As I opened my eyes around seven o’clock that morning I couldn’t have imagined the state of the world that would inescapably greet me within a few minutes. Looking back I now realize I missed all the warning signs – it wasn’t a storm or an earthquake so one might say they were surprised. Nevertheless, I was surprised; terrified, even. I suppose I can even remember, but how true my statement is I do not know since after all the recollection some details appear in one’s memories without ever being real, a slight breeze that woke me up and even the smell of burnt bread and some other odor of which the source I was yet to discover. Mister Green was going to be angry for the rest of the day, I had imagined. He was a friendly man but every time his daughter would ruin a batch of pastry we knew we would eat yesterday’s bread because mister Green was a choleric as well. Better not annoy him, I thought.
The morning was like any other that September. Heat waves slowly died and sky became cloudy. It wasn’t raining that morning but I had no doubt it would rain later. I remember still being glad about the cool days and wondering how long would it be before I wished for the summer again. Asking myself pointless questions I approached the commode under my mirror and splashed my face with icy cold water from a bowl – it was peculiar that the water was cold. I wondered for a minute what had stopped my mother from bringing hot water to my room that morning as was her habit. I was going to find out what it was within a minute. The smell of burnt bread appeared again and I was certain the old man Green would die of torment that morning; the other smell was present as well.
In a few moment I was going to see the sight that would frighten me the most, petrify actually. I dried my face with a towel from the day before – yet another peculiarity I had noticed. I was convinced there was some explanation for all the oddity of that unusually strange morning. Something was missing and I wasn’t aware of it. Was it missing or was it present? What was it? I was facing a horrifying occurrence I had never known in my life – deafening, terrible presence that haunts me to this day. Yet I wasn’t awake enough to notice it; I didn’t even think about it. Only later on I had realized what it was and never forgot.
As I opened my door I discovered the source of the odder – milk. Burnt milk on our old oven. What is going on, I asked myself knowing something wasn’t right. The burnt crust of something that used to be milk was sending that pungent smell up the stairs to my room. My first awake thought was that something had happened in the town and everyone hurled out… But they would have called me as well. I went down the staircase and looked at the oven – yes, a black mass was lightly burning and spreading the stark fragrance. With premonition my eyes turned left to the comfy armchairs in front of an unlit fireplace where between them were two cups of untouched tea on a table. My parents would wake up and drink their tea, sitting in those chairs every morning since I can remember. Are they both asleep? A part of me knew how unlikely that was, yet
I hoped. I approached the armchairs slowly and I reached out my hand when on the other side of my mother’s armchair I felt something thin and sharp. At that moment my eyes were spread open and I saw them.
As I write this I realize the irony. The comical motif fits right into my current doing, but there was nothing comical regarding the events that took place on that day, nor all the days after. Why am I writing this I shall never understand since the time of reading was ended on that day when all the people in the world turned into paper. I’m still writing as if there was someone but me to read it. Everyone I had ever known or was going to meet or never could have know became pure magazine paper and now I am writing of the day I found the paper people in my parents’ armchairs.
The next moment the deafening silence descended on me and I became aware of that terrible presence – or the lack of it, to be more accurate. No sound came through the open windows – not a squeak, nor a step, not even a murmur… I was woken up into a soundless, lifeless morning. Fire in the oven had already died down and I stood in the fragrance of burnt mils wondering if my paper parents had a chance at least to take a sip of tea before becoming cutout newspaper figures of themselves. It would be another hour until I ask the obvious question, but I suppose I wasn’t ready yet. That moment I was struck with a rush of optimism so I ran up the stairs to my brother’s room. I knocked, I’ll never forget it, and entered. There he was, standing in front of a mirror, one arm stretched towards the bowl of water, the other gently laid on his hip. I’m alone.
