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THE INVISIBLE BOY - MARK JONATHAN HARRIS


Not so long ago, when people were neither crueler nor kinder than they are now, a boy named Allen dreamed of being invisible. He had his reasons.


Allen lived in a small western town of swirling winds amidst grasslands brimming with cattle. His father was a skilled shoemaker who made boots for all the ranchers, but his mother yearned for a life where the air didn’t stink of manure. To avoid her constant complaints, the cobbler would stop at the tavern after work. When he finally stumbled home late at night, Allen’s mother was waiting at the door to berate him for his drinking. Within minutes they would be throwing dishes at each other, waking the neighbors, and driving Allen under the bedcovers.


Everyone seemed to know about his father’s drinking and his parents’ ugly fights. At school the children constantly taunted Allen. “If you smell booze/ Allen’s daddy made your shoes.” And “Bang. Boom. Crash/ How many dishes can your parents smash?”


Allen’s cheeks burned at their barbs, but unable to answer, he would drop his eyes and pretend he hadn’t heard or skip school to avoid their jeering. If only he had the power to vanish with the snap of his fingers, then no one could torment him or see his shame.


One afternoon, when he’d spent the day at the creek instead of school, he caught an unusually large fish on his line. As he reeled it in, he noticed a figure emerging from a stand of weeping willows in the distance. An old man carrying a heavy burlap sack shambled toward him. His cragged face was the same earthy color as his sack; his white hair flowed to his shoulders. Around his neck he wore a necklace of colored stones that glittered in the late afternoon sun. The man dropped his pack and watched Allen carefully unhook the fish.


“That’s a handsome bass,” he said.


“Biggest one I ever caught.”


“What would you trade for it?” the old man asked.


“I don’t want to trade. I want to take it home for dinner.”


“A fish that grand deserves to swim another day. What if you could have anything you wanted for it?”


“Anything?” Allen laughed.


“If it’s in my power. . .”


“Can you make me invisible?” Allen blurted out.


The old man considered the idea a moment, then opened his burly sack and pulled out a long, intricately patterned snakeskin. “If a snake can grow a new skin, why not you?”


Allen had heard stories about sorcerers and shamans who possessed magical powers. He didn’t know if this old man was one of them. “How can I be sure?” he said.


“Give me your fish and I will show you.”


Allen handed him the quivering bass, still gasping for life. The old man gently rubbed the snakeskin over the fish and began chanting in an unfamiliar tongue. First the head, then the body, then the tail of the fish vanished. The enchanter suddenly threw up his hands and tossed the invisible bass toward the creek. There was a large splash followed by a rippling of the waters as the fish darted away.


Still, Allen doubted what he saw. “Is it really alive?”


“As much as you. I can cover you with a skin just like it that no one can see through. But think carefully before you agree. By the time the moon turns full, the skin will harden and can never be removed.”


Allen barely hesitated. “You’ve taken my fish. Now grant my wish.”


The sorcerer slowly rubbed the snakeskin over him and began to chant again.


Allen watched his hands and arms, then the rest of his body disappear. He cast no shadow on the ground; saw no reflection of himself in the creek. He turned to the sorcerer with a hundred questions only to find his voice trapped within his new skin. The old man lifted his sack to his shoulder and shuffled past as if they’d never met.


Allen walked slowly home, kicking up clouds of dust, no more visible than the wind. As he approached the town, an older boy who’d tormented him at school gaped at the fishing pole Allen was carrying, which seemed to dance in the air like a kite on an unseen string. Seeing his astonishment, Allen jabbed the bully with the rod and chased him through his yard until he ran screaming into his house. Allen danced in triumph, waving the fishing pole in delight at his unexpected revenge.


Entering town, he saw his father’s shop was still open. He stepped inside and perched unseen on an empty stool. Allen liked visiting the shop, inhaling the tangy odors of leather and shoe polish and watching his father work when he was sober. This evening his father’s hands were steady, his stitches tiny and tight.


One of the town’s richest cattleman strode into the store in a black Stetson hat that matched his leather jacket.


“I’ve come for my boots,” he said.


Allen’s father produced them, polished and gleaming.


The rancher examined them in minute detail. “You’ve been drinking again.”


“Not while making your boots,” the shoemaker protested.


In fact, the hand-tooled boots appeared flawless.


“No, these are shoddy and poorly made,” the rancher insisted. “I shouldn’t accept them, but since they’re already done, I’ll do you a favor and take them off your hands—but only for a quarter of the price we agreed.”


Allen’s father started to object.


