Atom and Void
The lobby at the ReAt Agency was pale and insipid. The walls were made of white bricks that were cold to the touch when I dragged my fingers along the lines of grout holding them together. There was one poster hanging on the wall across from me as I sat and waited. It showed a step-by-step sequence of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, and the text below the image read, “Change is possible, solutions are everywhere.” The comma splice distracted me and I thought about taking one of the pens from the coffee table next to me and correcting the mistake. I dithered between a period or a semicolon, but since I couldn’t change the capitalization of the S in ‘solutions’ I decided on a semicolon. All of this was waylaid, however, by a man who walked in raving and hitting himself in the thigh in a stabbing motion.
This man wasn’t an oddity in the ReAt lobby and I doubt anybody else took notice of him but myself. I was the one who stood out. There were four of us waiting for our names to be called and start our lives anew. A woman with short almond hair sat to my left. She looked like she had been through hell and was at her end. Her eyes were black pits and her arms were tattooed with bruises and track marks. She sniffled and held back tears as she played a video game on her phone, hypnotized by the lurid colors and moving shapes. Every minute on the minute she jarred her chin into her chest and said, “Threw it all away, threw it all away.”
Perpendicular to her on her left sat a middle-aged man dressed in a nice suit. He looked like he came straight out of an Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet—one of the pictures where the alcoholic is at their lowest, face sunken and jaundiced, passed out at the dinner table surrounded by a worried family. Though his face looked defeated, he still dressed well. His suit was so nice I started to question my wardrobe choice. I should have worn something nicer than my everyday attire of jeans and a solid color t-shirt, considering the occasion.
And then there was the raving, self-stabbing man pacing back and forth, and me slouched comfortably, hoping for my name to be called soon to avoid the possibility of someone finding me at the ReAt Agency. I was the only one who looked like they had any life left in them. My skin was tan, not sallow. My eyes were pointed and bright, not dull. I had all my teeth. I didn’t fidget, nor did I cry.
A light above me dinged alive and an automated voice said my name. The sealed door across the room unbolted and opened. The other three in the lobby stared at me as I cleared my throat and stood up. I walked through the door and it closed behind me.
I first heard about the ReAt Agency in middle school, around twelve or thirteen years old. Back then it was only a fringe rumor spread online by conspiracy theorists, but at some point the discussion percolated into middle schools and I found myself on the receiving end of a lecture on ReAtomization by Brent Hollins. What he told me that day in the lunchroom turned out to be mostly true and it was similar to my experience with ReAtomization.
Nobody knows who started the ReAt Agency or how it came to be so big—and it’s still unknown but that hasn’t stultified rumors—however one day it appeared and it was here to stay. The concept of ReAtomization is quite simple, but the science of it is safeguarded and only understood by a select few. Instead of death, when someone wants to end their life as a human they can go to the ReAt Agency and be reborn as something inanimate. You lie down in a machine that’s essentially a modified MRI bed, and energy—allegedly extracted from deep within the earth—cycles around you until all your atoms are reconfigured and you’re no longer human. After that you’re only small pieces of your future whole. You must be put together into something using the pieces you’ve become. There are people who do this for you.
You don’t know what you’ll be ReAtomized as when you go through it but this hardly ever deters anybody. You become a thing with a predetermined essence to your existence. Some become a fork, some become a birdhouse, some become an office chair, some become a light post. Unlucky ones become a gas station toilet seat. Lucky old men become big purple dildoes owned by lonely young women. It’s a roll of the dice. And it’s not ending your life; you maintain consciousness after ReAtomization, so you don’t truly die. You’re reborn and given a clean slate.
They say any problems you had before ReAtomization disappear despite you still having consciousness and the same mind as when you were a human. You no longer feel inadequate and hopeless, because now as a cell phone you find meaning in what you provide to others. You no longer lament your husband leaving you for his coworker, because now as a blender you can’t form relationships anyway. Those are all human problems. Life is different after ReAtomization; it’s slower and more meaningful. And it’s much nobler than death. When you die you’re dead and cease to exist. When you ReAtomize you go back into the world and serve the needs of others.
After you ReAtomize a ReAt Report is sent to a list of people you choose. The ReAt Report is essentially your final words. It’s written for you and it explains the whole process and defends the morality of ReAtomization. They say it’s personalized and very heartfelt, but you’re not allowed to read it. You have to have faith in the ReAt Agency.
