It was on a fine and slow Saturday morning that I bought an apple, and the apple disappeared.
I got it on a whim. I never was big on apples. I usually ate them only when they happened to be there or when they were offered, which wasn’t very often the case. But, after waking up early by the pure chance of having forgotten to close the blinds on my window the evening before and, after taking my typical Saturday-forenoon stroll through the greener streets of my neighborhood, I found that I felt a little bit peckish. Not only that, but the early rise and the much-less-than-sumptuous meal I’d had made me feel extraordinarily fine as though, in a few simple steps, I’d increased my health by a country mile. And so I was willing, at least for the day, to continue on that laudable road.
To appease my sudden nigh-on-hunger without threatening my new, nigh-on-healthy lifestyle, I passed right by the grocery store and its shelves stacked high with baked goods, chocolates, bonbons, and crisps; I strode straight towards the rich display of colorful snacks beneath a fruit stall’s striped awning. Delicious reds, cheerful yellows, and frisky greens winked at me in the bright sunlight, and boy, was I willing to engage them. Like I said, though: I was peckish, not starving, and I wanted to stick to the motto: All I bought off the chipper old lady in her quaint apron and white cap was an apple as round as the moon and as pristinely red as expensive wine. One apple seemed to be the most wholesome option available, and this spotless specimen in particular promised to prove an unrivalled treat.
I had, right upon purchase, determined to consume my snack. Delighted by my choice, I took my fair leave of the stall—the aproned lady, and the rather ugly awning with its red and blue stripes—and headed for my preferred park. There is a fountain in this park, you see, and the prospect of watching the waterspout while I devoured every last bite of my apple would have had me burst with sudden joy if not for my equally sudden impatience to make it come true.
I grabbed the apple firmly in my hand, resisting an urge to spin it like a basketball or juggle it from one side to the other; I am no sportsman and no trickster, and I would only have made a fool of myself. At a red light, I basked in the sun, feeling crisp and easy. I could tell this was to be a fine weekend, if only because thinking so made it so. Work on Monday could bite my behind for now; social obligations I had none, and it seemed to me like that flapping kitchen cupboard door I’d been meaning to repair was finally going to see its loose hinge replaced. I made a mental note to walk by the hardware store on my way back home, crossed the street, entered the park through tall cast-iron gates, and sauntered down the path to the fountain.
That was when I noticed that my hand was empty.
I didn’t see it happen.
One moment, my fingers and palm clutched a light weight. The next, they did not. I looked at my hand and then at the ground in the onset of mild dismay, thinking that I must have dropped my beautiful apple on the dirty, shoe-trodden asphalt. Granted, I’d slackened my clasp on the apple as I’d walked through the gates for, as usual, a sense of freedom pervaded me when I stepped inside this favorite park of mine. Still, I was rather surprised that my grip had been light enough for the corpulent fruit to wriggle free and slip through my fingers.
Imagine then the much greater extent of my surprise when my senses told me that no such thing had occurred.
Wherever I looked, there was no red to be gleaned. I let my glance wander the length and breadth of the path in every direction, onto the grassy areas bordering it on each side, and even back to my hand which didn’t need my eyes to confirm that it was touching upon nothing. Still, the very real emptiness my skin was cradling struck me as highly irregular, even grotesque: my hand was still poised as if holding an apple, arranged around a vacuous shape in which an apple would have made the neatest fit. What, then, had caused it to drop?
And where had it gone off to?
I’d felt the apple until I arrived at this perfectly unspecific spot, so I must have lost it nearby. The path was even, so it couldn’t have rolled very far or, at least not farther than my eyes could see. There weren’t many people about, so an act of thievery was unlikely in itself; it seemed even less likely, indeed rather unthinkable, that I should not have been able to spot the supposed apple thief in my vicinity. The person closest to me was a woman walking her dog on the other side of a row of low hedges up ahead.
Where, then, was my apple?
For a moment, I was stumped beyond any ability to react. I couldn’t move, couldn’t think properly. In a deep, rarely audible part of my mind, I was aware that I had just met with an absurdity—in fact, an impossibility—and it felt disturbingly as though the rest of my brain were preparing for a shutdown in the face of this existential adversity. But of course, sense and rationality took hold and won out: It was a basic fact of life that the apple couldn’t have vanished into thin air, and that the impossible wasn’t well, possible. That some as yet undiscovered explanation had to be available and therefore, the currently unavailable apple was somewhere to be discovered.
