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A Man's Universe

Rebys J. Hynes

"This is a short story I wrote at a difficult point in my life. Set in a secondary world, it is about masculinity, grief, gender identity and the connection/ disconnection between a parent and a child."

Instagram: @rebysjhynes


Content warning: Transphobia, Pronoun Misuse, Themes of Suicide/ Depression.



With all the noise of the TV and the bright evening colours bleeding through the window, Jules struggled to concentrate on the book Lily had given them. The Shore’s librarian recommended The Woman in White as they were trying to get more into the classics and were looking for a bit of a challenge. Julies liked Lily – she always used the right words – so they felt guilty that the book was so boring. Perhaps it would be better if they could just focus. The TV blared The X Factor results show; the elimination was between an old man who did operatic versions of contemporary songs, and a twee under-25s girl group. Every so often, Jules allowed themselves to look at the screen. One of the girls wore a baggy blouse with puffed up sleeves that looked simply fabulous. Jules scratched uncomfortably at their tiny arms, which were threatening to become hairy, sending them hurtling towards the forest terrain of their dad’s arms. And legs.  And chest.

Louis Walsh voted the girl group through. Their dad threw a fistful of popcorn at the telly. ‘Absolute waste of time! Not watching this again.’ 

‘You said that last week.’ 

‘But I mean it this time.’ He smiled though. Always smiled. ‘We’ll find something else to watch next week. Oh, Xtra Factor’s on the other side. Shall we?’

Jules rolled their eyes. Outside, the oranges and greens of evening blurred into the greys and yellows of night. Jules thought about asking their dad to tell them a story. About her. They wanted him to weave tales of going for coffee, of trips to the zoo, of birthdays and Christmases and Easter egg hunts, of lounging around and watching telly, with the same awe and wonder with which he used to read Jules stories of dragons and faraway kingdoms. But they couldn’t.  It would wipe the smile from his face. 

‘Actually, think I’ll go to bed.’ 

‘Alright. ‘Night, son.’ He didn’t notice them wince. 

They tucked themselves in and switched the lights off. They allowed themselves a few moments of fantasy that they would see her again. That the simple fact that the TV still showed new episodes of old shows meant that the world was still out there. It didn’t take long for drowsiness to submerge them beyond the light of hope. Just before sleep claimed them, they heard the front door shut. Their dad always waited until he thought they were asleep before going on his midnight walk.



In the moment between chuckling at one of Dermot O’Leary’s jokes and taking a sip of his lukewarm cup of tea, the world had felt still and, for a moment, he forgot about her. Then she came crashing back down. She could never not be in that living room. In the vase from the in laws gifted to ‘spruce up the place’, in the bookshelf of tattered mystery novels and chipped nick-nacks, in the biscuit plate compiled during the ad breaks and in the tufts of hair trapped in  the carpet and in the eyes of their son. Alan had to get out. When the house went quiet, he remembered how loud it could be. 

Outside, the wispy mustard cold brushed his cheek softly. Above him, one of the mirrored black holes hummed as it devoured all colours that dared slip into its path. Below the Shore – out of view expect for when one stood on the cragged edges – another black hole threatened to swallow everything. But it never did. This little island hovered between the promise of death. Alan liked pottering around the Shore because she never saw the world like this. She could not be reflected in a world she never set foot in. 

Despite the need to get away, every night his feet took him to the same place.  Her grave. 

The Divorce left no bodies. Most people weren’t even sure their loved ones were dead, so there were few graves. When he met with the bereaved, Alan always suggested they find somewhere on the Shore – outside of their homes – to sit and think about their loved ones. New graves for a new world. He had no idea if anyone took his suggestion onboard. Jules seemed non-plussed by the idea. Alan chose a place though. He chose the park. Back when the Shore wasn’t the Shore, they had been looking after her nieces and, as the kids ran off and scaled the climbing frame, she held his hand and told him that he would be a father. Now, he sat on the swing, allowed it to go back and forth, ever so gently. Remembering.

Sometimes, he wished she never existed. Sometimes, he believed she never had.  Sometimes, he just wanted to –

Lightning flashed. Purple. 

He cursed. Another person had jumped.



The purple lightning crashed and Jules woke with a start and a figure stood in their room. Just the outline of a person, traced in lightning oscillating from orange to yellow to green to orange.  Jules pulled their Ninja Turtles bedding closer, a protective shield. ‘What are you?’  You are alone. 

