When I forget things, they disappear.
I first noticed this happening when I moved out of home. I would remember something – for example, an item I had purchased at the supermarket – but no matter how diligently I looked for that thing, it had disappeared. In the interval between forgetting I had purchased it, and remembering that I had purchased it, the thing had vanished.
At first I thought I was just clumsy, or had imagined buying something when in truth I had incorrectly crossed it off my shopping list. So maybe I was just stupid. But after a while, I noticed this happening with such frequency that, my natural imbecility notwithstanding, I began to have serious doubts about my sanity. Idiocy could no longer be blamed; I was, in fact, going crazy.
Or maybe the world had gone mad instead. Maybe the fabric of reality had distorted somehow, leaving it a bit threadbare in places. And maybe – just maybe – these threadbare places had worn so thin in parts that things which were normally solid and dependably there just, well – vanished.
That was my explanation for what was happening. It didn’t matter so much when it was things. Things could be bought again, or I could just do without. It’s not like I had a lot of stuff anyway. So, in the beginning, I wasn’t too bothered.
It was only when people began to disappear that I started to worry.
I admit that I’m a solitary person. I don’t actually like people much. And the fact that I hold a Master’s degree in Abnormal Psychology hasn’t helped endear the human race to me. But that doesn’t mean I just want other people to vanish. If I want time alone, I find a place where other people aren’t. That’s all it takes. No big deal, no trauma.
No need to go to all the trouble of making people disappear.
So when the man next door suddenly stopped being the man next door, despite the fact that no removalists had arrived to transport his worldly goods to some other location, I began to realise that maybe I was the cause of all my own troubles. All those things which I thought I had bought and which I thought I had owned, but had forgotten about, even for a moment – maybe they had disappeared in the very moment of forgetting.
It was the aftermath of the man next door disappearing that really unsettled me. The first people to knock on my door were his relatives – a sister and her husband, trailing two loud and especially unattractive children. In rather demanding tones, they enquired as to my knowledge of the man next door, when I had last seen him, and if I had any information as to his present whereabouts. They were followed in quick succession by the police, who more politely – but more probingly – wanted to know if I knew anything about the man next door and what had happened to him. I honestly tried to answer their questions, but I had to admit to myself that I really had become quite unconscious of the man next door’s existence. At some stage – probably because we had very little to do with one another – I had lost all conscious recall of his presence upon this earth. And it was only now that other people were asking me about him that I even recalled there was – or, rather, had been – a man next door.
I had forgotten all about him.
And he had disappeared.
I slept very poorly that night, and woke at 3 o’clock in the morning, convinced I had to do something about the situation. Shivering in the early morning cold, I tiptoed into the living room and sat at the small round dining table. I carried a notepad and pen that I had gathered en route from the study, and began writing down all the things I possessed – from the car that sat in my car porch to the smallest grocery item in my pantry. I was surprised by how many things I did remember; but then, worryingly, I began to list the things I ought to have remembered, but hadn’t until I began to wonder what I had forgotten. The ought to have remembered list was much shorter than the list of things I did remember – but it was still significant.
Sure enough, when I began to look for all the things on the second list, they were nowhere to be found. For the rest of that morning, I continued a somewhat feverish search for the missing things, but they stayed missing. I do not know if any of the neighbours noticed that, by 4am, every light in my house was on, and that startled sounds of frustration and despair could be heard through the windows; but in any event, I didn’t care. Things had disappeared because my forgetfulness had made them disappear.
Sometime after dawn, I made myself some coffee and tried to eat a slice or two of toast. The uncomfortable thought occurred to me that maybe I had bought various things which had subsequently disappeared; but that the act of striking through the name of that thing on a shopping list was itself an act of forgetting, and had made said item vanish into thin air. Maybe that’s why I didn’t notice at the checkout that the thing was no longer in my basket.
But if this was the case, why hadn’t everything on a list of struck through items disappeared? Did things possess different tolerances to forgetting? Could some things be forgotten and happily go on existing – while others vanished the second you lost conscious memory of them? Or did the universe possess some sort of absurdity limit? A certain level of the impossible actually becoming possible could occur before some kind of internal balancing quotient exerted itself and prevented everything from disappearing altogether?
These were my perplexing thoughts as I made my way back to the study and activated my computer. I examined my social media accounts and took down the name of every person by whom I was liked, followed, friended, favourited, subscribed to, or otherwise in some form of contact or association, no matter how fleeting or superficial. There was no way for me to follow up every name to check if they were still among the living – or, at least, the non-disappeared – but even as I entered them into my notepad, I had uneasy feelings about several. Who was that person? How did I know them exactly? Why were we friends/followers/even aware of one another’s existence?
I began to check several of the accounts of people to whom I seemed only ephemerally connected. As I feared, their social media pages appeared to have been inactive for considerable periods of time. It took a bit of trouble, but for most of them I was able to calculate the earliest recollection I had of any contact with them, and check it against the last date on which their accounts had been active. The latter always came after the former. Meaning that, some stage after I had come into contact with them, they had become inactive on social media.
