In my May 2020 Newsletter, I included a writing prompt, and promised my own reply to that:
Write a story about a missing object. To whom does it belong? When did it go missing? Why is it important? Where might it be? Does it get found by the end of the story? What other resolutions are there to the story, whether it is found or not?
Below is my short story, Disappearances:
The first object to disappear was a paperclip. It was an otherwise ordinary Tuesday, as far as things went. Emma sat at the makeshift desk in her apodment, the tiny home that had seemed sufficient before the pandemic, before there was no office to go into, no coffee shops to hang out at, no karaoke bars to sing her evenings away in. Now, one of the two seats at the dining counter marking the space between her combo living-sleeping room and the kitchenette served as her desk.
Emma kept the other spot clear for eating—in fact, she was fastidious with her space, ensuring that even the double-duty couch was only in its bed form from a few minutes before her bedtime, reverting it to a couch again before brushing her teeth in the morning.
That afternoon, the end of her work hours approaching, Emma sought the paperclip she had removed from the project she was working on. It was not on the counter where she was sure she had put it. She lifted her laptop, shook out the papers it was to hold, searched the floor on both the kitchen and the living side of the counter, even flashed her cell-phone light under the stove and refrigerator. Nothing—no paperclip, nor even a lost grain of rice.
It was a small thing, though, and probably hiding in plain sight, she thought as she fished a new paperclip out of the box in her supply drawer.
Emma all but dismissed the disappearance of the paperclip until, a week later, the spoon she’d eaten her afternoon snack of yoghurt and granola with disappeared. After putting her work aside for the day she’d gone to clean her lunch and snack dishes to prepare for dinner. She knew she’d eaten—not only was there a lingering taste of peaches and honey-sweetened oats in her mouth, but the yoghurt cup was in her small recycling bin. Just in case, she counted the spoons in the flatware drawer. She checked the recycling and the garbage, and then, as a final thought, she gently reached into the sink disposal, feeling around between the blades. She was definitely missing a spoon.
After that it seemed that every day something went missing. A ruler, her favorite bandana—the purple one—the power cord for her phone, the lid to her water bottle. Things Emma couldn’t ignore. Things that made her think she was going mad.
The second Sunday after things began disappearing, Emma stood in her entryway, staring at the corner where her clogs should have been. This was ridiculous.
“Really, universe? A tiny paperclip, a slender ruler—those maybe just slipped under or behind something. But there’s no way a pair of shoes just disappeared!” she shouted toward her ceiling.
Emma felt rather than heard laughter in the silence that followed. She frowned. It wasn’t funny. Then she slipped on her running shoes—the only pair of shoes she had other than the heels she reserved for special occasions—and left for the grocery store.
As she made her way down the block, her wallet and phone tucked into the backpack on her shoulder, Emma considered the items that had gone missing. The paperclip and spoon were both metal. The ruler was an office supply, like the paperclip, and although it was mostly plastic it had some metal in it, as did the power cord to her phone. The water bottle was metal, but it was the plastic and rubber lid that had gone missing. And her clogs were leather and rubber. So it couldn’t be some powerful random magnetic force capturing her items. Nor could she think of anything all of the objects had in common.
She shook her head and checked her watch. 6pm. Plenty of time to get through her short shopping before the grocery closed for the night.
Wait, Emma thought. What time did the paperclip disappear? She’d noticed its absence at the end of the work day, around 5:30pm. In fact, every time she had noticed something missing it had been around the same time of day—early evening.
At least there was a pattern in that. Not that this brought her closer to figuring out what happened, but it was something. It also used to be her favorite time of day, when she would stop and visit her grandmother every day, once after school and then after work. Until Gram had died. Now it was the hardest time of Emma’s day, lonesome and quiet even before the pandemic had hit.
Emma did her shopping, listening to the reminders on the intercom to maintain social-distancing standards. Keeping her distance was easy enough. But there was a strangeness to the faces covered in every kind of mask, from balaclava to dust mask to bandana. Were they familiar faces? Friendly? Did what little of her own face that showed over her own bandana, bright green, provide any clear emotional cues? Could they tell she was smiling? Was there any point in making eye contact?
She stepped between the clear shower curtains hanging on either side of the self-checkout and quickly passed milk, eggs, apples, bananas, and a loaf of bread over the scanner and into her backpack. On her way out the door she nodded at the person spraying down carts for the next patron to use, then made her way back to her small apartment.
The sun was still up, but she felt an odd sensation, a desire to play, to laugh, as she stepped over the threshold into her tiny space. When she’d been preparing to leave, she’d wondered if the universe was laughing at her. Now it seemed that the energy was inviting her to laugh with it.
She opened the refrigerator door to put the milk away.
“Aaaah!” Her eyes went wide. For there on the top shelf sat a strange sculpture. Her clogs, buffed clean, sat side by side, the missing ruler standing tall between them like a spine. Tied to that with her phone’s power cord, the spoon and water bottle lid formed an odd pair of eyes, the paperclip hanging between like the bridge of a nose under which her purple bandana was wrapped to form a cowboy-style mask.
“Where did you come from?” Emma asked the strange figure as she pulled it out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter.
“You seemed lonely.” The voice might have come from under the mask, or it might have come from behind her. In such a small space it was hard to tell. “I’m here with you, Emma Gem.”
“Gram?” Emma said, incredulous with a touch of hope. “You’re haunting me?”
“I guess I am at that,” the voice agreed.
She felt the sensation of humor around her as her grandmother hooted with joy. This time, Emma laughed, too.