by Edward Harvey
My name is Carl Larson. When I was thirteen I disappeared forever. I want to tell you how it happened so you understand what it means to disappear. I don't want you to be afraid.
It began with a CD.
It was a gift from my mom for my thirteenth birthday -- the birthday before we moved to the city to live in the new apartment, the concrete dungeon. The birthday before my dad left.
The birthday before I met Mr. Slate.
I'd heard of the band from kids at school. They were "grunge", like Nirvana, all loud guitars and pissed-off or beaten-down lyrics. The kids at school who talked them up were mostly the older kids who also wore jeans and flannel shirts and all wanted to play guitar. I'd like to believe my mother knew what she was doing, knew what the future held and that the CD might help. The cynical side of me laughs at this ridiculous thought. But maybe...
The first night I put it on my Discman and placed the headphones over my ears, the music roared into my head and blew my mind. I felt blood pounding in my skull. The music lifted me up and slammed me hard on the ground. I ripped off the headphones. My head throbbed and my ears rang. I put the Discman under my bed, afraid my mom would discover I hated the music.
My father left soon after that birthday. He didn't say anything, not to me at least, and I didn't see him leave. I came home from school and found my mom in our living room, her eyes red, staring at nothing. I don't remember whether she ever actually said he left. I guess I just figured it out.
We stayed in that house until school ended. Aunt Janet came to stay with us. She and my Uncle Phil were divorced. My cousins stayed with him while Janet was with us. I noticed Aunt Janet smiled a lot, which I thought was strange because I never remembered her being very happy. My dad used to say she acted like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. Maybe she did.
It was early summer, just after school got out, when my mother told me we were going to live in the city, start new. Those were her words. I remembered them later, when I tried to hold onto something good. Start new. After that Uncle Phil came and helped us pack. No one said very much. A few words thrown around without meaning. We just stuffed everything in boxes and then shoved them in the moving van. When we were finished Phil shook my mom's hand and Janet gave her an encompassing hug and promised to visit soon. I got a hug from both. After Phil and Janet left, we got in the truck and drove.
The house wasn't far outside the city, just down the highway for a few minutes and then over a bridge and you're there. I could see the skyscrapers and some of the lower, squatter buildings as we crossed the bridge. The sun had disappeared earlier in the day, leaving dark clouds that now began to warp into the night's blackness. I wondered if it would rain while we were still driving or wait until we made it to the new apartment.
As we crossed over the water, I looked through the window over the side of the bridge. The water reflected the foreboding sky and was purple and black except for the foaming white and yellow caps lashed out against the bridge supports like angry beasts. I watched them try to crawl up the sides as if they were reaching up to pull me into the water. My heart began to race as I imagined the cold emptiness of the river. I felt like I was drowning, like the water was rushing in around me. I wanted desperately to swim but I couldn't, I was strapped down in the seat. My heart was racing madly in my chest. Why did we leave the old house? Why did we dare cross the bridge?
At that moment we reached the end of the bridge and I wrenched my eyes away. The river creatures continued to beckon to me as the city approached. I glanced at my mother, but she was concentrating on the road. She had been unaware of the danger. I shut my eyes, trying to breathe normally, to calm myself. I let me mind wander back, to another time I had come to city.
One Saturday morning my father woke me early, just as the sun was beginning to crest on the horizon. I got dressed and without waking my mother we stole out of the house, walked quickly and without speaking down the hill to the train station, boarded the train and rode it into the city. Under the looming buildings my father said we should walk.
I didn't know if we had a destination; I didn't care.
We stopped at one of the street vendors that always smelled like hot roasting pecans. My father had a coffee and I had an orange juice and split a bagel with cream cheese. We sat on the steps of a concrete building and ate slowly, watching the people hurry by. Then my father said we should have some culture and he said there was a museum over another block. We walked the block slowly, letting the food digest. The museum was there like he promised. My memory never includes the name of the museum or what was inside. It is a blur of colors and images. Afterwards we walked for a little bit, just two ants in the city of gods and spires. Then we stopped in at a tiny restaurant, not big enough to sit, and ordered two hotdogs with ketchup and two sodas. We brought them outside and stood, father and son, with our backs against the concrete wall and ate our dogs and sipped the cold sweet fizzing soda and said a few halting words to each other.
That was a good day to remember.
