It happened like magic, like lightning. First she was there, then she wasn’t. It happened so fast I thought I’d imagined her.
Until it happened again.
A guy in line for coffee, gone as if he’d never been standing two feet in front of me, glued to his phone. The barista didn’t miss a beat.
The elderly couple who got on the A-train but never got off.
I stopped looking to other bystanders for help after a dozen or so. All I ever got in return for my panicked asking if they’d seen what I’d seen was incredulous glares and a breathalyser test. I’d trawl social media and every news outlet worth reading after each one, but there was nothing to find. No missing persons alerts. No investigations. It was like nothing ever happened. The fabric of the universe puckered briefly around the hole created by a person’s disappearance, then tightened to create a seamless swathe of new reality. Erased. Forgotten. Unmade.
No one noticed and no one was interested—not even conspiracy theorist message boards.
For a little while.
It’s amazing what you get used to. The first year was hard—a series of barf-inducing shocks—but after that, I only noticed because I felt obligated to.
After that first girl blinked out of existence, I wrote down as much as I could remember about her, hoping I’d see her again and confirm my suspicion that it was a mirage, a side effect of overindulging the night before. But I didn’t. When the second one happened, I was sure I was nuts. I scrawled pages and pages in my journal trying to connect the dots of my past to reveal what my parents had done to me that would lead to such insanity. Three makes a pattern, though, and I eventually realized that I wasn’t suffering from sudden-onset prosopagnosia (thanks, WebMD). I was compiling evidence. With each successive event, I dutifully logged the abductee’s physical description, location, activity, and other pertinent details in a notebook I carried everywhere. If this was real, the world needed a record of whatever it turned out to be—proof that these humans once existed, even if it was flimsy at best.
But aside from that? Not much changed. I got up, went to work, had lunch, messed around online, went home, ate dinner, binged Netflix, went to bed too late, got up in the morning and did it all again. Just like before.
Don’t judge me. What else was I supposed to do? I’m not a quantum physicist or an investigative journalist. I don’t even believe in aliens. I’m an accountant. A normal guy who tried to warn people about the disappearances but got laughed out of offices, chat rooms, and bars. A guy whose best friend ghosted him because his apartment was covered in blurry photos and increasingly illegible sticky notes.
I’m not a hero.
Five years in is when things started getting bad. The city had lost over half its population, and it showed. Restaurants closed with linens and cutlery laid out for evening service. Students showed up to classes with no teachers. Trash pickup stopped. Power outages started. But despite the inconvenience and the growing stink, those that remained continued as if nothing had changed. Each person that disappeared was smoothed over by time and space leaving not even a memory behind. The barista still smiled and asked about my tropical fish, and I still grinned back and told her they were a pain in the ass but too expensive to flush down the toilet. At night, I went back to my rent-free apartment (thanks, disappeared landlord) and pored through my journals by candlelight, speculating about what had happened to these missing people—now numbering in the millions, maybe billions.
And when it would be my turn.
It’s weird to have FOMO about what amounts to an extinction-level event. I had no idea what had happened to everyone, but my theories ran the gamut from “actually abducted by aliens and getting a serious probing” to “slow-motion rapture” and everywhere in between. None of them were something I wanted to participate in.
One day, I walked into the corner café to find it empty. The barista had vanished. I stood among the dusty tables blinking at where she had been for the past five years in defiance of the cosmic weirdness happening around her. I hadn’t realized until that moment how much of a fixture she’d become in my life. While everyone else phased out of existence, she was always right there.
I turned in a slow circle, scanning the street outside through the huge windows. Trash was piled so high it leaned on parked cars covered in tickets. Storefronts were long since gated. Nothing moved except a newspaper caught in the breeze. Time spooled out in a long, unbroken thread as I strained my eyes for any sign of human life. But there was none.
Panic rising, I fished my phone from my pocket and opened my contacts list. It had taken me a while to notice the entries being erased, but it had started happening faster and faster, whittling five hundred names down to dozens in a rapid purge of non-existent people.
That morning, I’d had ten contacts left. Now, there were none.
That’s when I broke.
You’d think it would have happened earlier. When I realized I wasn’t insane and this was really happening, for instance, or when my brother disappeared in the middle of a family dinner and everyone kept eating. There were thousands of reasons to utterly lose it practically every day. But I never did. Because I knew—absolutely knew—that there would be an answer. That the disappearing would stop or somebody smarter than me would fix it. That one day every missing person would pop back into existence and we could laugh about it (after a while). I’d held on to the unwavering belief that this too, would pass.
But as I sank to the floor of the abandoned coffee shop, the tears finally flowed, pooling around my face as laid my head on the ground.
All gone. All of them. Gone. Everyone. Except me.
It was dark when I woke up. My eyes were gritty from crying, and my legs were numb from passing out in child’s pose. I rolled over, blinking away the blur and willing my feet to move. I lifted a heavy arm to check the time on my phone, but the battery had died. I wondered how long it would be until the world’s power went out permanently. How long until I lost my grip on sanity, alone without the Internet?
A rattle from the door behind me startled a yelp from my throat. I cursed the pins and needles in my legs as I wrestled my body underneath a table to hide. I balled up and held my breath, eyes straining against the darkness to see who—or what—was coming. I tried not to imagine how many tentacles, arms, and eyes they would have.
Old-fashioned bells jangled as the door opened. “Hello?” said a round shadow. “Is someone in here?”
The shadow reached out and flicked a switch. The overhead lighting snapped on, flooding the room and blinding me. It was only for a second, but when I could see again, a pair of legs stood inches from my hiding spot.
“Matt? Is that you? Why are you on the floor?”
The voice was human, too, I realized. And familiar.
Curiosity overrode self-preservation. I risked peeking out from the safety of the table and looked up into the concerned face of Amy, the barista.
I shot up on wobbly legs to throw my arms around her in an embrace usually reserved for life preservers. She laughed awkwardly, “Hey! Okay! Good to see you, too,” and patted my back.
I let her go, then stood back to marvel at her existence. “You didn’t disappear,” I observed. I knew it was stupid—I’d had this same conversation with her a hundred times over the years with no result—but I said it anyway.
Instead of her usual eye roll, though, this time she smiled and said, “I did.” Then she gestured at the early-morning customers trickling into the café. “We all did.”
Within minutes, I was surrounded by people. Real human beings with purses and Bluetooth and hangovers and BO. People that had slipped out of my life one by one without a trace. They were all staring at me. I stared right back.
I tried to ask all my pent-up questions at once—what happened, where are we, did we die, is this a dream or an alternate dimension or the darkest timeline—but nothing came out. Tears of relief choked off the words.
I had made it. After years of wondering and worrying, I was finally here. I didn’t know where “here” was, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I wasn’t the last person on Earth anymore. That I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life going slowly insane asking why not me. I was with people again, and that meant I was home.
Amy touched my arm lightly, her eyes sparkling with an excitement I didn’t understand.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” she said. “Now we can get started.”
Story content: © Ellie Di Julio 2019
Art: “Fade Away” by TheFoxAndTheRaven