by Louis Evans
Awake in darkness.
The lights could come on, but they won’t. Cal dresses: shirt, shorts, shoes. Steps into Outside.
Outside is dark for a moment too, and then the sun comes on. Exact same shape and color of a dollar coin, almost too bright to look at. And Cal runs.
Long legs, long steps. Nice and steady. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Cal runs directly toward the morning sun. And, just as fast as Cal runs, balanced like the scales of justice, the treadmill rolls right on back.
There are little trees and bushes that loop around on that treadmill, popping up ahead and folding down behind. They’re made of wire and plastic. Same little bushes as yesterday, same little trees as tomorrow. Old friends.
Old acquaintances, anyway.
There’s a breeze, too, so long as the fan keeps working, and it usually does.
Cal runs for an hour, maybe two. Hard to say for sure. Sun doesn’t move an inch in the sky. That’s all right. It’s not supposed to.
After the run, Cal goes back to Inside and Outside turns itself off. Lights are on in Inside. Cal throws the workout clothes in the incinerator: shirt, shorts, shoes. The bed has stopped being a bed and flipped itself over to reveal the table instead. Inside is smaller than Outside and it always reminds Cal of the cabin of a ship. Everything that’s not tied down has its place and everything that is tied down is always being two different things.
Cal opens the breakfast cabinet above the sink, on the left. Breakfast is always a box meal, and the cabinet is full of boxes. So Cal makes breakfast.
Chores for a couple of hours. Then it’s time to relax. Today’s book is in the slot. It’s Gulliver’s Travels. It starts in the middle of a sentence, but it picks up pretty nicely and the nonsense words aren’t redacted, which is a fun little treat. Some folks like to read out loud to themselves, even do voices, but Cal can’t stand reading aloud alone.
The mission clock reads sixty thousand, give or take. It’s not advancing any, but sixty thousand is more or less what it read yesterday. Small mercies.
Cal reads as the lights in Inside go from morning to noon to evening. Then it’s time for dinner. The book goes back in the slot, and Cal opens the dinner cabinet. Above the sink, on the right.
Dinner is a different meal from day to day. Today it’s a can meal. Can is the second best meal; only jars are better. Cal makes dinner, and brings it over to the end of the table.
On the table—which is the underside of the bed—there are two light-up panels next to each other with different words in block letters. Like those studio lights that say LAUGHTER and APPLAUSE, only the ones on Cal’s dinner table say HUSBAND and WIFE. The HUSBAND one lights up on the left.
Cal opens the compartment on the left side of the table, takes out his necktie, and unrolls it. Half-Windsor, he thinks.
The screen at the far end of the table flicks on, and there’s his wife.
“Hi, honey,” says Cal’s wife. “I’m Jo.”
“Cal,” says Cal. Sometimes people have a little name placard that they prop up in front of dinner so they can skip the introductions but that always seems a little impersonal to him.
Jo has made can dinner in her own room as well. Usually, both have the same meal.
“Dinner looks delicious tonight,” Cal says. Husband has always got to deliver the first compliment but after that it’s all the wife’s responsibility.
“Thanks, darling,” says Jo. “How was your day?”
And Cal tells her. Every little thing, sparing no detail. The run and the trees and every little ding and dent that make them his trees.
“That’s lovely, dear.”
Cal tells her all about the chores, all about every little piece of Inside or Outside that needed to be tightened, loosened, greased.
“Good job, sweetie.”
Cal leans back, and, pointing with a spork that still has a little crust of can dinner on the edge, waxes philosophical about what it means for all those little pieces to fit together.
“You know, I never thought of it that way, mister,” says Jo.
The top two buttons of her blouse are unbuttoned, so Cal wonders—not out loud, in his head—whether they’re going to have sex. He could see himself having sex with Jo, he thinks. Sure, there’s the table in the way, but pretty much everyone has learned to make do.
Of course, husbands have to be polite about that sort of thing, even though the two unbuttoned buttons are a pretty clear signal.
