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I’d known something was up as I was getting closer to the school gates and saw the press of students crowded in the quad. At first, I thought something terrible had happened. A bomb scare. A shooter. But of course, it was worse than that. It was Trevor.

It was always Trevor.

As I came in through the gates, I saw what the fuss was all about. My dashing nemesis stood on the edge of the school fountain, smiling broadly as he literally looked down on the rest of the student body. His glittering smile made my stomach churn even more than usual.

He’d grown a new set of teeth.

They sparkled in the early morning light, shining white and straight and stunning in contrast to the colour of his lips and his blemish-free skin. One more perfect feature for the perfect face, perfectly balanced atop his perfect body. He was everything I hated about my school. He was everything I hated about the people that went there—students and teachers alike. 

My loathing for Trevor was the only perfect thing I had.

Louis, an acne-faced dweeb on the fast track to becoming a career nobody himself, pushed past me to join Trevor’s throng of admirers. My heart stopped for a moment as the bump jostled my backpack and I sweated the long seconds before it was clear he hadn’t felt what was inside.

I turned on Louis, intending to snarl at him, but he was long gone into the crowd. He’d left me behind without a second glance. Like always.

But not for much longer.

Thinking of what was in my backpack, I looked at the crowd with new consideration. So many of them crammed together. It could be a good opportunity.

I shook my head, clearing the thought. No. They were here to see Trevor. They were too focused on him—It would do me no good if their focus was elsewhere when it happened. They needed to immediately know it was me. For once, they needed to be focused on me.

Before it was too late.

I turned my back on the preening Trevor and fought against the press of the school tide like a salmon struggling upstream. Nobody moved aside as they flowed towards their perfect idol—it was all I could do to stay upright. It seemed like the crowd was entirely made out of elbows, and I felt purple bruises blossoming over my arms and ribs. I bruised easily, these days. There wasn’t much of me left.

I reached the stairs that led to the school’s front door and stopped to catch my breath. On impulse, I shucked the schoolbag off my back and knelt to unzip it. If they’d damaged what I had inside…

I never got to open it and check. A sudden wash of icy terror flooded through my veins, and I froze with my hands halfway to the zipper. I forced my head to turn so I could look to the top of the stairs, although it could only confirm what I already knew. I felt like a little kid again, terrified to step from my bed in the dark for fear of the monsters surely crouching underneath.

Atop the stairs was no monster, surveying the crowd from the now open doors of the school—it was Ms Pratt. She, unfortunately, was real.

She must have been a woman of exceptional beauty once, perhaps even Trevor’s equal in her youth; two decades as the school’s disciplinarian hadn’t been able to erase that from her. Instead, the students’ fear had cut her like a diamond; soft edges buffed away, hard angles reinforced. Some of my classmates reported being physically injured by her glare alone, and I believed them.

Like an ice sculpture come to life, Ms Pratt stalked down the concrete steps towards me. The clack of her needle-pointed heels scythed through the schoolyard hubbub like the sound of a nail punching through glass. I shook as she drew near and her aura became more palpable. If she saw what I had in my bag, it would be the end of me. I’d be taken, locked away until nobody thought anything about me at all. Until I ended up like. . . whatsername. That girl who faded last year. You know the one—she had brown hair, I think.

The terror intensified as Ms Pratt reached me, then walked straight past without so much as glancing my way. My heart thumped, the only reminder that I was still alive, as the crowd parted before her like wheat before the thresher. She was heading straight towards Trevor.

Because of course she was. It was always Trevor.

My mouth tasted like bile as I shouldered my unopened bag again and stood. Even squatting in front of a crowd, my hands on a bulging backpack, I was completely unnoticeable next to Trevor.

I tightened the bag’s shoulder straps with a determined thwip. Its weight cut into my shoulders.

They’d notice me after today.

