Vanishing without a Trace
Justin Lo, 7361
The first things I noticed that morning were the gold speckles of light that danced through my eyelids. “They’re so thin after all,” I thought to myself, rubbing my eyes lightly with the back of my hand before opening them to greet the new day.
I rolled over a half-turn to face the wall, glancing at my calendar from a steep, awkward angle. Craning my neck slightly, I gathered that it was Sunday – which meant that a home-cooked breakfast was surely waiting for me downstairs!
Excitedly, I hopped out of bed and brushed my teeth with sloppy vigor, taking the moment to look at myself in the large, water-stained mirror. My long, golden hair was in disarray, but it was Sunday anyhow, so I decided to forego my usual hair-brushing session in favor of breakfast.
I rushed down the stairs, still decked out in my blue nightshirt and ash-gray sweatpants, seeing my parents already seated at the table and my younger brother sitting on the ground with his firetrucks.
“Good morning!” I shouted cheerfully.
I found it peculiar that neither of my parents responded, nor did they even bother to look at me. They instead were engaged in their own discussion about my brother’s kindergarten class.
“Mm, this is really good!” I commented after scarfing down a crispy waffle with some genuine Vermont maple syrup and a couple of diced strawberries. Again, no response.
“Uh, Mom? Dad?” I asked, leaning over in front of them to wave my hand in their faces. Bizarrely enough, it seemed as though they continued to look at one another through my hand, despite the fact that my hand was certainly between their mutual lines of sights (and I even felt the moist, warm exhalations of their breaths on my skin).
I felt a cold shiver down my spine. I mean, back in elementary school, we called this the “silent treatment.” But that was elementary school.
I considered that perhaps this was merely a dream – a bizarre one, and highly realistic at that (damn, those waffles were <i>good</i>!) – but a dream nonetheless. I pinched myself in the arm, hoping that it would shake off the coccoon of slumber, but instead I just felt a sharp pain in my arm. “Of course, that doesn’t mean anything,” I reassured myself. “I’ve certainly felt pain in a dream before, and it never woke me up, either.”
Tentatively, I stood up and walked over to my little brother. I knelt down and started moving one of the firetrucks, hoping that he would catch on that I wanted to play with him. But instead, he only paid attention to his own firetruck, and desperately, I tried to hug him. For a moment, I thought that maybe my hands would pass through him, confirming at the very least that I was a ghost and that all this would be normal – or at least, as normal as it could get.
I closed my eyes, letting my arms encircle him, and then I pulled in for an embrace and felt his body clasped in mine. When I opened my eyes, I realized that I was indeed holding him, and yet he seemed ignorant of the fact that he had been put in such a position, instead simply looking the other way and continuing to play.
Not as if I didn’t exist, but as if he didn’t want me to exist. I let go and just stared at the scene unfolding before me, taking one step back, then another, then running away into my room. Breathing heavily, more out of the shock than from the physical exertion, I sat down on my bed and pondered what to do.
Clutching my pillow to my chest, I bit my lip lightly and tried to flip through my memories, trying to find something as a precedent. I mean, even in elementary school, you’d at least get <i>some</i> response from the person ignoring you (granted, it might be a slap or something, but it’s pretty hard to ignore someone who’s grabbing you). Nothing came to mind, but I clenched my fists, determined not to let the situation get the best of me.
I stood up again, opening my wardrobe and pulling out a lightly embroidered t-shirt and a pair of tan pants. I changed in silence, the sound of the dawn-loving birds providing the only ambient sounds. After grabbing my purse, I left the house with only a small whisper of a “goodbye.” I heard the door shut behind me as if it were locking me out forever.
Even though no one had spoken a word to me thus far today, the sun was still just as warm, the wind still as strong, the scents of spring just as aromatic. If nothing else, I consoled myself, at least Mother Nature hadn’t chosen to ignore me. I walked over to my bike, perching my purse in the small basket at the front.
“Hold on a moment, okay?” I told my purse that looked kind of impatient of the moment, “I have to put on my helmet.” Did I normally talk to inanimate objects like that? I didn’t think so – it was just a purse, and I had never been all that fond of it, either. It just held my cell phone and wallet and chapstick and address book. That is to say, it was completely interchangeable, and at my will, I could simply stop using it and throw it out, and nothing would drastically change in this world.
