When they began to vanish, the first houses disappeared from the east coast, a trio: one in Boxborough, another in Portland, Maine, and a third in rural Vermont. Aerial shots of the properties showed barren holes, as if small asteroids had smacked into the earth. Reporters flocked to all three properties, and soon there were close-ups of the craters, where the foundations had been yanked out like teeth pulled from their sockets. The mailboxes were still there, one of them with its flag standing up. The driveways led to nowhere, garages blinkered out of existence. One of the families wasn’t home when it happened, on a day trip to Montpelier, but the other two vanished along with their house and cars and possessions. The question: where had they gone? Their cellphones, when called, went straight to voicemail. Water pipes and electricity had been sucked out, pulled like stray hairs tweezed from between eyebrows.
The first thing I thought of, watching coverage on CNN, was my twin sister Sylvia, how she disappeared from her bedroom one Friday night when we were seventeen. How, ten years later, no one had any idea what had happened.
The next day brought another burst of vanishings, these in Montana and Wyoming, farmhouses and a pair of row houses in Laramie that had just been built. The day after that, the Midwest was hit, Nebraska and Wisconsin and Minnesota reporting houses there one day and gone the next. Louisiana made headlines when a landmark plantation home snapped out of existence.
My boyfriend Michael sat in our living room, staring at the television, body cantilevered forward. He held his head in his hands, fingers splayed up his cheeks, stretching his lips into a grim smile. Every few seconds he took a loud breath and leaned back, only to lurch forward again. Michael was tall, a former volleyball player and now a coach, high school girl’s, and yet his body was compacted and tiny as he watched the news, as if parts of him had been pulled out. The day before the houses started vanishing he’d proposed to me. We’d been at a bar earlier in the evening, drinking our favorite Schlafly wheat beer, playing shuffleboard with our friends. He’d asked when we’d arrived home after one in the morning and I’d laughed, thinking he was joking. He went to bed angry, even though I tried to apologize. I slept on the couch, chilly in my boxer briefs and a t-shirt even though it was autumn and we’d turned on the heat. We had not yet talked about it again, and now he was distracted by the houses.
The disappearances set off a flurry of essays, editorials, and poems about what homes meant to people, how places took on their own complexions, became characters in peoples’ lives. In other words, nothing new, except that they now had an edge of fear and wondering what it would be like to have one’s childhood home simply disappear.
Michael insisted that we visit the places we’d lived.
“Who knows,” he said, “if we’ll ever see them again?”
Even though we’d been together for years and now lived in our own Craftsman bungalow, I had not told him about my sister. He had not met my parents, who had fallen into their own stupor after she vanished. They only lived forty minutes away on the other side of St. Louis, in the western hinterlands of O’Fallon, Missouri, but I never visited. They rarely called, and Michael didn’t ask.
He picked up his car keys and jangled them in his hand.
“You mean now?”
He looked toward the television. “Why risk it?”
I followed his gaze to the tv, where a featurette on one of the families that had disappeared from the northeast was running. “How do you think they put that together so fast?”
“When people want something that badly, they can do it that quickly,” he said. I said nothing. I thought of Sylvia, how whenever I got sick, she got sick too. I cleared my throat. All I could do was nod, grab my jacket, and follow Michael outside.
Until we were thirteen, Sylvia and I shared a bedroom in the tiny ranch house that was all my parents could afford on their teacher salaries. When we were six, our parents bought a pair of wooden bunkbeds with thick, wide slats. I was scared to sleep on the top bunk because of the height, but I was also afraid of the bottom bunk, convinced that Sylvia’s weight would break the frame and send her crashing down mattress and all, crushing me to death. Sylvia heard me crying the first night and came down, pressing her hands against my back. We slept in that same bed for six months, until I woke up one morning no longer afraid; I had no idea where my fear had gone, replaced by a lake-still calm. She then took the top bunk, and I would spend many nights listening to the wood groan as she tossed and turned.
Where Sylvia was tall, I was short. We were both spindly, a feature she would retain until the day she vanished, but when we were sophomores, not only did I shoot up six inches seemingly overnight, I discovered the school gym, with its barbells and machines. I spent afternoons amidst the football players and track stars, pumping out Zottman curls and hack squats, and my body bloomed. Sylvia and I looked no more like brother and sister than she and her boyfriend, whom she met as a freshman. He was a junior, but he was nerdy and aloof, a hipster before hipsters were hipsters, and my parents found him non-threatening.