* * * 

I’d never been one of the popular kids at school, but once upon a time I’d at least been somewhere in the middle of the crowd. I’d been intelligent enough to enjoy my classes, popular enough to have a few friends, and my Scottish heritage had made me handsome enough to turn a head or two. Every now and again. Well, once people got to know me.

I should have realised that was the beginning of the end. It didn’t pay to be milquetoast in a world of extremes. Being popular, like Trevor, meant you could feed off the crowd’s adulation to bolster your positive qualities like your hair, or your physique—or your teeth. Being feared, like Ms Pratt, turned you into an object of fear. Even the kids who were laughed at would find, in time, that they were good at making others laugh—and could end up turning that mockery to their advantage.

But being unnoticed, being the one unremarkable person in the room, the only person not interesting enough to elicit the opinion of others and to be formed by those opinions in turn—that was a death sentence.

I’d first noticed it on the bus. One day, the driver had simply kept going past my stop, no matter how many times I pressed the call button. I’d had to get out with the next kid—had to jump out behind them as the doors snapped shut around me. The next morning, I watched from the side of the road as the bus had sailed past my outstretched hand without slowing down at all. I’d walked to school every day since.

And it had only been getting worse. Last week, at the morning roll call, I watched as our homeroom teacher—the woman who had ticked off my attendance every day for the past four years—frowned when she got to where my name was written. She’d squinted, as though trying to read something blurry. And then she’d moved on to the name below me. My desk started to be the only one that didn’t get a copy of the handouts or test papers. And on Friday Mr Yeux, our science teacher, had smiled absently at me when I handed him my assignment on Transmorphic Social Biology—then left it on his desk, unmarked, when he’d carried the others out.

I’d wanted to scream at him to take it. I wanted to jump and rage every morning when my name wasn’t called; every afternoon when the bus failed to stop. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I’d waited too long, taken too long to notice the changes creeping up on me until they were already ingrained. I was the quiet kid. The one you didn’t notice; the one who didn’t do anything. The feedback loop was too strong. Even my hair had faded from orange to sandy grey.

I was barely even here.

* * * 

Today, I didn’t go to homeroom. I mean, what would be the point? 

Instead, I made a straight line for the toilets. I shifted the weight of my backpack as I trudged down the central hall. Now I was at school, it felt heavy with the weight of destiny.

The cubicles were empty, and I chose the one farthest from the entrance—the toilet block didn’t have a door, simply a curved section of wall, and although unloading my backpack in the stall would be awkward, it beat anyone walking in and immediately seeing what I was doing. I couldn’t afford to risk anyone seeing me yet, not until I was ready. Not until they couldn’t stop me.

I unzipped my bag and for the longest time, I just stared at the collection of glossy cylinders gleaming from the shadows.

This was going to get their attention.

I began to change into the clothes I had brought specially for this mission. I’d wrestled with the idea of simply wearing them in, but had decided it was too risky—one over-observant teacher or student noticing me coming in dressed like this, fully kitted-out, and that would have been the end of it. 

It’s not going to work. Nobody’s going to care.

I sneered at my reflection shining from the polished porcelain as I strove to banish the intrusive thought. 

‘It’s going to work,’ I muttered to myself. ‘It has to.’

Please. It doesn’t ‘have to’ anything. You’re going to fade, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. 

I grit my teeth. Over the last few weeks, the voice that had always been there at the back of my mind, questioning and mocking my every decision, had only been getting louder and crueller. Undoubtedly, the part of my psyche responsible for manifesting it was growing stronger from its own negative feedback loop.

‘I’m going to stop it. I will. I’m not a goddamn loser—if they’d all just stop paying attention to dickheads like Trevor all the damn time, then they’d see that. If they’d just look at me, they’d see that. I deserve it.’ I bundled my school clothes together and shoved them in my now-empty bag. I left it hanging on the hook behind the door as I stepped out of the cubicle and inspected myself in the wide row of mirrors above the sinks. In these new clothes, I definitely looked the part. ‘Now I’m going to make them look at me.’