I must have dropped it at an earlier occasion. That was the immediate conclusion I jumped to. It seemed perfectly valid, but it wasn’t exactly helpful: It did not spur me into action, did not offer guidance or direction. I’d come here with the sole purpose of eating my apple by the fountain and, now that the apple was gone, I’d sort of run myself into a corner option-wise. I could not continue on my path: I could either go home, abandoning every aspect of my plan, visit the fountain anyway, doing without the snack, or retrace my steps in search of the lost fruit, which not only sounded hopeless but posed the question of whether I’d still want to eat it even if I found it. It was a strange position I found myself in, to say the least. I’d been stopped in my tracks in the middle of the path, stuck in my favorite park like a robot without directives.
And above it all hung the indelible, yet inacceptable fact that I’d felt the apple in my hand a mere moment ago.
A small, wailing thing shot past me where I stood, and I jumped. When I saw that the small thing was a child and that it was laughing, not crying, I relaxed. How long had I been daydreaming in that same spot, pondering the disappearance of the apple? I didn’t know and, honestly, didn’t want to know: The question I’d wasted that precious time on was unanswerable and pointless. I must have been mistaken in believing I’d had the apple on me up until that point—the sensation of something ripe and smooth in my hand, a deception grown from expectation. Nothing more, nothing less.
So finally, I went home, lest somebody see me standing rooted to the path (or frisking the grass) and take me for a madman. When I reached the street where I’d bought the apple, I gave in to the urge—coupled with a sudden, unwelcome and irrational sense of dread—to cross to the other side so as not to walk directly by the fruit stall. Knowing full well how ridiculously I was behaving, I kept my head stubbornly down, eyes glued to the pavement. I didn’t even want to see the treacherous array of colors.
Only when I got home and closed the door behind me did I pick up on the oddity of what had passed through my mind: treacherous? What an abstruse denunciation to apply to fruits on sale, just because I’d lost the one that I’d bought. I might’ve laughed out loud right there beside my shoe cabinet.
If it weren’t for the fact that, at the moment of thinking it, I’d been entirely serious.
It was high time I dwelled on other things. I wondered what to do with the rest of my morning, which now struck me as spanning way too many hours. How to fill the annoyingly long stretch of time until lunch, when the apple which had been supposed to abridge and enrich it had dissolved like smoke?
But it hadn’t, I admonished myself. I’d dropped it somewhere, and that was that.
So, I went about my business as usual. I picked a book from the pile on my bedtable, went to the couch, and turned the TV on instead. I liked several of the season’s new comedies but, that morning, I didn’t even know what I was watching. I let some show or other wash over me without paying the slightest attention, my eyes roaming the room as though seeing it for the first time. They came to rest on the kitchen cupboard with the loose hinge, reminding me that I’d forgotten to swing by the hardware store on my way home. I might as well have gone there now instead of ignoring my television, but I no longer felt like leaving the house at all. This had nothing to do with the apple, of course. Nothing.
I ended up reading after all. First, a recent novel’s opening pages of which I didn’t catch a single word. Then a passage in a book on astrophysics I’d been trying for over a month to unriddle (at least with this one, I was accustomed to not understanding a thing). Lastly, articles on the internet, through which I scrolled dispassionately, glancing sideways at the time ever so often.
When noon was almost upon me, I ignored my lack of hunger and set to work in the kitchen, deciding that my short, meager breakfast called for an exuberant lunch. I forced the unforeseeable incident in the park out of my mind every time it tried to re-enter. While the oven was heating up, I cut potatoes into slices as uniform as their original shape allowed, prepared a marinade of vegetable oil, salt, pepper, and a myriad of other spices, and created a tray of my famous homemade wedges, their smell attractive even before they were baked. Carving the slices, I’d somehow managed to disregard all comparisons to similar operations on similar plants, as much as they imposed themselves. But, when I opened the cupboard in need of repairs and removed an onion from within, I lost all focus. It was only when the fully preheated oven blew its smelting blast at me that I came to my senses and realized that I had been crouching next to the stove holding the onion—turning it, sampling it, testing it—for several minutes.
With this I came to understand that I would have to actively banish the apple from my mind, just as it had vanished from my hand (which I insisted it hadn’t done, of course, because it hadn’t). Distracting myself wasn’t as easy as it ought to have been: Handling sweet peppers and carrots and zucchini, I kept thinking back to the motley of fruits beneath the stall’s awning. Eating reminded me of the snack I’d missed out on.
