by Steve Himmer
In hindsight we saw the invisible coming. A meme in which photos of teenagers caught in conversation with adults bore the words “Disappear Me” became ubiquitous enough that even I noticed. Then it spread to include photos of anything that looked unhappy listening to anything else, whether a cat or a dog or a small tree overshadowed by a large one. Videos of kids pulling hoods and shirt collars over their faces while talked at by parents and teachers and scolding strangers earned millions of views, and at school assemblies whole student bodies were swallowed by their clothing before baffled speakers trying to teach them how to fend off a mass shooter. Whatever the unwelcome subject, kids disappeared.
It was a joke for late night comedians no young person knew. It was a joke until hoods and collars gave way to more extreme measures, until children began disappearing for real beneath ghillie suits crafted while their parents were busy yelling at TVs and phones and NPR in the drop-off lane at school. Suddenly backseats were empty. Classrooms were emptied of targets and teachers couldn’t tell who they were teaching. Family dinners atrophied into one parent ranting or two parents fighting or two parents agreeing but sounding like fighting because who can you take your existential fear out on if not your own partner, for better or worse?
Newspaper columnists stirred up concern for the children as best they could but Thanksgiving was coming with its promise of awkward conversations all over. The same adults who had mocked it began disappearing themselves and spending more money to do it.
“Doesn’t count if you buy it,” I heard on the morning bus I shared with teenagers headed to school. “Gotta make your own ghillie.” That line became a meme, too, often in acronym form.
Some grown ups agreed while others insisted there was nothing wrong with paying to have your suit made. That it was good for the economy, it created jobs, shared the wealth, and the real question was whether you had yours made at home or by foreign hands. When the conversation went that way any kids within earshot slipped out of sight while voices with all the conviction of experts went at it over imports and exports and borders and how great America was and had been and could be. At the station one afternoon I watched a dozen or so teenagers vanish at once while two angry men wearing the same hockey team’s jersey yelled back and forth, each daring the other to get in his face.
It would have been a great time for a wall of newspaper but you might jostle a stranger and spark your own argument and anyway our city’s paper had gone out of print. The kids disappeared while the rest of us concentrated on phones and shoelaces or what the pigeons were doing around the municipal lot. Except for one woman about my own age, forty-something, the first adult I saw disappear: she was stuck between the two shouters, visibly nervous, until she reached into a reusable shopping bag at her feet and pulled out a ghillie dangling scraps of torn coffee cup and asphalt-gray fabric. She shook it loose, pulled it over, and even though I knew she was still standing there she was gone.
A few days later, in a meeting ahead of our upcoming fundraising appeal, the conservancy’s director and chief trustee disagreed about whether or not allusions to immigration would help or hinder our claims for the problem of invasive species. One by one my colleagues disappeared in their seats at the table, like the wave at a ballgame had washed them away. I was left alone with the two angry officers, hoping neither of them would speak to me. After that meeting most of my coworkers arrived in their ghillies and wore them all day and while the noise of the office didn’t go anywhere — the typing, the coughing, the footsteps on the carpet, and sometimes muffled weeping from Reggie’s corner — to all appearances I worked alone.
Sandy, who I’d sat next to for years but hadn’t seen lately, asked from thin air when I’d have a suit of my own. I couldn’t, I told her; my oscillopsia got worse when I tried one, the way it did when I drove a car, and that extra layer of shifting fabric in front of my eyes made everything vibrate so much that I couldn’t look at the world without getting a headache and throwing up. Sandy didn’t reply but I heard her chair sink on its springs under the weight of her pity.
Apart from one self-proclaimed influencer calling herself “Ghillie Girl” and taking credit, there wasn’t much talk about how it all started. I guess it was one of those ideas people have all together, not together together but at the same time. The way banjos were invented all over the world and folktales are similar wherever you go. Like diving to the ground when you hear an explosion even before you know where it came from. We were all living in the same anxious times and if we still had something in common as citizens it was the discomfort of rubbing against one another and not knowing who’d react how. Of riding the bus wondering which fellow passenger was only an irritating ringtone away from calling someone else a terrorist or fascist or worse. From a racist tirade followed by awkward silence while we each counted down to our own stop.
Whatever the reason, suddenly everybody was making a suit. For a few days the open plan area at work looked like a sweatshop for weaving office paper and fabric, and if we hadn’t lost most of our funding for conservation all that time spent on ghillies would have put us behind in our work. Podcasts and YouTube videos sprang up overnight with advice on materials and techniques — the best ratios of leaves to grass to paint sample cards for commuting by car to an office, by train to a college, by bike to the docks, for working with children or working outdoors or with dogs. The dog walkers’ suits looked especially cozy, tufted with fur from so many breeds, and made me wish I could wear one.
