge was approximately 555 metres tall at its highest peak. It was one of those facts that stayed in his mind, even in dreams.
In this dream, Gabe saw the peak of the Ridge shiver and shake. One enormous blue-black pine caught his attention. He couldn’t get up to look closer at it, but instead he felt his eyes somehow focus in on the tree. Soon, he could see each detail clear and distinct. Together, the tree and its smaller neighbours looked like a massive person wearing formal dress. Its sides sloped down from a ruffled tip that resembled a top hat, needle-covered limbs slid out from the trunk gradually at first, like shoulders, then curved down to the ground in sheer droops. From this distance, the sides of the tree flowed like they were smooth and solid. Even Dream Gabe knew that up close, the branches would scratch and tickle and tear, but from his bed it seemed as though the huge tree wore a black midnight gown.
The next morning upon waking up, Gabe wrote everything about the dream down in his notebook. He had to fill in details that he hadn’t seen or forgot to remember—the tree had been holding a giant purse, an odd clump of branches that stuck far out into the sky halfway up the trunk. There was the definition of a corset too, wasn’t there, hidden away underneath the bulk of needles and wood.
When he peered closer at his memory, Gabe could even see a face: a couple of bare spots near the top of the tree, that cleared an oval of sky coloured in by a silver-grey cloud floating in the background. The face seemed to look out on the centre of town. A silent impenetrable watcher on the Ridge, underneath the bountiful firmament of stars.
It was the stars, by the way, that had woken him up. Gabe couldn’t usually see the stars in the skies of Timber Ridge. The night was always too full of dark clouds and rainwater.
The person was a woman, he supposed also, and wrote it down. Somehow Dream Gabe had forgotten to think of the tree’s gender. The omission troubled Waking Gabe for a moment, but then the sun rose and he forgot.
Class was cancelled, of course. As Sandra, one of the two emergency responders in town who did double-duty as first aid and firefighter, took care of Mrs. Cason, Chelsea and the other students packed their bags and left. Gabe was the last to leave. He said nothing to Sandra, but followed his classmates into the hall and outside. Quickly, they dispersed in every direction, like flies swished away by a human hand.
Gabe began the walk home. It was shorter than usual, as he was more awake and less interested in looking around at town. The streets were empty. Either all the cars had woken up and left, or had decided to go back to sleep.
He slowed as he reached the centre of town. The intersection of Cascade and Main was completely still.
He wasn’t sure why he was so unsettled by this. Was the town not allowed to be quiet? Were his neighbours not allowed to sleep in?
“What day is it?” he asked himself, almost rhetorically. “How sad is that though, asking yourself a rhetorical question,” he retorted in sarcasm.
It was Tuesday. He was pretty sure of that. Any other week, there would have been at least one car driving down the street going somewhere, anywhere. Gabe sighed, and kept walking.
When he got home, the front door was unlocked. As he opened the door, he got a chill and realized all his hairs were standing on end. As usual, all the lights were off. There wasn’t enough daylight from the cloud-ridden skies to illuminate the house. But that was okay, because his mom didn’t need light. All she need was her screen and her keyboard and a cup of burnt coffee, watered down by the tap.
He went in the living room and turned on the light, but it was vacant. So was the kitchen, and the spare room downstairs they used for storage. Shivers curdling and pooling at his neck, he ran out and checked the driveway. His mom’s Sentra was still there, right where it was when he had seen it coming into the house. Back inside, he checked the bathrooms, but they were all empty. Lastly, he went upstairs. There was only his and his mom’s rooms on the second floor, and she was in neither of them.
“Mom!” he yelled. “Where are you?”
As he burst down the stairs, two at a time, he heard the front door open and then slam shut. Gasping and slipping off the last step in surprise, he half-ran, half-stumbled down the hall and around the corner to see his mom, hanging up a coat in the closet.
“What—“ she began, then looked at him, eyes and mouth falling wide open.
“Mom,” he said, heaving for breath.
She took a step backwards.
“Who are you.” It wasn’t a question, and he didn’t understand it the first time she said it.
“Who are you?” she repeated.
He waited there, finally comprehending her, but unable to even begin formulating a reply.
As he watched, she blinked, tried to refocus her eyes on him again, and then careened into the wall and dropped to the hardwood floor.
