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THE ERASERS (Part Two)

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: 8    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


Saturday, 4th February 2012

As I tentatively stepped through the double glass doors of Centre-West today, I was approached by Pastor Ian who asked me:

"Phil, we were wondering if you could help out with the lighting consul?" He pointed to the consul on the wall to the left of where Tony Nuygen sat at the sound consul. "It really is too much for Tony to manage setting up and running the sound equipment as well as the lighting."

"Don't worry, I'll show you the ropes" reassured Tony Nuygen.

"We meant to asked you a few weeks ago …" said Jenny Wong. Suddenly stopping too embarrassed to explain why they had not asked me a few weeks ago.

"I don't know why we haven't had someone on the lighting consul years ago," added Ian Wong, as much to bail out is wife as anything else.

I was tempted to point out that until last week Sam Conti had worked the lighting consul for two-and-a-half years. But wisely I decided to keep my mouth shut.

"Congratulations," said Edward Soong, almost colliding with me as he came in through the glass doors behind me.

"On what?" asked Tony Nuygen.

"It's Jenny's birthday tomorrow," said Ian Wong, giving his wife a loving hug. "The love of my life turns …"

"If you say it, I'll kill you," warned Jenny.

"Uh-oh, I forgot that women are a bit touchy about their age," said Pastor Ian with a laugh. Pointing to where their teenaged son and daughter sat together on the front pew on the left side of the church, Ian added: "And Tobi's. He was born the same day as his mum."

"But not the same year," teased Tobi Wong.

"You just watch yourself young man," teased back Jenny Wong. She wagged a reproving finger at him, making the two teenagers giggle.

"So, my sermon for today will be on the family in biblical times. And how it relates to the modern family," explained Ian.

Putting an arm around the lady who he still obviously adored after twenty-eight years of marriage, Ian Wong led Jenny to the front of the church where they sat beside Tobi and Joanna Wong. Leaving Tony Nuygen to instruct me in the use of the lighting consul.

Despite sunlight streaming in through the overhead windows, we managed to get through the hymn singing without anyone being erased. Then when Edward read from the bible during communion and collection still no-one vanished.

Dare I hope that it has somehow ended? That the erasers have gone back to wherever they came from? I thought, as Pastor Ian Wong stood to head toward the podium to give his sermon.

As the pastor stood, bright sunlight streamed in from overhead, striking the front pew just behind the priest. And in an instant Jenny, Tobi, and Joanna Wong, and little Irene all vanished. Leaving an empty pew behind the pastor, and making the once happily married man a childless bachelor.

I hurried to shut the vertical blinds to replace the potentially lethal natural light with fluorescent lighting. But, unfamiliar with the consul, I acted too slowly to save Renka or Joyce, who had been seated together on the second pew. Until a black eraser covered them and removed them from history.

As Jenny, Tobi, and Joanna Wong were erased from time and space, Ian Wong faltered. He staggered for a moment as though a giant fist had just reached into his body and had ripped out part of his soul. Turning as white as a corpse, the pastor looked for a moment as though he were going to faint.

"Are you all right, Ian?" called Edward Soong from just in front of the sound consul.

"Yes, I …" said Ian Wong. Then quickly recovering, he turned toward the ever-diminishing congregation, seemingly unfazed by the sight of the empty pew where the love of his life had just ceased to have ever existed.

"My sermon for today is on the evil of lust," he announced. "The worst, if most popular, of the seven deadly sins."

Although Edward and Tony Nuygen did not blink at this abrupt change of subject, I started. Feeling guilty as I remembered lusting after Nancey Kwouk, ogling her generous, pear-shaped breasts just before she became the first of many to be taken from time and space by the erasers.

Monday, 13 February 2012

By this time I decided that it was time to risk making a fool of myself by putting in an official report on the disappearances of Nancey Kwouk, Manuela and Conchita Rodriguez, Tanya and Marni Richards, Jenny, Tobi, and Joanna Wong, and all of the others to have been taken by the erasers.

So, half expecting to be arrested for putting in false reports, I headed out into the burning hot sun to start the longish walk to the 220 bus stop.

Forty-five minutes later I alighted at Hyde Street, and very tentatively headed inside the small police station. And then, less assured than earlier, headed over to the reception desk which was manned by a young constable, who looked no more than fifteen or sixteen.

"Yes?" asked the young man as I approached.

"I just wanted to report …" I began. When in through the glass door burst a bright sunbeam, which struck the young constable.

As a black eraser streaked along the sunbeam, the young constable vanished from existence.

"Hello?" I called, hoping that there was someone else on duty in the small station.

