Her hands give me the first hint something’s wrong. As she pulls up to my drive-thru window, her knuckles are white where she grips the steering wheel. She offers a fistful of singles and coins, exact change for the meager order.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I say, divvying the money into the till as I keep an eye on her.
“Can we please have some extra napkins?” she asks. “We’re eating in the car.”
“Sure thing. Road trip?”
While I print out her receipt, she turns without releasing her death grip on the wheel. In the backseat, a four or five-year-old sits strapped into a car seat, dressed in tiger-stripe pajamas. He looks just like her.
“Hey, little one,” his mother says softly. She acts as if she’s looking at him, but her head turns slightly from side to side, letting her scan the road behind them. And that’s when I know: she’s one of the invisible ones. An outline, a shadow walking the earth, substance unshared with most eyes.
My skin prickles with memory. I rub my arm, soothing the bumps under my fingertips.
“You hungry, buddy?” the woman asks her son with forced cheer. “How about a burger?”
He doesn’t answer. He’s invisible, too, and I think he knows it, even at his young age.
Now that I know she’s one of them, I scan for other signs. They’re easy to find. Discarded takeout containers and paper bags litter the passenger floorboard. A rumpled state map spreads across the front seat. Behind it lurks a map of the whole country, its edges clearly worn. A lumpy duffle bag squashes between seats. The boy in the back clutches only a well-worn tiger plushie. There’s no sign of a cellphone in the car.
As I pass her the receipt, her sleeve falls down her arm. An elastic bandage wraps her wrist, but I spot the purple bruising glaring out beneath its edges. She catches me staring and yanks her arm back into the car. I pretend not to notice. That’s one trouble with invisible ones. Sometimes they prefer to be invisible.
So I smile and say, “I’ll have your order in just a moment,” and shut the drive-thru window. While I prepare her bag with its extra napkins, she stares straight ahead, watching traffic on the main street past the restaurant. Every few seconds her head turns, twitching to check the side and rear mirrors.
Even when you’re invisible, there are eyes you fear.
Again my skin prickles, and again I rub it, an insistence that memories don’t hurt.
I slide the window open and lean out with the bag in one hand. “Careful,” I say. “It’s heavy.”
Frowning, she takes the paper sack and draws it into her lap. After a glance inside, she says, “I didn’t order all this.”
“It’s yours,” I say. The extra six sandwiches should keep them for a day or two, and the twenty-dollar bill can buy them most of a tank of gas.
Suspicion creases her brow. “Thank you.” She peers at me through the window. It’s a true look, not the absentminded glances I receive from customers most of the day. Her eyes widen. She stiffens.
I fight the instinctive desire to hide, to yank myself out of view. Instead I prop my arm on the windowsill where she can see it clearly.
Her gaze traces the scars slashing my skin, thick lines crossing every which way. There are so many scars, my arm barely shows beneath them. I haven’t added new ones in years, but after this number of cuts, the scars are part of my whole.
The skin prickles, but I let her look.
She turns her careful gaze to my face.
“Thank you,” she repeats in a whisper, and drives away.
I watch her go, silently speeding her journey with the implicit words I hadn’t realized I still needed to hear myself.
I see you.
I see you.
I see you.