Rain peppered Crystal Rhodes. It splatted on her helmet’s visor and stung through her cotton shirt. She should have listened to her mother. But her jacket was hanging on its hook fifty miles behind her. She shook her head and more water flooded off her helmet and down her back. The rain increased to a downpour, so it was all she could hear. Even her bike’s engine was a distant roar. Water soaked through her shirt so each drop to strike her skin felt like a miniature explosion. She dodged a puddle, then eased off on the throttle. No good hydroplaning. Another puddle was building, this one in her seat, right in front of her crotch. It oozed into her jeans, soaking the one place she ought to have been able to keep dry.
After five minutes, she started looking for an exit. But out here in no man’s land, she got nothing. The rain didn’t abate, and Crystal slogged on even more slowly now, while faster traffic zoomed around her on the left. Finally, she came to an overpass and chugged to a stop. She parked as far away from the highway as possible, then walked up the gravel. She didn’t want to get creamed by some crazy too stupid to take the foot off the accelerator.
“I thought the big drops were supposed to mean the rain would stop soon,” she muttered as she peeled off her helmet.
“Nah. That’s just a myth.”
“Who’s there?” Crystal jumped and slipped. She nearly fell, but caught herself with a hand.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you.”
“Um. That’s OK.” She stood again dusting her pants. “Where are you?” She strained her eyes up into the place where the overpass met the earth. Nothing. Nobody. She started to turn around and look behind her.
“Here. If I take off my knapsack you can find me.” A backpack materialized in thin air and thumped into the gravel.
“You’re invisible.” Crystal took a step backwards.
“Oh don’t go!” Crystal backed up further. “No, look. I hate for you to get wet just because I went and opened my big mouth. I didn’t mean to, I swear. I’m harmless, really.” The voice was high and thin. A woman, or a boy not quite into puberty. “Look, see?” The backpack vanished and Crystal heard its zipper. Then clothes rained down from overhead. Shirts bras, panties, and a pair of stained shorts blew towards her.
“Oh for pity’s sake!” Crystal scrambled to catch a shirt before it bloused out and into the roadway. A car blasted past, sending up a spray that she barely felt.
“Please, I’m not hiding any weapons. I couldn’t. I’ve got the backpack with both hands, and everything I touch goes invisible, but the things touching the things show up. Look.” The backpack suddenly appeared again in the dim light, right side up, floating above the ground around what could easily have been a pair of shoulders.
“Is this some trick of the light? Is a TV crew going to step out…”
“No, no, no. I’m real, I swear to God, and I’m not a ghost, and this isn’t some TV stunt.”
Crystal looked at one of the bras stretched out on the rocks. It was cotton with rainbows. She tried to imagine her sixteen year old sister wearing anything like it. She tried to imagine the shirt she had caught fitting around her sister’s thin middle. She couldn’t picture either thing. The voice, the shirt, the bra, they all added up . “You’re a kid.”
“Hey, I’m not going to hurt you. Are you alone up there?”
More silence, and then the backpack vanished.
“No don’t run off! I’m not going to…” Crystal dropped her helmet and didn’t watch it roll away. She jammed her hands down into her own drenched pockets and dumped out everything. The keys, her cell phone, her wallet, she threw them on the ground and turned the fabric inside out. “I’m harmless, too,” she said. After a minute, the backpack reappeared. “Where’s your family?”
“I don’t know.”
“I … are they … invisible, too?” Crystal looked up into the overpass straining her eyes for the hidden cameras she felt sure would be trained on her.
“No. They’re all as solid as you are.”
“Why don’t you know where they are?”
“We went camping, and our site got flooded. They drove off without me in the rush to go. I guess they thought I was in back of the car. I got…I got…” the voice rose and then went silent. Crystal edged slowly towards the backpack, not picking up anything, just walking with her hands in the air. When she reached the place where the girl was standing, Crystal cradled the backpack. The shoulders beneath her arm felt very corporeal indeed. They were under a shirt as wet as Crystal’s own, and they were shaking.
“It’s OK,” said Crystal.
