The moment winter break ended, all kids could talk about was the summer. It didn’t matter if ice was still stuck to the school bus benches or snow filled their shoes as they walked home, they talked about summer like it was just around the corner. I never shared their excitement. I liked school and I liked being busy. Summer meant empty days of sitting in front of the fan in the living room and swatting away mosquitoes that snuck through holes in the window screen which dad promised and then forgot to fix every summer. Most kids had something to look forward to, like camp or a trip to a new place. All I had to look forward to was one week at my grandma’s house in New Jersey and the most exciting part about that was her cat Prince and the beach which was only an hour drive away.
In many ways I dreaded the summer. Summer meant my only company was Ada. Even though Ada was older than me by a year and one month, Mom would tell me just as the school year was ending that I was a good influence on my sister. She hoped summers would straighten Ada out by using me as her leash, tying her to our forested house under the excuse of “Ada, you have to watch your sister and you can’t leave her out.” Ada thought I was boring and told me so. She hated that I never left the house and usually guilt would build up in me until I’d follow behind while she waded through the shallows of Lehigh River or balanced along the railroad tracks that cut through town.
This summer, Ada had different plans. For Christmas, dad got her a Canon camcorder. He said it was new but there were scratches by the strap and the screen that flipped out was loose. Ada didn’t care. She said it was the best gift she’d ever gotten. Ada was obsessed with the movies. Jim Thorpe didn’t have a movie theater so every other weekend we’d drive to the next town over to catch whatever was playing. The seats in the theater stuck to my legs and the rooms were stuffy and thick like it was filled with the exact same air as when it opened. I never wanted to go but mom dragged me along saying, “It’s good to do things with your sister, Elsie, and to like some of the things she does.” Mom didn’t have a very good relationship with her sister and I think she was scared of me and Ada ending up the same way.
Anyway, this summer was different because Ada wanted to make a movie. She’d been planning this for a while. Her Math and English notebooks were filled with drafts of scripts, outlines, and rough drawings of how she wanted each scene to be set up. I never asked her about it because I knew she’d get mad at me for snooping. We were both older now, too, and on the first day of summer break, Ada made the argument to our parents, “I’m 14 now and Elsie’s 13. She’s too old to be babysat and anyway I’m too young to watch her.” She was cut free from me; her summer would be one of roaming without dragging me behind. But mom had a condition, one Ada and I dreaded equally: “You don’t have to watch Elsie, but you have to include your sister in your movie.”
It was an unusually cool June morning and a crowd of ten or so kids was assembled in our backyard. Our backyard overlooked low, rolling Pennsylvania mountains and the break in the sweeping landscape where Lehigh River lay. In the summer, the mountains looked plush and soft, billowing with the deep green foliage. Dad said of anywhere he’d been, Jim Thorpe was by far the most beautiful. He worked at the tourism office in town, though, so he had to say stuff like that. The kids sitting on the chairs and railings of our porch were all from Ada’s grade. I recognized most of the faces, like Harry Lisner who broke his arm playing soccer and Tessa Rae who tried to hide her acne under thick layers of off-colored concealer. I sat on the edge of the eighth-grade crowd and hoped they’d ignore me.
“Good morning everyone!” Ada said. She walked in front of the group with a big stack of papers in her hand. A few weeks ago Ada took the kitchen scissors and chopped her long, black hair off. Her hair now rested above her chin but the baseball cap she wore all the time made it seem even shorter. She wore a boy’s tank-top and a pair of loose jeans. I knew some kids at school teased her for looking like a boy, but no one dared to say it to her face. She handed a piece of paper to everyone. It was a scene with two characters, Bill and Nancy. Handwritten in the corner was “INVISIBLE Written and Directed by Ada Monday.”
“Thanks for all coming out here. Before I cast anyone in roles, I need to see you act a little–”
“What’s the movie about, Ada?” a kid with a buzz-cut asked.
“I was gettin’ to that, but alright. The movie is called Invisible. It’s about a kid named Olivia who goes missing. Her parents, Bill and Nancy, are in the middle of a bad divorce but they have to put that aside to find their daughter. The whole town gets involved in finding Olivia, but no one can. The twist is that she’s actually been invisible this whole time and has been trying to get her parent’s attention but they have no idea.”
There were some oohs and ahhs from the eighth graders. I thought the plot sounded silly.
“This scene is with Bill and Nancy. They’re fighting about where they think Olivia might have gone. Everyone needs a partner for this, doesn’t matter if it's boy-girl or whatever. I’ll give you ten minutes to practice and then we’ll get going.” She clapped her hands together and the eighth graders began claiming partners.