In this new room the automated voice told me to take a seat in the lone chair in the middle of the room. The room was oil-black and the air had a palpable haze to it; one light hung from the ceiling and it shone on the chair. It felt like I was about to be interrogated, and I started to wonder if I was at the right place. Then a new voice, this one upbeat and glib like a late-night TV host, took over. It opened by congratulating me for making such a bold decision and taking control of my life. I said thank you, but it kept going without acknowledging me.
“ReAtomization is NOT death!” the voice assured me. “You will not die with ReAtomization. You will be reconfigured with as much life as you had before as a human.” A projector clicked on and the wall in front of me lit up. A ReAt Agency Production unfolded across the screen, and the film started. The opening shot looked familiar. It was a slow moving shot in an entanglement of tree branches and leaves. It panned out further and I realized that the tree was the big sugar maple in the front yard of my family home. My house came into the shot—autumn red siding, weather-beaten shingles, two stories—and I saw the outlines of bodies moving back and forth through the front window in the living room. I sat up straighter in the chair and looked around the room, to both sides and behind me. Through the dim light of the projector I saw nothing in the room except for the chair and myself.
It cut to a new scene and the voice said over the film, “This was your life before.” A lazy attempt at a doppelganger of myself moped around in a film studio reimagination of my bedroom. His hair was styled like mine and his skin had a similar tan hue, but he stood shorter in height and demeanor, and his cheeks were heavier. “All this, it wasn’t what you wanted, it wasn’t what you thought it would be,” the voice said. I remained silent.
The doppelganger stood still and started to cry softly, alone in my fake bedroom. The room was an amalgam of all my bedrooms. It didn’t only resemble my bedroom as I had left it earlier that day, it had elements of my bedroom throughout my life. There was racecar wallpaper along the corners where the walls and ceiling met, posters of movies I had liked as a teenager hanging up, the bed was fitted with solid black sheets and bedding like I had slept in the night before, toys on the floor that I remembered from my childhood. They had captured my life and presented it to me for one final show.
After a couple seconds of crying the doppelganger lifted his head, trying to hide his tears by wiping his hands across his cheeks. He looked at my old sports medals and trophies, academic awards I received as a kid, Prom King crown from high school—someone had taken all of my achievements and piled them in a corner of the fake bedroom for the film. He picked up a picture frame from the desk, holding it closely to himself and never revealing the picture to the camera, then set it back down and cried again. He sat down on the floor with his knees pulled into his chest and his face buried in them. I started to feel bad for him.
“You have an opportunity to change all this with ReAtomization,” the voice said. The doppelganger looked up from his crying and the tears had disappeared. His cheeks were dry and his eyes were no longer puffy. He smiled at me and I stared back until it felt too real and I shot my eyes toward the ground out of embarrassment. When I looked back up the screen faded out and transitioned.
“Are these the names you would like us to send your ReAt Report to?” The names on the screen were my mom Tara, my dad Lee, and my sisters Jessica and Kira. I confirmed that they were correct. “A new life awaits you!” the voice said. Then the screen went black, for good this time.
I suppose I had known for years that ReAtomization was going to be my fate. I never explicitly thought about it until recently, but the idea had always been germinating in the back of my mind. There had always been a war in my mind, a war between equanimity and self-reproach. It was a long-standing war of attrition that self-reproach ultimately won. The first shots, really, were fired at my birth. I was born a very sick baby and this resulted in spending the first three months of my life in the hospital. The outcome looked bleak and the doctors were sure I wouldn’t ever make it out of the hospital alive. And if I did somehow make it out alive, there was no doubt that I would be mentally or physically handicapped. Nevertheless I defied the doctors, recovered, and left the hospital at full health. I was a medical anomaly. The doctors called me Miracle Boy, national newspapers wrote articles about me, at five-months-old I got my own profile on 60 Minutes. So the expectations were high from the start.
The expectations were highest from my parents, who I felt I perpetually disappointed from childhood through adulthood. Every superlative in the book was ascribed to me when it came to comparing me to my sisters. Between Jessica, Kira, and me, I was the smartest, most athletic, funniest, nicest, most attractive, had the most potential. I had the brightest future and I was the one in the family expected to make it the furthest in every aspect of life—academics, athletics, career, and so on. But I failed in all of these regards, pathetically and passively.
