On Seeing

“You just have to have faith,” she told me. “It’s all there right in front of you if you would just open your eyes.”
My eyes were open. I could see everything in front of me. “My eyes are open,” I said.
“No,” she shook her head, hair swinging, lips pressed together. “They’re not. You’re refusing to see. Why?”
I shrugged. “There’s nothing to see.” I didn’t see anything. We were walking down the street. The sidewalk was gray. It was always gray, spotted and pitted and stained like it always was. The buildings were brick and concrete and steel just like usual. The men sitting on the steps hooted at us as we walked past, as they did every day. I didn’t see anything whatsoever out of the ordinary.
She closed her eyes. Her steps didn’t waver. Her hand reached mine, fingers entwining. “I can see,” she said.
“Your eyes are closed.”
She nodded. A smile puffed up her cheeks. She pulled my hand up and against her chest, hard. I heard a whistle, but as if it were far away. I saw.

The air moved. The stumpy trees, crowded between street and sidewalk, breathed. The man eyeing us from the corner made a small noise in the back of his throat. I saw it. I reached up to my face, but it hadn’t changed. My eyes were the same, wide open and staring but no bigger. They felt hot, but my fingers felt no heat through my eyelids. Everything was vibrating, shimmering, wrapped in silver and ringing. I blinked, and watched the slow motion movement of my vision shrinking as the bodies in front of me shifted, like walking through sand, running through water, held in place by time and the gleaming shattering air all around them.

When I opened my eyes again, she had dropped my hand. The world was normal again. The man on the corner was now looking at us with undisguised curiosity, his mouth twisted. Somebody’s dropped bottle of soda rolled across the sidewalk. She was looking at me, her eyes wide now, her lips tucked in.
“What?” I said, pushing hair back from my face, shaking my head.
“You stopped,” she said. “Did you see something? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” I said, closing my eyes tight for a moment. “Everything went funny for a second. What am I supposed to’ve seen?”
“Magic.”
“Magic? Please.”
She raised her shoulders, hands outspread, mouth still crinkled. “Maybe.”
I grabbed her hand again, and we started walking. My legs felt weak, shaking, as though I’d just climbed the longest stairway. “No,” I said, not looking at her. “Come on, be real. There’s no such thing.”
She was quiet.

Sometimes I still see it out of the corner of my eyes. Once you see like that, I guess, it’s learned. You can’t really unsee. Your eyes already know the shapes and patterns, the light that fills everything. The shuddering of the shadows and the way the brightness shakes, presses, bursts. The contrasts are overwhelming. It gives me a headache. I can’t wish I’d never seen. I just pretend that I didn’t, though. I press my fingers to my temples and take a breath and then go on as though nothing has happened at all.
She looks at me oddly when that happens, when she notices. It happens more around her, I think. It makes it hard to be around her, but of course I do anyway. I can’t stop loving her just because I see magic when I’m with her. She’s worth the pain in my head and that brief, disconcerting feeling that the world has shifted just an inch or so in between each shuttering of my eyelids. When she looks at the world, there is wonder written in the lines of her face. I understand why, I suppose, even though when I look at the world it’s ordinary at best. At worst, the beauty and the terror fleeting across my vision make me want to crouch down, eyes closed, head safely inside my arms and nothing before me.
Either way, we keep going, together. There isn’t much else to do, is there? Not for me, anyway. This is just how it always is. Her beauty, my pain. At the end of the day when we curl around each other, it’s night. The room is dark. The lights are off. We press our bodies together, skin to skin, touch over sight. Neither of us can see anything at all.

When Clara Meets the Man of Her Dreams

The walls are made of aluminum and Clara is sure that they will rattle with a hollow metallic ring if she brushes against them. She knows she is looking for somebody, but she doesn’t know who. When she steps her feet sink slightly into the floor and lift out of it with a slight sucking sound. Her skin tingles. The walls are rising higher around her like a maze and then they melt away into puddles at her feet and he’s there in front of her. She won’t be able to describe him later. His face is beautiful, but it is indistinct. Clara walks toward him and he reaches out a hand toward her. She brings her fingers to touch him and jumps a little as though it was an electric shock. He catches her up in his arms and kisses her, taking her breath away. She wakes up gasping.

Her bedroom is square and sharp after the soft edges of her sleep. She blinks bewildered eyes at the walls that only go up to the ceiling and the mess of clothes she left in the corner last night. The breeze from the window brings a musty smell into the room and a car alarm is going off in the distance in the relentless beep-beep-beep that she’s almost learned to tune out completely. Almost. What a lovely man, she thinks.