Gabe remembered little from the next hour. The phone swinging off the hook as he wiped his tears on a tea towel. Sandra showing up in her converted sedan-turned-ambulance. His mom, gone.
That night, Gabe took his mom’s Sentra out for a drive. He grabbed his spiral-bound notebook and drove north out of town, swinging left into the hills along one of the abandoned logging roads. His high-beams did little to aid the trip, as they simply bounced off and through the murk without clearing it. The road switched back and forth on itself, at times winding across fields of thick, bristled stumps and pale sprouts of needle and bark; at others trickling through lost, still verdant growths where the limbs of endless conifers stretched through the sky and blotted out the clouds. His wheels kicked up gravel at every turn as he sped upwards through the patchwork world.
The road continued the corkscrew up the Ridge in increments, ascending into a black, grey, and only occasionally green darkness. Finally, he reached an acceptable clearing. This one was natural—stumpless—and blanketed in stalks of wild wheat. The road by now was faint dirt. If it hadn’t been the wet season, Gabe’s wheels would have churned up fumes of dust. He stopped the car and looked around out his window. Apart from the ticking down of the engine, the clearing was silent and still. He could see little. The light of the stars did not pervade low enough through the cloud cover to illuminate any but the tips of the stalks. There could have been anything out there. Mice, raccoons, deer. Even a bear.
The clearing should have been cold. Maybe he just didn’t notice the temperature. He wandered across the field of stalks. Whenever he stepped on one, it cracked in half with a brittle swish. In the middle of the clearing, he sat down cross-legged, pulled out his notebook and started reading.
There is always something lost in each retelling of a story, he had previously written. Be it characters smushed to composite or scenes shoved out, by the fifth or fifteenth version little remains of what began. The base is still there, the underlying frame, the fundamental punchline, the things that tugged and tantalized, that kept the story rooted in the reader’s long-term memory.
He paused, hovering the pen tip just above the page, then wrote: But is that what really matters?
He paused again, then put the notebook and pen down on the grass.
Finally, he looked up at the sky. He would have gasped, if there were any gasps left in him to give. The midnight sky was unbounded. He could see no clouds from the clearing, no rain, no storms; nothing but an unfathomable field of bright, watery white-blue grains against the darkest black he had ever seen outside of sleep.
He had missed them, the stars. It felt like years since he had last seen them in their full glory. There was the Little Dipper, spun outwards from the North Star, and there too was Orion’s belt. He had never noticed it before, but the other stars in Orion resembled a skirt. He smiled, and laid back against the forest floor.
It really had been years since Gabe had last gazed upon the boundless stars as he was doing so tonight. Ten years, to be exact.
When he was 7, before they moved to Timber Ridge, Gabe’s mother threw a dinner party for some friends. While she was downstairs preparing the food, Gabe locked himself in her room and opened the bay window wide. The city’s skies brimmed with stardust. He smiled up at them. Then, he got ready. He dragged a short red dress from his mom’s closet, and slugged it on. Over his body, it became a beautiful, shimmering floor-length gown. Then he got out a tattered pair of crimson heels, and stepped into them. His feet drowned in the shoes. The heels were low, but still high enough that he had to latch onto walls and doorknobs every few steps he took, as he made his way down the hall. Everyone watched as he clomped down the stairs, gripping the railing like a vise. And then, when he had finally reached the main floor, he stood in front of the party, smiled, and curtseyed.
“Who’s the little princess?” one of the guests asked, chuckling.
He remembered his mom dragging him by the shoulder up the stairs. He remembered the guests grabbing their coats and rushing out the door. He didn’t remember anything more.
And then, he remembered reading one of his old books on stargazing. Over the years living in Timber Ridge, the books had sat abandoned at the bottom of his bookshelf, but he still recalled a few details from the days when there were stars to see and clear skies to gaze at, and all his books were unread and full of potential. The stars he could see right now were all less than a thousand light-years from the Earth.
All that talk on TV and in movies, when characters repeat the depressing fact that all the stars in the all the skies are dead, that we are just watching their ghosts fade away, that’s all fiction. Yes, there are dead stars in the sky, but they can’t be seen with the naked eye.
The stars he could see were all there, tantalizing, almost within reach. They were not just echoes.
A version of this story was accepted for publication in Nameless Woman: an anthology of fiction by trans women of color, forthcoming from the Trans Women Writers Collective.