“Invisible” by Brie Barbee

Margaret used to have an irrational fear that one day she’d wake up and no one would be able to see her. She’d look and feel the same, but no matter what she did — or how much she cried — everyone would act like she wasn’t there.

Which might seem like a silly fear to some people, but Margaret never had the easiest time making friends and her parents worked odd hours, so she was alone a lot. She didn’t even have the built-in companionship of siblings to keep her company. It wasn’t a big stretch for a lonely 10-year-old girl to believe she could disappear altogether.

It took a great deal of effort (and some counseling at her mother’s request) for Margaret to convince herself that worrying about people not being able to see her was as unlikely as it was terrifying. Life returned to something like normal; she was able to go to school every day and sleep soundly every night, even if she was still anxious. And things might have continued that way for a long time if her irrational fear didn’t suddenly become rational the day Margaret woke up invisible.

Despite imagining these exact circumstances over and over again as she lay awake at night, Margaret didn’t immediately realize that no one could see her. A large part of her recurring nightmare had been that she wouldn’t be able to interact with physical objects or people, like a ghost caught between dimensions. However, as her brushed hair and milk-splattered cereal bowl that morning would attest, that wasn’t the case in this situation. She may have noticed that she was invisible sooner if her parents had been around to see her off to school, but not all of us can have perfect families.

She didn’t even really begin to suspect anything was out of the ordinary until she was waiting at the bus stop that morning. She bounced in place restlessly, the thought of the heater at the front of the bus — her favorite place to sit when the weather got cold — the only thought on her mind, until a pair of bright yellow headlights appeared in the early morning fog.

The oversized vehicle drew closer, and just as Margaret expected it to stop in front of her with a hiss of its brakes and let her onboard — it blew right past her. She watched as her only way to school disappeared into the distance without her on it.

Margaret whined under her breath at the inconvenience of it, but quickly realized there wasn’t anything she could do about it now. Her mother would be angry if she went back home and woke her up for a ride, so Margaret decided to walk the rest of the way to school.

When the young girl finally arrived at the elementary school, the muscles in her legs twitching from the exertion, she was tired and already ready for her day to be over. The fact that she had arrived nearly 30 minutes after the last bell had rung definitely didn’t help; she began to dread the eyes of the other students on her back when she finally made it to class.

Margaret approached the front door of the building and reached out to open it — only to find it locked. She pulled on it harder, to make sure it wasn’t just stuck in its frame, but it didn’t budge. She could see the janitor, an older man wearing overalls, through the glass portion of the door.

Margaret knocked gently at first, and then more firmly when the man made no sign of hearing her. She knocked until her hand hurt, but after several minutes of standing in the cold, with no one moving to let her inside the building, she gave up and left.

By this point, Margaret could definitely tell something was wrong. The bus driver, and now the janitor, both hadn’t seemed to notice she was there. Tears clouded her vision and threatened to spill over, like a pot of macaroni when she forgot to turn the heat down. She tried her very best not to cry, even if she began to suspect no one would be able to see her if she did.

After trying a side door in case it had been left unlocked, Margaret decided to go back home. Her mother should be awake by now, and she could probably convince her to let her skip school today. When she got home, she found the front door locked as well, which made sense considering her parents weren’t expecting her back for several more hours. Margaret could see her mother in the kitchen, but she didn’t seem to notice her daughter was outside, even when she rang the doorbell.

You might think this meant Margaret had bad parents, because after all, how could good parents not realize their only daughter wasn’t in school? Margaret’s parents weren’t bad people, but they were tired ones, the kind of tired that sinks into your bones and causes you to miss things you might otherwise not. That, combined with the fact that the school secretary had somehow managed to skip over Margaret’s name on the list of absent students that day and hadn’t called her house, didn’t help either.

By this point, having walked to school and back again, Margaret was thirstier than she could ever remember being before, so she walked to the convenience store down the street to buy a juice. The cashier didn’t look up when she entered, even though the bell on the door jingled when she opened it. Margaret walked to the back of the store and grabbed a stout bottle of her favorite apple juice and brought it back to the counter.