Clara falls asleep that night half-smiling, wondering if her brain will produce the same man again. She wakes in the middle of the night to stare at the white shape cast by the window and to feel a vague disappointment that he has not returned to her. She dozes again, skimming the surface of sleep and finally sinking beneath it. He is there, and he folds her into his embrace. When she wakes in the morning she can nearly feel the burning imprint of his lips on her skin. Her ears seem to know the sound of his voice, for all that it never sounds in daylight.

The next night, Clara does not see the man at all. She wakes in the morning and her stomach is filled with acid and disillusionment. Sleep is nothing but black when she has no visions of love. The night after, though, she falls asleep bitter and she wakes up delighted, for he came back to her. He’s in there somewhere, she thinks, huddled in her mind until she sleeps when he can come to her. The following night she knows she will see him, and there he is. When she wakes she is shivering from his hands, his tongue, his skin on her. She drifts into reveries during the day thinking of the softness of his hair in her fingers and the glint of light that dances in his eyes.

Clara begins to resent mornings. When she opens her eyes it means she no longer sees him. Her days are long and she counts the hours until she can be in bed again, with her lover again. It never comes soon enough. Everything bothers her in the daytime. The stairs are too steep and the muscles in her legs strain likes strings pulled too tight. Work seems to freeze time, and when she gets home she is impatient to be tired, for her body to soften enough that she can go to bed. She tries sleeping earlier and waking right before she has to leave for work, but it doesn’t work. She has trouble falling asleep early and when she succeeds she jerks from slumber in the middle of the night and cannot return to it. The rest of the night is a long gray block of longing.

Occasionally there is a night that she does not see him. On the mornings after uninterrupted sleep she wakes livid, angry at her brain that it did not produce her lover. She spends all the day in a quiver of irritation until she can rest her head and close her eyes to see him. She has started to notice the process of waking up and the sluggish drag out of the cling of sleep. Her eyes are still closed and her lover still before her, but she can feel the morning come. The light creeps into her room like a thief and robs her of her sleep. She bemoans its loss. Her days are dry and long. Her nights are too short and too beautiful. Clara lives to slip into sleep, where she is loved.

The Gremlin

The gremlins always come in the morning. They like the early hours, when the sun is so timid a suggestion in the sky that everything is barely touched with light. They can creep about then, and sneak under hedges and through windows. That’s when Jenna found one, at five in the morning in her kitchen. It was eating her cereal straight out of the box.

She assumed she was dreaming, all alone in her quiet kitchen as a little furry creature with stubby horns froze and stared at her, paw half out of the box with a handful of Raisin Bran. They looked at each other and then the gremlin raised the waiting hand to its mouth. When it bared a bristling row of teeth, Jenna’s throat caught around a sound — not a word, not a cry, just half a startled “oh!’ The gremlin hurled the cereal, scattering flakes and raisins across the counter, and bounded out the window. Jenna went back to bed and dreamed strange dreams.

A week later, it occurred to her that all her Raisin Bran was gone, though the box still sat empty on the shelf. It must have started on the corn flakes too, because the top of the box was a ragged mess of cardboard. She poured some carefully into a bowl and left it out on the counter. She left a spoon next to it, just in case. Gremlins probably didn’t use spoons, but if they did then this one would have one. She left the window open, afraid that the gremlin’s long-fingered paws might break it. The gremlin was so quiet coming in that it didn’t wake her at all, but in the morning the bowl was clean and empty.

Over the next couple of weeks, Jenna learned some lessons. She discovered that if she woke up and went for a snack, she could sit quietly with the gremlin and eat cereal side by side. As long as she didn’t make any noise, it didn’t flee her. Sometimes it sidled up to her, scooping cereal into its mouth and nibbling on the ends of her hair.

She discovered that the gremlin absolutely refused milk in its cereal, dumping the bowl upside down on the floor in disgust. She discovered, too, that if she gave it Cocoa Pops it tore around the kitchen and knocked over everything that wasn’t fastened down. The sugary cereal went right in the trash after that night.

Jenna is cautiously friends with the gremlin now. She’d never been able to sleep once the sun pushed through the windows, so she gets up at five. It comes in a bit after that and crouches expectantly on the counter while she pours it Raisin Bran (still its favorite.) She makes herself a bowl of Cheerios. Sometimes they split a piece of toast.

