Henry Trumble carried around a little void. He kept it in his pocket with his keys and spare change, and almost never took it out until the day his mother died. He spent that day in his shed. Henry didn't know his mother well. He didn't spend time with her or feel that he should have, but when she died, he told himself, Something is different. He went out to his shed and sorted the buckets of screws, bolts, washers, and metal scraps he had inherited from an old man down the street. Henry hadn't known what to do with all the rusting pieces but now that his mother was gone, he resolved to sort them, rid them of their rust, and sell them to the hardware shop in town.
When he dropped a bucket of screws, which sounded like heavy rain on an aluminum roof, he teared up. He tried to keep his weeping to sobs. After a few minutes, he sat down and looked at the scattered screws, each sitting above its own tiny shadow created by the light from a dim bulb hanging from the ceiling. He took everything out of his pockets and set it down next to all the screws. The void lay flat and a couple of screws accidentally fell in. He had never seen anything fall into the void, but now that something had, he thought he might keep his keys and spare change in a different pocket. He rolled a few more screws around and they fell in too. Then he dumped the rest of the screws from the bucket. Then the bucket. Every time he dumped something into it, the void grew a little bigger.
It wouldn't fit in his pocket anymore, but it didn't feel any heavier than when it was small and empty. When he lifted it up above his head to look at it in the light, it shrunk. He placed it flat on the floor and tossed in more rusting pieces. He tried to drop in his miter saw but it didn't fit, so he tried a small gas can. The void grew, and the saw fit. He dumped in a twenty-gallon drum of sand. Then his push-mower. Then his workbench, which almost pulled him in when it caught his ankle. There was very little room anymore to stand in the shed and things were falling in at random. A ladder. A shelving unit with tools on it. The shed started to shake so Henry opened the door and stepped out. He closed it behind him, and things quieted down.
The next morning, he looked out the window and saw that the shed was still there. He told himself he would figure out what to do about it after the funeral. At one-thirty he walked down to the cemetery where his mother was to be buried. A few people were already there, and he wondered if it looked bad that he wasn't the first one at his own mother's funeral. He stood near the others to make room, but nobody else came. In all, there were six people, aside from Henry. Four were old and didn't seem to notice anything, or they noticed everything and ignored it all. Another was a tall, younger man with brown hair, and Henry wondered why he would be at his mother's funeral. This man must be my brother, he thought. It was very logical. Many people had brothers they didn't know about. The other person was the Reverend who looked down the entire time. Even when he shook Henry's hand he nodded and looked at the ground.
The coffin was closed, and Henry was glad about that. Nobody wants to see a dead person, he thought. He looked into the hole in the ground. It was black, though Henry knew if he shined a light into it, it would look brown with dirt. It takes a lot of energy to dig a hole like that, he thought. People could do a lot with voids—they could put things society didn't want in them. Like broken appliances, buildings, enemies. Old things. Dead things. People could be buried in voids.
Stop, Henry said quietly. The Reverend looked up. Henry didn't know what to say next. Never mind, he said.
Henry needed to get his mother's coffin and her body to the shed. He knew this would cause the shed to fall into the void, but he thought this was a worthy sacrifice. He would have to trick the Reverend.
I need some time alone with her, he said.
How much? the Reverend asked.
Very likely three to five hours.
Henry factored in an hour or two to secure a truck and another to find a couple of helpers—coffins were heavy—and another hour to get back to his house, unload it, and dump it into the void. Maybe my brother would help, he thought. He hasn't taken his eyes off the coffin. Maybe he's come to the same conclusion I have.
After the Reverend finished Henry asked him for some time with his mother.
Of course, the Reverend said. Take a moment. The men won't start until you're ready.
The men? Henry said.
The Reverend looked down and nodded in the direction of three men with shovels who must have walked up during the ceremony.
Okay, Henry said, defeated. He bent down and touched the coffin and wondered if there was even anything inside.
He turned to his brother and said, We'll have to come back tonight.
His brother nodded and wiped a tear from his eye. Henry put a hand on his brother's shoulder. The man leaned away. Everything gets lost to emotion, Henry thought, and walked back home.
He went to the shed and saw that some of the floorboards had fallen into the void. The shed was all a rumble and stayed that way until the night. Henry regretted not telling his brother to bring shovels, since his had fallen into the void. He went to the hardware store in town and purchased two more. When he got back, he took a last look into the void, the shed really rattling and creaking now, before making his way back to the cemetery.
His arraignment lasted only a few moments. It seemed everyone was on the same side, even his lawyer— a united fight for justice when it came to grave robbing. The judge asked Henry to explain himself, to explain why a man with no record would do such a thing. Henry turned to his lawyer, who was hard at work on a hangnail.
I expected my brother to show up, Henry said.
Good thing he has more sense than you, sir, the judge said.
Henry was found guilty and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Henry's lawyer made a humming sound. Henry went to prison.
In the course of his ten years in prison, Henry wrote 2,603 letters to his brother. In them, he wrote of mundane things—what meals he ate (10,943) and what books he read (758)—since so much of his life in prison was mundane. There were some ghastly moments, too, but the ratio of mundane to ghastly leaned heavily to the former. He also wrote of the few friends he had made, the closest being Angus, who had accidentally poured poison into the drinking water of an enemy. Angus talked a lot, which for the most part, Henry found calming. Henry had another friend named Wilson, a large man full of muscle who protected Henry and Angus from the ghastly times.
Henry addressed the letters to Mr. Trumble—tall with brown hair. He had blond hair and was rarely described as tall, so he hoped the post office in town would make the connection if his brother ever stopped by.
