09 Jul Vanishing Act (Part 1)
“Vanishing Act (Part 1)”Written by Craig Groshek Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Jason Hill
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 17 minutes
Something extraordinary began happening to me this past month, and I’m not sure whether I ought to be relieved or terrified. For all I know, it’s been going on for several months, or possibly years. Hell, maybe it’s been going on my entire life, and I haven’t noticed until recently. And if it’s been happening to me, it makes me wonder if others may be experiencing such a thing, and has tried to find answers of their own.
I’ve been scouring the Internet to try and find testimonies of people who have experienced the same thing I have, but I keep hitting dead-ends. The closest I can find is mentions of something called “quantum immortality”, but even that doesn’t quite capture what’s been going on, and why I’m so alarmed about it.
I first noticed the, shall we say, anomalies, after I signed up for a family membership at my local YMCA. I’m the father of three children under the age of 10, all of them homeschooled – and winters in Wisconsin are long and frigid. This translates into a lot of hours spent cooped up at home, surrounded by screaming kids. On top of it, I’m just not a “cold weather” type of guy. I hate snow, and you won’t catch me outside in the winter doing anything more strenuous than going to my mailbox. In short, it’s not my favorite time of year, and this season I was itching to do something other than curl into the fetal position and pray for spring.
So, I signed up at the YMCA. The kids heard from a friend of theirs that it had both an indoor pool and a waterslide, and if I’m honest, I could stand to lose a few pounds, and so their fitness center piqued my interest as well. I figured if it didn’t work out, then at most, I’d be out $60, and I could just cancel my membership and settle for playing Just Dance at home for the next five months.
Or so I thought.
Last month, during my first week as a member, I discovered my local YMCA hosts gaga ball every Friday from 6-8 PM. If you haven’t heard of it, gaga ball is to today’s generations of kids what four-square was for those of us who grew up in the Gen X era.
Gaga ball is a hit-and-run sort of game, played with a dodgeball in an inflatable or wooden octagonal “pit” or ring. The point is to strike the other players at or below the knee with the ball, and the last one standing wins. The catch is that you cannot hold the ball, but can only touch it quickly, hence the name, which translates to “touch-touch” in Hebrew. The games generally only take a few minutes to play, and they’re a fantastic way for kids to get exercise without realizing it.
The minute my kids played their first game, they took to it like junkies to bath salts. Ever since they discovered the weekly games at the YMCA, they’ve been hooked, and insist I take them every week, winter weather be damned. Because I love my kids, I’ve been biting the bullet every week, regardless of the temperature and road conditions, and joining them for the full two hours every week since becoming members. And this, believe it or not, is where all my troubles began.
It was during the weekly games of gaga ball that I first noticed the… anomaly. I don’t know what else to call it.
After the kids played a handful of rounds of gaga, they were getting winded, and a few of the less-coordinated kids were getting tired of getting eliminated and decided to play basketball instead. To keep the games entertaining – and to try and shed a few unwanted winter pounds – I decided to join in on the fun, and a couple other parents dove in, too. And it was a lot of fun, at first. I had mastered the five D’s, and I dodged, ducked, dipped, dove, and dodged with the best of them, and it soon became clear that the kids would never taste victory again so long as I was in the ring with them. So, after a few games, satisfied I’d burned off the Taco Bell I probably shouldn’t have had for lunch, I took a water break, and let the kids have their fun.
Ten minutes later, I decided to join in again, and this is where things got weird.
I darted back and forth, doing my best to avoid an overly-aggressive, showboating Asian teen who had decided it was his life’s mission to eliminate me. All the while, I tried not to trip over the younger kids running around with untied shoes. Things were going well, until I unexpectedly rolled one of my ankles and collapsed like a house of cards.
Now, I’m willing to bet most of you wouldn’t hit someone when they were down. In fact, you’d probably give them a hand and help them hobble out of the pit, and maybe even show them the way to the first-aid station. But not my arch-nemesis. Oh, no. This miniature Jackie Chan wasn’t satisfied with simply eliminating me. No, of course not. What he was planning was nothing short of an execution, intended to make me regret ever setting foot in the pit. I watched in mock horror (and actual agitation) as he pulled back his arm and prepared to power-slap the ball into – of all things – my ankle. And not just any ankle. My rolled ankle. Son of a bitch, I thought. If there is a Hell, it isn’t hot enough for some people.
Time seemed to slow as my diminutive dementor reared back, swung his right arm forward, connected with the ball, and sent it hurtling in the direction of my rapidly-swelling ankle, like a ballistic harbinger of doom. This is what I get for letting my inner-child run free, I mused. My wife is never going to let me live this down.