Unless you carried a big enough bag to haul multiple suits, the combination of materials needed to blend in wherever. At work. At the gym. Over drinks if you went out in the evening though few people did. Restaurants and bars had been closing one after another as people preferred to stay home and away from each other. Liquor stores were doing better than ever, so all the news wasn’t bad. And craft stores were booming — displays sprang up overnight with everything a person could need to make their own ghillie. How-to books were rush-printed. Artisanal makers did workshops like rockstars on tour, and celebrities made a big show of attending and posing for photos with their own half-finished suits on display. Old men flown from Scotland to teach ancient techniques looked confused and annoyed on talk shows and stages, and one elderly highlander gave a TED talk so popular it overwhelmed him and he vanished for good during his next appearance.
For a week or two it seemed everybody was tying strands to their suit at every free minute, then the next week they were gone. Once I started not seeing them they became hard to miss. A flutter on the bus. A rippling shape against the windows by the filing cabinets, making me think my condition was flaring up. Sidewalks vacant and quivering.
When I pass the middle school on my way to work now, it’s all ghost cars without drivers that drop no one off, like the kids are all gone and their parents are too while the objects left behind still go through the motions.
More than once I’ve taken a seat only for someone to grunt or to curse and push me onto the floor. I can’t tell when to hold a door open so I hold all of them a few seconds longer in case someone’s coming. Banks and government buildings say no ghillies should be worn inside, but it’s hard to enforce for obvious reasons. Some school districts say teachers and students can’t wear them but again, who can tell? There are days I don’t see anyone clearly, which isn’t such an adjustment for me with my unsteady eyes, but sometimes it feels a bit last-man-on-earth.
My neighbor Walter, who I try not to talk to, took it all in a different direction. He wove his ghillie from campaign signs and American flags, bright red, white, and blue with stars and stripes everywhere. He stood on his lawn like a beacon, more visible than he’d been for years as a bald white guy whose most distinct feature was wearing so much camo already, long before ghillies took off. I’m not sure he owns anything else, not even a pair of blue jeans or plain shirt. He suited up and perched on the lawn after work and on weekends, an amorphous mound of patriotism, and if anyone passing looked in his direction he’d holler, “Go back where you came from!” He’d yell it if somebody laughed when they saw him. He’d yell if they acknowledged he was there at all and with no regard for who they were or how long they’d been in the country or in the neighborhood or on our street. He yelled it at me and I’m pretty sure my ancestors got here before his, but who’s counting.
What really pissed him off was when someone walked by in their own ghillie, there but not there, seen and unseen, and Walter couldn’t tell if they were reacting to him or not. He’d get the hose out or set off firecrackers or charge the sidewalk with his arms raised and shouting. I never saw the offenders but he’s told me many times over the years when I didn’t get inside fast enough that I lack vision, that I can’t see where things are going, so for all I know he was right and his eyes were better attuned to the undeclared passage of our neighborhood’s disappeared.
If we were on speaking terms — we aren’t not on speaking terms, I just try not to get into it with him — I might have suggested he was doing it backward, that people weren’t mocking the flag in his ghillie suit only laughing at how much of it there was and how it stood out rather than helping him hide. But last week I saw him on local news when a campaign rally came to town, and later the clip went national. There was Walter interviewed with his ghillie’s hood folded back. His body had vanished, his doughy shape not so unlike my own subsumed by a backdrop that made his over the top suit seem muted, a red,white, and blue chaos into which he was perfectly blended, and him saying something hard to hear through the noise about standing up for himself, for his values, for insisting that everyone needed to know what kind of patriot he was without asking.
He had his own way of going about it but I guess he knew what he was doing, and after that interview he became a bit famous. Internet famous, at least.
Soon I saw other suits like Walter’s but more so: strips of flag dangling in stripes gave way to whole flags streaming behind the wearers like capes and sometimes another whole flag in front. Gangs of those, faceless, stormed down sidewalks yelling the same ugly things Walter yelled from his front lawn but now with more voices and more angry bodies draped in more campaign signs and flags. Yelling that if you could see them, if you noticed at all, you weren’t seeing the nation’s true fabric. Yelling that to a patriot’s eye a suit made of flags simply looks like the world and everything in it. If you reacted, you were a target, like that old urban legend about gang members driving with their headlights out and chasing down whoever flashes them trying to help. I thought they looked like sea monsters stained in a toxic waste spill, but I never told Walter that.
It felt some days like the city was dead. The country, even, because disappearing caught on all over. They weren’t dead, of course, only hiding, but I was left among the last people you’d want to spend the afterlife with: the loudmouths, the blowhards, the people with opinions and a conviction you want them to share it. And with so few potential listeners to choose from, those of us without ghillies became easy pickings. Red, white, and blue lumps like Walter hurried over on the street and in stores, ready to set me straight about the state of our nation, while the rustling ghosts of lost strangers, adults and school kids and babies with ghillies draped over their strollers, brushed past on all sides without speaking, near enough to trail bumps on my arms.
Steve Himmer is author of the novels The Bee-Loud Glade, Fram, and Scratch.
Image credit: Piotr Wilk/Unsplash