The classroom is small, and there is a faint staleness in the air, like the scent of days-old burnt pastries in a kitchen. Chairs too small to fit adult bodies are stacked in the far corner beneath the one window of the room, and all the tables have been pushed against the perimeter, circling him and the others like an elevated moat of laminate wood. The walls are covered with crayon drawings from the children who are there during the daytime: blue skies and yellow suns, red and black and blue outlined stick figures, brown cats and dogs and cars. A wide U smile spreads across each stick figure’s face, and Steven looks at these drawings with sadness knowing that he once looked at the world the same way. His eyes scan each picture, but when he sees one drawing, that of a family of three standing tall beside an orange house and green tree, he stops, focusing closer on the cartoon people there. One of the mother’s arms is missing so that it doesn’t quite match the outstretched T-stance of the young child and father. After two or three seconds, Steven looks away and rubs his eyes as if to remove the image from his mind, though he cannot.
Around him sit various men of different ages and races, men from different backgrounds. He’s been coming to these weekly meetings for six weeks now, but there are only a handful of men that Steven recognizes as repeat attendees. Maybe five of the twelve or so tonight he’s seen before. He wonders briefly what has happened to the others, even the others from last week who aren’t here tonight, but he dismisses the answer before it arrives in his mind.
The man seated beside him is talking aloud to the group; the others are circled around in their folding chairs, listening with attentive faces, a few of them even leaning forward as if they want to hear the spoken words sooner rather than later—as if this will take the sting of the confession away quicker and more painlessly. But they feel no pain—at least not physical, at least not yet. Just the promise of what will happen. And that is what terrifies them the most.
Steven looks over to the man next to him and stifles a smile as the other’s body begins to slide down the chair. The man uses his hands to push himself up so that he now sits looking more like a statue than human. If he were a statue, it would be that of a wounded soldier who’s missing a leg up to the hip. Steven glances down at the man’s absent right leg, seeing the pant fabric rolled up and tucked beneath his seated body.
The man’s words become audible and clear to Steven now. “I know we’ve all said it here, but it’s true. The waiting and not knowing is the hardest part.” The other men nod their heads while some give verbal agreement. Then they sit back in their seats quietly, weighing the words they’ve just heard, playing out their own short destinies in their minds.
Of the twelve men gathered there, seven are missing either legs or parts of their leg, including feet; three of them are like Steven, missing portions of their hands or arms, and the other two show no clear signs that something has disappeared, though they might only be missing a finger or toe at this point, the process merely in the beginning stages.
After several more seconds of silence, Jerry, the group leader, whose left arm is gone to the elbow and is missing most of his right hand as well, speaks up, telling them that it’s time they wrapped up for the night, that the women’s group is meeting in twenty minutes and they should be cleared out by then. “Don’t forget to grab some cookies on the way out,” Jerry says with a sad smile. His focus is locked on his right hand, studying the missing digits, studying what remains.
The sound of the metal chairs scraping over the scratchy carpet creates a strange insect-buzz that Steven tries to ignore, but it sounds too loud in this small room; all he can think in this moment is how much he wants to escape. To leave and not come back.
Steven shrugs on his coat and uses his nubbed arm to hold the material in place while he zips up the coat with his other hand. This process was a challenge at first, mainly because of the emotional breakdown it usually brought on, but he’s become accustomed to it, even as more and more of his arm has disappeared.
He looks over to the door and sees Henry balancing himself on his crutches as he takes several cookies from the tray and places them in a plastic baggie that he brought with him from home. Steven knows that Henry’s waiting for him, as always, but he doesn’t want to talk with Henry, so he turns to look back at the circle in which they’d all sat minutes earlier, hoping that Henry will have left by the time he turns back around to head out. Nearly all the other men have left the room by now—they never stay long after the meetings—except there are three new guys Steven’s never seen before; they’re still sitting in their chairs talking with Jerry. He’d been in their place once, not that long ago, unsure of what was happening, not that he or anyone else knew what was going on. Eventually, you learn that whatever’s missing is gone and not coming back, and other parts will continue to disappear until you simply aren’t. As this all happens, you find ways to disguise the fear, though it never fully goes away. They all have their hours of anger and terror, when they alternate between beating their knuckles—if they still have them—raw on walls or pillows or their own selves and crying tears that do not seem to stop. But what else is there to do beside existing until you don’t anymore?
Steven walks out the door, not slowing as he passes Henry, and makes his way to the small school courtyard. In the parking lot, he can see the women beginning to get out of their cars and head over for their meeting. Around him, the elementary school is lit by dull lamplight that flickers in the darkness, though the flickering is so quick that you wouldn’t notice it unless you looked for it carefully. A steady breeze blows through, every few minutes turning into a full gust of wind before quieting down a bit. A dozen or so insects move spastically around the glow of the lamp, and Steven looks up to watch them.
“It’s pretty at night,” a voice says behind him.
Steven turns and sees Henry shuffling his way over on his crutches. When he gets to where Steven stands, he pulls out the baggie of cookies from his coat pocket and offers one over, but Steven simply shakes his head.
“I thought about trying out the meeting at the Baptist church, but I heard they start and end every meeting with a prayer, and I don’t think I could stand that,” Henry says. “Not with all this shit happening.”
Steven nods. “Plus, I doubt they have cookies.”
Henry smiles sadly and puts a whole cookie in his mouth, chews a few times, and then asks how Steven’s been.
“Same. I think there’s more that’s gone, but I can’t tell.” Steven lifts up his right arm and pulls the sleeve of his coat down with his left to show the missing appendage.
“I know some people measure it each day. You know, to see how fast it’s going away.”
Steven’s quiet. The women are walking quickly toward where the two of them stand. “Yeah. But then you’d know how fast you’re going. I don’t think I’d want to know that.”
Henry looks away from Steven, and when he turns back, Steven can see that his eyes are glossy with the tears that stream slowly down his cheeks. “I’m going quick. Went to the doctor yesterday. They measured for me. . . . ” His voice trails off.
“What’d they say?”
“They don’t know shit about any of this. They say they’re working on finding something out, but you know there’s nothing. At least not for us. Not yet. And the nurse, when she looked at it, you can see how scared she is. Even still. Who would have thought we’d scare people, you know?” He chokes back a sob and then clears his throat as if to disguise his emotion.
“I know.” Steven reaches out and pats Henry’s arm, though the motion is one of practiced sympathy rather than real. “I know. Go home and try not to think about it.”
“Yeah,” Henry says. He breathes in deeply. “Yeah,” he says again, trying to talk himself into some belief of hope. But the belief is not there and both men know it. “You too.”
As Steven watches Henry move away, passing by the incoming women, he absently moves his missing right hand over his left, the same way you would scratch an itch with fingernails.
On the drive home, every radio station discussed The Infection—the term given to what was happening, though no one in the meetings ever referred to it as such and there were no medical indications that the disappearances were caused by any bacteria or virus. But naming it brought peace of mind to the others who weren’t suffering directly, and that’s how it became known.
After flipping through the eight stations that had any sort of reception, Steven turned the radio off and drove the rest of the way home in silence.
