Subterwhere How many times have you looked up at the sky?

How many times have you looked up at the sky?

No one thinks about how often they look up at the sky. Not even weathermen. I mean, how would you even start counting? Does looking at the horizon count as looking at the sky? Does checking for rain clouds count? What about tilting your head back when you get a nose bleed? Eye rolls?

So many situations apply. The question is an odd one to ask, and the answer obvious: no one knows because they don’t count.

It’s safe to assume you’ve looked up at the sky more than a handful of times in your life. Actually, without thinking about it too hard, you’ve looked up at the sky a lot this week alone.

So, yeah, the sky.

I’ve started looking up at the sky. And counting the number of times, too. Three-hundred-and-fifty-seven to date.

It’s a recent habit, one I can’t shake—a habit that has its own will and its own symptoms. Nerves bunching up, drought-mouth, eyes blinking more than necessary.

Then the panic descends.

And then comes the searching. I search for a place to hide, a place to crawl under—I look for something to put between me and … what?

Then comes the worst part: knowing. Knowing I won’t make it in time, knowing I’m exposed.

It happened once when I was walking back from the local mini-market. Once was enough. Once was bad enough.

I remember the wrongness. Insidious would be a make-shift word to describe it. It didn’t creep in, like a chill, or seep in like a cold. It just happened. It slipped in between one blink and the next, throwing everything just slightly off-centre, so that I didn’t really notice it—like a picture frame that isn’t one-hundred percent level. I know Windhoek well—like everyone from the 061—but my brain didn’t register the millimetre change in tilt.

When I pass strangers in the street I keep left, just like I drive, and I make eye contact with them. Not a lot, just enough to acknowledge that we share the pavement. Sometimes I tip my head if the eye contact lasts longer than it takes to pass each other. But it was night, I was in the shadow between lamp posts so the eye contact rule didn’t apply. I kept to one side out of habit.

The wrongness affected how I kept left. It didn’t feel like I was keeping left enough. So I kept left some more. Until I was on the pavement’s edge.

I still wasn’t left enough.

My eyes saw the wrongness in the distance. I just didn’t know I was seeing it.

The traffic light had been red longer than usual. It never occurred to me that that’s not how long it was supposed to stay that way.

I kept on keeping left.

The wrongness was in what I was hearing but I didn’t register it. There’s a line of poles on one side of the route I take to and from the mini-market. I’d slap my hand on their rounded tops whenever I passed them. There’s one pole with a dent in the top. I wonder how it got there. Whenever I passed it I brought my hand down just right so my middle finger landed in the dent. And I can always tell when my hand is about to land wrong. I walked the route often enough.

I got it right that night. My finger landed in the dent.

Now, I registered the wrongness, but just as quickly shrugged it off.

It’s just a pole.

Poles with just-off dents aren’t exactly omens for the end of days.

I kept left. But not left enough.

I passed … what?

I remember thinking it was just another late-night shopper. Maybe out to buy some Rooibos tea or cigarettes. I thought about how I could’ve saved them the whole trip to the mini-market. That’s why I was out, too—I needed Rooibos tea. But the shop only had Five Roses. The boxes sat smugly on the shelf, happy to send me home disappointed, putting me back on the path. If I was the superstitious type, I’d have thought that it was orchestrated.

Anyway, I passed…it.

Then I looked up at the sky.

My feet stopped.

Light pollution—it’s something I’d heard about recently. It’s why people don’t see so many stars in the night sky when they live in a city. But not in Windhoek. The city’s small enough and, therefore, dark enough for us to see the stars.

But I couldn’t see the stars.

Everything had stopped. Not paused, not holding its breath. It was like it had reached the end of the track, or run out of tape.

There weren’t any stars in the sky. I knew what I saw weren’t clouds. Namibian winters don’t have clouds.

A standing blackness. With no depth to it, and no beyond. A hard limit.

The traffic light that was red too long, the leftness that wasn’t left enough, the off-centre dent.

Now I was paying the wrongness my full attention. I could hear my own breathing a half-second sooner than I expected. I don’t know how I knew that, but I did in that moment.

Nerves bunching up, drought-mouth, eyes blinking more than is necessary.

Then came the searching. A place to hide, a place to crawl under, something to put between me and whatever was coming—I looked around me but found nothing instead.

You want to know what it was? You and me both.

Vampires, werewolves, boogeymen, poltergeists, possessed toys, demon clowns—I know what those are, we all do. Those things have solutions—not readily available to me in my daily life, but we all have some sort of defensive measure planned for a zombie apocalypse should the undead Thriller their way onto national headlines. Like I said, solutions. If not solutions, warnings at the very least. Because someone at some point wrote them down for everyone else.

If you can’t be ready, then beware.

It stood there.

What was I supposed to be ready for? What was I supposed to be wary of?

Sometimes I think about all the lamenting over what was lost when the white man came looking for us to do the work he didn’t want to do. The lives, the stories, the potential, the world we lost.

And now, I see what’s missing in those lamentations. The warnings.

I wasn’t given a warning then. I still don’t have one now.

I waited. I can’t tell you for how long. I can tell you how many heartbeats: eight drawn out thump-thumps, like my ticker wanting nothing more than to abandon its duty.

Then someone reconnected the rest of the world. And the robot in the distance finally turned green. The sound of my breathing arrived when expected. My heart started making up for the missed work.

I walked home. I knew running wouldn’t help. There was no out-running this.

Do you count the number of times you look up at the sky?

I know the number of steps from my house to that spot: three hundred and sixty one steps. Plus five to where it was. Three hundred and fifty seven times I’ve looked up at the sky. Eight heartbeats.

I make myself walk back to that same spot, telling myself I’m getting over it. Telling myself that my life’s normal. I check the night sky before I sleep, making sure the stars are still there. I hope Windhoek stays small so I can still see the stars. As long as I can see the stars, then … then it isn’t there. I wait to see if they stay. I fall asleep waiting.

In my dreams I see the red traffic light in the distance. I wake up when it turns green.

What if it never turns green? What if the light had never turned green?

Once was enough. Once was bad enough.

How many times have you looked up at the sky?

Ange Mucyo is a Namibian writer, network and systems administrator, software developer, and Cisco-certified network associate by profession. He also dabbles in 3D art and sound production. Angé is interested in computers and video games and the opportunity they provide in bringing these various art forms together in an interactive context.