I secured my helmet and climbed onto my bike, leaving the train of thought back in my yard. My only concerns now were the pedals of this bike, pumping left then right, left then right, racing up the hills and down them, too, without a care in the world. The plaza soon appeared before me, its peculiar architecture jutting out into the sky like a candle’s flame captured in a photograph, so still yet so livid and deliberate at the same time.
I hopped off my bicycle, locking it up on the metal rack with chipping blue paint. Hoisting my purse of my shoulder, I walked over to the clothing shop. I had realized earlier this week, to my dismay, that I had outgrown all my summer skirts, and I definitely wanted to have one or two on hand for my dates with Joey. But even as I held that one motive in mind, I realized that I didn’t feel much like going home today, and I wondered if maybe I would just window shop all day long, or maybe sit down for some ice cream and listen to the jukebox, or go to the arcade and play the pinball game.
In any case, I entered the shop, with its flowery but not overly pretentious window display. It was a local boutique of sorts that I liked browsing every once in awhile, partially because it was only a ten minute bike ride from home. I swung through the aisles until I came to a decent collection of skirts.
“Hmmm,” I thought to myself, examining each one closely for its patterns, colors, and worksmanship. Some were too short, too long, or too transparent, but at last I happened upon one that I liked, which was somewhat of a cinnabar-crimson hue and had watermark-looking flowers on the outer of two or three fabric layers. I looked over its sisters to find one that would fit me and hopped into the fitting room like a little kid playing hide-and-go-seek.
There was a bit of anticipation, and then I happily covered my eyes, turning towards the mirror. “Will it look good, or bad?” I wondered to myself. I pulled away my hands and soaked in the image – ah! it was perfect!
I smiled with glee and quickly changed back, heading over to the cashier, waiting for her to ask, “Will this be all?” But she just stood there blankly, picking at her fingernails.
“Um, excuse me …,” I said shyly. Then, with more insistence, “Heyyy, hello hello?!”
I tried something more drastic – punching something into the cash register. She simply looked at it, muttered something, then canceled the transaction.
“Ah, to hell with it,” I said to myself, pulling out my wallet and counting out enough money to cover the skirt and tax. I left it on the counter, not bothering to see what she did with it – it was none of my concern, that was for sure. I just swiped the de-magnetizer over the tag and left the shop with a bit of an irritated stomp. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” – isn’t that what they say? Between being scorned and ignored, surely women would attest that the latter is the greater crime.
True to my thoughts upon entering the shop, I didn’t head straight for my bike, but rather next door to the ice cream shop. Taking into account the bizarre state of things, I realized that I could only buy one of those pre-packed pints, given that they would certainly not scoop anything out at my behest. I plucked out a container of cherry ice cream, tossing it around carelessly, throwing a few bucks at the cashier, who looked completely stoned. The bills hit him in the face and he picked them off with this surfer-dude sort of, “Wooooaaaaah.”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little, and in that spirit, I started piling on as many toppings as I wanted into my ice cream. No one was going to bother to stop me, anyway, so I did exactly as I pleased. After settling down with a spoon and a clear plastic cup brimming with fountain water, I scooped out a grotesquely large mound of the cherry ice cream, shoving it indelicately into my mouth. “Aammmmmm,” I moaned in genuine pleasure as the sweetness melted all around and the small sprinkles and gummy bears fell to their demise between my soon-to-be-rotting teeth.
I ate and ate, as if to argue for my existence through the fact that I could still dominate my food and consume to survive. For as long as I could eat and move and grow, didn’t I exist? As long as I could taste with my tongue like this, smell the scents of the ice cream freezers like this, grip one arm with the other’s fingers like this and feel this warmth, didn’t I exist?
I tousled my hair gently, realizing that I’d forgotten to brush it this morning. It was prone to frizzle a little overnight, although it was obediently straight as long as I brushed it per routine. Did I really care anymore, though? Sure, it was nice to have straight hair, but as long as no one was going to look my way, anyhow, maybe it didn’t matter so much. I sighed, smiling weakly, looking around the small parlor, watching the other people go about their lives, then finding my reflection in one of the freezers’ glass doors. I was still there, staring back at myself as always, eyes open as always.
