GOODBYE GIRL • by Shane D. Rhinewald

Anna disappeared on her ninth birthday. She excused herself from her party with a polite goodbye, went up to her room, and never returned. For a time, no one noticed her absence amid the chaos of clowns, piñatas, and dozens of feet. Anna’s favorite raspberry-swirl cake attracted flies, her presents remained unopened, ribbons still neatly tied, and her chair at the picnic table sat empty.

Her mother first noticed her missing during a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” though only toward the end of the singing, and when she asked her husband about it, he shrugged and turned his attention back to the hamburgers on the grill. When she asked Anna’s older brother where she had gone, he joked that aliens must have taken her. His grin turned to a frown when others started to inquire into Anna’s whereabouts, though. Even the clowns lost their zest for the party after.

The party-goers searched the yard high and low — under the bounce room, in the bushes, behind the shed. Anna’s mother scoured the house from basement to attic. In Anna’s room, she found Anna’s shoes, which seemed peculiar. She could not have gone far in bare feet.

The police came with sirens blaring to find a frantic scene with screaming children and red-faced adults racing back and forth. Anna’s mother had stopped looking by then and collapsed into a heap on the kitchen floor, one hand on the linoleum, the other clinging to the edge of the counter as if she hung on the edge of a cliff.

Through her tears, Anna’s mother said her daughter must have been abducted and blamed the small, strange man down the street that lived alone. All agreed he had the look of a pedophile about him, especially with that tiny mustache and all. Before the police could go to investigate, Anna’s father stormed down there, barged into the man’s house, and knocked out four of his teeth.

He never apologized for turning the man’s face to pulp, even after the police searched the house and turned up no results.

For six months, Anna’s parents held out hope their daughter would be found. They plastered light poles with her picture, offered ten thousand dollars in reward money, and paraded themselves on the news to plead for Anna’s safe return. And then when that all failed, they went on with their lives, almost as if they’d never had a daughter.

On the day Anna turned ten, she returned.

Anna came down the stairs just after breakfast, wearing the same Disney princess T-shirt she had been wearing one year ago. It seemed no different, not wrinkled or stained. And Anna looked no different either, albeit a little older and a little taller. She smiled when she saw her mother putting the leftover pancakes in the fridge and said, “Are there extra? Can I have one?”

Anna’s mother dropped the pancakes on the floor, but the plate never broke, just spun with a whir, whir before grinding to a halt. Screaming, crying, and prayers followed, and Anna found herself at the center of what seemed to be an endless family hug. Her parents poked, prodded, and questioned her as the tears kissed their faces.

“What happened? Who took you? Are you hurt? Did they touch you?”

Anna shook her head to every question. When they finally stopped their machine-gun quizzing, she said, “I just disappeared. It was magic. It was my birthday wish.”

They tried to explain to Anna that no one could just disappear, even on her birthday. Magic was a thing of story, of myth, or some silly illusions on TV. Even her older brother — he who believed in alien abductions — found magic to be a preposterous thing.

“Even if you could use magic to disappear, why would you do that to us?” her mother asked after.

Anna shrugged. “No one listens to me in this house.”

Anna hoped things would change after her harsh — perhaps even cruel — lesson. Instead, her parents made her talk to the police, who also failed to believe her magic story. Then they sent her to a psychiatrist who deemed her mentally unstable, likely delusional, maybe even schizophrenic. They watched their daughter be committed and then went home slightly unnerved but ready to move on with their lives.

Anna spent the better part of a year in the Clarksville Mental Hospital, and sometime after noon on the day she turned eleven, she told the attendant at the door goodbye. She crawled under the cot, closed her eyes, and ceased to be.

She returned home to her parents’ surprise later that day, and when they asked her how she had escaped, she shrugged and said, “Magic. I wished it again for my birthday.”

“Still with the magic, Anna? It’s not real. It’s all in your head,” her mother said.

Anna offered a sad smile. “Sorry you think that. Goodbye.”

When Anna disappeared for the third time, she had not yet decided if she would return on her twelfth birthday or just not at all.

Shane D. Rhinewald was raised and continues to live in Western New York. He’s a public relations professional by day and writes speculative fiction by night (except when there’s hockey on TV, of course). His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Big Pulp, and the Short Sips anthology.

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