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The Disappearing Boy

The disappearing boy


Estimated reading time — 17 minutes

I never believed in magic until I met Tommy Naughton.

The first time I saw him was in my eleventh-grade English class at Ridley High in 2001. He looked odd, with his gapped-up haircut and baggy clothing. He always smelled like sour sweat—ugh! He rarely made eye contact, never spoke unless spoken to, and sat as far back in the classroom as the wall would allow. I was sorry for him, but pity doesn’t do much to cure another’s social awkwardness. Then one day, Tommy went from being a social outcast to the talk of the school. It all started when our English teacher, Mrs. Sharon, gave us an assignment.

“Okay, listen up, people. When I call on you, I want you to come up. Then I’d like you to tell everyone something unique about yourself: a special talent, family history, interesting hobbies; anything. We’ll go alphabetically. First up, Larry Anders.”

Let me tell you, there was nothin’ special about ol’ Larry (still isn’t, from what I hear). A few kids had some cool things to share, like Teresa Donavan. Turns out one of her uncles was
a roadie for Red Hot Chili Peppers. Skyler Murphy held the swim team record for holding her breath underwater: a whopping five and a half minutes! I dreaded my turn. For once, I was happy to have the name “Lenore Zylstra.” But my dread must have paled compared to Tommy.

“Tommy Naughton,” said Mrs. Sharon.

Tommy was reading a book, or pretending to.

“Tommy, put the book down and come up. I’m sure everyone else is a little embarrassed, too,” said Mrs. Sharon.

Tommy lowered his book and looked at her solemnly. When he spoke, somewhere between a mumble and a whisper, no one could understand him.

“I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” said Mrs. Sharon.

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“I said I have nothing to share.”

“You could tell us how you plan to kill your barber!” That was Brad Oberstrom. Butthole.

Everyone guffawed; poor Tommy looked mortified. I couldn’t stand the cruelty for another second, so I raised my hand.

“I don’t mind taking his place,” I said. I hated going next, but anything was better than
watching Tommy being humiliated.

“That’s thoughtful, Lenore, but I called on Tommy, not you.” She glared at Tommy. “Mr. Naughton, a weary world awaits you.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Tommy placed his book on his desk, then shuffled to the front of the classroom, snickers following him with each plodding footstep.

“Oh, boy. This is gonna be timeless.” Brad again. Butthole.

I think Mrs. Sharon felt sorry for Tommy now. She looked remorseful, sympathetic. When
the uproar died down, she gently addressed him.

“Tommy, hon. You can start whenever you’re ready. I promise we’ll give you our full attention.”

Maybe it was my imagination, but I could’ve sworn he looked right at me. It wasn’t a harsh stare. It was as though he was singling me out.

“I have a special talent that no one else has. Some people who practice magic say they have this ability, too, but they’re lying. For them, it’s just a trick. But I can make things disappear . . . for real. It’s called teleportation. Want me to show you?”

I spoke up, surprising myself. “Would you? Make something disappear, I mean.”

Tommy gave me that odd look again as if he were only going through this to impress me. “Sure I can, Lenore. I think you’ll like it.” Gazing around the classroom, he said, “Does anyone have a small object like a watch or a ring?”

“I got a watch,” Peter Travers said, passing it forward.

“Watch closely.” Tommy cupped the watch between his hands and massaged it with his palms. He stopped, then opened his hands. The watch had disappeared.

A collective “whoa” swept over the classroom. “Dude, that was cool. Where’d it go?” Peter asked.

“I teleported it to another place. I can do that: make something disappear and wind up somewhere else.” He turned to Mrs. Sharon. “Ma’am, would you open your upper right desk drawer?”

The place went wild when she opened the drawer and retrieved the wristwatch. Mrs. Sharon
looked like she had just pulled out a three-headed chicken. “H-How?” she stammered. “How in the world did you do that, Tommy?”

“Because I know real magic,” he said matter-of-factly. “May I sit down now, ma’am?”

“Of course. Thank you, Tommy.”

Poor Tina Newsome; how the heck was she gonna top Tommy’s act?”

