One Less

—Jason Erik Lundberg—

[first published in Americana, 2005]

"Hands" (detail)—Richard Bowes
          I replaced the phone in its cradle a little more forcefully than normal and fell back onto my side of the bed. Cory moaned softly and rolled over to face me. Sleep crusted the corners of her eyes, making her beautiful German-Chinese face that more real for me. She yawned and draped an arm over my chest. It was amazing—she never had bad breath in the morning.
          "Who was that?" she mumbled into her pillow.
          "Jack," I said. "He said Ian called in sick, and he needs someone in Suits today."
          Cory opened her pale brown eyes and leaned up to look at me. "Did you remind him it's your thirtieth birthday? And that you asked for today off two weeks ago?" I nodded, and Cory said, "And did you tell him that I took the day off to be with you?"
          "Yeah, honey, I mentioned all that. He said I could take today off, but I shouldn't bother coming back tomorrow. He said that because of the recession I'm lucky to have a job at all right now."
          "He's such an asshole."
          I kissed Cory on the tip of her small nose and rolled out of bed. She immediately shifted over to my side to snuggle into the warmth I had left behind.
          After getting out of the shower, I stumbled over Plymouth lying on the bedroom floor, tipped over on his side. Plymouth was Cory's favorite stuffed animal, a brownish-orange triceratops she got as a present for her seventh birthday. We must have knocked him off the bed during what Cory called "my early birthday present" last night. I picked up the stuffed triceratops and put him back on the headboard, ready to guard the room. His glass eyes stared at me.
          Cory watched me get into my nicest suit—if I was going into work on my birthday, I was going to look amazing, dammit—then she reached up and grabbed the stuffed dinosaur from where I had placed him.
          "Plymouth doesn't want you to go either," she said. "See?"
     She squeezed his sides, and "Rrrroar," he said in a tinny pre-recorded voice. "I'm a triceratops."
          I patted Plymouth on the head, then finished dressing and went into the kitchen for a bagel and some OJ. As I was choking back pulpy juice, Cory shuffled into the room wearing her green silk bathrobe. She slung her arms around my waist, buried her face in my chest, and hugged me tight.
          "Are you sure you have to go?"
          I smiled and hugged her back. "Yes, honey. But I'll come over at lunch and we can eat together." I kissed her full on the lips. "I have to go now, or I'll be late." I detached myself from Cory, pecked her on the tip of her nose, and left her apartment.
          The beltline into Raleigh was crammed full of commuters at 8:15, and I sat absolutely still in the fast lane. Every once in a while, brake lights flickered, and we moved a few inches.
          At the Glenwood exit, a wave of nausea rolled over me too fast for me to feel it coming. I yanked the emergency brake, fumbled into neutral, opened the door, and dry-heaved for several long moments. The seatbelt was still buckled, and I hung out of the car door at an odd angle, leaning out as far as I could to avoid splashing the car with vomit.
          But none came. The nausea slowly abated, and I swallowed hard. My temples pounded, and the sunlight suddenly seemed too bright, even through my sunglasses. I pulled myself back inside the car and stared at the steering wheel, taking deep breaths to calm myself.
"You should have disappeared in a blink, instead of this fading-away mess. What makes you so special?"
Then I realized that all I could hear was my ragged breathing; the sounds of other cars were absent, the rush of air each car displaced, the rattling of eighteen-wheelers, the honking of impatient motorists. All of it was gone. I looked out the windshield. All four lanes of traffic were empty, whereas they had been bumper-to-bumper mere moments before. My rear-view and side mirrors confirmed what I saw. Sweat broke out on my forehead and under my arms.
          I put the car into drive and eased down the road.
          I arrived at Peppard's Department Store forty-five minutes after I had left Cory's apartment, gradually seeing more traffic as I got there. I expected Jack to be at the front door, fuming at my fifteen-minute tardiness, but he was nowhere to be seen. I took the escalator to the second floor and wound around early shoppers to the Men's Suits section. Appliances and Homeware was there instead. Had I gotten turned around? I was about to retrace my steps when I passed Charlie, who normally worked exclusively in Ties, talking to a frumpy old man about a spatula. I walked up and attempted to meet his eyes, but he wouldn't look at me. I waved my hand in front of his face and said, "Charlie."
          "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't see you there. I'll be with you in just a moment."
          "Charlie. It's me. What's wrong with you?"
          "Never mind. Where's Jack?"
          "If you mean Mr. Davis, he's back there at the register."
          I turned and walked to the register where Jack was standing, near the refrigerators. His hair was shellacked to his skull as usual, and he wore a sharp black pinstripe suit that I didn't recognize. As I approached, he flashed me his sharky smile and interlaced his fingers on top of the register.
          "Yes, sir?" he said with enthusiasm. "Can I help you?"
          "Jack, knock it off. I'm here. Where do you want me?"
     The carnivorous smile remained on Jack's face, but his eyebrows rose in confusion. "Want you, sir? I'm not quite sure what you're talking about. Do I know you?"
          "Jack, goddammit, you called me in here on my day off—on my birthday—and I don't have time for your jokes. Where do you want me today? Accessories or Sportcoats?"
          Jack's smile faded, and his brow creased. His hands were out of sight under the register. "Sir, I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about. If you are implying that you somehow work here, you are mistaken. I've never seen you before in my life. Now if you don't leave, I'll have to have you escorted out."
          "What? Jack, what are you—"
          "Sir, I'm afraid I have to insist."
          I turned around and could see Clive, the burly British security guard, making his way toward us. My face burned, and I flashed a look at Jack, then tramped out of Appliances and Homeware. As I passed Clive, he crossed his arms and gave me the look I often saw him give to shoplifters. His eyes burned holes in my back as I took the escalator downstairs. I sat in a shabby wooden chair in Women's Hosiery and looked at my shoes. My lungs felt sodden and heavy.
          "You shouldn't be here."
          I looked up at the voice, but could see no one who would have spoken. My head lowered back down, but the voice repeated itself. I stood up, and my heart skipped a beat. Plymouth, Cory's plush triceratops, sat on top of the cash register and gazed in my direction.
          "Something's wrong," he said, and I backed away. "You're not supposed to be here."
          I ran out the door to my car, started it, and was halfway home before I turned around towards Cory's apartment in Kildaire.

