by Samantha Henderson
The tension between them was a membrane stretched thin and fragile as a balloon inflated to the point of rupture. All night she watched every move he made, every gesture, every flicker of expression. Almost like a woman in love.
The warning warble in her head shrilled distantly, like a far-off siren, but she ignored it, allowed herself to be lulled. Even Paul, artful monster that he was, couldn’t create a world so perfect in every detail. Hope stung like a kernel of hail in her heart. Perhaps she’d been wrong all this time.
She even smiled at him as they rose from the table. The waiter slid dexterously between them to whisk away the soiled napkins. She reached for her purse, certain now that it was her purse, her own flimsy bag of silk and beads, and no mockery.
She stopped, frowning, staring at the glass shakers squatting twinned on the white tablecloth, beside the porcelain container of sugar packets. Sensing her stillness, the waiter reached for them, delicate as a cat hooking goldfish. When her hand closed around his wrist he froze, and she wondered if he would resist. Instead he glanced at Paul and she knew, then.
The glassy tinkle and sotto voce chatter from the other tables stumbled and ceased, and a hundred eyes stared at her. Their gaze against her skin was like being struck by butterflies. She couldn’t look at Paul, staring instead at the waiter’s bowed head.
“Cinnamon,” she said. Gently, she twisted the waiter’s wrist and a glass cylinder dropped on the table, full of red, pungent powder. She released the waiter and tapped the other shaker hard, toppling it over and spilling a trickle of dark grains. She pressed her finger into the spill, lifted them to her nose and sniffed. “Poppy seeds.” Behind her the signals flew, behind her back and behind the walls. Plans and counter-measures evoked and dismissed, empires assembled and crumbled in the blink of an eye. The slow hum of the bureaucratic hive rose. You’d almost think they were human.
She made herself face Paul. The face she’d watched so closely was gone, in its place something malleable as putty.
She was disappointed, and her analytical self noted that fact carefully, for now she hung on the edge of a cliff. Disappointed that he hadn’t tricked her. Disappointed that she couldn’t slip into the pretty illusions he constructed for her, melt away like butter into hot bread.
Were there any left, others like her, who could still resist? Or had they all succumbed, curling into the soft nest of fantasy, unresisting, letting nightmare creatures like Paul destroy what was left of their world?
Was she the last? Then she would make them work harder.
“You did well. Very well indeed,” she told him. “But they should have been salt and pepper. It’s a shame, really. You came so close.”
He shrugged, not unfriendly. “Next time,” he said, before he transfigured into the thing that could not speak at all. As his mouth shifted he said again, “Next time.” The words came out distorted, like he was talking around a mouthful of ice.
“Perhaps,” she conceded. This time she was tired, and did not resist as the soft webbed shroud descended from where there was once a ceiling, wrapping her in a familiar dark sleep like a mother’s embrace.
Samantha Henderson lives in Southern California with her family and Bogie, the Nihilistic Corgi. Her work can be seen online at Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, The Fortean Bureau, Neverary and The Spectravaganza. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story © 2004 Samantha Henderson. All other content copyright © 2004 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish