After the first disaster the air was thick with dust. Finely ground pigments stained the streets as though expelled from pastel-coloured puffballs or an explosion in a spice factory. Some of the surviving children made patterns on car windscreens, some even wrote their names, but mostly those names were appended to the posters which had begun to appear around the city, stapled to telegraph poles or pasted up in storefronts, usually accompanied by photographs which depicted poses they were unlikely to grow out of.
On each occasion when Missy walked to the shops, a new face would appear, as though parents had only remembered their offspring weeks afterwards; or as if guilt had finally determined that they do something to assuage it. She looked at these young faces, not in an attempt of identification, but in case she might see something of herself in them. It was a myth that eyes didn’t grow after birth. Babies tended to be born with eyes about 16.5mm in length, and they stopped growing by the age of twenty-one, when they reached about 24mm. Most of the eyes on these posters were around 19mm, Missy speculated. It was true that the primary school playgrounds tended to be quieter than those of the secondary schools.
Missy was a recent addition to the city. She had no friends. No one she might confide in. Sometimes she pulled the posters away from their staples, leaving tiny white triangles – flags of surrender – in their wake, and folded them once, twice, before slipping them inside her coat pocket. She would spread these out on her kitchen table, her lips pursing to blow away faint traces of coloured dust that had collected in the creases, and smooth them flat whilst drinking cups of black tea, examining the faces in greater detail, wondering about their backgrounds, whether they were loved or tolerated, whether those who had been tolerated would now be loved, wondering how long it would take for each expression to become the same as another, for these faces to cancel each other out as if they had never existed in the first place.
Her belongings were meagre. A few keepsakes but no photographs. She owned a shelf of books, some dresses, a few skirts and blouses, underwear, shoes, her laptop, some art materials, but no phone. The furniture came with the rent and wasn’t to her taste. She might be in her fifties but she wasn’t born in the fifties. When she drew the curtains it wasn’t simply to cease the impulse of the outside, but to stop her neighbours looking in to judge.
Once the posters were flattened, she Blu-Tacked them to her bedroom walls. No one would come up here. The majority were black and white, but some were in colour. Missy was drawn to those that were monochrome. They contained a hint of greater possibility. As if without colour the children were anonymous, might even be substitutions for each other. She might then give them attributes which they never had. Some who were bookish might now be more outgoing. Others who preferred football might now prefer art. These interchanges appealed to her, represented the people those children might have grown up to be. Missy understood that no one leads one static life, but hundreds of different lives, several simultaneously. The fifty or so children with their hundred or so eyes regarded her as she slept, perhaps wondering who Missy might be when she awoke. She often wondered that herself.
The isolation Missy felt in the city manifested itself in different ways. Sometimes she would sit and have a coffee, solo, people-watching pedestrians, and map herself over their lives. Other times she wouldn’t leave the house: blindfolding herself and imagining she was the sole survivor. It took courage to remain in the dark. Other times she might stand opposite the primary school, leaning – not hiding – against the firm bark of a tree which would not only leave an impression but compact green residues in her jacket. The school had become a magnet for some parents – they could hardly stay away – but others were repelled, their steps flustered by a forcefield of such magnitude that they might have walked streets in the wrong direction before finding their footing again.
Missy imagined herself as a parent: the rough and tumble in that juxtaposition of a body intent on living faster than the one it was coupled to. The effort it might take to stand still. The warmth of something to hold onto. And then she would also imagine herself as a parent that had lost: the vacuum of uncertainty, the pinprick of despair, which would hollow then rend asunder before slowly contracting, as if that previous life had never in fact lived. In both instances, she was a uniquely-shaped peg. Thoughts flitted through her mind: is it possible to lose something that you’ve never had? If she were completely unaware of children, then would she never want one?
There were support groups in the city, catering for those whose children had survived and for those who were missing. But there was no support group for Missy. She was laying in the middle of two twin beds pushed together in a hotel room, the gap between them widening the more that she fidgeted. There was only one space for her. There was never only one parent – in the evolutionary sense, at least.
Taking a bath she might arch her back, extend her belly above the waterline. It was pure surrealism, to imagine a child inside. Surely an anatomical impossibility? Missy would sink beneath the water. She had no desire to be pregnant, but you didn’t need to be bloated with possibility to own a child.
In her mind’s eye she envisaged a son. Old enough to be himself, young enough to be hers. His hair would curl brown, his eyes contain yellow sparks, his cheeks redden: autumnal.
From her box of art materials she choose watercolours, yet discovered these didn’t hold the depth she wished for. Charcoal offered greater definition, but was quite abrasive. In pastels she found her medium. Over the course of two mornings she had her boy. She could almost hear him. Now to give him a name. She looked over her bookshelves. Hemmingway. She smiled. It was just earnest enough.
In the library she lay the drawing flat against photocopier glass: a discolouration. Hemmingway reproduced, one face over another, always different, always the same.
Now when Missy went walking, she had someone to look for.
The knock came eighteen days later.
We think we have your son.
