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THE ERASERS (Part One)

Short story By: Philip Roberts
Science fiction



Image creatures that can ride along sunbeams to snatch people from time and space!


Submitted:Jan 23, 2012    Reads: 10    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


1.

EXTRACTS FROM THE DIARY OF PHILIP JOSEPHS

Saturday, 14th January 2012

I don't know what the erasers are? Where they come from? Or even how they devour their prey? If indeed, that's even what they do. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.

My name is Phil. Phil Josephs. For the last three years or so I've been attending Centre-West Church every Saturday afternoon. Centre-West meets on Saturdays because we lease a Church of Christ building, and C.O.C. holds services all day on Sundays.

By 6.10 PM today, we were seated or standing around in the tearoom after church, having a cuppa and filling our faces with biscuits, jam tarts, some hideously bitter candy canes left over from Christmas, and other goodies.

I was seated with my back to the large window, pressing backwards to ease the hideous arthritic pain in my back. Glancing across the brown-wood tables in the centre of the room, I saw Nancey Kwouk standing smiling toward me. Nancey was a tall, attractive women in her late forties or early fifties.

Today she must have been planning to go out after church, since she was wearing a bright dress with a plunging neckline, from which her full, melon-shaped breasts did their level best to leap free as she leant across the tables to say something to me.

A frustrated, middle-aged bachelor, who until joining Centre-West three years ago had had no real friends outside my family, I none-the-less tried my best, without much success, to raise my eyes from Nancey's full, swelling breasts to her pleasant face as she said to me: "Are you going to …?"

Then a beam of sunlight flooded in through the window behind me. Sunlight and something else. Something like a black sheath or burst of black light. If black light is possible.

Streaking across the snack table to the surprise of Mark Jenkins, a thickset, grey-haired man, and a couple of others, the black streak stopped upon the bosomy figure of Nancey Kwouk.

Except that Nancey Kwouk no longer existed. As the eraser (as I have decided to call it) landed up Nancey, the busty brunette faded out of existence.

"What the bloody Hell!" cried Mark Jenkins. Leaping to his feet, as I staggered more slowly up upon my arthritic legs.

"Mark, honey, what is it?" asked his wife, Sandra, short and stout as Mark himself was.

"Nancey …?" he said. Making the others in the tearoom turn to stare at him.

"Nancey …?" asked Sandra. She sounded as puzzled as Mark himself now looked.

"Nancey Kwouk?" I finished for him.

"Nancey Kwouk?" echoed Sandra Jenkins, turning toward me.

"She just vanished," I said, wondering how Sandra could have possibly not noticed.

"Who just vanished?" asked Sandra, sounding as puzzled as I now felt.

"Nancey Kwouk just vanished," I said, pointing toward where the bosomy Asian-Australian woman had been standing a few seconds earlier.

Twenty or more people turned to where I was pointing, and then clearly perplexed they all looked back to me - like a tennis crowd following the ball with their eyes.

"Who is Nancey Kwouk?" asked Sandra.

"Is she a friend of yours?" asked Mark. Suddenly looking puzzled to find himself standing, he sat again beside Sandra.

"Of course, she's a friend of mine," I said with enough force to make everyone in the tearoom and adjoining hall stop to stare at me.

"Phil? Are you all right?" asked Pastor Ian Wong, sounding genuinely concerned as he made his way through the small crowd of people from the hall to where I sat by the window.

"Nancey?" I said as he stood beside me. "Nancey Kwouk?"

"Nancey Kwouk?" asked Ian, mirroring the question from Sandra earlier.

Pointing back toward the large mirror behind me, I explained: "A shaft of black light flashed in across the room and hit Nancey Kwouk and she just vanished. Mark saw it."

"Everyone turned to look at a very puzzled looking Mark Jenkins.

"I'm sorry, Phil, but I've never known anyone called Nancey Kwouk," insisted Mark.

"But you stood up when she was hit by the black light and vanished!" I insisted, trying not to raise my voice to a shout as I spoke.

"Black light?" asked Sarah Jenkins.

Looking worried, Pastor Ian persisted: "Who is Nancey Kwouk, Phil? Someone you brought along to church with you? I wish you had introduced her to us. New members are always welcome here."

Trying my best not to shout at him, I said: "No, Nancey has attended Centre-West every week for the last three years." Although I had missed much of 2011 due to painful urology problems, so I could not really know how often Nancy Kwouk had attended Centre-West last year.

Looking both concerned for me and dumbfounded, Ian Wong insisted: "In the three and a bit years I've been running Centre-West Church, I can't recall anyone name Nancey ever attending. Let alone a Nancey Kwouk?"

