Normal people, Ben has come to understand, never hear any thoughts besides their own.
Life doesn’t pull at them, sudden and painful-hard from every direction, as though their brains are the tightly knotted center to a tangled ball of string: orchid stems rot in a vase, moon moths tremble in a spider web, a thatch-sparrow breaks itself against the mirrored sky of a windowpane, and it must all pass through him sooner or later because those are the rules.
Normal people don’t sit down and start crying for no reason, or because some heavy and flattening dread has been dropped onto their hearts from nowhere. Normal people don’t have tempers that can smash and bruise things without touching them. Normal people aren’t kept awake all night by the sound of burned-up stars inside their bones.
(It’s a deep and filling noise, by the way, and it shakes him like the membrane on a beaten drum. At least it’s better than voices.)
“…I think it’s the carbon,” Ben says. He sits with his feet dangled down into the Falcon’s smuggling compartment. “I mean, I know stars are mostly hydrogen and helium, but I read about how their cores turn into elements like carbon once they start to die – the heavier stuff our bones are made of. Does that mean anything?”
There’s a loud clatter from below. Father sticks his head up again.
He has glow-rod clenched between his back teeth, a piece of the ship’s sensor jammer in his hand, and a new but reddening welt across his forehead.
(Father’s mind contains a kind of exuberant, cunning disorder, like a big messy desk where everything is laid out in the exact best place to find it quickly. Mother’s mind is clean and focused, meanwhile, cut with grooves like the inside of a blaster rifle’s barrel.)
“Honestly, kid?” The glow-rod bobs like a cigarra as Father talks. “I think you’re giving the universe way more credit than it deserves.”
“Well, for one thing, you talk like it’s got an obligation to make sense. It doesn’t.” Father plants both hands on the metal grating to haul himself up. He does it in one easy, jointless motion. “If things ever actually fall in line too neatly that way, you’re probably about to become the butt of a joke.”
“Like the one Lando told you?” Ben is going to be ten years old soon, a number he likes because it looks so well-balanced on paper, and crude jokes have begun to strike him as the trapdoor to adulthood’s secret passageways. “About the bar, and the – ”
“Sh-sh-sh! Remember what I said, ah? That’s classified. We don’t want the General hearing about it.” He means Mother, of course. He hands Ben an oil rag taken from his vest pocket. “Here. Get whatever’s on my face, will you?”
Ben accepts the cloth in two hands and wipes the black smudges off his Father’s cheeks with a focused, assiduous care. Father keeps his eyes closed the whole time, and then a memory jumps from his skin onto Ben’s hand like an electrical shock.
They’ve been fighting again – Mother and Father, fighting about him.
(“So what are you saying now?” Ben hears. It presses an ache around his ribs, a too-late longing to take back words. “You’re saying I’m such an idiot that I can’t even help my own son?”
“Han Solo, don’t you dare try making this about you,” Mother says back. Neither of them are shouting. “That’s not what I’m saying at all. I know you can’t feel it the way I do, but I know damn well you can see it – something terrible is happening to him, Han. I don’t think either of us can help.”
“Oh, and somehow you’ve decided that Luke can?”
“We have to try.”)
He lowers the cloth.
Father opens his eyes and smiles, so Ben smiles back because it seems like the expected thing to do.
For a moment he wants to ask Father what they meant, about him and Uncle Luke, but then he’d have to admit he’d been eavesdropping – eavesdropping on thoughts, no less, which is much worse than in the conventional sense.
Normal people, he thinks again.
People who can be here, without also being there and there and there at the same time. People who don’t go around asking their fathers so many stupid, morbid questions: about all the repurposed life they’re made from, or whether killing a person is like cutting a string, or whether they think dying will feel more like being frozen in carbonite or finally being taken out of it. People who aren’t so afraid of themselves, and what they might turn into.
(Maybe Grandfather would’ve understood.)
So instead Ben stays silent, listening to that thrumming music shut up in his bones. The notes seem to rise, and build, and they go on carrying him forward towards whatever is going to happen next.
“Though my soul has set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
- Sarah Williams, “The Old Astronomer (to His Pupil)”