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Gus Eberlein

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I used to wonder why anyone would walk through the Disappearing Woods. What would happen to you was right there in the name. Yet, no amount of "DANGER" or "KEEP OUT" signs seemed to stop people from wandering in. When I was a kid, folks told me that teenagers snuck in there for fun. I couldn't imagine what was so fun about tempting fate like that, but assuredly short-sighted teenagers did it anyway.

My brother told me it was all a bunch of tales. That no one ever actually disappeared in there. There was no curse—that would be silly. And, yeah, I mostly believed him. Didn't mean I wasn't afraid of it, still. I had heard plenty of stories. A story to a child is just as real as the world they experience. Once I believed it, then, I was locked in. Any mention of those woods would chill me, an unforgiving reminder of the immediacy of danger and the unknowable harshness of the world outside a bubble of safety.

So I find it kind of funny, now, as the crunching of leaves under my feet disturbs the local serenity, and as the serendipitous moonlight illuminates my path, that I was ever so afraid of disappearing.

I can't remember exactly when, but I was barely a decade old. Too young to be fearing disappearing. And certainly much too young to be doing the opposite. Even so, another story was planting itself in my mind. Someone had disappeared again. Those damn woods. It wasn't hard to stay out of them, my mother had said. But it was like some people walked in there because they wanted to disappear, my father had said. If you were going to pick a place, that would be the one. I didn't know what that meant.

I know what it means now, of course. Not that I want to disappear, now. That's not why I'm here, in the woods. No, I couldn't articulate exactly why I'm here. To explore? No, not at night. To rebel? Please, I'd just get a tattoo if I wanted to do that. Maybe I'm here to try and understand. To understand the people my dad was talking about all those years ago. Even now, it was too much. I'd had moments in my life where I thought about disappearing. But I never actively sought it out. To do so would be inconceivable. The woods were odd in that regard, then. They were always here. If one believed going in would make them vanish from the world, immediately remove them from the cataclysmic scenario they were embedded in, the option manifested itself at all moments. But why elect to disappear, over anything else?

A couple kids dared me, once, to go into the woods. Just check it out, they had said. Too chicken? Uh, yeah. Duh. Of course I was chicken. Who wouldn't be? But I wasn't going to admit it. I'd much rather risk disappearing than come off as cowardly to my friends.

At least one of you come with me! Or are you too chicken? The kids looked at each other. We went as a group. I led the way. First one step. My legs shaking. A few more. We weren't gone yet. I established a pace. Slow down, a follower begged. We couldn't stop now. The woods were calling, echoing a mystery I had known only desperately. We were in the woods. Dense underbrush blanketing the forest floor and judgmental trees, jagged in their interjecting madness, disoriented us. In the woods, there was nothing else. A vacancy in the universe wherein nothing could ever transpire. A place not to live, but just to survive.

Let's turn around. I don't like it here. I want to go home.

The world spun, tormenting us with an unimaginable idea. That of a you-sized hole suddenly existing in your place, while the remainder of the universe whirled past like that hole had never been filled. The friction your disappearance generated—it simply had to be dealt with. Fill the hole with something. But not you.

We all agreed to just leave the woods alone from there on out.

Owls calling. I laugh a little. The woods are the same as they were when I ventured so carelessly in with my friends. They still attempt to permeate the fabric of my thoughts. The fear I felt for them once crawls its way up my back, slowly. An instinctive quickening of my strides and a raising of my shoulders. But I don't care. They are just woods. And I will be out of them. Anyone can be out of them if they keep walking.

But you really don't have to leave them. Maybe that's what keeps people here. The feeling I had as a child that I was afraid of, others find inexplicably tantalizing. The woods are a pocket in the world of complete isolation. Isolate oneself completely, and one disappears. Disappearing doesn't have to mean death. Just death according to others. But that's almost the same thing, depending on how you look at it.

I think a lot more people want to disappear than want to die. Maybe. I'm not sure how mutually exclusive they are. It's a downright horrifying thought, either way. To be in a state where one wants either of those things. Once the woods take on that character, they are at their most harrowing.

My brother didn't believe a single word about the curse of the woods. He still doesn't, but he didn't change his mind even when his friend disappeared. Well, a classmate, but someone my brother would've called a friend if someone asked. That classmate walked into the woods one night and never showed their face again. Really. I noticed that kids my age, several years younger than my brother, only talked about the curse. How the woods took another one. That the trees sought to feast on the souls of the innocent, and that my mom said to never go there, and that I heard, that if you go in there at midnight on Halloween Eve, that when the moon is directly overhead...

Those my brother's age didn't talk about the curse. They hardly talked about the fact that the Disappearing Woods were involved. Frankly, very few wanted to talk about it at all. My family didn't discuss it. My brother didn't seem phased, but he was a bit quieter for a week or two after his friend disappeared. It was like a silent spirit hovered over him at any given moment. It was all I thought of when I looked at him. You could tell he was thinking about it, too.

I only talked to him once about it. Because the words of my father still rapped at the inside of my brain, begging for an answer. Do you think? My brother looked up. Do you think they wanted to disappear, I asked. My brother simply nodded.

If I wanted to disappear, I could right now. I'm here. There must be a way, considering that classmate. But I don't. And I'm sorry that anyone ever feels like they do. As I walk through these woods now, they terrify me for a different reason. Not any fault of the woods themselves, but of our own capacity to succumb to the desire to vanish, and the allure the woods can present to one in such a decrepit state of mind.

I don't believe in a curse. I know disappearing is a choice. Tonight, I'm most fearful of that choice.

Crows stalk the air overhead, and moonbeams caress the faint outlines of branches and leaves. The only sound in my head is that of static buzz. I hope I never return to these woods.


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