She Doesn't Exist
by Jonathan W. Dennis
In the Empire, one of the first things they teach you is that the present’s all that’s left. The future is an unwritten book. The past is a palimpsest, an Etch-a-Sketch that can be shaken at any time. They can take our history as easily as our lives. Now is all we have any more, but I’ll try to tell this in order. I can remember what it was like for you.
I met her at Gramps’, a little hole in the wall bar/coffee shop downtown. It had been at least two years since I had gone downtown. The city council had sold the entire area to corporations until shop after shop had fallen to rising rents and political pressure and there were no landmarks left. Why bother going there when all there was to see were the same Gaps and Starbucks that littered every other street corner in the United States?
It was work that sent me downtown, a simple errand for my boss. I had to pick up a file from a lawyer that had set up shop in one of the renovated office buildings on Main Street. It was lunchtime by the time I was done, so I decided to walk around and find someplace to grab a bite to eat. My memories of what had become of the area proved accurate. Downtown had been surrendered to chain stores. Every sign was mass-produced and branded with a trademark logo in the corner, not a human imperfection in sight. I had pretty much resigned myself to entering the least objectionable of them when my eyes found the doorway to Gramps’.
Gramps’ had no storefront of its own to speak of, just a doorway sandwiched between flashy displays to either side. A simple wooden door with the name painted in block letters across the glass, most people’s eyes probably slid right past it. I pulled the door open and walked through a short hallway to an interior that was just as unassuming. About half a dozen tables with chairs were scattered about the place with plenty of room to spare. The walls were bare, not even the usual advertising posters you see in places like that. Since there were no windows due to the location, all the light came from chandeliers with incandescent light bulbs. Everything was dark and wooden and old.
Behind the bar, a bear of a man scratched notes in a yellow legal pad with a pen he held with the prosthetic hook on his right arm. The tank top he was wearing had once been black but had now faded to grey with time, exposing a tattoo on his right shoulder, a Celtic knotwork design. He looked up as I came in and acknowledged my entrance with a brief
“Sit anywhere you like, sir,” he said.
I almost turned and left, despite the sympathy I felt towards any small business trying to survive in this environment. It must have been there for fifty years, slowly crowded out by the new. How much longer would it be able to last, ignored like this? How many people would be left unemployed when it was forced to close its doors? Despite this, I almost left and headed for someplace that would feel safer.
Then I noticed her.
She sat at the table furthest from the bar. She and another woman were focusing their attention on the laptop sitting on their table. It looked incongruous in that place, but she didn’t. Her hair was long and black, so black it disappeared in the shadows behind her. What little light there was barely touched her body, but the light from the laptop played across her face. It was like her face floated free, eerie and glowing. It reminded me of some carnival psychic staring into her crystal ball. I didn’t want to be seen staring but I saw enough to know that she was beautiful. So I walked over to the nearest table and took a seat.
The barman brought me a menu. Up close, I could see that the hand wasn’t his only injury. Every bit of exposed flesh was webbed in scars, including a nasty one that ran from his right ear, across his cheek, to the side of his nose. The knot work tattoo on his shoulder had an interesting twist. Rather than a simple line, the knot was a snake, swallowing its own tail. I forgot about the menu in my hands, until he tapped the top of it to get my attention.
“You need more time?” he asked.
I shook my head and scanned the menu. It was surprisingly varied for such a small place, but I just ordered a sandwich and a soda, hoping to get the awkward moment over with as fast as possible. He nodded when I was done and disappeared through the door behind the bar.Once he was gone, I was struck by how quiet it was there. Pretty much every bar or restaurant has some kind of music playing in the background or even televisions mounted on the walls. At Gramps’ there was nothing. The slight noises coming from the kitchen might as well have been coming from miles away. I wondered if this was why the women were here with their laptop, if they had come here to study. The only real sound in the room was their muttering to each other. I tried to find something to look at while I waited for my lunch, but as I said before, the walls were bare and I could only look at the plain envelope I had picked up at the lawyer’s for so long. I looked at the other table. She was looking right back at me, like she had been waiting for me to give in. She flashed me a smile and returned to what she was doing before I had a chance to smile back.
I spent the next few minutes trying to find something at which I could direct my attention. I ended up counting chips in the paint on the wall until the bartender returned from the back room bearing my lunch. After he set the plate in front of me, he continued to the women’s table.
“Anything else I can get you, Rebecca?” he asked.
“No thanks, Al,” she replied. It was the girl who had caught my eye before.
I spent the next few minutes grabbing the occasional glimpse of her between bites of my sandwich. When I was about halfway through, she snapped her laptop closed and left. On the way out, her coat brushed against my back. It’s a stupid thing to admit, but that almost touch raised goose bumps across my back. Once I was finished eating, I went to pay Al at the bar.
