The Town That Disappeared
By Tom Foster
April 2nd, 2014
Somewhere along I-5 Northbound
It was there, I know it was. A whole place doesn’t just up and disappear. It doesn’t, I know it doesn’t. I saw the lights starting to glow before it was gone, and I knew it was there. I’m not crazy, I know what I saw, and I know what was there in front of my goddamn eyes.
I’m not crazy!
I was walking along the highway one day, it’s not too far from my home after all, and I expected to reach the small town of Woodland, Washington only a few hours after leaving my home. You might think I’m nuts to even bother walking along the highway, it’s not at all safe and runs the risk of a cop picking me up because it’s so “illegal”. Pah, my father would have gladly spat at the cop and told him where to go with his illegal bullshit. But my dad’s been dead and gone now for nearly thirteen years, and he surely would’ve smacked me upside the head for thinking what I’m thinking now.
The whole world around me has gone crazy, and I can’t understand it.
To be fair I’m what’s known as the town drunk, always in my cups and don’t give two shits about what anyone thinks. But just because my lips are always around the rim of a bar glass or a bottle doesn’t mean I’m nutso. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest now for going on fifty-two years, and I know what’s what. I know that Kalama, where I’m from, is only a little over eleven miles, a short enough distance for someone that used to do the hood to coast run when I was younger. If I was still in the same shape I was in when I was in my thirties I could cover that span in a little over an hour. Now it takes me a little over two hours most times to cover the distance, if one of the local highway patrolmen don’t bother getting up in my business, as the kids like to say.
But I tell you now and I say it before Jesus Christ Almighty and before all of His saints and angels alike, the town was not there.
You think I’m drunk right? Hell no, that would be more fun and offer me a better excuse. I might have pickled my body and my brains years ago, but I know what’s what and I know that the town of Woodland disappeared when I was there. I saw it!
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Old duffer’s gone and let the drink fill in the empty
spaces that the alcohol destroyed. My mind is still as razor sharp and fit as it ever was despite
my drinking. I still hold down a job and keep it under control long enough to get an honest day’s
work in. I manage to keep a household secure and in one piece. I don’t hit my wife and have
never struck my kids. I’m known as a happy drunk goddammit, I don’t hurt people when it’s not
necessary. But I’m still a drunk, and everyone knows it. After work I’m drinking, during dinner
I’m drinking, and whenever I’m not at work or have a free moment I’m drinking. My wife has
learned to live with it, as have my kids. I can say with a straight face that I’m a responsible drunk, or, excuse me, alcoholic.
I sometimes forget that people feel the need to be all PC and shit. I grew up in a time that if you had something to say you said, and if the other person didn’t like then you might get a hard knock in the nose. Nowadays people need a “safe place” and over-obsess about their feelings and the motivations behind why this person said this or that person said that. I’d dare a shrink to try and analyze my mindset after seeing what I did. I’d probably be sent to the nearest psychiatric facility and pumped full of sedatives in the next hour.
I’ve seen old pictures of Woodland, when it was a logging camp primarily and didn’t have the fancy roadways and overpass it has now. Back then the land was owned by only a few people and the government, but was still wild. People didn’t really know what to do with such wide open areas in that era, except maybe to settle them and make a homestead. Believe it or not the town didn’t really get a reputation as logging town despite where it sits. It was a trade town, built around a single homestead that eventually blossomed into a city.
Nowadays it’s gone the way of a lot of older cities that started well over a century before. Businesses have come and gone, people have come and gone, and the town just kind of drifts now and then, unable to find itself for a while before something or someone comes along that reminds the people of their supposed greatness. It’s kind of inspiring in a way, but sad too considering that they’ll lose that focus once again, and all too soon.
I can’t say much, as I’m a Kalama native. My city was at one time a part of the logging industry but has since that time kind of fallen into lethargy. You can see the bulk of our little town, city is such a strong word, as you speed by on the highway. It’s a place where people tend to drift and just stick like barnacles, or like seedlings taking root. Yeah, that works a little better.
It’s the kind of town that if you’re raised there you try like hell to get out once you have the chance, or you get stuck. I got as far as Longview in my youth and then felt myself getting pulled back, and here I am.
