Stars are not meant to be kept in boxes.
Image from Flickr via Tom Hall
By Bryan Hurt.
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series
It took some doing but I finally made a white dwarf star like they’d been making out in Santa Fe. I made mine in my basement because basements are the perfect place to compress time and space. I slammed together some very high frequency energy waves and—ZAP!—a perfect miniature white dwarf. Even though it was very small for its type, no larger than a pushpin, it was extremely dense and incredibly bright. The star was so bright that you couldn’t look directly at it. Had to look above or below or off to the side and squint. One time I set myself the challenge of just staring at it for thirty seconds. Got a big headache, huge mistake.
Density was a problem too. The star was dense enough that it drew small objects towards it. Tissue paper, curtains, the tail of my cat. Of course they all burst into flames. But at the same time it wasn’t so dense that it just hovered there above my table, an object fixed in space. It wobbled this way and that, wandering the basement, knocking against the walls, the floor, the ceiling, leaving burn marks everywhere. The last straw was when it set fire to my favorite Einstein poster—the one with his tongue sticking out, his messed up hair and goofy grin. I trapped the star in a box, put a padlock on the heavy lid.
But stars are not meant to be kept in boxes. At night I could hear it down in my basement bumping against the walls of its prison. My dreams were soundtracked by a million leaden pings. The only solution was to make another one. A second white dwarf that matched the first one exactly and set both of them into a stable binary orbit. The two stars dancing around their common center of gravity. It was a simple and elegant solution, as most solutions from nature are.
But once I had the stars locked in equilibrium, I couldn’t help but notice how shabby the rest of their surroundings were. The basement’s dull walls, spider webs hanging from the ceiling beams, boxes stacked and packed with old LPs and moth-eaten sweaters and love letters from girlfriends who’d liked me first for my ambition and then called it neglect. So I went to the art store and bought black poster board, which I glued together and strung with Christmas lights. I called the finished product the universe even though it was more like a diorama of. Still I felt the display added some dignity to the scene, my white dwarves floating there in front of all that blackness, the holiday lights shining behind. My cat liked it too. He rubbed his cheeks against the sharp corners of the universe and purred.
Exactly when it happened, I don’t know. But soon little globes of matter began forming around my stars. The globes were made of drops of water from the glass I’d spilled, Einstein ashes, and fur that the stars pulled from the back of my cat who liked to nap underneath them. There were two of them, two globes. They were more like tiny planets really, each one orbiting its own star. I put my elbows on the table and squinted at them from behind my welder’s mask (for by then I’d learned my lesson). One planet was slightly larger than the other, had its own miniature moon, so I named it after a moony ex-girlfriend who liked to stare at the night sky and ask why our love wasn’t as dark and infinite. The other one had no moon, so I called it Moonless.
The next time I checked on my cardboard universe even more had changed. There was a tiny flag planted on the tiny moon. Microscopic satellites orbited the planet and miniature airplanes flew to miniature cities. Each city swarmed with tiny cars with subatomic red-faced drivers inside. Moonless was doing even better; its civilization had become even more advanced. There were hovercars, biodomes, black glass buildings that swooped and curved as if they’d been painted into existence. On top of its tallest mountain was an enormous telescope that was pointing at its neighbor. Operating the telescope was a tiny scientist in a tiny white lab coat, her hair twisted into a tiny-but-perfect black knot.
But I was not in the right mood to appreciate the wonders of my universe. I could not force myself to feel the requisite joy or awe or whatever I should have felt at that particular moment in time. I had just returned home from my laboratory, it had been a not so great day. First I’d been rejected by one of my lab assistants. Not even formally rejected. Asked her out and she just jammed her eyes into a microscope and hummed. Then I’d lost out on a big government grant to my chief rival, the smug molecular astrophysicist Dr. Hu. I patted him on the back and ate his celebratory cake, forced a smile with icing on my lips. Someone had dented my car in the parking lot. My cat had made a hairball in one of my loafers, which I stepped in as soon as I got home.
So no. I could not muster the enthusiasm to celebrate the triumph of my dwarves, the impossibility of their little people. What I felt instead, primarily, was annoyed.
