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First pages

Chapter One

I have always known that I am invisible—even way back then, when it first started to happen. In fact, it goes back even further; in my earliest of memories and for as long as I can remember, the sense of being unnoticed was there. I think it started on a muggy day when I was six years old. I can still feel the excitement as my grandmother poked her nose through the living room drapes and announced that it was dry enough to make a trip to the neighborhood park. It had been raining for nearly a week straight, and I was glad to be free of the stuffy, dim rooms in our old home. It had become my prison that summer, a place where my older siblings would unleash their rainy-day boredom in the form of self-esteem-crushing torment.

We had watched as Grandmother pulled out the wagon from the shed and loaded it to the brim with goodies for a picnic lunch. It seemed like an eternity before we were finally following her down the cracked and uneven sidewalk. I was last in line behind my two older siblings as we passed by the familiar row of tall, skinny houses. Each home was built on a thin strip of a lot and looked identical to ours in structure and design. Grandmother had taught me that ours was the one with the black iron letters that read 3386. But I recognized it by the faded blue-gray paint and gaudy wrought iron shutters that overpowered the face of our family home.

Blossom Park was four blocks up the street, and—much to my disappointment—had never lived up to its name. There was not a bud, bloom, or flowering shrubbery anywhere to be seen. Instead, the postage-stamp-shaped piece of land was fitted between two brick buildings and flanked by a parking lot on one end and a tall chain-link fence that overlooked an alley on the other.

I was happy to be in the sun, nonetheless, even if it did happen to shine down in patchy pools of light over paint-chipped play equipment and a weed-encroached sand pit.

"Let's play house." It wasn't a suggestion so much as a command, spoken by my oldest sibling, Adonia. She had run ahead of the wagon, and her caramel-colored ponytail was swinging like a pendulum with every step. She was only three years older than me, but the gap had always felt miles apart.

"House? Again? You promised we could play hot lava." Keane sighed impatiently and adjusted the thick glasses resting on the bridge of his nose. He was just a year older than me, and sometimes I would fantasize that we could be best friends. After all, the exciting game of hot lava was something we both enjoyed much more than Adonia's boring, girly game of house. Who wanted to stir imaginary pots of stew with sticks when we could be dangling above fiery molten lava, holding on for dear life?

"We could play both," I suggested in a quiet voice, not wanting to cause an argument.

Adonia turned and sighed in an overly dramatic way as she rolled her eyes. "Well, if we can't agree, we will just have to play house first and then hot lava. There. Happy?"

I wondered if I would be paid attention to when I was older, like my sister. It was like my voice hadn't developed enough to be heard yet the way hers was, edged with authority and demanding attention.

"Fine; good idea. But I refuse to be the butler this time. Find some other kid," Keane said adamantly as he jogged up to the monkey bars, which everyone knew to be The House.

Grandmother was humming as she made her way to the benches that rested in the shade of a brick building. She parked the wagon after pulling out her book of crosswords and seated herself among the handful of other parents or guardians perched watchfully.

I found my six-year-old self feeling sorry for my grandmother and the other adults who weren't playing, but were only spectators. I wondered how many years I had left before I wasn't allowed to have fun anymore.

"Zylia!"

I jumped, startled at hearing my name being shouted so loudly. I suppose it was because I wasn't spoken to very often, unless I was in trouble for something. Adonia, hands on hips, with one of her pristine Keds tapping, was glaring at me from under the dome-shaped silver bars. I wasn't sure how long I had been holding up the game, so I hurriedly scrambled over.

"It's about time! You're the baby. Time for a nap." Adonia was using the toe of her sneaker to make a rectangle outline in the sand. "This is your crib."

I obediently curled up on my side as my older two siblings set out making further plans for the game. After a while I began feeling the sand press into the skin along my arm and the side of my face. I shifted and felt small pebbles slip into my shoes and the waistband of my jean shorts.

A girl I'd never seen before had jogged up and asked if she could play. She had coffee-colored skin and looked to be around Adonia's age.