“No it’s not!” Fingers brushed hers, and for just a moment, Crystal’s body dissolved. She saw straight down to the gravel. She gasped, and nearly at once the fingers pulled away. But Crystal didn’t. She held onto those shoulders. The girl said, “I got out because I jumped on somebody else’s tailgate at the last second, and I had to get into the back of their truck, and they were going the wrong way, and I’ve been crawling in and out of trucks, and swiping food, and trying to steal a phone ever since, but everybody’s going the wrong way.” She drew a breath and hiccoughed. “And that last couple was both drunk, and I thought they were going to crash, so when he pulled over to pee, I jumped out and ran, only we’re miles from anywhere, and …and…” she dissolved into tears.
Crystal said. “I think it really is all right.”
“Touch me again. I won’t flinch this time, I promise.”
After a long moment, the fingers came back to rest on Crystal’s wrist, like the girl was crossing an arm over herself to rest the hand on the opposite shoulder. Crystal waited. She stiffened at the initial shock when her own body went away, she knew she did. But then, slowly, her eyes adjusted and she found her own outline again, transparent, but real. More than that, she saw the girl now, as she thought she had glimpsed her before. Her sodden dark hair was plastered to a freckled face. Crystal said, “You’re from New Mexico, right?”
“How did you know that?” Now it was the girl whose body went taut.
“And your family was camping in the Colorado Rockies. Your name is Alexi.” The girl started to pull away, but Crystal tightened her hand. “Your Mom’s been all over the news. There’s an Amber alert and everything.”
“What? I didn’t think they’d look for me that way. Because if the government…” Alexi’s voice rose again. “They’ll use me for tests, and I’ll…”
“She didn’t say you were invisible,” said Crystal. “She said, ‘You’ll hear her before you see her.’ But they have a picture. How did you … they … ? It’s been three weeks!”
“Self portraits,” said the girl. She sniffed. “If I’m holding the camera, it can see me.”
Crystal said. “I don’t know how to tell you this next part.”
“What? Is my family hurt? Oh God, I thought they all made it…” Alexi turned to Crystal, but their fingers lost contact and either Crystal faded back into the world or else Alexi faded out of it.
“They’re fine. It’s just you that got lost. But it was three weeks ago, Alexi.” Crystal fumbled until her fingers touched Alexi’s again, then waited until she could see the freckled face before going on. “You’re in Ohio.”
“Oooh.” Crystal heard Alexi’s indrawn breath as a word.
“Listen. The rain’s starting to let up. I didn’t plan real well. My phone case kind of sucks, and I think my cell’s gotten wet and zorched. I can’t leave you alone … Am I really the first person you’ve talked to?”
“And I didn’t mean to say anything to you! Only you made that comment about big raindrops, and that’s a myth, and I wasn’t thinking…”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“You can’t tell anybody. Please, you have to promise me…”
“Yeah, I get it.” Crystal didn’t. She couldn’t imagine living in such fear of government testing that she wouldn’t risk asking for a phone to call her Mom. But then she couldn’t have imagined being invisible until it happened. “You need to get home without a lot of fuss.”
“Yes. Yes.” Alexi’s dark eyes were wide and real, very real. “Will you… can you help me?”
“I think so.” Crystal touched the girl’s cheek, hot where she’d been crying. “Will you trust me? Will you ride with me? I can’t leave you alone. But I can get you to a phone and hide you so nobody sees you calling.” She drew in a deep breath and held it.
“OK.” Alexi nodded. Crystal breathed out. She looked down the little gravel hill to see that her helmet had rolled to safety against the bike. “Good,” she said. “I’m going to give you my helmet, OK? I guess it will just vanish…”
“No, you can’t. Hats show. My hair doesn’t, but it’s not alive, and hats always show up. People will see a bodiless head …”
“No, we’ll be going so fast they won’t notice. Keep your pack on, and they’ll just see somebody hunched up on my back against the rain. I won’t stop long enough for anybody to look for your legs.” Slowly, Alexi nodded. Crystal let go of her, breaking the contact and flowing back into reality again (or did Alexi vanish from it?). She went down the hill, collecting her own things and Alexi’s spilled clothing as she moved.
When they were both sure no cars were coming in either direction, Crystal found Alexi’s head and put on the helmet, then helped her tighten the straps. It was far from a perfect fit, but it seemed better than nothing. Then she boosted the invisible girl onto her bike and climbed on herself. She brought the engine to life, and Alexi leaned in close. “Let’s get you home, honey,” Crystal shouted over the roar. Then she pulled out into a light, stinging rain and drove on down the highway.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.