They Vanished Strangely
by Eric Magnuson
People are wrong when they say Austin. That wasn’t the first. The first vanishing was Camden, New Jersey in 1949, seventeen years before Austin, long enough for Camden’s youngest disappeared to have graduated from high school, though, of course, he never did. All that was left of the toddler was his onesie, crumpled in his playpen as if he’d torn it off in a red-faced fit. There were twelve more that day, each of them evaporating into, what? Nothing? We can’t even say nothing. Because we don’t know. We don’t know where they go. Their empty clothes just fall onto their shoes. The first that day happened to be a shoemaker. Neither he nor the young boy apprenticing with him knew what had laid him across the floor, moaning in pain. The hole growing in his chest still hid behind his shirt. But as the man frantically called for help, his words became mangled and his teeth disappeared, his tongue, his entire mouth opened a void to the back of his head. The apprentice cowered behind the counter. But whatever had dissolved the cobbler ignored the boy and wafted into the barbershop next door, where another boy, who was six years old, sat atop a white carousel horse as the barber cut his hair. While the barber held a lock of the boy’s wet bangs between his fingers, he saw the kid’s forehead begin to evaporate. “Wha, wha, wha,” the barber stuttered. And the boy’s mother screamed, “What are you doing to him with those scissors?!” But the barber’s face faded away as well and he slumped to the linoleum floor, and then the boy slid off the horse and onto him, both dissolving in their pile of clothes. The boy’s mother balled up his cowboy shirt and jeans and burst onto the street, screaming for help. Down the road, an insurance salesman exited a drug store to see what all of the wailing was about. He was confused to see the jeans and button-up shirt bunched up in her arms. But the salesman’s chest, too, began to vanish behind his shirt, the hole growing until there was nothing left but his suit and briefcase crumpled over his wingtips. Watching the man disappear, the pharmacist and his wife fled upstairs, hoping that they could outrun whatever had descended upon their neighborhood. But this was before horror movies taught everyone to never run upstairs. They hid their son in a closet. The wife trembled beside him. Cracks in the door let in the morning light. The wife’s face disintegrated before the rest of her body went along with it, leaving her dress tousled on the floor between her son and a vacuum. Her mother in-law didn’t bother to hide. She called the cops. The phone clunked against the floor when she, too, disappeared. The pharmacist tried to save himself, running outside onto a deck, but a hole opened up in the back of his head and by the time his clothes hit the sidewalk, he wasn’t in them. A television repairman had slowed his Buick to watch the clothes fluttering from the second floor, but he, too, disappeared behind the wheel. Watching the silent chaos from their parked car at a red light, two women instantly evaporated. A nine-year-old boy in the backseat reached up to his neck to find skin and muscle missing—he’d fade away entirely in a hospital bed 14 hours later. In the tailor shop down the street, a woman got down on her knees and begged for her life, but she, too, disappeared. Next door, a two-year-old boy standing in his playpen pulled at a window curtain until his onesie fell with nothing in it but his diaper. Down the back alleyway, in another home, a mother and son writhed in pain as they disappeared as well. But they didn’t completely disappear. The two of them, the last victims of the first vanishing, lived their lives, though not all together, an eye had gone missing, fingers, a tibia. They didn’t know why they didn’t completely disappear. Nor do any doctors. Nor does anyone else. Still.