"But that's ridiculous!" I protested, almost pleading with him to remember Nancey. Finally unable to resist raising my voice, I shouted, "You know Nancey Kwouk as well as I do. She was attending Centre-West before I started coming three years ago!"

"Phil, are you all right?" asked Jenny Wong, Pastor Ian's wife, coming over to reassure me. The Wong's knew - as everyone else in the church did - that I had been ill for much of the second half of 2011. And it soon became apparent that they all thought that I was suffering from some form of hysterical delusions.

In vain I argued with them for another ten minutes, without managing to convince anyone in the tearoom that anyone named Nancey Kwouk had ever existed, let alone attended Centre-West Church virtually every week since it had opened a little over three-and-a-half years ago in July 2008.

"But she was real!" I persisted, only drawing troubled looks from my many friends at the church tearoom.

Finally Jenny signalled to Anthony Nuygen, who lived in the same general direction as I did, and whispered to him (loud enough for everyone in the tearoom to overhear): "Can you drive Phil home, Tony? He's not feeling very well."

"No worries," assured the tall, muscular Korean-Australian.

I wanted to shout at her that I was feeling fine! I just wanted to know what had happened to Nancey Kwouk. I just wanted them to remember Nancey Kwouk, who they had all known for over three years! But I knew that they were only trying to help. And I was starting to understand that no matter what I said none of them would ever again remember Nancey.

So, starting to feel like the invalid that they were all treating me as, I dutifully followed Tony through the church to the parking lot out back. Even allowing him to help me into the front passenger seat of his white Kia.

"Don't worry," said Tony giving me a genuine smile, "you'll feel a lot better when you're lying down."

Although with both my arthritis and my urinary problems, the pain was at its worst when I was lying down. But I didn't bother to say this to Tony, since he was only trying to help.

"Soon be there," said Tony as we turned left into Essex Street and started for Leander Street where (as always after church) I would find my Tortoisehell she cat, Bella, waiting, meowing at me to come inside and feed her.

It was only as we passed the roundabout at Eleanor Street that it struck me: Whatever had taken Nancey Kwouk had not just removed her physical presence. It had also erased her past. It had, in fact, erased her from history, so that Nancey Kwouk had not only ceased to exist, she had ceased to EVER have existed!

But why am I the only one who can remember Nancey? I wondered. After these … these Erasers erased her from history? Why hasn't my memory of her faded out as everyone else's did within seconds of poor Nancey's vanishment?

I was still thinking these troubled thoughts as the white Kia pulled up outside my villa house at 122 Leander Street, where right on cue, Bella sat in the driveway meowing in an insistent almost pip-pip-piping manner, which she used solely when she needed to ram home just how starving she was (although I had fed her not much more than two hours ago, just before leaving for church).

"Come on, let's get you inside," said Tony still convinced that I could not manage by myself.

As I started to open the passenger door he raced around to help me from the tiny car as though concerned I could not stand unaided. Forcing poor Bella to follow alone behind instead of being carried into the house, as I usually carried her coming back from church on Saturdays.

Then, to my embarrassment Tony insisted, "I'd better see you into bed."

After I fumbled the keys from the lanyard connected to my belt (so that they wouldn't cut through my trouser pocket and fall to the pavement as they had done with an earlier set of trousers), Tony all but carried me into the bedroom. Where he reluctantly left me after I had assured him: "I'll be all right now."

He stood in the bedroom doorway for a moment, clearly uncertain about leaving me, knowing I lived alone with just Bella for company, before reluctantly waving good-bye and heading back to the front door.

"You've got Ian and Jenny's number if you need anything, don't you?" he called before stepping out the door.

"Yes, don't worry, I'll be fine, thanks," I called back, relieved when I finally heard the front door close.

I waited until the Kia had driven away, then stood up (from where I had been sitting on the edge of my bed) and walked out into the kitchen followed by an insistently meowing Bella, to put out some Lamb and Liver for her. Then I walked to the lounge room to begin this diary in case I also forgot ever having known poor Nancey Kwouk.

Monday 16th January 2012

Around noon I received a phone call from Bee Ling Chi'ang, my doctor, a close friend and a fellow parishioner at Centre-West Church:

"Hello?" I asked, surprised to recognise Bee Ling's voice. Usually one of the doctor's two receptionists would ring me if he thought I needed to come to see him for any reason.

"Phil, I realised that I haven't seen you at the clinic for a while," he said. "I wondered if you could make it this afternoon at 4:00 PM?"

