Faded and Gone
by Eric Del Carlo

     The streetlamp, ahead, with its tin hood cast a cathedral window of light against the night and the mist from the hills.  The town was small, as towns were.  It was quiet, in the way of most places of the world.  A car had sighed past Sterling, going in his same direction, and was now at the crosswalk at the end of the block, turn signal red and fuzzy before it disappeared.  Its passage had woken the lamp, which worked on motion detection.

     Sterling was coming home from a late run to the supermarket.  His footsteps crunched softly.  The mist muffled the street, cloaked the houses on either side.

     The light atop its pole winked out with an audible snap, its timer run out.

     Sterling had wanted cookies, and now he had them, a bag of coconut-frosted treats.  His day had worn on him, taxing him more than his workdays usually did.  Not that he was complaining.  Work was work.  Everything was what it was.  The cookies would be comfort enough.

     The street was quite dark without the lamp's illumination, but Sterling had lived in the town a long time and knew his way.  The streetlamp would come back on.

     His footsteps sounded; he moved along the block; and the lamp did not activate.  He was almost below it now.  He stopped, the bag from the supermarket crinkling as his hand tightened.  His heart suddenly thumped with the steady strength of a blacksmith's hammer.  He looked up and saw the pale, barely real outline of the light's sloped hood and the big pebbled bulb dark within that cradle.

     Even the passage of a decent-sized squirrel should have caused the lamp to light.

     Sterling felt the ghostly damp of the mist on his face, or felt his sweat, cool and clammy.  Maybe he had walked too softly, stepped somehow between the beams of the mechanism's detectors.  Maybe--

     No.

     He stood a moment more in the misty stillness.  Then, abruptly, he flung up his arms, waved them both wildly.  The cookies fell out of their bag.  Above, the streetlamp snapped on.  Sterling blinked at the brightness.  He shivered.  He couldn't quite get a full breath into his lungs.  It had started for him, then, and there was no sense in acting otherwise.  When it was one's time to Fade, it was time.

     Bending, he picked up his cookies, and he made his way home.

                            *  *  *

     He worked in steam, next to a rounded groaning boiler.  He watched the quivers of needles under their smudged portholes, and knew every subtlety, every vibration.  Graying planks, banded with iron, were spongy under his boots, but he knew where to step.  The boiler and platform were mounted together on rails, and the whole site moved on clanking wheels back and forth across the heaving, venting factory floor.  Machinery clanged all the workday.

     Sterling squeezed rubberized grips with canvas gloves.  He threw levers, according to a complex set of prompts and warnings.  He was good at this, a veteran hand.

     But twice in the first half of the workday, he was bumped into.  Both times he was immediately acknowledged, and apologized to.  But when the lunch break was shrilled and he went to his locker, he found a man in grimy overalls standing at the top of the scuffed green steps, right in front of Sterling's locker.  He was looking at the peeling length of tape on which black block letters still, after all this time, legibly spelled his name.

     Sterling's lunch was in the narrow upright locker.  He had put in one of the coconut cookies with his pastrami on a roll.

     "Excuse me."

     The man in the overalls didn't budge.

     Sterling tapped his shoulder, and repeated, "Excuse me."

     A slightly dazed look was on the man's face when he turned.  He had flabby, stubbly cheeks.  He said, "Hey, sorry...Sterling."

     But Sterling had heard the hesitation.  He knew that his presence--or, really, the lessening of his presence--would soon become a safety issue.  The responsible thing was to leave the factory, and leave he did, even before the end of his shift.

                            *  *  *

     On his way home much earlier than usual, Sterling, walking from the commuter train station, saw a figure dressed as a Reckoner and operating a Reckoner's equipment on his town's rustic streets.  Of course, this wasn't someone in a costume; this was a genuine Reckoner.  Obviously.  He had seen Reckoners before, many times.  They were a necessary part of this world.  How else to know when a person had Faded and left behind possessions and an empty house?

     Sterling paused.  The street was leafy.  It really was a lovely little town, and the late afternoon light aroused purple shadows.  It played with Sterling's depth perception, so that the Reckoner walking in his direction seemed much closer than a half block away.  Like he could reach out, touch...

     He stood there on the sidewalk, with no traffic on the street and no one else out walking, until the Reckoner really did approach.  He shouldn't be staring.  But the cowled uniform fascinated him for some reason, as did the familiarity and evident skill with which the figure handled the Reckoning gear, sweeping the vicinity.

     The Reckoner too halted.  From within the thickly woven, charcoal gray cowl Sterling felt eyes on him.  The Reckoner lowered the equipment, an array of forking metal branches, antennae, and dangling wires.  He knew he must be giving offense with his gawking.

     "It interests you?"  He saw no mouth move inside the cowl; the voice was muffled.