"Of course," Adonia said in a charming voice that I recognized immediately. I called it her non-family voice, the tone she used to fool strangers into thinking she was sugary sweet all the time. Fake as it may be, she managed to find and keep any number of friends while I had none, so I couldn't entirely argue with her methods.

Keane was looking longingly at a group of boys playing with a remote-control car. "I need to buy furniture for the house," he said suddenly. When I saw him wandering off, I knew he wouldn't come back to the game.

"Well, then, we should buy groceries while the baby is sleeping," said the new girl.

"Great! I'll just get my purse." Adonia looped an imaginary strap around her shoulder and turned to me. "Don't get out of your crib while we're gone." She said the last part in her family voice, so I knew she meant it.

I watched the pair of them walk off, the sound of their chummy conversation blending and fading into the other playground noises. I turned my head and looked up at the bluish-gray sky through the metal web of the playground structure. The storm clouds had gone, leaving a thin, dingy overcast. The sunlight perforated only portions of the hazy veil, and a memory popped into my head in that random way that memories do. Something about the way the light was playing down caused me to think of a flashlight shining beneath a worn blanket.

I remembered it from when Adonia and her sleepover friends had been telling spooky stories and I had crept in, uninvited. Whispers and giggles filtered out from under the blanket and into my envious ears. When had Adonia become so popular and well-liked, anyway?

There was a tickling sensation on my wrist that brought my gaze down from the sky and back to the present. I watched as a lone ant made his way over the back of my palm and up along my knuckles. I didn't make a dramatic move to flick it off of me the way my sister or mother would have done. I didn't even move at all. I just watched the little guy meandering along my fingers and wondered if he felt alone too, far away from his kind.

I could hear Grandmother calling, "Moss kids, get your lunch!" I guess she didn't want to chance stray kids grabbing at her peanut butter and apricot jam sandwiches. In my peripheral vision I could see her fishing around in the wagon, but I was uninterested in moving from my "crib" for the moment. I didn't want to lose track of the tiny black ant, which I had grown inexplicably fond of. If I moved, I might never feel this connection again.

Eventually I did move—or jolt, rather—as something rubbery bounced off my forehead, startling the wits out of me. I jerked upright just in time to see a pair of snickering boys rushing off with a big, red kickball. It was only then that I realized I had been asleep, not because of the sand deeply pressed into my skin or the string of drool wet on my cheek, but because my siblings and grandmother were nowhere to be seen.

I looked around once more, just to be sure, and prickling fear rushed over my body. "Grandmother!" I tried to call out, but my voice stuck in my throat and there was a pounding in my ears. What had happened while I was asleep? If my grandmother, Adonia, and Keane had been snatched away by kidnappers, the unworried children that were still playing at the park would at least appear alerted to the tragedy, right? So there had to be another reason they had left me behind.

There must have been an emergency! I thought. Who was in trouble? My mother? Father? Frankie, Keane's hamster? How was it that everyone but me had found out about this emergency?

I was pounding down the sidewalk, leaving the park and its ignorant visitors, dorky bullies, and my dear little ant all far behind me. I tripped once on the jagged concrete squares and fell against a tree. Even though I snagged my arm along the trunk, it didn't slow me down.

Before long my house was in view, and I was that much closer to discovering the extent of this dreadful, life-changing tragedy. I bounded over the small, balding patch of grass and leapt over the short retaining wall and adjacent flower bed, not bothering with the four stone steps in the lawn that led up toward the covered entrance of our house.

I yanked open the iron screen door and stepped into the shade of the porch. Suddenly I was afraid to go any farther. What horrors would I witness inside?

I walked slowly along the long, skinny porch, breathing quickly. I stopped at the front door. It was open wide and I could hear voices coming from inside. My mother's chatty tone had never sounded so comforting. She was alive, at least!

I stepped into the entry hall, and the scent of frying food met my nose and made my stomach flop. I took a few steps down the hall past the stairway and peeked around the corner into the kitchen. There stood my mother, using a spoon to stir a large metal pot at the stove. She had a bright lipstick smile on her face and she was chatting happily into the phone, which was cradled between her neck and shoulder.