When no-one answered, I repeated the call. Then, after a couple of minutes, I turned round and saw a large cork notice board, with information sheets and wanted posters on it.

As I watched one of the wanted posters suddenly vanished. To be replaced by the image of someone else.

Then another wanted poster flashed out of existence. To be replaced by the image of some other felon.

Then another and another. Until the eight or nine wanted posters on the corkboard were changing too quickly for me to make out each new image. As though foretelling the erasure of dozens, or even hundreds of people.

I stood staring at the rapidly changing images for twenty-five or thirty seconds. Then, coming to my senses, I turned and raced across to the glass door and out into the street.

I had almost reached the footpath, a few metres from the station, before suddenly feeling the weight of something heavy in my hands. Looking down I was astonished to find that I was carrying a large cardboard box filled to the brim with canned foodstuffs and dried pasta.

"What the hell?" I said looking back toward the Hyde Street Police Station.

Except that it was no longer a police station. Now it was a Salvation Army food centre, where they handed out boxes of food to the needy.

Forced to rest the box of foodstuffs on the brick fence of a nearby house, I waited nearly two hours for the 220 bus.

"Hi," I said to the driver, at last climbing aboard the bus. "Is there some kind of delay? I've been waiting nearly two hours."

Looking puzzled, as though I had just said something stupid, the driver said: "You must have just missed one."

"But two hours?" I persisted, knowing that there was supposed to be at least three buses an hour on this route. After all the 220 is a direct line into Melbourne.

"That's about average," insisted the driver. "This is too small a line for the buses to run more often than that."

Too small! I thought, as I turned toward the passenger section of the bus. There are nearly one hundred thousand people in Maribyrnong!

Then deciding not to argue the point, I headed toward the seats. Amazed to see that there were only two little old ladies on the bus. Normally it was packed almost any hour of the day.

"With so few passengers," persisted the bus driver, "I don't know why they don't phase it out altogether. Like they did with the old Maribyrnong Railway Station ten years back."

"Maribyrnong Railway Station?" I echoed, knowing that the Victorian Government had just done a multi-million-dollar renovation of the station. Upgrading the old open-weather tar walkways with a new enclosed walkway above the station, with two hundred concrete steps leading up to it.

"Yeah, it must be about ten years now," said the bus driver. Forcing me to hurriedly sit as he started the bus with a grinding of ancient gears.

A few minutes later we were riding through Irving Street. And to my shock I could see that the driver was right. The once impressive Maribyrnong Railway Station was closed down. As demonstrated when a Williamstown train expressed through the station without even slowing as it would do passing through most stations. Williamstown trains had always stopped at Maribyrnong Station!

The big shock, however, was that the enclosed overhead walkway, its two-hundred concrete steps, and the small elevators at the sides of the steps - which had been there a little over two hours ago - were all gone. Replaced by the ancient open-air tar-path walkways, which had serviced the station for many decades until being removed a year or two ago!

We had not yet seen anyone in the streets. But as we turned into Leed Street then Paisley - the main shopping centre of Maribyrnong - I expected to see the streets packed with people.

But there was no-one!

"Where is everyone?" I thought aloud.

"There's never anyone much about," said the driver, obviously thinking I was talking to him. "Maribyrnong has been dying fast for the last twenty years or more."

"What …?" I said, puzzled. The Maribyrnong I knew and grew up in over fifty-five years had been thriving and growing big-time since the mid 1980s!

"Sad, but true," said the bus driver. And as we drove through Paisley Street, two out of every three shops were boarded up. Or had 'Closing Down Sale' signs on their windows.

The big shock though, was at the corner of Paisley and Albert Streets. The two-storey Coles-K-Mart Plaza, which had started the revitalisation of Maribyrnong twenty-plus years ago no longer existed. In its place was the large gravel-lined car park, which had been there before the plaza had been built in the '80s.

"The Coles-K-Mart Plaza?" I said, shocked.

"Yeah, it's a tragedy," said the bus driver. "They were gonna build it right there on that car park. Then they got a better offer from the Hobson Bay Council, so it got built there instead. Shame really, it might have given a shot of much needed life blood to Maribyrnong."

It did, dammit! I thought, careful not to voice the thought aloud, thinking: I don't need anyone else thinking I'm loony!

With nobody at any of the stops, the bus continued at a steady pace through Paisley Street, Into Victoria Street then Barkly.

As we reached the corner of Leander Street, I decided to stay on the bus and go up to West Maribyrnong to see if I could get in to see Bee Ling Chi'ang. Not that Bee Ling would believe me about the changes going on throughout Maribyrnong, let alone about the erasers who had murdered hundreds, perhaps thousands of people now, seemingly murdering Maribyrnong township in the process.