###

Typically, the kids in English sauntered in, sat at their desks, and exhaled one of those Why do I have to take this stupid course? sighs. But that day everyone seemed excited to be there.

Mrs. Sharon sensed the energy. “My, you guys are lively. Is there something I don’t know?”
Before anyone answered, Tommy drifted into the room. His head was down, his shoulders slumped, and he was hitching up his baggy pants with every other step.

“There he goes . . . the magic maggot!” Oberstrom. Butthole.

You might’ve thought Lady Gaga or Eminem had entered the building by the jubilant faces that morning in English 101. Eager eyes followed Tommy as he made his way to the back of the room. He took no notice. I suppose he wasn’t used to being the object of attention. He sat down and looked out the window. His face was full of melancholy, as if he were watching a funeral procession.

Mrs. Sharon snapped the class to attention. “Okay, everyone. Please take out your textbook and turn to Chapter Five. I hope some of you have read ahead.”

As we pulled our textbooks from our bags, Mary Glover held up her hand.

“Yes, Mary?” Mrs. Sharon asked.

“I was wondering if we could wrap up a few minutes early today. I’d like—I mean, we’d like—to see some more of Tommy’s magic.”

“Judas Priest, Glover,” Chris Sampson said, rolling his eyes. “It ain’t magic. I’ve seen a million magicians do the same trick he did.”

Others mumbled in agreement.

“Settle down, everyone!” said Mrs. Sharon. “We’re not here to see magic tricks; it’s still an English class. And besides—”

“It’s not a magic trick,” the small voice said from the back corner. “It’s real. I can make things travel from one place to another.”

“Teleportation,” I said. “You called it teleportation.”

He glanced at me. “That’s right, Lenore. Thank you for remembering.”

“Is that something you might enjoy doing, Tommy?” Mrs. Sharon asked with delicacy.
Tommy looked around at the pleading eyes. “Sure, I guess so.

With fifteen minutes left before the bell, Mrs. Sharon put down her pen. “Okay, fans. Let’s put away our books and prepare to be amazed. Tommy Naughton, come on down!”

There were several “woo-hoos” and chants of, “Tommy! Tommy!” as he took his place at the front of the classroom. He waited for the noise to diminish. When he spoke, his voice was still light, but now it sounded more confident. He seemed more confident.

“Yesterday, I teleported a wristwatch to Mrs. Sharon’s desk drawer. Small objects are no big deal. But what if you could move a person? Wouldn’t that be something?”

“No way,” said Aimee Knight.

“Then I’ll prove it to you.” Tommy searched the room and stopped at a large cloth banner
with an amateurish painting of Earth and the words “Let’s keep it green” under it. “Mrs. Sharon, ma’am, is it okay to use your banner?”

“Yes, yes,” she said with childlike giddiness. “Do you need help to take it down?”

“No, ma’am; I’ve got it.” Tommy stood on tippy-toes and removed the cloth from the wall. Then he took his place beside Mrs. Sharon’s desk. “Now, you see me,” he said, concealing himself with the banner. “Now you don’t.” From under the covering, he said, “Are you all ready?”

“Just shut up and do it!” Oberstrom yelled.

Tommy’s muffled voice began counting down. “Okay . . . three . . . two . . .” Everyone gasped as the empty banner floated to the floor. The screams came when Tommy appeared in the doorway. “One!”

We erupted in cheers as Tommy returned to his desk. Mr. Edelman, the science teacher next door, raced in. “Monica, is everything okay?”

Mrs. Sharon was breathless. “Myron, you should’ve seen him. He disappeared—he really disappeared!”

“Who disappeared? Should I call the office?”

“No. I’m not talking about someone going missing. I’m talking about magic, er, I mean teleport . . . oh, hell. That kid over there went from standing next to me to outside that doorway in an instant.”

Before she could say more, the bell rang. Tommy stood first. As he crossed the room, everyone stopped moving and talking. They watched with silent reverence as he left, as though they were working up the nerve to touch the hem of his garment. I was happy for him. At first.

###

By the following day, everyone knew about Tommy’s ability. I saw some kids corner him in the hall, insisting that he make something disappear. “Come on, dude, show us some magic,” one of them shouted. Others chimed in. Tommy recoiled and threaded himself through the relentless crowd. Then he jogged away, pages from his notebook dropping behind him like breadcrumbs.

