by Barbara Eliasson
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story with a scifi twist.
I feel like a fool, but wherever I go now, I glance over my shoulder and check: Is anyone–or anything–following me? It’s irrational, I know, but the whole thing was irrational. And what I find hardest is that I can’t decide whether I imagined it all…but then my body remembers and chills, my chest tightens, and once again, panicked, I’m struggling for breath–and I know I imagined nothing.
It was one of the last days of August; sun high and hot, humid air thick and motionless. Jenny and I had dragged ourselves from store to store, wishing as we emerged from each air-cooled store that the mall were enclosed within an air-conditioned space.
Despite the heat, we’d gotten everything that Jenny needed for school: notebooks and book covers; #2 pencils and blue and black Bics; a backpack; jeans, sweats and sneakers. I’d even dashed into CVS and picked up stuff for the house. So when Jenny spotted the limp banners at the far end of the mall–even banners couldn’t look crisp in that still, sticky air and wanted to investigate, I almost said no. At that moment all I wanted to investigate were a foot-friendly hassock and an extremely long, ice cube-packed drink. But Jenny had been great all morning. I knew that, at eight years old, she’d been bored by most of our shopping–sneakers and backpack excepted–but she’d trudged along, uncomplaining, with me. I’ve often wished since then that Jenny had been less agreeable, or I’d been crankier, but we can’t put the past on rewind; I said yes, and we went.
When we got closer, I could see that the banners advertised the opening of a local branch of a department store chain. Beneath golden and crimson pennants and balloons, four clowns paced, calling out like Carney barkers, “Step right up! Come on in to the greatest store on earth!”
Jenny was enchanted. All of the clowns had thickly painted white faces, bulbous red noses and rust-colored corkscrew curls; they were dressed alike, too, in billowing shirts, baggy trousers, and huge shoes that flopped against the steamy pavement.
Jenny turned to me. “Aren’t you glad we came, Mom?”
I smiled and nodded. Of course, I was glad. Just looking at Jenny’s face, all big eyes and gaping mouth, was joy enough for me. Outside, the organizers had created something of the excitement of a mini-circus. Inside, though, was magic.
It was still recognizable as a store, but one in which the usual aisles, mirrors, chandeliers and heaped counters were nothing more than backdrop to an odd but splendid mix of characters from legend, literature and Madison Avenue. Robin Hood was here, in forest green tunic, tights, and soft pointy-toed boots, and medieval ladies in long floaty gowns and high conical headdresses; Xena, tall and imposing in her warrior breastplate; Barney, gloriously purple and gregarious; cuddly bears with tiny paunches and almost-hidden zippers (visible only to adult eyes). And cartwheeling and somersaulting their way through the crowded aisles were tumblers, jugglers and gymnasts.
Jenny didn’t know where to look; she seemed to be trying to see it all simultaneously. Then her gaze focused. She’d seen a man in top hat and tails and incredibly, fantastically long legs. She studied him, eyes narrowed, and then nodded as she decoded his secret. “Those aren’t his legs, are they, Mom?”
“No. He’s attached sticks—stilts—to them. I don’t know how, though.”
But Jenny didn’t need to know more. She’d already spied something else, a magician doing his act in an aisle just beyond the cosmetics counter. “Let’s go over there.”
We joined the group of children and their mothers surrounding the man, dramatic in red satin-lined black cloak. He was clever, with a charming line of patter and a rubbery face that mimicked the astonishment of his audience. He looked stunned as animated handkerchiefs knotted and unknotted. His eyebrows arched into inverted Vs as he discovered coins in the ears of giggling children. It was then, as my attention wandered from appearing and disappearing coins, that I
saw, in a nearby aisle, the figure in silver. Ironically, my initial reaction to the figure was simple enjoyment. His body seemed wrapped in a tough silvery material, the silver surface as smooth as foil but duller, yet shinier than pewter. This was no human bear with a furry pseudo-skin and inconspicuous zipper. This was a creature with silver skin.
Where had that odd thought come from? Nothing I’d seen thus far in the enchanted afternoon had produced this response, and then I recognized an essential difference between the silver figure and all else we’d seen today. This creature, with its taut body and tightly molded silver skin, betrayed no sexual clues. Its movements bore no hint of human joints, but rather of machine parts, even to the barely noticeable hesitations characterizing each movement.
