Skin Mask Replica, Hunter Louis
“‘Sky’ is now synonymous with ‘bowling alley carpet,’,” says the Announcer, somehow crystal clear inside my mind.
Thanks, I think, and I can feel their acknowledgement.
I go back to what I was doing before being interrupted: organizing the books by the feeling they give me on page 95. I’d started by organizing them by name, then by author’s name, then by genre, then by color, then by beginning, then by ending, then by where I was when I read them, then by the protagonist’s name. I don’t know if this will finally be the correct way, but I’m hopeful.
I pick up a book and check page 95. There are only two sentences on it. They make me feel a pale aquamarine — the crystal, I mean, not the color. I put the book in the appropriate place on the bookshelf. I get through ten books this way before being interrupted by another announcement.
“‘Bowling alley carpet’ is now synonymous with ‘sky,’,” they say.
Usually I don’t mind the announcements. They have important information, and they’re getting it to us in the quickest way possible. I understand that. But this one is a little redundant. I feel a little annoyed at having to pause in my sorting twice for the same thing.
Thanks, I think, a little snippier this time. Their acknowledgement feels a little snippier this time too.
I flip to page 95 of the next book. Exuberant. I put it on the bookshelf. I flip to page 95 of the next book. Phosphorescent. I flip to page 95 of the next book. Sky. I put it on the section of bookshelf meant for bowling alley carpet, since the two are now synonymous.
I step outside and look up at the bowling alley carpet. The stars are neon streamers painted in primary colors. The dots and geometric shapes move the longer I look at them.
I miss the moon.
Well, isn’t the bowling alley carpet now synonymous with sky?
When I get to the bowling alley, I rent the customary bowling alley cowboy boots and observe the floor. Clouds float across the sky, a perfect robin’s egg blue. There’s no sun in sight. I’m a little disappointed, but I guess I’ll just have to stay here until it turns to night. I smile at the bored teenage worker and step on the glossy lacquered wood. No one else is using this lane, so I have to play a game against myself. I enter my name and my double’s name into the machine, then pull a bowling ball off of the track.
The first time I only knock down three pins. My double knocks down four. Somehow I’m still in the lead, because the bowling scoring system makes no sense at all. Me and my double play a whole game like that, ending in a tie. We play game after game after game after game — so long I lose count. I inspect the sky again and find it definitively darker. The sun is getting ready to set, rallying its light one last time before night falls.
“An eclipse will occur in thirty-seven seconds,” the Announcer says. “Please stand by.”
I watch, mesmerized, as the sun slowly darkens, the circular shape of the moon obscuring it. It’s so bright that I have to squint, making it so I can only barely see the sun’s corona, visible for once in the moon’s shadow. I take a moment just to look at the moon. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed her.
When I step outside again, the bowling alley carpet looks mostly the same as it did when I went in. I haven’t learned these new neon constellations yet, so I don’t know how much they moved, if they moved at all. I’ll learn them eventually. It’s not like I’m going to run out of time.
When I get home, I find that the Church is holding a service in my house. Not the Good Church, and not the Bad Church either. Certainly not the Church Church — they know I don’t go there anymore.
No, the Church that is in my house is simply The Church. I realize this after listening to the preacher’s monologue for a minute or two. My front window would almost have the radiance of a stained glassstained-glass window in a real church if the sun were still here. The soft ambient light from the bowling alley carpet just isn’t the same. I sit on my living room couch and listen to the sermon.
“But we have been blessed, my children,” the preacher says, “ever since that goose ate God.” The rest of the congregation nods sagely. “Praise dead God.”
“Praise dead God,” they echo. I stand up and put a cup of hot water in the microwave.
“The goose, our messiah, will save our immortal souls,” the preacher tells us. The microwave hums louder than I would have liked, but The Church doesn’t seem to mind. “For the goose ate our God, so it is our God, amen.”
“Amen,” the congregation echoes. The microwave beeps. I take my cup out and start to make iced tea.
The Church moves into the part of the service where they sing. They have no trained choir. They don’t need one. They simply emulate the sound of their savior. I sip my tea and listen as their harmonious honks fill my house.
