FantasyLoveScience FictionStrange

Being Here

By Claude Lalumière
3,215 words · 12-minute reading time

The night before, you and I had fought, and it had taken me forever to fall asleep. We didn’t make up then, and I still regret that. We’d argued about nothing and everything – the dishes, the vacuuming, the cat litter. A stupid fight. One in which none of the important things got said, in which all the real reasons for the tension between us were carefully avoided.

Exasperated, you had turned your back to me; a snore interrupted me mid-sentence. Waking you up would only have made a bad situation worse. There was nothing I could have said at that moment that would have brought us closer. I let you sleep and tried to calm myself.

It was useless. I lay awake for hours, unable even to keep my eyes closed, until I fell from sheer exhaustion into an unrestful sleep.

I woke up at dawn, as I always did. The clock on my bedside dresser told me it was not quite six yet. I usually took advantage of the time before I woke you up at eight to go running in the park. That morning, thinking I had a choice, I decided to be lazy and stay in bed. I knew the exercise would help snap me out of my funk, but I just couldn’t gather the energy to get up and start my day.

After a few minutes, it occurred to me that in the morning I always needed to pee urgently. And yet there I was, feeling absolutely no pressure on my bladder.

I wanted to enjoy a drowsy morning in bed, just rest and relax. But I couldn’t get comfortable. The blankets were so heavy.

The clock read 7:12. The feeling of being trapped by the blankets was unbearable. I was getting tenser and angrier by the second. I couldn’t muster the strength to get up. I liked mornings, but already I was hating this one.

The digital readout on the clock became my lifeline to sanity. That every minute a numeral changed filled me with a strange and pathetic reassurance.

Still irritated from the previous night, I wanted to shout at you to stop snoring, but, with our fight still so fresh, I knew waking you up this early would only make things worse.

Lying there, I was hypersensitive to noises I usually blanked out. The morning traffic, the creaking building, the shrill wind outside. I could make out what the neighbours were saying through the walls; they were calmly reading each other snippets from the morning paper. Everything was so loud.

And the smell! The cat litter stank like we hadn’t changed it in months. Were we really that bad? The whole apartment reeked: the unwashed laundry, the sinkful of dirty dishes, the garbage. How could we have let things slide so much, I thought.

Finally, it was eight o’clock; time to wake you.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t push the blankets off me, I couldn’t reach over and touch you. I wasn’t paralyzed, though. I could move my neck, my face, and the top of my right shoulder – everything that wasn’t caught under the blankets. I tried to say your name over and over again, but no sound came out of my mouth. I thought: you’ll be late for work; you’ll be furious with me.

And then the fact that I couldn’t speak hit me, hit me much harder than being trapped in bed. I panicked, losing track of time, unable even to think, until I heard you roar my name.

But that was no roar, not really, only a mumble amplified by my hypersensitive hearing. You were finally waking up. The clock told me it was 10:34. You always mumbled my name when you were in that dozy state, rising from sleep to wakefulness. I loved that.

You turned toward me – I’d never noticed before how pungent your morning breath was – and your eyes popped open. You were looking past me at the clock. You flung out of bed, screaming my name without looking at me, shouting abuse and insults because I hadn’t woken you up in time. The noise and stress combined to give me the god of all headaches.

When you got out of bed, the blankets moved enough so that my other shoulder was freed. But no more than that. I could move that shoulder again. Such frustrating relief.

Ten minutes later, you stomped back into the bedroom – your skin moist from the shower – and, still angry, shouted, “Where the fuck are you?” You turned on the light, and it was too much for my eyes. I squeezed them shut to block out the searing brightness. I mean, I tried to. My face wasn’t paralyzed. I could feel my facial muscles react when I moved them – even my eyelids. But closing them didn’t stop the light. While putting your clothes on, you kept shouting at me like I wasn’t there.

Before slamming the front door on your way out, you had let George in from the backyard. He jumped on the bed and walked all over me. His paws were like steel girders; the bed under me gave with his every step. After a minute or so of this, he zeroed in on my crotch and kneaded it mercilessly. Purring. My life was pain. At least you had turned off the lights.

George stayed nestled on my crotch until you came back home after work. How much did he weigh? Eight pounds? Ten? Something like that. It felt like a bowling ball was crushing my pelvis.

As soon as he heard you unlock the front door, he leapt off me. He meowed to be let out. You cooed at him and opened the back door. These noises were still too loud, but by this time, having had to cope with it for a whole day, I’d become somewhat used to my newfound sensitivity. Even the light and smells, while still harsh, didn’t bother me as much. In general, the pain was getting duller – an irritation instead of an assault.

After shutting the back door, you called my name. I tried to answer, but I still couldn’t manage to make any sound.

I heard you pick up the phone, no doubt checking for messages. The phone hadn’t rung all day. I was thankful for that bit of silence.