     "It does," Sterling heard himself say.

     "Would you like to walk with me?"

     It was strange to have this part of his day free, like he was glimpsing the town's secrets.  Sterling felt...maybe a little giddy.  "Yes."

     He turned and matched the Reckoner's slow, deliberate pace, walking at the curb, allowing for the full range of the equipment's sweep.  He had changed out of his work boots at the factory--for the last time, he realized, as he had realized several times since leaving work that he was doing this or that, seeing one sight or another, for the very final time.  He would have no need to go back to the factory or its environs, no need to take the train again, anywhere.  He was Fading.  It was his time....

     Yet this Reckoner had acknowledged him without any hesitation.  But, after all, it took a little while to Fade entirely.  He had some time left to him.

     The actions of the Reckoner continued to captivate him, and he watched, studying as he had never had the opportunity to do before, as the gear functioned.  He could make no sense of the winking lights, the melodic bleeps; but it didn't matter.  He understood the thrust of this activity.

     On the curb where he walked, blue paint marked the concrete.  Some patches were old and flaking, other stretches brighter, newer.  It was the system used in the town.  Others regions did it a bit differently, and he had noted these in his meager travels over the years.  He had seen front doors drawn with X's, ribbons strung from mailboxes, pennants hung in windows--all blue, except, of course, the ones which were yellow.  That color code, at least, was a constant.  Blue for occupation, yellow for a vacated site, its occupant gone, Faded.

     Here in Sterling's town, it was painted curbs.

     Together they turned a corner, walked that block.  A cat with white paws and a coat the color of smoke watched them from atop a fence.  Or maybe it just saw the Reckoner with its cool yellow eyes, and didn't see him at all.

     When they were on another street, overhung with mossy branches, the equipment made new sounds and lights flashed on the display board.  Sterling halted beside the Reckoner, feeling his blood quickening.  The daylight was thinning, and he squinted at the nearby house.  Ocher stone and bleached redwood, an ornamental garden out front.  He knew this home.  He had passed it many times.  But did he know who lived here...?

     He did not.  And, now, he would not.  That was plain, even before the Reckoner carefully aimed the gear at the house, contemplated the readings a moment, and finally stepped back.  The Reckoner unhooked the hose from the bulky uniform's belt, and with quick, neat blasts repainted the curb.  All the length of the sidewalk fronting the home, the color was changed from a dulled blue to a vivid yellow.  Sterling stepped out into the street, out of the way.  The nozzle hissed, then went silent.

     It wasn't his own house, of course.  They were blocks away from it.  But this must happen at his home soon, this same changing, maybe carried out by this very individual.

     "Do you do this all day?" he asked abruptly, feeling the question rushed and a little breathless as it left his lips.

     The Reckoner reattached the hose; a metal ring tapped hollowly against the small paint tank also connected to the belt.  The head turned.  Hands rose and thumbs slid inside the gray cowl, hooked something and pulled free a black cloth mask, a hood under the hood.  Sterling heard a sigh escape.  Then the hands peeled back the cowl, and he saw how well the roomy uniform had hidden its wearer.

     She had sweat on her forehead, pasting several dark curls there.

     The late afternoon was edging toward the first hint of dusk.

     "I don't do this all day," she said.  "I'm done now, in fact, for today."  She had eyes of a rich, powdery blue shade, speckled with points of what the failing light made look like silver.  She stood a little shorter than he did, and looked up, expectantly.

     "Can I take you to dinner?" Sterling asked.

     A moment after she agreed, quite readily, it occurred to him that a restaurant might not be a good idea.  People bumping into him, the waiter forgetting his order, maybe the maître d' commiserating that so attractive a woman should be dining alone.  But on the heels of her assent, she added, "I know a place.  Do you drive?"

     "No."

     "I'll pick you up.  I have to go change--"

     "So do I."

     "--and I'll come get you, say, at seven?  You live here in town, don't you?"

     He gave her his address, then his name.  She offered hers:  Ruby.

                            *  *  *

     Sterling hurried off to his home.  That ticklish giddiness in him increased.  He tried to remember the last time he had asked a woman out, then didn't bother muddling his current pleasure with past disappointment.  He showered.  The bathroom billowed with steam.  Moving through the house, dressing, he noted how many of his belongings and furnishings were things that had been here in the house when he had moved in, years ago.  He had come to think of these items as his.  And they were; but soon, after his Fading, someone else would come to live here.  His possessions would resume their anonymous state.

     He didn't dwell on it.  It was common wisdom that a person should never brood overmuch on such matters.  As a boy, and more as an adolescent, he had often wondered how he would respond when his time to Fade arrived.  Likely he had asked his father or mother, posing impossible questions.  But he didn't know what they had answered.  Both his parents must have Faded; Sterling had no memory of them.