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After a few days of hectoring, Tommy relented and began performing quick sleights of hand between classes. His popularity grew by the day. Soon, he’d gone from being nervous and withdrawn to eating the attention up like cotton candy. He became the main attraction during lunch, entertaining the ever-growing crowd of onlookers with one feat after another.

The one that had everyone talking was when he made his feet disappear. He had a beach towel he’d brought to school for the performance. He stretched it out so that it was horizontal, then stood behind it with only his legs showing from his shins down. With each of his hands grasping an upper corner, he raised his right foot behind the towel, so you couldn’t see it. He put it down and did the same with his left foot. Then he lifted both feet, so that he appeared to be floating in midair. He put his feet back on the ground, tossed the towel aside, and took a flamboyant bow.

There were over a hundred people in the cafeteria that day, all clapping, yelling, and chanting his name. After that, no one called him Tommy anymore. He was now the one, the only, The Disappearing Boy.

Tommy changed after that. He still dressed like a dork and wore that god-awful hairstyle, but he held his head up; he was confident. Teachers, students; it didn’t matter. They couldn’t take their eyes off him. He became the school celebrity. I became the focus of his attention.

It started out kind of cute: a wave in the hall, a wink in class. But then I started getting an
eerie vibe, like I was being watched. Everywhere I went, he’d be nearby wearing that spooky smile.

One night in the shower, I had an unsettling feeling that someone else was in the bathroom. There was no way anyone else could fit into the tiny space, so I shook it off as paranoia. I was almost undressed when I heard breathing behind me. I froze. Something cold and clammy touched my shoulder. I yelped and spun around. No one was there. I waited, but nothing happened. I turned on the water and waited for it to get warm before climbing inside the shower. While I was rinsing off, I turned toward the semi-clear curtain and saw Tommy on the other side looking right at me. My heart nearly shot out of my chest. I snatched back the curtain, but he was gone. My breaths were quick and loud, and I was shaking despite the warm shower. I set a land speed record for getting out of the bathroom.
I bolted to my room and locked the door behind me. The air was cold, and it smelled like stale perspiration. “Hello?” I muttered. I peeked under my bed and checked my closet. Seeing nothing, I settled down enough to go to bed.

I turned off my table lamp and wriggled under the covers. That was when I sensed eyes on me, piercing the shadows. I sat up on my elbows and peered into the darkness. When I saw Tommy standing in the corner leering, I screamed. I thought I’d never stop.

My dad burst into my room and flipped on the wall switch, but Tommy had vanished. When I told my dad what I’d seen, he didn’t believe me.

“What’d your mom and I tell you about watching those stupid Nightmare on Elm Street
movies? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! You scared us half to death!”

Despite his frustration, I wouldn’t let him leave until he’d searched every inch of my
room. Even after he pronounced it monster-free, I slept with the light on.

###

I dreaded seeing Tommy the next day, but it was unavoidable. When he came down the hall toward me, I averted my eyes. As we passed each other, my stomach was so roiled with nerves that I thought I might throw up.

When he arrived in English class, I pretended to be looking through my backpack. The thought of him sitting near me with that jack-o-lantern grin made my skin crawl.
It went on like that for days. Each time I met Tommy, he was bolder. He began speaking to me, something he’d never had the nerve to do before. In the hall: “Hi, Lenore.” Once at the mall: “Wow, what a beautiful surprise!”

Things came to a head one day in the cafeteria. I was sitting with my friends, enjoying my favorite lunch: a PBJ, potato chips, and a diet soda. Becky Martin was across from me. She was in the middle of one of her hilarious stories when she glanced up and stopped mid-sentence.

Tommy dropped onto the seat next to me with a tray of food. “Don’t stop talking on my account. I just wanted to sit by Lenore.”

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My face flushed.

“Um, do you guys need some privacy?” Becky asked.

I lost it. “What is your problem?” I snarled at him. “Do you think because people find you interesting that I’m gonna go all googly-eyed over you? Leave me alone!”