Of course, it could merely have been that they had grown tired of, or bored with, whichever particular platform they were operating on. But why hadn’t any of the accounts been deleted? You’d expect that at least some of the pages in question might have been taken down. Why, instead, had all the people concerned just – stopped?
It made my skin crawl.
Feeling slightly unstrung, I went back to the kitchen and poured myself some more coffee. What could I do to alert the people with whom I had come into contact about their predicament? Was I carrying some kind of virus against which they could be inoculated? Was there some kind a serum which they could be administered to raise their forgetfulness threshold – so that, when I did inevitably forget them, they wouldn’t just disappear?
Or was the best they could hope for the improbable possibility that I might somehow retain a memory of their name or face, thus sparing them an untimely exit from physical reality?
I didn’t go to work that day; I called in sick instead. There had been a bout of illness at the office recently due to poorly maintained air-conditioning; so when I rang my boss claiming to be unwell, she readily accepted my story.
That problem solved, I turned my mind to the predicament of all those inactive social media pages. Were they really my fault? Wasn’t it kind of conceited to think that all these people might have disappeared just because I had stopped thinking about them?
Then I remembered all the things I had forgotten about which had disappeared.
I remembered the man next door.
For a long time I stared at my list of people who’d gone quiet on social media. Then I went back to the study and looked at their social media pages. They were as silent as when I had last looked at them.
I went back to the kitchen and stared at the list again.
Then a thought occurred to me. Maybe I could find some of the people on the list. Maybe I could discover their whereabouts – or, at least, their supposed whereabouts – and either confirm or deny my theory. But what was my theory exactly? That some things or people I had forgotten about had disappeared? And that I was responsible somehow?
It sounded absurd in my own mind.
But it was the only thing I had to go on. Not that I actually possessed any information that could get me started. Just a list of names.
And some suspiciously quiet social media pages.
I went back to the study and recommenced scrolling. Many of the people I “knew” I actually had no connection with whatsoever. They were friends of acquaintances who had casually come into contact with my social media presence in some specific context and had never crossed my path again. The thought occurred to me that could be because they had disappeared. But whatever the reason, scanning their pages produced zero results: our connection was so ephemeral I had only the most token access to their online content. That prevented me from finding out anything more than that they were no longer active.
So…that meant I had to try for those people with whom I might have had some kind of deeper contact, without the connection itself being such as might have lead to us becoming acquaintances on a more personal level.
This was a harder group to narrow down. But I had briefly belonged to various chat pages and online fora over the years, usually to do with my interest in anime and ancient history – and in several of these, I had become involved in long-standing and detailed conversations with numerous individuals. And some of those individuals had become more than anonymous avatars with whom I chatted online; some had connected to my wider social media presence, and I to theirs.
Still, the list was a dishearteningly short one. Disheartening, that is, from the point of view of finding a sufficient sample size from whom it might be more than theoretically possible to identify an individual I might actually have a chance of tracking down. One of the few occasions in which I thought my tendency toward solitariness might be a less than useful thing.
Nonetheless, I had what I had. I immediately eliminated all the people who lived interstate or overseas. Then I got rid of those people who lived more than a couple of hours away by car. For all I knew, I only had today to make any kind of progress in my investigation, and it was already past mid-morning.
The list got smaller – until it was whittled down to a single name.
I stared at that name. I remembered this guy. We’d made contact on some anime chat page, discussing the movie version of a particular series we both liked. He hadn’t been a fan; I had. I thought some of his points were fair enough – but even at the time, I couldn’t help thinking there was something slightly desperate about the way he argued his case. Not so much from its merits, as from some kind of need to either establish his credentials as an expert on the subject, or have me accede to and approve his opinion.
There was something just a little bit needy about this guy.
My Psych training pinged a whole slew of alarms in the back of my mind about this person. But we’d still gone on chatting for a while – maybe I had felt sorry for him? – after which we’d become friends on social media. Those alarms still pinged in my head, but I ignored them at the beginning. Afterall, this was social media, right? It’s not like he could find out where I lived, because – unlike a lot of other people – I didn’t put that kind of information about myself on the web.
And then he asked me if we wanted to catch up for coffee.
That was the line in the sand that got well and truly crossed. No, I did not want to catch up for coffee. I never wanted to catch up for coffee with anyone I met online. And nor had I been asked until now.
From that point forward, our conversations became fewer and further between. I didn’t cut him off immediately; but I did go distinctly cold in my communications with him. And I think he sensed my distancing. His communications became ever more desperate, ever needier. And when he wanted to know if I wanted to attend a comics convention with him – that was the final straw.
I broke all contact. Blocked and deleted his connections to my online presence. Decided this was someone I no longer needed to know.
And forgot he even existed.
