Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
 
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Gusts

by Matt Kolbet





Michael didn't know how the change happened, only that it had made him sit up. The hour was late, when anyone out is either watching the stars, preparing a spell or tracing the other world on a Ouija board, but it happened, the way hunger does, and there was no ignoring it.

Invisibility had long been one of his impossible goals, the kind to dream about before falling asleep. His wish was not always purely literal, though. Some school days he wished teachers would forget his name or which desk he occupied. In the hallways, if he could pass by the football team unnoticed, he would have been grateful. He read Walden and dreamed it, too, though he doubted anyone could still achieve Thoreau's isolation. The idea was antiquated when everything connected and everyone was watching for the slightest movement.

His phone buzzed, telling him he had a message, but he ignored it.

It was probably Jake, sending some reminder about a class project or a question to answer in the morning. Jake never stayed up to hear the reply. He'd sent the message and could go to sleep with one less thing on his mind.

Sometimes though, Michael's wish was quite literal. He thought of everything he could do, and how there would be no one to stop him--if he were quiet enough. Sometimes the whole world seemed like an insatiable mouth, and if his wishes came true, Michael might be able to fill himself more, or feel less like he was being swallowed by the world. There was no prayer, at least not to God or anything supernatural, but then, those elements listen even when we don't think about them.

Michael just said the words: "Man, I wish I could be invisible when I wanted." He felt it then, the change, the wish come true. Not that he wanted to test it right away. It was near the middle of the night and if he didn't want to be seen, a black hoodie and side street were enough, where the cops didn't go often, not even when there was an elongated pause between screams. The formula for social invisibility was easy: stay away from street corners in the city, away from the still-drifting cigarette smoke and the lights that are supposed to make you feel safe but only help draw attention to people who have something to sell in the wee hours.

Wishing was hard to resist, and he knew morning would be more difficult. Tomorrow was a school day. Friday, relaxing, but you had to show up. He didn't need any more phone calls home saying Michael hasn't been here, Michael hasn't turned in his work. His mother would have to yell at him and might telephone his father, who would yell louder and care less.

He wondered, too, if it was a one-shot deal, and didn't want to waste the gift in a test run, if that was how answered prayers worked.

"Except it wasn't a prayer," he reminded himself. He felt strangely guilty.

The idea bounced around in his head until he figured he would play sick. He hadn't used that one in a while. There would be no worry from school, as long as his mom phoned in. She'd been busier than a whole hive of bees lately, too busy to do much except complain in short bursts and write notes about what he could have for dinner and where he could find it, but he would make sure she called in. He didn't want to make an argument for nothing, to try and convince her that she'd forgotten. Besides, by tomorrow afternoon he might be somewhere else, riding high and it was best to spare her a final worry.

He slept.

In the morning, Michael slapped his face a few times to give it color. The house was colder than he liked--"because heat costs money," his mother often reminded him--but not cold enough to make his flesh revolt. He walked into the kitchen coughing.

"Ugh, mom."

"You have a math test or something?" she asked.

Michael resisted the urge to feign surprise. He repositioned his hand over his scalp and when he spoke, it was slowly, with as much rasp on his voice as he could manage. "What? No. Actually, were gonna play dodge ball in P.E." Michael hated dodge ball, but he hoped his mother would assume young men loved throwing things at each other. They usually did, but getting hit was less fun. "I don't think I'll win if I can't see straight." He knew that a fake sneeze would be ill advised, so kept mum.

"I don't want you watching t.v. all day," his mom said.

Michael's eyes burst open, but he narrowed them again to slits, as though the pressure in his nose was too great to permit any other look. His mother never agreed so quickly. Things must be really bad at work, he thought.

She left five minutes later, and Michael showered and dressed. He felt wonderful. More importantly, he still felt it, and knew he had his wish, at least once.

He grabbed his backpack and emptied it, littering the carpet with two notebooks, a novel he hadn't started, and his math textbook. If his mom came home early, at least she would think he'd been busy, and maybe just gone out to get lunch. He checked that his keys were in his pocket, pressed firmly to the bottom so they wouldn't jangle. The jeans were tight, like so much of the rest of his life. The house was small, courteous of his father's lack of ambition and fondness for drink, but they could still live there, thanks to the alimony.