His eyes flashed with anger. Then he stood from his chair and spoke, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Hey, listen up! I’ve got another cool thing to show you. Wanna see it?”
Shouts of excitement echoed through the cafeteria.

Tommy glowed as he addressed his legion of fans. “Lenore here has some curious culinary tastes. Let’s see, she’s got a PBJ; how lame.” Gales of laughter. “We’ve got chips and diet soda. Doesn’t one cancel out the other?” More guffawing. I wanted to die.

“I’m gonna do Lenore a favor. I’m gonna make this junk disappear because I’m . . .”

“The Disappearing Boy!” the crowd chorused.

Tommy snatched my brown paper bag and crammed my lunch into it. He shook it a few times, then turned it upside down. Nothing fell out.

No one responded because they knew the best part—the WOW part—was coming.
With a flourish, Tommy finished his act. “That lunch is trash. And where should trash go?”

“In the trash can!” they all screamed.

Tommy pointed to a fifty-five-gallon trashcan several yards away. A tall, skinny girl was standing near it. “Hey!” he shouted to her. “Look in that trash can and tell me what you see!”

The girl peered into the container. Her mouth dropped like a drawbridge, and she gasped. “It’s here! That chick’s lunch is right here!”

The entire cafeteria made a beeline to the trashcan.

A big guy, some uber-jock, yelled, “You guys gotta look at this! It’s the same stuff he put in the bag!”

Becky and my other friends looked flabbergasted—all but Ella Grassfield; she looked concerned. “Oh, Lenore,” she said. “You’ve got problems.”

“Hey, if you’re still hungry,” the jock shouted at me, “I know where you can find your
lunch!”

I had all I could stand. If Tommy’s goal was to repay me for the humiliation I’d caused him then he accomplished his mission. I grabbed my things and ran from the cafeteria.

I returned to the main building and entered the nearest girls’ restroom. I checked to make sure I was alone; I couldn’t bear being embarrassed again. When I was sure that the room was empty, I locked myself in a stall. I buried my face in my hands and cried until my eyes burned. I was distraught, at first, then I became afraid. Was he out to get me now? Was he going to show up at my house again?

###

I avoided Tommy as much as I could. I started eating my lunch in the restroom. I dreaded English class. His gaze was always on me, like an oil coating my skin.

As his fan base grew, Tommy got cockier, which means he made more enemies. The football team’s left tackle, Luke Tyler, had a problem sharing popularity with the school’s outcast. According to gossip, Luke confronted Tommy in the boys’ locker room one day.

“You must think you’re the big man on campus,” the jock said. “I ought to cram your skinny butt inside that locker.”

Tommy was calm as a pond. He looked up at Luke towering over him and grinned. “Tell
ya what. Walk into that shower stall over there, pull the curtain, and let me transport you. If I fail, I’ll walk through the school naked. If that won’t make a guy humble, I don’t know what will. But if I teleport you, you leave me alone. Do we have a deal?”

Luke made a hasty decision. He should’ve made a careful one. “Yeah, it’s a deal, gooch-sniffer.” He walked to the nearest stall and closed the curtain behind him. “I’m waitiiing.”

“Well, off you go then,” Tommy said.

After a moment, one of Luke’s teammates spoke up. “Luke? Hey, Luke! Quit messin’ around!”

“Do you think he’s in there?” another guy asked.

The teammate crept toward the stall and snatched back the curtain. Luke was gone. “Where’d he go?”

“Somewhere else,” Tommy said. He finished getting dressed and left. The others searched the changing room. They inspected stalls, opened lockers, and searched hallways. They found nothing.

A couple of days passed with no sign of Luke. Detectives interviewed everyone who’d seen him last; police officers led a search team and dogs around the school and surrounding areas; they checked hospitals and morgues. Nothing. No one accused Tommy outright. They didn’t want to sound like children wondering where the magician’s rabbit had gone.

Despite Luke’s disappearance, the team played the game on Friday night. Our guys won 38–17. That meant a Saturday afternoon celebration.

As was the tradition for many years, fans gathered at the school’s back parking lot to celebrate the win. They called it the Victory Smash. Students took turns using a sledgehammer to pound an old junker car painted blue and white, our school colors. Each time a blow landed, a cheer broke out.

