Chapter 1: Nissan Quest 2004
I want you to trust me. Trust me when I tell you the time you spend on this godforsaken lump of dirt amounts to fuckall once you bother to get your head out of your ass and look at things objectively. Objectively: you won’t pull the trigger first. You won’t go to heaven. You won’t be remembered fondly. Your life is average and your car is ugly. Why? Because you’re a coward. I hope you remember that: you’re a coward. Your rotting corpse will be briefly mourned then quickly swallowed by what nothing that makes up everything, bitch. Your life is worth shit.
I was seventeen, I was driving a stolen car, and I was having a bad night.
“Brian! You asshole!” I was steering with one hand because the rest of me was leaning out of the window of the beat-up Nissan. Brian was a 'friend' of mine. He’d found out about my superpowers in an unfortunate restroom toilet paper teleportation incident, and when I explained that I only used my powers for good things, like bank robberies, he’d insisted that he should be cut in or else maybe some government scientists would find out about my little black hole biological mutation secret. Once I’d actually made the black hole, though, he’d gotten scared, and ran away with it — to try to sell it, presumably. Because he was a moron. It broiled in the back of his pick-up, eating slowly at the plastic truck bed, and the snapped-open rear window, which stretched like clear taffy towards the event horizon.
“Brian! Stop running! Stop — oof —”
The bottom edge of the window dug up into my ribs as I bounced over a pothole. I slid back into my seat, wheezing. You can probably intuit that I was really not enjoying myself in that moment. Actually I was thinking, 'God I could use kindly a nicotineful vape pod right now,' but unfortunately God did not ship USPS, so all I got were cardiovascular issues and a gas gauge with the needle two ticks below empty. My rearview mirror flashed red-blue. We were being chased by three police cars wailing their fucking hearts out like I’d committed a heinous act of newborn-baby stealing or priest murder instead of just some minor larceny. And black hole possession. And grand theft auto, I guess. But it was a Nissan.
Brian hung a tight corner. I floored the gas and cranked the steering wheel — but I shouldn't have bothered, because around the corner Brian was skidding to a halt. A sudden stream of traffic poured through the impending intersection.
“Shit. Shit.” I stomped the brakes and my elbows locked with my hands on the steering wheel, which jammed up the bones in my arms and shoulders, fucking ow. That’s what I got for not following seatbelt safety during a car chase. The pick-up’s sudden stop had agitated the black hole, which swelled, and belched. I unclenched my fists and shook out my arms.
For a moment it was still, and Brian, I, and the police were lined up like glued-down dominos, bathed in a balmy red glow from the intersection’s stop light. Then the cops were climbing out of their cars with guns and shouting instructions. Brian leapt out of his truck just before it got turned to crap by the black hole and made a break for an alleyway. The cops watched, horrified, as he scrambled along at a nearly 70-degree angle, hands clawing at the pavement. He was totally dead. I poked my upper body out of the car, and shouted “Run, bitch,” then ducked back inside when some of the cops looked at me. Brian did not run, but rather slipped, and the black hole ate Brian and Brian’s truck in quick succession like folding origami. I felt a little bit bad for Brian. Not too bad: he did, like, totally threaten to turn my body over to the government for dissection.
“Call in Gravity Unit reinforcements,” spat one cop into his radio. “Size small dog.”
The black hole slumped on the open road, skittering up sidewalk pebbles and warping a five-foot scoop of pavement into a dark pool. Most darkness was an absence. Black holes were a presence. The Nissan inched forward even though I had the pedal down to the footwell. Just beyond the driver’s side window a lady cop with a uniform and a ponytail pulled 30 degrees was anchoring her feet in the pavement and pointing a gun at me, telling me to step out of the car or some shit, it didn’t really matter. Queens hummed with scattering bone-and-skin loiterers, and sirens that spiraled up for miles, and neon business signs that drowned the moon. Alcohol Sold Here, Open 24-7, Have A Nice Day.
“Raise your hands and step out of the car!”
Let me ask you this, dearest reader. To put things in perspective. How would you have reacted, with a gun pointing at that delicate bone ridge between your eyes, in a stolen car that smelled like old Wendy’s and wet wipes, faced with 50-something years in jail at the sweet, innocent age of 17? Would you have been an upstanding citizen? Would you have surrendered?
I raised my hands.
And lifted my toe from the brake.
Faster than the cops could lurch to stop it, the rolling Nissan barreled forward. The black hole ate its front bumper, then its windshield, and then me. And Thank God for that: I needed to get out of the city. I didn’t want to be late for school.