Money was the most important thing, Michael concluded. Not just for him, though he had plans, but for his mom, too. "The best wishes are the ones you can share," he said, closing the front door behind him, wondering if he'd seen the sentiment in a commercial or read it in a card. He pushed against the door to make sure it shut firmly. It wasn't a dangerous neighborhood, but if people could steal something, they usually did.

He understood that. Boy, did he understand that.

Six blocks from the house was a bank. It wasn't where his mother banked, so if he didn't get his wish, no one would be able to take it out on her. Her nearest branch was more than a mile away, but for once Michael was glad her life was so predictably inconvenient.

A block before the bank, Michael paused. He figured he had to say something aloud, not just think it. He didn't know how powerful the wish was. Anyway, saying something would make him feel better--it was confirmation of his desire, and he vowed not to think his wish to fruition until he could say it. Now was the time.

He only had to alter slightly his midnight yearning: "Man, I wish I were invisible."

Then he was. Or he thought he was. He walked the rest of the way to the bank, and while people on city sidewalks were often harried, Michael silently tried to draw them. He made faces and waved his arms wildly. No one even turned.

By the time he reached the bank, he thought he'd burst. He forgot for a moment about his gift and pushed the door open, stepping smiling into the bank. A woman at a desk glanced over.

"Can't be that windy," she said to one of the tellers.

The teller sniffed and said only, "Gusts."

Yes, thought Michael. He was a gust. Not a ghost, not flirting with mortality, but just a quick breath of wind that invaded private spaces. He stepped quietly toward the half-door that led behind the teller's counter.

I should have brought a cat, he thought. Something to make a distraction. It was a few minutes before someone came in to the bank, and the first customer was only depositing a check. No help there. As the customer exited, a group came in. They were women who laughed pleasantly with one another.

"We're going wine tasting," one explained to the teller as she handed over her card for a withdrawal, "And there was a line at the ATM."

"I never trust those machines," said another woman in the group unnecessarily.

"Oh, Jessica." The women's smiles and breasts seemed adequate distraction to the teller, who began to flirt innocuously with them. Michael snuck his hand past the teller's and lifted, in quick succession, several stacks of bills.

When the women left, the teller told the woman behind the desk he needed to get into the vault.

Perfect, thought Michael. The bottom of his backpack was covered, but he felt the way tricker-treaters do early on Halloween night: there was more to be had.

The woman behind the desk stood up, groaning. She unlocked the vault and Michael followed the teller. While the man took out the stacks he would need, carefully tabulating them on a computer and double-checking on a sheet of paper, Michael took other stacks. No guns, no threats. His invisible robbery, he told himself, was saving lives.

With his backpack more than half full, Michael did more than disappear, he went home. He felt bad a second time about the cat. Some confusion might explain missing money, or allow the teller to concoct a story--like the cat was an alien ambassador or something--instead of taking the heat for a robbery he failed to witness.

At home, Michael stepped over his dumped books and sat on the couch. He sat down and started laughing; his body, clothes, backpack, and everything he'd carried became visible. He had returned. He looked at his watch and saw that he'd been invisible for half an hour. The time was short, but certainly enough to get the job done. No one had bumped into him or run him down. He began to claw through the money when he held up his left hand, amazed.

"What the hell!" screamed Michael. There were only four fingers on his hand, and no pinky. He hadn't felt any pain, not even a pull. Nothing in his brain warned him about the loss. He twirled the hand in front of him. It looked...well, normal, as though he had been born without two full sets of five. Nothing to criticize, he knew. People came in all shapes and sizes, but if this was going to be the price of his wish, he'd need to be more careful next time.

Next time. Yes, he knew there would have to be a next time. Not just for money, which never lasted as long as it ought, but Michael had other ideas. Other fingers would have to go, no longer worth counting. He wondered briefly if he could contrive to lose every finger except his middle one, so his hand was a permanent but unchangeable offense to his classmates. The idea was laughable. It might be a nice prank, he decided, but looking at this money, Michael doubted he would be going back to his studies. Ever.