The clear outline sat there, so distinct that I could trace it with my fingernails. But even my spoon could see its own reflection.
I finished the carton of ice cream, realizing that I probably wouldn’t be able to fit into the skirt any longer and not caring all too much. “I’ll burn the calories off on my bike,” I convinced to myself, throwing out my trash and returning to the balmy outdoors, where the sun was now directly overhead.
“I should’ve brought my hat,” I remarked, shaking my head as I mounted my bike. “It’s such a beautiful day, it’d be a waste to spend it inside,” I thought. “Maybe I’ll drop by the lakeside park since it’s not too out of the way.”
I diverged from the road home, letting my bike hop and skip down the barely-paved route to the lake. I nearly fell off a couple of times, but I’d traversed this way so often that I was half-expecting it each time, and I would grip the handles more tightly and swing my weight to steady myself.
At the foot of the hill, I saw the rows of Babylon weeping willows, their braids of leaves draped so low like Rapunzel’s hair, dipping into the water’s surface to make little dimples and ripples here and there. The placid environment swept against my vigorously active body, an antidote to my light sweat and red cheeks. I parked my bike aside a light post and started to walk along the thin, rocky shore.
Little children darted by, playing tag or frisbee; dogs of all shapes and sizes scampered around, sniffing out their little tennis balls and chewie toys. I continued on, watching adorable couples walk by, talking about silly things and snuggling together romantically.
“Ah, Joey, if only I could call you right now!” I thought to myself, fantasizing about being here with him, the wild wind flowing through your hair and clothes, our lips brushing together. I blushed deeply at the thought but had no qualms about continuing my pleasant reverie. I’m sure anyone watching would have been creeped out a little as I rubbed my nose and cheeks on my sleeve, pretending that it was his dependable shoulder. But who cared? It was my happiness and my prerogative. He was mine! I giggled at the thought, sitting down on a un-painted wooden bench facing the waters.
The seat creaked slightly under my weight, but it seemed sturdy enough. I began following a small line of mallard ducks as they swam past. They weren’t too keen on quacking very often, but they still seemed to communicate to one another just fine. The large brown-gray female in front dove down, and a few of the other ducks in the line followed suit.
I just sat there, voices wafting to and fro behind me, a few seagulls audible from above, having traveled a decent ways inland. Suddenly, I thought I heard a recognizable voice behind me.
“Oh hey, Mike,” said the voice. Wasn’t that Joey’s voice?
I turned around to see Joey greeting Mike, another of my classmates. It was all rather usual – they hung out here a lot together to play basketball and tennis, occasionally inviting me along for the fun as well, although I was only proficient at the latter. I suppose maybe they were more motivated by the fact that I always brought a simple picnic lunch with me for the three of us, or four if they invited another friend along.
But something was amiss. I realized quickly that it was the presence of a girl beside Joey.
“Hey, Joey, who is she?” Mike asked.
“This is Camilla, my girlfriend as of today.”
“Huh?” commented Mike, looking confused for a moment. “I could’ve sworn that you were going out with another girl.”
For a moment, I had my hopes up that at least someone would acknowledge me.
“Who?” asked Joey, equally confused.
“Er, I can’t remember her name.” My shoulders slumped, and I basked in helplessness until another feeling took the driver’s seat. How could this girl take away my boyfriend like that, steal him away in a moment of his amnesia? I hopped off the bench and walked up to the trio, keeping this Camilla figure under very close watch.
“No, I don’t think I’ve dated anyone else for a long while. I mean, I was single for like a year, but Camilla and I have been pretty close for months now. It was sort of inevitable that we’d go out sooner or later,” explained Joey.
“Mm,” said Camilla, her long brown hair sweeping around her side as she stretched onto her tippie toes to kiss Joey on the cheek. In desperation, I rushed forward, trying to hold her back but instead underestimating the added force of sheer shock at having a ghost, so to speak, suddenly apprehend you, and she toppled over onto the ground.
“Damn! that was a strong wind,” she groaned. “I’m okay though, guys.”
