“Magenta and Indigo and Rust and Blackish-Green” by Matt Weber
Keep this in mind: there is an empty cot in my mother’s apartment. It came with us from apartment to apartment during the bad days when we had to stay ahead of the rent collectors. I am twenty-eight years old; the cot has been there since I can remember. No one has ever slept in it.
Our story begins at rush hour on the floor at Heartbeat City, the disco ball anointing all of us with angel dust. I am dancing with the empty space on the floor I always dance with when the white boy pulses past the bouncer: hook nose, sandy hair, black hoodie, black jeans, black steel-toed boots, black backpack hulking like a cauldron. I, though, have had too much wine and not enough food and I am entirely, gloriously, inside my own head—out of my head, in fact, for once, and inside my lungs and the ache in my legs and the sweat refusing to dry on my skin. But it is a matter of public record that he doesn’t waste any time: he heads bullet-straight for the center of the dance floor, beneath the disco ball.
Beneath the disco ball is a lacuna. That’s what they’ll call it when they discuss the CCTV footage after: a lacuna. It is a circular absence of people about ten feet in radius; its perimeter undulates locally but does not change size or shape; it is enforced by no evident barrier or mark or other form of management, and there is nothing in it but bare black floorboards and motes of light flaring off the facets of the disco ball.
Or, not nothing: there is me.
Me and Luiza and Julio, dancing in the middle of a lacuna. Not with each other—we are far apart—but not alone. We are making eye contact, smiling, but not with each other, or anyone else; our arms move compactly, mindful not to elbow the empty air. The dancers do not, for the most part, break away from the perimeter of the lacuna. Until the white boy does.
We give no sign of noticing him. The distance to the center of the lacuna is, as I’ve said, not long, but it takes him some time to cover it. He weaves, he shuffles, his steps are smaller than they need to be in all that space.
When the white boy is directly under the disco ball he is no longer painted with fairy lights. For as long as I have been coming to the club, that’s how it’s been; the bottom of the disco ball is singed and deformed, and all the glass is gone. He looks up at it, noticing. You can see him shrug, or maybe that’s just him swinging the backpack to the floor.
This is the point at which I remember actually registering that something was wrong. Not because I saw him—I didn’t. What I remember is thinking, as sharply and clearly as a broken wineglass: Sinc, we have to run.
The camera shows me facing basically in his direction. But I didn’t see him, I couldn’t have identified him in a lineup. I didn’t see Julio or Luiza either, although they tell this story basically the same way as me. I did see the backpack, open like a mouth around some metal shape that made no sense, thick with tubes and valves and switches whose orientation with respect to one another I still, even after reconciling my memory with the footage, can’t quite place.
I stumbled back and hit the perimeter. I think the people there had perhaps just started to realize something was happening.
What you’ll see on the footage is Luiza and Julio and me all hitting the lacuna’s perimeter at about the same time. The white boy fiddles with something in the backpack and goes blurry. Then he looks up, flinches, and raises an arm as if to shield his face. His other arm moves.
There now appears a hemisphere of blindingly bright white light, although the edges seem to be alive with color—magenta and indigo and rust and blackish-green. The light precisely fills the lacuna and grazes the bottom of the disco ball.
When it is gone, the backpack and device are gone, but he is still there. He looks up in visible wonderment, then slowly stands. He is perceptibly taller; his spine has straightened.
A few people scream and run in fear at this point, but you honestly barely see them, it’s like a glitch in the video. All you see, or at least all you apprehend, is the entire crowd sinking—heads hanging, hands coming up to cover eyes and mouths, shoulders beginning to heave. Some of us put our arms around each other, lean into each other for comfort. Luiza, Julio, and I do not. We stand on the perimeter of a lacuna that is now just a place where people aren’t, whose edges are falling apart as the dancers search for comfort and understanding in one another, and we look at the space as though, when it is filled, the dearest thing we have ever loved will be gone.
He gets out of the club—no one is in a condition to stop him—but police pick him up a few blocks later. After a confused interview, they let him go. “Don’t do things like that in crowded places,” the officer says. “You really scared some people.”
A couple of days later, he is confessing to mass murder on live TV.