          Cory lived in a subdivision where the streets were named after respectable Irish authors. It was a gated community, and I had to punch in an access code. The gates swung open, and I pulled through onto Joyce Way.
          I parked the car and ran up the stairs to her apartment. The wreath I had gotten her for Thanksgiving last year—the one she refused to take down because she loved how I could give her silly things like wreaths—was gone. The doormat was also different; instead of the Tasmanian Devil jumping up and down and yelling "GO AWAY!", the doormat was made of straw. Cory loved that Taz doormat; she'd never replace it with something so mundane.
          My key fumbled and scraped around the lock, but wouldn't slide in. I rang the doorbell and knocked hard three times. "Cor!" I yelled into the door. "Open up, baby, it's me. Some weird shit has been happening to me today. I really want to talk to you about it." I counted twenty seconds of silence and was about to ring the bell again when the door cracked open an inch. The combined scent of jasmine and vanilla drifted out, the scent of the woman I loved. Cory's beautiful face peered through the crack at me, a look of fear in her eyes. The chain was on the door.
          "What do you want?" she asked, an audible quiver in her voice. "I've called nine-one-one, and I have pepper spray."
          "Cory, don't you recognize me? Come on, honey, let me in."
          "Mister, I don't know you. Please leave."
          "What the hell is going on? I don't—" I stopped as a thought entered my mind. "You're not planning a surprise party, are you? You know I hate surprises."
          "I've never seen you before! Go away!" Cory slammed the door in my face. The chain made scraping noises as it rattled against the door. I stood there for a moment, dumbfounded, knowing she could see me through the peephole. I couldn't believe it. Of all the people, I thought Cory would be the one person who I could talk to about all this, and she didn't know me either. I walked down the stairs to my car; the space I had parked in was now occupied by a rusty VW Beetle. On the hood, Plymouth stood on all stubby fours, a plush hood ornament.
          "Why are you still here?" he asked.
          The tips of my fingers and earlobes tingled. I shivered despite the heat as the hairs on the nape of my neck prickled.
          "What do you want?" I asked.
          "To find out why you weren't erased with the others," he said, matter-of-factly. "You should have disappeared in a blink, instead of this fading-away mess. What makes you so special?"
          I grabbed Plymouth, and he had time to yell "Hey!" before I threw him across the parking lot. The Beetle wasn't mine—it had been a Honda when I drove it here—but I had the feeling I could drive it. I tried my car key, and it fit the lock. I got in and cranked the engine, then left.
          I drove around for a while, my head spinning. At one point, I pulled over and fished out the cell phone in the glove compartment, which, to my surprise, was still there. I swore that I'd only use it for emergencies—I couldn't stand when people drove and talked on the phone at the same time—but this definitely counted as an emergency. I dialed my parents' number in Maryland. After two minutes of trying to convince my mother who I was, she hung up on me. I threw the phone back in the glove compartment and jammed the car into gear.
          I ended up back at the Glenwood exit where I had had my nausea attack. I took the exit down to Crabtree Valley Mall and parked near the food court. It was 3:00 p.m. by this time, and I hadn't eaten since breakfast. I walked inside and the multitude of different smells hit me all at once. Fried chicken, cheeseburgers, sweet and sour pork, bratwurst. I drifted over to the Chick-Fil-A and looked up at the menu.
          "I'll have the—"
          Before I could finish my order, I was bumped aside by a tall college student with a Durham Bulls hat worn backward on his head. I glared at him, but he didn't turn. The cashier, a young girl with frizzy blonde hair, hadn't seemed to notice me either. She was looking directly at the college guy. I waved my hand in front of her eyes, and she made a face, as if she had just smelled something foul. She looked back at the college guy, who was finishing his order.
          "Hey," I said. "I was next."
          Neither paid any attention to me, nor did the people starting to line up behind the college student. I poked the man second in line in the chest, and he started to look my way, then looked back at the menu. I pinched the woman behind him on the cheek, a haggard mother with a child under one arm and another on a retractable harness, and she barely detected it, though I had pinched hard enough to leave a mark. The man behind her I slapped in the face; he recoiled, put a hand to his cheek, then looked ahead again.
          I spent the rest of the afternoon at the mall, trying to get people to notice me. At Radio Shack, I turned up all the stereos to full volume, each tuned to a different station. At Goodberry's, I pulled down the lever on each machine at once, watching as different flavors of frozen custard oozed onto the floor. At Victoria's Secret, I followed a woman into a changing room and watched as she tried on a bra; she moved and stretched to accommodate the both of us, but never gave any other indication she knew I was in there. I went up and down the mall, grabbing body parts, yelling in faces, trying everything I could think of to make people perceive my existence.
          I was about to give up and go home when I met Henry. I passed the Pet Korner on the way to the exit doors, and nearly got there before I heard a timid voice say, "Can you see me?" A young mother sat on a bench in front of me, eating an ice cream with her blonde daughter.
          "Can you see me?"
          It came from behind me. I stepped away from the mother and daughter and peered into the double-paned glass of the Pet Korner. A cage of bunnies sat in full view, containing a strange sight. In the front left corner, a small white bunny with brown spots all over stood on its hind legs, pressing into the glass like a puppy. In the back right corner, five or six other bunnies of all different colors were huddled together, shivering. I bent down, and the spotted white bunny spoke again.
          "Can you see me, mister?"
          I shut my eyes and rubbed them hard. The talking bunny was still there when I opened them again. Its whiskers trembled, and its nose twitched furiously.
          "Yes," I said, feeling like a fool. "I can see you."
     The bunny bounced off the glass and did a sort of twirling hop in the air. It made a high keening noise that sounded like an excited child.
          "I am so happy! I want to dig and run around!"
          "Why . . ." I cleared my throat. "Why are you so happy?"
          "Because I am the last, but you can see me! I had three brothers and two sisters this morning, and now they are gone. Esmerelda and Joseph went before breakfast, and Timmy, Camus, and Radine went in the middle of afternoon nap. I am the last. My name is Henry. I do not want to go too."
          The other bunnies in the cage took no notice of our conversation, but continued shivering as if a dog was growling directly overhead.
          I walked inside the pet store and opened the bunny cage. Henry bounded out and ran laps around my ankles. He sniffed my slacks and rubbed his chin over my shoes.
          "Can we go now?" he asked.
          The one other person in the store, an employee, completely ignored me as I picked Henry up and left. I put him in the passenger seat of the Beetle, and he climbed around, exploring and sniffing. He jumped back up onto the seat as I started the car.
          I was back on the beltline to my apartment when Henry said, "Today is my birthday, you know."
          My hands involuntarily gripped the thin steering wheel. The speedometer circled to the left and was down to 35 mph before a horn blared behind me and woke me back up.
          "Today is my birthday too," I said, and Henry hopped into my lap.
          "That means we are brothers!" Henry tilted his head up and gave my palm a quick lick. He hopped back onto the passenger seat and started cleaning himself.
          "Wait a minute, your birthday? You only look a couple of months old. How can it be your birthday?"
          Henry stopping licking his shoulder and said, "Bunny time is different from people time," then went back to his bath.
          "Bunny brothers," I said and smiled. Why not? After everything else that had happened today, why not? "All right, Henry, we'll stop at a pet supply store on the way home, get you the essentials. I've never had a rabbit before but you can't be too hard to take care of, can you? Plus, you can tell me exactly what you want, instead of me having to guess. Yeah, I think this'll be cool. What you do you say, Henry?"
          When he didn't answer, I looked down. The seat was empty. Thinking he might be under the seat again, I called his name a couple more times, but he didn't answer. The car was too quiet. Henry was gone.
          I cleared my throat, then gunned the accelerator for home, driving the rest of the way in silence.

