Monty was born with something missing. The doctors saw it in an x-ray when he was four. What showed on the scan was a small void, next to the heart, that gave his mother an explanation for his weird behavior; he didn’t find much pleasure in anything, he mostly just sat there, silently staring off, or walking around, curious, like he was looking for something. The doctor said he hadn’t seen anything like it, that Monty was a special boy. Not knowing what it was, the doctor also said there was a chance it could grow which meant Monty could die, and the doctor told his mother to teach him that life was precious and short.
Around the age of eight, when the void had grown double in size, Monty had the idea to try to fill it with something. His dad watched a lot of baseball. Every night he was in front of the Tv yelling all sorts of stuff, but mostly cheering, smiling. He seemed happy. Monty hadn’t really known what that kind of joy felt like. He figured if baseball could keep his dad happy, maybe it could help him feel that way.
One night Monty went into his father’s old woodshed in the backyard where his father kept a bucket of baseballs with Monty’s name sharpied on the outside. Monty grabbed one of the balls on the top of the pile and went over to the corner of the shed where his dad wouldn’t be able to see the candlelight flicker from the living room. In the orange glow, Monty removed his shirt and tried to control his breathing. Staring at the red laces, he thought about the doctor calling him special and how life was short. Before that night, nothing really made him feel anything. He felt sort of like those laces, just woven and stitched so tightly into something, bound to unravel. Looking at the smallness of the ball and the shortness of life, Monty felt that the risk might be worth it. He gripped the ball like a fastball and jammed it into his chest. To his surprise, the baseball went right in—he felt no pain, only a warm sensation. Once Monty fit the ball into his void, he let go and slid his hand out. There was no blood or anything. He walked out of the shed not feeling complete, but smiling, for the first time in his young life.
The baseball lasted until Monty was fifteen. It got him through some hard times. Anytime he started to feel pulled towards his inner emptiness, he would just tap on his chest, knowing the ball was there all along. His dad seemed to enjoy it, too. He loved to watch Monty play; he was actually pretty good! He said Monty was going to be a New York Yankee. What his dad didn’t know was the ball was rotting inside of him. Monty felt a difference in the state of the ball, like it was no longer good enough, when he met Judith Hendricks in sophomore Biology.
Before Judith, Monty hadn’t really taken an interest in girls, but she loved all the same comics he did and wore her hair in this funny braided side ponytail that drooped over her left shoulder. She was beautiful and funny and smart and after a while he didn’t think much about baseball or anything else. The ball was dead inside of him. He could feel it. He felt sluggish and disconnected. All Monty wanted to do was sleep. Hanging out with Judith made him feel a little better, but even that seemed daunting. Monty knew that he had to take the baseball out of himself, to free up some space for Judith, to fully let her into his void.
After a school dance, Monty told Judith about the emptiness inside, that he had tried to fill it with a baseball and that it was dead. She didn’t look at him like he was crazy. She just said, okay, what do you want to do next? It was then Monty told her he loved her; not knowing what it meant or felt like, but something that he knew he should say, just so Judith would understand.
They went to the basement of her parent’s house. She propped him up against a rusty washing machine and he removed his shirt. She started to cry and told him she was scared and didn’t know what was happening. Monty told her that life was short and whatever happened was not her fault. She said okay, and he said okay. Monty took a deep breath then jammed his hand into his chest. Judith screamed. He told her that it doesn’t hurt. Inside, he felt a mix of sharp thread and goop. He pulled out a fistful of it and opened his hand. In his palm was a clump of black tar with hints of the red laces woven throughout. Judith puked. Monty went upstairs to get her mom, told her Judith had eaten some bad chips. Later, he left and rode his bike home, weeping the entire way.
After a week with nothing in his void, Monty felt awful, like he wanted to die. It felt like the emptiness inside had fully consumed him. His mom took him to the doctors where the doctor told him the nothingness had grown so large it was starting to cover Monty’s heart. His mom had a look on her face that said she knew this day would come. The doctor prescribed him pills that made his head feel woozy, like he was watching the world from the inside of a fish tank. Later, when Monty told Judith about the growth of the void and that he thought he might kill himself, she said she had an idea.