Because take for example the planet named after the moony ex-girlfriend: here was a brand new world, unlimited potential, infinite possibilities, and it was basically just a smaller copy of this one. Same cars, same space junk, same flag on the moon. Pretty much all the same crap except played out on an even smaller, more insignificant scale. Pathetic, really. Boring. Much like the girlfriend I’d named the planet after. After a promising start—exciting, sexy—it was a movie on the couch every Friday night, maybe with a little petting mixed in. But when I’d start taking her pants off, she’d yawn and say she liked it better in the morning when she was not tired but still half-asleep. As if sex was something that happened only once a day, like breakfast or sunsets. In the end she was the one who said I didn’t love her. Said that if I didn’t like what she had to offer, I’d never be happy. So I flicked the moony planet into the universe’s backdrop, watched it explode against the cardboard and Christmas lights. The explosion was so small that it barely even registered as a blip.
But the tiny scientist on Moonless saw it too. She blinked into her viewfinder, pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, then turned the telescope in the opposite direction, a full half-circle, so that when it stopped it was pointing directly up at me. She wrote something in her tiny notebook, her tiny hand trembling. I didn’t go back into the basement for a while after that.
But basements can’t be avoided forever. When I did return—with a basket of laundry so ripe you could practically see the wafterons rising off it—I saw that the tiny scientist had built a gigantic ray gun. She was taking potshots at my Christmas lights. Zapped a light and tiny glass tinkled onto cardboard. I told her to knock it off. She zapped another one. “Or what?” she said. “You’re going to destroy this planet too?” Maybe I was. I told her not to test me. “Oh I’ll test you,” she said. She wheeled the gun around and fired a shot that skimmed my nose. The second one hit me dead on. It stung a lot. I ducked the next salvo and raised my hand to swipe her planet out of existence. She set her chin, bracing for the blow.
But I was not a destroyer of worlds. Not really. I had destroyed one world, singular, and it was just a very small one. I hadn’t even meant to create it. What I’d intended to do was make a star, a modest white dwarf, something beautiful just to see if I could do it. Maybe I also wanted to have something to show off to girlfriends when I brought them down to my basement, something that would help get them to hop into my bed. I didn’t want to contribute to the grand unhappiness. There was already too much of it in this world. Just today I’d read about a kid in Ohio who shot another kid in school. In Japan someone had taken a knife into the subway and stabbed five people to death. At work I’d found Dr. Hu crying alone in a bathroom stall. He had stage four prostate cancer, inoperable, spreading.
Still, perhaps it was all unavoidable. Maybe whenever you made something—stars, planets, people, whatever—you always made a little sadness, a little death. There was no such thing as pure creation. I told the tiny scientist that I was sorry about the planet but either I was going to destroy it or was going to be destroyed by something else. That’s how it worked: that was science, that was the natural order of all things.
“That’s bullshit,” she said. She said that I was a coward and a chicken shit. She said that her husband had been on that other planet on an expedition. I had killed him. She asked how I wasn’t responsible for that. “Look,” I said. “I’ll make it up.” I pulled some fur from the back of my cat, dunked it in some water and rolled it into a ball, which I set in orbit around the dwarf.
The ball came undone, it drifted into the star and burned to ash. “Pathetic,” she said. She looked at me, disappointed and angry, just like every moony Lindsay or Sarah or Kara or Jen looked at me when something came undone between us. But it was just a little thing, an insignificant thing, barely worth dwelling on because it hardly even existed. A small planet; her husband, small man.
“I’m sorry,” I said and I guess I was. “But what do you want from me? I can’t fix everything. I’m not a god.”
Even then I think we both knew that wasn’t true, not entirely. For after the tiny scientist grew old and died, and her children died, and her planet’s sun died, and everyone died, I continued making new stars. I made white dwarves but also other types because my techniques had become more advanced. Sometimes new planets coalesced around these stars and sometimes the planets made life. I continued to flick away the inferior or disappointing ones, or I’d feed them to my cat. Of those that remained I watched tiny people spread out and inhabit all the corners of my tiny universe, until the universe became too full to contain them and so I’d wipe them all away. Sometimes there were other tiny scientists with very powerful telescopes who would look up and out at me. When they saw me there were always questions about who I was and what I wanted. Was I good or malevolent? Omnipotent or indifferent? A god of death? I was just a man, I’d say to them, just as I’d told the original scientist. But like the original scientist, the more they studied me, the more they watched, the more they became unconvinced. Not because I had power over life and death, destruction and creation—which I did. But because there was only one of me. The god of my own isolation, my own unhappiness. A man with a cat in a basement. What is a god if not alone?
Bryan Hurt is editor of Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest and author of Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. His stories have been published in The American Reader, Kenyon Review Online, Tin House online, TriQuarterly, and many others. He teaches fiction at Colorado College.