Title: The Eyes of the Dead
Author: Clea Saal
Page count: 135
He woke up alone, though he could hear the sounds coming from downstairs, where he knew his wife would be fixing his breakfast. It was a routine that had become established early on in their marriage, seeing how she was a morning person, and he most definitely was not. Rather reluctantly he got up, selected an outfit for the day —one that was virtually indistinguishable from all the other outfits lining his closet— took a quick shower and finally emerged into the hallway, almost ready to face the day.
The door was there, mocking him, a constant reminder of his daughter’s absence, and of everything he had lost. The girl was gone and she was never coming back, he knew that much, but at the same time that wasn’t enough. He wanted to know what had happened to her, he wanted to know why, but he knew he never would. It had been a very long time since she had vanished, along with thousands of others, and no explanation had ever been found, none had even been sought. He reached the stairs and then, knowing that he didn’t really have a choice, he gathered his courage and made his way downstairs.
So far everything seemed to be normal. The house was clean and his breakfast was waiting for him as it always was. He sat across from his wife. They exchanged some meaningless chit-chat and pretended not to notice when a ghost walked through the breakfast table. It was, all in all, a perfectly ordinary morning, and once he was done he helped his wife clean up and do the dishes. After that he headed for the door, and as he made his way to his car he caught a glimpse of his next door neighbor, who was chasing after her little boy as she did almost every day. It was a familiar scene, maybe a little too familiar, whispered a voice in the back of his mind, so he stayed there for a moment, watching them and trying to figure out what was bothering him, but he couldn’t see it. After a minute or so he shook his head and reminded himself that he really had to get going, so he pushed the whole thing out of his mind, turned on the ignition, and focused his attention on the road instead.
He hated driving. It was exhausting, though he knew that that hadn’t always been the case. It was just that ever since the ghosts had first appeared in their midst the whole thing had become incredibly stressful. No, the ghosts themselves weren’t dangerous, not quite, but they seemed to be completely oblivious to everything that was going on around them, and even though everyone knew that running them over wasn’t really a possibility, hitting the brakes remained an almost instinctive reaction.
Eventually he reached his destination, parked his car on its usual spot, and made his way into the building. As soon as he felt the elevator start to move he let out a relieved sigh. He got off on the seventh floor and headed for his cubicle, barely acknowledging his coworkers, the virtual strangers with whom he shared what at times felt like a sea of 6×6 partitions.
He knew he was, in a way, a perfectly average man, from his job —which he did as efficiently as he could from his totally anonymous cubicle in a mid-level position, in a mid-sized company, in a mid-sized town— to his house, his wife and even his name, Henry Jones. At times he felt almost like a joke in that regard… and yet he was usually, if not happy, at least content. He had always disliked surprises, and fortunately his routine left little room for any of those to creep in. The big exception had been his daughter’s disappearance, of course, but even that had hardly served to mark him out as unique. Lots of people had vanished that day, including some of his coworkers, coworkers whose cubicles he tried to avoid almost as studiously as he avoided Lisa’s room. In fact he suspected that it would be all but impossible to find anyone who didn’t know anyone who had gone missing, and yet those absences were something that was hardly ever mentioned. They all knew, and the last thing they needed were the constant reminders. Oh, sometimes he couldn’t really stop himself from thinking about it, about her —and he suspected that he wasn’t alone in that regard— but for whatever reason uttering the words was almost impossible. It was just one of those things that felt wrong at a fundamental level.
He shook his head as he glanced at the clock, knowing that the time wasn’t right for him to be thinking about that, and then he turned his attention back to what he was supposed to be doing, to the screen in front of him. He had a spreadsheet to go over, and after that another one, and another one.
That evening, as the elevator made its way down, it did so on top of a ghost. That was not exactly an unusual occurrence, but he still found the way in which that strange being seemed to come up through the floor as they themselves descended to be more than a little unnerving, and he couldn’t quite suppress a shudder. He looked around, but fortunately his instinctive reaction seemed to have gone unnoticed. For a moment he wondered if either of his companions felt the same way, but he had no way of knowing, not without asking them, and the ghosts were not to be mentioned, not if it could possibly be avoided. That was another one of the things that had changed.
