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Timothy Mallborn – The Invisible Boy

December 29, 2013

My name is Timothy Mallborn. In 1989, when I was five years old, I got lost in a department store and disappeared. After following a familiar pair of pants up and down the aisles, I looked up and saw that the face above me was strange and alien, like a wooden mask lit from below. I turned and ran. Down one of the aisles, I saw a security guard. I didn’t really think I had done anything wrong, but I didn’t like the look of him at all. In order to escape, I wormed my way deep inside a rack of wool sweaters, pushing through their dark, dense folds. Hidden away like that, my imagination got the best of me and I painted that guard with all the simple villainy I had gleaned from cartoons and fairy tales. In a matter of moments, I had convinced myself that if he ever found me he would lock me up in a tiny cell and feed me only bread and water. I held my breath until I heard him pass. The sweaters pressed against my cheeks and shoulders were the horizon of a secret world, a hush which held me close. Over the years, I have cultivated this moment in my memory, polishing and perfecting it. Though I now believe that I first became invisible inside that woolen womb, I felt nothing at the time, no tingling or buzzing, no sudden pop of metaphysics. I know this sounds strange, but please hear me out; it is the only explanation I can offer for the events of my life.

In the first few days, I remember waiting in various pockets of space, watching adults and other children passing by. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I slept and sometimes I simply sat and hugged my knees. Whenever I saw the security guard making his rounds, I held very still and pictured my parents’ faces, willing them to come and save me, knowing in my heart that if I concentrated hard enough they would sense my need and know exactly where to find me. At night, I would crawl out of whatever hiding place I had chosen that day and walk the aisles as though I were exploring the surface of a distant planet. For a week or more, I subsisted on nothing but boxed chocolates and tins of butter cookies. I can still remember the monstrous pleasure of sitting up at night, in the dark, stuffing whole chocolates into my mouth. When I finally stumbled upon the kitchen of the department store’s restaurant, I gorged myself on fruit and cake and drank down several glasses of milk. The more I stole, the more certain I was that the security guard would lock me away if he ever found me. I hid like a wounded animal; I burrowed and scuttled and buried my garbage because I still believed that it was only my own cunning that was keeping me hidden.

One morning, two police officers came into the department store. I clambered into a rack of clothing and watched to see what they would do. They were talking to store employees and handing out tiny photographs – presumably of me. I was frightened, but my parents had always told me that if I ever got lost I should find a police officer and he would bring me home. I studied the two officers and chose the one who looked nicest — a tall black man with bright eyes and a broad grin — and then I marched right up to him. I don’t remember what I said, perhaps I said my name or maybe I only said hello or here I am, but I do remember the way his eyes focused somewhere off behind me, surveying the department store, searching for some missing detail. I shouted and jumped, but he took no notice of me. I needed him to see me! I had risked so much by coming out of hiding. Under that kind of pressure, my little brain short-circuited and I kicked the detective in the shin as hard as I could. He shouted with surprise. Blood rushed to my face as I braced myself for the repercussions, but the man did nothing. He was baffled and clearly angry, but he simply rubbed his shin. When his partner gave him a quizzical look, he said, ‘I don’t know what the hell it was! Felt like somebody kicked me.’

‘Weird,’ said his partner. I stood there between them, completely bewildered. Gradually it dawned on me that I was invisible. I call it invisibility, but in truth I don’t know exactly what it is. I can see my own hands and arms and legs and I can see my reflection in mirrors and windows. As a teenager, I took pictures of myself with the cameras in electronics stores and then stared at myself on the little screen wondering why no one else could see me. In addition to these inconclusive scraps of evidence, there’s one other thing which prevents me from saying that I am purely and simply invisible, but let me cross that bridge when I come to it.

On the day when I first realized that no one could see me, I was still only five years old. I didn’t want to disappear. I didn’t want to be alone. I ran through the store yelling and waving my hands above my head. I leapt in front of people. I screamed at them and called them names. I clapped and jumped and stomped, but not a single person so much as glanced in my direction; they just went on folding sweaters or checking price tags or staring vacantly at walls. Eventually, I must have tired myself out, because I remember walking through the department store in a state of shock, staring at all the people going by. Just past the perfume counters, the department store opens up into an expansive atrium, a sort of tiled courtyard with trees and benches and a vaulted glass ceiling high above. It was evening and the lights were just starting to come on, both inside and out in the street. The workday was done and people were in high spirits; they laughed and chattered as they hurried off to dinner or the theatre. After weeks spent hiding in cramped spaces, it was an exhilarating sensation. I walked to the railing and found myself overlooking a fountain whose shallow waters sparkled with a galaxy of coins. I didn’t know it then, but this mall would soon become my kingdom, a tiny world which I gradually learned to manipulate like an unseen hand.

That night I walked all the way to the south end of the mall and back again, studying each and every storefront. With their merchandise and music and carefully crafted lighting, each store seemed like a different universe. From that point on, I didn’t bother hiding. I went wherever I wanted to and soaked it all in. During the day, the department store was very different: it was big and it was exciting. I jumped on beds and raced through the aisles on a bright red tricycle. The electronics section was like a picture gallery hung with glowing portals into other worlds. I watched Sesame Street, travel programs and baseball games and every instant was dissected and multiplied as though I were watching through the faceted eyes of insects. I walked the toy aisles in a state of rapture. Out in the mall, in the cafes and restaurants, I came and went like a stray cat, taking whatever I fancied from refrigerators and display cases.

Of course, whenever these diversions lost their charm, which they often did, I would find myself weighed down with exhaustion and loneliness. Although I didn’t know it, I desperately needed a den or burrow, some private tranquil space. Each afternoon, my tired legs gravitated towards a carpeted area walled in by low bookshelves. Although the shelves were only a few feet high, they were tall enough to portion off that space into a little room, enough to suggest a sheltered hollow within the wide-open expanse of the department store. In one corner there were two racks of puppets and in another there sat a comfortable armchair outfitted with a side table and a shaded lamp.

That stretch of carpet was where I grew up. It supported and sustained me like a raft. I internalized that space. I populated it with my moods and its four corners developed different characters. The corner with the easy chair was my cozy cabin, with my cushioned throne and my sleeping berth beneath the table. The corner with the puppets was my jungle; I went there when I was angry and watched from the shadows as though I were a lurking predator. On the far side of my abode was the great northern wall, a continuous shelf of picture books, uninterrupted by furniture of any kind. I looked through each of those books a thousand and one times, spreading them out on the floor like magical maps. Even before I got lost, I could read a little bit, but thanks to Sesame Street I was able to move beyond the few books which my parents had read to me at home. Those skits with the huge foam letters were what tipped me over the edge and started me rolling inexorably towards full and fertile literacy. Sometimes mothers and fathers would sit in the armchair in my corner and read aloud to their children; while they read, I would crouch behind the chair with my knees tucked into my chin, trying to recall the pictures from whichever story they were reading. Even though I was invisible, I still liked to hide sometimes.

One day, very early on, probably in my first month of full-fledged invisibility, I was sitting in the toy aisle surrounded by plundered playthings when a store employee happened upon me. The look of surprise on her face made me think that she had seen me. I tightened up and watched her closely, like a rabbit caught out in the open. She bent down and gathered up the toys and boxes, tut-tutting to herself as she worked. After she had piled everything up — everything except for the toy that I was holding in my hands — she simply walked away without saying a word. That was how I learned that, although I was invisible, my mess was not. A few minutes later, the woman returned, and just behind her was my nemesis, the security guard. He stood erect at the far end of the aisle and scoured the shelves with his gaze. From that moment on, I was a fugitive and I did everything in my power to ensure that I left no trace of my passing.

It was not an easy path to walk; my fragile young ego yearned to be recognized and cherished. As I watched the employees and shoppers going about their business, I had to suppress my natural desire to surprise and impress them. I wanted to earn their admiration. And it would be so simple. I had planned it out in my head often enough. I could easily steal some item which they had coveted and carry it down to their car. I could leave it on the passenger seat and then clamber into the back and do up my seatbelt so that they would take me home with them. I never quite went through with it though; there was so much that could go wrong. How would I know who I might want to go home with? And, how could I be sure that they wouldn’t just turn me over to the security guard?

There were days when I holed myself up and wrapped myself in memories of my parents’ soothing presence. On other days, I spent long, agonizing hours torturing myself with the idea that my parents had adopted a new son. Adoption was a notion way out in the farthest fringes of my cosmos; I had heard about it somewhere, perhaps on Sesame Street, and somehow I had come to believe that it was a way for parents to replace missing children with another child of the same age. Each time I considered that possibility, I felt as though I had been forgotten in the deepest, darkest corner of a dungeon. And yet I always found my way out of those desolate moods. People say that the human spirit can overcome anything. They are right, but not for the reasons they would have you believe. I overcame my loneliness not through force of will, but through emotional inconstancy. After a few hours, or a day at most, I would return to my normal activities, despondently at first, but as I explored and played and foraged for food my enthusiasm and youthful vigor were rekindled like extinguished coals leaping back into full flame after a gust of wind.

