They are here.
Small, and almost too fast to see, but here nonetheless. They’ve always been the shadows in the corners of eyes, and the quick rustle of empty rooms. There’s always a strangeness whenever they’re nearby, but it never lasts too long. Only the French have a name for it, and even that slips sometimes. Because that’s what they do, and it serves them well when they hunt. They’re cautious at first, starting with the ones that have already been forgotten by all of us. And they’re clever, too, having stolen away all the ones that could have identified them. The only ones that could have pinned them down and trapped them. Those they stole a long time ago, and we didn’t even notice. Not that anyone ever remembered what they were in the first place. It’s been a long time since anyone believed in them. But even with those, they were still hungry, and those old, stale ones didn’t keep them full for very long.
After all, like us, they prefer fresh meat.
So they start small, taking the ones that they know most people wouldn’t miss. The too-specific ones. Ancient, scientific names of organisms that people have long since given up studying. A scientist peers through a microscope, and suddenly, finds that she can no longer remember the proper name for the microbe that she studies. It is late, and she tries vainly to rub away the lack of sleep from her eyes. But it does not go, and it remains fuzzy in her own head. It is like trying to catch fish with a silk net. So she shrugs, and scribbles something close enough, and thinks no more of it. And from the darkest corner of the lab, they watch her, making sure that she suspects nothing before gorging themselves on the one she could not remember. It is so much sweeter than the old ones, and they crave more.
In a used bookstore in Bangladesh, a man brushes the dust off a page and begins to read. Bookstores are one of their favorite places, and they can hardly restrain themselves. The man pauses about halfway down the page, frowning suddenly. One of them seems blurred, and he rubs his thumb against it halfheartedly. But it grows no clearer, and for the life of him, he cannot guess at what it could have been. It is a used book, he knows, and the ink must have gotten smudged some years ago. And there are still so many left to go that a single hole in a single page gives him no pause. So he settles back against the bookshelf, skipping over it and losing no sleep over what he does not know he has lost. And from the cracks between the bookshelves, they watch him, sharp teeth flashing and black eyes burning as they tear it to pieces.
They were smart at first, never taking one from the same place twice in a row. A museum’s archives, then an astronomy lab all the way across town, then a monastery on the other side of the world. Whenever they go, they descend like flies on dead things, with wings like beetles that beat dryly in the air. It is enough for some time. But they grow hungrier with each sweet, fresh feast. And in their hunger, they grow bolder. After so many years unseen, they no longer fear discovery.
A man looks down at his daily crossword puzzle in the park, scratching his chin in confusion. He distinctly remembers filling in 12-down, but the ink of his pen seems to have faded, and it swims before his eyes, unplaceable. Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees a beetle crawling along the edge of the stone table at which he sits, and he slaps it away in irritation. But then there is a sharp, sudden pain in his finger, and he pulls it back at once. It is bleeding badly, and there is the unmistakable mark of teeth too small to be from any creature he knows. A shiver whose source he does not know runs down his spine, and he rises, suddenly aware that there is something nearby that should not be. He folds his crossword quickly and leaves, sucking his finger. Hungry black eyes watch him go as he takes the rest of it with him.
It happens like this everywhere.
A young woman is writing a letter when a not-quite-cockroach scuttles madly across her desk. She screams and knocks it away with her pen before running to the bathroom for bug spray. She will speak to her landlord, she resolves, once her heart has stopped racing. She returns to her desk as quietly as she can, as though afraid that whatever it was might be able to hear her. She does not even notice that the letter is gone until many days later.
A man reclines on the sand, one arm behind his head and the other in a book. It is the end of the summer, and the sun is bright but only halfway warm. He shifts on his towel, flipping so that he might rest on his stomach instead. There is a sudden movement near his arm, and something rises out of the sand. He has lived here long enough to know all the things that live on this beach of his, and the thing that comes out of the sand is nothing that he recognizes. It dashes for the hand on his book, and he strikes it away with the electric rage of a man killing an unwelcome insect. But the day suddenly seems cold, and he leaves with no intentions of returning anytime soon. At his back, it settles back into the sand, seething with furious hunger.
There is a slow stirring in the public consciousness. Strangers glance at each other, reading the same suspicion in one another’s eyes without ever saying it aloud. They all know that something has happened, but no one can place it. Because they have already taken all the ones that could have described it. And soon, even the most basic ones begin to disappear.
A man stands in line at a restaurant, his foot tapping mindlessly as he looks up at the menu. It is his turn to order, and he steps forward. He opens his mouth to speak but finds suddenly that they have gone from him. All of them have. They have been stolen without his noticing. Without anyone’s noticing. He looks up at the menu above the counter, but even the numbers there have begun to blur. The woman behind him grows impatient at his silence. She prods him and looks up for herself. But they are gone for her as well. Panic ripples outward like a shiver, but there is no longer anything left to panic with in the first place.
Because that is their deepest cleverness. They know how hard it is to remember something has been forgotten once already. So they wait until one is too distracted to notice that the ones they’ve read have vanished as quickly as they read them. Until one cannot even remember the very first ones that they read.
Because they’ve already been stolen.