“How was it?” he asked me. I didn’t want to admit that I had been so busy thinking about the girl that I hadn’t even noticed the meal.
“Fine,” I said, pulling out my wallet. “That girl, does she come here often?”
Al smiled at my question. When he smiled, the scar across his cheek pulled tight, making the smile look like a sneer.
“Rebecca? Yeah, she’s a regular,” he said.
I let him keep the change and went back to work.
For the next two weeks, I ate lunch at Gramps’ every day. The food wasn’t bad and Al proved to be friendlier than his appearance would suggest, but my real reason for showing up was never there. I always ate alone, staring at those blank walls in silence, waiting for Rebecca. It started to occur to me that perhaps Al had lied to me in an attempt to drum up a small amount of business. There was never anyone else there. I wondered how long would it be before Gramps’ would be forced to close up shop. One day, when I was close to giving up on ever seeing her again, Al handed me a small slip of paper with the bill.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s Rebecca’s phone number,” he said. “She asked me to give it to you.”
For the rest of the day, my mind probed at the situation like a tongue over a loose tooth. Al must have told her that I’d been coming there every day. If she knew that, why would she give me a phone number instead of just showing up at lunch time? Was she shy? She didn’t have a lot to be shy about and she had seemed pretty level-headed. Now that I thought about it, couldn’t my going there every day seem kind of creepy, almost stalkerish? Maybe it wasn’t her phone number at all. Maybe it was some detective down at the police station where she had filed her complaint, waiting for me to phone in so they could trace it and put me away.
I didn’t call her that night, and I didn’t go to Gramps’ the next day either. I didn’t even go to work. My hand would reach for the phone, and it would freeze. It would just hang there until the muscles in my arm cramped and I had to let it drop to my side again.It went on like that for hours. Finally, I managed to work up the nerve to dial the phone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that it was just past one in the morning. Time had slipped away from me. I was just about to hang up when the other side picked up.
“Hello,” she said.
For a second, I thought about hanging up anyway and hoping that she wouldn’t think it was me. Instead I said, “Hi.”
“Who is this?” She sounded alert. Maybe I hadn’t woken her up.
“My name’s Don Worden. We saw each other at Gramps’ a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh, great. You got the phone number.”
“Yeah.” Now that I had her on the phone, I’d been struck dumb. My mind screamed at my tongue.
“Sorry about calling. I forgot what time it is.”
She laughed. “That’s good,” she said. I didn’t understand what she meant but I pressed on anyway.
“So, I was hoping we could go out sometime—“
“Tomorrow?” she asked. I was in shock at how easy this was.
“Tomorrow would be great,” I said.
She told me to pick her up in the evening after I got off work. I asked her what time she’d be ready, but she told me it didn’t matter as she didn’t own any clocks. She gave me her address and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” After I hung up, I tried to relax, scolding myself at how stressed out I had been over something that had proven so simple. The whole situation was ridiculous. It was not like I had never gone out with anybody before. What was it about this girl that was making me act like this? I had barely been able to see in the dim lighting inside Gramps’. Instead of finding answers though, I fell asleep on the sofa.
The address she gave me was on the edge of the industrial area, across the street from an abandoned cannery by the train station. Her place was a converted warehouse. From the outside, it looked abandoned. The grey paint was peeling off the cement blocks and the entire wall facing the street was covered with graffiti. The most prominent piece of work was some remnant of a turf battle and must have required ladders or ropes to complete. Ten foot high letters bragged, “We won the War. Get used to it.” The only car outside was a beat-up old ’78 Tucker. One of its tires was flat and the middle headlight was missing. I found the door and knocked on it.
“Come in,” she called from inside.
For a converted warehouse, it wasn’t that converted. The inside was just one vast area sectioned off by freestanding shelves and screens. Rebecca sat at a table in her equivalent of a living room. The other woman from Gramps’ was sitting with her along with two other women. The laptop was on the table, surrounded by lit candles. I had a little flash of worry that they were Wiccans or something. That was soon out of my mind though. As soon as she saw me, she smiled and got up from the table. She was wearing a t-shirt and jeans and even though her hair was black (Black? Yes, definitely black.) she looked nothing like a Goth chick.
“Don,” she said as she walked towards me. “I’m so happy you could make it.” I have to tell you, even in that dim lighting, she was stunning. I can’t really describe it to you. When it comes to Rebecca, when I see her or remember her, it’s like there’s something more than just what I see in my head, something more than real crowding out the ordinary. You just have to trust me when I say she was spectacular.