"Well …" I started to protest, knowing that Pastor Ian Wong must have phoned Bee Ling on my behalf. I wanted to tell him forcefully that there was nothing wrong me. But I didn't want to offend him, and realised that Ian Wong and Bee Ling Chi'ang both only meant well. So, I said: "Yes, of course."

"Good, good," he said, sounding very relieved.

* * *

At four o'clock sharp I arrived at the doctor's clinic, which as usual was almost full. However, instead of the usual ninety minute-plus wait, I was called in to see Dr Chi'ang almost immediately. To the obvious consternation of patients who presumably had been waiting for ages to be seen.

"Hey," called one patient, who looked and may well have been a street person (since both Ian Wong and Bee Ling Chi'ang tried to help the poor as much as legally and financially possible), "is he royalty or something!"

Dr Chi'ang looked as embarrassed as I felt at the query, however, a stern look from Bee Ling's most senior receptionist, Alexandria, silenced the protestor.

"Come in, come in," enthused Bee Ling as though we were brothers not merely friends from church. He guided me to a seat before his varnished desk, as though like Tony Nuygen the night before he felt that I might collapse if not physically held up.

He went through an extensive physical exam, took my blood pressure and wrote out a bulk-billing request form for the Maribyrnong General Western Hospital to have blood tests, urine tests, brain scans and EEG tests done, before finally getting round to questioning me.

Rather tentatively he broached: "Do you ever imagine things, Phil?"

I did my best not to sigh aloud in frustration as I said: "No, never."

"No hallucinations? Or moments of daydreaming?"

"I have daydreams, of course, everyone does."

"But where you sometimes confuse the dream for reality?" he persisted.

"No, never."

"Good, good," said Bee Ling, actually sounding very worried.

Hesitantly he said: "I missed church this Saturday due to an emergency I had to attend. But Jenny and Ian Wong told me you had problems."

Since he had been careful not to mention Nancey Kwouk, I decided not to either, simply saying: "I thought I saw someone in the church, who turned out not to be there."

"Yet you were quite persistent that she was there? That she had been attending for three years or more?" said Bee Ling. Who, of course, had been told the whole story by Jenny and Ian Wong.

"Well …" I hesitated, finally telling him in depth what had happened. Although his calm reaction told me he was hearing nothing that the pastor and his wife hadn't already told him.

Suddenly standing, he walked round the desk again to shine a small doctor's torch into my right eye.

"Do you ever suffer from fainting spells?"

"Only if I stand up too quickly."

"Yes, that's due to your double blood pressure," he said shifting the torch across to my left eye. We had established long ago that my blood pressure varied slight depending on whether I was sitting or standing. So I had to be careful not to stand too suddenly for fear of fainting.

"Do you ever suffer from white flashes at the back of your eyeballs?" he asked.

"Only when some silly bugger is shining a flashlight into my eye," I said, making the Chinese-Australian laugh.

"Fair enough," he said. "Well, I can't find anything wrong. But to be on the safe side I'll get Alexandria to make you an appointment at the Maribyrnong General."

"Alexandria," I teased, "that's near Cairo, isn't it?"

"No, I meant by chief receptionist, Alexandria," he explained. And with that we returned to the reception area of the clinic so Alexandria could ring through to the hospital.

The brunette spoke of the phone for five minutes, then covering the receiver with one hand she said to Dr Chi'ang: "They say they have at least a six month waiting list."

"No, that's no good," said Bee Ling Chi'ang. Taking the receiver from Alexandria, he began to argue the urgency of my case to one of the chief doctors of the hospital.

Normally six months could easily turn to six years when you were on the national health waiting list. However, as a personal friend of mine, Bee Ling pulled a few strings, called in a few favours, and to my dismay as he handed back the receiver to his receptionist, Dr Chi'ang turned to me and said: "Your appointment is for 8:00 AM on Thursday the second of February."

Alexandria made out a date card for me, and handing it over and assured me: "You'll get an official letter confirming that date in the next few days."

Saturday, 28th January 2012

Having missed one week of church, I arrived a minute or two before 4:00 PM today, wondering at the size of the congregation. Over the last three years Centre-West had gradually built up until instead of six or seven people on bad weeks (as in August 2008 when I had first attended), our bad weeks by 2012 usually were thirty-five to forty parishioners. Today, however, barely twenty people had arrived by four o'clock.

Noticing that the front pew on the right (which was normally crowded by now) was all but empty, I asked: "Where is everyone?"

"Everyone?" asked Jenny Wong sounding puzzled.

Pointing at the near empty pew, I said: "Dan Horrocks, Thomas Naylor, Margey Hunter, Elspeth Warner …?"

