I’m at the White Plains Public Library for the first time in years, even though I’ve been working only a block away for the last three years. I’m looking for science fiction, of course. I have a list I printed off the Net of stories and books relating to invisibility of one form or another. Two lists, actually; one from www.dustbury.com/fidb.html and the other from a site I can’t find to save my life.
Anyway, on my way to the general fiction section I pass a machine with a sign across the front that reads “Literate Lucy.” It looks kind of like those racing video arcade games that you actually sit inside. I ask a library staffer about it, and she tells me that it’s the latest thing — a hologram operated by the machine reads to children, pointing out words so they can sound them out and learn to read for themselves.
It’s officially “out of order” because one of the maintenance people got a friend of a friend who’s into hacking machines to make the machine, or rather the hologram woman, a little more adult-user-friendly. She says the machine still does what it’s supposed to do, but it’s out of service until the “custom” program, as she called it, can be removed.
“Holographic teachers,” I think. “What will they think of next?” Anyway, I’m walking down a rather long aisle when I pass a cart loadd with books on their way to being reshelved. I’m looking through the L’s for anything by Rosaleen Love, if the library carries her stuff.
Suddenly I spot movement to my left, but when I turn to look, I don’t see anything out of the ordinary. Up to this point I haven’t been paying special attention to the book cart, so I don’t know if there’s anything unusual about it, so I turn back to the shelves and resume my search. After a few minutes I see motion again, so I turn to look.
Immediately I notice a book lying open on top of the other books on the cart. I know for a fact that the book was not there when I saw the cart before. Moving towards the cart, I find that the book is a collection of stories by Brian Aldiss, one of the authors on my lists. Naturally, I’m anxious to check out this book, but someone else is evidently reading it, or was reading it anyway. I turn to resume the search for Love, since I know that Aldiss’ books and stories are much easier to find than Rosaleen Love’s, even online. I’m especially interested in one book, “Total Devotion Machine,” and I don’t want to give anyone the chance to get to it before me. I resume my search.
I don’t find anything by Love, but I do find one by Edward Ludwig, another author on the lists. As I flip through the book, I spot movement to my left again. This time, when I turn to look, the Aldiss book is gone from the rack.
With the Ludwig book in my hand I walk toward the rack to see that the Aldiss book has not been filed with the books on the cart or on the shelf. When I look around I don’t see anyone walk away with a book in their hands. In fact, I don’t see anyone else period.
What I do see, however, on a nearby table is a small pile of books. The names catch my eye: Gardner Dozois, Algis Budrys, Brian Aldiss, Robert Silverberg, Thomas Berger. All names from my lists. What really throws me for a loop is the open book at the top of the pile: the Aldiss book from the cart.
Now, I wasn’t exactly scoping out that book cart, but I know for sure I never saw anyone come up to that cart and take that book. I have no idea how the book could have gotten there by itself (I’m sure it’s not possible) but I decide to look through the book to see what’s so special about it.
I move to sit down at the table, but just as I’m about to sit down I hear what sounds like a muted gasp. I assume I’m hearing things.
After all, there’s no one sitting at the table. But when I actually sit I DO make contact with something… or someONE… soft and warm under me. All at once:
- I look down to see what I’m on, but all I see is the chair several inches BELOW whatever I’ve come to rest on;
- I reach below me with my left hand and I kid you not, I feel, but don’t SEE, a LEG below me; AND
- An agitated-sounding female voice coming from directly behind my head calls out in a VERY loud voice, “HEY!!”
In my surprise at making contact with… an invisible leg and being screamed at by some phantom female voice, I scramble from the seat. In my haste to retreat my left foot hooks around a table leg, sending me tumbling onto the floor just as a dozen or so people come running to see what all the commotion is about.
They’re looking for the woman they heard, and of course all they see is me, sprawled out on the floor. “Are you OK?” a man in the group asks me.
“Yeah, I’m alright,” I answer, more embarrassed than hurt. All of the people in the group, except one girl, are looking at me like I’m some kind of weirdo. The girl, who is very pretty and looks to be in her late teens or early twenties, is smiling like she’s in on some huge joke.
