She'd heard the word from Theodore Rhodes first.
Age eleven at the time, he'd been deeply engrossed in one of his more barbaric videogames when something odd happened: an object, not one of any obvious importance or appeal, had somehow wound up in the middle of his digital path. The brawny thug under his control had inspected the object, jumped on it, punched it, and finally shot at it several times before Theodore decided that the object was just an error, a mistake. A glitch.
And Glitch fancied herself just that.
But even now, as the approximate seventeen-year-old sat at the end of the table two years later, it was clear to her still that something was indeed wrong. For although the girl should have been obvious with her brightly-colored clothing and her friendly demeanor, the people with whom she sat seemed hardly aware of her presence.
There was an odd quiet that hung over the family of five as they ate their breakfast. Mr. Rhodes had buried himself in his newspaper, but felt too unexplainably tense to take in more than the headlines. Mrs. Rhodes too felt out of sorts, and found that she'd completely lost her appetite as she frowned over her Danish pastry. Even the children, Theodore included, were in no mood for their usual quarrelling, and took the time instead to divide whole-grain letters from marshmallows as they ate in puzzled silence.
Glitch watched them, her second helping of breakfast gone. She smiled.
"If I didn't know better," she said, "I'd say you were all pouting." She collected her dishes in a pile. "Well, it won't do you any good, because I'm leaving. I've taken advantage of your hospitality long enough. Heh, unintentional as it was," she added quietly.
No one so much as blinked at the comment.
"Oh, come on, guys!" Glitch continued. "You're not usually this quiet, even with me at the table! Mr. Rhodes, tell Mrs. Rhodes what a crazy, mixed up world we live in—it’s your favorite subject!”
Mr. Rhodes gave an uneasy grunt, then shook his paper out as if to shake off his unease. He said nothing.
"And how about you, Mrs. Rhodes? You're usually so cheerful at breakfast! Can't you smile? Even a little?"
But it was no use and Glitch knew it. So she stood, taking one final look at the family she'd grown to love so well. "Play nice, kiddies," she said. And with that cleared her dishes and slipped silently through the back door.
Mrs. Rhodes started, rubbing her eyes as if just awaking from an odd dream. "Dear," she said, turning to her equally-bewildered husband, "did you say something?"
Three years later
Glitch held her breath as she made her way down the crowded boulevard. She'd made an effort to keep to the far side of the sidewalk, but somehow an endless stream of bodies still managed to bump up against her, knocking her back and forth like a pendulum. No one apologized, because no one had noticed her—a true oddity considering her unseasonable attire. As far as anyone was concerned, they'd never seen the girl at all.
But Glitch was there, much more so than she'd have liked to be. With a groan she pulled her bright red hoody more tightly around her, sweating buckets beneath it. Then she buried her exposed hands beneath folded arms. She was used to this: the heat, the crowd. But it was a small sacrifice when her education was at stake. And Glitch, despite her peculiar circumstances, had an unquenchable thirst to know everything.
She quickened her pace, breathing heavily, head down. She reached the street corner and waited.
"Are you all right?" said a voice. It was a man's, friendly and distinct above the city din. Glitch spun around. But as usual, the question had been directed at someone else; a young mother was struggling to keep three rambunctious little boys under control while carrying several large grocery bags. The speaker, a tall red-head in a university T-shirt, approached her.
"Here," he said, and removed two of the bags from her hand. Then he shifted them both into one grip and used a free hand to scoop up the smallest of the boys. "Up we go! Wheeeeeee!"
The child, upon hearing the stranger's exclamation, gave a squeal of delight as his brothers, impatient for their turns, followed closely behind. They crossed the street together.
Glitch stared after them. "Nice guy," she said. Then she hurried off towards campus.
Since that morning on the street corner, Glitch had never once seen the guy unhappy. 'Focused', maybe. 'Rushed', perhaps, but never out and out gloomy. Glitch liked that; Lars had a nice smile, broad and sincere, and it would have been a shame to waste it on someone who's default emotion wasn't 'cheerful'.
But now, seeing him slumped in the snow against the side of a building as if his world had collapsed on top of him… it was like seeing snow in the middle of summer.
"Hey, you okay?" She set down her bag and crouched down in front of him. "What happened? I've… I’ve never seen you like this before."
Lars, of course, didn't respond. He just stared right through her, his expression absent, the rims of his eyes swollen and red.
