by Leila Martin
Fluorescent strips glare down at me, competing with the mid-afternoon sun blazing through the window. The fan drones a weary dirge in the corner. I blink at the screen and pluck wilted polyester from my back.
“Type these up, wouldya?” A tanned hairy hand thrusts a sheaf of notes at my nose. I take them; my own hands are small and plump in comparison, white as the paper.
His writing is worse than usual, scrawled like a child’s. Pete’s having a bad day. I know it’s because another team member’s gone AWOL. I squint. ‘Proponent’? ‘Propose’?
“Hey, whatya gawping for? Get on with it.” Under his breath, but loud enough for me and the office to hear, Pete adds: “Frog-eyed freak.”
They all hate me. At least Pete’s direct about it. They hate me because I’m different. Human nature. People get stressed, they look for someone to take it out on. That’s human nature, too. I start to type.
“When he does turn up, you tell him to get his goddamn lazy ass here tomorrow or don’t come back at all.” Pete slams the phone. I feel his desk shake as I drop off the report. “We’re working late. Got it?”
Brief glances are exchanged; the team hunker over their desks.
Pete’s chair hits the wall and his gaze sweeps the office. His fists and jaw are clenched. His stare crawls over me. I stare at my screen.
“Hey,” Pete snatches up the report from his desk. Strides over, grabs my wrist, hard, and hauls me to my feet. His face crooks into a sneer and I catch a whiff of fresh onion and stale whiskey. “Look at this.” He stabs the paper. “Wanna explain, huh? You finally gonna open those puffy lips? Maybe give us a song, huh?”
“Croaks like a toad, I’ll bet,” someone adds.
The mistake must be Pete’s. I’ve been careful. I pick up his notes and hold them next to the report; the same. His error. There’s a flicker of realisation in Pete’s eyes. But he can’t lose face. ‑He claps me on the back so hard I see stars. “Had you going for a minute, there. Right? You should have seen that big trout mouth of yours wobbling like you’re gonna cry!”
Weak chuckles echo around the room.
“Watch yourself,” he mutters into my ear. “Folks are going missing. They reckon maybe there’s a predator out there. And you,” he nods. “You stand out, eh? Look at you. A weirdo and a retard. Prime target.”
Headlights wake to glare at me as I pass through the parking lot. My shoes clip the baked asphalt. Outside, the chill bites through my jacket. Nearly nightfall; I pick up my pace.
I jam my key in the door, step inside and toss the keychain on the counter. I tear off my clothes, take a swig of vodka. It tastes like ice and amnesia. I wipe my mouth with the back of my arm. My head swims.
Look at you.
In the shower I spin the dial to blue. Shudder. Scrub vigorously, all over, every inch cleansed, down to the webbing at my toes. My skin sings, cool and slippery. I crouch, bow my head and the water drums my crown.
I tread wet prints over the lino into my bedroom. I grip my dressing table and stare up at my reflection, down at my fists. My knuckles bulge like misshapen pearls.
You stand out. Look at you. I shake my head, but his damn voice cycles through my mind. A weirdo and a retard. Prime target. Look at you. Look at you.
I grab my biggest brush and flip open my compact. I flick glitter-flecked highlighter over my cheeks and temples. I smooth frosty blue shadow over my eyelids, glide and blot coral lipstick. I dab cold drops of varnish on my fingertips and hang opals from my ears.
The moon pools at my feet. Satin whispers over my damp skin. I glare at my reflection. I’m Death-pale, polished to a high shimmer. Outside the night holds its breath, releases it with a sigh.
I let the breeze carry me through the night, into the bright wash of streetlights. Cold fingers lift the fronds of my hair.
I feel them, behind me. In the shadows. Let them watch. Let them follow.
The Indigo Room beckons, the arrow’s staccato flicker speckled with the corpses of hypnotized bugs. I float down the steps, past reeling drunks and fumbling couples. The doorman stares. I lift a painted nail to his chest and push gently. He steps back, dumfounded. I slip inside.
Heavy music throbs in my bones. The air is stagnant with sweat and slow-curling smoke. Diffused disco lights ooze through the murk. Low laughter mingles with the clink of glasses. Faces turn as I pass. Head high, I glide for the bar and point to the vodka. The barman blinks. I nod. Lift two fingers: double. Straight up.
I knock back the shot, point for another and push a note towards him. Someone bumps me. “Watchit.” He looks me up and down and breaks into a bleary grin. “Hey.”
I drift onto the dancefloor, sway, raise my arms, trace patterns in the smoke. Fingertips reach out, tentative at first, sliding on satin. Startled murmurs and soft laughter. Lips urgent on my neck.
They’re here, emerging from the shadows. Closing in. I head towards the fire exit; they follow me out into the alley. There’s no breeze anymore. The night is still as a swamp.
I turn to face them. They’re banging broad shoulders, a tangle of legs stumbling, loosened by liquor. There’s the flash of a blade. They keep their distance for now. They’re hoping I’ll run. My stomach clenches.
“Oh, you’ve got to be shitting me! You guys, look who it is! Jesus, I knew you were a freak, but this…” Pete waves his knife clumsily at my face.
He knew all along, though. They all did. They thought I hadn’t noticed them following me from work and waiting in the shadows outside my flat. Passing a bottle of whiskey, gazing up at my window as I changed. Their eyes crawling over my skin like bugs.
“You don’t belong here.” Pete jabs his knife, accusing. “You’re wrong. Ya hear me? This bitch is outa place. Whatya think?” He turns to the others and they slur their agreement, playing along, for the paycheck, for the easy life. For the chance, at last, to take out their frustration. So many of them, tonight. My stomach twists again, hard.
I’m so hungry.
I open my mouth wide.
I grin at them. ‑I let them get a real good look at my teeth.
They can’t take their eyes off me.
I wink. Beckon them closer. The knife clangs to the ground.
Too late, they try to run.
As I lunge, I glimpse myself reflected in the blade spinning at their panicked feet.
Look at you. I am dazzling.
Leila Martin is a writer from the UK, where she shares a small house with a small number of people and a tremendous number of books. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Cossmass Infinities, Fireside, and Daily Science Fiction. You can find her on Twitter @Bookishleels.
∼ Read April’s story, The Overnight by T.M. Morgan ∼