Three thousand people were reported missing in St. Petersburg (Florida, not Russia). Not just that, but they had vanished from all government records and from the records of their credit card companies and workplaces and local charters and associations and book clubs and retail loyalty programs.
Theories abounded. They had been spirited by ominous government agencies, kept in crowded warehouses like so many chickens. They had died of unknown pathogens, possibly a product of biological terrorism conducted by scientific-minded extremist groups, and been declared disappeared to prevent or distract from widespread panic. Abducted by aliens. Skunk Ape. Rapture.
These theories persisted even after many of the missing persons in question stood up in the backs of churches and in movie theatres and diners, exclaiming, 'I am still here, I assure you!'
'You can't prove it,' witnesses muttered between coughs. 'Quiet down,' others whispered like the dead. 'Good for you,' said some with their mouths full or picking teeth with uncut fingernails.
It was not true that these people were missing. It was only very difficult to see them the way we see one another. These unwitting chameleons blended into every environment. Infrared proved ineffective. The people were virtually imperceptible unless viewed at just the right angle, and with the correct focus. As for their voices, these were fantastically easy to ignore. The missing persons sat back down and continued to be missing, and everyone present continued to forget them.
In the mainstream media, the missing were referred to as 'figments [of your imagination].' The figments maintained that they existed, but it was debatable. It was debated on every major news network. 'We're real, just like you,' said figments in empty chairs.
'If they're real, then why don't they exist?' asked a very real pundit. 'That's what I do every day. I wake up, and I exist.'
'We do exist.' No one was convinced.
Figment sympathizers, though they could not necessarily prove the existence of figments - even to themselves - left donated boxes of neon bandages on street corners in hopes that these would offer the two-fold advantage of increased visibility and cover for open wounds. Figments had been grumbling for weeks - it was suspected - that they were being hit by sports cars, closing doors, police officers, and discarded glass. There was no way to substantiate these claims; figments could not provide proper testimony, and no physical evidence was found, possibly due in part to government-sponsored car washes held outside of DMV buildings.
Recognizing each other instantaneously and inexplicably, figments congregated to protest these car washes, claiming conspiracy. 'Taxes aren't for turtle waxes!' they shouted. They also wrote it on their signs. The real people said, 'Look at that shine. It's like new!'
The figments eventually got tired of chanting and went home, but all their doors were locked and their keys did not work. Figments stood as many as four high on each other's shoulders looking through their own windows, and saw real people sitting in their homes, watching their favorite TV shows and rearranging their furniture and turning on the air conditioning full blast.
They went to the realtors, but the realtors just shook their heads, sitting in the dark and saying to themselves, 'I never got the check.' They looked across their desks and rummaged through a couple of drawers. 'Nope, never got it.'
The figments were forced to migrate from their homes. They placed spotters on each side of the road as they crossed west over MLK Jr. Blvd. The first spotter held his hand out like a water park attendant until the other gave him the signal, and said, 'OK, you can go now.'
The second spotter was their great leader Chibi. She had eyes like hurricanes and led them all safely to the huge vacant lot of asphalt and intermittent patches of grass across from Samcheong Oriental Market where Imo was hammering a metal elephant into the store's door frame.
'What's that for, Imo?' said Chibi.
'Chibi, how you doing, miss?' Imo said.
'I'm tired, but I'm well.'
'Good,' said Imo. 'This Ganesh, god of obstacle. He keep realtors away.'
'That's smart,' said Chibi. Her stomach rumbled.
'Come inside,' Imo said.
Inside her store there was a wooden barrel that was like God's tankard, full of dark-purple plums. Chibi called in ten of the strongest men and bid them carry the barrel to where the others were setting up camp. They struggled together to hoist it through the service door. Seeing the enormous barrel, the figments came running from every corner of the lot.
'Very important,' said Imo, 'that you not eat all the plums.'
'But we're very hungry,' said Chibi.
'Not all plums,' Imo repeated. 'Sell last to real person. Sell very cheap,' she said. 'Very important.'
Chibi nodded and went back to the camp. Everyone was already digging through the plums. Plum juice was dripping from their hands and faces. 'Stop that!' shouted Chibi. She quickly climbed onto the shoulders of one of the men there and saw that a third of the barrel was gone. 'Who knows how long we will have to make this last?' said Chibi, climbing into the barrel and hurling obscenities back over the lip.
