By Michael Teasdale
The clock struck nine, and the dog winked out of existence.
George watched, openmouthed, from the breakfast table, the scent of bacon tickling his nostrils. Behind him, Mary hummed to herself over the crackle of the frying pan. He looked around slowly, measuring his movements.
She turned. Her hazel eyes sparkled with life, rosy lips meeting in a smile that lit up her face like the morning sunrise. “Yes, dear?”
He held her in his gaze for as long as he could, the words disintegrating on his tongue.
“Nothing. Except… thank you for another perfect breakfast.”
Mary chuckled and resumed her humming. He turned away, biting into a strip of bacon, savoring the warmth of the hot fat, his eyes lingering on the spot where the dog had been mere moments ago.
He gasped as a stampede of footsteps rattled the ceiling above him. Then he relaxed, his head bowed in quiet exhalation. It was only the kids coming downstairs.
“Morning, Pop! Morning, Mom!”
They planted kisses on his cheek. First Violet, then little Sam, before scrambling into their seats at the breakfast table and noisily slurping their orange juice.
“Where’s Benji?” Violet asked, eyes searching for the dog.
“Oh… ah. He’ll be in the garden, bothering the mailman,” George improvised.
Violet giggled as Mary laid out a plate of pancakes.
“You know,” said George, “why don’t I go check?”
He knew he wouldn’t find Benji, but checked the whole house. Not for the dog, but for similar dissolution. Maybe, he thought, it’ll be slow. He passed the upstairs window overlooking the street outside.
A gray wasteland glared back at him.
His lower lip quivered, and he mouthed a silent plea. Please… no. Not yet. A little more time.
He stared for several moments out the window. Then he crept to the storeroom, returning with his hammer, some nails, and a plywood panel.
He stood for a moment, listening to the children’s laughter, then, as quietly as he could, he raised the hammer and broke the glass.
“What happened, Pop?”
George held out a hand. “Careful, there might still be some shards.” He turned back to the window and hammered the final nail into the board. “That ought to hold it.”
“What was it? A bird again?”
“Y-yes… a bird. Must’ve got blown off course.”
Violet nodded and made for her room.
“Wait!” he almost yelled. She turned back to him. “Before you… go…” He winced. “How ‘bout a board game? Like old times. We could play as a family… but downstairs!”
Violet wrinkled her nose. “I dunno, Pop!”
“Please?” He forced a smile. “It’d mean a lot to your ol’ pop. Let’s get one right now, from the cupboard. You can choose. It’ll be fun. I promise.”
Violet’s rolled her eyes. “Okay! But you know I’ll pick Monopoly.” She laughed.
He nodded. He knew.
They walked to the storage cupboard, and he watched her rummage through the old games, making sure the pieces and die were all present. He wanted to say it so badly, but what came out still wasn’t quite right.
“I miss you, Violet.”
Violet stopped counting and raised an eyebrow. “O-kay?”
Then she vanished.
His hand shot out despairingly, too late to catch the tiny silver dog she had been holding. It landed silently on the carpet while he stood alone by the cupboard, choking back the tears.
“Where’s Violet?” Sam asked as he rolled the die.
“She’s… with Benji. She’ll be back!” George lied, fidgeting with the little pile of paper money.
“I’ll go get her!” Before George could stop him, the little boy was off and running to the living room window.
“Wait!” The ferocity of his cry startled Mary.
“Oh my gosh, Pop! You’ve got to see this!”
His face crumpled as he pulled himself to his feet. There could be no hiding it this time. It was spreading.
“A squirrel!” cried Sam, his face lighting up like a pinball machine.
George puffed out his cheeks. It was indeed a squirrel, hopping from branch to branch on the tree that grew outside the window.
Thank you, he thought. He couldn’t hold back any longer. Tears streamed forth. He crouched down and pulled his son into an embrace. “I miss you, Sam,” he whispered. He blinked to clear the tears and felt a shift. His trembling hands now grasped at thin air.
Sam was gone.
He glanced over at his wife, and with horror saw that the walls surrounding her were gone too, replaced by that same ashen wasteland he had first spied from the upstairs window. She stared back at him, her face a muddle of confusion.
“Mary!” he cried. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry I never said it more. Please don’t go just yet… I… I—”
In the air above Mary’s head, large green lettering began to form, building a phrase:
BATTERY LOW – SIMULATION UNSTABLE
Mary disappeared. Piece by agonizing piece, it all disappeared, and George slumped to his knees, unbuckling the helmet, letting the half-light bleed back into focus, the unspoken words still lingering on his tongue.
That night George lay by the dwindling fire in the burned-out shell of the building. The stars dripped like melting silver in the empty void above.
By his side lay the discarded Artificial Reality headset he had salvaged. Drained of juice, just another useless artifact of the pre-war past, a remnant of a time before, when people had dived into simulations to escape a mundane world they now ached for.
He clutched the scorched photograph in his blistered hands. He’d taken it himself. One summer, one joyful endless summer, long ago. The children and Mary, laughing. Playing. Happy. Why hadn’t he told them?
He traced a finger across the image as the light faded over the gray remnant of the world.
Too late, the words finally came.
“I loved you,” he whispered to the ghosts in the darkness and hoped that the wind might carry them home.