The first time my father disappears, I believe he’s gone forever. He slips behind a veil of his own fingers, and everything I know about him—his twinkling blue eyes, shiny black hair, sly smile—vanishes. I don’t have words yet, so when he reappears a moment later, face flashing between his hands, I tell no one what he is capable of.
When my father leaves for work, he says, “See you later, kiddies.” Because we aren’t sure, we cry and the babysitter has to distract us. We churn crayons in neverending spirals, scattering waxy blackholes across the floor. We fill up on many tiny bites of peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We succumb to afternoon naps.
When he returns after so many hours, we have come to terms with his absence and are not happy to see him. He takes our indifference as a betrayal, scowling when he has to ask for hugs, never noticing how many holes we drew for him.
I am crouched at the pond’s foamy green lip, sneakers sinking into the muck, when I slip into the water like a rabbit into a hat. My four years do not flash before my eyes. Maybe they would if I knew about the saying, or if my father had never played peek-a-boo with me.
Suddenly, his hand cuts through the veil of my thrashing, his voice saying the name he gave me as he sets my body on solid ground, his laughter a heavy blanket around my shoulders.
Our parents chase us around the house, snapping towels at our backsides as we squeal with delight, before wrapping us up and taking us outside for another game.
I sit at the center of a towel, my father’s smile outbeaming the sun as he and my mother bring their respective corners together, closing me into the darkness.
They swing me back and forth, higher and higher, until I am closer to the sky than the ground and there is nothing left but the certainty that I exist.
When I’m in second grade, my father moves into an apartment. We stay with him on weekends. Sometimes he turns off the lights after dinner, drops to all fours in a sliver of moonlight cutting through the kitchen blinds, and snarls at us.
We run into the shadows, wedging ourselves between bookcases, curling up in the bathtub, slithering under the futon in the den. We can hear it then, the creature that replaced our father, padding down the hallway, snorting loudly, claws screeching along the walls.
Sometimes it gets us, its wet mouth and sharp teeth sinking into our soft necks and bellies. Just before we are rent asunder, though, our father reappears, his fingers dancing over our ribs, his laughter lighting the darkness.
When our mother moves us across the country to Florida just before the start of third grade, our father vanishes at the bottom of our new swimming pool. He is lost to us in unending games of Marco Polo and swan dives off the diving board. We cast fishing lines from our dock and do not remember him as our toes dangle over a world in which green and purple parrotfish color the shadows.
We fly back to California for the winter holiday. In our mother’s absence, we eat ice cream and stay up late, laughing with the skeletal host of our favorite program, Creepshow. Our father leaves us to our sugar and television, only reappearing to discuss sleeping arrangements. He wants to go to bed but is fine with us staying up to finish the show.
We have to flip a coin to see who will sleep where because when our father asks who would like to share his bed with him, none of us volunteers. We watch as he flicks a quarter into the air, a familiar ritual. When it lands, he says my name, his teeth shining through his beard.
He is snoring gently when I crawl under the covers a while later, but I am tired and fall asleep quickly.
In the morning, there is a man in the room with me, leering, telling me what he did to me while I slept. He looks like my father, but he is not my father.
For a long time, I do not see my father. He is a voice over the phone, scratchy blue handwriting filling postcards, flowers pressed into envelopes.
Eventually, I join my brother and sister on annual trips with our father. In Arizona, we ride mules down switchbacks into the Grand Canyon and swim in turquoise pools tucked between fields of cacti and walls of orange rock. In California, we pull mosquito nets over our heads and hike the national parks. In New York, we stand in Strawberry Fields, eat apples in the shadow of Liberty, and take in the view from the World Trade Center. When our father develops the pictures, I notice the one of me leaning against the railing at the Top of the World is double exposed, my face see-through.
When I am nineteen, my father disappears again. This time, on a solo backpacking trip.
Over a hundred people comb the wilds of Yosemite, searching for the missing man. They ride horses, release dogs, tear through the sky in helicopters. But he is nowhere.
Seven years after my father’s last disappearing act, rangers discover his backpack atop a scatter of bones on the side of a mountain. The papers say he’s been found. The DNA checks out. But when I close my eyes, I see my father’s hands turn the pages of a book as I sit in his lap, I hear him whisper, “And they lived happily ever after,” and I know they will never find him.
© Carol Claassen
[This piece was the winner of the 2019 Forge Flash Nonfiction Competition]