It was half past three in the afternoon, and the bi-monthly meeting of the town’s support group for monsters with social anxiety was winding down. Once again, as with each of the previous four occasions, Esme had been the only attendee. There had been a brief moment of excitement an hour in when a disembodied voice had suddenly blared out of thin air behind her, causing her to think that she’d been joined by an invisible man. She’d been disappointed to find that it was just a podcast blaring out of a mobile phone that someone had left on a table when they visited the little boy’s room.
More focused souls than Esme might have questioned whether socially anxious types were really the kind of people who might turn up to a Tim Hortons to meet with strangers and discuss their myriad problems, but Esme wasn’t the sort who would let a simple setback set her… back. Added to this was the additional concern that some potential attendees might have felt about being a monster in the human world, but Esme had strong feelings in this regard too. In her opinion, if someone could turn up at a restaurant, be polite, respectful and courteous, what should it matter if their hair was snakes and their gaze turned others to stone?
In the circumstances, it was perhaps unsurprising that a gorgon like Esme should have trouble making eye contact with others, but she’d always secretly felt that even if she didn’t have the particular issue that she had, she would struggle with this anyway. With dark glasses necessary to hide her dark green eyes and a crippling fear of anything beyond basic smalltalk, she was at a natural disadvantage when it came to conversation. For all that, she didn’t struggle to attract attention – but that was mostly due to Errol.
All of the snakes in Esme’s hair had individual names and personalities, but much like the monster folk in her particular postal code, they kept themselves to themselves, interacting more with one another than with her. Errol was different.
Errol was a large, handsome cobra with a sand-coloured hood who just happened to protrude from the front centre of her head, directly above her eyes. Errol loved napping, sunshine and dancing to music, any music at all. When he heard jingles on TV adverts or muzak in lifts, he would rouse himself from whatever doze he’d been in, raise himself to his full height and sway lazily from side to side. It was a particularly parlous habit, especially given the necessity of keeping all her snakes hidden under hats. Esme was fashion-conscious as well as self-conscious, and more than once, she had had to quickly explain to shocked tourists that actually, berets moved on their own in France too.
Despite the troubles that Errol frequently caused, he was still Esme’s favourite. She supposed that maybe all gorgons had one particular snake, one with a little more personality than all the others, though in truth, she’d never met another one of her own species, so she couldn’t be sure. But she was certain that there was a unique, unspoken bond between her and Errol. It made up for his fussiness when she surreptitiously tried to feed him sandwiches during the support group meetings.
So the group meeting had come to an end, and even with Esme’s relentlessly optimistic mindset, she had to admit that it had been something of a debacle. To add to the disappointment over the invisible man mistake and Errol’s outright rejection of all foods that weren’t live mice, the nice young man who poured the best coffee in the place had clearly noticed her trying to push crusts under her headscarf as he was leaving and raised a single, pitying eyebrow. To him, she was just another crazy individual who came in, did her weird thing and then left without making a serious impression. It was sad for all concerned.
She sat a little while, reviewing the repeating items on the agenda (‘Review of public attitudes towards monsters in the local media’ and ‘Ask pleasant coffee boy how he makes such magical coffee’) and considered if maybe the agenda itself was just too boring to attract any interest. Perhaps she could pep it up a bit – include a suggested book for people to review, or add in some cross stitch tips or something.
She was preparing to pick up her bag and head back to her tiny apartment on the edge of town when the music began in the distance. It was a whiny-voiced man with a clanging guitar, singing about heroes. Esme had allowed herself to be distracted for a moment too long ensuring that she brushed every last crumb from her meal onto her plate, and Errol perked up from his sulk as the first bars began, shifting lithely from side-to-side with just enough force that the scarf untangled itself, slipping away from Esme’s head.
“Errol!” she shrieked, diving for the scarf and hiding under the table all in one movement. She stayed there for a moment, waiting to see if anyone had noticed her unveiling, but quickly realised that the small number of humans in the restaurant were behaving very strangely indeed.
Initially, they had shown only cursory interest in the music, but as the volume increased, a handful of them gathered by the door and stood there, listening.
“What’s going on?” Esme asked, but her social phobia caused her voice to come out as a squeak and she covered her mouth with her hands. Cursing her anxieties, she quickly re-tied the scarf and walked up to the door.
The nice coffee boy had long since disappeared, but two of his colleagues and a number of customers were held in tight embraces by attractive nymphets who seemed altogether too strong for their tiny frames. As one, they looked up from their respective kisses and stared at Esme, as though daring her to intervene in their intimacy.