She led me back to the table and introduced me to her cousins. The woman from Gramps’ was her cousin Leigh. The other two were Ingrid and Tip. I thought I was intruding on some kind of family get-together and apologised. They assured me that wasn’t the case and excused themselves. They each hugged Rebecca in turn and left the way I had come in. Once they were gone, Rebecca and I stood there in silence for long seconds. In the dark, it was like the room had no walls at all. It was just a space. The only sound was the tiny hum of the laptop on the table and the smell of burning wax was inescapable.
“So,” I said, looking for some way to break the silence.
“So,” she echoed. She looked at me with a slight grin, enjoying the effect she was having on me, waiting for me to act.
“So,” I repeated. “Would you like to go to a movie or something?”
It took her a couple of moments to respond, like the ordinariness of the question caught her off guard. Finally, she nodded and said, “Sure, let me grab my coat.”
The junker in front of the building was her car, so we took mine. I was still too nervous to start a conversation so she tried to draw me out, asking about my family and my job and things like that. We went to the closest theatre and bought tickets for the next movie about to start, some epic set in Japan that didn’t make any sense. After that, there’s a period where I can’t really remember what happened very well, not as any kind of linear string anyway. It’s all just pieces. I understand that these days I have accept that things have changed and my past may not be what it used to be. Rebecca tells me that we went out together for a month. She shows me things: ticket stubs, a fortune from a fortune cookie, a takeout menu. Sometimes the object triggers a memory. Sometimes I compliment on her new outfit and she tells me it’s what she was wearing when we first met. The last time that happened, she got upset and ran off. I think she might have been crying.
These are a couple of things I remember:
We were back at her place. The warehouse was perfectly black except for a single lamp shining down on her futon. It was like we were stranded on an island or a raft. We were kissing and it was the first time I had got her shirt off. I know. I know. That I remember. So sue me. I’m a guy. It was the first time I had her shirt off and I was running my hands down her back when I felt an odd lump where her kidney should be. It was just under the skin and it was hard and angular, definitely not organic.
I asked her what it was. She looked away and told me that it kept her alive. I told her I was sorry and that everything would be okay. I took her hands in mine and kissed her palms. They tasted of copper. She always tasted of copper. Once I thought that was odd. I don’t anymore.
It was like our fourth or fifth date and her hair was longer, by at least a half a foot, than it was the last time I saw her. I kidded her about wearing a wig, but she insisted it was real. This went on all night long, as we walked past the shops, as we ate dinner. I would let the subject drop for a half hour and then make a grab. Every time I reached for her head she would jump away and I crowed that this proved my point. Once the night was coming to an end, and we were kissing goodnight, I made my move.
Her hair was real.
In my head, our times together are all like this, a collection of moments and impressions that run hot. My body remembers them better than my mind. In the head, it is easier to remember bad times than good. I remember when she was gone.
I drove to Rebecca’s and there was no home. I don’t mean that there was no one at home, though that is also true. While we had been dating, I must have driven to Rebecca’s place at least a dozen times. It was safe to say that I knew the way. That day, I pulled up in front of an empty lot. The Tucker was gone as well and for some reason I had a feeling that there had been something more fundamentally wrong with the Tucker than the flat tire and the missing headlight.
It took me retracing my route six times before I was willing to admit that I was driving to the right spot. The Tucker was gone. The warehouse was gone. The empty lot where the warehouse had been was now fenced off. I got out of my car to get a closer look. I had been there the previous night, inside the warehouse with Rebecca. She had asked me to spend the night, but I had to be at work the next day. Now there wasn’t any sign the building had ever been there. If it had been demolished, you would expect there to be rubble. There was none. Not only wasn’t there rubble, but the lot was overgrown with weeds. There weren’t even the remains of a foundation.
I circled the fence until I found the gate, but it was locked. An attempt at ripping a hole in the chicken wire failed. My hand slipped and the wire opened a gash across the back of my hand. I cursed and rushed back to the car for something to wipe my hand with, dripping blood on the sidewalk the entire way. There was a towel on the back seat. Despite its questionable cleanliness, I wrapped it around my hand. I fumbled my cell phone out of its case and dialled Rebecca’s number.It rang once while I muttered under my breath for Rebecca to pick up the phone. It didn’t matter than I was standing less than thirty feet from where her phone failed to exist. The phone rang a second time and there was a click. I clutched the phone tightly and pressed it up against my ear so hard that it hurt. A voice came over the line.
"The number you have dialled is not in service. Please hang up and try again.”