But now as I stared at the name on my list and remembered the context, I suddenly had a feeling that here was the person I could use as my test subject. This was someone I had known in a more than ephemeral sense, yet who had not come close enough to me that they were more than just a casual acquaintance. Indeed, this was someone whom I had not only forgotten to remember, but whom I had actively deleted from my memory.
I had my man.
Cautiously, I began re-opening the blocked and deleted connections, searching his social media presence for signs of ongoing activity. I wasn’t sure what I would do if he turned out to still be active online. Get the hell out of there, for starters, before he detected my presence and tried to re-establish contact. Up would go the barriers. Definitely.
But what then?
Well, nothing, really. If this guy whom I had so thoroughly, deliberately forgotten was still online and active, then I could get back to my life. Sure, I forgot things, and things went missing. But his ongoing activity would prove the forgetting and the disappearing were not necessarily or inevitably connected. Sometimes I just forgot things – and people. And sometimes people – and things – went missing. Coincidence.
But as I snuck through his online presence feeling like a pervert spying through a bedroom window, the other possibility nagged at my consciousness. A casual search had revealed no activity from this person from a date shortly after I had broken off all contact. What if this deeper probe confirmed his absence? What if it revealed that he actually had just disappeared?
I tried not to think about that. I didn’t know what I was really searching for. Some kind of evidence of continued existence. An online version of proof of life to wager against the hostage takers of failed memory and existential vanishing. But what if I was the hostage taker? What if it was my own vanishing act that had caused this guy to disappear?
It was like stalking through some vast, empty online mansion, echoing with a presence that was no longer there. Within a short while I formed the distinct impression this guy was well and truly gone, although without encountering any positive proof to that effect. There was just a feeling of absence, of dereliction and abandonment.
It was creepy.
Through the pages and sub-pages of his online presence, I wandered around the husk of a virtual existence I now had all to myself. If I could somehow have traced a finger along the walls of this electronic mansion, I would not have been in the least bit surprised to come away with dust. This wasn’t a mausoleum. A mausoleum at least contains the body of the deceased.
This place was just empty.
I ignored a slight pulse of panic I felt rising somewhere within myself and continued searching. His security was – or had been – less than stellar, and even an amateur like me could access areas that ought to have been strictly off limits. It was because of this that I found the information for which I was searching: a residential address attached to an online account that looked like either porn or dating. Or possibly both.
The cache also had information like bank account details and passwords. I ignored these. I might have dabbled in the occasional bit of hacking, but that was strictly for personal entertainment only. I didn’t steal, and I didn’t interfere with other people’s lives. Precisely because I didn’t want them interfering in mine. So all I did was take a hand written note of this guy’s address, then go. As I went, I re-established all the blocks and disconnections, covering my tracks and leaving no signs of what, right at the end, had become a strictly illegal presence.
Upon returning to the real world, I stared at the address I’d scribbled down. It was on the other side of town, in an economically depressed area noted for crummy apartments, grimy industrial parks, and down market cafes. Not that I lived anywhere chic. But this suburb was real hard-scrabble country.
I thought about how I’d get there. A quick search online revealed the address was near a train station. That solved my problem. Instead of driving through city traffic, I’d get a train into the CBD, change lines, and head out to my destination. I took a screen print of the area map, then uploaded it to my cloud account. I turned off my computer, did a quick tidy up in the kitchen, then headed for the shower.
A quick glance at the clock in the hallway showed it was nearly midday. Half a day left. I don’t know why I thought that was all the time I had, but the conviction seemed unarguable. Half a day left to find out what was going on.
And if I didn’t find out?
I preferred not to think about that.
On the train, a further thought occurred: maybe there was some way I could cross-reference my findings with an independent source.
I rummaged in my back-pack, and pulled out my laptop. It had LTE connectivity, which enabled me to log into my mobile network and access the internet. A few clicks, swipes, and keystrokes later, and I was looking at the National Missing Persons Database, a government website that listed every known missing or unidentified deceased person in the country.
I pulled my notebook out of the backpack and scanned the list of names. One by one, I entered the names into the NMPD search engine and waited for the results. A couple of hits came back; most, however, returned a blank. But that did at least mean some of them had been reported missing, lending further weight to my theory.
Or did it? I re-checked the names that had returned positive hits. The dates at which they had been reported missing all came back as later than the last known date with which I’d had any contact with them. Which could simply have meant they might have disappeared at any time, but it wasn’t until much later that someone had noticed they were missing and reported the fact. But there was no denying the fact that, at some time after I had stopped remembering their shadowy presence in my life, they had disappeared. And maybe the two were connected.
Finally, I checked the last name on my list. Mr Needy. As the search engine thought about my request, I reflected. What if he turned up on the database? What if he didn’t? What did either fact signify? Anything? Nothing?
Your request has returned 0 matches.
