One Man’s Curse
Back to school sucks. Especially this year. Normally you can numb the pain by catching up with friends or by getting back into sports. But not now. It’s only classes this year, nothing fun, everyone separated by sheets of plexiglass like we’re at a bank or something.
And back to school sales? They always make it seem so joyous with posters of smiling, anthropomorphic pencils and apples that for some reason are just so damn happy to see you. Total BS. Everyone wears masks at the store now, but I know exactly what faces they’re all wearing—the same, dull, mildly annoyed expression that says “shut up and let me get my pencil sharpener and notebooks so that I can leave.”
I look anxiously down the road for any sign of the bus, but the street remains painfully empty. I told my aunt I was going to the store to get some school supplies, which I did, but I may have taken a detour through the skate park along the way. I can still make it back in time for the stupid dance classes she’s signed me up for—apparently, she doesn’t think skating is a good enough hobby for someone of my, you know, gender—but there won’t be enough time if I skate back. The bus is my only option at this point.
Finally, I hear the glorious sound of a diesel engine, and the big, blue city bus pops into view from around the corner. As it pulls up to the curb, I shoulder my bag—now full of colored pencils and erasers that I will never use—and am about to head up the steps when I feel someone push past me and cut their way to the pay station.
“Hey, watch it jagweed!” I call out angrily. I recognize the boy. He was in a couple of my classes at school last year, but I don’t really know his name. He’s super quiet most of the time and keeps mostly to himself. I let out an annoyed sigh as he disappears into the mass of people standing in the aisle, and I climb into the bus with angry steps.
“Sorry, ma’am. We’re at capacity. You’ll have to take the next one,” the bus driver says apathetically.
“No! Seriously? Just let me through, I’m small.”
The driver shrugs and covers the receiver on the pay station. “Sorry.”
With poison in my glare, I tug my mask down, stick out my tongue, and bound back down the steps, kicking the side of the bus as I disembark.
Well crap. I’m definitely going to be late now. I look at the rear of the bus just as it’s pulling away, and before my mind even knows what my body is doing, I drop my skateboard under my feet and grab a hold of the back bumper, just like in Back to the Future. I duck down low as the bus pulls me forward, adrenaline surging through my veins.
I laugh, shocked at myself. I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff before, but this has to be at the top of the charts. If my aunt saw me right now, I’d be in so much trouble. Shoot, if a cop saw me right now I’d be in so much trouble. There are a few pedestrians on the street, but no one seems to have seen me yet. My hands turn sweaty as the wheels of my board vibrate dangerously against the uneven pavement, and I consider letting go and forgetting the whole thing before we get going too fast, but a battle rages in my mind between my desire to avoid the wrath of my aunt and my natural sense of self-preservation.
If I could only turn invisible.
Then, just like that. I am.
I almost let go, that’s how surprised I am. In fact, at first I think I have let go when I look down and see nothing connecting me to the bumper. My arms, legs, clothes—shoot, even my board is invisible.
What in the actual hell?
My first instinct is to panic, but I’m too amazed and too excited about the endless possibilities to stay that way for long. Imagine all the places I could go skating that are usually off limits, all the movies I could see for free—whenever theaters open again, that is. This is nuts!
A few stops later, I’m scrolling through a mental list of ways to exploit this new development when I see the boy get off the bus and walk towards a patch of trees a ways off, his steps slow and his head held low. I wonder what he’s doing out here. This part of town is notoriously sketchy, and most of it is just abandoned warehouses and train tracks anyways. What this kid could be up to is beyond me.
I’m so distracted by this weirdo that I don’t even realize the bus is pulling away again, and I suddenly lose my grip. I rush to grab the bumper again, but it’s too late. The bus is already moving too fast. I cus internally and slam my board against the street. This fricken boy. That’s twice now he’s caused me some sort of delay in getting home.
He turns around at the sound of the board clattering along the street, and I pause as he looks directly at me, but then his eyes move on, unaware of my presence, and he continues walking.
