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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Announcing the Winner of the 2021 ServiceScape Short Story Award

Raluca Balasa of Burlington, Canada is the winner of the 2021 ServiceScape Short Story Award. Raluca holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Reno. Her approach to writing is character oriented, often dealing with love/hate relationships, antiheroes, and antagonists who make you agree with them. Her short work has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Aurealis, The Mithila Review, and Grimdark Magazine, among others.

Raluca Balasa
Raluca Balasa, author and winner of the 2021 Servicescape Short Story Award

Currently, Raluca works as a freelance editor and English teacher in the Toronto area. Her debut science fiction novel, Blood State, was released in September of 2020 from Renaissance Press.

You can find her story below. We look forward to reading more great submissions for our 2022 contest.

Vanishing Act

By Raluca Balasa

When I say I am becoming invisible, they laugh and reply, "But I can see you. You're right here."

My therapist nods like a bobblehead and brings out the sing-song voice that sets my teeth on edge. "And what makes you feel invisible, Zora?"

I get it. When they look at me, they see a small-boned, frizzy-haired girl with freckles dusting her nose and eyes set too deep, too far apart. Straight out of Psych 101, they think, the unremarkable often feel ignored. Have I tried pole dancing to boost my confidence? Reciting positive reaffirmations in the mirror? Dating more?

But my last date looked right through me when I greeted him. Would have walked right through me, too, if I hadn't jumped out of the way. He veered for the bar and struck up a conversation with the bartender. I caught the words "stood up" and "hard being a straight man these days" before deciding I'd dodged a bullet.

Or, if the bullet had also gone straight through me, at least I hadn't felt it.


The first strange incident happened a month ago at work.

Working at Toronto General Hospital means washing your hands ten, twenty, fifty times a day. I can't count the number of times I've scolded grieving wives and parents for going straight from the crapper to the door. You can open hospital doors with your foot these days – not that anyone ever does. No, people wrap their piss-stained fingers around the door handle and continue with their lives feeling good about themselves.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" I said to an old lady wearing a knitted skirt. Scolding old people feels the worst, but it comes with the job. Nurses deal with all the crap – literal and figurative – that doctors don't want to handle.

This woman did notice me. She turned back, frowning, and ran her hands under the faucet as if they were butterfly wings too delicate to thoroughly wet. Still not a great washing technique, but she'd tried, so I held my tongue. While she ripped paper from the automatic dispenser, I moved to the sink to follow my own advice. The first faucet – the one Grandma had used – didn't work, so I tried the second. The third. The fourth.

I looked up then. I'm not sure why – maybe I wanted to share an exasperated glance with myself – but I caught my reflection flickering. It was only for a moment, like the wink of sunlight on glass, but in that brief moment, I had disappeared.

Finally, my eyes moved beyond my now-steady reflection to the old lady's behind me. She didn't seem shocked or surprised. In fact, she was watching me with tight lips curling, as if she enjoyed seeing me fail my own test.

Right. I had piss-stained fingers to resolve.

I moved my hands fast, then slowly, but not a single faucet worked. Sweat pooled beneath my scrubs.

Muttering curses, I dug through my purse for my champagne-scented sanitizer. I spilled some onto my pants, but the paper towel dispenser wouldn't cooperate, either. The old lady left the bathroom shaking her head and muttering, "Sacre bleu, quelles manières horribles…"


I've never seen my reflection flicker again, but maybe that was when I started fading. Maybe that little old lady cursed me for calling her out on her poor hygiene.

At first, I didn't think much of it. It's easy not to notice you're fading when you come from a long line of Sicilian Italians; you can hardly get a word in anyway. I rent a one-bedroom in Scarborough, but my parents and grandmother live in Barrie, so every other weekend I return to a) report what I've been eating, b) confirm that yes, I am still single, and no, my priority at TGH is not snagging a young doctor, and c) help with whichever crazy projects my family has dreamt up that week. Most recently, Dad decided to build a fence. Only "stupid Canadians" consulted instructional YouTube videos, so I had to do it myself while he hammered posts at roughly seventy-degree angles from the ground.

"Listen to me, Zora. I know how you think. I used to be just like you."

"Have you even measured the peri–?"

