I woke up and the animals were gone.
I woke in a sleep-addled haze, weak dawn light peering through my windows, and even as I pressed my drowsy feet into the floor I knew they were gone. The dog beds were empty, the cat nowhere to be seen. I wandered from room to room, shaking a handful of kibble, calling their names in turn. I had locked the doors last night, and they were locked now. On the kitchen counter, the fish tank’s water lay completely still. My little carnival goldfish weren’t hiding or swimming or even (as happened so often) floating belly-up. They were simply gone.
In retrospect, the animals had been acting secretively all week. I had, a few times, caught the cat and dogs crowded together in a corner, all wagging tails and guilty grins when they saw me staring. I suppose I never thought much of it, even though normally the cat hissed and swiped when the dogs got too close, didn’t think about what they might be discussing in their corner of the kitchen. I never noticed the still silences that must have happened in that week, all the times when the mice and the crickets would have ceased their scuffling antics, the birds stop chirping, the whole world quiet and breathless.
I remember that I fought a lot with my supervisor. She was upset at how many days I worked from home, had left me long voicemails when I failed to respond to her terse emails. I can’t help it. The office is overwhelming, sometimes – all those people and all those voices. It made my head hurt, and so I stayed home, and filled the birdfeeder, and called my clients while standing in my backyard, watching the seeds vanish. The cardinals would flit in in pairs, the males darting ahead to ferry food back to the bigger, drabber females, almost always waiting two branches up. Sweet-faced mourning doves, almost lumbering and slow in comparison, would coo and land haphazardly on the narrow wood, swaying with the force of their own wings. It seemed endless, too many birds to count.
I left the empty fish tank and walked outside, still in my pajamas. The sun was steadily gaining, but the sky still had that pale dawn quality, gray-green and cool. My neighbors were slowly trickling out into the street, some looking as vague as I felt. The more industrious ones were already tacking LOST – REWARD signs onto the telephone poles, the scraggly trees. The ones I could not see I could hear, shouted names breaking the silence: “Lulu!” and “Snowball!” and “Tucker!” and one deeply unfortunate woman who’d named hers “Sprinkles!”
* * *
Within the hour, the president was on the news. His mouth was a grim line, his whole face set in some stoic mask, but I could see confusion in his eyes and hands. I never liked that, the way people say things with different parts of them. I didn’t know which part to listen to, to believe.
“As many of you may know already,” he began, shifting uncomfortably, “we have suffered a strange occurrence today. As far as we can tell, animals across the globe have vanished.”
It was not just pets, not just us, but every country, every place, every animal. Farmers had woken to empty dairy fields, zookeepers were conducting frantic checks throughout insect houses and lion enclosures. The oceans were all one blank, unbroken stretch. Fisherman had sailed out only to sit aimlessly, bobbing on the empty waves. It had happened on every continent and it had started – as far as anyone could tell – at midnight, GMT.
“Very punctual,” the president joked, weakly, before shuffling his papers again and casting a desperate glance off-screen. He squared his shoulders and began making promises: experts were looking into it even now, and the moment they reached any conclusions, we, the people, would be the first to know. That, as always, we would persevere and as a nation we would pull through. He didn’t explain who would be an expert in something like this. He didn’t explain precisely what it was we were even facing. On the plus side, he assured us, shark attacks were now at an all-time low.
* * *
When nine o’clock rolled around, I went in to work. I didn’t know what else to do. The office was filled with people, ping-ponging from desk to desk, muttering and gossiping. Fabric samples were left in shaky piles where they’d been delivered; as I walked past, a gentle waterfall of paper tumbled from the neglected copier. Mildred, whose desk was across from mine, wasn’t in. Her cubicle wall was plastered with photos of her cats, and I can’t help but imagine her searching her house, chubby stockinged legs poking out from under beds and sofas. I can’t even make it all the way to my desk. Picturing Mildred feels like watching someone mourn a child; it’s sickening, morbid, prying. So, instead, I call Martin. I walk out of the office as he picks up on the third ring. No one stops me. No one even saw me come in.
Martin’s voice is small and crackling over the phone line, but he sounds much the same as he ever has. He doesn’t wait for me to ask, just tells me where to meet him and when. I know the place. We’ve been there before, an overpriced diner a block north of his office, and I decide to walk the twenty or so minutes there. It has turned, strangely, into a beautiful day: clear, cool, bright. It somehow makes the sounds of the city crystallize, like they are only things in the air, and they are much too loud. The cabs whirr past in a blur of angry yellow, a fuzzy metallic sound that bounces off of the mirror-like buildings. I can follow the trails of earlier passersby on the pavement: gum that they’ve left, the scraps of bread and sandwiches no passing pigeon has picked up, and I track the crumbs, like Hansel and Gretel, until I lose count.
