A Curious Thing Happened
If she had known what lay in store for her that day, she might have worn better shoes. She had squeezed her feet into narrow dress shoes and, as it were, now stood at the bus stop, tapping her feet impatiently and checking her watch, while she prepared her mind for another boring day. Unbeknownst to her, this dreary Monday would be the last boring day of her life.
If she had been paying attention, she might have anticipated the bizarre sequence of events about to unfold. All of the signs had been there, signs that anyone other than her would have recognized – things she touched mysteriously getting lost never to be found, as if they had vanished, or her students treating her as if she was invisible. All of the signs had been there for months, suggesting that something strange was afoot. Yet a woman like Avia Marie Cooper, so disillusioned and keen on viewing her life as one long and boring loop, remained too fixated on this foregone conclusion to notice any evidence that she might indeed be wrong about her life. Thus, she began the day as she began most days, standing at the bus stop and silently speculating about what new heights of boredom her life might reach within the next twenty-four hours.
By the time Avia was standing in front of a classroom of thirty distracted high school freshmen, she knew that it was going to be a long day. As usual, Justin Goodman, kicked off the day by antagonizing female students – this time, he threw a piece of chewed gum at Tina McCall, who reacted by upsetting her desk and launching at him. Avia glanced out at the window at the gray sky and temporarily got swept away in a daydream about sunshine and tropical islands. She wondered if she should find herself a small, understated island in the Caribbean or Pacific, and just pack up, and move away from this cold, concrete jungle. In the next moment, however, she remembered her bank account balance and realized that she scarcely could afford grocery, so a flight to a tropical wonderland was out of the question.
Meanwhile, Tina managed to force Justin to the floor and slap him across the face a few times. Avia, yawning and suspecting that she had better load up on coffee before the next class, watched disinterestedly as two other male students pulled Tina away from Justin.
“Justin, get your things and go to Principle Smith’s office right now. No, don’t say another word. Just go,” said Avia, when Justin began to complain about his injury. Tina had decked him one good in the jaw, and the spot was turning red on his pale face. “Get out of my room, now,” Avia demanded, pointing at the door. The boy mumbled an expletive or two before storming out of the room and slamming the door.
She turned to Tina, who was looking defiant and disheveled. “Are you all right?” Avia asked.
The girl pulled her t-shirt down over her chubby belly and brushed her dark hair behind her ears. She averted her gaze and nodded.
“Good. Pick your desk up and have a seat,” Avia added. “And thanks for breaking that up, you two.” Avia glanced at the two lanky male students who had intervened and separated the fighting pair.
Tina resumed her seat and stared with rapt attention at her teacher, as though there had been no interruption.
“Now, take out your copy of 1984, and turn to the first page of chapter four, where we left off.”
With this, another day of teaching the youth of America commenced in Avia’s classroom, one classroom among thousands in the city of Chicago. “Another day, another fight, another goddamn standardized test,” a fellow teacher once had said to Avia while they commiserated about their disenchantment with the system. “That about sums it up,” Avia had replied, thinking about her paltry salary, her search for part-time employment during the summer months, and the students she lost every week for one reason or another. A student got gunned down in front of his house, or a student’s family got evicted from their home and now, because of the address change, the student was no longer eligible to attend Avia’s school. Whatever the reason, once the student was gone, Avia rarely heard from him again. Each loss hit her harder than the last.
When she mounted the bus on her way home, she hurried to the nearest vacant row, dropped down and placed her bag on the empty seat beside her. She turned and stared out the window. The rain had passed quickly, leaving a clear blue and sunny sky. It was a good day to catch up on some exercise outdoors, she mused, looking forward to a short jog along the lake. A run along the lake was just the right medicine to lift her spirits, if only temporarily.
As she closed her eyes and tried to rest her mind, a curious thing happened. She was jolted awake by a heavy weight pressing down against her thighs, sitting on her. Quite naturally, Avia screamed and shouted as if her life depended upon it. She pushed the weight – which turned out to be a small woman – away with all of her strength and stood up in a sweaty furor. “What the hell is your problem?”