But back to that disappearing city.
Places don’t just fade away like I’ve seen. I’ve done a bit of research on ghost towns and found some interesting sites. Even sober and with a ringing headache I can honestly say that what I’ve found is kind of disturbing. I looked up this town called Ashley, Kansas, and didn’t initially believe what I’d read. It was like someone had put zombies, demons, and UFO’s into a blender just to see what would come out. The story was obviously unbelievable, and even looking up Ashley, Kansas on the map revealed that the place didn’t exist.
There were plenty of reasons given as to why and how this could be. People want to believe the unbelievable, they want to be frightened and shocked all the damned time and won’t see past the sensationalist garbage to realize that the truth of the world is less than glamorous and mystifying. People want to believe so badly that they’ll fool themselves.
I didn’t want to see this, and I for damned sure didn’t want to start thinking of myself as a crackpot.
You won’t believe me, and that’s okay. I barely believe and I’ve seen it. That’s how the explanation is supposed to go, isn’t it? The one telling you he doesn’t believe is supposed to convince you through sheer willpower that he’s telling the truth and that he’s not the crazy asshole he seems to be? Well shit on that, you’ll either believe or you won’t, and I’ll tell things the way I saw them.
I was walking along I-5 as I’ve done in the past, making my way along without a care in the world, a flask in my hip pocket and a pint in my rear left. It would have been easily seen by any of the freeway cops that patrol the strip so regularly, but I tend to keep out of sight when I want a nip. I might be an alcoholic but I ain’t a goddamned nitwit like some other folks. I also carry a fifth in the pack I always carry on long walks such as this, as well as a decent-sized meal that can carry me through.
The traffic on that day was fairly light, being as it was about a month ago on a Sunday, and on the Lord’s day most people don’t want to travel as much, unless of course it’s coming home from vacation or taking off to someplace no one knows where. People are funny, they wait and wait to take vacations and once they do the vacation is most often worse than the life they’re trying to escape from. My own family likes to take vacations, but just so long as its somewhere we can get away from one another for a short while. Hell I’ve lost count of how many vacations we’ve spent in the same place but still apart. I think it has something to do with me being a drunk, but by the time we get there I’m three sheets to the wind by the time the trailer’s set up.
Anywho, I was alternating walking close to the highway and just beyond the guard rail as much as possible. I didn’t want to be seen but I also didn’t want to slip down the embankments that run the length of the highway. Some of them are damned hard to walk even in dry conditions, and that day we were still coming out of a wet winter, so the ground was plenty saturated.
I didn’t think a thing about anything, this was just one more walk down the same highway I’d taken before, but I guess I should have known something was up. There weren’t any screeching tires or panicked faces that I could see through the windows, not even a hurried glance back that might have indicated something was wrong. A lot of people though, around the time that the sun was starting to set, started getting this really funny look in their eyes.
You know that look you get when you’re really, really tired, but don’t want to nod off just yet? It’s a glazed kind of look, the type most people reserve for when they’re so out on their feet that they don’t even realize it until their body gives up the ghost and dumps them to the ground. People can still operate in that mental fog I’ve noticed. Hell I’ve done it plenty of times before my boss told me to not bother coming in if I wasn’t laced up tight and without a drop of the nip in my blood.
I was still walking along, assuming it was a good day to be out in the ever-decreasing
wilds, when I happened to notice a few individuals across the highway shaking their heads as
they passed by. I took the opportunity to stop within one of the wide, grassy medians that
separates the northbound and southbound lanes, having risked my life to cross the busy road just
so I could have a nip and a bite, but I saw them.
Most of the time if you’re moving you don’t have much chance to see the people in their cars. The speed they’re going is just too damned fast to allow anything more than the barest glimpse inside those dark windshields. But I could see enough of them that I noticed something funny. One or two people looking strung out, worn out, or otherwise tired, is pretty normal. People travel I-5 back and forth all the time, and there’s always those commuters that make that ungodly trip from point A out in the goddamned BFE to wherever they might be working in the city. Can’t be helped sometimes, the pay is just too good to pass up despite the time you spend on the road. The missus and I did it for awhile until the kids damned near burned the house down on one occasion.