The worried look Jenny was giving me stopped me as I realised: She doesn't recognise any of those names. Yet Dan and Margey have been coming here for nearly three years? Tom and Elspeth for a year-and-a-half or more?

"Never mind," I said to Jenny. Trying to ignore her trouble look as I tried hard not to run as I hurried across to a pew near the rear on the right hand side of the small church.

* * *

Usually our service starts with the congregation standing for twenty-five minutes or so as we sang hymns (plus a few gospel rockers). But today we had a treat as Pastor Ian explained:

"The Rodriguez sisters from the Spanish Church are going to entertain us by singing some hymns of their own choosing."

The Spanish Church also rents the Church of Christ building for their services. And from time to time two (or all three) of the churches hold combined services.

As Pastor Ian Wong introduced them, five lovely girls aged from seven to fifteen, dressed in traditional Spanish costume, strolled toward the front of the church, smiling broadly as we stood to applaud them.

The five girls were onto their third song, "Holy! Holy! Holy!" when a shaft of bright light shot into the church from a small overhead window. And as though riding the white light down toward us, the black light streaked down upon the five pretty Spanish girls.

And two of them instantly vanished.

"Manuela? Conchita?" shrieked their distraught mother leaping to her feet as her two eldest daughters vanished.

A gasp of annoyance went up around the church at this interruption. All heads turned toward Isabella Rodriguez for a moment, before swivelling back to where the three remaining Spanish-Australian girls stood together, having closed ranks to make up for the loss of their two siblings.

For another second or so, Isabella continued to look horrified by the disappearance of her two eldest daughters. Then as the memory of Manuela and Conchita slipped from her awareness, the horror was replaced by a broad grin as she began to applaud the singing of her three lovely and talented daughters.

"Bravo! Bravo!" cried the excited mother. Before finally being dragged down to her seat by her obviously embarrassed husband.

"Terribly sorry, terribly sorry," apologized Benjamin Rodriguez. "She always does this when our little girls sing."

"Mother!" chastised one of the three remaining Spanish girls. Her face flushed almost beet red from a mixture of anger and embarrassment.

"So sorry," apologized Isabella Rodriguez.

"That's all right," insisted Pastor Ian from the front pew.

"We don't mind a little parental enthusiasm," assured Jenny Wong, seated beside her husband. "We're easy going at Centre-West."

Although the glares all three remaining Rodriguez sisters were now giving their mother were anything but easy going.

"So sorry," said Isabella one last time, at a whisper.

The three Spanish girls continued to glare at their mother for a moment longer, before returning to singing, "Holy! Holy! Holy!" Before finishing with, "Majesty!"

To the wild applause of the diminished crowd, the three pretty girls did a well-rehearsed curtsy, then raced across to sit next to their parents.

As they ran, the black sheathed light, which had taken their two eldest sisters, streamed down again. For a horrified second I thought it would snatch the three remaining Rodriguez sisters from existence. Instead the black light passed within centimetres of the three sisters, passing behind them, to strike two parishioners sitting beside Jenny Wong on the front pew.

Tanya Richards a Eurasian had moved to Australia from the Indian Subcontinent more than thirty years ago. She had converted from Hinduism to Christianity at age twelve and had immediately been ostracised by her family. Her life in Australia had been trouble too, with bad marriages to three brutal husbands. Her last bad husband had at least presented her with her beautiful daughter Marni, just before abandoning mother and daughter to their fate.

Tanya had struggled on, working sixteen hour days for many years to bring up her daughter, who worshipped her mother for all she had gone through to give Marni a good home.

Tanya was held up as an inspiration to us all at Centre-West Church. Until the black sheath, the eraser, struck her and she was erased from history.

"What!" shrieked sixteen-year-old Marni. Staggering to her feet to stare gape-eyed at the empty pew where her beloved mother had just been seated.

"Marni? What is wrong?" asked Jenny Wong, also standing.

"Mother!" cried Marni Richards. Then in a blink of an eye Marni also vanished from time and space.

"Marni!" cried Jenny, as her husband, Pastor Ian, stood and put a comforting arm around her.

"Jenny, honey, what's wrong?" asked Ian Wong.

"Marni!" said Jenny Wong, looking puzzled even as she said it. As though the name had already ceased to mean anything to her.

"Marni?" echoed her husband, equally puzzled by the unknown name.

"I … I'm sorry," apologized a very confused looking Jenny Wong. "I think I've had too much sun."

Helping his wife back to her seat Pastor Ian called to one of the church assistants: "Samuel, can you close the shutters and turn on the fluorescents?"

"No sweat," said Sam Conti, operating a small consul in a metal box on the wall near the rear of the church.