After the highway and the bridge we continued into the heart of the city. I stared out the window, watching the streets and the growing number of people. Some I thought stared back. We stopped at a light. A woman pushing a grocery cart passed slowly in front of us. Her entire body was bent and her hair was matted and her clothes were torn and filthy. I imagined how she smelled and I made a face. As she reached the end of the car, she turned suddenly and her eyes met mine. I recoiled. Instead of eyes the woman had gaping holes, like endless dark tunnels. There was no way she could see me. But she continued to stare as if she could. As if I was the only thing in the world worth her attention. Then I saw her mouth open. Her lips drew back and a wicked, gap-toothed grin spread across her warped face. Her lips moved, forming what might have been a word, but I couldn't tell.
Suddenly the light turned green and we sped through. I wanted desperately to keep my eyes ahead of me, but I had to look back. Turning in my seat I saw the woman standing back where we had left her, on the other side of the street now. She had stopped pushing her cart and stared after us as we drove away. I spun back around and closed my eyes trying to rid my memory of the horror of her face.
My eyes were still shut tight when I heard my mother say, "There it is."
My eyes opened slowly. A monolithic concrete building rose up before us. Large stains stretched across its surface like wounds. Hundreds of glassy eyes stared down at us, the newcomers. The unwanted. I stared back trying not to be afraid.
The truck slowed and pulled to the side of the curb. My mom turned to me and said, "This is the beginning of a new life," and reached over placing the palm of her soft hand over my own tiny hand sitting in my lap. "Things are going to be different now."
I stared up at the building and wondered why she insisted things had to be different. I didn't want to live here. I felt a weight bearing down on my shoulders and I wondered if it was the same weight that Aunt Janet carried.
The heat of the summer filled the apartment. My mother was working all day now and left me alone to suffocate in the boiling apartment. Each day she made me promise to stay inside, as if afraid of something outside. Some days I would stare out the large windowpane in the living room, looking longingly out at the city. I could see a playground nearby filled with kids and parents. I wanted desperately to join them.
One night I was watching TV when my mom said there was someone she wanted me to meet.
"Mr. Slate is a very good friend of mine," she said, "So I want you to be on your best behavior."
She spoke from the bathroom, where she had confined herself as soon as she had come home from work. I didn't say anything. She came into the room following my silence.
I looked up. Her hair was wet and dark and pulled back from the shower. Even from where I sat I could see the deep lines crisscrossing her face. I turned my gaze back to the television.
"Carl," she said again.
I looked at her again and nodded once. I wasn't sure why I didn't say anything. Maybe I didn't trust the words that might come out of my mouth. I turned back to the TV again but I could tell my mother continued to stand in the hall a few seconds longer before returning to the bathroom.
Later, as we walked quickly towards the bus stop, Mother squeezing my hand tightly, she glanced down at me and said, "Isn't this exciting?"
I shrugged. I wasn't sure. I was thinking about school. It was the end of July and I was starting somewhere new in September. If I thought too much about that, my stomach knotted up and I felt ill.
As we continued to walk towards the bus stop I did begin to feel something. Not excitement, but that sense of dread I had first begun to feel when the old lady had passed us on the street. The feeling began in the pit of my gut and then began to rise up, infecting me like an uncontrollable illness. I wanted to stop, tug on my mom's hand, and force her to stop. I glanced at her, but her eyes were fixed straight ahead. I swallowed once, forcing the threat of the rising bile back down my throat, and continued walking.
The man named Mr. Slate was waiting for us when we stepped off the bus. A cool drizzle had begun and since we were within a block of the restaurant all three of us quickly ran. When we reached the green painted door, we were all out of breath. My head was bowed for a second but when I glanced up I saw Mr. Slate's arm wrap around my mother's waste and pull her gently further into the building. I stood silently watching. When she was inside he turned to me and stuck out his hand.
"You must be Carl," he said. His voice seemed friendly. "I work with your mother." His eyes were tiny black specks of coal that sat too close together on his face. His skin was pale and his hair was wet and combed back. I took his hand. It was cold and clammy and as soon as I could, I let it go.
During dinner I didn't say much, only answering questions with one or two words and never volunteering any information. My spaghetti and meatballs begged me to eat, but I only picked at it. I thought there was something wrong with the way my mother's eyes danced about when Mr. Slate spoke, and the way she giggled foolishly at every word dribbling from his pale lips. There was something else about him. He was cold and bleak and foreboding. That sense of dread that I had managed to push down earlier in the night threatened to boil over.
