Some of them had fallen into the radioactive vats, some had been pushed and some, like Finn, had been born into them.
No one had ever really counted how many there were. By their nature it was hard to tell them apart, and one became another all too easily. But everyone knew that they were there, and everyone knew what they were.
And it wasn’t like they could turn transparent or anything. They just had this knack of becoming part of the backdrop. Finn once said it was more like natural camouflage than anything else. Sure, they bore the toxic aftermath on their flesh, but it was in the minds of the Noticeable People that the real magic happened. A dark enchantment seemed to possess them, and it erased the Invisible from the picture book of their thoughts quicker than changing channels on a TV.
His hair was dark, like anyone’s son.
It wasn’t really the vat or even the radioactivity that was the problem, it was what happened next. And that just happened bit by bit, until being visible was harder than disappearing.
His skin was still soft with youth, and he hid it away like the sun would kill him.
The strangest thing about the Invisible was that they didn’t seem to need things. Not like the Noticeable People did. They had a way of living in the world with nothing. Not even a home. Finn said that all the things he had believed about being a Human had been taken away a chunk at a time, like he was being eaten alive. And when he spoke those words, he held his hand close to his mouth, like someone would find out.
There were charities of course, ways to help them. And the Noticeable People could choose how their donations were spent, because if you were a Noticeable Person, your money still belonged to you, even after you’d given it away.
The charities had been enough for a long time, when the Invisible had been called something else, when there had only been a few of them to worry about. But now it seemed like the toxic vats were everywhere, and each day the desperate marches and overcrowded boats brought more of the Invisible to the shore of the Noticeable People. And with the numbers came an unsettling fear: The contamination of their misfortune was too threatening to be allowed to spread in a compassionate and civilised society.
Which was why the Plague Ships were built. Vast holding pens for the pestilence of walking corpses, the broken and the damned, corralled and marooned in a dry sea, confined to the places where death and despair were not afraid to do the work of good and honest men.
Finn had dragon-green eyes. Years before someone had told him that it was his eyes that had started it all, that coded in his genetic configuration had been his own radioactive vat. When he told me, I could see that they had said it like it was his fault. He slept behind the portable gas station with his arms bound around his head. You couldn’t wake him, likely he would punch you if you did. But the ones who walked with him respected that. They knew that the fading always came at a cost.
He wore a pair of grey headphones with nothing on the end of them. And it was okay because he was different. They were all different. Too damn different. Too strange, too hurt, too unwanted, too angry.
And anyway, they looked out for each other. And being raped or robbed was just part of being Invisible. And the children all played together and didn’t mind not having parents. And it wasn’t that cold at night. And a boat was always a choice. They just wanted an excuse to move here.
Sometimes Finn flinched when we were laughing and I went to touch his arm.
He always drew his cigarettes down to filter, hidden away inside his hand, like the burning didn’t matter as much as the smoke. And each time I sat with him in the alcove of his leprosy, he would look at me through his sweet spider lashes as if he was trying to figure out what I wanted from him.
Finn was 16. There was no one left alive to love him. And going home was worse than staying lost among the Invisible.
‘Being here is like coming back from somewhere else now,’ he said the last time we met. And I could see in his eyes that disappearing wasn’t just about the outside of him.