I did try again, at least a dozen times. All but one time I got the same message. The one time I didn’t it was because I had misdialled and managed to phone a video store. In desperation, I asked the person who answered if anyone named Rebecca worked there. When they said no, I asked if they had any customers named Rebecca. The clerk hung up on me. I put my phone away and sat on the hood of my car, staring at the vacant lot. My hand was throbbing and sticky with congealing blood, but I didn’t notice. Every time I blinked, I thought I might see her house, that everything would be all right. It never happened. It was dark before I thought of looking for her at Gramps’. Even though it was the place we had originally seen each other, we had never gone to Gramps’ while dating. It simply hadn’t occurred to me and she had never suggested it. As I drove there, I had to fight to keep myself calm and alert. I wanted to speed and run every red light. There was no tangible reason to believe that my speed mattered but now I thought of time as my enemy.
After parking the car in the garage downtown, cursing at everyone who got in my way, I ran for Gramps. At night, the sidewalks were crowded with people shopping and looking for places to eat. In my haste, I couldn’t help but jostle people, nearly knocking a couple over. I drew stares and shouted curses, all of which I ignored. They didn’t matter. No one mattered but her. When I reached Gramps’ location, my fear proved to be true.Gramps’ was gone. It wasn’t a matter of a “closed” or “out of business” sign or even a new place moving in to its spot. The door was gone. The restaurants to either side of it now touched, like they had literally crushed it out of existence. Futilely, I poked a finger in the tiny gap between the buildings, as if I could squeeze between the buildings.
All I got was a scraped knuckle all on my already injured hand.
I was lost. All the strength just drained out of me as I slumped against the wall. Slowly I slid down until I sat on the sidewalk like a discarded toy. I started to cry. I cried because Rebecca was gone. I cried because I was beginning to believe that Rebecca had never been there. How crazy would I have to be to imagine an entire relationship, I wondered. Forgetting about the injury, I reached up to wipe the tears from my face with the back of my hand. The pain made me wince and spurred my despair on to another level. There was a clatter of metal and I looked up. Someone had tossed some change at my feet.
I pulled myself up and wandered the sidewalks. This time I shuffled instead of sprinted. People kept their distance, avoided looking at me. I had a protective bubble of sorrow around me and it suited me fine. It helped me think that I was alone. First, I circled the block where Gramps’ had been located. There was nothing there. I did the same to the block across the street, then the one next to it. I continued in this fashion, circles and spirals, all night. As the hours passed, the crowds thinned. People returned to their homes and their beds. They kissed their loved ones good night and they went to sleep. All the while, alone, I wandered around the city.
A full moon was overhead that night and I could see well enough even in the areas that had no street lamps. The ache in my legs and feet was just something else to ignore, along with my hand. The aches in my head and my heart were the only ones that mattered. I had wandered in to the business district by this point. All the offices were closed. The buildings were dark. The only sound was the faint hum of distant traffic on the freeway. No isolation tank could have worked better. I stopped in front of the entrance to an alleyway, pondering the likelihood of being arrested for loitering if I tried resting there.
I turned at the sound of the voice. It came from the shadows at the back of the alley. It was quiet, whispering, so faint that I wouldn’t have stood a chance of hearing it in anything but absolute quite. It was scared. It was the greatest thing I had ever heard.
She ran out of the alley and hugged me so hard that I couldn’t breathe well enough to say anything, to ask her what was happening. When she finally pulled away, she was shocked at the sight of my face.
"What happened to you? she asked and wiped at the blood on my forehead with her hand.
"I got cut,” I responded. I held up my hand to show it to her. She got up on her toes and kissed my forehead. Her lips came away red.
"Did he find you too?” she asked.
"Did who find me?”
Before she could respond, she heard something from down the street. I didn’t hear it, but I hadn’t been paying attention. She grabbed my uninjured hand and pulled me in to the alley after her. The high walls of the narrow alleyway cut off the light of the moon except for a wedge spilling in from the entrance. I couldn’t see hear anymore. My only assurance that she was still there was her hand in mine.
"I’m in trouble, Don,” she whispered.
"What’s going on?” I asked. I kept my voice down despite not having heard anything.
"There’s a – man – following me.” She stumbled over the word, like it was somehow inadequate.
"Some kind of stalker or something?” Even as I said it, it occurred to me that my behaviour would have qualified in the beginning.
"No, his, his family has a vendetta against my family. He’s already got Tip and Ingrid.”
"Are you in the mob?” I asked in disbelief. “Is your dad the godfather or something like that?”
"Something like that,” she said. She pulled her hand from mine and handed me something. It took me a moment to realise what. It was a knife, a big one.
"What are you doing?” I asked. “I’ve got my cell phone right here. We can call the –.”
"He’s here,” she said.