It wasn't until later I discovered the reality of my fears.
Mr. Slate arrived at our apartment a week after that dinner. I had no warning. One night he was just there, as if he had appeared out of the concrete walls. My mother hadn't mentioned he was coming. He spoke to me and smiled and my mother seemed embarrassed but she didn't say anything. I said a few words and then couldn't stand it anymore and said I was feeling sick. The dread had returned. I went to bed.
When my mom came in soon after, I pretended to be asleep. I felt her leaning over me but she was silent.
Later in the night I woke and realized it was oddly cold. The warmth of the summer had been sucked into the concrete walls. I swung my bare feet over the side of the bed. They burned on the cold wood floor. I shivered as I crossed the bedroom and immediately wished I hadn't left the reassurance and warmth of the bed. I paused at the closed door and turned but the bed was lost in the darkness. It was too late to return.
The hallway had taken some getting used to but after a number of weeks, I discovered that by stepping delicately, applying as little pressure as possible, never touching my heels to the wood-slat floor, and staying to the left, I was able to make the journey from my room to the bathroom without producing any noise. It was not like the old hallway, imbedded with weak spots throughout, impossible to discover its secrets. Here life was as different and treacherous as the floorboards.
After using the bathroom I began to make my way back to my room. I was concentrating so hard on not making a noise that I didn't see Mr. Slate until it was too late. Until I felt the cold fingers on my bare shoulder and could smell the sour stink of his breath. I had forgotten he had come to the house.
"What are you doing?" His voice was a harsh whisper, cold and filled with poison. All friendliness had vanished.
My heart began to race and my mouth lost all moisture; no words came. I tried to look at him, but his body seemed to be fading in and out, like he was a shadow from the nether world.
"I asked you what you are doing. You're going to wake your mother." His voice was mockingly concerned.
His fingers pressed deep into my skin and I had to clamp my mouth down hard so I didn't shout. I wanted to say something. I was just going to the bathroom. I didn't want to wake my mom. But I remained silent. It was the silence of the brave and the courageous. It was the silence of the foolhardy. I shuddered as I felt his fingers crawl up my shoulder until they were at my neck. They wrapped around it like tentacles preparing to suffocate. The hand forced me forward, pushing me towards my room. I tripped once in the dark over my own feet and the noise seemed deafening. For a moment we stopped moving, and I thought maybe this would end. But then the grip tightened and he pushed me more forcefully.
My throat began to tighten and all I wanted to do was scream, call out for my mother, but words were strangled in my throat. If only she would wake.
Mr. Slate pushed me into my room, followed me, and flipped on the light. The door closed behind.
Take your mind away, I thought. But everything was happening more quickly now and it was difficult for me to lose myself. Take me anywhere, I pleaded, please.
The light was blinding. My eyes closed. I begged myself to hold on. My ears were burning and there was a strange rushing sensation in my head. I felt myself spinning and then I felt like was falling. The pain began to explode along my body as his heavy fists pounded against my body. I wanted to scream as the pain shot across my shoulders and arms and then my stomach. Tears began to sting my eyes. Please, I whispered, please.
And suddenly I was somewhere else and although a hint of pain remained, the blows had ceased.
It was a strange room, empty. It was familiar, and I realized it was my bedroom but there was no furniture or curtains or clothes or posters on the wall. No Mr. Slate.
I did not move, afraid this was all false. I let whatever world I had entered form silently around me without interruption. The darkness had faded and I was surrounded by a thin gray mist, the kind that comes in after a rainstorm. It was calm and quiet and I could feel the beating of my heart beginning to slow.
Where am I, I asked, but no words actually came out of my mouth. They formed in my mind and hung there waiting for an answer.
That was when the strange boy appeared. In a single blink the room was no longer empty; I was not alone. He stood at the opposite end of the room where the head of my bed usually rested. I had never seen him before, but he seemed familiar, like he was from a dream or maybe I was remembering someone I had seen in passing. He seemed to be my age, or maybe a little older. But something told me age did not exist to him. His hair was blond and combed to one side. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but they seemed older, not the type of clothes I owned. He did not speak or move but smiled, just a slight, sad smile. A million questions flew into my head and I began to ask them all, but again no words came out.
Suddenly the boy slowly began to fade. I watched as his body dissolved into the grayness of the room. Then, just as before, I was alone in the room. The boy's sad smile remained imbedded in my mind.