Molly, Ada’s good friend, walked up to me. “Wanna partner up?” Relieved, I nodded. I liked Molly. She was pretty and always had her red hair in two neat braids. She was nice even though her mom was gone and her dad was so mean to her. I knew this because I’d eavesdropped on her and Ada once or twice. Molly helped Ada edit the script, so every day the two of them raided the kitchen of chips and chocolate-covered pretzels, locked themselves in Ada’s room, and blasted music. Molly said she’d be Bill so I took the role of Nancy. Molly wasn’t very good, she read the words as though she were reading part of a book for class, but I felt more comfortable with her than I would have anyone else.
I doubted any of these eighth-graders would be actors one day. Ada watched each scene attentively no matter how bad they were and said at the end, “Thank you both, that was pretty good.”
“Alright, Molly and Elsie, you’re next.”
Paper gripped tightly in hand, Molly and I stepped in front of the group. Ada’s small, piercing eyes fell on us unkindly. She had a notebook in hand and was already scribbling in it. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Nancy, I just don’t see what the use is! We have been searching all night!” Molly bellowed, making her voice deep and throwing up her hands in exasperation like a man would.
My mouth felt dry and the words on the page blurred together. The pause I created grew big around me, enveloping the group in stillness. I swallowed and tried to pretend Ada’s eyes weren’t burning through me. “Yes we’ve been searching all night, and yes my feet are tired and I’m hungry and I wish I could just sit on the couch all evening, but our daughter is out there, Bill.” I pointed towards the sloping forest, where Olivia might be. “She’s out there and until she’s back in our arms, I’m not going to stop looking for her.”
“Psh. You are always trying to make me look like the bad guy! I care just as much, Nancy!”
The paper I clutched was comforting but I no longer glued my gaze to its words. I looked at Molly. “That’s the thing, Bill. You give up too fast. You didn’t even fight for me, for us. When I told you I wanted a divorce, you said nothing. You just sat there. Now it’s time to get off your, uh, ass.” I glanced at the open door that led to the kitchen, where my mom was preparing us a lunch of mac and cheese and frozen peas. I worried she’d hear me cuss.
“And scene!” Ada declared, jumping from her seat. Feeble claps came from the eighth graders behind us. “Wow! Elsie, I won’t kid you, I was not expecting that.”
“Yeah, Elsie, that was awesome. You really captured Nancy’s anger,” Molly said, playfully tapping my arm with her script.
Ada stared at me with a small, reflective smile. I squirmed under her gaze. “Great job, sis. Alright, next we have Harry and Amanda.” Ada only ever called me sis when she was grateful I didn’t snitch on her, it had never been used in the context of praise. I sat in the grass and watched the rest of the pairs run through the same dialogue. Ada’s razor eyes watched each one of them just as closely, but she never told anyone else they were “great,” and that, against my contempt for her, made me feel good.
A day later I sat outside and read, burying my bare toes into the cool dirt mindlessly. Ada startled me when she plopped down beside me.
She peered at what I was reading and when she saw the cover of Number the Stars she scoffed and adjusted her hat lower on her forehead. “Oh come on. Don’t tell me you’re already starting summer reading. We’ve been out of school for like a week.”
I dog-eared the page and looked at her. “Did you want something?”
Her scowl melted easily into a toothy grin. “I wanted to tell you I’m casting you as the lead. You’re gonna be Olivia!”
Before I could respond, Ada threw her arm around my shoulder and squeezed me tight. “Yup, I already know you’re gonna be perfect for the role. I really didn’t think anyone else was that good so you’ll have to carry quite a bit of the performance but Molly and I will be here to help. Where did you learn to act like that anyway?”
Uncomfortable with how sweaty her palm was, I tried to loosen her grip. “Uh–I don’t really know.” I didn’t, honestly. I had only ever acted once before, and that was in fourth grade when our school put on A Christmas Carol. I was Tiny Tim.
“It’s probably because you read too much. You just understand the characters easy.” Ada removed her arm and began picking her fingernails. I had never thought of it like that.
“It seems like a good script.” It was like Ada was seeing me for the first time. I felt awkward and like I had to say something nice back. “And you’re gonna be a great director. I can’t believe you got all those people to come audition.”
Ada smiled. “It wasn’t easy, but Molly was a great help, too. I’ve been so excited about this all year, and now that it’s actually getting started I can hardly believe it.” She leaned back on her elbows. “Once it’s all put together, I want to do a big screening right here. We can tie a big sheet to those trees and Harry’s dad has a projector I think he’d let me borrow, and speakers, too. We can make lots of popcorn and it’ll feel like a real movie.”