With an eerie shrieking, the overhead vertical blinds squealed closed, cloaking the church in darkness. Until with a couple of clicks Sam switched on the fluorescent lights.

"Not too bright," warned Ian Wong. Obviously still concerned about his beloved wife of twenty-eight years.

Nodding, Sam adjusted the lighting down a few notches on the rheostat.

As the vertical blinds has squealed shut, for a second I had thought I could hear another squealing behind the blinds. As though I could hear either the death squeals (I hoped) of the black erasers as I have named them. Or possibly squeals of rage as the closing vertical blinds blocked out the shafts of sunlight, preventing the erasers from sliding down into the church building to snatch more innocent worshippers out of space and time.

"That's better, thanks," said Ian Wong. Obviously having not heard anything out of the ordinary as the blinds had closed.

Although for a few seconds other members of the congregation had look warily around the ceiling. As though they had heard, or at least sensed, the angry shrieks of the eraser - as I was already thinking of the black light beings, since they erased not only the physical presence of their victims, but also their memory and place in history.

"Did you hear that?" whispered one of the startled congregation to no-one in particular.

Then in a second or two the parishioners startled looks turned to looks of concern for Jenny Wong. However, now obviously recovered from her distress, she assured everyone:

"I'm fine, thanks. Just a little too much sun."

So, after kissing her warmly upon the cheek, Pastor Ian stepped up to a small podium at the front of the congregation to begin his sermon:

"Help the needy! Not the greedy!" began Ian Wong. Going on to talk in support of Prime Minister Gilliard's Excess Tax soon to be levied upon the super rich.

The mega-rich and Big Business had already started to pollute the airwaves with propaganda ads., calling the new taxes, "Excessive Tax." But it was clear that Pastor Ian was not falling for it, and was fully supporting Julia Gilliard's plans to try to force the ultra-rich to pay major taxation for the first time ever.

Part way through the sermon two more parishioners vanished after a tiny shaft of light came down due to a small kink in one of the vertical blinds. But they were both first (and last) timers, whose names I did not know.

Our church hands out a welcoming bag to newcomers. A silver-grey bag like the ones you can buy at supermarkets to use instead of plastic bags. As the newcomers vanished, one grey bag vanished also. The other, placed on the pew beside the owner lay there, to be found after the service by Tony Nuygen.

Looking puzzled, Tony held up the felt bag and asked, "Did any of the newcomers forget their welcoming bag?"

The remaining newcomers dutifully checked and all had their bags, so Tony looked across to Pastor Ian, who said: "Put it back into the box, someone may have been given two bags by mistake."

Then why didn't they hand it back? Instead of just leaving it behind? I thought. Careful not to give voice to my thoughts for fear of being regarded as peculiar again.

The puzzled look on Tony Nuygen's face suggested that he was thinking the same thing.

"They can always ask for a replacement one if someone finds they've left their bag behind," added Ian Wong.

By this time Jenny Wong seemed to have completely forgotten her unease earlier at the disappearance of Marni Richards. And the casual way that he treated her as they headed toward the tearoom suggested that her husband had forgotten his wife's distress also.

"How are you now?" I asked, before realising that she no longer remembered being upset.

"How am I now?" asked Jenny, giving me a worried look as though thinking I was imagining things again. Pastor Ian gave her a worried smile, and not too patronisingly, she added: "Fine, fine, how are you feeling, Phil?"

Dismayed by the question, I could hardly take offence, since I had started the conversation, so I said: "Fine, I'm just fine."

"Bee Ling tells us that you have an appointment at the Maribyrnong General Western, this coming Thursday?" said Ian Wong. Trying a little too hard to sound matter-of-fact about it.

"Yes," I said, trying not too sound too abrupt. If they already thought I was a little strange, the last thing I needed to do was to alienate them any further.

"I'm sure there's nothing wrong," said Jenny Wong. Although she sounded anything but sure, and anything but convincing.

Trying my best not to allow my dismay to turn to anger, I followed Ian and Jenny toward the twin glass doors to the small hall leading across to the tearoom.

We had just reached the door to, where Tony Nuygen stood by the sound consul and Sam Conti near the lighting consul, when a shaft of bright sunlight flashed in through the glass doors, from the front door, to the left of where we stood.

Instinctively all three of us took a pace backward so that the white light narrowly missed us. Striking Sam Conti instead.

In an instant, as he reached to turn off the fluorescent lights, the black eraser streaked along the sunbeam to engulf Sam. Who instantly vanished.

For a second all four of us (myself, the Wongs, and Tony Nuygen) stared in horror at the space where Sam Conti had just been.

