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Silicon Graves (February 2021)
By Ben Fitzgerald
I didn’t have the strength to hurry. The blood pounded in my ears with every step I took, and I forced my eyes downwards to avoid the graveyard in the distance. But try as I might, it was there when I looked up, just as heavy and omnipresent as the sledgehammer on my back.
I couldn’t help but see more of it as I got closer. It was a wide field, covered with prairie grass and thin glass graves jutting up from the ground. The graves whispered loudly to each other, and the tailspin of their various lights glared weakly in the sunlight. And above it, was Titan’s clear blue sky, ghosted by Saturn’s outline and swimming with clouds.
Soon, I reached the first row of graves. They noticed my coming, and my heart skipped a beat as one of them looked up at me. It was an old man, with a white beard running up behind his ears.
“You here to see someone?”
I swallowed. “My father.”
He nodded. “He just got here,” the old man said. “Not too hard to find. You’ll see him if you keep walking straight.” He gestured with his eyes.
I nodded, trying to build up the courage to set off again. But instead: “I remember you.”
The old man frowned. “You do?”
“From… when I was a kid. My sister and I would come and play out here.”
To my relief, the old man cracked a smile. “No, we remember.” He chuckled, thinking about it. “You kids were a handful, yelling, running, climbing on our graves…”
“We didn’t mean to…”
“We loved it,” the old man said. “You don’t know how excited we’d get when we saw you coming out.”
I smiled faintly. I was starting to get used to the graves around me, and I let my gaze drift up to the sky. “The clouds are out.”
“Pretty nice, huh?”
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen them,” I said, my gaze lingering. You only see clouds like those on Titan, with curves and textures that take your breath away. I drank the view in, and, without really noticing said: “The stories of our world are written in these clouds.”
“You hear that from someone?”
The old man chuckled. “That’s a pretty wise thing to say.”
“I guess it is,” I said.
The old man nodded. “Your father’s lucky, having someone to visit.”
He didn’t have anything else to say. I shot a glance at the center of the graveyard where he’d told me to go. The graves would be looking at me as I walked down the path. Maybe they’d noticed my hammer already. I wondered what they would say.
“What’s it like here?” I asked quickly. “I mean… what happens to you?”
The old man laughed. “You want the truth?”
“It’s enough to make you wish they let you die normally.”’
My heart sank. “It can’t be that bad.”
“You’d be surprised. There’s nothing here, nothing but the same graves in front of you and the exact same view of the exact same place. The goddamn grave doesn’t even let you turn your head.” He sighed. “Stuck here forever, just barely alive enough to keep existing… It does things to you.”
I looked around at the various headstones, and I was starting to notice things I hadn’t before. I could see graves chattering brightly to their neighbors, but then there was one close to me, whose eyes were unfocused and rolling up into its head. Lips moving, unhinged, silently muttering a stream of gibberish into the air.
As if he were reading my mind: “Your mind starts to go.”
The sight of it made me want to be sick. Even more so, I was terrified by what the old man would say next, as he eyed the hammer on my back and smiled to himself: “Almost makes you wish that someone would come along and put an end to it.”
I froze. “My father told me to,” I said. “At the hospital, he made me promise.”
I spread my hands helplessly. “But I don’t know if I can. Seeing him… I can’t do it.” This was a mistake.
The old man raised his eyebrows slightly. “What?”
I didn’t answer. It was time to go. I’d spent far too long and I had to leave immediately, as soon as the old man let me go.
“I see a couple of you every now and then.” His iron stare made me blink and look away. “You walk up to your loved one’s grave, right up to where you can see their face, and then, you stop.”
“I wasn’t trying to…”
“You freeze. You make excuses. You tell them that it’s murder, what you’re about to do. You say you’re being merciful, even though you know that we’re already dead. Do you know what we do when you people can’t follow through?” He looked me straight in the eyes. “We forget about you. We don’t speak a word to you as you walk out of the graveyard. And the grave you’ve come to see, the grave you’ve abandoned and left forever, the grave never speaks your name again.”
I swallowed, stepping back from the grave. It felt as if the world was spinning around me.
The old man saw me and he cursed himself. “No, kid, don’t get the wrong idea, I was trying to make sure…”
“No, it’s…” I didn’t finish. “I… I have to go.”
I ran. I could hear the old man behind me, calling me to come back, but I headed inward with the graves watching me. I went in whatever direction they told me to take, scrambling to get to my father. I had to do it. I had to get to him, before I left him and his mind broke down, his eyes rolling up into his head with that sickening expression on his face; I had to get to him before he forgot me forever. Soon, I was lightheaded, gasping for breath.
I almost missed him when I passed by his grave, but there he was, just out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t dare to look at him. I tore my hammer from the holder with shaky hands. I held it over my head. I squeezed my eyes shut as the graves breathed wide-eyed whispers, and with all my strength, I brought the hammer down.