Grief, searching solutions, anger, desperation, it could all wait – I had to know. I ran out of our house and to the street. Mister Green was standing in front of his bakery, sweeping the street. As I touched him ever so slightly his hands ripped under the weight of the broom which fell on the pavement producing a deafening sound that any other day I wouldn’t hear even if I was next to poor mister Green, yet now the broom sounded as if it was destroying the pavement. I remember stopping for a second to think of (late?) mister Green. The most vivid memories of him were all the evenings when he would relax in front of his bakery while Lilly was scrubbing the counter and floors (I immediately wondered where Lilly was when the things occurred). Mister Green would sit on a three-legged chair, light his pipe and read The Daily News – to my mind, reading about all those deaths and speculations wasn’t as much of a relaxation as was smoking tobacco, yet he enjoyed it. He was quite a peculiar man indeed, but no more peculiar than miss Amelia Jackson whose fiance went missing decades ago while at see. The interesting, while at the same time incredibly sad thing was that she’d spent a small fortune on buying all the daily newspapers and had spent her entire life reading even the shortest and the least important or in many occasions the least trustworthy articles expecting to learn of her beloved’s fate. I remembered that story upon seeing her down the street in front of a new’s stand, picking all the latest editions.
As a child I used to ask my mom to read the horoscope to me. It was strange how she had been dependent of knowing all of us through reading other people’s words. Now that I think of it, she always wanted to be certain in every manner – she made grocery lists, she wrote down all her recopies, she served two cups of tea every morning at the exact same time all her life. She would go out and buy herself the latest edition of horoscope magazine and The Politics for my father who’d sit quietly in his armchair, sip his tea while still dreaming of his pillow and smirk on the latest political developments among other things that particular papers wrote about.
As I was standing on the lonely pavement that no one was stepping at anymore, the feeling of hunger stopped my thoughts. A poor idea came to my head and I knew it was necessary to steal mister Green’s bread. Was it stealing? A few moments later I was terrified – who was left to sell me bread, eggs, milk and all the other basic products if everyone is as of this day made of paper? Contemplating all the simplest aspects of my life that I used to take for granted but could no more I entered the bakery where a true horror of the event greeted me from the very entrance – behind the counter and down a short hall there was an oven full of burnt bread and in front of it was a pile of ashes. Poor, poor Lilly… She must have been opening the oven when it occurred. The notion that it was instantaneous came to me a little while ago, when I saw my brothers arm stretched, but the ashes of little Lilly confirmed it. She was permanently destroyed and I couldn’t help myself but to shed a tear for my childhood friend. I suppose I subconsciously expected them all to turn back to people at some soon point, perhaps I still do, but knowing that mister Green lost his limbs and that Lilly was burnt to nothing stressed me greatly.
Grief struck me a few moments later. I was all alone. The heavy feeling of sorrow was pressing down on my chest as I walked towards the river docks. Paper-people stood passively around me, frozen in a single moment of their lives, embarrassing moments of defecating behind buildings and heartwarming moments of parents kissing their thin, sharp children. I remember I could almost sense the feelings of all the shell-people that surrounded me. As I was drowning in empathy the second worst thing of the day gradually started to happen. First there was a breeze, it bent all the people; then a blast, papers flew all around me; then it happened, a drop of water fell on my cheek, then another and another and another… All the flying paper-people were soaked and started falling to the ground. Paper became sludge and there was nothing I could do. I stood there by the docks, wet and cold, watching my friends and acquaintances dissolve. Shattered, I walked home. Was it home? My family was gone, there was no warmth from the fireplace, no smell of a home-cooked meal… What makes a home? I might as well called it my sleeping place from then on, yet I never did. Partly because it is in our, or my, nature to think in dialogues and whenever I would go out and think of returning home I would call it home. There was no one I could discuss these issues with.
I never quite learned the cooking skills so much of my eating habits were consuming plants. Always a literary person, a book worm, I spent much of my life killing time by reading and writing. I suppose I know why it occurred, I suppose I recognized the cause of that day’s occurrence, but now I am sure that in the end it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I needed to adjust but never managed. The only thing left I never could figure is: why that day? The minds of all those beautiful creatures were soiled years ago. A hypothesis appeared in my thoughts some time after the first rain – I contemplated if people just became overwhelmed with their daily habits and too exposed to all the key elements that eventually would turn me as well into a distant shell of newspaper paper if I had exposed myself to them. I lived a different life, probably. Who could say? But I lived, now I’ll die. There is no higher meaning to it, there is no grand poetry about it – there is only life and not-life. I don’t think much of my death, the occurrence doesn’t frighten me, the time after I’m gone frightens the present version of me, but it still won’t matter. Inescapable truths are those, written here, and there aren’t more. We did as we wished to do. We unknowingly chose to become thin. We were the generation that was, and then one day wasn’t.
Author: Mladen Reljanović
Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.