“Um, excuse me?” Margaret said, trying to get the cashier’s attention. “I’d like to buy this, please.” She had a few dollars of her allowance with her that she usually used for the vending machines at school. The cashier, a younger woman glued to her phone, didn’t look up.

Margaret didn’t feel right taking the juice without paying for it, but she didn’t know what else to do when the cashier wouldn’t acknowledge her, so she left a few crumpled dollars on the counter and hoped it would be enough. She walked back to school, unsure of where else to go, and sat down on the swing set. It wasn’t recess yet, so there was no one else around. Margaret was all alone, swinging back and forth in the otherwise empty playground.

For the most part, Margaret didn’t mind being alone. It could be lonely at times, sure, but it could also be relaxing to not have to deal with other people when you wanted to read or draw. However, Margaret was becoming distinctly aware of the fact that she had seen multiple people today and none of them had noticed she was there. Her worst fear was coming true: she really was invisible.

Her heart began to beat rapidly in her chest, like a trapped bird trying to escape from her ribcage. Her breath quickened as well, coming out of her throat in shorter and shorter gasps. Despite feeling like she was surely about to die, she tried to remember what her therapist had told her to do in times like these. Focus on five things you could see, four things you could touch…

In the end, she couldn’t remember exactly what the grounding technique should have been, but it seemed to work anyway, and eventually her breathing was under control again. She could still feel her heart beating painfully in her chest, but she tried to ignore it.

Before long, dozens of children flocked to the playground, but none of them paid her any attention. They didn’t try to play on the swing she was sitting on, but even if she waved at them, no one seemed able to interact with her.

She drank her juice quietly and sniffled. Being invisible wasn’t quite like she imagined. For one, she still had juice, something that hadn’t always seemed obvious in her nightmares. So, that was good. But it was very lonely, lonelier than it was when you had to stay at home while your parents worked and cook dinner by yourself.

Margaret was so engrossed in her own anxieties that she didn’t notice when a girl came up and stood next to her. “What are you drinking?” The girl asked curiously. She had her hair pulled into pigtails and was wearing a dark hoodie with sleeves that hung past her hands.

“Apple juice,” Margaret replied sadly, without looking up.

“Apple juice is my favorite.” The girl said, sitting down on the swing next to Margaret. “You’re Margaret, right? I’m Courtney. I sit behind you in Ms. Smith’s class.”

It took Margaret several seconds to realize how significant this conversation was. “Wait, you can see me?” She asked in awe.

“Yes,” the girl replied matter-of-factly. “Why wouldn’t I be able to?”

“No one else could today. It was like I didn’t even exist.”

“Yeah, that happens sometimes,” Courtney said casually, pumping her legs as she swung back and forth. “But it never lasts, you know. Someone always sees you eventually.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just that. It might feel like you’re invisible, but you’re not, at least not really. It’s not your fault if other people can’t you. It just means they weren’t looking hard enough. But eventually someone remembers to look in the right place, and they see you.”

“Is that what you did just now?”

“I suppose. Sometimes it takes someone who knows what it’s like to feel invisible to see you.”
Despite her worst fear coming true and no one being able to see her, what Courtney said made a lot of sense. However, Margaret couldn’t shake the lingering feeling that the next time this happened, she wouldn’t know what to do.

“Will you help me if this ever happens again?” Margaret asked, a bit self-consciously.

“I think that’s what friends are for.”

The two girls talked for the rest of recess. Courtney told Margaret about her dads and her annoying brother, and the two began to form plans to have a playdate later that week.

When the bell signaling the end of their break rang, the two girls walked back to the school together, thick as thieves. In that moment, Margaret didn’t even feel anxious. Ms. Smith, their homeroom teacher, was holding the door open for the returning students as they headed back to class.

“Margaret. And Courtney. It’s nice to see you two together.” She said kindly, as the two girls walked through the door, giggling quietly.

Margaret couldn’t help but smile at that. “It really is, isn’t it?”