“Are you sure you’re OK?” she asks, fighting to keep a straight face. Before I can answer, she notices the books on the table. “Interesting,” she says. “You like sci-fi?”
“Yeah, but those aren’t my books,” I answer as I pull myself back up on my feet. “They were piled on the table, and I was just about to–”
“Ooh — Budrys!” she says excitedly. I can’t believe a young girl reacting like this to sci-fi. Maybe it’s a stereotype, but I wouldn’t have expected a girl to like sci-fi at all. But she’s talking. “I love Budrys’ stuff, but it’s hard to find. I like the way the science revolves around the story, not the other way around. So what kind of sci-fi do you like?”
“Um…” I start, not sure I want to be having this conversation. “Stories about invisibility, androids, virtual reality, nanotech, artificial intelligence, and even some… (*I might as well say it,* I thought) … gender-change stories if they’re not graphic or anything. But whatever the story is, it has to BE a story, not a bunch of specs and made-up names. I can’t get into that kind of ‘story.'”
“Gender change?” she says, eyeing me thoughtfully. “You don’t seem like the type… Anyway, you said you like invisibility. Do you think it could happen for real?”
“Invisibility? For real?” Not the kind of question you expect to be asked by a stranger, especially an beautiful stranger you’ve met in a library. It presents me with a dilemma. I have to pretend I think the idea is silly, but in fact what I had always fantasized about is having an invisible girlfriend, or at least an invisible female friend. How do I tell a stranger that? After a pause, I tell her, “I’m sure it will happen, but I wouldn’t want to be invisible myself.”
She looks at me with what looks like genuine surprise. “No?” she says. “I’m surprised — I would have thought guys would kill to be invisible.”
“Maybe some guys, but not me,” I reply. “By the way, my name’s John.” She introduces herself as Yvonne. I decide to spill the beans.
“What I would like, though, is an invisible girlfriend.”
Whatever madness that had gripped me earlier when I sat at the table is at it again, because right after my revelation to Yvonne I hear a gasp behind me, but there is no one there. What’s more, Yvonne nervously glances in the direction of the gasp, then quickly looks back at me. Before she can react to my statement, I speak.
“You heard that too, didn’t you?”
Yvonne frowns at me. “Heard what?” she says.
“Don’t play dumb with me; I saw you glance behind me at wherever that noise came from. What’s going on here, anyway? Is there… something about this table I should know?”
“What’s going on?” she repeats flatly. “You really wanna know?” She pauses for effect. For a second I think something’s about to happen. I picture something really stupid, like maybe she’s gonna burst into flames or something.
When I open my mouth to ask what she’s up to, she raises her hand and motions for me to wa
it. “What would you say if I told you there was one here in the library right now?”
“One what?” I ask.
“An invisible woman,” she says, smiling.
“If you told me that, I’d probably say that you were c–” I start, before something brushes against my right cheek. I yelp, since there is no one there that I can see, and yet what I felt was not an itch or a pain. It was a touch from a finger, a finger I didn’t see. In one fluid motion I jump up on the table I’ve been standing beside, drawing the usual curious crowd. In the front of the group is a fiftyish woman who seems to be in charge.
“Sir! Please come down off that table at once,” she says crossly. As I do, she continues, “This is your second incident today. One more and I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
I start to explain feebly, but the woman will hear none of it. “I really don’t want to know, sir. But do you think you can use the library quietly?”
I look at Yvonne, who’s snickering fiercely behind a bookcase. Somehow what I’m hearing seems like an awful lot of noise to be coming from one person. Without looking back at the librarian, I reply, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll be quiet.”
She turns and glances at Yvonne, who’s trying to compose herself, but says nothing to her. Only after the crowd disperses does Yvonne return to the table. She’s making all the motions of cracking up laughing, but making almost no sound.
“How did you do that?!” I ask.