Even when I was happy, I was still alone, so I had to make my own company. Luckily, the area beside my stretch of carpet contained two display shelves lined with stuffed animals. They were arranged in rows, with the little plush dogs and turtles and bears clustered together beneath those huge lions and horses that grandparents buy for spoiled toddlers. Sometimes I talked to the animals directly and at other times I made them converse with one another. I invented personalities for them and gave them jobs and hobbies which they would tell me about if I asked. There was a small blue bear named Greg who was an airline pilot and a tiger named Simon who owned a grocery store. My main confidante was a big white bear named Furzer. He had floppy arms, a pudgy belly and a head which always lolled slightly to the right. I suppose I must have dragged him over to my dwelling space each morning and set him up in the armchair before I started my day, because I distinctly remember him watching over me with a reassuring and loving regard. As I played, I would tell him what I was doing and I often read aloud to him from my favourite books. I told Furzer all my hopes and plans and I burdened him with the weight of my darker moods. When he offered me advice, I listened carefully.

Despite my close call in the toy section, I couldn’t resist its allure for long. Whenever new stock arrived, I would walk the aisles in silence, staring up at all those great and glorious brand names – Transformers, Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe – then I would hurry back to my corner to describe all the new figures and playsets to Furzer. Furzer though it would be alright if I played with some of the toys as long as I put them back in their boxes when I was done; so each night, after the store was closed, I would pick out four or five new toys and open their boxes like a surgeon, being ever so careful not to tear the cardboard, until I held in my hands the package’s gleaming nucleus. That was always the happiest moment of the night; after that my joy was tainted with worry. I was so afraid that I might break one of toys that I suppressed my own excitement. I would drive the cars half as fast as I wanted to, bounce the balls half as high, interlock the figures’ plastic limbs in pale pantomimes of the bone-crunching grappling that my blood cried out for. In fact, I often stopped playing altogether and simply stared into those tiny suns, imagining the epic battles I would enact with toys of my own.

Books were better because I could keep them in my heart even after I returned them to the shelves. I read In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are. When I got a little older, I moved on to the bookstore in the middle of the mall where I read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Hobbit. These books were journeys of a magnitude that left me dizzy and trembling. We are programmed to grow attached to other people and when one is alone, the soul makes do with whatever it finds at hand. The hosts of Sesame Street had earned by love merely by looking me in the eye and smiling; my heart soared whenever they said, ‘That’s right! Very good.’ For a person in my situation, books were a strange adventure. Each bit of dialogue was an exotic and delicious fruit. When companions were separated and then met up again, always just in the nick of time, I was flooded with relief. When friends stayed true in the face of mortal dangers, I burned with gratitude. As I read, I often forgot where I was, and when I put a book down I would blink and squint as though I had just come out of a cave. I lived a richer and more fulfilling life inside those books than I did inside the mall. Books taught me that people could swear oaths of loyalty or betray their own families, that they could welcome an old comrade with time-worn greetings or suddenly deliver the most surprising news. I found friendship, and maybe even love, within those pages. When compared with those lively dialogues, my discussions with Furzer began to wear thin. I still said hello to him sometimes, but anything more inevitably left me feeling foolish. Eventually I moved Furzer down to one of the supply rooms in the basement and stowed him away amidst a gaggle of unused mannequins. I did speak to him again just recently – feeling as self-conscious as ever – and he was kind enough to accept an invitation to my upcoming ceremony. He may even squeeze his puffy frame into a dark suit for the occasion.

Though I had been voicing both sides of the discussion, those chats had helped me to understand my own turbulent emotions. Without them, my moods thickened and clotted and my frustrations festered for days at a time. I abandoned vast stretches of time to meaningless distractions: I stayed up all night playing video games in the arcade with coins from the fountain or spent entire weekends watching movies in the multiplex at the north end of the mall. I won’t deny that I had bursts of joy as a teenager, but they always demanded reckless devotion to the moment. I broke into restricted areas, I spied on girls while they were changing and I rode bicycles down escalators. The pleasures of adolescence are like a fire, desperate for fuel, consuming everything in a rush to stay alive.

When I wasn’t ecstatic, I was desolate. As I walked up and down the length of the mall, I began to feel as though I were a ghost or perhaps shadow, a mere sliver of a person who clung to the surfaces of my manufactured world; I was an echo of the clatter in the food court, a hum in the ventilation system. On the west side of the mall there was an interior courtyard with trees and a fountain and sometimes I would stand at the window and try to imagine myself out there in the wind and dappled sunshine. What would I be in such a place? My heart would race just thinking about it; I felt as though I would dissolve or disappear in a flash of light. Once, I actually tried to go outside. I went out through the revolving doors at the north end of the mall, thinking that the bustling crowds on the corner might feel more familiar, but right away the open sky induced in me the awful sensation that my mind was being pulled in every direction at once, as though I were about to be drawn and quartered by the sheer immensity of the world. I clamped my eyelids closed, felt for the wall with my hands and stumbled back inside.

After that demoralizing episode, I felt more tightly contained than ever before. I was desperate for human contact. I stalked people as they went about their errands, following them down into the subway and onto the trains, watching jealously as they read their paperbacks and thought about the dinner being cooked for them at home. I never had the courage to get off the subway though; I just circled back to the shopping mall that was the centre of my world. I began to follow the security guard who had frightened me so much as a child. I followed him on his lunch break and watched him eat. When he spilled mustard on his uniform, I watched him lick his thumb and rub it off. I followed him into his little control room and listened while he called his wife and complained about his schedule. Of course there was no jail cell, no tools of torture. He was just an ordinary man.

As a child, invisibility had been my shelter, but as a teenager I wanted to be seen. I spent my nights stretched out audaciously in whichever bed caught my eye. I rearranged merchandise and knocked over mannequins just so I could watch people’s reactions. In effect, I became a poltergeist — a spirit doomed to communicate through household goods — and just like a poltergeist I grew frustrated and vindictive. I hid keys and credit cards, knocked drinks out of people’s hands and smashed plates and glasses. Even being an annoyance was better than being invisible. On the concourses, I could no longer be bothered to stay out of people’s way. I walked straight through crowds and dashed down busy escalators, yet I rarely collided with anyone. Staff and shoppers alike seemed to avoid me intentionally, sometimes even stopping in their tracks to let me pass. How could people see me but then fail to notice when I tried to interact with them? Did I exist only as a part of the crowd, visible up until the exact moment when I became one instead of many?

Although people couldn’t see or hear me, they could feel me as long as I worked within certain margins. If I bumped people or stepped on their toes, if I pushed or pinched them, they reacted immediately. I could always make contact for a second or two, but if I tried to lean my head against somebody’s shoulder or hold onto them for any length of time, they inevitably moved away. I tried that sort of thing a lot as a teenager — especially with girls. In change rooms and movie theatres, whenever I tried to steal a kiss or caress, the object of my affection would shiver as though touched by a frigid draft and then hurry off somewhere, unaware of the source of her discomfort. Sometimes those lovely young women passed straight through me.

When I first hit upon the idea of leaving notes, I was twelve years old. It seemed to me that if people could see the mess I left behind, then they ought to be able to see messages which I left for them as well. This new possibility glowed with potential; I imagined that I would recreate myself with words and through this sleight of hand I would leap from my prison and appear, complete and undiminished, in the minds of those who read my letters. Or at least that’s how I imagined it.

I still have the first note I wrote. It is a swamp of eraser smudges and malformed words. Though I had been reading for years, I had never written anything. Each and every letter that I tried to shape went awry, and forming the letters was only half of the challenge; I still remember staring at that blank page, falling into the past, swirling through all the things I wanted to say. Faced with an opportunity for real communication, all my youthful bravado went out the window. I wanted so badly for other people to accept me. Should I admit to all the vindictive things I had done? Could I ask for a friend? I considered asking whoever found the note to find my parents, but my memory of them was already growing faint; the thought of actually meeting them was as frightening as it was appealing. It was horrible — having so much to say and nowhere to begin. In the end, I just went with the shortest, simplest message I could think of:

Hello,

I live here in the department store. No one can see or hear me, but I am a real person and I would like to talk with you. Please write me a note and leave it on the counter.

