This is a 5700-word short story from a collection I plan to eventually self-publish. I’ve edited it too many times to see the words anymore. They all sort of blur together. I would appreciate any feedback I could get from the community. Thanks in advance.
Sunlight was streaming through the half-closed drapes as she woke. Penelope stretched out on the bed and smiled. Whenever there was a vacancy, she always stayed at the Kingsury. Except for the few places where decent people didn’t stay, she had tried all the hotels in the city at one time or another, but this place was closer to being a home than anywhere else she had known in years. It wasn’t the fanciest or most expensive hotel, but it had character and a charm the others lacked.
And this was her favorite room in the hotel. It had the best view except for the penthouse, but that was almost always occupied. Upstairs there was more space, but since there was only herself to worry about, she didn’t need all the extra room. Besides, the bed was just as comfortable here. Sliding out from between the fine sheets, she gathered her purse and clothes and went into the washroom to begin her morning routine.
Penelope checked her watch and decided she still had plenty of time. It was always awkward when the maid showed up and she was still in the room. She stripped down and hopped into the shower. As the water cascaded down her back, she mused idly about how they had the best shampoo here. It made her long, red hair really shine. She thought that it wasn’t as good as the one they used to have, but it was still great. Plus it smelled like green apples, not that anyone would notice except her.
When she had dried herself off, Penelope hung the towels back up where she had found them, careful to make them neat and even. While getting redressed, she caught a whiff of sweat from her shirt and noticed a tear in the armpit. Deciding it was time for a change, Penelope pulled her spare shirt from her bag and put it on instead. She would have to go shopping later, but that would have to wait until after breakfast. She was starving.
She tidied up as best she could, making the bed and wiping down the counter. That was one of the rules she had for herself: don’t be an unnecessary burden, and always clean up after yourself. When she was done, she checked her purse to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything. Running through the checklist in her mind, she compared it to the contents of her purse. She knew she would never get back anything that she left behind, and her entire life was in that bag. When she was satisfied that everything was there, she checked herself out in the mirror.
“Good morning, Penelope,” she said to her reflection. “Are you ready to start the day?” She smiled at herself and checked her teeth one last time. “All right. Let’s go.”
She was just about to reach for the doorknob when it suddenly started to turn. Penelope checked her watch again and realized that she had taken too long in the shower. She quickly stepped back to avoid getting hit by the opening door. The maid peered about suspiciously before pushing into the room with her cleaning supplies.
“Sorry,” said Penelope. “I was just leaving.” She squeezed by the cart which was partially blocking the door. The maid continued as if she had not heard Penelope apologize. She was used to being ignored by the hotel staff, but she never let it stop her from saying she was sorry. It was another one of her rules.
She pressed the button for the elevator and waited. When the doors opened, a man in a suit was inside. He glanced around casually before becoming cross and jabbing the door close button. Penelope stepped calmly into the elevator and stood in the corner. She knew the button did nothing, and she had plenty of time. The doors closed and the man returned to his earlier stoic posture.
She studied the man as they rode down to the lobby together. Obviously he had been staying in the penthouse, as that was the only floor above this one. Despite all his wealth and the luxury that surrounded him, he seemed irritable. The rich were always in a hurry and were rarely happy, she surmised. They took their privilege and their surroundings for granted. Penelope was glad that she never had to worry about money. She had enough to worry about already.
When she got to the hotel restaurant, she was happy to see that it was full, but not so full that she couldn’t find a seat. While she usually limited herself to food that no one would miss, like buffets and salad bars, today she was feeling hungry and was craving something different. She made her way to the kitchen and found a good isolated corner where she would be out of the way. From there, she watched as the customer’s orders were finished and placed on a shelf for the wait staff to pick-up. The waffles looked good, but she wanted something more substantial. Finally, she made her choice when the cook put down a plate with a fancy egg white omlette with bacon, rye toast and hash browns on the side. She couldn’t have ordered better if she had done it herself.
Timing was everything. More than once she had wound up with hot coffee burning her skin or a literal egg on her face. But years of practice had given her a certain skill, and accidents like that almost never happened now. She waited for the right moment and saw a break in the hustle of the crowded kitchen. Penelope stepped forward, grabbed the plate, and stepped through the swinging door into the dining room all in one fluid motion.