As the bus stopped at last, I was relieved to see that Doctor Chi'ang's clinic still stood across the road.

Turning back to thank the driver as I alighted, I was shocked to see that the passenger area of the bus was now empty. The two old ladies who were at the back of the bus had vanished. Yet the bus had not stopped between Hyde Street and where we were. And the two ladies had not got off before me.

I stepped back as the bus slowly started up and headed down toward Ashley Street.

Glad of the box of groceries I had received at the police station-cum-salvo depot, but not of the pain the weight gave to my back, I hefted the box and started carefully across Barkly Street. Once little less than a highway at this end, Barkly Street was now all but bereft of traffic. Although a few cars were parked outside the fish-and-chip shop, and I was relieved to see two customers inside the shop.

So it's not a ghost town after all! I thought, relieved, as I turned to start across the road.

With only two cars in sight on the road itself, I was able to cross safely to head toward the wide-open driveway of the Chi'ang and Peterson Clinic.

Except that as I started into the driveway I unexpectedly collided with black cast-iron gates, which had suddenly appeared in my path.

"What the …?" I muttered, looking up. To see a tall red-blue brick, double-storey house - a so-called MacMansion - where the Chi'ang-Peterson Clinic had stood for the last twenty years or more.

"Yes!" demanded a darlek-like mechanical voice. Which I realised came from a small speaker on the left side of the gate.

"Sorry, wrong address," I apologised, not knowing if the person inside could even hear me. Turning, I tottered as fast as my arthritic back and knees would allow, down the block and a bit to the next bus stop.

"Damn!" I cursed as a now rare 220 bus zoomed past just before I was within running distance of the stop. And with no-one waiting at the previously always crowded stop, the bus zoomed straight past.

Maybe I can get some fish-and-chips for lunch and rest in there while eating them? I thought, starting back. Only to stop after a few paces.

The fish-and-chip shop had turned into dilapidated laundrette with a condemned notice on the window.

* * *

I was ready to collapse by the time that I finally got home, many hours later. Still carrying the heavy box of groceries, despite more than once considering abandoning the box.

"Come on, girl," I called Bella, and the plump tortoiseshell trotted after me to the side door.

"Hey, watch out!" I called to Bella, as she hurriedly pushed past me, when I finally struggled the door open, narrowly avoiding dropping the box of groceries.

Following Bella's retreating form, I staggered down the varnished floorboards the seven or eight paces from the side door, to the small tile-floored kitchen.

"Thank God!" I said. Groaning aloud from pain I finally put down the heavy cardboard box on the black kitchen table.

Slumping onto an orange kitchen chair, I started to hunt through the jars and cans in the box.

After a few moments I looked up at where Bella now sat of the kitchen table, also looking into the box, and said to her: "There's plenty of pasta, canned vegetables, cereal. But no cat food."

Receiving the most contemptuous look that you have ever seen on the furry face of a cat, I said: "All right."

Leaving Bella who started rifling through the contents of the cardboard box herself, as though not believing me, I stood gingerly. Going to the washhouse sink near the back door, I opened the door to the cupboard under the sink and took out two cans of cat food.

Holding up the cans, I asked: "Well, which is it to be? Ocean Fish Platter? Or Chicken and Turkey?"

Bella looked from can to can as though considering the question, then gave a very convincing shrug. I repeat: cats can be amazingly expressive.

As I started back into the kitchen, Bella leapt down from the table and headed toward her food bowl on the floor on the right side of the table. Putting the can of Chicken and Turkey on top of the fridge, I opened the can of Ocean Fish Platter and spooned half of its contents into the yellow plastic bowl, marked "Bella".

"Now, what is there for me?" I asked no-one in particular. I regretted that I had not gone into the fish-and-chip shop before it had turned into a laundrette. Or would my flake and chips have turned into a bag of laundry too? I wondered. And what would have happened to me if I had been in the chip shop when it changed? Would I have ceased to exist? Or would I have merely found myself standing in a closed laundrette, instead of a fish-and-chip shop?

Finding a block of mature cheddar and a jar of vegemite in the cardboard box, I made myself a cheese-and-vegemite sandwich for a very late lunch. Then slumped into the kitchen chair to eat.

A short time later I was seated in the armchair in the lounge room, nursing Bella and trying to read a biography of the Marx Brothers, when the telephone shrilled.

"Hello," I said into the receiver, having dropped my book onto the floor to answer the phone.

"Mr Josephs?" asked a female voice, I recognised as Bee Ling Chi'ang's receptionist, Alexandria.

"Yes," I confirmed, patting Bella.

"Doctor Burton has asked me to ring you."

