His Best Friend is a Bottomless Void
"Dark Matters" from COSMOGRAMMA by Courttia Newland, recommended by Morowa Yejidé
Introduction by Morowa Yejidé
There’s a fine blend of fear, frustration, and promise in Courttia Newland’s “Dark Matters,” where the very real hard edges of black Britons are thrown in sharp relief with the fantastic and the wonders of transcension. The multi-layered meaning of the “Dark Matters” title itself offers a window into worlds both real and imagined, where uncomfortable truths in the lives of Max and his friend Noel loom over their heads. In fact, the story takes the reader into the complexity of two young men navigating an “anti-dark” world filled with socio-political minefields and everyday slights and dangers.
Among many things, our young man Max must contend with daily “odd looks,” “that slow creep away,” “the trailing six steps behind him in every shop,” and “momentary panic on car passengers’ faces.” It is in these well-placed nuances that we feel the unrelenting shadow of racial profiling, another kind of beast. And yet, the mystery of the stars and imagined existence is juxtaposed with the yearning for an alternate reality, one in which young black males aren’t treated with unrelenting suspicion and aren’t ongoing targets.
But mixed in with all of these elements is another threat beyond anything the young man at the center of the story can imagine. Or can he? Adding to the wonderfully unique narrative of “Dark Matters” is a story of doors that lead to other doors, literally and figuratively. A journey through longing for a life far different from the one imposed ultimately opens to the very reaches of space. Indeed, the “abyss” is turned on its head in this story in surprising ways. Readers who love such classic sci-fi writers as Isaac Asimov will enjoy Newland’s rich suspenseful world-building style and mind-bending narrative. He skillfully blends an existence plagued by dark realities with a brave new world of possibilities.
Author of Creatures of Passage
His Best Friend is a Bottomless Void
“Dark Matters” by Courttia Newland
The world beyond his room had grown mysterious, untrustworthy. He spent whole days alone, his parents downstairs, lying belly-down on the carpet, sketching and coloring images. At first, during his early years, Max responded to the graffiti everywhere he went, the characters and wild styles and throw-ups, the improbable mix of colors that seldom met in the natural world. When he grew older he searched above, up toward the light-saturated night sky. His canvas became larger, moving from school notebooks to A3 sheets. He began to conjure nebulae, solar systems, distant dwarf stars that shone pale milk blue, the lifeless glow of dead planets. His parents grew worried. To them his pictures were of nothingness, empty dead space, cold and isolated. His mother complained to Aunt Lina that he’d lock himself away for hours, rarely coming down to eat; and even when he did, he wouldn’t speak. His father eyed him with sullen concern, mouth opening and closing, cigarette poised by his lips, grasping for language never caught.
Max knew what he feared most: the odd looks, that slow creep away, and in strange, laughable contrast, the trailing six steps behind him in every shop, his newfound size met with awe and some distress. The previous summer he felt people thought him charming, possibly lovable. Without warning all that had changed. Now he was a foreign body causing panic. A threat.
He lay stretched on his stomach painting a watercolor cloud of blue in red when Noel knocked for him. His neighbor lived two streets away, so their mothers made sure they walked to school together, hoping to deter rougher neighborhood youths. When the boys reached their school gates they split like torn paper, staying apart until it was time to go home. Max didn’t blame him. He liked Noel. He was short, not self-conscious, confident and popular with girls, boys, and teachers, humorous and knowledgeable without seeming quirky. Once, at lunch, Noel spent ten minutes stabbing every fry on his plate onto a fork with intent precision while the entire population of the school hall watched, applauding as he crammed the soft-spiked bunch into his mouth.
At the knock, Max half rolled over, knowing who it was. There was nobody else it could be. “Come!”
The door eased open, stopped. Noel’s head appeared. “Yes, Maximillian!”
“Bruv. I told you not to call me that.”
Noel pursed his lips in a closed-mouthed smile. “Yes, Max. You good?”