“Do you have a headache?” Cal asks.
“No, love,” says Jo, meaningfully. “I don’t.”
“Not even a teensy tiny little one?”
Jo’s gaze could drill straight through the screen.
“Not. At all.”
So they have sex. Jo is really into it and her left leg spasms when she orgasms, knocking what’s left of can dinner off of her table and onto the floor, which will be an amusing anecdote for Cal to tell the next time he’s got a wife who doesn’t mind a dirty story. Cal doesn’t come, which is about fifty-fifty for him these days, husband or wife, so he fakes an orgasm.
After that dinner wraps up. The table goes back to being a bed, and Cal goes to sleep on it.
• • •
Awake in darkness.
Dressed, Cal steps into Outside. The sun comes on.
It’s smaller than it should be.
Cal squints at it but it stays small. Maybe just as big as a nickel, maybe even smaller than that. Doesn’t start running and so the treadmill lurching to life takes Cal by surprise. Has to sprint for a little to avoid being flung back into the wall.
The bushes and trees are the same. The breeze is too. It’s just the sun, which has shrunk by about a third. As though it had receded into the distance.
That’s not possible, of course, since the sun is a floodlight built into the far wall of Outside, and Outside is a room ten yards long and that’s it. There’s nowhere for the sun to go.
Subconsciously Cal is speeding up, trying to get closer to the sun. Trying to see.
But the faster you go the faster the treadmill comes rolling back. Cal’s jogging—sprinting—bolting flat out—and the treadmill just whines and accelerates and throws Cal right back, defeated.
• • •
Afterward Cal can’t focus on the chores. Can’t focus on Gulliver’s Travels, or even on the rare and fortunate fact that today the mission clock is counting down at a nice steady pace. Cal can only think about the sun.
Cal could go into Outside anytime during the day. But instead Cal paces back and forth in Inside, staring at the door, staring through the door. Imagining that shrinking, dwindling sun.
• • •
Dinnertime. Box dinner, which is one step down from can. Cal gets the husband light, which is good. He’s in no fit state to wife.
Cal’s wife Elle has packet dinner on her side of the table, which is another step down from box. He thanks her profusely for giving him the “best part,” maintaining the fiction that she has cooked for the both of them and generously ceded the sort of high-density loaf you get in box to Cal while keeping packet’s gruel to herself. She brushes aside the gratitude bashfully, but Cal can tell it’s lifted her spirits about packet. Sometimes it helps, pretending to be in control.
“How was your day?”
“Oh, you don’t want to hear about my day,” says Cal, picking at his box loaf with his spork.
“Of course I do, dear!”
Cal is about to say he’s got a headache, but there’s something in Elle’s voice, a genuine curiosity, that tugs at him.
So he says, “The sun got smaller.”
Elle stares at him. He stares at her.
“That doesn’t sound right, dear,” she says.
“No,” says Cal. “It isn’t right. But the sun in Outside was smaller.”
Elle stares some more and then she picks up her spork with a very controlled motion.
“If you say so, dear!” She takes a big sporkful of packet. Cal’s had packet dinner himself, plenty of times. No person alive actually wants to put that big a scoop of packet in their mouth in one go.
“No,” says Cal. “Not if I say so. I saw it. Tell me I saw it.”
Elle’s spork freezes halfway to her mouth. A little gob of packet congeals off one of the tines. Elle’s lips are red, so red, and the space between them is a perfect round little void. Pure darkness.
“If you say—”
“Damn it!” Cal slams his hand down on the table, making Elle jump. Husbands can do that. It’s part of the prerogative. “I saw what I saw!”
“Dear,” says Elle, a little bit of fear in her voice, “I don’t know what to do. You told me what you saw, and I agreed with you.”
Cal sags into his chair. “Yes, but—”
“I’m the wife, aren’t I?”
“Isn’t that what a good wife is supposed to do?”
“Didn’t I sympathize with your issue?”
“So what do you want then?”
