The first thing she does is to swear she will never use her power for evil. She will not end up like the guy in Hollow Man or any of those movies. People who become invisible are inevitably bound to become moral vacuums that do anything for their own amusement and anything to stop anyone else from having any kind of control over them, the movies say. But Ellen will be the exception to the rule, she tells herself, and feels better.
She is better than any of those guys anyway, she thinks, as she experiments to learn of her abilities. Her body is not transparent but rather covered by an invisibility field; when she puts food in her mouth it disappears from the mirror, and when she puts clothes on they disappear as well. If she puts something in the pockets of her clothes it, too, becomes invisible. Which takes care of my worldly needs, she thinks, unless petty shoplifting counts as evil. She decides it does not.
Most fascinating is that even though she sees through her own body, closing her eyes makes the room go dark. She suspects the effect is psychological, and her eyelids are really as invisible to her as the rest of her, but whatever lets her sleep at night, so to speak.
Growing hungry, she cooks herself a meal in the little, well-equipped kitchen where it occurs to her this is not her home. She has never seen this apartment before. She eats quickly, guiltily, and washes her dishes, straining to remember exactly where she found everything. They are still going to miss the food, she thinks, feeling her invisible cheeks flush red.
But later, walking through the streets of the city, she admits that is how it is going to be. She has no memory of where she lived, and a vague idea it would be best to let that part of her life go. Everything has changed forever. She can not imagine seeing her friends, if she could remember having any friends. She thinks vaguely that her memory seems very efficient in blocking things, or forgetting things. Maybe she has been traumatized and forgot the whole thing. She does not even remember how she became invisible.
And as the sun sets, she formulates a plan. Inside a large apartment building she tests doors, slowly, silently, methodically. In this small city a lot of people leave their doors unlocked, and it does not take long to get inside an apartment. A young man sits in a rather large room, watching television with a blank expression. Not much else in the apartment; a tiny bedroom with a large bed where she hides her clothes under a pile of dirty laundry. The apartment is far too hot to wear a jacket, she thinks, and after that she finds it easy to let go of all her clothing. She wants to avoid making any sounds, she reasons.
Of course the added feeling of liberation when standing naked in front of a somewhat cute guy is a definite bonus. Ellen has to resist an urge to play with him, to whisper or lightly touch his hair, or his face; to make him notice her and to make him believe in miracles. Instead she sits, carefully, on the wooden floor, in a corner where she can look both at him and the TV.
Just to pass the time, she tells herself, as the looks deep into his face and tries to psychoanalyze his expressions. He is mostly tired, probably a hard worker, slaving all day and now relaxing in front of the telly. How mundane. He watches advertisements with a cynical smirk, never even close to falling for them. He watches a war movie intently, absently; immersed. He looks genuinely sad when the hero dies.
Then, at the end of the movie, he switches to an adult channel. Ellen blushes and struggles to stay silent as the TV produces its high-pitched moans mixed with wet sounds of flesh meeting flesh, over and over in a steady rhythm. The guy unbuttons his pants, unveiling a large erection, and Ellen stares fascinated as he slowly rubs his hand over it with the same blank, tired expression on his face. Dropping on his back and pulling his shirt up, he comes on his stomach, and wipes himself down with paper tissues from a strategically placed box, and goes to the bathroom, and then to bed.
She watches him sleep for a while, trying to get over the thrill of spying. It gives her a fluttering feeling in her belly to watch and knowing she isn’t seen by anyone or anything; she does not want it to get too good to her, but argues to herself that there’s no harm in having some fun. As a child, she probably liked to spy on people, she thinks. Maybe she can stir her memories by reliving them. She imagines a small village, deep in a forest, where a pack of children runs, giggling the giggles of shared secrets and excitement and mystery while prowling the fields and lawns in the dark, watching neighbours through windows. It seems very real to her, and she wonders if it is a real memory of if she has such a capacity for imagination.
Ellen wanders the dark, silent apartment while she thinks, absently, and finds herself slouching in the couch. It is very soft and comforting and she realizes the danger of falling asleep, but is already too close to the edge of consciousness to think of a way around the problem. Vaguely, she thinks that she has to sleep sometime, anyway, as she drifts off.