Watching TV again, I couldn’t help but notice how prominently apples were featured in pretty much every show that had scenes in a kitchen, in a shop, or even an office. I decided to try something completely different that I knew featured not a single piece of fruit: play a video game for an hour or two. It worked quite well for a while. That is, until I happened to glance down and spot the familiar symbol on the painfully expensive PC’s frame and became conscious of what kind of computer I was using. Needless to say, I didn’t much enjoy the game anymore afterwards. The memory that I was trying to forget kept barging in, causing a discomfiting throb in my temples.
I took a shower for a change of pace. After that, for the rest of the day, I almost succeeded in pushing away thoughts of the apple, but they kept creeping in whenever I wasn’t occupying my mind with something definite and worthwhile. Sleep came late and balkingly and, before I did finally drift off, I used that opportunity to allow myself for once to focus on the apple—or rather, on why the entire affair disconcerted me so. I was convinced, after all, that I had merely lost the thing without noticing somewhere between stall and park, nothing more than that.
But the problem, I figured lying in the dark, was precisely that I wasn’t convinced of any such thing. I continuously had to insist that it had been so, make myself believe this version of the story. It was, I reluctantly granted, wildly implausible that I shouldn’t have instantly detected the separation of hand and apple. I had, I now admitted to myself, only accepted the unnoticed casual loss as the logical explanation because the only alternative was, well, no alternative at all.
If the apple hadn’t been the only thing I’d acquired underneath that red and blue awning, it wouldn’t have bothered me half as much. It was easy enough for me to imagine that, upon buying bags full of groceries and toiletries, and a fruit to throw into the mix, a shopper would not notice if that piece of fruit dropped out of one of those bags. That, or even their own hand as it struggled with the bulging weight of the purchase.
But the only thing I’d held in my hand—clenched firmly, with no room to spare for budging or slipping or dropping away—had been that single apple!
It seemed to me there was no adequate explanation. I urged myself to stop concerning myself with it but that only made me more concerned, especially now that night had fallen. When sleep finally dispersed all my very unrewarding thoughts, it came at the price of strange dreams: shadows with nothing to cast them, raindrops with nowhere to fall, and laughing children running in circles. The next day wasn’t much different from the previous afternoon. Anxious all weekend, I was almost grateful when Monday came around. Now I had work to distract me from the nagging problem of the apple’s impossible disappearance.
For a while, that seemed to do the trick. Morning’s haste and the rush of the 7:00 A.M. commute held me in their typical, unidirectional thrall, offering no room for idle speculation and futile confabulation. My desk job was never the most exciting or sophisticated of professions, but every week since my recruitment offered its fair share of stressful hours and assignments that demanded focus and exactitude. Mondays—when my side of the work had lain still for the weekend, but the wheels had continued to turn and rattle elsewhere—usually posed plenty of challenges that defeated any attempt at proper time management. On that particular Monday, this didn’t bother me at all. Hour after hour, I had to commit myself to the task at hand. My mind had no chance to wander, and my work computer was an elderly Windows model. Thank heavens for small favors. So, I didn’t think of the weekend’s mystery that morning. No more often than once or twice.
Until, that is, the colleague at the desk opposite mine took five and inevitably withdrew an apple from his valise.
It would be an exaggeration to state that the sight of my colleague’s snack caused me a minor crisis. Yes, I did break out in a bit of a sweat. No, I couldn’t keep my eyes off that apple for longer than a couple of seconds at a time until it was finally eaten up and its core tossed into the trash. But that was no crisis, no attack of any sort whatsoever. The apple didn’t even look like mine, not in the slightest: It was green and malformed, shaped almost more like a pear, and riddled with brown spots. Also, it was there, stayed in my colleague’s hand through to the end—from first bite to final gnaw, nibble, and greedy suck for every last drop of its nutritious juice.
So, I wasn’t too disturbed by the presence—the unfailing, constant presence—of that other apple, and my colleague didn’t even notice me staring. This might have been due to his own absorption in the small meal and whatever news report or subtitled YouTube video kept his eyes glued to his screen. But during the following hours, my ability to concentrate was lost in a haze of vague uneasiness, my eagerness to let myself be diverted, overshadowed by a desire to figure out what in hell had happened the day before yesterday.
For I had not dropped the apple.
Gradually, irrevocably, I began to understand and accept that now.