They went back to her basement and this time she laid him down on her couch. She kissed him and said that even though life was short, he shouldn’t be the one to determine how short it was. She told Monty to close his eyes, then removed his shirt. She kissed him hard and he fell into a daze. Before he realized it, Judith had forced her hand into his chest and dropped something into the vacant space inside of him. He felt it clang around; it was something small and metal. When he asked what she put inside, she smiled and said, “my locket.”
The days got better. Between the pills and Judith, Monty started to feel whole again. The rest was a trip; from prom, to graduation, anniversary after anniversary, holiday after holiday, birthday after birthday. There were bad days sure, but each bad day was a day closer to a better day; Monty found if he could just make it to those special days, he was able to hitch a ride off the high to carry him along a little further. The years ran away like that. Judith went to college at Rutgers. Monty worked for a demolition company in New Brunswick and lived in her dorm. Their small, insignificant life was good. Monty felt happy. It seemed her locket was enough, that it was the missing piece. At night, he often stayed awake a little longer than she did, imagining growing old with her, living out the rest of his years with this little piece of Judith inside him.
When they were twenty-four, Monty had gotten Judith pregnant. Six months after leaving the clinic, they were on the stairs inside of her apartment, smoking cigarettes. She said she’s been having this dream about a void growing inside of her, too. Judith told him on most nights she dreamt of their baby standing at the foot of their bed gnawing at her toes.
“Everything is different now,” she said.
He asked what had changed despite what happened.
“It’s just that—every time I look at you, I see what we did.”
She then told Monty how sad she’s been for the past six months, how she grew distant and cold. Monty noticed, but didn’t care. He was blinded by the anxiety that maybe the locket was rotting inside of him, because, after the clinic, he started to feel a change too. The locket felt uncomfortable, as if it was lodging itself in his throat, trying to escape. Monty became self-obsessed, only worrying that his void would come back. She said that it was over.
From the bottom step, he watched as Judith went back upstairs, where she called down to him to follow her. He found her kneeling next to the couch, crying.
“I have an idea,” she said.
She told him to lie down. She unbuttoned his shirt then laid a soft hand on his chest. She said that this needs to happen, that it’s the only way she can live again. Monty said, okay. She took a deep breath then drove her fist through his skin, crushing through the sternum, into the caverns of dark matter next to his heart. Monty watched as her wrist dug into his chest and felt her small hand moving around inside him. Things squished and bones cracked. For the first time, Monty felt pain. The locket must have rooted itself to something; she was having trouble pulling it out. Finally, after a quick tug, Judith removed her hand and revealed its contents. Another pile of black tar with blue and red vines cinched around it, the locket and its chain buried deep within. He watched as she failed to insert it into her own chest, then settle for putting it around her neck.
After Judith left, Monty felt more than empty, that even the darkness had depths, and he was suspended in its lowest tier. He spent some time in the hospital. The doctors said the dark matter had fully consumed all of his organs. They guessed he only had a few days to live. Monty asked if he could go for a walk.
In the woods outside of the hospital, Monty came across a section being cleared; mostly broken branches and leaves. He lay beside the mounds of brush and thought of Judith. She was doing well, he saw it on Facebook. She was into hiking and nature now. He was happy her void was only in her dreams. He didn’t want anyone to know his condition first hand. Lying there, Monty watched dark clouds scroll by and thought about how life was short. He heard Judith’s voice telling him to keep trying to find what was missing, that he owed it to himself. He knew the abyss would take him soon. It started to rain. Monty could hear his mother calling his name, but he was too tired to get up. With a last surge of energy, he reached out to grab a bundle of twigs and dirt and dry leaves and stuffed it all into his chest cavity. He still felt half empty. He leaned over for some more branches and grass, and packed his void until dirt was coming out of his mouth. Lying back, exchanging final breaths with the trees, he thought of Judith sitting in the lotus position on a rock, her hair in a side braid, and felt full again.
Nick Farriella’s fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Across the Margin, and elsewhere. He lives in New Jersey and works as a copywriter and is the founder of Freedom Through Literature, an organization that runs annual book drives for prisons. He has a story forthcoming in Furtive Dalliance.