Andrea Cremer and David LevithanSpeak An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.Chapter One
I was born invisible.
I have no idea how this worked. Did my mother go to a hospital, expecting me to be just another normal, visible baby? Or did she believe in the curse, did she know what was going to happen and have me in secret? It’s such a strange image, even to me: an invisible baby, born into the world. What was that first moment like, when I was held up to my mother and there was nothing to see, only feel? She never told me. To her, the past was invisible like I was invisible. She let it slip that there was a curse—angry early words with my father, not meant for my ears. But that was it. There was no other why. There was no other how. There was only the what, and that was my life.
Invisible. I am invisible.
I want to keep asking my parents why. I want to keep asking my parents how. But I can’t anymore. They’re gone now.
My father left when I was small. It was too much for him.
My mother held on for as long as she could. Fifteen years. And then her body broke. A blood vessel in her brain.
I have been alone for almost a year now.
I can never be seen, no matter hard I try. I can be touched, but only if I concentrate. And I can always be heard, if I choose to speak. These, I suppose, are the rules of the curse. I have gotten used to them, even if I don’t understand them. When I was a baby, I automatically had weight, but the more conscious I became, the more I had to concentrate on being held. I do not evaporate—part of me is still there, so I don’t fall through floors or walk through walls. But to touch—that requires effort. I am not solid to the world, but the world is solid to me. The curse is its own intricately woven, often contradictory web, and I was born into it. I am an unknowing slave to its design.
New York City is a remarkably easy place to be invisible, as long as you have an absent father who contributes to your bank account from time to time. Everything—groceries, movies, books, furniture—can be ordered online. Cash never has to pass from one hand to another. Packages are left outside the door.I stay inside a lot, but not always.
I live four blocks from Central Park, and I spend most of my most afternoons there. It is where I choose to live my traceless, shadowless life. I am just another part of the expanse. I am there in the trees, in the air, by the water. Sometimes I will sit on a bench for hours at a time. Sometimes I will wander. At every moment, I observe. Tourists and regulars. Dog walkers who pass at noon each day, clockwork. Large packs of teenagers, jockeying loudly for each other’s attention. Old people who also sit and stare, as if they have all the time in the world, when deep down they know the opposite is true. I take them all in. I hear their conversations, witness their intimacies. I never say a word. They are more conscious of the birds, the squirrels, the wind.
I do not exist. And yet I exist.
I miss my mother. When I was a child, she taught me how to concentrate, how to give myself weight when the instinct began to fail. That way, she could still carry me on her back, tell me to hold on. She wanted me to live in the world, not apart from it. She would not abide any mischief on my part—no thievery, no spying, no taking advantage. I was cursed, but I was not meant to curse others. I was different, yes, but I was no less human than anyone else. So I had to act human, even when I wasn’t feeling human at all.
She loved me, which is perhaps the most remarkable thing of all. There was never any question. By which I mean: there were many questions, but none of them had to do with love.
She taught me to read, even though she had to turn the pages most of the time. To write, even though the simple act of typing on a keyboard can exhaust me. To talk, when only she was around. To be silent, when anyone else was around. She taught me science and math and history, and how to cut my hair and my fingernails. She taught me the stories of my neighborhood, the stories of her day. She was comfortable telling me about the sixteenth century, or about a show she’d seen on TV. The only period that was blank was the year of my birth. Or anything directly before. Or anything directly after.
She never told a soul. And because of this, she too was alone—alone with me. Like mother, like son. There were kids I grew up with, but only because I saw them around a lot, got to know them through observation. Especially the kids in my building. Alex in 7A has been around the longest—perhaps I remember him first because of his red hair, or maybe it’s the consistency of his complaining. At six, he wanted the latest toys. At sixteen, he wants to stay out late, to get more money from his parents, to have his parents leave him alone. I am tired of him, as I am tired of Greta in 6C, who’s always been mean, and Sean in 5C, who’s always been quiet. I think he would envy my invisibility, if he knew it was possible. But since he doesn’t, he settles for the other options, the more voluntary invisibilities. He cloaks himself in books. He never makes eye contact, so the world becomes indirect. He mumbles his way through life.
And then there was Ben, who moved away. Ben, the only friend I’ve almost had. When he was five and I was ten, he decided to have an imaginary friend. Stuart, he named him, and that was close enough to my name, Stephen, for me to play along. He’d invite me to dinner, and I’d come along. He’d move to hold my hand in the park, and I’d take it. He’d bring me to kindergarten for show-and-tell, and I would stand there as the teacher indulged his whim, nodding along to whatever Ben said about me. The one thing I couldn’t do was speak to him, because I knew that hearing my voice would spoil the illusion. Once, when I knew he wasn’t listening, I whispered his name. Just to hear it. But he didn’t notice. And by the time he turned six, he’d outgrown me. I couldn’t blame him. Still, I was sad when he moved away.
My days are very much identical to one another. I wake up whenever I want. I shower, even though it’s hard for me to get dirty. Mostly I do it so I can concentrate myself into having a body, and then feel the sensation of water hitting my skin. There’s something human in that experience, a communion with the ordinary that I need each morning. I don’t need to dry off; I merely disappear, and whatever water that’s left on my body falls straight to the floor. I go back to my room and put on some clothes, for warmth. They disappear as soon as I put them on—another of the curse’s finer details. Then I turn on some music and read for a few hours. I eat mostly at lunchtime—the spell also covers whatever I put into my mouth, so mercifully I don’t have to witness the effects of my digestive tract. When lunch is done, I head out to the park. I press the elevator button, then have to wait in the lobby for the doorman to open the door for someone else before I can leave. Or, if no one is around, I open it myself and assume that, if it’s seen, someone will blame the door, or the wind. I pick a bench that no one will sit on—the birds have gotten to it, or it’s missing a slat. Or I wind my way through the Rambles. By the tidal pools, I have no reflection. By the band shell, I can sway to the music without anyone noticing. By the ponds, I can release a sudden cry, causing the ducks to spring in the air. Bystanders have no idea what’s happened.
