An offering of fiction that drops readers directly into a cosmic stripping of beliefs; a story that begs the question: What if there was nothing left to believe in…
by: Joseph Lyttleton
A week after ‘The Awakening’, Nadine’s sobs started seeping through the cracker-thin wall between our apartments like a plaintive ghost.
Somewhat unrelatedly, I also adopted a cat.
In Chicago, you inevitably hear your neighbors. The arguments, the lovemaking, the anesthetized chortles at late-night television. You grow accustomed to the background noise. So, while I had long known Nadine’s routine — washing dishes first thing in the morning, listening to gospel music on the weekends, enthusiastically endorsing the conservative screeds of cable talking heads — it was her crying that broke through my comfortable urban hum. Eventually, it became the only noise emanating from her apartment.
I heard her almost every night as I fell asleep. In the hallway, when we passed each other, her eyes were red, her nose blistered.
At first, I didn’t say anything.
To be honest, we all felt like crying for a while there; it was the most natural reaction.
Within twenty-four hours, pundits took to calling it “The Awakening.” A fitting name as so many of us, literally, woke up to a new reality that day.
By all accounts, it was a simultaneous occurrence, a flash of deprivation, the cosmic stripping of our beliefs. In the American Midwest, it happened shortly after five in the morning. It struck around dinnertime in Eastern Asia and noon-ish in most of Europe and Africa. People were leaving work, eating meals, playing with their kids, being kids — just living. The lucky ones were sleeping when it happened.
Collectively, humanity lost its faith.
Technically, just our faith in God. Or god. Or gods. Believing in an almighty power, a divine authority, an angry lightning thrower became no longer possible. Not by choice. Some sort of malevolent miracle stripped it from us, like a thief in the night. So many of us went to sleep the night before with the calming assurance that a firm hand was at the wheel and woke up to the cold reality that there was no co-pilot. Others simply blinked and opened their eyes to a terrifying truth.
A desperate few still claimed to have faith, but it’s a lie; they know it, we know it. The mechanism simply doesn’t work anymore. An evolutionary switch in the brain of Homo sapiens was flipped off, and Journey be damned, we stopped believing.
It can’t be explained. Many have tried.
Waking that morning, the sense that something was off crept over me the way a spring fog rolls across Lake Michigan, revealing an inchoate emptiness. I had assumed a disturbing dream was simply lodged in my subconscious, until I saw the online chatter.
I guess I had believed in a higher being. My family is non-religious going back generations. My ancestors, who arrived in the Midwest nearly two centuries ago, weren’t seeking freedom to worship in their own way, just land to create a new Poland. A cousin attended Wheaton College, but on the whole we’ve always treated religion like it were somebody else’s favorite football team; fine for you, but we’ve already got the Bears.
Since The Awakening, I can’t stop thinking about this kid from high school, Paulie. A devout Christian, he would earnestly carry around his Bible around while displaying a rainbow of ‘What Would Jesus Do’ bracelets up both wrists. He’d sit with my friends at lunch, but despite his ostentatious piety, Paulie didn’t gripe when we debated who we’d rather bang, Agent Scully or Jadzia Dax (being a Star Trek kid, it was Dax for me), and he never preached at us unless someone provoked him. To me, Paulie’s Evangelicalism was just another type of fandom, no different than collecting Pokémon cards or writing fanfic about Luke Skywalker’s extended family.
Which is to say, I knew some people took their religion seriously and felt it was very important. But I assumed they compartmentalized, realizing (at least in the back of their minds) that their beliefs didn’t have any bearing on the real world.
I can’t help but think Paulie, wherever he is now, must be having a rough go of it. Initially, the faithful took it hardest, entire religious sects imploding in a burst of infighting and terminal self-flagellation. A startling number of priests and clerics turned to suicide, thousands of their adherents following suit. For these unfortunate souls, The Awakening represented real, immediate loss. Once they could see, but now they are blind.
Around the world, wars and territorial conflicts halted suddenly, albeit briefly. Some places, like Afghanistan and Israel and Alabama, have devolved into chaos. A few other regions have simply gone dark, no information in or out. Though a smattering of countries paused for days of mourning following mealy-mouthed statements from whatever button-downed politician pulled the short straw, most governments have never officially acknowledged The Awakening. What could they acknowledge? Nothingness?
On the street level, the effects are more tangible. Thousands, maybe millions of people have gone missing, wandering from their homes like sleepwalkers; so many that authorities have given up any pretense of looking. Whether out of despair or a newfound sense of liberation, the missing have simply stepped away from their lives and into the welcoming arms of the anonymous road.
Radio stations pulled any song that mentions “God” or “faith”; the stations that specialize in 90s rock had half their playlists wiped out overnight (although, Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” entered the Top 10 again). Hotels purged their Gideon Bibles almost immediately, tossing them into dumpsters like blood-soiled sheets. An online petition to remove “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency has thirty-three million signatures.
The day after the Awakening, markets crashed precipitously, and then, over the next month, climbed back up — god or no god, the rich get richer.
The religion-sized hole in society rapidly filled. Secular cults — ones preaching love, self-acceptance, and the insidious depravity of the amorphous “them” — are booming. Gyms and multi-level marketing schemes are also seeing their memberships balloon. Cryptocurrency is thriving. A superhero movie won Best Picture at the Oscars. Richard Dawkins is on tour selling out Wembley Stadium and the Hollywood Bowl. People need something to believe in.
By and large, humanity has simply carried on, a bit dazed, a bit confused. We work, eat, binge Netflix, masturbate, and fall asleep in our socks. We meet Tinder strangers, debate whether our favorite prestige dramas have dropped in quality in their third seasons, cry at reruns of Friends. We snap at waiters, cancel plans, ignore calls from our mothers. Normal things, now portentously weighted.
