Image source: Disdéri & Cie., Adolphe Bilordeaux (French, born 1807), G.M. Legé (French, born 1809, active Paris, France), et al. [Cartes-de-visite album of French actors, actresses, and dancers], 1860s, Albumen silver print, 44.8 × 32.7 cm (17 5/8 × 12 7/8 in.), 84.XD.428. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

That first night underground, I examined the sketches thumbtacked to the designer’s bulletin board in the costume shop and copied their silhouettes into my school notepad. The poses hinted at a world beyond the page—a glance over a shoulder, a hand shading eyes. One dancer bent to collect a bouquet of red paint droplets. I borrowed the poses, but where there had been women in pointe shoes, I drew my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Fid, and Alison*, the victim-witness coordinator who had picked me up from school that day. Now and then, the ceiling above me shook and footsteps knocked across it in a scattered diagonal from the spot above the elevator, then to the mannequins, and finally to the exit, like heavy rain moving over farmland. I wrote this down in my notebook, beside the drawings. Life underground = too loud.

The costume shop ran beneath the entire ballet academy and mirrored the layout of the studios above it. A brief hallway linked two rectangular rooms like a pair of eyeglasses. The first room was crowded with drafting tables and cardboard boxes full of tutus from Giselle and The Nutcracker. In the second room, closets opened to reveal satin skeins marked “pumpkin blossoms” and “cherry” and “Chicago/dawn.” I imagined the designer, who would never know I’d lived there, using his memories to name the colors. As I moved down the color gradient, stopping now and then to poke at the material, I imposed my own names: purple gel pen lifted from classroom, tumbleweed and sagebrush seen from squad car, police station gray.

We had arrived at the ballet studio around eleven p.m.  My mom sat on a stool in the room where we’d planned to stay for a few days. I looked at her crossed ankles, the edge of a legal pad bouncing as she copied emergency phone numbers from the business cards of detectives and victim advocates. Her friend Jack*, the groundskeeper, was the only person outside of the Special Victims Unit who knew we were there. He had converted a tiny dressing room into a hotel room for us, with a white alarm clock on the floor, a stack of pilling fleece blankets, a hand-powered lantern, and an air mattress wedged between the two walls of plaster that didn’t quite reach the ceiling. That was where we lived. At night, pale lights from the exit sign stretched over the partition.

In school, we were reading a book called How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, a young adult novel that began as a detective story before gradually spiraling into the surreal.  “You’ll find this funny,” Mrs. Fid said to the class. “I was trying to order this book, and when I searched for the title in Google, I got results for people trying to go off the grid. Stuff like, ‘First, decide you’re someone else. Get a new passport. Dissolve your assets.’”

I wondered why disappearing as an adult sounded so hard. Kids went missing all the time. To vanish seemed easy. A classmate asked why anyone would want to go off the grid, but that part made sense to me. Maybe your life was unruly and you needed a break, or you wanted adventure, or you had committed a crime. Maybe someone else had.

Earlier that day, Mrs. Fid had drawn the typical arc of a plot across the white board, taking occasional breaks from cheering, “Rising action! Denouement!” to sip coffee from a paper cup. The line, drawn in purple dry-erase marker, crept up from the bottom of the white board to a solid dot labeled “inciting incident.” The words “rising action” stretched along the incline, ending at a peak titled “climax.” The second side of the arc, a downhill slope marked “falling action,” was much shorter, and ended abruptly at a point labeled “denouement.”

When an older student slipped into the room and passed me the green ticket to go to the principal’s office, Mrs. Fid shrugged, waved me off. “Go ahead,” she said, “But come back!” I took the ticket and walked down the hall. It had been cut out of recycled paper. As I passed the library, I realized I hadn’t written down the definition of “denouement” and didn’t even know how to spell it. At the end of the hall, through low, square windows, I could see the staff parking lot, crushed with dead leaves, and beyond that, the Sawtooth Mountains.