When our father landed a principal position at a new school, we were able to move into a bigger house, where Sylvia and I each had our own bedroom across the hall from one another. I kept the bunk beds in the hope that, maybe, sometimes, she would knock on my door and want to lie down up there and talk to me. But every night I was left alone, my sister ensconced in her new space, which she filled with framed photos of Zhu Chung’s panda poop sculptures and Dali prints. She slept on a low platform bed with black sheets, and she painted her nails dark red and bright orange, claiming that clashing color combinations were now in. Her lips were always chapped because she chewed them, not because she was nervous but, I thought, because she suffered a deep hunger for something that no one in our family, even me, could give her.
We started at Michael’s first apartment, a studio in a building whose lobby was damp and smelled like burnt cheese. Paint was peeling off the walls in layers, like onionskin. Each apartment had two doors: the normal interior door, painted white, and a saloon-style thing that reminded me of the doors on department store fitting rooms. These ended at neck-height, leaving a two-foot gap at the top. I glanced at Michael as he stopped in front of his old apartment, number two-fourteen. He shrugged.
“There was a whole thing about creating a breezeway. The air conditioning sucked. The second-floor hallway was, in fact, cool, thanks to the windows open on either far end. Fall was in the air, and I could smell the wet that hung in the leaves starting to go brown.
“Is this weird?” I said.
“But it will seem weird to the person who lives here.”
“Maybe. They’ll understand, though.”
I took Michael’s hand and looked at him. I wished he would smile; his was brilliant and white. He had perfect teeth and dimples and he was able to wink in this suggestive way that was flattering and filling rather than sleazy.
The door opened. He let go of my hand.
“Hi,” he said.
The girl was tall, platinum blonde. This was a college town, a dinker with only three or four stoplights and a university for waifs and geeks interested in studying ecocriticism and nematodes and Jack Kerouac and Latin American pottery. We’d driven three hours to get here. My legs still ached.
The girl’s body was shielded by the saloon door. Her head was large. She had a horse-shaped face with a long, prominent jaw and I could see her teeth grinding as she stared at us.
“I used to live here,” Michael said, using the suave voice he saved for strangers. “We’re visiting and were just wondering if I could show him the place real fast.”
The girl blinked twice, then reached a hand up to rub gunk from her left eyeball.
“You what?” she said. Her voice was throaty like a smoker’s.
“We don’t even really need to come inside,” I said. “Just poke our heads in. I’m told that the kitchen and bathroom aren’t really worth bragging about.”
Neither of us explained why we were doing this, though the girl must have been able to tell. The vanishings had been all over the news, on Twitter, the blogosphere.
We all stared at one another in silence for a long moment before the girl fiddled with the latch holding the saloon door shut. Without a word she held it open, and I took it, letting Michael slide in first. I had already decided I wouldn’t go past the entryway. I hadn’t told Michael I really didn’t want to go to his old apartment, even though I knew this place was important to him; at nineteen, probably the same age as the girl living here now, he had finally lost his virginity in this tiny, dense room with cracked crown molding and carpet thin as a putting green, muddy brown and itchy. Well, not exactly his virginity, which he’d sacrificed—his word—to a cheerleader in high school after his first keg party. No, this was the place he’d brought his first boyfriend.
“Wow,” Michael said, looking around. “Your furniture is arranged exactly like mine was.”
A desk was wedged against the wall to the immediate left of the door. A hulking desktop computer was surrounded by notebooks and science tomes. A lumpy couch that had been shredded along the sides by a cat ran along the next wall, and directly beneath the window A/C unit was a daybed covered in sheets and shams the color of Pepto-Bismol. A bouquet of heliotropes sat atop a tube-backed television facing the couch and a small coffee table, their scent so assertive that my eyes started to water. While Michael scanned the room, the girl stood in its center, arms crossed.
“You don’t think a whole building would disappear, do you?” she said, her voice a combination of fear and annoyance, the kind of frustrated conviction of someone who knows danger is near but is trying to assure themselves that it could never actually encroach on their life directly.
“Houses have gone,” Michael said, voice whimsical and distant. “Why not an apartment building?”
“But,” I said, “nothing this big has disappeared.”
“I know that,” the girl said. She frowned and cocked her hip to the left. “None of Missouri’s border states have even had anything happen.”
“It’s not a virus,” Michael said. Then his gaze settled on the girl. He was standing in front of me, so I couldn’t see it, but I could hear the smile. “Thanks for letting us do this. It means a lot.” Then he turned to me. “Ready to go?”
I nodded. I tried to thank the girl, but she’d turned her back on us. We left in silence, as if she, and we, had vanished.