The voice, soft. Certain. It was kind and it was feminine, in a gruff way. Its words teased the air, as if it wanted to come closer, as if it wanted to whisper a secret in their ear.  You do not have to be. 

The voice didn’t come from the outlined figure. It emanated from the walls and the wind, from the duvet and the door. Everywhere bar the figure. 

You just need to tell someone who you are. Someone who cares. 

‘I’m not – how do you know who I am?’ They had only told Lily and even then, they had stammered through the words, so difficult to explain a fog that obscures your mind and clings to your body. 

Shapely lines flashed across the figure, etching veins and hips and a face, a face just like – her – not her, like Lily – not Lily, like that girl from the telly with the puffy sleeves and the smooth arms – and then the lines disappeared – the figure just an outline again. 

‘Dad!’ they cried even though, in their heart, they knew he was far away. 

Helping you. 


Man won’t listen. 

He would. He always listened. 

They just hadn’t had the chance to talk about it all. 

She will. You need to tell her. 

‘Her?’ Jules stopped shouting. 

The lines flashed across the figure once more and now, with absolute certainly, they knew that shape. 


The figure disappeared in a crackle of orange. The room became pitch black once more.  Jules barely slept. They heard their dad come back in, rub his shoes on the mat and clamber up the stairs. Jules didn’t shout for him. A few minutes later, his snoring filled the empty house.



The Council of the Shore was less a governing body and more a daily meeting of the busybodies who survived the Divorce. They were led by Shelia from the Flower Shop who knew everyone’s business before and after the end of the world, and Kevin who ran a dry cleaner’s in the world before and always had three women on the go, according to himself. It was an excuse for a group of lonely people to meet up after the apocalypse and Alan couldn’t fault that. After all, he worked for those busybodies. 

Shelia informed him that Lily – the librarian – had been the jumper. Melanie Knowsley, her girlfriend, found a note that morning. She requested space for herself: she specifically asked that Alan didn’t show up ‘waving his forms around’. 

In the old world, Alan worked in HR. When people started jumping, he arose as the most qualified person on the Shore to deal with those left behind. Not a single therapist, psychologist, wellness coach remained. Just Alan, going door-to-door with wellness questionnaires to ensure everyone was coping following the collective loss. It took him a while to realise that his job was less about preventing the jumps and more about keeping people alive in other ways. A lot of the older people on the Shore lived alone, their partners and loved ones torn away. Alan’s weekly surveys – with extra in case of emergencies – was sometimes their only point of contact. It wasn’t much, but it was his duty. And it was his privilege. 

Instinctively, he found himself approaching Melanie’s bungalow. But he didn’t knock.  Instead, he just did the rounds. 

He checked in on the old ones first. Saraswati and her book club were devastated and pledged to read Lily’s favourite book for their next meeting. She never said what that was.  Wrinkly Janet Matthews never left the house, so she had no idea who Lily was but said she was very sad and all but Loose Women would be on soon and would he mind closing the door on the way out please and thank you. 

Feedback, as usual, was positive. Most people scored eight or nine out of ten for positive outlook. That evening Alan and Jules would fill out their questionnaires. He didn’t worry too much about that. They both usually scored a ten. 




Mrs. Grundy said that they would have a chill school day, given the circumstances. They were allowed to do fun things, as long as they stayed on school premises. Jules buried themselves in their book. Didn’t think about it. Lily would be at the library when they returned The Woman in White and she would explain why she gave it to them and things would just be normal.  Back in the early days when the first few people jumped, school responded with a lockdown. Kids weren’t allowed to be out of adult supervision. It soon became apparent that no amount of supervision stopped people from jumping in the end. And it was almost exclusively adults. As Jules’ dad said, kids just know how to roll with the punches more.  After school, they were allowed to roam free again. Most of the kids ran off to the park.  Molly, a pretty girl a year older, invited Jules to come. Said ‘he’ looked like he could do with cheering up. Their dad would be compiling wellbeing forms all day, so Jules could either go with Molly or spend the rest of the day locked in their mind. 

They followed the pretty girl.

The kids decided to play hide-and-seek – ironically, of course. Jules knew a good spot no one usually checked, under a tree so knobbly and winding it looked like a troll’s bridge.  They hid there. No one came. Leaving them alone with their thoughts. 