What occurred next was not the natural reaction anyone in Avia’s situation would have expected. Indeed, what happened next was quite extraordinary. Several individuals fled from their seats and collided into one another, in an effort to put some distance between themselves and Avia.
Avia surveyed the scene and realized something was terribly wrong. The woman who had sat on her now lay on the floor, rubbing her backside and looking up with panic in Avia’s general direction. But she was not looking at Avia. She was looking somewhere near Avia. In fact, all the people on the bus seemed to be doing the same, peering in Avia’s general direction but not at Avia. “What—what’s going on?” Avia asked, more out of curiosity than anger now. As she spoke, numerous women shrieked and covered their mouths, their eyes wide in terror.
“Where is it coming from?” one young man with an unfortunate haircut asked, staring in Avia’s direction. He stood up and came toward Avia, his hand outstretched and patting at the air.
It’s just my luck I’d end up on the crazy bus, Avia thought. The bus, she realized, had come to a stop and the driver, a squat and balding man, was helping the woman on the floor to her feet. While Avia observed the bus driver, a pair of cold hands met her face and caused her to nearly stumble backward. She slapped the young man’s hands away like flies, and he jumped back, evoking more frightened screams from the crowd.
“There’s something there,” he said, pointing at Avia. He stepped back and pressed himself against another passenger who was sitting in an aisle seat.
“Yeah, that would be me. Hello. I’m standing right here,” said Avia, waving her arms over her head. “And I don’t appreciate being sat on.”
All at once, everybody started hollering and running toward the two exits, toppling over each other and dropping grocery bags. Before long, Avia was the only person on the bus. She folded her arms across her chest and looked toward the front exit where the bus driver stood hesitantly peeking inside. He scratched the top of his head and scanned the bus for signs of what had caused the disturbance. Avia noticed that he seemed to take a minute or so to decide something and gather his resolve.
“What is going on?” she whispered to herself, peering out at the passengers on the sidewalk. All of them stared wide-eyed at the bus. Avia did not have much use for clichés, but she could say with confidence that these people looked like they had seen a ghost.
As she stepped off the bus, no one seemed to notice her. All of the passengers were looking at the bus driver or else staring at the bus as though it was about to attack them. “Ex—excuse me,” Avia began, politely tapping the bus driver on his shoulder. He leapt away and let out a high-pitched scream more suitable for a woman than a man. He tripped over his feet and would have fallen if a passenger had not caught him. After regaining his balance, the bus driver spun around and pointed toward Avia, his eyes darting left and right.
“Something,” he said to the passenger next to him, “I felt something.” He paused and seemed to reconsider his words. Avia could see the panic dancing about his face and could imagine what he was thinking. He could not afford to have a nervous breakdown, not in front of all of these people. They would think he was mentally unstable, word would get back to his employer, and he might lose his job. He could not afford to lose his shit in public. “Ah, uh, nothing. Probably a spider,” he said, his eyes still darting back and forth in the direction of Avia. He turned around to face the rest of the passengers and to usher them back onto the bus.
Most of the passengers hesitated and shot wary glances at the bus. No one moved. It looked like the driver was not going to be able to get his passengers to return to the bus.
After an awkward moment, however, passengers began boarding the bus, and the driver gave a sigh of relief. The mind is a funny thing. It will compartmentalize and rationalize that which it does not understand. In some cases, it will flat out refuse to integrate what the senses have perceived and instead push the information aside as if it was never received at all. Such was the case with the driver and passengers on this curious afternoon. They all shuffled back onto the bus, some laughing and one woman saying, “All this over a spider. Good lord.”
A man replied, “Well, some of them are dangerous, you know. Can’t be too careful.”
“Too true,” said the small woman who had sat on Avia and sparked the whole event, “I’ve read about those brown recluse spiders. Very dangerous.”
Numerous conversations of this nature followed, and they all had a good laugh about the incident. On with their normal lives they went, not realizing that they had witnessed something extraordinary, something altogether remarkable.