I posted the note on a wall behind one of the counters where I knew the staff would see it.  The first person to arrive in the morning was a manager who I had seen many times before, a tall woman with quite a temper.  She saw the note right away, but she didn’t give it even two seconds of her attention before she tore it off the wall and threw it out.  I had imagined a thousand possible reactions — everything from teary-eyed sympathy to abject terror — but not that.  I salvaged the note from the trash and took it back to my childhood den to read it over.  Were all the words that I had formed as imperceptible as I was?  Or had she simply decided that it was a prank for which she had no patience?  What would it take then; what testament would be sufficient to convince people of my existence?

My second letter conveyed the same basic message but I wrote it in larger letters and I taped it up out in the open where anyone could see it.  Dozens, even hundreds, of people walked past without stopping.  It hung there for weeks, unnoticed, until one day it was gone.  In subsequent letters, I admitted to all the havoc I had caused.  I am the one who has been knocking things over and making a mess every night.  When that failed to provoke a response I predicted specific disturbances.  I will knock over a shelf of Denby dishes at three o’clock tomorrow afternoon.  The shattered dinnerware caused quite a commotion, but not one person mentioned the note I had left the night before.

One night, I saw a movie — I can’t remember what it was called — where the main character wrote in spray paint across the lockers in his high school.  That act of vandalism went off in my mind like a bomb.  The audacity of the transgression, the way the teachers and students had reacted — that was the way to command attention!  All night, I replayed the scene in my thoughts and, in the morning, I went down to the craft store in the basement and started picking out colours even before I decided what I would write.  The kid in the movie had used a pseudonym — Blade or Scar or something like that — but I wasn’t trying to hide my identity, I wanted people to know who I was.  Timothy was my first name — that much I knew — but all that remained of my last name was a shapeless lump in my memory.  Even though I couldn’t remember my last name, I still wanted one, so I vowed to make one up.  I was only thirteen, so most of the names I came up with were quite ridiculous.  I was down in the recycling room at the time.  I must have gone through a hundred names; I had stolen a permanent marker along with the spraypaint and I scrawled the various possibilities across the folded cardboard: Timothy Nevermind, Tim the Terror, Tim Shadow.  When I stumbled upon Timothy Mallborn and I knew that I had found my new name.  It made sense in my situation, but most of all it sounded like a real name and that appealed to me.

I wrote that name anywhere and everywhere, on windows and walls and mirrors and tables; I filled toilet stalls from top to bottom.  Timothy Mallborn, Timothy Mallborn, Timothy Mallborn.  The more I wrote it, the more it felt familiar.  I wanted someone to stop and take notice, to gawk and stare like they had in that movie, but the people in the mall seemed to be innured to graffiti and they hurried by without even a side-long glance.  I watched while cleaners scrubbed my inscriptions away, wondering if they were wondering, even for a moment, who Timothy Mallborn was.

I tried out all sorts of messages both on paper and with spraypaint, but none of it elicited any response beyond a call to the janitor.  I wrote pleas and treatises, I wrote out my life story as I saw it at the time – a most bitter and passionate teenage melodrama – but everything I wrote was either washed away or tossed into a recycling bin.  I felt the need to preserve some of my better efforts, so I cut a slit into the back of the armchair which I had slept beside as a child and I hid my collected writings in amongst the springs and padding.  When it became clear that pen and ink were getting me nowhere, I tried computers.  I spent weeks fiddling around on a PC in one of the electronics stores in order to teach myself how to send emails.  Using a free Hotmail account, I notified the mall’s management and several journalists of my existence.  No one ever replied.

I can remember the exact day I lost hope.  I went down to the coffee shop next to the food court and got a croissant and a chocolate milk, just as I always did, and then I went to sit by the fountain while I ate.  I was seventeen years old.  I finished my croissant, then I finished my chocolate milk, but I didn’t get up; I just kept staring at the tumbling water, at the coins scattered across the bottom of the shallow pool.  There was hardly a thought in my head, just the coins and plumes of water reflected inside me.  I had no plan for the day.  I had no idea what I would do the next day or the day after that.  I had done everything there was to do in the mall.  I had visited all the stores again and again.  I had tried graffiti, I had tried written notes, I had tried email, I had even tried touching people and knocking things over; I had been dancing and whooping and waving my arms for so long and all that unrewarded effort had finally caught up with me.  I was completely exhausted.

After that, I did nothing for months on end.  I was sick of the mall, but I was also afraid to leave.  I sat on benches and watched the crowds.  I ate very little and I only slept when I was completely overcome by fatigue.  I considered suicide, but I did so in a listless and abstracted way, as though it were some trivial, but inevitable, act of bookkeeping.  It was a strange time in my life.  I no longer suffered from the violent rages and sorrows which had overwhelmed me so often before.  I was almost inhumanly calm.  I walked from place to place with barely a glimmer of emotion or thought and this mental vacuum left the lens of my mind sharp and clear.  I was acutely aware of the testimony of my senses and I noticed things which I might have overlooked in more excitable times.  I stared endlessly at the shifting crowds of shoppers.  I fixated on unusual reflections in the mall’s many windows and pondered peculiar smudges on the floor.  One day I encountered a woman in a full burqa in the foodcourt.  I was fascinated.  She ordered french fries and carried them to one of the tables on a tray.  I sat down across from her and watched her eat.  I watched her fingers and the way she turned her head to look at things.  Behind her veil, I could just make out the the movement of her jaw as she chewed.  She was real, she was right there in front of me, but I couldn’t see her; no one could.  Whenever she went out in public, she walked in an interior world as vast and solitary as mine.  When she finished eating, she took a wet-nap out of her purse and wiped her fingers, then she carried her tray to the garbage and walked off toward the subway.  That experience haunted me for weeks.  I was certain that there was some significance that I was missing, some lesson to be learned, but I could never quite put my finger on what it was.

I noticed other people in the mall who were as lonely as I was – office workers who ate the same dinner night after night and old men who spent entire afternoons on public benches.  With so much time on my hands, I returned to my reading.  With my own passions dimmed, I was able to discern patterns of meaning which had escaped me before.  Enthralled by these subtle filigrees of emotion, I abandoned my adventure novels and sci-fi thrillers and moved on to more refined pleasures.  I read Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The fact that these finely-crafted scenes of love and loss might be the only such experiences I would ever have only made them all the more alluring.

I may well have been more content during those long, fallow months than I was when I still held out hope that someone might notice me.  At night, I would often sit by myself inside the tight cluster of lighting fixtures on the fifth floor of the department store.  Once all the other lights were out, I would turn all the fixtures back on and stare at that small, densely packed universe of glass.  Once I had observed that cosmos of tiny, radiant planets from afar, I would would walk over and lie on the floor in the center of that luminous world, hoping that if I held my breath long enough I would drift out of my body and become a part of that layered radiance.  Sometimes I could even feel it beginning — a tingle or a flush of warmth, a loosening of my muscles which prefigured total dissolution.  Of course these sensations never lasted long; eventually I always had to plod off to bed feeling as heavy and corporeal as ever.

In addition to the security guard at the department store, there were other guards who monitored the mall as a whole.  I studied them as they made their rounds and even followed them into their command centre with its TV screens and video recorders.  One night, when the plumbing in one of the restaurants began to leak, I discovered that the guards had a master key which opened all the doors in the entire mall; it was kept inside a box with a combination lock.  The head of security changed the combination once a week and the other guards had to phone him if they needed to use the key.  The next time the combination was changed, I memorized its digits and that very night I went and took the key and used it to open the locksmith’s counter on the second floor.  For a week, I struggled with the key-cutting machine each night and returned the key each morning.  I ruined quite a number of blanks and even managed to cut my hand in the process, but eventually I made a copy of that key.

Until then, I had only been able to get into locked rooms by following people inside and waiting until they left, but that key gave me access to the entire mall.  I visited areas of the building which I had never even seen before.  Up in the office tower above the mall, I unlocked executive washrooms and corner offices and windowless rooms crowded with filing cabinets.  Passing through unmarked doors, I came upon storerooms, supply closets and long beige corridors.  There was a small workshop where the department store’s employees constructed and disassembled the platforms and backdrops which they used in their larger displays.  Beside the workshop I found a vast storage space packed to the ceiling with dusty, out-of-date mannequins, some standing, some piled up in heaps.  That jumbled tomb is now central to my life, but on that first encounter I merely spent a moment taking in the unsettling sight and then turned out the lights and moved on.