“Damn it all, tell me I’m crazy!” Cal roars. This time Elle doesn’t startle at all. Crazy husband is just how it is sometimes. Cal’s been on the other side of that. You get used to it fast.
“I’d never tell you you’re crazy, dear. That’s not wife at all,” says Elle. Then she starts eating again. Small bites but fast. When you’re hungry, even packet will do.
“But I must be crazy! I saw the sun and it was smaller than yesterday!”
“Mm-mm.” Squeezed in between bites.
“It was the same sun! Exactly the same! Smaller! Like it was further away!”
“But the sun’s just a floodlamp at the far end of Outside, isn’t it?”
“So how can a damn lamp get any smaller?”
“It can’t! The sun is always the same size! It’s—it’s the sun, damn it!”
“So I must be going crazy. For the love of—damn it, Elle, say something!”
She lays aside the spork. There’s no packet left, not that Cal can see. He is suddenly, ravenously hungry. It’s jealousy; that she’s eaten and he hasn’t. He takes the loaf in his hand and devours it in three bites.
“Do you want to know what I think?” asks Elle.
Cal nods, desperately.
“Of course you’re going crazy,” she says. “But it’s a pretty pathetic sort of crazy. Pathetic little delusion for a pathetic little man. I wish you’d never been my husband. I hate you. I’ve always hated you. I hate your crooked nose and your snide mouth and your hideous accent and your horrible haircut and that ugly tie. I hate how every dinner we’ve ever eaten you keep the best for yourself and leave me with scraps. This is the worst marriage I’ve ever had, and the only thing I’ve ever liked about you is that I’ll never have to see your face again. That’s what I think. Goodbye.”
The table’s a bed again. Cal sleeps, not well.
• • •
Awake in the darkness.
Cal goes into Outside naked. Why not?
Cal makes a mad dash toward the far wall, sprinting. The treadmill grinds to life and the first wire-and-plastic tree pops up and hits Cal in the face. Cal topples forward, scrambling on all fours. The sun comes on.
It’s the size of a penny.
• • •
It’s a bad day all around. The mission clock reads eighty thousand now, and it’s counting up instead of down. Cal burns the box breakfast and has to eat a loaf that’s half charcoal. The incinerator beeps madly until Cal feeds it the unworn workout clothes but then the fire won’t start. The book in the slot is Relevant Specifications for Flanges for Flat Rectangular Wave Guides and all of the diagrams are redacted.
Cal gets through. Barely even notices. Plenty of days are bad. All Cal can think about is that penny-sized sun. Is it smaller than Cal’s heart? Eyeball? Fingernail?
Eventually it’s dinnertime. Dinner is packet. The light says WIFE.
Cal reaches into the compartment on the right side of the dinner table and gets out her pearl necklace.
It’s wife time.
• • •
Cal’s new husband is named Alex. His tie has a paisley pattern. The color is vomit on vomit. His hair is swept all the way to the right.
Cal’s not the best wife in the world, she knows, but she tries. She really tries. She fixes her face and she settles the pearls of her necklace in the hollow between her collarbones just as prettily as she can.
“I’m Cal, dear,” she says.
Cal glances down at her plate. It’s packet for both of them. At least it’s not paste. Paste is the worst.
“Doesn’t dinner look lovely, dear?”
“No,” Alex mutters into his plate.
Cal smiles, a bright and brittle thing, and pretends she hasn’t heard that. Makes believe that she’s got nothing to worry about in this world but this man and his happiness. Makes believe that her silly little problems—like the sun shrinking away to nothing!—aren’t important, compared to her husband’s mood.
In short, she wifes.
“So, Alex, honey,” she says, “how was your day?”
“Terrible,” he mutters.
“Oh no!” says Cal. She shapes her mouth into an O too, round and wifely and inviting. Like the mouth of jar dinner. Jar dinner is the most feminine dinner, for sure.
“Like you know,” Alex stabs his spork into his plate of packet resentfully.
“Well gosh, honey, I don’t know,” says Cal. “Why don’t you tell me?”