"Look… I know you can't hear me," said Glitch. "Or see me. Nobody can and I'm not sure why. But hey, I'm here." She reached out then, her coat sleeve stretched over her hand. She touched his arm.
"Gosh, I hope he's ok," said Lars. Glitch recoiled.
Lars shrugged. "He's always been a healthy guy, always exercising, watching what he eats. And he gets plenty of sleep." He choked out a laugh. "Then why?" he said weakly. "Why?"
Shoulders heaving, he caved in, his fingers twining through the thick waves of his hair as if he meant to pull it out.
Glitch closed her eyes. What she wouldn't have given for a moment, just one moment to tell Lars how sorry she was, to be able to touch his hand, to really touch it without...
"God?" Lars looked up. "Please," he said, "please don't take my dad."
Glitch was late. The funeral would be starting soon, and if she didn’t hurry, she’d miss the ceremony entirely.
Lars’s father had showed few signs of recovery since that cold, cold day in January, until it soon became clear that no hope remained. He’d passed away just a few days ago.
And now? Now Lars needed Glitch more than ever.
She picked up speed, despite the ice that covered every street and sidewalk. She had to get there on time. She just had to.
Suddenly—"EEP!" Her feet went flying out from under her. She shrieked, her arms flailing, then, before she could stop herself, she hit the ground with a nasty THUD.
But before she could check herself for injuries, she heard a cry of alarm, and realized with a gasp that she'd fallen into the path of an oncoming bicycle.
Her arms flung protectively over her face, but the bicyclist managed to skid to a halt, stopping mere inches from where Glitch lay. She peered up. A dark-haired boy with sunken cheeks and grey eyes dismounted. He was scowling in her general direction.
"Hey!" he shouted. "Watch where you're falling, will ya?"
Glitch twisted around, expecting to find another unfortunate soul behind her, but there was no one. She looked to the left, to the right. No one.
"Are you deaf?" the boy repeated. "I said watch where you're falling! What were you thinking, rushing across the ice like that? Idiot!"
Glitch took a deep, long breath. Her voice was faint, monotone. "Excuse me," she said, "Um..." She swallowed. "Are you talking to me?"
The boy laughed humorlessly. "Of course I'm talking to you. Are you stupid, or something?"
But Glitch couldn't answer. Instead she gaped at him for a long, long moment. Then she buried her face in her hands and wept.
"All right, I'm convinced." They were sitting on a bench in the subway: Mike, the grey-eyed boy, sitting at one end, Glitch on the other. "I'm the only one who can see you. You're 'invisible.'"
Glitch shrugged. "I don't think I'm invisible, exactly. I think…" She paused. "It's more like people just forget that they've seen me really, really quickly."
Mike took a long drag on a cigarette. "And this is where you woke up?"
Glitch nodded. "It's the earliest memory I have. I woke up spread out on this bench. I don't know how I got here. I don't know my name. I think I'm 20-something, but I'm not even sure of that."
"And no one can see you or hear you."
He took another drag. "So, what, am I some sort of 'Chosen One'? Do I have to free you from an evil spell?"
Glitch shrugged. "It kinda seems that way, doesn't it?"
Mike put out his cigarette on the edge of the bench. He flicked the smoking stub away. "Is this like a fairy tale? Do I have to kiss you?" He moved towards her, but Glitch scrambled to her feet.
"No," she said nervously. "Don't touch me."
"Whoa, chill!" he said, throwing his hands up. "Geez, what’s the problem?”
Glitch bit her lip. "It’ll hurt if you do," she said. "Really badly."
Mike snorted. "What, like, emotionally?"
"I wear this for a reason, you know." She tugged at the edge of her hoody. "If someone touches me, if a hand brushes mine, or even if someone's hair whips against my face, it feels like… like I'm on fire, like a someone's burning me with a white-hot iron. I know because it happened a lot the night I woke up here." She shuddered at the memory. "Never, ever touch me, Mike. Promise?"
Mike took his time looking her over. He smirked. "Alright, Glitch," he said. "If that's the way you want it."
But Glitch did not feel safe. She did not feel safe at all.
He was angry, angrier than Glitch had ever seen him before, and that was saying something. She'd thought he was asleep when she'd sneaked out a few hours ago, but he himself had been out all along, and was furious when he'd found her gone several hours later.
