By Matthew Ulmer

I was invisible until the day I got superpowers. Not literally invisible, of course. Just your average high school kid: a small group of equally irrelevant friends, a crush on a girl who didn’t know I existed, an out-of-reach dream college as I entered sophomore year.

And I really sucked at sports. Until I started moving things with my mind.

My theory is the power always existed within me somehow, but only unlocked the first time I faced real danger. My stepdad had thought it’d be good bonding or something to do yard work together. He was high on a ladder, trusting my scrawny arms to hold him steady, when Mariel rode by on a bike. And what, was I not supposed to stare? Perfection had just entered my neighborhood! And it was of course that precise moment that Frank’s ladder decided it preferred to lay on the ground. I’ll never forget the squeal from the depths of his burly soul as I tried to recover in time to catch an object way too tall and way too heavy for me.

But I did. Only, I wasn’t touching it. The ladder froze mid-topple, and Frank thanked God, and my fingers hovered an inch from the metal. My heart still flutters every time I think about it. With one leg of the ladder still hovering above ground, I willed in my mind for it to return slowly to earth. And it did. Frank climbed down and engulfed me in a hug and I stared over his shoulder at my fingers, just then beginning to tingle as if falling asleep. 

After that, I tested this power alone in my room, first making a stuffed frog kind of vibrate a bit, then getting it to slide a few inches forward. Soon I could make it hop across the floor at will. SAT prep classes don’t contain the vocab words necessary to describe the jolt of energy that consumed my entire being as I pulled a Jean Grey right there in my bedroom. I mean, I want to make this as clear as possible: I made an object move with my mind. And last time I checked, we’re not in a comic book, or a movie adaptation of a comic book.

I made an object move with my mind.

I kept practicing, obviously. Graduating to larger objects or more intricate actions, even writing “whoa” in jagged letters on my chalkboard. But what to do with these newfound powers? Fight crime? Give the school bullies wedgies from afar? 

Then I heard it.

A dull echoey thud, repeating. Thwump thwump thwump. I peered out my bedroom window, down the block, and saw Becky Carter, playing basketball.

Bingo. What if I could hone my abilities and improve my college prospects? Two birds, one ball.

I’ll admit it now, my first few attempts were pathetic. I didn’t really know how to shoot a basketball. I’d toss it up with an awkward spasm of limbs and then alter its path with my mind, and the ball would take a crazy curve toward the basket. I kept glancing around to make sure no one witnessed the magic in effect.

But I got better. YouTube gave me tips, showed me how the ball should spin off the fingers. I was still a terrible shot without telekinesis, but I got good enough at sending it toward the basket that the in-air adjustment became less obvious. Soon, every shot dropped perfectly through the hoop with a congratulatory flap of the net.

Swish. 

Next came dribbling practice, working to at least be able to move with the ball. Picture me, accidentally bopping the ball off my foot, launching it in wild directions. Or stepping forward and banging it with my knee, watching despondently as it rolled across the street. 

Chase it. Scoop it. Repeat. Bounce bounce bounce. All I really needed, I figured, was to get to a point where I could take a step, plant my feet, and shoot, and the points would rack up.

Mariel loves basketball.

Everyone at my school loves basketball. Just look at the stands during a home game. Or the stands during a pep rally. Or the streamers and posters on players’ lockers. Or the trophies adorning the hallways. Point is: basketball is big at my school. 

How would I convince Coach Shannon to try out a gangly kid no one ever noticed before?

My knees shook as I stepped into the gym. I’d never confronted anyone before, that’s just not who I am.

Or, I told myself: not who I was. Now I had superpowers.

The gym was humid, like hiking through a jungle. It wreaked of sweat and excitement. Blue and gold championship banners hung from the rafters. 

Coach Shannon said no.

My response was barely audible. A blubbered, “Uh, oh, okay,” and I turned away.

And stopped.

Where had meekness ever gotten me? It certainly wouldn’t carry me to the hallowed halls of my dream university.

I spun back toward the imposing mass of Coach Shannon, who swung a red whistle on a string like the worst cliché of any sports movie.

I am no cliché. With my future alma mater’s fight song echoing in my head, I said, “If I can sink three half-court shots in a row, will you let me try out?”

The whistle stopped spinning. Coach Shannon stared at me. I must’ve aged seven months under the intense gaze of coach and whistle.

Then three words changed my life. “Grab a ball.”

Show time.

The players crowded around me. I hadn’t expected an audience. What happened to my invisibility?

