I was six years old the first time I saw a man disappear.
My parents were arguing in the kitchen that morning. I pretended not to hear it. A little later my father came into my room wearing a suit. This was unusual for a Saturday. He told me he had somewhere important to take me, and helped me put on my dress clothes. I inhaled his leathery aftershave as he adjusted the tie around my neck. The teeth of his comb had left deep trails in his black hair. He stepped back and decided I was ready.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Somewhere important,” he repeated, and led me to the car.
My mother did not join us so I waved goodbye. She smiled but I saw worry in her eyes. Her chin dropped as the smile faded.
We drove out into the countryside. I rolled the window down. It was a bright spring morning, and despite my mother’s concern (or because of it), the mystery of this trip thrilled me. I made our destination a guessing game, throwing out hopeful suggestions. “Baseball game? Movies?”
My father shook his head ‘no’ but said nothing, even when we parked on the side of the road and set off on foot. He had a strange way of walking. I’d seen him lift heavy things like air conditioners, and run mad-bull fast when he played softball with his friends, but at a gentle walk there was a hitch in his step. He seemed almost uncomfortable. I often tried imitating it.
He led me past a line of parked cars until we came to a wide path that cut through the woods. Large tire treads had stamped diagonal designs in the packed dirt. I asked what big truck made those prints, but he said nothing.
The wooded path brought us to a large field hosting what looked like a county fair. Colorful flags hung limp above the crowd. I didn’t see any trucks, but there were booths selling food and drinks. Several dozen men stood in tight groups, glancing around and checking watches as if waiting for something. Some I recognized. Few of them spoke. It was only men, I noticed and some boys. One boy older than me had his face dusted with white sugar. Fried dough, I thought.
A bell tolled.
“Let’s get a good spot,” my father said, before I could beg for a treat. The gathering moved out into the grass and arranged itself in a wide circle. I was pushed to the front and saw we’d surrounded a dark hole in the earth, like an abandoned well. Staring at it filled me with a sudden sense of dread. Something terrible lived inside. I tugged nervously on the hem of my father’s jacket. He pushed my hand away.
The mayor stepped from the crowd, dressed in a red suit. I knew he was the mayor because he had a ponytail and was the only adult man I knew that wore his hair like that.
“This year!” his voice boomed. “Two of you must leave us!”
A breeze stirred the trees edging the field. The mayor produced a card, which he held above his head. Everyone hung on the moment.
“Edward!” the mayor shouted. “Come forward!”
I felt my father relax beside me. A man in a shabby suit wandered forward, muttering to himself.
“Fine. Whatever.” His shoulders slumped and he dragged his feet when he walked. Mother would have scolded me for such a transgression. “I suppose it’s best. No point in—”
He stepped into the hole and disappeared. A solemn applause followed. Clapping is infectious at the age of six, so I joined in, not knowing why. I expected a magic trick, the man to reappear behind us, but this did not happen.
The mayor held up the card again, stopping the applause. “Gunner! Come forward!”
A young man emerged, wearing a sleek black suit stretched tight over his muscles. He reminded me of a baseball player.
“This can’t be!” Gunner shouted, pointing at the mayor. “I am not some burden! I will have a family! I will be successful!”
The mayor eyed him carefully. “And yet you can see the hole, can’t you?” he asked. “How black it is? How endless?”
“Well…” Gunner wavered. “Of course I can see it. Can you not all see it?” Gunner addressed the crowd now. “How do you all know where to stand if you can’t see it?”
“Daddy,” I whispered. “I can—”
“Silence now!” my father snapped, and shot me such a look that I cowered.
“This is ridiculous,” Gunner proclaimed. “The hole should be filled in! Then no one would see it.”
Nervous murmurs spilled from the crowd.
Gunner rolled back his sleeves. “I’ll do it myself.”
The ground below my feet rumbled. A blue tentacle shot from the hole, wrapped around Gunner’s head, and yanked him in. It was frog-like, quick and final.
This time there was no applause. The crowd just wandered away. My father bought me fried dough. I buried my face in it as he sipped a beer. But I had so many questions.
“What’s inside the hole?” I asked.
“No one really knows,” he answered.
“Why did the mayor call those men?”
“Because.” My father took a drink. “Men who can see the hole will become a burden. They must… leave for the good of the town.”
This brought a terrible fear. I’d seen the hole. It was right in front of us.
“Can you see it?” I asked.
He stiffened, and I noticed the mayor watching us.
“Of course not,” my father answered loudly.
I wanted to ask more questions. What does ‘burden’ mean? Did a monster eat the men? Where’s the big truck?
Instead, I only asked for a soda. My father slapped me on the back as if I were a man. “Today,” he said. “You can have anything you want.”
Jeremy A. Wall is a writer, educator, and musician. His fiction has appeared in SPLASH! (Haunted Waters Press), and he contributes interview and feature articles to Muse Magazine (Cricket Media). New York’s Hudson Valley is his home.