So he wasn’t on the database. Which proved – exactly nothing. Maybe he was the kind of lonely soul who’d been involuntarily alone in the world, without family or friends of any kind. Maybe that’s why he’d been so needy, so desperate to earn my approval. Maybe that’s why he’d wanted to catch up for coffee: because having coffee with anyone was such a rare event in his life.
I began to feel bad. My anti-social tendencies could have some negative spin-offs. Not that I felt superior to anyone else, or wanted to put anyone down. I just didn’t need a whole lot of anyone else’s company. I had a few close friends – but even then, our contact was probably minimal by most people’s standards. They were the kinds of friendships that could be dropped off and picked up again whenever needed. Which suited me – and my friends – just fine.
But this guy?
Maybe this guy had been something different. A void of indifference, of invisibility. And maybe it had become so acute that he had just – vanished away.
And maybe I had been the tipping point that had consigned him to oblivion.
That glum thought occupied my mind for the rest of the journey into town. I changed trains in the CBD, then headed out again. The monotonous homogeneity of suburbia gave way to a grimier landscape of light industrial factories, into which had been squeezed pockets of cheap social housing. How the other half lived. The day had turned warm, with occasional gusts of wind from the north. I wished I’d brought my sunglasses. The glare of sunlight from all those aluminium factory roofs was hard to take.
I kept glancing at a map of the rail network on the train carriage wall, counted the stations, then got off at the right stop. The station looked like a scene from some post-apocalyptic movie. Weeds grew up through large cracks in the platform. Graffiti covered every inch of the squalid shelter that looked barely big enough to contain three people. The chain link fence that separated the station from a wilderness of weeds and rubbish rattled with every gust of wind. The ticket box was unstaffed and shut up tighter than a Swiss bank. I pitied anyone who had to use this place on a regular basis.
I left the station, pulled out my tablet and called up the screenprint of the local area map from my cloud account. Not being familiar with this suburb, I made one or two wrong turns, but eventually found my destination. It was a glum, two story row of flats that ran at ninety degrees to the street into a deep lot. On one side, a large factory loomed, casting a long shadow over the flats. On the other, another identical – and identically depressing – block of flats squatted.
I wondered what to do. I had Mr Needy’s flat number. But I wasn’t about to knock on his door to see if he was home. Not yet. Not unless I needed to. But what to do in the meantime? Even in this Purgatory, I couldn’t just loiter in the street, looking like a lost soul.
I glanced across the street. A sad looking milk bar cum take-away that probably catered for the local factory workers faced Mr Needy’s block of flats. Beneath the veranda that ran along the shop’s front, a few cheap plastic tables and chairs had been placed; more, it seemed, for appearance’s sake than in any kind of expectation. I looked at my watch. Nearly two o’clock. With nothing else to do, and no other options presenting themselves, I decided this would have to suffice. For the time being, I would stake out Mr Needy’s flat. After that – well, I would just have to see what happened.
I bought a pie, a packet of chips, and a bottle of iced coffee. Not exactly a paragon of healthy eating; on the other hand, I wasn’t expecting the shop to be a supplier of organic vegetables and seed-based health foods. Nor was I mistaken. In bain-maries a variety of fried foods sat under heat lamps, slowly steaming. I chose the least unappetising options, then took them outside and sat at one of the dilapidated tables.
I watched Mr Needy’s block of flats. It sat on a narrow but deep plot of land, separated from the opposite block of flats by a crumbling concrete driveway. Paths lead from the driveway to the front doors of the ground floor flats; between the paths, squares of barren ground populated by brown grass stared at the sky, without even so much as a tree for shade. A walkway ran along the first floor landing, disappearing into a stairwell roughly halfway down the length of the building.
I glanced inside the shop. The tired looking woman behind the counter was watching me with an expression of surprise, as though she could hardly believe someone had bothered sitting outside her store to eat a meal. I smiled and turned my attention back to Mr Needy’s block of flats. But the fact that the woman had noticed me was itself a problem. Something told me that I needed to accomplish this mission without being noticed by others. Being noticed might mean being remembered; and being remembered might also mean eventually being forgotten.
I couldn’t afford to be forgotten.
I studied the block of flats while I morosely chewed my unhealthy meal. After a while, I noticed that between the flats and the neighbouring factory, a small laneway ran, separating the two. I hadn’t seen it at first because it was almost entirely swallowed by the shadows the factory cast. But now I had seen it, I could also see something else.
Someone was standing in the laneway, watching the flats with the same intense scrutiny as myself.
This someone was standing with their back pressed up against the factory wall, deep inside the shadows. This, and the fact that they were dressed almost entirely in black made them – for all intents and purposes -invisible.
Details were hard to make out. But I got an impression of waifishness, one that made the possessor seem much younger than they actually were. And with the physical impression came an attitudinal one as well: this person, whoever they were, radiated tension. Although I couldn’t actually see it, my mind’s eye caught them chewing their lip, an agony of indecision written on their face. They needed to do something, but were caught in the rip-tides of conflicting emotions.