I closed my eyes. Took a deep breath. Bounced the ball once. It sounded different on a real court.

Could I do this?

I could.

I opened my eyes and launched the ball.

Swish.

Murmurs from the players. No reaction from Coach Shannon.

Another bounce. Another deep breath.

Swish.

Hollers now from the players. Narrowed eyes from the coach.

The third perfect shot sent the players in a frenzy, hooting and dancing around the court. Coach Shannon sauntered up to me, eyes thin slits of suspicion. A menacing voice. “Who are you?”

I was no longer invisible. I was something much more now. I said, “Your newest three-point threat.” Yes, I’d picked up some lingo from ESPN, watching with Frank in preparation. Our favorite player was Steph Curry. A scientist recently released a report that defined the perfect shooting arc of a basketball as 45 degrees, complete with a machine that proved it with a near-perfect free throw percentage; but he wasted his time and grant money, because nature had already invented such a machine, and his name was Steph Curry, back-to-back NBA MVP, who upon study from this scientist was revealed to consistently shoot at 46 beautiful degrees. 

Swish.

Besides sleep away camp when I was 11, this was my first organized group activity. Frank was freakin’ thrilled. My still-invisible friends were dumbfounded. I wondered if Mariel knew my name yet.

Look, I don’t want to give the false impression that I’m singularly focused on hormones. I’m an avid reader (equal parts The Grapes of Wrath and the Twilight saga), love to write (mostly sci-fi and fantasy), and absolutely live for Broadway (well, for musical theater, I’ve actually only been to New York twice). It’s just…well…I’ve never been kissed before. And she…

For the record, I give an A+ for her thoroughly researched and reasoned presentation on Of Mice and Men.

Anyway, after I told my friends it turned out I was a natural at basketball and never realized it, my best friend Andie pulled me aside. A genuine look of concern.

“What’s gotten into you?”

“Whataya mean?” I asked.

“That team. It’s like, everything we’re against.”

“Oh please. Isn’t it time we grew up a bit?”

Andie’s narrowed eyes seemed to mimic Coach Shannon’s. “No. Really. What’s going on?”

I shrugged. “Guess I finally found somewhere I fit in.”

Andie was quiet the rest of the afternoon. I rode the bench my first three games. Coach Shannon never even looked my way. But hey, that was cool: the energy was electric, and I had the best seat in the house. 

Then deep into the fourth quarter of game four, a shadow draped across me, and Coach stared from above. “You’re in.”

My knees were knocking. The ball appeared in my hands — why in God’s name would someone have passed me the ball? — and when I looked at the hoop, it seemed to slide away from me, as if the court expanded. I was afraid to dribble for fear of exposing my inadequacies. I figured I’d simply shoot from where I stood, except a flash of an opposing jersey appeared in front of me, and suddenly my hand was empty. Stolen. Varsity athletes are fast! 

I made up for it, though. I willed the thief’s easy layup to clunk off the rim. And in the fourth quarter of the next game, I refused to squander my second chance. The instant the ball touched my hands, it released. A Steph Curry-level 46 degree arc of beauty.

We entered a winning streak after that. Coach even concocted a strategy for me — I’d hang on the outside and wait for a teammate to dish me the rock. Then: swish. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an idiot: I knew to miss every now and then. But halfway into the season and our winning streak, I owned the best shooting percentage in the county. Local news came calling. Talk radio even did a segment on me — Frank’s favorite morning show took a break from covering professional sports to talk about me! My world opened. Team-building activities, fundraising events, parties. I was terrified at first, of course. Remember I was previously invisible, participant in exactly zero events that didn’t include lounging lazily with friends in a humid attic. But here’s what was really mind bending: the popular kids actually seemed nervous around me, as if afraid to say the wrong thing to the new star athlete, as if I set the social rules and they had to abide or die. 

This deserves its own social science experiment, but that’s for a different day, because around this time of increased extracurricular activity and social life is when I first started noticing the Man in Black (cue Will Smith theme song).

So obviously a FED, this stoic guy with his wide shoulders packed into a crisp black suit, overtop a crisp white shirt, adorned with a perfectly knotted black tie. So clearly a government agent, sent to study me.

My worst fear realized: that my otherwise complete lack of coordination and athletic ability exposed my deception. I was a cheat, a fraud, and it was obvious. And worse still: it was supernatural. I could move objects with my mind, and of course that would be of interest to the government, and now here was an agent sent to observe me. Would he try to recruit me into the military, or kidnap me into a black site, experiment on me, try to harness my powers?

