I knew my memories could no longer be trusted when the old brownstone on Morning Avenue disappeared. It was a morning in October when it vanished, a townhouse with green shutters and wide flower-boxes. I passed a row of them each day on my way to the office, cups of designer coffee in hand and my scarf tucked under my coat. The brownstone had left a void in its place, a soft white outline where it had once stood before being snatched up from the foundation, every shingle and tile evaporating with it. Something shined from inside the silhouette, a gentle light, maybe radiation, pouring into the street and between the shrubs and fences of the neighboring houses.
Police put a barricade of yellow tape and plastic cones around the brownstone, uniformed officers posted outside in shifts. Each morning people walked past them without looking, and each morning I stared into the cavity and waited for something to happen. For someone to step out or something to fall inside of it, doors to open or dimensions to crumble. Nothing seemed to change. I stopped one day on my way to work to ask the officer there what was going on. The man looked too young for his black uniform, with big brown eyes and a dopey half-smile. He said it was to keep out the trespassers and school children that wandered too close, taking cell phone pictures or throwing rocks into the white space. He never explained where the brownstone had gone, like it had never been there at all. I couldn’t say that it had either, with nothing to point to but an outline, so I thanked him for his time instead.
At my desk I waited for the predictable cubicle chatter to turn to missing buildings or lying policemen. No one said anything. In the break room Nancy and Dan from accounting talked over microwave diet food and bottled vitamin water. We took lunch together sometimes, when I didn’t feel like eating alone. They always talked about celebrity gossip and reality television, and I sometimes regretted their company. I found myself particularly disappointed as I refilled my coffee cup, watching Nancy and Dan consume their freeze-dried, carb-friendly space food and talk about nothing. I didn’t feel like eating anymore.
There was nothing on the evening news about Morning Avenue, no headlines on the newsstands or on magazine covers at the grocery store. No one spoke of it, and I began to think I had imagined the brownstone. After work, I stripped down to my underwear and bra, sat on the foot of my bed and flipped through the channels on the television above my dresser. I held my breath without realizing and watched for signs of recognition in the fifteen minute news cycle. Men in suits made stiff speeches at podiums or banged Bibles on tables. Women cried in front of mobs of reporters, microphones thrust in their faces, mascara running down their cheeks as they sobbed about murderers or aborted babies. For days nothing changed. I sat in my apartment and watched television alone, and said nothing of the brownstone to anyone.
The only person who ever talked about the missing building was Rachel.
She was a singer at Marina’s, a lounge I sometimes ventured out to on Friday nights, when I exchanged my suit jacket and skirt for a pair of jeans and a low neckline. That was what young professionals did, and I didn’t want to rock the boat. Rachel was a narrow slip of a girl, who smoked too many cigarettes. I only knew her name from the small marquee sign outside and the way men talked about her at the bar. She sang jazz standards to piano played by her partner, an older man with a stern-looking face. He dressed in dark suits and rarely spoke to anyone.
Men were all over Rachel but she never paid them much attention, taking the drinks they bought her with just a smile or a nod of thanks. I couldn’t blame them for crowding around her at the bar. She was beautiful and she didn’t care, showing up at night in flimsy thrift store bride’s maid gowns and short heels. Two weeks after the brownstone disappeared she came to my cocktail table after a set, a cigarette in her mouth. I sat alone as I usually did; drinking for the sake of drinking, because it was Friday night and I had nowhere else to be. I never looked for company. If I wanted to be chatted up I had my pick of the girls at the bar in short dresses, smiling and licking the alcohol from their lips. Rachel was different. I knew better than to go near girls like her, who played coy when men were watching. I didn’t like to have my heart broken.
Rachel sat at my table unannounced. She lit her cigarette and inhaled, blowing a stream of smoke sideways to avoid me.
“Strange days we’re having, wouldn’t you say?” she asked.
I straightened on my stool. “How do you mean?”
“That house on Morning Avenue,” she answered gently, testing me. “You know, don’t you? It’s gone.”
