1 01 2010


Ned was an obsessively cautious fellow.  He never drove when he could walk, for fear of car accidents and greenhouse gasses.  He never drank sweet drinks for fear of tooth decay, if it had sugar, and for fear of artificial sweeteners, if it did not.  He feared the cold, lest he become sick, so he often wore a coat on a hot day if he believed that the weather might cool down during the day.  Everywhere he went he carried a small bottle of sunscreen, which he applied faithfully every so many hours, that he might avoid skin cancer.  In his coat pocket he carried a pair of nitrile gloves (he feared the toxicity of latex), and in his back pocket he carried a spare pair.  Often, he left home already wearing some, which meant that he had three pairs on his person at one time.  He did everything at the exact same time each day, to the minute.  He avoided social situations that might put him in unexpected circumstances.  He touched no one.  He avoided public restrooms as much as humanly possible.  He was terrified of aerosols and dust, and he kept himself stocked with a supply of dust masks.  His life was a perpetual flight from death.  He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, and he didn’t stay up after nine o’clock at night.  Life was a vicious set of jaws perpetually bearing down on him, seeking to snatch him up and devour him.

It is with great irony, then, that one fateful Wednesday night found him hiding from the rain under the awning of a pub entrance, caught without his umbrella.  As he stood there, he considered the exact wording of the letters he would write to the news agency that had said nothing of rain.  He had been walking with a friend, a man named Wayne, when this friend seized upon his opportunity to quench his compulsion to drink.  Ned, however, harbored his own compulsion to remain outside of dark creepy businesses such as this.  So there he stood, watching the dry halo of the sidewalk beneath his feet, when from the darkness to his left came the sound of running footsteps.  A man appeared under the illumination of a distant street lamp, running full speed toward the pub.  He disappeared in the darkness and reappeared under a closer lamp.  Ned peered at him as he bore closer, appearing a little more distinct under each light.  When he finally arrived under the awning, Ned nearly jumped backward into the rain to avoid a collision.

“Ned!  It’s you!  What are you doing here?”  Ned looked into the face of the rain-soaked man and recognized the wild-eyed face of his friend, Bruce, the genius of unimaginable inventions.

“I happened to be walking by with Wayne….” Ned started.

“Wayne?  Is he here?” Bruce exclaimed, barging straight inside, where he found his friend sitting at the bar with a hand at the waist of a disreputable woman, the other hand holding a frothy mug and a cigarette dangling from his lips.  He was hugging, smoking and drinking as hard as he could, desperate to fill that emptiness inside with as much pleasure as he could before it was too late.  He did a double take, not recognizing the frantic madman at first.

“Bruce, man, what’s wrong?” he asked, stumbling off the stool and approaching him.

Bruce propped his elbows on the table and ran his fingers through his hair, as he dripped profusely all over the floor.  “It’s that portal I was going to build…did build…I don’t know.  I’m out of pencils.  Gosh darn it, I can’t find a single paperclip or eraser to save my life.”

“Wait…what?” Wayne begged, “Man, you’re not making any sense.  What are you talking about?”

“The portal,” Bruce began, “I think I built it, but I don’t remember building it.  I was in my office looking for a pen or pencil, but I couldn’t find one anywhere.  I couldn’t find a small object of any kind anywhere in the room.  I didn’t realize what it meant for several hours, because I had forgotten that I already built the blasted thing.  I was at my desk, working on the plans, when I realized what was wrong.  If I had succeeded in building the portal and turning it on, then I would have tested it by poking a pencil into the interface to see if anything happened.  If I were successful, then the pencil would be removed to the parallel universe, and it would no longer exist in ours.  What I didn’t account for is the three components of reality: space, time and matter.  By putting the atoms into phase, I caused matter to lose an essential property, the fact that it occupies space.  What I didn’t account for was that it no longer occupies time, either.  It not only disappeared, but it never existed, so I didn’t even know it was missing.  With my pencil missing, I grabbed the next best thing, thinking that I was still testing it out for the first time.  One by one, I caused every small object in my office to be as though it had never existed.”

Wayne blinked hard at him and then sought out his unfinished beer.  Then he ordered a refill.  “I’m sorry, Bruce.  What were you saying?”

“The interface!”  Bruce gesticulated, “it grew beyond the confines of the portal machine and swallowed up the very machine that I had used to make it!  I never remembered making the portal, because it was consumed by the doorway that it created.  It must be lurking in some parallel universe even as we speak!  I was sitting in my office, wondering why there was a big table in the middle of the room with nothing on it, and all my desk drawers were empty, and I felt like there was supposed to be something in all of that emptiness.”

Then, in the dark veil of rain, something grew.  Ned’s nostrils twitched, and his eyes grew wide with fear.  He sensed a danger lurking out where he could not see it.  He looked down the street from whence Bruce had come, but he could see nothing noteworthy.

Bruce stopped mid-sentence, lost in the confusion of his own thoughts.  “It was an empty room,” he whispered like a mouse, “a big empty room that looked like a table should have been in the middle of it, but there was no table.  The desk drawers were empty.  I felt like there was a dangerous void sitting in that room, mocking me, daring me to enter it.”

Wayne reached for his newly filled beer and joked, “Yeah, man, I get that feeling too, except, I like to fill that beer with a good void to make it go away.”  He screwed up his eyes to think about what he had just said, wondering if he had made any sense.