In less than half an hour, the service has ended. Most of the congregation has left. The preacher is the last one to go. I watch as he takes a flower out of the vase I have near my front door and tucks it behind his ear. I catch a glimpse of the bowling alley carpet before he closes the door.
“On all levels except physical you are at the bottom of a swimming pool,” the Announcer says. I can feel my emotions drowning, my financial stability struggling to breathe. I take a deep breath. The air has gone slightly wavy, as if I’m underwater. The world has taken on a turquoise tint. I have to remind myself to breathe. This certainly isn’t ideal, but all I can do is move on with my life and hope the Announcer revokes their statement. I don’t think they will, though. They never have before.
The next day, someone knocks on my door. “I thought you might be able to help,” they say. “You see, I’m quite afraid of the new sky they’ve got going on.”
“Why don’t you like the bowling alley carpet?” I ask. I peer up. My brain feels sluggish, probably because I am mentally at the bottom of a swimming pool. I shake my head to try and rid myself of the feeling.
“It just isn’t how the sky should be,” the stranger insists.
“Okay,” I respond. “Well, why are you talking to me about it?”
“Don’t you prefer the old sky?”
I blink. “I suppose so, but…” I shrug. “What do you want me to do about it?”
The stranger sighs. “I can see you won’t be of any help. Good day, I suppose.”
“Get better soon,” I offer weakly as they walk away.
What a strange encounter, I think. I’m about to close the door when I hear a familiar disembodied voice.
“The bowling alley carpet has begun to malfunction,” says the Announcer. “Please wait patiently as we fix the problem.”
Curious, I glance up. Sure enough, a patch of the bowling alley carpet up above isn’t there anymore, revealing a featureless square in a color that I don’t recognize.
I shrug and close the door. I’ve got books to organize.
I wake up floating in a granny apple-green void with touches of emerald around the edges. “Hello?” I ask. My voice is immediately swallowed up by the green, but at least my spirituality isn’t on the verge of drowning anymore.
“You’re awake,” the Announcer says.
“Congratulations,” they say warmly.
“Where am I?” I ask. Last I remember, my bedroom was painted purple.
“The same place you’ve always been,” the Announcer says without any inflection. “Here.”
“Of course,” I say. “I knew that.” I stand up — or try to, at least, as much as I can. “Where is the sun?” I ask. “The stars have hardly changed, but where is the Moon? I miss her.”
“The sun is still here,” the Announcer replies. “It’s just hiding behind the bowling alley carpet. The stars are not stars. They are the sun shining through the holes we poked so that you would have room to breathe.”
“And where is the Moon?” I ask again. “I still miss her.”
“Why, haven’t you heard her?” The Announcer says. “Now she sings instead.”
And as soon as they say it, of course it is true. I hear the Moon’s song in my head, as clear as the Announcer’s voice, clearer than my own thoughts. She is beautiful. Her song swoops and dives and tells no story but time. I feel tears in my eyes.
“Oh, don’t cry,” the Announcer says dispassionately. “It’s not just for you.”
It feels very much like it is.
“We all have to share the Moonsong,” they say. “Otherwise, how will we all cope with being in love with her?”
And I am in love with the Moon. Desperately, passionately. Maybe I don’t know how love works but that doesn’t make it any less true. I look up and she isn’t there anymore and it tears a hole in my heart — and then I remember that she’s still singing and I calm down again.
“Her song is so beautiful,” I say. I keep tearing up. Just because she’s not just mine doesn’t mean that I’m not just hers.
“I love her.”
“How do I love her?” I ask. “Does she love me back?”
The Announcer doesn’t respond.
“How can I woo her? Can I take the Moon on a date? What’s her favorite flower? Does she like salted caramel chocolates?”
“You can’t take the Moon on a date,” the Announcer says. “She won’t have time for you. She has plenty of other suitors who took all of her available time slots for the next two months.”
“Then I’ll take her on a date in a two months and a day,” I declare. “Where’s romantic? A Thai restaurant? I think we’ll go to a Thai restaurant.”
“A Thai restaurant isn’t romantic,” says the Announcer. “There’s only one romantic restaurant here, and she’ll have been to it every night for two months by the time your date comes around. She knows the menu. She knows the waiters by name. She knows them better than you.”
