This is the Thirteenth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them unfamiliar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 13 Title — The Invisible Man. — was chosen by me (with prodding from someone). This is the last round of the Title Challenge (new stuff for the next challenge).
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Gary’s submission.
Here’s the blurb for this story:
A man can lose his soul in the madness of war. But can he regain it with a single act of pure selfishness? Follow Ray and Kaylee as they ask the greatest question of all time—”Why?”
The Invisible Man
Copyright 2023 — R. G. Broxson
(3,500 words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“Follow me,” the Superintendent stepped out of his Range Rover and waved the ravenous pack of awaiting reporters up and down the undulating streets of San Francisco. “He was my hire, back in 2020 when I was elected top teacher for the district,” he said, flashing his good side to the cameras. Like desperate cellular salesmen, the journalists thrusted Apples and Androids of every G toward the hustling superintendent.
A college football standout turned coach, Superintendent Williams deftly high-stepped over the knobby, needle-blotched knees of a junkie as he guided the gab of journalists toward the School Annex Board, pejoratively referred to as ‘scab’ due to its location near Candle Stick Point, known as tent city for the vagrants and junkies.
“Shit!” a reporter reported as he hop-scotched on the sidewalk to scrape human feces from the sole of his Air Force Ones. He swiped the bulk of it with a brown wad of Kleenex but his ensuing steps made one imagine chocolate fingerprints on the sidewalk left by a careless giant that had eaten a Hershey bar.
“Gotcha, you zipper-head.” A ravaged man with teeth like burned matches wearing ragged fatigues railed at the journalist hopping on one foot. The press pressed on minus the minefield casualty, (no honor among journalists) secretly happy to winnow out the chaff and gain the advantage. This was a big story and it could be a career-maker for the reporter that got the scoop.
Superintendent Williams waved his badge over the electronic eye at the entrance and it clicked. He swung open the door and the reporters trailed behind him without benefit of badges. Two secure doors later, they convened in a large conference room. A cumbersome woman with formidable, frosted hair sidled up to whisper something into Superintendent Williams’ ear. He carefully leaned into her cotton candy hair. Williams’ face fell from curious to cross.
Superintendent Williams, ever-mindful of his audience, slapped on a sham smile; it fit falsely across his granite face. “Ahem,” the superintendent cleared his throat. Reporters lifted their blinking phones like offerings to the gods. “Seems our hero will not be joining us here today at the School Annex Board.” Journalists erupted, shouting questions into their devices and at the man in the navy blue suit.
“Who is he?” one probed.
“What does he have to do with the shooting?” another echoed.
“How many children were killed or injured,” a woman shrilled.
“When did all this occur? Do we have a timeline?” a historian chronicled.
“Exactly where did the failed shooting take place and who was at fault?” a man in a bow tie asked.
The superintendent looked around the room as if searching for that one person, that one question that must be asked for the sake of every man, woman, and child.
“Why?” A tiny, but powerful voice piped.
“You, young lady, are coming with me.” The Superintendent nodded to his security team and they escorted the girl to his awaiting Range Rover.
The superintendent, trailed by the entourage of reporters and photographers, arrived at Ralph Ellison High School fifteen minutes later. Superintendent Williams escorted little Miss Kaylee Walters, reporter for the Warrior’s Way newsletter, into the building and offered her a seat in the principal’s conference room. Kaylee sat quiet with a yellow legal pad, ready to dictate.
Superintendent Williams gestured to the principal, who turned as if sneezing, and spoke quietly into a walkie-talkie.
A crackled voice replied: “On my way, had some cleaning up to do.”
They waited. Electricity filled the room, but the superintendent, the principal, and the girl reporter remained silent, staring blankly up at the framed photos of stellar standouts that had earned student-of-the month honors for August, September, and October. It was February and several frames were empty.
Just as the principal was reaching for her walkie-talkie to check status when they all heard wheel of a cart squawking up the hallway like a hungry gull. The wobbly wheel stopped abruptly at the conference room door where there was a knock. Three bold blows.
There was a click and turn of the knob as the door opened. “Never mind. I’ve got a key,” the old man said, as he walked in snapping a large D-ring of jangling keys back to his belt.
“Yes,” Superintendent Williams smiled. “We have placed great trust in you.”
“Me?” the man looked at Williams incredulously. “Do you know me?”
The superintendent laughed and stepped toward the janitor. “I do now,” he said, rising and shaking the janitor’s hand vigorously.
“Which one are you?” the janitor asked. The handshaking was now more of an awkward hand holding between two men.
“’Scuze me?” the superintendent replied.
“You supes come and go, but nothing new ever seems to happen in between, so I stopped remembering names after the last few fellas.”