Anyhow, I was biting into my sub sandwich, heavy on the spices and meat and light on the veggies like the missus knows I like it, when I started paying attention to the drivers headed north. It was kind of hard to see at first, but a few of those were going slow enough that I could see them shaking their heads so as to clear the cobwebs or something like that. I found it kind of odd that so many people would be so tired all at once, but as strange as it seemed daylight was wasting, and I meant to make it to Woodland before true sunset, so as to be able to call the missus to come and pick me up.
These little walks of mine have been a particular quirk for years, and one that the wife and kids have learned to live with. They worry about me and all that, but they know too well that being born and raised around this place I know my way around. They still worry though, and despite not showing it or telling them, I appreciate it. Drunk I might be, and watched closely everywhere I go, I’m still not completely heartless.
After taking another few drinks and stowing what was left of my meal and my drink back in my pack I braved the mostly empty lanes of traffic again in order to make it back to the east side of the highway, finding solid enough ground to tread upon while making my along the final stretch into Woodland. Only problem was I didn’t see anything that would have allowed me to recognize the area I was looking for. This here is the part where I might begin to sound a little cracked in the head, as my dad would have liked to say. It’s also where I began to feel like things around me were becoming a little bit unraveled.
I know the entrance into Woodland well, and I know what to expect. The road signs that hang suspended above the highway have stood there since I can remember, always telling travelers and commuters alike which way to go, which road goes where and faithfully delivering them to those places without fail. Only now they weren’t there. I thought at first that I might have had a more than just a nip during my last stop, that I’d somehow drank more than I needed to in order to keep going, but that just wasn’t the case. God help I think I wished it would have been just then. Having my wits disappear down a bottle would have been a hell of a lot better than living with the memory I have now.
The signs weren’t there. The turn-off wasn’t there, and as I crested the rise I felt the
strange sensation of pushing through a warm, stiff barrier almost like a rising mist, but I couldn’t
see anything. Once I was past that feeling I shook myself several times and looked forward. I
saw Woodland, but it didn’t look right. I know, that sounds like the rambling of a drunkard who’s taken one too many before going on a long hike. But it did not look right at all.
It looked almost like a picture out of focus, fuzzy in a way due to bad exposure or the hands of the person behind the camera shaking too damned much. I had to stop on the side of the road and continue to blink as I sat my ass on the guard rail, hoping no one would just come plowing into me. Or worse, I didn’t need a member of the vaunted highway patrol coming by to perform a damned breathalyzer. I’d been collared enough times by then to be on a first name basis with most of the precinct, an honor my wife isn’t too proud to claim.
I got back up and started walking again, noting how the setting sun was kind of turning the whole landscape ahead of me ablaze with color. Drunk I might be, but I can still appreciate a good sunset and the way it seems to revive the land if only for a few moments. Just then it was like the land ahead of me was on fire, just waiting to burst into flames. It was so bright I had to squint just to see, and even then I had to put up a hand to shade my eyes from the brilliance. That was when the weirdness really started to happen.
Once the sun was down the highway remained, the bridges near the end of town remained, still supporting the traffic that continued onward, unfazed it would seem by the swiftly dissolving buildings, the way that people on the side of the road, in the market parking lots, and those busily going about their business, just seemed to disappear. I felt my jaw drop at this as in their place I saw trees, nothing but trees and gently rolling hills for as far as I could see. Remember, I know Woodland, been around here all my life.
But it wasn’t there anymore. As dusk swiftly made its transition to night I stood on the side of the road, finding a perch to settle my butt down on as cars came and went. None of them even slowed down as they went by, as though the disappearance of an entire town was something that happened every day. I felt almost like I was in a movie, or perhaps one of those shows where the dipshits with the mesh hats jump out and yell “Surprise!” Imagine my disappointment that nothing even half as crazy as this happened.
I didn’t have a phone on me at that point, and it’s probably a good thing I didn’t. My wife likely wouldn’t have understood a damn thing I would have said just then, and I wouldn’t have blamed her. Anything that might have come out of my mouth at this point would have sounded like a whole mess of nonsense that no one wants to deal with. I was there, and I was just waiting for my senses to clear and someone to tell me to get the hell out of their way. After all, I’d sat right where a road should have been if not for the soft hillock I’d found to park myself on. But nothing happened. Cars just kept going by, and by, and by.
