I replayed that disastrous meeting in my head 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 developed together, the shock of betrayal jolted through me.
I gaped, probably looking foolish, then clamped my mouth shut and fixed my gaze on the treacherous mouth taking credit for my idea. She was all surface gloss with a concealed weapon. No-one else saw through it.
My usual ready meal didn’t satisfy. After a shower I pulled on my pyjamas and settled down in front of reality TV to numb my brain. But the bitter retorts that only came to me after the fact would not leave me alone. Bed seemed like a better idea.
I pulled the duvet tight around my neck. Sleep was elusive, even after three glasses of Chardonnay. Random thoughts chased themselves in an endless unresolved stream. I should learn better judgement, because thinking the best of everyone just wasn’t working out. Why couldn’t I see the truth about people?
I got up for a drink of water and peered out at the night as a shooting star streaked across the dark sky. I wished for better days. Then I rearranged the curtains to block out every light beam and got back into bed to count sheep.
Harsh, unfamiliar trilling punctured my dream next morning. When I realised the time I rolled out of bed with a curse and hopped in the shower. A blast of cold water soon woke me up. I actually screamed. Must have been even more tired than I thought, because I’d turned the wrong lever. Half-asleep, I fiddled with the dials and eventually got the water the way I liked it.
No time to waste. I threw on the nearest white shirt and navy suit. Usually I liked a little personality in my work wear, but the wardrobe seemed full of soberly coloured clothes.
Outside the sun shone brilliantly as I strode towards the Metro station. They must have rebranded. How much had it cost to come up with that new logo and colour scheme? No doubt we commuters would pay for it in even higher season ticket prices. I was so absorbed in my train of thought, I didn’t see the man in front of me stop to pick up a dropped book. I collided heavily with him, knocking him over. The stream of people broke and flowed around us without stopping.
“I’m so sorry!”
He looked up at me and got to his feet. “My fault, don’t worry about it.” He smiled, brown eyes crinkling at the corners. “I should take more care of my things.” He was still smiling, watching my face, and I returned the smile. Yes, he was nice looking but I had a train to catch.
He said, “Catching 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 out between his teeth. I blinked and it was gone. I watched his lips. It couldn’t be.
“…travel together if you like.” His words came into focus again.
“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 couldn’t remember seeing so many good-looking people on this train before. They all smiled 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. She looked normal until little mouths erupted on her cheeks and forehead.
“Oh, you can tell me,” she said. “I know how to keep a secret.” The mouths opened and closed like fish gasping for air.
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 spoken aloud.
The man next to me immediately smiled and said, “Then it was a good dream, because you look great.”
“This is not real.” I ignored him and pinched my arm hard. I closed my eyes and opened them again. I watched his mouth carefully. No forked tongue. I exhaled with relief.
“Can I help? My name’s Tom by the way.’
He held out his hand and I watched 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 the blue sign. Exteren didn’t mean anything to me but that was where everyone had gone. Maybe it led outside, and I needed fresh air.
The sun was still unnaturally bright. I looked around for somewhere to sit and pull myself together. Sweat dripped down my face. I took off my jacket and made my way towards a park. Groups of mothers and children walked past on their way to school.
The young children and babies were fine, but every adult bore different marks. Most were not visible until they spoke, when their skin shimmered and changed. Some had deep, slashed wounds dripping blood and pus, some had snake tongues all over, while others bore tumours and swellings that distorted their bodies. Yet they moved and talked and smiled as though nothing was wrong.
Everyone smiled and tried to talk to me, even when I shook my head and stared at the floor.
“Are you okay?” A pair of feet in school shoes appeared. They 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 a young woman smiling at me.
She approached and said, “I just wanted to help, if you need it.”’
I checked her out. She looked about thirty. No snake tongue, regular hair and skin.
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine. Just need my first coffee and Danish, that’s all.” My limbs were leaden. I could not move.
She sat next to me and placed a hand on my arm. “You look in need of help. You look like a good person.”
Her son smiled. Long red gashes opened on his cheeks. His left eye wept black tears. “Mum’s great at helping people, all her friends say so.”
Dots bloomed on her skin, coalescing into dark holes from which a multitude of tiny hands reached out. Her face morphed into black emptiness, surrounded by rings of shark like teeth, a hungry void sucking air from my lungs.
Wrenching my arm away I ran, past all the people with their grotesque disfigurements. But I tripped and fell. Hands and voices surrounded me.
“You look like a good person.”
“Be my friend.”
“Be my lover.”
“I need you.”
Terrified, I checked my arms, my face. They felt the same, except bruised from all the pinching.
“Am I the only one seeing this?” I cried.
The fangs and claws and wounded flesh threatened to overwhelm me. My pulse hammered in my throat. I was trapped, no escape. This is the part where I wake up.
But I am awake.
I curled into a ball on the ground. I could hear endless screaming. I supposed that was me.
I opened my eyes to brilliant sunlight, pouring through circular windows that revealed gardens of calming green. Rows of neat beds occupied one end of the large room. Groups of people conversed in soft voices. It felt peaceful.
I was dressed in a white suit, like the others in the dormitory. For a moment I panicked. What kind of monsters were these? I didn’t want to know, I just wanted out.
“What is this place?” I shouted. “Let me go home.”
A dark-haired woman approached and held out her hand in welcome. “I see you’re awake.”
I studied her face, with its smooth pale skin. Nothing changed.
“Thank God. You’re normal.” I wept with relief.
“We see what is beneath the skin,” she replied, “but we cannot unsee it. Welcome to Azilom. You are one of us, those wretched few cursed with true sight. You are safe here.”
But when the bell rang, they pulled their hoods down over their eyes and turned away to huddle together.
The door was locked from the inside.