Now, as he lies in bed staring at the dark ceiling and listening to his wife breathe on the other side of the bed, he finds his thoughts moving back and forth between creating a list for all the things he needs to do tomorrow at work and Karen. He’d seen Karen in the parking lot of the school earlier. He was just opening his car door to climb in when he heard her say his name. He turned and was surprised that she was standing only a few steps away. Her baggy sweatshirt moved restlessly in the breeze, the right sleeve whipping back and forth around her body like a flag, but she paid it no mind. In that moment, his mind flashed briefly to the previous week and the shadows that covered her in the darkness of the backseat, disappearing even more of her from him so that he only knew what was there and what wasn’t by the meeting of their bodies, the outlining of his remaining fingers on her skin.
As he stood beside the car, the interior light spilling out over the parking lot pavement, Steven tried to smile, but there was no truth behind it, and Karen could tell.
“Bad night?” she asked.
He shrugged and looked away. “Is there a good one anymore?” When he looked back to her, he saw that Karen was looking down and moving her weight back and forth from her left leg to her right. “I thought last week was.” She looked at him again, and Steven couldn’t tell if there was hurt or anger in her eyes, or maybe it was a combination of both.
“It was,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean . . .” but he couldn’t finish.
“You want me to stay out again?” she asked. “With you?” she added. Her voice was low, like a child asking her mother for something she knew she shouldn’t have. There was guilt in the tone, yet still she asked.
“Not tonight,” he said, and she nodded. “You go to your meeting. Next week?” he asked.
“If we’re both here,” she said, and she turned with a laugh, though her statement was not made in humor.
Now, though, he finds himself wide awake in bed, the idea of sleep somehow revolting. How can anyone sleep when time is running out, he thinks to himself, and turns to look at his wife sleeping there, not understanding, sleeping there without a care about what he or anyone else in the world is going through, it makes him angry—makes him want to throw things, smash his fist through a wall and feel pain in the one hand that remains, for now at least—makes him want to reach out and wrap his fingers around her throat and squeeze until she feels pain and sees the world blotting out from her sight like his body is blotting out from the sight of the world—makes him want to scream in anger and see their two boys run into the room, their eyes half closed in sleep so that they can watch the end of their mother and he can feel the end of all the years of silent judgment from her, the looks of accusation, the subtle hints that have made him feel that he isn’t good enough for her, that the man he is is not the man she believed him to be all those years ago when they first fell in love that night beside the river’s edge under the full moon when none of these worries and panics existed, when he was full-bodied and complete and the future was something to seek out and not something to fear.
He turns away from his wife, realizing that his jaw hurts from his clenched teeth, and stares at the clock on the table next to the bed. The digits light his face, and he watches as the time changes from 11:38 to 11:39—reminders everywhere of a life now lived in constant loss and disappearance. He closes his eyes and tries to lose himself in the memory of those few stolen moments a week ago when Karen straddled his body in the back of her car. She’d bent her face low and kissed him on the lips, the first time he’d been truly kissed in months. Her knees pulled his body tight to her as she moved herself like the waves atop him, and he moved his remaining hand up her body, starting at her hips and then gently upward, his fingernails creating chill bumps on her skin below. When his hand moved to where her shoulder should have been, he did not pull his hand back but instead let his fingers trail over what remained, the indent of what should have been but was not. As he did this, her body moved at a quicker pace above him. When his hand made its way up to her neck, he pulled her down gently so that her lips were pressed against his again, and he kissed her once more, tasting the short breaths that came from her mouth and passed into his. “We are the disappearing,” she whispered and then kissed him again. Or maybe he imagines those words now.
There’s no way he can fall asleep, not with his wife sleeping peacefully beside him, her long and drawn out breaths breaking the stillness of the room. After another minute of lying there, he gets up and walks out into the main room of the house. His sons’ toys and other debris from life are strewn around the carpet and table, and he scatters a stack of papers onto the floor from the couch so that he can sit. The thought of turning on the TV is depressing; it would just be different news reports about The Infection and how doctors are still baffled by the cause and still unsure about the remedy—but Oh, they’re working hard. He snickers at this thought. He doesn’t want to see the reported numbers of disappearances scrolling along the bottom of the screen in constant movement like the scores of sporting events once did. Instead, Steven takes his cellphone from his pocket and dials a number, not realizing who he’s called or even why until the sound of ringing punctures the silence of the night.
Henry answers on the fourth ring, and after he says hello, Steven stays quiet. The two remain in silence on each of their ends for several seconds. Finally, Henry breaks the quiet. “Steven, are you okay?”
“No.” His voice is a whisper, and he isn’t sure if Henry was even able to hear it, but then Henry speaks.
Steven feels the tears rolling onto his chin, not knowing they even began in his eyes. “I can’t get the idea out of my head tonight. You know? The fact that we’re just going to be gone. Like that. I mean, what’s it for? Any of it?”
“I can’t sleep anymore either,” Henry says. His voice is calm, but there is a slurred quality to it, and Steven wonders how much Henry has had to drink tonight and if it’s helped at all.
“It’s not even me, though.” Steven wipes his face dry. “It’s them—my family,” he says in answer to Henry. “It’s being here. It’s the idea that I did everything—all of it, all of it—for nothing.”
“What’s your wife say?”
“She doesn’t say anything. Not anymore. It’s like she’s already forgotten me. I’ve had one moment of being okay with my life in the last month.” Karen’s dark face flashes in his mind, but he shakes the image away. “But once I come home, it’s like I’m gone, like they don’t even want to see me. Like I remind them of something they don’t want. I don’t know if I scare them or what it is. I just want to run away and forget this life completely. It sounds bad, I know, but I just want to leave. Start over. But I can’t.” Steven chokes back tears and then continues. “There were so many other things I wanted, but then we had Tyler, and all of those other things just went away. I had to stop thinking of what could be, and I just can’t stand that anymore. You know? Of not knowing what could have been. Sometimes, I just wish I’d disappear all the way already—go away and not have to worry about what I missed out on. I don’t know. Just thoughts, I guess.” Steven rubs at his wet eyes with his remaining palm. His mind flashes to Jerry, and he wonders how he dries his tears without palms, and then Steven thinks of how long it will be until he wakes up one morning and sees that his fingers or toes, or even a whole foot, are no longer there—the promise that will one day be fulfilled.
There is silence on the other end of the phone for several seconds, and Steven can only imagine Henry sitting there at his kitchen table or on his own couch, the phone balanced just so between his shoulder and cheek, as he searches his mind for something to say, some comforting words to give. But there is only silence as comfort when there’s no hope, and Steven knows this.
“I’m sorry,” Steven says. “I wasn’t planning on saying any of this—I don’t even know why I called. I think it’s just what you said earlier, about us disappearing more and more every day.” He’s about to say something else, some other apology for intruding on the night’s quiet when Henry begins talking.
“Have you heard of that website? The one where you switch lives with someone else.”
There is only the steady sound of breaths on Steven’s end of the phone.
“You go on there and sign up and find someone else—someone like us—to change lives with. It lets you live out what you don’t have but always wanted. Or something like that. Like a Make-a-Wish or something, I don’t know. I couldn’t ever do it; I’m too scared, and my mom would go crazy if I left like that. But you.” Henry pauses, letting the moment grow to a climax. “You—what you said—you aren’t happy, and who knows how long any of us have. You could do it. If you wanted. You could live some other life out.”
Steven hasn’t realized it, but he is now sitting on the edge of the couch, his body leaning forward; from a distance, it looks as if he might fall face first onto the carpet floor. “You switch lives with someone?” he asks.
