A Heavy Crown
by Daniel Sheen, October 10th 2022

All around us, the dark sky was throwing halos of broken starlight out onto the eastern sea. And even though the slight change in air pressure was always weirdly jarring, it felt like we were safe enough for now—after all, no one ever stepped through the Wardrobe anymore—so we could both rest for the moment, the taste of nicotine still strong in our mouths as we slowly dug into each other.

The memory flutters in my chest before I come to my senses and remember where I am. Wading through a ruined, stinking wasteland at the edge of civilisation. And with that realisation, mounting panic crushes my chest like a funeral shroud—plumes of black smoke bloating my lungs, while thick layers of ash stifle my tongue, just like when it swallowed the sun.

 

The world is quiet now. And I hate it. Which is ironic, because when everything was alive and noisy and rammed with people, all I wanted was for everything to stop, for everything to be silent. But now, whether you’re inside, cold and lonely in the broken warehouse I call home, or outside, keeping watch up on the roof, everything is quiet. But it’s a dense sort of quiet, the sort of quiet that enshrouds a place after violence has passed through. The sort of quiet that gathers in the air after everyone's finished dying and the birds have come to pick the bones clean. The slow settling of quiet devastation. Even when I’m out doing supply runs, what little sound is left never travels far before being choked to death in the solid air. Swallowed whole by the ash cloud. The entire miserable universe coated in ash and silence. Sticky and cloying. Except when the stars are falling. Then the noise is almost unbearable.

 

                                                                                        *

Before it gets dark, I head outside to chop firewood. Broken, twisted asphalt runs through countless empty lots—a forgotten realm of substance abuse and half-demolished industry. Deformed brickwork. Castrated trees. Mangled glass and steel shredding the ground. A pathetic last stand amongst the fearsome roar of the nearby forest. Everywhere I look I see civilisation overrun, a messy, stumbling conquest. The hunger of nature reasserting its dominance. And always, in the background, the faint discordant reek of something long forgotten—the scent lingering far longer than is natural—like it’s trapped somehow, entombed within the cloying rot of fading summer heat.

 

I laugh, out loud, and the sound is harsh. For this place looks as desolate as I feel inside. It’s so bleak out here that it’s almost like I’m authoring my surroundings through psychic projection. Both a symptom and an expression. Manifestation through grief. The fluidic fabric of the clouds conjuring a nameless enveloping grey that is as desperate and desolate as the torn paper lining of my heart. Indeed, there are entire nights where I think I might be a black hole, lumbering through space, cannibalising the light of a thousand civilisations, drinking the golden milk of a thousand suns, screaming through the heat death of a thousand worlds. Fractals within fractals. Patterns inside patterns. Fine strands of consciousness, fading out through the deep blue. Forever.

 

Out here, at the far edge of the city, the sky is a patchwork of all the most desolate places on earth. So much so, that at night, I often imagine what it would be like to just fall off the edge of the earth like a cliff, plunging down into the infinite darkness of space, forever—moonlight filling my lungs, making me lose my breath and choke, until I’m nothing more than stardust and Percocet, a bloom of light so bright and sharp that it blunts the edge of time. And then, in the daylight hours, delirium, unmoored and drifting. Grey, wide, open reaches. The cracked jam jars of roadside shrines. The breathless adrenaline of always looking over your shoulder. The ever present hunger. The ghosts of kids on bikes haunting the ruined streets.

In the beginning, he was like a riddle. Tricky. Frustrating. Like an unopened book—my favourite thing—and so the fact that I could not read him, made him all the more fascinating. But having said that, I recognised something in him too. The gentle sag of his shoulders. The anxious bowing of his head. The truth in the way his fingers played with his knives, gently brushing imaginary leaves off the hem of his shirt. He always looked like he was somewhere else, even though he was in the same room as me. I found it very relatable.

