When it first started, I went through the list of possible causes. I thought—I hoped it was just stress.
Work had been going well. I was entrusted with a major project that I was certain I could get done on time. I did a few late nights, but nothing compared to the hectic, nerve-addled times I had in the first few years. But I must have been bearing some stress that I wasn’t consciously aware of.
If this vanishing business had happened a few years ago, I may not have noticed, or cared. I may have even welcomed it. No, I would have welcomed it. But now? Now that I’ve gotten past the “getting my act together” part? Now that I’ve hit my stride? Now that I’ve begun to enjoy my life? Now that I’m strong enough to bear the weight of my own burdens? Now that I’ve fixed myself, am I breaking?
I’ve searched the internet. I know there are mental illnesses that people have that have to do with weird perceptions of their bodies. Anorexia. Body dysmorphic disorder. I couldn’t find anything that matched the description of what I was experiencing.
Maybe I’m vanishing because I have an illness so rare that no one has named it or characterized it yet. That type of thing can happen. I read an article about a man who had a severe type of allergy. He was branded a hypochondriac until he found a doctor (or she found him) who was doing research into a new type of severe allergy. She was taking the approach that it wasn’t just our immune systems that were involved. It was our brains. Our brains. They control a lot more than we think they do. They do a lot more than we think they’re doing. Ironic that. Or…is that irony?
Maybe I’m not vanishing. Maybe I just think I am.
At first I thought it was just my eyes playing tricks on me, the way they do when I think I see a bug on my keyboard when I’m watching internet videos, but it turns out it’s not a bug, just a shadow.
The first time I really noticed, I was in front of my computer. You think you can see your hands because they’re right in front of you. But you’re seeing them from your peripheral vision. You don’t actually see all the fingers. I didn’t see it when one of mine vanished. Until I couldn’t use it. My left pinky. I tried to hit the “a” key and couldn’t. I frowned and looked at my hand. My pinky finger was gone. And then I blinked and it was there.
That’s weird, I thought.
At the time, I didn’t really think that my pinky finger had actually disappeared and reappeared. The extremities. It started with the extremities. The finger thing happened again one or two more times. I just decided I needed more sleep. I even joked with my co-workers and my boss that I needed a break because I was starting to hallucinate.
It only got worse, happened more frequently. One day it would be my finger, the next I was tripping over my feet trying to get to the kitchen sink. I would look at my bare foot and see all the toes were missing. One night at a dinner with friends, I stopped in the middle of speaking because my tongue vanished. That was really the first time I panicked. Because it happened in front of other people. But my friends just thought I couldn’t think of the right word to use. Someone else took over the conversation and they kept going. I could feel that my tongue was gone. My mouth was empty and cold. It felt…obscene somehow.
And then it came back.
I took a deep breath and sighed in relief and fear. My friends just thought I was frustrated. We’d been talking about some social issue or commiserating about work woes. I don’t even remember. I just remember that no one had noticed that my tongue vanished. And I wondered later if I had just imagined it.
After that, I tried to subtly ask my co-workers, who see me most often, if they had noticed me looking any different. People seemed to think I was hinting at something and most of them told me I looked as if I’d lost some weight. I made an appointment with my doctor and asked him if there were any mental conditions where a person thinks his body parts are disappearing and reappearing. He referred me to a psychologist.
A week before the appointment with the psychologist, I woke up blind. I’m not a morning person. Sometimes I keep my eyes closed when I’m dragging myself out of bed, but when I had to put out my hands to find the bedroom door, I told myself I had to open my eyes and face the day. But I couldn’t. I stopped. I wanted to check, to touch my eyes to see if they were still there. But I was afraid to. I just stopped. And I felt a sick panic rising up my gut. I was wide awake and blind.
Then I felt a cold in my eyes, or my sockets. I blinked and I could see. Keeping my eyes partly open, I put my hands on my eyelids and felt the solid orbs of my eyeballs. I started weeping and laughing. Terrified. Relieved. I was so happy I could see. So happy I was still whole. But now I couldn’t ignore it. And I started thinking about my brain. I started thinking I should have it scanned. What if I had a tumor? What if it was pressing on my brain, on the part of my brain that processes vision? What if that’s what was causing the hallucinations? And why hadn’t my doctor thought of it? Even that day I had a small hope that it was stress. I joked to myself that I would get my doctor to write a prescription for a vacation. Deal with it, HR.