She found an empty table next to a young couple, but they were talking about stocks or something mundane like that, so she wandered to the other side of the room. Penelope found a retired couple who were planning a trip to Italy and parked herself nearby. When she had been younger, she had roamed the world extensively, looking for answers. Travelling had been fruitless and lonely, however. These days she prefered the familiar comforts of home. Still, the romantic part of her longed for adventure, even if it was vicarious.
The waitress was three tables down pouring coffee for a party of five, so she took her empty cup and walked over to them. After the waitress had poured the third cup, Penelope put her empty cup on the table and quickly picked up a full one, being careful not to spill it. She went back to her table to finish her eggs and coffee, with no one being the wiser. For the better part of an hour she listened to stories about Tuscany and Florence until the couple got up to leave. With her belly full, she decided it was time to get on with her day. It had been a splendid one so far, and she was actually looking forward to it.
First things first, she thought. She gathered her dirty dishes and wiped down the table with her napkin. She carried the dishes to the busing station where they would go back to the kitchen with the remains of the morning rush. It was the least she could do, all things considered.
Passing through the lobby, she made her way outside. It was still early in the day, so she decided to visit the art gallery before she went shopping. There was no one to tell her what to do or when to do it. If she wanted to change her mind, that was her business.
Penelope loved to sit and stare at the paintings, sometimes for hours at a time. She often wished that she could paint like that. Maybe it was because she wanted to leave behind a record that she was here on this earth, that she did something that mattered. She would like to touch someone the way these people reached out to touch her, even beyond death.
After a while, a noisy school field trip shattered her peace and made being in the gallery intolerable, so she went down the block to Calhoun’s, her favorite department store. She preferred to avoid the smaller, privately owned stores. Taking advantage of a faceless corporation never made her feel as bad as when the people who owned the store were standing right there. That was rule number two: never take more than you need, and only from those who can afford it.
Penelope walked behind the cash register and took a plastic shopping bag from the pile there. When she found something she liked, she would simply toss it in the bag. Today was a good day, she could feel it. She was going to get all new things, right down to her socks and underwear. Going down to the clearance racks, she began thumbing through the t-shirts and spring jackets. On the main level, all the clothes were for fall and not summer heat. Why did they always have to be three months ahead when most people lived in the here and now, she wondered. Who wants to buy a sweater when there’s three months of stifling heat ahead?
After finding a pair of light cargo pants that would fit, she checked to make sure that she had what she needed and that everything matched. She draped her new clothes over the rack and stripped down where she was. Penelope put her old clothes in the bag so she could dispose of them later. People would start asking questions if they found used clothes lying about. Also, she didn’t like to leave a mess for someone else to clean up later.
“Mommy, that woman’s naked.”
Those few words sent a chill down her spine. For the first time in years, she suddenly felt self-conscious about being undressed in public. When you’re invisible, you quickly forget about the little social niceties like changing rooms. She instinctively covered up her body as she looked around for the source of those words. Ten feet away, a little boy, maybe four or five years old, stood tugging on his mother’s arm and pointing right at her.
“Mommy, mommy, look!” cried the boy. The mother looked down at her son and then glanced in her direction but then returned to browsing through the clothes.
“You can see me?” she said, incredulously.
He started giggling.
Suddenly embarrassed, she ducked behind the clothing rack to cover her shame. As quickly as she could, Penelope threw on the pants and shirt she had picked out. Suitably covered, she gathered her old clothes and quickly stuffed them into the plastic bag before stuffing them into her purse.
Penelope went over to talk to the boy. She crouched down so as not to scare him, and to give herself a better look. “Hello,” she said, but the boy just smiled and looked away. Crestfallen, she tried again. “Can you really see me?”
“You have pretty hair,” he answered.
She burst into tears. It was the first compliment that she’d gotten in decades. “Thank you,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Thank you so much.”
“Why are you crying? Are you sad?”
“No,” she answered. “I’m crying because I’m happy. I’ve never been so happy in my life.”
“Who are you talking to, Bobby?” The boy’s mother had suddenly taken an interest in what was happening.
“The lady with the red hair,” said Bobby, pointing at Penelope.
