Monday, 16 March 2009

Flash Fiction: Gone

Gone
Nathan Ryder

I met Lisa through WhoKnowsHowLongWeveGot.com. I had stumbled across the site while chasing data and studies to look at and comment on, and it seemed like something I should sign up to.
We started chatting online, first by email and then by IM. She told me a little about her family; about her job as a secretary for one of the few banks that hadn't collapsed in the chaos of the previous six months. She seemed interested in my own work when I told her about it; she was the first person I had met socially who seemed to get it.
She asked me challenging questions about my research. Who's going to look at your site in five years' time? I didn't have snappy answers for that then – I'm not sure I do now – it's just something that I felt I had to do. She understood that drive, and I was grateful that she did. I still haven't answered that question for myself about why I sift through the data, collate and look over the reports and statistics, searching for a pattern.
She didn't mind either that donations through my site (FadeStatistics.org) were paying the bills. I liked to believe that I wasn't tapping into just the layer of desperation that was building up over the global population. I felt better about it that way.

It felt like there was a real connection between us.
We decided to meet.
“After all,” she said, “'Who knows how long we've got,' right?”

We're on our second drinks when she steers the conversation towards our personal theories. She looks really beautiful, I've told her that once already and want to tell her again, but don't want to seem too eager.
She tilts her head to one side when I pause to think about it, try to put my complicated thoughts on the Fade into words. A smile plays across her lips, a smile that carries to her green eyes. Her skin is pale, a fragile beauty, slightly aged before her time – unsurprising, given the circumstances, it's hit us all – but still gorgeous.
“Don't tell me you believe in the ideas coming out of the Bible Belt?” she eventually laughs playfully as I put my thoughts in order.
I smile back and take a sip from the overpriced house red. The bar isn't the nicest place; it was probably alright a year or so ago. The really nice places are now all too expensive for the likes of me and Lisa. The quiet local we might have gone to last year will have closed.
“Well,” I say, “I'm an agnostic when it comes to faith... But no, they can't have their cake and eat it, insist that this is it but 'oh no, we're not going just yet, sir, praise be, it's all part of the plan.'”
“I don't believe that either,” she says, reaching over and squeezing my hand.
“I don't know what it is,” I reply, squeezing her hand back, “I'd like to figure it out. Or at least be a part of solving it. The way I see it, we have to keep looking.”
The other inevitable question came up a few minutes later. I think I brought it up, but I don't remember too clearly. I remember what she said:
“Where was I? I don't know. At home I think. My sister...” She pauses and looks away for a minute.
“My sister was at home with me, she was over for dinner and she called me in from the kitchen. The newsreader was shaking as he spoke; I remember sitting down next to Kate and just listening to the announcement, and to the President and everyone else as they said we had to be strong, that plans were in motion, that 'we' would figure it out.”
“I'd seen it more and more over the month before that – missing persons, suspected abductions – but that was the first time it was really real. Do you remember that thing the other year with the bees? And those feet washing up out of those rivers in Canada? There's always something going on, something in the background and I would think, 'That's weird,' and go on with my life.”
I nodded without saying anything.

We decided to leave the bar. The atmosphere was oppressive and strained in there, people compulsively glancing around the crappy sheen of class every few minutes – just to make sure I guess, though whether they were checking for themselves or on other people I don't know – and so we walked for a while. I tried to keep the conversation on relatively safe subjects: the latest re-runs on TV; the revised property statutes that were being rushed through by the government; Z-list celebrities arguing in the headlines and on the glossy magazines over who had been most traumatised by it all.

We're walking side-by-side.
We're holding hands.
She's pressed in close to me, head resting on my shoulder.

The skies are clear as we walk slowly around the outskirts of a park. It was late July, and not too late at night; we felt fairly safe despite what was being said on TV about the breakdown of society. I hadn't seen too much of that, no signs of looting or rioting or anything that the media had been warning about. Just the usual scaremongering – it doesn't matter that we're all scared anyway, someone has to whip that fear up even more.
Outside her apartment building we pause, chatting about nothing because it's easier than talking about the thing that we both want to know. We smile, both admit that it's been a lovely evening and that we should do it again. We smile some more and beat about the bush, kiss, hug, kiss some more.
Then with her arms tight around me she whispers in my ear, “Stay.”

We both agree that there's no pressure, and in an effort to prove this Lisa puts the TV on, before heading into the kitchen to put the kettle on.
Her living room was nice; family pictures on the wall, a bookcase filled with Tom Clancy and Stephen King, and really neat and tidy. I remember making a mental note to clean up my place before I invited her over.
She comes back through and sits next to me, taking my hand and squeezing it. For thirty seconds we make a pretence at watching a sitcom; almost simultaneously we look at each other, smile, and then start kissing.
We're interrupted by the kettle whistling on the stove; she smiles, kisses me again and jumps up.
“Do you want some help?” I ask.
“No, it's OK,” she calls back, “Do you want tea or coffee?”
“Tea please.”
Ten seconds later –

I wonder, I'm sorry, I know I said I would write this out straight, but I can't. I wonder, I wonder if we had just stayed together, whether...
I know it doesn't make any difference now.
What ifs don't make a damn bit of difference.