Then, obviously forgetting the Italian-Australian man who they had known for twenty-five years, Ian and Jenny Wong stepped out into the hall and started toward the tearoom.

Tony Nuygen continued to stare toward the light consul on the wall for a moment. Then, casually, he stepped across to turn off the fluorescents, as I stepped out into the hall and started after Ian and Jenny.

Although not in a mood to drink and chat, I was afraid to leave the church building when it would mean stepping out into the bright summer sun and exposing myself to whatever was using the sunbeams as a guideline to snatch its victims out of time. So somewhat reluctantly I headed into the tearoom after the Wongs.

In the tearoom I stood in line for a cup of white coffee. Then seeing the portly, grey-haired figures of Mark and Sandra Jenkins seated at the biscuit table, I started across toward them.

"Hi, Phil," said Mark. The last words he would ever say.

"Hello," I said to Mark and Sandra, as a sunbeam flashed in through the large window behind them.

As the sunbeam hit the Jenkinses, the black eraser engulfed Mark, who faded out of existence.

"Holy shit!" I said, forgetting I was in church building. And dropping my coffee cup, which shattered upon the hardwood table (actually six small square tables place together).

Looking at first startled at my language, then shocked as she realised that her husband was no longer seated beside her, Sandra Jenkins started to stand. But as the eraser engulfed her, the grey-haired woman vanished while still in a squatting position.

"What …?" asked Renka, a Russian-Australian parishioner, looking horrified for a second. Then in an instant her horror turned to helpfulness as she said: "Phil has spilt his cuppa."

Racing across to grab some paper hand towels she mopped up the mess I had made. Before heading across to the counter to kindly make me a replacement cup of coffee.

"There you are," said Renka, placing the replacement cuppa in front of me.

As Sandra Jenkins vanished, Jayne - our missionary, and sometimes stand-in speaker - standing by the hall had been staring in horror as her long-time friend vanished from existence. However, in seconds her look of horror turned to a look of delight.

"Look, there's two vacant seats," said Jayne as she gently guided Irene - at eight-seven our old member - over to sit in Mark's chair, before plonking down into Sandra's recently vacated seat.

"Lord, the light is bright in here," said Pastor Ian. And, to my relief, he went across close the vertical blinds - too late for the Jenkinses, but in time to protect Jayne, little Irene, and the rest of us from the erasers.

As the curtains closed, again I thought I could hear angry, agonised squealing from the black erasers. For a second Irene and Renka looked started, obviously hearing the angry squeal. Then it faded and in a moment all except myself had obviously forgotten ever having heard it.

Thursday, 2nd February 2012

Today I had an 8:00 AM appointment at the Maribyrnong General Western Hospital. I didn't mind the early start. For more than seven years I have been unemployed due to severe arthritis of the spine. So I am used to rising early in the unlikely chance of finding a job to go after. However, I did mind going to the hospital almost on orders from Dr Chi'ang. Since Bee Ling Chi'ang and Ian Wong were still convinced that I was imagining things.

Nonetheless, I arrived at the reception desk at First Floor North at ten minutes to eight - relieved that the hospital was only one street from where I live.

"Hello," smiled the young Greek-Australian woman on reception.

"Hi," I said, handing over my appointment letter, alone with my blue-card and Medicare care. Which she processed quickly before telling me:

"Sit anywhere."

Anywhere? I thought, looking around the crowded waiting room, hoping that I would not have to stand up for hours with my arthritic back while waiting.

Seeing my dismay, the Greek receptionist advised: "There are overflow seats in the hallway." She pointed back the way that I had just come in.

I headed back into the corridor to find that the overflow seats were overflowing also. I had all but decided that I would indeed have to stand, when from behind me a female voice called: "Vido Contouri."

Turning, I saw a young, willowy brunette with a doctor's coat helping an elderly man to his feet.

As the elderly man began to stand rise, I hurriedly started back across the reception room to be ready to take over the hard plastic, boat race blue chair when he finally vacated it.

"Nice and slowly, Mr Contouri," encourage the brunette. Allowing me, even with my arthritic back and knees, time to sneak across ready to take over the seat vacated by Vido Contouri as he and the young doctor headed into the examination area beyond the waiting room.

"Thank the Lord," I muttered, squeezing into the restrictive plastic seat.

Taking a paperback from my black burlap bag, I settled in for a long wait - knowing that appointment times meant nothing at the Maribyrnong General Western. Trying my best to ignore the smell of sweat and antiseptics, which vied for my attention, I opened my book and began reading.

