Louis Evans, 17, has been a regular at Writopia, dazzling us all with his daring, complex fiction and with his astute, thoughtful critiques for almost a year. Louis was one of 3000 seniors nationwide to submit a portfolio of his writing to the Scholastic Awards this year--and of that admirable group of young people, he was one of the 52 recognized with national honors. Congrats to Louis for winning a silver medal for his general portfolio (including poetry, memoir, science fiction, and realistic fiction). On top of that, his piece, Quis? (also submitted within his portfolio) was recognized with a national Gold Key (only 400 of 40,000 individual submissions are honored with this type of award). Please help Louis celebrate his accomplishments by reading his prose:
Mark was fourteen when he first began to disappear, three weeks after his fourteenth birthday. It was something of a whim, then, as he didn’t appreciate what it would lead to.
He didn’t raise his hand in response to a question in class.
Now, to you or me of course, that seems a bit trivial and ridiculous, but it was the first time in Mark’s memory that he’d done that, and he was surprised to find that sitting there, staring up at the math board, hands idly drumming on the desk, gave him a kernel of obstinate joy. He’d always got by on the other kind of happiness, the warm mushy slightly curdled feeling of constant low-grade rightness. But this was different, a hard knot of fragrance that reminded him of chestnuts rather than gruel—altogether tastier.
He considered trying more.
At lunch, he walked into the cafeteria and sat at his customary table, surrounded by friendly like-minded acquaintances, sat down. Drummed his fingers.
Around him, spitballs and hands flew, voices raised in an inane chatter. He saw Greg, sitting next to him, exchanging pokes with that girl he’d never admit he liked. Mark opened his mouth, preparing words: Hey Greg! Greg! How’s your girlfriend—and Greg would try to laugh it off, trade sandwiches with Mark and then the both of them would turn towards Carl. But instead, Mark closed his mouth.
He felt it, deep in the pit of his stomach: the same warm sludge. What was its point, anyway? So instead of blaring at Greg, loud honks splattering across the room, he simply glanced down at his hands, and let the noise pour over him.
“So, uh, I was thinking, maybe . . .” Greg trailed off. Again. Mark sighed in silence. Greg was always trailing off like that, always at the last sentence. And that girl—Julie, right?—would always cock her head and give a little half sigh, and then poke him.
It was a little bit ridiculous. Not that Carl, trying to trade a clearly bitten Twix for M&Ms, was much better.
Mark stood up. Someone’s sandwich wrapper flipped past his head. Nobody seemed to notice.
Then he threw out his food, and went back to class early.
Mark’s alarm clock went off at 6:53 the next morning, continuing its noble tradition of edging up a minute whenever it thought nobody was looking. Mark awoke and dressed groggily, the repeating bra-att bra-att adding a hidden rhythm to his scattered, woolly, dust-bunny thoughts. He grabbed his bag—carefully organized and packed the night before—from his desk and stumbled out of the door, slapping the clock into rueful silence.
He slogged his way downstairs and into the kitchen, setting down his backpack and hopping up onto a stool. He shuffled his shoulders subconsciously, throwing off echoes of certain types of mice, burrowing themselves backward into the ground.
His mother entered the room, and told him to tuck in his shirt. How she saw his waistline, hidden as it was, pressed into the crevice between the stool and the countertop, was beyond him.
“I’m not going to tuck in my goddamn shirt because I don’t care what you think!” he utterly failed to shout. He tucked in his shirt. But he didn’t say, “Yes, mom,” either.
His mother nodded with satisfaction and pointed out that he’d forgotten to put his pens in his breast pocket. He’d stopped doing that nearly a year ago, and hadn’t responded to her comments since then. Which didn’t stop her from noticing it every morning. He mumbled at her, and she shook her head, reminding him that he always had to look his best. Didn’t she always look her best?
Mark was forced to admit that he’d never seen so much as a hair out of place or a speck of dust on her razor-creased pantsuits, but whether or not that was her “best,” he felt, was still open for debate. He glared at the bowl of cereal she slid before him, and as the cheerios swam into perfect geometric rows, he felt bile rise in his throat.
His father came in, told him to smile more and smiled theatrically himself. Great white teeth like alabaster calling cards popped out of his mouth. Mark didn’t smile back.
He chucked Mark under the chin, and when that didn’t work, held him in a serious gaze, the broad smile hanging fully-formed but misshapen under suddenly irritable eyes. Mark didn’t smile back.