Grandmother was seated near her at the island counter, chopping vegetables while moving and puckering her wrinkled lips rhythmically.

Relief spread over me and faded into confusion. I backed out of the kitchen and ran up the wooden stairway to the second floor. Keane's bedroom was the first on the left, the scuffed door standing open. I looked in to find him crouched on the floor with his magnifying set.

"Keane!" I said loudly, startling him.

"What?" He glanced up, annoyed.

"What happened? Was there some sort of emergency? Is Frankie all right?" I was breathless and speaking rapidly.

"Why are you being so weird?" My brother drew up one side of his face, and I wondered if Adonia had taught him that expression because she wore it so frequently. It was a mixture of bewilderment and contempt. Thankfully, it didn't last long before he turned his face dismissively back toward his magnifiers.

"There wasn't an emergency? Why did you guys leave the park?"

Keane didn't even look up as he mumbled, "Uh, because Grandmother said it was time to go; duh. Why do we always leave the park?"

It was only at that moment the realization dawned on me that I had been abandoned at the park. They had left me there, asleep under the monkey bars with no one looking after me.

"But you left without me." I wanted to shout the words; instead, they came out very quietly through my quivering lips.

"What are you talking about? You were with us the whole time. Leave me alone already!" He jumped up and shut his bedroom door in my face.

My throat tightened and felt strained as I plodded back downstairs. Had no one even noticed I was gone? I wiped away tears before finding myself back in the kitchen.

"Oh, there you are!" my mother said brightly, looking at me for a split second. She had already ended her phone call, but her shiny blonde hair was still ruffled up where she had been clutching the receiver. "We were wondering when you'd come down. Why don't you go help your grandmother clear away the onionskins?"

I wordlessly slipped in alongside them at the island. My grandmother pointed a knobby finger and directed, "Bring that garbage bin over here; it'll be easier that way." She smiled encouragingly, as if I were being ever-so-helpful.

She really has no idea she left me, I thought, stunned, as I pulled over the grimy bin. Had I imagined the whole scene? Nothing seemed real anymore. I was suddenly aware of a stinging on the side of my arm. I looked down and saw that I was bleeding from a long scrape that stretched from mid-pinky to my elbow. It was the only evidence that I had been deserted, and the tingling pain was almost comforting.

 

That was over seven years ago, though—only the beginning of my descent toward being entirely undetectable. I had no idea that eventually I would fade away completely.

Chapter Two

I think things really began taking a turn for the stranger after the dream. In it, I was walking down a long, narrow path. I could see so many people alongside—everyone I’ve ever met or known. Random people, like the ice cream man who had nearly driven over me when I was eight; my kindergarten recess aide; a nameless nurse I once encountered—they were all there. I was trying to get their attention, calling out to them. Occasionally I would get someone to turn their head and notice me, but then they would immediately look over my shoulder, gaping and gasping.

The expressions on their faces were what made the dream feel like a nightmare. Their features twisted with such fear, I was horrified to look at what they saw. I knew something worse than terrible was just a few paces behind me.

So instead of glancing back, I ran as fast as I could, trying to put distance between me and the horrendous creature that must have been pursuing me. But the ground had become like a treadmill and I couldn’t get anywhere. I felt the thing overtaking me; when it touched my skin, I understood what it was.

Blackness. Nothingness. It was in the shape of a giant, hazy shadow, enveloping me, swallowing me, and digesting me into the unknown. It was my biggest fear and my ultimate fate.

I woke up paralyzed with panic, clutching the sheet tightly at my throat. My eyes were wide, probing the dimly lit room. I could see from the corner of my eye that Ivy’s twin bed was empty, the lilac-colored comforter smoothed neatly over the flowered sheets. Her side of the room was so orderly it was sickening. It was that inadequate feeling of being outdone by my seven-year-old baby sister, almost six years younger than me, that brought me back to reality.