“Someone like us, someone who wants your life—for a little while, at least.”
When Steven speaks again, his voice is calm and unhurried, and Henry does not know of the smile that now spreads across Steven’s face or the quickness of his friend’s heartbeat. In this short instant, Steven forgets that his hand is no longer there, forgets that his body is erasing itself from existence. There is no fear for him in this moment. Instead, there is only a hope for some escape from all that he has created and all that he regrets. “What’s the website?”
“The Disappeared,” Henry says.
It all started sometime around the beginning of last year, though no one can say for certain when. All anyone can remember are those early reports in the news telling of people who were slowly fading away. “A sickness,” people called it originally. Then “an infection.” It starts at the hands or feet usually, and then, like some cancer, it slowly crawls to other parts of the body, snatching skin and tissue and muscle and bone away and replacing it with air. This happens until the entire person is gone. Erased from the world, leaving family members to grieve over nothing, funerals with no body to bury. For some, the process is slow and can take months or even longer, while others have blotted out in mere weeks.
As is the case every morning, the radio is playing soft rock from a local station when Anthony Davidson enters his kitchen. He’s kept this routine since he moved into the apartment nearly three years ago; however, in those days, he would walk in at a near trot, feeling the morning tightness leave his knees and back. Now he moves clumsily on crutches, navigating the narrow doorway from the back bedroom to the kitchen. Though he’s had them several months, the crutches still feel foreign to him, and he wonders if he’ll ever become used to them, or if he’ll disappear before that happens.
He used to make egg whites and toast with jam every morning, then wash it down with a glass of orange juice, but these days he settles for a bowl of sugary cereal. After he adds the milk, he slowly hobbles his way to the table, sloshing some of the now-colored milk onto the tile flooring, cursing with every splatter on the tile. Anthony sits and takes a bite. Then he opens his laptop and reads the headlines. In the “days before”—as he refers to any time previous to his leg’s disappearance—he would study the stock numbers from the days and even weeks previous, estimating what might happen later that morning in the exchange. He would then email clients whose portfolios he oversaw, recommending the standard buy or sell of shares and stocks; there would also be the occasional phone call before he drove to the office, but he no longer needs to worry about any of that. Now, he only sees the numbers in green or red or black and the blocked arrows pointing diagonally north or south, the abbreviations he knows by heart, and plays dumb to it all. If he pretends the numbers and graphs mean nothing, then maybe they actually will cease to have control over him, and maybe the memories of that previous life will be erased.
As always, the headlines are filled with new speculations about The Infection. As always, a priest or rabbi makes some comment condemning the “plagued,” saying without saying that this pestilence is merely some reckoning from God upon those people. “Those people.” Anthony shakes his head and feels a tightening in his chest. He is one of “those people,” and anger surges through his body at this fact, spreading out to the tips of his fingers before he shuts the laptop and breathes deeply to calm himself. When he reaches down to scratch at the skin below his left knee, his hand brushes through air. He’s heard of phantom limbs, of amputees feeling itches or pain in their missing body parts, but that isn’t the case for him. There is no feeling, phantom or otherwise, in his leg, yet he scratches at it throughout each day in the hopes that one time his hand will be stayed by his leg, that it will have been regenerated as if by magic like the tail of a lizard.
Outside, the morning sun is about to rise over the eastern skyline. From his apartment on the fifteenth floor, Anthony can see the city below waiting for the day’s beginning. The streetlights still stretch paths over which small vehicles travel, their headlights guiding them to their destinations. As with each morning, Anthony creates a fiction for one of these drivers; each day it’s someone new. This morning, it is a man. A man who is returning to his suburban home from a business trip out of state; he will pull slowly into his driveway, not opening the garage door for fear of waking his wife and child—he will walk without crutches, without help or impairment up to the front door, which he will open carefully, and then he will make sure to hush the family puppy so as not to alarm anyone of his presence with barks—he will set his bags down in the hallway and first visit his child’s room, look in and watch her for just a moment, knowing that she is sleeping peacefully, lost in some dream in which he may or may not play a part—he will then walk ever so cautiously over the carpet, making sure not to step on any of the spots where a loose nail sounds a groaning noise, and then he will slide, shirt and tie still on, into the bed beside his wife and watch as she turns over to face him, her eyes still closed in sleep, and drape her arm gently over his waist—and then, in that moment, he will smile at everything that surrounds him and at the life he’s created. Anthony smiles this vicarious smile, though the man is simply a figment of his mind and so is the hope that he will ever be that man. The slow creep of the disappearing of his leg reminds him of this reality each morning as it does whenever he finds himself smiling or forgetting, if even for a second.
After finishing his cereal and taking a bath—he finds that showering is too hard now with only his one leg—Anthony sits back down at the table and opens his computer again. In the search bar, he types in the address and is brought to the webpage. He logs into his account, which he only created three days ago after overhearing a woman at the grocery store.
“It’s some program that helps people like us live out our dreams, or something like that,” the woman said on the phone. In that moment, he turned from the shelves of breads he was looking at and saw the woman in the wheelchair, both her legs disappeared to the knee, her left one even more by the looks of it, though he didn’t want to stare. From a distance, he stood and listened in to what she said to the person on the other end of the phone. Though she spoke for another minute or so, she didn’t mention the website and he couldn’t bring himself to ask. After she hung up from her call and wheeled herself away toward the produce section, he continued shopping, grabbing absentmindedly at the remaining items on his list, the whole while running through the possibilities of what he imagined this unnamed website offered. “A chance to be happy,” she said. There was hope in her words, even if there was no hope left in the world. When he got home, he left the bags of groceries on the counter and sat down at his computer, searching various keywords online. After a couple minutes he found it. TheDisappeared.com. His breath caught momentarily in his chest, and he let out a small chuckle that sounded strange in the empty apartment. He clicked on the About tab and was brought to a page that explained the concept: “This website offers a chance for The Disappeared (individuals suffering from personal disappearances) to connect, become friends, share in each other’s situations, and, if all parties concerned are in agreement, switch lives so as to fulfill personal hopes and desires.” The rest of the page outlined the disclaimers, though Anthony didn’t read any of this. He had already clicked on the “Sign Up” tab and was filling in his information.
Now, a small bell highlighted in red appears at the top of the screen. Though he has checked the account several times over the last three days, this is the first time he has received any kind of notification. A cold chill courses through his body when he clicks on the icon. The message is short: “Hi. My name is Steven Daniels. I saw your profile and am interested in switching with you. I don’t have much of anything to offer, but I thought I would try you. Please write back if you are interested.” Anthony studies Steven’s profile picture. It is poorly lit, which has caused half of the man’s face to be covered in shadows; there is just the outline of his face, light against a darker background. Anthony had spent nearly fifteen minutes taking photo after photo on his phone to upload as his profile picture, but Steven’s looks like it had been done in a casual passing moment, snapped and uploaded without a thought, and Anthony feels disappointment at this. There’s no telling who Steven Daniels is, if Steven is his name at all. Maybe he’s normal, someone who isn’t disappearing; maybe he’s on the website as a prank, and Anthony will simply give him a story to tell over beers with friends; or maybe he’s a drunk or druggie, someone whose world Anthony would never want to think about let alone inhabit.