When I was fourteen, my calculus teacher held the seat next to me open. No one, including me, questioned the decision; or at least not nearly as much as they, including me, questioned me. I did not like calculus, and I did not feel like I understood it, certainly not as well as the towering boys whose hands shot up for question after question, whose parents paid full tuition and lived nearby in houses with driveways and lawns where grass grew.
I would have failed some of the tests if I could—everyone else did, once in a while. But when I looked over at the empty seat, the feeling of having a melon in my belly would bleed away and I could do what I needed to, not what I wanted to.
I look back and I still can’t believe how much I wanted to. What would have changed?
My name is Sinclair, and when I took it, that warm absence left. It had followed me through high school, but when I went to Penn, its presence grew unreliable—except when I took the subway back home, which I did often, for that and other reasons. Cafeteria food was bland and slick, like most of my classmates. I took a computational neuroscience course and discovered a reason to like calculus. I dated a gay boy and discovered what it was like to get dumped for your chromosomes. I learned to bind my breasts and deadlift my body weight. I grew facial hair long enough to dye, then dyed it. I dated more.
It was Kaz who took me to Heartbeat City. They pointed out the damage on the disco ball; the owner of the club had told them it had shipped like that. I wasn’t really listening, just looking out on the dance floor as though I were people-watching.
I wasn’t people-watching. I was looking at the lacunae. That was the first time I saw Luiza, dancing opposite a space that the other dancers made. When she danced with her lacuna it was with her eyes closed. I got away from Kaz and picked my way through the crowd until I found mine. It was just enough like coming home to make you think of coming home, without actually being home. Like coming to the vacant lot where home had been.
I went back to the dorm alone. I did not try to pay the driver for two passengers that night, although there would be nights, later, drunker, where I did.
There isn’t much else to say about me, before. I have this feeling that there would have been; but there isn’t. I got my bachelor’s in neuroscience and got into the Ph.D. program at Drexel. Here is part of the abstract of my senior thesis:
The hippocampus is a small structure of the medial temporal lobe that supports detailed recall of episodic memories. Current theory suggests that its function is one of pattern completion: given a partial cue for a remembered episode, it re-evokes the remaining content of the episode through wide-ranging connections to sensory cortices. We propose a biologically plausible neural model of hippocampal pattern completion.
The results were trash; it was an undergraduate thesis. I have some better results for my Ph.D., but I’m not going to finish it. I’ve lost the need.
Fifteen years before the white boy walks into Heartbeat City with his cauldron of death on his back, there’s a night when fifty-five people between the ages of two and twenty-eight are found burned to death. They are from everywhere, Honduras and Lesotho and West Virginia, but mostly from north and west Philadelphia; they died everywhere, smoking weed in secret or trysting or flirting over shaved ice in a night market or simply walking around places where the night air is too cool and full of quickness not to be breathed, but mostly in their beds; they are mostly brown, and those old enough to be queer are mostly queer.
They are, in short, like Kaz, like Luiza, like Julio, like me.
I find out about this after the white boy’s unhinged TV interview. He looks like one of the tall, confident boys from calculus. I have learned his name, of course; I choose not to use it here. This is some of what he said.
ANCHOR: Police and witnesses reported no casualties that night. You’re…disputing that? There are casualties we don’t know about?
THE WHITE BOY: Correct, the casualties occurred fifteen years ago. This station did a special report on it, you called it a pandemic of spontaneous combustion.
A: Heartbeat City wasn’t even built until years after that event. None of those people could have been there. Most of them were little kids.
TWB: But they were there, last night. Until I changed history.
A: How is it possible to change history?
TWB: I call it balefire.
When a target is struck with balefire, its thread in the Pattern is destroyed, in an amount proportional to the power of the balefire strike. This translates to both the target’s existence, and actions up to a certain point, being retroactively erased. For example, when [FANTASY CHARACTER NAME WITH GRATUITOUS APOSTROPHE] used it [IN THE EXECUTION OF SOME IN-THE-WEEDS-ASS PLOT POINT THAT I WAS NEITHER ABLE NOR WILLING TO COMPREHEND IN THE MOMENT]. The stronger the balefire, the further back in time the object in question will be burned from the Pattern.