I swear that as the ball was flying at me, threatening to end my gaga-centric reign of terror once and for all, that I felt… something… move around me. It was an odd sensation, something like what you feel when you doze off on the school bus and your equilibrium kicks in when your head tips too far forward, causing you to snap awake. Or when you rock backwards on a chair and hit the point of no return, where you’re certain you’re going down. It felt a bit like that – the rapid sinking feeling as your stomach descends and your heartbeat accelerates – the equivalent of your reptile brain sending a last-ditch “S.O.S.” signal to your nerves, in an attempt at self-preservation.
As the entire scene flowed around me in high-definition slow-motion, I felt very much as if I’d been suspended in liquid gelatin, and everything went deathly silent, save for a tinnitus-like ring rising in the distance like an approaching train.
Then, the floor dropped out from under me.
Not literally, it seems. The “world” didn’t go anywhere, and I didn’t fall into some cosmic abyss, or find myself floating in an intangible void. Rather, everything around me shifted downwards with incredible speed, like a still frame jump cut on a damaged film reel, combined with the wave of a monitor refresh. And for some reason, it all felt… familiar, as if I’d been here before, and seen this many times, but just forgot about it. For that briefest of moments, it was as if reality itself blinked and skipped a beat. Then, a moment later, my vision returned to normal, the sinking feeling was a thing of the past, and sound – along with normal rates of movement – resumed instantaneously.
Well, it all came back, except for one minute difference: I had somehow thrown up in my mouth.
That’s gross, I know. And I’m sorry for mentioning that detail. Trust me when I say I wouldn’t have, if I didn’t feel it was an important one. You see, I didn’t actually throw up, as in, I never felt the event take place. Rather, one moment I was seated in the gaga ball pit, clutching my damaged ankle, and the next, my mouth was brimming with the unsavory taste of bile. It was as if it had always been there, and I just hadn’t noticed.
All of this, however, pales in comparison to what happened next. After the shifting feeling, and the realization that my lunch had mounted a counter-strike, everything sped back up, and seemed to increase in volume rather dramatically. The formerly distant tinnitus had become a jet engine-like, eardrum-shredding shriek, and I would have grabbed my head in pain had there been time to do so. There wasn’t.
As soon as everything returned to normal – if I can even call it that anymore – I became aware of yet another odd sensation. This time, rather than everything shifting around me in slow-motion, or glitching about like an interrupted satellite television feed, I felt myself do the shifting.
For just a moment, one tiny, nearly imperceptible fraction of time, I ceased to occupy time and space. In that instant, I did not exist.
Now, look, I know how strange that sounds. Really, I do. And if anyone else were telling me this story, swearing it happened to them, I would have gently placed a hand on their shoulder, given them a reassuring pat on the back, and then referred them to my therapist.
But I’m not crazy, and I’m not imagining things. When I say I ceased to exist, I mean that literally. There’s no other logical explanation. If there was, what happened next would have been impossible.
In the moment when the gaga ball itself should have been connecting with my damaged ankle with enough force to justify a trip to a walk-in clinic, it… didn’t. It just… didn’t.
Instead of being eliminated from the game, I scrunched up my face, braced myself for the inevitable impact (and my all-but-certain elimination from the game), and felt… nothing.
A second later, I heard blood-curdling screams, and felt a splash of fluid upon the back of my short-sleeve t-shirt. Wondering not only why I hadn’t been struck with the ball, but why someone other than me was crying – not to mention why my shirt was wet – I pivoted 180 degrees to face the source of the agonized howling. At the same time, I instinctively put a hand to my back and swiped my palm across the damp patch, which was rapidly expanding as my cotton shirt absorbed whatever I’d been doused with.
My first reaction was that the kid that tried to cripple me had worse aim than I had suspected, and had somehow missed not just my leg, but the entire front of my body, and managed, inexplicably, to hit me in the back of the head.
And when I pulled my hand around and held it up before me, and saw that it was coated in a layer of fresh red blood, my mind assumed the worst. I figured my opportunistic opponent had managed not only to draw blood, but had done enough damage to me to justify a trip to the emergency room. And that the screaming was coming from the gaggle of innocent schoolchildren, who had never seen so much blood before, and were busily repressing the experience.
Yet, I didn’t feel any pain. Aside from the puke pooling in my mouth, a hint of nausea, and the uncomfortable tone of tinnitus fading gradually into the ether, I didn’t feel like I’d been hit by anything at all.
That’s when clarity and logic returned to me, and I realized… it wasn’t my blood. And the kids weren’t screaming because I’d been injured.
