Lost in the Void
Mathew is four. His family have got their first dog and it's a large, fluffy creature, all flank and tail and teeth and Matthew is horrified, at first, at this large thing that has suddenly appeared in his house, and he cries and tries to get away from it when it approaches him in the living room.
'Just come say hello,' Daddy says, hoisting him up to sit on his knees and taking his small hand in his larger one. His father's body curls around him and, enveloped in arms, Matthew feels safe. His daddy reaches out his hand, thus, Matthew's hand, giant thumb in the middle of his palm so that it is pinned there, and holds it aloft in front of the creature.
A large wet nose immediately descends and Matthew squeals because it is cold and strange and scary and Daddy shushes him, bouncing him on a knee. 'He won't bite', Daddy says, 'I won't let him hurt you. He's just trying to say hello; doggies say hello a little differently, is all.'
He kisses Matthew's temple and rocks him, gently. 'Want to try again?'
He is not but he nods and says yes because he wants to be brave and strong and he trusts Daddy, he does, or he really really wants to. At his reply, Daddy holds out their hands again, in front of the thing's mouth, and whispers soothing nothings in Matthew's ear- he's not paying attention, too focused on the mouth with the teeth.
The creature snuffles their hands before giving them a lick, pink rough tongue and slobber; Matthew gasps, surprised, and then laughs. Daddy chuckles, and Mathew feels the vibrations rumble through him. 'See? I told you; he only wants to be your friend. He's called Kumajirou.'
The name doesn't quite stick, too long and cumbersome for Matthew's tentative tongue and he becomes Kuma, instead. It fits.
Matthew is eleven and wishes people could be more like dogs, open and friendly and honest about all that they are. He finds people too quick, children especially: too sly and fast and always with something hidden behind their smile. He's figured out that he isn't really a people person, anyway- it's not that he doesn't like people, exactly, but he doesn't really know how to act around them; doesn't know what to say or how to read them properly and now the whole process of opening his mouth to speak to someone feels daunting, like standing on the roof of his house and forcing himself to step off.
Matthew likes to sit on his thoughts, chew them about in his mouth a bit and be sure of the shape they will form before he lets them go. This means that he takes too long, is silent more often than not because kids his age don't have the patience to stop and wait for him to get himself ready, lining up his words like soldiers about to march.
He's known as the silent one at school, blending into the environment like a piece of furniture. Whether it's in lessons, in sports, in games, or anything in between, his classmate's eyes glaze past him and he knows that they've forgotten he's there, forgotten that he's an option to speak to. They're not mean to him, they just don't think about him, anymore. Even adults are not immune, more used to handling the demands of the louder kids, dazzled by the brightness of the smarter ones, fond of the affectionate children. Matthew is only half there, he supposes, sitting in the background with a mouthful of words that won't come out when he wants them to.
Sometimes he wonders if he's even really there at all, because that's what life is all about, isn't it? Memories of things and people and places and conversations- moments you share with other people that plant you in time, leaving a mark of your life like a footprint in their existence. He feels like a ghost of a person, a shade of parts that resemble someone else and it leaves him more tongue tied than ever.
But if Kuma is there, wherever he is, it's instantly better because Mathew can be himself, can feel something loosen inside him and let him act like a person because Kuma loves him no matter what. Dogs act the same to everyone as long as you're good to them- love them even a little. Kuma doesn't care if Matthew doesn't want to talk, or doesn't know how he properly wants to say something. Kuma doesn't care if Matthew struggles to find his words, tripping and stumbling over them as they clog his mind, clumping awkwardly on his tongue.
Kuma will sit there, patient and still, as Matthew whispers his day into his fur, words clear and strong and unsullied by fear in a way they never are with people. He will lick him on the nose and shove his head onto his lap when Matthew has curled himself into a ball in his room, replaying his day over and over so much that his mistakes blur together like paint, colouring everything with a smear of shame.
Matthew is fourteen and he feels as though he finally understands something. It starts as a small something, creeping and pattering through him and leaving tiny tracks in his mind, but now it's growing larger and stronger, moving within him and sending his thoughts racing.