I called in sick that day and tried to get an appointment. I explained the urgency. And then I wondered how I would be able to get myself to the doctor’s. What if I went blind again? What if my brain tumor caused me to pass out? I had to get someone to help me. But my friends and family didn’t know what was going on. Of course I hadn’t told them. I would hire a car.
I got an appointment for the next day. I just had to make it to ten in the morning without losing any parts of myself (or rather perceiving that I had lost parts of myself). Home from work and trying to do something to keep myself from feeling helpless, I started calling around to every local person or office that claimed to investigate the supernatural and the paranormal. I described what was happening to me, and was honest about my skepticism, and about my contradictory hope that if the person on the other end of the line could come up with a reasonable otherworldly explanation for what was happening to me, it would put me at ease to know I might not have a brain tumor. Some of them guaranteed me that it was not a brain tumor. Those I dismissed right away. Whether or not the “no brain tumor” camp was right, I wasn’t going to trust anyone who gave me guarantees about my health. Most of those who were left wanted to set up sessions and do cleansing rituals and the like.
Two asked me questions the way my doctor would, about the details of my life recently, like they were building up a case history. They asked me when I first start noticing the disappearances, and what I had done just prior, and if I’d done anything or been anywhere different lately. My life wasn’t action-packed but neither was it routine. I had done a few different things lately, none of which seemed threatening. (Anyway if it was a brain tumor, as I feared, it may have been developing for months or longer. My recent activities may be irrelevant.) I thanked them for their time and told them I would get back to them. I needed to get my medical tests done first.
I made it to all my test appointments. Bloods draws, scans, physical exam, questions and more questions. Some of the tests would take some waiting, but the preliminary conclusion was that I did not have any unusual masses in my brain. That morning in the shower, my left foot had disappeared and I had almost broken my neck trying to get my balance back. The foot was gone for a good thirty seconds or so. I felt for it. It wasn’t there. But it must have been there. My brain just couldn’t find it. How could there be nothing wrong with my brain? I wanted to ask if they should test my spinal fluid, but I held my tongue. I’ve heard that spinal taps were extremely painful. Was I there yet? Was I truly desperate yet? Could organized medicine figure out what was wrong with me? Was something attacking me? Trying to undo me, bit by bit?
A few days later, I was at home, alone. And it suddenly seemed as if all the air had been sucked out from the room. I couldn’t take a breath. I felt no pain, but I dropped to my knees in panic. I don’t know how long I stayed that way. Then, in a blink, I could breathe again. I clutched my chest, knowing what happened. My lungs had vanished and then come back.
I was still waiting for test results. There was nothing my team of doctors could do in the meantime. I reviewed the names of the two paranormal investigators that had seemed the most competent and the least phony. I flipped a coin and called whomever it landed on.
The guy came that same afternoon. He called himself Zendik. He had brought a case full of his “tools” as he called them. Stones and gems. Sachets full of herbs. Incense. He even had a vial of holy water. He smiled when I told him I didn’t have a faith. He was the one who didn’t keep faith. But if he hadn’t reacted as he did, I wouldn’t have known. I wouldn’t have realized that I really did not have a brain tumor.
He was getting me to retrace my steps over the past two weeks or so, since I’d started noticing my body parts flickering in and out of existence. And then it happened. I was wearing shorts and sitting across from Zendik. My left knee and everything below it vanished. And I wasn’t the first to notice. I saw it first in Zendik’s expression. His eyes grew wide and he caught his breath as he stared at my leg.
I looked down and saw. I lifted what was left of my leg, falling backwards into the sofa from underestimating the weight. My leg was lighter, of course, being made of just thigh. When parts vanished, they just looked severed. All the blood vessels and tissues inside were visible, but I didn’t bleed or feel pain. It was as if there were a force field at the point of separation. I had gotten used to the gruesome sight. But for someone who had never seen it before…
Zendik looked to be panicking, but I felt something quite different.
“You see it too,” I said. Vindication. And relief. It wasn’t a brain tumor then. Probably not a brain tumor. And then I felt a worm of worry. What was it then? If it wasn’t a brain tumor. What was happening to me?
Zendik rose from the coach. He hadn’t believed me. Of course he hadn’t. According to his background, he had some training in counseling. And spirituality. Maybe he thought he could counsel me out of my delusions.
I rose too, hopping over to the cane that I’d ordered online for just such occasions. Zendik backed away from me. He gathered up his things as I watched and told me that my case was “complex” and “beyond his skill set.”
