James Babbs

The Dark Energy That Makes Up Most of the Known Universe

Breathing sounds.  The noises made by machines.  My father, unconscious, lying in a hospital room.  He reminds me of one of those parade balloons tethered by wires and pulled slowly down the street.  He’s bloated and doesn’t look real.  I touch the edge of the bed but not my father before turning away and looking out the window.  All I see is the blackness thick and impenetrable.  No stars shining down and I think maybe we were wrong.  Maybe we’re alone and there’s nothing out there.  I remember the sound of her voice trying to bleed its way through.  The sound distorted and I couldn’t understand what she was saying until I adjusted some of the dials and heard I love you echoing through the capsule before the transmission broke apart and was lost again.

***

My father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told him I wanted to be an astronaut.

Oh he said well because he always said that.

Or maybe I said a sharpshooterYou know, an assassin.

What? Father said.  An assassin?

Yes I said I’d really like to kill people.

Kill them dead?  He asked.

Yes I said.  I want to kill bad people.  I was twelve years old.  I thought I was a man.  My father looked at the ceiling then he looked at me.

He said do you know the difference between a good person and a bad person?

I think so I said.

What’s the difference between a good person and a bad person?  My father asked me.

I said a bad person is someone who doesn’t feel guilty about the things they do.

Oh he said well.

Yes I said and a good person is someone who feels guilty about the things they do but they do them anyway.

***

I’m still looking out the window when the nurse enters and I turn just enough to catch her smiling at me.  She checks the machines before touching my father’s head and I watch as she adjusts his pillow and moves his arms into a different position.  You’re the son she asks before logging into the computer attached to the wall.  Yes I tell her while nodding my head.  She reminds me of someone but I can’t remember her name.  Some movie actress from long ago whom I once had a crush on.  The nurse finishes what she’s doing and folds the computer back against the wall.  We’re doing everything we can she says smiling again.  When she leaves the room I stand there looking at my father with my hands hanging at my sides.  He’s old and he’s sick and I know he’s going to die.  I close my eyes and try to think of nothing.  When I open them again it’s dark but I can see lights blinking on the console.  Through the glass the stars shine in the distance.  I know they’re farther away than they appear.  Some of them long dead by the time their light has reached me.  I try the radio again but no one answers.  It’s been several days since my last communication.  Or maybe it was weeks or even months ago, now, since I last heard another human voice.  I’m not really sure anymore.  Maybe I’ve been trapped inside this capsule my entire life drifting aimlessly through space.

***

I’m wearing my space suit because the life support systems have started to fail.  My space suit has its own reserves of oxygen but the gauges are broken so I have no way of knowing how many days I have left. There are still lights blinking on the control panel and they remind me of stars.  The endless years of light growing between us and the radio continues to emanate strange noises but nothing clear comes through.  Something happened.  I passed through some kind of storm and my mind is fuzzy and I keep slipping in and out of dreams.  I feel like there’s an emptiness where something once existed but I don’t know what it is or where it might have gone.

***

When I open my eyes I see the nurse checking on my father again but it’s not the same nurse from before but a different one this time.  She doesn’t seem as friendly as the other one and before I can ask her about my father she leaves the room without either one of us saying anything.  I’m sitting in the corner near the foot of the bed in the green-cushioned chair and my shoulders ache from having slept in such an awkward position.  I stand up and stretch my arms toward the ceiling.  There’s still no light coming through the window and when I look up at the clock I realize I’ve only been asleep for a couple of hours.  When I look at my father lying in the bed I don’t recognize any changes.  Everything looks the same as it did before.