I come home when it’s dark, and read some more. Watch some television. Go online. Again, typing is hard for me. But every now and then, I will painstakingly set out my sentences. This is the way I can participate in the language of living. I can talk to strangers. I can leave comments. I can volunteer my words when they are needed. Nobody has to know that on the other side of the wirescape, unseen hands are pressing the keys. Nobody has to know my central truth, if I can offer them much smaller truths instead.
This is how the time passes. I don’t go to school. I don’t have any family. The landlord knows my mother is gone—I had to call the ambulance, I had to see her taken away—but he believes my father is still around. I will grant my father this: he has never disowned me. It’s just that he doesn’t want to have anything further to do with me. I don’t even know where he is. He is an email address to me. A cell phone number.
When my mother died, all the whys and hows returned. Grief gave them fuel. Uncertainty pointed me backward. For the first time in my life, without the buffer of her love, I felt truly cursed. I only had two choices, to follow her or to stay. Reluctantly, I stayed. I immersed myself in other people’s words, in the park, in weaving a nest for my future out of the loose strands that I had left in my life. After a while, I stopped wondering about the why. I stopped questioning the how. I stopped noticing the what. What remains is simply my life, and I lead it simply.
I am like a ghost who’s never died.
It starts with Ben’s old apartment, 3B. Two doors down from my apartment, 3D. Ben’s family left when I was twelve. Since then, the apartment has gone through three waves of tenants. The Cranes were a horrible couple who spent all their time saying horrible things to each other. They enjoyed their cruelty too much to get a divorce, but it wasn’t any fun to be around. The Tates had four kids, and it was the imminent arrival of the fifth that made them realize a two-bedroom apartment wasn’t going to work. And Sukie Maxwell was only planning on being in New York for a year, because she only had a year to design her client’s new Manhattan apartment before moving on to redecorate the same client’s house in France. She left so little of a mark on my universe that I didn’t even notice her moving out. It’s only when I see a set of movers carrying an old, worn sofa—a sofa that Sukie Maxwell would have never approved of—that I know she’s left our building and a new family is taking her place.
I walk past the movers and head out to the park without giving it much thought. Instead I focus on Ivan, my favorite dog walker, who is making his afternoon rounds with Tigger and Eeyore (a dachshund and a basset hound, respectively). From conversations he’s had with other dog walkers, I know that Ivan came to Manhattan from Russia three years ago, and is sharing a room in the Lower East Side with three other Russians he met online. This is not working out well, especially because Ivan is trying to woo Karen, the live-in nanny for the younger members of Tigger and Eeyore’s family. I’ve seen them too, in the park, and think that Karen and Ivan would make a good match, if only because he treats the dogs kindly and with a sense of humor, while she does the same with the children. But it is clearly out of the question for Ivan to stay over at the house of his employers, nor does he want to bring Karen home to meet his questionable roommates. It’s a stalemate, and sometimes I feel I’m as eager to see the resolution as Ivan is.
There seems to be some progress today, because about ten minutes after Ivan comes to the park, Karen follows with the children. They seem to be aware of each other, but with the children around, they’re hesitant. I follow as they head towards the statue of Alice in Wonderland, then get closer as the kids leave them to play. It’s just Tigger and Eeyore now, and neither Karen nor Ivan is making the first move.
I can’t help myself. I lean down, concentrate hard, and push the two dogs in different directions. Suddenly they are darting in circles, and Ivan and Karen are at the center of their leashes. They are flung together, and while at first there’s shock, it’s the kind of shock that ends with smiles and laughter. The dogs are barking maniacally; the kids are rushing over to see what’s happened. Ivan and Karen are pressing against each other, trying to disentangle themselves.
I’m smiling too. I have no idea what it would look like, to see me smile. But the feeling is there.
There’s no certainty that the little spark of the moment I’ve given to Ivan and Karen will become anything other than a moment. Still, I feel good as I head back to the apartment. I wait for Mrs. Wylie (4A) to come in, and I rush through the door behind her. Then we ride in the elevator together to the fourth floor, and I press three on the way back down. When I emerge from the elevator, there’s a girl in front of 3B, holding three bags from IKEA. As she fumbles for her door key, all three of them drop to the ground. I gingerly walk past her, then wait by my door—there’s no way for me to take my key out of its hiding place and open the door until she’s gone from the hall. I stand there watching as she scoops a pair of bookends and some cheap picture frames back into one of the bags. She is either cursing at herself or cursing at the bags—I can’t tell which. I am thinking about how Sukie Maxwell would have died to have IKEA objects in her perfect apartment, not really paying attention when this new girl looks straight at the space where I’m standing.
“Are you really going to just stand there?” she asks. “Is this fun for you?”
All the electricity in my body is suddenly alert, amped to a level of consciousness I’ve never felt before. I turn to look behind me, to see who’s there.
But there’s no one there.
“Yeah, you,” the girl says.
I cannot believe it.
She sees me.
Copyright © 2014 by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.