You look like a twat, my inner voice scoffed.

I ignored it, and turned back to retrieve the instrument of my salvation.

I slung the shoulder strap across my torso and balanced its weight before me. It was perfect—like it had been designed for me to use. I wrapped my hands around the moulded plastic, metal and wood and smiled.

When I’d decided that I needed something to do something big—something they’d never be able to forget, something they couldn’t ignore—I’d known right away this was going to be it. It had belonged to my grandfather—a hard man, with hair even more shockingly orange than mine had once been, whose career in the police force had been at a time when society’s perception of cops had made them damn near superheroic instead of doughy. I’d wanted so badly to grow up to be him, I’d sprouted my own set of thick, scraggly sideburns at only eight years old.

When he passed, my dad had gradually packed up everything grandfather had owned and stowed it in the garage. Out of sight, out of mind—and out of influence on his son, slowly enough so as not to make an emotionally impactful scene. But I’d never forgotten what was in there. I’d never forgotten he used to own this.

You can’t even hold that right, my inner voice said with a gleeful, almost feminine lilt. Do you even know how to use it?

I felt my face going red. ‘I don’t have to do much with it,’ I said into the empty toilet block. ‘I just have to do it.’

I’d say that won’t be enough, but it doesn’t matter—we both know you’re too chickenshit to go through with it, anyway.

I looked back in the mirror and drew myself up to my full 4’9’’ height. My outfit looked good. I looked good. Important.

‘We’ll see about that,’ I said with as serious a lip-curling sneer as I could manage.

I turned to leave, but as I moved my head a strange feeling came over me. I snapped my gaze back, and for a split second I thought I saw the shadow of movement against the far wall. A shadow, or an after-image of myself leaning up against the whitewashed (and decidedly not-whitewashed) bricks beside the urinal. But when I looked again, my shadow seemed thinner, not thicker, as it stretched out from the lights above the mirrors. It was fading, just like me.

It was time to cast a bigger shadow—from the spotlight.

* * * 

Watching the entire school slowly file into the sports centre for the weekly assembly was almost intolerable, but I knew it would be worth it. I’d spent all weekend planning for this moment; I could wait another few minutes.

It was the perfect stage to send my message from. I’d spent enough time cross-legged on the floor, idly letting my mind wander as some teacher droned on about nothing I cared about, that I knew everything there was to know about the space. I knew each way in and out of the building, how many steps there were between the rows of faculty chairs and the speaker’s podium and most importantly, where Ms Pratt and her small clique of school enforcers liked to hover. 

Once the assembly was in session, I lurked by the podium’s nearest set of bifold doors, waiting for the perfect moment to burst through. Finally, I saw it—a moment’s pause after an announcement of altered tuckshop hours and it’s lacklustre applause. The Vice Principal hesitated, as though they’d been hoping for a better response and were unwilling to concede the podium until it was clear they’d been understood. An uncomfortable silence descended, and I knew the moment was mine.

I shifted the weight settled on my shoulder strap and shoved the bifold doors open with both hands. The crash as they swung around to hit the inside walls reverberated through the high-roofed stadium and my hopes soared as every single head in the room turned my way.

And stayed there.

For the first time ever, the entire school was looking at me. Me. Waiting to see what I was going to do.

You’re going to fuck it up.

I felt terror like an icy hand squeezing the breath from my lungs. I stood there, struggling for air, my feet rooted in place and yet, paradoxically, my legs felt like they could give way at any moment. I instinctively looked around for Ms Pratt, but no; she was on the other side of the assembly and her nearest crony was at least twenty meters away—I was well outside their spheres of influence. Besides, this terror was different; it wasn’t the vague, creeping sense Ms Pratt gave that something indefinable was fundamentally wrong—this was a very, very specific kind of fear. The weight of expectation on the faces before me was a literally crushing force.

