Trumble’s Brother


Henry Trumble carried around a little void. He kept it in his pocket with his keys and spare change. He almost never took it out until his mother’s death day. When she died he spent all day in his shed. Henry didn’t know his mother well. He didn’t spend time with her or feel that he should have. But when she died he told himself, something has changed. He went out to his shed and sorted the buckets of screws, bolts, washers, metal scraps he had inherited from an old man down the street when he had died. Henry hadn’t known what to do with all the rusting pieces but when his mother died he resigned to sort them, rid them of their rust, and sell them to the hardware shop in town.

Then he dropped a bucket of screws which sounded like heavy rain on an aluminum roof. He teared up. He tried to keep his weeping to sobs. After a few minutes he sat down and looked at the scattered screws, each above their own tiny shadow created by a dim bulb hanging from the ceiling. He took everything out of his pockets and set it down with all the screws. The void lay flat and a couple of screws accidentally fell in. He had never seen anything fall into the void but now that something had he thought he might keep his keys and spare change in a different pocket. He rolled a few more screws around and they fell in too. He rolled some more in. He dumped in the rest of the screws from the bucket. He dumped in the bucket. The void grew. It wouldn’t fit in his pocket anymore but it didn’t feel any heavier than when it was small and empty. When he lifted it up above his head to look at it in the light, it shrunk down. He placed it flat on the floor and dumped in more rusting pieces. He tried to dump in his hacksaw but it didn’t fit. A small gas can fit. Then the saw fit. Then a twenty-gallon drum of sand. Then his push-mower fit. Then his workbench fit, but he almost fell in when it caught his ankle. There was very little room left in the shed and things began falling in. A ladder. A shelving unit with tools on it. The shed started to shake a little so Henry opened the door and stepped out. He closed the door behind him and things quieted down.

The next morning he looked out the window and saw that the shed was still there. He told himself he would figure out what to do about it after the funeral. At one-thirty he walked down to the cemetery where his mother was to be buried. A few people were already there and he wondered if it looked bad that he wasn’t the first one at his own mother’s funeral. He stood near the other people to make room for those who might still arrive but nobody else came. In all there were six. Four were old and didn’t seem to notice anything or they noticed everything and ignored it all. Another was a younger man, tall with brown hair. Why would a young man be at my mother’s funeral? Henry thought. This man must be my brother. My mother must have understood her mistakes with us, her first family. She must have tried her hand at another using the knowledge of her mistakes with the first as guidelines for what not to do with the second. That’s very logical. This man is my brother. Many people must have brothers they don’t know about. The sixth person was the Reverend who looked down the entire time. Even when he shook Henry’s hand he nodded and looked toward the ground.

The coffin was closed and Henry was glad it was closed. Nobody wants to see a dead person he thought. He looked into the hole in the ground. It was black but Henry knew it would be brown with dirt if a light were shined down there. It takes a lot of energy to dig a hole like that he thought. People could do a lot with voids. They could put other things society didn’t want in voids. Like broken appliances, buildings, enemies. Old things. Dead things. People could be buried in voids.

“Stop,” Henry said quietly. “Stop everything,” he said. The Reverend looked up, finally. Henry realized he didn’t know what to say next. “Never mind,” he said.

Henry tried to think of a way to get his mother’s coffin and his dead mother to the shed. He knew once he got them there the shed would fall into the void but he thought this was a worthy sacrifice. He would have to trick the Reverend. “I need some time alone with her,” he thought to say. “How much?” the Reverend would ask. “Very likely three to five hours.” Henry factored in an hour or two to secure a truck and another couple to find one or two helpers. Coffins look heavy he thought. Another hour to get back to his house, unload it, and dump it into the void. Maybe my brother would help. He hasn’t taken his eyes off the coffin. He must have come to the same conclusion I have.

After the Reverend finished Henry asked him for some time with his mother. “Of course,” the Reverend said. “Take a moment. The men won’t start until you are ready.”