"You need to start a family. Your best years are already behind you. Desmond has a son about your age – a little dull, but maybe you'll like him."

You have to understand that Dad never means these comments as insults – which drives me even crazier. The road to hell is paved with good intentions or however that saying goes.

"You're not doing it right," I snapped. "The video says the posts need to be every six to eight feet –"

"Look at your Ma and me, huh? Where would we be without each other?"

At which point Ma stuck her head out the window and shouted, "Che uomo inutile! Does that look like a fence to you, Nonnina?"

Nonnina was happy to take it from there.

I don't have siblings. My only cousin lives in Germany. I often wished I was more invisible to my family. If they didn't want to hear me, why did they have to see everything I did, to judge the way I had chosen to live my life? Why couldn't they just fully ignore me?

Nonnina would say I am paying for a sin against God – that by wishing this, I've incurred His wrath. Or perhaps she would shush me and wrap me in her arms, and I would sit in her lap like a child as she braided my hair with ribbons and told me tales of old Sicily. I can no longer know. I have passed out of existence while my grandmother – my family – remains solid and unmovable as stone.


If this is my fault, I must have racked up the bad karma. The thought eats at me in my lowest moments. Do I deserve this? I've never been religious, but if there is a god out there, I'd like to see an inventory of my sins.

Maybe that very thought is one of the sins that landed me here.

But there's something else – a deeper sin, if you would call it that – that sits hollow in my gut even in those moments when I ascend above self-pity. It's something I regret for the act itself, not because it might have led me to invisibility.

Let me tell you about a recent patient of mine. His name was Mr. Jankowski, and he pretended he didn't speak English so that the nurses would call his grandchildren to translate. He constantly came in and out for palpitations and high BP. Typical stuff. His wife died a year ago, which I think catalyzed his need for attention.

"Ignore him," Grandkid Jankowski would say. "Tell him you'll give him more meds and send him home."

What a bitch, I thought the first time Mr. Jankowski came in. I skipped lunch to play Scrabble with him, though he kept pretending not to know any words except cat, bat, and the like, so the game was rather unsuccessful.

She's exaggerating, I thought the third time Mr. Jankowski came in. I spoke with Dr. Nussbaum to switch him from Norvasc to Metoprolol and start him on Lorazepam for anxiety.

He's a little irritating, I thought the seventh time Mr. Jankowski came in (BP 180/80). His English miraculously got better every time I saw him and every time Grandkid Jankowski refused to pick up her phone. I started suspecting he came in just to see me, to talk to someone.

"You're neglecting your other patients," Dr. Nussbaum told me. "There are people here who actually need your attention."

So I began ignoring Mr. Jankowski, cutting him off when he went on his I-gave-up-a-scholarship-to-the-University-of-Warsaw-for-my-kids tirade and refusing to return his smiles in the halls. Something inside me broke, then, seeing the effect that had on him. His face melted like candlewax.

He hasn't returned to the ER since. I don't know what happened to him, but I think about him every time I am stared through and my shouts – for attention, validation, a little bit of affection and human contact – go unheard.


I became invisible on an exponential curve: slowly, then so fast I could barely process what was happening. At first, it was only technology refusing to respond to me, which seemed inconvenient but not overly odd. Technology's always screwing up, right?

Soon, though, I had to say something five times before getting a response – not just with family, but even at work. Patients didn't notice me taking their vital signs until I squeezed the pressure cuff around their arms. I signed in for my shifts and spent countless hours at TGH only to have other nurses swear they hadn't seen me all day. I grew tempted to see if I could actually move through people, so I tried it one day. Instead of swerving in the hall to avoid a collision like I normally did (men never moved first, but lately, not even children had been giving me the right of way), I held my ground.

I banged head-on into a visiting cardiologist. He dropped his clipboard, papers swirling slow motion into the air, his glasses askew, and the stethoscope around his neck hanging like a crooked tie. The poor man looked absolutely befuddled. He muttered a quick apology, but I could tell that I hadn't left an impression on him.

As he bent to pick up his papers, he muttered, "Must have been mopped. Damned janitors didn't leave a sign."

It was another week before I thought to reframe my invisibility as invis-ability. Hokey, I know, but how else was I supposed to get through this? Here was my chance to learn all the stuff nurses weren't supposed to know.