It was also around this time, I’ll point out, that my relationship with Andie took a turn.

We hadn’t seen much of each other lately. My ever-expanding schedule didn’t leave much room for attic chill sessions, plus I’d been eating lunch at the basketball table, in order to discuss strategy, debrief from practice, bond with my teammates, all that. So I figured I’d reach out. Be a good friend. I finished my sandwich and sent a text. 

It was a GIF of the perpetually sad faced Meridith from Grey’s Anatomy, with a message that said “Miss You.” It struck the exact right note.

It received no response.

I then sent a pouty kitty GIF. Nothing. 

I texted “Whatup?” 

And the reply?

“Ask ur teammates”

You know how sometimes you can sense a tone, even through words on a screen?

I marched over to my former lunch table.

We got into it pretty hard. Andie’s main accusation was that I was enjoying my new social status too much, as if not appreciating that it was all prep for college. In defense, I gave a speech to the effect of: “What does Frank always say? That good grades aren’t enough, that we need to participate in extracurricular activities that reveal our character. Well, that’s what I’m doing here — I’m finally gathering skills needed for college.” It was true, I’d even found my voice on the basketball court. Prior to shedding my invisibility, I’d practically never raised a hand in class. Now I was shouting words of encouragement to my teammates and giving motivational speeches before games. After one of my radio interviews an elementary school teacher called, asking if I would lecture to her class. My performance earned raves. It was all so…easy. I’d spent my whole life afraid of other peoples’ judgment. Now, practically overnight, I was beloved within the community, padding my resume, increasing my prospects. 

Why couldn’t my best friend see that? 

The guy in the suit never seemed to take his eyes off me.

Game after game, the weight of the Man in Black’s gaze pressed on my shoulders, like increased gravity on the court. Every action risked exposure. Everyone’s post-victory flattery seemed tinged with a knowing smile, as if eagerly anticipating my inevitable downfall.

Swish. The ball through the hoop. The cheer of the crowd. Fans waved signs with my number. How many of them knew my secret?

Then, walking through the hall one day after a big win, I heard an angel sing my name, and turned to find Mariel jogging toward me. Engaging me in conversation. She touched my arm when I made a joke. 

I can still feel that sensation on my arm, not unlike the tingle in my fingers when using my power. 

Would she talk to me if she knew I was a fraud? 

And yet, I couldn’t stop, could I? The whole community was relying on me. A winning team meant everything to them. If I quit now, I’d fade into obscurity. I’d break their hearts. I’d lose everything I’d worked so hard to build.

I kept telling myself: this was for Frank, for my future, for a life beyond my childhood home.

And so we kept winning. Swish, swish, swish. Can I be honest? It got boring. When you know before you’ve taken a shot that you’re guaranteed to make it, it removes much of the excitement of the sport. In a match against our biggest rival, I stepped to my spot, the ball appeared in my hands, and I stared at the basket, so far away yet so easily attainable. Automatic.  

How to make it interesting again? I felt figurative pressure on my shoulders, the weight of the Man in Black’s suspicions, and sought his eyes in the stands. Staring him down, shoulders squared for a fight, I flung the ball over my head, a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-style hook shot. My body burned with the irresponsibility.

I shut my eyes, waiting for the gasp of discovery.

The crowd exploded in adulation. Chants of my name. Teammates tackled me. The Man in Black never looked away.

Carrying a team into the playoffs via hidden superpower is a lot of pressure for a 15-year-old. Part of me wanted it to be over. 

And part of me wanted Mariel to touch my arm again.

Can you guess what happened next? We kept winning. And the accolades kept coming. And at a celebratory party where I made the room laugh with my impression of the kid whose spot on the court I stole but who still tagged along with us starters, Mariel did her slight head tilt thing, with her slight mouth-covered giggle, and my stomach dropped from my body. She asked if I wanted to get some air. I didn’t know people said that outside of movies!

So we got some air. Her hair smelled like apricots. Her face shone silver in the moonlight. There were at least three moments when I almost kissed her in mid sentence. The space between our bodies literally vibrated. 

Then she looked at me, pure perfection incarnate, and said, “I’m so glad you moved here.”

Wait, what?

“What’d you mean?”

“Like, you know. This town was so blah before you came.”

“I…I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve adored you since kindergarten.”

“You’re too funny.”

“Are you serious right now? Andie and me sat behind you in homeroom. Every year.”