Fortunately she wakes from the alarm in the bedroom, and finds herself quickly enough to avoid making any noise. Carefully she stands up and stretches, relieved to hear no cracking sinews or joints. With a sense of indulgence she allows her unknowing host his privacy, standing by the window and looking out as he makes his morning toilet, singing in the shower.
And then, without warning, she turns to see him standing before her, naked, looking at her. She chokes on a scream, panicking, freezing in place. In this moment of fear, Ellen finds her perception extraordinarily keen. She is aware of everything, it seems: The hot sweat breaking on her forehead and back and in her armpits, and the semi-erect penis between her host’s legs waving lazily back and fort, and the exact look in her host’s eyes, distant, still a little sleepy. He hasn’t seen her, she realizes, and steps quickly along the walls of the room to the door behind him, through it, into the kitchen, where she stands in a far away corner and allows herself a mighty shiver.
More quietly and more determined than ever before, Ellen stalks back to the living room to see what he’s doing. He stands by the window, just as she did moments before, left hand resting on his buttocks, while his right, obscured from her view by his body, moves with the unmistakable rhythm of masturbation. He never stops, Ellen thinks, deriding him in her mind. She watches him, resolute not to be embarrassed, reminding herself that he has no idea she is there, and that he will most likely leave soon.
The window is huge, and offers a splendid view. None of the few buildings in sight are very tall, or close, so, she thinks, it must be most unlikely for anyone to see him. But still, beating himself off in that position, he must be very brave. Or stupid. Or perverted.
She reprimands herself for saying anything about anyone else’s perversions as she watches, curious, while the man walks over to the bathroom, still stroking his penis in a slow, even pace. He pulls the door shut behind him, sparing her the finish. Surprisingly soon the door springs open revealing him fully clothed and wearing a businesslike expression. And so he darts out, locking Ellen in his apartment, at last.
Her stomach feels empty and she raids the kitchen, trying to sample small unnoticeable amounts of everything. Then she sits on the toilet for the first time as invisible. She can’t help looking down through herself, with abject fascination at the sight of her piss and shit becoming visible an inch or so outside her body.
Another corner of the large living room has a computer in it, her goal all along. She sits down to advertise herself as a private investigator, finder of secrets and photographer of things people doesn’t want other people to see, a somewhat complex process. Setting up a website boasting her skill to go places without being seen, an account at a somewhat questionable bank, and an email address where customers can reach her is the easy part; such things are free. But advertising, leading people to the site, in quantity, that costs money. She wonders why she knows such detailed information but not anything about who she is.
Ellen sails the web randomly, leaving little notes on billboards and message boards and in chat rooms and journals wherever she can get away with it. This occupies too much of her attention and all of a sudden it’s early afternoon. She saves no passwords, deletes her browser history, shuts things down, finds her clothes, steals an apple and gets out of there. The sound of the patent lock engaging when she shuts the apartment door behind her gives her a sense of closure.
But it’s only beginning, she tells herself, and goes to prowl the town center, where all the stores are. She gets herself a nice big backpack and fills it with clothes and food and a camera, the finest digital camera she can find. Such a great invention, she thinks, just plug it in a computer and pipe the pictures over and it’s done. No need to have and be able to operate a darkroom, or leave it to a professional. She gets plenty of batteries for it, and a charger, and tries to think of anything else she needs.
A momentarily abandoned purse gives her a pocket full of money, because who knows, it’s always good to have a little. Using a few coins, she locks her newly filled pack in a locker in the town bus station and goes to entertain herself. More for the sake of form, or the cliché in itself, than any real thrill, she peeks in the boys’ changing room at the bathhouse, finding it both amusing and a little arousing but quickly boring.
Outside of the bathhouse she changes her mind and, mischievously, hides her clothes in a bush and goes back inside naked. The hot, steaming jungle of the shower room, with its nearly constantly running showers, now becomes something else; a bustling, changing mass of naked bodies hovering on the edge of sexual tension. She weaves between the bodies and the streams of falling water, slowly, deliberately, playfully, almost touching. She is soaked by steam and maybe sweat, wanting more and more to touch and be touched, to love, to fuck.