In the center of the lumpy purple pile she spied a plum like no other, as big as her head. Chibi touched its skin. 'It's so rough. It's like leather,' she mourned. Still her impoverished stomach could see that it was by far the biggest of them all, so she carried it under her arm out of the barrel and sat with it beside her tent. Chibi eyed it from all sides until she decided where to bite in, but her teeth recoiled at the plum's tough exterior. She dropped it and sucked on her teeth, her eyes clenched shut in pain.
When she opened her eyes again, the plum was standing there in front of her on four tiny purple hooves with a tail like lavender flicking flies away. It pulled its truncated trunk back like a purple cobra ready to strike, revealing two small white tusks.
'An elephant!' Chibi exclaimed.
Hearing this, the figments came running from all corners of the vacant lot and remarked in awe at the curious little thing.
'Can he speak?' said one man. The elephant and everyone with him glared at the man silently. 'Of course not,' the man blushed. 'I've never heard an elephant speak.'
The elephant opened his little mouth, and pointed to it with his trunk.
'He's hungry!' everyone exclaimed.
'Bring him food,' Chibi commanded. The spryest of the boys scurried up the exterior of the barrel, dropped in, and leapt back out with a plum in his hands. He placed it at the elephant's feet. The elephant trumpeted like a piccolo and reared back. It seemed he would not eat plums.
'What will we feed him?' the figments asked each other.
'Peanuts!' one lithe young man shouted. 'Elephants like peanuts!'
'And how will we buy peanuts?'
'EBT!' the young man shouted back.
'EBT! EBT! EBT!' the figments chanted, thumping their chests and butting their heads against the sides of the barrel.
Chibi rose to her feet and lifted her palm in the air. The figments' chanting ceased. 'Are you all forgetting that our EBT will not work? The real people have forgotten that we have it, and they certainly will not accept it.' The figments sunk their heads like setting suns. 'Besides,' Chibi continued, 'it is not true that elephants eat peanuts.' The figments gasped and whispered to each other. 'Bring sticks and leaves and grasses for him.'
The real people were never certain who was clipping all their lawns, trimming their trees and hedges. The uncertainty was mitigated, however, by relief; they found no letters from homeowners associations stuffed into mailboxes or door frames, and so the mystery was not pursued. Even driveway conversations sought other subjects.
A pamphlet had recently been published by one of the world's foremost volcanologists, who had looked extensively into the subject of figments. He suggested that this was a matter of a unique kind of volcanic ash, an abstruse composition of minerals which had rendered whomever it touched virtually nonexistent. He went on to say that the ash had probably originated in the SoufriËre Hills of Montserrat's exclusion zone, from where it spread by air to neighboring islands of the Lesser Antilles. After that, the compound was likely transmitted by direct contact between traveling persons and stowaway animals. Though this did not account for the lack of bureaucratic information, it did address the serious issue of the missing people. The disappearance of the entire nation of Antigua and Barbuda seemed to support the theory, and it was widely accepted.
While this was discussed, the figments dragged their dozens of large black bags full of sticks, leaves, grasses, and Spanish moss to the camp and placed them beside the elephant. The elephant opened one of the bags with his trunk and peered inside. He picked up a stick and tried to take it into his mouth, but it was far too large. Next he tried a leaf but spat it out. He would not even look at the grasses, and the Spanish moss was full of mites.
The figments bemoaned their labors and the hungry elephant who would not eat. They opened their bags of vegetation, separating them by species and colors and stages of decay and presenting them each to the elephant, but he would not eat. They complained to Chibi.
She took a handful of dried palm fronds and held it before the elephant, stroking the pachyderm's hide. 'You must eat, little one,' she told him. The elephant pushed her hand away with his trunk.
'Eat! Eat! You must!' the figments parroted. They wailed like sea breeze. Their clamor spilled over into the surrounding blocks. Even the real people could not help but look out from their new windows, wondering just where the noise was coming from.
Two sheriff's deputies rode in on 215 horses. They parked the cavalcade beside the vacant lot and looked out over the multicolored city of camping tents but saw no inhabitants. Imo stood at the front of her store, watching the two men.
'Excuse me,' they called across the street to her.
Imo did not move.
'Hey! What are all these tents doing here?'
The officer didn't see Chibi standing there behind him. 'Can I help you?' she said.