He would have to find a way to get some of the money to his mother. He knew banks stored money in a sequence. At least that was what the movies told him. He was too dizzy with glee to look at the serial numbers. Instead, he randomly pulled some bills from separate stacks and began to give his mother her own personal egg hunt. A twenty-dollar bill under the welcome mat, and another in the silverware drawer. When she got home, he could stuff a hundred in her wallet and more in the pockets of her raincoat. He couldn't just give her money without arousing suspicion, though. She would probably think he'd started dealing drugs, but if she simply found it, the money might mean a lunch out, or less stress at the gas station.

Presently though, Michael moved most of the money to his room and secreted it away. Wishes, especially ones that came true, were a new thing to him, and he worried the money might vanish before the next day. If it did, he would plan for something more immediate. Once he'd hidden the bills, he stuffed a thick wad of bills on his pocket, beneath his keys, and headed out again.

He wanted the world to see his smile. Forget the cloudy weather. He walked downtown. At the first fast food place he found, he ordered more food than he could eat. Once he was full, he took the rest with him and gave it out to homeless people loitering on the sidewalks.

"Here," he said. "If you're hungry." He knew they were, and could recall countless lunchtime debates with his classmates about the foolishness of giving needy people money. This was civilization, the right choice just breezing through town for a day.

He went to an electronics store and bought an expensive pair of headphones. In another store, he bought an equally audacious pair of sneakers. Later, he bought a knife.

It was Friday night, so his mom was home for dinner. No late meetings.

"You look like you're feeling better, and I'm glad to see you had your books out. That means you didn't waste your day."

"Nope," Michael agreed. He set plates and glasses on the table, purposefully forgetful.

She finished at the stove, glanced at the table, and opened the silverware drawer.

"Michael," she said. He looked over with conspicuous disinterest. His mother was holding up the twenty. "Is this yours?"

"No," he said. "I think I'd know if I had it, and I would definitely know if I'd lost it." He laughed too loudly.

"Well," his mother said uneasily, "maybe it's a sign."

"Yeah, of a better class of rats moving into the neighborhood."

"Michael, you know we don't have rats. Detestable creatures. Maybe I'll take us out for dessert." She suggested.

"Or treat yourself to something next week," Michael suggested. "I don't need dessert tonight."

"Okay." She looked at him closely. "You are growing up to be such a handsome young man." Her eyes trailed over his hands, but she said nothing else. The change, the loss of his pinky, had become a part of his history. He did not have one now, and therefore he never did, but he had money, and he wanted to make plans.

The weekend was a spending spree. New clothes he'd never been able to afford before, a movie, and an expensive television for his room. He'd had to move it in when his mother was out. Thankfully, she respected his privacy enough to let him keep the door to his room closed.

"I probably have enough left for a car if I wanted it," he told himself, but then, he thought, I'd need hands to drive it.

On Monday, he went to school again without complaint. His mother left before he got up. He had just finished spinning his locker combination when Jake accosted him.

"Thanks for texting me back, bro."

"Oh man, Jake. I'm sorry. I was not well on Friday, I mean seriously ill, and I forgot to check my phone."

"You could have called me on Saturday."

"I was still recovering," Michael said.

"Tristan said he saw you buying clothes. You must have been well enough to get out."

"Clothes," Michael said, as though he were stating the obvious. "My mom wanted me to get a few things. It's for a..." he debated whether to say wedding and pin it on a cousin, or funeral and end the conversation, but Jake didn't give him the chance.

"Whatever, man. Just don't make it a habit."

He stalked off before Michael could tell him that habits had a way of changing. It was true most people didn't want to alter their behavior, or think to, but when something new comes into a life, people can transform. Habits flake off like dead skin.

Michael didn't plan to stay long this final day of school. He knew Grace Richardson and Beth Bemel had P.E. first period. Neither of them had ever given him more than a dismissive glance, but that didn't stop Michael or any of the boys from watching their hips as they moved away. He walked casually down to the gym. The concrete tunnel that led to the girls' locker room was a few feet away. Girls flowed past, glaring at Michael. He waited until it was nearly time for the bell to ring and standing near the gym door, he made his wish come true again.

