It hadn’t always been this way, a time and place of reduction, of vanishing, of things slipping away.

No, not things, he corrected himself. People.

Individual men, women, and children, those were what he was dealing with, what he was in search of. For some reason, they had started to disappear, as simple and quick as turning a page, and just as quietly. No warnings, no gasps, no dropped phone calls, no doors slammed, and no cars speeding into the night. It wasn’t as if they were trying to get away from him, he was sure of that. Nor was he hunting them down; he was simply looking for them, searching for them as you would if you lost something of great personal value.

It is personal, he thought, nodding in agreement with himself. I know these people, each and every one of them. They aren’t running from me, he reminded himself, as he had millions of times. They have no reason to run.

Still.

Where had they gone?

That was the puzzlement. Somehow they had managed to slip away, they were suddenly gone. Like a finger snap, a blink of the eye, just like that, without a moment’s notice. Poof.

Millions of them had gone missing and his only desire was to find them. It shouldn’t have been at all difficult—he had told himself the same thing ever since the very first vanishing occurred in what they all called 5700 BC—but they eluded him, almost as if they were hiding from him, which was impossible, of course.

Creator was in search of Creation. Even the suggestion that they could conceal themselves from him was beyond any realm of possibility that he could imagine. The vanishings had happened everywhere on the planet, randomly, at numerous times and with no evident pattern, and it had always caught him off guard, and that should have been impossible, too.

It was a cosmic game of hide and seek, yet they were never, ever found.

#

It started with Catalhöyük, and like a crack in a dam, from that moment on things went terribly, horribly wrong. Now, more than 600 people go missing every single day, almost 220,000 gone each year, and they are not victims of crimes; they are simply removed from his care, snuffed out without a trace. Never seen or heard from again. Men, women and children of all ages and races vanish without warning. He searches diligently and methodically and constantly but comes up empty handed each time, nothing to hold, nothing to claim as his own.

It had first occurred in Turkey at the oldest city on the planet, Catalhöyük. It was an arid location, surrounded by vegetation, grasses, and small bushes, and the early settlers lived in mud-brick homes. They collected and stored wild wheat and barley grains. He had provided everything they needed, including the Çarsamba River for drinking and washing. Animals were drawn to the water, so it was an ideal area for hunting. There was no need for them to ever leave.

But then, in 5700 BC, ten thousand souls—the entire settlement— disappeared overnight. In a panic, he appeared at the Stone Age city only to find it eerily silent. The primitive homes were tightly clustered together in a honeycomb-like maze. Each house was identical and contained three rooms, and each room was identical in its emptiness. There were no streets so it was easy to surmise at a glance that no one lived there any longer.

He had stood there listening, straining for a sound of life, peering about for any movement. The stillness was as solid as if the place had been frozen in a moment. He reached in absently to a grain bin and pulled out a carefully made figurine carved and molded from limestone. It was a stately seated goddess flanked by two lions. It represented a female deity, one they called on in order to ensure the success of the harvest or protect their food supply. The Mother Goddess. He took no offense. They had no idea how to approach him or acknowledge him, so it made sense they would seek out a nurturing representation of who he was. He knew they were thinking of him even as they engraved and fashioned images of her.

Such desolation, he mused sadly as he gazed about the abandoned area.

Where had they gone?

Centuries passed and he never located them. He was left traumatized and bewildered by the event.

#

The sun was hot and at its highest point in the sky. It was so harsh that the North Carolina ground shimmered under its gaze. The yellow-white glow tried to bleach out the deep blue of the heavens but the color remained intact, stoic against the noon heat.

He watched all of this from the cool detachment of a booth in the Croatoan Diner on Roanoke Island. He drummed his finders on the polished table. The big window gave him a panoramic view of the fairly deserted landscape that spread out before him. Next to the diner was the old 1950s gasoline station with the four rusty pumps that resembled tombstones when they were silhouetted against the sunset.

He could see Route 64 only a few hundred feet away. Dust permanently hovered over the road as the cars and trucks sped back and forth. The landmass was less than 18 square miles and was sandwiched between the barrier islands and the mainland. There was nowhere to hide; everything was out in the open, exposed and vulnerable to the elements, especially the heat that bore down like an ever-increasing weight.

There wasn’t much to the island and it should have been the easiest location of the thousands he had searched. After all, it was an island, where could they have gone?

#

The second time it happened was in 1800 BC in the Indus Valley of Pakistan in northwest India. There were more than one hundred established towns, a strong, vibrant and growing community with the largest city having a population of more than 40,000.

They all went missing. In an instant, they were gone, and he panicked, stunned that it had taken place again. He didn’t dream—he never desired to—but when it happened, he felt like he was in some other realm, an altered reality, a place not of order but of bedlam where anything could happen.

He had stopped everything, grabbed hold of time and hushed it. He needed a moment to ponder what was happening.