'As a matter of fact...' The officer turned around to nothing, except for a plum the size of his head lying there on the ground. He stared at it a moment before reaching for it curiously. Chibi snatched his wrist. The officer reeled back and caught Chibi at just the right angle and just the right focus to watch her flicker in and back out of existence.
'They're real,' the officer said, Chibi's hand still latched like steel to his wrist. His other hand was on the butt of his gun.
'Who's real?' said his partner.
It would be two weeks later and one hundred and fifty miles away when engineers at the University of Florida would develop the technology necessary to see figments: goggles with lenses that could automatically adjust their angle and focus at a constant rate. With these, the officer could have seen Chibi and all the figments standing around him. Perhaps he would have also seen the plum was actually an elephant. He might have seen that elephant open its mouth. He might have seen the hunger that reached out like jagged shadowy hands and pulled him into it. He might have seen himself vanish from the Earth. But the fact that he did not see it made it no less real. He was swallowed by the elephant he thought was a plum.
When the officer had been swallowed and his partner had sped away, the figments, who had watched it all in absolute silence, looked down at the elephant and realized that they did not have to look as far down as they did previously. The elephant that had only come halfway up Chibi's shin now stood as high as her knee.
'He eats real people!' shouted the young man from earlier. Everyone began to rejoice raucously.
Chibi went off alone to her tent. She walked inside and laid her head down on the pile of old Super Bowl t-shirts that comprised her pillow. There was a moment of silence. Then she heard a rustling at her tent and heard the zipper zipping open. She opened her eyes and turned over to see the elephant standing there in the tent. The young man had let him in.
'Miss Chibi,' the young man said. 'I'm sorry to disturb you.'
'What is it?' said Chibi.
'It's just,' he began, 'it's just that we've come up with names for our new friend since he can't name himself.' He handed Chibi a note scrawled in a hasty but legible hand. It was a list of four names: GEORGE, THOMAS, JACKSON, DUMBO. Chibi glanced over it several times and looked up at the young man.
'If Miss Chibi approves,' he said.
Chibi looked over the elephant, how he looked so much like a giant plum, how she had tried to take a bite out of him, how he had swallowed that police officer out of existence. 'Nemo,' she said. 'That will be his name.'
The young man's eyes lit up. 'Of course, Miss Chibi.' He ran out of the tent, shouting, 'His name will be Nemo!'
Nemo sat there staring at Chibi. It was unclear whether he liked the name, but just then by Chibi's head appeared a pair of ear plugs wrapped in plastic. Nemo watched her open the package and put them into her ears. He turned and left the tent, and Chibi fell asleep.
Other than the Oriental market, there was a small hospital, a halfway house for any emergencies not urgent enough to warrant a trip all the way to St. Pete General, and those too urgent to risk it. It was the only building in the area with palm trees out front, and they were regularly trimmed. There was also a restaurant specializing in fried chicken gizzards and catfish gumbo. It sat next to an Amscot where the figment children would sometimes run in and steal Tootsie Rolls from the bowl on the counter. Beyond that, there was only the auxiliary lot for hospital overflow, which was chained off and empty.
Because Nemo had not wanted them, the figments used their stocks of foliage to build a large fire in the hospital lot away from camp to avoid accidentally lighting their tightly clustered tents. They arranged the sticks with the brush underneath and bits of Spanish moss as their starter. It went up like spindly magician's paper and sparked the mound.
Chibi emerged from her tent to an orange glow. The sun was down. She approached the fire in the lot beside theirs. The children were chasing each other around the flames. The adults were hollering and laughing joyously at one another. The young man was leaned against Nemo, both of them lying on the ground.
'Miss Chibi!' the children shouted. The figments all turned to look at her and were glad to see her again. 'Please, you must tell us a story.'
'I do not know any good stories,' said Chibi.
'We do not like good stories,' the little figments said. 'Tell us an awful story.'