“Oh, I see.” She knelt to fix the boy’s hair and shirt into something more presentable. “You have quite the imagination. Did I ever tell you that? So what’s your new friend’s name?”
“I don’t know,” said Bobby.
“Well, why don’t you ask her then?”
“Okay,” said Bobby. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Penelope,” she said. “You don’t know how happy I am to meet you, Bobby.”
“Hello,” he said in return.
“So what’s her name, Bobby?” the mother asked.
Bobby seemed puzzled. He couldn’t figure out that his mother couldn’t see or hear someone standing right in front of her. “It’s Penelope,” he said.
“Like in the story about the goldfish? Hello Princess Penelope…let’s call you Penny for short. I’m Anne. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Anne held her hand out in a pantomime of a handshake. “Won’t you join us for lunch.”
Penelope hesitated, but these were special circumstances. “Of course I’ll come.” She gripped Anne’s hand, just for a second before letting go. A strange expression passed over Anne’s face as she realized that something was wrong, but the look quickly passed as it always had before. She shrugged and took Bobby’s hand in hers before heading for the cashier. Penelope followed the pair outside.
“We’re having soup and sammiches,” said Bobby.
“Sandwiches, Bobby,” his mother corrected. “Sandwiches.”
“That’s what I said,” Bobby insisted.
“I’d love to join you,” said Penelope, “but I just had a big breakfast and I’m not very hungry. Maybe we could just talk for a while.”
“So tell me, Bobby. What kind of things do you like?”
Penelope talked with Bobby all through lunch while Anne spent most of her time talking to a friend on her phone. They spoke of how he was looking forward to going to school in the fall, about comic books and dinosaurs, and all his favorite foods. Occasionally, Anne would look over to Bobby and smile or wipe the food from around his mouth.
After an hour it was time to go home. They walked several blocks west until they came at last to a row of townhouses. They weren’t mansions by any stretch of the imagination, but Bobby’s family were certainly no strangers to money. These things didn’t really matter to Penelope though. She could walk into any bank and come out with bags of cash anytime she wanted to, but when you can’t spend it, money quickly loses any value.
They were met at the door by an overexcited terrier. While happy to see its family again, it clearly didn’t know what to make of Penelope. It barked at her and even growled once, bringing condemnation from Anne. “Shush, Precious,” she said. “Silly dog. Barking at nothing.” She chased the dog into the kitchen before helping Bobby get undressed.
Anne started ushering Bobby upstairs to try to get him to take a nap. Likely she knew from experience it would take a good deal of coaxing to get him to lie down. But today she was surprised when he almost immediately agreed. “Princess Penelope’s going to read me a story,” he said gleefully and bounded up the stairs to his room.
“Well, thank you Penny, wherever you are.”
“You’re welcome,” she answered, knowing Anne would not hear. That was another rule. There was never an excuse to be rude, even if no one knew it but you.
Upstairs, Bobby sat up in bed waiting for a story. “I want to hear that one,” he said pointing to the top of the dresser.
Penelope picked up the book and smiled. It was one she had loved as a child about a goldfish that gets too big for her bowl and goes on a series of adventures. She remembered how her mother had told her many times that she had been named after the princess in the Undersea Kingdom. She had to admit there was a resemblance, right down to the long, red hair, but she preferred her legs to the mermaid’s tail. What a coincidince it was that, of all books that he could have had, this would be his favorite.
“Where should I start?” she asked. “From the beginning?”
“Yeah! Read the whole thing,” he answered.
“I don’t know if I can read the whole thing all at once.” she said quietly, trying to calm some of the boy’s enthusiasm. “But let’s start and see how far we can get today.” She read for about twenty minutes until Bobby’s eyelids started getting heavy and he fell asleep.
Putting the book down, she took the opportunity to think about what had happened. Someone had seen her. That hadn’t happened in so long she could barely remember the last time. She had been about Bobby’s age, maybe a year younger. She remembered it was the day after her mother’s birthday. There had been leftover cake in the fridge. Everyone suddenly stopped talking to her. After a while they became scared and started to panic. Eventually the police came. There was a lot of crying that day.
Penelope had made herself hoarse yelling at them. “I’m right here! Stop joking around! It’s not funny anymore.” She hurt her hands slapping and punching everyone in the house. She threw everything she could lift at them but they still ignored her. Eventually they stopped looking and she stopped trying to get their attention.