I did well in school but never gave it enough effort to make it to the next step like my sisters did. Jessica and Kira worked hard in school yet still finished with worse grades and test scores than me. Despite this, they attended prestigious colleges where they earned lucrative degrees. At the time of my ReAtomization Jessica was the top accountant at her firm and Kira was a physician assistant at one of the largest hospitals in the United States. I believe they are still doing both. Instead of putting in the effort my sisters did and using school to better myself and my future prospects, I became complacent. After high school I went to a small local college and earned a degree in English, thus ensuring my fate of being underemployed and underpaid all my life. School wasn’t a jumping pad into a successful future for me. It was a place to remain comfortable and dawdle in stasis watching others make moves to improve their own futures.
Athletics was simply a matter of burning out. I was one of the best lacrosse players in the area in my junior year of high school. I earned All-Conference, All-Area, and All-District honors for midfielder. But I felt no joy in it. The joy came from the recognition I received from others. The only time I felt pride in what I did was when I received the approval of others and they celebrated me for it. I became so obsessed with my image through the lens of the outside world that I lost my true self somewhere along the way. Colleges reached out to me, newspapers interviewed me after games, and everybody around me told me how much potential I had in lacrosse. But before my senior season started, I suffered a bad ankle injury. I couldn’t move like I used to and it hindered my play, and because of this I became an afterthought on the lacrosse field, no longer the standout people had thought of me as before.
There was no point in playing lacrosse if I wasn’t celebrated for it. I didn’t love playing it and I didn’t like how I felt when playing it. I stopped caring and my senior season was a stark drop-off from my junior season. Colleges stopped contacting me, and I was done with lacrosse. I had disappointed my parents, my coaches and teammates, all the people who had believed in me.
The disappointment extended beyond school and sports. While my sisters got themselves nice jobs and nice husbands and moved into nice houses, I bounced around from low-level job to low-level job, hadn’t been in a meaningful relationship in years, and moved back home with my parents at twenty-two after I graduated college. I was supposed to be the successful one but I was cleaning toilets at a movie theater at 4 a.m. while my sisters slept in their king beds with their husbands, alarms set for 7 a.m. so they could wake up and go to their six-figure-a-year jobs.
I was a fraud my entire life as a human. There was an idea of me, a projection, and then there was the real me. They couldn’t have been more opposite. People saw a well put together, erudite, charming, happy person who was merely in a transitional phase in their life, and everything would be sorted out soon. But that’s not how I felt or who I thought I was. What people saw of me was simply a pleasant chimera I had put up. No one ever saw or met the real me. I was scared of the world meeting the real me. What if they didn’t like me? Then what would I do? I was so terrified of being exposed that I ran as far away from myself as I could.
All of this led to unceasing feelings of emptiness in my early twenties. I felt that there wasn’t just a hole inside me but there wasn’t an inside to me at all. I could never find happiness or contentment in myself in anything I did. I needed external elements to distract myself from the internal emptiness I felt. I thought drugs might do it, so I experimented with every one I had access to in an attempt to fill the void in me. Cocaine, cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms, ecstasy, LSD, amphetamines, opioids, angel dust, benzos, I even got high on nutmeg once. But my two favorite drugs were alcohol and sex. No matter how much I did, I could never get enough.
Fortunately for me the two worked so well when taken in conjunction. Alcohol made it so I didn’t care how I behaved or treated others, so I was shameless in my unending pursuit of sex, going after every girl I could get with. I became addicted to both and they consumed my mind during all hours of the day. I felt nothing unless I imbibed in one or the other.
Like all addicts, problems quickly arose. I did bad things, things that led to painful guilt that only bolstered my emptiness. One night on a tequila and cocaine jag I stole a car and drove it into a ditch, where I abandoned it and hitchhiked back home. I regularly got kicked out of bars and blacking out became an almost nightly happening. I got my ass kicked too many times to count because I flirted with the wrong guy’s girlfriend or because I got caught in bed with the wrong guy’s girlfriend. I woke up in the beds of strangers whose names I didn’t know. I got hangovers and gonorrhea. If I was conscious and breathing, chances were I was on a bender.
When I finally came down from the bender, the cumulative hangover—from both alcohol and moral degradation—was partially to blame for my decision to ReAtomize. One can only endure so much self-inflicted suffering before they break. Life is much more sustainable when the suffering is inflicted by someone else.
