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emma
May 15, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Don’t Worry, I Feel It Too

The astronaut learns to breathe at a certain pace. If you breathe too quickly, they say, you will use up too much air and all the oxygen will thin out around you. Your helmet will fog up and then all the stars will disappear into clouds. He learns not to cry, too. If you cry, they say, you will fill up your helmet with salty water, and you will have to drink every last memory. Then comets will start looking like coral and you will end up at the bottom of the ocean.

The astronaut is a quick learner. He practises his breathing every morning and learns to close his eyes whenever they start to water. The astronaut only has one flaw: his broken heart. Every night, his heart jolts and misses a beat. Sometimes it wakes him up and he ends up staring at the ceiling for hours at a time. Other nights, he manages to sleep through it and it’s like there was never anything wrong. He was born with this skip in the heart. But it is his only flaw, and so they do not let him go.

When the astronaut turns 21, he starts feeling this jolt in his heart not only once, but twice a day. Off goes his heart like clockwork and all he can do is let it, the butterfly banging against bone. Sometimes he hears a distant chiming melody, but most of the time he’s back to sitting on the floor with empty hands. Soon, they find out that the astronaut’s condition is only getting worse. They get their best doctors in but all they leave are more deep red lines on his chest, and a heart that still stutters. The astronaut watches as they draw blood, as the liquid seeps up through IV lines with no success. The sight makes his breathing quicken so he closes his eyes, but he finds he can’t fix it anymore. All he can do is sit in silence, twice a day, and wait for the gears in his skin to shudder.

One day, he tries to kill the butterfly himself. They find him with a knife at his chest and eyes closed, tears streaming down his cheeks. The knife was easy to steal; he took it from the piles of metal that they had used to try and fix him. The astronaut holds this knife now, and opens his eyes to two doctors standing motionless in front of him. They look at each other, and then back at him. It is a dare and the doctors win, nodding to him before walking away. The astronaut drops the knife to the floor, metal clattering on linoleum.

A week later, they decide to send the astronaut earlier than they originally intended. It is five years lost of what could’ve been further preparation, but they predict that the butterfly would’ve eaten the astronaut’s heart by the second year. The doctors believe that the astronaut has only a couple months left on Earth. They tell him that this is his life’s work, that nothing will compare to seeing the sun in all its brilliance and recording the information that will save so many people’s lives. The astronaut says nothing, and not even the butterfly in his chest makes a noise this time. They talk, but the emptiness does not talk back.

***

One day they will eject the astronaut into space. He will fly past the moon, past Venus, past Mercury. They will attach a little camera to his suit so they can watch as his fingers stretch out but never quite reach stardust. He will see darkness for days at a time but sometimes also catches of light, moments of colour that will make his eyes widen, secrets of the universe that he will be the first to know. His heart will make no sound and they will be so proud of him, say, you’ve done it. When the astronaut finally runs out of air, he will close his eyes and breathe the way they taught him. The mission will be a success.

But then his heart will skip a beat. Then another, then another. It will be like nothing else he has ever felt. It will remind him of his empty room and the phone on the counter, sitting there with a fine layer of dust. When the sun starts to melt his suit, his heart will be shuddering so hard that tears will form in his eyes. It will be more than one jolt; it will be a million earthquakes culminating in his bloodstream. The camera attached to his suit will start melting as well, and they will see a flicker of light before the screen cracks.

But he will see so much more. He will see a woman playing piano and the melody will chime through his head like birdsong. When he starts to feel heat on his palms, he will also feel a song moving through his body, headphones and green grass, someone’s smile. He will feel a lump in his throat and he will hear shouts from his headpiece, from people on Earth. They will call things at him and their voices will hurt against the chiming. The final thing they will hear before the headpiece breaks is the sound of crying.

As tears roll down his cheeks, broken pieces of metal will fizz and spark around him. He will see stars that look like constellations but the names will bring him no comfort. They taught him every single constellation but he never could see the shapes the stars made, the shapes that others saw. Even when they put holograms across the metal walls, all he saw were pinpricks. And even though it will be too late, he will hope that maybe the stars will sink into his skin and finally fix him.

They never taught the astronaut anything that wasn’t needed for his mission but in that moment, he decides to pray. He once saw a woman crouched on the pavement outside his window, muttering with her palms against each other. She had an empty can by her side and a ragged woollen blanket. When she saw him staring, she looked up and smiled. He didn’t know what to do, so he quickly shut his window and stayed inside for the rest of the day. He never saw her again.

The astronaut does this now, just as he feels a sharp burning pain. As he lifts his hands and starts whispering, his heartbeat begins to regulate and turn steady again. He does not know if it was the stars that did it or the piano playing through his brain but he can see someone clearly again, her fingers on his, helping him play out a tune. Humming along, she smiles just as the astronaut opens his eyes. But the burn catches up with his blood and soon his heart is ash again. His last word will be amen.

 

— Written by Emma Shi (facebook.com/emmlexx)

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