The would-be killer stood in the entrance to the alley, in the light. From what little she had told me, I expected some massive thug in a pin-striped suit. The man now walking towards us looked like a college professor. He was tall but thin, almost slight. He wore robes with some kind of writing on the trim, like Latin or something. He held a knife in his hand, a big one.
Rebecca and I already had our backs to the wall. There was nowhere for us to go. I leant over and whispered in her ear. ¡"I’ll distract him,” I said. “You run.”
Before she could protest, I ran at him, my knife held over my head. The man side-stepped and tripped me. He continued on his way like he hadn’t even noticed me. He started to talk. No, it was more like intoning, as if he was pronouncing a judgement. Were those legal robes he was wearing? His voice was deep and weird, as if it travelled through something other than air.
Rebecca was crouched in the corner, her own knife at the ready, but I had heard the fear in her voice before. She didn’t think she could win. I leapt at the man and stabbed at his back. The blade hit bone and glanced aside, leaving a two foot cut down and across his back. His hand reached around and clutched at his wound as he arched his back in pain. Rebecca took the opportunity to jump up and plunge her own knife deep in to the right side of his chest. He whirled away from her, throwing her against the wall. Now that I could see his face again, it was contorted in rage and pain. He took deep watery gulping breaths like a drowning seal. His blood glinted in the light. There was something wrong with the colour.
"Grab the knife,” Rebecca shouted. I looked down in momentary confusion as I still had my knife in my hands.
"The one in his chest,” she screamed. “Grab it and pull it to the left.”
The man was reaching for the knife himself, but I got my hands around it first. His hands wrapped around my own and we struggled as I tried to do what Rebecca said and he tried to get the knife out. Blood pulsed from the chest wound and flowed all over my hands. It was cold. He started talking again, in between his jagged breaths. I still didn’t understand the words but the tone was clear. It wasn’t the first time I had been cursed at by a foreigner.
As strong as he had been, the fight started to drain from his hands. I pushed the handle as hard as I could. One of his ribs cracked in response and I drove the knife another couple of inches across. The man threw back his head and bellowed with pain, spraying blood across the wall behind me. This time I knew it wasn’t just sound. The scream hit me in the head like a rock wrapped in every migraine I’d ever had. He fell to the ground, pulling me on top of him.
For a moment, our eyes met. I wondered what I was doing, here in an alley, killing someone. Then I remembered Rebecca getting tossed against the wall and I rolled off of him to the side. I grabbed the handle of the knife and pulled. He nearly rolled over on top of me, so I got up and planted a knee on his chest for leverage and I pulled again. Another rib cracked apart and I was able to drag the blade all the way across his chest. The man stopped gasping. He stopped fighting. He stopped living.I fell against the wall and attempted to catch my breath. The fight over, I remembered how this had started.
"Rebecca,” I called out. The corner of the alley was still dark and I couldn’t see anything. I struggled to get up so I could find her, but she was already at my side, holding out her hand to help me up.
"We have to go,” she said. “He’ll be better soon.”
I started to ask her what she meant until I got a look at his hand. It looked different, like it was younger, and bigger. It was twitching again. Leading me by my hand, we ran. It was only for a few blocks, but I had a hard time keeping up. Exhaustion from the fight and my night of walking were finally catching up with me. There were a couple of times when she had to yank on my hand to keep me going. She led me to another alleyway. At the end of it was an open doorway. It was Gramps’. Leigh stood at the doorway, urging us to hurry up. Inside, Rebecca finally let go of my hand. It came away with a sticky snap.
I can’t go back. That was the first thing they told me. There’s a war going on and I volunteered the second I picked up a knife and tried to kill a god, or maybe it was when I picked up the phone. They offered to drop me off on some other planet, someplace remote, but I would never see Rebecca again. So I stayed in the empire. Right after my initiation, she kissed me and called me cousin for the first time. I made a joke about the Ozarks but she didn’t get it.
They say you’re never alone in the empire, but I always feel that way when she’s gone.
The empire is full of echoes, noises whispering out of empty doorways and vacant rooms. Walking down a hall you’ll hear the whispers of imagined conversations. In the streets you’ll catch the applause from victory celebrations of candidates who never won. Sometimes when Rebecca’s away, I like to find an empty street and just listen. I hold my hand up and give it a little twitch. On the wall, my shadow’s revolver twirls, just like in the movies. They tell me that it will never run out of bullets, just like in the movies. I lean my head back and listen to the voices.. She finds me, edges up behind me, and I feel her breath on the nape of my neck. She traces a line up my spine with the needles of her sampler and I get goose bumps.
My heart belongs to her, but my blood belongs to the Faction.