Anthony is about to log off, but he stops himself from closing the laptop. Instead, he clicks on Steven’s profile—just for a look, he tells himself.
They are nearly the same age—Steven is a year and a half older. While Anthony lives amongst the skyscrapers, Steven lives forty minutes outside of the city. He continues reading. There are other bits of information that Anthony glances over without much interest, including the fact that Steven is missing his right hand, but it isn’t until he scrolls back to the top of the screen that Anthony sees he hasn’t read a whole portion of the profile. The Family section. He reads the information twice and then, without any hesitation, clicks back to Steven’s message. “I’m interested,” he writes, and then Anthony sits there waiting for Steven’s reply.
Steven walks into the café, feeling dizzy either from the sudden wave of warm air or from the excitement and nervousness. Around him, the place buzzes with the talk of a dozen strangers, all of whom look to Steven to be completely normal—no missing hands or feet, no fingers or toes that simply vanished into midair. Steven glances around at all the others in the café. While none of their eyes are turned toward him, he shoves his hands—hand—deeper into the heavy coat that is too large for him, afraid someone might look up from their drink or pastry and see him standing there, know that he is one of them: The Infected.
In the far corner of the place, he sees Anthony sitting there, his pair of crutches leaning up against the wall behind him. Steven lets out a breath of air he doesn’t know he’s been holding.
Just as he is about to step toward him, Steven sees Anthony look up and wave him over. A warmth flushes through Steven’s body as he nods back. There, seated in a long-sleeved sweater and jeans is his answer, a way for him to escape it all and start fresh.
By the time he sees Steven standing in the middle of the café, Anthony is already on his third cup of coffee. Besides the morning when he went to the grocery store and overheard the woman talking about the website, this is one of the few times he has left his apartment in weeks. Normally, his groceries are delivered from an order he places online—the bags left outside his door, the bill and tip paid electronically—and the few times he’s eaten out, he’s gone to the same corner deli a block and a half from the apartment. It is such a short distance that few people, if any, will take notice of him moving along the sidewalks. But here, in a café like this, he is truly out where he can be seen, and though he felt a sickness in his stomach when he first walked in, he feels a calmness relax his body now as Steven walks up to his table.
“Steven?” Anthony asks, but Steven’s already pulling out the chair next to him to sit down.
“So, you’re real.” Steven smiles.
“I am,” Anthony replies. “I guess I can say the same thing about you. Honestly, I thought you were made up, a joke at me.”
“No joke. Just another guy like you.”
It had been two days since Steven saw the message on his Disappeared account and replied. They messaged each other back and forth that first day. Whenever Steven finished a job at work, he found himself pulling his phone from his pocket and opening up the website, feeling excited each time he saw that there was a new notification. In those messages, they each told about themselves, though they spoke in generalities, neither wanting to give too much of their lives away. They shared how their disappearances began. Anthony mentioned how he’d come back to his apartment after a fifteen-hour day at the office; he’d taken his shoe and sock off and saw that three of his toes simply weren’t there anymore. For Steven, he had woken up one morning without a thumb. “Each day over the next couple, more and more of my hand disappeared until it just wasn’t anymore,” he wrote.
For most of their time at the café, they sit in silence. They spent a few minutes early on showing each other their missing parts, though they did so carefully as if the two of them carried a secret that no one else was to know about. Then Steven went to the counter and ordered a hot chocolate.
Now, he sits down again and sips at the drink. “Ready?” Anthony asks, and Steven nods. From their pockets, they each take out a folded piece of paper and exchange it with the other. It is a printout provided through the website. On it, they each had filled in the information requested, including home address, spouse’s name, children’s and pets’ name. There is a large portion available at the bottom of the form to write in additional comments, though they each had left that area blank.
For a while, they sit in their small corner and watch the others in the café: the baristas moving in synchronized form behind the counter, young lovers smiling over mugs and through the steam of their drinks at each other, students completely lost within their thoughts as they type feverishly on laptops.
“You’re sure about this?” Anthony asks after several minutes. He takes a sip from his cup of now cold coffee.
Steven nods in reply. He still has his coat on, though he now sits back in his seat comfortably.
“What’d your wife say?”
Steven smiles and turns his head away, making sure not to look at Anthony.
“You haven’t told her.” Anthony’s voice is a whisper.
“Not yet. I will, though. Today.”
“Why haven’t you?”
“I don’t know. Honestly.” He turns back to Anthony, a calm and serious expression on his face. In it, Anthony can see that Steven is telling the truth: he really doesn’t know.
Anthony sighs loudly. “I don’t want this to be a problem.”
“It won’t,” Steven replies a little too quickly. Anthony notices.
“Let me ask you something. Why do you want to do this? You have a family. Why leave them, especially now? I’ve got nothing: no wife, no kids. Why do you want that?”
Steven looks down and studies the place where his hand should be. He cannot be sure, but he thinks that more of his arm has disappeared in the last few days. When he looks back up, he sees that Anthony is leaning over the table toward him. “Why do you want to do this?” Steven asks in response.
“Easy,” Anthony says. “Because I want something I’ve never had before. And it’s something I could never have now.”
“That’s the exact same reason for me,” Steven says, and he smiles.
When Anthony gets home from the café, he packs his suitcase with a few shirts and pants, some sweatshirts, and one suit still wrapped in plastic from the dry cleaners—he hasn’t worn anything but T-shirts and sweats and the occasional pair of jeans these last few weeks since he officially stopped working.
Though they couldn’t technically fire him, Saunders & Pound Brokers, the company Anthony had been working for since he graduated college fifteen years ago, made it clear in a memo sent the day after he went in to tell them about the disappearance that he wasn’t welcomed with open arms now that he was one of The Infected. The memo was short—one sentence: “On behalf of the entire company and the clients we hold dearly, we want it to be known that we pride ourselves on honesty, integrity, and purity, both of mind and body.” As soon as he read the memo, he knew what he would do. Without waiting for the end of the day, Anthony packed a few belongings from his desk in a bag and limped his way out of the office. The next day, he called and cashed out his 401k—however much time he had left, he was going to live off his savings.
After he packs, Anthony sits on his couch. He scrolls through the different TV channels, finally landing on reruns of a sitcom he’s never watched before. They decided to switch tomorrow afternoon, and he is fine spending these next few hours on the couch, bathed in the manic colors from the screen, feeling a strange emptiness in his stomach that might be fear or might be excitement.
The two boys finish their dinner and then run into the front room to play video games. Steven sits at the table. He tries not to look at his wife, and it isn’t until she stands to clean the dishes that he speaks.
“Linda,” he says. “I need to tell you something.”
She sits down slowly. Her face carries an expression of fear, though it is clear that she is trying to hide it from her husband. “What is it?” she asks.
“There’s this website I signed up for.” He waits for a second and looks up at her. Linda nods, and Steven continues, feeling more uncertain with himself and his decision now. “It’s for people like me—people who are disappearing.”
Linda looks away quickly.
“Goddammit,” he growls.
She snaps her head back so that she is staring him directly in the eyes. “What?” she says, her voice stern.