The world is different, but only for those who want it to be.
Then there was Nadine’s river of tears. I understood my neighbor to be a serene, silver-haired woman in her early 60s who had lived in the apartment building thirty years or so. She’s been alone ever since her husband died a decade or more ago, well before I moved into my adjoining apartment. We saw each other a few times a week, passing in the hallway, exchanging the odd pleasantry here and there. Near as I could tell, she rarely left the building aside for Sunday mornings; now, not even then.
What I knew of Nadine’s biography barely filled a sentence. She had once been married and she didn’t have kids. Another random tidbit — she never took off her pewter cross necklace. Until The Awakening, the talisman’s significance hadn’t been apparent to me.
A month after adopting my American Shorthair, I realized it was a mistake. I felt no less empty.
“You’re giving your cat away?”
Nadine had invited me in. Sitting across from her, I glanced about her living room, which looked exactly how you’d expect the apartment of a sexagenarian widow to look. It was sparsely furnished, just the loveseat I occupied and a stiff armchair in which she sat, both a pale rose tint. Tchotchkes monopolized the few flat surfaces. The flower pattern of her faded wallpaper was brighter in various rectangular spots. Photos or paintings had recently been removed.
“Well, I’m pretty busy with work these days,” I lied. “So, I’m not around much. It’s not really fair to her.”
“What’s your cat’s name?”
“Like Bardot, the actress.”
“Oh, I don’t watch much TV. Too much sex these days.”
“Yes, well. I was thinking. I know you’re around most days. Thought maybe you’d be able to take care of her. She’s really quite sweet.”
“I suppose I don’t have much going on,” Nadine mused, looking past me.
“I didn’t mean it like that. I just…I have to give her to somebody, I thought I’d ask you first. And, you know, I would still come visit Brigitte when I had a chance.” Another lie. “If that were okay with you.”
“Well, I don’t know. I’ve never had a cat. Always been more of a dog person. At least, my husband was. He had a boxer when we met, Mailer. That was the dog’s name, not my husband. He was Donald.”
“It’s okay if you don’t want to take her,” I assured. “Somebody will.”
“Right.” She nodded and looked out the window. We sat in that silence for a moment. When she’d opened the door earlier, I’d noticed her eyes were red again. Also, her cross necklace was gone.
“Listen,” I started, breaking the stillness to broach the real reason I had knocked on her door. “I don’t know…I also wanted to ask…Are you doing alright?”
“It’s just that, well…These walls are pretty thin. And I’ve heard, maybe a few times, well, you. Crying.” She stared at me, unblinking. “It’s none of my business, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
A few breathless beats passed. She asked, “You’ve heard me?”
“A little. I guess. A few nights, for a while.”
“I don’t mean to pry, I just…”
“No…I don’t suppose I am okay,” she confessed absently. “I’m a bit…” Leaving her state unspoken, Nadine’s right hand went to her throat, then dropped back to her lap when it didn’t find the necklace for purchase. “It’s so strange, you know?”
“I don’t know what to do with myself anymore.”
My mind raced for a suggestion, but take up an instrument felt too facile. Nadine sensed my uncertainty.
“Well, anyway. Thanks for checking up on me.”
“We can talk about it.”
“Thank you, but there’s not much to talk about, is there? Just an old foolish woman feeling out of place.”
“You’re not foolish.”
“I either was before,” she half-smiled at me, her eyes welling up, “or I am now.”
“It’ll just take getting used to,” I said. Neither one of us said what “it” was. This is how all discussions of The Awakening go. We’ve all been through the same thing. Not in the same ways, but, nevertheless, everyone experienced it. Air, gravity, faithlessness. It’s universal.
It’s also unspeakable.
“No, I don’t think I ever will. What am I supposed to be getting used to?” Bitterness seeped into her tone as she added, “That we’re all alone and life is meaningless?” Again, she began to reach for her neck but stopped short this time. A single tear fell. I thought of my mom, of the times I’d seen her cry — when her sister was diagnosed with cancer, when my father cheated on her; when I was fifteen and yelled that I hated her. I made a mental note to call her.
“I feel like I’m the last person to get a joke. Donald was right.”
“He wasn’t a believer. He’d go to church with me. On Easter, other occasions. But he didn’t actually believe any of it. He must be feeling smug now. Or not, since he’s gone. Just…gone. I’ll never see Donald again.” Nadine spoke the words as if it were the first time she’d ever realized that fact.
“Maybe you will,” I found myself inexplicably saying. “Who really knows what’s out there? You know, even if no one believes in it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Who says an afterlife even needs a god?”
“What sort of afterlife would that be?”
Stammering, I admitted I didn’t know.
“You really believe the afterlife is still possible?”
“No. Of course not. If you didn’t believe before, you won’t believe now. After…it.” She looked me directly in the eyes, hers covered in a slick sheen. “Everyone seems just so normal. Like nothing happened, nothing changed. It did, for me. I don’t know if all of you are just pretending to be fine, or if you were lying all along and no one ever truly believed before. But I did.” She sighed. “I wish I hadn’t.”
I had nothing to offer, we both knew that.
For a few minutes, she cried softly while I looked on. Then, holding her breath, she gathered herself, like an exhausted sprinter striving for the finish line. She looked up at me and, attempting to soften her expression, said, “No, I won’t take your cat. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. No worries.”
Nadine saw me out. Back in my apartment, I heard her weeping.
Brigitte didn’t even acknowledge my return.
Flipping on my TV, I turned up the volume until the speakers fuzzed.
I never did call my mom.
Joseph Lyttleton is the creator of 10 Cities/10 Years, a decade-spanning project in which he lived in ten different U.S. cities. Lyttleton has also independently published the novel “Yahweh’s Children.” He currently lives in Madrid, Spain.