"Well? Where were you?" Mike slurred, gesturing towards her with an empty liquor bottle. "I didn't give you permission to leave!"
"Mike, I didn't think you'd care so much where I went." She folded her arms, her red hoody the only armor she had. "Really, I thought—"
"SHUT UP!" He hurled the bottle at her. She dodged just in time, and watched it smash against the wall behind her, excess alcohol spattering everywhere.
"Stop it, Mike!" she said, trembling. "Stop it, I'm sorry!"
"You were out with him, weren't you? That Lars kid!"
Glitch gaped. He knew. "Of course not," she said quickly. "He can't even see me."
Mike sneered, teetering dangerously as he got to his feet. "That's right," he said. "He can't see you. No one can, 'cept me! You belong to me, and when I say stay in the apartment you stay."
Glitch opened her mouth, then closed it. She frowned. "No."
Mike's brow raised. "What did you say?"
"I said 'no.' I don't belong to you. I don't belong to anyone. I can do what I please and I can go where I want." Her jaw tensed, but she kept her eyes down. "I don't need you, Mike."
Mike chuckled darkly. "Is that so?" He lunged.
Glitch turned to run, but Mike was too fast, even in the state he was in. In one swift movement he grabbed the hem of her jacket and pulled her back, kicking and screaming.
She sobbed, pleaded. He whipped her around to face him and she raked her nails across against his face, tore at his shirt. But he held fast, and her world flashed white-hot as Mike's hand gripped the back of her bare neck.
He held it there until white-hot became black.
Glitch didn't know how long Mike had held her for, but as she lay on the ground, sick and convulsing, she was certain of one thing: it had been far too long. Mike stood over her, swaying, wiping the blood from his cheek where Glitch's nails had raked across.
"You don’t need me,” he said quietly. “No one does." Glitch whimpered, holding her neck protectively. "Well then," said Mike. "I'll get out of your way."
He opened the door and stumbled through, leaving nothing but the hall light to illuminate the place where the invisible girl lay.
She was pretty sure she knew where he was headed. In her mind's eye she watched him staggering down the subway steps, down one floor, than two, back to the place where Glitch's earliest memories lay buried.
"Mike?" Glitch called into the underground. But her voice was lost in a horde of oncoming people. Burying her hands deeply into her pockets, she forced herself through the thick wall of bodies and muscled her way to the floor below.
"Mike! Where are you?" She winced as a hand brushed against her exposed wrist. "Mike!" She should be halfway to another state, she knew that. But something inside her wouldn't let her leave. She had to find Mike, make sure he didn't do anything stupid. Then she'd would find a new town, get a job, maybe, a new life. She might even find another Lars.
She turned a corner, and stopped. There he was, reeling at the edge of a platform. "MIKE!"
Glitch ran towards him, heart pounding, head pulsing. "MIKE, NO!" she cried. His limp body dropped onto the tracks below.
No one else had seen him, and she couldn't call for help because no one would hear her. With no other choice, she leapt onto the tracks below. He was right; she didn't need him. But right then he needed her.
She wrapped her arms around his waist and pulled upward. But he was heavier than he looked, and his dead weight barely budged under her desperate pull.
"Come on," she said, "come on!"
"Hey!" a voice called down to them. "What are you doing? Get out of there, now!"
Glitch froze. She knew that voice.
From the black tunnel to her right, a chilling sound echoed through the darkness: the train.
"Leave him! There's no time!" cried Lars. He was lying down, leaning over the edge, his hand outstretched. "Give me your hand!"
"You can… see me?" Another blast of the train horn reverberated out from the tunnel. Glitch rearranged herself, pushing Mike's unconscious body up from behind. It worked. "Take him!" she cried.
"No!" said Lars. "Give me your hand!"
Glitch looked up at him then, and oh how she wanted to. He could see her, hear her! And she had so many things to tell him.
"Lars," she said. A bright light rushed towards them from the darkness. "Here!" With all of her might, she thrust Mike's body upwards, up into the safety of Lars's embrace.
Then the light was upon her. She closed her eyes.
"It's good to see you again."
A familiar voice resounded within her being. She smiled.
"You too, Joe."
A deep, warm chuckle. "I told you, you're not supposed to call me that. My full name is—"
"I know, I know. Gosh, you Guardian Angels have the stuffiest names."