Of course, it might have nothing to do with Mr Needy. This person could, entirely coincidentally, have turned up at the same block of flats on the same day as myself for reasons entirely of their own – ones that had no connection whatsoever with my own dilemma. But I considered that unlikely. About as unlikely as my own apparent power to make people disappear. And so, by my own twisted logic, this person standing in the laneway just had to be there for some reason that involved Mr Needy.
At least, that’s what I told myself.
Carefully, I gathered up the remnants of my meal and consigned them to a nearby garbage bin. Casually, so as not to draw attention to myself, I walked past the factory, staying on the far side of the street until I had passed the entrance to the laneway. Then I quickly crossed over, and doubled back. A quick peak into the laneway revealed the person was still studying the flats, oblivious to my presence.
By the time they were aware of my presence, I was practically looming over them. An expression of fright passed over their narrow, birdlike face. For a moment, I thought they were going to run; but something in my own expression must have held them in place. I spread out my hands in a gesture of placation.
“It’s alright,” I assured them, “I’m not here to harm you. I just think me might share a mutual interest.”
I said Mr Needy’s name. Their eyes widened a fraction, then returned to normal. It appeared as though we did indeed share a mutual interest.
Up close, I could see more details. She – yes, it was a woman – was a slight little thing, waifish alright and whippet thin, with prominent cheekbones and an angular, bony appearance. I guessed she might be around her mid-twenties, but couldn’t be sure; my initial impression of younger-than-I-look waifishness was entirely correct. For all I knew, she might be ten years older. She wore cheap dark jeans and t-shirt, beneath an oversized leather jacket than hung off her like a trench coat. Her dark hair was cropped short, and a small ring pierced her left nostril. Her grey eyes darted skittishly, almost like trapped mice searching for escape routes. A light smattering of freckles dusted her nose and cheeks. Her feet were clad in battered ankle boots.
I told her my name, keeping my voice light.
“Zara,” she muttered, glancing down at her feet then at a point over my shoulder.
I asked Zara when was the last time she had seen Mr Needy.
She looked guilty, glanced at the flats then back over my shoulder.
“Dunno. A couple of months ago. Maybe.”
“And you haven’t seen him since?”
She caught my eyes for a moment, glanced away again.
“How did you two know each other?”
Zara shifted uneasily. Shrugged her shoulders as though her skin was being scratched by some irritant.
“We met online,” she said. “Had a couple of dates. Chatted, and stuff. Nothing serious.”
“But you broke it off?”
Zara shrugged again, her irritation jumping a notch or two.
“Yeah,” she said defensively. “He was just, like, too much. Too intense. Trying to make everything a great romance right from the outset. It was weird, you know?”
I nodded. I did know.
“So what brings you here now?”
Zara looked at me, a hint of defiance sparking in her eyes.
“I could ask you the same question.”
She could, indeed. And so I told her. About my own online encounter with Mr Needy, and how I had eventually shut him down and cut him off. And forgotten about him.
“I think I made him disappear,” I said.
Zara’s eyes widened again – and this time, they didn’t return to normal. I thought she was going to bolt for sure, and made ready to grab her the instant she moved. She did take a half step back, but that was all. She stared at me, her eyes locked on my face, her own expression shocked and blanched.
“But I thought…I thought I’d done that!” she stammered.
This was an interesting development. Someone else in the world who thought they could make people disappear by forgetting them.
“Have you tried to get in touch?”
“Yeah. Sent him messages. Texted him. Eventually even rang. Nothing.”
“Did you try to trace him through the site where you’d met?”
“Yeah. His profile’s still up and all. But he hasn’t been active for ages.”
“So what made you think he’d disappeared?”
Zara shrugged her shoulders, looked helpless.
“I didn’t. Not at first. Not him, anyway. But stuff went missing all the time – you know? Stuff I was sure I owned. But when I went looking for it – nothing. Gone. Like it never existed.”
“Are you sure you just didn’t lose things? Or that someone had pinched something?”
Zara shook her head, impatient.
“No. I live alone. And I’m not clumsy with my things. Can’t afford to be.”
So what led her to Mr Needy, I asked.
She sighed, looked over my shoulder for a bit, then closed her eyes.
“I don’t know,” Zara breathed. “A process of elimination, I suppose. From things to people. From people generally to certain people in particular. People who appeared to have dropped off the radar.”
“Like the man next door,” I muttered.
Zara looked at me as though trying to fathom my interest.
“Is that what brought you here?” she asked. “The man next door disappeared?”
“Something like that.”
“So what do we do now?”
I looked around, then back at Zara.
“You came here looking for answers, right? Well, so did I. And I know which flat he lived in. So if there are any answers to be had, I guess that’s where they’ll be.”
Mr Needy lived in flat 8, on the upper level and down the back. Zara followed me like an uncertain puppy as I climbed the stairs then strode along the walkway to the front door. I felt dangerously exposed: the walkway was clearly visible from the street. I wondered vaguely if the tired-looking woman in the shop had noticed us, decided we were up to no good, and rung the police.
