Thomas Barnes ~ Gravity Well

Below the foot­bridge, traf­fic was an end­less wave. Sarge fragged a bot­tle over the chain­link. It land­ed in the crush­er of a pass­ing garbage truck, shat­tered.

Your ride is here, don’t miss it,” he said, cock­ing a thumb at the reced­ing machine.

I ignored him. I was search­ing for the first stars behind the mesh of pow­er­lines, water tow­ers, aeri­als. That’s when the flash of sil­ver streaked across the sky. There was no con­trail in the falling light, no trace. I’d nev­er seen any­thing like it.

Did you see that?” I said.

See what,” Sarge said, and asked for anoth­er cig­a­rette.

I gave him my last one but made sure he knew it.

Oh that, ‘course I saw that. See it all the time. Lotsa peo­ple would say it’s gov­ern­ment, but I still know some folks from way back when,” Sarge said. “It’s def­i­nite­ly — whatcha call it. Extra pedes­tri­an. Out of this world.”

He pushed his cart toward where the bridge curved to earth. Sarge wasn’t real­ly a sergeant, I don’t think. But the bar­tender at Superstructure said he took nerve gas in Kuwait. Now he lived in his rust­ed Cutlass under over­pass­es around town. I didn’t think it’d start, but he was nev­er under the same one. We were head­ing in the same direc­tion and he was telling me his whole life sto­ry. I’d heard it all before, but it was always a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.

Damn,” Sarge said, snap­ping gnarled fin­gers. “You know. That’s it. That’s where your friends went. Little gray men must’ve abduct­ed them.”

He wig­gled fin­gers at me like nine and a half anten­nae.

I was sup­posed to meet friends at their triple-deck­er, but there was nobody home and my phone was toast. I ran into Sarge on the way to the bar, hop­ing to catch up with them.

You know, I been abduct­ed. Wasn’t half bad, you know what I’m say­ing? Most action I saw for a while,” Sarge said. He cack­led and winked.

But at the end of the bridge, he seemed to for­get about me. He mum­bled to him­self and knocked on a ser­vice door that said No Trespassing.

I fin­ished the beer I was hold­ing and opened anoth­er. There was a fifth in my boot and pock­ets were filled with air­plane bot­tles. Maybe I was try­ing to dis­tract myself from what I saw arc­ing through the sky. So what? But it kept pulling my atten­tion. Abduction. It’d be some­thing dif­fer­ent. I pic­tured myself in a glass cage on an alien world. Alien chil­dren rap­ping on the glass and throw­ing alien peanuts at where I sat in a per­fect sim­u­la­tion of my base­ment apart­ment. There bet­ter be drinks if they want­ed an authen­tic expe­ri­ence at the human zoo. Told myself to relax, you’ve had a few, so find your friends, have a few more.

The whole way to the bar I watched the sky. The stars moved like water bugs.

The wind sharp­ened its claws against the long night. One of those rare moments when nobody was around and I felt myself expand­ing. I was blan­ket­ing the city like a smog. The city smelled like the low tide blow­ing off the cold Atlantic. Everything seemed in its place.

But where the bar was sup­posed to be, it was­n’t. I walked around the block to be sure. The squat build­ing was gone. So was the muf­fler repair shop next to it, the Polish deli that oper­at­ed out of the back bay. In its place was a con­do build­ing under con­struc­tion, a dark fortress hulk­ing out of some evil future or for­got­ten past.

Where’s the local,” I yelled at the con­do build­ing, cup­ping my voice. I noticed my hands were etched with lines. My palms looked like a map of the city, all the streets curl­ing against each oth­er.

No response — the con­do build­ing was play­ing hard­ball. A man walk­ing a dog hur­ried to the oth­er side of the street. I thought I could smell con­spir­a­cy. But maybe it was just the riv­er.

Trying to scrape some brain cells togeth­er, wish­ing I had­n’t opened anoth­er beer, or got­ten into the fifth. I got it all wrong, I was think­ing. Maybe my friends were sup­posed to vis­it my apart­ment! Instead we passed like space­ships in the dark. I shiv­ered against the cold. It was sup­posed to be sum­mer. Summer is bull­shit, I thought, and turned up my col­lar.

The paper skin of birch­es peeled from their bones, shin­ing in the dark. My glass­es fogged up and the world was bleach­ing, turn­ing white.

The lit­tle air­plane bot­tles made me feel like a giant. My head felt swollen, tongue thick, blood like con­crete. Whenever I tried to pin it down, it wrig­gled out from under me. Whatever it was kept falling away. Voicemails unan­swered, calls dropped, birth­days for­got­ten, friends mov­ing to dif­fer­ent cities. The days them­selves, held so close, but emp­tied out before long.

