The all-powerful child is a chilling figure in weird fiction — from Star Trek’s “Charlie X” to the Twilight Zone’s of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life.” Oakland writer Laur A. Freymiller updates the trope for the #MeToo era in this striking narrative of abuse and literal erasure.
I am in the backyard with my little sister. We are teasing the neighborhood cat with a long piece of grass. Swish goes the grass. Bat, bat, goes the cat’s paw. It is orange and striped like a miniature tiger. I become bold. I pull the cat’s tail. It hisses and swats at me.
Three little lines appear on my hand red and angry. I cry out in surprise more than pain, and —
I wish the cat were gone.
My sister and I are alone in the backyard. Wind blows through the empty grass. There is no more cat. My sister starts to cry.
I am smart for my age. I have skipped a grade. It is good for my brain but bad for my heart. I cannot make friends. I am too small and too shy. I correct the teacher in class and the other students become excited.
“Cassie is smarter than the teacher!” one of them says.
I like this feeling, the feeling of being bigger.
But the teacher is not happy. Mr. Newcomer. He tells me not to interrupt. He turns his back to us, his large backside pointed in our direction like a challenge, his hand grasping the chalk like a claw.
I am angry. I don’t want to be small anymore.
I wish Mr. Newcomer were gone.
The class is silent for only a moment, then the chalk hits the ground. Everyone is screaming. I sit very quietly until my mom comes to take me home. No one ever comes up with a satisfactory explanation for that day. Mr. Newcomer never reappears.
Some days I sit in my room and try to wish him back into existence. It never works. If you watch it closely enough you can see the hour-hand trace its trajectory around the clock face.
I watch my brain constantly. It takes all my energy. I do not talk much to anyone, except my sister. My sister is beautiful. She has thick blonde hair and big blue eyes and she can see everything. She can see pixies and boggarts, magic in the ordinary. I can only see numbers adding one to another.
I read everything I can. Sometimes searching for an answer to my affliction, sometimes to keep myself preoccupied. When I am reading my mind is creating, not erasing.
We go to Sunday school together, Lily and I. My mom is religious, my dad is not. We go to Sunday school and the teacher talks about creation.
“In the beginning,” she says, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Her hair is a shiny white helmet wrapping around her head.
I go home and ask my dad about the beginning of life. He says that is started with a great explosion and that before that there was nothing, only a void. I think that I can understand this void.
I am ten when our dad leaves. My mom tells me it’s not my fault, but I wonder if I am responsible. Even with my vigilance, I might have slipped.
Our mom cries a lot. My sister is confused about what is happening. I think it is the saddest time in my life.
I go to a private boarding school for high school. I think in part because I am so smart and in part because my mom does not want me around anymore. I have become more and more difficult to control. I act out in class. I get in trouble. I want someone to punish me for the crimes I’ve never confessed to.
My new school is four hours away from home. The only person I miss is my sister. I write her letters about my life. I leave out the bad parts: the loneliness, the competition with the other students, the teachers forcing us to ask for bathroom passes. I focus on the good things: the woods behind the school, the way the ceiling looks as I’m falling asleep, how much I enjoy wearing a uniform. I blend in with the other students. We are united if only in appearance.
I make a few friends. Other outsiders.
I tell one of them about my power, my curse, my whatever.
“Prove it,” she says. So, I make her glass disappear. The orange juice splashes all over her white pressed shirt, but she doesn’t care. She is laughing wildly in exhilaration, and for the first time my brain feels like some kind of miracle.
She tells me to make other things disappear. A friend’s kilt, a dog’s leash, the bench on which a couple is making out. I do what she says. It scares me a little, but I love the feeling of camaraderie. I have never had friends before.
We form a group and I am the head. We call ourselves the Vanishers, and we play pranks. I disappear locks and window screens so that we can sneak out of the dorm and meet up with boys. I disappear lampposts so that we are always in the shadows. I disappear fences and gates and once an ice cream truck. But I never disappear anything alive. I have vowed never to do that again.
A new girl joins our group. She is small and frail and reminds me of my sister. She laughs too loudly and jumps at sudden movements.
One night she comes into my room and starts talking.
“My mother,” she says and shows me the purple bruises on her arms. “It happens whenever I go home. Sometimes it’s only small things like a hair dryer. Last time it was a bookshelf and all the books.” She stops talking and the room is missing all the air.
“I know what you can do,” she says. “Vanish my mother.”