Relief warmed me in a wave. “I was starting to think I was the only one who noticed.”
“You know what is, don’t you? Why nobody’s talking about it?”
I shook my head.
“We all see it, the space there. It’s all that’s left of the house, like an outline. The information is gone, but the outline is still there because we know the house didn’t really go anywhere.”
“You lost me.” I was beginning to rethink letting her sit at my table. “What do you mean information?”
“Everything is information. You and me and this table, we’re information. Information doesn’t disappear because it can’t, so what we’re seeing is an outline because our brains just don’t see the house anymore.” Rachel inhaled smoke. “All our brains are processing so much all the time. Sometimes stuff gets pushed aside to make room for new stuff.”
“So we deleted the house to make room for new information?” It almost made sense, in a way. Like Science Channel documentaries on theoretical physics or Quantum Mechanics made sense to me if I paid attention, instead of dozing off like I usually did.
“You got it.”
“And what happens if we keep deleting information? Do houses just keep falling off the map?”
Rachel shrugged. The strap of her dress slipped off her shoulder and she didn’t bother to catch it. “Haven’t got a clue. Guess we’ll find out.”
I couldn’t help the laugh that rolled out of me. “I guess we will.”
Rachel smiled. Without saying anything else she put out her cigarette in the ashtray built into the center of the table, got up and walked back to the stage. Men clapped for her and she smiled for them, too. From my table I just watched and let my mind wander.
By the next weekend, a billboard off Daily Street and a stop sign on Carter Avenue had gone missing. I could see it from the parking lot outside my office, the empty space where the insurance company advertisement had once been. The police didn’t bother to barricade them. Like everyone else, they didn’t seem to notice the billboard and stop sign were gone. I knew they had been there, even if I had no proof. Thinking of Rachel’s theories, I took my lunches alone, drinking coffee in the break room over brown-bagged sandwiches and potato chips. Nancy and Dan didn’t join me anymore, and I found myself grateful for it. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to them talk about nothing and eat even less. If the logo on my designer Styrofoam coffee cup occasionally vanished, I tried to ignore it.
At my desk I tidied up batch reports and sent out memos for staff meetings and quarterly balances. Waiting for Mr. Allen to retreat to his office, I began researching what I remembered of my conversation with Rachel, something about information processing and the human mind. I found websites and articles on things I didn’t understand: paradoxes, information doubling, and Hawking radiation. I printed them out anyway, stapling them together and placing them under my desk before Mr. Allen walked by. He smiled at me from behind thick lenses. I smiled back.
After work each day I skinned out of my skirt and jacket to watch the television in my bedroom. There was nothing on the news but polished anchors with perfect teeth. I began to suspect that Rachel had been right. People only saw what they chose to see, what they could bring themselves to let darken their doors. Refusing to think of Rachel in my underwear, I reached for the print-outs I had smuggled from work and laid across my bed to search for answers.
I found myself at Marina’s on a Thursday night. It was quiet, a few people hanging by the bar while others crowded around a couple of tables. I hadn’t bothered to change after work, ordering from the bartender and retreating to my cocktail table, a stack of print-outs under my arm. Rachel was there, as I hoped she would be. She stood in the corner by the piano talking to her partner, who looked even sterner than usual. She smiled at him, and then glanced up at me from across the room. Her smile disappeared and I held a breath.
“You’re back early.” Rachel invited herself to my table as she had the last time. She wore a loose blue dress that pooled around her collarbone, like she took it off the rack without trying it on. “What is this, homework?”
“Sort of.” I felt a little embarrassed but it passed as Rachel settled onto the stool beside me. “Do you know about information doubling?”
She shook her head. I recalled what I could from an article I’d read online.
“It’s the rate at which information is being generated every day. Television, internet, newspapers, it’s all producing new information that we have to process. It’s doubling every eleven hours. Nobody knows what that’ll eventually do the human mind, since we can’t evolve fast enough to deal with it, you know?”