I thought about when I was a kid and fell off a rusty round­about in a play­ground. How a huge dog appeared as if by mag­ic, lick­ing my face, the tears there. How it stayed with me all day, until my father got home. How my father said look at the tag on the col­lar, it belongs to some­one else, some­one miss­ing it right now. How every win­ter my father grew cold­er, the spring thaw nev­er find­ing him. Call the num­ber on the col­lar, he said. And get me anoth­er beer.

I looked for Sarge by the bridge, angling for home. Even cracked anoth­er air­plane bot­tle, as if it’d sum­mon him. But he was­n’t around. Abducted, I knew, eyes swing­ing all around. Why him? Why not me? I pic­tured myself in the depths of space, frozen sol­id and pre­served for­ev­er.

And you know — I hadn’t noticed it before. But they’d fixed up the foot­bridge. My friends used to prac­tice tag­ging here. There were no more rust stains or graf­fi­ti on the tired con­crete. It was all pol­ished and chrome. Even the old high-pres­sure sodi­um street­lights were now clus­tered white LEDs. The shad­ows here were dark­er some­how, and cast shad­ows them­selves. About time, I thought. You used to feel like you were about to fall into the turn­pike.

A light­est snow detached itself from the night.

When I arrived at my apart­ment, there was nobody wait­ing to get buzzed in.

My heart dropped fath­oms. Too deep to make a sound, no light down there, the only life lumi­nes­cent and spiny. I could see the secrets of the uni­verse now, and they were ter­ri­ble. Everyone abduct­ed, every­one except for me.

The face­less hous­es watch­ing as I gouged lines in the paint around the lock. But the key would­n’t turn. I torqued it, lean­ing into the brass. Crooked teeth like mine.

Maybe my room­mates changed the locks, I was think­ing. I was com­ing home late and drunk a lot.

I formed gog­gles around my eyes. Inside, all the walls were in the right place, but there were no stacks of piz­za box­es, no under­wa­ter city of dish­es ris­ing from the bac­te­r­i­al sink. I hur­ried past strange cars in the dri­ve­way.

The neigh­bor’s dog howled at me. For a pup­py, he sound­ed big and mean. The crys­talline sound of snow on snow, the crunch of my boots.

The world was spin­ning. I was reced­ing toward some hole in its cen­ter, like a pen­ny in the spi­ral wish­ing well of the muse­um where I used to wait for my father to get out of work. The pen­ny’s orbit shrink­ing, tighter and tighter, as it fell into grav­i­ty. Until it reached the black hole at the cen­ter. Until there was no more sound.

The muse­um showed how sci­en­tists thought black holes lay at the cen­ter of the galaxy, the uni­verse. How we were made most­ly of emp­ty space, the gaps between atoms and mol­e­cules, galax­ies our­selves.

And I knew even then that there was a black hole at the cen­ter of every­thing, at the cen­ter of you and me.

I could feel my heart bump in my throat like my shoes in the wash­ing machine after I ran through the gray slush of the play­ground.

The keys did­n’t mat­ter, I knew, miss­ing my friends did­n’t mat­ter. I was just mixed up again. I knew in the black hole inside me that they’d be here soon to take me away.

Then heard the shud­der and crash of the shop­ping cart.

Sarge.

Hunched against the snow and wind. He asked me for a smoke. He smelled chlo­ri­nat­ed.

Sarge, bud­dy, it’s me,” I said.

He squint­ed at me.

Oh shit,” he said. “You been gone a minute.”

You remem­bered,” I said. I want­ed to throw my arms around him.

Of course I remem­ber you,” Sarge said. He laughed. “Alien man. I thought you split town.”

Nah, I just been around,” I said, shak­ing my head slow­ly, watch­ing him the whole time. “Hey, the friends I was telling you about — did you see any­body around? Anybody look­ing for me?”

You still bang­ing on about that? You’re cra­zier than me,” Sarge said, laugh­ing. “Think they’re up there, still look­ing for you?”

I shiv­ered, not look­ing where he was point­ing.

Then he said, “Hey, do you have any­thing to drink? You were always good for it.”

I found an air­plane bot­tle and gave it to him. My last one, but I made sure he knew it.

~

Thomas Barnes lives and works in Chicago. His work has appeared in the Southwest Review, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, X‑R-A‑Y Literary Magazine, and else­where. You can find him on Twitter @thmsbrns and on Instagram @thms.brns.