The Collector of Nothings

This won 2nd prize in a competition for Science Fiction on the British Writer’s Magazine back in 2017 when I was just a nipper.. As is often the case with me, it started as a strange title and developed from there. I loved the concept and this story is one of my favourites.

“He’s obsessed, Alicia.”

“Shane? What with.”

“His horrible mania for collecting, that’s what,” Kerry said, slamming the drawer closed. Although I’d only arrived this morning, Kerry couldn’t keep her anger under control any longer. She fought to stop from bursting into tears and, being her big sister, it was important to listen to her and guide her through life’s little problems. In Kerry’s case, she’d had more than her share of those.

Even though I hadn’t been around for the eight months since the so-called fairy-tale wedding, to see her as upset as this, was hardly surprising. I had warned her about him but no, she knew best and no amount of talking to her had changed her mind.

I decided not to play the ‘I told-you-so-card’.

“Surely it can’t be that bad, Kerry. We all have our little idiosyncrasies. I remember you used to collect anything Barbie when you were younger. So what is Shane so obsessed with anyway?”

“That’s just it. He spends all his spare time searching for Nothings.”

“Sorry. Don’t you mean, ‘Nothing’? And how can anyone collect nothing anyway?”

She stifled a sob, dabbed her eyes and walked into the hallway. “No. I did mean ‘Nothings’. Perhaps it’s easier if I show you. Follow me. He’s built a special display room out back.”

I’d always been there for her to talk to, especially in the early years when she needed me most, after Mum ran off. It had broken Kerry’s heart. To begin with Dad didn’t mind me being there for her because he was so busy working and coping with the divorce. However as Kerry became older he resented us being so close.

When Kerry had married, she thought she had someone else to confide in, shutting me out. A shame really. Now that things were going wrong with their marriage, she wanted me back in her life and I was only too happy to be there for her once more.

“In here,” she gestured, opening an old wooden door. She closed it carefully behind us.

“Kerry? Can we have the lights on?”

“Don’t need them. You’ll see in a moment.” Suddenly a group of twinkling lights appeared, before exploding into a cavalcade of colours. The room came alive although it wasn’t a room since there were no walls or ceiling, just open space in every direction. I realised that included the floor. We were suspended on nothing at all.

“Wh … what the …”

“Shane’s special place. You see, Shane’s not an ordinary man. He has certain … skills. It’s amazing what a little Tesseract technology can do and Shane’s great with a hammer and power drill. This place … It’s different, isn’t it? Shane says it needs to be outside normal reality otherwise he couldn’t keep his collection here.”

I thought she didn’t approve of his obsession but now she seemed elated. Strange. I thought about this for an instant before dismissing the inconsistency. Kerry had always been changeable in her moods. At that moment, a rainbow coloured cat jumped onto a table by the door. Its ‘radioactive’ purr was much louder than any cat I’d heard.

“Hi Genesis. Lovely to see you.” 

Kerry reached to stroke him as his fur phased through various hues. “Shane found him for me in an alternate dimension. He’s one of our collection; an imaginary number corresponding to the square root of minus one. Cute, isn’t he.”

“Rubbish, Kerry. He’s simply a strange coloured … koala?” Her pet had changed before my eyes. What was he? What was this room anyway? Was I hallucinating?

“He’s just playing around, enjoying being real for a while. I can’t understand how lonely it must be to be a number that doesn’t exist, can you?”

I didn’t answer. Instead I looked around. The room was piled high with strange objects as well as familiar furnishings.  An empty skyscraper rose so high I couldn’t see the top of it.

 “Shane’s been busy collecting for ages. His prize possessions are over here. It’s only a couple of parsecs away. Come on. You’ll love them.” I tried to recall how far a parsec was. Three light years? Twenty trillion miles? Had my sister finally lost all reason?”

“Oh, don’t panic. The rules of time and space don’t apply here, sis. Those lights we saw? A mixture of Quarks and Quanta. So small we can’t normally see them but here it’s all different. Also there’s a black hole around somewhere and that is really, really huge. Oh there it is.” She pointed to a dark spot sucking in light. “They’ll all just different versions of Nothings.”

Once we reached a large mahogany cabinet, Kerry opened a drawer to remove an ancient parchment. I noticed something scuttle across the non-existent floor from the corner of my eye.

