Stardust – My Entry into the Commonwealth Short Story Contest for 2015

Hello, dear bleeders. I bring you a strange and fucked up tale — how you read it is up to you — I have no answers, only more questions. I do hope you enjoy. I’ve not a hope in hell at winning the short story contest, but I thought it might be nice to say I’d entered.

Without further ado, here is Startdust:

———–

“We are all made of the same stardust that birthed the universe.”

A well-dressed man looked out at his acolytes and smiled serenely.

Wendy was beginning to miss the $150 she’d spent to attend this seminar. But she had already tried everything else. Doctors had given her a smorgasbord of pharmaceuticals, therapists had tried hypnotising her, regression therapy, and even ECT, which had only resulted in terrifying dreams of lightning. CT scans, blood analysis, even a spinal tap all showed nothing. There was no tumour, no encephalitis, no miscellaneous physical irregularities. One doctor was leaning toward schizophrenia, but she had no delusions about the voices in her head, she just wanted them gone. She could carry on a conversation, and if it was difficult for her at times, it was only because she had to fight to be heard over the constant barrage of prayers, petitions, screams and laughter that filled her head.

What started a few months before as a dozen voices – grunts, really, with no semblance of language – had quickly grown, and developed, until now, it was a cacophonous din that filled her head at all hours. When conventional medicine failed, she turned to the unconventional – acupuncture, yoga, Transcendental Meditation, and then finally, The Fellowship.

The Fellowship wasn’t a religion – David insisted that religion was man’s attempt to reach god, but what he and his followers were doing was instead trying to find the god within themselves.

“There is a universe inside all of you, with so much untapped power and potential just waiting to burst free.”

David spread his arms as if to illustrate this bursting action, and was met by tears and applause.

Wendy scanned the audience, wondering if any of them heard cries for help, cries of passion, anger, sorrow and joy, and had to drug themselves with dangerous doses of painkillers every day to block it out, or if any of them had developed a barbiturate addiction in order to sleep at night.

David announced that they were going to join hands and share energy, and people started forming circles and talking about chakras and sacred vessels and a bunch of other stuff that went over Wendy’s head. She’d tried to go into this experience with an open mind, but when the chanting started, her senses were simply overwhelmed. Her head could only take so many monotonous voices at once. She excused herself and left, disappointed and without any profound revelation or healing insight. Finding no solace, enlightenment or self-actualization among The Fellowship, she sought instead the artificial temporary silence afforded her by a double dose of Seconal.

She awoke the next morning with the same terrible pain in her head. She went to the bathroom, splashed some water on her face, and in the mirror, she saw it – a giant eruption, right in the middle of her forehead like a Bindi worn by a Hindu.

Oh shit, she thought miserably. What am I, seventeen?

She’d read about stress acne, and imagined that’s what this was. Stress was too small a word for what she was under. She could feel the voices in her teeth, like a constant humming or buzzing. Some of them seemed to be speaking directly to her – it had taken her months to accept this, but sometimes the voices called her name, asking for things like rain and protection and a baby brother, but most of them seemed to be talking to each other. She had no idea what they expected her to do – she had tried speaking to them, but when she spoke, she received no response that made any sense to her.

That day – the day she actually spoke back to the voices, was the day she went to a psychiatrist. She heard the words coming out of her mouth – It’s like there’s an entire world inside my head – and began to worry that she might be going insane. But the voices weren’t telling her to do bad things, and she didn’t hear the voices coming from some dog or anything – they simply were, and wasn’t that bad enough?

She stared at the pimple in the mirror, and thought about squeezing it, but there didn’t seem to be any head. It was just raw and angry looking, and she knew what her mother would say.

“Don’t pick at it, you’ll just make it worse!” she mimicked in a passable imitation, and then sighed and dug through her medicine cabinet for some rubbing alcohol and cotton balls.

“Okay, Mom, I’ll leave it alone. I’ll just dab it with some alcohol and let it dry up on its own.”

But as soon as she touched the wet cotton to the red blemish, her head nearly cracked open with pain. It wasn’t just that the alcohol stung – it did – but that was nothing compared to the sudden rush of sound that caused her eardrums to pop and her nose to bleed.