Noel entered. Sagging skinny jeans, fresh black Adidas, a matching T-shirt and black hoodie. Noel always had the manners to remove his snapback when he came in the house, which Max’s mum never stopped going on about. His haircut was barbershop fresh, a day old at the latest, making his small head gleam like a water chestnut. Max, in contrast, had on worn trackies from last year, a fraying polo shirt, and his Afro hadn’t seen a barber in months. His cheeks warmed as Noel looked for somewhere to sit, opting for the single bed. The room was small, barely space enough for the thin bed. A single wooden chair was filled with a pile of folded clean clothes. Posters of street murals, Hubble photographs, and rap stars surrounded them.
“Why you lyin’ on the floor?”
“It’s comfortable. Plus it’s the best place to draw.”
“Don’t you hurt your back an’ shit?”
“Sometimes. I haven’t got a desk, so . . .”
Noel craned his neck, tracking the walls. “Man can draw, fam.”
“Thanks. It’s just practice.”
“Nah, it ain’ practice. I could practice years and not draw like that.”
“Everybody’s got their thing, innit?”
Noel wrinkled his nose. “You reckon?”
A wait, the distance between them more apparent with every second. Downstairs, a clang of kitchen utensils. The aroma of melting coconut oil. Frying onions.
“Bruv, I pree something, you know.”
Max rolled onto his back. Noel was staring out of his window. At the underground tracks beyond his garden.
Max laughed, stopped. There was a thin shadow of hair along Noel’s jaw he hadn’t noticed before. “You dunno?”
“The industrial estate. It’s proper mad. As soon as I see it I thought, that’s Max. He’ll know what to do. It’s peak.”
His skin began to tingle. It came from nothing, nowhere. He felt pressure in his veins, the sparkling sensation of a dead arm, and realized he was leaning on his elbows. He sat up. The barricade lifted, blood rushed back where it belonged.
“What is it?”
“I can’t explain. You gotta come, trust. You’re the only man I’ll let see this ting, believe me. Everyone else’s too stupid. They’ll ruin it.”
“Is this a joke?”
Noel stared. His eyes were dark marbles. “Bruv. Do I joke?”
They held each other’s gaze, and burst into spluttered laughter.
“Nah, but really,” Noel said. “Do I joke about seriousness?”
Max was already on his feet, easing into sneakers that were blackened like plantains, a sweatshirt lined with creases, and over that, a gilet vomiting cotton from the loose jagged teeth of torn seams.
“Come then,” he said, avoiding Noel’s smile.
They rode single file, in silence. Past the small park used by Amberley Aggy more than anyone else, beneath the quiet thunder of the underpass, and onto the busy main road, which for some reason was called a lane. Even their bikes were nothing alike: Noel’s a gleaming thoroughbred, bright red with thin black tires, Max’s a lumbering matte-black no-name, thick-boned with a wide snakeskin tread, rusting and creaking as its wheels turned slow. They cruised at medium pace, Noel seemingly in no hurry. Traffic was snarled up this close to rush hour, granting the ability to ride single and double yellows in lieu of bike lanes, ignoring the momentary panic on car passengers’ faces, unaware of their relaxed, guilt-ridden calm once they were gone. The day was bright, the breeze chilled as the sun began to fall, Max relishing his mild sweat as he bore down on the pedals. When Noel turned left immediately after the overhead railway bridge, he followed.
Traffic sounds lowered. The rolling shush of car tires became soothing, momentary. There was even the sound of chattering birds. Max closed his eyes, enjoying the sensation. His tires whirred beneath him.
The warehouse had once been some kind of factory, but it had clearly been long abandoned. On the upper floors, steps ascended into thin air and crumbling window frames. The only intact ceilings were on floors one and two, which were dark even though the sun was bright, foreboding even from outside. Noel glanced over his shoulder as he wheeled his bike toward the dusty steps; other than that, he hardly seemed to notice Max. He lifted the bike up, toward the blue factory doors. A scrawl of tags was etched on wooden boards that replaced the broken glass. Max thought the doors were closed, locked, as both were straight-backed and rigid, but when Noel pushed there was just enough space to squeeze themselves and the bikes through their resistance. Inside, he kicked one semiclosed; it barked a splintering protest, stuck. Noel wheeled his bike farther inside and so Max left it be, trailing after him.