At first, she had thought she was dead. But ghosts don’t need to eat or drink, and she couldn’t walk through walls like Casper. It was more like anything she did was erased from people’s memories. No, not erased. More like a letter that got lost along the way to being delivered. People would just fill in the blanks with rationalizations or just shrug it off as a weird feeling.
She had survived by raiding the refrigerator at night and grabbing what she could off of the dinner table. At first she slept in her room like always, but her mother always got really upset when anything in her room was moved. That was when she started cleaning up after herself. She couldn’t stand to watch her mother cry.
Later she had started going to school, but she quickly found that, without anyone to talk to, it was a lonely experience. Sometimes she would pretend she was the most popular girl in class. She would sit at the cool kid’s table and imagine that she was one of them. Once she even kissed the cutest boy in school, but it broke her heart when he didn’t even notice. So much for the power of true love, she thought. There was nothing that would break her curse.
She had discovered that she had a sharp mind and learned things quickly. She began to spend more and more time reading in the library and less time in class. By the age of sixteen she left school altogether. She left home shortly after that. Being so close to her family and yet so far away was becoming more than she could bear. She decided a clean break was best. She had spent the next few years looking for a cure, or at the very least, an explanation. But all her research and experimentation was to be in vain. This was beyond anyone’s expertise.
Penelope had started looking for more people like herself. Even one person would make the difference between happiness and a slow descent into madness. But after years of careful observations, she could not find anyone else who had been erased from the world. Either they didn’t exist, or they were invisible to each other and she would never find them. Honestly, with no leads to follow, she had been ready to give up looking.
Until she had stumbled upon this boy – this miracle. He was the first real breakthrough she’d had since she had started her quest for an answer. Finally, she had a conduit to the outside world, even if it was somewhat limited. Eventually, he would grow older and would be able to convey more complicated information, but for the moment she was just glad for the company.
Anne opened the door and stuck her head in the room just as Bobby began to stir from his nap. “Hello, sleepyhead. What are you going to do with the rest of your day?“ she asked.
“I’m going to play with Princess Penelope. We’re having so much fun.”
“All right, dear. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.”
“Okay, mom,” he said and waited for her to walk away. After he was satisfied that she was out of earshot he asked Penelope, “She really can’t see you, can she?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” she said.
“Then why can I see you?”
Penelope thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know, Bobby,” she said finally. “You’re special somehow.”
He smiled at that. I guess everyone wants to think they’re special somehow, she thought.
Suddenly, as if it were a great revelation, he shouted, “Let’s play a game!”
“Okay,” she said, “but keep your voice down. What do you want to play?”
“Hide and seek.”
Penelope cringed a little. “All right. If you want to, we’ll play. But you hide and I’ll go find you. When I used to play hide and seek, no one ever found me.”
“Hiding is the fun part!” said Bobby as he hopped off the bed.
No, she thought, it really isn’t. “Ninety-nine…ninety-eight. Better get moving.” Bobby took off down the hall towards one of the other bedrooms. She was glad she would have a couple of minutes to herself. She didn’t want Bobby to see her cry again.
They played games for the afternoon and Penelope read some more of the story. She even tried to teach him to play chess, but he quickly grew bored of the game. Too bad, she thought. I’ve always wanted to play.
At dinner, when Anne wasn’t looking, she ate all of Bobby’s vegetables for him. His mother was so pleased, she gave him an extra helping of dessert. They shared their private joke with knowing looks and some giggling. Penelope had told him not to talk to her directly too much when other people were around. They might think there was something wrong with him, and then he would spend all his time with doctors getting tests. They didn’t know that he was special. It was their secret.
After dinner, Penelope and Bobby sat and watched a movie in the basement playroom while Anne did the laundry and cleaned the kitchen and bathrooms. It was a movie about animated groundhogs meant for small children. Although it was cute, she quickly grew bored and found herself nodding off. She opened her eyes to find Anne about to sit on top of her. Suddenly awake, she scooted out of the way at the last second. To Bobby, the near mishap was hilarious. He laughed freely, much to the puzzlement of his mother.
