A pale yellow plastic bag blew into the street, just in time to capture the woman’s attention as the paper bin which had previously held it disappeared from the field of vision allowed by the window of the second-to-last night bus southwards. The bag shuffled down the side of the curb, occasionally somersaulting into the air along with cascades of brown leaves. It flailed for a moment, snagged on a lamp post, but soon slipped past and flew on. As it approached the edge of the window, the woman tried to find a suitable new object of interest, but too late. The bag gone, she found herself forced again to consciously face her awareness that the man sitting three seats behind her on the other side of the aisle had fingernails where his eyes were supposed to be.
It wasn’t the first such person she’d seen. The first had been a middle-aged lady driving by in a matte silver Fiat almost four weeks earlier, and since then she’d noticed maybe six or seven others.
They hadn’t been in any way aggressive or threatening. In fact, apart from the rows of fingernails sticking out like window shutters from their empty eye sockets, there had been nothing unusual about them. They had all been doing perfectly normal things when she’d spotted them; Mowing lawns, driving cars, walking through parks, and now this man in a tweed suit who’d entered the second-to-last night bus southwards – empty apart from her and the driver – and proceeded to calmly take a seat at a socially acceptable distance, placing his dark leather briefcase between his feet.
None of these people had seemed bothered by the state of their eyes, and perhaps more strange, neither had anyone else. All bystanders had treated them as a natural part of the scenery, which was the main reason she figured she must be going insane. Come to think of it though, while nobody else had seemed to pay attention to those people, neither had she. There’s really no appropriate way to acknowledge a thing like that. She had toyed with the idea that maybe they actually were like that and everyone in the world ignored it because everybody else were doing the same, but that would be ridiculous. Someone, somewhere, would have had to say something eventually, and then everyone would have freaked out about it.
No, the only explanation was that she was going mad. Something must have gone wrong in hear head, and now she was imagining fingernails in the place of eyes on occasional random strangers.
She wasn’t on any medication, neither she nor anyone in her family had a history of mental illness, and it seemed to her a strangely specific delusion to have, but insanity was nevertheless the only even remotely plausible theory. She really should go see a therapist. Not now, of course. Her long night shifts left her neither time nor resolve for much else and in any case she was practically broke. But maybe in a month or so, hopefully.
She could manage until then. She was a balanced person. She had made a mental note – feeling utterly ridiculous as she did so – that no matter what eldritch horrors she might imagine seeing until then, she had to remember they weren’t real. If some day she’d, say, turn a corner and bump right into one of the eyeless, she should resist the urge to run away, or worse, fight it, try to kill it. She would have to force herself to apologize politely to it and continue as if nothing had happened.
She realized the back of the bus was silent. There hadn’t been a sound since the man in the tweed suit sat down. Maybe he wasn’t there. Maybe he’d never been. Maybe she’d just imagined him getting on the bus and walking past her. Maybe she’d fallen half-asleep and dreamed that an eyeless man walked past her. She was after all very tired, and she had lately been thinking a lot about the eyeless she’d seen so far. Come to think of it, though, could she be sure she’d even seen those? Maybe she wasn’t insane. Maybe it was just some trick of the light. She’d only glimpsed them in passing, and never closer than maybe ten feet away. The wrinkled eyelids of someone squinting might kind of look like a row of fingernails, couldn’t they?
She had to turn around. She had to take another look at the tweed-wearing man who might or might not be three seats behind her on the other side of the aisle. But how, without acting strange?
She produced a pocket calendar from her coat, flipped the pages for a few seconds, then pretended to fumble and dropped it on the floor of the aisle. As she leaned out to retrieve it, she sneaked a glance backwards.
He was there, but his eyes were closed. Perhaps he was resting, perhaps he’d fallen asleep. She momentarily imagined herself rising, walking over to him and prying his eyelids open to get clarity. But she didn’t. Of course she didn’t.
She returned to her seat. Put the calendar back in her pocket. She wrapped the coat tighter around her and turned away. Outside, the wind tugged at the flaps of a cardboard box left on the sidewalk.