Sep 16th 2022
Angelica hung on her mother’s arm as they walked down the cobblestone road, each one in matching knee-length jackets, though she wore blue stockings and t-bar flats to her mother’s more sober dress and heels. Her mother carried an old-world style basket with three loaves of fresh-baked bread, which she kept stealing glances at, but could never reach. Angelica hummed a tuneless melody as she watched her feet drum against the street, louder than was strictly polite, but her mother ignored it.
Something caught her eye, a strange man approaching across the street. He looked—oh God, look what he looked like! She had never seen someone like that before; only in movies, and then just for a jump-scare or surprise reveal. But never like this, just walking there, so anyone could stare at him or sell him bread.
“Momma! Momma!” Angelica whispered, tugging on her mother’s arm. “What is that?”
Her mother quickly looked up, then away, an awkward smile hiding her mistake.
“Dearest, don’t stare, it isn’t polite.”
Angelica made a squinty-eyed grimace of displeasure, unable to look away or stop asking questions.
“But momma…why does he look like that?”
“Lower your voice, please. A lot of people used to look like that when I was a child. It’s just how it was.”
“Like that?” she said, freezing in place.
“Come along, don’t just stand there,” her mother said, tugging her along.
Angelica resumed her steps, but slowly, eyes locked on his flopping hat, his baggy sleeves.
“But why, momma? Couldn’t they do something about it?”
“People did try, dearest, but it wasn’t so easy to fix, not like today. They often treated it in other ways…ways that made it even worse.”
“But how does he look into the mirror? Isn’t he scared?”
“Don’t be dramatic,” she said, increasing her stride. “Besides, who are we to judge? Some people actually preferred to live like that. They felt it was normal. Even we didn’t change overnight. It took time, education. There are people who still don’t agree.”
Angelica digested this statement as the man veered even closer, closer enough to see his face (long and unshaven), the baggy clothes which hid all the rest. Now revulsion gave way to fear, and she wondered what he would smell like, and what he might say to her if he saw her staring at him…and didn’t like it.
“Momma, do you think…could I give him some bread?”
“I suppose so, but do it quickly,” she said, retrieving the smallest loaf.
Angelica took it and let her fingers sink into the warm, soft crust. Then she let go of her mother’s hand and skipped across the road to the stranger, stopping a few feet shy of him just in case.
“Excuse me, sir…I just thought…we had an extra one…if you wanted it,” she said.
The man gave a look of surprise, as if he had just seen a little girl for the first time in his life. She couldn’t help noticing all the bites (and all the blood).
“Oh! Why, thank you, I certainly would. I was just thinking how wonderful bread always tastes in the morning with a cup of coffee. Do you drink coffee?”
She shook her head, suddenly terrified of all the eyes taking stock of her, waking up.
“I didn’t either at your age. But give it a few years—you’ll see.”
As he tore the bread, the creatures that snaked around his body swarmed and slithered to grab it. Their small arms snatched the pieces and crammed them into dark mouths lined with innumerable fangs. Each one was a different color, and some were spotted, while others were striped. They all ignored her, fighting for each scrap of bread and tearing them into halves and quarters. Often they missed and tore at the man’s flesh, creating fresh wounds, dark blood. Angelica almost cried out, but knew that her mother expected more of her; after all, this was her idea.
As the loaf disappeared, the creatures—she counted no less than seven—each scampered off with a piece into the man’s pockets and sleeves. He had only a tiny scrap left for himself, which he popped into his mouth and chewed contentedly.
“Well, I can see your mother is waiting for you. Have a nice day,” he said.
Angelica ran back to her mother, her hands shaking now, her feet unsteady. Her mother set the basket on the ground and dug through her purse for Angelica’s pills. Though they usually followed right after breakfast, after such a scare and her daughter’s nerves, always fragile at best…
“Momma, why does he have so many?” she asked.
“Because he didn’t take his pills, dearest. Here you go: two now, and two when we get home.”
It wasn’t a very satisfying answer, but Angelica was too rattled to argue. She chewed the pills and felt an explosion of grape against her tongue. Once finished, her mother picked up her basket and took Angelica’s hand in the other, giving it a firm squeeze. Angelica’s thoughts quickly trailed away to other thoughts and sensations before they stopped altogether. As the bus arrived, she suddenly looked up at her mother and asked, “momma, what were we talking about just now?”
“Oh, I don’t know…probably about the weather. Isn’t it a beautiful day?”
The bus doors hissed open, and she could see the driver smiling behind his sunglasses with a thick mustache.
“Watch your step, dear,” her mother said.
Angelica was about to follow when she suddenly felt a strange tickling over her arm. So she gave her sleeve a few shakes before stepping in. An orange and black spider flew out and landed on the street, where it scurried into the shadows. She watched it disappear and then followed her mother into the bus, where she promptly forgot all about it.
Author Bio: Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at a small university in Oklahoma (US), where he teaches courses in British and World Literature, writing, and comics. He holds a PhD from Miami University in 18th c. British Literature, but please don’t hold that against him. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, BFS Horizons, Tales to Terrify, and Penumbric SF, among others. He is still trying to write the perfect short story that combines his two great loves: Conan the Barbarian and Jane Austen (close, but no cigar!).
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