You swore and slammed the phone down. You turned on the TV and set the volume high. I braced myself for the pain, but I was adapting well – too well – to my condition. There was no discernible increase in my pain level.

I heard you wander through the apartment, shuffling papers, opening doors. You returned to the living room and plunked yourself down on the couch. Over the sounds of a car advertisement, I could hear you sniffle and sob. Already, I missed you so much.

You watched TV all evening, not bothering to eat. At 1:04 in the morning, you finally turned off the TV and walked into the bedroom. You looked miserable. You stared at me. In a tearful whine, you said, “Where are you?”

Desperate, I tried to channel all my strength, all my energy into screaming that I was right there, but I still failed. Couldn’t you see me? It’s not like I was dead. If I were, there’d be a corpse, a body.

And that’s when I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

I craned my neck to look down at myself, at where I felt my body squeezed into immobility by the blankets, and ... and there was nothing there.

I stayed awake that whole night.

You fell asleep on your stomach, without taking your clothes off. You didn’t move all night, but you snored – of course, you snored. Your left arm fell across me and crushed my chest – the part of me that still felt like a chest – until you woke up at 10:42 the next morning.

It was only after your arm had been separating my upper self from my lower for several hours that I noticed that I was no longer breathing. When I thought about it, I was pretty sure that I hadn’t breathed since I’d woken up in this condition.

Whatever that was.

I listed the symptoms: I was invisible, even to myself; I didn’t get hungry; I didn’t need to pee or shit; I didn’t get tired, but I felt a constant, numbing weakness; my senses were too acute for comfort; I wasn’t breathing; blankets were too heavy for me to lift.

Like a list was going to explain everything, or anything.

And where was my body? How could I feel so much physical pain if I didn’t have a body?

You rolled on your back, away from me. I felt my rib cage pop back up. Did I still have a rib cage? I looked at where I felt my body to be, and there still wasn’t even the slightest hint of a shape. Was I even in there with you? Or was that sensation an illusion of some kind?

I told you, silently, that I was sorry for everything, for being so distant, for so often only pretending to listen to you, for so often having some stupid thing to do when all you wanted was to enjoy spending time with me – and in the middle of my futile apology George sat on my face.

You called in sick for the next two days. Minutes crawled by like weeks, sleepless days and nights like lifetimes.

You called my office and a few of my friends, but I could tell from your voice the emotional price you were paying for doing this. You gave that up quickly.

Couldn’t you see that all my clothes were still there? My keys by the bed? Couldn’t you feel that I was still there, longing for you?

Your orbit consisted of the bed, the fridge, the couch, and the toilet. The centre of your universe was the TV.

You stopped calling in sick. You just stayed home. When the phone rang, you ignored it.

A week later, your sister used her spare key to come in when you failed to respond to the doorbell. At first she was furious, yelling at you to snap out of it. Eventually, you broke down and started crying. That mollified her.

You told her that I’d vanished on you with no warning. She said she was surprised at that; she’d always thought of me as good for you.

You were an odd combination of fragile and tough, and I’d fallen in love with the intensity that accompanied that mix. You needed undivided attention to feel loved. You didn’t give your trust easily, but, once you did, you trusted without question. Being with you was a heady experience that left little time or energy for anything else. I indulged like an addict: your intensity was a powerful narcotic. You had tended to attract lovers who abused your fragility, who took pleasure in shattering someone so strong who could nevertheless be so easily broken. Your sister had liked that I made you laugh, had seen how it thrilled me to have you permeate my whole world.

Eventually, life outside our bubble intruded. Friends, work, whatever. And I drifted away. I let you suffer, even though I knew you were suffering; I let my growing indifference chip away at you. And, like a coward, instead of talking to you and trying to mend the rift, I just ignored it. I ignored you.

Sex with you was so beautiful, such a complete escape, sad and hard, silly and serious, in all the best ways. How could I let anything get in the way of that? Of being close to you?

I’ve never wanted to comfort you as much as when I heard you tell your sister how much you’d been hurt by my disappearance. But I’d started to disappear much earlier than you were telling her, and I hated myself for that. For betraying you. For betraying myself.

Do you remember when, the week before we moved in together, you stopped by my office and took me out to lunch? Warming your hands on my cup of tea, a fleck of something green stuck between your teeth, you asked me what I needed, and we bonded because of our common goal: your happiness. When did that stop being important?

Your sister couldn’t see me either. She cleaned the bathroom. After she put you in a hot bath, she turned off the TV and put on the radio instead. Classical. Worse: opera. Then, she attacked the embarrassing mess of our apartment. I’d like to say that most of it was due to your recent binge, but our place was always a disaster area.

And then she changed the bed.

The weakness disappeared when the weight of the blankets was lifted off me.

