In front of the bathroom was a black hole. It was a perfect disc carved out of the hallway floor, with pure void inside.
I’d just gotten home; it was late and the lights were off and I was high. I almost walked right into it. I only noticed because the blackness of the hole was so extreme. Deeper than the absence of light. As though the shadows themselves were falling in.
I felt like I should check on Toby—both to make sure he hadn’t fallen in himself, and to find out if the black hole was his fault. It seemed like a thing that might be his fault. I knocked on his bedroom door. “Dude, there’s a hole in the hallway. Did you do something weird there?”
There was no answer, and the door was blocked from the inside, like an object was in front of it. Maybe he’d passed out on the floor. That was also like him. “Okay, just don’t fall in,” I called. I dragged a couple of our Ikea chairs in front of the hole to block it. Then I pissed in the kitchen sink and went to bed.
When I woke up Toby was standing in the hall, pondering the black hole and the chairs. In the morning light, the hole was even creepier. Sunbeams disappeared when they hit it, like cheese sticks bitten in half. There were no features inside. No hint even of walls.
Toby looked up at me, eyes wide. “Floor Hole is trying to eat our chairs, dude.”
“I put them—”
“We gotta save the chairs!” He sprang into gangly action, making a big show of dragging the chairs away from the hole.
“We’re gonna be late to our internships if we can’t get into the bathroom,” I pointed out. I was working in the MIT computer science labs for the summer. Toby was at the Media Lab, the one that did more hands-on stuff. “Did you break the floor?”
“Maybe your mom broke the floor,” said Toby. “She was here last night but I kicked her out.”
I ignored this. “Should we drop a rock into it?”
“Where would we even get a rock, dipshit?” We lived in Davis Square, in the city. He edged right up to the black hole, gazing into it. “I’m gonna jump.”
“Fuck off, Toby.”
The thing was, I wasn’t totally sure he was kidding. I could picture him, holding his nose with one hand for effect, just leaping in. Toby was dark like that. He was a clown, but there was an edge underneath. I’d roomed with him since sophomore year and he’d been an asshole the whole time.
“You know what we’re doing at the Media Lab, Rico?” he said. “We’re trying to make a window that fogs up, like, 5% less. All day, every day, I tweak the algorithm. It makes me want to kill myself. I wanted to do something important, you know? I wanted to venture into the unknown.”
“That’s a little intense for a Thursday morning, bro,” I said. “What did you do last night? Are you still fucked up?”
“I told you,” said Toby. “I fucked your mom. You ever get that feeling when you’re close to the edge of a cliff, like your brain yells at you to just do it?”
“Sure, but don’t be an asshole.”
Toby looked at me with his greasy hair hanging over his eyes. “It’s like that all the time for me, man. All edge, all cliff.”
I tried to grab him. “Wait, dude,” I said, but it was too late. He spun and fell backwards onto the hole.
It took me a moment to process. Toby was spread-eagled on the floor. His skinny pale limbs stretched out across the black hole. He hadn’t fallen anywhere. “You Santa-writing perv herder,” he said. “I got you so bad.”
It was paint. He’d stolen paint from the Media Lab. Some new Super Black substance an MIT team had invented that was supposed to trap 99.96% of light. It wasn’t technically even paint: it was a superdense shag carpet of microscopic black carbon tubes that ate the light up. There was no gleam off this stuff; lightwaves disappeared into it forever. You could see no contours in it. No texture or dimension. Where it was painted, there was only black.
“They have gallons just stacked in a corner,” said Toby. “You can just take it. I mean you’re not supposed to, but literally no one is keeping track of it. Also: fucking burn, you douche cruiser, you fell for that so hard.”
“This is going to fuck up our deposit,” I pointed out.
When I got back, Toby had painted polka dots all over the living room wall. Black holes the size of dinner plates. Like a cosmic trypophobian nightmare. It was disorienting. Toby was nowhere in sight. “Toby?” I called. “Did you even go to work?”
I walked closer, squinting at the holes. The blackness destroyed perspective; one moment they’d seem to swell out of the wall towards me, and the next I’d be sure I could stick my whole arm in. Feel around inside. I was slowly getting nearer and nearer, when something poked me right in the eye.