“You can’t even look at me.” Steven feels the rage consuming his body. He wants to scream, wants the neighbors to hear him from inside their own homes, but he tightens the muscles in his body and pushes the tension away, just like his high school debate teacher taught him. “I just want to be seen by you,” he says, his voice steadier now. “You stopped caring about me. Probably can’t wait until I’m gone to—”
“Don’t you dare,” Linda yells, cutting Steven’s voice off. The strength and volume of her voice sounds foreign in the kitchen, and he looks around him quickly as if she is speaking to him from different directions all at once. “Don’t you dare finish that sentence. I have been here for the last eight years, waiting for you to come home to me—just once—and be like you were. But before this happened—whatever this is—you were already gone. You come home late, stay away, don’t treat any one of us like we’re anything to you. So, don’t you dare. I have loved you the entire time—through the nights when our boys—your boys—come to me crying saying ‘Daddy doesn’t love me’ and me telling them of course you love them. So don’t you fucking say that I want to see anything happen to you. I have been here, Steven. I have loved you that whole time, and I still love you now. But where have you been? Where?” Her voice has risen to a fever pitch, and there are tears rolling down her cheeks and landing onto her shaking hands.
Steven buries his face in his one remaining hand. “You pulled away from me.”
“No. You were the one that pulled away.” Linda gets up from the table, knocking the chair to the ground with a loud crash and walks into the front room, leaving Steven to sit at the table by himself trying to figure out how to explain what will happen tomorrow when he leaves and Anthony comes home in his place.
He hasn’t taken a nap in years, and when Steven opens his eyes, he hears nothing. No snoring from Linda beside him, no shouts of excitement from the boys in the front room or the plastic smacking of their toys. There’s not even the neighbors’ dogs barking at each other while cars speed down the street. It isn’t until he lies here drinking in the silence that Steven realizes he really has no memory of this feeling. Freedom. He whispers the word like it is one he has only just learned and is practicing the way it rolls off his tongue. The sheets are cool, and Steven stretches himself out in all directions as if exploring what this new world might offer.
In the end, he decided to leave a note for Linda. He wrote it last night after she and the boys went to bed. He knew she wouldn’t be surprised when he didn’t come up and lie down beside her—not after the argument they’d had and the things she’d said. She would wake up and figure he’d slept on the couch and that he’d gone to work early. It wouldn’t be until after she woke the boys and got them ready for school that she would walk into the kitchen and see the piece of paper explaining everything: his apology for the things she felt and his fear of disappearing completely as well as his wanting to try something new, something for himself; and it would tell her of the switch and how Anthony would arrive later that afternoon.
“I know it sounds crazy,” he wrote at the end of the note, “but I need this. I signed a contract for this all to happen—there’s no going back on it until both he and I decide we want to stop. Remember that he’s only going to be living in the house—nothing more. He’s not your husband, just a guy staying there, like a roommate. You won’t be able to contact me. I’m sorry again.” Next to the note, he left his cellphone, a suggestion from the website and something that both he and Anthony had discussed at the café.
In the bathroom, Steven looks at his face in the mirror’s reflection. The skin is pale except around the eyes and the day-old stubble makes his cheeks and chin look dirty, but he smiles at what he sees. It is as if he is seeing himself for the first time or at least seeing the possibility of what he can be for the first time.
Outside, it is nearly ten o’clock, the night still in its beginning, he thinks. Normally, he would be asleep on the couch by now, but he is going out to experience the city in all of its lighted brilliance—something he’s always dreamed of but never had the opportunity to try.
He showers quickly and puts on a shirt, jeans, and dress shoes. Linda tied the laces of all his shoes in tight double-knots several months ago when his right hand completely disappeared so that he only needs to slip them on now. From his clothing bag, Steven pulls out a piece of paper and unfolds it. He picks up the phone and dials the number written there. On the second ring, the phone is picked up.
“Hey there,” Steven says. He breathes deeply, trying to remove the excitement from his voice.
“Who is this?” the voice responds. It is gruffer than he remembers it in his mind.
“Karen, hey, it’s Steven.” There’s silence on Karen’s end. “Steven,” he says. “From the meetings? The school parking lot?”
She is silent for a second longer, and then she coughs to clear her throat. “Steven. What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“Honestly, I am.” Pride leaks its way into his voice, and he thinks he sounds like a teenager again.
“I’m sorry. Really, but do you want to go out with me? A date?” Steven holds the phone between his shoulder and cheek and looks in the mirror. He brushes his damp hair back from his forehead while he says this.
“What’s going on, Steven?”
Over the next minute or two, he explains to her about the website and Anthony and how he’s now living in the city. “Outside the window right now,” he says to her, “the world looks like a bunch of tiny specks that don’t even matter. And I want you to be here with me and see it.”
“Steven.” There is such a long silence that he wonders if she’s still there, and he’s about to say her name to check when she begins again. “Steven, the world is still there. It still matters. I don’t know what you want from me, but I can’t. I’m sorry.” Then, without saying goodbye, she hangs up. Steven listens to the silence on the other end of the phone for a long time, and even after he puts the phone down, the silence remains all around him.
The air smells sweet, and this reminds Anthony of when he was young. He turns his head and looks at the digital alarm clock on the nightstand. It’s after nine in the morning; this is the latest he’s slept in years. He sits up quickly, panic coursing through his mind, creating a tingling feeling in his limbs, but then he remembers all that’s happened, remembers exactly where he is—he looks around at the foreign bedroom, at the mounds of laundry that were moved off the bed the night he first came there, three nights ago now—and he rests his head back down on the pillow and laughs to himself.
After ten minutes of lying there absently looking at the ceiling and the way the light from the window filters through the blinds in narrow slats that congeal with one another and then separate, he gets out of bed, grabs his crutches, and moves down the hallway toward the kitchen. When he walks in, the three of them, Linda and the two boys, stare at him. Whatever conversation they were having has halted, and their bodies look frozen in place, a bite of pancake still on Linda’s fork drips syrup on the plate below, the remains of a smile still on the younger boy’s face.
“Good morning,” Anthony says. He tries to sound happy, though he can’t tell if he is succeeding. By the looks on their faces, he’s not. It’s been strange for everyone, he knows, and in his mind, he curses Steven for not preparing them better for the switch—a letter? he thinks, who would break this kind of news through a letter?
“Morning,” the older boy says, and Linda and the younger one turn their heads quickly with looks of shock and fear. The older boy is Tyler and the younger is Jacob—Jake. The first evening Anthony came, the three of them greeted him at the door like strange butlers in an old British film or bellhops at a fancy hotel. He smiled at each of them in those awkward first moments, but in his mind, he was regretting this whole thing, wishing he were back in his apartment looking out the window and imagining the world on the other side of it. Instead, here he was, living that world and not knowing the first thing about how to do it the right way.
Linda clears her throat and then tells Anthony that there are pancakes for him in the oven keeping warm. Anthony thanks her and then moves over to get his plate. The sound of the rubber-toed crutches clacking on the linoleum flooring is the only sound in the room as he gets his plate. When he turns with his breakfast to head toward the table, he stops, trying to decide the best way to balance the plate and hold onto the crutches at the same time. Linda can see the confusion on Anthony’s face and comes over to him. “Here,” she says, taking the plate from his hand and carrying it over to the table for him.
He sits and looks up at the boys and sees that their eyes are still fixed on him. This newcomer, this thief, he imagines them thinking. He takes a bite and feels the pancake dissolve in his mouth. “Just like my mom’s,” he tells Linda. She nods and tries to smile.
