I stay up later than most people, so I was still awake and playing computer games when the crash happened. Tires screeched before I heard a tremendous crunching of metal. I thought it was just a simple car accident outside until an emerald spray of light flared out from the street and through the neighbourhood before me—and when I say that, I mean through the neighbourhood.
Beyond my computer monitor was the wall of my room, and beyond that, I saw, illuminated impossibly, my neighbours in their beds at the end of the block. It was only for an instant, for the blast of green light swept at me at high speed, but I saw the rooms and objects and people in each house split second by split second as if someone had X-rayed entire homes and posted the shots on my bedroom wall. I had just enough time to look to my left in horror at the unseen source of the extradimensional light; like a strobe on a concert stage, it flashed brightness and pain, reaching a peak just as I stared right at it. For an instant, I saw the inside of my own eyeballs—and, somehow, the bones in my face. I saw the front of my own skull from the inside out.
Then, I projectile vomited.
My next memory was waking up the next morning with a dirty rag in my hand. I’d mostly cleaned up the vomit, and then—what? Passed out? I finished cleaning and then took a shower while fighting a massive headache. I could still feel the green flash in my eyes and in my head, but the experience felt dreamlike. How could I possibly have seen other houses?
My roommates had gone to work already, which meant they hadn’t been feeling sick. There was no way I could go in, and I would be late even if I left immediately. At least this time I wouldn’t have to fake the misery in my voice.
My boss answered, “Hello?”
I told him. “I can’t come in today,”. “I’m feeling terrible.”
He didn’t reply. About fifteen seconds later he hung up.
That was weird, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to worry about it at that instant. I took a few painkillers and sat drinking water in the kitchen until something occurred to me. Wandering out onto the street under a cloudy sky, I tried to pin down the location of the light I’d seen. It’d rotated out like the beam of a lighthouse; even though it had swung by at a blazing speed, I had a general sense of the direction it had come from. Finding the right angle, I studied the pavement.
Several sets of tire tracks seemed to indicate that something had happened here. At least three or four trucks had swerved or stopped suddenly. In the centre of these tracks, there was a small scorch mark, as if something had burned outward from above and lightly seared the road. The grey sky was beginning to release a light drizzle, and I could see the black beginning to wash away.
“You’ll catch a cold, dear!”
I turned. It was the old lady across the street, and she was waving at me from her porch. “Hi, Mrs Harwell.”
“It’s raining,” she called again.
“Thanks, Mrs Harwell,” I replied loudly. She went back inside only after she saw me reach my front door. She always meant well, even if her concerns were a little old-fashioned. I waited behind the window until she went back inside—and then I went out to my car. I needed coffee something fierce, and our house supply was gone.
The drive-through at the nearby Starbucks was overflowing, so I decided to go inside for the first time in years. I didn’t remember customers being so pushy. Even while in line, people kept bumping into me and trying to cut ahead. They only stopped when I raised my voice and insisted they respect the line. By the time I reached the front, I was already pretty worked up.
And then the barista asked the person behind me what they wanted to order.
I turned and looked back in disbelief, but the asshole behind me just said, “Mocha frappucino, please.”
Looking the barista in the eyes, I put my hand on the counter. “Are you kidding me?”
He blinked. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there. What can I get for you?”
Didn’t see me there? I glared, but told him, “Venti black coffee.”
He went to tap the order into the system but then paused, as if he’d just forgotten what he was doing.
With more anger than I intended, I said again, “Venti black coffee!”
He stiffened. “Right, right.”
In a huff, I moved to the side area and waited. A minute passed, and then two. The mocha frappucino guy got his drink and left. Leaning over the counter, I asked, “Aren’t you guys supposed to shoot for three minute times?”
The barista making drinks at the espresso bar looked my way briefly, then back at her work.
I stood there for another ten minutes as customers came and went. Finally, I’d had enough. “Hey, hello? I’ve been waiting for a venti black coffee for fifteen minutes!”
The girl making drinks finally seemed to notice me. “Oh, sorry.” She moved over to the carafes and grabbed a Venti cup before coming to a confused stop. “What was I doing?”
For the first time in my life, I shouted in a Starbucks. “Venti black coffee!”
That got their attention—but not the kind I liked. Stern glares suddenly focused on me, and the guy I’d ordered from said, “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave if you don’t calm down.”
“Sorry…” I stepped away, visually backing down. “Sorry.” The girl slid my coffee across the counter and went back to work. All the customers in line watched me with disgust or fear as I grabbed my drink and hurried out. As I hit the sidewalk, a guy going in bumped into me, hard, and my coffee fell on the ground and splattered. “Seriously?!”