So Chibi sat with her back to the fire and spake thus:
Kuroy was born in the stares of the first two men to see one another. They were brothers. Cain and Abel: the first two men to see one another. Kuroy was always there closeby floating with the wind. And he thought of them as brothers. He had been born between them and with them, and was always near, in the wind. Kuroy had been born without a face. He said to these two, I am your brother, but they could not recognize him because he had been born without a face. But Kuroy had a great talent. He could make beautiful faces for himself to wear. He made many of these. Sometimes he came to them as a bird. Sometimes he wore the face of a tree. Or of an elephant. He made so many faces. His brother Cain became annoyed at always having to recognize these new faces and said to Abel, I'm going to kill him. That way we'll never have to see his faces again. Abel said nothing. Kuroy adored his brother Abel and said one day, I will honor him with my gift. I will wear my brother Abel's face, it is so beautiful. Kuroy made the perfect likeness of his brother. He had such a great talent. Then Kuroy was floating by on the wind when he saw his brother Cain and hurried down to show him his face. But Cain, thinking it was Abel (so great was Kuroy's talent), said, Abel, where is Kuroy? I'm going to kill him. In shock, Kuroy took off his face and said, But I am Kuroy. I wear my brother Abel's face, it is so beautiful. Hearing this Cain became annoyed and raised his hand to strike Kuroy. But Kuroy floated away with the wind, and Cain chased after him. Kuroy was starting to tire of floating when he saw his brother Abel in the field. Kuroy said, Cain will kill me, Abel. Please help me. Abel felt pity for Kuroy and said, Go on, Kuroy, I will reason with him. So Kuroy went on, and Abel waited for Cain, who was running across the field. Abel raised his arms to embrace his brother, but Cain struck him down before a word was exchanged. Kuroy saw all this and wept, forever, deciding then that he would wear no more faces.
All the figments cried at this. 'That is a truly awful story. Thank you, Miss Chibi.'
Chibi nodded and said that it was time for sleep. She selected a few of the figments to watch the camp with her through the night. They doused the big fire, and the other figments all went to sleep. Nemo made his place at Chibi's side.
She was fearless in her patrol. Twice she heard what sounded like gunshots. Several times she heard sirens, but she was undaunted by these distractions and continued walking the perimeter. It was then that the owner of the vacant lot pulled up in his white Ford pickup.
'What the hell is going on here?' he shouted. 'There's a bunch of tents in my lot.'
'So there are,' said Chibi. He did not see her there in the dark, nor did he look for her. He only stared in horror at the polyester growth that covered his lot.
'This can't be! I won't allow it!' he said.
'Is there something you need this lot for?' said Chibi. She patted Nemo on the head.
The owner said, as if his throat would burst: 'I need this lot forgotten and alone and empty! I need it sagged like an old doormat over the porch railing. I need it dead and gone as a distant relative.'
'It is so,' said Chibi.
'I need it scorched by lightning and steel-drum flames. And fireworks! The Great Dragon! Dancing Butterfly! Apache Firedance Premium Fountain!'
'It is so,' said Chibi.
'Lock and Load! Shagadelic Mojo! Nuclear Sunrise! Red White & Boom!'
Chibi smiled. 'It is so.'
The man clamored on so that he threatened to wake all of the sleeping figments, which Chibi could not abide. She nodded to Nemo. He trumpeted like a coronet, and pulled the man into his maw. Nemo grew until his head reached Chibi's waist, and now she could pat him without having to stoop.
Chibi looked again at the camp and saw that there were no longer any polyester domes. The tents had been replaced by sheet-metal walls and roofs with overhanging lips to shed water when it rained, so the next day, when several more police officers came with box cutters and pocketknives and meat cleavers to slash the figments' tents, they found their blades bent and dulled as they scraped against the tin walls. On Chibi's order, Nemo ate every one of them. With that, he grew to tower high over all of the figments.
Many real people had hardly noticed the city of tents. Some, when asked about this, had no recollection of it whatsoever. However, this tin town, which had seemed to spring from nowhere, was considered conspicuous by all. Never before had real people seen such a thing except in photographs and on TV. It was worrisome. Real people began consciously avoiding the area, instead of 'just because,' which had heretofore been the most common reason.
Over the next several days, Chibi enjoyed peace as real people kept away. The figments set themselves to industry. In honor of their two heroes, they constructed a large pen beside Chibi's tent and covered the floor with soft grasses upon which Nemo could sleep comfortably and, since he was now large enough, constructed a palanquin of thick branches and palm fronds which could be affixed by ropes to Nemo's back. Inside they put a thick, embroidered couch cushion, which Imo gave them from her store closet, to make a soft seat for Chibi.