I entered the numbers into the computer, forwarded e-mails and calls, let my coffee cool, and sat on the tram, suddenly, not quite recalling when I’d left the office. That thought. That insight. That belated discovery did not leave my mind.
I had not dropped the apple.
I no longer felt able to deny this truth, which was as transparent as it was puzzling, as simple as it was momentous. Its ramifications plagued me all evening, well into the night. They kept me awake and watching the shadows on my ceiling, questioning their nature like I’d rarely questioned anything before. Was my apple among them now? It had vanished, so where had it gone?
That was a difficult and ponderous question, but it was of a philosophical inclination that I did not care for. It had no immediate effect on my situation, and it wasn’t the cause of my insomnia. There were other issues to contemplate. More pressing ones. Ones which had me lie in bed shivering, breathless, and wishing I’d left a light on, like a toddler afraid of the monster under the bed or the ghost in the wardrobe. Questions which haunted me not only that first night, but for all hours, days, weeks to come. A month after the disappearance of the apple, sleep-deprived and half-mad, I had to call in sick and stay home where I could ask my questions in brittle, mocking peace, and imagine the worst.
For imagine along with me: What if the apple reappeared the same way it had vanished into thin air? Out of that same air, just like that, as though it were the most regular thing in the world for an apple to come and go as it pleases? What if, one day, I held out my hand—perhaps to point out a pretty view to a companion or to indicate something on my computer screen at work, or even to touch a beautiful someone in a beautiful spot—and there it was, fresh as spring water, the vanished apple? Or, worse yet: not full and ripe and red, but brown and rotten and crawling with maggots, exhibiting all the signs of the time that had passed since the fruit had left, if not reality, then from my sight?
And what… what if it wasn’t just the apple? What if other objects in my vicinity decided to disappear like a coin amidst a wizard’s fingers and return, maybe not even into my hand, but behind my ear or from out of my nose?
What, indeed? And this was, somehow, the worst of all my twisting, cracking thoughts: the one keeping me up not merely at night but sometimes all night and multiple nights in a row. What if things had always been doing that, always, and I had simply never noticed?
At first those questions, revolving around the apple like planets around the sun, interrupted me every other step I took. And then, after a certain point, they became the noise in me that other things, earthly things, interrupted. Things. They weren’t the same for me anymore, in every sense of the phrase.
It began innocently enough, with me keeping close watch on everything around me: on objects I’d taken for granted all my life. Walking down the street, I turned every time a car passed by to make sure it was driving on behind me now. At the office, when I was still pretending to be fit to work, I checked where I had put my coffee three, four times, and my glance was drawn back to the mug every other minute or so to ascertain its continued presence in the same location. This happened even, or especially in my own home: I opened cupboard and cabinet doors to see if everything was still where it belonged—and hadn’t there, a moment ago, been a pencil next to the bowl of nuts? Had my teacup and my glass of water stood so close together before I’d gone to the toilet? Hadn’t there been space enough for a pack of hankies between them? And had I removed that pack of hankies and put it in my trouser pocket…?
My uncertainty waxed like a black moon in my head, eclipsing any faith in firm reality I’d once harbored; I grew more confused, more distraught, more confident in the knowledge that I knew nothing. The mystery of the apple penetrated my very being until I slept, tossing and sweating. It welcomed me first thing whenever I woke up, be it for a quick midnight trip to the toilet or for another day in this shifting world that I no longer trusted in. Soon, I quit getting up and going to the toilet in the dark, no matter how pressing the need (I have always been a nervous pisser), out of fear that the apple might be waiting for me somewhere among the shadows. And not much later, I had trouble leaving bed altogether: Everything, from the floor I was about to touch with my feet to the table where I would sit to have my breakfast, seemed suspicious—prone to disappearing on a whim, probably at the precise moment I stopped expecting it.
On the other hand—secretly, silently, barely admitting it to myself—I almost wished for a piece of furniture, a notebook, a streetlight, a fly, or at least another goddamn fruit to repeat the apple’s incredible vanishing act. Just so I could be sure. Just so I could point at the glaring hole in the world, the nothingness where something had been a blink of an eye ago, and say, Ha! Gotcha. I told you so.
Eyes constantly peeled, lips working to quietly sound out the questions which were becoming too loud for my brain alone to handle, I navigated a life that increasingly felt like somebody else’s. The last day I went to the office, my colleague asked me if I felt all right and, when I affirmed that I did and inquired as to his reason for doubting it, he reluctantly told me that I’d been talking to myself on and off over the preceding hour.