We stopped outside the door to Mr Needy’s flat. From somewhere, the sound of music playing, distant and dim. From inside, nothing. Nothing except ominous silence. Zara hovered behind me. I couldn’t see her face; but I just knew she was chewing her bottom lip. Tension flowed from her like a giant radiator.
I knocked on the door.
It swung silently inward. Cold, musty air met us, stroked our faces before dissipating into the day.
I peered inside. The doorway opened directly into an open plan kitchen and living room. To my left, a bench ran under a window to the wall, then dog-legged to the right before terminating at an ancient-looking fridge. The bench-space under the window contained a sink cluttered with mouldy-looking dishes. The tap dripped slow, disconsolate drops into the sink.
To my front, the linoleum ended abruptly at a line of cheap, threadbare carpet that marked the beginning of the living space. Not that much living appeared to have been done. Apart from a cheap television set that sat on an equally cheap coffee table, the room was bare except for a single recliner that looked like it had seen better days forty or more years earlier. A couple of old newspapers littered the floor and a coffee mug sat at the foot of the recliner, but that was it.
Over everything, an atmosphere of dereliction and abandonment. It was like entering a real-life simulation of Mr Needy’s online presence.
“Empty mansions,” I muttered to myself.
I stepped into the kitchen, Zara following and peering out from behind me at the scene of lifelessness that was Mr Needy’s flat.
To our right, where the linoleum and carpet met, a doorway opened into a corridor beyond. I moved across to the doorway, stuck my head cautiously around the corner, peered both ways up the corridor. At one end, parallel to the living room, another open doorway led into what I guessed was the single bedroom. At the other end, I could glimpse a cramped-looking shower stall in what appeared to be a tiny bathroom. No doubt about it, Mr Needy had lived a life of luxury and style.
I wandered into the bedroom, Zara following. The bed was small and ratty, the bedclothes obviously unchanged for God alone knew how long. But on a good sized desk was a top-of-the-line computer and printer, as well as various professional-grade, expensive accessories. The chair that accompanied the desk was one of those racing-style gamer models, designed to enable someone to spend long periods of time at the computer. The cost for the whole set up ran into the thousands of dollars.
It was such a stark contrast to the rest of the flat’s shabbiness that I was momentarily dumbfounded. Then it hit me: all this flash equipment was testament to the fact that Mr Needy had spent the majority of his life in this room, seated in front of his computer, looking for people to talk to.
It was a monument to his isolation from the world. And to the fact that he had disappeared because I had forgotten who he was.
Without a word I turned around and walked back to the open plan kitchen/living room. I took a quick look around, then walked out the front door onto the landing. I needed to breathe fresh air. Even the city’s polluted atmosphere was preferable to the stench of despair that oozed from the walls of Mr Needy’s apartment.
Zara followed me, leaned against the walkway railing.
“He’s gone, isn’t he?” she asked in a small voice.
“Yep,” I said. “Gone for good.” My voice sounded hard and flat in my own ears.
“Because we forgot all about him?”
I nodded, my jaw clenched tight.
Unable to say the words.
We sat on a decrepit bench on the platform of the local train station, staring dully at the vandalised buildings and weed-infested grounds. Zara and I needed to catch a train into the city; once there, we would part ways to catch different trains to different destinations.
The silence lay heavily between us, a consequence of our sense of responsibility for Mr Needy’s disappearance. It wasn’t simply a case of him not being home, or having moved, or done a midnight bunk to avoid the rent. He had disappeared. Vanished. Gone. Been removed from the world. The substance of his being had dissolved into ethereal nothingness. Whether that meant he was actually dead, or removed to some other plane of being, I had no idea. But no-one moving house or running away from rent-collectors would leave behind the kind of expensive computer equipment we’d discovered in his bedroom.
And the atmosphere, the weight of absence told us the truth. Mr Needy was no longer a part of this world. Nor had his disappearance been voluntary. We had been the cause of his vanishing: Zara and I and whoever else had forgotten about this lonely individual, this solitary life that sat for heaven knows how long in front of his computer, trying to reach out to an indifferent world.
I hoped he’d been asleep at the time it happened, that he hadn’t watched himself fading out of existence.
“You met him,” I said abruptly, turning toward Zara. “What was he like?”
She looked vaguely troubled for a moment, then shrugged.
“Physically? Not much, I suppose. A bit overweight, a bit unkempt. Skin that was a bit too pasty, like he spent too much time indoors.” She paused, thinking. “He had nice eyes, though. And bad breath. And body odour.”
“A good conversationalist?”
“He could have been, I suppose. If he hadn’t been so desperate to please. Not that I can judge; I hate small talk. But he certainly gave the impression of being intelligent.”
I mulled over her words, the germ of an idea forming in my mind.