As I turned, I discovered the true source of everyone’s terror: a mousy little blonde girl with pigtails and glasses – or what remained of them, anyway – who couldn’t have been more than five years old. She was the source of the shrieking, though no longer alone in it, and it was quite clear why she was upset.
Where this little girl’s smiling, happy face should have been, instead there was a blanket of blood, streaming down her cheeks and instantly dying her formerly white Shopkins hoodie an unsettling shade of pink. Her eyeglasses had been smashed as well, and a fragment of one of the lenses appeared to have been embedded in her right eye.
As I attempted to take all of this newfound horror in, I cast a glance at my two boys, who had been playing alongside me, and marveled at the nearly-identical looks of shock upon their faces. My middle child, Jacob, no stranger to drama, broke out in tears and made a beeline for one of the gaga pit’s exits, presumably trying to distance himself from the trauma. My oldest son, Peter, on the other hand, looked as if he’d seen a ghost, and simply stood there, gibbering uncontrollably. But unlike the other kids, whose gazes were fixed firmly on their injured classmate, Peter was staring directly at me.
No, not at me. Through me. I shrugged it off.
Within moments, the YMCA’s designated adult gaga ball attendant, as well as all of the other parents present, had mobilized and hurried the little girl out of the gaga pit. They escorted her to the front office of the building, where the medical supplies were kept, and I suspect an ambulance was called. In the meantime, I was left amidst a crowd of terrified children, desperately trying to make sense of what had just happened. It had all happened so fast.
Once the little girl had been ushered away and her non-stop wailing had faded into the distance, an eerie silence descended upon the formerly lively scene… and all eyes were on me. I cast a glance at my oldest son, who continued staring at me with what now appeared to be a combination of fear and disbelief. Imagining he too had been traumatized by what he’d just witnessed, I called out to him.
“Pete, come here,” I said. “It’s okay, son. They’ll get her to the hospital, and she’ll be fine.”
I clambered to my feet and took note of the carnage about me. Fragments of the little girl’s glasses were scattered about, interspersed among pools of gore and trails of bloody footprints leading up and over the pit’s exits, and out into the nearby hallway.
“Can someone get a towel and a garbage can?” I asked no one in particular. “We really ought to clean this up.”
That’s when I noticed that everyone – not just my son Pete – was staring at me. And no one was moving. Instead, they were casting hurried, sideways glances at one another, only to look back at me, constantly muttering in hushed tones. Some had taken out their mobile phones and begun taking photos or videos, I assume, of the aftermath of the incident they’d just witnessed.
When it became clear the gawkers were more interested in documenting the carnage than helping clean up, I decided to fetch the trashcan and towels myself. “Boys!” I called out to my sons. “Help me find some cleaning supplies, would you? We can’t leave all this blood and glass like this. Someone’s going to slip and break their neck, or get cut on these shards, and I think we’ve seen enough of that already.”
When my kids refused to budge, acting as if they hadn’t heard a word I said, I marched over to them. I was beginning to lose my temper. I knew what just happened was unexpected, but it wasn’t as if a bomb had gone off. Accidents happen, after all, and I was willing to bet they’d all seen worse in their favorite video games.
“C’mon, Pete. C’mon, Jake, get a move on–” I started as I headed in their direction, but stopped abruptly in my tracks as something occurred to me.
My ankle didn’t hurt anymore.
That’s strange, I thought. I must not have rolled it as badly as I thought.
Just as I had begun to refocus on my goal of retrieving cleaning supplies, I once again became cognizant of the stillness of the room, and took a look at all of the faces surrounding me. In an instant, the children that had been gossiping amongst themselves moments ago clammed up.
At this point, my oldest son moved toward me in short, hurried steps, and immediately put his mouth to my ear. “Dad,” he whispered. “We have to go. Now.”
It wasn’t like Peter to be so cryptic. He liked spooky games and apps as much as other kids his age, but it was clear that what he’d witnessed had unnerved him, enough so that he wanted to leave. And from the looks of it, his younger brother was two steps ahead of him, hiding behind the gaga pit’s outer walls, poised to make a break for the gymnasium doors whether we liked it or not.
“Pete, buddy,” I said, putting on my best air of confidence, though I’ll admit I was beginning to get a bit freaked out myself, “I know that what happened was scary. I mean, that was a lot of blood, and I know you and your brother have never seen anything like that in real life before. But she’ll be fine, kiddo. Probably just got cut by a piece of her glasses. I’m sure it looks worse than it actually is.”
Peter’s expression was grave, and I noticed his eyes darting back and forth nervously.