“So I guess you believed my little theory, huh?”
“It makes sense, if that was what’s going on.”
“Do you think so?”
She smiled. I shrugged, placed the stack of papers under my coat in the next seat.
“I’m just looking into it. But it makes me curious.”
“How so?” Rachel leaned in on her elbows, taking up half the table. She smelled like wild flower perfume and cigarette smoke. I hadn’t meant to notice.
“Why do you and I see all this? Why are we the only ones who seem to notice that these things are gone?”
She shrugged. “Maybe you and me see things a little differently, you know? Our brains aren’t so jam-packed with information that we need to delete things. Maybe we’re just suffering for the collective unconsciousness and its short-comings. Maybe we’re just victims in this whole thing.”
“You think the brownstone is still there?” I asked. “The billboard and that stop sign?”
“Does it really matter, Molly? Nobody would believe you if you told them they were.”
I straightened immediately, felt my face heat. “I never told you my name was Molly.”
Rachel smiled. “Of course you did. It was last week, when we sat at this same table?”
I laughed softly, a knee-jerk reaction. “I think I would remember that.”
“And so would I.”
I didn’t remember telling her my name. If asked, I couldn’t remember the stop sign or the billboard or the brownstone either and that made me uneasy. She patted the table softly and kissed my cheek, like a mother would a child.
“Hey. I have a set in five minutes. Stick around so we can talk later.”
I nodded and watched her slip away. When her back was turned I paid for my drink and left. I regretted it all the way home.
It was nearly November when it began to snow. Three more brownstones had disappeared by then, a shabby townhouse and two new tenement buildings across town. I resigned myself to the nonchalance of cable news, despite my better judgment. Each morning I walked to work and tried not to stare into the void on Morning Avenue and the billboard sign that faced my office. The logos on my coffee cups came and went when I wasn’t looking, like jumps in a reel of film. It wasn’t worth mentioning to anybody.
I had given up going home to my television after work, going instead to my table at the lounge, listening to Rachel sing. Sometimes she came to my table and we talked about disappearing information. Sometimes we didn’t talk at all, and that was fine, comfortable in our silence. I gave up asking how she knew my name. She would just laugh and tell me I was being paranoid, and I was beginning to believe her. It had been snowing for two days when I stopped by Marina’s that Tuesday night. Rachel was all black eye shadow and lipstick in a red dress. Men clapped and cat-called between songs, gathered around the first row of tables to get her attention. She smiled at them the way she always did, and if I felt at all jealous I didn’t let it show. It wasn’t my place. She and I were barely friends.
After her set Rachel came to my table, smoking her cigarettes and sagging in her seat. A young guy at the bar in a salmon shirt gave me a dirty look. I didn’t care, because Rachel didn’t care.
“You know, I was reading about black holes the other day,” I said to make conversation. “For a long time researchers thought everything consumed by black holes disappeared.”
Rachel blew smoke, a slow stream like steel wool. There were words in the smoke, stretched out into the space above her head. She seemed to exhale them, swelling in her lungs then squeezing out to escape.
“Yeah,” I said, leaning forward on my elbows. The words tasted like ash on my tongue. “But information can’t disappear. It can be damaged or broken, but information can’t be destroyed, only change its shape. They called it an information paradox. Then they figured out information didn’t disappear in black holes, it was just smeared across it. Like an image on film, or a copy, changing its form.”
“So?” Rachel asked.
I shrugged, leaned back. “I don’t know. I just thought it would be interesting if they were wrong.”
“You think the buildings were swallowed by a black hole?” Rachel laughed. “I think people would notice that, even in this sleepy town.”
“Maybe somebody’s stealing it, sucking it all up.”
“What? Like the Koreans? What could they do with it?”
“Make a bomb?” I shrugged again.
“I still think shooting at us would be easier.”
I couldn’t help but smile. The smoke above Rachel’s head curled in arc, spelling out the words This, On, and Ending, like newspaper clippings strung together to make a new sentence. I didn’t ask why.