There was no one around to see him vanish. If there had been, Michael thought, they wouldn't believe their eyes. More likely, they would think he'd slipped out the door in the space of a blink.

Michael heard the girls' voices well before he saw anyone. If he had more time, he might listen more closely, so see how they talked in the absence of boys, but he knew the clock and his hand had begun counting down.

At first, it was a disappointment. Girls removed their tops and changed into their gym clothes. Most folded their clothes before setting them in the lockers, but a few just stuffed them in, unconcerned over fifty minutes of wrinkling. Seeing bras on real bodies was better than looking at them on mannequins, but Michael began to feel cheated. He supposed it was unrealistic to except the girls to behave like a slumber party in a cheap movie.

An impulse hit him and he reached out his hand to touch Beth's bra.

"Hey!" she hissed, as though someone had bumped her, but no one was standing near her. He had only touched her for a second, feeling the soft flesh of her breast underneath the fabric, and he removed his hand quickly. Having begun though, he could not resist. If it was the price of his finger, he wanted to experiment. He reached out and touched Beth's arm. He gripped it tightly. She did not scream, not right away, but then she looked down where his hand would have been.

Her arm was invisible, too, and the rest of her body faded. That was the power of his touch.

"Help!!"

Michael could no longer see her face, but he knew it must look fearful. He withdrew his hand and saw that she was staring at her arm, newly recovered.

The scream attracted more than looks. Since no one could see Michael, they charged toward Beth. He fought his way out of the locker room as Beth tried to find the words to explain her missing arm and its return.

"I could feel it... not just my own arm, but someone else touching me."

Michael was almost home when he found he could see himself again. Whatever was on his person became invisible. If he touched something else, it vanished, at least while he touched it. He guessed those were the limits to his wish and he was glad. "No point in driving an invisible car," he muttered, remembering the battering he'd taken trying to get out of the girls' locker room.

On Tuesday, there was another trip to a bank, this one further away. His mother might not need the money, or particularly want it--she had felt uncomfortable finding even a stray bill, he could tell--but Michael did. He'd begun to realize that without fingers, he might need cash on hand--he laughed when he thought of it that way--to pay other people to do things for him. Let them stir. Taxis, he thought, or better yet, rent a car and a driver. He would have only his thumb and index finger still on his left hand. At the bank he lucked out, for there was an armored car parked outside. Michael filled his backpack and hid extra stacks in his coat.

The life he wanted, the life he'd felt he always deserved, began on Wednesday. He recollected how his English teacher had tried to point out how foolish the woman was in a story they'd read, The Necklace, but Michael thought she knew herself better than the rest. She would see the sense in what he was doing, gathering the world to him, as much of it as he could.

Friday night Michael went out without hiding himself. He knew if he walked enough through the inner workings of the city he'd find a woman, and he had money, which was a key to anything after dark. He didn't think drugs would give him a new feeling now. Escape was its own rush.

The blocks melted into each other and Michael saw the streetlights that meant illicit gatherings.

"Hey, kid," a woman said when he walked past, "you want a kiss?"

"Just a kiss?" Michael said. One hand went into his coat pocket and he pulled out a few bills. The woman laughed at first, her eyes excited. Then she looked closely at the hand not wrapped around the money.

"What happened to your fingers?" she asked.

"I was born this way," said Michael, showing her a fingerless stub. "But I still have needs, and I can pay."

The woman was less enthusiastic when she consented. Up close, Michael saw her makeup hid a face worn down by the streets. She took him to a room with low lights, out of the cold, where they collided and she made all the right noises. Michael told himself it had been enjoyable. He planned another trip to another bank.

One afternoon, Michael's father called. "I've been meaning to call," his dad said with good-natured gruffness. "What's this all about?"

"Dad, if it's about the money I've been giving mom, I can explain."

"Money? No, your mother mentioned missing days at school. What is this about money? It would be just like that bitch to hide--"

In the silence Michael heard his father considering, not whether Michael was slinging drugs or in trouble. He was trying to figure if his ex-wife had said something about money, if the revelation meant he could lower his alimony payments, and if other secrets were being kept.

