I saw Dee again today. They were so thin, their skin dry as dust, and I could not bear to look them in the eye. They did not remember me.
Dee was still happy to see me. They are all always happy.
"Hi," said Dee, their voice a dry whisper. "Didn't expect to see anyone in here! Did you just come from upstairs? Anything good up there?" The tattered remains of Dee's face held the memory of an optimistic smile.
I shook my head. "You mean food? No. Nothing like that. Just a woman. And she doesn't want visitors." Didn't want anything, she'd said. Just peace and quiet and the hope of being forgotten.
"Oh." It came out as a sad breath. "I suppose it's snow again for tea then. Unless..." Dee gave a self conscious laugh. I was reminded of the one time they'd asked me for money, when my research was starting to pay off and they'd been out of work for a few months. Back then I couldn't have imagined saying no to them. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you're the healthiest looking person I've seen in...well. A while. I know food's hard to come by, and you've no reason to share, but if you happen to have some extra..."
Dee shook their head, and some of their hair was shaken loose. It was thin, like spiderwebs, and floated gently down the stairwell. "Totally understandable, man. I mean, I'm a stanger, right? And it's not like I need food. Even if my stomach says otherwise." They patted the hollow under their shirt.
"Dee," I said. "You're not a stranger. I'd give you food if I had any. And if you want..."
Dee's eyes seemed to glint with a familiar intelligence, though they were dessicated and dull. Dee leaned towards me, squinting. "I know you?"
I sighed. This was probably the wrong choice, but I couldn't bring myself to just ignore them and leave. "Yes. We...we were friends, once. A long time ago. And I can't offer food but I can make you...whole, again. For a little while." I forced myself to look up at the wrinkled eyes and withered skin that was still undeniably the face of my old friend. "But only if that's what you want."
"I..." Dee looked down at their hands. They were missing two of their fingers and most of the skin, the tendons and wasted muscles rough like old twine. "I don't know. Will it make me continue on for longer? Before I stop?"
"Yes," I said. "Though...just talking to me to me like this means that anyway. If you want to...to end things more quickly, you should leave now. And I can try and avoid having our paths cross again."
"Ok," they said. "That makes...wait no, that doesn't make sense." They laughed. Their voice was already stronger. "This is crazy. I mean, this is all crazy, but...after all this time, you can just undo it? How? Why you?"
"Because I'm the one who made it happen in the first place."
In the end Dee took me up on my offer. Like me they'd always had a lust for life. We sat and talked of old times, of the the mischief we'd gotten up to at university and the disastrous few months we'd spent trying to share a house. To begin with Dee just sat and listened, a small frown on their face as I spoke of a life they couldn't remember having lived. But as the colour came back into their face I could see them start to recall the person they had been when they were alive. For a few brief moments we were happy together, reminsicing and joking as if things were back the way they'd been before. The way I'd wanted them to stay.
Dee stretched out their arms and cracked their knuckles before leaning back against the doorway outside Khadeesha's building. "We all thought you were dead."
"I was," I said. "For a little while. But I'd put protections in place, extracted promises from certain...entities. And they gave me the choice to come back."
"You had a choice? And you chose this?" They gestured out into the street, where even the thick July snow couldn't quite cover the now familiar cityscape of empty cars and rotting bones. Between the fallen power lines a few spindly green shoots were sticking their heads up towards the light. Soon it would be spring, and nature would take one step closer to reclaiming the city.
"I chose happiness and safety for myself and those I cared about," I said. "And that....turned out to mean this."
Dee gave me a look. The same look they'd given me when I'd told them my area of research. "We all warned you about making deals with those entities..." They looked at their hands again, at the new pink-brown skin and smooth clean nails. "Most people settle for selling their own souls. But you...you sold the whole world. What gave you the right?"
The reaction never got any easier to bear. "I know, it's beyond awful. And I tried changing it back but...it doesn't work that way."
"Of course it doesn't." Their voice was so patient.
I sounded pathetic even to myself but I couldn't resist the urge to explain. "I didn't know, Dee. Or maybe I did, but I didn't...I didn't really know. Not until I came back and saw everyone I didn't care about...gone."
"Not gone," said Dee. "Dead. They're still here, all seven billion of them. On a windless day you can still smell the stench." They rubbed the growing stubble on their jawline. "I'd be angry but...it seems like I don't have it in me any more. Because you wanted us to be happy. We don't remember each other, we can't die or sleep, but we're happy."
Dee gave a small sigh. "You said that already."
We sat in silence for a while. A wild dog crossed the street opposite us, taking a wide berth around the strange smelling humans before vanishing into the leafless trees spilling out of the old park.
"It's hard to remember, but I think I saw Khadeesha around this area a while ago. She wasn't in the best of shape, though. And there was an old man who hung around the park, but I think they...died. Stopped. Whatever it is we do...when you stop caring, I guess. Before that it's more of a blur."
"Khadeesha wants to be forgotten," I said. "And you're the only other person I've seen in London. There's some more in Yorkshire, I visit my parents sometimes."
"How charming. Mine are dead of course, since you never knew them well."
I grimaced. Every time my parents saw how few of their friends and family I'd cared about it broke their hearts all over again. Like Dee, they couldn't be angry, or even truly sad, but they weren't exactly glad to see me, either. I had a feeling that soon they'd ask me to just stop coming. "To begin with there was...a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty survivors," I said. "But I don't know how many there are now. Most of the ones I meet want to be forgotten."
"I don't want to be forgotten," said Dee.
It had been so long since anyone had expressed the slightest enthusiasm for the half life I'd doomed them to. I tried to keep my voice level. "I'll do my best to...keep thinking of you, Dee. But you'll still start to fade once we're apart. That's just how it works. It's your choice but...do you...want to stay? With me?"
Dee looked at me. Their eyes were soft and wet. "No," they said. If I was capable of feeling despair, I would have felt it then, though I'd known they would leave me from the start. "I'd rather be alone. I've gotten used to it. And...I think I'm happier when I don't remember who I am."
Their handshake when we said goodbye was strong and warm, like always. They made a joke, and laughed, and wished me well. I wondered how long it would be before I saw them again.