Sylvia disappeared on a Friday night in early November. The air was coiled with that wet, snow-is-coming taste. I’d started going with my friends to our high school football games, standing on the metal bleachers and stomping my feet, joining in chants and cheers, most of which were just noise for the sake of making it. We stood in front of the pep band, who played “Eye of the Tiger” and “The Final Countdown” and, inexplicably, the theme from The Phantom of the Opera. We liked to change the lyrics sometimes, transforming “We Will Rock You” to “We Will Fuck You” and “25 or 6 to 4” to “You Will Never Score a Goal” only because “touchdown” didn’t fit the beat. I wrapped myself in a thick sweater and hoodie and went. As soon as dinner with our parents was over, Sylvia had shut herself up in her bedroom, as had become routine for her. We shared a car, and, like most weekends, I didn’t have to negotiate its use. We kept the keys on a small mahogany side table outside her door in a ceramic bowl, and there they were, ready for me to scoop them up. When I grabbed them, I listened briefly at my sister’s door, where light pulsed out from the bottom. I could hear weird, twangy music, something stretchy and psychedelic. I imagined her sitting on the floor in some sutric pose, humming and aligning her chakras. Along with strange art, she’d become meditative.
I would be asked many times for weeks and weeks if I’d noticed anything wrong with my sister recently. I would try, when answering, not to laugh and say that everything seemed wrong with Sylvia ever since we moved into our new house and she had her own room. We’d been so close, so similar, for so long, and suddenly she’d sent herself adrift onto a different plane of existence. Our twinness had become meaningless; all those stories about tight-knit connections between such siblings seemed to have withered away. Where we’d once known exactly what the other was thinking and feeling, we were now like strangers.
When I got home from the game, my cheeks weather-beaten and my body chilly, my parents were already in bed (I’d gone out to a party for a while, but, as I told every police officer I spoke to later, I hadn’t drank any of the shitty keg beer on offer and I’d slipped home by midnight). The light under my sister’s door was still on, but the music had stopped. I thought about knocking and saying hi, but I hadn’t done that sort of thing in months, and she’d have just called me a weirdo and not let me in. So I went to bed, unaware that, in the morning, our family would fall to pieces.
We slipped out of the apartment in silence, Michael letting the saloon door slap against the frame. The noise echoed down the empty hall.
When we reached the car, a ten-year-old Ford Focus with manual locks and windows, I said, “Was that true? What you said about the furniture?”
Michael’s car smelled good thanks to the apple pie vent clips he bought in bulk. He took a deep breath, and I imagined the warm smell flooding up his nose. “As far as I can remember. Mostly.”
“It seemed like the right kind of thing to say. To put her at ease. Two strangers, two strange men, wanting to come inside her apartment?”
“This was your idea, not mine.”
Michael’s phone, sitting on the center console, dinged. He picked it up and swiped. “Holy shit.”
“The top floor of a dorm at UT-Austin vanished. Like two hundred students are gone.”
I felt a hot warmth in my throat and said nothing. Michael shook his head and set the phone down, offering no more details. He put the car in reverse. The lot was tiny and shared space with the post office. He checked the rearview mirror, then hit the gas, swiveling the car with a recklessness one usually saves for video games. But he was a good driver. The wheel listened to him, and the car turned in the exact sharp arc he’d been aiming for.
It took a long time for my parents to realize something was wrong. Sylvia had a tendency to sleep in on the weekends, not emerging from her room until the time was well into the double-digits despite my mother’s desire for us to all sit down to breakfast together on those days when we weren’t dashing about, me and Sylvia vying for space in the hall bathroom to brush our teeth and comb our hair, making sure we had all of our homework in our bags while our father cinched his tie for the third or fourth time (he was terrible at the knots, his sausage-like fingers fumbling with the fabric and never getting them to look tight and clean like you saw in Sears inserts in the newspaper). Our mother spent ten minutes drinking a cup of coffee and reviewing her lesson plans for the morning. They left the house before us once we were old enough to drive ourselves, and I always saw the yearning in my mother’s face as she said goodbye. So on Saturdays and Sundays she made gargantuan breakfasts of bacon and eggs and waffles with hot butter, the smells yanking me from my adolescent sleep.
On the day we realized Sylvia was missing, I was bloated with maple syrup and cinnamon rolls—an unexpected late-fall treat that my mother presented while actually humming, her red apron slashed with frosting—when she asked me to check on my sister. Ten o’clock had come and gone, and we were blasting toward lunch territory. Usually, she had padded down by now, looking like a wreck with tangled hair and a too-large t-shirt hanging off her narrow shoulders. I went upstairs and knocked on her door but heard nothing inside. I called her name several times, expecting a groan and a verbal dismissal, but nothing came.
