The air conditioning slapped Alyssa across the face as she darted into the store. She managed to step out of view of the glass door before her pursuers rounded the corner. Through the thin walls she could hear their calls of confusion.
Typically she avoided hiding in stores. It was too easy to become trapped as most often the second exit was guarded by a menacing “employees only” sign. But she was tired of running and she’d gained enough of a lead on them to risk it. She kept her gaze downcast and her hands stuffed in her pockets as she shuffled over to the display of floppy brimmed hats.
She dropped a hat and the largest pair of sunglasses she could find on the counter. She grunted softly in acknowledgment to the clerk but didn’t make eye contact and was careful not to brush against him when she passed over her debit card. Unfortunately the weather was too hot for her to get away with wearing gloves. It was so much easier to avoid activating her curse in the winter.
Her phone buzzed, a notification from her bank about the recent transaction. Her fifth purchase of the sort that month. If anyone was paying attention to her purchase history, they’d think had a problem. She waved off the offer of a bag and pulled out a tiny pair of scissors from her purse, cutting away the tags.
Running late. Got caught up.
She hit send on the message to her friend she was supposed to have lunch with. It was the only reason she’d even considered leaving the house that morning.
She pulled the hat low over her eyes and braced herself for the heat of the outdoors. She tucked her hands under her armpits, making herself as small as possible as she wove through the busy street. The diner was only a few blocks away and if luck was on her side, she’d make it there without brushing against anyone.
When someone bumped into her from behind, she could feel her breath catch in her throat. In-two-three, out-two-three. She focused on counting her breaths both to qualm the sudden surge of panic as well as to be sure she had enough air in her lungs to support a mad sprint if it came to it.
False alarm. The person mumbled an apology instead of lunging for her.
The diner was loud but luckily not packed when she arrived. When the hostess greeted her with a peppy hello, she gestured at the booth where her friend was waving to get her attention. She didn’t take off the hat until she sat down and she dropped it onto the table.
“Another new hat? Is that what you were caught up with?”
“Hello Meagan,” her words were soft and nearly drowned out with the server’s approach. “Just water, thanks,” she mumbled in response. “Yes, I’d like a minute with the menu.” She cast a well practiced half glance at the server, that caught nothing more than the bottom of his chin. It had taken her months and many frantic escapes from restaurants before she perfected the art of avoiding gazes without giving a complete brushoff. She’d found that a surly attitude was more often than not met with excessive charm to encourage a good tip.
This is why she preferred to frequent fast food joints.
“At least next time let me come out with you, you always pick out such tacky hats.”
“Sure.” She clasped her hands in her lap and stared at the gouges in the table. She startled as the paper wrapping of the straw hit her in the cheek. She jerked her head up and just barely managed to subvert her gaze before she made eye contact. Meagan’s peal of laughter sent tendrils of warmth into her belly.
“Still think you’re cursed?”
“You know I am.”
Meagan held out her hand. “I promise I won’t be affected.”
Alyssa licked her lips. “You don’t know that.” The server saved her from a further response by coming by to take her order. She flipped open the menu and quickly skimmed it before ordering a burger and fries. She took extra precautions when handing over the menu.
“You can’t live your whole life scared to get close to anyone.” Meagan said as soon as the server left. “I get that being around people causes you anxiety.” Alyssa snorted at the understatement. “Before today when was the last time you went out?”
“The grocery store in the middle of the night doesn’t count.”
There was a pregnant pause as Alyssa tried to remember. “We had coffee last month, right?”
“It was over two months ago. Possibly even three.”
She stalled for time by taking a long drink of water, wishing it were something stronger but knowing she couldn’t risk it.
“What do you want from me?”
“Let me help you. You’re paranoid. I can prove it to you.”
“But what if I’m not?”
“Think of how much you have to gain if I’m right. What do you have to lose?” Everything. Nothing.
Slowly, deliberately, she forced herself to make eye contact with her friend. She held her gaze for a long moment and then Alyssa extended her hand, fingers outstretched. She still had the option to avert her gaze and flee. But maybe her friend was right. Maybe she wouldn’t be affected. After all, in all their years of friendship, she’d never succumbed. She was all she had left. Slowly she slid her hand into her grasp, their fingers linking together. Her hand was soft and she felt her worries melt away as her friend didn’t immediately lunge at her.
Alyssa relished in the physical contact until her palms grew sweaty.
She straightened her fingers and pulled her hand back.
Meagan tightened her grasp.
“Meagan…” When had her gaze grown so intense? Alyssa tugged against her friend’s hand. She didn’t let go. “Please, you’re scaring me.”
She jerked her hand free and scrambled out of the booth. She made a desperate glance at the hat, but reaching for it would slow her down too much. She shoved the sunglasses onto her face as she ran. At least those hadn’t turned into yet another casualty of her curse.
“Alyssa, I’m joking. Come back.”
But if it were a joke, why would she be chasing her?