At the end of July I asked my Facebook page followers to give me some more random writing prompts to respond to and I had a great selection to choose from. I ended up blending two together for this weird little story. Author Paula Harmon suggested a story set within a crowd and author Sim Sansford posted a creepy picture of a faceless woman with faceless masks hanging on the wall behind her. I also played around with second person POV which was great fun! Please note, this is only a second draft and I will definitely be rewriting this story at some point, maybe even making it a bit longer.
Face In The Crowd
You won’t see her coming.
Except maybe out of the corner of your eye…
And by then it will be too late anyway.
She seems to know who she wants; you see. She is a predator, stalking you, and you are the prey. Nothing more, nothing less.
Let me take you back to the last crowd you found yourself in. Heart already pounding faster than it should, prickles of cold sweat erupting on the back of your neck, while something tight and spiky curls into a hard ball inside your guts. You’ve felt it before. Bad things happen in crowded places. A human is never so alone as when lost in a crowd. You remember them all. Different types of crowds, none of them safe.
School assembly, remember that? Trapped on a hard varnished floor with your knees tucked up under your nose so that you don’t touch the people on either side of you. Not your friends. Never your friends. To the left, to the right, in front of you and close behind, surrounded, fenced in, unable to breathe. Always too hot. No way out. Panic beating its small wings inside your chest as your outward face insists that nothing is wrong here.
Supermarket queues… Not as hemmed in, but still, the heads bob too close before you and one glance over your shoulder reveals a horrifying snake of people behind you. You swallow fear and bite back the urge to run, because how weird would that be? Suddenly barging through, shoulders crashing into backs, pushing, shoving, running, running. You’d never be able to go back if you did that.
Christmas crowds: the hopeless horror of a shop wedged tight with angry, entitled bodies. You give up and go home and shop online. You don’t like crowds. Never have. Festival crowds. You gave those a go. Outside, fresh air, music thumping through your veins, alcohol and friendship spurring you on. You thought, I can do this! But then you made the mistake of looking behind you, seeing the impossible volume of human life, jumping, shoving, screaming, living, too fast, too hard, too close. You stumbled when they pushed and the pushing didn’t stop. You tried to pick yourself back up, breathless with fear, but they kept coming, trampling, not seeing you, because you had ceased to exist.
Remember, that was the first time you saw her?
Weaving her way through the herd with feline eyes, swivelling to take in every view; hunting someone down. She was tall, you remember that. Towering above the revellers yet hunched over to disguise it. Her neck swanlike, or snakelike. A small mouth, or no mouth. She pushed through them, not touching anyone, moving like oil, her pupils gliding eerily from side to side, until she reached out with a long hand, longer fingers, nails curled over and mottled grey. You saw her touch someone but you didn’t see what happened next because the crowd surged and you almost died.
That’s why I don’t like crowds, you tell anyone that will listen, I am not antisocial, just emotionally scarred from nearly dying. Broken ribs are nothing to laugh about you remind yourself when that chilly fear settles across your shoulders, telling you to turn around and go home.
Today the crowd bustle before you. They have taken over the entire square. It’s market day; you should have known. You shake your head at your own stupidity and lack of foresight. But you did the best you could – remember that – moving to a quiet seaside town, dead in the winter, smells faintly of salt and vinegar – humming with tourists in the summer but that’s when you stay home or go out on your boat. No risk of a crowd out on the water.
Today, market day, the crowd moves like a messy unified thing, a squirming mass of warm bodies and haircuts, small lives, red faces, sweat stains. You hate it. But you need to go to the post office, right on the other side. You sigh heavily, dramatically, your annoyance with these people’s existence out of proportion to their right to exist just like you. You’d fire a rocket launcher at them if you could. You still remember being trod into the mud. You shudder.
But you move. You have to. You can do this. They’re just people.
You step forward and before you are even ready, before you have taken the obligatory deep breath and shaken out your limbs, pulled your bag closer across your chest, the crowd sweep you up and take you.
This is what you resent.
This makes you wish you had a grenade in your coat pocket.
The inescapable claustrophobic nature of the crowd. Of people.
Just people, you tell yourself, but you know that’s not true. They’re not just people, not just this or that. Never underestimate them. Never expect the best. Instead, always prepare for the worst. For sickening body odour and hairstyles freeze dried into place, for sharp elbows and fat shoulders. For feet that trample your own. For bags that whack you out of your space. For bodies, thick and long and selfish and demanding, all moving, and moving you whether you want to be moved or not.
You grit your teeth put your head down and push through.
And then you see her.
Like you did when you were down in the mud.
Tall, hunched, otherworldly in her movements, she glides along, coming for something, someone. Lank pale hair hangs over her shoulders. She has her back to you, every bump in her elongated spine visible through the thin colourless dress she wears. Her arms are at her sides, the elbows jagged, the forearms raised and at the end of the wrists her long thin hands hang, fingers dripping, nails curled.
Your breath catches in your throat and you freeze, unable to breathe or move. Your scalp seems to contract and tighten under your hair and your entire body floods with ice cold fear. It feels like the world has stopped but it is just you, frozen while the crowd moves and circles around you. Unbelievably, they seem oblivious to the strange, hunched form who hunts among them. She doesn’t touch them as she glides between warm bodies and not one of them looks at her or senses her dark presence.
You want to scream out, do something. You open your mouth but nothing emerges except a cold puff of air. You stare in agony as the colours of ordinary life swirl around her and then slowly, you see her reaching out. For she has chosen someone, a woman. A small petite woman with bright red hair wearing a spotty blue and white raincoat.
The hunched woman reaches for her, claw like hand sinking into unwilling flesh and there is a small, awful moment when the woman with the red hair stops and turns and stares in haunting clarity up at the collector. But it is fleeting, a microsecond of agonizing helpless horror and then it is over.
The red-haired woman walks away unscathed, slouching through the crowd with her bag on her shoulder, none the worse. Until she passes you and you see that she no longer has a face.
But no, maybe you imagined it. You are seeing things. Panicking. It’s all this stupid claustrophobic fear that you have no control over. You find yourself moving, pushing through, determined to make it to the post office, determined to brush this off, brush it away.
But as you move through the crowd, you see her again. She is still hunting. Still collecting faces. She towers over the people, glassy eyes swivelling in hollow sockets until another catches her eye. Not you, not you, no, thank God. She does not look at you because if she did you know you would be helpless, unable to run.
This time she makes her way over to a young man chatting on his mobile phone. He is powering through the crowd in a hooded jacket and black jeans. He is smiling, laughing as he focuses only on his conversation. He is easy prey, too distracted to feel her sliding towards him. He freezes when she touches him and you see the same dull dawning horror explode behind his eyes before it’s over. His face is gone and he moves on, still talking.
You make it to the post office and shove your way, sweating, through the doors. You can’t get out of that crowd quick enough. You cower at the window, behind shelves of envelopes and pens. You peer out, determined to hide until the whole thing has dispersed. You won’t go out there again, not with that many people, not with her out there stealing faces.
‘Are you all right?’ a worried voice asks from your shoulder.
You glance at the little man who wears a tight expression on his weathered face. ‘Yes,’ you swallow hard and reply shakily. ‘I’m sorry but I’m not good with crowds. Do you mind if I wait in here for a bit until I feel a little better?’
He nods and smiles in sympathy and leaves you alone.
You peer back out at the ever moving, swirling, humming crowd of life. The shoulders and heads, the hats and coats, the faces and the faceless.
I will be needing more writing prompts for my September challenge so feel free to post any here!