“What was that?” I asked, feeling a little afraid. Although Kerry seemed more relaxed than I’d ever seen her, I was becoming edgy. There was something here that set my teeth on edge …

“Oh it’s Nothing,” she laughed. “Some people call them ‘boogie-men’, ‘pookas’ or ‘pixies’. Lots of names for something that doesn’t exist.”

“Don’t exist? I saw one.”

“Did you? Or did you think you did? Here, the make-believe can become real.”

I shuddered. Despite the fascination of this magical room, this was becoming too terrifying.

“Did you know the number ‘zero’ was invented by ancient Indian mathematicians?” She showed me the faded parchment. “Here’s the first time it was written down; the very first time. Shane collected it. The Romans never had a symbol for nothing. Only Xs and Vs and such.” She said as she opened another box. “This is my favourite. Absolute Zero. Minus 273 degrees Celcius, or 0 degrees Kelvin; the coldest temperature possible where nothing, not even electrons, can move.”

There were soft murmurs from the air around me, the replies of guilty children when asked what they were doing, the remains of a relationship when love had gone, cries of emptiness. zilch, diddly-squat and bugger-all caressed the non-existent walls. My skin felt as cold as that Absolute Zero I had just seen.

“Can we leave now, Kerry? Which way is ‘out’?”

“Surely you’re not afraid, Alicia. There’s so much more to see. Every song about Nothing is crammed into this tiny box. Remember ‘All Or Nothing’, my ‘loving sister’? You used to sing it to me every bloody night whilst I was trying to sleep.”

“Kerry … How can you say that. I was only thinking of you, sweetheart. Trying to help you realise that you weren’t alone and that our mother didn’t abandon you.”

At that moment, Shane seemed to appear from Nowhen, some sidereal plane of existence next to our own. I realised then that it was a trap … for me. All of this nonsense about being afraid of Shane’s obsession was only a trick to bring me into this fantastical room. I tried to run only to find myself entangled by zeros, linked together in a chain that was forever-long.

“Let me go,” I shouted. They didn’t. “Why are you doing this, Kerry? I’ve always been there, whenever you needed me. Nothing was too much.”

Kerry and Shane faced me, hand in hand as I struggled against my confines. They only grew tighter.

Shane kissed my sister on the cheek as she smiled for the first time since I could remember. “She looks so human, Kerry. Even seeing the Universe as I have, I could never quite believe your explanation of the torment she put you through; the older sister who almost destroyed your life. All of those years convincing you to reject everyone else in your life apart from her. How does it feel to have her out of your life at last?”

“Satisfying, my dearest Shane. Very satisfying.”

I glared at the pair of them. So smug. So perfect. Despite me straining with all of my strength I was helpless. I ground my teeth, spitting out a stream of vindictive swear words at her. How could she do this to me, the evil little whore? 

“I’m your sister, you bitch,” I yelled, finally collapsing from the exertion.

“You were never that, Alicia. You were a parasitic creature from some Netherworld that found a frightened girl, upset that her mother had left her. You took my childhood from me, jealously destroying all my friendships … until Shane came into my life. Gradually he showed me how to fight back, my regain my self-worth until I was able to make you leave me all those months ago.”

I hated her for that, hated her standing up to me, hated her thinking she could live a life without me by her side. She wasn’t finishing gloating yet.

“I thought I’d rid myself of you but you were still there, murmuring to me in my dreams, trying to break my resolve. Then Shane made this place, with a way to capture you and make sure you never bother me again. So I let myself need you, tricking you into entering this room where the tesseracts warped reality until even my imaginary sister could be real.”

 “It’s only fitting, Alicia,” Shane added. “You’re an ugly little Nothing, a beast without a soul. So, here, in our special place filled with Nothings, you’ll be right at home.”

Kerry blew a kiss in my direction. “Goodbye, ‘sweet sister of mine’. I won’t be seeing you again.”

As they walked through the door back to reality, the lights faded. I stared into the darkness, still breathing heavily, forcing myself to calm down, to conserve my energy, to plan my revenge for this betrayal.

“After all, Kerry and me, we’re family. She’ll come back for me. I’ll be safe here until she does. I’m imaginary. I don’t really exist. Nothing can hurt me.”

Suddenly, there were sounds from behind: slithering, scampering, scratching sounds. I shuddered as they came closer. Slimy cold tongues began licking my skin. Fetid breath caressed my face. Finally, a long-dead whisper.

 “You’re sooo wrong, Aliciaaa”. My eyes opened wide. “Innn thisss place, weee Nothings  can hurt youuu. Nowww … Ssshall weee beginnn?”