Before his fourth summer is hot enough for swimming, Julian starts disappearing.
When his mother first calls his father saying she can see through part of Julian’s forearm, he doesn’t understand.
“What do you mean? Did he cut himself? He broke his arm and bone is poking through his skin?”
After she explains that Julian is uninjured, merely slightly invisible, he grows angry, suspecting a ploy to allow his ex-wife an extra day with the boy. When he arrives to pick the child up, however, he sees that Julian’s physical form is, indeed, gradually fading.
“Well, what are you going to do about it?” he demands.
“I don’t know,” she replies tersely.
“Do you have any ideas?”
He has none.
Julian behaves normally, even when his torso grows so not-there that he can barely wear his favorite t-shirt. The screen-printed robots sag and slide around over the place where his shoulders had been, but he stands on kitchen chairs and snatches snickerdoodles from the cookie jar all the same. He demands visits to the playground right up until he is a fading voice, a vague form within the tented fabric of his clothing, and a shadow.
“I feel like I’m losing you,” his mother whispers over breakfast one steaming August day. A tear slips past her nose and lands in Julian’s half-eaten bowl of cocoa puffs as she smooths the ghost of his hair. Julian giggles and runs into the living room to play with blocks. The next day, it takes her fifteen minutes to find him inside her cramped apartment. She weeps outright, but by the end of the week, locating him by sound, not sight, feels almost normal.
His father never quite grows used to it. On his days with Julian, he tries any trick he can think of to visualize his son, to cement his physicality. For a time, he uses a backpack with an attached leash, but after Julian’s back goes missing, he can’t keep it on the boy. Next, he tries throwing paint across him to make the translucent easier to see and the opaque more clearly defined. Before long, most of the paint simply passes right through him. After a failed system of lights and bells rigged to a nine-volt battery singes the vague suggestion of Julian’s right leg, he refuses to visit his father again. Nobody can grab hold of him or, for that matter, reliably get him into a car, so the threatened calls to various lawyers are never made. His father simply lets him go.
Weeks pass when Julian’s mother cannot see her son, but she knows he’s there. The rise and fall of his blanket at bedtime, the rapid diminishment of a small bowl of popcorn during the blue flicker of Finding Nemo, and the warmth of a delicate but sweaty hand pushing into hers at the grocery store bespeak his presence. The sound of plastic hooves galloping across the kitchen tile or a smiling rubber duck bobbing placidly in a bathtub of water she did not fill tells her not to give up on her son. She forgets about preschool, takes a sabbatical from work, and often runs through the park apparently alone but laughing, laughing.
Betty Scott lives by O’Hare International airport with one bird and two people. Her writing has recently appeared in Slipstream and is forthcoming in The Wax Paper.