I would long regret going back downstairs and jokingly saying, “I think she might be dead,” before telling my parents Sylvia wasn’t answering. At first, they were annoyed, my father already settled in his recliner to watch Gameday before whatever college football game he had no reason to care about came on. My mother was still finishing the dishes from our breakfast bounty and slapped her hands together in annoyance. It was, I would later note, the final moment of domestic bliss I would ever see in our house.
When neither my mother nor father could convince Sylvia to come out, my father went to the garage and found the keys. One of the odd features of our house was that every door—including the pantry and linen closets—had external keyholes on the knobs and a matching set of keys that he’d found in the work bench left behind in the garage. They were a smattering of tarnished silver, but the labels were legible enough. He came back, me and my mother waiting in the hallway, her begging my sister to open the door, the edge of panic creeping into her voice. I felt queasy, and was barely surprised when my father, knocking one more time, fitted the key into the lock, pushed the door open, and found an open window and an empty bed.
Michael made a quick drive by of the fraternity house where I’d lived for two years. I didn’t need to go inside. I could still picture the hardwood floors, the composite photographs hung in the entryway, the staircases leading up to each second-story wing. When I met Michael, a year after we both graduated from the same college with both our bachelor and master’s degrees—mine both in English, his undergrad major a dual in history and sports management, his MA in teaching—we realized, after regaling each other with stories of our college selves, that we had both been in the same places—bars, party houses, my and several other frat houses—at the same times but unaware of each other’s existence. He turned onto the proper street, hidden in a rundown grid of homes several blocks from campus where lower middle-class families lived in ranches with sloping front stoops and peeling paint. Suddenly those ramshackle houses gave way to an avenue with a grass median and two-stories that ballooned wide and deep, cheap vinyl siding replaced with schoolhouse brick and two- and three-car garages. Poplars and cherry trees turned the road into a small oasis of whimsy, and crowning the area was the fraternity house. Michael came to a stop at the edge of the property and we both looked at the house, where the fraternity’s letters, two-foot-tall brass monsters, hung above the front porch and shone in the mealy sunlight.
“You sure you don’t want to go inside?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t been back in years, and everyone inside would be a stranger.
“No,” I said. “It’s good just knowing it’s there.” I didn’t tell him that I didn’t want to revisit the past. That, unlike him, I was okay with any images I held of what had come before fading into dark memory, swirling into uncertainty and shadow. Where he wanted to refresh, I wanted to dampen.
Michael nodded. I thought, in that moment, that I might tell him about Sylvia. How I’d tried, several times, to reconnect with her before she disappeared. That if I hadn’t tried to impress her by taking honors English as a junior, the only advanced subject I signed up for in high school on the chance we might be placed in the same class, I might not have picked that major and might not have gotten the job at the community college that led to the end-of-school party where Michael and I met, he a friend of the department chair hosting the bash that brought his college pals, his drinking buddies (including Michael), and his co-workers together in a blur of spiked punch and blistered hotdogs.
I might tell him that yes, I would marry him. I had no reason not to. But I simply couldn’t say the words. Then Michael glanced at his phone, even though it hadn’t made any noise. Nothing new had disappeared. I was surprised. Things seemed to be going away fast.
In the months after Sylvia vanished, I felt like one of the samples we looked at under microscopes in biology, a tiny cellular blob smashed between panes of glass. Everything about my family’s life became fair game, detectives rooting through our past and making inquests into the tiniest red flag. Because we were twins, they seemed certain that Sylvia must have told me something, no matter how much I insisted that we’d drifted apart. They ransacked her bedroom, found nothing that would lead them to any conclusions or suspects, and so my parents became their primary target; the boyfriend Sylvia had nabbed during our freshman year had long been out of the picture, the one piece of the puzzle I was able to provide.
Our classmates were interviewed, and I learned that my sister had this entire other life that no one, at least in our family, knew about. She smoked cigarettes and sometimes sold weed and mushrooms, raking in cash from the desperate stoners. One girl, whom I knew Sylvia had long hated, claimed my sister had driven across the city to Planned Parenthood when she was sixteen to get an abortion.