How Will I Ever

\When Simon started time traveling, he had no idea where it would lead. Of course, now he walks the tattered streets of days gone by and he still doesn’t know where he’s going. He thought he would know by now, in something resembling the clear-eyed flushing certainty of youth, but with each flick through the years that had all drained away.

At first, all that he could do was revel in the new shining beauty of it. The travel worked, and he took a trembling step into his seventh birthday party. It was an easy memory and as he stood in the back, he could see right through the magician’s tricks. He clapped and cheered along anyway, and his voice blended right in. The party quieted and Simon wandered away, letting his feet lead him to the old elementary school. He remembered it so well as it was, now in front of him, layered in leaves just starting to blush and covered in autumn sun.

Simon’s giddiness was fading in the afternoon light, and his sweater was starting to prickle under his arms. He squirmed, concentrated, and traveled. He went to high school, to the corner behind the gym as the buses were leaving. There had been a girl. Gloria? It didn’t matter, though, her name. He did remember the tilt of her nose and the timbre of her voice. It was a very odd churning feeling, to watch his young self put his hands on her shoulder blades and his face close to hers, waiting like a patient child until she kissed him. Then Simon’s throat tickled and he coughed, and high-school-Simon turned away to look around. He and the girl didn’t seem to see anything. They resumed after only a second’s suspicion – but now-Simon shivered. When he thought about it later, he traced all the confusion, the snarls and the tangles, to that tickle of the throat.

He backed away from the teenaged couple where they stood entwined, nestled in a corner of the brick wall. Simon squinted and traveled back to the moment he’d left in his present time, where he’d been standing in his bedroom with Sophie. She’d been crying. He was there then, in the room, but it wasn’t his room. The walls were yellow instead of white, and there was a little bed with a patchwork blanket. There was quiet – no wife sobbing- and the scent of fake lemon choked the air. Simon thrust through the door, past the living room, and burst into the hallway outside in a panic. The hallway was just the same. The number on the door of the apartment-that-was-not-his was 46. His number. Simon took the elevator down, dazed, and stumbled out of the building to the street. It was the same street, the same address. His phone was in his pocket, and he pulled it out to check the date. May 12th, 2013. Same date. He called Sophie, pressing his phone to his ear. He yanked it away and cursed when half a ring gave way to a screech. No Sophie.

Simon’s mind buzzed and his heart beat in a panicked hurry that made blotches bloom on his sweaty skin. He closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears, shutting off the city street, and he traveled. It might have been something at the birthday party that threw him off, so he stepped back toward it. His heart must have been pounding too fast, his breath too ragged, because he missed. He landed instead, with a thump, in the summer of his tenth year. Now-Simon watched boy-Simon walk right toward him. The boy was listening to Grady deliver high-pitched invective on all the video games of the past year.

Simon wasn’t thinking as the boys sidled around him, arguing now. He had to do something, so he forced a deep breath in and out, then traveled back to the moment with Gloria. She wasn’t there, and neither was his teenaged self. There was nobody, just the cold brick corner of the building. He went forward a day, then two, then three. Younger Simon was never there. Gloria was, with somebody else.

Now-Simon left high school and went early. There he was, a little boy fidgeting with crayons at a restaurant. The smells of food filled the room, and a pang struck Simon’s stomach. For a moment, he could only stare hungrily, and then the boy looked up. Now-Simon’s gaze locked with then-Simon’s and the restaurants murmur sprawled in his ears. The boy looked away, disinterested. Older Simon traveled away.

Memory is a funny thing, in all its knots and webs. When Simon thought about it later, he remembered being in the restaurant, bored because his dad had stopped playing tic-tac-toe, looking at a familiar stranger who disappeared in the space of a blink.

When Simon tried to travel back, to revisit something else, it wasn’t there anymore. he tried his seventh birthday party and got lost on his own street. There were people he’d never seen in his house one day. There was a woman he didn’t know teaching his tenth grade math class. A strange man was holding hands with his mother, the year Simon would be forty. An unfamiliar couple recognized him and spent twenty minutes talking to him in a supermarket. Every time he traveled, he knew he was entangling himself further. Every step he took to a different time changed it – or him – a little. He couldn’t even watch something important, because he was terrified he’d change history that he knew had happened. His throat might tickle. If too many memories switched all at once, he worried that he might go insane. Maybe he already was.