Penelope was not as amused. She knew that if she were ever seriously hurt, she could never go to a doctor; there would be no help for her. She had studied enough medicine to treat minor ailments and perform first aid on herself. So far she had been lucky. However, she knew a major illness or trauma would be a death sentence. That was why she kept a bottle of sleeping pills in her purse. Just in case. It wasn’t good to dwell on such things.
Bobby’s laughter was infectious, however, and it soon lightened her heart. “One time a fat lady on the bus sat on me for nearly half an hour. I thought she would never get up. I could hardly breathe.” She pretended she was being squashed by an imaginary giant. Bobby howled with glee.
When the movie was over, Anne took Bobby for a bath. Penelope took the opportunity to look around the house. There were three bedrooms: The master, Bobby’s room, and one other which was apparently being used as a home office but doubled as a guest room. Downstairs there was the usual living room, dining room and kitchen areas. And in the basement there were the utilities and laundry, as well as the play area set aside for Bobby.
I could make this work, she thought. I could sleep on the couch here or maybe in the guest room. Anne’s a size or two bigger than me but I could borrow some of her clothes. There was plenty of food in the refrigerator. Speaking of which, she was feeling a little hungry. She had not eaten much at dinner, except for Bobby’s veggies. A little test raid was in order. She went back upstairs to the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator door, she immediately spotted one of her favorites: a slice of cold pizza. She thought to herself that this is turning out to be the best day ever.
When she closed the door, Precious was standing there growling at her. She knew animals couldn’t see her either, but their senses were more acute. The dog could tell when something was wrong. Precious would grow accustomed to her in time, but for now she was just going to upset the family with her barking. She rushed at the dog, scaring it into the next room. She immediately felt bad about doing it. Okay, she thought, new rule. Always be kind to animals.
Penelope heard the front door open and went to see what was happening. Anne had gone to meet the man at the door. She leaned in and kissed him and they started talking. Of course, it’s her husband, thought Penelope. She had seen his picture here and there around the house but hadn’t given him much thought until now. Watching them catch up on the events of the day it was obvious even to her how much they loved each other. You could see it in their eyes and the way they moved. They were two parts of one being, and Penelope had to admit that she was more than a little jealous of them. She left to go and say goodnight to Bobby.
She found him sitting in bed with the goldfish book, looking at the pictures. He was waiting for her. “Princess Penelope! Can you read the rest of the book now?”
“I will if you want me to,” she said, “but your father’s home. Maybe you should ask him to read it to you.”
Bobby’s eyes opened wide with delight as he jumped out of bed and ran towards the open door. “Daddy’s home!”
The boy’s father walked in to the bedroom and caught the boy rushing towards him. “Hi, Tiger. Did you miss me?”
“I did miss you. Are you staying home now?”
“Yes. I don’t have to be anywhere for a few weeks so I’ll be able to spend some time with my favorite little man.” He tickled the boy’s stomach and his son squealed with glee.
Anne appeared in the doorway and chided her husband, “Don’t get him all worked up. He’ll never get to sleep at this rate.”
He laid Bobby back on the bed and picked up the book that was lying there. “How about if I read you a story? Will you promise to go to bed then?”
“I want Princess Penelope to read to me. She does all the funny voices.”
A concerned look crossed the man’s face as he tucked his son into bed. “Yeah, your mom told me you had a new friend. She sounds like a lot of fun, but it’s important that you make friends your own age, too. I’ll tell you what – tomorrow we’ll go to the park and you can play with the other kids there. How does that sound?”
“Can Penelope come too?” asked Bobby.
“Maybe next time,” said his father. “I haven’t seen you for days, and I want to spend some time with you.”
“I’d like that. I missed you, Daddy.” Booby reached out and gave his father the biggest hug he could.
“And I love you, Tiger,” he said and kissed him on the top of his head. “Now, why don’t you say goodbye to…uh, Penelope, and I’ll come by and check on you later.”
“Okay. G’night Dad.”
Penelope felt awful. She had not considered the consequences of her plans to Bobby and his family. She ran through it in her head now. Bobby would become increasingly dependent and obsessive about his invisible friend. He wouldn’t be able to develop normal relationships with his peers. His parents would spend all their time worrying about their son. They would waste all their money trying to cure something which wasn’t a delusion. It would break their hearts and might even destroy their marriage.