The ground floor was vast. He couldn’t see the far end, consumed as it was by shadow, the walls disappearing into gloom much as the stairs above their heads evaporated into sky. Everywhere was dust and rubble, as though an earthquake had taken place, leaving the outside untouched. He saw repeated mounds of white plaster embedded with red brick that reminded him of strawberry meringue. Some mounds touched the pocked and cracked white ceiling. Cathedral arch windows beamed stunted blocks of daylight on either side of the boys, but the center of the hall was dark and difficult to make out.
Max found himself stumbling every few steps; on what, he dared not guess. The smell was of mold, damp earth. It clogged his nose and made his eyes feel heavy. The scrape of their feet caused a sea of dust to rise around their ankles. Every now and then there was a downpour of debris as showers of plaster fell from the floors above, thankfully nowhere near them. He stopped pushing the bike to rub his fingers together; they were rough, powdery, and he could taste a crackle of grit between his teeth. In front of him, the dust fog settled. He could just make out Noel’s shadow. He angled his handlebars in that direction and only knew he’d reached him when he bumped the back of his legs.
“Oi,” Noel said, softer than usual.
“Sorry,” Max whispered, following his lead.
“It’s sleeping,” Noel said.
Max was just about to ask what, but he stepped out from behind Noel, and saw.
Beyond the boys, there was a small pile of rubble as high as Max’s waist. On or spread across the crumbled plaster, it was difficult to tell, was nothing. Or rather it was something as far as Max could see, although exactly what he didn’t know: a black patch, dark ooze where there should have been sand-like plaster. There was an absence of light on the ground before them, a hole-like rip in the earth that led into . . . an abyss. It was empty space, the substance he’d stared up at night after night. It was the vision before his eyes when his lids were closed. The deepest part of the night when he lay in bed, roused from dreams. To see it where it shouldn’t be made Max dizzy with uncertainty and he stepped back with a yelp of surprise. He stumbled on an unseen brick, which shot from beneath his foot and made him fall, the bike clattering to the dust in a racket of gears and wheels.
He blanked out for a moment, trying to collect himself. Through holes in the glass roof, the faraway blue sky spun in slow motion. A wisp of cloud traveled on the wind. Noel whispered, “Shit,” and Max only just heard him, thinking he might be in trouble, so he tried to get up; only when he’d pulled himself into a sitting position, he froze. Everything left him. Body heat, voice, his breath.
The dark ooze had moved. It wasn’t spread out on the floor, it was sitting up like him. No, it wasn’t sitting up, it was pushing itself onto hollow haunches. He could see that what he’d first thought of as a random spread of substance was actually manlike—arms, legs, torso, head, all midnight black, all devoid of features. Humanoid. The creature got to its feet, spreading its arms out wide. A man-shaped silhouette three inches taller than him, around six foot four, a cutout patch of blank shape and inside that, dark void. Max tried to peer into the depths. For a moment there was the sparkle of distant stars: galaxies perhaps? The nothing was so deep it almost gave off its own light. Maybe that was what he was seeing? He leaned forward, yearning for more, so captivated he barely registered Noel say: “See? It’s beautiful.”
The being seemed to hear him. It extended a pitch-black hand, fingers reaching, strained for contact. It didn’t move. Noel stepped forward.
“No,” Max whispered from the rubble floor.
