Sheena laughed inwardly as she imagined how she looked, caught in the swarm of shoppers whose individual silences and sounds came together in a low buzz. Their sharp beetle elbows poked into her drab-coloured winter bulk until she reached one side of the aisle and started moving to the back of the store, against the traffic. Spilt grain and breakfast cereal cracked beneath her soles. She winced at the sound.
A picnic table blocked the next aisle. She stepped onto the bench and looked from side to side, as if searching for a clear path. What she saw was her leaping over the bench, as when her nine-year-old self discovered speed and weightlessness in gymnastics. The PE class had soon moved onto more popular sports, but Sheena clung to the memory and the satisfaction of tremendous effort rewarded with visible, if far from tremendous, results. She stepped off the bench cautiously, knees bent.
Things with hard shells chattered behind her. She twisted around.
Four, five teenagers stood snickering, distracted from the migration behind them.
“That wasn't much of a jump,” one said, with a look at Sheena that she couldn't decipher anymore.
As she walked away, Sheena imagined doubling back, her gaze fixed on the young, cynical faces, and making a running—flying—leap over the table, umbrella and all. Behind her, the teens' laughter and arguments over who would jump first and who would achieve the greatest distance faded into whispers.
In the micropause beneath the automatic door sensor, she heard the screams. They sounded as human as not. Thinking one of the teens had injured themselves, Sheena hastened her steps to the bus stop across the parking lot.
“You weren't there when they first showed up. You don't know what it was like.”
“Stop being stubborn for once and look at them with fresh eyes--” Sam said, lifting a kitten out of the plastic carrier. The kitten swayed and kicked in Sam's too-large hands, close to Sheena's face. “I guarantee they're harmless. See?”
Sheena's gaze strayed toward the back of the kitten's head. Where reddish gold fur ought to line the smooth curve to the tiny triangles of its shoulder blades, the skin creased around a dark opening. Sheena turned her head and immediately felt Sam shifting. He was upset again. Was she being stubborn? She forced herself to look at the creature again and focus on the orange-coloured softness between its ears. No use. There the fur thinned into tufts, beneath which pink skin shone like an insect carapace. She fell back and only then noticed others squirming in her periphery. More kittens. More holes.
Sam sulked until she agreed to visit the clinic.
The doctor made eye contact only with Sam as he told them Sheena's fear was normal.
“Don't let it affect your life,” said the doctor. “I could refer you to a psychiatrist, but it's still something you'll have to get used to. Tell yourself they're not dangerous anymore.”
Sheena shook her head. Before she could find the right words, the doctor looked at his watch and got up. His handshake was soft and moist, but she gripped back hard. He let go first.
She would not tell them about her true fear. Cats, dogs, crows—she'd force herself to live with the sight of them. But humans, people rushed about everywhere she went, and some had barely concealed openings from which came unsettling sounds. Sheena knew that if she listened, if she opened herself up to these sounds, she would hear in her own head, next time, the rustling and chattering of insect parts.