by Douglas Smith
“It’s nothing,” he says, not for the first time.
She watches him straighten his tie in the hall mirror. So he doesn’t have to make eye contact, she thinks.
“I fear nothing?” she says. “Then I must be fearless. I don’t feel fearless.”
Leaning on the kitchen doorframe, she hugs her faded blue dressing gown around her as if she’s holding the universe together. She’s staying home. Again.
He shakes his head. He does that a lot lately.
“I mean there’s nothing out there to be afraid of.” He picks up his briefcase, ready for another day.
But she knows that it’s not just another day.
“Nothing out there,” she repeats.
“Nothing.” He stands by the front door of their little bungalow. “Are you going into work?”
He knows I’m not, she thinks. But not asking would mean he accepts what’s happening. And then he’d have to believe it.
“No,” she says.
She watches his jaw muscles tighten, enjoying the clarity of predictable stimulus and response.
“Fine,” he snaps, and leaves.
She hears the car pull away, feeling no less alone than when he was here. She’s sorry he’s angry, but he doesn’t understand.
He doesn’t understand that he’s right.
She is afraid of nothing.
She makes toast and coffee, taking comfort in the routine. Mundane remnants of the way her world used to be.
At the kitchen table, she savors the smell of the coffee, the heat of the mug in her hand, the sharp edges of the toast in her mouth, the sound of its crunch, the sweetness of the jam. Each of her senses has become a lifeline, snaking out from her, seeking something tangible in a fading reality to which to anchor herself.
Later, sitting on the sofa, she holds the phone in her lap and sips her coffee even after it’s cold, delaying.
Finally, she dials her parents, punching the area code that is a plane trip away, and then their number as if it were a combination to a lock. Slowly, carefully. She listens, then hangs up.
Yesterday, it rang and rang. Today, it didn’t even do that. Silence.
A sense of loss fills her, but it tastes old and stale. She realizes that she lost her parents long ago, when the aura of protection they once gave disappeared. They can’t save her. They couldn’t even save themselves.
Planning to distract herself by cleaning the house, she turns on the radio for some music, but can’t find her favorite station. She picks another and starts to dust. The station fades out to nothing. Not even static.
Three more stations. Same thing. She turns the radio off and stops cleaning.
She thinks of sleeping but decides against it. Even her dreams are empty now. She sits and waits.
He comes home at the usual time, but something has changed.
“What’s wrong?” she asks over a dinner of leftovers and silence.
“Nothing,” he says. She waits. She knows. Finally, he speaks again. “I visited my client.”
She knows the one. On the outskirts of the city.
“Yes?” she asks, knowing what he’ll say next.
“They’re gone,” he says.
“Out of business?” she says, playing the game for his sake. Pretending that the world is still normal.
“Gone. There’s nothing there.”
She looks up when he doesn’t answer. He puts down his knife and fork, and she enjoys the solid click-click they make on the kitchen table.
He meets her gaze finally. He opens his mouth, but no words come out. Picking up the knife and fork again, he studies them as if unsure they’re real. He shakes his head and goes back to eating.
He’s pretending it didn’t happen. But she is beyond pretending. She saw his eyes. He knows.
He goes to bed early. She stays up, watching TV, flipping channels as, one by one, the city’s stations stop broadcasting.
She keeps flipping. The last station disappears. No test pattern. No static. Just a slow fade to a blank dead screen.
She turns the TV off and sits in the dark. Sleep is not an option. She fears what she will wake to. Or that it will come while she sleeps.
The clock shows that it’s morning. She doesn’t open the curtains. The gray that creeps around their edges is not sunlight.
He should be awake by now. She listens for his morning sounds.
She rises and walks upstairs, feet silent on the worn carpet. Up here, the floor, the ceiling, the walls seem thin, insubstantial. A paleness oozes under their bedroom door, more a rejection of both darkness and light than an actual color.
Leaving the door unopened, she backs away. It is too late for him. He is gone.
He is nothing.
She goes back downstairs and sits on the sofa. To wait. Alone. Now she is truly alone.
It comes, eating first through the corners of the room, devouring walls and ceiling, crawling across freshly vacuumed carpet towards her. She realizes, as it consumes the very space around her, that she is the center of a dwindling ball of reality. Or perhaps, she thinks as it draws closer, this world is simply escaping to join with it.
It touches her. And she knows.
He was right all along. About what she feared.
It is nothing.
Nothingness. Void. Nothing exists here. No light, no sound, no smell, no taste. Nothing to touch or be touched by. Only her thoughts exist here, and even they begin to flee her, not to escape, but to join with the void.
As they leave her, she feels herself joining with it as well. Soon there will be no identity, no separation from it, no her.
Her last thought forms, departs.