Secondhand Heavens


For years now I have been building a simulator of my life. It’s like a cross between The Sims & Minecraft but only populated with people I like, who like me back, & nothing I’m not already equipped to handle. No monsters, no dungeons, no boss fights. Nothing to fight so no weapons, nor cramped inventories to constantly shuffle around to make room. No health bars or leveling up. No shops, no currency. Just long days glazed with nostalgia & still nights swollen with melancholy. That is, an algorithm of quieter moments, the ones you wish you could’ve lived inside longer before life snipped them short. Perhaps we’re not meant to know what these moments are when they are. Only sense them, like a bruise we know is coming but hasn’t yet arrived. Perhaps that unknowing has a purpose to serve? I’m not sure. I’m only 13, & life already feels much longer than I thought it would ever be.


Sometimes a glitch will make it appear as though the earth & sky have switched places, but it’s only temporary. Everything snaps back into focus eventually & at night I summon my all old friends into a field. We gather, linger & loiter, strolling through meadows flecked with marigold toward a fat sun the color of grapefruit. It is more rectangular than it is square. There are mountains too, cascading down the horizon, a few clouds sailing by like wafer-thin rafts. I have programmed the weather here to never rain or snow. I listen to my friends say the same things over & over: a predictable script that will never come as a surprise. One compliments my glasses. Another asks if I’d care to share their chips. A third, whose avatar is not like the others, part of their face missing, wonders aloud how long infinity is. Because my own avatar is mouthless, I do not answer. Instead we wander aimlessly over the hill & down toward the beach, bright coast crackling with static as lidless jellyfish wash onto an edgeless shore. Waiting, waiting—listening to the electric sand hiss.


The day / night cycle here can leave one feeling mildly concussed. Dungeon maps have begun showing up all over my body & I don’t know why. I follow them anyway to find the NPC whose face keeps erasing itself, whose ears keep darting off his head – let us call him Omega – in the hall of an empty high school. Lockers bulge, buckle, overflow with sand. Lava oozes out of cracks in the walls like an inscrutable wound as he parrots another line from his slantwise jag of teeth. “You ever get the feeling you did something really bad. Something unforgivable?” I’m too busy watching mushrooms grow in great tufts over a spot where someone has scratched an unspeakable name. I wonder whose locker it could be. “Maybe we get trapped into the thing we loved most? Maybe regret is a loop we live inside forever?” I remain mouthless but meanwhile my mind is racing. I’m thinking of all the ways to conceive of such a place: Labyrinth in search of a minotaur … Snow globe in search of shaking … Spiral in search of unraveling … Reliquary in search of something, anything sacred, to which to cling in an otherwise armless landscape.


If you go far enough, at one corner of the map you’ll find a waterfall on fire. At another, a lake featuring enormous hands with every pair of palms open, as if struggling to hold up the sky. Some of the fingers seem awkwardly postured, pinned back implausibly. All the knuckles have rusted. Equidistant apart, no two hands make contact. Looking out over the placid-brackish water, I consider making them touch. Consider how some digits might like to interlock. But as it is, I know I must leave their lattice of longing alone. The map on my skin is twitching, strobing Technicolor like a miniboss on the verge of extinction. I think something might be wrong with paradise?


Desert here is endless. Buzzards wreath a spinnaker sky, shadows swim & quicksand blooms under shuffle-of-feet. Night falls like aching through amber; yells timber. Time, too, has its teeth. Nothing makes sense until it’s too late to save but if you prick the moon you can watch it bleed.


There are caves here, too: little subterranean veins washed in lamplight. It’s a nice place to get lost & stay lost. Starlight falls through cracks like spiders burning & nothing hurts like it once did. The way life could hurt sometimes, the way loneliness could stretch on forever—fading birds caught in the back of one’s throat. Here, in this place of forgetting I tuck my knees, reel back & rock. A blip of lullaby swishes my avatar to sleep. Here, my fake friends won’t find me, the ones whose chorus of faces have begun to melt, whose hair have begun to drip off. All of their eyes leak Xs: a cacophonous mob of ominous omission.


There is a bell whose function it is to signal one class passing into the next. In the main office, where a window has been left ajar so callous chatter can filter through the hall, & outlooking a tree whose trunk has been plunged on its nose like a lawn dart, my best friend Omega meets me. By now he is but a pale hologram. Soon he’ll be completely erased. A thing I have not programmed is leaping from his mouth again, torn agape by an afternoon breeze carried in from the courtyard: ANSWER) Limbo: a restless state of caught in-betweenness. I am thinking now of what it means to be in sweet oblivion. Of if, might, was, will never be. The sun tilts, flicked off its axis as bats with bullets for wings scud overhead, their monsoon swarm singing emergency. I trace the map over my skin & know pain is a continent we cannot even begin to touch. “Do you have any queries for me?” Omega is begging. I can’t tell if it’s because it’s his last chance or mine.


I follow my skin map to a place where their destinations converge, the candied bullseye in the center. Next there comes a procession of glitches: coughing up of clocks, sweating of sparrows. Pinpricks of blue needling out of everyone’s chests in a virulent rush. All of my friends panic, gridlock of skin marching in lockstep, herding themselves along the precipice of a cliff’s lip. They topple one by one like lemmings, yell help before kissing the ground when they are meant to splat & falling through instead. Phantom nets catch the cradles of their bodies, bones gone sludge-soft like porridge.


QUERY) What of the wind that inherits our scars, carries them from one theft-of-night to the next? Of all the secondhand heavens & hand-me-down hells? What of the hollowed bells born to never ring & all the trees blooming in reverse, their dark roots exposed to the open air? Broken boughs buried under a terrarium of limestone & beta decay. What of all the remainders of us too frightened too frequent, too many too late to count aloud?


I’d like to tell you what eternity feels like but I can’t; it’s only something I can hint at, like glimpsing God through a straw. I’d like to tell you what love feels like too. Not the kind they sing about in cheesy pop songs but the kind that goes screaming down your spine when all your numbered days finally run out. The kind of love you cling to, that shatters your bones into a matrix of shame like one last sunset—an unhealable helix of grief, a human heart in the shape of an ellipsis, one that is always inking back like a smudge trying to dream itself whole again. Something that can vanish, which can never be gotten back. Do you understand me? Do you understand now? I’d like to lie & tell you it’ll be enough to save you from all the hate of this world. No ruins in the wild that can’t be made into a temple. But I can’t, because my avatar is mouthless. So instead I’ll wander aimlessly over the hill & down toward the beach, bright coast crackling with static as lidless jellyfish wash onto an edgeless shore. Waiting, waiting—listening to this electric sand hiss.