On December 21st, 2089, when the red star Betelgeuse—10th brightest in the sky—unexpectedly exploded in a blazing supernova, scientists told us we had nothing to fear. Our planet was too far away for this explosion to harm, much less destroy, life on earth, and to enjoy the show. The solstice had never been so spectacular.
“A once in a lifetime occurrence,” asserted one talking head on the yak circuit.
Another intoned, “We are thrilled to have a nearby supernova to study.”
And so the scientific community was abuzz. And this was understandable. Not every day a giant red star blows up in your neighbourhood. The problem was, the supernova had lit up the night sky—a dull yellow glow that obscured the stars but didn’t quite duplicate daylight. Indeed, the night sky was expected to be lit up for at least several months. And while scientists said no physical harm would come of it, no one could honestly predict the psychological ramifications.
“So much for the Christmas lights this year,” my partner Felicia lamented as we stood on our snow-covered lawn and stared at the sky.
“They still look nice,” I offered.
Felicia shrugged. “It’s just weird. Makes me feel weird, and small.”
She had something there. The supernova had somehow dwarfed us all, and turned our little worlds upside down. Hard to explain, but perhaps the lack of a black sky dotted with stars toyed with our psychic equilibrium. For instance, people were staying up all night to watch the sky, much to the detriment of pace and productivity. Those were the two keystones of The New Society, as we called ourselves after the economic and societal convulsions of the past half century. Many problems had been solved, but many still remained. Perhaps the supernova would shine a light on our emotional and spiritual deficiencies.
My next door neighbour Peter waved to us from his window. His Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer sweater made us smile. Not that we found it charming, but we knew that Peter expected us to find it charming. He had lost something when his wife Izzy left him for the Martian colonies. It was difficult to talk to him now, this once chipper man, he had whittled into cliches about weather and hockey. His reaction to the supernova had been singularly peculiar. He believed it was all a fraud, a great hoax perpetrated by subversive oligarchs in charge of the Martian operations. He believed that Betelgeuse was still intact and that the night sky was lit up by giant Martian spotlights.
We went inside. We kicked off our boots and fleeces. Glittering in the corner of the living room, the Christmas tree gave me pause. It never failed to strike me when I looked at it. Perhaps it was the reach back into childhood, the memories, the twinkling nostalgia. But on this Christmas Eve, it felt different. It felt weird.
“What is it?” Felicia asked, as she wrapped herself in a blanket on the sofa.
“I don’t know,” I said, “things feel off.”
Felicia chuckled. “No kidding!”
I smiled at her. Of course. Things didn’t just feel off, they were off. I mean, a supernova next door. Nothing to sneeze at. And Betelgeuse gone. That was messed up.
“Wonder how Santa Claus will manage tonight,” I said.
“Geez,” Felicia said, “you figure it would be easy-peasy with the sky all lit up like that. Unless he needs stars to navigate.”
“Hm, never thought of that.”
“Peter has totally lost it, eh?”
“Poor bastard. Loneliness will do that.”
I wandered into the kitchen. I felt like having a snack but was torn between savoury and sweet. I decided on hot chocolate and fitted the pod into the brewing unit. In seconds, a mug of frothy hot chocolate awaited me. I threw in a few miniature marshmallows. Felicia put on some Christmas music: Vince Guaraldi. Perfect. I blew on my mug and glanced out the kitchen window, nodding to the music, but with no feeling. It was almost ten pm. It didn’t look like daylight out there, but it also didn’t look like night. Christmas lights glowed faintly in the neighbourhood; nativity scenes and more kitschy displays were fired up. But the velvet loveliness of night was missing, the stars, the snow shining in the moonlight, the magic. I carefully sipped the hot chocolate.
Just then, I saw Peter in his silly sweater hopping around the side of his house, kicking up snow, almost like he was playfully chasing a child. He was wearing furry white boots and these thick tinted goggles that made him look loonier than he was. At one point he slapped his hands on his hips, looked up at the sky and started laughing. I felt a wave of pity for him.
Felicia came up behind me, put her arms under my armpits, and squeezed.
“Hey,” I said.
“He’s really lost it.”
“Yeah. Must be tough during the holidays.”
“I think the supernova put him over.”
“Don’t ever leave me for the Martian colonies,” I said, more firmly than I intended.
Felicia squeezed me.
“Now that you mention it.”
We both laughed. I sipped my hot chocolate.
“How about something stronger,” Felicia said. “It is the festive season.”
“What do you have in mind?”
She opened the cupboard where we kept the liquor and selected a bottle of Canada Club.
“The hard stuff,” I said.
“Reminds me of Christmas with my dad and uncles. They used to hammer bottles of it over the holidays.”
I glanced out the window again. Peter was gone. Felicia took out two shot glasses and filled them with the amber whisky.
“Here’s to Betelgeuse,” she said, as we clinked glasses. “Here’s to Betelgeuse,” I repeated, taking the whisky down in one go, feeling thankful and sad and weird at the same time.
Painting by Hannah Fulton