Kuma died a few months ago. This is what started it, Matthew knows, seeing Kuma slow and slow, more so each year, before, towards the end, it took all he had left to just lift his head. Matthew had felt terrible, of course- at a loss and helpless sitting there with him, stroking Kuma's head and whispering final goodbyes. His father had joined him on the floor, both of them cocooned by a companionable silence in a way they couldn't be at any other time, and Matthew felt truly heard, to the bottom of everything he was, in the depths of his grief. This was a moment that needed no words, was a thing that could not be named- only felt and experienced.
His father is a research scientist at some big lab in the heart of the colony and is more used to theory and hypothetical than practical appliance, but he had found some e-tab journals on dogs, about how their bodies worked and how to fix them, and used his skills to pour over them with Matthew on the floor, studying the miniscule entries as much as he could to provide some help. Matthew watched, days lit by the flash of the e-tab as story after journal after analysis was checked and rechecked by his father beside him. There was no medicine that could save Kuma, no special cure for age, but there was some information about helping it, easing it- gentling death until it was as soft as sleep and Matthew's father tried each and every one that he found. Kuma left them with a shift and a sigh and Matthew was surprised at death's kindness, how easy it could be.
His father, haggard, tired, and sad, had given something of himself for Kuma, and Matthew felt so proud of him, thankful for the benefit it had given his oldest friend. Kuma is gone, but Matthew thinks of that shared peaceful end, of those journals filled with age old accounts from long dead men. He realises that there must be many of these e-tab entries about so many other animals, the few that are left and the thousands that there were before and he flicks onto one, in passing, just to see.
That's all it takes. One leads to another, which leads to another and another and another and then Matthew can't stop himself from drinking up as many as he can sync to, allowing himself to be pulled down through trees of evolution, skipping through the classifications of mammals to haunt reptiles and glide past the wingspan of birds. There used to be so many animals, more than he can ever name, more than he can ever conceive being possible- in the seas and the skies and the land and all at once. In, out, around- a planet teeming with things besides humans, living alongside the hulking toxic growth known as mankind and breathing life into the skies.
When earth fell they were lost, all apart from the few that the survivors managed to cling to, stolen away in their bags and clutched under an arm. Small animals and creatures that could be carried and fed easily with scraps that weren't needed by another fleeing human life, or domesticated food that was herded and pushed, clueless, into a slaughterhouse of spaceships. It is redundant, of course- a pointless skill for him to nurture but Matthew is hungry for all of it; drawn in and hooked to something beyond his control he syncs file after file, strange creatures taking shape in his mind to migrate the past into his waking day.
Matthew's colony is one of those ones where they like to push people, like to specialise their children early and drive them to great things. They're good at what they do, structurally organised to churn out success and Matthew see the benefit of this, finally. He hadn't really taken part before, hadn't really shown an interest in pushing himself into a single category, but now, all of a sudden, he wants to do what his dad does.
Well, not exactly what his dad does, numbers and figures and study of physics, but the process of it. The breaking down of information, the mythological categorising of data; the calm soothing expectation of silent contemplation. So, he picks to try to become a research scient too, selects classes that will give him access to greater libraries and archives and locked journals for deeper study, searching for fur and teeth and claws amongst them.
Matthew is eighteen. He managed to find a uni that taught a few classes in veterinary studies, the medical beginnings for those wanting to specialise as a vet. Matthew doesn't want to do this, exactly -he's more interested in how animals work and what they're like, what colours they come in and how big they are- but if he becomes a vet it will allow him to work with animals all day and this, small as it is, could be enough. He isn't sure, really; doesn't really know exactly what he wants other than to learn but he hopes that if he takes enough classes, he'll eventually figure something out.
The bell rings and he stands, gathering his things and heading out of class -anatomy of canines, his favourite- and turns a corner, slinging his bag over a shoulder and aiming for the canteen where he hopes they're serving pancakes. He keeps missing them, never making the queue in time, but today he's hoping that maybe he can manage to push his way through. Suddenly, as he turns a corner someone bumps into him, not seeing him at all, it seems, and everything crashes to the floor, e-tab skidding away out of sight.