The rancher cut him off. “Do you want people to think you’re a cheat as well as a drunk?”


“Whatever you think is fair,” the shoemaker meekly agreed.


It pained Allen to see his father treated so badly. But invisible, he didn’t need to lower his eyes. When the rancher took out his silver money clip, Allen saw how to strike back. He waited until the rancher tried on his new boots, then swiftly picked the pocket of his leather jacket. The rancher never noticed. Pleased with his own cunning and the excellent boots he’d swindled so cheaply, the rancher left the shop whistling.


Allen waited until his father’s back was turned to remove the crisp bills from the silver clip and place them on the counter. When the shoemaker saw the money, he stepped back in alarm, unsure how the bills arrived there. He started to go after the rancher, then abruptly stopped, confused what to do.


“The money’s yours. You earned it fairly,” Allen shouted to no avail since his words couldn’t penetrate his new skin.


He watched in disappointment as the shoemaker put the money in his bench drawer and locked it. Then he closed the shop and headed for the tavern. Allen tugged at his arm to lead him home, but his father kept brushing him away as if he were an annoying fly.


The tavern was dingy and smoky and smelled of beer and sawdust and too many people crowded together. When the other customers saw his father enter, they cheered. A smile broke out on the shoemaker’s face.


“A beer for my friend, to wash away the day,” called the town’s barber as the bootmaker sat on the stool beside him.


Allen’s father quickly drained his glass and asked for another.


Standing behind him, Allen stepped forward and tipped over the new glass.


“Watch out! You’re spilling your beer,” the barber warned.


The shoemaker quickly righted his drink.


When he ordered another, Allen knocked the glass over with such force that it drenched the barber. “Now look at what you’ve done!” the barber exclaimed.


“That’s not my doing, clumsy!” the shoemaker shoved his friend. The barber shoved back. In an instant they were cursing and swinging wildly at each other. The barkeeper quickly separated them and threw them out of the tavern.


Allen’s father trudged slowly toward their house, muttering to himself.


Allen followed invisibly behind. His mother was surprised to see her husband home so early. “What happened? Did the tavern run out of beer?”


The shoemaker ignored her sarcasm and sat down at the table. “Where’s Allen?” he asked.


“I don’t know. He didn’t come home from school. I thought he might be with you.”


“Can’t you even keep an eye on your only son?”


“My son? He’s yours as well, and about as useless.”


Within minutes they were yelling at each other again. Instead of cowering under the covers as he had before, Allen grabbed a frying pan and began banging it on the stove. His mother shrieked as the skillet hovered in the air.


The shoemaker recoiled in fright. “Maybe I have drunk too much,” he said.


Allen banged the stove to signal his agreement. Then he rapped the frying pan again for the sheer pleasure of it.


The cobbler rushed out of the house.


Allen’s mother fell into a chair, trembling. Her hair stood on end and her teeth chattered.


Allen replaced the pot on its hanger, pleased with himself and his new power. The sorcerer had indeed given him a magical gift. If he could stop his parents fighting, what else could he accomplish?


The next morning, he awoke before his parents and left a note on the kitchen table: “Don’t worry about me. And don’t bother looking. I’ll be home when I’m ready.” Then he left the house and waited impatiently to pay his classmates back for all their sneering.


On the way to school he pushed boys into ditches or each other, provoking them to shove and strike each other. Inside the schoolhouse, he pulled the braids of one girl, jabbed another boy with his pen, knocked over inkwells, spilled ink on his classmates’ copybooks and clothes. The frustrated teacher banged two erasers together to restore order. “What’s gotten into you today?” she scolded from behind a cloud of chalk. “It’s not me,” the children shouted, pointing to another girl or boy. Allen watched the turmoil with amusement; he was only sorry no one realized he was causing it. When the classroom emptied for recess, he wrote in large letters on the blackboard: “I am rubber, you are glue. Your meanness bounces off me and sticks to you.” When the children returned and saw his message, they started arguing and accusing each other all over again.


Happy with the disruption he’d created, he wandered into town. Since no one could see him, he could go anywhere he wanted, do anything he wished. He stole doughnuts from the bakeshop and fistfuls of jellybeans from the huge jar in the general store. At the stables, he listened to men gripe about their wives; and in backyards he heard women belittle their husbands while they hung their laundry. Tired of everyone’s grumbling, Allen walked to his father’s shop, only to find that that it was closed.


Despite the note he’d left, his parents were frantic with worry. Allen returned home to find his father had spent the day combing the woods for him. Allen watched helpless, as his father turned in desperation to the sheriff --only to be met with scorn. “With a drunkard for a father, and a shrew for a mother, no wonder he’s run away,” the sheriff said.