In the sauna, where the air is thick with heat and the smell of thousands of men, ingrained in the wood, she lies down in a corner and quickly stimulates herself to climax. There are rows of men here, strangers sitting side by side, naked and relaxing, all unaware of the woman among them silently stuttering her lust into the dim light. Or maybe not entirely unaware. One of them shifts uncomfortably, stands up and walks out with a slight self-conscious crouch.
Ellen leaves, guiltily, and pondering if it would have been any different in the girls’ changing room. Maybe not. She was more turned on by herself, her own actions, than anyone she saw. What a depressingly narcissistic idea, she thinks.
The night descends on the city and she steals a bus ride and a fast food dinner and a movie. It’s just something you have to do when you’re invisible, she says to herself, taking a seat in the empty front row of the theater. The movie doesn’t interest her. A boy meets a girl and makes an ass of himself. Someone died, or maybe they didn’t. A series of ranting, improbable conversations where feelings get precisely labelled take place. The boy marries the girl. Ellen leaves disappointed, picks up her backpack and sneaks into a hotel. It’s not a very busy hotel, and judging by the number of room keys on display more than half its rooms are currently empty. The man at the desk is preoccupied with a small television and doesn’t hear the minute, accidental click of the key as Ellen picks it up.
And so she gets a room for the night. After two hours of watching TV with the volume turned down to barely audible and apparently no one deciding to see where the key went, she relaxes. She takes a long, hot shower followed by a short cold one and slips into the bed, which is more comfortable than anything she remembers sleeping in.
The next day she leaves early, sneaking out the front door while someone else opens it. She makes her way into the inner offices of a candy store, to the inevitable computers. It doesn’t take long to find an unattended terminal in a small empty room, where she quickly checks her email to find no one has written her. Hugging the walls of the corridor on her way out, she thinks about how to advertise her business. And she gets an idea so great and simple it takes an effort not to fall to her knees laughing.
Travelling, when invisible, is easy as long as you’re patient, Ellen thinks. A short series of buses take her to the airport; she avoids those more than half full, and steps off when it seems too many people are getting on. Negotiating the infrared door openers is the hard part: If no one else opens the door for her she has to take off her shoe and drop it across the invisible beam – when it leaves her hand the shoe becomes visible, and passes through the lens’s field of vision a few inches above the floor, and the noise it makes is masked by the door’s hydraulics kicking in – and she has a close call when a herd of children, some kindergarten field trip, fill up the bus and she has nowhere to go.
Still easier than paying, she thinks, as she picks and chooses between the many airplanes departing. Without effort she finds and gives herself a seat on a plane to New York that’s leaving with less than twenty passengers on board. She looks out the window on her right during takeoff and watches the clouds envelop the plane and then fall back. She watches the cotton-white lands of clouds with their mountains and valleys and waits for boredom to set in – she knows she’s supposed to get bored of looking out the window but it’s just not happening. Eventually her invisible eyes begin to hurt from the sharp light and she leans back in her stolen seat and sleeps, while the plane races the sun across the sea.
When she wakes up the plane is on the ground, and empty, and she hurries to the exit, preparing herself to find it closed. But it has been left open and Ellen makes her way through the airport and sneaks onto another plane without pause. Washington is her goal, where she arrives unknown, without fanfare. Tired and confused she stumbles to a somewhat isolated corner of the airport and lies down on a bench, clutching her backpack tightly.
She wakes, again, at four in the morning and steals herself some food from a nearly-deserted diner. The food is tasteless and she’s not hungry, but the forces herself to eat, remembering how long it was since she last ate, and attributing her lack of appetite to stress of some kind. She doesn’t feel nervous, but reasons that she ought to be.
By train and by feet she makes it into the city and into the White House, navigating its unfamiliar corridors with utmost care. She tips, literally on her toes, past guards and cameras, expecting alarms to go off at any second. They probably have infrared cameras or something, she thinks, wondering why she didn’t think of that earlier. Any second bells will ring and red lights will flood the room and a big, hard hand will clamp down on her shoulder.
But nothing happens and she finds the president of the United States of America asleep with his wife and takes the video camera from her backpack and shoots him.
Ellen films him sleeping, and waking, and going to the bathroom. She follows him every step of his day, recording conversations both private and top secret – must remember to blur the sound on that, she thinks – and embarrassing. She films him giving himself a pep talk in a mirror, picking his nose and chewing his food. She experiments with the camera, zooming and panning, floating around the most powerful man in the world unseen and unheard.