Noel ignored him, inching closer, an exhalation of dust at his feet. He touched the darkened fingers and immediately, instead of grasping them, Noel’s fingers began to disappear. It was as though they’d been immersed into a gleaming pool of thick oil. He made a terrible noise, moaning fear and revulsion, deep-throated, growing louder as he fell deeper into the creature’s body. The darkness covered more of him, his knuckles, wrist, forearm, his elbow, and up one shoulder, Noel’s feet beginning to slide closer into the creature, sending roiling dust puffing high, some of which also vanished into the dark form. Half Noel’s torso, his leg, his face, which turned toward Max and let out a roaring scream, until it covered his shaved head, and the substance filled his mouth, cutting off his voice as though a plug had been pulled inside him.
Max yelled something that wasn’t even a word, his throat raw.
The creature sucked Noel in, took his whole body until there was only a flailing arm, a bent elbow, fingers writhing like windblown leaves, sliding inside the creature with a dull pop. Immersion.
It was still. The void became auditory. It turned toward Max, opening its arms. He picked up his bike, pushing it a meter before him, and leaped on, pedaling hard and fast. He only looked behind once, against his will, believing the creature would come after him, but it stood in the same spot, arms wide, turned in his direction. He made it to the graffiti-stained doors, jumped from the bike, wrenched the doors open, breaking three nails so his fingers bled, and pushed himself outside without a care for bumps or scrapes, throwing himself back onto the bike and sprinting hard. His breathing was a harsh, ragged, quiet scream, ripping his chest like smoke, his expression a wide-eyed mask of shocked fear. He rode so frantically cars veered out of his path to avoid collision, and buses sighed to a stop.
At the small park his muscles could do no more and his legs gave out. He fell onto the grass, bones jarring as they met earth, lucky to have the bike roll away and not collapse on top of him, the whine of his breath like the sawing rasp of an asthma attack, sweat pouring from his face and body, soaking his clothes. Old Man Taylor and Ms. Emmes saw him as they returned from the parade of shops, and assumed he’d been smoking, or possibly injecting, forcing a wide space between themselves and the boy, storing the image of him splayed and panting to recreate for his parents.
Max’s chest rose and fell, looking painful, possibly dangerous. By the time it returned to an even pace, daylight had dimmed. The Amberley Road teenagers arrived, sauntering in no clear direction only to pivot on the spot, palms slapping, barking laughter, passing lighters and curses, heads nodding to smartphone music until they noticed Max; then whispering among themselves as they saw him on his back, motionless. They tried to pretend he wasn’t there, yet his presence muted their voices. The strange kid, even stranger now, possibly drugged or the victim of an attack. Unable to tell and unwilling to check, they left Max alone.
When he rose to his feet sometime later, the youngsters were a darting swarm of burning orange sparks. Max lifted his fallen bike and walked it home, stumbling past, ignorant of their hush; group suspicion clouded by nightfall.
Max hurried to his room, marching away from the calls of his parents, the shrillness of his mum’s voice, though she was not quite panicked enough to remove her sagging flesh from the television and see if anything was actually wrong. With his bike safely stored in the shed at the bottom of their garden, he tried to treat himself similarly, locking his door, collapsing on the bed, energy spent, head revolving slowly as a park merry-go-round, throbbing angrily. He was cold, and so he climbed beneath his covers fully clothed, teeth transmitting code for his ears alone, the image of Noel absorbed into the void of the creature returning like a DVD glitch; repeat, repeat.
Beyond his room, the garden, and the untidy jungle of overgrown slope beyond his father’s greenhouse, the underground tracks caught Noel’s attention: the Central Line to Ealing Broadway or Ruislip going west, Hainault or Epping to the east. Every five minutes there was a mechanical shudder, a screech and roar of trains, the glow of carriage windows creating a cinema reel of lights, illuminating gloom. Hours passed. The darkness gained depth, thickened. His mother knocked on his bedroom door, tentative, though it was easy to feign sleep, closing his eyes to cement purpose, wait until she went downstairs, the soft thud of her footsteps on carpet matching the pulse of his fear, still faster than normal. He opened his eyes only when he felt safe, tracing the patterns of rattling trains on the white screen of his ceiling, absorbing their flow without meaning, lips moving as though in conversation with his consumed friend, a whispered dialect that perhaps only they understood.