“Who’s Andie?”

Oooph. Punch to the gut.

When I had given my big speech about participating in extracurricular activities that reveal our character, Andie had said one thing back.

“Yeah, well, seems your character’s been revealed, huh?”

Mariel blinked at me under the moonlight. That head tilt. Holy hell she was everything.

I turned and walked away.

She called after me, but I held up a hand and kept walking. She called again. “I know your secret.”

That stopped me.

When I turned, she spit fire. “You think you’re fooling anyone??? It’s sooo obvious.”

I stepped closer, fists suddenly and involuntarily clenched. My fingers tingled.

“You act all humble, this ‘oh shucks I’m just happy to be near you’ crap. No one’s buyin’ it. You think you’re better than us, and you’re not. You’re not! You don’t got some magic gift that makes you more special than the rest of us.”

I laughed in her face. She didn’t seem to know how to react to that. My fists unclenched and the space between us stopped vibrating and I told her I was sorry she felt that way. I suggested she try to be more observant. Then I left.

Andie’s expression was blank when the door opened. I asked if I could come in. We went to my second home of the attic.

I confessed everything. A hundred pounds of weight lifted off my chest with the unburdening. Andie said nothing.

My former best friend stood in the corner, arms crossed. Teeth practically grinding to dust. Then out came a phone, the universal sign for “this conversation is over.” Its blue screen completed the transformation of Andie’s expression into cold stone.

“Thanks for coming,” the Andie statue said to the phone. “You know your way out.”

Whoosh.

I mind yanked the phone toward me. It glowed like magic in my hand.

Finally a reaction! Andie’s mouth moved, lips bubbling, leaking gibberish.

I slowly floated the phone back to its owner, spinning it in controlled rotations. Andie snatched it and looked at me and I shrugged. “Told ya.”

We burst out laughing. Full on fall backward can’t breathe guffaws. When we finally settled, lying on the floor, Andie’s hand reached for mine. A single squeeze that said it all. 

Friendship repaired. 

Eventually we did say more. I apologized for letting power corrupt me. Andie apologized for letting me go through this alone. Then we played Connect 4 without me touching a single game piece. 

“You’ve got to use this power for good,” Andie said. “You know Uncle Ben’s iconic line about responsibility.”

Andie’s character never needed to be revealed. It already shone brighter than Mariel’s face in moonlight.

Over the next few weeks, I replaced parties and self-aggrandizing lectures with volunteer work. I served food at homeless shelters and let lonely senior citizens regale me and played pickup games with kids in afterschool programs. It struck me just how many people, from kids to octogenarians, lived their lives feeling as unseen as my friends and me.

At the pep rally for the state championship, when Coach handed me the mic, I was seen. Every student and teacher in the gym saw me.

But not me. Not the real me. Some fabrication, a magic trick. Mariel had literally thought I was a new kid who’d went poof into their lives.

I cleared my throat into the mic. I felt thousands of eyes on me. 

How would I best utilize the power of this spotlight?

I asked Andie to stand. Plus the other members of our attic crew. They looked at me and looked around and slowly rose on the bleachers. I introduced them by name.

Crickets in the gym. A stifled cough. I asked the other Invisibles to stand. One by one, a roll call of names the Mariels of the school wouldn’t recognize. Crickets morphed into sighing metal, as confused students shifted their weight.

I asked anyone who felt unnoticed to stand. Unappreciated. Anyone who’d ever felt ignored, or like they wanted to be ignored. Thunder rippled from the bleachers as more people rose.

Anyone who pretended to be someone else, please stand. Anyone who hated something about themselves, who thought everyone else noticed and hated that thing, please stand.

Perfectly flawless Mariel stood.

The class president stood.

The freaking principal stood.

Soon every student and teacher of Pearl Buck High was standing tall on the gymnasium bleachers. 

And I applauded them. I tucked the mic under my arm and started clapping. My teammates joined in, then everyone in the gym was clapping and laughing. I sought out Andie in the stands. A smiling thumbs up.

I’d like to believe that was my real character, finally revealed.

When I got home, Frank met me at the front door, holding it closed behind him. His hands were shaking.

He seemed to be trying to block me from something, about to warn me of something, when the door swung open.

And there stood the Man in Black.

I thought about launching him backward with my power and then booking it down the block. But would he punish Frank and my mom?

“You know Uncle Ben’s iconic line.”

Andie was right. Andie was always right. This was my fight, not theirs.