Chapter 2: Girl, Wash Your Face
I ended up being very late for school. Who was I kidding when I thought chasing after Brian was going to help me in that department. I guess I wasn’t kidding anybody. Doesn’t it seem like it’s only whenever you really need to get somewhere that the world conspires to stop you? Just last week I had a really important Zoom interview for this university I’m applying to in British Columbia and for some reason I couldn’t find a clean dress shirt. And now today I’d finished robbing a bank like usual and I needed to get to school when Brian just happened to steal my point of infinite gravity so that it took way longer than normal for the black hole to rip me apart molecule by molecule and then reconstruct my body’s matter inside of a lovecraftian No-Exit hellscape. Just my luck!
I materialize on a tile floor and roll over myself a couple times before I hit a wall. I blink back the shock and try to catch my breath. Fuck. As far as I’m aware, I’m one of only two people on Earth who can survive a black hole. It’s because there’s something wrong with me.
I spit, and wipe my sleeve across my eyes, and when I look up the black hole has snapped out of existence, leaving the ceiling a washed-out fluorescent.
I’m in the break room. AKA, I’m in the black hole, on my way to wherever I want to go. The break room is the inside of the black holes. It’s where all of the black holes go before they drop you wherever you’re actually trying to end up. The break room is eponymous, in that it is an actual, literal break room. The employees-on-break kind of break room. Specifically, its a combination of two real-life break rooms: one from Brookhaven National Lab, one from the Beijing Electron-Positron Collider. At one end is a modest kitchenette, and at the other a spread of plastic tables and chairs. On the fourth wall there is a locked door with a plate of obscured, mirrored glass in its center, which reflects the room’s contents, but blurred. Above that is an exit sign in Chinese. The most distinctive feature of the break room is that — unlike reality — it’s in the present tense.
I run a hand down my face and the palm comes away wet. I stumble to my feet to take inventory. Part of the Nissan’s front seat has been dragged along with me, and is spread on the tile like a felled gray faux-leather dove. To my right is the top end of the stick shift and some splintered plastic from the dashboard. I raise my hand and a second black hole forms within the break room and eats the latent car parts plus a little bit of the tile floor. (I may be a car thief, but I’m not a fucking litterer.) My heart is beating out of my chest. I unzip my sweatshirt pocket and into my hands drops a neatly-packaged three thousand dollars, a crumpled receipt from King Kullen, and an OMRON portable blood pressure monitor.
The money isn’t from this robbery, because Brian ruined it. No, this is my money, that I bring in case of contingencies. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m kind of shitty bank robber. As my school counselor would say, I “need to apply myself, Valentine.” 'Cause, like, if I studied harder, I'd totally be better at robbing banks by now. Everyone knows that studying how you get good at robbing banks.
I stuff the cash back into my pocket and strap on the monitor, which resembles a chunky digital watch and takes a moment to get a reading. 130 bpm. Okay. Jesus Christ and thank God and etcetera. Reassured by the knowledge that my heart is still beating, I form another black hole on the tile, hands shoved in my pockets pettishly. Then pretty quick I take my hands out of my pockets, because it’s hard to drop back into reality when you’re being pettish.
When I tried my front door it was locked. The driveway was empty and the sun was high, which meant that dad was probably at the office and mom was volunteering at the church. My parents were usually conveniently absent. I lifted the welcome mat for the spare key, but the stoop was bare.
“Goddamnit.” I’d probably taken it and forgotten to put it back. I dropped the mat and straightened, and tried the handle again, but it didn’t budge. “Bitch.”
All of our windows were painted over along the edges. They were small enough that a petite sort of chick could probably fit through no problem. I could try.
It took me a few minutes to pry the glass up, and then get my leg over the edge. I should’ve worked out more. Maybe if I’d gone to the gym Brian wouldn’t have been able to steal my escape plan in the first place. It was a small dog — AKA, a slightly above-average sized black hole — which meant it was either worth a lot of money if you sold it to on the black market or a lifetime in federal prison if the government found out you were missing the necessary paperwork to conduct said sale. People named the black holes after the size of animal it was, usually. The obvious logistical problem with that was you couldn’t send people animal videos anymore, or invite them over to meet an animal unless they knew you really well, because people would be scared that your dog or cat or fish was actually a dog or cat or fish sized black hole, and people were very paranoid about black holes, even just seeing a picture or video of one. To be fair I would’ve also probably been paranoid if black holes could kill me. It was like if you named your gun “kitten” and then told people to come meet kitten. They’d be reluctant for some pretty justifiable reasons.
I managed to get a hold on the upper lip of the window, and hauled myself up, but then knocked my head on the glass and lost my balance. For a moment I scrabbled at the balding wallpaper before spilling onto our laundry machine. My elbows made a clanging sound on the hollow steel which felt pretty much exactly how you’d imagine it.
I groaned. Fuck. “What?”
My mother, very much not conveniently absent, shouted at me from the living room: “Is that you?”