It scared them that most people didn’t think about Lily or her girlfriend or what was beyond the Shore. That fear sat deep within them, whilst their mind wrapped itself around The Woman in White. If Lily knew she would jump, why was her last recommendation to them that tedious tome? Perhaps it contained a secret message as to why she did it. Or maybe it held an incredible lesson – something she wanted to tell them but did not have the time. 

Or maybe it was just a book. 

The night before, the light became her for a second. Was it trying to tell them she was in danger? Was it her, reaching from the edge or whatever lay beyond?  If so – well, the light had become their Mum – maybe she was –

Molly ran into their hiding spot. ‘Shhh. I’m still hiding.’ 

They crouched against each other for a few moments. An anxious chuckle slipped out of Jules. She smiled softly. Suddenly, she kissed them. And they kissed back. It seemed like the polite thing to do. They were amazed at how much lips tasted like lips. It was like pressing their own lips together but on another face. They kissed until they heard footsteps pressing grass and Molly pulled back. She laughed – Jules did too – even though nothing funny happened. 

She brushed her hand against their cheek, rosy with chill. ‘Good boy.’ She ran away. ‘I see you!’ one of the boys shouted, chasing her. 

Boy. They found themselves playing with the world, turning it over, inspecting it for gaps. Boys kissed girls. They kissed a girl. They quite liked it. Therefore, he must be a boy.

They. Them. 

Those words forced themselves to the forefront of his mind. They didn’t need inspecting. 

You are what you are. 


They crawled out of hiding. She stood, graceful, statuesque, at the tip of the troll’s bridge. She radiated light, fluctuating across a spectrum of colour. A spectrum of people.  Always coming back to her. 

And she will understand. 

She walked away. 

Jules followed. 

Their mind emptied of Lily and the book and Molly. There was only the light and they followed her. 

They didn’t even notice when one of the lads shouted that ‘he’ was ‘out’. 


Melanie’s bungalow squatted at the Shore’s edge. The muted red roof and beige walls made it look like a mushroom. He knew that not everyone wanted people around at times like these.  But people still need people. He folded a survey and on the blank side wrote a message of condolences. He read over it a few times, hoping she didn’t find it as hollow as he did. He had never been the one with words. As he put it through the mailbox, the door opened. 

Melanie Knowsley usually dressed unremarkably. Dark colours, in a muted way. Hence, her pivot to rainbow dungarees and a kaleidoscopic shirt was a little surprising. She held a dripping yellow paintbrush, tinged with a murky swamp of different colours, most of which already stained her clothes. 

She followed Alan’s gaze to Lily’s clothes. ‘She’s not wearing them anymore, is she?’  Alan didn’t know what to say. 

‘I told the Council I didn’t want visitors.’ 

‘I was just going to give you a note.’ He raised the flopping paper weakly.  She walked back into her house, to the kitchen. Alan didn’t know whether to close the door until she shouted, ‘Do you take milk and sugar?’


‘Err, just milk.’ He entered, closing the door behind him. Unsure of where to go, he made his way to the kitchen until the living room caught his eye.

Empty paint buckets were strewn around the room, their contents projected across the walls. Some of the paint had been shaped into thick lines by her muddy paintbrush. Most of it was a waterfall of noisy colours. Melanie appeared at his back, edging him into the room. She put his tea down on a Christmas coaster and gestured to the couch, caked in paint. ‘I’ll stand if it’s okay with you,’ he said. She shrugged. 

‘What’s with-?’ He gestured vaguely, as if to say ‘everything’. 

‘Lily always liked to paint. I never got it. Not her paintings – oh god, they were beautiful. I’ll show you them one day. But I never felt the urge to do it. Well, I do now, and who else is going to use the paint? What do you think?’ 

‘It’s definitely colourful.’ 

‘Go on.’ She waved her hand around. ‘If you’re here, I might as well fill out your forms.’  ‘Wellness surveys.’ 

‘Yes. That.’ 

Melanie took the paper, unfolding it without reading his message. She filled out the survey and passed it back. She scored a perfect ten. ‘Give that to the Council. And don’t bring forms to me every again.’ 

‘I won’t.’ 

He began to leave, but Melanie said, ‘She didn’t jump.’ 

‘I know,’ said Alan. ‘Maybe something else happened. We’ll never know.’  ‘No, I don’t mean it in a denial way. She didn’t jump. She wouldn’t have. At least, she wouldn’t have a week ago.’ 