I entered the house. The door clicked shut with a terrible finality. I braced myself for what was to come.

“I’m Timothy McMannis,” the Man in Black said. “And I’m so thrilled to finally get to meet you.”

Pretty weird thing for a government agent to say before whisking me to a black site.

“I’ve been following you closely.”

Yeah. Duh.

“My people and I are very impressed with your abilities.”

Here it comes.

“We’d like to offer you a full ride athletic scholarship.”

Wait, what?

I realized I’d closed my eyes. I opened them now. Frank was standing behind the Man in Black with a smile swallowing half his face.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “Who, exactly, are you?”

That’s when the adults laughed nervously, and Timothy McMannis stuck his gigantic hand in my face, and explained that he was a recruiter for my dream college.

And they wanted me to attend. For free. To play basketball.

Nothing about their renowned writing program, a factory of award-winning authors. Nothing about their state-of-the-art science labs and my runner-up prize in the seventh grade science fair. 

They wanted me to play basketball for them. 

The dinner my mom had carefully prepared was tasteless. The Recruiter in Black’s effusive praise felt like teeth of ice taking bitter chunks from my skin. I asked about the writer in residence program, the school literary journal, the Comic-Con-esque convention they’d become known for hosting each year.  

“Oh sure, sure,” Timothy McMannis said. “But your schedule will be pretty full up with basketball. I’m not supposed to say this, NCAA regulations and all that, but if your grades start to slip from all the classes you’ll need to miss from practices and away games and team functions and all that, well…” — and at this point he winked — “…we have systems in place to help.”

I told him I needed to think it over. Frank sent me “are you friggin’ nuts” signals with his eyes. I didn’t sleep that night.

The morning of the state championship was a blur. I assume I got dressed and brushed my teeth and was present for the two-hour bus ride, but I don’t remember any of it. Ditto Coach’s pep talk.

What I do remember is the bright red glow of the game clock, counting toward zero, as the bright orange glow of the basketball flew toward me.

Apparently I also had the power to slow time, because as my fingers embraced the hard-yet-squishy leather of the ball, the ticking red clock slowed. 3.57 seconds remaining, then 3.42 seconds, then 3.34.

I glanced at the scoreboard, where our numbers were two less than our opponents’.

I glanced at my feet, just a hare behind the three-point line.

2.52 seconds. 2.39.

I glanced at the stands, at the wiggling mass of people, half in my teams’ colors, half in the other.

Somewhere in those stands sat my mom, and Frank, and Andie. And probably the Recruiter in Black. And maybe other recruiters. 

And Mariel.

2.11.

“You know Uncle Ben’s iconic line.”

1.46.

I bounced the ball.

1.28.

I looked at the net.

0.39.

I left the ground, my toes pointed downward. I raised the ball, letting it spin off my fingers in practiced recreation of Steph Curry’s impeccable form.

I closed my eyes.

No magic. No superpower. Let the world run its natural course, spinning in the universe like a basketball through the air, awaiting its perfect swish of a finish.

The bus ride home was silent. No one even coughed. The streamers and banners sagged.

I haven’t played basketball since.

At this point, you may be wondering why I’m telling this story. To the admissions counselor or counselors reading this, you may be curious why I’m writing a college application essay when I’ve already been granted a full scholarship.

Because I don’t want it. I don’t intend to play basketball for your storied school. I plan to attend every single class. I want to experience lectures from some of my most revered authors. I want to sing to myself at one of your award-winning theater productions.

I want to walk through campus invisible. 

Do I still have the power to move objects with my mind? Is Mariel still the most beautiful being to ever breathe the air? Does it matter? Those aren’t the elements that define me. They’re simply the tools that helped me realize my truth. May we all experience the world as my best friend does.

And so, I confess my story to you, admit all my varied faults, open myself to a lifetime of ridicule. Who knows, the FEDs may even send a real Man in Black if they get wind of this.

I’m not afraid of them. I’m not afraid of anything. Except the risk of living any life but my own.

I don’t want your basketball scholarship. I want to earn entrance into my dream school because I deserve it, based on who I am. And based on who I can still become, through the growth and education gained at your fine institution. I was invisible until the day I got superpowers, and it helped me finally see myself.

Thank you for your consideration. 

Matthew Ulmer is a juggler. Not of balls or chainsaws but of his three core identities: father to young girls, vice president of a digital marketing agency outside Philadelphia, PA, and writer. His work has appeared in various online publications and he recently won first place in the Bucks County Short Fiction contest.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s