It wasn’t all alcohol and sex, though. I walked along the righteous trail too. I tried Buddhism because I had never belonged to a religion and I thought having some belief system would help. I studied the three universal truths, the four noble truths, and I followed the eightfold path. I meditated, I read books on Buddhism, I treated people how I would have liked to be treated. But I did it all in vain. Nothing inside me changed and I felt fraudulent for following an ascetic tradition while my life consisted of so much sordid indulgence. I was no Buddhist, no matter how bad I wanted to be.
I tried celibacy and it worked for a while. There were no more shameful mornings filled with regret and empty explanations as to why I couldn’t remember her name or how we met. I liked that part of it but I needed the touch of someone else, especially on nights when I felt lonely. I couldn’t fulfill myself but I thought someone else could—if not permanently, for one night.
I did volunteer work with illiterate adults and it opened my eyes to the unmistakable fact that there were people—a lot of them—out there who had worse lives than me. Yet I still felt miserable with myself, and seeing others who had it worse than me be content with themselves only compounded my misery. I lasted a week doing that.
I took antidepressants for some months, and I do believe they helped a little. But I couldn’t stay on them. It bothered me knowing that I needed the help of pills to get through the day, and it made me feel weak. Others could take them, that didn’t bother me and I didn’t think less of them for it, but not me. I knew some things were breaking down and building up inside my head, but I also knew that I could fix them myself. I didn’t need the help of pills. If anybody could quell those thoughts, I thought it was me.
What drove me most to ReAtomize was the constant cognitive dissonance in my mind. I wanted the most out of life. I wanted to burn the hottest and shine the brightest. I wanted not just a life but a spectacular life, and I didn’t care what price I had to pay for it. I wouldn’t settle for mediocrity because I had lived my entire life surrounded by it and all I saw was lifelessness and despair. But my actions belied these thoughts. I lived a passive life and I never took chances. The fear of failure kept my feet cemented to the ground, scared to disappoint myself or others. I wanted to run away but I was too scared to take the first step. I was pathetic and inconsistent, with delusions of grandeur and actions of indolence. I had all the control in the world to make a change, make something of myself, and I was too scared to ever do it. Choice is a great burden. Many lives have been wasted to choice, and I was determined to not let this happen to me.
The Atomists were ahead of their time. In the fifth century BCE in ancient Greece, Leucippus and his student Democritus founded the philosophical school of Atomism. They declared that everything was made of small, invisible, indestructible particles called atoms, that there are an infinite number of atoms, that between all atoms there is empty space—the void. It would be thousands of years before many of their theories were finally debunked, though some still remain correct.
Many of Leucippus and Democritus’s contemporary philosophers in antiquity disparaged Atomism for attributing everything to chance, for believing that atoms bounced around blindly and determined the order of the universe. But Atomists never claimed to believe in the arbitrariness of the universe. Atomists were staunch determinists who believed everything happens in harmony with natural laws. The world, Atomists believed, is unalterably fixed by mechanical principles. Leucippus is credited to having said, “Naught happens for nothing, but everything from a ground and of necessity.”
Unlike other prominent Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the Atomists never sought to understand the idea of a universal purpose. To Atomists, understanding a universal purpose was so insuperable it seemed illogical to even try, so they broke it down, like atoms. They believed things are explained by the purpose they serve. The butcher slaughters the cow because people are hungry. The engineer designs and develops the vehicle because people need to travel. There is no universal purpose shared by all humans, they posited; one’s purpose is contingent on one’s role and what one does to serve the common good. It’s mechanically fixed and determined from the start.
The idea of the void was essential to Atomists, for without a void there would be no life. Atomists believed atoms needed the void to move freely throughout; movement was impossible in a plenum, in a space with no emptiness. The belief in the existence of the void raised a syllogistic dichotomy among Greek philosophers. If there is a void, the void is not nothing, therefore the void exists and is in fact not a void. When confronted with this, the Atomists simply said motion is a fact of experience, and thus there must be a void despite how difficult it is to conceive.
Atomist philosophy never gained any serious popularity in antiquity. Leucippus was mostly forgotten, and Epicurus, who lived one hundred fifty years after the emergence of Atomism, denied his existence altogether. Plato disagreed with Atomism so vehemently that he is said to have wished to have all of Democritus’s books burned. And there was legitimate reason for this philosophical contempt. The Atomists relied on no empirical evidence in the construction of their theories. The entire philosophy hinged on one big hunch: that things were made of smaller things—atoms—and those move through the void and provide things with their ultimate purpose.