"Doctor Burton?" I asked, perplexed.

"Doctor Burton, your G.P.," persisted Alexandria. "Doctor Burton would like to see you at his clinic at 3:00 PM tomorrow."

Resisting the urge to point out that my G.P. had always been Bee Ling Chi'ang, and that I had never heard of a Doctor Burton, I asked for the address.

Sounding puzzled and a little worried, Alexandria gave me an address in Paisley Street. Which I recognised, since I had attended it about two months ago. Except that at that time it had been a federal government funded dental clinic!

Tuesday, 14th February 2012

I arrived at the Paisley Street Clinic (as the small, grey hardboard clinic was now called) as Alexandria returned from lunch.

"The first ones here after lunch," said the brunette with a grin.

"Hopefully that means I'll be the first one seen," I teased. I had sometimes had to wait two hours to be seen at the Chi'ang-Petersen Clinic.

"Of course," said Alexandria trying to sound nonchalant as she unlocked the screen door. Although a hint of wariness had crept into her eyes, suggesting that Doctor Burton - whoever the hell he was - regarded me as an urgent case.

I followed the brunette into the surprisingly large waiting room - in what on the outside had seemed to be a tiny single-fronted building.

Sitting on a hard plastic chair, I picked up a magazine to read when immediately the door to the doctor's office opened.

"Phil," said Doctor Burton holding out his right hand as though he and I were old friends, as he ushered me through into his office.

I shook hands without answer, since I did not have a clue what his first name was - until I spotted a triangular teak name block on the table, saying Dr. William Burton. Like his namesake Richard, Doctor Burton was a medium-height, thickset man of obvious Welsh origins.

As I sat on the plastic chair Doctor Burton sat behind his desk and, not wasting words, said: "I've called you in because Ian Wong told me that you are still imagining people attending Centre-West."

"It's not imagining people attending church, but seeing them vanish …" I began.

Then a bright burst of sunlight streamed in from a side widow of the clinic. As the sunbeam struck William Burton a black form streaked down along the beam and Burton was erased from time and space.

"Jesus!" I cried, standing, staring at his chair in shock.

Although I had seen many people taken by the erasers over the last month, it was still a great shock each time it happened.

I was still standing, gape-mouthed ten seconds later, when a side door of the office opened. In walked a tall, shapely blonde in a doctor's coat.

"Sorry to keep you waiting Phil," said the blonde, walking across to sit in Doctor Burton's recently vacated chair. "I was on the phone to Ian Wong. Look I won't mince words, I've called you in because Ian Wong told me that you are still imagining people attending Centre-West."

"It's not imagining people attending church, but seeing them vanish …" I said, before realising that she had repeated word for word what Doctor Burton had said.

"We're all very worried about you at Centre-West," she continued.

"We …?" I said, sitting again in the hard plastic chair. I started to tell her that in the three years that I had attended Centre-West I had never once seen her at the church once. Then, thinking better of it I looked down.

"Yes, we've all …" she hesitated for a moment. "Well, we've all seen you looking disturbed, as though you thought you were seeing things that we couldn't see."

For a moment I didn't answer, barely hearing her words, as my attention was caught by William Burton's triangular name block. A name block which now said, "Dr. Cicely Milbourne".

Cicely Milbourne talked to me for nearly half an hour. Making me hope that she bulk-billed as Bee Ling Chi'ang had done - since I could not afford to pay for an ultra-long visit.

I barely heard a word that Cicely Milbourne said, still struggling as I was to cope with what the erasers had done. First replacing Bee Ling Chi'ang with William Burton. Then after I had hardly met him, replacing Burton with Cicely Milbourne. But I did catch her words, as she said:

"I have been on to the Williamstown Hospital to see what went wrong with the last appointment that they were supposed to have made for you. They couldn't find any record of it," she sighed in frustration to indicate how incompetent she thought they were, "but they have made a replacement appointment for Wednesday the twenty-second of Feb. I think you can still get to Williamstown via the 472 bus from Paisley Street. It's such a pain not having a railway station in Maribyrnong, isn't it?"

I nodded my agreement and reached out to take the small appointment card that she held out toward me. However, my instincts told me that this appointment probably would not eventuate either.

As I headed back into the reception area, Cicely Milbourne called out to me: "I'll see you in church this Saturday, Phil."

"Er, yes, I'll see you then," I said, looking back to smile at her. Not expecting for a second to ever see the tall blonde again.

Saturday, 18th February 2012

When I arrived a little after 4:00 PM today, I immediately saw that I had been wrong. As I pushed through the twin glass doors of Centre-West Church, I could see the tall, shapely figure of Cicely Milbourne sitting at the electric keyboard - as Bee Ling Chi'ang had helped out every second week for the past three years.