There was more grief to come. When the rancher discovered his money clip was missing, he also sought the sheriff’s help. The last place the rancher remembered having his money was the shoemaker’s shop, so the sheriff accompanied him there to investigate. They found the bootmaker slumped over his workbench, reeking of beer. The sheriff shook him awake and accused him of theft. The cobbler denied he’d stolen anything, but the sheriff demanded he open the drawers of his workbench. Inside the top drawer was the wad of bills-- the exact amount the rancher claimed was stolen. The sheriff promptly arrested the shoemaker and locked him in the town’s jail.


When Allen’s mother learned of her husband’s arrest, she groaned, “Poor me! My life is so wretched. My husband is a thief as well as a drunk and now even my good-for-nothing son has run away.”


Allen ached for the trouble he’d caused-- his father jailed; his mother driven to despair. Invisibility may have spared him mockery, but it only brought more misery to his parents. His attempts to help them had done more damage than all their shattered crockery. Broken plates could be mended or swept away. Neither glue nor broom could fix the problems he’d created. He had to make up for his mistakes.


In his wanderings through town, Allen saw that his parents weren’t the only ones who fought. Many were as mean to their children as they were to each other. And those children were the ones who had been meanest to him. He also discovered that the arrogant rancher had swindled others besides his father. Yet no one had stood up to him. Maybe invisible, he could do what they feared.


Jumping onto the back of a hay wagon, he headed for the cattleman’s ranch to find a way to prove his dishonesty and free his father from jail. That very evening the cattleman was hosting a barbecue for his friends and neighbors. The sheriff mingled with the ranchers laughing and drinking and boasting about their wealth.


The greedy rancher enraged Allen. How could he give such a lavish party for his friends yet refuse to pay the fair price for the elegant boots his father had crafted? Allen watched unseen as the shameless thief bragged to his guests about his land and riches. Finally, Allen could bear it no longer. When a dark-skinned serving girl, barely older than he, brought a huge bowl of chili to the table, Allen pulled it from her hands and dumped it on the rancher’s head. The cattleman leaped from his chair, beans trickling down his forehead, and slapped the girl across the face. “You stupid girl! You’ll pay for this!” he shouted. She fled in tears.


First his father, now the girl, both unjustly punished because of him. He wanted to shout to everyone: “See how cruel he is!” But if no one could hear his words, how could he undo the damage? Without a voice or body, how could he help the people he’d harmed? The guests watched in silence for a moment as the rancher wiped his face with the edge of the tablecloth, then quickly resumed their eating and drinking.


The sky darkened, a glowering blue-black that matched Allen’s gloom. A cloud parted revealing a three-quarter moon. Tomorrow, or the next night, Allen realized, the moon would be full, and his new skin hardened. He had little time to act. The party was still going on when he began the long walk back to town.


At dawn’s light, he set out to search for the enchanter to reverse the spell. When he didn’t find the old man by the willow trees, he followed the creek upstream, trekking for miles along its banks without sighting him. The sun moved across the cloudless sky as steadily as a ticking clock. The lengthening shadows made Allen despair. Soon it would be dusk, then nightfall. He felt his skin tightening around him. If the moon turned full tonight, he would be imprisoned forever in an invisible shell. No one would ever know or care that he was alive.


Weary from walking, he sat down on a large rock to decide what to do. Glancing in the distance, at a bend in the creek, he spotted a figure leaning against what appeared to be a heavy sack. Allen jumped up, splashed through the water to the other side of the creek, and yanked the sack away to announce his presence.


The old man’s eyes snapped open. “Is that the invisible boy?” he said.


Allen rustled the sack in answer.


“You’ve come a long way to find me,” the sorcerer said. “Are you unhappy with your wish?”


Allen shook the sack even harder this time.


“I know how lonely it is when no one sees or hears you,” the old man said.


Allen felt tears rising to his eyes. They added to the puddle where he was standing.


The sorcerer gazed at the empty space he occupied, as if he could see through his invisible shield. “I suppose you want me to remove the skin I’ve made for you.”


“Please,” Allen silently begged, tugging at his leathery arm.


“What will you give me in exchange this time?”


“Whatever you ask,” Allen said as if the sorcerer could hear his words.


“If I restore your voice, you must promise to use it well. If you don’t speak up for what you know is true, I will hear about it, and find you, and mute your voice forever.”


Allen pushed the sack toward him to signal his agreement. The old man reached inside and pulled out another snakeskin. Allen knelt on the ground and the sorcerer rubbed the snakeskin over him and began chanting.