I had a hunch too. I didn’t have any evidence that what I was about to do was going to fix anything or improve my life, myself, in any way. But I had a strong conviction in my hunch, like the Atomists. I knew I couldn’t prove anything to anybody or explain my reasoning. Did my choice to be ReAtomized need to be tested and validated through a pragmatic modern Socratic dialogue of some sort? What is purpose? What is reason? What is the void that we all mechanically move through like tiny little atoms under the microscopic eye of God? Is it physical life on the earth? Is it the transmutation from corporeal body to soul and an infinite eschatological existence? Perhaps both? Were Leucippus and Democritus correct? Do we have no purpose outside of the role we serve? Nevertheless I didn’t care. I never sought purpose or some contrived semblance of purpose. I just wanted something other than I already had, and that was possible through ReAtomization.
I rested myself into the ReAtomization bed and placed my wrists and ankles into the hooks attached on the sides. They automictically locked in and I was strapped to the bed. “ReAtomization will commence in two minutes,” an intercom told me. I started to fidget as the hooks dug deeper into the bones in my wrists. Sweat loosened their grip and made my skin slippery. I tried to free my wrists, almost forgetting why I was there and the reason for my bondage.
I thought of my family and how they would react when they received the ReAt Report. My mom would be seated at her desk and tears would start to well in her eyes as she read further on. The tears would land on her desk and speckle the papers in front of her. Later she would tell people how she saw it coming and didn’t do enough about it, that she was always too hesitant to broach the conversation and she wishes she had done more to make sure I received the help I needed. On nights she couldn’t sleep she would read the ReAt Report over and over and wonder when the break had happened and blame herself for it. Then one day she would ReAtomize, hoping to see me again.
My dad would read it in disbelief, thinking it’s a spam email and ignoring it. But his phone would ring and my mom would be hysterical on the other end. He then would know it’s real. He would try to console my mom but nothing would work. He was never good with words or saying the right things at the right time, and that would become especially apparent now. He wouldn’t talk about it with others. If anybody asked, he would say I passed away in an accident, and nothing more.
My sisters wouldn’t be surprised and they wouldn’t act surprised either. They would reluctantly attend my bodiless funeral. During the funeral, Jessica would think about the work she’s missing out on and all the extra work she’ll have to make up for that weekend. Years later, Kira’s first-born son would take my name as his middle name. Neither sister would ever make mention of me to their children.
The bed whirred and buzzers sounded. My thoughts became distorted—I saw words and abstractions flying around the bed, escaping me, and I tried to wrangle them back in but they were too elusive. A blue light of pain blinded me and I convulsed against my shackles. I pulled so hard on them I thought they would snap and I would run free from the room, away from all the noise and motion and pain, but they didn’t budge. The room got hotter. The pain in my wrists disappeared. It felt like my body had been invaded by lidocaine. A bead of sweat falling from my forehead down my temple evaporated mid-fall. My stomach was peeled loose from my backbone. I tried to scream but my voice box dissolved into nothing—only dead air came out.
I left my body and saw a pile of smooth stones sitting next to the bed. I didn’t know where any part of me was but I was somewhere in the room still conscious. I floated, lost but aware of everything around me. The machine stopped and the room went silent. I must have gone unconscious then, because I don’t remember what happened after that.
Today I am a fountain in a park not far from where I was born and lived my entire life as a human. I’m big and made of cast stone. I have a circular basin with fine ridges along the edge, carved with care. I have three tiers and water is always flowing from me. When people are tired or have nowhere to be, they sit on me. Sometimes they throw coins in me and make wishes.
There is music in the way a hungry squirrel pecks at an acorn in the early morning hours before the human world is awake, when the dew is still a crisp blanket over the grass. In the trees in the distance the leaves sway for me, back and forth, back and forth, until the wind stops and it’s time to rest. I’ve found beauty in what I previously saw as the most quotidian corners of existence.
The other day a young couple sat on me for two hours and talked out their problems. This morning a grandma waited for her grandson and tossed a penny in me every five minutes or so. If I could smile, I would do it often. If I could cry, I never would. An amber glow is rimming the horizon in the west right now. It’s almost night.
Riley Winchester’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ligeia Magazine, Miracle Monocle, Sheepshead Review, Ellipsis Zine, Beyond Words, Pure Slush’s Lifespan Anthology, and other publications. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.