Days trudge by, like a carousel of misery, bone-deep fatigue making my body feel dense yet fragile, like a fossilised eggshell. And I will admit, for a while now I’ve been living in a numb, hazy in-between state, just me, my memories, and the endless, fucking, rolling, velvet sky. Plus, the few thousand assorted pills I found buried in the smoking ruins of a pharmacy. These cheerfully coloured capsules are the only things helping me deal with the crushing sadness, coupled with the constant fear of withdrawal, and, absurdly, the fear of never withdrawing at all. And of course, the perpetual nagging doubt from all those words that were left unsaid. Because that might well be the worst thing. All those quiet moments—gentle and devastating—where you realise that for the rest of your life you will have to try and find a way to live with the burden of all your unspoken words. That’s what we’ve lost. That’s the intimacy of being understood. For humanity is fractured now, scattered to the wind across three different worlds. Although no one else has come through here yet. Which is surprising. I really thought the others might have made their way here by now. After all, that’s what we agreed on, back when everything started to fall apart. But it’s been two years now since The Collapse and I’m running out of food. I’m also running out of patience, because, let’s face it, two years is a long fucking time to be alone. Maybe it’s time to move on. Maybe it’s time to cross over again.

 

Luckily, when The Collapse started, I was only about four hours drive from home. But even so, it still took me two whole days to get back to my apartment—crawling through fields and woods and hedges, avoiding the looters and the military and the burning roads. Trying not to look up. At the raging clouds. At the rivers of white fire streaking through the sky. Because even with my ridiculous empathy and all of my weird visions, there was no real alarm, no dramatic foresight, no indication that we were all standing on the edge of a cliff. That everything was about to change. And of course, until you actually start to fall, you’ve no real idea of just how precariously everything used to fit together.

He was made of anger, sunlight and someone else’s laughter. Will I ever not miss him? Hah, what a stupid fucking question . . . it’s like the heroin we used to take, in small, careful doses . . . I will miss him on my deathbed. I will die missing him . . .

The nights are dark now, and when I’m not wrestling with my dreams, I’m wrestling with all those memories that feel unfinished. But I feel like that’s okay, since these are my favourite sort of memories. The ones that live out at the edge. In the wild. Only becoming real when written down. Fragile tendrils of hope in the darkness. Stillness breathing through the silent pause. That’s why I started journaling, every day—at least, every day since the world went to shit. Writing helps to separate myself from reality. It allows me time to think. A gradual revelation by form. But still, even through the separation of the blank page, the pain of all we’ve lost doesn’t ever seem to fade away. It’s a strange sort of pain. A quiet, mournful kind of pain. The sort I’d only ever heard about in fairytales. Because let’s be honest, no one is meant to simply jump between worlds. We know that now. And it was a horrible thing really. To change so completely while the rest of the world stood still. To live out our entire lives in another realm, only to have them erased and have to go back to the beginning. We were forged not sculpted, it’s not like we had a choice in the matter. And then, when we found ourselves—abruptly, unexpectedly—back in this world, there was no soft landing. We knew that we could never tell anyone what happened to us. Mostly for fear of ending up in a psyche ward. But also because the truth was often too painful to bear. That’s why we all remained so close for so long. Because we only had each other. And I think that’s also why the trouble started. All those secrets. Because you have no idea how hard it was—pretending to be a child again—all off balance and naked without the heaviness of a crown on our heads. And then, later on, the ache of a second adolescence. Repressed narrative arcs. Inadequate scrapings of memory. The yearning for the impossible. The longing for the unreasonable.

 

“Just once more. Please, just give us one more chance.”

 

I know we all felt it. And we all had our own particular ways of dealing with it, which makes sense I guess, for the relationship between an extreme situation and an individual are subtle and complex—people forget that trauma is not the situation itself, but how a person reacts to it. It’s why I started smoking. It’s why I love pain medication. Wrong type of pain though.

 

Because I still have nightmares. Or at least, dreams I thought I had outgrown. Dreams where I’m eleven years old again, back to being small and frail and unimportant—my mouth sticky and sweet with betrayal—the faint taste of Turkish Delight lingering on my tongue. Because that one stupid decision changed everything. Maybe it was already too late. Even back then. Maybe that one moment set in motion the wheels that would eventually destroy three different worlds.

 

But then the night tips over, falling away from me, and I dream of a dark red sun that swallows up everything in its path. Huge dark clouds blown in by a hot wind. Blood slick hands clutching at mine. And when I wake, with a jolt and a gasp, nauseous and dizzy, pins and needles down my right arm, there’s an ugly, metallic taste in my mouth.