In a way it was funny. He could still remember a time in which the existence of such a thing as a ghost had been dismissed as mere superstition. How long ago had that been? He wasn’t sure, but in the end he figured that it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that anyone saying that ghosts were not real now would be dismissed as being utterly insane. The ghosts were a part of their everyday world, they had already come to terms with them, and their existence had long since stopped being considered a subject that was open for debate. They were almost everywhere but, in spite of their rather grotesque appearances, they were completely harmless. They crawled the streets, they walked through people’s houses as if those houses weren’t even there —in fact all too often they walked through people too— and they were completely oblivious to the world around them. Of course, in time people too had learned to ignore them… or maybe it would be more accurate to say that they had learned to pretend that they did.
Oh, it was not uncommon to be startled by their sudden and unexpected appearance, and the fact that they didn’t make a sound didn’t exactly help matters, but their presence was familiar… as were some of their idiosyncrasies. No one knew, for instance, why was it that they were incapable of climbing most stairs, or why was it that there were some exceptions to that particular rule, or even why was it that there were a number of places in which they invariably seemed to hover above the ground. That was just their way and, for the most part, it was accepted as such.
After a mostly uneventful drive he got home, where the ghosts were relatively rare. He knew his wife went through her daily routine, just as he did, though at times he wondered about that. When Lisa was born she had quit her job. A temporary thing, she had said at the time, but she had never gone back… not even after Lisa’s disappearance. She was a stay-at-home mom with no one to mother. In a way he could understand just where it was that Kate was coming from. Sure, on a rational level they both knew that Lisa was never going to come home, but for his wife to go back to work at the time would have seemed like an acknowledgement neither of them had been ready to make, and then a sense of routine had just set in. So they lived on, in the same house, following the same schedule, acting as if nothing had changed, and trying desperately to pretend that the door to Lisa’s room wasn’t even there.
Ever since his daughter had vanished Mr. Jones could count with the fingers on one hand the number of times he had actually gone into that room, but he knew his wife did so almost daily, keeping it obsessively clean, and making sure everything stayed in its place as if waiting for the girl’s return. She did that in spite of the fact that she knew her daughter would never come home, and she even seemed to be oblivious to the fact that there was no one there to change things in her absence. Who would do that? Lisa’s ghost?
That thought almost made him laugh. It was absurd, a throw back to the old usage.
Ghosts didn’t move things around, everyone knew that, though they did move through things as if those things weren’t even there. That was one of the things they had learned since the day in which the ghosts had suddenly become real. He shook his head once more. He didn’t know where those thoughts were coming from, but they had been plaguing him for most of the day. In fact they had been plaguing him ever since he had caught that glimpse of his neighbor chasing after her little boy.
Something about that whole scene had bothered him more than he cared to admit, and for the life of him he couldn’t quite figure out why… nor could he figure out why was it that his thoughts kept turning back to Lisa.
Usually he did a pretty good job when it came to keeping his mind away from that particular subject, but on that day those thoughts refused to leave him alone. How long had his daughter been missing, how many years? He didn’t know, he couldn’t even remember, but he knew he should. He tried to focus, but it was hopeless. At times the past seemed like such a blur, with the days blending into one another. He was still thinking about that when he was struck by an almost overwhelming feeling that there were a million things he ought to remember, but he didn’t.
It wasn’t just how long it had been since he had last seen his daughter, or how old would she be if she were still around, but even the little, every day things, like where had they gone to celebrate his last birthday. He remembered things from before his daughter’s disappearance, of course. He could remember the day she was born, and his pride when he had seen her take her first hesitant steps. He even remembered the day in which Lisa had gone to school, never to return, but from that point forward everything seemed to be oddly hazy.
He woke up in the middle of the night.
The dream had been… dreamlike. No, that wasn’t even the right word. It was just that he was certain that he had had that particular dream before, only what he had experienced hadn’t been a sense of deja-vu, not really, it had been something different, something deeper. Yes, even at the time he had known he was dreaming, and yet somehow he had also known he was not. It had been more like… remembering. Yes, that word was a better fit, but at the same time it had been like remembering from an alien perspective. He had been dreaming of the day in which his daughter had vanished, almost as if he had been living through it again, but he had also been seeing that day from a perspective that was totally unlike his own. He had been looking at himself from the outside, but the picture he had seen hadn’t quite fit. He had gone to work that day like he always did, and upon his return she hadn’t been there, and yet he hadn’t been shocked, he hadn’t been frightened… he couldn’t even remember if he had done anything to try to find her. He had just accepted her absence without questioning it, and he hadn’t been the only one. Lots of people had gone missing that day, but as far as he could remember no one had done anything about it. Why? Why hadn’t anyone done anything when thousands upon thousands of people had suddenly vanished without a trace? It didn’t make sense.