So on a busy Wednesday afternoon, I loitered in the reception room, listening to two neurosurgeons gossiping and hoping to overhear something about a promotion or raise. Turns out neurosurgeons' gossip is just as dull as the receptionists'. Dr. Nussbaum had a crush on Jenny (who didn't?), the OR was in for a remodel, and Dr. Muller was expecting. Big deal.

I was turning to leave – standing right in the open doorway, I still hadn't been noticed – when I heard my name.

"What about that loud Italian nurse? Zora something?"

Loud? I chewed the inside of my cheek and flipped him off, but, of course, he didn't react.

"Haven't seen her in weeks. She on rotation?"

"No idea. Have Mindy check her work records."

And that was it. No one said my name again in the following weeks, and then it disappeared from the sign-in sheet as if I'd never been.


Today, I haunt the hospital: a true ghost.

I've stopped seeing my therapist; it wasn't helping, and eventually even she stopped seeing me. I can make myself noticed if I shove people like I did with that cardiologist, but they squint and stare as if they can't quite piece me into a whole. When I called Ma last week, all she heard was static.

Have I considered becoming a thief, you ask? A master assassin? All plausible employment options. Maybe one day I'll pursue them, but for now, I can't bring myself to leave TGH.

Not yet. There are people here who still need my attention.

An old woman sits in a wheelchair on the seventh floor, forgotten with her hospital gown backwards and half open. She doesn't seem alarmed when I kneel and start buttoning it for her. It's clear she needs a bath, so I wheel her to her room and start prattling on about the latest season of Vikings. Her milky eyes roam the ceiling while I talk. I know she doesn't see me there, but for the first time in months, I don't care. Dirty water sluices off her, and eventually she cracks a relieved smile. All of it is evidence that I still exist.

There's no way to know if I'll lose my ability to act on the physical world, but I try not to think about that. One step at a time. For now, I take comfort in the methodical, circular motions of sponge on paper-wrinkled skin.

When the nurse finally arrives, he finds the woman clean and settled into bed for the night.

"Vikings," she says when he takes out the menu and asks what she wants for dinner. "It's not just that everyone's hot. There's a great plot too."


I might no longer be seen, but on some level, in some plane, I am heard. While this knowledge doesn't help with the loneliness, it gives me purpose. I became a nurse because I wanted to make a difference. Now, for the first time in my life, I can.

When I visit my parents in Barrie, I see that they have forgotten me. Nonnina still hums my name in a sing-song way, then gazes into the distance and whispers, "Quale poesia?", wondering whether she's heard it before in a poem.

In the kitchen, Ma stirs a pot of soup, pauses, tastes, and says, "Something's missing."

We both know she is not talking about the soup.

I go to the backyard to stand beside my father and whisper, The fence will be crooked. Take out the posts and start again. It's all right to admit that you were wrong.

"Nothin' for it. Gotta take out the damn posts," he mutters.

Ma sticks her head out the window and hollers that she hasn't asked him to un-make a goddamn fence. What kind of a man can't even build a fence?

Silently, invisibly, I make my way back inside to her. Try positive reinforcement. Let's be honest, Ma. You're no Nonnina in the kitchen, yet he's never had anything but praise for your work.

Her face softens. I can see beads of sweat at her temples and fog on her glasses from staring down into the soup. She looks out the window again, stirring contemplatively. She does not go out to him, but she doesn't shout again either. With Ma, you have to take the small wins.

I keep to my regular schedule: work, home, family visits. It takes me two weeks of rifling through computers and files at TGH to find Mr. Jankowski's contact information. Now, I sit in my living room with a glass of pinot – stolen from the LCBO, since I figured I deserve something good from all this – and dial Grandkid Jankowski.


Call your grandfather.

"Uh… hello?"

He gave up a lot for you and your mom, you know. Could have gone to the University of Warsaw on a full scholarship. Did he tell you that? Don't be a bitch and call him.

"Damned scammers!" She hangs up.

I do this for two more days until she blocks my number. Then I start calling from the hospital.

I have no way of learning what's become of Mr. Jankowski. But Ma smiles at my father now, and the fence stands straight and tall in the backyard.

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