Instead I take her to the chaplain. Instead child services comes and takes her away. Instead she sends me glares from across the breakfast table when she returns to school, and then one day she doesn’t come back at all. I don’t know if I would try to contact her even if I knew how.
At night I dream about faceless women approaching me with hands upraised. And then I dream about Mr. Newcomer. They never had a funeral for him. There was no body.
In the morning I cut myself with scissors. Three little lines on my wrist as if I’ve been scratched by a miniature tiger.
The Vanishers disintegrate. I can’t say that I am unhappy. What held us together beyond the petty crimes and the fear of getting caught?
Or for me, the fear that one day I would go too far. I never tell the others about that. For them it is a party trick with no real ramifications.
We apply to colleges that are spread out across the country. I am not interested in the Ivy Leagues. I want to go somewhere quiet where I can be alone.
My sister is in high school now. She is everything good in my life, though I’d never tell her. We’re at the stage in our relationship that is half self, half enemy. She draws pictures and paints, forming shapes from nothing. And I’m convinced that every boy in the school is in love with her.
I get in a fight with my friend. I have friends now which makes life better and more difficult. She wants me to vanish the flags in the middle of graduation. I don’t want to do it.
“Why are you always so selfish?” she asks.
“It isn’t just a game,” I say. Which is as close as I’ve ever come to admitting what I’ve done.
“Whatever, Cassie,” she says. We don’t talk up until the week of graduation, then we pretend that nothing has happened.
I keep cutting myself every week. It is a habit now more than anything, reminding me of what is at stake, keeping me grounded. The feeling of the scissors going through my skin. I know that I am being unhealthy. I know that I am being self-centered and childish and bad. But it is my own little tether to the world and I don’t want to let it go.
The three lines are hidden under the sleeves of my graduation gown.
In the audience are my mom, my sister, and miraculously, my dad. I smile at all of them. I do not wish that anyone or anything is gone. I wish instead to keep this moment perfect and whole forever.
I go to a small college in Minnesota. I study English and biology because I need to find out how to create something from nothing. They seem the two most likely fields.
I continue to write letters to my sister. She is in college, too, in our home state. I hope that she is happy. It is all I really hope for these days.
I make more friends somehow. I have learned that trick well enough. I do not make the mistake of telling anyone about the vanishing. I haven’t done it in years. Some days I can even forget that it’s inside of me. The great void. Whatever it might be. I have given up trying to discover its origin. I believe now that it is present in everyone, and I merely unlocked it.
I don’t cut myself anymore, though the three lines remain. I take pills now, little green goblins that hop and jitter through my nervous system and keep me mostly calm and mostly happy.
Blessed are the SSRIs for they will humble the savage brain.
It snows in the winter and I leave long tumbling trails behind me in the white. I am walking through the darkening trees and listening for the song of winter birds. I do not feel empty.
Then I receive a phone call from my mom.
“You need to call your sister,” she says. “Something happened. She won’t tell me what it is. She says she wants to talk to you.”
“Lily,” I say.
“Hey, sis,” she says. She is not crying, but her voice sounds hollow.
“Mom said something happened?” I don’t really want to ask, but I need to know.
“Yeah,” Lily says, “something.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” she says, “but I think I should.”
“Okay,” she says, “so, I got drunk. You know. I do that from time to time. It’s college. Most people do that from time to time.”
“Sure,” I say.
“Well, I was with friends, but they got tired, went home, and I was crushing on this dude, so I stayed out. But then the dude left, too, and I was kind of on my own. And that’s the last thing I really absolutely remember. When I woke up I, um, couldn’t find my bra or my underwear. And, um, there was some bruising, you know? So I went to the hospital and got a rape check. And the nurse said that there had been, um, there had been forced penetration. Later I found out from the guys who lived next door that they had seen me going into this other guy’s room and this other guy, Kevin, he plays baseball I guess, but Kevin had come out and been like ‘I just fucked a freshman’. So. So, um, I think I was sexually assaulted.”
There is nothing else in the whole world.
“I feel so shaken,” she says, “like deep down. I just want it all to go away.”
I love my sister, so I hold it together until she hangs up the phone. Then I scream and scream until I lose my voice.
I track him down. He is easy enough to find using the campus directory. He doesn’t know why I’m there until I begin.
I erase his left foot first, then his right. I erase his mouth because he is being loud. I have always wondered if it hurts. Apparently it does. I erase his arms and legs. I erase his penis very very slowly. I erase his torso, his neck and finally his head. And then he is gone.