Well, so much for making it home in time. As long as I’m stuck here, then, I might as well put my invisibility to good use. A fiendish thought crosses my mind, and I decide it’s about time to deliver some sweet justice to this kid. I’ll just scare him a little, just enough to make him piss his pants. I follow him into the trees, making sure to soften my steps as I walk, and trace his path through the loosely packed woods. We continue on for several minutes, with nothing but the trees and an occasional squirrel to keep us company, and soon the minutes begin piling up to an uncomfortable level. There’s a weakly defined dirt path, but certainly nothing trodden enough to indicate that it’s frequently used. I begin to worry that he’s headed somewhere weird or creepy. I don’t want to know what this guy does deep in the forest.
I’m about to head back and forget the whole thing when the trees clear and we emerge alongside an old, rusted railway bridge that spans the length of a canyon. It has to be hundreds of feet deep, with a small river curving lazily around a series of bends, its water green and brackish. What could he possibly be doing here?
I follow him to the edge of the bridge but I draw the line there. I’m terrified of heights. To my horror, he jumps up onto the rails and continues along the side of the bridge, making his way toward the other side. There are bits and pieces missing from the planks below the rails, and he’s forced to hop over certain sections, something he does with complete fearlessness.
This kid’s psycho, I think to myself.
Then, when he reaches the rough mid-point, I see him take a deep breath and climb up the barrier along the side until he’s practically standing at the very top. He closes his eyes and stretches out his hands, and I feel my heart stop, suddenly realizing what he’s about to do.
“WAIT!” I yell, practically flying up onto the bridge by instinct alone, my panic overriding my fear of heights. The boy lowers his arms and looks around frantically, but clearly he still can’t see me.
“Who’s there? Who are you?” he shouts, still scanning the edge of the forest. I run the final steps to where he’s perched on the ledge and take a second to grab my breath, a little unsure of how to respond. He turns back and looks down at the river again, and I can tell he’s about to proceed, so I force my mind to work harder than it ever has before in its life and spit out a quick response.
“Your angel! Yeah, your angel!” I say breathlessly. Crap, I need to work out more.
“My angel? Now?” He turns his head skyward, an enraged expression carved onto his face, and he begins shouting. “You know how long I’ve prayed for an angel, and you decide to send one now? I’ve been praying for miracles, I’ve been praying just to be seen, and now, after years of silence, right when I’m about to remedy my pain on my own, you send an angel, now? For what? To stop me? You want me to continue living like this? What kind of sick god are you?”
He takes one final step up onto the railing and leans forward, but I hurry and grab his jeans with every last bit of energy I have. He stumbles as I pull him back, hitting his chest and head against the cold, rusted steel before collapsing to the ground on top of me. I let out a strained wheeze and shove him off onto the space between the rails and the barrier along the side.
I look over and see him staring through the holes in the barrier, blood spilling from a gash on his forehead and tears rolling down his cheeks. I almost feel bad, but then again, I did just save his life. Then, without warning, he gets up and begins climbing again. With an exasperated groan, I grab him by the shirt this time and pull him into a bear hug, squeezing him so tight that he can no longer use his arms. After a couple minutes of a struggle, he gives up and slumps back down to the ground. Sobs penetrate the peaceful air, and he buries his head in his hands.
I sit down next to him, my mind alight with all sorts of questions, and I try to decide how to react next. I can’t really leave him here, can I? But what can I do? He doesn’t even think I exist; I’m invisible for heaven’s sake.
I’d guess probably a half-hour slips by quietly. His sobs stop after a while, but his head remains firmly fixed to the insides of his arms. I don’t want to abandon him, but I’m beginning to worry about what my aunt will think if I don’t show up soon. Still, I can’t leave him to do something stupid. I could drag him, maybe? But I don’t know, he might think it’s the devil or something, seeing as he’s religious and all.
“Please don’t make me go back to school. Please.”
“What?” I ask, surprised by the sudden break in silence. He lifts his head up and stares past me.
“Why didn’t you send an angel earlier? When I needed you?”