I let the dream fade back inside my mind, receding into the realm of fantasy like a swilling tide. I tried my best to mentally keep it there while I moved my eyes over Ivy’s bookshelf. The top shelf was full of glossy storybooks lined from tallest to shortest. Below that, her fancy display tea sets were gleaming. I knew she kept her less decorative play tea sets in a shoebox under her bed, behind the row of shoes that sat close together in easily accessible pairs.

Ivy was different from everyone else in my family. Not only because she was obsessively immaculate, but because out of all of them, she was the only one who truly noticed me.

And there were a lot of us living under that ancient roof. The narrow three-story house had been in our family for many decades and housed relatives from at least two generations for as long as I could remember.

There was Grandmother, who had recently been diagnosed with dementia; Mother and Father; Adonia; Keane; the twins, Mace and Bram; then me; and finally, Ivy. It was hard to believe I could feel such loneliness in a house so populated.

I flipped back my bedcovers as soon as the terror of the nightmare had subsided and put my bare feet on the cold wooden floor. It was mid-November and our ancient heating system probably still needed to be serviced.

I shuffled into the hall toward the bathroom that I shared with Adonia and Ivy. I purposefully woke up late every morning, because it was pointless trying to fight for bathroom time with two high-maintenance sisters.

This morning I was later than usual, though, so I quickly stripped off my mismatched pajamas and stepped into the shower. The stream was lukewarm for only a couple minutes before becoming chilly. It was just another consequence of making it to the bathroom in last place.

I scrubbed off as fast as I could but I was shivering uncontrollably as I wrapped up in a large, slightly scratchy towel. I could see myself clearly in the mirror over the sink. The shower water hadn’t even gotten hot enough to steam over my reflection.

I saw myself as slim and plain as ever: long hair that looked like black ink when wet, oval-shaped face with a slightly pointed chin, and a small mouth outlined by lips that were colorless and much too thin.

The only feature on my face that could be described as anything beyond plain was my large emerald-green eyes surrounded by a fan of thick ebony lashes. It was the one part of my appearance that I allowed myself to feel a small amount of pride over. It was ridiculously vain, though, considering the fact that no one ever saw my eyes anyway. My gaze was usually cast downward, straight hair spilling in front of my face like a curtain.

I glanced over the countertop as I blow-dried my hair, taking in all the little pots full of pastel shadows and blushes that belonged to Adonia. I wondered who might notice me if I drew lines just above my lashes and covered my lips with that goo that made them shiny and sticky, just like my sister did every morning. People sure noticed her, especially boys.

Once or twice Ivy and I had tagged along behind her at the mall, and I had gotten this weird twist in my gut every time I saw someone looking at her. I couldn’t believe how grown men would stare at her sixteen-year-old body from head to foot and back again. It caused me to feel angry and protective, even though she’s the older one and is supposed to be in the responsible role. But then, after the annoyance had passed, I began to feel a sense of jealousy over those ogles that left me guilt-ridden and gloomy. No one would ever look at me, especially in an appraising, admiring way.

After it was dry, I parted my hair to one side and brushed it until it was shiny and sleek. I then quickly pulled on a pair of worn dark-wash jeans, a gray turtleneck, and my favorite hooded sweater-jacket that displayed a purple broken heart design across the front when zipped up.

Back in my room, I halfheartedly made my bed and shoved some clothes into a hamper, but there was still an obvious distinction between my domain and Ivy’s. I slung my backpack over my arm and headed down two stories to the kitchen.

It was bright and noisy, as always, making me feel both comforted and on edge as I slid into an open chair next to my father at the breakfast table. He was staring intently at the newspaper in one hand while absentmindedly stirring his coffee with the other.

“Morning,” I said to him. My voice was groggy from sleep and the twins were arguing loudly over who would do the maze on the back of a cereal box. My father didn’t even blink his strained, puffy eyes.

