Gateways: “Personal Void” By Conor McShane -Reposted-

Release Note: This is a re-post of our first story as the first two episodes were not showing in some Podcatchers. Hopefully this will solve the problem as well as treating you to these excellent stories a second time.

Transcript: Our first story is “Personal Void” By Conor McShane. Originally a Michigander, you may recognize his name from performances and staged readings in the Chicagoland area. He also writes reviews of Chicago theatre productions for PerformInk, and publishes literary and pop culture analysis on a couple different blogs. [beat] Some of us may really relate with his great success is (on the third attempt) completing the word count during National Novel Writing Month in 2016.

When the black hole appeared in Aaron’s chest, he didn’t feel much of anything. A tiny burning sensation, like someone touched him with a hot needle, woke him up out of another whiskey-induced sleep. He scratched at it irritably, feeling a small indentation in the center of his sternum. The spot seemed to pull at his fingertip, urging it inward like some strange magnetism. He sat up in bed, his eyes adjusting to the dim half-light of early dawn. He slid his legs up and over the sleeping form of his cat, Reginald, who opened a wary eye at him, setting his feet on the cool wood floor. He padded off to the bathroom, stepping over discarded clothes and beer bottles, and turned on the light.

He stood in front of the mirror, examining the small indentation in his baggy sleep shirt. Taking it off, he felt that pulling sensation again, holding the fabric over the hole like a piece of paper over a drain. He examined the spot in the mirror; it was small, no bigger than a pinky finger, with the skin curled around it in a perfect circle. There was no blood, no flaps of ruined flesh, no sign of trauma at all. Apart from that needling feeling that had awoken him, he felt no pain. The inside of the circle was impossibly dark, seeming to absorb all the light in the glaringly white bathroom. Aaron poked at it warily with his finger, then cautiously inserted it into the hole. Expecting to feel an organ or bit of bone, he was surprised to feel only emptiness. The hole tugged at his finger, as if a hand from inside had curled around it and was gently pulling. Aaron slapped a band aid over it and went back to bed, taking a glug from the bourbon bottle on his nightstand.

When he awoke again, the band aid was gone, and the hole had grown. The indent in his shirt bowed in, bowl-like, over a fist-sized chasm. Aaron cautiously touched at the edges, his heart beating heavily. He got up abruptly and ran to the bathroom, unconcerned by the grumbling of the irritated Reginald, and pulled off his shirt again. The hole stared back at him through the mirror, its immense blackness even more profound. He leaned into the mirror, trying to see inside, but nothing was visible. He went back out to the bedroom and grabbed his phone, turning on its bright white flashlight and returning to the bathroom. He held the light up to the hole, but even then couldn’t see anything. It was as if the light itself were being consumed by the vast darkness.

Aaron set the phone down and inserted his whole hand into the cavern. He felt around, spreading his fingers in all directions, but felt nothing. Where his lungs should be, his heart, his ribcage, it all seemed hollow. He reached further into the cavity until he was in up to his elbow. He expected to feel at least the back of his torso, the bumpy ridge of spine, but there was only more empty space.

Everything told him there was no way this could be happening, but there it was. He slapped himself in case this was some kind of unusually vivid dream, something brought on by the alcohol and the ugly thoughts, but he didn’t wake up.

He leaned on the counter and turned on the tap, hoping a splash of cold water to the face would rouse him. The stream of water from the tap seemed to bow outward, as if drawn to the hollow, before gravity pulled it back to its downward course. Curious, he leaned forward, inching towards the stream, until the water bent at a right angle and drained straight into his chest. As it flowed sideways in defiance of gravity, Aaron again felt nothing.

He could hear his ex-girlfriend’s words in his head. What is wrong with you? There’s a gaping fucking hole in your chest that disobeys the laws of physics. Go see a doctor, for fuck’s sake. But he was never very good at listening to her advice, and besides, the doctors wouldn’t know what to do any more than he did. He opened his medicine cabinet and pulled out an ACE bandage, wrapping it carefully around his torso, and left the bathroom, heading to his closet. He had to be to work pretty soon anyway.

He arrived at work an hour later, a large open-plan office space, rows of long desks with hundreds of computers, each one manned by a different body, all oblivious to their surroundings. He found his work station, identical to the others, and sat down, setting the cup of coffee he’d collected on the table next to him. In a few minutes he was lost in his work, unaware of the way the objects on the desk seemed to move towards him. A pen rolled slowly but determinedly towards his chest, a post-it note stuck to the monitor flapped as if caught in a stiff breeze, and the coffee cup slid towards the edge of the desk. Absently he reached for it, not expecting it to be as close to him as it now was, and the cup tipped forward. The contents, urged by this sudden motion, made a direct line for his chest, passing through his shirt and into the cavern beneath. A warm, wet, perfectly circular stain remained on Aaron’s shirt.

