By Michelle Llewellyn
Derrick Griffin was stark naked.
Learning how to ignore the burning in his feet from the freezing pavement, to close his mind against the stinging snow pelting him from every direction had taken weeks.
She would come soon.
He sneezed just as the door opened. A university student hurried past allowing Derrick a warm breath of respite from the heated building. The pulsating beats from the young man’s iPod meant cover for Derrick. He allowed himself to exhale a quiet sigh.
At last, there she was. Derrick stepped aside as the two young women exited the Henry Eyring chemistry building.
“So I told him, ‘I can’t live your life for you anymore. Make your own choices.’ I really don’t think I can live with him anymore.”
“And what did you say?”
Seeing the white flakes dancing in the air, her friend groaned, “Great, the storm’s here. Come on, Anne, let’s hurry. This weather makes my hair frizz.”
Anne Penninger pulled the collar of her fleece-lined winter coat tighter at her throat and ducked her head against the onslaught following the familiar path that would take them to the closest university light rail station.
“I thought you and Kayden broke it off last weekend.”
Marissa finished stuffing her dark hair inside her parka collar, zipping up before she answered, “Well, he sent me a text yesterday so I gave him a call,” she gave a quick glance over her shoulder before falling back into step with the brisk pace Anne had set for them. “Did you hear something?”
“Just my own breath freezing in my lungs,”
“Anyway, I’m tired of him never doing anything…”
Derrick continued to match their pace all the way to the train station. He’d learned to control his breathing so as not to attract suspicion. When the two students plus one unseen eavesdropper reached the platform, Derrick had learned all he’d ever wanted to know about Marissa’s boyfriend.
“But enough about Kayden and me, you were saying at lunch you might be going out of town tomorrow?”
“My uncle’s funeral. Mom wants me to drive to California with her but, I don’t know,” she hesitated, “I really didn’t know him all that well and I still have so much research to do.”
The light was growing dull and gray as distant crossing lights flashed signaling the approach of a red, white and blue light rail car. Sharing the platform, a man clad in nothing but a flannel shirt and torn jeans was smoking a cigarette. Anne gave him a dirty look and coughed pointedly a few times before continuing her dialogue with Marissa.
When the doors opened, Derrick waited until the last passenger had boarded and the warning beeps signaled the doors were about to close before making his move.
Seeing the doors suddenly crash to a stop in midair, the homeless man did a double take. There was silence. Then the warning beeps sounded again. The man turned, shrugging off whatever it was he thought he’d seen.
Engines whirring, the train began to move. The transient took one final drag before flicking the remainder of his cigarette onto the tracks. The still-burning embers were a gently falling trail of ash like the snowflakes currently gracing the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Finding an inconspicuous place to stand amidst the crowded car was tricky but Derrick found the empty spaces in the stairwells provided excellent cover-if you didn’t mind the draft. He watched the red knit hat that was Anne’s bob and duck as she pulled her phone out to send a quick message. Marissa, to his utmost relief, had disappeared, her stop having come and gone before he’d even realized. It wouldn’t be long now. Patience he reminded himself. Soon they would be alone and then he could reveal himself.
God willing she would be able to help him.
Anne Penninger turned the key to her apartment door and let herself in, flipping on the light to illuminate the pitch black room. She got a start, however, as she went to close the heavy door only to find it blocked by an invisible force and a loud grunt,
Anne jumped back, an involuntary shriek escaping from her throat, “Who’s there?” Terror jolted through her as something suddenly clamped down on her arm, she could feel the iron grip of the ghost or whatever it was that had her and while the layers of her winter coat were thick, she knew the pressure was not imagined. She squealed again and attempted to pull away, “Let go of me! What are you, what do you want?”
The voice, a man’s voice, she realized, shushed her “It’s alright, Anne, I’m not going to hurt you. Just let me in and I’ll explain…” Anne reacted automatically shoving at the door with all her strength, resisting, but the ghost overpowered her and she cried out again as her shoulder hit the cinder block wall painfully hard. The resisting pressure on the door eased. Anne slammed it shut and leaned against it, panting, as if she’d just run a race. With eyes squeezed shut, Anne began praying aloud,
“Please, dear God…” before being interrupted again.
“Anne, listen to me,”
“Go away! Whatever…Whoever you are…just leave me alone.”
A pair of hands took her by the shoulders and Anne’s voice trailed off weakly. She could feel herself sagging against the door then slumping against a solid form.
“Anne! Come on now, don’t faint on me.”
The ghost, or whoever he was, gave her a gentle shake. Anne’s eyes flew open but the blurry outlines of her familiar, comfortable living room were all she saw: the kitchen on her right, the couch against the paneled wall, her bedroom door ajar. Everything just as she had left it that morning. She blinked and asked stupidly, “Why can’t I see you?”
“Because I’m invisible.”
“My name is Derrick Griffin. Does the name James Kemp mean anything to you?”
“My uncle, my mother’s brother. Why? Do you know him?” She began to relax, to support her own weight again.
“‘Do I know him?’” he repeated in a weary voice, releasing her. A couch cushion suddenly depressed as he sat down, “I thought I did. Guess he never mentioned me, huh?”
“No,” Anne shook her head and began removing her hat, coat and gloves, “because of his lifestyle he was estranged from the family, Grandpa won’t even speak his name, so I never really had a chance to know him. Last I heard Uncle James had taken a sabbatical.”
“Yes, a sabbatical. So he could work with me on a theory I was developing. We were the two biggest fools at Berkeley thinking we could be the next James Bond tampering with theories, experimenting with espionage. We had no idea what we were about to unleash.”