“Well,” I begin, making crap up as I go along. “I’m here now, yeah?”
“Can you make me normal?”
“Normal! Can you make me normal? Like everyone else?”
I feel like throwing up, and guilt suddenly rocks my chest.
“Hey, no one’s normal, kid.”
“More normal, I mean.”
I’m silent. For once, I don’t have a witty remark or a throwback, and even if I did, now probably wouldn’t be the time. He shakes his head, seemingly taking my silence as a rejection.
“How about making someone see me? I don’t need much. Just something to let me know I’m not invisible.”
A tear rolls down my cheek as I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the intimate dive into this boy’s heart. I can hear the pain infused into his words, his longing pouring out of his eyes with each tear. Funny, how all I wanted earlier was to be invisible, and it turns out that’s this kid’s living nightmare. I stare at him through my clouded eyes, feeling more powerless than I ever have before.
“Why don’t you go talk to someone or something? You know. I’m sure people just need the chance to get to know you.”
“No! I can’t! If you’re my angel, then you should have been listening to my prayers! I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I just can’t. I try, but I can’t. It’s like something takes my voice and I stand there looking stupid!”
“Well, you seem to be talking to me just fine.”
He lets out a tired sigh and puts his head in his hands, kicking a broken piece of wood with his toe.
“That’s different. You’re an angel.”
His words make me feel all fuzzy for a hot moment, but then the guilt returns, guilt for not noticing this kid before, for stalking him through the woods, for impersonating deity. Deity? Are angels deity? I don’t know, I never really went to church. Regardless, whatever they are, I’m not it.
“Okay, here’s the deal. You give me one more day, yeah? And I’ll see what I can do. Just go home for now, get yourself to class tomorrow, and I promise I’ll help you out. Deal?”
School starts tomorrow, so maybe I can find him or alert someone or something. I don’t know, it’s a long shot. Hopefully I’m visible by then again. I’ll go home and see if I can reverse what I did earlier and wish my invisibility away or whatever. There’s a stab to my heart as I realize that’s what this kid has been trying to do, for years apparently, and to no success.
He turns his head to look in the direction of my voice, his cheeks stained by the dirt tracks where his tears cut into his face, and he gives me a small nod.
I stand on top of my board, looking above the crowd of students milling about before the beginning of class, taking care to look out for teachers as I do so. Turns out this invisibility thing only lasts a day, for me at least. So, one less thing to worry about.
The bell’s about to ring and I haven’t seen the kid yet. I looked him up in the school directory by his picture, and, as luck would have it, we have our first class together again this year, but I’m by the door to the classroom and he hasn’t shown up yet. The seconds tick away the final minute on the clock across the hallway, and each flick of the little red hand sends my blood pressure spiking even higher, my breaths quickening with each moment. What if he broke his deal? What if he went back to the bridge and flung himself off? The thought brings the threat of tears back to my face, and I’m a fraction of an instant away from breaking down when I see him.
He’s over by the stairs to the second floor, curled up and hugging his backpack, staring at the linoleum floor as the masses flow around him, all oblivious to his presence as they rush to their first class. I jump off my board and cut across the hallway, ignoring the insults hurled my way as I bump into people. Then, my good sense makes a presence and I slow to a casual walk, not wanting to appear weird and creepy for running up to him.
He looks up when I stop beside him and I lower my mask to give him a friendly smile.
“Hey! How’s it going? You were in my class last year, right? I think we’re in the same boat this year, too.”
He lowers his own mask. A smile passes his face, and I wonder if he recognizes my voice. I reach my hand out to help him up and he takes it.
“Sorry, I never really got to know you. My name’s Tess, what’s yours?”
“Wyatt,” he says shyly. It’s probably the first time I’ve heard him say anything inside school boundaries. I smile wider and take him by the hand back across the hall.
“Well, come on Wyatt. Don’t want to be late for class on the first day.”
As we’re crossing the threshold into the the room, the chiming of the bell echoes loudly across the campus from one end to the other.
Just in time.