But he hadn’t even so much as hesitate. He joined the back of the line inside and stood looking up at the menus as if nothing had happened. Was everyone out today just a total jerk?
I drove around to the drive-through and waited in line for twenty minutes only to have the barista on the speaker ignore me. I rolled up to the window, but they never opened it to talk to me. Extremely angry, I drove off and decided to just go to the grocery store instead.
But after getting a bag of ground coffee beans and waiting in line, the clerk began ringing up the person behind me.
In front of everyone, I demanded, “Hello?!”
Both the clerk and the customer continued exchanging pleasantries while items were being scanned.
The customer paid and bumped right into me as she moved past.
I stood staring as the clerk began ringing up the next lady. No longer angry, it occurred to me that something was going on, and there was no way that this was a conspiracy or a prank show. It involved too many people in too many different locations, and even—
Even my boss! When I’d called in sick, she’d hung up after a few seconds, as if listening and hearing nobody on the other end.
I didn’t know how or why, or in what manner, but I couldn’t deny it: I was invisible! I could see my hands and body and legs, and people could see me if they actually looked, but they seemed to be having great difficulty noticing that I existed.
On that weird hunch, I started backing away from the checkout, coffee bag in hand. Paying seemed foolish when nobody could notice me—and it wasn’t like I hadn’t tried to pay.
The security guard near the door perked up and grabbed my arm. “Sir, did you pay for that?”
Shit. “I did, yes.”
“I don’t think so.” He raised his radio from his belt to call someone else.
“Wait,” I told him, half-panicked. This had never happened to me before. “I’ve got a receipt here, look.” I reached down into my pocket, and he let go of me. I threw the coffee bag up to distract him; he fumbled at it and caught it as I ran out into the drizzly grey afternoon.
He didn’t follow.
What the hell was going on? So I wasn’t invisible—at least not in the sense that I could get away with crimes. Thing was, the security guard hadn’t been nearby when I’d been at the checkout line. I had the strangest feeling that he would have stopped me even if I had paid.
My headache was coming back, and I still hadn’t gotten coffee. Defeated, I drove home and sat in my car in the rain trying to figure out what to do. After about fifteen fruitless minutes of searching the Internet on my phone for any discussions about something like this happening to someone else, my roommates pulled up behind me. I got out and caught up to them as they were halfway across the lawn.
Lucas grabbed me by both shoulders with amazed relief. “You can see us?!”
But my reaction did not match his. “It’s happening to you guys, too?”
Simon wiped the rain from his face. “Everyone at work got weirder and weirder as the day went on. We couldn’t do our jobs because customers were ignoring us. By the time we left, nobody even noticed.”
It was a strange and terrifying thing to consider as we stood there under grey skies being rained on, but I felt slightly better knowing I wasn’t going through it alone. “Let’s go inside.”
We retreated to the kitchen, where we dried off, put a pizza in the oven, and tried to figure out the parameters of what was happening to us. Calls to our friends and families were answered, but the people we reached didn’t seem to be able to hear us. My heart seized in my chest as I had to sit and listen to my mother asking, “Hello? Hello?” She seemed vaguely aware that my number had been the one to call her, and her voice grew strained and terrified whenever I spoke. At some level, I was certain she knew what was happening, even though she couldn’t consciously register the thought.
But nobody else seemed to have that intuition. We were cut off.
The oven dinged, signalling that the pizza was ready, and I pulled it out and cut it into slices. Halfway through the process, I froze. “Guys.”
Lucas and Simon had been arguing about the green light I’d told them about, but they both stopped immediately at the urgency in my voice and looked at me.
“I couldn’t buy coffee today,” I said, still staring down at the pizza cutter in my hand. “My first attempt was really difficult, and then after that, I couldn’t even buy it from a grocery store. What if we can’t buy food?”
Simon gave a half-humoured half-perturbed laugh. “What do you mean, can’t buy food?”
“Like what if we literally can’t buy food?” I replied aloud, my gaze rising to our cupboards. I began to open them and mentally catalogue our meagre collection of random boxes. We had some rice, a few cans of tuna, a can of beans… “The cashier literally wouldn’t ring out my stuff.”
“We’ll just use the automatic checkout,” Lucas suggested.
I shook my head. “The security guard stopped me, thinking I’d stolen the coffee. I have a feeling we’ll get the same response from any grocery store. Even if we pay, they might stop us and take the food back.”