The hammer missed, and it hit the dirt. I opened my eyes. My hammer was stuck in the ground. I tried to pull it free, but then a grave was staring back at me:
My father’s face was the way I remembered it before his diagnosis. His features were hardened by the weather and the years, but his eyes were soft, unchanging. “Hey,” he said gently. “Were you trying to…” He trailed off. My face was wet, and I let go of the hammer as I reached up to wipe it. I was panting, still exhausted from what I was about to do.
“I’m sorry.” I said. “I tried, I want to help you but…” I looked up at him in disbelief. “Is this really what you want?”
My father sighed, eyes flickering down and then back up to me. “Look at me.”
I did, squatting down to see him eye to eye.
“Those clouds up there… Those are the terraforming chemicals they used on Titan. The chemicals reacted with the nitrogen in its atmosphere, producing an excess of water vapor that, over time, would crystallize into clouds unlike anything in the solar system.”
I listened to him. Even hearing the sound of his voice made me wanted to collapse in relief. “What does this have to do with you?” I asked.
He thought about it for a bit. “We’re supposed to go to them,” he said finally. “I’m supposed to go to those clouds up there. I’ve seen the ups and downs of this body, this life, and now I’m ready to see something new to begin. He looked me in the eyes, smiling. “I want to be a part of the things I’ve looked at from afar.”
I looked at the gravestone, at our names written there, together. Suddenly, I had the hollow feeling that everything was wrong. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. “But what about mom?” I asked. “What about me?”
“I’m trying to do what’s best for both of…”
“How is this possibly what’s…”
“I was thinking of the family when I said that I’d…”
“You’re leaving us,” I shouted, ignoring the graves that were looking my way. “You’re tired of this world and you’re tired of this family so you’re solving the problem by giving up on the only way we could ever see you again.”
Silence. The graves had gone quiet, waiting for my father’s response. He wouldn’t look at me. “Dad, I didn’t mean…”
“You’re right,” he said.
I crouched back down in front of his grave.
“A large part of this is about me,” he continued. “But you know as well as I do that if staying in this graveyard could keep our family together, I would do it without a second thought. But that isn’t how it works. You could come here everyday and see me, both you and your mother, but then you’d be stuck in the graveyard, too. And even if you didn’t, there would still be that lingering part of you that has an excuse to not let go of me. You’d be grieving, even if you left me here, because I still couldn’t be with you. Not the way you remember me.”
“And I’d be grieving too,” he added. “Doesn’t sound fair to any of us.”
I didn’t answer. He was right, and I didn’t want to risk the possibility of us arguing again. The seconds were precious now, slipping through my fingers.
“It’ll only be a second,” my father was saying. “And then we’re free. I’m most of the way there already. All that’s left is just a little bit more.”
“I just…” I stammered, “I need more time.” I couldn’t meet my father’s eyes. “Another minute,” I said, “another conversation, another joke, hell, even another second. Can I just…”
“No,” my father said gently. “You know you can’t.”
I drew a shaky breath. My eyes were wet again, the graveyard blurring out of focus, but I forced myself to climb to my feet. I pulled the hammer from the ground, and I stared down at my father’s grave, a tear running down my face as I raised the hammer.
“I love you, son,” he said. “One way or another, I’ll see you soon.”
And then I brought the hammer down. The glass shattered instantly, the color draining out of the pieces as they rained into the air. They landed on the ground in front of me, inches from my shoes. And when the whiz of circuits fizzled and died, it was quiet in the cemetery. I felt my hammer drop from my hands. I collapsed to my knees, sobbing into my hands and not even bothering to try and hide it.
The graves were staring; it had been a while for them since someone had died. But whether they were annoyed, uncomfortable, or admiring, the entire cemetery watched me cry, as I bent over the shards of my father’s grave and clutched one in my palm. They watched me squeeze it into my skin and hold it there for a while.
Eventually, I left the cemetery. I went back the way I came, through the rows and rows of silicon graves, back to the grassy path that led to my house. But I turned back to the graveyard as I looked through its outskirts, and I spotted the asymmetrical gap that my father’s grave had left. And I held the shard of glass that I’d taken from his grave, so that when I headed back home over the yellow prairie grass, a piece of my father went too.
Text copyright © 2020 by Benjamin B. Fitzgerald . Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Ben Fitzgerald is a high school student in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he spends a lot of his time on rambling hikes through places he shouldn’t be. When not writing, he can be found playing one of several musical instruments, reading (shocker), or being forced into unpaid servitude by his shih-tzu terriers. His work has previously appeared in 365 Tomorrows, 50-Word Stories, and the festering bowels of Reddit’s writing forums.