After I had explored the heights and depths of the mall, I began to visit the stores one by one, entering a different shop each night to scrutinize their stock in exhaustive detail.  I had been to all the stores before, but it was different at night; the strangest thing about my condition is that I have always felt less lonely when I am alone.  When no one is around to ignore me or stare straight through me, I can at least pretend to be a complete and normal person.  And that was exactly what I did as I perused the mall’s merchandise, sampling various products as though I were the representative of a distinguished buyer.  I felt the weave of different fabrics and tasted different pastries.  I tried my hand at darts and snooker, I adorned myself with ludicrous amounts of jewelry, I took watches apart to see how they were made and I built precarious castles out of crystal glasses.

These exploratory missions were sufficient to pass the time, but they failed to leave me with any sort of lasting satisfaction.  Most mornings I would return to the department store and sleep until late in the afternoon.  When I awoke, I would sit alone in bed, watching customers circle around me, choosing gifts and checking prices.  Do you know those scenes in certain movies where the main character is walking through a crowd in slow-motion and people are weaving all around him in a blur of activity – that’s basically how I felt on those empty afternoons, as though I were frozen in place and the rest of the world were carrying on without me.

One day, while I was roaming through the public section of the mall, I stopped to study a pair of mannequins in a display window.  Though both of them were completely bald, one was visibly male and the other visibly female.  The man was seated on a small wooden chair and the woman was standing off to his left.  With their backs turned to each other, they both looked impossibly bored and their predicament provoked a surge of sympathy within me.  On a whim, I entered the store, climbed into the window and adjusted them so that they appeared to be having a conversation.  I even managed to position the seated mannequin’s hand so that it looked as though he were gesticulating enthusiastically.  The next day, the mannequins had been returned to their jaded and solitary postures.  Once again, I crafted a tableau of animated discussion; this time I grabbed a copy of The Cave by Jose Saramago from the bookstore and laid it in the seated mannequin’s lap to suggest that he was expostulating on its merits.  Pleased with this new game, I waited inside the store to see what would happen.  After the store closed, the manager stepped up into the window and undid my efforts.  Before she left, she took my book and locked it in a drawer beside the cash register.  As soon as she was gone, I got back into the window.  I stood the seated mannequin on his feet and then repositioned both mannequins so that they were hugging, pretending to myself that the woman was consoling the man over the loss of his book.

The manager undid my work and I put it back.  The contest seized my full attention and I happily abandoned my nocturnal explorations.  The manager would arrange the mannequins in stylish, disinterested poses and I would rearrange them as though they were old friends, making their gestures as touching and vulnerable as I possibly could given their limited range of motion.  One day, while the manager was on her lunch break, I positioned the mannequins in what I imagined to be a joyous and tearful embrace, perhaps the result of an unexpected success or an encounter with a long lost sibling.  When the manager returned, she laughed aloud.  I was startled — but I tingled with anticipation as I waited to hear what she would say.  ‘Who the hell is doing this,’ she asked, sounding more amused than angry, ‘Honestly, you just about have me convinced that these mannequins are actually friends.’  Of course there was nothing the employees could say because they were as baffled as she was, but they seemed happy to join in on the joke.  I listened intently, almost enraptured by what I was hearing.  ‘I’ll admit that it’s funny,’ said the manager.  ‘But we can’t have them hugging.  It looks too weird.’  The manager stepped up into the window with a bewildered smile on her face and set to work.  She sat the male mannequin down again and stood the woman behind him, but this time she placed the woman’s hand on the man’s shoulder, as if bowing to their stubborn friendship.  She even went and got the book I had used earlier and tried to position the seated mannequin so that he was holding it, but the mannequin’s hands were too slippery and eventually she gave up.  I watched all of this with a sort of flustered excitement.  Rarely had my actions provoked such a clear response in another human being.

I sat up all night that night, plotting and daydreaming and reliving the events of the day.  The next morning, I went out to the concourse and worked my way through window after window, repositioning mannequins into whatever scenes came to mind.  I huddled mannequins close together for a smoke break and I arranged others like professional wrestlers locked in combat.  This sudden shift in mannequin behaviour turned heads.  I saw people staring and pointing and stopping to take photos, smiling, grinning, even chuckling to themselves in front of some of the more peculiar displays.  It was a good feeling.  That sense of achievement and control was entirely new to me.  I walked the length of the highest balustrade, looking down on the floors below where people were gathering around my displays.  It was as though the entire mall were an orchestra that I was conducting.

Mannequins became my medium.  Using the stock of dummies I had discovered in the sub-basement, I moved my exhibits out of the store windows and onto the concourse.  I sat mannequins on benches as though they were waiting for someone to sit beside them.  I put a plush pig up in the highest branches of a potted tree and positioned a mannequin down below as though he were trying to retrieve the family pet.  The security guards came and examined these tableaus and even questioned the onlookers, but they seemed loathe to dismantle something which amused so many of the mall’s patrons.  I watched them puzzling over their security footage and tried to imagine what it was they saw when I walked on screen carrying my plastic dummies.  Did they just see mannequins floating in the air?  Or did the whole arrangement suddenly appear out of nowhere complete down to the last detail?

I began to use the tools in the department store’s workshop to cut into the mannequins’ limbs and add new joints wherever I required articulation.  I took real pleasure in crafting scenes that spoke to people or brightened their day with a touch of humour.  I thought of the other lonely people who I had seen in the mall and I tried to reach out to them – the old men on benches, the solitary office workers.  I created unlikely encounters and positioned mannequins as though they were about to reach across social barriers.  I did a scene where a punk mannequin — whose plastic arms I had tattooed myself – was stooping down to pick up the fallen glove of a businesswoman.  The punk had one hand raised in order to catch her attention before she stepped on to the escalator.  I wanted people to wonder what these two might say to each other as the glove was handed over.  In a different part of the mall, I put two old men in polyester pants and khaki windbreakers on opposite benches and adjusted them day by day.  On the first day, one stared across at the other through binoculars.  On the second day, his counterpart hailed him with semaphore flags.  On the third day, they spoke to each other through a tin can telephone with the string strung across the entire concourse so that people going by were forced to either step over it or duck beneath it.

My sculptures began to attract a great deal of attention.  People brought friends to see them.  They took photos in front of them as though they were tourist attractions.  In fact, you might even have read about me in the paper.  Three years ago, The Toronto Star ran a two-page spread about my work under the headline Mannequin Manifesto, complete with photos of several of my pieces and a list of suspected culprits from the local art scene.  They included excerpts of an interview with the head security guard who seemed to be implying that he was in cahoots with the artist.  I wondered at that at first, but then I realized that he could stand to lose his job if he were to admit that someone was coming and going by some method which he could neither understand nor predict.  And on top of that, the shopping centre’s management would neither confirm nor deny that these unusual exhibits had been planned by their marketing and events department.  I guess they were just glad to have all the additional visitors.

Initially the article thrilled me.  There I was in the paper – what better evidence could there be that people were aware of me?  But the more I thought about it, the more it began to bother me.  After all, was it really me there in the paper?  I was right there in plain sight, yet people were still seeing something else entirely.  The bulk of the article was made up of other people’s opinions, other people’s ideas about what my sculptures meant; I had no way of correcting them or explaining my real intentions.  Just when I thought I had reached the surface, another layer of camouflage had been plastered over top of me.  That was a blow which I hadn’t expected.  For a while, I gave up on my sculptures all together and during this time I fell sick.

I’ve caught colds before and I’ve even had food poisoning – it seems that I am not invisible to viruses or bacteria – but this was the sickest I have ever been; I sweat and I shivered and I was completely delirious with fever.  I curled up in one of the beds and piled it high with duvets.  Late one night, I had a visitor — or at least that’s how it seemed to me at the time.  A beautiful girl came and sat at my side.  She brought me fresh blankets and rubbed my shoulders until I fell asleep.  She was still there when I awoke in the night, a soft and lovely shadow in the darkness.  When the lights were on, I could see her face.  It was full and bright, hanging just out of reach like a harvest moon.  She had big brown eyes which never blinked and rich brown hair which curled and surged in sympathy with the heat on my skin.  Sometimes she wiped my brow with a cool cloth.  To feel a woman’s skin against my cheek was like being resurrected me by a gentle breeze.  It wasn’t until she leaned in close and whispered in my ear that I realized that she could only be a concoction of my unconscious — a seductive, sensual phantom.  She said, don’t give up on your art, it makes me very happy, and her breath was warm and sweet.

I can only assume that my fevered heart spawned a companion from the fertile soil of my loneliness because, after my fever broke, there was no sign of my ghostly nurse.  I awoke weak but clear-headed and saw only the usual tiresome colours and angles of the department store.  That was a hard, sharp morning, all aches and regrets and fluorescent lighting, but after I ate a little and walked the length of the mall a few times I realized that I wanted to return to my work.