Aaron made it through the rest of the day, returning immediately home and pouring himself a full glass of bourbon. He downed it in one go, then poured himself another. He took off his shirt and unwrapped the bandage, staring down at the blankness in his chest. Had it gotten bigger? As the whiskey began to do its work, a thought came to him. Maybe something useful could come of this. He stood up unsteadily and opened the door to his storage closet. He’d tucked a box of his ex’s things in here a couple months ago. She hadn’t reached out to ask for them back, and he didn’t expect that she would. He pulled out the box and opened it. It was all odds and ends, things she probably forgot existed. Taking a big swig of whiskey, he began to pull things out of the box and, one by one, feed them into the chasm. It accepted everything readily. After the box was completely emptied, Aaron stumbled into his bedroom and fell on the bed, passed out. He didn’t awake until early the following morning, when he was startled by an immediate, pressing suffocating feeling, as if his clothes and blankets were trying to squeeze the life out of him. His shirt was stretched taught across his back and shoulders, the excess fabric pulled into the yawning crater, which now reached from his collarbone to the bottom of where his rib cage should have been. The blankets and sheets were piled up on top of him, and Reginald lay atop the pile at an odd angle, letting out a low and lengthy growl. Aaron pushed the fabric off of him, surprised at the effort it took, and ran into the bathroom. He clawed at his

shirt, finally tearing it away from him, and stared wide-eyed into the hole. It kept its perfect circular shape, its immense, all consuming darkness, which now engulfed his whole chest. He stared into it, breathing hard, his head swimming with a delirious mix of adrenaline, sleep, and the last vestiges of the whiskey.

All at once, the objects on the bathroom counter began to slip the grip of gravity and fly directly into the pit. First the toothbrush holder, then the soap dispenser, disappeared in the blackness. Then the medicine cabinet door flew open and its contents bombarded him: a pack of dental floss, a three-bladed razor, a bottle of Vicodin left over from an old injury that he’d been saving for a special occasion. As each item disappeared forever into the abyss, Aaron felt his fear being replaced with a numbness, a weary acceptance. Nothing he could do would fill it, it would continue to grow, continue to consume, until there was nothing left of him. It even seemed to exert its force on him, pulling his shoulders down and curving his spine inward, as if he could fold into himself and disappear. He was starting to hope that he would.

He stepped out of the bathroom and into the bedroom, his shirt still on the counter. Everything in his cramped room seemed to lean towards him, and small objects hurled themselves at him: keys, papers, beer bottles, socks, a 4 by 5 photo of him and his ex, all disappeared into the void. Aaron accepted it all with resignation, spreading his hands wide like a wizard bestowing life on the inanimate objects around him. He walked around the room, hoovering up anything that wasn’t nailed down. He opened his closet, and the clothes tore themselves from their hangers. He barely even reacted as the comforter lifted off the bed and funnelled into his chest, bringing the terrified Reginald with it. Aaron grabbed for him, but he wasn’t quick enough, and Reginald slipped into the darkness along with everything else.

Before long, the room was practically bare, the only things left were too big or too heavy to be pulled in. Aaron stood in the middle of the devastation, looking blankly at the room where he had spent so many nights, all evidence of his loneliness, his self-loathing, pulled like a tractor beam into nothingness. The realization gave him some comfort; when it was all over, when the void overtook him completely, there would be nothing left behind. Slowly, he walked out into the living room, not flinching as things flew at him from their resting places, and went straight out the front door, down the stairs, and onto the sidewalk.

It was early morning, and the world was just starting to wake. A few people were shuffling down the street, either heading to work for the early shift or returning home from the late shift. He stood on the sidewalk watching the life passing by, feeling even the air and the growing sunlight itself pouring into his chest. A garbage truck passed by, its exhaust pipe billowing smoke, which turned its course downward and flowed into him. A woman was jogging up the street, her ponytail swaying back and forth, and the gravity in his chest pulled her into him at she passed.

“Watch it, asshole!” she shouted, jogging on. He walked down the sidewalk, away from his ruined apartment, his arms outstretched, the trash on the street rising up to join him, the only sensation the cool tingle of the morning air as it rushed into him, disappearing forever.

Ben McCauley is a Chicago based writer, actor and improvisor. He is a contributing writer and performer with Starlight Radio Dreams, recorded live at Mrs. Murphy and Son’s Irish Bistro and available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded.

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