‘What do you mean?’ 

As she sat down, her hands left orange stains on the couch arms. ‘Lily was the calmest person I know. She was a rock. When the Divorce happened, she was the only person who got me through. And when I lost Mum to the jump… she helped me understand it wasn’t my fault.  Last week, she changed.

‘She said she saw something in that corner there. A light shaped like a person. I couldn’t see anything, but this place does strange things to us all. I believed her. I believe her. She said the light would take different forms. Sometimes it would be this mean teacher she had at school, all warts and detentions like something from a Roald Dahl book. Other times it was her Aunt.  She died. Breast cancer, a few weeks before the Divorce. Most of the times it would be her ex.  The one who disappeared in the Divorce.’ 

Alan had been lying next to his wife when the Divorce happened. In his arms, then fading. Like firework sparks, vanishing into thin air. He last saw her face etched in purple light.

‘And then she told me it was all okay,’ said Melanie. ‘Last night, we were lying in bed and she whispered to me that it was okay. The Brightness was gone. That’s what she called it.’  ‘And you didn’t suspect she was going to jump?’ 

‘Don’t take that tone with me.’ 

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.’ Alan sighed. ‘It just seems that- ‘ 

‘It was obvious she was going to jump?’ Melanie laughed. ‘We put so much value on life. As if being alive is better than – whatever is through there. But if someone just needs to go, then they need to go. You’re right, Alan. That night, as I held her in my arms, I knew that she was going to jump, and I did nothing to stop her. I enjoyed having her in my arms one last time. Write that on your form. Maybe life is better where she is now. None of us know. We’re only here because we are too scared of what’s out there.’ 

‘What are we supposed to do with that?’ Alan was not used to hearing his voice rise.  ‘Want me to go door-to-door, telling people to jump? Just because we don’t know?’  ‘Have you not been listening to me? Something’s already telling people to jump.’ 




It did not take long to reach the edge of the Shore. The Brightness – for that was her name, even in Jules didn’t know how they knew that – led them back to the school. There was no one around, not even the teachers. The Brightness guided them to the tennis courts. The Shore ended where the nets once stood. Now, there was just a steep drop into a colourful expanse and the black hole lingering below. The Brightness reached the edge, turned and – was that a smile?  They recognised Lily’s dimple in its cheek and their Mum’s sparkle in those eyes. The Brightness took a step backwards. 

Off the Shore. 

She didn’t drop. A verdant cloud swooped underneath her foot, catching her. She took another step back and a wisp of orange rose to support her. She took more and more steps, the clouds making a bridge to keep her afloat. She moved with the grace of a ballerina, each step creating her ballroom. Jules would give so much to move with such grace. 

You can. You just need to take a step forward.

Her voice no longer originated in the world around Jules, but from the world within them.  Words created in the knot in their stomach, the struggling breath in their longs, the frantic beat of their heart. 

‘I can’t.’


It just takes a step. I am safe.

‘You’re not human. You’re – something else.’ 

I’m not human? 

The Brightness sounded hurt. Her face began to fill with chalk-like lines. Soon, she was almost entirely etched in shape. An instantly recognisable shape.

How could you say that to your own mother? 



Alan sat in the park. He held a thick wad of filled surveys. Would the Council notice if he didn’t hand them in? Alan always believed he had a purpose on the Shore. That didn’t stop people from jumping. Whether it was some fancy ‘Brightness’ or the simple pain of life or even the temptation that something existed beyond this, it did not matter. The result stayed the same. 

He chucked the surveys in the nearest bin. 

Melanie said the Brightness appeared to Lily as people she had known. If it came for Alan, would he see her again? 

He looked down the hill. Was it his imagination or were the colours swirling more aggressively than usual? He trundled down, careful not to lose his step. Perhaps Lily had just lost her step yesterday. Perhaps she lost her step whilst on the way to jump. 

He reached the edge. White winds buffeted his face. He wished she was there to see it.  He suddenly became aware of how close to the edge he stood. 

It was calming. 


Jules’ toes hung over the edge. What would happen if they took another step? Would they plummet into the hole below, or would they float into the hole above? Maybe neither. Maybe the Brightness promised the truth. Maybe they would walk off the cragged edge and the colours would save them. Maybe they would reach out and touch green and yellow and blue and red and those clouds would carry them away, beyond what they could see. To a world that existed before. 

To a world that still held their Mum. 