“If information disappears, it means nothing is sacred, you know?” Rachel said. “The whole world is information, and the world only exists as you and I can perceive it. If somebody starts fucking with that, then all bets are off for you and me.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” I sighed. “It means our memories could be wrong. And if our memories are wrong, how do we know what we even have?”
She canted her head to the side and smiled. It looked a little sad.
“Guess we should stick together then, huh?”
“Why?” I hadn’t meant to sound as distrusting as I did.
“We’re already here, you know? Every night at this table, talking about it, what nobody else sees?” She shrugged. “It has to stand for something.”
My heart thumped.
“I should get going.”
“Where to?” Rachel looked disappointed.
“Home.” I gathered up my coat from the next seat. “I have work in the morning.”
“I can walk you home.”
“No thanks. I think I can handle myself.”
“Then I can keep you company,” she said. “Until I decide to go home.”
“Okay.” I swallowed, nodded. “I mean, if you want to.”
The guy in the salmon shirt glared as Rachel and I walked to the front door together. I felt myself puff up a little, bolstered by the closeness of her body and the smell of her perfume through her clothes. Outside snow banked each side of the street, too soft to stick as it melted slowly onto the sidewalk. It fell upward from the ground toward the sky, moving back in time past my knees to catch in my hair and eyelashes. Rachel reached out to take my hand, lacing our fingers together loosely. She smiled.
“Strange days, wouldn’t you say?”
I said nothing of it and walked us back to my apartment in silence.
Rachel began staying with me through November. I had never seen her home and I decided not to ask where she lived. I found that I cared less and less about the details. Each morning another dress found a hanger in my closet, another pair of shoes at the foot of my bed. She stayed in while I went to work and was gone when I got back, slipping out to the lounge. When she returned at night in a new dress, I kissed her at the door and on the bed, lifting up her skirt to take off her underwear and skim my hands up and down her bony ribs.
She never undressed in front of me, not even to shower, which she did in private while I dressed for work. I didn’t ask why, just accepted it as a fact. We ate meals together, and watched television in bed and didn’t have to talk about what was happening to the world. I was content to stroke her back through her clothes, and to touch her skin beneath them when the lights were out. They were simple pleasures, and I was content with them, too.
In the mornings Rachel smoked cigarettes by the kitchen window while we ate breakfast. The smoke spelled out words between us, like street signs and advertisements. She never seemed to notice. As I had with missing brownstones and coffee cup logos, I came to accept that I didn’t understand most things. My memories could no longer be trusted. Once the information began to vanish I had only outlines to go by, patterns and shapes in my mind. I could remember the colors of the traffic lights on my way to work, and once they were gone I couldn’t say for sure what they were. Having Rachel eased the sting of it. Squeezing my fingers each time we walked past an empty space, she smiled, like everything would be okay.
“I grew up in a little house with my mom and brother,” Rachel said one night. We lay in bed and stared at the slices of streetlight coming through the curtains. “My dad left us when I was two, for a woman he met in the service. We didn’t have very much money and my mom was never home. She worked all the time at the grocery store up the street, so it was just us kids at the house.”
“Yeah?” I skimmed my fingers over the dips in her long thin hands, admiring the way her knuckles stuck out in points. “That must’ve been hard.”
“Yeah?” It was like a question when Rachel said it, looking at me from under her hair. “It was okay though. We used to build forts in the backyard out of stuff we found on people’s curbs and stay up all night watching TV. We were like Lost Boys, you know? It was good like that.”
“My parents wanted everything to be perfect when we were kids. The neighborhood was perfect, the house was perfect. We had storybook holidays in the country at my grandparents’ house. Even my sisters were perfect, too.” I sighed. “Pam and Sarah were always prettier and smarter than me. They had all the friends at school and boys wanted to be with them. It was kind of pathetic being me, really.”
A passing car casted a bright yellow stripe of light across the room, and then disappeared. Rachel folded our fingers together and let out a little shiver of a laugh.