Allen watched his body slowly emerge, from head to toes, like a figure rising from the waters of the creek.


The sorcerer studied him a moment. “I hope you see now that no one can go through life without casting a shadow or shedding a tear,” he said.


Allen didn’t wait for more lessons or advice. He knew now exactly what he needed to do. He rushed to town to find the sheriff, who was astonished to see him. “We thought you’d run away for good,” he said.


“You were wrong,” Allen replied. “Just as you are about my father. He didn’t steal anything.”


“Why should I believe you?” the sheriff said.


“Because I was in the shop that day and can prove my father’s innocence.”


“The word of a drunkard’s son is hardly better than his father’s.”


“What about the word of a sheriff who beats his children?”


The sheriff paled at Allen’s accusation. “Watch your mouth, boy,” he warned.


“Or what? You’ll beat me too. Give me a chance to tell my story, or I’ll tell everyone what I can prove by the welts on your son’s behind.”


Reluctantly, the sheriff agreed for Allen and the rancher to come to the jail the next afternoon.


Then Allen went home to meet his mother, who was so relieved he was still alive she didn’t even reproach him for running away until the next morning. Although Allen had recovered his body, his skin had thickened while he was invisible, and he barely listened to her chiding. His only concern now was to free his father.


When he arrived at the jailhouse, he was stunned to see a crowd had gathered. Somehow the word had spread that he’d come to confront the haughty cattleman. Allen’s stomach clenched in doubt as he waited for the rancher to appear. Would anyone believe a boy more than this wealthy landowner? Then he saw the serving girl at the back of the crowd and remembered how the rancher had humiliated her. And his father.


The rancher finally swaggered through the crowd. “What’s all this fuss about?” he said to the sheriff, who motioned Allen and the rancher to come inside the jail.


“I’d rather say what I have to out here,” Allen said. “Where everyone can hear.”


“Let the people decide,” someone shouted. The call echoed through the crowd.


“I have nothing to hide,” said the rancher.


Allen took a deep breath and faced the cattleman. “My father didn’t steal your money,” he said in as loud a voice as he could muster. “I know because I was in the shop that day.”


“That’s ridiculous. There was no one there but your father,” the rancher said.


“How is it I have your money then?” Allen produced the silver money clip he’d tossed in a boot after he picked the rancher’s pocket. Now the clip bulged with money Allen had stolen from the rancher at his party.


The cattleman snatched it from Allen’s hand. “Where did you get this?” he demanded.


Allen was about to say he found it in the street when a flash of colored light distracted him. He shifted his gaze and saw the sun glinting in the distance from the sorcerer’s multi-colored necklace. The old man was standing by himself apart from the crowd.


Remembering his promise, Allen corrected the lie he was going to tell. “I have this because I took it from your pocket,” Allen confessed. “I took it to pay my father the money you owed him for making your boots, money you cheated him, the way you cheat everyone in this town.”


The crowd gasped and the rancher turned pale.


“It’s true,” a shopkeeper shouted. “He cheated me too.”


“And me,” another man echoed.


“Then you blame everyone for wronging you,” Allen added. “Like the girl who lost her balance and spilled chili on you at your barbecue.”


“That’s right. I saw him strike her. The sheriff saw it too,” another man called from the crowd.


The serving girl lowered her head in embarrassment as people looked at her.


“He shouldn’t get away with it,” someone yelled.


“Release my husband. He’s innocent,” Allen’s mother demanded.


The sheriff scanned the angry assembly and made a quick decision. “You have your money back. I think that ends the matter.”


The rancher glared at Allen and the sheriff. “Next time I won’t be so forgiving.” He pocketed the money clip and stomped off.


The crowd cheered his departure, even though none of them had found the courage to confront the rancher before. Allen’s mother rushed to hug him. “I never knew how brave you were,” she said. The barber clapped him on the shoulder. “You should’ve kept the money,” he said. “Then your father could buy us all a drink tonight to celebrate.”


“Not if I can stop him,” Allen said and pushed past the barber to find the sorcerer, but the old man had disappeared. So had the serving girl. A few minutes later Allen’s father emerged from the jail and embraced his son and wife. He felt so fortunate to have his honor restored that he vowed never to tarnish it again with drink. And Allen’s mother was so happy to have her son and husband back that she determined never to drive them off again with her complaints. Although his parents didn’t always keep their promises, and sometimes argued and flung dishes at each other, Allen had discovered that he could also bang a pot or two when needed.


And he didn’t have to be invisible to do it.

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