I’ve heard others say that they didn’t notice. Not immediately. A jeweler in Fresno told me he kept working for five minutes without knowing. Maybe ten. Then his employee told him that his ear had disappeared. The jeweler asked, “What?” And “What?” again. He was angry with the shopboy for not speaking up. Then he finally lifted his hand to the hole at the side of his head, confused. Others were in too much shock to feel the pain. They knew, almost immediately, that a part of themselves had vanished. And in that moment, the adrenaline usually spikes. If other people are nearby, most will run away but some might crowd around the disappeared, everyone screaming what to do. If your limb is vanishing, some believe in wrapping a tourniquet, hoping that the arm or leg will stop disappearing beneath it. It’s usually after something like this, when people around them are screaming and frantic and dreading that it will soon pass onto them, that the disappeareds realize how much pain they’re in, and they, too, begin to scream, often so horrifically that the religious say they’re possessed. Some describe a sledgehammer. And everything collapses under its force, not only collapses, but obliterates. Fire. That’s how most of us describe the pain. Fire. It’s a red-hot poker that’s been left in the flames. The glowing metal is drawn out of the fire and slid into your skin. It’s left inside of you, burning. But there is no smoke. No charred flesh. And this is what surprised me when it happened to me. I still only smelled cotton candy. The portable toilets. Fried meats. And I felt that intense heat but I smelled nothing burning. I expected to see smoke billowing off my chest. I wanted it to be fire. People know how to put out a fire. But nobody knows how to stop you from disappearing. I put my hand up to my chest and my shirt collapsed into my ribs, where my ribs were supposed to be. My lung was punctured. No, not punctured. A hole merely opened up. I didn’t know this at the time. I assumed I was going into shock. I thought I was hyperventilating. And I did that, too. But I couldn’t breathe because I had a collapsed lung. It would still be hanging loose inside of me if I hadn’t been patched up. Literally. The patches over the vital organs. The gaps, the holes, and many of us have these holes. It isn’t so out of the ordinary to see them anymore: a man at the beach who appears to have had a tumor carved out of his thigh, a woman without a chin, these weren’t so common to see when I was young, but they’re common today, so much so that many people no longer attempt to cover the holes with prosthetics. They never looked good. They were first made out of wood or unsightly plastic. By the time technology allowed doctors to patch you up with seamless prosthetics, most people were merely used to the holes. We knew that many others had them. They were just a part of life, like a bad hair day, or acne.
After Camden, New Jersey, there was the Austin campus where 17 people disappeared. But even with so many people, it didn’t cause much concern. It had been so many years since the previous vanishing, and most had forgotten Camden, so it didn’t seem like something that might happen again. When it did happen again, to five people at a beauty school in Mesa, Arizona just months later, nobody made any connection between the events. Then there was another long break. Six years passed before the New Orleans vanishing. Then another four years before the Fullerton, California vanishing. And another six years before the Miami vanishing in 1982. This left enough time for everyone to assume that they were all anomalies, even though they were beginning to add up. Then there were two in 1984. The nightclub disappearances in Dallas didn’t draw much attention. But when 22 people disappeared in a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California months later, people began to ask, Why? Particularly the 19 people in the restaurant who lost a hand or part of their heart or a strip of their face but otherwise remained intact. These people wanted to know, Why? But there were only five more vanishings throughout the 1980s, so, again, it was easy for the people who didn’t witness them to say that the events were anomalies. The Nineties then saw many single-digit vanishings, so unless you lived in the towns where they occurred—Jacksonville, Iowa City, Corpus Christi, et cetera—there was a good chance that you wouldn’t know that they’d happened. But at the end of the decade, 15 people disappeared in a Colorado high school, and this was noticed. Across the country, high school classes stopped so that students could watch live news of frantic police officers and parents trying to make sense of what happened to the teenagers. But as with every other event, nobody knew what had made them disappear. Then there was the largest vanishing in the country’s history—at the time: 33 people in Virginia. Twenty-three others went home without part of themselves. It was a stunning number, but a number so high that it didn’t sound like much more than a statistic. There probably weren’t, we could reason, people with actual lives behind those numbers, so, again, it was merely an anomaly. Not everyone was disappearing, so it wasn’t a problem that needed to be addressed. After Virginia, there were a few vanishings that raised interest. Thirteen people at a military base in Texas. Twelve people inside a movie theater. But even double-digits couldn’t always attract much attention. People are surprised when I tell them that 14 people disappeared on a single day in Binghamton, New York in 2009. But then the elementary school in 2012. Twenty children and six adults simply disappeared one morning. This was the moment many of us believed we’d finally figure out what connected all of these events, and come up with a solution, to finally say that this should stop happening, we can’t let our children just disappear. But, again, nobody could figure out what connected them. And nearly as quickly as after every other incident, people moved on. And we moved on through the five vanishings in 2013; four in 2014; seven in 2015; six in 2016, even when 49 people disappeared one night at a nightclub. And now since then, there has been Fort Lauderdale, Fresno, Kirkersville, Orlando, Tunkhannock, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Edgewood, Thornton, Sutherland Springs, Rancho Tehama, Melcroft, Parkland, Yountville, Nashville, Santa Fe, Annapolis, Cincinnati, Bakersfield, and Perryman. And, still, nobody knows what connects them. Nobody knows at all.