In this way Chibi oversaw the camp: Nemo's heavy feet falling beside the women making plum jam, because they had the hardest feet; Nemo's trunk swaying by the men drying plums next to the fire, because they had the smokiest hair; Nemo's hefty body tilting, rising, and dropping by the children gathering plums for the aforementioned purposes, because their mothers had told them so. They could not keep the plums indefinitely, Chibi had warned. These practices were necessary for their longevity. The barrel was quickly emptied. With Imo's permission, the sides were all caulked so it was watertight, and the figments collected rainwater in it for brewing plum wine.
Chibi spent every day atop Nemo, sometimes reclined, sometimes vigilant, under the palm shade. The figments delivered her meals via Nemo's purple trunk. She grew very tired of this. She took some figments away from their work with the plums and commanded them to march behind her. Others she told to dance, and the figments felt great pride in all of this and did it gladly. Since the children had already gathered all of the plums, she set them instead to finding flowers from nearby lawns and highway shoulders to scatter behind Nemo as they walked about the camp. The children enjoyed it very much and competed to find the most beautiful flowers.
It was an outlandish sight, and the real people began to speak about it. They still could not see the figments, but it was no longer so certain that they did not exist. As the real people became more sure of it, they held even less sympathy for the figments than before. News helicopters soared overhead. Real people looked on from the safety of their homes at the wildflower and azalea and peony petals falling behind what appeared to be a giant plum rolling through the shanty lot. The bravest of the real people actually went to see this in person.
'They're looking at us!' rejoiced the figments, but Chibi was not convinced.
Then, one of the real people, looking away for a moment from the giant rolling plum, noticed a stack of jars filled with delicious jams and beside them jugs of iridescent plum wine. As the giant purple plum rounded the other side of the lot, she approached the jams and wines, saying 'Tarts and biscuits, toast and crackers,' repeatedly and with increasing fervor. She reached out her hand for one of the jars.
Just then, Imo appeared next to her as if from a bottle. 'What you doing, miss!' she said.
The real woman jerked her hand back. 'I-I'm sorry,' she stammered. 'I saw this delicious plum jam, and I wanted to have a jar.'
'You may buy one, young lady,' said Imo.
The real woman lit up and pulled a crisp twenty dollar bill from her wallet.
Imo frowned and accepted the bill. 'Wait here,' she said and went into her store. Upon her return, she handed the woman three crumpled fives.
'Thank you,' the real woman smiled, and she went away cradling the plum jam in her arms.
When Chibi's procession circled back around, Imo waved her down and showed her the money they had made. Chibi got down from her palanquin for the first time that day and embraced Imo. She commanded the foremost of her marchers and dancers to carry the jars of plum jam and jugs of plum wine into Samcheong Oriental Market.
The real people followed these floating vessels into the store and forked over many fivers to Imo. Seeing this sight across the street the figments rejoiced.
'What shall we do with all the money?' they said.
'Fried chicken gizzards and catfish gumbo!' shouted the young man.
'Yes, excellent!' they said. 'We are so tired of eating plums.'
Chibi stared at the sky. The helicopters which had been following their procession were now pointed at the Oriental Market. Real reporters stood in front of the market and recited poems they had written-poems about 'plum jam that spreads over toast like rain over drought-lands' and the 'plum wine whose bouquet will we throw at our weddings, whose bouquet will grace our caskets'- into high-definition cameras. Hearing these reports, even the realest people, who had been watching all along from under their blankets and between their fingers, were drawn to Imo's store. It came to be that the real people soon threatened to outnumber the figments at their own camp, which made Chibi nervous.
'We cannot stay here,' said Chibi.
'But the restaurant is just over there,' said the figments.
'We will not be allowed to stay here much longer. We will eat later.'
The figments were not entirely pleased at this prospect, but they also trusted in Chibi. Not only that, but they could see the real people coming down the main roads, saying to themselves, 'Tarts and biscuits, toast and crackers.'
Thus, the figments helped Chibi onto Nemo's back and set out on their journey. If the real people's procession was the river, the figments' was the dam breaking. They moved through narrow streets and unfenced yards in a wide array. Chibi, atop Nemo, was always at the head. There were grumblings among the figments that they were very hungry, to which Chibi replied, 'If you are hungry, eat plums.' The figments groaned and stuffed the last of the dried plums into their mouths.
'Good riddance,' they said. 'I'll never eat another one as long as I live.' They resumed their marching and their dancing in Nemo's wake. Though Chibi had warned them not to for the sake of more discrete travel, some of the children still picked flowers as they went and threw the petals in the air. The real people, however, were too distracted to notice.