It had moved closer, near enough that I could see no telltale gaps around the eyes, indeed the creature’s eyes appeared to be punched into metallic skin. As though it felt my attention, the figure suddenly turned and its eyes, two silvery marbles, scrutinized me. Never in my life had I been the object of such a gaze. It expressed no like, no dislike, no interest being far too remote for any of these. The eyes were blank, the look, inhuman. It chilled me.
Someone was talking. I finally realized it was Jenny. “Mom! Calling Mom! Earth to Mom!”
“What is it, Jen?”
“Nothing wrong with me,” she said, “but you’ve been looking very strange and you haven’t been listening to me at all.”
“Well, I’m listening now. Where to next?”
There was still much that Jenny wanted to see, and I strolled along beside her willingly enough, but for me the joy was gone. Everywhere we went I saw the creature, now half-sitting on a counter, now leaning against a wall, glistening body and empty eyes turned toward us. It couldn’t be coincidence; the thing had to be following us. Yet Jenny didn’t notice. It must be my imagination! When though, had I ever been imaginative? I had always prided myself on being practical and realistic on seeing things clearly. I didn’t usually see things through an imaginative haze. Was I now? My practical, realistic self told me to relax and enjoy. Jenny, at least, was having a wonderful time and I tried. It worked, a little, until we went to the book department. I’m still unsure about what happened there or if anything happened at all.
Books had been given a large corner at the back of the store, separated from the main selling areas by chest-high partitions. Within the fenced-off rectangle, the books were organized into sections–hardcover fiction and nonfiction on low shelves in the front with paperbacks stacked against the two back walls. To the right, in an alcove of their own, was the children’s section. I saw that a story hour was in progress so I sent Jenny happily off while I returned to the main section. It was a good compromise, I thought. If, as my normal, rational self told me, nothing was wrong, Jenny would enjoy herself, and if my newly hatched imagination was right and something was wrong, Jenny would be safe.
I was so contented with what I saw as the return of my usual self that I was able to forget the silver creature for a few minutes. I scanned the books in the front shelves, decided against buying a political biography in hardcover and then moved to the area where I could see the paperback mystery section. Maybe after a morning of toilet paper, toothpaste and Jenny’s back-to-school stuff, I’d treat myself to a paperback mystery. I had just picked up the new Michael Connelly when I felt a sense of being watched. Unexplainable as it is, I felt a chill, a movement of icy air. I turned and it was there. It was just outside the low divider shelves and as I watched, it slid from the aisle into the book department and moved toward me.
Now, since it was closer than it had ever been to me, for the first time I saw those strange eyes move, but I swear–I swear I can still see them–they didn’t move easily, fluidly, but in tiny mechanical steps. I think I froze. I probably dropped the book I was holding. I know I never bought it. All I remember now are the eyes, those inhuman eyes that grew still and held mine. Did I imagine the sense of threat? Perhaps but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I felt cornered. My chest tightened. I fought for breath. Never before had I understood the poet’s description of fear: “zero at the bone.” That’s what I was feeling then: “zero at the bone.”
Just as the creature began to move in on me, a group of teenagers came into the book department, laughing and jostling each other as they headed for the paperbacks. The moment they pushed between me and the silver figure, I skirted around them and made a dash for the children’s alcove. I snatched Jenny right out of the story hour and together we made ourway to the entrance. I looked back once. I could see a silvery flash near the books, but we were too far away to tell whether the creature was watching us.
And then I did the one thing I wish I could undo, if I can’t undo the entire cursed afternoon. Unluckily, the store manager, identifiable both by his pink carnation and his professionally-polished smile, stood near the double doors. I paused and said, “Your performers are all great, but the best was the one in silver. Is he, or she, a gymnast?”
I knew what he was going to say even before I’d finished speaking, even before his cheerful expression turned to one of puzzlement.
“I’m not quite sure who you mean, ma’am. I did all of the hiring and there was no one in silver.”
I grabbed Jenny’s hand and raced to the parking lot. I think Jenny asked me why we were running, but I didn’t–couldn’t–answer. All I could do was run, and hold onto her. And all I wanted was to get us both to the car and what I hoped was safety.
We made it to safety that day, but ever since, wherever I go, I glance over my shoulder and check. Is anyone or anything following me? I’m a fool, I guess–or am I?
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Creepy! Good story, Barbara.
Yes, this is a very creepy story!!
Who is this silver creature.? He /she/it gave me the creeps! I had to read on to find out – it was so nice and normal to start and then…..The story lures you. Well told, would like to read more from this author. Thanks for giving me the chills!
Enjoyed this mystery very much. It sort of snuck up on you! Like to read more, a book maybe?