Five minutes into the celebration, a female student walked to the rear of the car to knock off the bumper. She was about to lift the sledgehammer when she stopped. Her lips curled, and her nose crinkled as if she’d come across a dead skunk. “Oh my God,” she said. “Does anybody smell that? I think it’s coming from the trunk.”

Mr. Farnham, the head football coach, joined her. He took a whiff and covered his mouth and nose with his elbow. “Geez. I smell it, too.” He turned to the girl and motioned for her to give him the sledgehammer. “Stand back,” he said. Coach hammered at the bottom seam of the trunk. On the third strike, it popped open. Coach grabbed the girl and pulled her close to his chest, turning her face away from the car. “Someone, call 9-1-1, now!” he hollered.

A murmur passed through the crowd. A boy walked to the trunk, gazed inside, and blanched. “It’s Luke! He’s dead!”

Some people screamed; others rushed to the trunk. Many of them retched; others puked outright.

That night, I had a terrible dream about Luke. I was walking by the junker car when I heard ascratching noise and someone yelling, “Let me out!” I opened the trunk. The lid had bloody scratch marks on the inside. Luke was there curled up in a ball. Buzzing flies streamed from his nose and mouth, landing on his dull, milky eyes. His blue lips peeled open, and his dead eyes locked onto mine. A gooey mass of fat worms cascaded from his mouth as he croaked, “Ta-da!” I woke up screaming.

###

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People avoided Tommy after that. The hoots and hollers turned into worried whispers. I thought Tommy might’ve picked up on everyone’s wariness whenever he walked into a room. But either he didn’t notice, or he didn’t care. The dragging of his feet had become a victory march.

Not long after Luke disappeared, I was at my locker when Tommy came up to me.

“Hi there, Lenore,” he said. “Shame what happened to Luke, huh? I know everyone blames me, but the part they leave out is that he insisted I make him disappear. He never clarified where. I could sure use a friend right now. I think the entire school’s against me.”

“What have I ever done to make you think I want to be your friend?” I asked, trembling.

“Yelling at you in the cafeteria? The way I’ve been avoiding you? What, exactly?”

He looked surprised. “I don’t understand. I thought we had a connection. I was only trying to impress you in the cafeteria. Everything I’ve done has been to impress you.”

“Humiliating me in front of everyone did not impress me. Luke’s death did not impress me. Showing up at my house did not impress me. I’m afraid of you. Why don’t you make yourself disappear again? And this time, don’t come back!”

He looked stunned; I thought he might cry. The old sadness returned to his face. I wish I could say I was sorry for him, but I wasn’t. After I stood up to him, he didn’t scare me as much. He was still a timid little weirdo.

“Okay,” he muttered. “I understand. Bye, Lenore.” He turned and walked away, with that same pathetic shuffle.

###

I was relieved when Tommy didn’t show up at school the next day. I felt like I could breathe again.

I was in my third-period Social Studies class when Principal Haynes leaned into the room and motioned to our teacher, Ms. Brown, to join him in the hall. When she returned, she was red-eyed and sniffling.

“Guys,” she said, “something awful has happened and I’d rather you heard it from me.” She bit her bottom lip. “We were just informed that Tommy Naughton has passed away. Please keep his family in your prayers.” The poor woman seemed devastated by the news. A sob spilled from her. “I need to step out for a moment.” I heard her crying all the way down the hall.

None of us said anything. What was there to say? Most of the school had never met Tommy; they only knew of him.

Over the course of the day, rumors swirled about how he’d died: a hit and run, a deadly
assault, and other nasty scenarios. It turned out he’d killed himself. He’d been found hanging in his grandmother’s shed. He’d left no note of explanation, only his lonely corpse.

My emotions and thoughts were jumbled together—sorrow for his family’s grief, comfort from not being afraid anymore, but mainly guilt that my harsh words might’ve driven him to take his own life. I thought back to the morning when Tommy had shown up out of nowhere, of the bizarre events that led up to his departure. Now you see him, now you don’t.