Most men and women might go stark raving mad at such an occurrence, and I think I felt a few screws loosen upstairs, but not enough to send me over the edge. Really, I just wanted a drink. So I sat there and I drank, and I drank, and after a while I think I must have passed out because by the time I woke up it was early morning, and the sun was just starting to crest over the woods to the east.
Of course the first thing I did was look around, and all I saw again were hills and trees.
The town hadn’t come back at all, not even a single building, and cars were still going by on the
highway just a hundred feet away. Surprisingly I hadn’t been hauled off by the highway patrol, which was just as odd. I think I was more grateful than anything really, considering that I could have been spending that night in the county clink if they’d bothered to look for me.
I smacked my lips, I slapped my cheeks until they were rosy, and I blinked however many times I could to make things come back, to make myself think it was all just because of a drunken binge. But nothing happened as the sun continued to rise in the sky, painting the overhead landscape a gentler, less imposing blue as a few clouds were shown high above the mountains to the east. I was all set to gather my pack and just get going until the blast of a horn nearly made me soil myself.
Now recall I said that I had been seated on the spot where a road would have run through. The horn was issued by a driver that had seen me somehow appear in the middle of the road at the last second, and couldn’t have stopped had he tried. The truck, a big-ass Peterbilt that managed to skid to a bone-jarring stop only a hundred yards off, would have flattened me like a pancake if I hadn’t dove out of the way, scraping one shin pretty good on the pavement and scuffing the elbows of my sweater considerably. Small prices to pay to avoid being road pizza.
The driver got out of the truck and came running back to me, partly to see if I was hurt and partly to cuss me out for being in the middle of the goddamned road. He actually asked me if I’d passed out in the middle, being as he could smell the alcohol on me. I replied with a grimace that if I’d parked my ass in the middle of the road the smokies would’ve already tossed my flea-bitten hide in the drunk tank. His anger subsided a bit, but he still wanted to know where I’d come from all of a sudden.
My mind was whirling too fast and was filling with too many questions to give him an honest answer just then, so I said the only thing that could come to mind. I’d been walking, and unfortunately not watching where I was going. My head was filled up with one lie after another as I fed it to him, and he accepted it grudgingly but a firm nod of his head as he told me to be more careful. After ascertaining if I was indeed alright he went on his way, tipping his cap while grumbling the entire way back to his rig. People had stopped to look by then, but it wasn’t a big crowd. Around these parts it doesn’t take much to gain attention, but unless it’s a big accident you don’t warrant a second look by a lot of people.
I stumbled off to find a safe place to walk, looking all around as a few people still stared after me, perhaps thinking to call the cops, perhaps to even wonder just what kind of element was inhabiting their town now. That’s how it happens you know. A single person can be noticed in a town of any size if they act just a little different than what is considered normal. It takes almost no effort at all to be noticed by those who are otherwise unfamiliar with the different ways people act outside their sphere of influence. You take a person from the big city and put them out here in the border towns and you’ll notice. Take one of us and plunk us down in the city and there’s bound to be notice. My kids tell me that way of thinking is outdated, old news, but I dunno, I happen to think it still applies.
Woodland was back, and I didn’t know. Worse than that, for all the times I’d walked
through this place, all the memories I had here, and all the roads and avenues I had memorized, I
now felt like a stranger, an intruder. It was as though the disappearing act pulled by the town had excluded me in a way I’d not been prepared for. Somehow the town had just faded off into dusk and been reborn by daylight. It kept wracking my brain trying to discover if anything I’d ever heard in my life could make this make sense. Unsurprisingly nothing came.
I gained more than one odd look as I made my way around town, still ogling the mundane, normal view I was afforded. In truth I think I might have looked like a madman, hair all askew, clothes rumpled and probably filthy, and looking around like I’d just seen a ghost. Honestly though, it was almost like I had. My mind was still moving a mile a minute trying to figure out just what had happened. I mean really, how do you process something like that? It’s like someone turned off the lights and the town just disappeared, and once the light came back, so did the town.