“Go ahead and eat,” Linda says to the boys, and the four of them sit there, eating their breakfast together with only the clinking of forks on plates and the silence of unease floating between them all.
Outside, Anthony sits on one of the three reclining loungers on the patio. The backyard grass that stretches out beyond the cement looks black under the night sky above him. He imagines Steven lying out on the lounger in summer months, sunbathing in silence while his boys run laughing through the sprinklers.
Linda and the boys have been gone since morning, not long after they finished breakfast—“running errands,” Linda had said, but Anthony knows they’re just trying to stay away from him, and he can’t blame them. Over the past few days, he hadn’t known what he was supposed to do, how to act around a family. He’d been hoping that today, being his first Saturday there, they would spend time together and learn more about each other. But it’s late now—almost all the neighbor houses have gone quiet with their families inside tucked behind the protection of walls—and the three of them aren’t back yet. He isn’t sure if he should be worried about that, or maybe this is just something that Linda and the boys do every weekend, leaving Steven home alone to do whatever it is he wants. Anthony tries to remember how things were when he was growing up, how he spent his days with his parents, but those memories are vague and patternless, like the way lights look through a windshield wetted with rain.
He spent the day alternating between walking around the house—studying the various pictures on walls and in frames, learning the layout of the rooms so that he could make his way around in pitch-dark if he ever needed—and sitting in front of the TV, flipping through different channels, never finding one that caught his attention for longer than a minute.
For the past two hours, though, he’s been out here in the backyard, watching first as the shadows of the fences and bushes stretched longer and longer on the grass until those shadows disappeared entirely into the dark of the night.
The door behind him opens and he turns quickly. “Shit,” he says loudly and then smiles at himself when he sees Linda standing there, her hand still on the doorknob.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
He laughs quietly, nervously. “Scared me.” His heart is beating hard in his chest, and the hair is just beginning to settle down on his skin.
She smiles briefly and then looks away, back to the inside of the house. When she looks back at him, the smile is no longer there. “Just wanted to see if you were out here,” she says, turning to go back inside.
“You can come out,” he says to her, adding “if you want” a second too late, he thinks.
At the open door, Linda hesitates, and then, like a strange dance, turns herself to where he sits. “Okay,” she says. There is a far-away quietness to her voice—Anthony wonders if he too has that sound with his own words. “Just a sec, though,” she says before going back inside. A minute or so later she comes back out, carefully shutting the door behind her; she’s now wearing a sweatshirt, and she carries two blankets in her hands. “It’s cold out here,” she says, giving him one of the blankets.
He takes it and drapes it over himself. It isn’t until the weight of the blanket settles on his body that he realizes how cold he’s become sitting out here. “Thanks,” he whispers, and she nods to him as she sits down on the lounger next to him.
A silence settles between the two of them, neither knowing what to say. Finally, Anthony looks up. “I haven’t seen the sky like this in years. I forgot how black it is up there.”
She looks up. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been out here at night.”
“Really?” He looks over at her. She nods but doesn’t take her eyes from the darkness above them, around them.
“Are the boys asleep?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she says, finally looking over to him.
He smiles but then turns away and looks out to the yard. “I know this is weird.”
“You have no idea.” She’s looking out at the yard now, too.
“I’m sorry, for what it’s worth,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be like this.”
“Invading your life like this.”
She laughs under her breath, one of the those I-can’t-believe-what-I-just-heard laughs. “What did you expect?” There is an undercurrent of resentment in her voice. Anger and frustration.
“I don’t know.” He shrugs his shoulders high and shakes his head. “I just wanted something that I’d never had before.”
“And what’s that?” Linda turns to look at him directly.
Anthony moves his head slowly so that he is now looking at her. “Someone to spend my end with.”
She sits there silently, and he brushes away the few tears that have collected in the corners of his eyes, hoping she hasn’t seen him do this.
After several seconds, Linda breaks the quiet. “You don’t have anyone?”
Anthony shakes his head. “My parents are gone—died in a car accident a few years ago. I was an only kid. No girlfriend, no wife, no kids.”
“Not really. Just people at work, but they changed when,” he indicates his leg with his hand, “whatever this is started happening—or maybe I just changed. But everyone I thought was close to me, they just pulled away, and I ended up just living on my couch without anyone to even talk to.”
“That’s why you signed up for this, this . . .” she searches for the right word.
“This thing,” he says for her. She nods. “I guess so, yeah. I heard about it and just signed up without thinking about it much. I don’t think I actually thought it would happen. You know? It’s like playing the lottery: you put your dollar in not ever expecting to win.” He’s been looking at Linda while he’s been talking; her eyes have been focused on her hands in her lap, but when he says this, she looks up at him quickly, and he adds: “Not that this is winning the lottery, or you’re some prize, or anything. I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
Linda smiles at how flustered he is. He can see that it is a real smile, and so he returns it with a quiet chuckle.
She sighs. “I don’t know what I’m—we’re, Tyler and Jake—I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. Like, is this long-term? Or do you just switch again when it’s all good for you, but we have no say?” The smile has disappeared from her face. Now, her mouth is set in a line that creases around the corners. Her eyes have narrowed, too.
“I don’t know. But I promise, I’ll leave whenever you want me to. I’ll go now if that’s what you want.”
“Steven wrote in the note that you signed a contract, that you can’t switch back until you both agree.”
Anthony nods at this. “Yeah, that’s what it said, but I can leave if you want me to. Not switch back but leave and give you your life and space and house back.”
“Do you have anywhere to go, if Steven won’t switch back?”
“I’d figure something out.”
From somewhere off in the darkness, a dog barks and is answered by three or four others. They call out to each other for several seconds and then, as unexpectedly as they began, they quiet down and the night is as it was.
She tilts her head as if listening to the darkness or waiting for some new sound to arise. “I couldn’t do that to you,” she says, speaking into the night air.
“Thank you,” he says. After a second, he continues. “This isn’t my place, and you can tell me to shut up or go to hell or whatever, but I’ve been thinking about something over and over these last couple days.” She turns to him. “I have nothing, no life, no family, no anything, really. Why would he want that? I just can’t figure out why he picked me.”
Linda smiles sadly at the ground between them and then turns away so that he can’t see the tears. She sniffs deeply at the cold air and then coughs out what sounds to be a laugh. “Because we aren’t there.”
“I’m sorry,” Anthony says after several seconds, and without knowing why, he reaches out his hand and puts it gently on her blanketed leg. As soon as he touches the fabric, he pulls his hand away. “I’m sorry,” he says again, though this time he says it quietly, under his breath—to her, to himself even.
“What are you scared of?” she asks. “Like really.” There is a newfound calm to Linda’s voice now.
“Disappearing alone.” He says this slowly as if weighing each word, making sure they are the right ones.
“What does it feel like?” she asks.
He shrugs. “I don’t know. It doesn’t hurt. I think a lot of people think it does, but it doesn’t. It’s just like, I don’t know, like if I were to ask you how it felt to be missing your third hand.” Then he remembers Steven. “That’s a shitty example,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
“No. I think I get it,” she says. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask about it.”
“It’s fine. Really. I haven’t actually talked about it with anyone who hasn’t gone through it or isn’t a doctor,” he laughs, but then his voice grows serious. “It’s fine. I just don’t want to scare you. It’s not contagious—at least that’s what they’re saying.”
