I was 16 when I saw the first crack: a jagged line, about four feet long but less than an inch wide. I found it by the sidewalk behind my house. Not on the sidewalk. The crack was in the air, visible from every direction as I circled around it. Harmlessly suspended, and nothing more.
I couldn’t touch it. My hands passed through as though it wasn’t there, although my hand was white and numb with cold by the time it reached the other side. I wouldn’t even walk close to it. Something about the emptiness just rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve walked around caves, stared down holes, even used a telescope to look at the space between stars – this wasn’t like that. It felt less like something was missing and more like something extra that shouldn’t be there.
My family moved shortly after-that, and I guess I forgot all about it for awhile. Time moved steadily forward, except maybe for a few months after college when it stopped to let me admire my future wife. She had the kind of smile that hinted at a secret, and if I had a guess, I’d say it was the secret to being happy. I would have given anything to explore every hidden crevice of her mind, knowing her as she knew herself until one day we could start making new secrets of our own.
It was about a week after we met at work when we both had to stay late to clean up after an office party. I asked her to come sit on the roof and look at the sky with me. There we were: side-by-side, the space between our hands burning like fire, the shape of her mouth illuminated with the backdrop of endless stars, gleaming like millions of envious eyes wishing they could sit where I was sitting now.
I didn’t know anything could make me feel so weak. My legs were trembling, and I remember having to keep switching positions so she wouldn’t notice. I didn’t trust the words in my mouth or the thoughts in my brain, or any other part of me which was blurred out of existence to make room for my appreciation of everything that she was.
That’s when I saw the crack again, and I was reminded how powerful weakness could be. It was larger now, running along the side of an external AC unit. Not quite alongside – if I really looked I could see the empty air between the metal box and the crack. I could just make out the little streaks of light where the surrounding stars bled their light into the hole to be lost forever: a cookie-cutter gap in reality that the world had forgotten to fill in.
“You can leave whenever you want,” she’d said.
I guess she noticed that I was distracted. I shook my head, prompting her fingers to trace their way up my hand. I turned to her and her breath warmed against my mouth, and suddenly that was the only thing in the world. Six months and we were engaged, another year and we were married. Neither of us stayed long at that office, and I never went back up to that roof. The crack didn’t matter. Bad dreams can’t hurt you once you’ve woken up, and beside her grace, I was awake for the very first time.
Things went well for us, but we were so in love that I don’t think we would have noticed if they hadn’t. I got an investment banking job and climbed the corporate ladder. I started seeing more cracks, but no-one else seemed to notice so I didn’t mention them either. Sometimes they’d align perfectly to an existing object, but I could feel their emptiness pulling at me and I knew what they really were. There was a big one above the conference table at work, but I had a future here and wouldn’t let something like that get in the way of my success. My diligence paid off when my boss finally told me that he was getting older and wanted me as partner for the firm. He was standing right on the other side of the crack when he said it, so it was difficult to maintain eye contact with him.
“Unless that isn’t something you want,” he’d said, misreading my silence. “Of course you can leave whenever you want.”
The same words, but I hadn’t recognized the significance yet. I just smiled and shook his hand, careful to reach underneath the crack hanging between us. It was another dream come true, and I was king of the world. My wife and I moved into a big house and we had a baby girl together. I watched her grow, and watched the cracks grow with her. Hairline fractures splintered the sky and mapped their web throughout the air. I had to be careful where I was walking. There would be a dozen of them in my path within any given day.
I passed through a big one once in my car. I was changing lanes and didn’t notice in time. The crack went straight through my windshield without disturbing the glass, passing through my heart and out the other side. Cold doesn’t begin to describe it. The line erased my body as it passed through me, displacing skin and organs, leaving a sucking vacuous wound for the briefest instant before it was gone. I lurched at the wheel and spun off the road into the guard rail. My hands kept racing over my chest, fists pounding against solid skin to reassure myself that I was whole.