     At ten minutes to seven he stepped outside.  He had locked his door automatically on the way out, now thought a moment, and went back to unlock it.  Perhaps he would be home tonight, but maybe not.  He wasn't thinking of the likelihood of amorous doings with Ruby; rather, that his Fading might be complete before he got back here.

     He gave the house a last glance, then stood resolutely at the curb, the toes of his neat black shoes just inches from the cement's lip, still coated in blue paint.

     At seven o'clock, evening had come and with it a new haze, this time a dry fog spilling off the hills that bordered the town on its east.  The evening also brought the headlights of a car which pulled up to the curb where Sterling was standing.  He got in.  Ruby was nicely dressed, her dark curly hair swept back.  She smiled at him.

     Sterling returned her the smile.

                            *  *  *

     The eatery was out of town a few miles.  It didn't even really look like a restaurant from the outside, but they were soon at a table, a man in a pale shirt taking their order.  There were other diners, but the place was subdued, softly lit.

     Ruby ordered a drink, so he did too.  Ruby repeated his drink order to the waiter when the man looked puzzled, as though he hadn't quite understood what Sterling had said.  Or else he had forgotten in the space of a few seconds.

     "You look very nice," Sterling said after the drinks arrived.

     "So do you," said Ruby.  She reached for her glass, raising it.

     "I know I'm not handsome."

     "Nonsense."

     "Thank you for agreeing to go out with--"

     "To a lovely evening," Ruby said, overriding him; and caught up in the toast, he drank with her, smiling, warmed by her presence.  He really had no idea why she was here with him, why she had acquiesced to this.  But the pleasure of the moment made the reasons not matter.

     "How long have you been a Reckoner?"

     Her blue and silver eyes regarded him.  "Years, Sterling.  Years."

     He remembered how complicated her equipment had seemed, and remarked on it.

     "It takes a lot of training," she said, "so you end up dedicating yourself to the job.  What about you?"

     "Oh.  Just a worker.  At a factory."  Though he was no longer even that, he thought, recalling that he had left early without informing anyone.  But what was the point of saying anything?  Very soon, someone would look at the locker at the top of the scuffed green stairs and, with a nonchalant shrug, peel off the piece of tape with his name written on it.  Someone new would have the locker and the items he had left behind in it.

     When the food came, Sterling was surprised and pleased to see he had gotten everything he'd ordered.

     A few bites in, though, the fork slipped through his fingers and clanged on the plate.  Some of the other diners glanced over at their table.  Sterling felt a flush of...embarrassment?  Was this how he should be feeling?  It seemed frivolous to him.

     And yet--who was to say what emotions he should be experiencing at this time?  It was his Fade.  Maybe the accepted wisdom had it all wrong.  Maybe he should make a scene, act out.  Stand up and start shouting--

     Ruby's hand fell gently on his.  He felt the pressure.  It calmed him, and he picked up the fork again, very deliberately holding on to it.

                            *  *  *

     The one drink had made his head spin a little, but the meal, quite tasty, allayed that.  Exiting the restaurant, he felt refreshed, which was at least ironic and maybe outright comical, considering what was happening to him.  Above there were stars, a long bright scattering of them.  Here the fog had thinned, and Sterling breathed in the night air.

     He reached for the car door's handle, but couldn't quite hook his fingers into it.  Wordlessly, Ruby opened the door for him, saw that he got in, and closed it behind him.  When she had come around and gotten in behind the wheel, he asked, "Why did you agree to go out with me?  I'm not an attractive man.  I followed you around while you worked.  I am Fading.  None of those seem like reasons for you to be drawn to me."

     She appeared unruffled by his bluntness.  "I rather thought you were drawn to me."

     "Of course.  You are attractive."

     "Is that all?"

     It wasn't just a coy question; she was asking him something substantial, but he couldn't fathom it just now.  He said, "I feel...acknowledged...by you.  And that makes me feel safe."

     Her smile was deep this time.  He could still feel the touch on her hand on his.  She said, "That's good, Sterling."  She turned the ignition, and they drove away from the restaurant.

                            *  *  *

     She wasn't taking him back to his place, and he didn't ask questions, just stayed resolutely in the moment, enjoying the hum of the car, the unspooling road.

     They turned off the main road at some point, and this track was narrower and unfamiliar, and led over a hill--maybe a part of the eastern range of hills he knew?  It didn't matter.  She pulled them up before a house at the edge of another town.  She helped him with the car door and took him inside.  He hadn't noticed if the curb was painted blue, but it must be--or the home must have some other mark on it--because this was obviously Ruby's place.

     She crossed the pleasantly furnished living room, to shelves stocked with liquor bottles.

     Sterling thought, Her job stresses her.