The only people who did notice were the special Figment Task Force, formed for the purpose of combating all invisible and/or nonexistent threats. Based on the movement of plums, they had arrived at a nearly accurate headcount of figments and determined that they invariably followed the giant plum, perhaps in worship, everywhere it went. The FTF commander eyed the giant plum with envy. He saw everything it had done for people of such little, or perhaps no, substance. He imagined what it might do for him. His mouth watered.
The figments were bearing east, and they soon crossed back over MLK Jr. Blvd., nearing the ocean, and found their old apartments empty, the doors left open. On the refrigerators they discovered sticky notes that read: 'Went to Oriental Market. Be back soon. Love, [Real Person].'
The apartments looked drastically different than before. The stale, crumbling gypsum had been removed from the walls, with water pipes and electrical conduit now painted and flush over bare, clean red brick. Aluminum blinds, missing ends or split in half, had turned solid, wooden, and thick. Soda-stained carpet had petrified to Brazilian cherry wood. Waterlogged composite-wooden counters had fossilized into a black granite the figments could see themselves in.
'Our homes!' exclaimed the figments, running door to door, microwaving Hot Pockets, and opening bags of Doritos. They reclined on leather-upholstered furniture and turned on satellite TV.
'Now is no time to relax,' echoed Chibi through the halls. 'The real people will return, and they'll say we've stolen their homes.'
'But they stole ours first,' retorted the young man.
'No one will remember that,' said Chibi. 'We must prepare.'
The figments groaned and dragged themselves to their feet. They brought Nemo through a vehicle service entrance into the magnificent courtyard of stone benches and palm trees.
Chibi said to Nemo, 'Wheelbarrows.'
Nemo trumpeted, and there were wheelbarrows. The faster and stronger of the figments went separately and secretly with the barrows back to their camp. They dismantled their metal shacks and hauled them back in scraps. The real people did not notice the clanging of the vanishing town over the deafening din for plum jam and plum wine. The figments repurposed the pieces to fortify the gates and fences of the apartment building. They also attached these to the outsides of windows on the lower floors. They collected oak and mahogany coffee tables and desks from the living rooms and constructed a gate across the service entrance, which was set on top of two spare tires and could be opened inward. By sundown, the building became their fortress. They gathered then in the moonlit courtyard.
In their time together, figments had sometimes liked chanting in unison. They did not like chanting in itself, but there was a certain solidarity in the composite voice which could not be achieved any other way. Chibi did not chant, but she did like to hear them. She sat on Nemo's back as the figments danced like shadows around the giant purple beast and yipped melodically.
Nearby, a real man thought he heard coyotes. He wondered aloud whether there were any coyotes in Florida. The truth is that, for a very long time, there had not been - for nearly the entirety of recorded history, in fact - but now there were too many. Strategies had been discussed for the expulsion of the coyotes. Cullings were not infrequent. These were not as cruel as they may sound, since the coyotes had first been cruel enough in nature to eat cats and other beloved pets of real people. The real man was well within his rights to grab his rifle and go outside to investigate.
He arrived at the tin-reinforced walls of the apartment building and peered in between a narrow gap in the quilted defenses. All he could see inside was a giant plum sitting in the middle of the courtyard and a dozen torches burning around it.
This is how the figments went to war: the man determined to see what had made the noise; the flicker of a shadow - a coyote?; the aim of a rifle; the shot; the fall. The figments shrieked. The man thought he had awoken a host of spirits. He ran, panicked, into the darkness.
Just then the real people were arriving back at the apartment building with paper bags full of plum jam and plum wine and found it encased in a tin shell. 'What gives?' they said to each other. They heard the wailing of banshees within. They heard it contort from the whine of a gentle violin to a trumpeting. The drums, made from pieces of leather upholstery stretched across five-gallon buckets, followed. The real people saw the huge wooden gate to the service entrance open, with nothing but a giant plum emerging from it.
The figments charged with tears in their eyes directly at the real people. Nemo and Chibi served as the spearhead. The first few of the real people were swallowed in an instant, but the rest suffered the invisible onslaught of figments, their blows landing like tornadoes. The real people retreated, and the figments sounded their victory. None was louder than Nemo, who had grown, raising Chibi still higher into the air.