I scrambled off the machine, and shouted back: “Yeah!”
“Can you empty the dishwasher?”
“I’ve got to go to school!”
“Tonight! When you get home.”
I poked my head out of the laundry room. My mother was sinking into our coffee-cream couch, sorting laundry. She was watching the Food Network. “I can’t, mom. I’ve got plans with Kyle.”
“Your plans can wait for the dishwasher to be emptied.”
“I’ll do it later.” I headed out of the laundry room and into my bedroom at the end of the hall.
“Aren’t you going to be late for school? You’ve got to stop sleeping in. Set a second alarm.”
“I got a late pass.” I felt kind of bad about lying to my mom. I wiggled my toe on the floor a little like a bashful guy on tv, then stopped, because it made me feel like an asshole. I knew I owed my mom the truth. I just couldn’t deliver because I was scared that if I told her I had black hole superpowers she’d call the cops and I’d be hauled away for the perverted, surgical purposes of gut-exposing government experiments. So I was going into debt in my truth-telling account. For the purposes of my own survival.
“The dishwasher,” she repeated, as I unzipped the cover to my mattress, then propped it up on my knee. “And set an alarm tomorrow. Jesus. You’re gonna be living on the streets.”
“I will, mom,” I shouted back, and pulled out from the mattress the black drawstring bag I’d gotten complimentary from a military recruiter. I palmed the three thousand dollars from my jacket pocket and dropped it into the bag, then for some time stared down at the contents. I didn’t need to take the money out to count it. I knew the number by heart: twenty-two thousand, one hundred and eighty-five dollars. 1.2 years of tuition at the University of Victoria.
“I’m going!” There are two ways to guarantee that a person will never end up where they’re supposed to be: the first is to keep them locked up. The second is to let them go wherever they want. I stuffed the money back into the mattress and got out of there lickety-split — like blowing a popsicle stand, if you know what I mean. But not sexually.
Chapter 3: The Power of Positive Thinking
“Thank you for sharing, Cheryl,” said Reverend Father John Miller. “Sometimes disposing of these physical reminders can be a step to acceptance. Many describe it as freeing.”
The church basement was the opposite of freeing. It was musty and sweaty and reminiscent of my laundry room in terms of size, but it was either here or Mass, so every Friday I drove across town and I spent three hours listening to strangers’ sob stories. Before the support group I’d been going to a therapist called Baptiste, but she’d been revealed in a surprise audit to have faked her medical degree, and I had to take the pills she’d been prescribing for my anxiety to the police. My parents had been understandably turned off of therapy after that. At least at the support group the weak lemonade was free. At school it cost a dollar fifty.
“Teagan?” I paused momentarily in shoving the free cookies from the free cookie plate into my mouth. “Want to introduce yourself, for our new members?”
I chewed, and swallowed, then choked. There were several awkward moments of silence as I pounded on my chest. “Yeah, thure. Uh —” I coughed, and swallowed again. “My name is, uh. Teagan Valentine. I’m 17. I lost my mother to a black hole when I was a baby. She worked for Brookhaven National Lab, so —” at that a bunch of them reacted, mostly with pity. “Yeah. One of the first. At the literal, uh. Epicenter.”
“But you’ve made a lot of progress, since then,” said John, nicely. “Why don’t you give us a quick update on where you’re at?”
“I’ve been applying to college, mostly. Getting ready to pay. For college. In a normal, completely legal way. And I still miss my mom. But you can’t get mad at gravity, right? I love gravity. Gravity keeps my feet on the ground.”
“Gravity keeps our feet on the ground,” echoed John, and a couple of the other regulars, synth diamond earrings glittering under the church fluorescents. Everybody here wore statement diamond earrings — that statement being “conformity.” Diamonds were supposed to ward of black holes. They didn’t work. Trust me, I’d tried: stuffing handfuls in my pockets, wearing diamond bracelets and necklaces and anklets, swallowing. Diamonds didn’t stop black holes from forming. They were just resistant to getting torn apart.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I agree with that.” That was a girl sitting next to me. My hand fell between our seats. “It’s not the same as a natural disaster. The black holes only started 20 years ago. I mean, you can get mad at something like climate change, right?”
“I think we can all sympathize with that frustration, sweetheart,” said Miller. Fingers brushed mine, and then slid up to my wrist, then down to interlace our hands. “Do you sympathize, Teagan?”
“Uh, yeah. I mean — not really. I don’t control the black holes. So, like. Accept what you don’t control, and all that.”
The girl’s hand was hot and a little bit sweaty. “Acceptance doesn’t equal love.”
“I’m not —”
“We can’t just become complacent. We can’t give in.”
“I don’t love the black holes,” I said. “I stay away from the black holes.”
“Okay, you two,” interrupted John. “Why don’t we hear from somebody else?”