Henry would have gotten out early on good behavior if it wasn't for the one time when Wilson was sick and couldn't protect them. A man stole Henry's food and attempted to make a habit of it. Angus accidentally poisoned the man, but Henry was blamed for it. When it came time to evaluate Henry's behavior, the poisoned man was a blotch on his record.
On his last day, Henry ate a breakfast of cold oatmeal and an overripe peach. He was given the belongings which had been taken away from him his first day. He took a bus back to town and walked four of the twelve blocks to his home. There was a strange glow above the town like a city in the distance. The boulevard inclined just as he remembered, and past the Polish church it plateaued. From there Henry could see the older half of town. Only he couldn't. Instead, that half had fallen into the void. A crumbling of property and roads. Electricity sparked for miles around. Broken power lines tugged wires back down the boulevard. A newspaper fluttered down and Henry stepped on it. The headline read: Interstate Re-Routed. His house, his street, his neighborhood, the cemetery, his mother, all pulled in. My brother is all I have left, he thought.
An army truck pulled up behind him and a woman got out.
How did you get past the checkpoint? she said. She wore army boots and Henry stood there, looking at them. Just come with me and we'll get you someplace safe, she said. Inside the truck, she ordered the driver to pull around. Your home is probably gone if it was down there, she said.
Gone where? Henry said.
That's what the Pentagon wants to know, she said.
I need to find my brother, Henry said.
Henry felt less sure about certain things after being in prison so long. He spoke less. His voice was quieter. He was hungry a lot more, which felt strange because in prison he was never hungry. The void had grown so large and seemed to be causing so much damage, and Henry felt responsible.
I've got to see the mayor, he said as they were driving through what was left of town.
Friend of yours? the woman said. Henry thought about it. City Hall is right there and it's a free country, she said.
Henry hopped out of the truck and went to City Hall asking to see the mayor. The man at the desk said the mayor was in a meeting and that her schedule was full.
If I were you, the man said, I'd get out of Dodge. The government is coming through here and clearing out the whole town.
Do you know how I could find my brother? Henry asked. The man sat back down like the conversation was over. That's my void out there, Henry said. The thing out there. Swallowing everything. It's mine.
Thank you for stopping by City Hall today, the man said.
Since most journalists had evacuated, the reportage of what happened next was inconsistent. The common theme was that Henry, having returned home after years of rehabilitation to find a town he loved under threat, felt it was his civic duty to intervene when so many others fled. In truth, he did feel a responsibility to stop the void, but not out of a sense of duty to his fellow man. He did it because he hated when people didn't clean up after themselves, which is why he didn't altogether dislike prison. It was a mostly neat and tidy place. Everything orderly and satisfying. It was the inmates that disordered it.
So, when he was able to get to the front, as he heard the army calling it, he did his bidding out of principle and pride. Nobody had even thought to make physical contact with the void. The staggering damage it caused was reason enough to stay away. The army had even fired missiles into it, which of course only made it bigger. Henry dug both hands beneath one edge of the void, making sure to stand on a sturdy slab of cement, something to withstand the pressure until he could get a handle on it. He pulled up and the void lifted high. A Physical Miracle, one headline read. He lifted the thing like he had in the shed years ago and it shrunk down, the sides rushing towards his hands like marbles down a slope. A sandstorm of soil and dust and debris swirled around him. He shut his eyes tight. In a moment the void was solely his again.
Henry was hailed as a hero for saving the town. People nationwide knew his name for a week or two. A popular musician even wrote a song inspired by his heroism, though for the sake of the song Henry was changed to Harry to rhyme with carry, tally, and, to complete the slant rhyme, with sorry. The army had him quarantined just to be safe, and for a little while, Henry felt the comfort of confinement again. But tests showed nothing, and he was released without the army discovering the quarter-sized void on his person.
The ordeal left much of the town a fine gravel, flat and barren. Henry was homeless and wandered the remaining streets. He ate and bathed at a soup kitchen and shelter. He slept outside—it never dipped below freezing at this latitude—and welcomed the hours of solitude, though he often missed Angus and Wilson. When nobody was around, he took the void out of his pocket and fed it some scraps, dust, bolts, batteries, anything lying around. When it grew palm-sized he tilted it up and it shrunk back down. After a few years on the street, Henry took to placing the void above his head, on a shelf or a ledge, and as in prayer asked it to grant him things. What he asked for was modest, that the shelter remain open, the weather stay warm, the streets clean. All these things the void granted him, it seemed.
But there was one wish he had yet to ask for: that his brother was well; that he'd see him again and they would become friends. He was keeping this wish to himself. It was a lie of omission, something a god would probably be displeased with, but Henry had a sneaking suspicion that the void was no god, though it did deserve a certain level of respect and honor. Just the same, he kept his one important wish for a time when there was nothing to do. When everything had aligned. Maybe a sunny day. Maybe the last day ever.
Notes from the Author
In about 2003 I made different attempts to write a story in which there was a portal or an empty space that led someplace unknown, but those attempts all failed. I just didn't have the control of my own language and writing at that time to find my way into a story that I could be satisfied with. I forgot almost completely about the idea until 2009 or 2010, when I tried again after finding bits of an old attempt in some of my notebooks. This time I was able to find a voice for the story that carried the prose like a wave. That seems to be the key for my writing, finding that voice wave that allows me to relinquish some conscious control as I'm writing a story. Also those intervening years between attempts allowed me to study writing and learn a lot about how to create.