When I woke in the morning my body was stiff and screamed with pain. I was lying in bed under my blankets and sheet. It was hot and I pushed them back. I lifted up my shirt and silently touched the black and purple marks that were beginning to make an angry map across my body. I remembered my headphones. I dangled my body over the side of the bed and reached around until I found them. I closed my eyes and lost myself to the music.
Sometimes when Mr. Slate came to my room at night I was able to return to that strange room. And each time the same thing happened. Always the same room, always empty until the silent boy appeared and then disappeared. Afterwards, when I was alone again, I would slip on my headphones and let the music pour over my body, like a soothing balm that could heal my welts and cuts and bruises. In the morning I woke and counted the bruises and wished I could tell my mother.
It was Saturday afternoon and I was watching television. My mother had gone for the afternoon. I tried not to think where. Sitting had become painful so I had two pillows under me. Suddenly I felt the desperate need to leave. Right then, without a goodbye. Maybe I could find my father. Or maybe I didn't need anyone else. I wondered if it was possible to wander the streets for the rest of my life. At least there would be no Mr. Slate.
I left the television running crossed the hallway to the front door. I didn't gather any clothes. My Discman had been with me in the living room, so I took that and threw it in my navy blue backpack that lay on the floor. I didn't think. I just wanted to leave. I unbolted the door and the clink of metal on metal thundered through the apartment. I hesitated. But the echoing silence of the apartment gave me the final push I needed. My hand grasped the doorknob. It turned and with a little shove, the door creaked open.
The hall stretched out before me. It was dimly lit with sickeningly yellow bulbs. Strange shadows danced madly across the walls. I could see the red glowing exit sign at the opposite end of the hallway. It beckoned to me. I looked back at the door, hesitated for another guilty second, unsure, and then began walking quickly towards the sign.
How long had I been walking, I suddenly wondered? I paused and looked around me. I was still in a dimly-lit hallway. At either end the red neon exit signs mocked me, laughing at my ineptitude. I remember we had entered the building somewhere, but I couldn't seem to find how to get back to that entrance. Was I lost? Impossible! I tried to think of what floor we lived on. I glanced at one of the bluish-gray apartment doors to see if it would jog my memory. 767. I tried to think what our apartment number was, but all I kept seeing was the number 767. My breathing began to come out in fits and bursts and I could feel my chest begin to tighten. My armpits and palms were damp and I thought I might be sick. In my panic I was able to sit with my back against the wall. I took the Discman and shoved the earphones over my ears and hit play. I closed my eyes as the thump of drums and bass and the metal squeal of the guitars filled my ears.
That's when I the strange boy appeared. I knew my eyes were closed, but I could see him. I thought it was a dream so I forced my eyes open. The boy remained standing in front of me.
He did not move. I opened my mouth to speak, to ask him if he knew the way out. Almost instantly, like he was anticipating my question, the boy shook his head. My mouth clamped shut. I hit the stop button on my Discman and the music died. I pulled the earphones off my head. The boy raised his hand slowly and beckoned. I hesitated. Nothing seemed real, like I was in another person's dream. The boy beckoned again, this time more forcefully. I took a step towards him, then another. When I stood only a few feet from him, he turned quickly, but not before giving me a look that said to follow him, and headed towards a closed apartment door near the exit at this end of the hallway.
When he reached the door, the boy opened it and stepping inside, disappeared. I noticed the door remained ajar when I approached. I hesitated. Was this where he lived? And why wouldn't he speak? Curiosity tugged at me, begging me to follow. I reached out my hand and pushed against the door.
The door opened slowly into a single room, much like the living room in my dream. It was entirely empty but unlike the dream there was an un-shaded window that stretched across the entire back wall. Like the window in our living room. The strange boy stood by it, his back to me.
"Where are we? Do you live here?" I blurted out, trying to keep my voice low. The words came out in a rush, jumbled and confused.
The boy remained silent and motionless.
"Do you know the way out?" I asked, suddenly afraid he might not know the answer. "I need to leave." My voice sounded weak and unconvincing.
The boy turned to look out the window. He nodded and then raised his hand, beckoning. I did not move. I suddenly just wanted to go home. But the home that came into my mind was not the apartment with my mother and frequent visits from Mr. Slate; it was not the old house, where sadness and guilt and ruled like king and queen. It was a strange place that looked like the inside of a museum where a diner served bagels and coffee, as much as you needed. In background, of course, the rock and roll gods of grunge tore madly and merrily along.