“Then we’ll go on a long walk on the beach,” I say. “Moons like that, right?”
“Haven’t you ever watched TV?” The Announcer asks condescendingly. I wait, but they don’t follow it up with anything.
“I think so,” I say uncertainly.
“I have,” I echo. “Of course I’ve watched TV. Of course Moons like long walks on the beach.”
“I think I’d like to hold her hand,” I say. “I’ve never held anyone’s hand before, but I think I would like to hold hers.”
“That’s what everyone else says,” the Announcer tells me.
“Oh. Is it?” I don’t want to be just like everyone else. Although, if everyone else is also in love with the Moon, I suppose it can’t be too bad.
“Her favorite flowers are chrysanthemums, and her favorite kind of chocolate is raspberry,” the Announcer tells me.
“I don’t know if I can be with someone whose favorite kind of chocolate is raspberry,” I say. “But I love her so much already…”
“She won’t notice if you stand her up,” says the Announcer. “She might even be relieved to finally have a night to herself.”
“But I can’t not tell her I love her, it’s the most important thing in the world!” I can’t think of anything more urgent, more pressing for me to do in two months and a day.
“She learns of someone’s love for her every day,” they say. “You are no different.”
“I can just buy regular chocolates. We can compromise on that.” I straighten up resolutely. “That’s what love is, right?”
“Love isn’t anything.”
I don’t understand.
“You don’t have to. You just need to do it.”
“How can I love her?”
“That’s for her to say.”
I listen to her song for hints on the best way to woo her. Then I start to tear up again and forget what I’m listening for. I’m just lost in the beauty of her music, of her voice. The timbre of her voice is exactly what I would expect from the Moon. I’ve never heard anything better.
“I don’t know how to feel love,” I realize.
“Nonsense,” says the Announcer.
“I don’t think it is.” I’ve never disagreed with the Announcer before. But this is not something that they have any say in. “I’ve never loved anyone like this. I don’t think I love the Moon. I just miss her.”
“That’s what love is,” says the Announcer.
“You said love wasn’t anything,” I retort, narrowing my eyes.
“Love can change,” they reply.
“I only miss her,” I say forcefully. “I just miss seeing her crescent up in the sky. Is she trapped behind the bowling alley carpet with the sun? Where are the real stars? They were real before. Did you trap the sky in the floor of the bowling alley?”
“The sky is where it needs to be.” The Announcer, for the first time in my memory, sounds angry. I didn’t realize the Announcer had emotions like the rest of us.
“I need the sky to be up there!” I point up, to the top of the vibrant void.
And there it is.
The sun, radiant and majestic. The stars, bright and twinkling. The Moon, her silvery, full-faced surface pockmarked and beautiful.
I don’t know how the sky is here again. I’m not in the void anymore, either — I’m in a grassy field, looking up at the sky. I don’t know how, but I know that the bowling alley carpet is back in the bowling alley. I realize that the Moon has ceased her singing, but I don’t care anymore, not as long as she’s back where she belongs.
“That was not allowed,” the Announcer says in my mind. They sound angrier than ever, infuriated at what I’ve done.
I don’t care what’s allowed and what’s not anymore.
I bend down and pick a dandelion from the ground. I take a deep breath and blow. I blow the fluff off of the dandelion and the Announcer out of my mind. The wind whistles around me as I fall to the ground, smiling up at the sky, the Moon that I’ve missed. You’re welcome, stranger, I think to myself. I brought the sky back.
About the Author
Tabitha Gonia · Susquehanna University
Tabitha Gonia is a second-year student at Susquehanna University who loves getting surreal.
About the Artist
Hunter Louis · University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin
Hunter Louis is an illustrator and printmaker based in Milwaukee, WI. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art and Design with an emphasis in Print and Narrative Forms from the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin in May 2021. His work has been shown in invitational group shows and juried group shows in the Milwaukee area. Louis has work belonging to numerous personal and private collections, including the UWM Library’s Special Collections and the UWM Union’s permanent collection, along with having work published in Furrow Arts Magazine.