“No, Dad, you don’t get it,” he rasped under his breath. “Look, Dad. Look at the other kids.”
I did my best to sneak a peek at the children continuing to mill around, without making my surveillance too obvious. That’s when I noticed, for the first time, that their expressions were not those of thrill-seeking youth awestruck by the sudden appearance of a bit of blood. They, too, like Pete before them, looked as if they’d all seen a ghost.
“I–I–I don’t know what you mean, Pete,” I said to my son, a hint of trepidation creeping into my voice. “They’re just–they’re just nervous, that’s all. They were just spooked by the sight of all that blood, that’s all.”
Peter looked me straight in the eyes, and replied, “You disappeared, Dad. You were gone.”
I was bewildered. Stammering, I responded, “W–What?” I laughed, trying my best to appear grounded, but truth be told, I was fighting back tremors at that point. “People can’t disappear, Pete,” I continued. “You’ve just seen something terrible, and your eyes are playing tricks on you.”
Pete responded then with a ferocity uncharacteristic of him. “No, Dad! I know what I saw, and everyone else saw it, too! Jake did, too!”
I looked at Jacob, still clinging to the walls of the pit, and peeking over its edge just enough to keep an eye on Pete and me.
“Jake, come here, kiddo,” I called to my middle child. “I want to talk to you.”
Hesitant at first, Jake moved around the ring to where I was standing, and I approached him at the wall, again ruminating on the fact that my ankle wasn’t swollen whatsoever, and didn’t hurt one bit. Odd, I thought again.
I met Jake at the pit’s edge and leaned down, resting my arms on the wall, and met him at eye level. “Jake, honey, your brother says you saw something weird. Is that true?”
Jake sheepishly looked up at me and simply nodded his head.
“What did you see, honey? It’s okay, you can tell me.”
He shook his head. That’s when his older brother chimed in again. “Dad, I feel bad for that girl. I hope she’s okay, but Dad… she was behind you.”
I didn’t understand what he was saying at first. “Okay, she was behind me. It’s gaga ball, son. Everyone’s constantly moving. There’s always someone behind someone else, you know that.”
Pete looked like he was getting frustrated with me at this point. He let out an aggravated sigh, and said in a hushed tone, “That kid that was after you didn’t miss, Dad. He threw the ball, and it should’ve hit you in the leg, but… you… weren’t… there!” He punctuated each of the last few words, as if to say he thought I was simply being daft.
With mock bravado and a nervous laugh bordering on insincerity, I said, “Wasn’t there, ha! Good one, Pete. That’s enough now. That kid that tried to get me out just missed, son. That’s all. Nothing weird about it. He took a shot, it went wide, and it bounced and struck that little girl. Accidents happen.”
Pete grabbed me around the cheeks and turned my head to the onlookers, who were back to whispering amongst themselves in low tones. I noticed for the first time that they were huddled around one kid in particular, and that they were staring together at a mobile phone. When they saw me looking at them, they spread out.
I’m not sure why – I think it was just on account of my nerves at that time – but I stormed over to the throng of kids, as if they’d just kicked my dog, and I had a bone to pick. For some reason, I felt angry at these children – these kids who had just come to the YMCA for fun tonight, just like my boys and I – and I behaved as if they were the cause of all of Pete and Jake’s concerns, and lending credence to their nonsense.
“Hey!” I cried out. A string of demands and accusatory questions formed in my increasingly frenzied mind and poured out of my mouth. “Knock it off, you’re scaring my kids! Look at them! What are you watching on your phone there? Where are your parents? Why are you just standing there instead of helping?”
The kid holding the phone looked as if he expected to be mauled by a bear, quaking visibly as his gawking companions each retreated several yards in response to my unhinged tirade. For some reason, I was convinced this kid – who looked too young to even be in third grade – was up to no good, and that he had perhaps gotten footage of the little girl’s accident, and was now parading it around for everyone’s entertainment.
“What’s that on your phone that’s got everyone so worked up? That little girl could be blind, and you’re… what? Replaying it over and over for your enjoyment? Show some respect! Give me that phone!”
Without hesitation, the kid’s hand shot out. Shaking, he allowed me to take it from him. On the screen, as I suspected, there was a video pulled up, paused on a single frame. And in a moment, all of whatever piss and vinegar I had in my system left me, and I shook my head automatically, as if doing so would somehow rid my mind of the image which had just been seared into it.
In the still image on screen, in a frame from what appeared to be a genuine recording of the incident, I saw the little blonde girl. The film appeared to have been taken by the sibling of another player, from a vantage point outside the pit, and it appeared to have begun moments before impact.