At the end of the day, back in his bedroom, she leaves, shaking with excitement and suppressed giggling. She considers using the computer in his own office to upload the video, just for fun, but realizes it would make something resembling a pattern, and hits the street.
After a night in a bush in a park she goes to seek a computer. It takes her the better part of the day and a slow walk to a residential area far away to find even one unguarded machine, in a teenager’s bedroom, but as it turns out, one is not sufficient. The video editing software accompanying the camera would be great, but the hassle of installing it is too much when the homeowners cold enter at any moment; she resolves to save it as a last resort and goes on to seek a better computer.
The night grows late when she finds one, sneaking into a luxurious three-floor villa. A boy sleeps, loudly, just a few feet from his machine where Ellen sits. With the sound turned as low as possible, she frantically clicks around her video, blurring the most sensitive words and faces, cutting and compressing a little, throwing on some text cards to explain and excuse herself: She does not want to expose the failings of America et cetera, only to show that no one in the world can hide anything from her, to show that she can get anywhere and see anything.
The youth next to her snores loud enough to break her concentration over and over, and doesn’t move an inch, even when his computer gives away a worrisome grinding noise as it saves Ellen’s work. She tries to imagine the world drawing a collective shocked breath when the video finishes uploading, but the boy’s complete lack of enthusiasm makes it hard.
She goes outside, turning in a slow circle and wondering where to go. At this point in her plan she had imagined, vaguely, she would go back home, and now, as the sun rises, it dawns on her that she has no home to go to.
She considers seeking out some other computers and access her site from them just to muddy the trail, but finds it pointless. Soon enough they’ll figure out she has accessed those computers physically, and get her fingerprints, but then what? It doesn’t change anything.
Apathically, she goes back to the airport. Something about it feels vaguely homelike. She thinks of it as a single airport existing in multiple places; wherever she flies there it is, waiting for her. The largeness, the amounts of people moving through it, the round-the-clock openness and the plentiful resources all combine to make it among the safest and most comfortable places she can imagine being.
And, she thinks, maybe seeing all these people makes me feel less lonely.
So she sits, invisible, nibbles a stolen candy bar, looks up at a TV and waits for the news to break.
No one in the whole world knows that I am, she thinks.
And so the news begin. The lady in the screen speaks with some uncertainty, overwhelmed, confused. Something in her manners make people crowd in front of the show before they even hear what news she reports. Awed and impressed sounds travel through the crowd. Soon the whole world knows what she has done and can do, even if they still don’t know who she is.
For ten years Ellen travel the world, revealing traitors, overthrowing corrupt governments, avoiding traps and making large sums of money. She purchases, through a number of handsomely paid messengers, a small island where she sometimes retires by means of a small motorboat she drives herself, at night, far from any port.
The island has no electricity, no civilisation but a hut that might charitably be called a beach house. She sits in a fold-out chair drinking spring water and watching the tropical jungle around her. Its animals and insects know her presence, and thinking about that makes her feel a kind of comforting warmth. A tiny monkey, no bigger than her hand, looks straight at her and she looks back and smiles. It climbs and sits on her lap and allows her to pet it, unafraid.
‘Hello’, says Ellen. She can’t remember speaking before.
Another day she bathes in a small waterfall on the island, fascinated by the impression of her body in the water, when a dozen men of hard calibers and dark clothes invade. She hides, quiet, in the grass by the beach while they search. They find some trails; clothes, fingerprints, the little motor boat. Nothing that says she’s there right now. Ellen wonders why she leaves so few traces in the world, even here where she thought no man would ever come. She finds no answers and hurries instead on board the enemy’s boat while they set explosive charges around her boat and her hut.
Going away, Ellen finds it easier to stay out of the way of the bad guys, even in the tight spaces of the boat, than keeping her temper. She looks at them and wants them to know that she’s there, that she is violated and hurt. But she can’t reveal herself, she thinks, of course, and keeps silent and still. Although when she sees the island explode at the horizon she weeps silently.