I had read a hundred and fifty pages, when I stopped to check the time and saw that it was nearly 12:30. I also noticed that the once packed waiting room was now more than half empty. From time to time doctors had come in and called someone's name. But at the same time new patients had steadily joined the queue. So I was surprised to see so big a drop in the number of people waiting.

"Where is everyone?" I thought aloud.

"Oh, there's never many people in North Ward on Tuesdays," said the Greek receptionist. Obviously having forgotten her advice to me earlier to try the overflow area when there had been standing room only in the waiting room.

As I looked around an elderly man tottered in pushing an equally elderly lady in a wheel chair.

"Mr and Mrs Harrelson," said the man handing over his appointment letter, and cards together.

The three documents went into the right hand of the Greek receptionist, when a burst of bright sunlight streamed into the room and engulfed the elderly couple.

In an instant an eraser flashed along the sunbeam riding it down to the elderly couple. Who both vanished, leaving behind an unattended wheelchair.

"What the Hell!" cried the young receptionist, whose nametag identified her as Ghia. She stood staring for a few seconds at the space vacated by the elderly couple.

Then the appointment letter and two cards vanished, followed by the wheelchair also, leaving poor Ghia staring in horror for a second or so. Until the horror in her eyes turned to slight puzzlement, then complete unconcern.

Finally she bent to sit again. When the black eraser struck Ghia also, erasing the Greek receptionist from time and space.

Sun streaming into through the waiting room, I realised. That's how the waiting area has emptied out so quickly!

Even as I thought it, the sunlight streaked around the waiting room, like the beam of a laser rifle operated by an epileptic.

In a matter of six or seven seconds as many people had vanished from the waiting area.

Doing my best to avoid being hit by the flashing sunbeam and the black light entity hidden within, I stepped over to click shut the Venetian blinds.

"Hey!" cried a burly, two-metre taller with blue-black tattoos all up and down his bear arms from wrist to shoulders. "I like the sunlight!"

So saying, he stepped toward the pull-cord as I stepped hurriedly away. Gripping the cord almost angrily, he ripped the blinds open, was struck by a vivid sunbeam and vanished before he could even release the blind cord.

With the tattooed man gone, I walked across to close the blinds again, blocking out the sunlight from half of the waiting room window. But when I tried to close the other half, the cord was stuck somehow and refused to close the Venetian blinds.

"That pull cord has been stuck for weeks," said a portly redhead woman behind the reception counter. "They keep saying a repairman is coming, but he hasn't turned up yet."

As a beam of bright sunlight streaked into the room and raced across toward the reception desk, I hurriedly backed into the dark half of the waiting room. Trying my best not to feel guilty as the sunlight struck the redhead and erased her from history, along with two people seated in the waiting room. And a tall blonde who was just walking in through the doorway from the corridor.

Picking up my book again, unable to read now, I used the book as a shield, to block out the horrors of the waiting room, which was fast becoming a death room, as more and more people popped out of existence.

Trying to hide within the pages of my paperback shield, I did not hear at first when my own name was called.

Then looking up I saw the tall, thin brunette in a doctor's coat standing near the reception desk looking toward where a grey-haired man and I sat together in the otherwise empty waiting room.

"Philip Josephs?" she repeated.

"Yes," I said, standing as hurriedly as by weak arthritic knees would allow.

As I stood, the brunette took a pace toward me, and then was hit by a sunbeam and its lethal passenger. And in a second she faded out of existence.

A blue plastic clipboard she carried fluttered down to the floor like an oversized autumn leaf. However, the clipboard vanished just millimetres shy of hitting the floor.

Looking about the near-empty room, I said: "It's speeding up!"

"If only it were," said the old man beside me, staggering to his feet. "Just look at this place. I've been waiting for three hours and there's only you and me here."

Pointing toward the reception desk, he added: "There's not even anyone on the front desk."

Looking to my right, I realised that he was correct. The young Greek woman, Ghia, and the plump redhead had been the only people on reception. With them both erased from history, the reception desk was left unattended.

Before I could caution him, the elderly man walked passed me in through the wide doorway into the large treatment area beyond and started looking around.

"There's nobody in here either!" he said in increasing anger. "They usually have a dozen staff and up to twenty patients in here at any one time. Now there's no-one!"

"No-one!" I said in dismay.

"No-one!" he confirmed. Before walking out of sight deeper into the brightly sunlit treatment area.

For a moment or two I heard the clip-clop of his footsteps on the concrete floor. Then his footsteps faded suddenly out of existence. And when the old man had not returned in a couple of minutes, I realised that he also had faded out of existence!

