Eye of the beholder

I follow Chuck Wendig’s blog and sneak looks at his posts when I should be doing something boringly adult at work. I don’t really have time to do flash fiction. Hell, I barely have time to look at my WIP. But then I saw this.

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I asked my 2 children for a number each. They both chose 17. I asked them again.

I got 7 and 17. Body horror and parallel universe. It’s rough but I finished on time. Here goes.

Eye of the Beholder

I relived that terrible meeting all the way home. Kim was perfectly made up, her lipstick red enough to command attention but not so red that it was an outright invitation. When she started to explain the concept that we’d gone over together, the shock of betrayal jolted through me. I blinked, and blinked again, probably looking foolish. I clamped my mouth shut and fixed my gaze on her treacherous mouth as she took the credit for my idea. I’d been taken in by her surface gloss and never saw the knife.

I pulled the covers tighter around my neck. Sleep was obviously not going to come easily even after three glasses of Chardonnay, and random thoughts chased endlessly around my skull. I should learn better judgement, because thinking the best of everyone just wasn’t working out. I got up and peeped between the curtains just as a shooting star streaked across the dark sky, wishing I could see the truth about people. Then I rearranged the curtains to block out every light beam and got back into bed to count sheep.

An unfamiliar trilling punctured my dream, and I peered bleary eyed at my clock next morning. It must have been ringing for some time, and when I realized the time I rolled out of bed with a curse. In the shower a blast of cold water soon woke me up. I actually screamed. Obviously more tired than I thought or maybe hungover, because I’d turned the wrong dial. Hot is on the left, stupid. I fiddled with the dials and eventually got the temperature right, then fumbled again to switch it off. I pulled out a white shirt and navy suit. My wardrobe needed updating, where had all these dark suits come from? I liked a little personality in my work wear, but the wardrobe was full of soberly coloured clothes. No time to wonder about that, because if I didn’t leave soon I would definitely be late for work.

Outside the sun shone brilliantly and I walked at a good pace towards the Metro station. They must have rebranded, and how much had it cost to come up with that new logo and colour scheme? No doubt the commuters would pay for it in even higher season ticket prices. I was so absorbed in my train of thought that I didn’t see the man in front of me stop to pick up a dropped book. I collided heavily with him, and the stream of people broke and flowed around us.

“I’m so sorry!”                                                                                                                             He smiled up at me, brown eyes crinkling at the corners and said, “My fault, don’t worry about it. I should take more care of my things.” He stood up still smiling, watching my face, and I returned the smile. Yes, he was nice looking but I had a train to catch. He said, “Getting the 7.45 I guess.”

“Yeah, need to get going. Sorry again.” I was torn between being polite and not missing my train, but as he opened his mouth to reply a forked tongue flicked between his teeth. I blinked and it was gone, but I watched his lips. It couldn’t be.

“…travel together if you like.” His words came into focus.

“No, no thanks, I’m…bye.” I turned away and pushed forward into the crowd.

What was wrong with me? He probably thought I was flirting with him, staring at his mouth like that. I kept my eyes fixed on the posters, but when the doors opened I had to move to let people board the train. I didn’t remember seeing so many good-looking people on this train before, and they all seemed to smile at me. It was shocking to see lizard tongues in at least two-thirds of them. I looked from one to the other, but no-one else seemed freaked out. Across the aisle a young woman chatted to her friend, and she looked normal until little mouths erupted on her cheeks and forehead. “Oh, you can tell me. I know how to keep a secret.” The mouths opened and closed like fish gasping for air, and I gagged. No, this was all wrong. I closed my eyes and thought back. Alarm tone, shower, clothes, Metro signs. Odd people.

“It’s a dream.” I must have said it aloud. The man next to me immediately smiled and said,

“It was a good dream, because you look great.”                                                            “This is not real.” I ignored him and pinched my arm hard, closed my eyes and opened them. He was in front of me, and I watched his mouth carefully. No forked tongue, and I exhaled with relief.

“Can I help? My name’s Tom by the way.’ He held out his hand, and I watched his slender fingers thicken and twist. His nails grew long and yellow, crusted warts dotted his skin. I looked at him again and his smile became a sneer over sharp red-stained teeth.

“No! Don’t touch me.”                                                                                                            “I only want to help.” Even his voice grated, and I put one hand to my ear before turning and elbowing through the crowd to the door. Thankfully we had reached the station and I ran along the platform. Nausea twisted in my stomach and I dared not look at anyone. Pinching my skin didn’t help, and I stumbled towards a blue sign. Exteren didn’t mean anything to me but that was where everyone had gone, and I needed fresh air. I needed to wake up.

The sun was unnaturally bright and I looked around for somewhere to sit and pull myself together. Sweat dripped down my face and I took off my jacket and made my way towards a park. I watched mothers and children walking to school. The young children and babies were fine, but every adult bore different marks. Most were not visible until they spoke. Then their skin shimmered and changed. Some had deep slashed wounds dripping blood and pus, some had barbs or scales, while others bore tumours and swellings that distorted their bodies. Yet they acted as though nothing was wrong. Everyone tried to talk to me as they passed, even when I shook my head and stared at the ground.

“Are you okay?” A pair of feet in school shoes appeared, and I forced myself to raise my head. The feet belonged to a boy of around ten in school uniform. “My mum sent me to ask you. She said to tell you she’s a nurse.”

I looked past him to the young woman smiling at me. She approached and said,

“I just wanted to help if you need it.”

I checked her out; no snake tongue, regular hair and skin, about thirty. “Thanks but I’ll be fine. Just need my first coffee and Danish, that’s all.” My legs twitched but I couldn’t move. She sat next to me and placed a hand on my arm.

“You look like you need a friend. Someone like me.”

I opened my mouth to reply but dots bloomed on her skin, coalescing into dark holes from which a multitude of tiny hands reached out. My mouth fell open, I couldn’t breathe, and when I looked her face had vanished, replaced by a black void surrounded by rings of shark like teeth. Her son smiled at us both as long red gashes appeared on his cheeks. His left eye wept black tears, and the faceless monstrosity sucked the air from my lungs.

“Mum’s great at helping people, everybody says so.”

I wrenched my arm away and ran, past all the people with their grotesque disfigurements, but I tripped and fell. Hands and voices surrounded me.

“You’re a good person. Be my friend. Be my lover. I need you.”

Terrified, I felt my face and arms. They were sore from all the pinching, but smooth. “Am I the only one who can see?” Fangs and claws and wounded flesh threatened to overwhelm me. My heart hammered in my throat. This is the part where I wake up. But I am awake. No. I curled into a ball on the ground and heard endless screaming as the arms closed in. I suppose that was me.

I open my eyes to brilliant shafts of sunlight pouring through circular windows. There are gardens of calming green outside. I’m wearing a close-fitting white suit, like the others in the dormitory. They smile in welcome, and their faces don’t change. I cry with relief and hug the nearest woman, “Thank God. You’re normal.” “We see what is hidden, but we cannot unsee it. The truth is a curse. Welcome to Azilon. You are safe with us.”

But when the bell rings they pull their hoods down over their eyes and turn away to huddle together. The door is locked from the inside.

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