“Williams. I’m Superintendent Michael J. Williams.” He smiled big. “At your disposal.”
“Disposal—funny you used that word,” he shook his head.
“I’m Ray Ebbing, pleased to meet you. I’m your janitor, at your disposal,” he chuckled softly.
“Your PAGE representative said that you didn’t want to talk to the press…or to any, how did you put it?” He glanced at the text on his cell. “Any ego-holes from HQ.” The superintendent grinned at this urban gibe.
“I get it. I was a teacher once. You want to tell your story to the people that you are more comfortable with.” Superintendent Williams motioned toward the end of the table where a young girl with dyed-purple hair sat with wide brown eyes. “Your rep said you would only talk to the person with the right W. She cut through all the who’s, what’s, where’s, when’s, and asked the question you deemed most important…the big Why?”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” the janitor bent and shook the small hand of the girl. “You asked the right question, just not in the right order.” He sat in a black leather chair around the conference table. “You see, before one can fathom the grand Why in any given situation, one must first contemplate the forces that have led to this grand fatal finale.” He let that marinate for a moment.
“But you did ask the right question, darling. And now I’ve got one for you.” She looked at up at the man.
“Can you see me?”
Kaylee scribbled and scratched every word down in her legal pad, glancing up only to see if the man pronouncing the peculiar words was serious about his convictions and not just patronizing like some of her teachers.
“Yes, dear, my mirror informs me that I’m invisible.”
“Yes, Mr. Ebbing. I can see you clearly.”
He smiled and shook his head.
So,” she studied her notes, “what were the forces that led up to this grand fatal finale?” Kaylee continued.
“I’m so happy you asked, and even happier to oblige your keen sense of curiosity. I hope you can write fast.”
Kaylee knotted her fingers around the Ticonderoga pencil in anticipation.
“I. Raymond T. Ebbing, was born in an era of inequity. Separate but equal schools were separate but not equal; those were just lies that white politicians told to white constituents. We all knew the truth. But I had white friends that let me read their books, and I eventually bridged my own gap when it came to learning.
Good jobs were white-first, and we got the left-overs. But winds of change were on the horizon. Martin, Malcolm, Mohamed Ali, to name a few; all fought the righteous fight for equity and opportunity in their own unique way.”
Kaylee nodded as she wrote; Black History month at school had acquainted her with these cultural catalysts, the black icons; the patrons of white guilt.
“If you don’t mind me noting for the record, Mr. Ebbing…” Kaylee looked up from her notes. “You are white, Caucasian, red-hair, blue-eyed. How is it that you are so…” she searched for the right word, “concerned…with the plight of the black man in the 60’s?”
“Still red?” he ran his fingers through his hair. “Another great question, my dear. Your powers of observation are noted. I am white…and apparently still ginger, for the record.” The old man stood, pulled up the sleeves of his overalls, and turned his hands over and touched the white skin on his wrists. White meat,” he laughed. “It’s was one thing to be white in the post-Great Depression; it was another to be black, but I was born to be just poor white trash.”
He smiled again. “And you can call me Ray.”
“Ray,” she strained. Then, “Mr. Ray,” she blushed and continued.
“I’ve got to meet your folks someday,” Ray laughed. “You are a rare gem, indeed; so, so respectful.”
“Flattery won’t get you off the hook,” the reporter warned. Kaylee resumed her composure and asked: “Sir, just how old are you; if you don’t mind me asking?”
“M’Lady, I was born in the year Japan brought us into the Great War.”
Kaylee thought for just one second. “1941,” she shouted, like a game show contestant.
“Nnnnnnnnn,” Ray buzzered. “You are right and wrong on this one. Yes, FDR convinced Congress to declare war after that dastardly day of Infamy, but logistically, it was the next year, 1942, that America stopped pouting and finally awakened, like a sleeping giant, to a world of tyranny and tragedy, and transformed herself into the greatest godawful engine of warfare this world has ever seen.” He smiled. “So, that makes me…”
“Eighty-one,” Kaylee shouted again.
Ray clapped his liver-spotted hands. “Yes, details matter.”
“Can we fast-forward to the day of the, you know, the incident? Kaylee asked.
“Okay,” Ray nodded. “But I think you are missing the point.”
“So, what happened today; 30 January, at Ralph Ellison High School?”
Ray sighed. “You know what happened, Miss Kaylee; everyone knows what happened. It seems to happen almost every day. The damn thing is streaming as we speak. You just need to ask that question that got you here.”
“I’ll tell you why. Let’s get in that time machine and go back to a day in the jungle, in a place American tourists now vacation in luxury hotels on China Beach, a place where we Band of Brothers once bled red on those white sands; a place we called Nam.