Eventually I headed into the only place I could find to sit and make sense of what I’d just seen, one of the local taverns. It’s a place where a few bar flies know me, but everyone just sticks to their own business for the most part. Small town folk might seem a lot nicer than those in the city, but overall we tend to keep our own business close to the vest so to speak, if only to keep everyone from knowing about it. This wasn’t something I was ready to start screaming to the heavens about, but it was damned close.
Instead I ordered a beer and sat there, nursing the bottle while I mulled around in my head the idea that if I sat there long enough I might soon disappear with the town. Does that sound crazy? Well then hell’s bells, took you long enough to get to that point.
That one bottle was the longest of my life as I sat watching the faded, dusty television that was suspended over the bar, waiting for something, anything, just a word or two about the disappearance of Woodland the night before. The rational part of my brain, the part that insisted it would never come to pass, was rewarded when, aside from several horrible reports about killings in the city, car accidents on the highway, and even a horrific rape only two towns away, nothing was said. I wanted to laugh, I wanted to smash my bottle on the bar and cackle like a loon. Hell I wanted to dance on the bar and tell everyone in there, all five people including myself, that we were doomed if we stayed here. But instead I just sat there and continued to drink my beer.
It was going flat by the time I ordered another, dimly realizing that it had not taken me this long to drink a beer since I was fifteen and just getting into the habit. I had wasted more time thinking about how this could be spun to make sense than I had about the drink in my hand, which was extremely out of character for me. Normally I would have drained the first one and had two or three down me by that time and be reaching for the fourth.
Something about the way this was all turning out had me wanting to be at least halfway sober though. My mind had already stalled thanks to the number of questions that had attempted to make themselves be known en masse. I badly needed a rest, and I needed to get home. At that point the wife and kids would have been worrying about me, though it wouldn’t be the first time I’d ever stayed in Woodland after a walk. That’s quite a hike after all.
Unfortunately it was the first time I didn’t make the effort to call. That alone would get
them worried, but they hadn’t called the cops they told me later, mainly because they already knew from experience that a person has to be missing at least 48 hours before they’re considered truly missing. Ain’t that a bitch?
You could be dead at the bottom of a ditch, stuffed in some creep’s trunk, or suffering any other horrific fate and in order for the cops to do something you’d need to be absent for at least two whole days. Meanwhile, your body is undergoing torture or decomposing wherever it might rest. The legal system is just a divine process of absolute bullshit I tell you.
I made it back to Kalama that day, and boy did I call it right. The wife and kids were on me like flies on shit, asking me where I’d gone, what I’d done, and what in the hell I thought I was doing just up and leaving without my phone. I tried to apologize to my wife and warned the kids to watch their tone, but only the missus refused to back down. The kids know better at this point in their life. I’ve been drunk around them so many times that they’ve become almost immune to it, but they know too well when I’m sober that I’m to be minded, if only because I will defer to their mother before getting drunk. Any punishment for stepping out of line that they might incur will be handled by the sober parent who can remember what they said.
That seemed a little unfair at times, but thus far it had worked. I felt a little more guilty than usual when I screw up though, mostly because during their tirade I wasn’t thinking of how badly I had scared them. I was thinking of Woodland, and how those within the town might have felt if they’d known that they and the town itself had disappeared for an entire night.
I’d been going to Woodland by day and night for years and this had never happened. I’d stayed in the town countless times and never noticed it. So why was it happening now? Part of me wanted to say that it was because I was getting old, perhaps slipping a cog upstairs or something, but I didn’t want to cop to that. Agreeing that you’re slipping is a step down the path to senility that I don’t want to tread.
I thought about Woodland all day and night for nearly a week before I’d made the decision to go back, but in truth I’d been thinking about it ever since waking up in the middle of the road. There was some next level shit going on around, or in, that town, and I wanted to know what was going on. Call it being nosy, or call it just needing to know. I wanted to see why the town had disappeared, and why it had never once been noticed.