You’ve already fucked it up, the little voice whispered. I imagined I could even feel its hot breath on my ear. You fucked it up because you’re a loser. They’re not even going to notice when you fade.

The fire of embarrassment and rage—ever smouldering together in the dark corners of my heart—flared into white-hot intensity and burned away my fear. I sucked a deep breath and strode towards the podium with as much dignity and purpose as I could muster. I didn’t rush—Now that I had their attention, I wanted them to get a good look at me.

I stepped up to the podium and glanced side-on at the Vice Principal, who was still standing beside it with their mouth agape and a strange expression on their face. I couldn’t tell whether they were struggling to reconcile what was happening with whatever preconceived notion they had about me, or they had suddenly and unexpectedly encountered a violent urge to poo.

I squared my shoulders and leaned forward to the microphone before the VP or anyone else in the room gained control of their senses.

‘Good morning Lamarck High!’ I crooned into the mic with the satisfaction of impending victory.

And nothing happened. My words drifted to the front row of the throng and died there. Where was the reverberating boom of the speakers? 

I looked down at the mic in panic and saw that the power light had gone out. Someone had turned it off.

‘No. No! Wait, I—’ I fumbled with the mic, nearly losing grip of what I was carrying as I reached for the power switch. I flicked it on and off, but nothing changed—the mic had been fully unplugged. ‘—I have something I need to say!’

I looked up and the icy grip returned to my chest. Some of the kids near the back had already begun to turn away, murmuring to their friends in low tones, and the rows nearest to me—the grade sevens, only a couple of months into their time at the school—looked puzzled, rather than interested in what was going on.

I stepped back from the podium, looking around wildly. At the sides of the hall, Ms Pratt and her cronies had begun moving to the front, and the expressions of the assembled teachers sitting behind me were sliding from confused, to glassy-eyed.

I was losing them—I was losing them all. I’d had their attention when I walked in, I’d had them, but the microphone had killed me—instead of leveraging their surprise, I’d only spectacularly reinforced what they’d already thought; that they shouldn’t expect anything from me.

I was out of time. All I had left was my last big play.

I took a deep breath and held the instrument of my salvation before me in a sure, double-handed grip. I stepped aside from the podium and faced the student body, all clustered together and unable to escape—not quickly enough, at least. 

My knuckles whitened as I clenched my jaw around the mouthpiece and started to blow.

* * *

Grandfather’s bagpipes didn’t make any sound as I struggled to inflate the bag. I could feel my face going red—not only from trying to force a lungful of air through the stupidly small pipe but also from the visual I knew I was presenting to the crowd. The tartan, sporran and balmoral that had seemed to reflect their previous owner’s proud nationalistic bearing when I’d put them on now seemed to burn where they touched my skin. As if the very clothing itself was ashamed to be a part of this debasement. 

Oh my God, did you even practice with those things?

I blinked back tears as I blew fruitlessly into the bag. I hadn’t practised with the bagpipes at all, of course—my parents would certainly have heard, and even though they’d been forgetting to set my place at dinner or load me a plate of food for the past week, they’d definitely have noticed if grandfather’s pipes started spontaneously playing themselves.

But. . . my inner voice should have known that already, shouldn’t it?

I released my aching lips from the mouthpiece and looked around the room with soul-crushing certainty. Sure enough, nobody was looking directly at me anymore. 

Nobody cared. I hadn’t even managed to fail in a way they found funny.

The room around me spun as dread gripped my stomach and dropped it through the floor. I staggered, aware that something indefinable had changed. Only seconds ago, every eye in the room had been focused on me but now it was like nothing had happened at all. They weren’t looking at me, and they weren’t even looking bothered by the interruption.

They looked like they didn’t even remember it happening.

‘Sorry for the. . . technical difficulties,’ the Vice Principal’s voice boomed throughout the stadium. I whirled and saw that somehow she’d got the microphone at the podium working again. She had the same look of puzzlement that my biology teacher had worn the other day before he’d left my assignment behind—the vague look of someone who knew something had happened, but couldn’t quite put their finger on what.

