Sometimes people watching gets you into trouble. You notice all kinds of things; things you aren’t supposed to. The people you are watching, they are changing. But into what? Are you next?
So you’re standing in the queue for the checkout, clunky red basket in hand and bouncing off of your thigh in semi-impatience. There’s only one person in front of you but whatever they’re buying seems to be taking an age to be scanned.
Biting down the sigh you want to expel from your throat, you settle for tapping your fingers in a piano-scale rhythm on the screen of the phone in your hand. Really. Mozart has nothing on you when you’re stuck in a queue with nothing else to do.
You look at the cashier. Short, cropped blond hair covers his head and his pale hands deftly swipe barcodes left to right, left to right, while his too-long polyester shirt brushes the backs of his knuckles. He looks like he might be wearing his dad’s shirt on a past-laundry day.
He raises his eyes briefly to you and for a second, you feel yourself start. Something not quite right flickered in the back of your mind. Probably tedium at being stood around for an age.
Now the sigh is really threatening to extricate itself if you don’t let it out, and your eyes lift up to the large white clock that looms in the entrance of the shop, ticking down your every second.
Time for a bit of people watching it is then.
Beyond the checkout is the main entrance hall to this shopping centre housing everything from stationery, to shoes, to supermarket, which is where you are right now. From this vantage point you have a wonderful view of people rushing in and out, clutching bags, boxes, and small people by the hand, hurry hurry hurry as though they acknowledge that time is short.
One of the security guards watches the crowds lacking emotion. His navy blue uniform fits exact, unlike the checkout operator’s. For a moment, his eyes flit to yours, and there it is again, that small jolt that’s saying all is not well.
You shake your head as though clearing fuzziness.
The customer in front of you moves, rustles their paper bag full of groceries and leaves, giving you room to move along.
The checkout operator glances up at you, and once more, the hair on the back of your neck stands to attention. An internal alarm bell screeches shrill, alerting you that something really isn’t right.
He reaches out those long pale fingers to give you your change, and instinct tells you to avoid the contact of his skin.
Gathering up your things, you leave, aware of the sheen of sweat that is on your face and how out of place it is on this cold autumnal day.
You feel his eyes watching you leave.
You pass the security guard you saw earlier, and he too seems to be staring through to your innards. Your heart beats out a staccato rhythm and you find yourself on the verge of sprinting for the exit.
A woman is walking towards you. Normal, you think, nothing to worry about here, as you take in her office attire and purchases swinging in her hand. Normal until your gaze reaches her face. Pale. Cold, empty eyes bearing down on you.
It’s like when you notice something for the first time. A new jacket you like the look of suddenly appears everywhere. That vintage car that crossed the zebra crossing too quickly for your liking this morning is now, at least in your mind, attempting to mow you down on every street.
See now what you’re noticing is just how many pale faces there are around you. Pale, with empty stares that feel like they’re piercing your skin. Their eyes, once they find yours, never leave. They stop, staring at you, watching you pass, never preventing you from leaving but making you feel panicky and forcing you to walk even faster.
On the streets outside, the situation is much, much worse.
If you keep your head down and don’t look, people pass you by as though it were a normal day. But if you look up, even a glance, even for a second and make eye contact, they stop. Their eyes are boring down on you. It’s as though you weren’t supposed to notice.
But what you are noticing is that they’re increasing in number. What you see is that one of these pale faces walks up behind a regular person and places a hand – always the left hand, on a shoulder – always the left shoulder, and it is as though a current of electricity has run through their bodies. They stop in their tracks; their hands flex, their head slumps forward for a second, and then it rises. If you’re close enough you can see their skin growing paler, as if the colour was being leached out of it. No matter the skin colour. No matter the exposure to the sun. All grow pale as if the very pigment is being leached out, and the only real colour remaining evident is the blue of their veins beneath their skin.
You aren’t supposed to notice. That’s what you’re getting from this. Whatever is happening, you’re supposed to just succumb to it.
But you haven’t, not yet.
You are very aware of the people around you; you have to be, since you’re surrounded by an endless wall of staring faces.
So what’s going to happen to you?
In the past fifteen minutes since you left the supermarket, the world seems to have slowed down. As more and more people grow pale around you, the pace seems to be getting slower, more quiet. Your town is being slowly turned into something of a ghost town.
But everyone is going about their normal day to day business.
Tram drivers are still driving. You can just tell the difference between a ‘normal’ driver, who is checking messages on his phone at the lights, and a ‘pale’ driver, who stares emotionlessly ahead, doing his task as if on auto-pilot.
You watch, as a tall man in a blue suit raises his hand to a woman in front of him. She stops in the same, shuddering-to-a-halt motion as all the others, and for a second, the small girl beside her looks up questioningly. But then, she jerks too, and their hands separate. Fingers flex, head rolls forward for a moment, then raises, pale, just like all the others. And they continue walking, hand in hand.
You tense for the touch, alert and flinching at the slightest nudge beside you. Can you escape? Can you call someone?
You debate heading for a police station, or government building, or even a hospital. But then you notice a police car whose driver precisely turns the corner of the street in front of you, blocking your path. His pale face stares up at you, and you swerve around the car in a haste.
Do you run?
Which was probably the biggest mistake. Because now, even more are noticing you. Heads that were unaware of your existence raise to watch you passing by. Less and less ‘normal’ people are left, and those that are normal and see you running are quickly met with a hand on their shoulders until their skin turns pale and they watch you too.
On masse, the street stops moving. All the people on it turn to you as your jog turns into a sprint.
And slowly at first, but then with gathering pace, they turn. You can hear the crunch of a hundred shoes swivelling on pavements and roads, and then, as one, they begin to follow you. Slowly, always slowly; their pace does not increase as yours does. And as you pass by pale face upon pale face, you feel more than you see that they pause behind you for a moment, then swivel, and join the now-crowd behind, following you.
Where are you going to go?
When you get to the end of this street, you tell yourself, you’ll break into a sprint. You’re wearing shoes you can run decently in, and although you’re not the most athletic of people you’re pretty sure this is a fight or flight scenario. And there’s no way you’re fighting something you don’t know.
But when you get to the end of the street, you realise it’s a crossroads, and all you are faced with is pale-faced statues. Waiting. All eyes now focussing on you. It’s like being stared down by all of your worst nightmares at once.
The second pause this causes you is too long.
A hand rests gently on your left shoulder and you feel your fingers flex, your head fall forward, and then