She gripped onto the carefully wrapped present and knocked on the door, telling her hand to stop shaking. Telling it internally of course—out loud would be odd and she was on thin ice. “Gertie,” squealed the lady at the door. She wore a simple but elegant dress and Gertie suppressed the urge to look down at her own outfit. She shouldn’t have worn so many patterns. That would be strike one.
“Hi Helen,” said Gertie, allowing herself to be ushered in to the tasteful front room. A small group of people holding notebooks and pens stood by the door.
Helen looked plaintively at the watchers, “She didn’t compliment my dress.” Gertie felt her insides melt—so soon? Two mistakes this early couldn’t be good. The watchers shook their heads and scribbled furiously. Helen turned back to Gertie, “So, did you have a difficult drive?” All eyes were on Gertie.
“Um,” more scribbling, “it wasn’t bad, although the road was blocked on Main Street.” This time smiles accompanied the note taking. Helen visibly relaxed and Gertie felt like maybe she would do OK. “Sometimes,” she laughed, “I like to pretend the world has been taken over by the undead, and the only safe place left is my car.” Helen’s face fell faster than a boulder on a coyote. Gertie swallowed, “I mean, I like the comfort of my car,” she gesticulated quickly, hoping to appeal to them, “It’s nice to feel cozy, isn’t it? That’s all I meant…” The pencils of the watchers scrawled manically.
Helen led her to the dining room where the other guests waited: a male and female couple who looked like teachers, a male couple who looked like business tycoons and a man—Helen’s husband—who looked like he posted YouTube videos about organic food and yoga. “Hi,” they all said in unison. Gertie was sure she would find them nice if her life didn’t hang on their judgement. The watchers squeezed into the small room after her and crowded in a corner, eyes invading every moment.
Helen sat beside her husband and indicated a seat, “please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Sure,” Gertie smiled. Too much teeth. She saw the watchers write it down. Frustrated, she held out the present, jutting it out too far and hitting Helen’s husband on the chin. “Oh, gosh I’m sorry,” Gertie snorted, “I wouldn’t want to ruin that perfect chin of yours. I’m sure you get lots of people…staring…um, at that chin.” She sat with a bump.
“Thanks so much,” Helen took the present with endless patience. Her husband forced a smile. “Oh, a porcelain pig. My Nan has those.”
“I was watched once,” said a member of the male couple, “it was horribly nerve racking. Everything you do, written in those little note pads. Sometimes you just feel like grabbing them and flinging them across the room!” He laughed a little too hard, and Gertie knew she would always be grateful. The watchers, however, now cast their eyes over him too.
“You were watched?” said his partner, affecting nonchalance.
“Well,” the man ran a nervous hand over his hair, “I mean, it was nothing. I woke up one morning and they were there. It was probably just because I talk too much at work.”
“You’re in sales,” said his partner, “how on earth can you talk too much?”
The following silence was broken by Helen reaching for a bowl on the table, “Who wants some kale pesto?”
The teacher couple took that as their cue to tell everyone about Mexico. Gertie had always wanted to go to Mexico but wasn’t fond of retracing the steps of people she barely knew. However, she made the dutiful “ooh” noises and noticed with pleasure that the watchers were gently nodding their heads with every scrawl. She could do this; she could be normal.
Time passed and Gertie nodded and chuckled, and her glass was refilled and she nodded again and chuckled again, when after the third refill she decided perhaps it was time to speak. “I went on holiday to Dorset once,” she said.
“Oh, gosh, really?” said the female teacher, “Was the countryside beautiful?”
She’s asking me a question, thought Gertie. I’m being asked a question because I belong here. “Yes,” said Gertie, “it was.” The watchers smiled. Gertie thought her heart would float away. “I’d like to make a toast,” she slurred, attempting to get up and hitting her knee on the table. Ignore it, she told herself, ignore it and it didn’t happen. The watcher’s smiles faded.
“Uh, Gertie…” said Helen.
Gertie couldn’t back out now, that would look worse. So she ploughed right on, “I would like to make a toast to…being normal.” Everyone’s heads fell into their hands. Gertie raised her glass into the air, and the liquid slopped over the side, trickling through the air like a tiny tsunami. Droplets fell onto Helen’s husband and the male couple, but the majority splashed onto Helen. Nothing happened for a tiny moment, then…
It was over. She lay on a stone table surrounded by white, waiting for something. His face leaned down to hers. It was a kind face. Was it God? “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “you failed.” But she wasn’t afraid. When her body froze and the rock crept into her bloodstream, she had only to look into those all-knowing eyes and everything was OK, everything was as it should be.
Madeleine Swann’s novella, Rainbows Suck, was released by Eraserhead Press and her first collection by Burning Bulb. Her stories have appeared on The Wicked Library, Other Stories, podcasts, and in various anthologies.