They show a screenshot of this during the interview. I’m not sure if it’s meant to make him sound more sane or less. I am weeping hysterically at this point; I am howlingly empty, hollowed out by a grief whose scale and source I am only just beginning to understand.
A: Why Heartbeat City? I mean, you’re a white man, I won’t assume you’re straight, but the regulars at that club…you could understand how someone might think—
TWB: I knew you’d bring that up. God, I knew you’d bring that up! Look, I’m not perfect, but anyone who knows me can tell you I have absolutely no bias toward anyone who’s different. But these people—they made high school a living hell for me and damned if I was going to take that from any person. Black, brown, straight, queer, I don’t care. They thought they were better than me because our teachers were afraid to give them bad grades, and they celebrated by going to Heartbeat City when the rest of us were studying. They made me feel like dirt.
A: …but instead of settling your problems nonviolently, or even with conventional violence, you waited fifteen years to get your revenge.
TWB: No, I didn’t. I actually got my revenge years before any of that stuff happened.
I text Luiza and Julio: if this guy is crazy, then i am also crazy.
It feels like hours before Luiza texts back and says me three.
A: This seems…forgive me, but if you did, in fact, commit the crimes you say you did, it seems like you made the escape of the century. Why would you get on national television to confess?
TWB: I hate to break it to you, Sarah, but none of this is real.
A: …I’m afraid you’ll have to expand on that for me.
TWB: This is all just a weird accelerated spasm of neural activity before my particles disaggregate into sweet nonexistence.
A: I actually understood what that sentence meant, but I have no idea where it came from.
TWB: Of course you don’t, you adorable figment. Look, I caused a paradox. That was the whole point all along. If I remove the people who made my life hell in school from existence practically before I was born, then they never made my life hell in school, and I never killed them, so my life was hell, and I did, and so on. [He stretches, then grins, as though he’s hidden a frog somewhere in the house and he’s not telling you where.] The stars are not wanted now, put out every one.
A: You think you caused a paradox and ended the universe.
TWB: Oh, I did. I would have had to. And I’m trying—[blinks and sniffles] I’m trying to make myself understand that it’s all over now. To cut off this stupid fucking dream, where all those people are dead and no one’s done anything about it.
[TWB is well on the way to breaking down at this point, voice cracking, face blotchy, ugly-crying.]
A: Counterpoint. You’re a bitter, damaged man, and you’d have found a reason to kill those people no matter what your life was like, because they loved their lives and you could never be like them.
The right sort of hallucinogen can dissociate you from your senses; once, at Heartbeat City, a circle of us split a few caps of some then-technically-legal substance, then passed around a bottle of extra-strength artisanal green hot sauce and took turns putting drops of it on our tongues. I felt all the pain, but it didn’t hurt—didn’t carry the same promise of destruction that usually came with pain. It was data; I could just watch it come and rise and fall and go.
Imagine that, for joy instead of pain, and you will understand how I felt and did not feel when the anchor said that to the boy who had killed someone I loved so completely that I had no idea what our love was like.
Julio texts. No words, just a photo.
It is his apartment, I guess; there are pride flags and bike parts and soccer jerseys and sugar skulls, and in the corner, behind the TV, there is a crib. It is one of those shitty plastic-and-mesh jobs that were never meant for everyday use. The light’s not good, but I can make out a pristine white blanket tucked over the hard folding pad that passes for a mattress, and on top of it some kind of stuffed purple elf with a triangle on its head.
Julio is forever showing us photos of his latest niece or nephew, and all the rest as well. Julio is nothing if not dad material, kind and patient and untiring, and the unrumpled order of that shitty Wal-Mart crib stands out as bleak and plain as a gravestone, which is of course exactly what it is.
i get it now, he texts after a minute.
After two: i’m out. i’ll see you when i see you.
By the time I call his number it is already busy. I call Luiza and she, thank God, is busy too.
Pattern completion alters our perception as well, maybe more strongly than our memory. The easiest example of this is the blind spot in your vision, which you can find by moving a pencil back and forth in your field of view, without looking directly at it, until the eraser disappears. This is caused by the bass-ackwards design of the retina, which leads to basically a hole in the photoreceptors where the optic nerve plunges through the back of the eye and begins its journey toward the brain. But we don’t see the hole. Our brains paper over it with whatever colors and textures happen to be nearby. If something is completely inside it, it might as well be gone. Hidden in a lacuna.