“Why do you think he disappeared?” I wondered aloud. “I mean, I know we forgot about him; deliberately put him out of our minds. But surely there must be hundreds – thousands of people – who get forgotten. They can’t all have disappeared, otherwise there’d be a major public panic.”
“But how would we know?” Zara asked uncertainly. “I mean, if they’re forgotten, maybe they’re written out of the record somehow – as though they never existed in the first place?”
I nodded. It was an unsettling thought. But I persisted.
“Well, look at it this way. Take the homeless – they’re forgotten, right? I mean, maybe not all of them; I’m sure there are some homeless people who have relatives and family, people who remember them but don’t know where they are, or what circumstances they live in. But what about the ones who slip through the cracks – the ones without any family and friends, who shuffle along from day to day because they don’t know anything else? Why don’t they disappear?”
Zara thought about it for a moment before shaking her head.
“I don’t know,” she said vaguely. “Does it matter?”
“It could,” I answered, starting to feel a stir of excitement somewhere deep within. “Take some homeless person who’s drifted onto the streets for whatever reason. Maybe their family’s all dead. Maybe they don’t have any friends. It doesn’t matter. The point is, they’re the only person who knows they’re alive – outside of whatever welfare services they come into contact with. Why don’t they disappear?”
“Because maybe the welfare people coming into contact with them means they’re not entirely forgotten?”
“It doesn’t follow,” I answered, turning to face Zara fully. “To the welfare services, they’re someone known not someone remembered. It’s not like they think about every homeless person they deal with on an individual basis. Between encounters they probably don’t think about them at all.”
Zara looked troubled.
“Are you saying there’s some kind of difference between knowing and remembering? Does it really matter?”
“Maybe not the difference between knowing and remembering,” I answered. “Maybe the critical difference lies in the different types of forgetting.”
Zara’s expression suggested she was starting to doubt my sanity.
“I don’t follow…”
I paused and collected my thoughts.
“Take a person – it doesn’t have to be a homeless person – whose family and friends have all died. They’re the last one left. And yet they linger on. Maybe as a recluse, sure; but they don’t disappear. Why is that? I think it’s because it’s not so much a case of them being forgotten as there’s no-one left to remember they exist. Sure the world might forget a recluse because they’ve chosen to be a recluse; but that’s not so much forgetting as slipping the memory. It’s an unconscious, unpremeditated act.”
A light of understanding dawned in Zara’s eyes.
“So you’re saying disappearing may be linked to deliberate, wilful forgetting?”
I nodded vigorously.
“Exactly. Remember what I said earlier: we deliberately put him out of our minds. He creeped us out, so we deliberately forgot him. Put up barriers between ourselves and him. We didn’t accidentally forget he existed, like our acquaintance with him somehow slipped the memory; we deliberately and wilfully cut him out of our lives.”
A look of panic crossed Zara’s face.
“But he creeped us out. You said so. We had no choice but to forget him!”
I made a placating gesture with my hands.
“Zara. I’m not judging the moral value of our response. I’m just trying to establish a working hypothesis. Maybe there’s different kinds of forgetting; and maybe that difference is linked to whether or not someone disappears.”
She paused for a moment to absorb that idea.
“But,” she said, her expression troubled, “how do we avoid that happening to us? What if someone we know decides they no longer want to remember us? What if they decide they want to expunge us from their memory?”
I smiled at her with a hint of triumph. Opening up my back-pack, I felt around for the small leather wallet I knew would be nestled in one of the interior pockets. I pulled it out and retrieved two small business cards. Then I reached into the backpack again and produced a ball-point pen.
“These are business cards,” I said, holding them up so Zara could see. “From my work.” I flipped them over to their blank reverse sides. On one I wrote Zara’s name. On the other, I wrote mine.
I gave the card with my name on it to Zara.
“You take this,” I said, “and I’ll take the card with your name on it. And every day, at least once a day, we’ll take the card out and say the other person’s name. And we’ll remember. We’ll remember being here together, what the other person looked like, how their voice sounded. We’ll remember the other person existed.”
Zara nodded uncertainly.
“Now give me your number,” I said. Zara complied, rattling off the number for her mobile phone. I jotted it under her name.
“My contact details are on the other side of the card,” I told her. “If you’re ever afraid, or feel like you need some kind of confirmation, just call me. And I’ll call you. We can catch up, every now and then, if you like. To refresh our memories.”
Zara slipped the card with my name on it into the breast pocket of her leather jacket; then seemed to think better of it and took out her wallet, sliding it into a clear plastic pocket behind a picture of a dog. Her manner was hesitant, unsure. Over her shoulder, I could see the approaching city-bound train.
“It’s okay,” I reassured her. “Maybe I’m wrong. But if I’m not, this is a kind of insurance policy. It doesn’t matter how many people try to forget us, so long as we remember each other, we’ll be fine. All we have to do is not deliberately forget.”