Looking around the nearly empty church, I saw no sign of Tony Nuygen or his wife Jessica (who had been the church's other pianist over the last three years), Edward Soong or his wife, Angie, or two daughters Grace and Sally, or our second preacher-cum-missionary Jayne.

Perhaps Jayne is away on missionary work? I thought. But seeing the troubled looks that I was already receiving from the handful of remaining parishioners, I did not dare to ask.

Normally Centre-West has its own band, including Tori, a great giant of a man of Eurasian origins on drums, and lanky, blond Victor on Fender bass. But today we were down to Cicely Milbourne on electric keyboards, and Pastor Ian Wong on acoustic guitar.

Looking around to the left as I entered, I realised that I was now on the sound consul as well as lighting. Fortunately I had helped Tony Nuygen out from time to time over the last three years, so I (more-or-less) knew my way around the consul.

Normally, though, if I faltered either Tony, or Edward or his brother Oscar Soong could come to my aide. For three years Edward and Oscar had worked Centre-West's PC terminal and video camera, which had sat together on a wooden table beside the sound consul to record the sermons in case anyone wanted a copy on DVD or Blu-Ray. And also to project the words of the hymns being sung onto a white screen behind where Ian Wong stood leading the singers, so that the congregation knew what to sing. But now not only Edward and Oscar Soong were missing, but there was no sign of the PC, video camera, or even the square wooden table that had sat there for more than three years. And at the back of the room near the twin glass doors now stood a small table with a stack of paperback hymnbooks for the now greatly diminished congregation.

Apart from Pastor Ian Wong, Cicely Milbourne, and myself there was Andrew Tan to give out the Holy Communion wafers and cups, and to take up collection. Just two worshippers sat together on the back pew at the right hand side of the church.

Walking over to me, Pastor Ian said quietly: "Once again the helpers outnumber the congregation." Although until the erasers had arrived this had not been the case for more than two years. But I knew better than to say that to Ian Wong.

I did my best to smile at his attempted levity, but thinking of the forty or fifty parishioners, good Christian men, women, and even children who had filled the church pew just over a month ago, the smile turned to a lopsided sneer. Once the church had rung with the happy laughter of children running around playing, even during services - unless they became too rowdy and had to be gathered up by gently chastising mothers or fathers - but now all the children were gone. Taken from history without ever having the chance to grow up. Along with most of their parents.

Grieving for all these lost innocents -- the way Isabella Rodriguez would be grieving for her own lost innocents, if only she could recall the two sweet girls, Manuela and Conchita, who had been snatched from the fabric of time itself by the evil erasers - I felt like Atlas from Greek mythology, with the weight of the whole world on my shoulders.

"I'm sorry you're still working both sound and lighting consuls after three years," said Pastor Ian. "I know it's hard on you week after week. I had hoped as the congregation built up to find someone you give you a hand and even relieve you some weeks. But unfortunately after three years the congregation never has built up."

I dearly wanted to tell him how the congregation had built up, to around fifty people just five or six weeks ago. Until the erasers had come along and started to eradicate them. But not wanting to be thought completely mad, I wisely kept my mouth shut.

Pointing to one of the now three people seated together on the back pew, Ian Wong said: "I have been talking to Daniel about it over the last couple of weeks. He's been attending for over a year now.

Which was news to me. I had never seen the short dark-haired man he called Daniel until that moment. Certainly if he had been coming for twelve months, he must have attended only on the weeks that I was away ill in 2011 - although I had managed to attend the last seven weeks or so without ever seeing him!

The hymn singing began co-incidentally with, "Holy! Holy! Holy!" the same hymn that Manuela and Conchita Rodriguez had been singing three weeks earlier when they had been taken by the erasers. As the congregation started up, I hurried to slam closed the overhead vertical blinds.

Too late!

Before I could close the blinds, a great burst of sunlight streaked into the church, engulfing Daniel and the other two parishioners on the back pew. Even as I struggled to work the unfamiliar lighting consul, an eraser streamed down the burst of light toward the three parishioners.

I finally managed to slam closed the vertical blind, making the eraser shriek in rage as I managed to save two of the three worshippers. But dark-haired Daniel vanished a split second before the squealing demise of the eraser. Squealing either as it was killed by the loss of natural sunlight, or in anger at being deprived of two of its intended victims?

For a second Pastor Ian stopped singing as Daniel was plucked from existence. Then in a blink of an eye he had forgotten the lost worshipper and returned to leading us in, "Majesty," "Hosanna," "Emmanuel Waltz," then finally, "He Leadeth Me". The latter two, modern gospel songs rather than true hymns. However, both songs are very beautiful and moving, so we often sang them at Centre-West Church.