Fazed, Mark’s father regrouped: he bustled round the kitchen, poured coffee, got a bagel, kissed Mark’s mother—a swift peck on the lips—and rushed out.
Mark’s mother busied herself with the coffee machine, but when she turned around to look for her son, he wasn’t there anymore—dragged away in his father’s wake, no doubt. Wasn’t that odd?
Mark sat on the stool, waiting to be told to do something about his hair. But his mother turned away distractedly. He cleared his throat, about to say something—and stopped. He didn’t want to hear about his stupid hair anyway.
So he picked up his bag and left.
And it was a month later; he’d changed. Fast. His only concession to speech in class was at the beginning, during roll call. When he could get away with it, he’d just raise his hand. But it didn’t always work. Teachers, even the young ones who still tried to make school fun, peered around the room, searching for it: when they’d fail to find it, they’d try his name again, and he’d be forced to interject: “yes, I’m here.”
They’d cough, awkwardly, say, “oh, yes, I see,” and keep moving down the list. He still handed in homework, but he considered it an increasingly pointless act: they seemed to grade him much the same regardless.
He wondered: why was this so easy? Or was it life before—hands stretched and little gasps for attention in the back of his throat—that had been hard?
Lunches were different, too. He’d forgone the cafeteria, which had lost its final few attractions. Tradable, multicolored candy hurt his eyes and teeth. Greg had finally finished off his eternal sentence and he and Julie were hard to find and awkward to encounter.
Carl no longer seemed worth the effort.
So Mark went out on walks. The school hired a security guard whose job, was, nominally, to glower at children who tried things like that, but mostly he read USA Today and put his feet up, fingers dabbed with French fry grease. He never noticed Mark.
So Mark found his walks rather easy. His school was near the park on one hand, and the river on the other. He’d go to either one depending on his mood, or sometimes just set off downtown or up, sliding through crowds. But most of the time he found himself on a short winding dirt path in the park, just this side of the cherry buds. March was turning into April and they were turning from green to white, which he felt provided a nice ambiance although he did not rely on it.
Instead, he watched people. It was fun and it was, he felt, a useful way of spending his time, because if he watched them, then they wouldn’t be invisible like he was. It was alright for him, he felt, but he was sure they would think differently, and so he sat perhaps a bit more formally than he might have otherwise, and would go home each day with a sense not only of having enjoyed himself, but having done something worthwhile, too. People came down the dirt path doing anything under the sun you could imagine, kissing and fighting, fuming and singing and generally with their hearts written on their sleeves, and he saw them. They thought they were alone, because they didn’t see him back. And perhaps they were: no matter how loud he laughed or sighed they didn’t seem to notice him. He, on the other hands, could see everything about them, even, he was finding, shadows of the past and future, shy couples married in two years and passionate ones fighting in one, and he sighed, for reasons he couldn’t understand and wouldn’t have admitted if he did. Sometimes he was sad, too, like with the angry man coming from his office where his boss had rummaged through his desk and stolen his ideas. Mark thought of saying things, sometimes, but it always seemed a bit too silly. Excuse me, sir, but you’re going to break your leg crossing that road if you don’t look up from your mope—and they like you anyway, it’s not worth your femur . . .
So he sat, and watched, and the cherry blossoms budded next to him.
And things stayed that way, for a time. Mark would leave with enough time to make it back to class and he’d expend the minimum amount of energy to get his name on the attendance sheet and vanish, letting himself sink into the receptive quiet he adopted in the park. It might have gone on that way for quite a while, too.
But then things changed, again. It was a Tuesday, the second Tuesday in April. He was at the river, which was unusual. (He’d more or less given up on the river, because the boats realized that they were in public and so were far less funny than the people in the park, but every now and then he felt disinterested in people, so he would return to the river.) At first, he’d contented himself with a cul-de-sac a block away and thirty feet up, which was the closest he could get to the water without walking half a mile north or south. But then he realized that they never bothered to lock that little door to the construction site on the left, because they kept coming in and out of it. So he’d simply slip through, and make a right turn at the pyramid of unused aluminum tubes, and a left at the port-a-potties, skirting the piles of fresh mocha dirt and the sprawled workers eating ham sandwiches, and then pop out the plywood door at the other end. And then he’d get to one of the real gems of the city that you find sometimes, an abandoned pier. He’d walk down one of the few surviving lengthwise struts, tightrope style. Not that he needed to: it was a comfortable five or six feet wide, but it was fun nevertheless.