The indentations deepened as Derrick’s form leaned back. All at once he sneezed, startling Anne from the strange shapes forming on her couch. Without even thinking twice about it, she blessed him.
“Thank you. You have no idea how long I’ve been holding that in today.”
An uneasy thought suddenly occurred to her, “Wait a minute; you said you’ve been following me today. What kind of pervert are you who follows women back to their apartments?” She demanded. “Just how long have you been following me?”
He breathed out a long sigh of exasperation, “I’m not a pervert.”
“Oh, right, and if I were an invisible guy the first thing I’d do is head for the nearest girl’s locker room.” His quiet chuckle was unnerving. Anne shut the closet door and turned to glare at the couch.
“Yes, that was tempting but I had more important things to worry about, like how I was going to survive without clothing or shelter. I was lucky to find a woman on the street that first night in Oakland who took me in and gave me a ride.”
“She believed you?” Anne asked, doubtful.
“She was subject to the visitations of spirits from the beyond,” he explained. Anne could’ve sworn he shrugged as he spoke, “Lucky for me, I was the first truly physical spirit she’d ever encountered. Got quite excited. Didn’t even charge me for her services.”
“Her SERVICES?” She asked in disbelief, “You solicited a prostitute?”
“You sound like my mom,” he chided her, “anyway, it’s not what you think. I needed someone to get my bike out of the impound lot and this woman was my only hope-almost like an answer to a prayer, if I was the praying type. Then I headed straight here on my motorcycle to find you.”
The invisible man drove a motorcycle? Anne tried to picture these adventures as Derrick continued, “When I saw you today in the student union, eating lunch with your friends, well, you can’t imagine my relief. I’ve been searching the campus for you for the last two days.”
“What happened? Mom told me Uncle James died while he was working in his lab at Berkley. The funeral is next week. Are you saying…?”
“Has he sent you anything in the last two days?”
“No, nothing, but that reminds me, I need to get the mail.” Anne returned to her front door and opened it, “You…you will still be here?”
“Yes. I’m not a ghost. Go see if James sent you a package of some sort.” The door closed and Derrick could hear her footfalls on the stairway, crunching on the snow.
“How did you know?” Anne shut the door and tossed a small brown padded manila envelope onto the coffee table along with the rest of the mail.
“Have you seen today’s news feeds?”
Anne pulled out her phone and checked the website. Following Derrick’s instructions she found the page and did a double take at the open article in front of her, “Uncle James,” she whispered, “murdered.” The accompanying headshot image of James Kemp was undeniable. Another photo showed a forensics team investigating the apparent break-in of a building near the University of California, Berkley campus. Apparently they had discovered traces of blood. Could it really be the blood of her estranged Uncle?
“I was there, Anne. I saw the whole thing.”
As the implications of what Derrick must’ve gone through in his current condition began to dawn on her, Anne didn’t even try to keep her astonishment in check. A million questions were flying through her brain.
“Why don’t you sit down?” She heard him pat the cushion next to him while the scratchy orange fabric verified an invisible hand.
“Are you even wearing any clothing?”
“But it’s January, it’s twenty degrees outside, you must be freezing.” She turned back to the closet. “I’ll get you a blanket.”
“Thanks, that would be nice.” He said, matter-of-factly, catching the quilt she threw in what she assumed to be his general direction. Anne stared, fascinated as the multi-colored patches unfolded and settled around the medium-built, slender form of her guest.
“What about frostbite? And that scratchy fabric can’t be very comfortable,” she observed. “Have you even eaten in the last two days? Can you even eat without revealing yourself? How did this happen to you and what does my uncle have to do with it and what about me?”
“Easy, easy,” the quilt shifted as if he were raising a hand to signal her. His smooth voice, like a radio announcer, she noticed, cut short her barrage of sudden questions. “One thing at a time,” he sighed letting his head fall back on the cushions as his voice projected toward the wood paneled ceiling above. “Oh, man, this feels good! I could hardly draw a decent breath since I got to Salt Lake. Just to unwind, to be warm again, to finally meet you and reveal myself to someone. It’s been over a week since I’ve actually talked to anyone,” he added and Anne felt a sudden rush of sympathy.
“How hard this must’ve been for you.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “I never dreamed I’d be condemned to solitary confinement, like a convicted criminal, and at age thirty, no less.”
“I don’t understand. How did this happen to you?”
Derrick chuckled without humor and Anne sensed he was studying her, gauging her reaction to what he was about to reveal. Anne crossed her arms and waited.
“There was a formula,” he admitted, “a chemical formula that James created and I helped modify, capable of bonding to human epidermis and providing some protection from things like weather and extreme heat and cold. Did you know in ancient times the Greeks used to send their soldiers into battle completely naked? Pretty tough warriors wouldn’t you agree?”
“I…I guess.” Anne stuttered trying to comprehend it all.
“So, if the Greeks could do it, James and I determined, we could too. But I lied earlier. I’m not completely without clothing. This might be too much information for you but I’m actually wearing a pair of speedos.” Anne felt her eyes grow wide as saucers.
“And I can see you’re clutching your pearls. I’m sorry,” he waited, courteously giving her a moment to collect herself again.
“And your underwear is invisible too?” she asked in disbelief
“It’s a special fabric. Expensive to make, we were forced to go with the bare minimum,” she could hear the smile in his voice but, weak as his joke was, couldn’t bring herself to smile back.
“Uncle James knew about all this and he never told me,” Anne felt like she was going to faint again. “So why are you here? Why are you even telling me all this?”
His voice was gentle as he urged, “Why don’t you sit down?”
This time Anne obeyed, settling onto the sofa cushion beside him.
“I need to tell you a story,” he began.