This story is by Trish Hernandez and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Though Annie was only four years old, she had already learned to be invisible. No one saw her when she skipped rope alone, in front of her old brownstone house. No one even noticed the tears that pumped from her heart to her eyes when the monsters hurt her, the monsters that only saw her when she was good.
She became invisible by learning the rules of living among a variety of monsters. Some hurt her with their words and mean hands. Others didn’t give her what she needed most – protection and safety. Some even used her for their own unspeakable needs. Being familiar with them gave Annie the advantage of knowing what made monsters happy. They loved quiet so she would tiptoe, still as the clock ticking in the hallway. Because the monsters didn’t want to be spoken to, she put her voice in a glass jar on a shelf in her closet and hardly ever said a word. Not speaking helped her listen and because she listened she also knew what made these monsters very, very, angry. So Annie was careful to follow all of the rules – to do what they told her to do, to keep quiet, and be unseen.
Most days, Annie was content, though not particularly happy. But Sunday was different. It was safer, more predictable. Everything was the same on Sundays, right down to the little o cereal and milk for breakfast.
“Ooooh… the best smell in the whole world!” Annie thought as she woke to the rich aroma of coffee and tinkling sounds of Mother setting the table.
“Sunday! Safe day!”
Annie’s favorite part of Sunday was just after breakfast. As she sat very still at the table, Mother silently brushed the tangles from her hair. Neither of them spoke one word, but Annie noticed how Mother’s gray-green eyes became more focused as her thin lips relaxed into a slight smile. As Mother brushed through the silky curls, shaping them into spiraling ringlets, Annie breathed in the touch of her hands. This was the time when these were safe hands, good and warm and gentle, hands that connected her to Mother’s deeply buried love. Mother was one of the varieties of monsters – the type that did not use kind words to compliment, or sooth, or protect.
“Can I wear my red dress?” Annie asked in a whisper, though it caused a tightness in her chest.
“No. Pink. Wear the pink one,” Mother responded, returning to her usual soured face. The pale pink ribbon Mother placed in Annie’s hair was the final punctuation to their time together.
* * *
Silence filled the car during the short drive to the church. Mother remained in her shroud of sullenness while Father was only a silent shadow behind the steering wheel wearing his gray fedora, stiff-collared shirt, and dark suit. He seldom spoke, especially to Annie, except to tell her what to do like the other Monster Men did, and was another type of Monster completely different from Mother.
Annie was lost in thoughts as the car rolled along in silence.
“I wonder if Father likes my pretty pink dress.”
“Does he like my hair?” remembering Mother made it extra pretty with the pink bow.
Then she remembered about being invisible.
“He just can’t see me and if he could, then Father would call me his princess and would swing me ‘round and ‘round, and we would giggle and laugh and …”
“But I am invisible,” she reminded herself and determined to be good so he could see her.
Walking through the red doors into the foyer of the white-steepled church, the sounds of chatter felt welcoming and safe to Annie. She followed Mother and Father into the spacious white-washed sanctuary and while the people gathered she studied the oversized paintings of Jesus framed in dirty gold. The dark one of Jesus sitting on a hill alone made Annie wonder why he was so sad. Her favorite was the painting of Jesus with a multitude of sheep walking along a rocky path, unafraid, contented. One tiny snowy lamb rested in his strong arms looking into Jesus’ kind face. Annie longed to be that clean, white lamb, safe in the arms of the shepherd.
When it was time for Sunday School, Annie went down the dark stairway to her classroom in the cold basement of the church. Even though it smelled of mold, she liked the bright rainbow mural on the wall and the pictures of Bible heroes scattered around the room. Listening to stories and singing songs provided an island of safety away from monsters, and Annie wanted to stay as long as she could.
Class time finished, but Annie quietly stayed in her seat until everyone was gone. Once she was alone, Annie wandered from classroom to classroom, looking at storybooks, coloring on papers from the trash, and humming quietly with the singing heard from upstairs. Content, alone with Jesus. She liked having him all to herself, pretending he could see her, that she was like the other children in the picture taped above the table. Annie even dared to whisper her dark secrets to Jesus in that picture, hoping he could hear her.
In the quiet of that moment, the air was pierced by unexpected footsteps on the stairway. Annie dropped her crayon and grabbed the edges of her child-sized chair, focusing her eyes on the door as the room spun around her. Holding her breath, Annie listened as the sound of footsteps shuffled closer and wondered who was coming to look for her. She remained still as she heard someone in the hallway opening and closing the classroom doors coming nearer to her.
Clinging to the chair, she watched the yellow door slowly creak open to reveal old Mr. Tibbets who worshipped at the big white church every Sunday.
“Well, hello there!” he said trying to sound friendly. His grin revealed teeth that didn’t look real and a web of wrinkle lines around dark eyes.
Annie was surprised he spoke to her, then realized he could see her, that her safety of invisibility had vanished. This could only mean one thing. Mr. Tibbets was a Monster Man and was not there to be friendly. She also knew his kind of power and pain from the Monster Men who had seen her and hurt her before but never here, in Annie’s safe place at church.
He did not have kind or gentle hands. But Annie ran away… to Jesus in the picture on the wall. In Annie’s mind, she became that child on Jesus’ lap, wrapped in his safe arms, her face buried into his white robes while the Monster Man molested some other little girl in a pink frilly dress.
As the faint singing of “Washed in the Blood of Jesus” wafted from upstairs, the Monster Man whispered a familiar threat about not telling anyone, then left the room. That’s how it always ended, no matter who the monster was.
“Don’t tell anyone or…
… they will think you are lying or crazy.”
… they will know what a bad dirty girl you are.”
… I will kill your family.”
… I will kill you.”
And Annie believed them every time.
Annie stayed in the room until she was sure the worship service had ended. After putting the crayons away and placing the rainbow picture in the trash, she cautiously stepped into the hallway. Climbing the stairs, she forced a tight-lipped smile onto her face, then entered the foyer as voices buzzed from grinning mouths. The Monster Man was not there.
Annie ran past her parents into the sunny air where she could breathe again. Mother stopped smiling as she followed her, and knelt down while straightening the pink hem of Annie’s dress, brushing a loose curl from her face. For one silent moment, there was a connection between the two of them as Mother’s moist eyes searched Annie’s sad ones. In that small crack of time, Mother saw her, and they spoke without words.
As Father emerged into the sunlight, Mother stood up, and Annie became invisible once again. She followed them down the steps and took her place in the back seat listening as her parents talked with each other about the morning, but when Father closed his door, the car became silent. Annie tried to be quiet, but halfway home she couldn’t help but sing her thoughts out loud.
“Jesus loves me. This I know.” she sang, whispering the words. “For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak, but he is strong.”
* * *
Unfortunately, the monsters of Annie’s early life continued to haunt her as she grew into adulthood. It wasn’t until four decades later, in the safe confessional of her therapist’s office, Annie took the jar containing her voice off the closet shelf, shattered it, and exposed her secrets. Finally, she was no longer invisible.