I started working from home after that. There’s a bathroom that doesn’t have any cracks in it, and I spend most of my time in there. I’ve seen my wife and daughter walk straight through them without the slightest notice. I can’t explain to them what I see and feel because I know they’ll think I’m crazy. And maybe I am, but that doesn’t change anything. I’ll sit in here for hours at a time, working on my laptop or reading a book, loathe to leave where I might stumble through what isn’t there. My wife begged me to leave, and sometimes I’d open the door just to walk around the house or sit with her in the living room, but I couldn’t go outside anymore. There were too many of them – more everyday it seemed like.
The world around me had shattered, and I was the only one to notice. I know it hurt her, but in time my wife accepted that this is how life was going to be. She made the best of it, always inviting friends or family here and making excuses when I was expected somewhere. She took cooking classes and learned how to make all my favorite meals, even getting a small table and television installed in the bathroom I was confined in.
My daughter was a different story. Eight years old now, and no amount of explaining could make her understand how much I loved her, even if I wasn’t always there. I didn’t know how embarrassed she was of me until a teacher called to let me know she’d been telling all her friends that I was dead. I made an effort to sit with her in the kitchen to ask why she’d do that, but all she’d said is that “I might as well be.”
And she was right.
I wasn’t taking care of my family anymore. They had enough money put away that they didn’t need me to work. I was just a burden, and just like the cracks, I was growing bigger everyday. Some nights I wouldn’t leave the bathroom to go to bed, and I could hear my wife crying through the wall between us. I tried pushing myself harder, willing myself through the emptiness – it wasn’t any good. They cut through me like a knife, froze me to my core, shredding bone and sinew and stitching me back together so seamlessly that there was nothing but the memory of that pain to remind me of my torment.
I was ready for this to be over. I just didn’t know it until I heard the words out of my daughter’s mouth as she pressed against the other side of the bathroom door.
“You can leave whenever you want.”
“Yes,” I told her. “I’m ready.”
“All you’ve got to do is throw yourself into a big one,” she said. “You’ll be out.”
She knew about them? I jumped up and flung open the door. She wasn’t there. I raced down the hall, shouting her name, forcing myself through each searing darkness that severed my mind and body, heart and soul. There she was, standing outside next to the biggest abyss I had ever seen. A wall of darkness, ten feet across and ripping through the air above like a skyscraper. I could feel the call of that emptiness, whispering to me, beckoning me, a promise of freedom and release that a lifetime of memories could not dissuade.
“Just do it already. You’ve been here long enough,” she said.
But I was afraid. Even this far away from the blackness, I could remember how those dark talons would feel as they rend my body. Would there be anything left of me to come out the other side? It was big enough that I didn’t have to come out at all. I could step in and be gone. It’s what my daughter wanted. So did my wife, if only she had the courage to admit it. And maybe it’s what I wanted to, but on my knees before all of creation and its antithesis, I was afraid.
“It’s easy. Just follow me.” I tried to stop her. Air dragging through my lungs, feet stumbling and twisting beneath me, lunging desperate grab – I tried to stop her from entering that blackness. But she was gone, and there was no choice but to follow. Into the looming void I plunged, screaming without sound, bleeding without wounds – disintegrating into nothing –
And then I opened my eyes. I was reclining in a padded chair like they have at the dentist office. Three men were standing over me. A plethora of beeping machines, IV lines, and heart-rate monitors cluttered the room to either side.
“Well?” one of the men asked. “How was it?”
“You were out for almost an hour.”
I couldn’t answer. There was nothing left of me to answer.
“We kept sending signals telling you it was okay to leave,” another man said. “Didn’t you get them?”
I closed my eyes and took a long breath. Life 2.0 still has some bugs, but they told me they figured out how to fix most of the cracks if I wanted to go again. It’s going to be ready for the market soon, they said. People are going to love it, they said.
“Did you notice anything else that needs fixing?” they asked me.
“Just in this world,” I replied.