     She came back across the room a moment later, and held an ice-tinkling glass toward him.  She had one of her own.  He took it, though he didn't actually want it, handling it carefully, because more than anything he didn't want to spill it on her floor.

     "To Reckoning," Ruby said, lifting her glass.

     Sterling followed suit, having participated in more toasts tonight than any other night of his life.  Immediately upon taking a small sip, his head began to whirl again.

     "It wasn't always like this, you know," Ruby said, and her tone now was direct, without any coy hints.

     "Like...?"  He wondered if he was keeping her up later than she was used to.  But--she had brought him here....

     "Like how it is."  She knocked back half her drink in a swallow.  "Fading.  It wasn't this way, not always.  Some time ago, it was another way.  People didn't Fade."

     Sterling felt his eyes widening.  The glass was too heavy in his hand, so he took another sip to lighten it.  "Didn't Fade?"  He heard the slight quaver in his voice.

     Her blue eyes had wandered past him; now they darted back.  "People used to--die."

     "Die?"  He wasn't saying anything, just repeating words back at her.  His uneasiness grew.

     "Yes, Sterling.  But now they just Fade, and disappear from everyone's memory, and that's that.  It's tidy."

     He nearly asked Tidy?, but caught himself.  Was he to Fade here, spend his last measure of time in this house, with a woman who might just turn out to be mentally unbalanced?  He decided to engage her.  After all, she had shown him kindness tonight.

     "How do you know that things used to be different?"  He made his tone reasonable, admirably so.

     "It's Reckoners' lore.  Some of us...know things."

     Sterling thought of people in elaborate headdresses, occupying incense-reeking tents at carnivals, promising exhibitions of supernatural phenomena, contact with the Faded, all sorts of harmlessly entertaining occult blather.

     He asked, "What did you mean by--`die'?"

     "Cease to be.  But in a way that leaves behind your body.  Your remains.  And the memories of you."

     Sterling nearly gasped, nearly guffawed, but did neither of these things.  "This was long ago, you said.  Okay.  But if it happened so far back, how can the knowledge have been passed along?  Whoever knew of this time must have Faded by now, and taken with them all this...history."  That last word sounded archaic, but he was sure he was using it right.

     "The lore of the Reckoners, I said."  She drained her glass.  Ice rattled sharply.

     "But how--"

     "Sterling."  The silver in her eyes suddenly blazed.  For a moment he imagined she meant to do him violence--which would be a laughable ambition soon, with his Fade advancing, but she might manage it now.  Instead, she put a hand to his shoulder, grip firm but not fierce, and said, "Did you think you were just fascinated with me today at random?  On a whim?  It happens.  It happens to Reckoners--to some of us, maybe most of us.  It's why we find ourselves drawn to the profession, handling equipment that is so much like us, able to detect absences, able to do what others would call impossible.  That's why we hide ourselves.  Secretly we know what we are.  We're able to remember.  To those who are Fading, we are like beacons.  You come to us.  You always come.  You sense without knowing it that we can...help."

     The glass started to slide out of his hand.  Ruby took it.  He shuddered with the force of his suddenly pounding heart, even though he felt how weak those pulses were, how he was beginning to truly lose his substance.

     How... he started to ask, but there was no breath behind the question.  He tried again, "How can you help?"

     Ruby put his glass to her lips and in one long pull drank off the entire drink.  She smiled, and the alcohol made it into a grin.  She really was quite lovely.

     She said, "I can remember you."

     And she turned and left the glasses by the shelves of bottles, and exited the room.  Sterling followed a moment later, still hearing his own footfalls, still feeling air flow over him.

     At the open doorway into the bedroom, he found clothes crumpled emptily on the floor and thought, She's Faded ahead of me.  But it was a silly thought, and untrue, even though he would soon leave only his own clothing here and the anonymous belongings back at his house, while his physical self would vanish from this world.  All the paraphernalia specific to his existence--his identification documents, his records, anything he had committed to paper about himself--would by tomorrow be just meaningless scraps, incomprehensible to any other human being.

     He still had enough substance for this act, though, he thought giddily.

     And, just perhaps, he would remain in the memory of this woman here, this Reckoner he now saw waiting for him in her bed.  Maybe it was valuable to linger in the thoughts of others after one had...died.  He considered how it would have affected him, enriched him, to still have a memory of, say, his Faded parents.  Or the dozens or hundreds of others who must have touched his life at some point.

     It was also possible that Ruby saw value for herself in the act of remembrance.  Or maybe she was just crazy.

     Sterling, grinning, dropped his clothes, and went to join with her.





Eric Del Carlo's fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Redstone Science Fiction, Shimmer and many other venues. He's published novels with Robert Asprin and several on his own. More info is available at ericdelcarlo.com. Contact him and give him an earful; he'd love to here from you.


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