He tried to imagine himself doing more. Instead of freezing on the spot mute and powerless, reaching for Noel and pulling with all his strength. Picking up a half shard of brick, pitching it at the creature with all his power. Maybe rushing it with a broad shoulder, forcing it to the floor, away. And yet as much as he tried to conjure images of himself in action, they were solemn fragments, still, unfocused photographic moments at best, patchy and unclear. Whenever he attempted to force them into motion they fell apart or resisted, so he couldn’t see the results. And yet he continued to try, eyes red and stinging, a snail’s trail of tears leaking from the corners, running from his temples and onto the pillow as the dark grew stronger, and the cat’s-eye lights of the trains flickered against his poster-lined four walls, and his body gave in and slept, plunging Max into a subconscious well of nightmares and ether.
Something woke him. He kept his eyes closed. The trains had stopped, which meant midnight had passed. His parents had gone to bed. Floorboards and walls ticked, creaked. Max felt no physical sensation. His body had seemingly dissipated, leaving nothing physical behind, only spirit, the invisible void.
He heard night workmen, their noisy clink of metal, and with that, sensation returned. He’d seen them sometimes, guiding a battered flatbed carriage along tracks, mustard yellow, mottled with vitiligo rust. He lay still, eyes closed, absorbing sounds, imagining slow progress. High points of conversation caught his ears, snatches of swearing, and the beam of their mounted spotlight flooded the room, turning the dark behind his eyelids red. He opened his eyes.
The thing from the warehouse rose at the foot of his bed, reaching, arms wide, seemingly larger now, pure emptiness within. Max tried to scream and nothing came out but a strangled whine. He wanted to move only for his limbs to resist, the thing stretching its arms like dark honey, creeping closer until each encircled the bed, and the thing grew taller, spreading up and out until it was a dark, giant mass above and around him. Max’s heart pounded so hard, his skin was so cold, and his fear so paralyzing he thought he might die.
And yet inside the body, he saw something. Now he was closer and the creature had widened like canvas, he could make out a powdered white terrain, the purple glow of something that resembled sky. The curving glow of moons, the shadow of a planet and on what he assumed was the ground, a series of blocked shapes that looked like plateaus, or cliff tops. There were marks in the sand, a trail of some kind. Curiosity broke paralysis, although a residue of fear still caused him to shake, gasp breath, as he sat up in bed, leaning closer. Yes. Yes, it could be. He kneeled before the creature as if he were about to pray, reaching, touching, feeling the ooze creep along his arm, not the sensation of contact he usually associated with touch, but something else, a warmth that transformed his whole body, stilled his heart, and he wasn’t afraid: he was relieved, filling with joy. He released a monotone groan, understanding this was the sound Noel had made upon contact; it was release, not resistance, letting it wash over him until that warm feeling was everywhere, seeing nothing more of his bedroom, only the thick absence of light that embraced him.
A temporary floating sensation, the pop of air pressure, soft, hardly noticeable. Solid ground beneath shoeless feet. Warmth against his soles. The glowing white land. A purple sky, closer now, everywhere, the spray of stars and the planet, heavy and low, half-dark half-red, bursting with its own weight. Beyond that, faraway moons, twin ice crystals, tiny and bright. The trail he’d seen was of footprints, climbing from where he stood, a dual pattern on the sand, the reversed imprint of sneaker soles. They rose, disappearing behind dunes to reappear farther, toward what he’d thought were flat mountaintops from the unimaginable distance of his bedroom, but were actually looming structures, white as the sand. Turrets or towers, Max couldn’t tell. He turned to look behind himself. The creature’s silhouette; inside the body, a distant view of posters, the dull wooden foot of his bed, the night workmen’s spotlight reflecting on his white ceiling. Home.
He relocated the trail of footprints, eyes rising upward. The structures shimmered in half light piercing the velvet atmosphere, blinking silent reprieve.