They gathered the bags of plum jam and plum wine and brought them inside. Before they went to sleep, the figments buried their fallen compatriot where she had fallen, so she would always be close to them. Chibi posted several figments along the perimeter of the roof. As for herself, she waited there in the courtyard, cross-legged on Nemo's back.
When the news reported the night's events the following day, the real people seemed to reach a consensus that the figments were also real and, furthermore, they were incredibly dangerous. There were no reports of the gunshot or the figment who now slept below the courtyard.
The FTF showed up at the gate the next morning. The commander held a megaphone in his hand. 'You are hereby ordered to cease and exist. Please disperse,' he said. He was very proud of how he had said that, and decided to say it twice more.
Then there was a calm in the air: the Huff Puff of the FTF; the steady thump of the FTF battering ram; the perfectly percussive cycle of the FTF helicopter blades; the distant waves gently shushing them. The gate would not give. It was not especially sturdy, yet even under the salvo of the huge hydraulic piston, it did not falter. The tin walls refused to be pried. The tin walls were impervious to the torch.
A first, there was no response from within. The figments lining the roof turned toward the interior, where Chibi sat stolidly in her palanquin, thousands of figments gathered around her. The figment children were in their rooms playing Xbox. Beside Chibi was a single jar of the jam the figments had produced and the real people had bought. She unscrewed the lid and dipped her hand into the jar. She smeared two swooping downward lines like tusks from the centers of her cheeks to her chin. The figments around her and on the roof did the same. Then they pursed their lips, breathed in, and blared like Nemo.
From the roof, the figments pelted the FTF with remote controls and telephone receivers. The figments hurled jugs of plum wine. The FTF looked up to see these flying through the air and glancing off their helmets and soaking their Kevlar vests. They seemed to come from nowhere.
The FTF retreated behind their vans, where they remained for days.
The figments, behind their walls, grew gaunt from malnourishment. Their pantries had been all but emptied. The dumpster was full of multicolored plastic bags, animals and logos printed on the sides. Nemo grew hungrier. His colossal frame seemed to reduce daily. He had even begun lashing out. He had badly injured the young man's arm, almost bit it off from the elbow down when the young man, in desperation, had tried to feed him beef jerky. Even as Nemo had grown to colossal proportions, the figments never regarded him as dangerous. He had only eaten real people, but the figments considered that starvation can bring out the worst in anyone. Chibi grew increasingly concerned that she could not restrain him.
Nemo became disinterested in marching. When the figments attempted to affix the palanquin to his back, he shook as if covered in dirt. His powerful purple trunk flailed about, flooring one of the figments and dashing the beautifully crafted carriage into a heap on the ground. Chibi had to be content with placing the fine cushion, newly pierced in several places by palm splinters, beside the ill-tempered elephant wherever he chose to lie. The figments danced around the two as usual, but the spirit was gone.
Chibi decided that she should be the only one to ever approach Nemo. The figments were deeply disappointed at this, but they were also terribly afraid and complied readily. Instead they would smile and wave at him from several yards away.
Some of the figments proposed a harvest. They could design snares, baited with plum jam and plum wine, to capture real people to feed to Nemo. They liked the idea very much. Some of the men had already begun constructing such contraptions with whatever wire they had. However, Chibi unconditionally forbade this.
As Nemo’s body continued to wane, the figments only became more afraid of him. Even Chibi found herself leaning away as she sat next to him. Sometimes she thought she could see something like hunger, but darker, flicker in his eye.
Their fears were confirmed when a dancing figment stumbled too near Nemo and was devoured.
Chibi wept as she slowly approached Nemo with a heavy ship's chain a figment scouting party had gotten from the nearby docks and fastened around nearby trees. Several other figments trailed behind her, holding the slack.
Nemo knelt before her. She hoisted the chain over the back of Nemo's neck. The way he bore the weight seemed effortless. She connected the ends around his throat. Nemo opened his mouth. The ground shook in bursts, as if the dead were bursting from beneath it. The battering ram dented the gate.
A truck arrived that afternoon from the University of Florida carrying a load of wooden crates. The FTF pried them open and inside found trays of expensive goggles, maybe Ray Bans.
The FTF took selfies. They would later post the selfies to Instagram, but for now they snarled like dogs at the gate.
The figments steeled themselves, wielding whatever they could find: shovels, brooms, mops. One carried an axe from a glass box, which had said BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. Chibi sat near Nemo, in a shady spot past the length of the chain. She could not bring herself to look at him.
