In the Absence
This story originally appeared in Girl at the End of the World
Melissa laced her fingers around the cup of coffee, drawing in heat through the Styrofoam. ‘God,’ she thought, ‘I hope they don’t take coffee away next.’ They’d already taken away so much. Her thoughts drifted, turned to the incomplete Art School applications sitting in their folder at home. Even before all this, it had been stupid of her to think she could be an illustrator and it had only become more pointless now. She vowed to finally throw the things away and just get on with her muddling through the rest of her life, or what was left of it anyway. She sipped at the coffee.
The squeal of tires and jolt of a crash startled her. She glanced outside; one of the black sports cars had crashed into a monochrome truck. ‘They’ had removed the traffic lights last week, and there had been a lot more accidents ever since. Of course, as far as she could tell, no one else noticed the absence. Just like they hadn’t noticed that there was no more RC cola, or cars in colors other than black, or pork chops or any of the hundred other bits of her life that had been stripped away in the past year.
Melissa got up from her seat, splashing a trinkle of dollar coins onto the table to pay for her drink. At least they’d taken away credit cards, that was one thing she didn’t have to miss.
She walked down the street, marveling at all the small ways the ambient city noise had changed. She didn’t know for sure if there were actually a ‘They’ doing all this, but it helped her get through the day to think that way. Because if this was some sort of grand social experiment, then there might be an end. There might be a point.
Other options she had considered: this was some kind of weird mutation of generalized entropy or that she had gone insane. Both much less pleasant.
Melissa walked down the sidewalk towards her job, wondering if it would still exist next week.
Near Fifth and Broadway she absently bent down to put some change in a homeless man’s cup. With so many of the jobs disappearing, the one thing that seemed to growing was the homeless population. How could they not know what had happened?
The man mumbled his thanks, resumed his conversation with his feet.
“You know what I miss? Hotdog carts.”
Melissa stopped, turned to stare at the bum. The man quirked an eyebrow. Recognizing something in her face, he managed a small, sad smile.
“Oh, you remember too huh?”
The homeless man leaned back against the filthy concrete façade of the ancient bank building. “Buy me a cup of coffee?”
“So, when did you start noticing?” Thomas, the man’s name was Thomas, asked. As he talked, he pored grocery store ‘Gold Star’ brand whiskey into his cup, his hand shaking. The rest of the diner seemed to be staring at them, Thomas had the identifiable odor of sweat rolled and rerolled into clothing worn once too often and Melissa had no doubt that at the office her boss would be freaking out.
Honestly, she didn’t give a shit.
“About four and a half months ago, March 24th to be exact,” She said.
Thomas nodded, gulping down his coffee.
“Yeah that’s the same for all of us. I just ask to see if the answer ever varies.”
“Us,” Melissa said, “You mean there are more… more people who remember?”
Thomas waved over the waitress to refill his cup. The woman scowled at him as she poured the steaming liquid, chewing a mouth full of gum. She sashayed off without a word and only when the chomping faded into the generic background murmurs of the coffee shop did Thomas continue.
“Were. There were more of us: the twins, Roy and Karen, plus Jody and Terrance and Frank. The support group we called ourselves, heh. Lot of good we did each other. There were probably more of them, of us out there; but I’ve never met anyone else. Except for you.” He lifted his mug in toast, splashed in another two shots to dilute the blackness.
“What happened to them?”
“Hmm well lets see. I know that Karen and Terrance are at a psychiatric institution. ‘Easiest way to get meds’ they’d told me before they’d publically freaked and gotten diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics. Roy’s in prison, still don’t know what happened there but one day something was gone and at some point in the remade past it meant that he’d killed someone. He wrote me a letter, back when I still had a house, in crayon. Said he’s doing ok, that he’s actually having an easier time inside. Less day to day uncertainty I guess. Less things to miss. I dunno what happened to Jody: she either left or disappeared or died. And then Frank killed himself.”
Finishing his second cup, Thomas glanced back towards the waitress. He looked back towards his mug, shrugged, and poured the last of his fifth into it.
“We all got our ways of coping…” he said as he put the bottle back into his pocket. Silence claimed their booth and they sat across from one another, not making eye contact.
Desperate to change to subject, Melissa said, “So you said you had a house? Did your job disappear?”
Thomas chuckled. “Yeah, I used to be somewhat well to do. Remember Mozart?”
She hadn’t thought about Mozart in weeks, hadn’t remembered the trill of his compositions in her ear. Maybe she would have forgotten altogether if Thomas hadn’t broached the subject, how long would that have taken her?
“Yeah,” she said.
“Well, back before he disappeared, I was considered one of the preeminent Mozart scholars. I was tenured, had a couple books in print. I was set.”
“But then one day I woke up and Mozart had disappeared. Less importantly, my life and my comfort had disappeared with him. That morning, I’d woken up on the street wearing what you see today. When I called my Mom about it, she hadn’t really wanted to talk. Seems she’d given up on me years ago. She was convinced I was on something, but somehow I talked her into telling me the story of my life; the life I couldn’t remember. Seems I just never stuck with anything, I’d just sorta drifted. Developed a taste for booze, done the rehab shuffle a couple times until everyone I knew just kinda gave up on me. That’s their version anyway. As for me, I remember hearing Die Zauberflote for the first time, how it changed everything for me. But there’s no more of that. Now, there never was and there never will be.”
Melissa reached out, put her hand on Thomas’. He looked like he was about to cry, instead he shook his head and wiped a dribble of snot coming from his nose.
“Aww but you don’t want to hear about me. So Melissa tell me, what do you miss?”
They talked for hours that first day and every day afterwards. Melissa told her boss that she had been sick. Every week more was gone, but it was somehow bearable now that she had someone to talk with. A month passed and they discussed everything: the Frisbees that Melissa had loved, Dashiell Hammett books that they’d both been aware of primarily through the movie adaptations, yellow painted corvettes and the smell of green beans. But there was more besides.
