“When is Daddy coming?” The bare little feet came shuffling into the room, but the child’s sleepy voice received no answer. It was a small room, modestly furnished, with dark curtains on the windows that did not let in enough light.
The frail body of a woman slumped in an armchair, her old throne. The little girl made her way through the bottles of alcohol and gently loosened the strap on her mother’s left arm. She leaned up to her lips and, holding her breath, pressed her ear to them. She’s still breathing, it’s OK, she thought with relief.
“I’m hungry.” Warily, fearfully, she nudged her so she would wake up, but still there was no reaction. She picked up the blanket from the floor and threw it over her with great effort.
“I’ll make food myself. You sleep. Have a good rest. You’ll get better and we can go to the park tomorrow. We don’t have to go today.”
She headed for the kitchen. She wasn’t allowed to turn on the stove at all, and she remembered that she had once played with the knobs and was given a hard slap by her mother. If she woke up and found that the girl had turned it on once more, who knows what would happen. The fridge was empty. There was just a carton with some stale cereal. Yesterday she drank the last of the milk, although it had a strange taste. It made her tummy hurt and she had to vomit. She didn’t tell her mother because she didn’t want to wake her. Her mother was very ill and had to sleep.
Quietly she moved down the hall and went outside. She was also not allowed to cross the street, but this time she had no choice. She knew the neighbors opposite, and they were kind to her. They had a granddaughter she used to play with before she left for America. She knocked on the neighbors’ door and asked for a glass of milk.
“Mama is sick. She can’t go to the store,” she explained.
The lady looked at her in confusion, then filled the glass and walked her back home. She stood at the open front door for several seconds, horrified, and then turned and ran back to her house.
Her mother was still sleeping. Once again she held her ear close to make sure she was alive, then she shook the cereal into the glass and sat down on the floor to eat. The table was covered with a jumble of things, which she didn’t want to move because otherwise her mother would yell at her when she woke up; she was often in a bad mood when she got up and annoyed by all sorts of little things.
Someone rang at the door. She was too small to look through the peephole to see who it was, so she opened the door a bit. Two grim-looking men dressed in blue.
“Hello there. Could we come in, please?”
“No,” she replied curtly. “Mama’s sleeping. I’m not allowed to wake her. And I’m not to let anyone into the house.”
The two men glanced at each other. In front of them stood a barefooted girl, five or six years old, in a nightie that was clearly a few sizes too big for her. With a snotty little nose and milk-smeared cheeks, but with the piercing blue eyes of an adult.
One of the men pulled out his police badge, but the girl did not waver—she stood firmly by her decision. The other man took out a kind of radio and moved aside, far enough so that the girl would not be able to hear what he spoke into it.
They tried to explain to her once more that they were good people, the sort everyone lets into their homes, and that the rules didn’t apply to them, but the girl knew she would be in big trouble if she didn’t obey her mother’s rules. There were no exceptions to those rules.
In the end, the policemen’s patience wore thin. They roughly pushed her away from the door and entered, covering their noses.
Terrified, the girl ran up to her room, hid under the bed, and started to rummage through the box there. Her whole body shook and she started to cry, but she quickly gave herself a jolt when she remembered that wasn’t allowed either. No crying! Finally, among all the worthless things at the bottom of the box she found what she was looking for.
But no ordinary lighter.
She pressed it to her body and her fear suddenly vanished.
* * *
She woke up in her dark room paralyzed with fear, and she didn’t dare to make a sound. Exactly one year earlier, she had had the same nightmare: a man without a head was following her and she had nowhere to run. The first time, she told her mother about the nightmare and was given a sound beating—she had unwittingly given away that she had been watching films she wasn’t allowed to. She knew she had to keep quiet about it this time. But her room was very scary, so she snuck into the living room on her tiptoes.
Her father was still awake. What a relief! She ran and nestled up to him in front of the television. She didn’t admit anything until he gave her a firm promise she wouldn’t get into trouble, and then she told him about the film with the man without a head, whom no gun could kill.
“And now he’s following me. No one can see him because he hides in my wardrobe.”
They went and checked the wardrobes together, but to no avail—the man could make himself invisible.
Then her father fumbled around in his pocket and produced the magic lighter.
“This is the most precious thing anyone can ever own. It was given to me by a great wizard and is the most powerful weapon in the world . . . I’ll put it under your bed and no monsters will ever be able to come near you,” her father told her.
“Can it make me invisible?” her eyes lit up.
“Ha, of course. I told you it was magic. You just have to hold it tight enough and wish really, really hard for something, and it will make that wish come true.”
She slept peacefully that night. The man without a head never appeared in her dreams again. But neither did her father appear again in her life.
* * *
She heard the men come into her room. She listened to their steps and their voices. They asked themselves where she was, and she just smiled. She was invisible; they wouldn’t find her, so they would give up and leave.
She could tell from the steps that there were several people in the room now, not just the two men. Suddenly, one of them leaned under the bed and fixed his terrible dark eyes on her. She was startled for a moment, but then it occurred to her that she was actually invisible. She pressed the lighter to herself and smiled contentedly.
“What are you holding there, girl?”
She said nothing. This was impossible. She was invisible. If she kept silent, they would all go away.
“May I see?” the voice sounded friendly, but still she didn’t move. Perhaps she wasn’t squeezing the lighter hard enough? Or not wishing properly? She shut her eyes and wished again as hard as she could that she was invisible! Her arms hurt, but she didn’t give up.
All of a sudden she felt someone lift her into the air. She didn’t resist but just gripped the lighter hard with both hands and repeated to herself: “I want to be invisible! I want to be invisible!”
They carried her out of the house and sat her down beside a woman with a pleasant voice who also tried to talk with her. She opened her eyes for a moment, long enough to see her pleasant face, and then she returned to the lighter. It had to work—her father had said it would. And her father never, ever lied!
The woman gave up her attempts and just stayed sitting next to her in silence. As she expected, after half an hour’s exertion the girl finally fell asleep.
The poor thing, she thought as she carried the little urchin to the waiting taxi. She didn’t notice the lighter that fell from the girl’s limp hands onto the back seat. When they got out, the taxi driver called to her:
“Lady, you’ve forgotten your lighter!”
“I don’t smoke,” she replied over her shoulder and walked into the city orphanage.
The next morning, the newspaper headlines blared:
FIVE-YEAR-OLD LEFT ALONE FOR A WEEK WITH CORPSE OF HEROIN-OVERDOSED MOTHER
Everyone felt sorry for the girl, who just one year earlier had lost her father in a road accident.
From Zapalka. © Natali Spasova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.