I decided there was nothing else to do but obey the boy's instructions and I stepped towards the window. It was then I finally heard a voice. Or thought I heard a voice. It was more like a feeling inhabiting my mind than any real words.
Look out at the city. The immensity of it.
The voice was undoubtedly the boy's, but it sounded older, as if it reflected a long past. I was so close to the strange boy now, and all I wanted to do was look at him, but my eyes followed his instructions. The city spread out below us and it seemed to travel on forever.
You shouldn't have come. We are trapped here. This is a prison and there is only one way to escape.
The voice was so soft and seemed so distant, not like it was emanating from the strange boy. Was this the answer to my question? Was there really no way out? There's always a way out, I wanted to tell him. Just show me the front door. We came in; we have to be able to get out.
I can teach you, the boy seemed to be saying. I can teach if you let me. You aren't any different. One day you will have to learn.
Suddenly the boy turned and I could see directly into his eyes. They were tunnels, travelling infinitely away from the present world. I was reminded of the old woman's eyes, the one with the cart. I tried to pull away, but I felt like I was falling. My stomach dropped out and there was nothing I could do but open my mouth to scream.
In my dizziness and confusion, I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder and a strange feeling came over me. I was aware that the room, maybe the entire building, was alive. I wasn't sure how I knew this, but I had never been more certain of anything in my life. There are ghosts here, I thought, all part of this building. The clarity of this thought did not frighten me even though I knew it should. Instead I felt safe under the boy's gentle touch, as if this simple gesture was a guarantee for protection.
My eyes flashed open. For a moment I lay motionless beneath the wool blankets, unable to see. I had been dreaming about the boy and the room.
It had been days now since that surreal afternoon when I had wandered the halls for what seemed like hours and what had turned out to be no more than a few minutes. The boy had said nothing else, but led me back to my hallway. I immediately recognized the hall as my own and I saw the door into our apartment, slightly opened. The boy would not approach the room, but let me go on alone. When I turned back the hallway was empty.
Lying in the dark now, staring up at nothing, I thought of my father and the promise my mother had made that things would be different. It was late and if Mr. Slate was here, I didn't think he would be coming in tonight. But just in case I reached under my bed and took the headphones. I buried myself in blankets and pushed play. I began to dream.
I saw myself standing in the sand. I knew it wasn't really me I was seeing, but only a shadow. I could see and feel what my shadow felt. The warm rough sand beneath my feet, the salty fresh air of the ocean. In the distance I saw my father. His face was hidden from me but I knew it was him by the way he stood. A dull roar washed in and out of my ears. Both my shadow and I stole a glance and there was the ocean, greenish-blue with foamy surf. Gulls circled high above the water.
Then I was aware that my father was not alone. My mother was sitting next to him. And then suddenly I was standing close behind them, somehow having made up the distance. I heard them both begin to laugh, and wondered what was so funny.
It was at that moment I realized my shadow was stretching out his hand to get my father's attention. But now I was no longer separated from my shadow. We had become one again, so I was reaching out to my father. As I bent down to touch his back, to assure myself he was real and wake myself up from the nightmare I had been living, his head turned. It was the leering warped face of Mr. Slate.
Momentum was carrying me forward. There was nothing I could do to prevent myself from falling. The face, recognizable at first, began distorting into something completely unfamiliar, inhuman. It began to grow in size, all its features, the mouth, nose eyes, skin, stretching out wider and wider until there was nothing below me but the face. I realized I was falling towards his mouth, or what had been his mouth but was now a cavernous black opening lined with glistening barbed wire. In the background my mother's laughter continued.
I sat up wildly in bed. The room remained dark but the image of the beach and the creature would not leave my mind. My lungs were burning as if I had been running and my chest shuddered uncontrollably as I gasped for air. The boy had been right, I was trapped, I realized, trapped in this apartment, trapped forever beneath the cruel grin of Mr. Slate and my mother's helpless laughter.
I do not know how long I sat without moving before I finally glanced up. I don't know what made me look up; perhaps I felt something was out of place in the room. My bedroom, which lost beneath the night's heavy presence, was now streaked with a thin stream of blue light coming through the window, cutting knife-like into the blackness. But that was not what was odd. There seemed to be the outline of person, a small person, possibly a child in the light. It was just an outline and even though I stared, I was unable to make out specific features. I thought maybe aliens had come.