It was like I’d run into a stiff and rubbery ghost; but all I could see was Super Black. I edged to the side, around the hole that was not a hole, until it was outlined in profile against the windows. Dead on it was invisible, swallowed by the circle behind it. From the side, I could make out the shape.
It was a dildo. The entire wall, in fact, was spiked with dildos, one set carefully in each of the black circles, all painted Super Black.
Toby unfolded himself behind me, spider-thin in baggy clothes, cackling.
“Were you hiding behind a fucking chair?” I asked.
“Fuckin’ worth it, dude,” he said. “You love cocks in your face.”
How long had he been crouching there? Had he spent the whole day preparing this prank? Would he fail to make rent this month because he’d spent all his money on dildos? “How much did this cost?”
“Like two hundred bucks! Dildos are mad expensive!”
“It’s not even that funny.”
“Says you, Mr. Dildoface,” said Toby, and I knew he would call me that for weeks. That was Toby’s energy. His jokes were hostile.
I’d often asked myself why I kept rooming with him. I told myself it was because I felt obligated—he didn’t have a lot of friends—but to be honest, I didn’t have a lot of friends either. Most people didn’t seem to notice me at all. The truth was he kept asking me, and I kept not having a better option.
Toby refused to take the dildos down, and when I hung my baseball hat on one of them he got mad about it. “It’s not a joke,” he said.
“It literally is,” I pointed out.
“It’s all a joke,” said Toby. “But it’s my joke. You’re doing it wrong.”
I edged around the floor hole on my way to the bathroom. Even though I knew it was just paint, it was too unsettling to walk across that void.
I tried to look up whether the paint was safe. There was no data. There were suggestions that the tiny nanotubes might come loose and wiggle into our bodies, in our lungs. “Like asbestos,” one article said. I didn’t know anything about asbestos either.
“I’m not sure it’s safe to have this shit all over our apartment,” I said to Toby.
“I’m not sure it’s safe for you to keep a tapeworm in your vagina,” said Toby. He was getting harder and harder to talk to. He was hunched over the Super Black paint can as though stirring it. When he looked up, I saw that he had no stick; he had his whole hand inside. His wrist looked like a stump, swirling aimlessly in space.
He lifted it out, dripping null, a blob on a stick. “How many fingers am I holding up, Mr. Dildoface?”
I was exhausted. I hadn’t been sleeping well and I didn’t want to deal with this. “I don’t care about your fingers.”
“It’s not that it disappears,” he said. “It’s just deep. It’s like a cliff. It goes all the way down. But it’s something new, Rico.”
“I looked that paint up. It’s toxic as fuck.”
He was silent for a long time, staring at his negative hand. Then he blinked and held it in front of the lamp, outlining his middle finger. “It’s not paint. I was just fingering your mom.”
“Goddammit, Toby.” Let him get cancer. “You better be able to pay rent.” I stalked off into my room.
I tried to sleep but I kept imagining him looming over me in the night, spiked like a hedgehog with dark dildos. Reaching out with his dripping null hand. After a while, I got up and stuck a chair in front of the door. I felt silly, but Toby was creeping me out.
He was already gone when I woke up in the morning, but I passed by the Media Lab where he worked, on my way to my internship. There was a crowd of people milling around outside. Too many for a fire drill, and the murmurs too excited. My shoulders tensed instinctively; I knew it was Toby. He’d done something stupid.
I went into the lobby. There were more people there. They were staring at the elevator. Its door was idly opening and closing, revealing a black maw. All dark inside. Super Black.
I walked over as if drawn; it felt like Pac-Man, stupid and gobbling, coming for me.
I had the urge to jump. I knew, of course, that I would just land in the painted elevator.
But did I know for sure? What if he’d painted the shaft itself?
You could see why no one was getting in to go to work.
They were gossiping instead. Apparently, the campus cops had already caught Toby. “They’re making him sign NDAs or something right now,” someone said.
He’d painted something else, too, on the other side of the lobby. Like a big dark arch, a tunnel. I wondered what he’d been trying to do there.