Zendik had spent all of fifteen minutes in my home before turning tail and booking it out of there. But he had helped me. Unless the perceptions of two people counted as mass hysteria, his seeing what I saw meant that the vanishings were real. There could still be a natural and logical explanation. But then again, maybe when I thought I was grasping at straws with the paranormal stuff, I was actually grasping at a solid rope, one that could lead me out of the pit I was in.
So I called the other number as I waited for my leg to reappear. Zendik was an old hippie working alone. The other number was for an agency and I didn’t know what to expect, but maybe I should have called them first. They worked with the police department sometimes. That meant I could trust them, right?
While I waited, new fears bloomed in my mind. My body parts were truly appearing and disappearing. And it seemed to have started with the periphery, fingers, toes. Then it went deeper. My eyes had vanished, my lungs. And the parts were taking longer and longer to return. What if my brain vanished next? Or just my skull? What if my stomach disappeared while I was eating? Would my abdomen fill up with food? Would I be poisoned by just regular food, dirty material that ended up where it shouldn’t be? What if one day, something disappeared and didn’t come back?
I was polite to Zendik, but I didn’t have time for squeamish people now that I was certain my life was in imminent danger. My leg still hadn’t reappeared.
So when the young woman with dark hair and deep eyes met me at my doorway, I told her briefly what had happened with Zendik and asked her to leave if she couldn’t handle the reality of my condition.
“I understand,” she said, noting my missing leg. And she waved me to her car. “We’d best hurry then.”
“Where are we going?”
“Everywhere you’ve been in the last few weeks.”
“Retracing my steps?”
“It’s the best way to find out what’s happening, or at least rule out some things.”
“What do you think is happening?” I asked as we pulled into traffic.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Have you ever encountered anyone like me, or who has the same problem as me?”
“I haven’t, but my boss has. And he told me what to do. If you have another episode, I’ll do my best to help you, and then take notes about what I observe. Does it feel cold when your parts go missing? Or when they come back?”
“Yes.” That gave a small bit of confidence. The first good sign was that she didn’t have a stage name like the last guy. She had introduced herself as “Perry.” And her card merely said she was a field agent.
“I too see things that most other people don’t see,” she said.
“But I know at least one person has seen what I see. It’s real. My parts are really vanishing.”
“I believe you.”
“Do you see anything unusual about me?”
She nodded, glancing at me before she returned her attention to the road. “Yes, there’s something missing.”
By instinct, I looked down at myself, as if looking for something to be gone.
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant,” she said. “You don’t have any body parts missing at the moment, other than the obvious leg. Not that I can see. But there is something I usually see around people that I don’t see around you.”
I frowned. “Like an aura?”
She shrugged a bit. “Let’s call it that. Everyone should have one. You don’t. It makes me wonder why. Makes me wonder if you have one but it’s just not with you for some reason. I didn’t know that was possible. It would be like leaving your skin behind while the rest of your body wanders about. No one can do that.”
“I’ll bet no one can lose their limbs and get them back either.”
Perry nodded. “The two could be related.”
We drove around town to all the places I remember going and being, starting with the usual and least likely suspects: work, my favorite diner, my grocery store, and my thrift store. Then we went to the museum I visited with my sister a month ago. The mini-golf where I took my last date. The office building where I attended a conference a week ago. Speaking public made me nervous, but I had been sweating rivers that day, afraid that I would have an episode. We drove back and forth and even watched the road and when Perry asked me if I needed to rest, I remembered that one night that I did something I don’t usually do and have never done before or since.
I was coming home particularly late from work. I’d been sleep-deprived when I came in that morning. Then working another long shift drained me. I snapped myself awake while driving home. I couldn’t put myself and other people in danger just because I stayed at work to write up some contracts. I needed to pull over and take a nap somewhere before continuing on. I was so drowsy and dizzy, I didn’t trust myself to find the nearest parking lot. I was on a stretch of road that went for a few miles before hitting residential and commercial areas. So I pulled off to the side of the road in one of those breakdown areas or scenic stops, where people could pull over and have a snack and snap a picture. The trees were overgrown at this stop, so there wasn’t anything to take a picture of. There were enough cars passing by on a regular basis that I figured I would be safe enough. I dozed off and set my timer for one hour. When the alarm went off I wanted nothing more than to snooze and keep dozing. But I was rested enough to drive home safely. And after that day, due dates or no due dates, I left work on time. If I ever dozed off again, it would be typing at my own computer at home.