“It’s not that pathetic. You didn’t even like boys, so fuck them anyway.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, a startlingly honest sound. Rachel kissed me and I felt warm all over. She never talked about her past again.
When Nancy from accounting vanished, I knew nothing was sacred anymore.
It happened at the office, just after lunch. I had taken my break at the deli down the street for a roast beef sandwich and coffee. The snow was falling sideways that day, drifting slowly past the window by my table. No one noticed things like that anymore. I remembered that snow fell from the sky, but I’d gotten comfortable with the fact that I couldn’t know for sure. I returned to the office, shed my coat and scarf on my desk before going to the break room to fill my coffee cup. The logo had been gone for two weeks. I had stopped missing it before then.
Before I walked in I heard Dan’s voice. I already knew Dan was sitting with Nancy, eating his carb-friendly space food and talking about nothing. Coming around the corner I realized it was no longer Nancy. She sat in her seat but only an outline remained in her place, a white void in the shape of Nancy’s short blonde hair and dress suit. Dan talked on in a one-sided conversation about dieting and prime-time television. People walked in and out of the break room, for coffee or tea, but no one noticed Nancy or the hole she left behind, like television static squeezed inside a woman’s silhouette.
I felt sick. I left my coffee cup on the counter and went to Mr. Allen’s office, asking for the rest of the day off. He said I’d earned enough sick days and let me go early. I didn’t bother thanking him. At home I waited for Rachel to come back from the lounge and laid my head against her stomach while she stroked my hair with her skeletal fingers.
“We’re all made of the same stuff,” she said. “It was bound to happen someday.”
“It’s like she never existed,” I murmured into the folds of her dress as we sat on the floor in front of the sofa. Rachel smelled like cotton and skin, and a strange perfume that I didn’t recognize. I ignored that too, like most things that I didn’t understand about her. “If that can happen to people, how do I know what’s real anymore?”
“We’re real.” She tutted me like a patient mother and ran a hand down my back. “That’s good enough for me.”
“But what if I disappear, or if you do? What’s going to happen to us?”
I angled my head to look up at Rachel. She smiled slowly before it faded away, like all things did.
“I won’t let that happen,” she said. “I promise.”
For what it was worth, I believed her, and slept that night with my head in her lap. In the morning Rachel was gone. Vanished like most things had, leaving only a pack of cigarettes on the table and her dresses in my closet. Sitting alone on the floor, I didn’t know what to believe so I just stopped trying.
People kept vanishing through Christmas.
They stood frozen on the sidewalk in mid-step or sitting in front of their televisions, silhouettes at office desks or lying in hospital beds. Cars sat empty on the street with outlines in the driver’s seat, faces disappearing from magazine covers and the sides of buses. I gave up watching the television, lying on the sofa with a book while the snow drifted in strange patterns across the window. Rachel never came home after that night, nor had she gone back to Marina’s. No one knew where she had gone, not her partner, the bartender or the men at the bar who called for her. After the third night spent waiting for her at our table, I gave up on Rachel too.
I stopped worrying about black holes and information doubling. I burned the articles I’d printed out in the kitchen sink and stopped searching for solutions in books and documentaries. There was no point in asking questions when my perceptions could no longer be trusted to provide any answer. Rachel had lied with her theories and guesses, and I felt stupid for having ever believed them. It hurt to realize we had never taken any photographs together, that I had never introduced her to my coworkers or my family. All I had was a closet full of dresses and shoes that didn’t belong to me, and a hope that I hadn’t made them up in the first place.
I spent Christmas in the suburbs with my parents, my sisters Pam and Sarah, their husbands and children. From my mother’s couch I drank coffee in my pajamas and watched the children open their gifts with smiles on their faces. I smiled, too. My sisters and their husbands sat around me in their dressing robes with their coffee mugs to admire the tree, brightly decorated with tinsel and lights. The lights glowed in colors I didn’t recognize, the sparkling reds and blues replaced by shades I’d never seen before. No one else seemed to notice. I said nothing of it, or of Rachel who ran away. They wouldn’t have believed me if I had.