From time to time the microphones would crackle or shriek, forcing me to move across to the sound consul. But having managed to save two worshippers from extinction today, I was more interested in working the lighting consul. To be certain that there was not even the tiniest gap for natural light to creep into the building, to allow the erasers to settle upon anyone else.

By 6:00 PM I was relieved that the service was over. I normally found Pastor Ian's sermons both moving and uplifting. But today my only interest was in not letting anyone else be ripped from history by the erasers. Although I had no way of protecting anyone once they left the church building itself. And at the height of summer it would still be sunny for another couple of hours. Still I was determined not to let anyone else be taken while they were still within my area of care.

I hoped that by the time everyone had had a cuppa and some cakes and were ready to leave by 7:00 or 7:30 that maybe the sunlight would have dimmed a little at least. Giving the few people remaining in the church at least one more day or existence. I remembered an old movie line, "Even a little more life is worth having!" But I wondered if a mere day was enough extra life to justify this axiom.

Looking as exhausted as I felt, Pastor Ian sighed his relief at the end of the service as he came over to where I stood not far from the twin glass doors.

"Do you need any help shutting down the sound and lighting consuls, Phil?" asked Ian Wong.

"No, I don't think so," I said. Although my back and knees ached already, and it would be another twenty minutes at least before I have packed everything up.

Moving about slowly, trying not to look as fatigued as I felt, I started packing, as the others strode through the doors into the small hall to head across to the slightly larger tearoom. Originally one or two of the congregation had made the tea or coffee for everyone - on a rotation basis. But as the congregation had plummeted in five weeks from fifty to single-figures, this obviously no longer applied, as I heard Pastor Ian call out:

"Everyone help yourself to tea or coffee. We don't stand on ceremony here."

By 6:30 I ached all over, and was relieved to be able to head toward the tearoom for a small rest and a big mug of milky coffee.

"Lord, I ache all over!" I said as I crossed the hall toward the tearoom. As much as anything else in the hope that despite not standing on ceremony anymore, someone might be kind enough to make my coffee for me.

When I stepped into the small room, however, there was no cake or coffee waiting for me. No Pastor Ian Wong. No Cicely Milbourne. No worshippers at all!

The brightly lit tearoom was empty of everything except for the sunlight, which streamed in through the large square windows at the back of the room. Even the kitchen chairs and six wooden-topped tables had ceased to exist.

"Ian? Cicely? Andrew?" I said in shock. Then as the tearoom began to shimmer like desert air in the distance, I knew that I had to get out of the church building quickly. In case I also ceased to exist when Centre-West was plucked cruelly from space and time to be replaced by a pie shop or milkbar.

* * *

2.

It was a bright, sunny day in March 2012 when the police car turned slowly into Leander Street, Maribyrnong and headed down toward number 122.

"What number is it again?" asked the middle-aged sergeant behind the steering wheel.

"Number 122," said the tall, thin redheaded policewoman in the back of the pale blue Fairlane. Although she had a plastic clipboard in her hands, she had all the information that she needed in her head.

"Aren't you going to check that on the clipboard, Janice?" teased the young policeman in the front passenger seat. Although he knew that the redhead had a near-photographic memory.

"If you insist," teased back Janice Snyder ruffling through the papers in a pretence of checking them. "Yep, I was right."

Laughing, Sergeant Eric Paulsen said: "You know Janice has a memory like a computer, Liam."

"So, what, every time it's a little bit colder than average, a little bit hotter than average, or there's a tiny bit of dust in the air, she freezes up and forgets everything that she knows?" teased Constable Liam Fredericks.

"No!" said Janice pointedly.

"Well, that's what my computer does," said Liam.

"Well, maybe that was a bad analogy," conceded the sergeant with a laugh as they drove down Leander Street, noting the procession of derelict houses, some missing front doors. Others with weatherboards hanging away from the walls. Still others with most of the roof gone - tiles, or corrugated iron laying on the near jungle-like lawns out front of the derelict houses.

"D-Notice after D-Notice," observed Janice Snyder. "How can anyone be living among all these houses marked for demolition?"

"Don't ask me," said Sergeant Paulsen. "But that's what the Department of Housing claim. An old man, named Philip Josephs, known to be suffering from hallucinations, is squatting at number 122 Leander Street. And they want him out so that they can demolish all of the houses in this row."

"Then why aren't they here instead of us?" asked Liam.

"They want us to check it out first and if necessary take him away," explained the sergeant. "And if so, they'll collect him from us at Russell Street, Melbourne."