I stammered when I asked him what I’d been saying.
He blushed when he explained that the only thing he’d been able to make out didn’t make much sense to him.
In the park, not in the park.
Apparently, I’d repeated that multiple times and quite loudly.
It’s in the park, I’d told my desktop, on which I hadn’t done any work yet. It’s not in the park, I’d told the room and the vast empty space I spent so much of my time in now, a space of recurring questions where nothing ever vanished.
“Also, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” my colleague added, with a tiny nervous laugh that sounded, not like he thought it was funny, but like he was afraid of what he was describing. Afraid of me. “Actually, no—to be frank, you look like a ghost, rather.”
My reply was a nervous laugh of my own, adding to his like a cold, empty echo. That ended the conversation and for good. We looked at each other a while longer, perhaps in uncomfortable anticipation of further discussion, until the silence became a palpable weight on my chest and our glances drifted apart. I guess he was as glad about it as I was. We spoke not another word to each other for the rest of the day, unless I unknowingly babbled some more and he, not wanting to but unable to resist, listened in.
Before I set foot out of the office that day, I already knew I would not be coming back until I’d solved the riddle of the vanishing apple.
Unravel the mystery; unravel myself.
That’s what I believed. That’s what I still want to believe.
On my journey home—and it was quite a journey indeed—I made sure I touched as few things as possible. I waited half-hidden in a corner of the office hallway until someone else came off work and opened the door to the street; I waited so they could hold it for me, and I wouldn’t risk reaching for the handle and coming down on nothing. If a traffic light forced me to stop, I took care not to stand in one spot too long, lest a cobblestone or stretch of pavement should disappear beneath me. Walking, I stepped down only where it looked safest, most solid—knowing full well how stupid I was being. Stupid, yes, downright ridiculous…
Because the apple had been just as solid. Just as real as the hardest cement. There was and is no safety. No guarantee of stability for any object. Any one. I saw that with reinforced clarity now because my colleague, in his lame, entirely serious joke, had unknowingly hammered home a truth I must have so far suppressed successfully. He had unwittingly opened a door in the cacophony of my thoughts, the tangle of my questions, opened a door and posed a new, ultimate question.
You look like a ghost.
What if I—I myself—made like the apple and vanished?
It’s in the park. It’s not in the park.
There. That was and is something to hold onto. The result of all my philosophizing, murmured absentmindedly at my desk, spoken to myself in toneless desperation. It’s in the park, it’s not in the park: all the wisdom I had left. Naturally, I had to act upon it.
It is and it is not, but it was—and so it might be again?
So now here I sit, days after my final appearance at work, beside the path leading to the fountain with its merrily twinkling drops of water. I’ve been coming here daily since I called in sick and today, I’m not so sure I’ll go home in the evening: Isn’t the apple much more likely to return in the dark? I don’t know why I think so, but I do think so. Staying here should be a lot easier than coming and leaving—coming and leaving every day—with the fear of disappearing en route, isn’t that right?
The path stretches off to my left, off to my right. The grass beneath me is wet with dew—it’s an early Saturday morning. My blanket keeps me dry: a striped blanket, red and blue. Yesterday I sat closer to the path, but it was gently requested that I remove myself, and I complied. I don’t want to cause anyone any trouble. I simply want to be here in case my apple reappears. It would do so here, would it not? I, at least, deem it the most feasible eventuality. It is in the park; it is not in the park. See a ghost, look like a ghost. I would have explained all this to the guard who asked me to move, but I have a feeling that words would always fail me, that others might not as easily understand. I’m waiting for my apple, is all I could say and, in all honesty, I’d rather not say it.
I’d rather just wait.
THOMAS KODNAR, born in 1992, is an Austrian writer. He studied Philosophy at the University of Vienna, graduating as Master of Arts in 2015. Since then he has published short stories in a variety of anthologies and magazines, e.g. in Zwielicht, HORLA – The Home of Intelligent Horror, phantastisch!, ParABnormal Magazine, and Devil’s Rock Publishing’s The Other Side. He also writes stage plays in cooperation with the Glashaus Collective. He likes coffee, Stephen King, vegan cake, Donna Haraway, Digimon (the TV-series) and Pokémon (the video games). More on his German website www.thomaskodnar.at and on his Instagram @thomaskodnar
Artwork by Novel Noctule team.