Mother plopped an empty bowl and spoon in front of me. “Knock it off, you two! It’s too early in the day for this,” she was saying, voice elevating as she walked back around to the island counter. “I swear . . .” She waved her hand without finishing her thought and focused her attention on a hot-pink-covered paperback book. Novels were her addiction, and I’d never known her to be more than three feet away from one. They spilled off of shelves, hid inside large purses, and poked out from behind couch cushions, nightstands, and heaps of unfolded laundry.

I liked watching her read, even though I knew that when she was staring at a page of words, she was worlds away. Her pretty face would change from dreamy contentment to wide-eyed excitement or furrowed curiosity with just a few page turns.

All six of her children were named after characters from the pages of her ever-accumulating mass of books. I sometimes wondered who the fictional woman Zylia had been, but my mother could never seem to remember the title of the story or where she had kept it. For a long time I would flip through random books to see if I could find her, but the character always eluded me. Oftentimes I wondered if I was the imaginary one and the real Zylia was living a normal life somewhere on the other side of the pages.

“Oh my gosh, look at the calories!” Adonia widened her eyes, mascara-coated lashes reaching all the way to her perfectly shaped eyebrows. “I’m so not eating this.” She slammed a box of sugary cereal back on the table.

“There’s plenty to choose from; don’t be so finicky,” Father mumbled.

He was right. The long, scratched-up oak table held at least ten boxes of assorted cereals, most of them with colorful cartoon animals on the front. The sight of food always made me ill in the mornings; ridiculous containers of happy, cheerful-looking creatures tried to make the processed puffs more appealing. I suppose it was really because my stomach was already in knots with the thought of having to endure another day of eighth grade at my worn-out, overpopulated, and downright intimidating school.

Last year hadn’t seemed quite so bad with the comfort of knowing that my brother, Keane, was somewhere amidst the throngs in case I should need him. Not that I ever caught so much as a glimpse of him; it was just nice to feel connected to someone in the masses.

My younger brothers were present in the building, however, worlds away somewhere in sixth grade. They weren’t a comfort at all, always getting into embarrassing mischief and causing trouble. The twins definitely didn’t give me that sense of security that Keane emanated.

So now that my older brother had moved up in the ranks, somewhere with the well-liked Adonia in high school, I was completely on my own. Not that it was a new emotion—it was more like an acceptance that the hollow feeling within my chest was there to stay.

Father folded down a corner of the newspaper to glance at his watch. Then he aimed his gaze at the digital oven clock as if to confirm his shocking find. If he were more of an emotional person, he would have jerked or jumped or gasped at the realization that he was running seriously late. Instead, one sleepy eye twitched, and he quickly and fluidly stood to gather his briefcase and suit jacket.

My father was talking as he headed out toward the garage through the laundry room. “See you all tonight. Oh, and if there happens to be a bike in the driveway yet again when I come home this evening, I won’t stop for it this time.”

My twin brothers exchanged mischievous glances. They were always leaving their things out to be driven, kicked, or tripped over.

“Oh!” Mother stuffed her book tightly into the back pocket of her jeans, also becoming aware of the time. “Is your grandmother up yet? She has a doctor’s appointment. I have to take her right after I drop Ivy off at school.” She wasn’t really asking anyone in particular, as she was moving in the direction of the master suite where her mother resided.

The strange old woman my grandmother had become didn’t really need all the yawning space of that big bedroom and bath. In fact, the hospital-sized bed she slept in, an old dresser, and a tiny desk were practically the only furniture she kept in there. To me the pieces look dwarfed and unfashionable, like old, mismatched doll furniture.

Thankfully, our house was big enough that there was room for all, with only some of us doubling up and sharing spaces. I always heard my mother say how the house goes on and up forever, but she usually only complained when she was cleaning it.

I could hear Mother now, talking loudly through the bedroom doorway. She always spoke up when addressing Grandmother, although I’m pretty sure the older woman didn’t have any trouble hearing.

“Okay, kids, let’s get a move on!” After waking Grandmother, my mother was back in the kitchen, clearing cereal bowls from the table. She took the clean, unused one from in front of me and commented cheerfully, “Wow, you were hungry! You usually eat like a bird in the mornings.”

