Shopping mostly consisted of standing, evidently.
How could I feel so tired standing still? Even with my recently improved fitness – I could run for at least a mile before feeling it but this made my legs ache. Inaction was difficult.
Standing still though, it knackered me out somehow.
I decided I didn’t liked shopping. It was dull. Sure, Beth said you didn’t have to buy anything. The difference was, Beth could if she wanted to. If she saw something she really wanted. All I could see was how many days food things were worth.
Lots, it seemed.
Beth seemed to enjoy it though, and that was all I cared about. She led me through packed shops. Rows of clothes were packed against the walls. Occasionally we would stop and she would pick something out before shoving it back with a few words pointing out what was wrong with it.
She needed something warmer now the weather was getting so cold. I asked what she did with the stuff she wore last year. She had grown out of it apparently. I didn’t think I’d grown all that much, but it was hard getting stuff in my size. Usually everything I had was way too big for me. Plenty of room.
Also, last year’s fashion was very out of date. When I told her that I was wearing the same thing as I had last year she laughed at me.
“Alex, your clothes are so old they’ve gone retro – they were out of date years ago.” I wasn’t sure if that was an insult. It’s Beth, so it probably wasn’t. “I’m only teasing; you wear like… boys stuff. I don’t think t shirts and… whatever those are ever go out of date.”
I looked down at myself, she was referring to my cargo pants.
“Hey, they are useful. They have loads of pockets.” I picked up one of the skirts she was looking at. “See, this doesn’t have any! Not even those tiny ones you can’t fit anything in on girls pants. Nothing, where do you put everything?”
“A handbag! That’s why you have a handbag.” She said, waving her own small black shoulder bag.
“That’s a stupid idea, they are super easy to steal – people know that that’s where all your stuff is. You’re concentrating it all in one place. What’s the saying? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket?” I patted my pockets, I didn’t think I’d even had anything valuable until Beth had given me her phone. Which I’d been checking was still there every ten minutes or so.
“You are so…” She stopped and paused to think. “Unique.”
I wondered what had she just stopped herself saying. But it was Beth, she could call me whatever she wanted.
“Hey, you should try it on.” She said, grabbing it out of my hand and holding it against my waist. “No wait there’s a dress over there that would look so cute with your hair like that.”
Why did she go so high pitched all of a sudden? She grabbed something with a horrific lack of any legs off a rack.
“No.” I said, before she could go any further. It wouldn’t even go past my knees.
“Aww” She gave me puppy eyes, or tried to at least. She was failing miserably at trying not to grin. “Please. It is perfect for your figure.”
“I don’t have a figure!” I was not going to put it on.
“Exactly! You are like… what every girl wants to be. You know, like all them models are.”
What, skin and bones?
“Models are tall. I am not tall. I am the embodiment of the opposite of tall. If tall was black I’m white. Besides every girl wants to have…” I was embarrassed saying it so I just gestured where they would have been if I had any measurable size.
“Awe, don’t say that. Besides, I like girls with small-” she stopped herself. Did she just blush? “Go on, try it on. For me?”
Wait wait wait, rewind. Was that just a slip of the tongue or was she just about to say that she liked..?
Following that train of thought and responding to sensory input were too much. Beth mercilessly took advantage of it. She shoved the dress in my hands and pushed me towards some cubicles marked ‘changing room’.
* * *
I did not trust this thing.
I eyed the glass cubicle door – yes glass, as in transparent. Well, it was transparent now. When you touch the control to lock the door it instantly goes frosted.
But still, frosted wasn’t opaque. Films had shots of people having showers through frosted glass. Naked people. You could see they were naked. I didn’t want to be a naked-behind-frosted-glass person.
Also… I eyed the glowing circle or the lock control mounted on the wall. It could easily be activated remotely or something like that. What if a customer had a heart attack or something and they had to get them out? It should be remotely operated for safety.
That means someone could turn it off. At any time. At the worst time! It was more terrible than electronic locks on toilet doors. I always tried to keep a foot against it so I could stop if from opening if there was… some catastrophe and the power went down. Unlikely, but someone could switch off the school supply or hack into the building management system…
Locks, unless they were for banks and stuff were always set to fail-safe, to unlock. A fire cuts the power and people can still get out.
That was why everyone still had a key for their front door. Otherwise someone could disconnect the power and get in your house. The companies that sold them didn’t want to face a lawsuit from people getting stuck in burning buildings.
But it wasn’t like I would be taking all my clothes off. In fact, I would be doing what we do in the changing room for gym every week and that was in a room full of girls.
I thanked god I didn’t have gym class with Beth though. Do not want.
Still, in that situation everyone was in the same boat. No one looked, because no one wanted anyone to look. Here it felt like I was on display. Ok no one could see me yet, but-
“Are you ok in there Alex?” Crap, I hadn’t even started…
“Yeah.” I lied. I think I lied, I wasn’t even sure. I could hardly let myself get this far and chicken out though, ‘sorry Beth, I was too scared to get changed’.
I held up what she’d picked. It was green, Beth likes green… I’m sure it would be fine. Fuck, why didn’t they just have normal changing rooms?
Wait! Fuck I’m an idiot. It was a dress! You didn’t even wear pants with a dress. I could just put the top bit on first. Worst case someone would see me without my t-shirt on…. That’s not too bad is it?
I had everything ready so I spent the minimum time in the state of most undress. Which wasn’t long and wasn’t even that undressed anyway.