“I know.” A cold breeze passes around them quickly, and Linda brings her hands under the blanket and pulls it closer to her body. “Steven wouldn’t tell me anything about it—he wouldn’t tell me much about anything, though,” she says, more to herself than to Anthony, “but I always wanted to ask. He never let me see his hand even, and all I wanted, at least when it first started to happen, was to help him feel better or say the right thing. I just wanted to do something for it. Or know what was going on—not know, because no one knows anything, but see it and try to help. But he wouldn’t let me. He always kept it wrapped up and hidden when he was here. And then he started staying out later and later after work, going to his meetings each week, finding reasons to be away. The boys stopped getting excited when he was around—as little as that was—because he was always so angry. I guess this whole thing, this switching or whatever it is, it makes sense with him. Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me all that much.”
Anthony nods as she tells him this. He’s not sure what he should say to her, if there’s anything that he can say that will make any of it better. After a minute, Anthony turns to her. “This probably sounds like the stupidest thing ever, but do you want to see what it looks like? My leg, or what isn’t my leg anymore.”
She laughs, and he laughs also. “I guess,” she says. “I mean, sure.” She’s still giggling to herself when she stands and walks over to his other side, the one with his missing leg.
When Anthony pulls the blanket away from himself, he feels a rush of cold that makes his body shiver. “Shit, it’s freezing.” He smiles. Then he takes the loose pants leg of his sweats and rolls it up so that the stump can be seen. The shadow from his body makes it hard to see, and he moves so that the light shines onto the area.
Linda bends down to look at it closely. She traces his leg—the portion still there—slowly with her eyes, noticing the pale skin and muscle and fine hairs that stretch down his thigh to his knee. But there, just where the knee is supposed to move onto the shin and calf, there is nothing. The skin at the base of the knee is smooth and without scar as if the rest of his leg had simply never existed, or, what’s more, that it was never meant to exist at all.
“It’s not anything special, I know,” he says. “Just not there.”
She moves her hand back and forth slowly where the leg should be. “You can’t feel that?” she whispers to him, and he shakes his head in reply. “That’s so strange.” She gets even closer.
“Trust me, I know,” he laughs. In this moment, he realizes that he hasn’t laughed this much at one time in as long as he can remember. It feels good to smile and laugh, even if the cause of the laughter is his slowly disappearing body.
Linda sits down beside him on the lounger. She reaches out and pulls the blanket back up onto Anthony’s shoulders, and he takes the fabric and wraps it tightly around his body.
“As strange as that probably was,” she says, “thank you.”
“Of course.” And he smiles again at her, noticing for the first time the pale freckles that dot her cheeks and her nose like tiny constellations.
Steven stands in the cold night air, feeling the wind all around him. He pulls the collar of his coat tighter, trying to keep in the warmth, trying to hide from the others he knows will be coming out of the meeting in a minute or so.
As always, the lamp above him throws its flickering light around the courtyard, but he stays still, a shadow-figure cutting through the glow on the cement. The place hasn’t changed in the past two weeks, since he was last here, though he knows the people inside are changed—a group of different men in there along with the dwindling few he does know, different women sitting in their cars or just arriving in the parking lot to start their meeting in a half hour. He thinks of Karen and wonders if she’s out there, too. Or has she faded away as so many of them have?
Steven lifts what’s left of his right arm. It feels so light now. He’s noticed it more and more these last few days. He is about to pull the sleeve of the coat up and examine what remains of his arm when the doors to the classroom open loudly and two men walk out; they have their hands shoved deep into their coat pockets, and each has his head down, looking as if he isn’t even aware of the man walking beside him. A few seconds later, the door bangs open again and a man on crutches slowly emerges from the building.
Steven squints his eyes to see better in the dark light but relaxes his eyes and body as soon as he sees that it’s Henry. Around Steven, the wind picks up, and he finds that he’s moving his weight from his left foot to his right in a dance of the cold while he watches Henry move out to where he stands. There’s no bag of snacks or cookies in Henry’s pocket or hand, Steven notices.
It isn’t until Henry is a few steps from him that Steven calls out to him. Henry lifts his head quickly from where he had been gazing down at the cracked cement.
When Henry sees that it is Steven standing there, he smiles. “Hey,” he says, though the excitement that once was in his voice weeks ago is now gone, replaced instead with a tiredness that makes Steven regret coming. “Why’re you here?”
“I needed someone to talk to, and you were the only one,” Steven says. And as he speaks these words, he feels his voice catch in his throat so that he stumbles over the last of them.
Henry hears this, or notices the way Steven looks—the gaunt cheeks and chalk white of his skin—and he tries to smile a smile that will assure Steven that things are okay, that he’s glad to see his friend, but the smile is a lie that both men see through. “Come on,” Henry says after a second.
Nearly every night over the past two weeks, Anthony and Linda have found their way outside to sit on the back patio and talk of their lives. Linda would carry two cups of coffee out with her and they would sit there, slowly sipping at the hot drinks and watching the movement of the world around them. Much of the time, they remained silent, studying the dark portions of the yard, each tucked within a blanket to fight off the cold of the coming winter. But then, for whatever reason neither of them knew, they began to talk out loud, losing themselves in stories of their pasts, telling these memories more to the wind and the sky and the stars above than to the other person seated there.
Anthony told about his childhood, where he grew up and the dreams he had when he was younger, and she told about her marriage and the births of her sons. Where Anthony tried to hold onto hope, even when things seemed bleakest—even when he felt those dreams slipping away from him, or rather how he was slipping slowly away from the world—Linda let the pessimism of her life rush out from her like steam from a kettle; she moved back and forth between anger and sadness at all those things she had wanted with Steven and her life, and she told of the bitter understanding that none of those hopes had or would come to pass.
On the night before last, as she brought the steaming cup of coffee away from her face, she looked over at Anthony and said simply and quietly: “Maybe we all have parts of us that disappear every day. Just for some people, you can see it, and for others, that disappearance is all inside where no one knows.” She nodded her head sadly as if agreeing with the words she just spoke, and then she got up and walked into the house, slowly shutting the door behind her.
Henry fills the plastic cup with whiskey and adds a splash more of soda. Steven is still on his first drink, but Henry has already swallowed two of them and is working on his third. “So, is it what you thought? The website thing.” Henry’s voice is smooth and relaxed with the alcohol.
Steven shrugs his shoulders, though Henry doesn’t notice. “It is and it isn’t, I guess. I don’t know. It’s quiet. Different.” The front room they’re sitting in is small—enough space for the couch they both are sitting on opposite ends of, a coffee table, and a TV—and the rest of the house isn’t much bigger.
When Henry told him to come along with him for the night, Steven hadn’t expected to be sipping slowly at whiskey cokes from plastic cups, but here he sits. He looks at his watch and sees that it’s only been an hour since they came back. “Does it help?” Steven asks, lifting up his cup to Henry. As soon as he says the words, he regrets them.
“What? This?” Henry motions to his own cup and smiles a sloppy, loose smile. Steven nods. “Enough to keep trying,” Henry says and takes another sip as if to prove his point.
A silence fills the room. Somewhere outside, a car alarm blares for a few seconds but is turned off. Branches from the tree in the front yard knock against each other in the wind and at times drum the side of the house. Steven sips at his drink. Then Henry speaks, his voice sounding loud in the stillness of the moment. “Jerry’s gone.”
