The first hole opened up on a day so hot and bright you didn’t know where to aim your eyes. Even looking down at the sun-baked pavement was painful; looking up was out of the question. The only sensible approach was to squint straight ahead at what was in front of you. Maybe that was what it was counting on.
The five of us had finally all reached the age where our respective parents were ready to send us off to the pool by ourselves. Kendra had been showing up by herself practically since she was old enough to get in alone, while Toby’s protective parents hadn’t cleared him until that summer, with high school just around the corner. At ten years old, Blake’s little sister Melanie was the wild card. She’d been begging and ingratiating herself for weeks, and their parents had finally insisted that Blake bring her along, much to his dismay.
We’d been swimming for most of the afternoon, and the heat and the splashing had worn holes through all of us. There’s a peculiar exhaustion you feel after enough time in the water, when you step on land and feel your full weight once again. We were chlorine-sapped, feeling what little breeze there was on our strange new bodies. Melanie had reached the point of complaining about how hot it was, how hungry she was, how she didn’t want to leave yet, somehow all at once. Blake had already snapped at her twice, as the rest of us swapped glances and tried not to interfere.
All of this is to say: we were just young and hazy enough not to be as alarmed as we should have been when we rounded the corner, our minds vaguely set on the promise of milkshakes and air conditioning.
In the center of the parking lot, a perfect circle stood on end, about seven feet around.
Years later, my coworker would send me the link to an article about Vantablack, billed as the darkest material made by man. I scrolled through the photos of bronzed busts and their shadow twins with a plummeting recognition, at least at first. The more I looked, the worse it got. It wasn’t that it resembled the hole; it was that it didn’t look enough like it. After all, what human could have created what we saw that summer? I took my lunch break early that day.
But at the time, we didn’t know what to expect. We stepped around the hole with light feet, almost afraid to make too much noise and provoke it. As you rounded the side, it became clear that it was two-dimensional, narrowing and receding from an ellipse to a line to nothing (or back to something).
The worst thing was when you kept going. Once you got behind it, you couldn’t tell it was there at all. Standing at the point that should have been ten feet deep in the hole, all I could see in front of me was the playground and, behind it, the baseball fields off in the distance.
By now, a small crowd had started to gather in the parking lot. If it had been a few years later, maybe someone would have caught a cell phone picture, some proof that it wasn’t just a trick of the heat. Things might be different now.
I was closest to Melanie when the light sparked in her eyes. She’d always been the adventurous sort. We’d watched her circle through the line for the high board at least twenty times that day, diving again and again with a swan’s whoop, if not its grace.
The last thing she said was, “I bet it’s nice and cool in there. Just like the pool.”
She slipped into the hole before any of us could get a word out.
And the light went in.
Not even a Porky Pig iris out, “th-th-that’s all folks.” The hole was there and then it wasn’t.
It’s funny how people will try to rationalize away their own experiences. Some of us learn that lesson younger than others.
The witnesses started to question each other right away. In a blissful shared gaslighting, they talked themselves out of the mirage we’d clearly all just seen. Somehow, no one mentioned it to the cops during all of the collective hours of questioning. Why would we?
So the town newspaper simply reported it as a disappearance, with no mention of interdimensional portals or anything of the sort. Search parties went out and came back shrugging their shoulders. Posters yellowed on telephone poles.
Blake was terrified his parents would blame him. Instead, they latched dotingly onto their remaining child, and he blamed himself enough for all of them.
The four of us mostly drifted apart after that. We all ran in the same circles, but we were never as close again, except on the occasions where another disappearance was reported in town. Every time it happened, one of us would oh-so-casually suggest hanging out together, and we’d find ourselves huddled at Denny’s or the park after hours. We didn’t talk much; no one wanted to be the first to point out that we seemed to be the only ones who remembered.
When we graduated, Kendra was the only one who stuck around. I moved into the city and fell in with the art kids and insufferable hipsters. Blake fled the state on a science scholarship (his parents ran off to Oregon right afterward, with nothing left tethering them to the same old painful sights). Toby packed a backpack and left for Europe. Every so often, one of us would send a message around with a link to another missing-person article and a single question mark. But if that rip in space had happened again, no one was telling the full truth, and we couldn’t be sure we hadn’t been hallucinating after all.
Until the reunion.
I came back from my cubicle. Blake took leave from his lab. Kendra got a couple of nights off from the restaurant. Toby sent his regrets from Croatia.
The reunion was supposed to be on a Saturday. The night before, a cluster of us ended up at a bar downtown, dodging the college crowd. Blake was five drinks deep before the sun had even set. When he stumbled out of the bar for a smoke, Kendra and I followed him without asking questions. We stayed with him when he kept walking, for one mile then two. Despite not having set foot in that town in almost ten years, he knew exactly where he was going, and so did we.
As if on cue, another hole was waiting for us at the park, out in the field this time.
He had mentioned his research in passing here and there over the years, though we all knew that the work he did during the day was not meant to answer the same questions that he stayed late into the night for. Here, finally, was a specimen he was just drunk enough not to be terrified of.
I begged him to stay clear. “You’re not going to get the data you need from this. Not after you’ve been at the bar all evening.”
Kendra was more forceful. She stepped around to put herself between him and the hole, which was still unfathomably dark even in the fading light. “You’re gonna fucking die. You think your parents want to lose another kid?”
Blake looked down at the grass, shaking his head softly. The walk through town and the shock of finding what he was looking for seemed to have sobered him up a bit, though it was hard to tell. “Of course not. But I’m not stupid. I’ve been thinking this through for fifteen years, planning my approach. I don’t know when I’ll have another opportunity like this.”
He brought his face up to look at us. Through us, really. “I need your help. I might need you two to keep me tethered, if it comes to that. But whatever you do, if it exerts any kind of force on you, you have to promise me you’ll let go.”
It was a methodical approach, starting slow. He seemed perfectly calm on the surface, but I was standing close enough to see the shaky breath he took to steel himself before he plunged his hand into the darkness.
Kendra blurted out, “Is it cold?” She remembered Melanie’s last words as well as I did.
Blake’s brows quirked. “No—nah. It’s a lot warmer than it looks.” He moved his hand around some more, swishing it through the darkness without so much as a ripple. It drifted slowly.
The next step was to get a look at whatever was on the other side. His feet were going to stay firmly on this side of the hole, with just his head passing through. Kendra opened her mouth to complain, but I squeezed her hand into silence. I wanted to believe that he’d finally find some of the answers
As he positioned himself at a safe distance, he stretched his arms back behind him and we each took one. He looked back over his shoulder at me with a gentle smirk. “A lady on each arm. If teen Blake could see me now.”
Kendra threw a mock punch at his biceps, but he just smiled sadly. “Remember what I told you.”
He took one more deep breath—for a moment I imagined us at 13, him about to duck beneath the surface of the pool—and dipped his head in.
The rip disappeared, as if it had been waiting. The drawstring cinched tightly around his neck, though like before, we didn’t see it. He’d already started flailing before we had a chance to register what had happened.
We held his arms to anchor him. We saw his chest start to heave as he struggled for breath. We pulled as hard as we could, even after he stopped moving.
The paramedics confirmed what we already knew. He had no vital signs, and no one could pull him free. The people from the coroner’s office were at a loss. They tied his feet to a truck, figuring decapitation was less ignominious than an open grave ten yards from Little League practice. The rope broke.
For a couple of years now, his body has stood stock-straight in the middle of the field, with what you might almost mistake for a bowed head if you see him from behind. He doesn’t breathe, doesn’t pulse, doesn’t move, and doesn’t decay. From some angles, you can’t see him at all.
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