He first saw her at the bookstore in the Poetry/Drama section. She was a redhead, his favorite hair color, and she wore it like his ex-girlfriend. (Not the crazy ex, but the one before that, the one he’d never get over.) It was his favorite look. No ring…
He asked her if she was there for poetry or drama. She smiled, grabbed a Shakespeare anthology and said, “Both,” before walking away. Cute AND smart.
As fate would have it, he saw her again a few weeks later at the neighborhood corner cafe. They were at the little stand where you get straws and sugar and they both reached for a napkin at the same time. She smiled at him again. They probably got off work at the same time. After that, he kept an eye out for her.
Once, while she was in line, he heard her confirming that night’s karaoke plans on the phone. Another time it was a dance class. He liked that she had a creative, expressive side.
Once he was early, and saw her leave the train station.
Another time, he took the train home from work, and got off at that stop a little earlier than usual. He caught up with her as she walked from the platform to the escalator, getting there at the same time, but he stopped and chivalrously allowed her to go first. She smiled again, but faintly this time. Perhaps she was distracted. She seemed tired. He worried she wasn’t taking care of herself.
The next time he saw her was at the coffee shop, and she didn’t smile at, didn’t even notice him. Maybe she wasn’t as considerate as he’d thought.
He decided to hang back at the counter at the cafe for the next week to see if she noticed the absence of their regular sugar/straw/napkin interaction. She probably didn’t even notice the effort he’d put into perfectly timing their moments each day.
Now that he was less focused on these “chance” connections, he could see the small ways her mask was slipping. The more he saw her the more he realized how flawed she really was. He began to feel ashamed for how easily he’d fallen for her. He’d been a sucker. Did she think she was smart? I mean, seriously, Renaissance literature? Did knowing the pace of Italian love poetry make her better than the other commuters somehow? She probably thought she was so much better than he was, but she was nothing more than some other working stiff.
After a few months he observed other things, subtle things that only he could see. She wasn’t really as confident as he’d thought, but she seemed to swing wildly from egotism to low self-esteem. She made terrible choices, including some questionable book decisions. He suspected her reading choices on the train were probably just for show. Sure she held up different book covers on the train, but that hardly meant she UNDERSTOOD them.
Late one night, as he watched her break her oath of swearing off fatty foods AGAIN, he realized he no longer cared for her. On Facebook, she presented herself as this high and mighty health nut. She’d sworn off chocolate for the week on Twitter. Yet here she was, buying those triple chocolate ice cream novelties, that chocolate chip cookie dough. There was nothing he hated more than a hypocrite.
He decided it was time to introduce himself.
He chose a different grocery checkout so they could leave at about the same time. He wondered if she could feel his eyes burning into the back of her head. She was wearing her hair up today, instead of down like she usually did, and it made her look dowdy. Maybe she thought it made her smart, he thought, rolling his eyes. He passed his money to the cashier roboticly. Who did she think she WAS? People in her life TRUSTED her, depended on her, and she was just LYING to them.
He could afford to leave some space between them as they walked out the door. He knew she was parked on the far side of the store. She always parked there because most people didn’t think to turn first and there were always plenty of spaces to park. A few employees parked there, but rarely anyone else, especially not at this hour.
“Hey!” he yelled.
She seemed to walk toward her car faster. He just wanted to talk to her, give her some needed perspective. He skipped forward a step and started to jog toward her. She pretended not to hear him. He could feel her ignoring him, feel the gravity in his chest that had pulled them together before become a force of revulsion and emptiness. He clenched his fists in his pocket, feeling the cold metal there. He probably didn’t need it.
Unless she wouldn’t listen. “Hey,” he said, his voice demanding attention.
He was too focused on her face, wanting to see that smiling light in her eyes that had made him love her, to obliterate it so he never had to remember it again, smash it so she’d never beguile some other poor bastard into wasting his life on her. His penetrating gaze was so focused on burrowing into her eyes, he never saw her shaking hand rising out of her purse.
There was a flicker, a hot, red flame, until he realized he was actually seeing an after-image burned into his retinas, then, perhaps, just his optical nerve, as his eyes disintegrated. It all happened so fast after that, it was no wonder he didn’t notice the sensation of his chest being dissolved from the inside out. Milliseconds later, his brain matter began to fizzle into a thick bubbling oddly mauve goo around what was left of his legs. It was exactly as the slogan always said: a quick, merciful end, but only in a deserving measure.
Laura froze for a moment, looking at the remaining shards of bone, scraps of cloth, and a gun. The shock passed, and she dropped the spray bottle and started to shake. She thought it was only supposed to sting a little, like pepper spray or mace! It seemed like almost everything human had been entirely eaten away. As she pulled herself together, she opened her car, reached into her glove-box, and checked the package directions to see what she’d done wrong and what she was supposed to do next.
“Step One,” the package read, “Locate any witnesses. Although your device maintains logs, having an uninvolved party can be helpful.” A grocery store employee collecting carts had heard her scream, so she had a witness, and he’d already called the police. OK, good. There was nothing left to do until they arrived, so she continued to load her groceries in the car.
The police responded promptly. It was a perfunctory matter, of course, just a standard form, really. The Gaze-Be-Gone Self-Defense mechanism generated the acid in proportion to the unique imprint of gaze as it had collected over time. Although how PSC (the Petrarchan Safety Corporation) converted gaze into the caustic material in Gaze-Be-Gone was proprietary, numerous scientific studies, DNA testing, and legal battles had proven it only returned the exact amount of gaze the specific individual had transmitted toward the device.
This was why consumers were advised to always carry it on their person. Some people thought it was so they’d have it available in case of attack but actually, that was how the device was able to charge and maintain logs. Some consumers had stored hundreds of different gazes in the device. It was rare that these hostile looks or petty ill-intents collected to the point that a person attacked, but if they did, the consumer was assured they would be doing no more harm than they themselves might receive. Usually the damage to the attacker was minor. Other times…
“No ID left,” the officer said after sifting through the remains, “We may be able to get some info off the security cameras and NSC’s logs. Did you recognize him?”
The corporation had transmission and storage logs, government tests, and a decade of legal precedent proving it was the most effective and humane self-defense product on the market: Customers could rest assured that they couldn’t harm an innocent person, as they only returned what had been transmitted. Laura knew all of this from her research and she didn’t mess with the knock off brands.
“No,” Laura said, bewildered. “I’ve never seen him before in my life.”