In my workshop in the basement, I pulled small motors out of broken appliances from the returns department and used them to animate some of the mannequins.  My first motorized sculpture was quite simple, it was just an ordinary mannequin who would periodically raise one hand above his head and give a jerky wave as though he were trying to catch the eye of someone on the far side of the mall.  The arm periodically leapt into the air without warning.  It tended to startle people, but they usually laughed once they realized they were safe.  That laughter was bright and infectious; I always laughed too, even though no one could hear me.

I loved working with hinges and gears and I created quite a number of animated exhibits.  My favourite was a fairy-tale princess with a swivelling head whose hands I had modified so that she could hold a tiny brass telescope.  I carried her up to one of the highest balconies and plugged her into a nearby outlet, leaving her to perpetually search the crowd below while I went down to the main concourse and set up a businessman who had popped the buttons of his dress shirt to reveal a tattoo in her likeness upon his chest.  I felt a real kinship with that businessman.  At first, I didn’t quite know why, but as I sat and studied his appearance, I saw a real similarity between his somber, inexpressive suit and my own invisibility, which I was so eager to shuck off.  The next exhibit I did featured a businessman stripping down to his rubber duck boxer shorts and stepping into the fountain in the centre of the mall, trailing socks and shirt and suit and tie behind him.

Though I enjoyed planning and arranging these installations, they only intensified my desire for human contact.  I was so eager to talk to people about them, but the only thing I could do was to try to appreciate the indirect communication that I was achieving through my art.  The best days were when my tableaus created a buzz in the air or sparked conversations between strangers.  I once installed a piece with three mannequins in streetwear and brightly coloured sneakers gathered around a boom box; one was balanced on his head and the other two were cheering him on.  Just off to one side, I positioned one of my trademark businessmen with one foot up on a bench as he exchanged his dress shoes for a pair of golden sneakers.  When the mall opened, I cranked up the stereo and then I sat down on the stairs to watch how shoppers would respond.  To my delight, people danced alongside the mannequins throughout the day and in the evening a group of real bboys showed up and threw down for almost an hour.  Things were good for me back then; I reached a peak of productivity which I have never repeated.

One day, as I stood watching the fountain, an older man came and stood beside me.  He wore well-made trousers and a cashmere sweater and he carried himself with the sort of casual confidence that is peculiar to the very wealthy.  On that particular afternoon, I felt a certain kinship with him that afternoon, as though we had both momentarily emerged from our own pleasant solitudes.  As I looked on, the man moved to clasp his hands behind his back and then he turned to me and said ‘It’s quite soothing isn’t it?’

I stared at him and the world shimmered with a sudden wave of intensity.  ‘You can see me?’ I asked.  I was stunned that this should happen right now, so easily, after all these years, but he just went on watching the cascading plumes as if I hadn’t said a word.  A few moments later, just as I was beginning to think I had imagined it, he nodded his head in my direction before sauntering off in his fashionable leather shoes.  I stood transfixed.  He had clearly seen me, but then, as soon as I had spoken up, it was as if I had been wiped from his consciousness again.  Was I only visible when I was relaxed?  Was it the easy contentment that we had shared between us?  A few days later, even before I was able to make sense of that encounter, I noticed another peculiar phenomenon.

As I travelled through the mall gathering props and clothing for my mannequins, I began to find little trinkets and treasures with curious regularity, almost as though they had been intentionally left in my path.  When I arrived at my workshop one evening, there was a small tin robot hanging from the doorknob like a Christmas ornament.  As I disassembled one of my installations, I came across a braided leather bracelet in the pocket of one of the mannequins.  It seemed that someone was playing a game with me, replying to my exhibits with surprises of their own.  But how was that possible?  It would have to be someone else who could come and go as they pleased, someone who knew about the workshop in the basement.  Just for fun, I told myself that it was the security guard who had frightened me as a child.  He was considerably older by then, less talkative, less diligent in his rounds, and I liked to pretend that my art had lit a secret flame somewhere beneath his taciturn exterior.

I continued to search the mall for new materials to work with.  One morning, a display of artificial flowers caught my eye; I went into the store — one of the many home decor emporiums in the mall — and helped myself to a few boxes.  Out on the concourse, I stood a businessman and a teenage girl side by side, adjusting them so that they were staring up at the profuse and improbable clusters of flowers which I had painstakingly rubber cemented to the wall.  When I woke up the next morning, a vase filled with the same type of artificial flowers was sitting on the floor beside my bed.  Amidst the plastic foliage there was a single sprig of lush and genuine blossoms.  I buzzed with disbelief; it was one thing to find gifts in and around my sculptures, or even in my workspace, but how could they possibly know which bed I had decided to sleep in that night?  I picked the flowers up off the floor and put them down on the nightstand, but I carried them in my thoughts for the rest of the day.  I could think of only one explanation: someone could see me and they had been following me around.  But who was it?  And why hadn’t I seen them?

Two weeks later I had my answer.  I was assembling a group of businessmen playing hopscotch in bare feet, going from one mannequin to the next rolling up the cuffs of their pants, when I realized that I was being watched.  It was three in the morning, even the security guard was most likely napping in his control room, but when I turned and looked, there she was — the girl who had appeared to me during my fever.  She was sitting on a bench, watching me with eyes as dark and secret as a raccoon’s.  She was beautiful.  She was real.  As I watched her watching me, a tiny tremor of surprise rippled across her delicate features.  She froze in place like a small animal waiting for the gaze of a predator to pass her by.  When I didn’t look away, she drew in a trembling breath and leaned ever so slightly forward.

‘Can you see me?’

She said it in a voice almost too quiet to hear, a voice so soft that I had to carefully peel the sounds from her lips and press them to my ears just to be sure that she had spoken at all.

‘Yes,’ I said.

A charge of panic detonated in her dark brown eyes and she disappeared — Pow!, like a popping balloon — leaving only a ripple of uncertainty in the space where she had been.  I walked over to the bench and touched the spot where she had been, but my hand met only empty air.  That was why I hadn’t seen her before: she was invisible too.

My head was spinning.  I sat down and then I got up again.  I spoke a few fumbling words aloud, hoping that she might come back, but she didn’t.  I went to make some adjustments to my sculpture, but I gave up on that almost immediately.  How long had she been here?  Was she afraid of me?  Had she also gotten lost as a child?  Had she chosen to turn invisible just now, or was her invisibility also involuntary?  I walked; I thought I was walking aimlessly, but my feet brought me to the lighting department so that I could sit down amidst those familiar constellations.  There was one lamp that I especially loved — a modern chandelier strung with clear glass baubles; I stared into its sparkling brilliance and tried to see the future.

A few weeks later, I came upon her in the department store in the middle of the afternoon.  She was sitting in a dark brown wingback chair reading an old yellowing copy of the Little Prince.  She wore a white cotton dress from the new spring collection.  The dress had caught my eye when it first arrived because it was embroidered with colourful sprays of flowers.  She looked as comfortable as if she were in her own home, but when she sensed my presence she tightened up.  She inspected me carefully and then gave me a peculiar, nervous smile.  ‘Hello again,’ she said.

She was so beautiful.  I wanted to touch her; I wanted to tell her that I loved her; I wanted to run away — all these impulses flashed through my mind like a strobe light, blocking out any sensible thoughts I might have had.  I was twenty one years old and I had never spoken to a woman before.  I closed my eyes for a second in order to get my thoughts in order, but when I opened them again she was no longer there.  After that, we glimpsed each other off and on, both of us flickering in and out of visibility depending on our moods.  I would come upon her suddenly in the food court and she would disappear in a flash like a wild animal.  I might wake up in the morning and find her watching me only to feel myself fading away as I was overcome with embarrassment and self-doubt.

This went on for weeks, until the day I took matters into my own hands and built a clear and indisputable meeting place so that we might come upon each other at a time when we were both prepared for the encounter.  In many ways, the meeting place was like my other installations.  Down in the storage rooms, I found mannequins which resembled each of us.  I dressed my plastic twin in my favourite pants and a cheerful yellow shirt which I often wore and I dressed her duplicate in the same embroidered dress she had been wearing when she first smiled at me.  I sat these mannequins beside each other on a bench and I laid a copy of the Little Prince in her lap.  Once everything was arranged properly, I sat down next to myself and waited, hoping that the symmetry of the arrangement would prove irresistible.  I waited for a long time.  I craned my neck in all directions, looking for her, wondering if she was somewhere nearby studying my new ploy.  I didn’t notice her approach, but suddenly I heard her beside me.

‘Hello,’ she said.

I said ‘Hello’ as well, but I couldn’t think of anything more to say.  I couldn’t quite see her around the mannequins, just a flash of her hair when she moved her head or a glimpse of hands fidgeting nervously in her lap.