The first time, ten thousand had vanished in Catalhöyük, and now 40,000 in the Indus Valley had gone missing, and he still had more than 600 people disappearing every single day.

He was unable to fathom the depth and magnitude of the loss since the idea was unmanageable. He freed time to continue and as it whirled away, he remained despondent that he had acquired no insight into what was occurring. He had never experienced fear before but now he had the abrasive, tingling sensation like the atmosphere before a storm: If the vanishings had happened twice before, they could occur again.

#

Mill Mountain was the highest landmark in that particular area of North Carolina. At seventeen hundred feet, it shadowed over other, smaller mountains. The landscape was textured with live oaks and crape myrtles. He had done well there and the color and terrain were beautiful to behold. But those whom he yearned for were not there and so the longer he remained, the more he thought the beauty was hollow and unfinished, like an unsigned painting or film that had not been properly color corrected.

A year earlier he’d traveled to the east side of the island and set watch at the waterfront town of Manteo, but he found no one. So he had moved on, seeking and peering, sunrise to sundown, and then he had returned to the Croatoan diner. It was an ideal vantage point to see this portion of the world and all that was going on. The Croatoan Tribe still owned the property and yet the distressed and battered No Trespassing sign indicated they had lost interest in the restaurant years earlier. The island was now a tourist attraction and those who visited demanded something shiny and new for their dollars, so some developers from off-island had purchased the property.

He had always had a warmth and affection for the Native Americans and was sympathetic to their plight. Nearby, the Dixie and Linville Cavern walls were covered with the faded history of the other local Native Tribes—the Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, and the Lumbee—who were once the only inhabitants of the area. Like him, they too were often a forgotten people, a looked-over group whose voice was being quieted like the after-thought of an echo: Had they ever been heard? Once known for their mighty, rousing cries, they had been tamed years earlier and were now on the verge of being lost to history, silenced and entombed like the drawings on the cavern walls.

He tapped his finger against the polished table, a constant drum roll. Before him was a thick white mug and matching saucer. The inch square logo of the diner was the only marking on the cup. He liked the feel of the mug and saucer, solid, plain and durable. You could count on them to keep the liquid hot and sometimes they wouldn’t even break or chip if you dropped them. They were made of a tough ceramic that easily handled thousands of brusque dishwashings without the logo fading or flaking.

He could have anything he wanted in the mug but preferred to keep it empty. He’d been sitting in the diner in the same booth for almost a year, staring out the window, watching the traffic pass by on Route 64. Every few days a car would extract itself and drive onto the island and pull up to the diner. Curious by the deserted property, the occupants of the automobile would climb out, stretching and chatting and commenting on the heat. They’d ignore the No Trespassing sign and fidget with the old gas pumps and cup their hands against the windows of the station and peer in. He was surprised that no one broke windows or caused any damage to the property. They looked and they touched but that was it. Maybe they sensed he was there.

Once they had checked out the gas station, they made their way to the diner. As they approached, they couldn’t see him sitting there in the third booth on the left. Even when they’d gaze into the restaurant, it was empty according to their eyes and senses. They didn’t tamper with the rusted locks that shuttered the doors and entrances; there was a respect for the area and its history and its soon-forgotten tribes. Sometimes they would pause to take some pictures, capturing the place for a moment in its time. His image would never show up in the photos; he was always a sight unseen. Their voices and laughter were soon cut short by the slamming of doors and then the engine would start and the car would kick out some gravel as it worked up enthusiasm to rejoin the others on Route 64.

He sat in the third booth on the left, drumming his fingers on the polished table, alone once more, his mug and saucer empty before him.

#

China’s ancient city of Loulan with a population of 14,000 vanished in AD 330, and in AD 900, more than 30,000 disappeared from the Mayas of southern Mexico. In AD 1000, the ancient city of Niya’s population of 3000 went missing. The Khmer Empire was a massive urban civilization, but in AD 1200, more than one million citizens had vanished. Easter Island in the Polynesian Triangle was home to more than 3000 but when their island was discovered in the 1700s, it was deserted.

#

The crews came to demolish the gas station and restaurant five years later. First the men had come with clipboards and had climbed in and on the buildings. Permits were presented on site and signed. Photos were taken. Asbestos was removed along with all the plumbing and any pipes or fixtures that were of value. It looked to him like a form of surgery in which every body part was removed. By the time they were finished, most of the walls had been torn open, the booths and tables had been sold, and the restaurant equipment was hauled away for auction or left to be demolished with the rest of the property.

Both buildings were battered shells that looked like they belonged in a war zone. They appeared to have been shot through with bullets, scrapped raw by explosions and left behind as collateral damage. When the day arrived, he stood outside to the left of the diner as the machinery approached. The drone of heavy, powerful equipment sounded like an army preparing to attack. Huge hydraulic breakers, cranes and bulldozers went to work pulling and mauling and yanking down the walls and pushing over whatever remained. By the end of the day, nothing but rubble remained, human ashes where there had once been places of business, a livelihood.