There wasn’t anything else to do, so Simon kept traveling. He visited every moment of his life and then doubled back to watch the tiny shifts in time that spread and covered everything. He held onto the hope that somehow it would all come back right and that he could get back to the version of the world he knew, back to Sophie and the mundane loveliness he’d known. He didn’t, though. He didn’t go back to the time he’d come from, that evening in May, not for more than a day at a time anyway. He kept going, hopelessly raveled in time and enmeshing himself further, like a cobweb that clung, that he couldn’t get free of. He is traveling still.

Survivor

Oh god, sometimes I wake up at night seeing the gleam of his teeth in the shadows lurking in my bedroom and my throat is too tight with terror to scream. He’s coming closer and I can’t make him go away, I’m too afraid, my blood is running cold and my muscles all seize up and my heart is beating a rapid message, telling me that this is new, this is wrong, all of a sudden I’m prey. The adrenaline surges and tries to make me leap into a run but he’s already on me, already lacing his cold cold fingers over my shoulders and drawing me to him. His mouth is cold on my skin but then blood spurts and it’s hot, burning against my skin with his icy lips like brands clamped on me.

I knew it was wrong when I saw that shine. He was already baring his teeth, the monster, already unsheathing the fangs when he slunk closer. He got excited, I guess, he made a sound, a growl that rumbled and muttered in his throat and then he pounced. He grabbed me and just bent me back, like I was a doll or a rabbit or something small and helpless that he could just throw about. Like a packet of ketchup. I was, I guess. I was small and helpless to him. I’ve been small and helpless ever since.

He let me go before I died. They must have to do that, otherwise the people wouldn’t survive, they’d all be left as cold bloodless corpses in the alleys and the corners of the city and the beasts would have to start feeding on rats and pigeons until there was no life left anywhere, and then I don’t know what would happen. I don’t go anywhere by myself anymore, I’m too scared. The next one might let me die. Even if he didn’t, I’d rather he did. I don’t want to be limp and hurting on the ground again. I don’t want to be clasped in freezing hands that dig into my flesh like something human, almost, except that doesn’t know I’m a person. There are more of them these days, stalking the city. They spot a flash of exposed flesh of a pulse beating in someone’s throat and then they hunt. They follow you, soundless in the shadows, until they can smell your fear because you know that you’re being followed in the part of your brain that knows it’s prey. That’s when they come for you. When the terror is rising, they shuffle closer. They slip through the dark and put cold hands on your warm living flesh. When you are afraid, when they can see your eyes go round with horror, when the shivering crawls in murmurs on your skin and your breath is coming short, they get you. Then they bite.

Quiet Shoes

You can’t just buy magic shoes at an ordinary place. It’s not like you can walk into a department store and browse their new fall line of seven-league boots. For that sort of thing you really need to search the deeper depths of eBay or something. I happened to stumble on mine by luck, as though my slip-ons already had a touch of the fairy about them. I wouldn’t even have bought them normally, they’re sort of plain and gray and a bit scuffed around the toes, but when I tried them on they felt so close and comfortable on my feet that I loved them at once. I took them off, paid for them, brought them home, and promptly forgot them at the bottom of my closet for a couple of months.

The first time I wore them, I barely noticed anything odd at all. In my gray shoes I walked to the library at the end of the day, when the world sighs and settles into the beginnings of night. It was starting to be dim and yellow in the streets, so it didn’t seem strange to me that people were bumping into me a lot. I got to the library I leaned into the door so that it rang the bell, and people looked a little puzzled at the sound. The book I needed was way up on the top shelf so I stood on the soft toes of my new flats and coaxed it closer with the tips of my fingers until it fell and hit me in the forehead, pages splaying open.

The only thing that day that was really weird was the librarian at the desk. I stood there, leaning on the fake wood, staring at the librarian’s profile for maybe ten minutes. In that time I coughed, shuffled, sneezed, thunked my book down, and started saying “Excuse me?” When I spoke she glanced over and looked right past me, sweeping her eyes across the room and then turning back to her book. I kept saying it though. My tone went from the politely inquiring pitch of the barely bothered to that nasty hook of a voice that dips and sways on the dangerous edge of making a goddamn scene. I leaned and shifted around, picked up a foot out of its shoe to curl and uncurl my toes, and nearly yelled it at her. My “ExCUSE me!” echoed in the library and she whipped around to look at me.

In the haughtiest tones I think she could probably muster, she said, “Yes, dear, all right, you don’t have to yell.” I shoved my book toward her and waited while she scanned it, then slipped the shoe back on my foot and whisked myself out of the library. I walked home bumping into people again, but I figured that all the elbow-brushing and shoulder-swiping was just me being so annoyed.