'Joe' shrugged. "Too true. But hey, if you're lucky, you'll be getting your own stuffy name soon—if the Guardian Council is smart enough to pass you."
The young trainee smiled. "I dunno, I thought 'Glitch' suited me fine. But I guess… that's behind me now."
The pair of old, old friends sat in comfortable silence.
"Where are we, anyway?" She looked around. "Some sort of heavenly waiting room?"
Joe shrugged. "Something like that. The Guardian Council did some remodeling while you were down there. I think it looks kinda stupid, myself." He ran a long, brown finger down the arm of his marble chair. "And these seats are so uncomfortable." His face took on a sly expression. "So, that guy. Lars, was it? What—?"
Suddenly a pair of double doors flew open. A brilliant light flooded the room as an enormous, muscular man stepped in.
"Show offs," Joe muttered. He took his friend's hand and they stood.
"The trainee may enter," boomed the glorious figure. "But you, Jeduthun, are to stay here."
Joe snorted. "Ridiculous. What for?"
The Guardian eyed his fellow angel. "You aren't appropriately dressed," he sniffed.
"What? Just cause I don't feel like runnin' around in a bathrobe."
"It is a uniform. We have no choice."
"Whatever," said Joe, but he winked at his friend. "Go get 'em, kid." Then the doors closed between them.
The trainee stood before the seven thrones of the Guardian Council, neither anxious nor eager. She kept her eyes on her feet, her mind on other things.
"Well, my dear, that was quite a performance." It was a woman who spoke. She was seated in the center throne. "I don't believe we've seen such results on one of our tests in the history of time, have we, gentlemen?"
There was a murmur of agreement from the other Council members.
"Thank you," replied the trainee. "Though it would have been nice to have remembered that I was being tested while I was down there."
"Nonsense," the woman replied. "This was a test of your true character. To be aware of your identity would have defeated its purpose entirely. But it's all over now, and here you are." She studied the trainee for a moment. "Well? Wouldn't you like to know your results?"
Silence. The trainee gaped. "What?" she gasped.
"You failed," the Head Guardian repeated. "You will not become a Guardian Angel."
The trainee laughed. Surely this was a joke. Surely. But as she looked to each Guardian Council member one by one, she found that they'd never looked so serious. And that was saying something.
"Why?" Her voice was a whisper. "I was the best guardian that guy ever had! I saved him! I died for him!"
The Head Guardian silenced her with a gesture. "I'm sorry, but the vote is unanimous. You will not be a Guardian Angel, not in this millennium."
"Because," she continued, the corner of her mouth twitching, "we have a very different reward to offer you for your efforts."
Joe beamed as his friend emerged through the double doors. "Well? How did you do?"
And with the biggest smile he'd ever seen on her face, his friend replied, "I failed."
She opened her eyes. An unpleasant brightness flooded them. She winced.
"Thank goodness!" said a voice.
"She's waking up!" said another.
Then more voices.
"Is she hurt?"
"Did someone call an ambulance?"
"She's fine, guys." Her heart fluttered inside her chest; this voice she knew too well. "Get that flashlight out of her face!" Suddenly, she was being lifted up into someone's arms. Skin touched skin. Painlessly. "Oh, and someone keep an eye on Mr. Tipsy over there."
The light gone, she opened her eyes again. "Hello," she said.
Lars smiled down at her. "Hello."
"Thank you for saving me."
"It was the least I could do. Can't count the number of times you've been there for me." He shrugged. "Just thought I'd return the favor."
She blushed. "And here I'd thought you'd never noticed."
"Noticed? Who wouldn't notice you?" He cleared his throat. "In that bright red hoody, I mean."
"You'd be surprised." But she sent a knowing glance heavenward. Some reward, she thought with a smile. It would seem someone's memory has been conveniently jogged.
Lars walked over to a bench by the wall and sat down, still holding her. They were quiet as another train roared past them.
"Hey," he said. "You're still shaking."
"Hate to break it to you, but it's you who's shaking."
"Is it?" Now Lars was blushing. "Oh. I, uh, guess you gave me quite a scare back there."
"Well," said his rescuee, "maybe I'd better hold your hand. You know, to make you feel better."
Lars beamed. He reached, then paused, his expression serious. "On one condition," he said.
"What's that?" she asked.
"That you tell me how on earth a girl like you ended up with a name like Glitch."