Every morning they’d mention whatever had gone missing that day. Somedays though, they couldn’t figure out what was gone and these were the worst. Oftentimes, they’d discover the absence later –by accident. Melissa would walk into a store to buy Thomas a bottle of whiskey and notice that Heath Bars, or Bubble Yum or linoleum floors could no longer be found. Sometimes though, the absence was something neither could put their finger on: the air would smell different or the day would be unseasonably warm.
Somedays the absences were more abstract: birdsong or impressionism or Jungian psychology.
Somedays they argued.
“Are you really telling me you think some mysterious ‘they’ is doing this to the world? That’s utterly ridiculous.” Thomas said. Every day he seemed more sober, his mannerisms drifted closer to the professor he’d once been. Even if he never did quite lose his smell. At least the other denizens of the diner had stopped staring at them when they came in for their daily ‘talks.’
“Well what do you think this is Mr. Academic?” Melissa said, relishing her indignation.
“Ahem,” He said, clearing his throat, “I believe that the hyperabundance of emotionally charged existential aspects hit a critical mass, an event horizon of concern. Now, all the ‘stuff’ people used to care about was simply being sucked away as though into a star collapsing into a black hole.”
Melissa blinked, looked up from her sketch pad.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard today.”
“True, but it makes way more sense than that there are some kind of ‘conspiracy’ of them.” He said, humor in his eyes.
Melissa’s smile pushed through her attempts to suppress it. She sipped her coffee.
“Obviously, the simplest explanation is that we’re crazy.”
They chuckled together.
“So, are you finally going to come over, take a shower, shave your face and let me buy you some clean clothes?”
Thomas inclined his head. “Thanks but no thanks, the street suits me just fine.” He said, adding at a lower volume, “Besides, why get used to anything…” He always said something to that effect. His obstinacy frustrated her, made her sad.
Noting this, Thomas tried to change the subject. “So what are you sketching today?”
She looked down at her paper, saw the rough outline of an MP3 player. She’d doodled just about every time they talked and she’d stopped being strictly conscious of what she was doing.
“My old music player, some kind of cheap iPod knock off. I always thought I would replace it eventually, but the damn thing would just never break.”
“Oh God, I remember having 10000 songs in my pocket. Putting it on shuffle was a leap into unknown darkness.”
This was more than enough to guide the conversation back towards music, his favorite subject.
And that’s how things were. They were happy together, mostly. Until the weather changed.
Melissa woke, her teeth chattering like they were a plastic novelty toy that didn’t exist anymore. A thick blanket of snow covered the ground. It was sometime in mid July, and it hadn’t snowed in the city in decades. Something big, something essential had left the world, and even as she shivered she was looking forward to discussing with Thomas what it might be. Something about cloud formation she guessed.
She pulled on pants and a heavy jacket she found in her updated closet, walked out into the street. Cars had disappeared last week and Melissa enjoyed being a pedestrian in a way that she never ever had before.
Melissa found Thomas at his usual spot near Fletcher and sixth. Prodding him with her foot, she said “Come on sleepy head, wake up. Let’s go get some coffee in you.”
He didn’t respond. She stooped, assuming he had passed out in a drunken stupor again. “Come on sleepy.” She shook him, and his head lolled back and forth.
“Thomas?” She said, reaching to feel a pulse she already knew wouldn’t be there. She started to scream “Help! Someone call an ambulance!” Before she remembered that there was no such thing as ambulances anymore, and nobody else would know what a call was.
The passerbys streamed down the walkway as she knelt in the snow and cried. There was more than one homeless who had died the night before, and the city workers with their sanitation pigs would be out shortly to deal with the bodies.
Melissa couldn’t watch that, so she walked away. Without meaning to, she found herself on the bridge.
Melissa stared out over the churning waters, sail boats bouncing in the chill winds that blew in from the south. Some small part of her mind reminded her to apply chap stick, but such a thing didn’t exist. Watching the bay, Melissa didn’t know what she felt. She reached into her pockets, pulled out what she had.
A cluster of papers clumped in her fist: what amounted to a state ID since plastic had gone away late last year. She released her grasp, and the paper drifted out into the water. Then she grabbed and threw a handful of bits, all the money she had on her, to crash into the waves below. She tossed her address book next, and finally all she had left was her notebook.
Melissa stared at the little black volume. The breeze rustled it open to a random page, and she had to grab at the thing to keep it from drifting out into the bay. On either side of her thumb were two doodles: one of superman and the other a pair of sunglasses.
She looked at the pictures for a long time. Finally, she closed the book and placed it back in her pocket. She took a long time walking back to her house thinking about what she’d do next.
Melissa began to paint. She recreated what she remembered as best she could, working in the diner or out on the street. Everyone who saw her work was amazed by the impossible things she imagined: things she called airplanes and submarines, rosemary and cell phones, comic books and desk lamps.
Sometimes, she would meet someone else who remembered; someone who would cry, or scream or try to hug her. Melissa did her best to be kind–at first–but things were going missing so now fast she never knew which of her new acquaintances would wake up dead.
She learned to keep to herself and keep to her work.
When there were no more acrylics, she took to spray painted huge murals on the sides of the office towers and thatch roofed huts. When the spray paint disappeared, she took to sketching with pen and pencil on napkins, leaving heaps on the floor of the diner to be swept up by the long suffering janitor. No one ever asked her to stop because–she suspected–at some level they all remembered.
Finally, ‘They’ took the pencils, the napkins and the diners. Melissa took to walking to the beach and drawing with her finger in the drifts of gray snow and gray ash.
She drew and drew and drew…
Until there was nothing left.