Perry asked to see the stop and I guided her there, though I couldn’t quite remember it. We found where I thought the spot was and stopped there. I didn’t feel anything unusual when we got out of the car. My leg reappeared but that could have been a coincidence. Perry though had a puzzled look on her face.
“I think I see something,” she said. I didn’t know why she should be puzzled if seeing paranormal things was part of her job.
“An aura?” I asked.
“I need to call my boss,” she said. “I believe this place has something to do with what happened to you.”
I looked at my phone’s calendar and found the date. It was about a month ago that I had stopped there to sleep. And only days after that, I started noticing the vanishings. Did something happen to me when I was sleeping? While I was worried about some highway murderer who never appeared, should I have been worrying about some body-part-snatching ghoul?
Perry spoke with her boss for only a few minutes before she turned to me and said, “We believe we know what happened to you, Vincent. You left a part of yourself behind here that night you dozed off. You were split. And nature wants to put you back together again. So something has been pulling at your organs and parts to get your body back together with the non-corporeal part of you. But what was left behind was obviously not strong enough to hold onto an organ or body part too long. So your parts keep snapping back to you. My office is looking up this stretch of road. Maybe it’s a phenomenon that just happens at random, or maybe there is some purposeful action being taken.”
“It happened when I was the sleeping, didn’t it?” I asked.
“Most likely. My guess is a doorway opened and part of you went through it and when that part came back, the rest of you was gone. If you want to live, to stop vanishing, you will have to reunite all the parts of yourself.”
For that, we would need the help and supplies that her colleagues were bringing. We waited for the better part of an hour and none of my parts disappeared, but that wasn’t saying much. The vanishings happened more and more often, but I could still go a few hours without one. Perry received a few calls from her office. The stretch of road where I had rested did indeed have a supernatural history. There had been some unexplained disappearances there, or nearby. A mansion had once stood above the hills nearby. It was owned by a wealthy family decades past and there were some strange occurrences there. Rumors that the couple had summoned something from the veil beyond death. The area was what Perry called a “supernatural vortex.” A crossroads where otherworldly forces met. Doors were left open that should have been closed.
When her colleagues arrived, they had me lay down on a fold-out cot they’d brought. They put me to sleep with some over-the-counter stuff. And I trusted three strangers with my body and my life. It was late afternoon when they started. When I woke up, it was dark. There were electric lanterns on the three cars parked in the rest area. I was lying on the cot. I heard crickets chirping, cars whizzing by, and people laughing. I saw a dark star-filled sky. I knew where I was, but for a moment, I pretended I was camping out with friends.
I rose and someone handed me a bottle of water and a granola bar. I would have preferred some s’mores. Perry asked me if I felt any different. I did feel good and rested. She said she could see something different about me. It was a vague difference. It would likely take time for me to truly recover, just as it had taken time for the vanishing condition to manifest.
Perry drove me home and explained what she and her colleagues had done, but I couldn’t quite pay attention. I felt calm and content.
It must have worked, I thought. I must be at peace because I’m whole again.
Perry said she would keep in touch with me over the next few days. Her office would assign a driver to take me where I needed to go until they were sure that I was back to normal.
The vanishing stopped. I had indeed been reunited, reintegrated.
When next Perry visited, a week later, I was much more hospitable. I sat across from her in my living room. All of me. She told me about how she and her office were still studying and investigating that stretch of road and thanked me for accidentally finding it. They had blocked off the rest area with the city’s permission, to prevent what happened to me from happening to anyone else.
“I feel like a nursery rhyme,” I said, “except you and your team succeeded in putting me back together again.”
“I believe we did.” There was a reserved relief in her expression and a twinkle of approval in her eyes that were far more comforting than the moment I’d been told I didn’t have a brain tumor.
“I’m not going to go the opposite way and start growing new body parts, am I?”
Perry raised her brows. “If you do, please give me a call.”
I was vanishing. It wasn’t just my body parts that were disappearing. It was my aura too. And what other parts of me? I fell asleep at the wheel and pieces of me wandered off and I didn’t even notice. But I didn’t let myself just fade away. I fought. I fought to be whole. I’m still fighting. Some of that otherworldly stuff is real! And some of the worldly stuff is false. I’m still learning. I’m changing.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.