And, just like that, I was free. I was free! I danced and leapt and twirled and ran and—

And then I caught the words “missing” and “disappeared” on the radio news report.

There was, all around the world, an alarming increase in missing-person reports. The prime minister of Canada. The CEO of Toshiba. The US ambassador to the UN. The populations of whole villages in Africa. Hundreds of Afghan women. And so on. From the most disenfranchised to the most powerful, people everywhere were vanishing.

The news that I probably was not the only victim of this peculiar condition did not reassure me, but rather filled me with overwhelming dread. I walked into the bathroom, needing the security of your presence, and sat on the edge of the tub. You had no reaction when I reached out and stroked your face. Was I that insubstantial?

I could no longer take comfort in the slight plumpness of your cheek. To my touch, your flesh was as hard and unyielding as concrete.

When your sister left the apartment, I took advantage of the open door – all physical objects now being immovable, impassable obstacles – and left with her. I didn’t follow her. I had been cooped up inside for so long. I needed the open air. I wandered and mulled over what I had heard on the news. I was already so used to the pain from the sensory overload that it was no longer even a distracting irritant.

Were all the vanished in the same situation I was? If I met another vanished person, would we see each other?

Outside I discovered that rain, even the mildest precipitation, knocked the strange substance of my nearly insubstantial body to the ground, raindrops hammering into me like nails. Yet, for all that I had some, if almost negligible, physical presence, I cast no shadow. I was truly invisible.

There were fewer and fewer people about every day. Obviously, we vanished could not perceive each other. What people were left acquired a haunted or persecuted look. They knew that their time would soon come.

Less than a week after I escaped from the apartment, civil order broke down. Vandalized and overturned police cars burned on street corners. All the stores I passed had their windows broken, their stock looted or destroyed.

The city grew quiet, as traffic dwindled away and industry stopped dead.

The silence was occasionally punctuated by bursts of gunshots and quickly silenced screams. Those sounds filled me with more dread than my inexplicable vanishing ever did. I was always careful to walk away from such noises and never discovered exactly what was happening.

Dogs wailed and wandered everywhere, searching for their vanished human companions, scavenging through garbage for food.

I saw stray cats hunt some of the smaller wildlife that was reclaiming the city. They gave the bears a wide berth, though. Often, I thought I saw George, but the cat was always gone before I could be sure.

During that time, I returned to the apartment only once. The door had been torn off. Everything had been trashed. A raccoon family was living in our bedroom. By then you must have vanished, like me. I wanted to find you, hold you. But you were beyond my reach.

I was following a bear around, excited by what would have been in normal circumstances suicidal behaviour, when a giant shadow fell over me. I looked up. Swift grey clouds covered the afternoon sky. Scraps of old newspapers were being blown every which way. There was so much wind – wild, chaotic wind. Before I could think to take cover, I was hit on all sides – by a ragged shirt, a torn magazine, a broken beer bottle, cigarette butts, gum wrappers. I was jabbed and crushed and flattened and stabbed and twisted. It hadn’t hurt this much since that first morning.

The storm erupted; the sharp, heavy rain felled me, knifed through my prone body.

The storm ended; the clouds parted and revealed the moonlit sky, glittering with stars. I lay on the ground, recovering from the storm, and gazed at the sky. There were more stars visible than before: when people had vanished, so had the city lights that had made the nighttime too bright for starlight.

I stayed like that until dawn, and then someone stepped on me.

I looked around; the streets were filled with people. Naked as newborns, they walked calmly but with a sense of purpose, murmuring softly to each other, casually touching each other, sharing complicit glances.

I recognized a few faces – no-one I knew well, but people I’d seen in shops or cafés.

Still wobbly, I stood up. Was this ordeal finally over? Was I back, too? A quick test – trying in vain to see my hands or any part of my body – told me I wasn’t. I tried to call out to the people around me, but I was still mute.

What about you? Could you have returned? I ran to our apartment.

When I neared home, I saw them. They were also heading there: hand in hand, smiling and laughing, so obviously deeply in love with each other.

It was you and me. More beautiful, more in love, more confident, more at peace than we’d ever been. Serene.

But it wasn’t you, was it? No more than it was me. You must still be vanished like me. Neither dead nor alive. And so it must be for everyone.

Do you, like me, spend your time watching our doppelgangers? Are you frustrated at being unable to understand their language? Are you jealous at how much better they are at being us – at loving each other – than we ever were? At how much even George seems happier with them? Are you envious that all these new people have made the world a better place?

I want to end my life, but I don’t think I can. I’ve tried jumping off roofs, but all I get out of it is more pain – never death.

Are you here with me, my love?

I long to die with you.

To be really dead. Together. Forever oblivious.

This story originally appeared in Tesseracts Nine, edited by Geoff Ryman & Nalo Hopkinson.


Author: Claude Lalumière

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