The crowd murmured louder. Toby was being led out of the security office. He looked cowed and skinny, shoulders slumped and head down, as he walked by. His left hand was still black. I stepped forward; I don’t know what I thought I was going to do. But we made eye contact through his greasy hair, and there was a wild gleam in his eye.
He jerked up suddenly, squirming free from the cops. “Check it out, bitches,” he hollered. “Here comes the breakthrough!”
The crowd went silent, as though watching a magic trick.
Toby yelled, “MEEP MEEP!” and barreled straight into that dark archway.
He slammed face first into the black wall, of course. Had he thought he would go through?
He staggered from the force of his collision, putting his hand to his head. Then he caught his balance, backed up, and charged again. There was a loud crack; this time he fell, and by now the security guards had gotten their shit together and grabbed him.
Someone in the crowd muttered, “Oh god,” as they lifted him. He’d gashed his forehead open. Blood was streaming down his nose, dripping from his chin. He caught my eye again and grinned at me, his teeth smeared red. “Hey, it’s Mr. Dildoface!” he yelled.
The guards turned at that. Trying to see who Mr. Dildoface was, I guess. Toby took the opportunity to wiggle loose again. “MEEP MEEP!” he shrieked, and bolted in the other direction, towards the elevator.
The crowd scattered as he sprinted towards those gobbling doors, and I realized he’d planned all of this. Getting caught, running into the arch: all of it for this moment, for whatever godawful punch line he had in mind. He picked up speed; such was his confidence that I had a feeling something was actually going to happen. Maybe he’d figured something out. I imagined him gone. I imagined him through.
But he’d timed it wrong. The elevator closed just as he got there, and he ran full speed into the doors.
For a moment he was frozen against the mirrored surface, arms flung up as if in protest. Then he slid slowly to the floor. He made an actual squeaking noise, like a squeegee on a window. Blood streaked where he’d hit.
They practically had to carry him away after that. He left a little spatter trail red on the floor.
Everyone was watching him, and I walked over to the elevator. My face reflected blurry and red through his blood.
They swished open to reveal the Super Black void, and I pushed my hand against it. It went through, of course, into the elevator. But there was no hint of depth. My hand looked not farther away, but simply smaller.
I leaned forward, into the dark, teetering. I almost took a step. But I jerked back before the doors could close on me.
Toby didn’t call me to bail him out or anything, and I made no effort to find him. I was glad he wasn’t there when I got home. I blocked the door again when I went to bed.
I woke up later to a crash and a rattle. There was quiet afterwards, but it felt weird. After a while I got up and went out to the living room.
The empty Super Black can was in the middle of the living room floor, still rocking a little, a few streaks of paint making it look as though the can itself had been clawed by some dark beast. Next to it were hair clippers. Toby’s hair was all over the floor.
I turned in a slow circle, looking for Toby. The living room was draped in shadows. There was the trypophobic dildo wall.
In the darkest corner were two disembodied eyes, watching me. A Cheshire Cat grin formed in the darkness.
“Toby?” I said. “Did you—oh fuck.”
His skinny shadow twisted out of the corner. All elbows and knees. I could make out no features. No nose, no muscles, no flaccid penis. It moved closer to me, loose-jointed, its limbs spidery, its eyes rolling white in its smooth black skull, and I stumbled backwards until a dildo hit me in the back of the head.
The shadow’s eyes widened and its mouth opened wide, white teeth and pink tongue, as though in silent hilarity. Then it writhed away and down the hall.
I imagined the nanotubes burrowing into Toby’s skin, worming their way into his lungs, the void working its way from the outside in. After a moment, I went after him.
He wasn’t in sight. There was only the Super Black hole in front of the bathroom. I strained my eyes, imagining his body sitting criss cross applesauce in the middle of the circle. “Toby?” I ventured. And could I see the whites of his eyes, floating there above it? Was there a glint of teeth as he struggled to contain his laughter?
I slowly crouched. If he was in the hole, I would see him as I squatted. His inky skull, his bony shoulders. He would appear only in outline. He would cackle like he’d made the best joke of all.
But no silhouette appeared. There was nothing there. He was gone.