Alex leans back in his chair. He rubs his chin thoughtfully.
“Don’t wanna,” he says, eventually.
Sometimes husbands are just like toddlers.
“C’mon, honey,” says Cal. “It feels good to talk about it.” She lays a generous helping of sensual invitation onto “feels good.” She really, really doesn’t want to hear about Alex’s undoubtedly stupid problems and undoubtedly meaningless resentments and maybe if they have sex she won’t even have to ask any more.
“No it doesn’t,” says Alex. “Whaddyou know, anyway. Wives never have any real problems.”
Except for the SUN shrinking away to nothing.
But Cal can’t say that. Wives can’t say that.
If anger is a fire then Cal never lets herself get angry. There’s not a lot of extra air in Inside or Outside and if you burned hot you’d burn right out. Can’t afford to be angry. That’s how she always thinks about it.
“I mean, you cook a little, you clean a little, you make yourself pretty—”
But if anger is something else. If anger is something else.
If anger is a slipped-tooth wrongness about the world, a sick-doctor wrongness, a no-sun wrongness, a broken-clock wrongness, a swallow-grit, cracked-glass wrongness, if anger is the thing that floats between Inside and Outside like a bride(groom)’s bedsheets, like the skin atop can dinner, like the brown wash of the sink, if anger has two faces like a table and a bed, like a husband and a wife, like a necklace necktie neckless, if anger can be two things, if —
Cal is mad enough to kill.
“—pretty is easy, and—”
With a sudden eruptive gesture table, chair, dinner, spork are flung into the air.
“You, you motherfucker—”
• • •
Awake in darkness.
Cal goes Outside.
The sun comes on. It’s the size of the perfect circle a single drop of sweat or blood makes when it falls to the floor.
Cal turns away from the sun and walks. And slowly, eagerly, the treadmill draws Cal back in.
• • •
Awake in darkness. Cal goes Outside.
The sun is the size of a single atom of light. A star too small to even twinkle. Then it’s gone.
The treadmill is still. The fan isn’t running. All the wire and plastic trees rustle in an inexplicable breeze.
• • •
Awake in darkness.
In darkness and by feel Cal eats dinner for breakfast. It’s paste dinner. Of course it is.
Awake in darkness for a while, and then asleep on the dinner table.
• • •
Awake in darkness.
Moving like a robot purpose-built to wreck other robots, Cal methodically smashes every object in the universe against every other object and sees which ones break into smaller parts which can then be ground into crumbs and dust.
Afterward, there’s not a lot of things left in Inside, certainly not the table, so Cal tries to go to sleep on the floor.
Only Cal’s eyelids can’t close anymore.
In darkness that shouldn’t matter, except it does, and so Cal can’t sleep, and can’t sleep, and can’t sleep, and is ever and always awake—
• • •
The human body does a lot of different things when it shuts down from total deprivation, and most of them are very boring. Cal heaves and vomits and shivers and shrivels and crawls to Outside to die.
You know, boring.
What’s not boring is how thanks to vitamin C deficiency—not enough of it in any meal but jar—every injury Cal has ever received, every cut, every bruise, every wound, suddenly and slowly rewrites itself across the body. What’s not boring is bleeding out of every memory.
And then quite suddenly that is boring too.
• • •
But not in darkness.
No light, either. But something else.
Cal reaches out and runs fingers on the old sun’s metal wall.
The material comes apart in chunks. Cal keeps going, crumbling and digging, until there is a hole just big enough to peek through.
Like a curious child Cal presses one eye up against that hole to, not Outside, but outside—
Where there is, not the size of an atom or a speck or a drop or a dollar, not the size of a head or a body or a table, not the size of a lie or a marriage or a meal or a room, not the color of a spotlight or a page or a powder or a pearl, not the heat of a rage or a curse or a gym shorts incinerator—
Where there is, the color of a sky the size of a sky the heat of a sky—
the sun, the SUN—
Copyright © 2021 by Louis Evans