There's a mumbled 'watch it!' from someone whom Matthew doesn't see, just a mouthless shout from a sea of strangers, and then he's left scrabbling on the floor, parting students like a boulder in a river. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches a glint of metallic grey and a flash of Kuma's tail across the hallway by a wall. He sighs in relief and scoots his way over, bending to snatch his tab up before it can get trodden on and straightening to come face to face with an e-board, notice shining bright and loud.
Matthew blinks at it, then shakes his head and blinks again when the advert doesn't change, displaying something he never thought possible. It's Earth, there and large and green and Matthew can't read the words properly because, out of nowhere, his eyes are filled with tears and he's crying- great shuddering breaths that turn heads and rip his voice from out of him.
Earth. Earth, there, open. Looking for people. He's crying, crying so hard he can't breathe, just gasp and choke and cry and people stop to stare at him because all of a sudden he's the centre of attention, the loudest thing there is. He can't control himself, can't reign it in because at the top, under a heading for 'Looking for skills in:' he sees-
He doesn't need to think, doesn't need to read any further, doesn't even stop to feel shame for his outburst; class forgotten, lunch forgotten, life forgotten he sprints home, avoiding the shuttles and cars he runs as fast as his legs can carry him, pounding on the electric walkways that shoot through town and feeling himself grow lighter and lighter with each step.
His mother and father don't want him to go, mother clinging to him with arms wrapped tight around his neck. They feel, briefly, like a noose and Matthew chokes to think of listening to them- at the thought of staying here.
He loves them, he loves them- they're his parents and he loves them so fucking much but this is something he needs to do, has to do and as he pulls away from his mother and meets his father's eyes he can see that his father knows this too.
'You may not get to work with animals,' he says seriously, 'at least not the ones you want.' Matthew's mother steps back to look at his father in horror, betrayal raw on her face as she realises that his father isn't saying no Matthew can't go, that he must stay. She reads the acceptance there, understands the truth of it and leaves the room to compose herself, Matthew staring after her sad but determined.
Matthew nods. 'I know.'
His father steps forwards and puts a large land on his shoulder, rooting him in this moment. 'If you're not happy, will you come home?'
Matthew feels his eyes begin to burn, throat tighten, and thinks of the birds he'll see even if he works in a lab, the insects he will find and small animals he can watch from a window; life spilling over the edges to bleed into buildings. 'I'll be happy.'
Arthur is eight. He sits on the side of the playground, watching the children run about and play games together that he was never invited to play and which he doesn't really want to, anyway. This is what he tells himself, at least, because really, he does want to play, but whenever he's asked to join in before, they've said no, so he's stopped asking now. They're fun to watch though, both the game itself and the people playing it. He can watch who cheats, who misses the kick, who pushes too hard on purpose and who kindly let's things go.
He learns a lot, from watching.
Arthur has always watched. He watches his parents fight when they think he can't hear or see them, he watches his mum graze her hand over Mr Benson's arm as she passes him in the corridor of their building, watches his dad see and press his lips into a firm line but say nothing.
Arthur stands apart from other people, cut adrift on his own, and takes in what he sees, carries the information he finds in his mind like pebbles in a pocket and tucks them away for later. He feels that this keeps him safer, somehow, because he knows about things. Not that he knows what he will use any of what he's learned for, or why he feels as though he needs to carry secrets that aren't his in his heart, but he does, anyway.
Granddad tells him it's 'endearing', that he watches, when he catches him doing so. Calls him patient, and a wise old soul with an island heart. Arthur doesn't know what an island is, and Granddad tells him that it's something Earth used to have, swathes of land rising out of the sea.
'Is all land not an island, then?' He asks, 'Because the earth was mostly all sea, wasn't it?' At least, this is what he's heard in school in lessons about the Fall; stale secrets as old and thin as air, a dying whisper across the ages from humanity long ago.
