There was an old painting in my grandparents’ attic. Neither beautiful nor ugly, it simply depicted an empty room with no figures, an old living room with an armchair, library, and fireplace... [+]
“It’s an old building,” Becky said, when Peter asked her.
“Do you get them in your apartment, too?”
She’d given him a look, then, as if she thought he was trying to score an invite into her place, as if this was anything more than doormat chatter. As if he was interested in women, anyway. When she reached the stairs, she looked back at him, just a glance, unreadable and strange and he’d dropped his keys. When he looked up again, vaguely embarrassed at his fumbling, she’d gone.
As soon as the dawn sun pawed between the blinds, Peter was awake and studying them again: the cracks.
They were hard to miss, when his bed was butted flush up against the wall, his nose inches away from the yellowing plaster. Perhaps Becky was right. It was an old building. The rooms were suffused with a delicate sniff of damp. At first he’d noticed just a few, but soon he could see that the whole wall was a web of hairlines, like craquelure on an Old Master. There was probably mildew. He was likely breathing in mold spores day and night. He wouldn’t be surprised if the entire thing came down on him; a mud bank in rain.
But it didn’t.
When he was out and about, Peter mostly forgot about the cracks. But at night, they became more preoccupying than ever. Of course, it was impossible for them to be visible there, in the mute dark. But he was aware of them. Lying there, quietly pulling humid breath on the edge of unconsciousness, they troubled him. Emblazoned upon the inside of his eyelids, a migraine of flickering capillaries.
He started to think about the cracks a lot.
“I said,” Becky drew the words out, patiently, “Penny for your thoughts? You’re miles away.”
Miles away. Lost. Peter felt it, dragged from contemplation by her voice. He felt a sudden irrational lurch of guilt, to be caught thinking about the cracks by an actual person. He concocted a weak smile. “I might need glasses.”
He looked at her, paused at the entrance to next-door, bag of groceries at her feet. Her frown was perfectly in focus as she said, “Oh. It comes to us all. Age. Right?”
The opticians set him straight. He didn’t need glasses. They tested for glaucoma and retinal detachment, injury and cataracts, but confirmed only 20/20 vision.
Lying beneath his sheets, he watched the walls. The cracks seemed to pulse, as if the building was breathing gently. Bringing up one hand, Peter trailed a nail across the plaster. It felt smooth. Unbroken. He slid the edge of his thumbnail along the path of one crack, trying to wedge it in, but to no avail. The fissure was too fine. Even when he started to pick, he couldn’t get purchase. He must be imagining it. And yet... He inched closer, lulled by the invisible hum of the air, until his nose touched the wall, his forehead, until he was near enough that his eyelashes brushed the paintwork, but still the cracks were there, in sharp focus, running deep into the walls, deeper than the walls—he jerked back, heart galloping and palms slick. Around him, the cracks telescoped, back into the fabric of the building and further, out into the air beyond... Peter crushed his eyelids shut, and keened. The night stretched. Eventually he was exhausted enough to sleep.
Morning shook him like a bleak dream. For a moment, he thought he was dreaming. Then he knew. That feeling of witness, of being seen. Not eyes beyond the cracks: the cracks were eyes, sucking at his existence with their vacuum gaze, running deeper than four meek dimensions. Peter covered his face with his hands.
The cracks were everywhere.
They were in the air.
Outside was no escape. They drifted like gossamer, beckoning him in. They bisected time. The world, the planet was fracturing.
“You look like death.” Becky picked up the free newspaper from her doormat and folded her arms, regarding him warily. “Are you sick or something?”
Death. Suddenly it seemed like a remote concept. Peter gaped. The air bulged. “Can’t you see them?” His voice sounded breathless, not his own.
“The cracks.” He grasped at space, at the filaments of nothing webbing the something. “It’s all falling apart.”
“There’s nothing there,” Becky said, a thin thread of emptiness peeling slowly across her forehead.