I could imagine our backyard covered in blankets and lanterns and the low noise of kids in anticipation, their silence when the screen turned on and the blue glow it’d cast on everyone’s wide eyes, then finally the burst of cheers that would erupt when the screen displayed “THE END.” I could tell Ada was picturing this, too. She stared dreamily at the backyard like she was already there. I smiled thinking that the title screen might say: “INVISIBLE Written and Directed by Ada Monday, Starring Elsie Monday.” Mom would feel righteous about that, I was sure.
“Alright, well, I’ll leave you to your book. I’ll get another copy of the script printed for you.” She stood and brushed off her jeans. “You should start memorizing the moment I put that script in your hands, got it? I want to start rehearsals as soon as possible.” She called back as she opened the screen door, “Hear that? A.S.A.P!”
In the weeks that followed I spent hours each day practicing Olivia’s lines in my bedroom. While making a bowl of cereal one morning in the kitchen with her parents, Olivia realized she couldn’t be seen by anyone. The first third of the movie followed Nancy and Bill and them trying to find Olivia, then it’s revealed that Olivia was actually with them in each scene, screaming her head off and hoping one of them would finally hear. This meant that most of the scenes were done twice, once without Olivia and once with her. I thought this was a rather clever technique on my sister’s part. Molly told me to really think about what Olivia wanted beyond to be literally seen. The further I read, I started to understand that Olivia felt invisible to her parents who were wrapped in a messy divorce. They didn’t understand her or listen to her and I often repeated the line, “Oh, why can’t anyone just see me!”
Ada was a picky director and forced us to do scenes over and over until they suited her just right. I knew we’d have to start from the beginning when Ada curled her nose and rested her chin on her fist. She’d say, “Let’s try this one more time” and all the kids would groan. We were actors in her movie and she made sure we understood that. Some days it’d be too much. One afternoon, Ada had us redo a scene three times, a scene pivotal for Olivia. I was giving it my all, but every time I’d see Ada’s nose begin to scrunch, my stomach would turn and I’d lose my focus.
“Elsie, I just need a little more from you. Olivia is ready to give up, ready to accept this as her fate. This is her plea–”
“I am trying, Ada, but I don’t know how many times I can repeat this over and over–”
It escalated from there. I called her a dictator and ran to my room and Ada sent everyone else home for the day. All afternoon I thought over the scene, trying to understand how Ada could want any more from me. When my anger cooled and it felt like my muscles had all finally loosened again, I read the scene over one more time.
Script in hand, I knocked on Ada’s door though I doubted she’d hear me over her music. The door was unlocked. “Ada, I think I get what you mean–”
I stopped in my tracks. Ada hurled herself from Molly, nearly falling off the bed. Molly’s face soaked red and every cuss word I’d ever heard flew from Ada’s mouth as she slammed the door. I retreated to my room, stunned. It looked like Ada and Molly were kissing but they broke apart so fast I could hardly say for sure. A few moments later there was a soft knock on my door. I knew it was Ada. She came inside and sat beside me on my bed.
“I’m sorry for cussing at you,” she said, looking down at her hands that she couldn’t keep still. “I want to explain before you run and tell mom–”
“I’m not gonna tell,” I interrupted. The thought never crossed my mind, honest.
Ada sighed and her shoulders relaxed. “That’s good. Thanks, Elsie. I’ll just cut to the chase then. Molly is my girlfriend. We’ve been dating since New Years and no one knows but you. I know you might be confused about all this, but I am, too. Molly just makes me really happy.”
I shrugged. “Then that’s all that really matters, right?” I felt weird about it. Ada was lying to everyone and no one knew it. Ada was right to think our parents would be mad, though.
Ada stared at me, her eyes looking wider than ever with her cap gone and her forehead bare. Her eyes were a bit red and I wondered if she’d been crying. “Thanks, sis. That means a lot.” I wrapped my arms around her and she squeezed me tight before pushing me off. “Alright, alright.” She laughed and wiped her nose and tapped the top of my head with the rolled-up script that I was holding. “We can talk about this some more later, but right now I need my star actress to get back to work.”
I smiled and nodded and with an awkward grin over her shoulder, Ada left. Re-reading the scene again, I realized how much Olivia meant to Ada and wondered whether Ada, who had only ever been loud and rough and would sooner risk being grounded than concede to anyone else’s opinion, felt as invisible as the character she wrote. Suddenly, Olivia was a little more important to me, too.