I started to say that I hadn’t actually filled my bowl, let alone eaten, but decided it was really more effort than it was worth. Instead, I slung my backpack over my shoulder; on my way toward the hall, Ivy nudged me with her elbow. “Nice one, skipping breakfast like that,” she giggled, her freckled nose crinkling up.

A small stab of fondness hit me, and for half a second I felt important. I smiled back at her but I didn’t say anything, just watched her as she wiped crumbs off the table and into a napkin. She looked so small and cute in a pair of floral embellished jeans and a cotton long-sleeved top.

Ivy had the same caramel-colored hair as Adonia: thick and full of body. But Ivy’s was straight and worn in an angled bob that appeared more youthful and innocent next to Adonia’s flowing, wavy tresses.

“See ya after school,” I said and slipped away from the morning bustle and out onto the sidewalk. I was the only child in the Moss family who walked to school. Adonia and Keane both rode a bus to the high school near old town, Mother drove Ivy to grade school every day, and Mace and Bram were forced to hitch a ride with Mrs. Edgar from two doors down. If it weren’t for the woman’s own two children, who took up the remaining empty seats, I would have been subject to the same fate every morning in her stuffy sedan that smelled of ripe underarms and faint cigarette smoke.

I didn’t mind walking alone anyway; I’d been used to being on my own for quite some time. My mother had told me I was the only child of hers who could be trusted to be responsible enough to make it to school on their own. Of course, she was probably just saying that so I wouldn’t feel slighted or insulted in some way.

Outside it was chilly and dim, with a hint of moisture in the air. I breathed deeply and felt the coolness pour into my lungs like a refreshing drink. It calmed me for a few steps along the sidewalk, but the familiar nervousness crept back quickly.

Two more blocks and I could see and hear the traffic noise beginning to pick up. My stomach ached with each step that brought me closer. I tried to distract myself with thoughts of soothing isolation and quiet. It didn’t really help. You see, the thing about being invisible for most of my life is that I had never really learned how to be seen and heard in a socially acceptable way. And if I were to be seen, spoken to, or involved in some sort of meaningful human interaction, the most likely place was at school. Unfortunately, those interactions weren’t usually positive.

People never acknowledged me when I was making straight A’s, letting kids cut in line, or keeping it secret that I had caught the pretty and fashionable Emily Andrews stuffing her bra in the handicapped bathroom stall. But somehow I was able to suddenly materialize into view when doing things like tripping over chair legs, knocking over the ball cart in gym, or getting sick on the lunchroom floor.

However, this year I had been incident-free so far, and the anticipation of the next embarrassing encounter was eating away at my stomach lining. In fact, the expectancy was probably the worst part. I guess it’s like the way I open a can of refrigerated biscuits. I tense up, clench my teeth, and hold my breath before I bang the soft cardboard cylinder against the countertop. Then, when that underwhelming pop sound goes off, I realize it wasn’t so bad after all. But I’m always aware that it could have exploded into my face and rendered me unconscious, so that’s why I remain on edge, feeling the need to be mentally prepared for tragedy.

The last time I had been truly humiliated was near the end of seventh grade that previous May. I had wound up in this god-awful coed weight training class with sweaty, brawny boys and beefy, tough girls. My spaghetti limbs and I had no business being there, but apparently I hadn’t realized what I was signing up for when I thoughtlessly marked it as one of my desired electives.

Near the end of class one day, we were all finishing up our required lifting at separate benches. I was really struggling during my final set of bicep curls, sure that the silver number fifteen had to have been mistakenly stamped on my dumbbells. They had to be at least fifty pounds each, the way my arms were trembling and straining.

I had been losing weight since taking the class, not bulking up and bulging like some of the boys or becoming fit and defined like the girls. Instead I seemed to be shrinking away and becoming increasingly wispy in stature. It was due to this fact that my workout shorts happened to fall away from my bony hips and drop to the gym floor. I had tried to grab them quickly before anyone would notice, but the shock and embarrassment made me forget I was still holding the dumbbells; they went crashing to the floor, the clamor drawing all eyes to my flowery pink panties.