A haunted expression passed over Simon’s face. “And even if we do pay, we can’t do our jobs anymore. We won’t have any money.”
“Maybe it’s temporary,” Lucas countered. “Maybe it’ll wear off tomorrow. Or in a week or something!”
I opened the fridge and freezer. “What if it doesn’t? We’ve got two frozen pizzas in here and a few scattered leftovers. We could literally starve right here in our house.”
“No. Screw that. We’ll ration it.” Lucas got up, grabbed a pad of paper, and officially recorded what we had. “Half a box of rice, four cans of tuna, a can of black beans, two frozen pizzas, and some meats and pasta we have to eat first.” He put the list on the kitchen table and stared down at it. “That’s nine thousand calories total if we’re being generous.” He got out his phone. “Says here a twenty-something man needs around two-thousand-five-hundred a day. But we can survive on a thousand, maybe a little less, if we’re disciplined. So for the three of us—”
Simon cut him off with a horrified whisper. “That’s only three days of food.”
“Maybe we can steal some,” I suggested. “You know, walk out with it from the store.”
Lucas knew the truth. “If we get caught and go to jail—even just basic local lockup—we will absolutely die in there. We’ll be trapped in a cage and forgotten about immediately.”
That was it. There were no options. How was it that a modern human household only had a few days of food in it? How was it possible that we were facing possible starvation in a country so well off? That first day, we didn’t believe the nightmare. We went out and visited five grocery stores in succession. No matter what we did, no matter whether we paid or used the self-checkout or even rang up the groceries ourselves, security guards or employees and sometimes even other customers chased us down until we gave the food back. There was something manic and hostile about their attitude toward us as if we were less than human somehow, and we came away with more than a few bruises for our trouble. There was no telling what actual police would do to us, so we were forced to give up our attempts and return home hungry.
“This’ll pass,” Lucas insisted. “We’ll sleep tonight, we’ll wake up, this’ll all be over.”
That night, I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. Sleep? Ridiculous. We were in mortal danger, and every passing moment meant ninety fewer seconds for us to find a way to survive. But that was the thing—we weren’t in immediate danger yet. The mechanisms of society were still real to us, and we were still civilized young men. Stick together; that’s what Lucas had said. If we stuck together, we’d be fine. Sure.
I didn’t sleep. I spent the night researching local companies but found nothing. A group of vehicles had been transporting something down our street; that something had ruptured and sprayed us with otherworldly emerald light, and that light had phased us out of the human social consciousness. Who or what could possibly do something like that? As dawn spiked into my eyes through my open window, lighting up my eyeballs with internal afterimages, my perpetual headache dimmed slightly.
That morning, bleary-eyed and haggard, we split a pizza. It was delicious because it was all we would get for the rest of the day. During the night, Simon had gathered a list of hundreds of phone numbers of people and organizations that might help us, and he spent that day calling them one by one. Lucas spent the day driving to every single grocery store, restaurant, and market in the entire area that might possibly have food. I spent my hours simply thinking—thinking of a solution, a way out, anything. I wanted to conserve my calories by moving as little as possible.
But I couldn’t even do that. When Lucas ran out of gas, he found that gas station clerks were denying his cash and pumps weren’t reading his credit card. It was if, he told me over the phone, the machine didn’t even know he’d put his card in the slot. The pumps hadn’t even given an error message. They’d just done nothing.
Whatever had happened to us, it was getting worse.
I picked him up and then parked my car in the driveway. I had a quarter tank of gas left, and it was apparent that meagre amount would be all the gas we would ever have.
That night, we didn’t go off into our separate rooms. We sat playing a board game until exhaustion finally found us one by one. I was the last one left as Simon and Lucas lay sprawled across the game pieces. I wondered if I would eventually end up seeing them like that again, not because of sleep, but because of death. What would I do if it came to that?
I awoke the next morning with that question still unanswered.
A funny thing happens when you run out of things to do. When you don’t have a job, when nobody will talk to you, when you’ve done everything you possibly can—called everyone, tried every opportunity, gone around every corner. You can’t think about anything but survival, but there are no thoughts of survival left to think, so you think about nothing at all.
We ate the last of our food and sat playing board games.
And we did that the next day.
And the next day.
It was our house; our chairs, our carpets, our beds, our walls, our fridge, our backyard. It just didn’t have any food in it. You can’t eat chairs or beds. And you know what? Hunger isn’t that bad, really. The thing that slowly drives you crazy is how relentless it is. You don’t get to just sit there and play a board game. Every second that it’s not your turn and you’re just sitting there, all you are is a pain.