‘But now we’re up and running again, it’s my pleasure to introduce—well, he needs no introduction, does he? It’s my pleasure to hand over proceedings to your newest school Captain, Trevor Lebard!’

The assembled students erupted into applause as, from the end of the teacher’s row in a seat I hadn’t even noticed was there, Trevor stood and waved before moving forward to the mic.

‘No,’ I breathed, barely audible. 

The Vice Principal shook Trevor’s hand and stepped back in my direction. She passed so close to me that the wispy outriders of her hair brushed my cheek, but she didn’t see me at all. She’d walked by me in my ridiculous getup, carrying this ridiculous collection of tubes and fabric, and she hadn’t even blinked.

I’d missed my chance—everyone’s attention was focused on Trevor. Again.

I took a half-step forward as Trevor started rambling on about how gracious he was to accept his new position. Perhaps I could have knocked him aside, or punched him out, or done something, anything that would have centred the spotlight back on me. I could shout into the mic while it was still working, let everyone know that I was here, that I existed, that I mattered.

I could have done that. It might have saved me.

But I couldn’t, no more than I could have insisted the bus stopped for me or my homeroom teacher marked off my name. I was the quiet kid, the one nobody ever noticed, and the feedback of that opinion coming from the entire school in front of me was too much for me to fight against.

Trevor was important, and I wasn’t. I wasn’t the type of kid who was capable of making the grand gesture. I wasn’t the type of kid who could knock the most popular kid in school off his perch.

I was nobody, and I’d finally faded into absolute insignificance.

I’d finally faded.

The exhaustion of weeks worth of stress and fear crested and hit me all at once. I felt like I should cry, or sink to my knees or something, but I just felt. . . numb. I didn’t have the energy to feel what was happening. I was just too tired.

I turned to walk off the stage, leaving my failure behind me, but I stopped in my tracks after I took the first step.

There, not five meters in front of me, was a girl. 

She was utterly bland in every way—but also vaguely familiar. At first, my eye almost seemed to slip away from her as I looked, unwilling to rest on her, but I realised something that snapped her into sharp focus.

Out of all the people in the room, she was the only one looking directly at me.

‘Hey there, loser,’ she said in the voice I’d heard echoing around my head for the past few weeks. ‘Welcome to the fade.’

* * * 

‘No.’

I backed away from the stranger, shaking my head as though I could dislodge this nightmare from it; as though we weren’t standing on a stage in front of a thousand people and having a private conversation. She grinned.

‘What’s the matter? Still think you just deserve more, do you?’

I felt lightheaded. Everything was moving too fast, and I was still emotionally exhausted from the sheer scale of my failure only moments ago.

‘This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening,’ I muttered. Only a metre or so away, Trevor pulled a set of speech cards from the front pocket of his crisply-pressed blazer and began to read from them with easy confidence.

‘I dunno, man, seems right on track to me.’ the girl said. ‘Shadowing you for the last few weeks has been a snorefest—I’d forgotten how pathetically dull you were.’

I wrenched the shoulder strap of my grandfather’s instrument off and threw the useless pipes to the side of the stage. They clattered into a sad, wheezing heap as I began to pace in circles, my hands gathering the hair around my temples.

Sure, now they made noise.

‘It was you,’ I accused her. ‘You’re the voice I’ve been hearing. It wasn’t some manifestation of the societal feedback loop, it was you the whole time.’ I stopped my pacing as memories of the past week resurfaced like bubbles in sewage. ‘I heard you on the toilet. In the shower!’

The girl sighed and raised an eyebrow. ‘Yet more evidence you’re thoroughly mediocre in every way.’ Heat flushed my cheeks, and I suddenly felt so small I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d lost a centimetre or two in overall height right at that moment.