“What?” Steven asks. “Like gone gone or what?”
“No one knows, really.”
Henry leans forward on the couch and sets his cup down. “Like a few days after you left, I guess. We didn’t find out ‘til last week’s meeting when he didn’t show. Paul—remember him? the tall guy, missing his hand and part of his foot—he ended up leading the meeting last week and this week. Told us tonight that he’d gone over to Jerry’s apartment a couple days ago and the whole place was cleaned out, no one there.”
“He disappear all the way, you think?”
“That or killed himself. Lots of people like us think about it. It’d make it easier. You ever have that thought? I know I have, pretty much every morning and night. Night’s the worst, though.”
Steven nods, though his eyes and attention are off somewhere else, somewhere beyond this room. In his mind, he pictures Jerry sitting at a kitchen table, a pistol lying in front of him. He imagines Jerry looking at the gun, trying to figure out how to point it at his head and pull the trigger without any hands, then Jerry fumbling with it until it drops to the floor and goes off, shattering a window or puncturing the fridge. Steven laughs at this scenario but then stops quickly when Henry asks what’s funny. He shakes his head and then takes another sip from the drink in his hand.
For the first time, Steven feels a pain in the place where his right hand should be. As much as he wants to roll up his sleeve and check, he does not and instead tries to distract himself from the feeling there. “I’m leaving next week,” he says to Henry.
“Yeah? Where to?”
“Europe. A bunch of places over there. Paris and Amsterdam. England for a day, and Berlin. Always wanted to but never could.”
“That’s cool,” Henry says and then tilts back what’s left of the drink he’s been working on. He lets out a loud belch that seems to rumble throughout the tiny room.
Steven nods his head and sips from the drink. The bubbles from the soda jump up and tickle his nose. He’s about to say something else, maybe about the trip or the past two weeks, but Henry beats him to it.
“It’s gone now to my hip. Been going a lot faster than before.” He makes a loud noise that sounds like a combination of laugh and snort and then sits back, pushing his body into the cushions of the couch, letting the soft plush of the material surround his shoulders and neck.
Steven drums his fingers on the plastic cup that is still in his hand. He doesn’t know what to say, so he whispers the only thing that can be said in this moment. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, it sucks, man. I’ve sat here every night trying to figure out what it is. What it is I did to have this or that I didn’t do. But I come up blank every time.”
“None of us deserve it,” Steven says and then drinks the rest of what’s in his cup in one long gulp. He screws his face up at the taste of the whiskey and then puts the cup on the coffee table next to the nearly empty bottle.
“I don’t know,” Henry says under his breath. “Maybe we do.”
And in this moment, all Steven can think of is his family and how the memories of their faces and voices are fading away, either into the drink or into the darkness that his body is moving toward.
Anthony looks up at the night sky. The moon is almost halfway full, but he turns his gaze away from the moon and studies the tiny dots of stars that glow brilliantly in the darkness. The sound of the door opening behind him turns his attention away from the sky. He smiles with the knowledge that Linda is making her way out to him.
Last night, she told him that she was worried about the future, that she had been worried even before Steven left and Anthony had come to stay in his place. “We just don’t have enough money,” she said.
He turned to her then. “It’s going to be okay.”
“I don’t know. Really.” She shook her head and smiled slightly—a smile to erase the worry that he knew had settled in her mind.
“Seriously,” he said. “That’s what I did before. I can help. It’s about investing smart. Knowing where the right place will be and moving money there. It’s about looking to the future and knowing that things will work out in one place and not the other.”
“I don’t want you to have to do that,” she said to him.
He smiled then. “It’s not a have to. I want to. It’s going to be fine. Trust me on it. That was the only thing I was ever good at in my old life, and I can help you—get you guys where you need to be. I’ll take care of it. Promise.”
Steven stayed at the house until Henry fell asleep on the couch, balancing a half cup of whiskey coke on his remaining leg. After Steven left, he sat in his car for a while, trying to decide where to go. His head throbbed, and the pain where his hand should have been had dulled but was still there, bothering him. He sat in the dark, looking out the windshield at the black asphalt and the dark shadows cast there from trees and bushes and parked cars.
He still didn’t know where he was headed even as he started the engine and drove the car out toward those shadows on the ground.
And so, he is just as surprised as anyone else when he pulls slowly to a stop in front of his house. The porch light is on and through the blinds of the front windows, he can see that there is still light on inside the house.
It is just after nine when Steven gets out of the car and walks slowly to the side of the house where he quietly lifts the latch of the side gate and makes his way around to the back. Light from the kitchen and dining room spills through the open blinds and soaks the patio in a yellow light both gentle and alien to look at when contrasted with the black of the yard.
Inside, dark smudges of presence move atop the yellow glow on the patio floor and the far fence, and Steven ducks low so that he is now in a crouching position. The pain in his nonexistent hand is sharp now, and he shakes his arm hard as if trying to rid it of the pins and pricks like he once did when his hand fell asleep. But it doesn’t help now. The pain remains constant.
Still in a crouch, Steven shuffles his way over to the window, using his left arm to balance himself. The breeze that had been blowing around him turns to a wind, and he squints his eyes to the cold air that hits him straight on. When he’s close enough to the window, he lifts himself up and peers inside.
Tyler and Jake sit on either end of the table. They each have large smiles spread across their faces, and they move their mouths rapidly in speech, their arms and hands flailing about in front of them. Though he can’t hear it, he knows that the boys carry laughter in their voices. He can just barely remember that sound in the darkening recesses of his memory. The pain from where his hand had been has turned into a soreness that stretches up his arm and into his shoulder. He watches as Linda carries in the box of a boardgame and sets it on the table between the two boys, who take the cover off it and begin to set the pieces and stacks of cards on the gameboard. Linda smiles down at them and then sits beside Jake. She leans into him slightly. Tears fall from Steven’s eyes as he watches this, and he can’t tell if they come from the wind in his eyes or the sight of his family from the outside. A second later, Anthony comes into the room on his crutches and sits in the seat next to Tyler. He lets the crutches drop gently to the floor. There is a smile on his face too, and Steven watches him closely, this other man, this other him.
He watches as his family begins to play the game, each one of them taking a turn rolling the dice and moving the colorful players around the game’s path. He presses his face into the window as if the glass is air and he can simply reach through to this inside world; and he stays like this, not realizing that the entire right sleeve of his coat is whipping about him in frantic movement, carried this way and that by the cold air that now passes straight through him.
Inside, Anthony smiles at the laughter that floats all about him in the room. The boardgame had been Linda’s idea; she’d come out to where he sat on the lounger earlier and asked if he wanted to play with her and the boys. He’d simply turned his head and nodded, not wanting to betray the feeling that had settled inside him.
It is Jake’s turn now. When he rolls a six, he throws his hands in the air triumphantly and lets out an excited giggle that makes them all laugh. Without meaning to, Anthony glances over at Linda; it is just a quick turn of his head, but in it he is shown the joy of this moment, the hope for tomorrow and acceptance of what has passed. Her eyes are turned to him, and in that split second of life, he has everything.
A strange warmth stretches from his hip down to where his leg once was, and Anthony reaches down without thinking and scratches at the skin just below his knee.