I said, ‘You took care of me when I had a fever,’ and she replied, ‘You looked so sick, I couldn’t help it.’

‘The next day, I thought you were a dream,’ I said.  All she said was, ‘Oh.’

After a short silence, she told me that she had been living in the mall for years.  She said ‘I read all those notes that you keep stuffed inside that chair.  I know a lot about you.’  She leaned out past the mannequins and looked at me.  ‘I really love your sculptures,’ she said.  ‘And when you stopped, and then got sick, it almost broke my heart.’

It was too much for me, coming all at once like that – to finally meet someone and then to hear that she had been watching me for so long and even looking out for me.  I said, ‘I don’t even know your name,’ and the floor spun beneath my feet.

She told me that her name was Chloe Hudson and then she fell silent again.  She was shy, and so was I, but little by little she told about her life.  She had been living in the mall for almost four years, wrapped up in her own cloud of invisibility.  As we talked, I began to realize that her condition was slightly different from mine; for one thing, it had swallowed her up gradually, instead of in a flash.

Chloe had grown up in North Toronto.  She had a nice house and a dog and two parents who loved her very much.  She was happy as a child.  She had gone to school and played soccer and even gone to summer camp, but when she turned fourteen her mother was diagnosed with cancer.  Just mentioning her mother’s illness was enough to make Chloe turn slightly translucent.  She fixed her gaze on some distant point and for a long time she didn’t say anything.  I looked down at my shoes and I briefly wondered if my own parents were still alive.  I hardly ever thought about them anymore.  I told Chloe that we could talk about something else if she wanted, but she said, ‘I know so much about you though, I feel like you must already know who I am too.  But you don’t.  So I’m just going to tell you everything all at once.  I think it will be easier for me that way.’

Chloe’s mother was determined to stay alive.  She took every treatment available and she was ferociously optimistic.  The whole family fought like hell, but the cancer kept on spreading, and in the end, when her mother was in too much pain to even speak or smile or look at them anymore, they had had to give up on her.  Chloe was heart-broken of course, but over time she had been able to let her mother go.  Her father could not.  Even a year after the funeral, he was still holding on so tightly that he could barely breathe.  He alternated between shock and rage so swiftly that there was no room in his heart for anything else.  Sometimes he shouted at nothing or smashed glasses into tiny shards.  At the office, he could never focus on his work, so he had to stay late each night to catch up.  At home, he refused to answer the phone.  If he wasn’t at the kitchen table or lying awake in bed, he sat in the chair in his office holding in his hands reports and documents which he rarely even glanced at.  He was blind with indignation and little by little he even stopped noticing Chloe.

It was just trivial things at first — he would turn out the lights in the living room while she was sitting in plain sight or else he might come in the door and walk right past her as he went to the kitchen to get something to eat — but it got worse and worse until it reached the point where she could walk into his office and shout at him without provoking the slightest reaction.  And it wasn’t just her father.  After class one day, she tried to tell her history teacher about her problems at home but the man just went on marking papers without even looking up.  When Chloe tried to explain her troubles to her friends, they ignored her completely, almost as if they hadn’t even heard her.  Chloe could talk to her friends about boys or T.V. shows, but as soon as she so much as thought about her mother’s death she would fade away and her friends would forget that she was even there.

She died her hair purple, just to cause a stir, but no one said anything.  One Sunday afternoon, she shaved her head completely bald, but on Monday morning no one even noticed.  Chloe stopped going to school after that.  Instead, she rode the subway downtown each morning and spent her days at the mall.  Though her father hadn’t spoken to her in months, he continued to make monthly deposits in her bank account.  Chloe spent that money on clothes and nicely scented soaps and flowers for her bedroom.  She would sit alone in restaurants or go to the movies by herself.  At the bookstore, she would devour entire novels in their big comfortable chairs.  One day, while she was tangled up in a particularly engrossing narrative, the lights went out.  She was in a wingback chair right at the top of the escalator, but every last employee had somehow managed to leave without seeing her.  By the time she got down to the front entrance, it was locked up tight.

Chloe fell silent at that point.  I had to lean forward and peer around the mannequins to make sure she was still there.  When she spoke again, her voice was more distant.  She said, ‘That was the first time that ordinary people failed to notice me and it gave me a real scare.  I rattled the gate and I ran around looking for somebody, anybody really, but everyone had gone home.’

Chloe spent that night sleeping fitfully in a chair close to the entrance.  In the morning, she went home, fixed herself a huge breakfast and went to bed.  When she woke up, it was the middle of the afternoon and her house seemed even emptier than usual.  She went from room to room, but they were all too quiet.  She couldn’t stand to be alone any longer, so she packed her things and went back to the mall, just to have other people around.  She ate in a restaurant and the waiter had no trouble seeing her.  Whenever he stopped at the table, she talked to him about this and that, about his job, about his apartment, about his dog.  When she finished eating, she went back to the bookstore and waited in the same chair to see if anyone would notice her.  No one did.  The manager locked her in again, but this time she was prepared; she had a bag of trail mix, a bottle of water and her toothbrush to get her through the night.

‘It’s weird,’ she said.  ‘I was even more alone in the bookstore than I was at home, but I felt better there.  Maybe just because it was something new.  You get a real thrill the first few times you sneak into a place at night.’

For a few months, Chloe alternated between the mall and her house, staying at the mall when she didn’t have the energy to go home, staying at home if she had had trouble sleeping at the mall, but in the end, she realized she was more comfortable in the mall.  ‘I would buy my breakfast from the same place every day and the man at the kiosk would wave and say good morning as soon as I got in line.  That was nice.  It was things like that.  There were people around.  There were things to do.’

‘After a while, I realized that the department store was way more comfortable than the bookstore, so I started sleeping there.  And that’s when I started seeing you.  The very first time I caught a glimpse of you was in the middle of the night.  I thought I was dreaming, because I just saw this shadow go by in the darkness.  I knew it wasn’t the security guard, because he has that flashlight that he uses.  I got out of bed and searched through all the aisles, but I couldn’t find any sign of… well of anything really.  So I told myself it was nothing, that I had imagined it, and I went back to sleep.’  But after that, Chloe had begun to see signs of me everywhere; she saw my name scrawled across walls, she saw some of my notes, she watched with surprise when a shelf full of dishes toppled over for no apparent reason.  While other people seemed oblivious to my efforts to be seen, Chloe realized that a single person was behind all these strange events and, once she began to wonder about me, she was able to see me moving from place to place within the mall.  ‘You weren’t always clear at first, you would sort of flicker and, if I blinked, you would disappear completely.’

Chloe arrived in the mall during my poltergeist phase.  She was curious about how I had become invisible and sometimes she was tempted to speak to me, but she had seen the sort of nasty pranks I played on people and she didn’t want to risk becoming a target of my ire.  As Chloe told me all this, I shrank back behind my mannequin and burned with regret.  Though Chloe never tried to speak to me, she continued to watch me and one day she saw me slip an old note into the back of an armchair in the children’s section.  Once I was gone, she had reached her hand into the chair and discovered my trove of letters.  I could hear a new warmth in Chloe’s voice as she described to me the hours she had spent reading and re-reading my various pronouncements.  ‘After I read those letters, I understood why you were so angry.  You were alone for your whole life.  I can’t imagine that.  I mean, I’m alone now, but I have some important memories of my mom, of my cousins.  I remember playing in my room as a kid, just being at home with my parents.’  Chloe tried to tell me how those experiences had shaped her personality, but she couldn’t quite put it into words.  ‘I was in a bad way at that time, but things had been so much worse for you.  I wanted to do something, but I was still afraid to let you see me.’

On the day that I gave up on pranks and notes and graffiti, Chloe had already been living in the mall for six months.  She knew my habits well and right away she sensed that something was wrong, but because I had stopped writing letters there had been no way for her to guess what was going on in my mind.  She had followed me on my long aimless walks and spent afternoons in the bookstore with me.  ‘I would sit in the chair next to yours and it kind of felt like I was at home again, like we were reading together.’  She even came to the lighting section with me and stood nearby while I swam through that sparkling spectacle.  ‘Just to feel sympathy for someone again was wonderful.  It made me feel like I wasn’t alone, like we were facing our invisibility together.  Except you didn’t know I was there of course.  And I felt terrible about that.’