And it was by that customary method that he found himself, on the second Tuesday in April, with hints of fog encroaching on the margins of the sky, sitting at the end of the pier, watching the tugboats go by, when, turning to the left, he saw her.
She was sitting cross-legged next to him, peering at him closely, with a sort of clinical intent that was not unfriendly but uncomfortable. Her hair was brown and long and hung indifferently. Her facial features were essentially unremarkable, except for her eyes, which were set at an angle perhaps five degrees past where Mark’s head kept insisting they should be set, which added somewhat to the effect of her gaze. She wore a fleece—dark, anonymous—and jeans, neither of which, Mark noticed with a twitch of embarrassed disappointment, was filled out in a particularly fascinating way.
He blushed, realizing he was staring. She stared back.
“How’d you find me?” he asked, when it became clear she had no interest in speaking. His voice came out rusty. He couldn’t remember the last thing he’d said, aside from “yes, I’m here.”
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” she said, smirking at him.
“It’s Latin,” she said, a superior look on her face. “Look it up.”
“I will—but how did you find me?” he spluttered. Plaintively, now, and almost on the verge of tears. For so long he had just wanted to stay alone, but now he didn’t and—
“Man,” she said, more to herself than him. The boy sitting across from her practically weeping, and fixing his clothes at the same time was singularly unimpressive. He was barely invisible at all.
“I thought you were like me. I thought you were better than this.” She paused, and he opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, too late. “Yeah, you got nothing. This was a waste of my time,” she said, standing up as if to leave. She didn’t enjoy messing with him like this but it was necessary. He was still clinging to his old life. He needed a push—something to send him out the door. Something like what had been done to her.
Mark somehow got his mouth to switch to the on position, and found himself replying, albeit incoherently: “Listen, you can’t just show up and give me crap like this and not even give me something—I mean, I’m serious, I’m not a waste—I mean—”
She sighed, nodded. “Listen,” she said. “You’ve got three weeks. Meet me at the park then. Maybe we’ll talk. Right now, I’m kind of busy.”
And she left, high-wiring down the pier in a deliberate mockery of how he walked—but when he had to turn to keep looking at her, she was gone.
Mark threw himself into the next three weeks like he hadn’t ever before. He went to the public library, instead of back to school, cutting class for his first time. He leaned across the desk to ask about a Latin-English dictionary—but “better than this” echoed humiliatingly through his head, he sighed, leaned back, and found it on his own.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes: “Who watches the watchmen?” It was cute. It was damn cute. I’ll show her “better than this!”
He took out Alice In Wonderland—really, just took—and went back to school, for lack of a better place to go, and he read all the passages with the Cheshire Cat, and smiled, great, big, scimitar-shaped smiles. He finished fast, and got up in the middle of class and strolled out the door. Nobody noticed him.
He took Invisible Man and The Invisible Man, and read their vanishing pages in alternating orders, practicing breathing in a slow, steady, shallow way. He practiced walking, too, heel toe heel toe, soft even in his flapping sandals, which it was suddenly warm enough to wear.
He read Plato, and laughed at the invisible man who committed the crimes. Nobody understood: they saw it far away, or metaphorically.
He forswore all speaking, suddenly marked absent in every class as the teachers scanned the room and couldn’t see him—and then, because simply dropping those few words was child’s play, he stopped speaking in his dreams. School, he realized, was not worth his time, and so he’d hike up and downtown with a look of quiet focus on his face, as though working through yoga poses he could barely imagine. He tried to get closer and closer to people without them noticing, even though they glanced in all directions, on full alert.
Then he tried for traffic. He knew it was dangerous, but it felt less scary than before. Those past and future shadows came more strongly to him now, and he no longer had trouble dodging cars.
He read 1984, and wrote his name down on a little scrap of paper, then stole the art teacher’s cigarette lighter and burnt his name, looking away. When all that was left was a little pile of ash in his reddened palm he blew on it, and it vanished into the sky.
He walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, back and forth one Saturday, on the bike lanes and the walking lanes, the car lanes and the train tracks and at the end, he hopped onto the sidewalk and smiled, tautly. Then he went into a Starbucks and bought a coffee from a barista who spaced out, suddenly, upon his entrance, but who nevertheless took the five and didn’t ask questions. He picked up his tall mocha latte and the man tried to thank him for coming to Starbucks, but couldn’t remember Mark’s name. And then he couldn’t remember that Mark had ever existed, so he threw out the receipt that was, oddly enough, in his hand, and went to go switch the soy milk.