As the looming brown-brick building came into view, I wondered what new horrors eagerly awaited me. The building was tall, raised up on its foundation in a threatening posture, looking out over the street with rows of smudged, grubby windows.

Cars and buses were lining the sidewalk and congesting the street for at least a couple blocks in either direction. The school’s massive double doors at the top of a flight of concrete stairs were open to allow in the throng of middle-school-aged children. As I waited to cross the street with a cluster of chattering kids, I noticed that the big, creepy building appeared to be an evil entity, sucking in the stream of students through its mouth made of oak and glass. I really wasn’t in the mood to be digested today, but I found my way into the human current and yielded to the notion of being consumed.

 

I really thought I was going to make it, safe and invisible as usual. Maybe that’s why during my last hour I started to relax and let my guard down as the monotone voice at the front of the class droned on; “So let’s say Sam has five less three times as many pancakes than Oliver . . .”

In the refuge of the back row, I had taken out my notebook and flipped to the final pages, where artsy graffiti representing hours of boredom spread over the college-ruled lines in pencil and ink. I found a clear spot on a busy page, took a quiet breath, and started doodling whatever sprang into my mind. I had written lonely in large, curly cursive and began using my blue pen to decorate the dangling letter y with a twisting stem of ivy that wrapped around the word and flowered intermittently. I did something similar with the words nobody and deserted and was just tipping the page back to appraise my work when it was swiped from my hands.

It happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to react before my notebook was being passed around the room from one snickering student to the next.

“Aww, poor little Zeea! Are you so very lonesome?” the tall blonde boy who had taken my notebook taunted from his seat next to me.

My eyes narrowed and I could feel myself bristling. He didn’t even know my name. I knew that his name was Thomas Hodge, that he was an only child, that he was terrible at math, and that he had a chronically itchy scalp. I had never spoken to him, except for the time I asked him to please move his foot when he was standing on the strap of my backpack and I couldn’t pick it up. Yet I knew something about him because I had sat silently beside him every math class for almost three months. And he didn’t even know my name.

“Zie-lee-uh,” I enunciated. “My name is Zylia.”

The teacher turned from the chalkboard at that moment and eyeballed me over his thick lenses. The entire class followed suit. Suddenly, there were so many people staring, their gazes boring deep into me. It was such a foreign feeling to be scrutinized. I was used to being immune to the average line of sight, so to have that much attention was equivalent to being stripped of all clothing and gestured at with a pointing stick.

“What is all this commotion, Miss Moss?”

The teacher was speaking to me, the class was gawking, and my notebook was somewhere in circulation. I could feel my face burning as I answered, “I don’t know.” Hey, it was the best I could come up with.

My math teacher looked bored and fatigued with my comment. “Since you have taken such an interest in this class, I’m sure you won’t mind completing an extra page of challenge problems along with your homework tonight.”

Sure, I thought, I’ll do it! Just get these eyeballs away from me!

He blinked several times before turning back to the chalkboard and finally resuming class. I watched as someone stretched out to toss my notebook into the wastepaper basket. The teacher didn’t even flinch at the thudding sound it made when it hit the bottom.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Misty Mount started writing early, having had her first published work at the age of thirteen. Her struggles with being supremely sensitive, awkward, and shy fueled her imagination for The Shadow Girl. She is a caregiver both personally and professionally, enjoying her work with children and adults who have special needs. She is a wife and a mother to one young son residing in her home state of Kansas.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
It’s based on a question posed to me by my dear cousin outside a family function. Both of us—feeling unneeded and unwanted—had slipped outside and stumbled across each other. After bonding over our shared social flaws she asked, “What if you felt so invisible you just faded into nothing?”
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
A.
I’ve always enjoyed reading since I was a child and even told stories to my younger siblings. But in kindergarten, my teacher read the class a story and I was so utterly disappointed with the ending that I rewrote it at home that night. I’ve been in charge of my own stories and endings ever since.