Outside, something grew.  No one knew that it had grown, but some of them suspected the void that crept in the darkness.  The more it devoured, the bigger and hungrier it became.  Inside every person not yet completely swallowed by the void, there was a feeling of the void, the sense that something was missing.  They could not remember the thing that they had never known.  It was missing as something that had never existed, but it left a gaping hole like something that once was there but had been removed.

Bruce paused in thought, not really sure of how to explain what was going on.  Wayne waited expectantly, with the mug to his lips as though poised to take a drink the moment Bruce began to tell his story.  “I…” Bruce began, haltingly, “I don’t know how to explain it.  I was in Lewistown, walking along Main Street, and I happened to notice that Third Street followed First Street, but there was no Second Street.  I don’t know why, but it really freaked me out.  There was a big vacant lot with nothing in it, right about where Second Street should have been.  There was an intersection and a short stub of a road that went nowhere, and beyond it was nothing.  I just felt like I had some connection to the place, but I didn’t know what.  It’s like the void was sitting out there, mocking me and growing, but I don’t know why.  I wondered what would happen if I crossed the empty lot.  I half expected it to swallow me up.”

“You were in Lewistown?” Wayne asked.  “Sherri lives there,” he said, indicating the wayward woman beside him.

Then, outside, something grew.  Ned stared down the street, which was lit by a short row of two streetlights before terminating abruptly before a section of town that was planned but never built.  Something out there was wrong, but he didn’t know what it was.  Beyond the lights was an inky darkness, like a growing evil, but there was no darkness to be seen, apart from what could be explained by the fact that the lights didn’t go any further.

Wayne stood there with his arm outstretched as if to embrace some imaginary woman, but there was no woman, because Lewistown did not exist, and she did not live there.  It had never existed.  That woman had never entered this bar.  He sensed that something was missing from his life, but he did not know why it was missing.  He didn’t know what it was, because it had never been there, though it left a gaping hole in its departure.  Everyone left in that room stared at each other, wild-eyed, wondering if they were the only ones who noticed anything.  Yet, no one actually noticed anything, because there was nothing to notice.  Bruce had simply come in out of the rain, looking more than just a little worried, complaining about a vague feeling.  He had not been telling them about his inter-dimensional portal, because he did not have one, and he had never written down plans to make one, because the portal and the plans, as well as his laboratory on Second Street and all of Lewistown had never existed.  They had all passed through the doorway into another realm, to be forgotten.  In fact, they had never been known.  All that was left was a deeply seated feeling of vacancy in the pit of one’s stomach and the feeling of utter dread, an awareness of one’s own mortality.

Bruce was nearly in tears.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, man!  I’m just scared.  Come outside and I’ll show you.”

Wayne followed him outside, where Ned was still standing, staring at a guardrail with two reflectors.  The Pub was the last business on the street, before it ended in a field of weeds.  There were no streetlights beyond it.  It was a road that had never been traveled, never even built.  They stood there and considered it, thinking nothing of it, but knowing that there was something to be feared.  The rain had stopped.  The storm front had even disappeared into the void.

“Looks like it’s the proverbial end of the road,” Wayne jested.  “Where do you think it will go, once they get around to finishing it?”

“We can never know where it will go.  We only know where it came from.  Out there lies a great uncertainty.  Within me lies a great big hole.  I don’t know what it is, but something’s missing, like it was ripped from me, even though it was never there to begin with.  Something evil lies beyond the end of that road and it scares me.  I think it has come to devour me,” Bruce whimpered.  He turned to Wayne and asked, “Tell me, what do you do with a hole like that?”

“I don’t know, man, fill it?” Wayne offered, “Fill it with whatever you’ve got, man.”

“What about you, Ned?” Bruce asked, “What do you do about the emptiness?”

“Run from it, fight it, get as far from it as I can,” Ned replied, emphatically.

“Well,” Bruce mused, “I don’t think I can fill this…whatever it is, and I’m not so sure I can run from it.  Perhaps there’s a third choice.  Perhaps I can stand up to it.  I’ll let it do its worst, and if it kills me, then so be it.  At least then I won’t succumb or waste my life running.  I’ll consider this life as nothing.  I’ll die to myself and let destiny have its way.”  Then he stepped over the guardrail and fell into nothingness.  All was black, and he was falling faster and faster.  At first he was afraid of hitting bottom, but then he was afraid that there might be no bottom.  Then, somewhere in the darkness, he felt a hand take hold of his own.  He sensed in that touch that whomever it was, a man, was not afraid.  In fact, the one holding his hand seemed not to be falling.  It was then that he realized that if he was holding the hand of someone who was not falling, then he must not be falling either.  The next thing he knew, he was standing on his feet without ever landing.  In fact, it was as though he had not really been falling.  It was then that he opened his eyes in the next world.  He turned and looked to the one who had pulled him out of the darkness.  In a moment he recognized his old friend, a stranger he had never known before now, a friend who was ripped out of his life so long ago.

Wayne and Ned stood under the awning in front of a pub, arguing about whether to enter it.  Their friend, Bruce, had never existed, and he had not created an inter-dimensional portal, and the street continued on to Lewistown like always.  Both were keenly aware that something was missing.  Wayne was determined to fill it with a beer, a woman and a couple packs of cigarettes.  Ned was determined to spend his life running from it.  Both were doomed to fail.




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