Onlookers (short story)

“They’re watching you.”

The voice was low but distinct. It seemed to appear first in her subconscious before she heard it out loud and it took Carla a moment to realize she was not dreaming. Kelli was on her right, sidled up against her side, but she could not seem to remember boarding the bus with her. Though Kelli had addressed Carla, she was not looking at her.

Instead, she was watching the couple across the aisle, both wearing identical outfits — khakis, cheap polos and sunglasses, skin covered in a filmy layer of sunblock. She was staring at the woman donned in red, boldly allowing her infant to suckle her bare breast, and at the old man lounging back against the seat, a guitar with almost every string broken splayed across his lap. Kelli kept staring at them as the bus rolled along, her expression savage. In the silence, Carla could feel the heat settling over her like a mask, and gradually became aware of the sweat marks beneath her arms.

“No, they’re not,” she said.

“They’re watching you and thinking of how awful you are.”

Carla kept her eyes on her lap. She gripped the edge of her shirt and pressed her nails into her palm through the fabric. The heat seemed to pierce through her skin to her bones yet she shivered. Without thinking, she addressed Kelli again. “Why?”

“Because they know everything about you,” Kelli cooed, the words conflicting with her voice. “They can see it on you.”

Carla didn’t want to respond. Kelli’s words had an odd taste to them, one that left a bitterness in her mouth. She looked up, out the window. The bus windows were open, though the breeze was warm and stale. Outside she could see the concrete buildings of the city forming walls, the space between them growing smaller and smaller. Somewhere in the distance, she heard a blaring of an alarm that seemed to grow neither nearer nor farther, but ran through its cycle like a slow ticking, matching the rate of Carla’s breathing.

“You’re thinking of leaving, aren’t you?” Kelli said and touched her, grip insubstantial.

“No.” Carla said without looking at her. She hated looking Kelli. For some reason she could never seem to find anything distinctive about her face; it was always somewhat fogged. She looked at the passengers’ legs instead and tried to let her mind wander, but the bus kept moving, the vibrations travelling through her body, and all she could think of was the walls of the bus like the walls of the city. Both walls were thick. Carla swallowed and shifted her legs, which had begun to stick to the vinyl seat.

“You can’t leave. You’ve got to ride this bus, and they’re going to stare at you the entire time.”

“No, they’re not,” Carla said, vision becoming dizzying. She closed her eyes, then opened them.

“They’re staring at you right now. Why don’t you look?”

“No.” If she didn’t look, they wouldn’t stare at her.

“You really can’t take it, can you?”

“You’re wrong. I don’t want to leave. I’m fine.” If she didn’t look, they wouldn’t look at her.

“Yes you do.”

“Stop it.”

“Admit it.”

“Stop it.”

“They know you’re crazy.”

Carla stopped arguing. She felt a weight, deep and ugly settle within her. She felt the cold grasp of temptation, scrapping fingers down her back, heard its terse whisper in her thoughts: Did they? If she had the strength to deny the sick desire building within her, she couldn’t find it now. Through eyes dizzy from the heat, she looked up at the passengers.

Kelli was right. They were all looking at her, casting shallow glances her way before looking away again, mouths twisted into knowing frowns. Her sweat turned cold and she tried to close her eyes, but her eyelids were transparent. She knew they still were watching her even when she didn’t look. Kelli was right. Kelli was always right.

She turned back to Kelli to ask her what to do, but Kelli was no longer there. She had gone almost as soon as she had come, and the only evidence she was there before was the sound of her voice, echoing through Carla’s thoughts, reminding her of what she already knew.

“They’re watching you.”

This story was written for a creative writing class a little over a year ago. I can’t remember the exact prompt, but the focus was supposed to be on setting, which I’ve always struggled a bit with, and I’m not sure how well it came across in this. I’d love any feedback or thoughts on it! I haven’t really touched it since I submitted it and I’m going through some of my old work to try and edit it so any and all comments are appreciated! Thanks. 🙂

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