I glanced at my watch. It was a quarter to five. Only an hour or so until sunset. The sense of being in a race against time dissipated. I may have only had a day, but I sensed I had figured out the solution to my dilemma.
“Everything will be fine,” I said.
I woke from my sleep bathed in sweat. I couldn’t remember dreaming; but I felt like I had crawled out of some suffocating horror.
I glanced at the clock beside my bed. 3:35am the illuminated numerals told me. Why on earth had I felt like someone had been smothering me?
I remembered. What was to prevent us – Zara and myself – from disappearing? I’d given her a card with my name on it – and I had one with her name and phone number. Told her it was an insurance policy; that so long as we remembered, it didn’t matter how many people tried to wipe us from their lives. We would be safe.
But could I be sure? Would the weight of one person’s memory override the will of many who had made a deliberate decision to forget? Or was one person sufficient for disappearance to be held off indefinitely? I thought about the missing people who had been reported missing. In those cases there was at least one person who had noticed their absence and reported it to the police. But perhaps, in the meantime, the weight of all the people who had forgotten them had consigned them to the void…
That, however, wasn’t the real problem. I cast my mind back to my earlier speculations. Why had some things which I’d forgotten disappeared, while others had remained a solid part of this world, despite my memory lapse?
My hypothesis was that there were differences between forgetting in the sense of a lapse of memory, and forgetting as a deliberate act of removing someone from your life. Zara and I – and who knows how many others – had decided to wilfully and of necessity completely sever any and all connections between ourselves and Mr Needy. We simply hadn’t forgotten his existence; we had willed him into non-being. And maybe he had made himself vulnerable by reaching out to us, only to be rebuffed. Maybe that’s what had sealed his fate.
But how did that work for inanimate objects?
I recalled the idea of striking through items on a shopping list. Maybe this deliberate act of deletion caused some things to disappear. Maybe it was the kind of intentional act that triggered a vanishing? But what about those items which, while struck out on a shopping list, had nonetheless remained in the world?
Through the befuddlement of sleeplessness, my mind wrestled with this apparent contradiction. Maybe it had something to do with the mindset accompanying the striking out. Maybe for routine things – like buying groceries, for example – the striking out was less a forgetting than an unconscious action, similar to slipping the memory rather than deliberately putting something out of mind. But if the item was something specially purchased to accomplish some purpose; and if the striking out was accompanied by a “right-I’ve-got-that-task-out-of-the-way” mindset – maybe this was enough to trigger a disappearance. Maybe the sense of closure that accompanied the act of purchasing the item was itself akin to a dismissal which sent that item into oblivion?
This line of thought brought me back to the dilemma of how Zara and I could prevent ourselves from disappearing. I had assured her that if we remembered one another, we would be safe. But what if Zara decided the situation was absurd and deliberately threw out the card with my name on it? Worse, what if she tore that card into shreds, obliterating my name in the process?
Suddenly feeling panicked, I wondered if I should beat her to the punch and destroy the card with her name on it first. But what if, in making her disappear, I made the card in her possession – the card with my name – disappear as well? Would that trigger my own vanishing?
I sat in the darkness feeling snared and helpless. My solution, which I had so confidently portrayed as the answer to our problem, now presented itself as a trap. But if I was trapped so was Zara. Maybe she was sitting in her own darkened bedroom, realising that she was now as bound to me as I was to her. Neither of us could afford to destroy the card we held. Neither of us could afford to have the other destroy the card in their possession.
Maybe we could arrange an exchange. Maybe we could give each other the card with our own name on it. Except that wouldn’t work either. I had used the blank side of my work’s business cards – cards that had my name and contact details on the obverse side. Whichever way it worked, Zara would end up with a card with my name on it. My only consolation was that she would still be unable to destroy that card without destroying her own name as well.
Which meant that, whether we liked it or not, we would have to remember. It was a classic Mexican stand-off, with no way out. The minute one of us decided we could no longer be bothered remembering the other, we would both vanish into the same nothingness to which we had consigned Mr Needy.
I settled under my bedclothes, a feeling of dull nausea rising in the pit of my stomach. Had I doomed myself? How long could we keep up this game of remembrance? How long before one of us lost patience and decided to test the consequences of destroying one of the cards? How long before one of us grew tired of the daily ritual and decided enough was enough?
I would have to contact Zara. Arrange to meet her. Explain to her the importance of consciously remembering one another. Explain to her the consequences of not remembering, or of disposing of one of the cards. Perhaps she would believe me. Perhaps she had already decided to forget the whole thing as a bad joke. Perhaps she had already made up her mind to discard the card in her wallet – the card with my name on it.
Despite my fears, I could feel myself drifting off to sleep. Perhaps – as I had hoped it had happened with Mr Needy – I would close my eyes and never wake up. Because there would be no me to do any waking up.
My last thought as my eyes closed and darkness swallowed me: I sure as hell hope she remembers my name.
(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.