The operation was completed successfully. It took about ten seconds, leaving me feeling like a bit of an idiot.
Then I saw myself in the mirror and felt a whole idiot. Urgh. I was far too skinny, and I hated my legs, I wish I looked like Beth. They were so bare, I felt naked.
That is without even considering the knife I had strapped to my leg, now showing for all to see. Trouser legs were useful for concealing weapons. It looked huge in the mirror, I was sure it was smaller than that. It was also a little too fitted for my waist knife. A belt and baggy t-shirt were effective in hiding it normally. This thing hugged my abdomen like a… the only thing I could relate it to was a well-fitting ballistic vest. Except this thing’s embrace was a lot less comforting.
“Uh, I’m done,” I called out to her, because clearly she was waiting for me. “Can I take it off now?”
“No! Let’s see it,” she relayed through the door.
That was not agreed upon. I said I’d try it on, not show anyone. “It looks stupid. I don’t want anyone to see me.”
“It doesn’t!” But she hasn’t even seen it yet. She can’t even pretend that it looks good. “How about I come in? You can just show me. Please?”
Of everyone, I wanted Beth to see me least. I couldn’t say no to her though. Not if it really made her happy. After a moment’s hesitation and second guessing I unstrapped my ankle knife and shoved it under the bench beneath some clothes someone had thrown aside casually. I pulled my old t-shirt against myself and pressed the lock.
The nice protective translucent wall disintegrated into a view of the crowded shop. Beth came into the cubicle, frowning at me as if I was being very unreasonable. I quickly toggled the glass back so I could relax.
Except once it flashed into its frosted state the space contracted. It was not designed for more than one person.
“Go on, let’s see then!” She said, impatient, oblivious to the claustrophobia of the space we were in.
“I look awful.” I replied, but dropped the t-shirt anyway.
“It’s wonderful! It really suits you. What are you talking about, awful?” She reached out and grabbed my shoulders, “Stand up straight, like this. See, that’s better.”
Dubiously, I looked in the mirror. I suppose I did look more… normal. But I felt so exposed with my legs uncovered.
“Won’t I be freezing?” I said. Logical arguments as to why this thing was stupid.
“You could wear leggings or something,” she said. I considered it; they were nearly trousers. No useful pockets, but it would be better. No knife-hiding potential, and they still showed how very skinny my legs were. Why bother?
I made a non-comitial I-don’t-really-want-to-agree ‘hmm’.
“Besides,” She was close, really close. I felt the anticipation of a touch, but none came. She just stood behind me, both of us looking into the mirror, “I like it.”
What does that mean? I could hear her breathing. I could feel her breath on my cheek, on the new skin where the glass had sliced into my flesh. I could feel his breath then, his face inches away from my own. The shine saliva on his lips as he grinned…
It was too small in here. Need to get out. Except I can’t. I’m stuck unless I change back. Panic started to rise in my chest. Need to keep calm, slow my breathing. I wasn’t doing a good job at it. Why the hell do these things always end up in a fucking feedback loop?
“Are you ok? You’re breathing all funny.” She said, taking a step back.
“Fine!” I managed to get past what was quickly turning into gasps for air. The room seemed to spin, but it was just my head. I was just dizzy, that’s all. I sat on the small bench protruding from the wall.
“Are you sure? What’s wrong? Can I help?” She asked.
“No, just… I dunno. Need to sit down.” Why was this happening? I felt really sick, and my hands were tingling with pins and needles.
I managed, against everything my body was telling me, to slow the rate I was taking breaths. I kept my head down, elbows on my knees and closed my eyes.
Just need to keep calm.
After about thirty seconds I was feeling better. Beth, trying to help, had put a hand on my back and sat next to me. Locked in a tiny room with someone touching me…
Yeah, it didn’t help.
But fuck was I not going to tell her that. Ever. I could never do that. She’d be really upset.
“I’m sorry.” Crap she was already upset.
“Why do you need to be sorry? I’m…” the broken one, I finished in my head. I was not getting paranoid about people attacking me, or really about anyone touching me. I was just having bloody panic attacks every time something slightly fucking stressful happened.
“I’m sorry I pushed you into doing this, I didn’t think… I don’t know. I feel like it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have made you try the stupid thing on.” She said, not looking at me.
“That’s not… I don’t think it’s anything to do with that,” though it probably didn’t help. “It’s happened before. I just… get like this sometimes.”
“Are you sure you are ok?” She said, worried. “Maybe you should see a doctor or something.”
Whoa, no way. “I’m fine. I just want to get out of here.”
She stood up. “Let’s do that then. Just say something if you need me. Anything.”
* * *
We walked through the park. A roundabout journey to the library that mirrored the one when we had first come here. This time the snow had started in earnest, coming down thick. I watched the snow-flakes collect on Beth’s hair, until she got annoyed and shook it off.
“You know, this would be romantic if it wasn’t so damn cold.” I guess it would, if you had someone for it to be romantic with. “Gah! This wind.”
It was cold, and she had a proper winter coat. I was stuck with a borrowed jacket. It was thicker than my usual one though, which was probably still in the wash at her house, so I wasn’t too bothered.
“Alex…” She said, and then paused.
I detected a hint of worry in her voice. She was thinking about Serious Things. When she failed to continue I gave her a prompting “Yes?”
“I’m worried about Mike.” She finished.