Mark’s parents hadn’t really noticed his transformation. His mother’s eyes, once so piercing when it came to his wardrobe or hairdo, slid over his rumpled t-shirts like an eighteen-wheeler on an unexpected ice patch. His father tried to chuck his chin every once in a while, but missed more than he connected. But when they received rapid-fire string of concerned calls from teachers, requesting absence notes, they noticed.
So they sent Mark to a shrink. He went, dutifully, but firm in his conviction that what she—Dr. Marsha—sought to accomplish was both ridiculous and outside her power.
“So, Mark,” she said, “Tell me about your life.”
He refused to talk: not speaking was the best possible practice for not speaking he could imagine. But he was willing to scribble on a pad, and she seemed to take that well, for now.
4 the past 2 months i’ve been disappearing
“And how’ve you been doing that, Mark?”
not hard. i realized i’ve been working my whole life to stay appeared—who needs that?
Dr. Marsha stared at the smiling boy sitting across from her. She knew why he was there and had expected some surly mess looking at her as if trying to burn her with his hatred, but he just sat on the couch and smiled peacefully. She envied him, for a second there, but then pushed it out of her head. She had a job to do.
“Well, Mark, there are many things you can only get from people.”
He didn’t like that she kept saying his name: it felt like she was forcing him to stay appeared, against his will.
stop saying my name he wrote.
“Why does that bother you, M—ahmm. Do you dislike your name?”
no problem with my name. but stop saying it anyway.
“Well, fine. We’re here to talk any way you’d like. So what is it like, being ‘disappeared’?”
it’s fine you don’t have to do anything but watch people.
“Well,” she said, “well, uh, ahmm.”
He looked at her with faint surprise. Her eyes had defocused and she wasn’t looking at the pad she was writing on, anymore.
“Ermm—ahem,” she muttered, glancing around. She tried to remember who she was meeting with, but it kept slipping away. So she went over to her desk and started opening her mail.
Mark smiled to himself, a great big beaming smile that he’d practiced from Alice In Wonderland, for just this occasion, and walked out.
The next day—the first Tuesday in May—he left the house quietly, so as not to disturb his parents, and he went to school for the last time. He hung around until lunch, stealing the French fries from under the security guard’s nose and putting post its on every locker in the grade. They spelled out “Farewell!” but out of order—he was starting to get the hang of this disappearing trick.
Then, at lunch, he strode confidently into the lunchroom. Around him, his classmates poured like earthbound shadows, thin and plodding simultaneously. He found the center table in the cafeteria, the one occupied by students so stratospherically cool he would have been hard-pressed to trip over their bags only a few months before. He hopped up onto the bench between two of them, and then up onto the table. He stamped one foot down on it, and shouted at the top of his lungs:
“I, Mark Feldman, am out of here!”
The lunchroom went on, unnoticing. Did that kid in the corner glance up? Maybe just a trick of the light, or a coincidence. He glanced away soon enough, regardless.
Mark chuckled, stepped down, and left.
He walked to the park. He thought he might understand the girl’s motives better now, if they were anything like his own, and he didn’t really worry about place or time. The place would be the same as always, the time whenever he got there.
Nevertheless, he decided not to let her get away without a little ragging for how snide she was last time. He took a long way around, out past the cherry blossoms and back. She might not know about it if she’d simply been following him before. And, true to his guess, there she was, sitting on the bench. He was struck by how real she suddenly looked, filling her t-shirt and capris, now, not with body parts but simply self, in comparison to the crowds and things that sloughed around him, thin and wisplike. He snuck up on her anyway, put his hands on her eyes and whispered:
She started, swatted his hands away. He laughed as she turned and recognized him. She shot him a glare but gave up on it, ending in the flashbulb brilliance of a smile.
She indicated the seat next to her. Mark sat.
“I wasn’t sure you’d show up,” she said.
“Me either,” Mark replied.
“I’m really impressed,” she said, smiling again.
“Thank you,” Mark said, with a little seated half-bow. She laughed.
“Sorry I gave you such a hard time, before,” she said, but he shrugged it off.
“So,” he said, “what do you do?”
“Mostly this,” she said, “mostly this. It’s more fun than they give it credit for.”
They sat on the bench, while just up the dirt path it rained cherry petals.
And I haven’t seen either of them since.