Granddad shakes his head and combs a calloused hand through Arthur's hair. 'No', he says, 'islands are smaller bits of land apart from the rest. They're surrounded by the ocean, all on their own.'
He means it kindly but Arthur feels hurt anyway, because he doesn't want to be on his own. He tries to make friends, tries to play with the other children and talk with them and share his collection of secrets but they never want to, telling him that he's strange or haughty or boring.
Granddad notices his disappointment and crouches down to pull him in for a hug, pressing him into his chest. 'No, it's not a bad thing!' he says, holding him tight. 'Islands are strong, they stand up all on their own. The sea keeps on pushing and pushing, but an island pushes right back, no matter how hard it is.'
He pulls back, looks Arthur in the eye. 'Don't change for the sea of people, Arthur; you don't need to be anyone but yourself. Sometimes it's better to be an island, than to lose sense of who you are.'
Arthur nods, feeling better. Half of him hates that even Granddad sees him as that, alone and different, recognising his failure to fit in, but the other half of him takes pride in it, that he is who he is and if that's different from everyone else, then maybe that's okay. So, he carries on watching the children play games without him, carries on looking for secrets and listening for change, hoping all the while that, maybe, they'll reach out and invite him in.
Arthur is eleven when his granddad dies. It wasn't a surprise and he knew it was coming, but the blow hits him hard anyway and sweeps him off his feet. He feels hollow, like his insides have been carved out and not replaced with anything; a ringing deadened nothing that weighs him down and leaves him numb. It doesn't seem real, because Granddad was here and now he's not and Arthur is exactly the same but his world has collapsed. And that, that doesn't seem possible because how can so much be the same when such a huge part is missing?
After the funeral, a sad sorry affair where adults drift aimlessly like ships unmoored, he hides himself away in his room where his heart hurts and he can hardly stop crying long enough to think. He doesn't know what he's going to do, now, because Granddad was the only person who really knows- knew- him. He curls in on himself, tight fists and thick throat, and reaches for an e-tab, loaded with stories Granddad thinks -thought- he'd like and even some straight from Granddad himself. They're all old, old old old things about heroes and monsters, courage and loss, long journeys across wide wide seas, and from the tales of others Arthur forgets himself, briefly, and escapes for just a moment.
Using them to start, he begins to try his hand at his own.
Each night when he is supposed to be sleeping, Arthur huddles under his blankets and spins his own stories, weaving together all of the secrets he's ever found to make somewhere real and alive; a large family with scores of people to talk to he sails ancient seas and explores the unknown, making friends wherever he goes. They speak to him as he sleeps in unknown familiar voices and it's a place warm and happy where he can't hear his parents scream at each other and someone will remember to wish him goodnight.
More and more Arthur hides himself away, feeding off tales of a different place entirely and a yearning in him grows so strong that he's surprised no one can see it, read it like his soul is mapped on his skin.
Arthur is fifteen and his school have decided that it's time for a school trip. It's to the botanical gardens, this time, set up in the middle of the main city dome. It's only recently been built because, as with all human colonies, the focus is on survival first, the basic needs for life: oxygen, water, heat, food. His colony isn't new, but it also isn't that old and things are just advancing enough that money can be spent on more frivolous things. The gardens are just plants: grasses and flowers and trees that aren't good for anything other than looking pretty, he guesses, but it's new and educational so his school bundles them all up into year groups and ferries them across town to study what's there and write a journalistic report to justify the excursion.
Arthur has made a few friends now, people he can talk to about homework, sit on shuttles next to, and hang out with after school. The air between them is stale and flat but safe and predictable, and Arthur is thankful he has this, these people at least, who like him enough to tolerate his presence, a small fragile bridge connecting them together. They're all corralled into dreary lines as they approach the gardens, Arthur's group slinking at the rear, so it takes a while for Arthur to notice that they've properly arrived.
He hands over his ticket, watches it marked with a stamp, and turns his gaze to go through the doors and stops, dead. There, right at the start to welcome them in, is an assault of colour; flowers bursting from the ground in a cacophony of hues that capture the eye and dazzle him. It's a vivacity that he's never before dreamt was possible and he can't look away, even as people jostle him to get past and he feels himself moving powerless along with the tide.