The boat goes into a perfectly ordinary harbor, passing close to an array of car tires hung on the dock to absorb impacts, which lets Ellen step off before they stop. She is tired and cold, but not hungry, never hungry, and buries herself in a layer of papers in a recycling container in an alleyway. It’s b a long time since she slept in such a risky place, she thinks, but doesn’t have the energy to care, and falls asleep almost instantly.
The next day she thinks she’s gone wrong from the beginning. The most difficult part of the job has always been to get paid and to manage the money, and she does not actually need money. Through the usual steps she updates her site, with the weight of what she imagines to be the eyes of billions on her, and proclaims that her services as of now are free. She says that as always she reserves the right to decline jobs at her discretion, that she of course prefers humanitarian actions, that as usual she can only handle a very limited amount of work even though she’s drowning in requests, et cetera. Still no one knows who she is, still they don’t even know how many she are.
In time she develops a democratic system where the site’s visitors can vote on what they want her to find out, and stops all email contacts. The world watches on the edge of its seat on each challenge: Everyone knows, or thinks they know when and where she’s going, and yet over and over again she comes out undiscovered and with a video. She never stays more than five minutes in one place after going online – within an hour, or sometimes within fifteen minutes, someone shows up looking for her.
Though her fingerprints are everywhere no witnesses can say anything, even when they’ve been in the room with her. After a while certain conclusions, however improbable, as Sherlock Holmes would say, become the only possible. And though it’s the last thing she wants she knows how it’s going to end.
The moment she hears a news program use the word ‘invisible’, Ellen disappears.
She walks away from the job without a word, without looking back. It’s heavy, but she moves forward; walking down the road not knowing where she’s going. A few weeks later the world suspects she’s gone, but by that time she is so far away she doesn’t hear the uproar on the streets, in the news studios, on the Internet. She walks into the forest somewhere between Ecuador and Brazil, deep into the forest among plants and beasts, far away from all humans.
She wanders where there are no roads, and sleeps under the stars, and drinks dew and sunlight, and talks to the animals she comes across. She doesn’t scare them, for some reason, and they happily let themselves be petted and hugged and scratched. She loses the camera without thinking of it, and leaves her clothes behind without a look. She has only herself, she thinks, no one and nothing other than herself. Alone with the wonders of the world.
Maybe she goes to sleep in a pile of leaves in Paraguay and wakes up in Kenya, or Indonesia, or Sri Lanka, or Russia. Maybe there is only one forest, and it is all forests, and it is the heart of the world, she thinks. Ellen has no grasp of geography, or time. The days blur into each other, time has no meaning, there is no time other than now, the brief moment, and all the beauty she sees doesn’t satisfy her hunger for beauty.
One day she runs into a kindergarten. Strange to find something like this in the deep forest, she thinks, but notices she forest ends behind her. Before her lies a wild grown, mossy field of grass with children riding on swings and climbing on things and running back and forth. Ellen sits on the grass and looks at them, with a smile on her invisible lips. Soon the children go indoors, all but one. A girl sits by herself in a sandbox, building a tower. Ellen crawls closer while an idea takes shape in her head, the first new idea she has had in many years.
The girl works intensely with the sand and has no idea Ellen sits in front of her and looks deep and probing into her eyes. Ellen is almost sure, and wants to say something, ask something, but waits, impatient for the first time. The girl stands up without warning and enters the house with the rest of the children, where Ellen doesn’t dare follow. But she watches through the windows as close as she can and follows the girl throughout the day.
Some hours later the sky darkens and the children go home with their parents, little by little. Ellen’s chosen girl is one of the last to be picked up. She walks home with her father, while Ellen follows after. They hold hands and don’t seem to speak. From time to time the girl looks up at her father, but quickly turns away.
They enter an apartment where Ellen barely manages to follow before the door is closed. The man microwaves a dinner and they eat together, in silence. Afterwards he lies on a couch and turns on a television and seems to instantly fall asleep. The girl sits in her bedroom reading a book of illustrated fairy tales. Ellen watches her, happy and scared at the same time. She thinks and can’t come up with anything that she’s waiting for.
‘Hi’, she says, carefully. The girl looks up from her book, thoughtful, curious, not worried. ‘Hi’, she says, again. ‘What’s your name? I’m Ellen.’
‘Lisa’, says Lisa. She looks around, grinning cleverly. ‘Who are you?’