It was maybe another week before I really figured out the power of those gray shoes. I mean, that I figured out that it was the shoes and not just everyone ignoring me. It must’ve been the day I fought with Andy – that’s my husband – because at the end of my yelling I kicked off my shoes until they flew and thumped into the wall and I cried. He’d been ignoring me while I ranted, getting dinner together while I delivered a tirade, calling my name out every once in a while when I was right in the middle of a sentence. It only made me angrier, of course, and I told him what a selfish ass he was, how rude he was being, and how pissed I was right as he must have just been so confused by hearing my voice faint in the distance and not knowing where I was.

Once we figured it out I was a lot less mad. Well, Andy really figured it out. He went and picked up the shoes and put them back on my feet as I was sobbing like Cinderella’s freaking prince in our little apartment that smelled of Ramen and laundry. The gray shoes fit back on my feet and Andy’s eyes just went round. He looked right through me. He figured out a way to focus on me so he could see me, after a bit. If he really tried, concentrated on my face, he could see me, but apparently if nobody’s looking right at me and thinking about it I just slip right past their vision. I tested it a lot.

Even when I jump up and down my feet make no sound on the floor in those shoes. The soles tap into the linoleum, or the marble or wood or concrete, and there’s no noise at all. It’s eerie if you’re paying attention, though of course if I’m wearing the shoes nobody else is really paying attention.

I don’t wear the gray shoes that often. I don’t want to scuff them up any more and I don’t want to abuse the magic that lets me duck under people’s notice and sneak around a little bit. I walk in the gray shoes sometimes, not often, when the night is creeping up the horizon and everyone’s glance slides right past you anyway, shoes or no. I don’t do it so often because I don’t need it that much. It is useful every once in a while, though, when there’s some reason that I want to step lightly.

Noisy Boots

The boots clattered down the stairs with a brisk knocking noise and, when they reached the bottom, paused as if deciding where to go next. Lisa looked up expectantly at Kat, who said, “Those are the ones you just bought today?” Lisa nodded and Kat smiled. “They’re really cute. Definitely have a personality to them.”

“They do, don’t they?” said Lisa. She pried them off her feet and tossed them at the foot of the stairs. Her feet in their polka-dotted socks made no sound as she led Kat into the kitchen. They were there for quite a while. They talked about shopping, and what to do for dinner, and other sundry bits and pieces. From where the boots lay, splayed on the floor, their voices rose and fell like strange low music.

Eventually the two women returned to go back up the stairs. Lisa frowned. “Huh,” she said. “Weren’t those tipped over or something?” Kat looked too at the boots, tidily lined up against the wall, and shrugged. They went upstairs, their toes slipping with little whispers on the wood of the steps. Several minutes passed, and then the music of their voices drifted downstairs. They stayed hidden upstairs until nearly seven, and then they slipped and slid down the stairs again, talking.

Kat arrayed herself on one of the kitchen stools, her skirt tucked neatly under her. Lisa opened the refrigerator. Her eyes grew wide, and she stopped speaking mid-sentence.

“What is it, hon?” Kat asked.

Lisa shook her head, and pointed. “How did they get there?” Kat leaned to look, and her eyes widened too. Crowded on the middle shelf were the boots. One had a carrot sticking out its top. Kat jumped to her feet and went to stand next to Lisa, who said, “Do you think someone’s in the house?” Her voice quavered, but then steadied. “I mean, though, why would someone put my boots in the fridge?” She maneuvered them off the shelf and put them down, letting them drop gently onto the floor.

“You know what?” said Kat. “I think I’m going to run upstairs, bathroom. Be right back.” Lisa nodded and sank into a chair, her head propped on a hand. After a minute, there was a faint thud. She started, but she didn’t see anything.

Kat walked out of the bathroom, smoothing her hair, and almost tripped. There on the floor, entirely innocently, sat the boots. She backed away from them and called downstairs, “Hey, Lisa, want to just go out for dinner?”

Lisa nodded, her gaze fixed at the spot on the kitchen floor where the boots weren’t. Then she coughed and yelled back, “Yeah, sure. I’ll just grab my coat and heels.” Behind Kat, the boots stood taller, relieved, but she was already starting for the stairs and didn’t see anything. Another minute later, the slam of the door echoed through the house and reverberated in the empty rooms.

The boots clattered down the stairs with a brisk knocking noise and, when they reached the bottom, paused as if deciding where to go next.