It was as if a billion voices were screaming together in terror and protest.

“Okay,” she surrendered to the voices that the doctors assured her couldn’t possibly be there. “You win. The pimple stays.”

When the pimple hadn’t disappeared – when it had, in fact, grown three times in size and had rings of purple and yellow around it like a bruise – she’d gone back to the doctor’s.  She’d tried putting ice on it to reduce the swelling, but it just kept getting bigger day by day. If she didn’t know it was impossible, she’d say that it was as if something were in her head hammering, digging a hole in her forehead from the inside out.

The doctor sent her away with some antibiotics, sure that it was just an infected pimple, and told her to leave it alone, and to wash it with antibacterial soap and let it air dry.

She laughed and cried the whole way home at the idea that the doctor’s solution was soap and water. But she did as she was told. For three weeks, Wendy resigned herself to a cleansing regimen, beginning with an antibacterial soap, and an organic exfoliate, and then a mask made of sour cherries and mango. Her skin had never felt so good, so clean, but the pimple, the blemish, the eruption, whatever it was – was unaffected. So in addition to the noise – the impossible, unexplainable noise that only she could hear – her forehead throbbed in a pulsing ache, in time with her heartbeat. She guessed that the pain had caused her blood pressure to elevate, because the throbbing seemed quicker than usual.

She stopped going out altogether. She tore up her couch cushions and covered the walls of her bedroom with foam to try to soundproof it, and whether it worked or not, she couldn’t say, but she was willing to try anything to get some semblance of quiet – even if it was only relative.

One afternoon, she took more pills than she probably should have, but all she really needed was the oblivion of sleep.  She buried her head in her pillow and tried to shut out the voices, which had recently been joined by what she could only describe as the sounds of industry – giant machinery, like pistons chugging and jackhammers pounding.

When she woke, she smelled blood, and was horrified at the sight of it on her pillow. She stumbled drunkenly to her bathroom and threw up in the toilet. Weakly, she pushed herself up off the floor and made her way to the sink, where she stared at her bloody face in horror. Whatever it was on her forehead had burst, and split the skin nearly two inches. She cleaned off the blood, and then grabbed some anti-bacterial ointment, some gauze, and a bandage.

Touching it was agony – but she feared that if she didn’t at least try to clean it, that it would get infected. Whatever it was, infection could only surely make it worse.

Tumour, her mind spat bitterly, and Wendy pushed the thought away. But as the pain in her head began to hit an apex over the next few weeks, this thought kept coming back. She kept dressing her forehead in bandages, resisting the urge to pick at it, and afraid to see what was becoming of it. Each night as she went to bed, she stared out at the stars and made one wish – Quiet, she prayed. Silence, stillness, peace and quiet.

But each morning, as the drugs wore off, her prayer remained unanswered.

In moments when she was losing her lucidity and slipping into hazy, drugged sleep, she sometimes thought of David, the charismatic leader of The Fellowship, telling her without a trace of irony that she had a universe inside her. She knew that’s not at all what he was talking about, but wondered what he would say if he could feel, for just one moment, what it felt like to be her. It did indeed feel like she had an entire world inside her head, but that was just fantasy. She wished she could believe in such things, but she lived in the real world – a world of Ebola and HIV and Cancer of every sort imaginable. Whatever it was that was causing these – hallucinations – for surely that’s what they were – was just something the doctors didn’t know how to find yet. She’d rather believe in the failure of science than in some con artist’s pseudo-spirituality.

One morning, like any other, she woke up in pain as usual, but as she rolled out of bed, there was a tearing at her forehead that caused her to cry out in agony. In the night, part of the bandage must have caught on her pillow, and when she moved, it had torn off.

She reached her hand up to her forehead and hesitantly touched it, then drew back. It felt different, like it had scabbed over. She allowed herself a moment of hope – perhaps it was healing. The sea of voices crashing like waves in her head told a different story, washing away her hope just as quickly as it had appeared.