Mike chuckled a little and Joey bent down to help her up, a concerned look on his face. I grabbed one hand and he took the other, letting her stand up with ease. She dusted off her sundress and let out a sigh of relief. She had a few scratches on her exposed legs from the gravel, but nothing too severe or at risk for infection.
“Sorry,” I said softly, not intending to let my jealousy go so far as to really hurt somebody.
Tears sprouting out of my eyes, I turned around and ran all the way to my bike, pedaling home without bothering to put on my helmet or make sure my purse was snugly in the basket.
Once I made it into my room, I slammed the door shut and locked it, opening my drawer. In it were some photos of Joey and myself, unadulterated from before. I shoved them to the side, although it was a relief to know that at the very least, at some point, some time, I had still been with him. But what I wanted was below all that: an envelope and a pad of stationary paper. I set these ingredients on my desk and began to compose a letter, the same way I always began them when writing to my one and only true love:
<i>Dear Joey, my sweetheart~
I love you, too!
I don’t know if you remember me at all anymore; maybe everyone has just forgotten me completely. Or maybe it’s a big conspiracy and everyone has decided to ignore me. I actually hope it’s the second one, because then at least you still have a memory of me, no matter how tainted it may be. At least I would still exist to you.
I’m including a photo of us together. It’s when we went to SeaWorld together, do you remember? It was like a year ago or something. Anyway, that girl in the photo is me, and until today, we would always meet up face-to-face because we live so close together.
I hope that somehow I still mean something to you. </i>
I bit my lip, not sure what else to write. Sighing, I decided that was enough and quickly scribbled down my signature. My hands deftly folded up the letter and slipped it into the envelope along with the photo I had selected from my enormous pile.
“I guess this is it,” I said to myself bitterly. “I’ll know for sure after this.”
I exited my room once again, envelope in hand, and hopped onto my bike. Scarcely a minute later, I was at Joey’s door. I knew that he probably wouldn’t be back yet, but I wanted to wait for him like I always did before. Waiting for him used to be almost a hobby of mine. I’d of course bring a book to read or something, but that anticipation of seeing him again was such an inspiration that I could feed off of it all day long.
The sun continued its lap through the sky; my shadow elongated accordingly until it fell across the entire porch. It wasn’t until I could barely make out my shadow, though, when I finally saw Joey walking back up his driveway. I had left the letter where he’d expect it, sticking out from under one of the straw welcome mats.
He crouched down and lifted it out. Without opening it or disturbing it in any way, he pulled out his key and walked into his house. I snuck in behind him before he closed the front door and proceeded to take off my shoes to get rid of any physical traces of my presence. Feeling somewhat like a stalker, I followed him up the stairs to his second floor bedroom. It was actually a little bit exciting and nostalgic. Already, what should have been “just yesterday” felt like so long ago.
He sat down on his fluffy comforters and opened the envelope, straightening out the sheet of paper inside as the photograph dropped out from its paper-clipped roost. Joey read the letter over once, then a second time, then a third time, finally putting it down. Out of the corner of his right eye, a lone tear dripped out – or maybe it was only my imagination; he certainly betrayed no other hint of emotion. It was the kind of tear you shed after watching a soap opera, not after reading a real letter.
He slid the letter back into its envelope and placed it in his drawer, which I noticed had all of my old letters in it. He had neglected to replace the photograph, though, and it was still lying on the bed.
I stared at the little glossy rectangle, wondering if maybe I should hand it to him. But I decided against it and left his house silently. As I pedaled my way back home, I started to cry, realizing that I was completely alone now.
To be cast aside like an old purse, replaceable and expendable, to be thrown so far away and buried so deep that no one can be reminded of you, until finally no one can even say that you existed – if this happens, then you suddenly vanish from the world’s eye without a trace. <i>Erased.</i>
You know, there’s this age-old question that everyone’s been asked – I’m sure you’ve heard it before. It goes like this: “If a tree falls down in the middle of a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, I don’t pretend to be wise enough to answer that definitively, but my hunch – this is pure speculation, of course – is that it doesn’t. Because no one heard me fall or cared that I fell. And I’m beginning to doubt that I ever made a sound in the first place.