#

The vanishings occurred in North America, too. In AD 1400, more than 40,000 people disappeared from the Native American site at Cahokia Mounds, right across from the Mississippi River. In 1587, the entire Roanoke Colony in North Carolina was found abandoned without a trace of the more than one hundred colonists.

In Bennington, Vermont, dozens of men, women and children went missing between 1920 and 1950. In 1930, more than 30 people disappeared at Angikuni Lake, along the Kazan River in Canada. Seven years later, ten people vanished at Glastenbury Mountain in southwestern Vermont.

In 1957, 6000 people disappeared from the mining town of Santa Rita in New Mexico.

#

Early the following morning, the area was cleared of debris and trucks came and went all afternoon, hauling away the results of the demolition. By the end of the third day, the area was flat, empty and without evidence that there had ever been a diner or gas station in existence.

He now had no place to sit, no window to look out of and no cup or saucer on a table before him. The traffic on Route 64 continued to rush past him but with no deserted property to catch their attention, the cars no longer stopped to look over that portion of the island. For six months, he stood there. Time meant nothing to him so he could have remained there forever.

Financing fell through, as he knew it would, so there would be no building constructed there for more than a decade.

#

Argentina was like an old, old memory or first love to him. He had started there, scratched the itch to begin something. He had been exhilarated with himself as he made the mountains ridiculously tall, crowning each one higher than the one he had just formed. In the end, he had made them the tallest peaks in the planet’s Western Hemisphere. It had all truly been a marvel.

Recalling even earlier times, he envisioned the globular star in the summer constellation Sagittarius. The inhabitants of those early planets had frozen once their starlight had burned out, but other cultures had survived and thrived and that small part of the universe was alight with light and energy.

They are all still there, he mused. None of them have disappeared.

It was as if a kidnapping was occurring on an international, massive scale, but one that never demanded a ransom. In every instance, it was like an eraser had come along and obliterated the fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. Like water bleeding into sand, his people trickled away in an instant and were never seen or heard from again.

Where had they all gone?

#

It was color that ultimately led him to New Mexico seven years later. The southwest had always been a palette that had brought him immediate satisfaction. It had developed perfectly from the instant he had applied the hues and the textures, with no need for a second thought or correction.

He stood in Chaco Canyon, the northwest section of New Mexico. It was an isolated place, all high desert and high winds. The sun was burning white-hot, its glow turning the sky a pale blue. The air was motionless and dry, and the shallow, ten-mile valley cupped the heat and held it close. It was an old place, ancient with a forgotten people but with evidence of their existence all around. There were small pit houses that were humbled by five-story structures that contained hundreds of rooms. Below ground were sacred locations set aside for ceremonial rituals whose purposes and deities were long forgotten to everyone but him. There had once been so many of us, he contemplated, so revered and honored and worshiped.

The ancient dwellers had spent hundreds of years building extravagant, lavish homes in a location that was known for its harsh environment. The summers were nothing but scorching furnaces, each day at least 100 blistering degrees. The long, blue winters dug in deep with temperatures well below zero. Less than ten inches of rain fell each year so success with farming and any agricultural endeavor was almost impossible. Yet more than a thousand people had stayed and thrived and worshiped there for centuries…until they had vanished in AD 1300.

He had shared so much with them that when they disappeared, it was like a betrayal, as if they had moved on and chosen another, but there was no other, nowhere else for them to go.

He gazed upward, seeing afresh the reason they had persisted in such a hard and harsh climate. The sky had always kept them in awe, reminded them of him. And with no city or community lights nearby, the Chaco Canyon’s nighttime skies were glorious with stars. It was timeless, the same glittering sky that he remembered the Chacoans had puzzled over thousands of years earlier as they pondered their existence. Maybe that was why he felt so close to them at this location, their last known place of residence. It was a sacred place, he supposed, made so by his presence and his yearning for them.

He closed his eyes and saw through the darkness of all he had created. Nothing was out of his reach or mind or sight, or so he had once known. Now, so much was slipping away from him.

There had once been so many of them, he thought, and so many of us.

Where had they all gone?

Then it came to him, where to look next. He opened his eyes. He started on his way. He knew that the very ground he would walk on would be spiked with grief and loss and very deep memories.

#

It wasn’t as if he was trying to get away from her, she was sure of that. Nor was she hunting him down; she was simply looking for him, searching for him as you would if you lost something of great personal value.

It is personal, she thought, He isn’t running from me, she reminded herself, as she had billions of times. He has no reason to run.

It shouldn’t have been at all difficult to find him, but he had eluded her, almost as if he was hiding from her, which was impossible, of course.

Where had he gone?

(For R and CW)