She chuckled. ‘Oh, grow up.’ Her gaze shifted over my shoulder, to Trevor. ‘I wasn’t wasting my time shadowing you just so I could cop a perv. Trust me. It’s harder than you’d think to maneuver someone into a successful fade—I wasn’t going to let you bugger up a year’s worth of planning at the last minute.’ She wandered over to where the pipes had fallen. Around us, the air reverberated with cheers as the slackjawed crowd ate up something that Trevor was dishing up for them—I hadn’t been listening to him.

‘There’re worse things in life than being a fade, trust me,’ the girl said as the noise faded. ‘You’re far from dead, and I’ve got a much better proposition for you than just being known as the dipshit who burst into school assembly and played the bagpipes that one time.’ She prodded at the pipes with her toe. 

‘What were you even thinking this would get you, by the way? Were you going to start wearing the kilt every day, get yourself branded as ‘the Scottish kid’?’ She looked up when I didn’t answer, and my expression must have told her everything. ‘Oh man, way to shoot for the moon, kid.’

‘Better than nothing,’ I said. ‘Better than being nobody at all.’ 

She grinned.

‘See, that’s where you’re wrong. Being a nobody is goddamn brilliant—I mean, look at this guy.’ She walked to the opposite side of Trevor, who was still speaking from the podium. He glowed at his enraptured audience, completely unaware that the two of us were flanking him as he gave his grand victory speech.

In fact, he actually glowed, I realised as I looked at him. Something in his perfect skin was effervescing, bathing him in a radiant light all of his own. God, I hadn’t thought it was possible for me to hate him more.

‘I mean, this guy’s the shit, right?’ the girl said, gesturing to Trevor. ‘Most popular kid in school, on the fast track for a career in politics, or in the movies, or—well, pretty much anything he wants. Whatever he decides he’s going to be good at, he’s going to get the support he needs to be good at it, because nobody’s going to think for a second that he’s anything less.’ She caught my eye, and I saw a glint of malicious enjoyment shining from within. ‘But you ever stop to think about the problem that comes with that? I mean, everyone’s always watching this guy, and he’s set himself up as perfect. Anything less than always perfect all the time and, well—the whole thing comes crashing down, doesn’t it?’ She reached forward and, without fear or shame, plucked one of the speech cards from his hands.

‘What are you doing?’ I hissed, looking around us and, for the first time since I’d faded, being keenly aware of the fact that we were standing right in front of the entire school and academic faculty. They still didn’t seem to be noticing us at all, though—neither visually, nor if our voices were carrying through the mic. 

The girl pulled a pen out of her jacket pocket and, with her tongue sticking partly from the side of her mouth, carefully rewrote a section of the card before placing it back into Trevor’s unnoticing hands. 

‘Editing,’ she answered with an evil smile.

Trevor charged on with his speech, oblivious, and looked down to check his notes. His brow furrowed for a moment as he saw the changes that the girl had made. 

‘Here we go,’ she said with a grin.

‘The important thing,’ Trevor continued, ‘the. . . most important thing, of course, is. . . no. No, hang on—’ he looked up from his cue cards, wild-eyed, and gave a disarming chuckle for the audience. ‘Seems I, aha, got my notes a little out of order. Excuse me. The important thing to remember, though, is—’

He set his note cards aside, apparently able to continue along without them. Of course, he would be, I thought bitterly. That perfect memory of his. 

The girl gestured me over, and I stepped forward so I could see what she had written on the cue card, now resting atop the stack. Her red-lined cursive was easy to set apart from the neat, almost machine-perfect blue-ink print of Trevor’s hand.

Be a shame if Lauren found out about Michelle, wouldn’t it, fartypants?

‘Fartypants?’ I asked the girl with a raised eyebrow. Whatever I’d expected to see she’d written on the card, I hadn’t expected it to include something so juvenile.