***

I want to leave for a little while, maybe, go and get something to eat.  I walk along the darkened corridor and the space suit makes me feel awkward and slow.  I don’t know why but I start thinking about black holes.  When I enter the elevator the words run through my mind—the gravitational pull from a black hole is so powerful nothing can escape from it not even light.  The elevator doors open and I step out into the lobby near the emergency room.  I see the lights from an ambulance flashing through the window.  It looks like it’s been raining because there’s drops of water covering the glass.  It’s warm when I step outside. There’s a bar not too far from here and I start walking, still, thinking about black holes—a black hole is the remnants of a collapsed star.  What makes it collapse in the first place?  I knew this at one time but can’t seem to remember it now. There’s a black hole at the center of the galaxy—I think I heard this on the radio or, maybe, I saw it, somewhere, on the internet.

***

The bar isn’t very crowded. I sit down at one of the tables and order a beer.  When I take the first sip something comes over me.  I put down the glass and look at the golden liquid shimmering in the light.  I was in another time living alone in a tiny apartment and getting drunk every night.  At first, I thought the knocking was coming from inside my own head but when it didn’t stop I opened the door and saw my father standing there.  It had been two or three years since I’d seen or heard anything from him so I was surprised.  What the hell do you want I said to him.  It’s your mother he said and he rubbed his hands together.  I didn’t ask him to come in.  She’s dead and I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do.  It was cancer he said.  She had cancer but I blamed him for her death.  I was convinced it had to be his fault.  He ran a hand through his thinning hair and I realized for the first time how old he was.  Her funeral was last week my father continued.  We couldn’t find you.  Didn’t know where you were.  I kept holding on to the door because I was afraid to let go.  Oh he said well.  I just wanted to let you know.  He turned to leave.  You son of a bitch I said but he didn’t turn around.  He just kept walking to the end of the hall.  You son of a bitch and I screamed it this time.  Then, I remembered how I stood in the middle of the hallway with my space suit on staring at the tiny point of light where I had watched my father disappear.  I started toward the light but the space suit made me feel awkward and slow.  By the time I reached the door and stepped outside he was driving away in his car.

***

Hours pass before I leave the bar.  I feel the space suit surrounding me and the dead weight of my body inside.  The sound of my own breathing roaring through my head and it reminds me of the ocean, like the sound of waves, crashing against the shore.  I feel like it takes me forever to reach the hospital.  The lights in the windows glaring out at the night and falling on the street like an angry sun.  When I enter the lobby a little boy being chased by his mother runs into me and almost makes me fall.  The mother stutters out an apology before snatching up the boy and carries him, shrieking, back to his seat.  I find the elevator again and when the doors slide shut it reminds me of standing in the airlock just before taking my first steps into the emptiness of space.  When I get off the elevator I see one of the nurses standing in the doorway of my father’s room.  When the nurse sees me she turns and glances at something in the room before turning back to look at me again.  I feel the sudden pull of gravity.  I know the center will no longer hold.

***

When I reach the doorway of my father’s room the nurse touches my arm.  She tries to explain how they tried to call me but kept getting my voice mail.  I nod my head and tell her yes, I know, my phone was turned off.  The nurse moves aside so I can step into the room.  She touches my arm again and when I look at her she smiles.  Take as much time as you need she tells me before she turns and leaves me alone.  They’ve turned off the machines and removed all the tubes and wires.  My father’s body lies beneath the clean white sheet.  I can no longer see his face and I don’t really want to look at it.  But I go over to the bed and lift up the sheet just to make sure.  You son of a bitch I say under my breath before turning to look out the window.  The silence sounds so strange and I put the palms of my hands against my ears.  I keep looking out the window.  I move closer to the glass trying to find something out there.

***

I’m drifting.  I see only faint traces of light and the ghostly reflection of my face in the glass.  There’s a persistent ticking coming from some unknown place in the darkness.  I try turning my head but it doesn’t make any difference.  Suddenly, the sound of static starts bleeding through the radio.  I reach over and turn the dial trying to make the signal clear.  But nothing comes through and I feel, the thrust, the pull of something invisible.  There’s a tingling that begins in my feet and runs all the way through my body before trying to push its way out the top of my skull.  I feel so tired but can’t go to sleep.  The capsule floats in the emptiness of space.  I’m alone in the universe.  I have no way of knowing how long it has been.

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