flash fiction by Tina Anton
Gail watches the people move about their lives as she walks through the grocery store. She imagines them each as stars. They are the center of a solar system orbited by friends, family, and responsibilities. They move forever forward through the cosmos, moments away from consuming those around them in a heated solar flare. It is a weird metaphor, but she has trouble dropping it as she reaches for the milk and ignores the hairs that stand up on the back of her neck when a large older man slips past close enough that their shoulders brush.
She wonders if others ever feel the same frightening gravity pull when they are close to one another. A tremor works down her arms, and she deliberately evens out her breathing until it fades.
She walks through the store, slowly filling her cart, and tries to avoid looking at anyone else. It keeps her fears from growing unmanageable.
In the checkout line, there is a woman and three children in front of her. The youngest one keeps looking up at Gail and smiling shyly.
Maybe people are not stars, Gail thinks as her gaze skitters from the claustrophobic checkout to the store exits. Perhaps they live inside invisible bubbles bouncing around, bumping into one another.
The next time the child grins at her, she bumps back. Gail gives a small, nervous smile and curls her hand in an awkward wave.
The child's grin widens. One of her front teeth is missing, and the humanity of that tiny gap relaxes Gail.
She wants to ask what others see when they look at her—overweight, layered in protective frumpy monochrome, skittish from trauma. Gail is glad no one else can see inside her mind and judge how she understands the world.
When it is her turn to pay, she fumbles through the interaction, and sweat forms between Gail's shoulder blades as the ever-present anxiety ramps up. The woman behind the check-out counter frowns when Gail's shaking hands need multiple attempts to get her card into the slot. She feels pathetic, and a blush of shame heats her face.
By the time she escapes through the store doors into the cold evening air, Gail feels stretched too thin. She thinks of the child from minutes before. As frightening, strange, and mysterious as they are, other people sometimes choose to see her and smile even if their lives will never touch hers again. It brings a warm peace to her chest. It settles something flighty in her chest — a need to be seen.
Tina Anton is a disabled lesbian author living in the Midwest. She has been writing professionally for several years, and her work has been published by Weirdyear, Aphelion, Visual Adjectives, and The Rusty Nail, among others. She spends her free time playing with her blue heeler, Furiosa.