She shrugged, and pulled a small tub of toy slime out of another jacket pocket. ‘You’d be surprised how well the small stuff works at changing people’s perceptions—much better than the grand gesture, in the long run. Like the time in grade four when a certain little boy farted loudly enough in class that everyone turned and laughed, and he was properly noticed for the very first time. He learned to use that attention better, but I’d be surprised if he’s ever really got over the memory of that moment of shame. . .’ She grinned as she leaned up to the mic and slowly dug two fingers into the side of the slime container.

The wave of stiffening bodies throughout the auditorium made it abundantly clear that although they could neither see nor hear us, they all heard the thblblblblblblblblpppt

The sound hung in the air as a complete silence settled over the thousand people in the room. Then, the entire space erupted with the roar of their combined laughter.

‘No! Wait, that wasn’t me! I didn’t—’ Trevor wailed frantically into the mic, but the girl had already flicked it off again, leaving his desperate pleas unheeded. She caught my eye and nodded her head towards the back doors, then started to walk that way.

I lingered for a moment, caught by the power of what was happening to Trevor. Having spent the past few weeks dwelling almost solely on the fragility of my position, I could see just how subtly this had destroyed him. By themselves, neither the note or the noise would have been enough to do Trevor any lasting damage—with the level of public opinion he had, either could have been laughed away without making a real dent in people’s perceptions of him. But stumbling over his words like that had introduced just enough doubt of his perfection in the audience’s minds that when the fart came along, it wriggled right through that chink and blew his armour wide open. With a red pen and a tub of dollar-store slime, this nobody had ruined Trevor in a single moment of almost off-handed simplicity.

I left as Ms Pratt escorted the still-shouting Trevor off the stage. I couldn’t help noticing how greasy his normally buoyant hair was looking as they passed me by. The sheen of sweat over his face was the only thing about him that glowed now.

‘So what the hell was that all about?’ I asked the mysterious girl as I left the hall. She was leaning against the wall while she waited for me, her hands thrust into her jacket pockets.

‘That was a demonstration—or you could consider it a signing bonus, if you like. I know how much you hated that prick.’

‘A signing bonus?’

‘C’mon, you’re dull but you’re not stupid. You know there’s a reason I was hanging around with your boring arse while you went through all this.’

‘While you put me through all this, you mean,’ I corrected her. She ignored the accusation.

‘There’s a group of us,’ she said, looking nonchalantly at her boots while she talked. I wondered if she was deliberately trying to look cool. ‘People like you, people like me. The kind of people nobody even sees any more, because we spent our whole lives being told we were uninteresting. Nothing special. Nobodies.’

My mind started to whir as I considered the obvious implications of how that related to what I’d just seen. Come to think of it, even though I could feel myself still recovering from the shock and emotional brutality of the past few minutes, I could feel myself thinking clearer than I had in. . . God, years. It was like, in the moment when I’d faded, all the worry and concern over how I was going to be perceived had lifted from me. I hadn’t realised until now what a weight that had been.

‘So now you, what—run around screwing with people?’

‘People, governments, religions, where do you want to start?’ She asked. She laughed at my expression. ‘Mostly it’s not that grandiose. I mean, you’re still the same guy that couldn’t pluck up the courage to blow into a bag of wind when you needed to; you’re not going to be so different when you’re standing in front of a set of nuclear codes and looking at the big red button.’

‘So what’s the point, then?’ I asked, bristling. ‘What was the point of doing this to me in the first place?’

‘Look, after the last couple of years you had, you were on the way out one way or another,’ the girl said, ‘I just gave you a push to make sure it was in the right direction. I dunno, call it a lingering human empathy if you like.’

‘Hang on,’ I said, connecting some dots that had been bothering the back of my brain since the girl had revealed herself on the stage. ‘You can’t have been following me for more than a couple of months at best, and there’s no way you could have known that story about Trevor unless—you’re her, aren’t you? You’re. . . oh, c’mon,’ I snapped my fingers as I struggled to recall the name. ‘That. . . the girl who faded last year. Um. . .’