And Penelope would have a front row seat to the breakdown. Already having lived through that horror once with her own family, she didn’t want to go through it again. She might come back later, when he was older and could understand. It was better to get out now. But not today. This was their special day and nothing would ruin it.
“Where were we?” she asked, picking up the book. “The part about the sunken treasure, I believe.” Twenty minutes later she had finished the story and turned out the bedroom light.
“I don’t care what my Dad says,” Bobby murmured. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
She was glad for the darkness that hid her tears. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, too.”
“I’m a little scared of the dark. Will you stay with me until I fall asleep?”
“Of course I’ll stay,” she said, trying to comfort him. Penelope took off her shoes and hid them under the bed with her purse so no one would accidentally see them. She crawled into bed and lay down beside Bobby. She stroked his hair and he curled up next to her. “There’s nothing to be afraid of here,” she added. “I’ll protect you. I promise.” A few minutes later they both drifted off to sleep.
When Penelope woke, it took her a moment to remember where she was. When she did, her heart sank. Their day was over and now she would have to try to get out without causing too much damage. There was one thing she needed to first, however. She found a pen, picked up the storybook, and she began to write:
“Dearest Bobby, I will treasure the time we spent together forever, and always remember – Penelope was here.”
She went downstairs to see what was happening and get a handle on how Bobby was feeling. It was later than she had thought and the family had already eaten. Through the window she could see that a light rain was falling, but it looked as though it would let up soon.
Bobby’s father was helping him with his coat and they were almost ready to leave. Penelope decided there wasn’t going to be a better time to say goodbye, so she took Bobby’s father’s keys off the hallway table and ran downstairs. After tossing them on the couch, she hurried back upstairs. When she got back, he was impatiently searching the foyer.
To Bobby she said, “Tell him you think you saw his keys downstairs.” The father cursed under his breath about not playing with keys as he stormed off to get them. “I’m sorry if I got you in any trouble with your dad. You can just blame me. I wanted a minute alone with you. I wanted to say goodbye. I have some things to do, and I won’t be here when you get back. But I promise I’ll come back and see you as soon as I can. Okay?”
“I guess so,” he answered. “Do you have to go away on business like Daddy does?”
“Something like that, yes. I’ll really miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,“ said Bobby. “Come home soon.”
Home, she thought. Now I really am going to cry. She gave him a big hug just as his father came back.
“Okay, let’s go.” He opened the door to let the boy out. Penelope stepped back but didn’t see the dog standing behind her. Suddenly jostled by an unseen force, Precious panicked and ran out the front door. Bobby went out after her, calling her name.
“I’m sorry,” cried Penelope even though no one could hear her. “I’ll get him back.” His father went after Bobby who was already headed down the sidewalk, but she was faster. Her socks were soaked from the wet ground, and Penelope instantly regretted not putting her shoes back on earlier. She had almost caught up to the boy when Precious turned and ran straight into traffic. Without realizing the danger, Bobby followed.
Penelope managed grab the boy and throw him clear just before the bus slammed into her body. Bobby’s father picked him up and pulled him away from the curb as the bus squealed and rumbled trying to stop as fast as possible. Bobby was still worried about Precious. He was unaware of what had happened, and what had almost happened to him. He called out to the dog who came bounding down the sidewalk, yapping obliviously.
“Is everyone all right?” the bus driver asked. “He just ran straight out in the street.”
“Yes, we’re fine,” said Bobby’s father. “Everyone’s accounted for.”
“Strange,” the driver said. “I could have sworn I hit something.” He walked to the front of the bus and puzzled over the dent and the crack in the window he found there.
Penelope knew nothing but pain. She was lying in the dumpster where she had landed after bouncing off of the hood of a pickup truck. She was surprised that she wasn’t dead. Every bone in her body must be broken and all her organs were crushed. Her breaths came in sharp, painful gasps, and she had lost a lot of blood. She wished she had her pills, but she had left her bag in the house. Besides, she couldn’t have moved her arm if she did have them. At least she knew she would not last much longer, not like this.
Her only consolation was that Bobby was safe and would go on to live a full life. Penelope had been given a gift in the form of that little boy. She had reached out and touched the world and it had touched her back. No one could ask for more than that.
As her mind faded into the blackness of unconsciousness, she wondered if anyone would ever find her body.