You know it’s true. 

She would hold them.

Tell them it would all be okay. 

That they weren’t a boy. 

Or even a girl. 

It was okay that they were them. 

Their Mum was there. 

It was going to be okay. 

Take the step. 

No. Not like this. 

‘My Dad. He should be with us.’ 

You know he can’t come. 


He doesn’t understand. 

‘Just because I haven’t told him yet doesn’t mean – ‘ 

She will understand. 

‘They both will.’ 

Step forward. 

‘Not without my Dad!’ 




One step. It was the right thing to do. He would be with her again. In life. Or in death. It would be like he never left. She would be in his arms. They would lie together and all the colours of the outside world would slip away, until all that remained was the colour in her eyes, her smile, in the flutter of her heart. 

He was useless. He couldn’t look after his son. He couldn’t help the Shore. He couldn’t be with his wife. But if he stepped forward, none of that would matter. He would have nothing.  It would be everything. 

He took a step forward and –



The clouds swirled around Jules, blocking out everything beyond them. There was no going back. All they could see was the drop and the Brightness – looking more like their Mum than ever before – and she was furious. 









‘I want my Dad!’ 








- heard the scream. 


In danger. 

Alan let his foot fall on solid ground. 

The clouds drifted away. 

And he ran towards his child. 


The clouds stopped swirling. The Brightness stopped screaming. She just stood there. And Jules knew she was right. He was a pretender. He thought it made sense. He thought it was an important jigsaw piece. Not the final piece, but the one that helps you work out the rest of the shape. Molly called him a good boy. He kissed a girl. There was no one else on the Shore who used different pronouns. He was just an attention-seeker. A nobody. This world didn’t need him. Lily must have known that. Who would want to live in a world where people like him existed? 

He stepped forward. 


He stopped. The Brightness juddered, like TV static. 


His dad was coming. 


But the Brightness didn’t look angry or powerful anymore. Its words no longer came from the world. They came from a person. A person with a voice. A tiny voice. 



Colours, clouds, winds, swirled around the school. Was this the Brightness Melanie spoke of?  Alan felt something in there. It was as if the colours were frustrated, as if they needed something but it stood just out of reach. His Jules was in there. He pushed through the winds, the colours. 


There. In the middle of the multicoloured maelstrom. 

His Jules.








‘Step away from the edge, son.’ 

The Brightness was right. Jules was useless. He believed he would find acceptance in a Mum who died long ago. There was no acceptance to be found. He was orphaned in understanding.


And yet their father had run through a storm just to tell them to keep living.  And that made the Brightness scared. 

It wanted him to think he could see his Mum again. And when that didn’t work, it wanted him to hate who he was. 

Who they were. 

It wanted them to do its work for it. It wanted them to jump because it couldn’t push them. 

Jules stepped back. 

They turned and walked away. They become profusely aware of how little they felt the winds on their face and how little the colours obscured their path. None of it could touch them.  Jules knew if they turned around, the Brightness would be standing there. Just standing there.  What else could it do? 


Alan watched his kid emerge from the dissipating storm. Before he could say anything, he was wrapped in the tightest embrace. 

‘I love you,’ said Jules. 

‘I – I love you too. But what the hell just happened?’ 

Jules pulled back. ‘Dad, can we just go watch telly? It’s been a very long day.’ 

‘Erm, yeah.’ He exhaled. ‘It’s been quite a day.’

As Jules walked away, Alan noticed the figure. It stood there, just like Melanie said. It didn’t move. 

‘Son, is that-’

‘Don’t pay attention to it.’ Jules didn’t look back. ‘It can’t hurt us.’ 

‘Ah okay.’ 

Alan followed his kid home. 


No X Factor that night. They channel hopped, watching snippets of a Pirates of the Caribbean film, some Waterloo Road plot about fake breasts, and a terrible Little Britain sketch. They settled on the Only Fools and Horses episode where Del blows up a bus. Tomorrow they would work things out. The Woman in White, the wellness surveys, what they would tell the Council and the people of the Shore and what they would tell each other. But that was tomorrow. Today was today.


A Man’s Universe is the last story of mine that my Dad read before he passed away. I began writing when I was a kid, and my Dad would write those early stories with me. I would not be a writer without my Dad. I would not be the person I am now without him. I hope to dedicate many stories in my life to him. This will be the last one he read.

For Dad. The best man I have ever known.

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