"So in other words, their time is more valuable than ours," persisted Liam Fredericks.

"It would seem so," agreed Eric Paulsen.

"122!" cried Janice, pointing. Too late, so the police car overshot and parked at 124.

As they alighted to the street, Paulsen reminded his two constables: "Remember this is a homeless old man who has fantasies. Not a criminal. Leave your sidearms in your holsters, we won't need them."

They walked carefully down the crumbling concrete path to the side door. Then Eric Paulsen knocked on the brown-painted door, calling out: "Mr Josephs?"

As he tapped, the door slid open. After a second hesitation he called out again: "Mr Josephs?"

Then, getting no response, he pushed the door open wide, to find no sign of the old man standing there.

"Come on," said the sergeant, leading the way inside.

Inside the small brown-brick villa house, they found a doorway (but no doors) to a large lounge room to the left as they entered. The lounge room was full of cheap, dilapidated furniture including six bookcases full of books, VCR tapes, DVD and Blu-Ray discs. There were also two dust-coated armchairs, one almost falling apart, a desk with a PC which looked like a late 1990s model, as well as a couple of unsafe-looking kitchen chairs and a dozen or more cardboard boxes full of Lord only knew what.

"Well, someone has certainly lived here recently," said Janice Snyder as they stepped tentatively into the lounge room.

"Hey, Serg," said Liam, picking up a cheaply bound hardback book from a phone table beside the PC desk. "It looks like his diary."

"Give it here," said the sergeant reaching for the book.

For the next hour or so Eric Paulsen stood reading Philip Josephs's diary, with Liam Fredericks and Janice Snyder each standing behind him, reading over a different shoulder.

Flipping to the last page of writing, they saw the date: Tuesday, 7th March 2012.

"That's today," said Janice, as they started to read:

I have just read back through this diary. I must have been having some kind of slow mental breakdown, or hallucinations of some kind! Nancey Kwouk? Manuela and Conchita Rodriguez? Mark and Sandra Jenkins? Ian, Jenny, Tobi, Joanna Wong? Bee Ling Chi'ang, William Burton, Cicely Milbourne? And all the others? I've never heard of any of these people! What can have possessed me to write all of the above listings?

None of it is true, of course. None of those people have ever existed to the best of my knowledge. And I've never attended a church called Centre-West. In fact, although a Christian, I haven't been to church at all for forty years, since my fifteenth birthday, when my mother told me that I no longer had to go if I didn't want to - so I never went again. Except to attend a few friends's weddings, and, sadly, many more friends's funerals.

"He seems to have come to his senses at last?" suggested Eric Paulsen.

"Or maybe he fades in and out of reality?" suggested Janice. Who had had experience with her maternal grandmother suffering from dementia attacks for nearly twenty years before recently passing away.

"Well, nothing in that diary could have been true," scoffed Liam Fredericks. "Erasers who remove people from time and space, it's like something out of H.P.Lovecraft!"

"And there's certainly never been a hospital in Maribyrnong," said Janice, less scathingly. "Although with nearly twenty-five thousand people here, maybe it's time we did have our own hospital of some kind."

"Anyway," said Eric Paulsen slamming the diary shut, making the two constables leap backwards as though afraid of the book snapping shut on their noses, "be that as it may, let's go locate the old man. He must be in the house somewhere."

Dropping the diary, he turned to start toward the doorway to the corridor. But instead of slamming to the floor, the hardback diary mysteriously floated down to the floor as though as light as an autumn leaf.

"What the hell?" said Liam Fredericks, as the three police officers watched the diary's slow, gradual descent.

Until millimetres shy of the floorboards, the fat book faded out of existence.

"Shit in a hand basket!" said Liam.

"Holy shit!" said Sergeant Paulsen.

"But that's impossible!" cried Janice Snyder, dropping her clipboard and covering her mouth with her hands.

The three police officers stared wide-eyed in terror as slowly the books, VCR tapes, DVD and Blue-Ray discs in the various bookcases around the lounge room slowly started fading out of existence. Then one by one the now empty bookcases winked out of existence. Followed by the two armchairs and two orange kitchen chairs, then the PC, combined printer/scanner, and the large yellow-stained wooden table that they had sat upon. Then finally the cardboard boxes full of all and sundry.

Until the large lounge room was completely empty, except for the three police officers whose eyeballs were almost leaping from their sockets as though determined to make a break for it.

"Shit in a hand basket!" said Liam again.

"Holy Mother of God!" said Eric Paulsen, instinctively crossing himself - something that as a lapsed Catholic he had not done in over twenty years.