I imagine that this will be enough. But it is not. I sit on the floor outside his dorm room shaking, until a custodian comes by and asks me if I’m all right.
I leave school after the incident. I can’t be there. I need to be with my sister. She is struggling. She says she doesn’t understand any of it. She says she is trying to grow from it, but there is nowhere to grow. It’s all so strange she says. She looks at me sometimes, and I think she is remembering the cat.
For Christmas I give her a sketchpad and coloring pencils.
“Draw me something beautiful,” I say.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’ll try.”
I read all the time now. In between shifts as a waitress, I read Morrison and Alexie and Carver and Jackson. I read Atwood and Munro. I read Garcia Marquez. I read and read until I think that I could start another world.
One day a pair of businessmen come in for lunch.
“I’m going to tell you something,” one of them says to me. I hate when they talk to me. “I’m going to tell you something that you’ve never heard before,” he says. “You look like a young Sissy Spacek. A young Sissy Spacek in Carrie,” he says. “I mean it as a compliment. She wasn’t crazy, you know, or at least not to begin with. It was the world that made her crazy.”
“Thanks,” I say.
My sister moves out the next month. She writes me a letter.
“I think I know what you did,” the letter reads. “I know you were trying to protect me, but I can’t live in the same house as you. I hope you’ll understand. I still love you. Lily”
She tells my mom she just needs more space.
I wake up in the bed I slept in growing up. The bed I sat on when my dad left. Across the room is the bed my sister slept in. She used to throw her stuffed animals at me in the middle of the night to scare me. I used to short-sheet her bed.
I can’t get up any more. The three lines on my arm became a series of tally marks and then something like train-tracks running up to my elbow.
They are never very deep. Not deep enough to be serious.
Or so I tell myself. There is nothing that can cure me. Nothing that can cure anyone. We are all down in our cores hurting. And there isn’t a thing to do about it.
So I start erasing. I start with all the buildings. I erase the house I am in, and I am standing on nothing, my mother beneath me still in her pajamas. I work too quickly for her to be frightened.
I erase the house next door, the house beyond that, then with a single sweep, I erase the whole town. There is nothing but birds and trees, and people in various states of disorder. I erase them all, too. I pull the world closer to me in every direction so that mile by mile it is disappearing. I disintegrate the state, I dissolve the country, I vanish the continent. It is so silent. It is so easy. It is so quick.
I disappear Paris and Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo and all the places in between.
Good-bye to the Great Barrier Reef and to penguins and to kiwis, to the deep-sea angler fish.
Good-bye to Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China.
Farewell to Eskimos and Maoris and white people and brown people and caramel people.
Every piece of art, gone, every book ever written gone, all the sounds and sights and weapons all the hatred and wonder, gone.
Everyone I ever knew: all the kids from elementary school wherever they landed, my Sunday school teacher, the Vanishers from high school, the young girl and her abusive mother, the professors in college, those I had and those I didn’t, the man in the restaurant and Sissy Spacek.
I wish they were not there. And they are not there.
I erase the planet, then the sun, then the galaxy, then the universe.
It is just me now. And Lily. I could not bring myself to erase her. Not yet. She is looking at me. I have never seen that expression on her face before. Her eyes are so blue.
It is quiet where we are. Quiet and bright. Only silence audible.
Then I disappear her, too.
It is only me. I am alone. There is nowhere to move to and no time to tell it in. All I have is my brain and the infinite games it plays.
I remember the things I hated. Racist old people and apathetic young people and babies crying on airplanes and parents angrily shushing them. I remember the things I loved. Early mornings when it was only me and the birds, late nights talking to friends, playing with Lily in our backyard, building huts out of twigs and leaves.
I am so lonely.
I have vanished everything except the void. The great void that I see now has always and only ever been inside me. A black hole cavernous enough to consume the world.
I don’t know when I discover the secret, the secret to recreate, not with a bang, but with a word. Given enough time monkeys will recreate Shakespeare and I am at least a little brighter than a monkey.
I speak, and as I do I feel myself splitting open and all the great and awful beauty of the universe spills back out. It has all the time been inside of me, too.
And I am five years old again, teasing a cat with my sister in the long grass of an Indiana summer.
And perhaps we can start again.
Angela Teagardner says
As this spiraled into chaos I thought you were losing the thread of the story, that there would be no way to end it with any kind of satisfaction, but you proved me wrong. Deliciously wrong. Wonderful writing.