 

The dreams themselves are euphoric, photorealistic. The hollowness comes upon waking.

 

                                                                                     *

 

After I snort the first line I know I should’ve spent more time chopping it up, because it scratches my nose and burns right through my sinuses. But then, nothing else matters as the white-hot drip hits the back of my throat, endorphins flooding my body with relief, as I sink down against the cold edge of the cement. Listening to the silence. The violently weaponised loneliness. Which makes me think about the endless circle. How everything always turns back on itself—history repeating—the taste of chemicals in my mouth still not enough to dispel the shivering cold that burns through my whole body.

And I wonder, “How much can one person change, in one lifetime?”

 

It’s almost like a confession. For in this haunted darkness it feels only too easy to allow myself to say these things out loud, even if I’m only talking to myself. Because I think I’m scared of this new person that maybe I’ve been all along. Maybe the end of the world just made him real.

He peered down at me through sweaty strands of hair, “Are you ok?” he said, and I realised I’d been staring again, for he’d been leaning against the wall in the throne room, lazily rubbing his eyes, breeches untied and hanging low on his hips, his pale torso exposed. “I think so,” I said. “I can’t really remember.”

I’m outside again, and this time, I can feel the dust in the wind, a quiet parasitic swarm burrowing through my pores, sipping at the moisture of my eyes, coating the inside of my nose. There’s no trees out here. Not a speck of shade. And beyond the blunt edge of the city, the desert stretches to the distant mountains in one vast, shimmering, pestilent sheet of sand. Corruptive. Ruinous. Just by looking at it, the heart becomes heavy, the mind listless with lurking ominous threat.

 

Everyone used to think that cities were the centers of civilisation. The power of science, the power of commerce. But over a thousand years of trade, there was a great forgetting. Humanity forgot about the deep magic. The formless magic. Ancient and forbidding. The sort that lurks within forests and mountains and deserts. Bruised and violent and gilded in prophecy.

                                                                                   *

 

I’m up on the roof keeping watch, rifle in hand, crossbow at my feet, the lack of birdsong an itch at the back of my brain that can never be scratched. A groan comes from within the earth. A riotous sound, a war cry, shaking the whole world. A sound like falling mountains. Distant cities collapsing, breaking apart, shuddering to their knees. Meanwhile my gums feel loose—most likely the result of Cesium 137 drifting through the atmosphere—and blood keeps seeping into my mouth, so much so that I stumble over to the edge of the roof and spit into the gloom. I stand there for a long time. Listening to the quiet. Wondering whether I should scream, and if I did, whether it even make a difference.

I still remember the first time I saw him and our eyes met. It was only for a split second, but my whole world was ripped apart. I felt sick, like I was going to vomit, right there on the deck of the ship. As if a once stubborn hollowness suddenly brimmed with unexpected feelings. “Caspian?” I said, my voice incredulous, while he grinned at me.

Meanwhile, the sky has grown a stormy kind of pink with dark purple streaming out from the edges. And with the onset of night, the last of the sunset spins itself into halos—the glittering ice crystals in the stratosphere, like a million arctic needles, suspended in the clouds. I know they’re up there, waiting. Her gift to the world. Fire first, but then ice and snow. A hundred years of winter.

                                                                                            *

 

Weeks pass, each day chained to the previous one. More secrets come, one for every star in the sky. My new addictions are never truly satisfied. Shrapnel, iron, and dust. Dark stormy skies. Everything that destroys, nothing that fucking grows, my self-loathing now so great that I’m taking six pills a day instead of four.

It feels like I’m sat on an enormous white throne, encrusted with black clotted blood, towering above the rest of the world, cold and haughty and dangerous. Which in turn feels like some sort of anecdote—a symbol—for how all this started. How absolute power corrupts. Absolutely.

Guilt is the worst demon to bear, strangling you from inside your own body. I grab my bottle of water and twist off the top, for like all things clear and bright, it promises the feeling of being clean.

I pour it over my face and laugh.

Sometimes, I think the very worst thing about all of this, is that I’m never going to see him again. But if I’m being honest, that’s now the least of my worries.

Outside the window, the stars begin falling again.

It won’t be long now.