Science fiction and fantasy theories abounded in my head, but I couldn’t get around the illogical premises that vied for my attention. I wanted to believe that there was a perfectly logical explanation for what had happened. It had to be something with me, some hallucination brought on by too much drinking or something. I’d read up on such things before in the past when my wife had suggested AA. She suggested it, she didn’t demand it. That’s part of how our marriage works, she doesn’t demand anything and neither do I, unless it’s important of course.
After all the years I’d been drinking though I didn’t see how it could have been a hallucination, or even the product of a diminished mind. I know what I saw, and I knew after the next week that I was determined to experience it again.
This time though I was gonna be smart about it. To be fair I just kind of stumbled onto the effect the first time. There was no way to be ready for it, and no way I could have possibly expected what came next. This next time though would be different. I wasn’t going off to war with some unknowable and evil force, but I was out to settle what was, in my mind, a very serious issue that needed solving.
I didn’t really expect what I would find.
I went back, against my wife’s wishes and without even hearing my kids. If that makes me a shitty husband and dad I suppose I have to live with it now. I don’t have much else to live with.
I made my way back to Woodland, following the same path, carrying the same items, and expecting the same result. Part of me was almost frightened that it wouldn’t happen again, that I was a crackpot and was just deluding myself. But I know what I saw, and unfortunately it had become a compulsion to see it again. I took off around 2 o’ clock in the afternoon, almost two full hours before sunset this time of year, and I was making damn good and sure to stay where the highway cops couldn’t see me. I didn’t need my trip back to madness being interrupted after all.
My wife made me take my cell phone this time. I’d conveniently forgotten it the last time, as I’d wanted just a little peace and quiet for a while. This time though she’d badgered me into taking the damn thing just so she could check in with me now and again. I had thoughts of chucking it into the woods, but at that point she might have actually called the cops, as she’d given me a good half hour lecture on why I needed to just let this go. Funny, she didn’t seem to think I was crazy at all, she just wanted me to forget about it. I guess I should have listened a little closer.
But I’m stubborn. It runs in my family and will no doubt emerge in my kids when they get older. That simple fact has damned me more times than I can count.
So I went back, and once I got to the highway signs I’d already started to notice the people in their cars again. They were shaking their heads as though trying to clear them, coming out of a stupor they couldn’t understand, and likely as not wouldn’t remember that they’d seen a town starting to fade away like a Polaroid in reverse. I thought nothing of it as I made my way into the town, fully expecting to see it fade and shimmer as it had before.
Even being prepared for something like that though your mind doesn’t let you just accept it. I was breathing hard and felt my heartbeat going a mile a minute as I began to make my way into the town proper. I had to wonder what would happen once the sun went down again, and I had to see it.
This time was no different, it was already starting to shimmer and waver like a heat
vision as the sun was just barely tingeing the tree tops a golden hue. Every last bit of the town
was fading like a mirage when I saw someone approaching me. It was a man, and he was
smiling, but I didn’t understand why at first. When he reached me he stopped only an arm’s
length away. I still didn’t know why he was smiling, or why he’d approached me like he knew
me. All I knew was that I was about to witness something that I believed that no man before me
had ever seen before. Boy did he set me straight.
“Sonny,” he said, despite the fact that he was obviously several years younger I was, “You just made a big mistake, possibly the last one of your life.”
I felt my eyes widen as he said this. Obviously I didn’t understand, but it sounded like he was threatening me just then. He still had that smile on his face, but it was fading just as he was, along with the rest of the town.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He chuckled, “Only a real dipshit would see something like this and come back to see it again. You might’ve at least learned the rules after that first glimpse.”
Now I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. I do now, but of course, hindsight is always a bitch, and not a very nice one.
“What rules?” I asked him.
He just shook his head, still smiling, “You don’t get to leave now big guy,” he said jovially, “Anyone that knows about this place knows that. You might as well just settle yourself in for as long as it lasts. I expect it won’t be too long.”
I wanted to ask him what he meant again, but at that point the darkness had been coming on quick, and the town was gone before I could voice my question. The wilderness of before had come back, and as I have already found out, it is not a particularly nice place.
Did you get that? The town disappears, poof, gone like that. But when it comes back, so do I.
If you don’t get it by now then I’m done explaining. It’s time for a drink, then I’ve got to go.