A week in, Simon picked our board up and threw the game on the ground. “There’s gotta be like, a fucking apple tree somewhere!”
Lucas didn’t take his eyes off the game piece in his hand. “It’s the end of October. Nothing’s got fruit right now. There’s no food to be had. At least not within the range of a quarter tank of gas.”
“We’re surrounded by food! It’s just locked up behind the walls of all these grocery stores!” Simon’s eyes were wild. “We should just kill them and take it.”
Lucas sneered. “And then what? Get gunned down by the cops? They’ve got no problem noticing us when we act up.”
I’d been thinking about calling my mom again if only to listen to her voice, but my calls had just been giving her repeated terror and confusion. Something in me had snapped. Even if we did find a way to survive, our bills would eventually come due, and the power and water would go out. New renters might even move into our house and completely ignore us while we sat next to them dying. “Simon’s not wrong, but forget grocery stores. Let’s just break into people’s houses while they’re at work. Much less chance of getting caught.”
We wore hats and tied handkerchiefs over our mouths to hide our faces. We didn’t want to go too far since we’d have to carry what we stole, and we didn’t want to go too close for fear of being caught, so we chose the house at the end of the block. At ten in the morning, we snuck through backyards and hit the garage side-door handle with a hammer.
It was eerie, being in someone else’s house like that. There were photos and knick-knacks everywhere of lives we knew nothing about. Someone had left socks on the living room floor. Worst of all, I knew the layout of the place already: I’d seen it before. As we snuck into the kitchen of the house at the end of the block, I knew for certain that the green flash had truly illuminated this place. It hadn’t been a nightmare. I’d physically seen rooms and people a block away through a dozen walls.
Lucas quietly opened a cupboard and looked over at us in dismay.
It was empty.
Simon went to the fridge and found nothing inside but a plastic Tupperware container.
I looked at the photos on the counter. “How could a family with four kids have no food in their home?”
Lucas froze. “Unless it’s happened to them, too.”
Simon got what he meant at the same time as I did: “They could literally be here right now.”
Scanning the kitchen and living room in fear, I wondered if I was looking right past my neighbours. We were definitely threats; could they see us? Were they standing in terror in the corner? If one decided to leap forward and attack us, we would never see it coming.
Taking refuge back in our own house, we frantically searched the news and the Internet—yep. There it was. Hundreds of homes all across the area had been finding their food stolen, to the point that police were on high alert and the city was promoting home security and defence.
“Jesus Christ,” Lucas murmured. “That green light didn’t just flash us. It’s been happening to the entire neighbourhood, maybe more.”
Simon slumped on our couch. “Which means dozens of families have already been out there looting and stealing ahead of us. We’ll never get away with it now.”
I was laughing. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t help it. It was like the world had it in for us—or not even the world, really, just society. Other people. Every single avenue was being closed off one by one, either by us, by society, or by others trapped in our same situation. I was laughing at the absurd mechanical perfection of it all. Civilization was circling around like a clock to trap us and starve us. “If we stay here, we’re doomed,” I laughed. No, not laughing. Crying. “Let’s just drive. We’ll just go in any direction, and we’ll drive until we’re out of here.”
“We’ve only got a quarter tank,” Lucas shot back. “And we can’t exactly rob houses without a place to hide and eat and sleep. Worse, if we get stuck even just a few miles out, we’ll literally die. We don’t have hours of walking left in us, let alone days. There’s nowhere to go.”
My crying laughter had infected Simon. “How can there be nowhere to go? We’re literally surrounded by homes. We’re in a sea of houses and food. Everyone’s fucking fat and dying early because of it, and here we are starving them?” His grin widened beyond manic and his laughter became visibly painful as it wracked his weakened body. “How can this be happening?”
Lucas stood above him and shook him against the couch. “Get your shit together! We’re way past screwed, and going crazy isn’t going to help!” He stepped back and let us both calm down. “It’s time to make decisions, while we still have our heads about us.”
I no longer felt like laughing or crying. There was just… nothing. “Decisions? Like what?”
Lucas looked us both dead in the eyes in turn. “We’re not going to kill and eat people.”
At first, I thought he was kidding, but then I realized that it really might come to that. Our reality included that possibility. “Because we’d just get hunted down and arrested and die anyway.”
Simon just stared at the floor.
And we sat in roughly those positions as time slipped away from us.
We still tried to play board games. At times, the hunger even left us. In our third week, inanition truly set in, and I noticed myself getting thinner. We made some jokes about finally going on a diet, but we had little humour to spare, and we began spending more time silent than not.