Their world had changed that day, and yet everyone had gone on as if nothing had happened. What had been his initial reaction? He wasn’t even sure, in fact it was precisely at that point that things got murky. He had gone to work the following morning, he had gone on living without mentioning either his daughter or her absence, and barely even acknowledging the fact that there was a closed door across the hall, just as he barely acknowledged the suddenly empty cubicles at the office. Come to think of it, why were those cubicles still empty? He had never really stopped to think about it before, but the truth was that it didn’t make sense. Sure, he couldn’t replace his daughter, but when one employee quit, another one was usually hired to take his or her place. That was the way it had always been, only this time around that hadn’t happened. It was as if no-one had ever considered it, and because of that those cubicles remained just as their previous occupants had left them.
Had there been other changes since then? He didn’t think so. In fact, from what he could remember, no one had quit since that day… hell, no one had ever even called in sick after that. They had all kept moving along, doing their jobs as they always had, exchanging meaningless pleasantries but never having a real conversation, not that those had been a common occurrence before that. The office was too impersonal for that, and the truth was that most of his colleagues barely qualified as acquaintances. In fact in most instances he would have been hard pressed to remember their names… but had that been the case only at the office? When had he last talked to his wife? Not just the random chit-chat that seemed to characterize most of their encounters, but something deeper, something he could actually remember? He wasn’t sure, but he suspected that it had been years. Could it be ever since Lisa had gone missing? Maybe, but why? It was crazy, it didn’t make sense. She was his wife, their daughter had vanished, and they had never even talked about it? In fact it was even worse than that because, from what he could tell, neither one of them had even registered the fact that they hadn’t talked about it. They had just moved on, ignoring that closed door just like they ignored the ghosts that kept walking in and out of their lives, both unseen and unseeing.
How had they come to that point? They had been married for eleven years by the time Lisa had gone missing, and in that time the meaningful conversations between them had grown increasingly rare. They had gotten into a routine without even realizing it, and in the end they had both grown so used to each other’s presence that they had basically run out of things to say.
He shook his head. The thoughts were disturbing, but not as disturbing as the fact that at times he felt like he had to fight himself for the right to have them because his mind seemed to rebel at the thought of thinking them… though maybe that could explain why it was that they had never really talked about it, why they had just moved on. It was as if he were pushing against some sort of barrier, one that was deeply ingrained. Was it just him? He didn’t know, but he was determined to find out.
With a dogged determination he tried to think of the past, of everything that had happened since Lisa’s disappearance. That was, as far as he could tell, the day everything had changed… and yet no matter what he did, from that day forward it seemed like change had actually vanished from his world. From that point forward the days seemed to become virtually indistinguishable from one another, that was what made it so hard for him to focus on the details. How long had it been? He didn’t know. What had happened since then? Life had gone on. Those were the non-answers he kept coming back to, and because of that what passed for the emerging picture remained ridiculously vague.
His mind drifted back to the scene he had seen the previous morning as he headed out to work, the one that seemed to have triggered his current line of thought. His neighbor had been chasing after her little boy, and something about it had struck him as odd. It wasn’t that there had been anything unusual about it, quite the contrary. The child was almost two, and as far as he could tell his mother was always chasing after him, just like he remembered chasing after Lisa when she was that age. How long ago had that been? That was yet another one of those things he was having trouble trying to pinpoint, and used to working with numbers on a daily basis as he was, he was finding his inability to come up with a specific figure to be particularly frustrating.
Common sense would seem to suggest that he should have been able to tell not just how many years it had been, but also how many days or even hours, and yet from that day forward time seemed to be oddly out of focus. He knew he had been married for eleven years by the time his daughter had gone missing, and he knew that the girl had been eight years old at the time. How old would she be now, how long had he been married? He didn’t know… hell, he couldn’t even remember his wife getting mad at him for forgetting their anniversary in the time since, as she had often done before that. That was yet another difference, a seemingly insignificant one, but one that hinted at the fact that he wasn’t the only one who was having a hard time when it came to focusing on those details.
Something was going on, of that he was suddenly certain, and yet even as he thought about it he had to struggle to keep himself from forgetting again, from losing track of his own thoughts once more. There was something there, some sort of invisible barrier he kept coming up against. He was fully aware of it for a fraction of a second, but then his tenuous grip on that mental image seemed to falter. It was at that point that, almost without realizing it, Mr. Jones lost the battle to stay awake.