Then after a few seconds, his eyes stopped staring bulgingly, the calmness returned to his demeanour, and nonchalantly he looked about the bare lounge room.

"Well," he said casually, "there's certainly no sign that anyone has lived in here in the last umpteen years."

"That's for sure," agreed Janice Snyder calmly. She stooped to pick up the plastic clipboard, which she could not remember having dropped. How did this get down here? she wondered.

"Let's take a look in the kitchen," suggested Liam.

"Sure, why not," agreed Eric Paulsen and the three police officers stepped through the adjoining doorway. Having to push a little at the sliding door, which had fallen off its overhead casters and was now stuck halfway open.

"Oomph," said Sergeant Paulsen, trying to pull in his belly more than was physically possible.

"I keep telling you, Serg, you need to go on a diet," teased Liam as the three police officers looked around the bare, brown-tile floored kitchen.

"Hey, I'm just big boned," protested Eric Paulsen.

"Yeah, well so were the dinosaurs, but they're extinct now," teased Janice. "So watch out, or you will be too."

As they talked they did a quick check of the bathroom, and the two bedrooms, all of which were devoid of any signs of recent life.

Taking out his mobile phone in one of the bedrooms, Sergeant Paulsen flicked it open but failed to get a signal.

"Damned mobiles," cursed the sergeant.

"Try back in the kitchen," suggested Janice Snyder, so the three police officers headed back to the kitchen.

"Ah, that's better," said Eric Paulsen, managing to get a signal. He quickly dialled through to his superiors in Melbourne to report: "We've checked out 122 Leander Street, Maribyrnong, and there is no sign that anyone has lived here for decades. No, I'm sure of it. Yeah, okay." He dialled off then rang through to the department of housing to repeat his report.

"Well, we'd better get back to Russell Street," said Liam Fredericks.

"Yeah …" said Janice, startled by a thumping noise behind her.

The three officers span around and saw a large tortoiseshell she cat sitting on the ledge outside the kitchen window.

"Hello, Bella," said Janice, receiver a meow by way of answer.

"How do you know her name is Bella?" asked Eric Paulsen.

"It says so on her name tag," said the redhead. Pointing to the cat's collar, which had a small silver nametag, which said: "My name is Bella. I belong to Phil Josephs."

Then as the three officers watched, the nametag changed to say: "My name is Bella. I belong to no-one."

"Poor girl, owned by no-one," said Janice. Opening the window, she reached out and scooped up the tortoiseshell cat.

"Uh-oh, Janice and her strays," teased Liam.

"You be quiet," said Janice. Carrying Bella with her, as the three police officers headed out into the hallway and out through the side door to the concrete path outside.

"You're not really taking that fleabag with you?" teased Liam as they headed toward the street.

"Of course," said Janice Snyder, looking back toward the young policeman.

Then a bright sunbeam broke through the clouds and hit Liam Fredericks, who instantly vanished.

"What?" said Janice, dropping her clipboard again, but careful not to drop Bella.

The young policewoman stared in terror at where Liam had been moments before. Then as her memory of the young man faded, she casually stooped to pick up her clipboard. Then, still carrying the tortoiseshell cat, Janice followed the sergeant to where the blue Fairlane was parked outside 124 Leander Street.

Janice reached for the handle to the back door of the car, and then stopped, looking puzzled. After a moment she shrugged and walked over to grip the handle to the front passenger door to get in beside Sergeant Paulsen.

"Only rookies sit in the back seat," teased Eric Paulsen.

"I know that, Serg," said Janice Snyder blushing, having only recently graduated to a full constable. Placing the clipboard in a holder in the door. She put on her seatbelt, carefully holding Bella to her chest as they set off.

"You know anyone else would be booked for carrying a cat loose in a moving vehicle," teased Eric Paulsen.

"That's one of the perks of being a cop," teased back Janice, receiving a meow of agreement from Bella.

The blue Fairlane drove into the driveway of a dilapidated house across the road to do a U-turn then started back down Leander Street. However, it had only reached number 118 when a great burst of sunlight hit the car and in moments, Janice Snyder, Eric Paulsen, and the police car all faded out of existence. Leaving behind Bella standing in a quiet, derelict street, which even the birds and animals seemed to have abandoned.

Then slowly, one by one the houses started to fade out of existence, followed by houses in neighbouring streets, leaving behind only wild, overgrown paddocks. Open grassland for almost as far as the eye could see. With only the glass-and-chrome spires from the Melbourne CBD visible to the North, and the distant shops of faraway Braybrook to the South, as once thriving Maribyrnong and Maribyrnong West both ceased to have ever existed!

THE END

© Copyright 2012

Philip Roberts, Melbourne, Australia





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