          It was dark by the time I made it back to my apartment. The brutal North Carolina humidity hit me as I stepped from the car—it was ever-present, like walking through Jell-O. The cicadas whirred in the trees, a massive collective sound like a toy winding down.
          Most of the apartment I knew was still there. My couch, my bookcase, a photo of Cory and me at Wrightsville Beach last summer. But the television was different, bigger than the one I owned, and framed art prints I had never seen before decorated the walls. I walked the short hallway to my bedroom, and saw a queen-sized bed that I would never have been able to afford. I nearly cried when I saw Plymouth on the bedside table.
          "What?" I yelled at him. "What do you want from me? Why is this happening?"
          "Does everything have to have an explanation?" Plymouth asked. "It's just happening. It's your birthday, and you're disappearing from existence. No reason. The universe just sucks sometimes."
          As Plymouth talked, the room changed around me. The dresser grew in width, transformed from pine to mahogany, sprouted a large wall mirror. Ansel Adams prints popped into existence on one wall, a framed diploma on another. My corkboard vanished, and a movie poster for Swingers appeared in its place. I looked down at Plymouth and saw that he was changing as well, his horns shrinking, his material turning from orange-brown to green, his body and legs lengthening. I moved to pick him up and strangle him, but the world finished transforming around me, and I was no longer myself.