It's odd, it's strange because he's seen flowers and things in e-books but he's never seen any before in real life and he can't seem to match them together in his head, the pictures in his mind and what is in front of him now. He's overwhelmed with the experience, the sights, the smells- a heady thing that turns his mind to cotton, and he stumbles forward to touch them, fingers stroking velvety petals before his teacher pulls him sharply away.
'Can you not see the signs?' she hisses at him, 'we need to stay off the grass; I told you all this in the shuttle. Don't touch.'
Her voice comes at him through a fog and it is an effort to turn his head to look at her, nodding dumbly. 'Sorry,' he mutters, fingers tacky with pollen and time, 'I just-'
He just, what? He doesn't have the words to describe this, what he's feeling, even to himself; his emotions a curious storm of sensations: he feels home, he feels homesick, he feels calm and sad and happy and angry, for some reason because it's so familiar and beautiful and achingly new that what he really wants to do, embarrassingly, is sit down on the grass and cry into the dirt.
Luckily, he has enough presence of mind and teenage pride to shake himself free of whatever is happening to him and manages to locate his friends, watching him awkwardly from the path. They greet him, unsure, but Arthur can't bring himself to care, can't bring himself to be ashamed for not hiding his strangeness, for letting his normalcy slip. He feels the bridges between them shake and weaken but his eyes dart about the trees, drinking in the depths of green and he struggles to stay afloat in today.
That night he dreams of the sea, the sea and the sky and an endless horizon that broadens outwards, endlessly, just for him and he feels the tug of the unknown call to him across a vast and unknown ocean. Then, as the sea rocks him in his dreams it turns dark; pulling him down into its vast weight he drowns on sea foam and regret. Unfulfilled dreams and broken promises fill his boots and drag him down and it's all his fault, all of it, everything he ever did could have been so very different, all those people he hurt when he didn't mean to, all those terrible things he's said, all those-
He gasps awake.
His room is dark, starlight blocked by curtains, and unmoving, but still he feels rocked by non-existent currents and the room dips and sways when he moves his head to clutch at his knees.
The visit to the gardens, plainly, changes him; something morphs or grows within and he knows, deeply, that he doesn't want to do anything else. He begins to select classes and at nineteen he specialises his studies in agriculture, in plants and trees and earth and grasses. He wants to grow them; learn how they work and how to use them for things. They have so many uses, in so many sectors, and Arthur can't understand how other people don't find them as fascinating as he does.
There's a breakthrough, that year. Earth, the original home of humankind, becomes viable and opens its arms wide. They're looking for people, for farmers and fishers and growers and makers to stabilise the colony and Arthur knows that that's where he needs to be, that's where he needs to go and he can't wait, won't wait, not for one moment longer. He applies, pouring hours over his application the days before he submits it because there is a hunger in him, a need that he knows deep in his bones won't be extinguished any other way and he makes sure to press what he knows about plants into what he writes.
It's a wait, a tense hard thing than wears at him, eroding him away but then, at last, confirmation; he's in.
A two-year journey is all that's between him and the sea of his dreams and the greenery of fields and trees. He tells his parents, separately. They divorced, last year, and Arthur is glad, so glad that they never had any children other than him, glad that there was no one else caught in that maelstrom of words and bitterness. It poisoned the house, poisoned the space between them all and filtered down to Arthur, trapped in the middle with nowhere to go.
But not anymore. He packs very little, stands to reminisce not for very long, before heading out of the door. He's early, about five or so hours left before he can board, but once he's said his goodbyes and gathered his things it's as though he can't stand to be there in that house, in that place, for one more second. The opaque material of his colony's domes press down on him as he walks, murky and grey; he all at once feels as though he is sinking underwater and he stops on the way to the launch site, arms swinging and a pounding in his head. A deep breath, a catch in the throat, and he instead turns to veer back towards town, to the botanical gardens.
