It shows up on a bench in the apartment courtyard, steps from my door. Seated, hands folded. I know without looking that these are hands scrubbed of fingerprints, both the whorls we’re born with and the creases life presses deep. It wears the sackcloth jumpsuits they wear. Skin an unreal, greenish-grey, like an aging bruise.
We’re not supposed to call them “its” — the Blanks. Each represents a person, a placeholder for a previous human life. I can’t help it. This Blank is about as human as a forgotten backpack.
“Showed up minutes ago,” calls Francesca from her doorway. “Anyone you know?”Francesca of the tumbling ringlets and sad eyes. Twice I’ve taken wine to her, pressed her into an entanglement. I’ve been avoiding her since. “Turn and burn.” Someone I knew once called it that. This thing I do.
I shake my head, feign distraction, ignore the woman and the mindless, eyeless thing that stares.
The thing about Blanks is — they’re persistent. Mine’s stuck like dirty gum to my shoe. Mine. Against my will, I’m taking ownership.
Worse: it’s now knocking on my door at random. Thuds spaced evenly as ticking.
Clock. Clock. Clock.
It keeps this up for hours at a time. Then sits and waits, patient, polite.
“Obviously they knew you in life,” Francesca says. “Letting them in is kinda inevitable. Maybe you’ll learn what they want. At least it’ll stop the gossip going around.”
“Trust me. You don’t want to know.”
I call my landlady. She says there’s nothing legally she can do. They’re protected.
Websites I find promise removal, but it’s illegal, costly, risky. Some are sting operations set up by law enforcement.
They have every right to be here, I read. To continue on in their narrow, voided way. It’s a valid choice. Their right to exist, to express, to be the way they wish to be. Echoes of themselves.
At work, I make calculation errors, turn out messy reports, file late. My boss, Anita, calls me in. She assumes it’s my lifestyle, sees promiscuous hollow eyes, immoral wan cheeks. My reputation, of course, has run wild through the warren of cubicles. My sins redouble, expand, multiply like feverish rabbits. I can draw you a seating chart, divided into the people I’ve had and those I’ll soon have.
Knowing she’s recently put her parents into assisted living, I draw for Anita this phony picture: ailing parents, heartache, tough decisions to be made. Eventually she softens, tells me to take a few days off.
I press her hand in gratitude, dart a tongue along my lips.
Day and night, this thing is at it.
I feel the eyes of other residents on me. They’ve pegged me, know it’s mine.
Despite two HEPA fans running and wax earplugs, I hear each knock. Or not hear — feel. Vibrations lined up with the beats of my heart.
Finally I snap, fling open the door. “Get in, then.”
It drifts inside, finds a spot on my couch, inconveniently in the center. My studio apartment is costly, but tiny. Even with the lights out, from my bed I see its shape, radiating a fuzzed phosphorescence. And smell its scent, faintly chemical and animal, both. I throw a sheet over it, burrow under my covers. It pulls itself free, it glows behind my lids.
I relent, twisting toward the Blank as though picking up a lapsed conversation. Its knob of a head turns. No face, not even the impression of one, save the slit-mouth. Some will eat or drink if food is offered, but they can go for months on nothing. Starving it out would feel endless, and I’d go mad in the meantime. Running away might work, until it found me again.
Next door, Francesca plays her music too loud. It’s become a soundtrack. Vintage Lilith Fair. “Sad-vagina songs,” I sneer.
I’m not beautiful or rich, but average, even forgettable. But I do have one power, an uncanny knowledge. I know how to find the soft parts and sink the knife in, twisting. All the while offering encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, a dripping, sympathetic smile. Men, women, younger, older. Now, I don’t sleep with everyone. And it hasn’t worked every time. But many times, it’s worked. And once someone weakens, once they succumb, my interest fades and roves elsewhere.
But I’m trapped with this thing! This stubborn cipher, this irritating silence, a chokehold of zeros.
“What do you want?” A sob trembles loose. “Who even are you?”
The face regards me, a smooth plasticky oval, a cheap hand mirror with the glass gone.
I buckle down, make a dedicated study of the Blanks.
It’s elective, an expensive but increasingly popular procedure. A kind of reckless ghost-making, skeptics and critics say. Winnowing a human to its barest expression, turning out walking suicides. Mercy erasures, others claim. Permanent relief for longstanding sadness.
Legal, for now, working its way through the court system.
Most return to loved ones. And, amazingly, are welcomed home, accepted as they are. Treasured even. They can’t quite live, but also can’t die. Grandma in the nook, Aunt Pat by the pantry.
“Why are you?” I say.
Several Saturdays Later
It’s shocking to see another person. Francesca at my door: vibrantly, painfully alive, clouded in perfume, hair blown smooth. She peeks around me at the Blank, an eyebrow hitched high. “Did you ever learn their name? Or have you turned them into furniture?”
I’ve scoured social media, tearful letters, messy diaries. My eyes: radish-red. My nails: bitten clean. I’m no closer.
“I wanted to thank you, anyhow,” she says softly.
“Yeah, for what?”
“With you, I found out I like girls. Also, here — I thought these might help.”
Two numbers sit in my creased, dirty hand. One’s for a Blank-removal service. The other: a clinic, a place I can go, be nulled out, voided, find peace and erasure.
This story previously appeared in The Arcanist, Apr 2022.
Edited by Marie Ginga
A past Pushcart Prize nominee, Jennifer Lesh Fleck has work in The Sun Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Arcanist, MetaStellar, Creepy, Cosmic Horror Monthly's Aseptic and Faintly Sadistic anthology, and If There's Anyone Left. She lives in the Pacific Northwest in a home that's the spitting image of the Amityville Horror House, though repainted a cheery jade green. Much of her work is informed by the challenges of lifelong hidden disability from Marfan syndrome, a rare inherited disease. Find her @metal.and.mettle (Instagram), @jen_lesh_fleck (Twitter)