Chloe looked at down at her own hands and gently pinched the tips of her fingers, first on the right hand and then on the left.  When she finished, she said, ‘I wasn’t afraid of you anymore.  I knew how eager you were for friendship.  But I was afraid that when I finally said something to you, you wouldn’t be able to see me.  I couldn’t go through that again, so I just kept you as an imaginary comrade, a fellow refugee.  But then you started making those sculptures, even after all that you had been through, and I felt this surge of courage.  I felt like maybe I could start to live again.  No one had ever done anything for you and yet there you were, trying to brighten other people’s days.  I was so proud of you.  When you got sick, that was the perfect chance for me; if you couldn’t see me, I could just tell myself that it was because of your fever.  You smiled at me a couple times that night and, after that, I got a little more courageous.’  Chloe told me that she had left those little gifts as a way of saying thank you for the sculptures and we both knew what had happened after that: a chain of tentative encounters which had lead us to that very moment, a moment in which we were sitting on a bench, separated by a pair of mannequins.

I went back over my memories of the last few years; she had been there beside me all along and I hadn’t known it.  ‘Why couldn’t I see you?’  I asked aloud.  ‘Other people could.’

‘Only when I was spending money.  That took me a while to understand.  For a long time, I thought that guy at the coffee shop was extremely kind-hearted or really observant or something, but it wasn’t that at all.  It was just because I was planning to buy something.’

I told her about the man at the fountain and she listened intently.  ‘I think it has something to do with my moods,’ I said.  ‘Even now, you said the first time you saw me was at night, and that’s when I’m most relaxed, when there’s no one else around.’

She said, ‘For me, if I go into a shop intending to spend money, the salespeople will come up to me right away.  Otherwise, they don’t even look up.  If I want something, I can just steal it, but I buy things anyway, just for the conversation.  The salespeople tell me how pretty I look and all of that.  It’s kind of nice, except that I know they’re only saying it because they want to sell me something.’

I saw her tuck her hair behind her ear and then she said, ‘If my dad ever stops putting money in my account, that’ll be it.  I don’t even think my friends would see me anymore.  Even if I tried my damndest to do exactly what they expected me to.’

‘But I can see you,’ I said.

‘Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten used to you.’

I can hardly emphasize enough how strange this all was for me.  I had never spoken to anyone before.  Each sentence that came out of my mouth was like a swirling school of fish, an undulating mass in colours I had never seen before.  And Chloe’s words were something else entirely; they were like a flock of tiny, gentle birds alighting all over my body and nibbling at my clothes and skin.

‘Do you want to go get ice cream?’ I asked.

‘I do like ice cream,’ she said.

We got up and walked downstairs.  I was so nervous that I walked ahead of her as if I were a tour guide.  We stopped in front of the ice cream shop and I asked her what she wanted, then I slipped behind the counter and scooped out a cone for each of us.  ‘That’ll be three ninety-nine,’ I said, just to be funny, but then I remembered how she felt about salespeople.  She smiled at me but I could tell that my comment had upset her.  We didn’t say much while we ate; we had already talked so much upstairs and I was too busy trying to think of a way to make up for my idiotic joke.  After one particularly long silence, Chloe said, ‘I had a nice time, but I think I should go now.’  I opened my mouth a couple of times, but before I could come up with a worthwhile reply, she disappeared.

I lay awake all night that night, wondering if she was awake in one of the beds nearby.  I played back every moment of our conversation, dwelling on all the things I should have said differently.  I drifted off to sleep for a while, but at the first stirrings of consciousness I sat bolt upright in bed, electrified by my memory of what had happened the day before.  All I knew was that I had to find her, so I could be sure that she wasn’t mad.

I went to the bookstore first, but she wasn’t there.  After that, I went to the movie theatre where I wore out my eyes searching through darkened rooms for an invisible girl.  I worked my way through every section of the department store before I realized that if she wanted to talk to me, she would have gone back to the sculpture that I had set up the day before.  It was still there of course, the two mannequins sitting next to each other on the bench.  It was strange to see her beside her mannequin like that; they were both wearing the same dress and I kept blinking my eyes to try to distinguish them, or at least to make sure that one of them was really her.  When she saw me standing there she succumbed to a timid smirk then quickly looked away and I knew that she was grappling with the same turbulent blend of elation and terror that I was.

I said, ‘I’m so glad you’re here,’ and she said ‘What took you so long?’

After that, we met up every morning and strolled through the mall together, showing each other the places where we passed our time, explaining what they meant to us, trying to impress each other with little tricks and tips and unusual bits of trivia.  You can imagine how fast and hard I fell for this girl.  In all the books I have ever read, there was not one character as lonely and needy as me, and now here I was talking to a kind and beautiful girl, a girl who could see me and who was genuinely interested in what I said and did.  In those first months of our friendship, I never once tried to sit close to her or hold her hand – just talking to another human being was overwhelming enough.  We went to the movies together.  What a pleasure that was!  Because Chloe had money, we could even line up and pay like normal people if we wanted to.  Afterwards we would go and eat ice cream sundaes in a restaurant.  The waiter would seat us and take our order and Chloe would pay with her credit card when we were done.  I was beside myself with joy.  I think I could have been shot in the leg and I would hardly have noticed.

For nearly four years, we had been living together in the bedding section of the department store, but now we could see each other turning in at night and getting up in the morning.  We slept in neighbouring beds, talking to each other in the darkness like two children at a sleepover party.  Each night, as we both grew sleepy and our words drifted farther and farther apart, my body hummed with desire, urging me to cross the gap that lay between us so that I could slip into her bed and hold her in my arms.  It was only two steps, it would take only a second, but I could never summon up the courage to grab onto that soft, enticing dream.  Instead, I lay awake and suffered through a war waged within my flesh.

From very early on, Chloe urged me to go outside with her.  I evaded these suggestions as best I could, but eventually I had to admit to my phobia.  ‘I sort of knew that,’ said Chloe.  It had been about two months since our first conversation; I was completely in love with her by then and I would probably have done anything she asked me to.  She teased me kindly and laughed at my half-hearted rationalizations until eventually I submitted.  It wasn’t exactly a dangerous journey which she proposed; we were only going across the street to an open-air plaza.  Nonetheless, I nearly wet myself with fear, so if you want to razz me during your toasts, this seems as good a topic as any.

It was early on a Sunday morning.  Chloe thought it would be better because there were fewer people, but I still maintain that it was the worst possible time; the blue sky and the bright light made it seem all the more likely that I would disappear.  I fixed my gaze on the pavement, trusting Chloe to guide me across the street.  I felt like a tight-rope walker, carefully watching my own feet, knowing that one false step could cause me to slip and fly up into the sky.  With a firm grip on my elbow, Chloe led me through the plaza.  There were already a few people milling about and I could hear snatches of their conversation like birds swooping at my ears.

On the far side of the square there was a large concrete stage and I grabbed hold of it like a drowning man grabbing onto a plank of wood.  Chloe rubbed my shoulders and spoke soft, encouraging words in my ear.  I managed to clamber up onto the stage and turn myself around so that I was facing the open square but I couldn’t bear to open my eyes – just the thought of it started me hyperventilating.  Chloe climbed up next to me.  I could hear the square – the traffic echoing off the buildings, the crashing fountain on my left, wind rushing past my ears.  Chloe took my hand and held it in her own.  Her touch was feathery and wonderful and I felt a soothing warmth radiating through me.  I took a deep breath and opened my eyes.  Everything all around me was bright and clear  — people and birds and streetcars and televisions and the gleaming paint of cars rushing past.  Chloe smiled at me and I laughed.  I was still alive.  I hadn’t disappeared into the open void of the sky.  I hardly know how to describe it – I felt like a skydiver with the whole world spread out beneath me, or perhaps like a little boy making his first pass on a two-wheel bicycle.  I got down and grabbed Chloe off the proscenium; I spun her around in that big open space and then I set her down and kissed her on the lips with the whole turbulent vista rushing through my veins.  She kissed me back and it was the best feeling in the world, all wet and soft and plump and devastatingly pleasant.

We kissed quite a lot after that.  Maybe you can imagine how free we felt; not only were we young and unsupervised, we were also completely invisible.  I saw no reason to do anything other than eat and sleep and spend time with Chloe, but Chloe didn’t want to just lounge and linger.  She urged me to return to my art and, when I did, she worked alongside me, perfecting my ideas and coming up with concepts of her own.  She has a better eye for clothing than I ever will and that allowed us to branch out from the sartorial monochrome of business wear.  There was a Salvation Army nearby where Chloe went to assemble outfits that were worn and slightly out of date.  A mannequin in crisp new clothes is immediately and obviously a mannequin, but dummies in faded sweatshirts and ragged corduroys have an eerie realism about them.