###

Tommy had made me anxious and fearful, but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t show some compassion. That’s more than I can say for his so-called fans. The funeral service was depressing enough, but the lack of attendees made it even more tragic. Only a handful of students came. Not even Principal Haynes bothered to show up. I was grateful that Mrs. Sharon and Ms. Brown were there.

An elderly woman sat up front with a couple of other adults. I heard someone say that she was the grandmother whom Tommy had moved in with after his mom had died. She was bent by grief, hitching with despair. The most heartbreaking thing about burying her grandson must’ve been that so few people mourned him.

They had laid Tommy out in a cheap, no-frills coffin. He looked odd wearing an oversized gray suit, his gapped-up hair slicked back. A rent-a-priest pretended to know about the kid he’d never met. After the service, two funeral home attendants shuffled to Tommy’s coffin and began lowering the lid. Now you see him, now you don’t.

###

I skipped the graveside service. Several folks were driving in the opposite direction of the cemetery, so I figured I wasn’t the only one. I thought about going home, changing clothes, and returning to school. Maybe doing something normal would help take my mind off Tommy. But when I got home, all I wanted to do was to go to my room and nap. I fell asleep right after my head hit the pillow.

I didn’t wake-up until after dark; my parents let me sleep. My stomach growled; I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. I didn’t know what was being cooked for dinner, but it smelled terrific. I couldn’t wait to get downstairs.

I went to the bathroom and took a shower to wake up. As I returned to my bedroom, I found the lights were off. I was ninety-five percent certain that I’d left them on.

As soon as I entered, I froze. Tommy, dressed in his funeral attire, stood next to my bed, wearing that awful grin. I took off like a bullet, screaming. My parents attempted to calm me down, but I couldn’t stop shaking.

We all went upstairs to my room to look for Tommy, but I knew he wouldn’t be there. Mom and Dad exchanged worried looks. They tried to convince me that the recent events had left me overwrought and that the hallucinations would stop. But I knew it wasn’t the last time I’d see The Disappearing Boy.

###

It’s been decades since I sat in Mrs. Sharon’s English class looking at the nerdy kid hiding behind a book. I remember how acceptance by his peers hadn’t encouraged him, only corrupted him. Tommy had a gift. Most of us believed that. But the naysayers were always trying to figure out how he’d pulled off his illusions. They never did. Tommy said that what he did wasn’t a trick, but real magic. That’s the thought that haunts me.

I see him now and again around my house, at the office, or somewhere in the distance. He mainly shows up in my nightmares. Forever sixteen, he looks like he did at his funeral.

Sometimes he’s gloomy. Other times, he has that horrifying grimace etched into his thin, pale face. I shiver every time. I’ve considered going to a shrink, hoping they’ll tell me it’s all just a guilt-induced fantasy. But then, I think, If a person can disappear and wind up someplace else, couldn’t he teleport himself from a buried casket?

Over the years, I’ve become accustomed to his appearances. My husband claims to have seen him from the driveway. He looked up and there was Tommy, glaring at him from one of the upstairs windows. That’s my Mike. The thought of the Carolina Panthers having another losing season terrifies him more than seeing the ghost of a long-dead teenager.

But my eight-year-old, Stella, is another story. She started seeing him a few weeks ago. The first time, she woke up screaming about the scary boy standing at the foot of her bed. I wasn’t ready to tell her his story, so I convinced her it was all a nightmare. Then I curled up next to her and held her until she went back to sleep.

The other night, she caught him looking over her shoulder while she was watching TV.

Remembering the awful horror of her screams still makes the hairs on my arms and neck stand on end. Finally, I decided to be truthful with her.

“Oh, Mama,” she said, “can’t you just tell him to go away?”

I felt so impotent. How do you tell your child that you can’t protect her from a ghoul in her home? Or that we now share a common nightmare? I just pray that someday, somehow, I can help her find some peace and acceptance. Deep down, I wonder if I ever truly found either.

It’s late. The lights are out. Mike and Stella have been asleep for hours. I’m waiting, listening. Trembling. I smell sour sweat. I’m not surprised by the sound of Stella’s closet door squeaking open.

Now you see him . . .

Credit: P.D. Williams

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