They're familiar to him now, as known to him as his own hands, and he settles himself underneath a wide thick tree next to a bush of roses spilt red like blood and gets out an e-tab. His granddad's voice emerges, soft and old like paper telling tales of the sea, and his words curl around Arthur's chest to rock him back to himself and wish him good luck.
Gilbert is five, and it's the best day of his life.
'Gilbert! Stop tugging'. His father holds his hand tighter, pulling him back slightly to walk more beside him. 'We are in a hospital, not a playground- behave.'
Gilbert can't help it; his heart is racing -feels like it's going to burst out of his chest- and his stomach makes weird kicky flutterings that kinda feels like he needs to go to the toilet. His expression must be somewhat similar because he's been asked at least three times if he needs to go and has been told off for squirming more times than he can count, twisting and turning on plastic waiting room chairs.
Ever since his parents had told him that they were going to have another baby, that he'd be a big brother soon, Gilbert has been beside himself. He's imagined this moment so many times, thought about all of the different games he could play with the new baby, all of the cool things they could do together that he would sometimes lay there awake at night, unable to sleep for dreaming.
It was disappointing to find out that he wouldn't actually be able to play with the baby straightaway, when his nursemaid Kissy said that all babies do is lay there and cry, but that didn't dissuade Gilbert for long.
'Babies grow up though, right?' he'd said, bouncing in front of her where she lay sprawled on the rug with him, 'they grow up and then they can play with me and I'll make us loadsa awesome adventures to go on!'
Kissy chuckled at him, poking him in the belly. 'Yeah, but you've gotta be careful with babies, they're not strong like you.'
Gilbert puffed up his chest. 'That don't matter! I'll be strong for the both of us! Whatever they need I can do until they're big and don't need me no more.'
When he found out they were going to have a boy- brother- he feels even better, even worse, because suddenly his unknown sibling feels more familiar, more known, more tangible and Gilbert has been counting down the days he'll have left with a burning in his heart.
He's been very clever, he thinks; with Kissy's help he learnt how to read a calendar, has been learning how many days are in each month, and has been dutifully crossing off each passing one with a red pencil; slowly slowly. But now it is finally the time. As soon as mother started having 'pains' and was bundled off somewhere with his father, Gilbert has been walking trenches into the carpet, round and around and around until Kissy tells him to stop because he's making her dizzy.
Father comes home the next day to collect him and the whole ride there Gilbert is sweaty at the effort needed to contain himself and not upset Father, fearing being sent home and missing saying hello to his new brother on his birthday. It's important, he thinks, because this is their first time meeting each other and Gilbert wants to be one of the first to say hello, one of the first people to meet him- to be able to say that he's known him ever since the day he was born, right from the very start.
Once they arrive, he and Father sit together in a waiting room- Gilbert roiling and twitching in anticipation, before being taken down some long corridors, all white and clean with a floor that makes his trainers squeak as he trots, quick footed, to keep up with Father's long strides.
After a seeming maze they stop in front of a door and Gilbert takes in a big breath, holding it in his lungs before he enters another clinically cold room. Mother is in a bed, laying looking wan and tired, but-
He gasps and his whole body filled with emotions, a tingle, because there, in her arms, is this lump of a thing.
'How are you doing, Hilda?'
Mother makes a non-committal noise. 'The doctors say I can be discharged in a few hours.'
As his father responds, Gilbert creeps closer to the bed underneath his parent's conversation and peers over the side to look at what's she's holding, desperate for a proper look but not wanting to draw attention to himself lest they tell him to move away. He can't see much from where he stands, tip toes and teetering- only the white of the blanket the baby is swaddled in- but then Mother glances down; spots him.
'Hello Gilbert. Father tells me you've been very excitable today.'
Gilbert continues to stare at her arms; she notices and gives a faint smile. 'Would you like to see your brother?'
Gilbert makes a funny noise in his throat, but he's too far gone to care about being scolded. Mother tells him to sit on a chair by her bed, and after he's settled himself Father comes, rearranges his arms ready, and takes the baby from her to move him across to rest in Gilbert's lap.