Staring at her reflection, she thought again that it did look like a scab, and had a sudden urge to pick at it, not caring if it would leave a scar. She lifted her hand to do just that, and then hesitated.

“Leave it alone, it will heal on its own,” Wendy whispered, echoing her mother’s advice.

Ignoring the advice, she picked at the edge, able to get a bit of her fingernail under it, and felt it give. As she lifted it just a bit, she felt a sick shudder in her stomach, and heard screaming in her head that seemed to echo off the walls of the bathroom. She continued to pry, defying the voices, and the edge of the scab began to lift. It was like there was a tear in her forehead, and out of it, bright white light poured, blinding her as it reflected off the mirror.

Horrified, she pulled her hand away, and the scab fell back into place, the light extinguished. Her own terror rose with the shouts of protest she suddenly heard, louder than ever, threatening to make her head split.

But there was a moment – a moment when she thought she heard a voice among the din – or maybe it was a hundred voices, all saying the same one word, as if it were a simple prayer.

Please, the voice said. Please.

Her forehead burned and throbbed, the crusted flesh in the centre of her forehead pulsating like a leech gorged with blood. She stared at it hatefully, and prepared herself for what, she didn’t know.

“Soonest begun, soonest done,” she said, teeth clenched.

Tearing the scab off in one quick motion, blinding white light poured out of the gaping wound in her forehead, filling the room. Wendy collapsed on the floor with a sigh of relief, as an entire universe burst free and died screaming.

“They’re gone!” she cried, bleeding out on to the bathroom floor. “The voices are gone!”

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37 responses to “Stardust – My Entry into the Commonwealth Short Story Contest for 2015

    • I’ve resigned myself to the knowledge that these kind of contests want something safe — a tearjerker where someone’s dying of cancer, or a nostalgic reminiscence of childhood. None of my literary heroes would ever win any public contests, and so I’m sure neither will I. But I write what I want to write.

    • I got a little claustrophobic writing it myself. The idea came to me when I was in the hospital a couple of weeks ago, and my head wouldn’t stop pounding for more than two days straight.
      I like the story because it can be read a lot of different ways. My love of Twin Peaks and the Twilight Zone, I suppose — I don’t give answers, I only write the story, it’s up to the reader to figure out what it means.

      • When I played football in highschool, I developed a boil on my hip under my pads ( sorry it’s gross ) but as I read through this I kept remembering how much it hurt, and how good it felt when the dr lanced it, and how agonizing it would have been on my forehead. So I was totally bought in.

  1. Oh. my. god. This FREAKED me out. I felt my throat tightening as I was reading… Voices, schizophrenia, that’s the stuff of my worst fears and nightmares. I had to speed read to get to the end just so I wouldn’t lose it. If you wanted to spook me, you did a fine job…

  2. I still love it – it reminds me of the story within a story of the little boy god with the universe down his throat.

    I bet it was pretty when it all poured out 😀

  3. Reading this story caused a hot flash. Well, maybe it is menopause causing the hot flash but I’m still having one. What an imagination! Or is it?

  4. Oh my god. That was actually terrifying. I’m glad it ended the way it did, it made the story that much more intense and nauseating. Urghh I feel queasy but it was so good… I hope it does well at the contest!!

  5. Would it be weird if I told you that my eyelids are actually sweating behind my glasses right now? That was crazy intense. I love it. I know you don’t think you stand a chance in the contest but you should, You most definitely should.

  6. Best of luck with the contest! Even if you don’t win, entering something is better than doing nothing–a lesson I’m still trying to learn!

  7. Pingback: First Dances, Strange Dreams, and Very Little Rest For the Wicked | Being the Memoirs of Helena Hann-Basquiat, Dilettante·

  8. Brilliant! I’d say you’ve got a good shot in the contest.
    I loved the build up until, as I got further into the story I found myself reading faster and faster, desperate to find out what was going to happen.

    • Why thank you, dear. I’ve been quite busy these last few days, I am sorry I missed your comment.

  9. Pingback: Changelings on Tour: Helena Hann-Basquiat | The D/A Dialogues·

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