Avia stood on the sidewalk and watched the bus depart, and she lit upon an impossible theory, a theory that had nothing to do with spiders. A couple walked past her, and she decided to test her theory.
“Um,” she said, clearing her throat, “Excuse me, can you see me?” The couple stopped, looked around for the owner of the voice but, failing to locate the owner, shook their heads and resumed walking. Avia proceeded to walk alongside the couple. She touched the woman’s shoulder and repeated the question. The couple stopped and, this time, Avia stood in front of the woman and waved her arms up and down. The woman and the man took no notice of Avia. Instead, the woman’s eyes darted around for the person who had spoken and, finding no one, she frantically dragged her male partner away.
Avia smiled, though no one could see it. “Well. This is interesting.”
For a while, she wandered around the downtown, terrorizing unsuspecting people while she tested her newfound ability. Generally uncomfortable with uncertainty and unknowns, Avia needed to be sure about her interpretation of the strange events of the afternoon. She needed to be absolutely certain that she was not losing her mind. Mental instability ran in her family, after all, and it would be no shock if she had fallen victim now to this sad element of her genetic makeup. So she went on trying to get the attention of passersby only to watch them jump back, look around for her, and then speed away in fright.
On one occasion, she encountered a man who was walking a basset hound and talking on his cellphone. She touched the man’s shoulder lightly and said, “Excuse me?” The man turned around, ready to respond kindly, but he saw no signs of the person who had touched him and spoken in the soft voice. The basset hound, meanwhile, stared directly at Avia, his tongue dangling from his mouth. “I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of the nearest atm?” Avia went on.
At the sound of her voice, the dog’s ears perked up and the man stepped back in alarm. The dog, on the other hand, came forward and sniffed at Avia, who squatted down and petted him gently on the head. The man yanked the dog’s leash and hurried away, casting a last glance over his shoulder.
All of this confirmed her theory and reassured her that her mental faculties remained intact. Her theory was quite simple: through some strange circumstance, she had faded out of sight. She had become invisible.
Just as she arrived at this intriguing conclusion, a crazy idea presented itself. Wasting no time, Avia headed to the largest bank nearby.
Her heart beat fast as she stood outside the bank and considered what she was about to do. She checked for her reflection in the glass door and was delighted to find no reflection there. Gathering her composure, she walked inside and was relieved to see that there were few customers. With a sinister smile that no one could see, Avia looked around at all of the cameras. She fixed her gaze on the cameras above each teller’s station.
Walking as lightly as possible, she followed one teller through a door that led to the tellers’ stations. Avia surveyed the other three tellers, two plump women and a man, all middle aged. She settled on a red-haired one, who appeared intensely bored and lost in a daydream. Her station was at the farthest corner, out of hearing range of the other tellers.
Carefully, Avia slipped past the others until she reached the redheaded teller. She stood behind the woman, who smelled of raspberry cologne and coconut. “Don’t holler,” she said, putting her hand over the teller’s mouth. The woman, however, did what any normal human being would do under such circumstances: she hollered as loud as she could. Avia held her hand firmly against the woman’s mouth. To Avia’s relief, none of the other tellers noticed anything unusual.
The room was rather loud, filled with chatter and music, and all the other tellers were busy serving customers. “Please, don’t scream. I’m not going to hurt you. Okay?” said Avia, her voice gentle like that of a woman accustomed to speaking to children and teenagers. “I’m going to take my hand away, but I want you to do as I say. I promise, I don’t mean you any harm.”
The woman nodded.
“Before I take my hand away, though, I need you to open the drawer. Okay?”
Without hesitation, the woman opened the drawer.
Avia slowly took her hand away, and the woman did not scream. “How much is in that drawer?” asked Avia.
The woman was breathing hard and staring straight ahead. “$5000 or so,” she said, barely moving her lips and speaking just above a whisper.
Avia sighed in disappointment. She knew a bank would not keep much cash at the registers, yet she had hoped for more than $5000. She realized that she needed to access the back area, where she assumed the bank locked away larger quantities of money. In the movies, the large sums of money were always hidden somewhere in a vault. For a moment, Avia combed her mind and tried to recall all of the bank heist films she had ever watched.