I got my draft card in ’66. Things were heating up overseas then and nobody wanted to ask that big question, the Why? It was all about body counts, Communists, dominos, and who was really winning. The scores ticked across our TV screens every night like a goddamned football game; pardon my French. But these numbers weren’t touchdowns and field goals; flag-draped coffins and rice paddy ditches tallied the day’s winners and losers. And believe me, we were all losers.”
Kaylee wrote down every word. Her phone chirped, as did all the phones in the room.
Superintendent Williams glanced at his device and said, “They are about to post the video.” He pointed to the fisheye cameras pocked in strategic corners, the Big Brother we were all warned about.
Ray seemed to shrink and fade a bit as everyone turned from him and focused on the small screens of their phones. They clicked and watched and moaned and groaned all in chorus.
“I’m sorry,” Kaylee touched his knee and held up her phone. “They just showed it all. It’s breaking news.”
Ray took her hand. He gently removed the phone from her grasp. “What happened is not important. I’m afraid it’s downright routine. Let me finish telling you the Why. I don’t have all day.”
Kaylee pulled back and noticed a small red spot on her fingers where she had touched the man. She looked into his face.
“I have an appointment,” he murmured. “Things to do; places to go.”
Kaylee gathered herself. “So, Why did Justin August Hoffman decide to come to school today and kill his classmates? Why?” Kaylee asked. “It seems so senseless.”
“Because he was invisible. And when a person is invisible, nothing matters. And,” he looked around the room, “a person would do almost anything to become relevant, to become real.”
The principal, the superintendent, and the security team all just looked at their hands.
“Kaylee, be honest, did you know anything about this kid, Justin, before today?”
She looked up from her legal pad, “No. Yes. I mean, we go to the same school together, but we didn’t hang out or anything.”
“Would you be surprised to know that he wanted to ask you out to the Junior Prom?”
“What? How would you know that?” she blushed.
“I find a lot of things in the trash. Things people dispose of, perhaps believing they are gone and forgotten, dropped into the foretold memory hole. But it’s all pieces to the puzzle to the observant eye. Most school shooters leave a paper trail, not because they are stupid, it’s because they want to be seen and they want to be stopped.”
“Are you saying that Justin, the school shooter, was asking for help?”
“I’m saying, the boy was showing all the signs of a dangerously disturbed killer and no one said a word.”
“Are you an expert in this sort of thing?” Kaylee asked. “We have trained teachers, school counselors, and psychiatrists that didn’t pick up on this. Do you know something they don’t?” she challenged.
Ray reached into a hidden pocket of his bib overalls. He unfolded a tiny slip of paper and handed it to Kaylee.
She read it to the room. “Your hair is winter fire, January embers, My heart burns there, too.”
They all looked at each other like a circular firing squad, all out of ammo.
“I know this piece,” Kaylee whispered. Ray smiled.
“Yes, I knew you would. He wrote it for you.” Ray laughed, “I mean; he stole it for you.”
“Okay, even if that may have been for me,” she finger-brushed her purple hair back, “how does that make him an active shooter?”
“That alone, doesn’t. But have you noticed the books he reads in the media center? Gun books, serial killers bios, diaries of the Columbine kids.”
“No. I just assumed he was working on an assignment.”
“Did you notice how dirty, how tardy, how insolent, how hungry, how angry, how desperate…he was? For Christ’s sake, there were razor slashes up and down his arms. I saw them when he rolled up his sleeves to wash his hands in the boy’s bathroom.”
“You saw razor slashes?” Kaylee asked. “Did you report them?”
“Yes, I send a weekly report to my supervisor and I outline every aspect of my travails and observations here at Ellison, a school I have worked at for more than 30 years—not three. “The reporters side-eyed the chagrined superintendent, caught in a lie. “I must presume they mostly go unread.”
Superintendent Williams turned an accusatory glare to the principal. She shrugged and said. “We never got anything from Custodial about this.”
“That’s because we are invisible. We see the most, but are respected the least.” Ray held their eyes for a moment and then his eyes rolled up and he slumped over.
“Mr. Ray?!” Kaylee shouted, attempting to lift his head by way of his shoulders.
“Seems I’ve made a mess.” Ray mumbled, almost inaudibly, and then reached for the mop handle. He bent it to his forehead as Moses must have done with his staff as he prayed to God to part the waters. Ray climbed the handle, hand over hand and slowly rose from his chair. Finally standing, he expertly lifted and pressed the mop head into the yellow squeegee, pumped the arm bar, pulled the dry mop out, spinning it as he mopped at the floor. He swabbed at a growing stain by his feet, his shoes were brick red. He dunked the mop head back into the Clorox-clean water where it turned a putrid pink.