The shape, whatever or whoever it was did not move.
"Hello," I whispered.
I told myself not to be scared, that it was just the moonlight and shadows. But the shape looked so real!
"Hello," I whispered again, louder.
It was the strange boy.
"Who are you?" My voice shook.
I was met with silence.
I pulled myself up against the backboard of the bed and tugged the blankets up close to my chin although I didn't feel frightened.
"My name is Carl. Who are you? Why do you keep coming to me?"
This time I was certain I saw the shape move, just a slight turn.
"Michael," the other boy said.
I watched the boy curiously. He seemed to want to speak, but something held him back. I wanted to ask him more questions, to make sure he wasn't a dream, or something worse. But I remained quiet.
Finally he spoke, ignoring my question.
"Carl, we have decided to help you. We have seen what happens. If you choose to follow me, it is time for you to leave this all behind."
He was silent again. My heart was racing now; I could hear it and I wondered whether the boy could hear it too.
When he spoke again his words were strange and I didn't understand what he meant.
"I can teach you to disappear. We believe it necessary for you, if you wish to," here he paused and I thought I noticed a strange look pass over his face, although I couldn't be certain, "survive."
I didn't know what to say or if I should speak. I had a sudden urge to close my eyes, to pull the covers over my head, to convince myself that this was not real, that a boy couldn't simply appear from nowhere and begin talking to me like we were old friends. Michael said, "It is real, only not the real you know. But I promise you I can help before it is too late"
I wanted to ask him what he meant, but I was afraid I might know the answer. I remembered the serenity and safety I felt when I first met the boy. I wondered if that's what he meant by disappearing.
"What happens when you disappear?" I asked quietly.
Michael smiled. Or at least I think it was a smile.
"You will be able protect yourself, pull yourself away from your world."
"In a way, yes."
"Does it hurt to disappear? It seems like it might hurt."
"It isn't painful. Well, not physically. Mentally it takes some getting used to. But most eventually do."
"Can I come back?"
"You can. It doesn't have to be a permanent state. But over time, and the more times you disappear, you will become more and more a part of the other world. Even then you can return, but more often than not people won't be able to see you."
"What will happen if I don't?" I asked hesitantly.
There was a long silence.
When Michael spoke, his voice was sad and distant.
"I don't know. It is different for everyone. Perhaps nothing. Maybe everything."
I let the silence sit in the room. I had one last question, but I wasn't sure I wanted to ask it. Finally I gave in to my curiosity.
"What about my mom?"
The boy responded only with a shrug. I guessed what that might mean.
"It's easier for children to learn. It would be impossible for your mom."
I remained quiet again. My mind was racing. My thoughts were so jumbled I wasn't sure what I was thinking. Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, I closed my eyes and remembered the old house, before my father left and before the new apartment. I saw my mother standing in a room alone. I was far from her and she seemed to be growing more and more distant, as if she was disappearing herself.
Then Slate appeared. I wanted to scream or run or both. But I was paralyzed, rooted to the spot, watching as my mother vanished and Slate came closer. He was laughing, and there was liquid, like blood, dripping from his mouth and his eyes were burning with flames. I tried to turn and run again, but something still held me. I looked down at my feet and my heart stopped. My mother sat below me, smiling up at me, holding my feet in place. I screamed at her to let me go. She laughed and held me tighter. I felt Slate's cold fingers tighten around my neck.
I opened my eyes slowly and suddenly felt far older than my thirteen years.
"Okay," I said, "Teach me."
How long did it take me to learn the art of disappearing? An eternity I think. The concept was simple enough. Just as a child's mind is malleable to the education provided in schools, so is it malleable to learning how to disappear. It is my understanding that adults past a certain age, are no longer able to disappear. It is a conscious choice, unlike the myths we learn about ghosts who often have little or no choice in the matter.
The first day of training took place in the strange room where Michael and stood looking out over the city, telling me we were trapped.
"You already have the ability to vanish," he said, "It is now a matter of actively pursuing that ability. Think of disappearing to a place in-between dreaming and waking. It is a place we often stumble upon, but very few of us learn how to stay there for any length of time."
I nodded. I didn't know what he was talking about.
"Close your eyes," he said.
When I closed my eyes he asked, "What do you see?"
Colors and shapes, dreamlike images of the room, danced in front of my eyes.
"Now push your mind away from these images. Push your mind away until there is nothing left but emptiness." His voice was softer now, more distant. I tried to do what he commanded.