“The men?” Henry said. The Reverend looked down and nodded in the direction of three men with shovels who must have walked up during the ceremony. “Okay,” Henry said defeated. He bent down and touched the coffin and wondered if there was even anything inside.

He turned to his brother and said, “we’ll have to come back tonight.” His brother nodded and wiped a tear from his eye. Henry put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. The man leaned a little away. Everything gets lost to emotion, he thought, then walked back home.

Henry went to the shed and saw that some of the floorboards had fallen into the void. The shed was arumble and stayed that way until the night. He regretted not remembering to tell his brother to bring shovels since his had fallen into the void. He went to the hardware store in town and purchased two more. He took a last look into the void, the shed really rattling and creaking now, before making his way back to the cemetery.

Henry’s arraignment lasted only a few moments. It seemed everyone was on the same side. Even his lawyer. A united fight for justice when it came to grave robbing. The judge asked Henry to explain himself. Explain why a man would do such a thing. A man with no record. With nothing. Henry turned to his lawyer who was hard at work on a hangnail. “I expected my brother to show up,” Henry said.

“Good thing he has more sense than you, sir,” the judge said. Henry was found guilty and was sentenced, through a miracle of a precedent set over a hundred years ago, to ten years in jail. Henry’s lawyer made a kind of humming sound.

Henry went to jail.

Over the course of ten years Henry kept track of many things. He ate 10,943 meals, read 758 books, wrote 2,603 letters to his brother. He addressed the letters to a “Mr. Trumble – tall with brown hair.” Since Henry had blond hair and was rarely described as tall, he hoped the post office in town would make the connection. In the letters Henry wrote mostly of mundane things mostly as so much of life in jail is mundane. There are some ghastly moments too, but the ratio of mundane to ghastly leans heavily to the former. He wrote of the few friends he had made. His closest was Angus. Angus had accidentally poured poison into the drinking water of his enemy. He had been in jail for two years when Henry was sentenced. Angus talked a lot and Henry found most things Angus said to be calming. Henry had two other friends, one named James and the other called Wilson. Wilson was also named James though nobody called him that. James wasn’t very smart but he cared a great deal for his family and Henry liked that. Wilson was a large man full of muscle who protected Henry, Angus, and James from the ghastly times.

Henry would have gotten out early on good behavior if it wasn’t for the time when Wilson was sick and couldn’t protect them. A man stole Henry’s food and attempted to make a habit of it. Angus accidentally poisoned the man but Henry was blamed. Henry wouldn’t allow Angus to admit his mistake and though he wasn’t charged with the crime, when it came time to evaluate Henry’s behavior, the poisoned man was a blotch on his record.

On his last day, Henry ate a breakfast of cold oatmeal and an overripe peach. He was given the belongings which had been taken away from him his first day. He took a bus back to town and walked four of the twelve blocks to his home. A strange glow floated above the town like a city in the distance. The boulevard inclined just as he remembered. From the Polish church Henry toward what should have been the older half of town. Only it wasn’t. Instead the older half of town had fallen into the void. A crumbling of property. A crumbling of roads. Electricity sparked for miles around. Broken power lines tugged wires back down the boulevard. A newspaper fluttered down and Henry stepped on it. The headline read “Interstate Re-Routed.” His house, his street, his neighborhood, the cemetery, his mother, all pulled in. My brother is all I have left, he thought.

An army truck pulled up behind him and a woman got out.

“How did you get past the checkpoint?” She wore army boots. Henry stood there quiet. “Please come with me. We have to get you to a safe location.” Inside the truck she ordered the driver to pull around. “Your home is probably gone if it was down there.”

“What’s happening?” Henry said.

“We’re trying to figure that out. The Army Corps of Engineers, NASA, the Pentagon, even SETI all have teams investigating. Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.”

“Why are people in town still here?”

“It’s best not to panic people. The thing is growing reliably but slowly. We move people only when it becomes necessary.”

“I need to find my brother,” Henry said.