          The bedroom was dark, lit only by the moonlight delineated into stripes on the floor in front of the window. Satin sheets on the bed were rumpled and tossed about, the aftermath of strenuous lovemaking. The door was closed, and a sliver of incandescence shone in the crack underneath. Muted voices came from the other side of the door, laughing and talking. It was a laugh I had loved in my previous life.
          I stood in the corner, a silent sentinel. A conical shade was perched on my head.
          The door was thrown open and in walked Cory, clad in her green silk bathrobe. Her hair was gathered in the back and held together with a tortoiseshell clip. She walked over and grabbed the copper chain that hung from my nose. She pulled downward, and the bulb in my head lit up.
          "Click," I said.
          Cory moved through the room, opening drawers and peeking under the bed. She picked up discarded clothing and looked underneath; she held up a dark purple bra that I particularly liked. After a few moments of searching, a shirtless man walked into the room: Ian, my former coworker. Her lover.
          "You find one yet?" he asked in a drowsy tone.
          "I'm looking," she said, and her voice made me feel whole. "I know I have some more condoms around here, but I can't find them. Did you put them somewhere?"
          "Not me," Ian said, scratching his stomach. "Are you sure they're in here? Maybe you left them in the bathroom or something."
          "No," she mumbled, picking up a stack of psychology books and putting them back down. "Last time I saw them they were in here."
          I knew where she had left the box but, of course, couldn't tell her. I was immobile and silent, a discarded soul. I could sense others as well, those unfortunate ones who shared my birthday. I was in contact with a chest of drawers in Nashville, an alarm clock in Charlotte. Henry the bunny was a plastic lawn ornament in Fuquay-Varina. I'd tried to extend my reach several times, but it seemed my range was limited to a few neighboring states. I knew there were scores more, now confined to the inanimate. I was one among thousands.
          "Well, shit," Cory said, standing back up. "I can't find them. We'll just have to go out to the drug store. I'll drive." She dropped the robe, once more showing me what I could no longer touch. Her curves filled my vision, blocking out all other thoughts. She threw on a shirt and some sweatpants and walked up to Ian. "I'm ready to go."
          "Aren't you going to turn the light off?" he said, motioning to me with his head.
          As Cory walked back over to me, he said over her shoulder, "That lamp is creepy, Cor. I don't know why you still keep it. I always feel like it's looking at me."
          "I don't know," she said, smiling at me. "There's just something about it that makes me feel . . . safe." She reached up and pulled on the chain from my nose again, plunging the room back into semi-darkness.

Jason Erik Lundberg is the co-author of Four Seasons in One Day, and the co-editor of Scattered, Covered, Smothered and the forthcoming Field Guide to Surreal Botany. His solo work has appeared in over two dozen venues in the US, UK and Serbia, including The Third Alternative, Strange Horizons, Fantastic Metropolis, Infinity Plus, and Electric Velocipede. His short fiction has been nominated for the Fountain Award and honorably mentioned in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. With his wife, artist-writer Janet Chui, he runs Two Cranes Press, a critically-acclaimed independent publisher in North Carolina. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop and the M.A. program in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University. Lundberg maintains a website and blog at jasonlundberg.net, and produces a literary podcast called Lies and Little Deaths: A Virtual Anthology.

[ photo, Paulette Bowes ]

Richard Bowes's most recent novel is the nebula-nominated From the Files of the Time Rangers. His most recent short fiction collection is Streetcar Dreams and Other Midnight Fancies. He won the World Fantasy, Lambda, International Horror Guild and Million Writers Awards. Recent stories are in F&SF, Subterranean Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Sybil's Garage, Salon Fantastique, The Coyote Road, So Fey, and Datlow Del Rey anthologies.

content Copyright 2005, 2007, Jason Erik Lundberg—All Rights Reserved
photo, "Eyes" Copyright 2006, 2007, Richard Bowes—All Rights Reserved