Michael hung up.

He looked at the phone and recalled, with unexpected clarity, the day his father left he and his mother. The old man couldn't handle it; he made that clear. His father's words came back, too: "You're a broken woman, and the boy is... ill." Michael knew his father meant diseased, something tainted, but he was still a father.

Whatever the sickness was, it manifested briefly when Michael was a child before it was lost to sight. The doctors had never been able to give Michael's condition a name. They said they would have to wait for more tests to find the microscopic culprit, "or another case" to compare. They did not want to keep a little boy, who seemed otherwise healthy, in a hospital room.

"Maybe it will turn out to be benign," a doctor said as Michael and his parents left.

"Thank God it's not cancer," his mother had said, but all the while, something was growing and spreading inside him where no one could see. Michael's face was not blotchy, or his frame frail. Healthy muscles hid whatever was eating at him, anticipating his inevitable dissipation, when no trace of him remained.

Michael read a week later, after he had lost two more fingers, that Beth Bemel had died. Evidently, what began as a pain in her arm, the arm he had touched, became something else, metastasizing into a quick death.

"She wasn't built for invisibility," Michael said to comfort himself. No, Beth had been made to be seen and touched. Maybe the prostitute was dead too. He tried to recall any joy from his encounters with the women.

In another day, his mother vacated the house. Michael did not know where she had gone, but he knew she would not return; she had sussed his world shifting and didn't want to be sucked into it. "Her problem," he said dismissively. His father was right; she was a broken woman, a woman that invited suffering like a guest. She'd let the world break her.

Fortunately, Michael did not need a mother anymore. He paid people to move him and to cater to him, to close the door on the wind, but the faces swam before him when he tried to see them, and their names would not stick in his memory. He knew they sneered at him--rich and wasteful--and publicly, too, not even waiting until they were out of the room. He had moved into the living room because there was more space for everything he tried to own with stolen money.

In another week, Michael was trying to figure out how to keep taking without hands. None of his assistants, as he called them, would touch him, though he promised them riches for any aid.

"Plus, you'll get to be invisible."

They resisted. Probably they were stealing from him already. Each night, after he sent his rented helpers home, he paced the living room and tallied his new life. At least the house didn't have stairs, so there was no danger of falling.

"Can't just get a bigger house and drag it here," Michael said to room crowded with stuff. The t.v. blared back at him. Maybe he would repeat the observation tomorrow and demand laughter from those on his payroll.

After he began to lose toes, movement became more difficult. He increased what he paid his assistants and sent them to find him new tastes, touches he'd only dreamt of before. Limping through a bank heist, Michael wondered if he ought to have made a more thoughtful wish, or a more thorough one.

In time his wishes took the remainder of his toes, as well as his arms, so that becoming invisible again netted him nothing, but allowed him to see the parts of the world that wanted to remain hidden from view, to find what secrets it was worth having.

Now Michael sat immobile, surrounded by the luxury of electronics and uneaten food. Money hid in every drawer, and people could be compelled to attend him. He could call for a girl and she would come, pretending to really love him, and--if he paid enough (some people were so desperate)--possibly physically love him at least, satisfy him. He thought of investing in prosthetic limbs, but did not know if that would break the unwitting deal he'd made. He knew it must be a deal, and bad it was, he dared not transgress.

Besides, what did he still need? He wasn't sure. He hadn't thought of it, yet, but it would come, too. Only now, when the idea sprang into his mind, he did not know what would go missing. He might very easily spend the rest of his life in a reverse game of hangman, where instead of appearing, features disappeared. After his legs, his ears, then nose and eyes.

It didn't matter, thought Michael, while his mouth remained. He would feed as long as he could, and build empires of chaff around him. Yes, life was worth living if he could pay someone else to help him, so he could continue eating.


THE END


2015 Matt Kolbet

Bio: Mr. Kolbet teaches and writes near Portland, Oregon.  He is the author of several things online and the novel The Futility of Nicknames. His last Aphelion appearance was Desert Fish in our April, 2015 issue.

E-mail: Matt Kolbet

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