Two weeks pass like an eternity, pass like the blink of eye. I am walking to meet Martin for lunch and then Martin is moving his last box into my front hall. Without the dogs’ dander, there was no reason for him not move in, he reminds me. He only complains about his added commute occasionally. It’s strange, but I sometimes forget he is here. The house is still so quiet, so cold. It feels swollen with silence, like a held breath, like the moment before tears. His fades in and out of the house like a vibrant ghost, talking and eating and laughing, but I can’t always understand what he says. He seems too bright, somehow, like he is something that does not belong to me. His work picks up again, quicker than mine. My supervisor doesn’t mind my staying home so much, anymore. My clients can call my cell for carpet swatches, for counseling on paint chips, for cost per yard. I rattle them off without thinking, numbers without meaning. I can hear the rattle of high-school biology somewhere in the back of my head. This is surely the destruction of our world – isn’t it? I suppose we can all become vegans, up until our food sources start to run out as plants aren’t pollinated. What then?
I’m in the kitchen, alone, when the president appears on my TV screen. He is perceptibly ruffled. His little finger is twitching. I want to enfold him in my arms, to grasp his hands and say, I understand. I hurt, too. Tell me, tell me everything. As though he hears me, he begins to talk to me.
“We have received a communication. From—” and here he stifles a tiny laugh, a bubble in his throat, “—from the animals.”
I don’t laugh. No one does.
“I understand that this sounds fantastic and impossible; however, I have been informed that our experts have verified the legitimacy of the communication – and it goes as follows:
‘Dear homo sapiens.’” He suppresses another giggle with difficulty. I have the faint thought that I may be watching someone else’s mental breakdown on national television. I hope not. He controls himself, continues.
“We have long expressed our dissatisfaction with the manner in which you choose to govern this planet. We believe, quite frankly, that the tacit understanding we had established in allowing you to adopt power was clear and simple; however, your ever-increasing infractions prove that we were sadly mistaken. The time has long now passed when we were content to sit idly by and allow ourselves to be blatantly misused and mistreated. A complete list of our complaints are enclosed, but the key ones are outlined here for your benefit:
-hostile work environments (both physical and verbal intimidation have been reported, as well as the damage of global property) -lack of benefits and compensation -a marked and continued refusal to communicate with our unions -a widespread and over-arching lack of respect
We do not feel that these complaints are unwarranted or unreasonable; rather, we believe that this is the most rational and balanced course of action available to us. We will continue to strike up until the point you acquiesce to our requests and begin a dialogue. We are sorry for any emotional distress we may have caused to individuals, but are sure that they will respect the care and thought we have placed into making this decision.
With that, the president gives a wild little laugh, and the picture cuts out.
* * *
Life fragments into more befores and afters. Before and after the disappearance. Before and after the letter. Time trickles by, and all we know is that the government is in ‘talks.’ They are always in ‘talks.’ How can there be so much to be said? I imagine that there is a finite number of words in the world, and the government talks are slowly, quietly siphoning all of ours up. Recently, I’ve started forgetting words. At first it was small things, words I probably didn’t need anyways: ‘globular’ and ‘brooch.’ Yesterday, I forgot the word for ‘window.’ Those panes, the glass – it took me minutes to find it again, fingers pressed against it. Window. We keep them propped open in the night, because the bugs are gone too. There is nothing to flutter through them, except for the grumble of a passing car, a snatch of music, distant, disembodied laughter. The days all look the same, somehow. It feels as though the whole world is holding its breath; the sky hangs down like the swollen underbelly of a whale, vast and gray-white. The air always tastes like it is just about to rain, but it never does.
I’m doing my best not to listen to the empty spaces, but sometimes I fear they will drive me mad. Every morning I check the front porch, and every morning it is empty. I know that tomorrow will be the one. I smile at Martin over our cereal, and count the days backwards in my head. I no longer listen when people speak. Martin’s words are slowly fading into the buzz of bees and crickets, and this morning, I think, I cannot understand him at all.
JESSIE McNIEL is currently pursing her MFA at Columbia and living in New York City. She can usually be found working on her novel and petting other people’s dogs. You can reach her on Twitter @jessiemcniel.