Something dangerous flashed in her eyes. ‘Good. You’re not as dumb as you look,’ she snarled as she pushed herself off the wall with her shoulders. She turned her body to face mine, and I could somehow sense that those hidden hands were gripping something a whole lot deadlier than a pen and a children’s toy. ‘If you’re real smart, you’ll keep forgetting that name, along with anything you might have known about the person that used to use it. You can call me Shadow, and that’s all you need to know about me, understand?’

‘All right. . . Shadow,’ I said. ‘What’s next, then?’

‘Next, you come with me and I start showing you the ropes. We’re going to be stuck together for a while, so get used to it—I could take you back, introduce you to the others, but trust me when I say you don’t want to be this green when I do. Not all of them like the idea of competition in our little clique.’

I filed that tidbit of information away at the back of my mind, right alongside Shadow’s determination I shouldn’t remember anything about her. We started walking back down the hall, past the toilets where I’d so hopefully got changed such a little while ago. 

Everything had changed, all right—and though it perhaps wasn’t the way I’d hoped for I had to admit that I was feeling more alive than I ever remembered being.

‘How did this even start? How did you guys even find each other?’ I asked her.

‘You’ll find out. Now come on, I’ve got another job I’m already a couple days late for. I thought you were going to fade out when you handed in that damn essay on socially transmorphic biology—have I mentioned what a pain in the arse you’ve been already?’

The mention of Mr Yeux and the science lab tickled something at the back of my newly reinvigorated brain. ‘Wait a minute,’ I said as we neared the exit. ‘Before we go, there’s something I want to get.’

I bolted back down the hall before Shadow could protest, and ducked into the science room. Sure enough, the essay I’d submitted at the end of last week was still sitting there on the edge of the desk.

When Shadow reached the door behind me, she scoffed when she saw me carefully and gently sliding it into a plastic pocket.

‘Really? You’re going to leave the bagpipes—your clothes, but you’re going to bring your stupid essay?’

‘I worked really hard on this,’ I said in my defence. ‘Besides, it’s a lot easier to carry around than a set of pipes.’ I rolled the plastic pocket into a tube and gestured towards the doors with it. ‘So where are we headed, anyway? You going to solve this next job with a tub of slime, too?’

‘I doubt it,’ Shadow said as I followed her out of the classroom and back through the front doors of the school. She explained further as we descended the front steps, leaving the school behind us for good.

‘He calls himself ‘The Reaper’. I know, right?’ she said as she pulled a face to match my own. ‘A serial killer, thinks he’s hot shit. Nobody was able to find him for so long that he’s built up one hell of a narrative around himself; turned into a real bogeyman. His last few kills, he didn’t need to do anything but look at his victims and their skin started peeling off.’

‘Shit, seriously? What the fuck are we going to do, tie his shoelaces together?’

Shadow smiled. ‘Something like that,’ she said. She walked us over to a sleek model of some sports car I couldn’t name and opened the door to let me in. She rolled her eyes as I stood there, dumbfounded.

‘What? You thought we were going to take the bus? We’re invisible.’

I stepped past her and settled into the passenger seat, carefully placing my plastic pocket on the floor at my feet—copies of the last two year’s school magazines that I’d sneakily picked off the classroom’s bookshelf and hidden behind the cover page of my essay before Shadow had caught up to me. Complete with class photos, student names, and the perennial ‘best of/worst of’ lists that the student council delighted in printing with them every year, it was the perfect resource for learning a little more about this mysterious Fade who had apparently assumed control over my life.

‘All right,’ I said to her as she settled into the driver’s seat beside me and gunned the engine. ‘Let’s go be nobodies.’

Thanks for reading! If you want even more short fiction that has the power to change you, you can find it in the 2019 Terry Talks Fiction anthology, Tales of Sorcery and Silicone, available on Amazon or to read free through Kindle Unlimited.