Don’t go into the alley, Sara’s mother always said. Don’t drive through the alley either, her father added, citing how people would lay down bits of glass to pierce your tires or metal to damage the undercarriage of your car, and if you don’t make it out, well, then you’ve got real problems, sister. The alley was where all the troublemakers and the gang bangers and the drug dealers would hang out, according to him, but Sara never once saw any of those dangers. She loved the alley between her block and the next. It wasn’t one of those dark, narrow alleyways between tall buildings, the kind you saw in all the movies and homicide mystery shows, but a spacious suburban one, lined with fences and garages hidden behind bungalow-style homes on one side, dumpsters and the back entrances of business on the other. Sometimes at night, or in those hours of twilight where the shadows stretched, it might send a small shiver up her spine, but Sara never felt frightened in that alley, never scared or spooked or anything like that.
Sara didn’t even fear the beast that lived in the inexplicable deep-dark shadow underneath the telephone pole by the taquería’s dumpster. For the longest time, Sara was like everyone else, passing by this deep-dark patch, this strange hole in the scenery, and she would think nothing of it, except perhaps a small tug in the back of her mind that something was off, something wasn’t quite right there. Space didn’t seem to add up, like the world had gone slightly askew, but it was such a fleeting and absurd thing that most people shook their heads and continued on. Not Sara. She was determined to figure it out, staring hard at the deep-dark spot whose existence her brain tried to deny. It was a constant fight against the natural inclination to just glance over it, or past it, or beyond it, because it couldn’t possibly exist. After a while, she finally got it to snap into relief instead of sliding away to the corners of her vision, as clear and obvious as the colorful mural on the back wall of Pat’s Public House a few spaces down.
At first, it seemed like just a black hole, but super-dark, a rich inky blot on the landscape. Sara thought of touching it, passing her hand through it to see what it felt like, and she imagined it being very cold and tingly. Only an idiot would blindly thrust a part of herself into some unknown black mass, though. She started with a brick, a broken chunk of debris sitting in a patch of grass near the corner of a garage, just big enough to fit in her hand. She hesitated for a moment before hurling it through the center of the dark spot.
The half-brick disappeared into the darkness, but there was no sound, no clatter, no thunk or even a thwoop like a TV sound effect. The darkness didn’t shift or change or react at all except that Sara had to shift her focus, concentrating on it again to make it stay. Dread clenched her stomach for a moment, but it was swiftly overtaken by overwhelming disappointment. Maybe, for all its strangeness, the dark spot was nothing special after all.
Sara turned to stalk back home when she heard a dull thud behind her. She spun around, and there was the half-brick sitting in the middle of the alley in front of the strange spot. She picked it up, turning it over in her hand. Nothing had changed about its composition. It was exactly as it had been when she threw it, same weight, same shape, same everything. She lifted her eyes and regarded the spot curiously, a frown creasing her forehead.
She threw it again, sticking around to wait this time. A moment later, the brick returned, landing in the exact same spot. She threw it a third time, and the return was even quicker, followed by a low, irritated growl that was so quiet she’d have missed it if she weren’t paying attention. Sara’s eyes stretched wide with surprise, and part of her wanted to run, but that part was easily conquered by the stronger, fearless desire to know more.
“Hello?” she asked, her voice timid as she leaned in to peer into the spot. It pulled at her mind as if trying to slip away from her attention, but she held it fast. “Are you there? Habla español? I’m sorry I threw that brick at you, but I just wanted to see what would happen.”
Sara felt dumb, like she was losing her mind, but no. It was there, the brick was there, she had watched it emerge from the darkness, and she had heard that rumbling growl. It had happened, and she wouldn’t let sheer impracticability persuade her otherwise. But there was nothing forthcoming from the pit at the moment, and she figured it unwise to upset the thing further. She looked up to the sky, squinting in the sun, which seemed impossibly bright after she’d spent so long staring at something so impossibly dark.
When she lowered her eyes, she had trouble finding the spot again, as if it kept slipping away from her vision whenever she looked at it. But she focused, clamping down on it tight. “Don’t think you can get off that easy,” she said. “I’ll be back tomorrow, okay? So I hope you’re still here when I get back.”
It was still there, in the same spot, though it tried to convince Sara that it wasn’t. There was a small tin garbage can nearby, the kind no one even used anymore, and she flipped it upside down in front of the hole, perching herself on it as she stared forward intently. She’d swiped a pack of hot dogs from the fridge, figuring she’d deal with the consequences of the missing food later. They sat in her lap for a moment as she considered the blackness.
“Hello,” she finally said, “it’s me again. Sara, that’s my name. I don’t think I told you. I live right over there, and I threw that brick at you. Sorry about that. I brought something better this time. They’re hot dogs. I think you’ll like them.”
She carefully slipped one of the dull, pinkish tubes of meat from the package, dangling it in front of herself before tossing it forward into the hole. Patiently, she waited for the hole to spit it back out as it had the brick. But nothing happened. Smiling faintly, Sara tossed another in. Again, she waited. Again, nothing. By the fourth hot dog, a sound like a contented purring emerged, so she continued until the pack of hot dogs was entirely gone.
“That’s all for today,” Sara announced, sliding off the trash can. “I don’t know if I can get you more hot dogs any time soon, but I’ll come by often, don’t worry.”