I think it was sunny that day. I think that the temperature was pleasant. I think it was unseasonably warm. That’s how I hear it described to me: unseasonably warm. People mentioned that a lot. News people. And random strangers. They say it as if it’s inconceivable. Unseasonably warm. They look at me and they say that as if it was the strangest thing about that day. As if it couldn’t have been nice out. So now whenever I think about us riding the Scrambler at the state fair, I think about how it was unseasonably warm, and how it must have felt good as we whirled around in circles in our little metal car, both of us colliding into one another as the car flung us in circles. I think we spun in circles. I think it was sunny. I think the temperature was pleasant. Unseasonably warm? But I know for sure that we laughed. We laughed when we called it the “Scramblaaaah” with 1920s vaudevillian accents. We laughed every time we slid in the cart as it whipped around for another spin. She was too small to fill her half of the seat. Maybe I shouldn’t have let her on the ride. She held on so tight, and I put my arm around her. I don’t think I’d been on a Scrambler in thirty years. She was just old enough. Or maybe not old enough but tall enough, which is to say, just barely. Before handing over our tickets, she’d ran up to the sign that said “You Must Be THIS Tall” and she stood against it and put her finger at the top of her head. She turned around to see that her index finger was right at the line. The carny muttered something, like, “Tall ‘nough,” and he waved us to an empty car and she climbed in without my help. When they’re babies and toddlers, you see so much happening every day, but by that age, the milestones aren’t always so obvious. They aren’t every day. When she pulled herself onto the ride on her own, it really felt like we’d all accomplished something. We’d gotten this far. We’d raised her this long. She was now “THIS Tall.” And we laughed. And when the cars stopped spinning and we stepped out, I felt so much dizzier than I thought I would. She was fine. She ran straight to another ride to see if she was tall enough. She convincingly begged the carny when she wasn’t. Convincing to me anyway. I obviously would have let her on. But he turned her away. And when she said, “Let’s go back to the Scramblaaaah,” I thought the sun glinted off her cheek. But she turned and the mark didn’t go away. And then we heard the most horrific scream. And more. Panicked screams jolting everyone awake in the unseasonable warmth. And I kneeled down onto the pavement and looked more closely. I held her by the shoulders. And she looked at me with this intense fear and confusion—because I must have been looking at her as if it had already happened. But it was just starting to happen. Her cheek, her left cheek was fading away. She said, “What’s wrong, Dad?” And I didn’t start crying at that moment. Because nobody is ever resigned to it. We all know that it might happen to one of us or to someone we love but when it does, nobody has already come to terms with it. Most of us pretend it won’t ever happen to us. The immediate thought is, There must be something I can do. And when it’s obviously too late, the thought is, There must have been something I could have done. By the time that I really noticed, a hole had burrowed through her entire left cheek. I could see her teeth and her tongue. And she could still ask, “What’s wrong, Dad?” “What’s happening, Dad?” And I couldn’t tell her anything but, “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you,” and she looked back at me too scared to say anything but, “What’s happening, Dad?” “Daddy?” “Dad?” And I kept repeating, “I love you, I love you, I love you. Your mother loves you. I love you. We love you.” And her teeth slowly faded away. “Dad?” “What’s happening, Dad?” And her tongue disappeared. And she made a few more garbled sounds before the hole reached the back of her throat. And by the way she looked at me I know she could still hear me so I kept saying, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” and we looked at each other for the last time before her eyes disappeared. Her skull was an empty shell. I ran my fingers through her hair. But then that, too, disappeared. “I love you, I love you, I love you.” And then her empty dress flopped over my arms. I think people were running. I think there was still screaming around us. I think for a little while longer there was an us. I told her dress that I loved it. And then I felt the burning between my ribs.
Eric Magnuson is an author and stay-at-home parent. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review Online, Cream City Review, and American Chordata, among many other journals.