“Call 911,” the superintendent barked, happy to be in charge again. The principal, happy to take orders, punched in the digits.
“Mr. Ray, are you alright?” Kaylee asked. She touched the dark stain on his denim coveralls.
He sat up. “’Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, my dear…but it is enough.”
Kaylee looked at the principal who mouthed ambulance on the way.
“Any more questions? Now’s a good time,” Ray sighed. “Ask them tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man.” His lips smiled, but his eyes glazed. “I love it when they teach Shakespeare. I sometimes listen at the door.”
The wall-mounted flatscreen in the conference room flashed red and white letters: Breaking News! It howled like a wolf, or maybe a FOX. The quickly scribbled caption scrolled: Janiter foils active shooter.
“Goddamnit,” Ray growled, “they can’t even spell janitor right. That proves my point.”
Camera one showed a grainy shadow walking around the corner of the 12th grade hallway. The second camera picked up and caught the light better, presenting a darkly clad boy unslinging a heavy book bag from his shoulders. Other than the dark figure, the halls were cleared. The digital clock at the bottom ticked at 11:26 and the seconds fled. It was lunch time for seniors at Ralph Ellison High School.
The elevated angle of the camera clearly showed the boy unzip the book bag and retrieve a handgun from it. He clumsily charged the slide and released it, racking a round into the chamber. He looked at the thing in his hand for long moment and then held it out with both hands, straight-armed and resolved.
The boy’s face became clearer as he walked down the well-lit hallway but it revealed no emotion. He robotically stalked down the corridor that led to the cafeteria where his classmates would all be mostly seated, sipping juice boxes, sawing at chicken-fried steaks, and filching French fries from each other. The boy held the gun out in front like a flashlight, one that could only illuminate muzzle-flashes of death and destruction.
The video was dramatic and Kaylee, ever innovative, couldn’t help imagine a Hollywood soundtrack for the streaming video. She initially considered the dunta-dunta-dunta from Jaws, but then rescored. She likened this moment to her first date at one-of-a-dozen Friday 13thmovies.
Like a Trap-door spider, a closet sprang open and a man in blue denim stepped out, a mop held high with two hands. Without hesitation, the man brought the mop handle down like a Samurai sword and broke the wrists of the shooter. The gun spun away with a bright flash. The video hinted at an inaudible howl from the boy as he fell to the ground, cradling his hands like wounded birds. The man, Ray Ebbing, straddled the writhing boy and pointed the blunt end of the mop handle at his eyes like he was ready to gig a frog in a pond.
A third figure appeared on the scene. It was clearly Officer Strickland, Ralph Ellison’s Security Resource Officer. She quickly sussed the scene and holstered her pistol. She held a palm out to Ray and tugged her cuffs out with the other hand. She instinctively wedged herself between Ray and the boy, grabbing and pinning the shooter’s arms behind him, clicking and synching hand cuffs over the boy’s broken wrists.
Officer Strickland held that pose, insinuated between the boy and the man with the lethal mop, until a squad of SWAT officers filled the hallway. Large, lumbering men in armor, bristling with weapons, took charge of the scene and whisked the boy away. The video faded to black.
Ray watched and smiled. “I saw myself,” he whispered.
“Yes, Ray,” Kaylee said to him. “You were the star of the show.”
“No, no, you don’t understand, young lady,” he nodded as he lay bleeding. “A soul is a precious thing, and it is not a right, but a privilege. I lost mine in Vietnam when I listened to men with gold bars, chevrons and stars. They said shoot, and I shot, even when I knew better.” Ray stopped talking. His face clenched like a fist. Tears shined on his ruddy cheeks and the blood stain grew under his back.
“I killed so many, so many. Some of them younger than you, and I still don’t know why. Why?” He reached up and touched her face. Her tears fell and mingled with his. “When I came home from the war, I realized I had left something behind.” Ray looked around the room, as if expecting to find the lost thing. “I looked into the mirror and couldn’t see me. I had lost my immortal soul.”
“You got it back, Ray. You saved lives today.”
“Can you see me?” he asked, his breathing labored. “Really see me?”
“I see you Ray.” And then more quietly, she whispered to him, “And I forgive you.”
Kaylee knew it was not her place to forgive, not her generation, not her war. But she knew that forgiveness had to start somewhere. Ray held her hands tight, then slowly let go, and said, “I see…”
If you’ve already read the other two stories, then you’re done.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
E. J. D’Alise submission<<link
Perry Broxson submission<<link
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