In the principal’s office, two detectives stood between my mom and Mr. Swanson*. Years later, he, too, would be escorted from his office by detectives when his wife, a music teacher at a neighboring junior high, was accused of statutory rape. It was an unlucky office. The detectives drove my mom, my sister, and me to the family justice center, divided us, asked questions. The center was decorated with a confusing combination of beanbags, Legos, and public service announcements about domestic violence. It was meant to offer resources to victims and present a less sterile face than a police station, which we drove to later in the evening. On the way to the station, Alison kept twisting in the passenger seat to examine me, asking, in her Texas drawl, “You sure you ok, hun?” Again, I promised that I was. I actually was okay. Over the years, with each retelling of the story, this fact would feel like a narrow escape compared to the experiences of less-fortunate friends.

Later that night, in the costume shop, my sister Agnes and I crouched behind a naked mannequin and discussed our plans. She was seven years old and took ballet lessons with me at the academy. She pressed up against my ear and said she’d heard the older girls talking about a secret passageway connecting the ballet studio to the symphony building across the parking lot. We decided to pursue the case. We ran our fingers over the drywall, searching for the ridges of a hidden door. As we explored, we talked about how we weren’t particularly surprised that our father was under investigation, although we wondered what exactly he was under investigation for, what the inciting incident had been. As we wandered, we strung together a necklace of clues: an overheard threat, a switch in his tone, the day he put her nightgown in the microwave and stood watching the gossamer fabric sprout tufts of flame.

That night, we laid down in the dark on the mattress. “It’s just like that book about the children that went to live in the museum,” my mom said. Her tone was optimistic, though not cheerful. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, and tucked the blanket around my sister. She shone her cellphone light under her chin like a scary storyteller and giggled. Agnes said, “Oh no,” humoring her, and rolled over.

We stayed in the costume shop for five weeks. Early mornings, at 4 a.m., we would sneak upstairs to shower in the locker rooms, then slide out the door before the studio opened. Once, a cleaning crew stopped me, and I froze, smiled, and waved. Another time, the professional dancers held what they believed was a secret rehearsal in the middle of the night, and rocketed up and down the stairs in their pointe shoes, hollering and laughing, their voices winging through the dark at us like bats.

Years later, when my father is released from prison and rumored to be living at a halfway house somewhere near the edge of town, and we are back home, I wander down a flight of stairs after a Nutcracker rehearsal in search of a water fountain and step into a tunnel lit by panels of fluorescent lights. My hair is sticking to my neck and I feel frenzied from hours of exercise, so I tiptoe forward, barefoot, and follow the bends of the vent.

When I surface on the other side, I am not immediately aware that I’ve found the secret passage to the symphony. Years ago, my mom had pointed out that if there was a hidden passage, one of the adults in the building would have known about it. My sister and I eventually agreed with her, but still wondered.

As I grow up, I will find adulthood less intimidating than most of my friends, and the reason for that is not mysterious. In high school, I’ll smell a caramel shampoo like the one I used in the dressing room, and remember those stark early mornings. Sometimes in late November, I’ll spend a week or two feeling like everything is about to shift. One night, years later, I’ll end up at a friend’s apartment and miss the anniversary entirely.

For a moment, as I move through the tunnel, I assume I’ve been turned around and have re-entered the ballet academy. But as I walk into clearer light, I begin to hear violins and cellos tuning in the studio above. Songs on either side of me, but this one is entirely new.


*Names changed to protect their identities.

Molly McGinnis

Molly McGinnis grew up in Boise, Idaho. She studied at American University in Washington, DC, and now works in bioethics. She has written for CQ Researcher, Hobart, Grace in Darkness, and the American Institute of Physics, among others. She has work forthcoming in the Journal of Oncology Practice. Find her here: @mols_of_america.

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2 Comments on “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found

  1. I liked this narrative, but here’s a correction. You wrote:
    That night, we laid down in the dark on the mattress.
    It should be “we lay down”.
    Sorry, but really, this distinction needs to be learned. I know it’s hard, when all around people are using lay and lie wrongly.

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