In the video, standing with a smile on her face, and her glasses intact, the little girl was blissfully unaware of the tragedy about to befall her. Before her, with his arm outstretched in mid-slap, was the Asian kid who had it out for me. And in the air, well on its way to ending my reign as gaga ball champion of the evening, was the red sphere of doom.
There was just one problem.
I wasn’t in the frame.
Where I should have been, grimacing in preparation for a game-ending assault, there was open air, and nothing more. There was the acrobatic teen with a score to settle, and the dodgeball, passing through empty space. But I was nowhere to be found.
I felt faint, as if the air in the room had suddenly thinned. Again, I got the odd feeling that I had experienced something like this before, and that I knew, deep down, exactly what had happened, but I wasn’t supposed to remember. Oh, God, I wasn’t supposed to remember. In the dark recesses of my mind, in the depths of my consciousness, a voice cried out. What have I done? What have I done?
I felt an overwhelming sense of dread, like when you’re a kid, and you’ve done something regrettable and it’s only a matter of time before your father gets home and finds out about it. Rules had been broken, and there would be punishments. I knew it. I don’t how I knew it, and of course, none of it made sense, but I simply couldn’t shake the inexplicable anxiety, the feeling that I’d just seen something I shouldn’t have, and that somehow, in some way, it was all my fault.
With goosebumps rippling across my body, I hit the button to back up a few seconds and hit play. On the screen, I watched with both fascination and disbelief as my teenaged opponent slapped the ball in my direction. As quickly as he struck the ball, I blinked out of the frame. A moment later, the ball ricocheted off the parquet floor of the YMCA’s gymnasium and slammed into the little blonde girl’s unsuspecting face. The momentum drove her eyeglasses into her skull, mangling the frames and splintering the lenses into shards, one of which penetrated her right eye, exploding it in a burst of fluid, which made it clear she would never see out of that eye again. Others shredded her previously porcelain face, carving it to ribbons as they became embedded in her skin.
On the phone’s screen, I saw video evidence of what everyone else, including my kids, must have seen live. I watched in horror as the girl’s face exploded in a swath of gore, and as her face contorted in pain once her mind registered what had just occurred.
All the while, I was nowhere to be seen. Just… gone.
Then, just as quickly as I had blinked out of the frame, I reappeared. Once more, I was in the same position I’d been in previously, face tensed in expectation of the strike sure to end my undefeated streak. Around me, the results of my sudden disappearance continued to play out. The little girl shrieked, and my antagonist recoiled, reeling from what he had just witnessed. The onlookers on the periphery reacted in much the same way. The confusion was palpable, with everyone uniformly questioning their sanity, each of them doubting their senses.
A few seconds later, the clip ends, after which I assumed the owner of the phone began showing his evidence to the others, while parents were away, rushing the little girl to the lobby for assistance.
I felt numb. I looked up from the phone, my rational mind threatening to break in the face of such undeniable proof of the paranormal. I glanced about the room and realized everyone was staring at me, fearful expressions on their pallid faces.
As I took in my surroundings, I once again spotted my middle child, Jacob, too afraid of me to make eye contact, huddling behind the gaga pit wall. His big brother was beside him now, doing his best to console him, but to no avail.
I hated myself at that moment, even though I hadn’t consciously done anything wrong. To more than a dozen strangers – and most horrifically, to my son – I was an anomaly, a monster, responsible for robbing them of their innocence and shattering their beliefs about the very nature of reality.
I had to do something – anything – to make it stop, before things had gone too far. I may not have understood what happened, or what was happening to me, but I knew one thing: What happened in that gymnasium that night could never leave that room.
I did the only thing I could think of.
I took one last look at the photo in my hand – and then slammed it into the blood-covered ground. Over and over again, I brought my heel down upon it, until the device had been reduced to nothing more than useless shards of glass and plastic.
And just like that, any evidence of my “vanishing act,” like me before it, ceased to exist.
I had the feeling, however, that my troubles were far from over. Several adults had witnessed my sudden disappearance as well, but were simply too preoccupied to question me about it, busy as they were tending to the injured little girl.
Just as I began to contemplate my next move, I heard hurried footsteps coming down the hallway leading to the gym. I immediately recognized the squawk of police radios.
“There he is,” I heard the YMCA’s gaga attendant say, just in time to watch him re-enter the room, pointing squarely at me. Following closely behind him were several police officers, making a beeline toward me.
* * * * * *
This is the 1st in a multi-part series. Click here to read Part 2.
Craig Groshek Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Jason Hill