“Actually, I didn’t,” she says, struggling to compose herself again. “That’s my friend, Lisa. You can’t see Lisa because… well, because she’s invisible.” Yvonne sees the look of disbelief on my face. “Lisa,” Yvonne says, looking around our general vicinity, “would you shake his hand so he knows I’m telling the truth?”
A smallish hand with moderately long nails takes hold of my right hand and shakes it firmly as a voice whispers, “Nice to meet you, John.”
“Y-y-you were telling the truth… there really is an invisible woman,” I say, more to myself than to Yvonne.
“Oh, I’m real, all right,” the voice says. “I kind of wish I wasn’t like this, though.”
“Um… I hope you don’t mind me asking,” I say, “but how did it happen?” Quickly becoming embarrassed, I add, “I’m sorry if I’m being nosy, but–”
She cuts me off. “You’re not being nosy,” she says. “It mean, if a voice was speaking to me out of thin air claiming to be an invisible man I’d want to know how it happened. ” Taking a breath, she continued. “Actually, it’s my crazy ex-boyfriend’s doing. He was doing antimatter research and stumbled across what he called an ‘anti-photon’ formula.”
“Anti-photon?” I repeated. “Sounds like something you’d have to use in complete darkness.”
The voice chuckled. “It does sound that way, doesn’t it? Anyway, he came up with this… this STUFF, in pills, ointment, and liquid. What this jerk did was get me drunk, gave me a shot of his liquid anti-light stuff, and then gave me some knockout pill that put me under for two days. Now I’m stuck like this.”
“Stuck? What do you mean, ‘stuck?'”
“After twenty-four hours, the effects of the antiphoton formula are permanent. Yvonne here was helping me see if we can find any kind of antidote. We’ve checked out what science textbooks we could find, so now we’re looking through the sci-fi stuff to see what we can find.”
“I see,” I said. “Then I’d better let you get back to work.” I start to walk away when a question pops into my mind. “Um, Lisa, when I sat on you, not knowing you were there, I felt…”
“You felt clothes,” she says, completing my statement, with a smile in her voice. “When I woke up in his lab, I searched and searched but couldn’t find an antidote or any notes about how to undo what he had done. The formulas were clearly marked, so I figured the best thing I could do was make sure I didn’t have to go around exposed to the elements. I sprayed the clothes I was wearing, which means now I can’t wear anything else without giving myself away. So, as you can see, I REALLY have to find my antidote.”
“Humor me, Lisa,” I say. “What are you wearing?”
She laughs. I would gladly listen to that laughter for the rest of my life, but it’s plain she has her work cut out for her. “A red… well, it used to be red, sleeveless column dress. I’m about Yvonne’s build, if that helps.”
Yvonne is a fine specimen herself, so it helps immensely. I picture what Lisa must have looked like before her crazy ex got to her as I leave her and Yvonne to their work. Somehow it seems like there must be more to the story than she told me, but it is HER story, after all, and she didn’t have to tell me anything.
I leave the table, and as I approach the “New Fiction” section, my eyes are graced by a vision that at once lifts my spirits and boggles my mind.
*That’s crazy,* I think. *How can that be Lisa when I was just shown that she’s invisible?*
But this woman was wearing exactly the outfit Lisa had just described to me. A red, sleeveless column dress, kind of like a tube top that extends all the way down to just above the knees. She has wavy light-brown hair that curls around her shoulders, and caramel-colored skin.
At least her arms are. She’s not facing me. She has her back to me, so all I really see is
a red dress framing a NICE rear end. I can’t help smiling, and evidently someone notices me smiling, because a voice whispers in my right ear, “I guess you like what you see.”
I know for a fact that there’s no one standing next to me, and I whip my head around and at the same time rear back from whatever the source of the voice is. So violently, in fact, that it’s a wonder I don’t break my neck in the process.
When I see there’s no one beside me, I look over at Yvonne, still at the table. Beside her a book is opened on the table, its pages flipping of their own accord. So right away I know it can’t be Lisa. “Maybe I’m cracking up,” I mumble.