She kept her word, but she was starting to wonder why. Save for the occasional growl or murmur, nothing much happened with the black space. It merely existed, and to what purpose, she wasn’t sure. She speculated at it, babbling her theories out loud. Was it some sort of alien lifeform? A rift in the space-time continuum? A portal to hell? What, if anything, was on the other side? She had at one point watched in stock-still horror and fascination as a stray cat sniffed around the edges, then stepped forward into the space halfway. The tail left behind seemed to twitch happily, then it suddenly turned violent, muscles in its flank tensing, bottom lowered in an attempt to anchor itself. But it was no use. It was sucked into the blackness. Sara thought she heard a faint, pitiful meow, followed by a distant rumble, a deep chuckle or gathering thunder, she couldn’t tell which.
What happened to the cat? The implications were terrifying and exciting. Was it still alive in there, or had it been eaten? Why did it eject the brick, but not the hot dogs? And it seemed to actually pull the cat in. At the risk of upsetting the creature, Sara began to experiment. Anything made of meat was ripe for the taking, it seemed, while it rejected sticks and books and a handful of jacks and her brother’s Nerf football. Apples and bananas and crowns of broccoli were similarly thrown back, but it took frozen chicken nuggets as easily as it had the hot dogs. When she experimented with a steak, she set it down in front of the hole and nothing happened. Then she poked half of it in, leaving the other half exposed to the real world. It was yanked into the darkness, just like the cat, and it remained inside, also like the cat. Leaning in as close as she dared, she listened and thought she heard the faint smacking rhythm of mastication.
“Huh.” Sara placed her hands on her hips, and, really, that was all she could do. Her foot tapped on the pavement as she thought. What was the point of all this? Should she do something, tell someone? It didn’t seem dangerous unless something interacted with it, so that made it pretty harmless, didn’t it?
But what happened to things once they went through? Sara left the alley then, having nothing more to give the dark space, but thoughts of it stuck with her, clinging to her skull and refusing to leave. They plagued her, leaving her usually quiet and brooding and distracted. Her mother began to question her about the food that had gone missing, waving her arms as she complained that these things couldn’t have just grown legs and walked out, and Sara could only absentmindedly muse that perhaps they had, which lead to being promptly grounded for back talk. That suited her just fine, as it allowed her more time to figure out this enigma in the quiet solitude of her bedroom.
At school, her friends were getting annoyed with her and her complete lack of attention, and the teachers were getting concerned, except for Mr. Carson, who was more than happy to indulge in a student’s sudden passion for outer space, even if she was a little fixated with black holes and dark matter in particular. The councilor came to talk to her, but she shrugged off the concern, saying that she just had a lot of things on her mind. There was no way she could try to explain her bizarre friend to anyone when she barely understood it herself.
There was nothing online, nothing in the library. Sara was starting to wonder if the thing was nothing at all, not in the sense that she imagined it, but just that it was the very essence of nothingness, maybe like what the Buddhists believed, but not really. An abstract concept not conceivable by puny human understanding. That made her feel a little better about her inability to solve this particular puzzle, if it existed well beyond her ability to comprehend. It made her smile with a sense of whimsy, tremble in frightened awe, and cry deep rivers of emotions unlike anything she’d felt before. It consumed her, just as neatly and quickly as it consumed the cat and the hot dogs and the T-bone steak her mom had bought for her dad’s birthday.
Sara went back as often as she could, forcing herself to look at it while it tried to get her to look elsewhere, thinking about it, pondering it, just being near it. She started saving her money to buy sticks of beef jerky for it, snapping off pieces and tossing them idly inside.
And then, as sudden as the first lightning bug of summer, a thought came to her and she couldn’t put it down. It felt so natural, so obvious, that she was almost ashamed she hadn’t thought of it before. She hopped down from the can, bit into a bit of jerky for herself, and approached the black spot in the alley by the dumpster. She got down on her hands and knees and crawled torward the darkness. There was no hesitation, no second thoughts; this was the right path, and she knew that now. There was no other choice than to see for herself. Somehow, deep down, she knew she had to embrace the thing that no one else could even see. She had to go in there herself, having exhausted all her other resources and methods.
Sara didn’t know what to expect, but she would have never expected the experience to be so unexceptional. When she was close enough, she lifted her hand and pressed it through. No change in temperature, no tingling cold or scorching heat. She thought maybe it would tickle on her skin, inspire all the hairs on her arm to straighten up and tremble, but it didn’t. She wiggled her fingers to find little resistance, no denser air or the feel of whatever the thing inside might be made of. She wanted to brush its fur, touch its scales, even the warm wetness of its drool, if it had any of those things, but there was nothing, nothing at all.
Taking a deep breath, she put her hand down and continued forward, ducking her head as it breeched the threshold. Sounds from the outside word, the passing cars, the loud Mexican music spilling out from someone’s kitchen window, the dull hum of late summer cicadas, they were all still there, but muted, and when Sara turned her head to look back through the portal, there was nothing but blackness. She couldn’t even see her own body. It must have been an interesting sight for anyone walking by the alley, to see the tail end of a girl protruding out, with the rest of her swallowed up by some space otherwise nonexistent in the world. Feeling it would be best to avoid that kind of situation, she kept moving, though she couldn’t truly tell when she was all in.
When she opened her mouth to say something, to call out to whatever she’d been feeling, no sound came out. The darkness seemed to rush inside, filling her mouth, silencing her. But she thought it, and she felt the thought leaving her and spreading out, dispersing into blackness itself. Hello, she thought. I’m here; are you? But she wasn’t there, nothing was. Not her body or her voice. Only her thoughts and the thought of her.
Once she realized her thoughts were there, though they weren’t, swallowed up by the darkness, and she felt the concept of her divide itself up into a million invisible black pieces, spreading out and fading, fading, fading. Was there a faint sound, a soft, gentle rumble, the smacking of lips, before she ceased to be? Or was that just the sound of everything stopping as she became one with the deep, unfathomable, impossible darkness?