Hemmingway dipped bread into egg; dripped egg onto plate. He took another piece of bread and mopped up yellow, the sticky yolk already congealed sufficiently to leave a trail. The colouration bent to the left. Hemmingway removed the shells of both eggs from their cups and upended them, placing them equidistant on the plate just above the yellow nose. His remaining strip of bread made a mouth. With the tine of his fork he jabbed the eggs repeatedly, with such precision that barely a millimetre of eye appeared: a 3D representation of a face. This is how he imagined his mother. Fragile, yet distinctive. Not like the other mothers. He wished he’d left some bacon for her hair.
After the second disaster Hemmingway remembered the air was thick with dust. Within the school the building darkened, as though Edgar Degas were decorating windows, transforming pastels from simple sketching tools into a core artistic medium that might dominate the art scene for many years to come. Some of the children ducked underneath desks. Hemmingway did too. He could see his teacher’s shoes – the brown brogues that they were – gradually attain a patina of filth. Yet when the sky lightened, his teacher remained present. This wasn’t the case with the parents of some of his classmates. When his teacher moved, the floor was clean where he had been standing: inverse footprints of inertia.
Hemmingway was one of the unlucky ones who were gathered in the hall at four in the afternoon. Telephone calls had been made. Some had been answered. Hemmingway had waited patiently, feeling a surge in anticipation each time the door opened and a child had been removed. Yet there was also a sense of irrealism that he could only define later in life as denoting specific modes of unreality and/or the problems in concretely defining reality. The belief that phenomenalism and physicalism are alternative world-versions, both useful in some circumstances, but neither capable of fully capturing the other, would dominate his writings, albeit his ability was mediocre at best, never capturing the success that he strived for, an accomplishment which – if his mother were found – he hoped that at least she might be proud of.
Properties were purchased and held in trust. Those aged six to twelve were grouped into families. Those teachers who formerly had no children now did so. When Hemmingway was walked to school – crocodile, snap! – he would look at the posters of adults stapled to telegraph poles or pasted onto the sides of buildings. Whilst the image of his mother was clear in his mind, each increasing day was an eraser, until all that remained was the imagination of what she had looked like over the possibility of what had actually been. By the time Hemmingway reached eight, he knew he couldn’t have picked her out at an identity parade. And conversely, with his increasing years, he knew she would no longer recognise him either. Her defining image relegated to that of a breakfast plate.
Memories were inscrutable.
One summer day – unbidden – Hemmingway vividly recalled being tucked up in bed – in a room where Blu-Tack oil had penetrated into the surface of the paint substrate, so even though degreasing agents had been used, the oil had slowly made its way to the surface to show as a shadow mark again – and Missy had read from The Sneetches by Dr Suess, a storybook where no one was satisfied until their identities had been lost to a level playing field.
Sometimes Hemmingway would observe the parents of children on the walk to school and wondered if they deserved them.
Unlike some of the other parents, Hemmingway was to understand that his mother had not made much of an imprint. There were no photographs – either in company or otherwise – and the authorities had been unable to unlock her laptop. Hemmingway had found some art materials under the bed they shared, but he was either too young or not inclined, the renditions of her visage under his fingers being little more than an oval containing geometrical shapes without greater definition. He was much better with words: her hair curls brown, her eyes are yolks, her cheeks redden in the wind. Repetition in the writing seemed to reinforce the image, inscribing ink-blue onto the pale orange surface of Post-It notes, until tiredness overtook him to create different constructs: hair cured blown, eyes yoked, cheeken red.
She was disappearing faster than he could create her.
Occasionally he wished that the stories they had shared – those transient discussions of greater interest to the old than to the young – had remained with him. Other children – parentless or not – could vividly answer those school staples of what is your earliest memory and what did you do in the summer holidays, but Hemmingway was vacant. There was no gradual accretion from birth into childhood. If pressed he might answer that one moment he was there and the next he was not.
A commonality he shared with Missy.
He stuck the Post-It notes to telegraph poles, sides of buildings, streetlamps. Their adherence loosening in poor weather, gathering pastel-coloured dust until the tackiness was supplanted and they were dislodged, curling into soft breezes, as if stripped out of paintings, away from representations of what the world looked like aside from what it actually was.
When Hemmingway came of age he was presented with the keys to his former childhood home. His guardians had been quick with brush and paint and it was in no way as derelict as his relationships. Some items were as he remembered them, others were new. There was an almost holographic quality to the reintroduction, as if one image after another were superimposed over his memories, the building forcing itself 3D from 2D beginnings. Reality coalesced as Hemmingway moved from room to room, but he never found the posters Missy had stolen nor the drawing of him she had created. These had long ago been burnt to ash in the fireplace.
Even the discolouration had gone. ∎
Andrew Hook is a much published writer who works in a variety of genres. His most recent short story collection is Candescent Blooms (Salt Publishing, 2022) which received a five star review in The Telegraph. Forthcoming this year is a collaborative novel, Secondhand Daylight, written with Eugen Bacon. He is currently working on a collection of forty stories, each of which will be exactly 1000 words in length. Find him at andrew-hook.com
Sumit Roy, a.k.a scorpy, is a self-taught freelance illustrator, graphic designer, and digital artist from Basirhat, India. Sumit work has also appeared in Weird Horror Magazine and other publications around the world. See more of Sumit’s work at his website.
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