By week five, Lucas had a timer on his phone to remind us to drink water, because he’d noticed we weren’t getting thirsty anymore. All our movements became painful, and we stopped playing games that required reaching over the board to place pieces.
Eventually, we stopped playing games altogether and simply lay there in silence. There was nothing to do but wait and hope something would change. There was nobody to call, no access to food, and no way to get to it even if there was. Darkness and light, night and day, became a whirling cycle of nothingness without thought or interruption.
Our last real conversation was unprompted. Simon rasped, “I’m glad I don’t have to go through this alone. You guys are my best friends.” He shivered under his blanket. “I love you guys.”
“Love you too, man,” Lucas whispered back as best he could.
They waited for me. It took me a minute to work up the saliva to speak, but I told them, “It’s been a good year.”
I couldn’t see them from where I was lying, but I could feel them smiling.
On the first night of our seventh week without food, I texted my mom just to take comfort from the notification that it had been read. I knew she couldn’t understand the words, and I knew it would just cause her confused distress, but I just wanted to feel like I existed.
That brief boon of awareness allowed me to lift up my head and look over at Simon. He’d rotted away while still alive, but now I could see a dryness to his skin. My heart sank. “Lucas, I think Simon’s dead.”
His only response was a sigh.
No. I would not go out like that.
“We’re not gonna die in here,” I told him, using all the strength of my frail limbs to force my body from the floor. I moved to help him, but I stopped after a single step.
Lucas had not sighed. Air had merely escaped his bloated body. He’d been dead for days.
I’d been lying in a room with two corpses.
There was still a quarter tank of gas in my car. I had no idea how far it would take me or where I might end up, but I had to try.
The front door took me ten minutes to reach, and my car in the driveway looked to be miles away. Worse, it was drizzling, and the cold sliced through my body like hundreds of knives. I swayed with each step as my leg muscles begged to give out, but I refused. Inch by inch, I worked my way along my front porch and onto the walkway that curved toward my car.
“Ooh, you’ll catch a cold!”
Holding my arms tighter around my body for warmth, I looked out in confusion.
Mrs Harwell was on her porch and waving at me. “It’s raining!”
Weakly, I called, “You can see me?”
She waved again. “It’s raining dear, shouldn’t you go inside?”
I was saved! It was incredible. How could she notice me?
But a voice behind me replied, “Thanks, Mrs. Harwell, will do.”
I looked back to see a guy my age entering my house. He put down his backpack and went into the kitchen.
He lived there.
He lived in my house.
And he’d never noticed us dying in his living room.
She hadn’t seen me at all. She’d seen him.
It wasn’t my car in the driveway. It just looked like it. They’d towed mine at some unknown point; it was nowhere to be seen.
I fell on the lawn, then, without an ounce of willpower or hope left. There was nothing I could do. No resources, no friends, no family, no job, no home, no nothing. All I could do was lie there and die.
The sky rotated around me, going from grey clouds to clear night to blue dawn until the morning sun glared into my eyeball from the side. Too weak to move, too weak to look away, I let it burn.
And a curious thing happened—I began to feel better.
Soft blue and bright orange burned through the reverse images of the veins in my eyes, and I felt a wrenching sensation in the centre of my head, just behind the nose. For a brief instant, I saw the bones in my skull again, but losing a bright green hue, shifting backwards somehow, as if I was being pulled back into reality.
The guy who lived there came back out to get something from his car—and found me lying in the grass, half-dead.
He could see me.
He could see me.
A blur of painful motion followed, but I was vaguely aware of being taken to a hospital. I spent other several weeks there regaining my strength. Throughout, I watched the ongoing local crisis on the television in my room. To them, it was an inexplicable crime wave, combined with reports of bodies popping up out of nowhere—even in people’s homes. Whatever force that had pushed us out of social reality appeared to wear off a few weeks after death. At first, it was just adult corpses appearing in kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms… but then they began to find children.
I know that nobody will believe me, but I have to get the word out because nobody else can. There are people among us starving and dying every day, cut off from survival by the machine of civilization, always riding the edge of crime and desperation. You can’t see them, but they’re there, and they will eventually be found. We can do it while they’re still alive, or we can wait and hope that the next corpse that phases back in don’t pop up next to us in bed or on our couch while we’re watching television—but it will happen, one way or another. You could be sitting next to an unseen rotting corpse at this very instant; or perhaps it’s someone still alive but on the verge of starvation. The only difference is whether we can bring ourselves to notice the problem in time.