I tried to let my mind go, forcing myself to empty it. But it remained full of thoughts and images.
I opened my eyes.
"This isn't working," I said.
Michael shook his head and remained silent. I waited, afraid this would be the end of my lesson. The silence filled the emptiness of the room.
Finally he said, "Sometimes it helps to have a trigger, especially when you're starting out."
"Something to push you over, something that helps take your mind away from this world."
"What should I use?" I asked.
Michael shrugged, "It's up to you. It's unique to the person. What makes you forget everything?"
Michael nodded, as if he had heard my thought and knew all along what I had just realized.
I took out the Discman and slowly placed the earphones over my head. I hit play and the music flooded me.
Close your eyes.
I heard the boy's words through the music. My eyes closed and let my mind go.
First there were images, and they clung to me trying to hold me back to this world. But the music fought back at them, broke their grip and sent them tumbling into some endless abyss. Then there were only colors and sounds. But soon the colors, the last reminders of memories and thoughts, faded. Not black or gray or white. Only emptiness. The music was growing softer until it too had vanished. Then there was nothing.
Open your eyes, I heard the familiar voice. The voice appeared in the emptiness and I not only heard it, but felt it through my body.
My eyes opened. We were still sitting in the empty room. Michael stood across from me, smiling.
Welcome to the other side.
Have I disappeared?
I thought it might be more difficult, but you were ready to go. Your mind was already prepared.
Will I always need the music?
It depends. Maybe.
Suddenly I felt sick and the room began to spin.
What's happening, I shouted, but nothing came out.
You're just returning to the world, I heard the voice in my head. Just let it happen. It's natural. It takes practice. Close your eyes and let yourself back into the world.
I followed the instructions and closed my eyes. I felt like a top and wanted everything to stop turning. At the moment when I didn't think I could hold back my sickness, the world stopped spinning. Opening my eyes I saw I was in my bedroom. My real bedroom. And I was alone.
Michael did not appear every day. When I asked him, he said there were others who needed help. So I practiced on my own. Each day I felt myself pulling further and further away from the world. The world in which Slate's fists were becoming rougher and his temper growing more terrifying. The world in which my mother now looked at me in pity and weariness. The world in which the concrete walls of the apartment imprisoned me and mocked my pathetic attempts at escape. It was a world I longed to leave behind. I no longer belonged here.
On a day following an extended fade, Michael said, "You are ready. You no longer need my help. From now on you can fade when you want for as long as you want. You no longer need to worry."
I nodded. I opened my mouth to speak, to say something stupid like thank you. But no words came to me. I closed my mouth. Michael nodded once and gave me a small smile. Then I watched as he slowly began to disappear.
The young girl cowered below the man's fists. He wasn't drunk or high, but I could feel his anger. The girl felt his anger too. I watched as she tried to hold back her tears, but the man was too persistent and her face began to streak. The man refused to let up. I felt the rage building in me, but I forced myself to remain calm. I had to wait. That had been one of the first things I learned. You must wait. Only then can you help.
After an eternity the man finally left her alone in the room. It was time. I stepped from the shadows. The girl's face was turned from me and her body shook. Tiny frightened noises erupted from her crumpled form. I waited.
When she finally turned she saw me, although I could tell she wasn't certain her eyes were telling her the truth. She stared and I knew she was trying to keep her grasp on reality.
"Hello," I said, keeping my voice calm and quiet.
I know she heard me, but I know what it's like when you first hear words from someone like me. I still remember what it was like to be in her place.
Finally she whispered, "Who are you?"
"What's your name?"
She hesitated, but I could see she wanted to speak.
"My name is Carl. I want to teach you to disappear."
Later, when the first day of teaching was over and Ellen entered a deep sleep, falling away from all the fears and pain of the world, I stepped back into the shadows of the room. I carry a worn backpack that only holds one item. I took the headphones from the pack and placed them gently over my ears. It is not my first time back, nor will it be my last. There will be more lessons here with Ellen and there are always others to teach. Sometimes I see Michael and some of the others, but we are not a social fraternity. We are here to teach, and to help when we can.
I hit play on the Discman and slowly disappeared as the music poured over me.
© 2010 Edward Harvey
Bio: Edward Harvey is a graduate student in Massachusetts. His previous publishing credits include a flash fiction entry in Antipodean SF.
E-mail: Edward Harvey
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