The woman in front of me laughs right on cue, but without once looking at me.
“No, you’re not cracking up,” the voice whispers back. “You’re seeing what you think you’re seeing. You didn’t really believe that load of crap I gave Yvonne about being stuck invisible, did you?”
“No, I thought it was some kind of trick,” I whisper. “Now I’m sure I must be dreaming, or cracking up. I mean, that can’t be Lisa there in front of me, and I have no idea who or what you are.”
“I’m Lisa, silly,” says the whisperer, with a smile in her voice. “Who else would I be?”
“Impossible,” I answer. “How can you be whispering in my ear, and standing twenty feet away from me, and visible at that, and sitting at that table with Yvonne?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of being in more than one place at a time?”
“Yeah,” I say, “but it’s not possible.”
“Maybe not for you,” comes the reply, “but just watch this.”
Right after that, I feel a hand holding my right hand. I turn and look, and another Lisa is somehow standing there, holding my hand and smiling at me. Then another hand takes my left. I am not terribly surprised to see that it’s still another Lisa.
“Still don’t believe?” says the Lisa to my left.
“I do now,” I say to the one on the left, taking her hand and raising it to my lips to kiss it. When her hand is only inches away she disappears, along with the Lisa on my right.
“Sorry,” the voice whispers in my ear, “but I don’t want anyone to see me like that; it’s likely to cause a scene.”
“Why are you playing with me like this? And for that matter, why are you playing with Yvonne there?” Another glance at Yvonne finds her still flipping through a book, with another book flipping pages by itself beside Yvonne’s book.
“I don’t mean to toy with anyone, it’s just that I don’t have enough to do in here,” she says.
“You don’t have enough to do? Who are you, anyway? I mean who are you really?”
“You already know who I am, but if you want to know more you have to talk to me in person,” the voice says.
Another look at Yvonne finds her still at work at the table. Two of the books from
the pile on the table are floating back towards the cart they came from.
The woman claiming to be Lisa then turns to me with a huge beaming smile on her face. I am so dazzled by that smile that all my joints seem to have locked. I cannot move. I’m not even aware of breathing, though that doesn’t distress me like it should.
“Last chance,” the voice whispers in my ear. I manage a smile, but otherwise I’m still unable to move.
“Oh well,” the voice whispers, as the woman smiles and shrugs. “I tried. I’ll give you another chance… one day.” Unseen lips kiss me on my right cheek as the woman turns and walks slowly away. Only when she’s gone from sight am I able to move.
I immediately run to the last spot I saw her. When I turn the corner, I’m face to face with the Literate Lucy machine. The idea that the machine has something to do with what has just happened occurs to me but I put it quickly out of my mind.
The librarian sees the bewildered look on my face. “Something wrong, sir?” she says.
“Um, no. I don’t think so, anyway…” I decide to go ahead and ask the question that won’t go away. “Has anything… strange happened since you put that machine in here?”
“All kinds of strangeness, sir,” she says. “That’s why I didn’t throw you out of here the first time. The other patrons may not know about it, so I had to put up a front. As for that machine… I just don’t know. It works and then it doesn’t work. We’ve heard stories about ghosts, about some phantom woman that appears and disappears at will, about all kinds of things. It’s almost like the thing has a mind of its own.”
Comment reposted from my old blog:
Smooth and deft. I love the detail – creating a firmly grounded setting in which “impossible” things happen.I love the mysteries. Lisa’s whims, Yvonne’s role…The verification provided by the librarian, at the end, was a very good choice. We’re not allowed to presume that what we’re reading about is merely a daydream. That last sentence is a terrific chapter-closing line – the right words in the right place.
Thanks. I’m glad you liked it. It popped into my mind one day when I was actually at the library (then two blocks from where I was working) for the first time in years. There was some kind of machine just inside the library itself, outside one of the librarians’ rooms, and I started thinking “what if”… Of course, that can lead to trouble (did you see “The Time Machine”?) but in this case it was fun.
It seems most people aren’t as willing to indulge that “what if…” thought, and see where it leads.