TRASNSCRIPT: This story is written by Samantha Schorsch. She grew up telling campfire stories at Girl Scout events. When writing short stories, horror and science fiction have been her preferred genre for the past six years. She strives to use her unique perspective on being a woman and person with mental illness in her work to broaden public thought on said subjects and experiences. This is “The Void Machine”.
“Stop! Stop saying that! You don’t mean it!”
“Mean what? That I don’t want you to die? That I don’t want you turned into spaghetti in the fucking event horizon?”
Cole and Sonya stared at each other in heated silence. Both of their eyelids were swollen, so red you would think they got the world’s most unlikely sunburn, and another three-hour fight’s worth of tears stained their cheeks. Through the wide window of their slowly rotating motel room, the vacuum of space they had grown up in and learned to love felt suffocating.
“I thought this would make you happy,” Cole muttered. “Better than the alternative right? Better than going home and having to clean up my brains off of the wall, or cut me down off of a rope someday once I really can’t take it anymore.”
“Why the fuck would it make me happy?” Sonya shouted. “You alive would make me happy! You going back and getting help would make me happy!”
“We tried that-”
“No, you gave up and ghosted your therapist after barely a month.”
“It was stupid anyway, I’m not worth the trouble and it was never going to work. Besides, you deserve better than me. I’m a loser. I’m pathetic. I belong out there.”
But he was already out the door, the hatch sliding shut behind him, the heels of his boots clanging on the steel hallway floor.
The uncertainty of floating into a black hole terrified him of course, but after how many years of panic attacks, lost jobs, and delirium, continued existence almost scared him more. Finally, after a month straight of him contemplating throwing himself out into the void with their weekly trash and walking in on Sonya crying to herself in the bedroom brought them out there to the last motel, to the end of everything. She had hoped some time away would do them both some good, some time together, no distractions. “Just think about the stars outside and the stars in our eyes,” she had said. “And in a little while maybe you’ll be able to think more clearly. You’ll change your mind, you’ll see.” He wished so badly that she could be right, but their time was drawing to a close and if anything, he felt worse than before. “I love you” felt hollow, making love felt numbing, the touch of her skin and her scent made him recoil in shame and fear. She deserved better, he thought, so much better. He had decided as much months ago, when he dumped all his meds down the pipes in their apartment in a manic fit while she was away on a business trip. Soon after, he saw new billboards popping up in the sky; neon monoliths advertising one-way trips into black holes, a new form of assisted suicide, no cleanup required. It was highly experimental, there was no way of knowing if the candidates really died or if they were spit out into a new dimension or plane somewhere or somewhen else, but the willing didn’t seem to acknowledge or mind either outcome.
“As long as I don’t have to be a bother or a burden to anyone anymore,” Cole told the project consultant during their meeting. “As long as I’m not a roadblock in her life anymore.”
Sonya had told him countless times over the past six years that he was anything but, but he never listened. Maybe his mind wouldn’t let him, or maybe wallowing in his self-loathing became so comfortable that moving past it scared him. Maybe a bit of both. She even went to the consultation clinic and tried to get his application rejected. The advertisements all specified terminal illness, the few cancers left, the new diseases that cropped up as people explored further and further into the universe. However, while all of the medical professionals Cole had seen over the years were adamant that he could live a fulfilling and mostly healthy life if he stuck to his treatment and stayed consistent with getting help, there they were nonetheless, in a shitty motel, the emptying of a private savings account and money reaching several high level pockets later, with two weeks left for Cole to change his mind.
“You have to understand though sweetheart,” the motel owner said to Sonya upon their arrival. “You being here, this whole thing, is mostly a formality; a chance for you to tie up loose ends with your partner and say goodbye. I won’t tell you not to hope, but I’ve owned this place since before the Void Machine project when people drove themselves into that thing on their own in the middle of the night. No one ever changes their mind. No one ever comes back.”
“Not even one…” Sonya murmured.
At this, Sonya’s shoulders started heaving and the woman wrapped her muscular arms around her. “I’m sorry girl,” the woman said. “This is no place to spend your last days with anyone even under good circumstances, if I’m being honest. Faces like yours here, they break my heart. Just know I’ll be behind the front desk or just a button push away if you ever need anything at all, at any time. Poor girl…”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Sonya whispered through tears.
“Elsie, sweet pea, you can call me Elsie okay?”
Sonya nodded. Elsie gently kissed the top of her head, brushing down the matted mess of hair caused by lack of sleep and misery, before disappearing behind the front desk. A key jingled in a lock and a moment later, after making sure Cole was far down the hallway, she held out a small flask which Sonya eagerly accepted, taking a larger swig than perhaps she anticipated.
“See, hon,” Elsie cooed. “I’m here for you okay?”
Two weeks later, Sonya’s finger hovered over the call button for the last time, but she didn’t need to press it. A heavy hand was already on her shoulder, the glint of the flask in the periphery of her eyes.
“I saw him go this morning. I thought you could use someone.” Sonya nodded. “Did he even say goodbye?” Sonya shook her head. Elsie sighed and twisted the cap open. “They never do.”
Cole sat in his single-occupancy pod and waited for the door to open. He felt almost naked without a proper space suit and a relatively flimsy helmet, but he guessed there was no need to throw out the more expensive equipment. The slow flight out took almost twenty minutes, and in his solitude he wondered a lot of things. What would it look like inside? Would he even be alive long enough to see? Would it hurt? Would he fall unconscious first like people who lived on gravity planets and jumped off of tall buildings? Then the pod stopped moving and a cold, automatic voice addressed him. “Patient, please state ‘yes’ for the blindfold screen in your visor to be activated. Please state ‘no’ to decline.” Cole, beginning to tremble, stuttered out an affirmative. A countdown initiated, Cole was ejected out of the pod, and before entering the void his visor was tinted black, but Cole still saw.
As his body stretched and contorted, he saw himself and Sonya at their university. He saw her beautiful, crooked smile, he saw himself cry in his dorm room the first night he decided he was unworthy. He saw her hold him and read him the stack of love letters they’d written each other. He saw them staring at a vast, deep sea, the only time he remembered feeling any peace at all. He saw Sonya in the motel, sobbing in Elsie’s arms, the empty flask discarded on the floor, Sonya holding one of his abandoned shirts to her chest.
“Sonya…” he croaked, as he lost control of his muscles and his voice.
He saw her in an inpatient facility, in a circle of people going through their stories of PTSD and emotional trauma. He saw her struggling to clean out the memories from the apartment that used to be theirs. Long dead flowers. A hidden cabinet with a little velvet box. A white dress he never knew she had. The shiny pair of objects within the box itself.
Droplets of water were collecting in the compressing visor. He could no longer tell if it was moisture from the cheap air hose or the tears flowing freely out of his expanding eyes.
“I’m so sorry…”
Thank you, Sandra. Sandra Howard is an actor, combatant and generally incredible human being. She’s done several shows with Cave Painting Theater and you can find her at the Bristol Renaissance Faire this summer. She’s also one of the most wonderful people I know. And I’m on the record with that now.