From outside, the FTF commander raised his megaphone and said, 'This is your last chance. Come out peacefully, or we will be forced to respond in kind.'
The sun was coming down. The figments beat their chests so that they drowned out the sound of the battering ram and the splintering wood. The young man walked along the lines chanting, and the figments chanted back. Chibi watched all of this as a blur, through wet eyes. She could barely distinguish the figments. She rose and went before their formation. She raised her hand in the air, and the figments fell to silence. The FTF commander was saying something - who knows what - into his megaphone.
'We are real,' said Chibi. She spoke softly, yet her voice carried over the megaphone and the battering ram and the clicks of rifles. 'We must show them.'
She approached the gate. It snapped back at her with each press of the ram. 'Open it.'
The young man came to her side. 'Miss Chibi -'
'We must show them,' she said like fire.
The young man waved over a few of the foremost figments. They pressed their bodies against the gate, against the steady pressure of the ram, and removed the ceiling beam that held it closed. They let go and scrambled away, and the gate blew open. The FTF lowered their guns to the level of the ram, all aimed at Chibi's chest.
The FTF commander stepped forward. 'You've done well for yourself,' he said.
'I'm not ashamed to admit that I had help,' said Chibi in a voice like a bell. 'I would like you to meet them.'
'I can meet them when they get here.'
'We are not dangerous,' she said, looking keenly down their gun barrels. 'It is safer for you to come to us.'
The commander looked around at the officers he had assembled and their magnificent goggles. Their guns glimmered like ocean water in the Florida sun.
He motioned for a handful of them to follow him. They shut down the ram and followed Chibi inside.
She guided them through the figments, parting them like a curtain. The FTF commander strolled down the line. His officers followed him with their safeties off. When they reached the rear, the commander saw a purple elephant, sitting in chains in the shade of a tree. He raised his goggles and saw instead a giant plum. He lowered them again.
'What is this?' he asked Chibi.
'An elephant,' she replied.
The commander could not imagine how the figments had come to possess such a creature. He did not necessarily want to know, but he did want to know how he could come to possess it. The elephant was simply magnificent. He said as much to Chibi.
'I will tell you only once: you cannot have him,' she said.
The commander did not believe this. The figments were not sure themselves.
Chibi looked at Nemo, his eyes like black holes. The commander walked closer to the elephant. 'Give him to me, and you will be allowed to stay here,' he said.
Nemo rose to his feet and shook his chains. Chibi walked calmly past the commander until she was standing directly in front of Nemo, her palm against his trunk. She unlocked the chain, and it fell like the elephant's foot on the ground. Nemo walked steadily forward. Chibi stepped aside, then the commander, then the FTF pointing their guns, as Nemo walked through the crowded figments. When he and the FTF had gotten through the gate, the figments closed it behind them.
There was confusion amongst the real people watching from home, as they saw the giant plum rolling through the gate and an FTF officer approaching to wrap a metal cable around it. There was still further confusion when the real news anchor assured them that this plum was actually an elephant. Real people were still working to sort this out when, live on local news, the plum snapped like Pac-Man and devoured the FTF officer.
A gun went off, and many other bullets followed as if drawn to the first one magnetically. The bullets ricocheted off of the plum in every direction. Slugs embedded in sidewalks and telephone poles and pierced above ground pools. The plum opened again, but this time it opened as though it were a perfect vacuum, and everything around it went rushing in.
The live camera feed went snowy, as if trying hard not to look. But as it was readjusted, the real people saw the giant plum shrink back down to a plum the size of their heads, then pop out of existence, nothing left but a crater where the FTF had been.
The following day, the wooden gate and tin armor were gone from the apartment building. Real people were seen leaving the building, getting into their cars and driving through the crater on their way to work and to drop off their kids at school, as if nothing had happened.
The real people scratched their heads and wondered where the figments had gone. The question was raised again, whether figments had ever existed at all, or if they had been collectively imagined.
And the plum. Many leading experts were asked whether such a thing was possible, but they had already been awake for twenty-four-hour news cycles. They announced that they were all going to sleep.
The discussion was tabled for another day.
Kristopher Oppegaard is a writer and musician from Tampa, FL, where he worked a number of years at a Korean spa. He earned his B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Rhode Island College. He currently resides in Naples, FL.