She sat alone as a matter of preference. Every afternoon she stopped by a small café nestled in one of London’s hidden side streets. She settled into a tabled tucked in the back corner, far away from everyone and everything.
Her table was always empty; the regulars knew to steer clear and the wait staff kept patrons off her turf. Here she could think and be still. The practice of being alone was not subject to question, much like gravity’s pull. She couldn’t be the only one. She wasn’t that different from anyone else.
The afternoon held the usual London spring air – a slight chill touched by fits of warmth through a wispy gray sky. Her fingers wrapped around a particularly good cup of cappuccino that steamed just enough to keep the chill at bay. Her eyes hovered over the second chapter of a book that had the potential to be a great read. It was a day like any other, blanketed comfortably in the peace of routine and self imposed exile.
The street was quiet, while the café bustled with the clamor of conversation and clanking of cups on saucers. Yet, she was immune to it all, hearing only the words that spoke across the pages of her book. A fictional escape where she could travel without being seen. How easy it was to move from one world to another! With one flick of a mental switch, she could be somewhere new.
The brief interruption of turning one page to the next created a small breach, just enough to for a window to open. Through such a tiny gap, her make-believe world collapsed with a deafening slam. She blinked and nothing was the same. Until this second, this segment of a minute, she never noticed she was the only person who sat at a table by herself. This was not a new occurrence by any means, but the wave of self-consciousness that accompanied this snap observation was revolutionary. They sat in pairs, in groups, and large parties. Everyone except her. In just a flicker, her solitude gave her a new name. Outcast. A word she’d never used to describe herself.
A lifetime of unequivocally knowing herself had been undone. In a horrifying shift, she was flung into peering at herself from a point of view other than her own. To a foreign pair of eyes she was meek, skulking in a dark corner of a cafe. Clueless as to the reasons why the chair across from her always remained empty. Answers were excuses, excuses were answers. Nothing made any sense. An alarming question oozed from forgotten depths: Did she know herself at all? A silent scream tore through her insides.
As she slid a bookmark in her book, her newly paranoid eyes scanned the crowd once again. There had to be some mistake. If there was anything she knew for certain, it was herself. How many hundreds of times had she sat alone in cafés, bookshops and parks? Countless, countless times. And never once did she feel conspicuously alone. Never once did she think of herself as a person who needed to be fixed. Even if that were the case, she didn’t want to be fixed. All she wanted was to dispel this awkward awareness of what everyone might be thinking of her. Those wicked thoughts of abnormality they were all sure to be entertaining.
She was alone and everyone knew it. Her corner of the café shrank, the presence of the crowd crept closer and closer to her sphere. Hunters seeking to reform a dissident. She looked down, her head weighted with crippling uncertainty. The norm of quiet corners had suddenly become criminal and she was guilty beyond defense. She didn’t belong here and it was like every person was asking her to leave.
No one was looking at her, but they were all staring. She could see their eyes. Each pair seemingly locked on her with unflinching focus, even when cast elsewhere. Tiny radars sensing her every irregular behavior. Listening to her every thought. She most definitely had to leave; get away from the scrutiny. She slowly got up, aiming for a stealth retreat. Away from eyes that refused to stop watching.
Her sandaled feet carried her down an empty narrow lane. Uneven cobblestones dug hard into the balls of her feet, but the slap of stone to sole went unnoticed. Instead she hastened her steps, wishing she could run right out of her skin. Flower boxes filled with red geraniums sped past her in a blur; velvet red streaks smelling of spice.
Her steps became less and less careful. The cobblestones more crag-like and treacherous; their peaks and valleys ready to snare her feet into a trap. Inexplicable fear clenched her beating heart, stifling her pulse into a coma. Something was chasing her. She could feel it. . . them. The eyes. They were following her; still watching and criticizing her oddness. She was a freak. A social misfit who had no right to wander off the beaten track.
Growing fear locked her feet to a short stop. She was paralyzed; her fingers and toes ice cold. The book in her hand slipped and fell and into the street. The spine ricocheted off the cobblestones, the cover flew open as it landed in a puddle. She closed her eyes and braced herself to absorb the trepidation that threatened all rational thought.
The gutters dripped from the roofs to the ground. Droplets of water plunked into shallow pools; some even splattering on her fallen book. But nothing else made a sound. Not the air. Not the city. Not even her.
They were here; stalking her. From the shadows they lurked, eying her isolation; devilishly reveling in it’s implications. Ready to pounce the moment she least expected, when she was unguarded and unsuspecting.
It couldn’t be real. She took a deep breath and let the air reach into her fingertips. She was poised to open her eyes and prove it was all in her head. That all she’d see were brick walls, geraniums, and wet cobblestones.
One, two, three. Eyes open. The promise of sanity was broken. Hundreds of pairs of eyes floated in midair the way a spider hangs from a web. They besieged her unblinking and ogling, scoffing her very existence. She bolted.
– – –
It’s been a while since I’ve posted a short story. This particular story has been in my journal for quite a while and I was inspired to post it as a result of last week’s fascination with the free write. Blink started as a free write and has only been slightly modified. This is one of those pieces I was surprised to find hiding inside of me.
– – –