No longer caring who saw me acting strangely, I turned and ran out into the long, empty corridor. I ran down one empty corridor after another. Until reaching the elevator bays for North Ward and stabbed my right index finger painfully against the down button in my terror.

"Ouch!" I said, sucking at my pained digit as the elevator doors almost immediately opened.

Stepping into the empty elevator I rode down to the ground floor. Where I ran as fast as my arthritic back would allow through more empty corridors, carefully following the blue painted line until reaching the empty reception area. Which I now little more than walked through, almost colliding with the slow automatic doors in my haste to vacate the seemingly empty nine-storey hospital building.

Outside the streets were as empty of life as the hospital. Yet Maribyrnong is a growing suburb with nearly a hundred thousand people. Even in the early afternoon there should have been a few stray people milling around.

As I passed the junior school on the corner of Essex and Eleanor Streets the schoolyard was also empty. Although school had started back this week after the long Christmas break and usually I could see children in the classrooms as I passed the school on my way to or from the hospital. But not today! Today no faces showed through the large classroom windows! And no stragglers stayed in the playground. The swings and Jungle Gym which had been brightly painted when I had passed by five hours earlier, were now faded and rusty.

By the time that I had reached Essex Street, my running had subsided to very slow walking, as my aching back refused to allow me to more than dodder along.

When I finally reached 122 Leander Street, I still had not met anyone. Although I was relieved to see my Tortoiseshell cat, Bella, waiting for me.

"Thank God you're still here," I said, leading the way to the side door.

"Meow!" said Bella in her most starving sounding tone. She dutifully trotted after me as I led her into the kitchen and filled her bowl with a nauseating-looking mixture of chicken and kidneys, which she happily scoffed down.

* * *

Perhaps an hour later I was sitting in the lounge room writing this diary, nursing a purring tortoiseshell on my belly, when the phone rang.

"Hello?" I said almost dropping the receiver again from nervousness, never fond of telephones.

"Mr Josephs?" asked a female voice.

"Yes."

"I'm ringing from the Maribyrnong General Western Hospital. About your appointment at 8:00 AM this morning?"

"Yes, I turned up, but there was no-one on reception. So I waited a couple of hours then left," I said, telling the basic truth, but leaving out the horrid details.

"Yes, I'm terribly sorry. Due to some administration error you were the only patient scheduled for the North Ward this morning. And no reception or medical staff was assigned to First Floor North.

"I'm very sorry, we don't know what went wrong. Possibly a computer error. We've never had this kind of a cock-up before."

"Don't worry, that's okay," I said, dropping my diary onto the floor so that I could pat Bella while holding the receiver.

"If you don't mind holding on a moment, I'll make a replacement appointment," said the receptionist who sounded only seventeen or eighteen.

"No sweat," I said, grimacing as Muzac started blaring over the receiver.

I waited impatiently for seven or eight minutes, having to swap the receiver to my right hand as my left started to ache.

"What's keeping her …?" I said impatiently. And suddenly the Muzac went off.

"Hello?" I said, expecting the receptionist to come back online. Instead an eerie silence reigned for fifteen seconds or so. Then the ordinary dial started as though we had been disconnected.

"Damn!" I said, hitting the recall button hard enough to hurt my index finger again.

When the dial tone continued, I picked up my wallet to take out a card with the hospital's number to manually ring through.

The phone rang for a moment, then a recorded voice informed me: "The number you have attempted to reach is either disconnected, or has not yet been assigned."

"What!" I said in disbelief. Rechecking the card, I put down Bella, only to have her pivot and leap straight back up onto my lap. So that, with great difficulty, I had to stand, clutching Bella to my stomach, to go out into the hallway to grab the telephone book to check the hospital's number.

Finding the same number, I re-rang only to be told again that the number was disconnected or unassigned.

"But that's ridiculous. It can't ….?" I started, afraid to even finish the thought.

Despite her best efforts to stay affixed to my belly, I managed to put down Bella. Then arthritic back or not, I headed across to the side door and out into the street.

Not even thinking of the danger from the erasers who lurked somewhere above, waiting to glide down a sunbeam toward me to pluck me from time and space, I hobbled around to Eleanor Street to where the Maribyrnong General Western Hospital had stood that morning.

Except that now instead of a hospital, there were rows upon rows of cheap, nasty housing estate houses, like little redbrick boxes stacked higgledy-piggledy one on top of another. No sign of the multi-storey hospital, which had stood there for more than seventy years.

"Oh Lord!" I cried. Almost falling in my haste to spin round and race back to the relative sanity of my own home and my cat, Bella.

END OF PART ONE

© Copyright 2012

Philip Roberts, Melbourne, Australia





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