The weight is heavier than he'd expected. When Kissy said babies were delicate, he'd imagined them to be light, like air or something soft, but this baby is heavy, sturdy and solid like stone, and he settles in Gilbert's arms just so.
Gilbert's breath catches in his throat. He stares down at a small scrunched face as one bleary eye opens to regard him, before closing again. Other than this his new brother lays quite still, contented in his arms.
'His name is Ludwig.' His father says, voice low by Gilbert's left.
Gilbert mouths the name and feels his heart expand to twice its old size.
By the time he's ten, Gilbert is very worried because suddenly he can't throw Luddy around all the time anymore. Sometimes he has moments where he trips over his own feet, going backwards rather than forwards, less coordinated rather than more, and Gilbert watches, straight-backed and worried, next to Ludwig's bed as the doctor checks him over. Mother and Father are down the hall; they're speaking soft and low but Gilbert can hear something building there, a gritty undertone that he doesn't like, but he forgets it to shift forward and hold Ludwig's hand when he sees his brother tense his mouth, threatening tears.
The doctor pats Ludwig's hair, smoothing it back in a brief reassurance. 'I'm just going to talk to Mummy, alright?'
Ludwig says nothing, eyes wide, and Gilbert squeezes his fingers, gently. The doctor leaves with the click of a door and Gilbert immediately climbs up into Luddy's bed, shuffling him over so he can fit beside him better.
'Gil?' Luddy's voice is small.
'What's wrong with me?'
Gilbert huffs. 'Nothin', you're just sick.'
Luddy bites his lip, eyes downcast. 'But I'm always sick now.'
Gilbert shrugs and moves Luddy's head to lay on his shoulder. His brother immediately nestles there, cheek pillowed and warm. Gilbert strokes his hair back, like the doctor did, but for him Luddy unclenches, goes soft as sand. 'S'not your fault.'
There's a brief silence. 'I think Mother is angry at me.'
For someone so young, Luddy is very perceptive; Gilbert has thought this himself, quietly, at the back of his mind, but hasn't yet voiced it out loud yet, too wary of what he might find to properly explore it. 'No, she's just worried.'
'Are you worried?'
Gilbert snorts. 'No. You're gonna be fine. Give it some time and you'll get better again.'
This seems to work, Luddy hmm's against him, a hand balled in his shirt, and drifts off to sleep. Gilbert lays there, still, feeling the warmth of his brother and listening for the voices in the hall.
Ludwig does not get better.
He does, but then he doesn't, swings and dips of health that throw him high before crashing him back down low like a rock tossed in the tide. And Gilbert is angry because his parents have sent him to a boarding school, now that he's twelve, so he can't see Ludwig every day, doesn't know what's happening. The thought of Luddy left alone there with them leaves him cold, because Gilbert knows that since Kissy left Luddy has no one but their parents, and their parents-
Gilbert still doesn't know how to explain how he feels about his parents.
To him they're nice, distant and stern, but nice; they give him compliments and platitudes and praise him for his school work, but it feels detached- a part in a play rather than an act of feeling.
It's worse, with Luddy, because he's not currently acting the part that they want him to play, not doing all of the things regular little boys do that they were expecting and their discontent is thick, growing steadily more overt as the years tick by. Luddy must notice, must feel it, because Gilbert sure does, when he's allowed to come home briefly some weekends. There are looks and sighs, and apathetic dismissals of his brother that make Gilbert frustrated because, from what he can see, Luddy isn't doing anything wrong. He just isn't doing what's right, according to them, and therein lies the problem.
Eventually though, Gilbert grows to like school, and at sixteen he finally sees it for the blessing it truly is. At home it is stifling, everything controlled and precise and Gilbert feels as though one foot wrong will burst the whole thing and erupt him into flames. He knows his part, can play it well, and is able to do so with ease because time away from home, time at school, recharges him; aligns him back to himself.
At school with his friends, he's Gilbert, just he as himself; he goes out with his friends on space rides and hangs about with older teenagers to visit the football stadium. He's not the governor's son to them, not someone who means something; he is Gilbert and that is all. He likes football, he can spin around on the back of a chair the whole way without touching the ground, he got his hand glued to a ruler, once, by accident; this is what he is made of- scraps and experiences that build up who he truly is, like pieces of a puzzle slotting to make a whole person.