“Dan, do you take milk and -” Her sentence was broken off suddenly. I heard something fall, a clang, a rolling; instinct kicked in and I was up. The kitchen was only a few feet away, but my heart was pounding and I was breathless as I stepped up to the doorway.
I didn't expect... Despite the news and what we knew, I didn't think it could be. All that I did, my collection of studies and data, compiling every shred of news on the Fade, and I just – my mind didn't really grasp it until then.
The kettle was rolling a little, rocking slightly on its dented side. Hot water steamed away from pitted grey lino. Poetry fridge magnets. Simple countertops and generic white goods. Obvious Ikea mugs and utensils. More family snapshots pinned to a cork board.
My eyes focused on all of that, barely able to look at the pile of clothes, the black pants and red top that she had been wearing, settled halfway between her black shoes.
The shoes had little silver bows on them.
I hadn't noticed that when I met her.
And her shadow, a dark outline, Fading.
The edges remaining defined for a few seconds longer than the core, the Fade at work.
I didn't mean to, I tried to keep my eyes open, but I suddenly blinked.
Her shadow was gone.
I sank to my knees and just stared at the clothes and the space that she had occupied. Some time later I called the free phone number that you were supposed to use to report a Fading. Lisa Woods ceased to be a person and became a statistic, another string of 1s and 0s that would be used to try to figure out a pattern to the Fade.

That was two years, seven months and four days ago. Eight months ago I began stockpiling. Six months ago I left the city. I hated the feeling of constant scrutiny from other people. I decided to leave after the first time someone tried to break into my apartment. I found a small farming community in the country; we just work to survive and look after each other. We have a big fence. Others come out this way, but they leave us be mostly. I write, sending letters any way I can to other researchers; I can't break the habit. I spend most of my time helping with the crops and the livestock.

Populations are starting to dwindle, clustering together, coping as best they can. The official statistic is that every second between twenty and fifty people around the world Fade. Some think that the true impact of the Fade could be greatly underestimated.
People still die of natural causes of course, and children are still born, but it doesn't matter now. Millions have committed suicide since the Fade phenomena were confirmed by the United Nations. Several countries have decided that now is the time to test their nuclear neighbour's mettle.
No one has reported signs of any other species Fading.
It isn't the Rapture, it's not war or terrorism or aliens (well, that we know of). CERN was discounted. Theories involving disturbances between consciousness and interactions on the quantum scale, while interesting, are untestable.
The world gets larger every day. Remnants of governments try to keep the peace.

There is no pattern.

I don't want to know what happened to Lisa. I don't want to know what's going to happen to me, or when. Time is running out, for all of us.
I hope that it doesn't hurt when I leave my shadow behind.

I hope you're reading this, whoever you are. It's a selfish desire, and while I am still a confirmed agnostic I have one prayer that I make regularly:
Please God, if you're out there, I don't want to be the last to go.

*
Creative Commons License
This short story is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works License. Feel free to repost and share it with others, so long as you credit me (Nathan Ryder, 2009) as the original author and link back to this page. It would also be nice if you dropped me a comment!

8 comments:

zero_zero_one said...

This was written for my writers group monthly challenge, which was to write a piece - any genre/style - with the title "Gone!" The exclamation mark didn't feel right, so in the end I took that out.

Sarah Monteith said...

I have read your work.
I would like to comment on it.
But you'll have to wait ;-)
*hugs x

zero_zero_one said...

Hmm... I published my fourth draft of this to the blog... And I still think it needs a slight tweaking... Will see what group say tonight!

Sarah Monteith said...

An intelligently worked out sci-fi thriller story, intriguing and engaging, and a compelling read. Totally written to the brief, and original in its concept. Details were excellent, descriptive passages excellent, and as a reader I was totally drawn in to the sense of panic/ despair/ unreality that the characters were feeling.
As always, Nathan, an excellent read, really enjoyable, and something I can imagine working into a short story worthy of publication. Fantastic!

zero_zero_one said...

Thanks again Sarah! I'm going to work through it again today and make final (as final as it can be I guess) tweaks.

zero_zero_one said...

20th March 2009, mid-afternoon.

Made some minor changes to try and make tenses more consistent earlier on. Also worked on making the end point a little shorter. Had some suggestion from group about restructuring to finish more or less with "high tension" of Lisa Fading, move some of the description of life since then to the start of the story. However, on reflection, I quite like there being a sort of peak and then an unsettling little coda at the end.

After talking over a few ideas last night with writing group, I'm beginning to think that there might be more stories to tell set in the "Fading World"...

Robbe said...

Great story, well executed Nathan. I really enjoyed reading what felt like a very comtemporary and believable work.

Am sure that this would make a great full lenth novel and screenplay and that there are a lot of diamonds in the garden of faders.

zero_zero_one said...

Thanks Robbe!

Am hoping to write more stories in that world some time soon...