It was New Year’s Eve and I was alone. Aaron from human resources was having a party at his apartment, which I heard of from Dan as he sat in the lunch room eating with Nancy’s ghost. I put on a black dress and high heels that didn’t suit me, wearing my good jewelry and pulling up my hair. I didn’t want the company but I went anyway, just to be normal and to pretend for one night that I didn’t see things any differently. It felt good to lie for once, and to drink for the sake of drinking and make polite conversation with people I didn’t care about. It was easier than I imagined, and I didn’t have to feel guilty for it.
After the party I walked home in the backward-falling snow, hugging my coat to myself. My head was fuzzy from the alcohol, senses dulled and tongue loose. The heels of my shoes felt uncertain on the wet sidewalk beneath me and I nearly tripped twice, catching myself against the wall of the convenience store I was passing at the time. I stopped to check my wobbly heels and smelled words in smoke, tasting like ashes when I breathed in it. Looking up I saw a trail of cigarette smoke in curling fingers of outstretched words, For Sale, Act Now, leading back to the bus stop down the street. There a bench sat below a black metal hutch, a woman huddled underneath it.
I straightened myself up and followed the smoke to the bus stop. Rachel was sitting on the bench with a cigarette sagging from her mouth, three bags sitting by her feet. She looked the same as she had the last night I had seen here and my heart crawled into my throat. I felt left all over again. Pulling my jacket even tighter around myself, I put on a tough face.
“You’re leaving again, I see.”
Rachel turned, took the cigarette from her mouth. She looked sorry in a way I had never seen her. More words streamed from her nostrils hidden in a plume of smoke, like This and Home and Open, filling the space between us.
“I’m sorry, Molly. I need to get out of town for a while,” she said softly. “I’ve done a lot of bad things since I’ve gotten here.”
Her shoulders sagged when she spoke, making her delicate white shirt puddle across her chest. It was unbuttoned slightly, opening in a V between her breasts. There was a hole there, an empty black space where her heart would have been. It hissed like television static, swelling and contracting with every breath. It was then that I understood what was happening. A black hole, where people and brownstones and billboards were falling in, getting sucked up. I tried not to look as hurt as I felt.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” I asked. “You made those things disappear. All those people.”
“I tried not to. I just can’t always help myself. I get hungry and things just fall in sometimes, whether I want them to or not. It all just got out of hand.”
“Why did you come to me?” I couldn’t help but shake under my coat. “Why did you drag me into this?”
“I take in a bit of everything, sometimes thoughts and memories, too. They get sucked in with the houses and the stop signs. I knew somebody saw what I was doing, I just didn’t know who until I saw you at the bar that night.”
“You destroyed my memories.” I shook my head, felt dizzy. “I don’t know what’s real anymore. I can’t even trust myself.”
Rachel bit her lip and stood up. The black hole rumbled beneath her shirt, a small terrible hum like a freight train at low volume. It sounded hungry and awful, sleeping inside her ribs. It frightened me. She stepped forward.
“I never meant to hurt you,” she said, and looked so sad when she did. “I just wanted to be close to somebody for a change. And you saw me. I mean, really saw me. I didn’t want to let you go.”
“You left,” I said. “That hurt.”
I wanted so much to touch her then, in the cold. Trace the dips of her hipbones and feel the warmth of her beneath my hands.
“You can come back,” I said, before I could stop myself from saying it. “We can fix it.”
“You can’t fix what’s wrong with me. Nobody can.”
“We can still try, can’t we?”
After a moment Rachel smiled. I didn’t feel so cold anymore. The black hole in her chest shivered and fell silent, like a bear retreating to its cave to sleep. Between us the snow fell backwards, settling in her hair and on her cheeks before it finally stopped.
“Okay,” she said. “We can try.”
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