Henry felt less sure about certain things after being in jail so long. He spoke less. His voice was quieter. He acted less confident though he wasn’t less confident. He was hungry, which felt strange because in jail he was never hungry. Now that his void was so large and seemed to be causing so much damage he felt responsible. More responsible than he had ever felt before.

“I’ve got to see the mayor,” he said.

“Why? Friend of yours?” she said. Henry thought about it.

“He’s my best friend. When can I see him?”

“City Hall is right there. It’s a free country.” Henry hopped out of the truck. He went in and asked to see the mayor. The man at the desk said the mayor was in a meeting and that her schedule was full.

“If I were you,” the man said, “I’d get out of Dodge like others are doing. The government is coming through here and clearing out the whole town.”

“When?” Henry said.

“Anytime now. Tomorrow. Today. Now.”

“Do you know how I could find my brother?”

“Try the phone book.” The man sat back down like the conversation was over.

“That’s my void out there,” Henry said.

“Pardon me?”

“The thing out there. Swallowing everything. It’s mine.”

“Of course it is. Go right along and claim it then. Thank you for stopping by City Hall today.”

Of course, Henry was made a hero. Even nationally people knew his name for a week or two. A popular musician wrote a song inspired by Henry’s heroism, though for the sake of the song “Henry” was changed to “Harry” to rhyme with “carry,” “tally,” and to complete the slant rhyme with “sorry.” Since by the time Henry saved the town most journalists had evacuated, the reportage of what exactly happened was inconsistent. The kernel was that Henry, coming off his years of rehabilitation, having returned home to a town under threat, a town he loved, felt it his civic duty to intervene while so many others fled. This wasn’t quite right, though it was right enough. He did feel a responsibility to stop the void, but not out of a sense of duty to his fellow man. He did it because one of his few pet peeves was when someone didn’t clean up after themselves. This only grew in jail, a place where everyone is responsible for his own little plot. His modest space and belongings. Aside from the ghastly times, Henry did not altogether dislike jail. It was a mostly neat and tidy place. Everything orderly and satisfying.

So when he was able to get to “the front,” as he heard the army calling it, he did his bidding out of principle and pride. Nobody had thought to make physical contact with the void. The staggering damage it caused was reason enough to stay away. The army had even fired a missile into it, which of course only made it bigger. Henry dug both hands beneath the void. He made sure to stand on a sturdy slab of concrete, something to withstand the pressure until he could get a handle on it. He pulled up and the void lifted high. “A Physical Miracle” one headline would read. He lifted the sturdy one-piece thing and it shrunk down, its sides rushing towards his hands like marbles down a slope. In a moment the void was solely his again. The army had him quarantined just in case the but tests showed nothing and for a little while Henry felt the comfort of confinement again. He was released without the army discovering the quarter-sized void on his person.

The ordeal left much of the town a fine gravel, flat, barren. Henry was homeless and wandered the remaining streets. He ate and bathed at a soup kitchen and shelter. He slept outside as it never dipped below freezing at this latitude. He welcomed the hours of solitude though he often missed Angus, James, and Wilson. When nobody was around he took the void out of his pocket and fed it some scraps, dust, bolts, batteries, anything lying around. When it grew palm-sized he tilted it up and it shrunk back down. After a few years on the street Henry took to placing the void above his head, on a shelf or a ledge, and as in prayer spoke to it to grant him things. What he asked for was modest, that the shelter remain open, the weather keep warm, the streets clean and policed. He had few run-ins with the police. All these things the void granted him. When he took it back down and stuffed it in his pocket he did so with a slight deception. There was one wish he had yet to ask for: that his brother be well and to see him again and that they might become friends. He was keeping this wish to himself. In this way he was lying to the void through omission, something a god is often displeased with. But Henry had a sneaking suspicion that the void was no god, though it did deserve a certain level of respect and honor. Just the same he kept this one important wish for a time when there was nothing to do. When everything had aligned. Maybe a sunny day. Maybe the last day ever.

Illustration by John LEE.

Filed under Fiction on January 25th, 2019