Some primal part of Esme’s brain fired, alerting her to the strangeness of these events. Still, she didn’t quite trust her instincts, wondering if maybe this was the sort of thing that happened regularly when shifts changed over. She would have freely admitted that she was a bit rusty in the field of amour. Actually, now that she thought about it, people on TV and in movies seemed to kiss an awful lot—often with very little preamble to suggest their intentions. You couldn’t walk down the street without seeing billboards filled with couples embracing or walking hand-in-hand. This was normal. It was totally normal.
Esme glanced back into the kitchen to see the manager liplocked with a eight-foot tall Amazonian giantess, whose attire consisted of little more than strings bound together around her limbs. She struggled a little bit for reference, but then she had seen Fifty Shades of Grey several times at the cinema. Maybe this was normal. It was probably normal.
As she watched, the Amazon reached a massive hand into an adjacent fridge and produced a large bottle of iced water, which she proceeded to pour down her ample frame. The manager’s eyes seemed like they might pop out of his head. Normal.
Two new figures appeared soundlessly behind Esme, causing her to jump and spin round in fright. Their faces split into predatory grins, and then one shifted forms. Starting out as a man with a lengthy ponytail, the figure shifted into a blonde woman with bountiful bosoms and then a tall androgynous figure with a whip under their arm.
That… wasn’t normal.
“This one is strange,” the figure said. “I can’t read her. She’s not like the others.”
Esme jumped back as the figures reached for her, but all the while, the music was continuing to play, and Errol was continuing to dance. He found a fold in the material and flicked himself out, his lengthy tongue tasting the air.
The figures stopped advancing briefly, surprised by the cobra’s sudden appearance, before glancing at one another and smiling.
“Magic,” one said.
“We should explore this,” said the other.
“Stop,” Esme commanded, immediately thankful that her voice came out evenly. “If I take off my glasses and stare at you… you’ll regret it.”
“A challenge,” the androgynous figure said.
“Find her weakness,” the other urged.
Esme was terrified now. “I’m not kidding,” she babbled.
With an ecstatic hiss, the figures advanced on her, and Esme whipped off her glasses.
It had been so long that Esme had used her powers that she’d basically forgotten how they worked, and honestly, they’d never worked that well to begin with. She stared; stared and hoped. That eternal hope aside, Esme’s world was just Errol, her anxieties, and her support group of one.
Esme, as far as she knew the only one of her kind left in the world, was a gorgon who had never actually turned anyone to stone.
The figures laughed as she stared at them. “You have no powers,” one said.
“There’s still time for you to run!” Esme yelled back.
They were an arm’s length away. The figure reached out and-
-stopped. Stopped solid. Shocked, the second figure looked at the first.
“My arms… I can’t move them!”
Esme yelped with joy, and then the first figure doubled over and laughed. “Ah, I’m just kidding.” The other began laughing too. “I’m bored with this. Let’s just kill her.”
The pair turned into generically attractive young women and went to the kitchen. There was a brief moment while Esme listened with growing horror at the sounds of a particularly voracious and squelchy encounter between the Amazon and her beau behind the counter before the women reappeared, each bearing a wicked looking kitchen knife.
“Errol,” Esme whimpered, “help me.” She felt him move, saw the sirens advance as though it was through his own pearl-black eyes.
The women had covered three-quarters of the distance back towards her before one of them stumbled into the other, causing her to curse.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“I can’t… my legs… feel strange…”
Esme kept staring, all the while aware of Errol gyrating above her head. The woman who had stumbled grabbed hold of the other.
“Let me go!” The woman raised her knife but it fell from her grasp. She held up her hand, which was taking on a milky white, jellified form before her eyes.
“She’s doing this! Stop her!”
Gripping one another in a grotesque embrace, with five working limbs between them, the sirens launched a desperate final assault at Esme, who could only stand still and sob.
They came up six feet short. The knife, so life-endingly sharp, dropped harmlessly at her feet. There was a short pause, and then Esme breathed out as the music in the distance ceased and Errol disappeared back into the folds of her headscarf.
“Thank you,” Esme whispered. He was her favourite for a reason.
Before her, the two sirens had become wobbling statues, alabaster likenesses of their former form. Esme prodded one with a finger. She’d turned into blancmange.
Her self-belief hadn’t been enough to turn them to stone. But it would have to do for now.
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