We dressed one mannequin in an extra-large Superbowl t-shirt that was five years out of date and padded him with sheets of foam until he looked obese, then we set him up in the food court in one of those swivelling chairs which are bolted to the floor a little too far from the table.  This solitary fellow was holding an ornate wooden box in his hands, with his thumbs pressed up against the lid.  I built a special mechanism so that the box would open every ten minutes, just for a few seconds, and we packed that box full of crystals and gleaming LEDs so that his arms and face sparkled with dazzling, dancing colours whenever he lifted the lid.  That mannequin was so nondescript that most people didn’t even notice he was fake until that sudden splash of colour on his face caused them to take a second look.  Chloe and I called him Herbert and we both grew quite attached to him.  We loved him because he had found a secret treasure which made him happy and he didn’t care a whit what anyone else thought of him.

Soon we were working on the displays as equal partners, bouncing ideas off each other with echoing excitement.  At Chloe’s urging, I used my master key to get us up onto the catwalk so we could drop cables from the vaulted glass ceiling down to the concourse below.  At ground level, we arranged a group of toddlers in dirty, discombobulated outfits as though they were bursting into flight like a flock of startled birds.  We tried to make those stocky little mannequins look as much like wild creatures as possible.  There were about thirty of them, gathered together in a pack; most were still earthbound, eating fingerfood or playing with ragged dolls, but a few had turned warily towards the passers-by and still others were leaping into the air, toes dangling just above the ground; two were already wheeling up to join the iconic flock of Canada Geese which hang from the ceiling at the southern end of the mall.  The final result was so weird and wonderful that it tickled my heart every time I saw it — I couldn’t help but imagine real toddlers soaring through the mall and alighting upon the railings and window ledges up near the ceiling in order to feast on scavenged cookies while peering down at the crowds below.

And we have spent a year like this – working side by side, reading each other’s favourite books, going to sleep in each other’s arms and waking up in exactly the same place.  Chloe has taught me how to cook and I have taught her how to use all the tools in the department store’s workshop.  Once a week, Chloe walks with me outside.  When I want to turn back, she presses me to carry on a little further.  Six weeks ago, I proposed to her by lining up twenty-six businessmen in front of the fountain, each one holding up a single letter so that they spelled out ‘CHLOE HUDSON WILL YOU MARRY ME?’  The final mannequin was Herbert, down on one knee in a ill-fitting suit, holding his beloved box.

If Chloe had ever wanted diamonds, she could simply have taken them, so instead I had just grabbed a gaudy, costume ring with a big old plastic gem and packed it into Herbert’s box amidst the mirrors and blinking LEDs.  I highly doubt that such a ring is fashionable, or even tasteful, but since no one else can see us, it hardly matters.

As I walked with Chloe to the railing which overlooks the fountain I was quite pleased with my preparations, but the first words out of her mouth were, ‘Oh god, what have you done?’  She looked around with wild eyes, as if trying to calculate how far her name had spread, and her face streamed with sudden tears.  She begged me to take it all down – ‘At least get rid of the signs!’  Regrets exploded in my mind like volleys of artillery shells – could I pretend it had been a joke? had I lost everything?  Chloe’s face was flooded with distress, but amidst the tears and contorted cheeks there was also a trembling smile and, when she finally got a hold of herself, she managed to say, ‘But yes, of course I’ll marry you.’

Her expression was still so sorrowful that I had trouble believing that I had heard her correctly.  ‘Did you just say yes?’ I asked.

‘I did,’ she said, and this time her smile was a little more confident.

I felt tears welling up in my own eyes and then I was laughing and crying at the same time.  ‘Why did you do that to me?’ I asked as I held her cheeks in my hands and examined her dark, watery eyes.

‘I’ve gotten so used to being lost.  It scared me to see my name like that.’

‘I’ll take it down,’ I said.  I wanted so badly to make her happy.

‘No.  I’m ridiculous.  I’m such a wreck.  I can’t just pretend I didn’t have a life before this.  And you put so much work into this.  Oh god, that’s Herbert’s box, you’re so sweet.  And I totally ruined it.’  She was smiling now, laughing at herself a little; the clouds had broken and the whole world was bathed in gentle sunshine.

‘You didn’t ruin it at all.  You said yes.’  And then I cried a little more myself.

So that’s the true and utterly embarrassing story of my disastrous marriage proposal.  Once Chloe regained her composure, we went around to the escalator and rode it down to the lower level so that she could see her ring up close.  Chloe tried it on and we laughed together at how tacky it looked.  She called me an idiot and I have never in my life been happier.

We went for lunch, both of us exhausted and trembling and giddy with joy, and we started trying to plan our wedding.  We weren’t really sure what we were planning at first, since neither of us had anyone to invite but we still wanted some sort of ceremony to mark the day in our minds so that we can look back on it as we grow older.  It made sense to us that we ought to do something with mannequins, so if you come to the mall next Sunday, you’ll see two mannequins standing hand-in-hand on a makeshift stage, one in a dark suit and the other in a lovely wedding gown.  But beyond that we were baffled.  What sort of an event would it actually be?  Who would marry us?  I had proposed and she had accepted; what more could we do without witnesses, documents and public vows?

The solution came to me three weeks ago.  It was well past midnight and I was alone in the lighting section, thinking over everything that had happened in my life — my disappearance, my letters, my sculptures, my encounter with the man at the fountain, the year I have spent with Chloe – when it occurred to me that the only thing to do was to invite everyone in the city and just take our chances about who might show up.

We’ll be getting married right in front of the fountain, in the same place where I proposed.  In addition to honoured guests such as yourself, I’ve dressed Furzer up and we’ll be resurrecting some of our favourite mannequins, so say ‘Hello’ to Furzer, introduce yourself to Herbert and take a moment to fool around with our troupe of flying toddlers.  We’ve also hidden a sound system and speakers in the potted plants, so if you want to dance there will be plenty of opportunities.

If you’re still on the fence about attending, perhaps I can persuade you with free food — Chloe has been burning up her credit card.  If you see a silver plate in the hands of a plastic butler, go ahead and help yourself to a glass of bubbly or a miniature soufflé or a tiny smoked salmon sandwich.  We’ll be printing cards with our vows; you can read them over while you munch and sip.  Please make a toast if you feel inspired.

You may wonder what we intend to do as husband and wife.  For now, we plan to continue living in the mall and building our sculptures, but we’ve talked about doing installations in public spaces throughout Canada and the rest of the world.  I for one am eager to see how easily we can slip through airport security.  We’ve also discussed the possibility of buying a house; Chloe should be able to stay visible long enough to do the paperwork as long as we come with cash in hand, and, once we own it, we can grow trees out front and come and go as we please, leaving the neighbours to gossip about the strange new owners who never come outside.  The biggest question is whether or not we will have children.  Both of us would love to, but so many things could go wrong.  Neither of us want our children to inherit our invisibility.  And even if they are visible, what will they tell their friends and teachers when no one can see their parents?  Worse still, there’s always the chance that they won’t be able to see us clearly and they’ll grow up without ever knowing what their parents really look like.

But for now, we’ve decided not to worry about the future; we just want to focus on the wedding.  So please put on your favourite clothes, bring a friend, bring your dancing shoes, because you are cordially invited to the Eaton Centre this Sunday at noon to celebrate the unlikely love of two invisible people.  It’s a miracle that we ever found each other.

_____

If you enjoyed this story, please visit http://www.matthewliepaehlke.com/ or consider purchasing a digital copy of it from Smashwords.com.

Welcome

September 4, 2011

Hello,

Welcome to my website.  I created this blog to introduce myself to anyone and everyone who might want to attend the ceremony which I’m planning.  I originally publicized the ceremony with a flyer and craigslist post which read as follows:

Dear Craigslist,

This is an invitation to a once-in-a-lifetime celebration in the atrium of a major shopping mall.  There will be food, drink and music, as well as a short ceremony to mark a major milestone in my life.  I can’t give any further details because the management of the shopping centre in question is unaware of my plans.  This is the sort of event that would normally be attended by friends and family; however, because I have no friends or family to speak of, I have chosen to post an open invitation here.  I have also created a blog to tell you about my life and personality so that those of you who choose to attend may prepare appropriate remarks if you are so inclined.  If you read my post in full, it will be easy enough to determine which mall to show up at and how to dress for the event.  Though many will find my life story unbelievable, I have my fingers crossed that a few of you will take me at my word and come out to wish me well.

If you’d like to read my life story, please click here.

That’s all.  Hope to see you at the big party!

Test

August 30, 2011

Hi, this is Timothy.  I’m just testing this out.  I finished a rough draft yesterday, but I should definitely edit it.  It’s pretty weird trying to write down your whole life story and make it interesting for people.  It was easy enough to remember what happened, but to make people understand what it felt like was pretty hard at times.  Hopefully I’ll be able to post the whole thing tomorrow.