Luiza calls me six hours later to tell me Julio is alive. I bring huevos rancheros and pad see ew to his place the next day. He and Luiza and I and a few other friends from Heartbeat City sit on the couch and eat and drink and read the obituaries of the fifty-five balefired dead. Other than Julio, no one else that we know has lost, or unhad, a child. The crib’s stark horror is its virtue: it can be separated and compartmentalized and examined as a free-standing entity in the way that the unslept-on sides of our beds, the extra toothbrushes on our sinks, cannot.
When we are done, I suggest that we vote on who was most likely to have been partnered with who. “Make it like Apples to Apples,” I say, not sober but not nearly drunk enough to make this bad a decision. “I’ll choose Julio’s boyfriend in secret, and anyone who guesses my choice gets a point.”
One of Julio’s friends whose name I have forgotten gently points out that at the time of their deaths, or rather, the time before which the balefire failed to annihilate them, most of the victims were drastically under-age.
“They were so little,” says Luiza. “Do you think every version of them felt it? Like, the fourteen-year-old died, and then the thirteen-year-old one, and then the twelve-year-old one? Have they all been burning for fifteen straight years, and only yesterday this asshole put an end to it?”
“How far forward do the lacunae go?” I ask, unwilling to dwell on Luiza’s question. “How many kids did Julio and his boyfriend end up having? Did the kids have kids? If they did, are they gone too? Fifty-five people—this could be up to thousands in a couple of generations.”
“Could be?” says Julio, who has aged ten years in the night. “Come on, Sinc, you know it already is.”
He doesn’t know it, but he’s right; I do.
There isn’t an ending to this story. That is good luck, on balance, as far as I’m concerned.
I look for lacunae everywhere now, and sometimes find them. More often in my old neighborhood than in University City, unless I venture down Walnut Street west of 42nd, which I sometimes do for halal food or a friendly face or just to get out of the thin university air.
The white boy is not convicted of anything. It is inconceivable to the agencies that make decisions about human freedom and responsibility that he could have committed the acts he claims to have committed. He is banned from Heartbeat City for life, as well as many other places he would never care to go except for killing; his parents, who are rich enough to do it, have placed him on suicide watch. Every day I expect to see him in a headline.
Another thing I expect to see every day, that I have not yet: a person consumed by fire, seemingly for no reason, in the middle of the street. When that day comes, we will start a countdown, even though we will have no idea when it will end, when those lacunae will all collect in the place that finally creates them.
The day may not come, say Julio and Luiza. Maybe no one else can do it.
I do not tell them about the cot in my mother’s apartment. I am twenty-eight; fifteen years ago I was thirteen; if someone had burned to death in it I would have known. There is something in the future that will reach back farther than the Heartbeat City bomb. That will tear out even more of me.
I said no one slept in the cot, and that was true. But there were nights I could not sleep for how homeless I felt in my body, and on those nights I would curl up in the cot and wait for a comfort that never came.
There is something in the future that will reach back farther than the Heartbeat City bomb. If it is going to kill my sibling, it will probably happen in Philadelphia. There is at least a possibility that I will see it happen.
In the source material, the point of balefire as a plot device is to go back and fix history. Events unhappen, characters undie, the plot unbreaks. Later on, the forums tell me, there is an acknowledgement that this sort of cure is worse than the disease; it courts endless history-rewriting, the potential for a war waged over time as well as space, with causation and reality its lacuna-riddled casualties, as illustrated by the much-puzzled-over question of: what happens when someone using balefire is killed by balefire? Are his prior killings undone if you can only go back far enough?
I am praying for the opportunity to learn. I am building a balefire gun.
|Matt Weber is the author of the post-post-apocalyptic science fantasy The Dandelion Knight as well as sundry works of short fiction and poetry. He is currently working on a fantasy trilogy best described as “The Fast and the Furious but with dragons.” He lives under a pile of small children in New Jersey and tweets at @mattweberphd.