But home is where he is someone's son. An important someone's son, someone who needs to be represented. Gilbert is someone who must behave, make his parents proud, show how well they have raised him; a model boy for a showroom in the stars. And then there's Luddy, with his big eyes and fluffy blond hair all slicked back and neat, a boy who looks perfect for a part he cannot play. A boy who tries his best but doesn't live up to, can't live up to an impossible standard, no matter how much he tries. And Gilbert sees him try, he tries so hard and every time he's home it breaks Gilbert's heart that little bit more to see, to feel the yearning for acceptance from his brother and then to leave him there deflated.
There's so much pressure, so much expectation for Gilbert from his parents that's never said with words but sits there between them, thick and strong and smiling of success. It walks with the outline of his life, an echoing march of the trajectory of his future and Gilberts feels it constrict around him, squeezing choice away and moulding him into something he didn't ask for. The longer he's home, the more his panic grows- glimpses of a life he didn't want flashing before him with increasing clarity and he hates it all the more because it's so perfect, so glowing. His parents aren't perfect, are hypocrites to want it from him when they are who they are, and Gilbert hates most that the more he shines the dimmer Lud gets, falling like lead into Gilbert's shadow.
He hates the thought that he's seen as good because Ludwig is seen as bad, hates that he feels as though he has two roles to fill because Ludwig hasn't quite filled one. Sometimes, he feels like a pressure cooker, waiting to blow and it's all he has to not explode at his parents before he gratefully returns to school to nurse his fevered anger until it cools like dying embers and he can breathe easily again.
Gilbert is twenty-four when something inside of him finally snaps. He cannot place it to a single thing, not one event or spoken word that caused it in particular, but suddenly he is burning with fury. The metal world of his ship claps blood to his cheeks and send shakes to his hands because he loathes it, hates the sounds and the smells and the feel of the place- a cage of his life wrought in cold metal.
He cannot do it anymore, cannot bear to stay here and he cannot, will not leave Luddy to crumble in the corner. What Ludwig needs is ground, something stable and firm and unmoving but no matter how much Gilbert has written to his parents to ask for this, pleading a holiday on a nearby colony or a move to live under a domed sky, his parents have refused and for no good reason other than pride and ambition. It sickens him, it disgusts him, so when Gilbert sees notices about Earth he doesn't have to think. His mind was made up before he was born, his destiny shaped for a different, older place and maybe, just maybe, Ludwig's is too.
Ah, inspiration- it finally hit me. Apparently, there are still stories to tell in this old AU.
I know I toyed around with the idea of an epilogue (I still am, forever will be) but I began to feel that other characters warranted exploring before things could be rounded off.
Speaking of rounding things off, here are some additional paragraphs that I wrote to explain Matthew and Arthur a bit more -their wants and need for a something unnameable- but neither fit in well with where each of their stories ended up:
'They go on walks together, silent feet and paws, and as Matthew moves about his street in his suburban dome he beats against the sides like a moth trapped in glass, too light and gentle to break free and with no destination even if he did. Not really there he drifts from day to day like a promise of potential in the wind and lands, awkward, beneath blackened glass skies and distant stars.'
'He's always wanted a brother or a sister, or both. More is better. When Arthur was younger, he used to ask for it, ask for his parents to have more children so he'd have someone to play with and share his secrets. Because, other than Granddad, he's never really felt like he fits in with his family. There is a chasm spanning between him and his parents, a vast divide he'd never wanted to acknowledge because they were his parents and he loves them, he guesses, but he doesn't feel as though he belongs with them; a stolen stand-in son. With Granddad gone this distance is stark, wrought clear and cold it ices further, settling into cracks and gaps in conversation to freeze him.'
For any old readers to this story, I'm sorry it's been so long! And to new readers, welcome! Thank you for clicking and reading, I hope you enjoyed your stay.
Until next time,