My father fell into a depressed shell and was put on paid leave, then unpaid leave, then was fired when he could no longer do his job. We sold the house, my parents unable to pay the mortgage and heating bill and continue to make car payments on only my mother’s meager salary. The day we had to pack up Sylvia’s room, my mother could do nothing but cry, and my father was frozen like a gargoyle on a buttress, so it was left to me to decide what of my sister’s we would take with us and what we would leave behind. We were downsizing to a small, two-bedroom apartment, and so I tossed most things into garbage bags, sorted by what was trash and what would be donated. I could think of nothing worth taking with us except for her bed, which I would sleep on. We’d sold the bunk beds on Craigslist.
As we left, my mother cried out, “But she won’t know where to go.” I thought of many things to say but uttered none of them. I knew that my mother was wrong: Sylvia knew where to go, where she wanted to go, to be. What my mother couldn’t see was that it wasn’t with us.
Michael’s list of places to see included his first home in upstate New York, where he’d lived until he was seven and his father was relocated to Missouri for work.
“But it’s okay if we can’t make that drive,” he’d said with a shrug, though I could hear the wish in his voice.
My list was much shorter. I left off the apartment my parents had stationed us in when my father lost his job, because all I could remember about it was damp walls, cramped bedrooms, and rough carpet. I didn’t need to revisit that awful blurry end of my childhood, the closet-sized bedroom where I’d spent the rest of high school, counting down the days until I left for college. If I could have chosen, it would have been the first place I would see dissolve to nothing.
We agreed that, after the drive up to our college stomping grounds, we would swing through St. Louis to each of our childhood homes. As we drove the three hours back from the gray boor of northern Missouri, Michael outlined our plans. It would be dark by the time we returned home, so we would have to hope that the houses would be around the next day.
“I think the odds are good they’ll still be here,” I said.
“I’m sure that’s what everyone thinks. I’m sure that’s what those families who are gone thought. I bet those students in Texas thought they were safe.”
“Okay,” I said. “Jeez.”
I had several chances to tell him about Sylvia. In the past, when we’d talked about our families, I’d said little; I told Michael that I had a strained relationship with my parents, and he was kind enough to leave it alone. During the holidays, we went to his mother and father’s house along with his two older brothers and a younger sister, all of whom had spouses and bounties of children that threw themselves across the furniture and scattered toys on the floor. We wore itchy sweaters and drank boozy eggnog or hot cocoa and Michael wore a cologne that smelled like pine trees. He settled himself next to me wherever I found a place to sit, and his closeness made me feel warm and loose and like I had lost nothing at all.
The car filled with many silences, the only accompanying sound the thump of the tires and the low whisper of the radio when Michael turned it on as we neared Columbia and could listen to something other than Christian talk shows or country. Michael would hum along to songs he recognized, and when they were over, quiet would descend again. I watched middle Missouri scroll by, all gun shops and strip malls with questionable buffet-style restaurants. We slid past Fulton, Kingdom City, Warrenton. The miles to St. Louis ticked down, and still I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I kept looking at my hands, imagining a band on my ring finger and I pantomimed worrying it around my knuckle several times. Michael caught me doing it once, and I actually sat on my hands. I saw him swallow, his Adam’s apple waving up and down.
Something hard and cold crawled into my chest as we reached our neighborhood. Michael had glanced at his phone every few miles, waiting and looking for notifications from his news apps of new disappearances. I couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed every time he checked. As we came closer to our street, I became convinced that our house, everything we had together, would be gone. By the time we made the final turn, I was sweating and shaky. If Michael noticed, he didn’t say anything.
But of course our house was still there. The porch was clean-swept thanks to Michael’s daily sojourn with a broom; I had stained and sealed it over the summer, and he had, without a word, taken up the rest of its upkeep.
Michael pulled into the driveway and I let out a long breath. He glanced at me but didn’t ask what was wrong. When he cut the ignition, he popped open his door and was about to pull himself out when I grabbed his arm and said, “Wait.” He leaned back in his seat and stared at me. I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I had no idea what I should tell him. I glanced at the house, imagining a crater there, what it would mean if everything inside was empty space.
“Yeah?” he said.
My mouth opened and closed. I said nothing. Neither did Michael. Instead we stared at our house, relishing that this, at least and for now, was still here.
BIO: Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Phantom Drift, Passages North, Emerson Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. His debut short story collection, Sing With Me at the Edge of Paradise, was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Iron Horse/Texas Tech University Press First Book Award, and his second story collection, The Plagues, will be released by Cornerstone Press in 2023. His debut novel, I Know You’re Out There Somewhere, is forthcoming from Deep Hearts YA. He can be reached at joebaumann.wordpress.com.