“There’s a customer coming toward me,” the woman said, panic laced in every syllable.
“Put it all in a bag, fast,” Avia commanded. “But don’t draw attention to yourself. Not yet.”
The teller, feeling confusion mix in with terror, did as told.
“I’m hitting the emergency response button. I’ll be gone before the cops get here, but I don’t want them to pin this on you. So do everything I say,” said Avia.
Reluctantly, the woman nodded and handed Avia the small bag of cash.
“Put your hands up, now,” Avia yelled, loud enough for everyone in the immediate vicinity to hear. The approaching customer, a well-groomed twenty-something in a business suit, stopped at once and threw his hands up as well. Avia whispered to the teller, “Where is the vault and how can I get inside it. Is there a code or do I need a key?”
The teller slowly lowered one hand and removed the key from under her register. “Straight back, through the glass door. Use the key to open the glass door. Type in the code: 818R2B. But it won’t get you into the vault. I don’t know the code to the vault. I’m just a teller,” the woman paused and put her hands back up. “You won’t make it. There are guards, alarms. And even if you—”
“Don’t worry about me. The cameras are there,” Avia whispered, pointing up over the teller’s head. “And the customer is witnessing this. They won’t be able to pin this on you. Keep your hands up, and in two seconds yell that I took the money from your drawer and that I’m heading for the vault.”
As Avia hurried away from the teller, she made sure to knock some things off the teller’s work area so that the bystanders would see and the cameras would capture it. She rushed toward the glass doors, scrambling around the tellers and two guards who were looking around for the source of the robbery. Avia tucked the keys inside her pocket and bolted out of the building into the cool September air.
She hurried away, putting as much space between her and the bank as possible. When she turned off State Street and onto Wacker Drive, she stopped at the river walk to take a breath. Scarcely able to believe what she had just done, she breathed in and out, terrified that the cops might be on her tail and that she would be caught. Much to her surprise, there were no signs of cops near her and no sirens except for in the distance. She sat down on a bench and stared out at the Chicago River, and she burst into laughter. It was all she could think to do. A couple passing peered around for the source of the laughter and, finding no one, ran away and up the steps to Wacker Drive. Meanwhile, Avia laughed and laughed until her stomach ached.
After a while, she gathered herself and looked at her cellphone. 4:20pm. The banks would close at 5pm. She could pull off another robbery before 5pm if she hurried. She thought about the $5000 in her possession now and decided to save her next adventure for tomorrow or the day after. It was best, Avia noted, not to press her luck.
She got up, stored the bag of stolen cash inside her backpack, and headed toward the Red Line station at Lake Street. Train passengers in the crowded cart were taken aback when they brushed against Avia, who was still invisible. She forced herself to remain as silent as possible to avoid further upsetting passengers.
When she exited the train and proceeded to her apartment off Devon, she felt positively exhausted. She walked past a few teenage boys who were catcalling women. “Damn, she’s fine,” one boy said, and the others whistled in agreement as a young woman in tight-fitting jeans walked past. The woman frowned at the boys but kept walking.
It struck Avia that, for the first time, she did not have to deal with catcalls because no one could see her. How liberating, she thought.
She found it strange and more than a little ironic that being invisible brought her a greater sense of freedom than she had ever known. It was a gift. Walking the remaining two blocks to her apartment, she basked in the sun and marveled at her newfound freedom. Moreover, she plotted out the next day’s adventure and how to use her new gift.
When she plopped down onto her sofa, her thoughts drifted to a tropical island wonderland. Once a daydream, her tropical island wonderland was now a real possibility. She could move to Costa Rica or Antigua, and she could teach at the schools there. She could open a little bookstore or write some books of her own. Anything was possible now, she realized, as she stared at the small bag of money next to her. She was free.
Avia entertained these happy thoughts for a while and, finally, got up and drifted toward the bedroom. There, she removed her uncomfortable dress shoes, massaged her aching feet, and decided she would wear jogging shoes tomorrow – she had a big day ahead.