The Naked Me – N. Immanuel Velez

Jareth eased into a parking spot, turning off the rock ‘n’ roll screaming from the radio. The wind nipped at his skin, so he zipped up his jacket a little tighter. His silver necklace winked at him in the reflection off the convenience store windows. A month ago this place would have been teeming with evening rush hour customers, but not today, not anymore.

The bell dinged. Plastic sheeting and caution signs still covered the glass refrigerator doors. The mob had made a hell of a mess, so he was surprised to see such a quick restoration. And glad. He needed his cigarettes. For a bad couple of weeks when a lot of stores were still shut there had been hardly available at all, but he’d made a point of keeping his habit. It was a matter of pride, even with his wages cut to the bone. They’d opened the restaurant again, but on short hours, just another service business slowly adjusting to the new world.

He kept his gaze down when he approached the cashier, his visor blocking eye contact. You couldn’t make eye contact.

“Hi, Miguel.” Jareth said. “A pack a cigs, please. The usual.”

“Sure.”

Miguel also wore a visor; everyone did. If you couldn’t buy one, you made one or wore a hat. Really dark shades also did the trick. You needed something, anything, to keep you from meeting another person’s gaze.

“Still cleaning up?” Jareth asked.

“Almost done.” He nodded at the plastic sheeting. “That’s the last bit of broken glass. It’d be easier if they’d worked out insurance yet.”

Jareth retrieved the cigarettes. He only saw the pack and Miguel’s tanned, large hand.

“Man, it’s been one hell of a month, huh?” Jareth focused on the change in the give-a-penny basin.

“Yeah. It’s the cell phones I can’t get used to. I hate texting.”

“I hear you. Some people would rather talk. I’d rather text, but, hey, to each his own. There’s always voicemail. At least the TV’s okay.”

“It’d be easier if I understood why it happens. I still don’t get it.”

“They say maybe it’s psychological. Some kind of subconscious one-on-one connection.” Which was about all Jareth had been able to follow; for all the long words and the attempts at quiet reassurance, he was pretty sure the government didn’t know why the phones were affected any more than Miguel did. They’d said on the news the night before that they were testing—slowly, just like everything was slower now—some kind of micro-delay recording system, so you weren’t actually talking to the other person, just recording a message that their phone would play to them a second or so after you left it. Not quite a conversation, but better than nothing.

“Whatever it is, I still hate texting.”

“Someone’ll figure something. See ya later. Thanks.” Jareth almost raised his head, but checked himself. He paused before finding the courage to ask one more question. “When was the last time you looked someone in the eye?”

“Not since the whole thing started.”

“Same here.”

He walked back to his car and lifted the visor with a sense of relief. Not another person in sight. Time to go see Gina. He’d been putting it off, waiting for things to settle, telling himself he shouldn’t message her, but should talk face to face, then telling himself to leave it another day, that maybe she’d message him. He’d heard nothing, and now he’d run out of excuses. The fear of what she’d say ate at him, but it was time, and he was as ready as he’d ever be. Assuming she’d even talk to him, and wouldn’t just slam the door in his face after what she’d seen.

It had been a little over a month since everything changed.

#

Jareth had strolled through the restaurant’s back entrance, and taken off his black leather jacket. Inside his cramped, rusty locker he had his cigarettes, a half-empty pack of gum, his waiter uniform, and a sweatshirt he’d left there weeks ago. He unclasped his necklace—against dress code, though for some reason they were okay with earrings—and removed his jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers, replacing them with the white Oxford shirt, black slacks, and black loafers.

“I’m surprised you made it today,” Dave said as he barreled in behind Jareth. “You might wanna do something about your eyes.”

“Red?” Jareth rubbed them, feeling a burn like grains of sand under his lids.

“Very.”

Jareth pulled some drops out of his pocket and tilted his head back to apply them.

“You were really wasted,” Dave said, grinning. “Gina get you home okay?”

She had; Jareth had woken on the couch, still fully clothed, with a vague memory of lurching arm-in-arm with her back to his place. Of her propping him against the wall while she fumbled with his keys, and shushing him so he wouldn’t drunkenly wake the neighbors. He’d been disappointed, despite his pounding head, to find she hadn’t stayed after he passed out. Having her there would’ve made the fight to straighten himself out and get ready for work much more pleasant.

“You’ll have to make it up to her, hauling your sorry ass across town.” Dave slapped him on the back.

“Weekend plans already,” Jareth said. The sting in his eyes retreated. “I got us a room at this bed-and-breakfast near Winchester. Just the two of us out in the country for a few days.”

“You sly dog.”

It couldn’t come fast enough, if he were honest with himself. He’d had a crush on Gina for a year before asking her out, but she’d been in a relationship with a broker named Saul. Jareth had flirted with her regardless, and thought he’d seen signs of a latent attraction for him. Her hand lingering on his arm, a simple look becoming a stare, a wink across the room. There was something remarkably seductive about her. When she split from Saul—”It wasn’t working.”—he pounced, and rebound be damned. It was still early days for them as an item, but that meant they were still in the sweet spot where just the thought of her touch on his skin, the feel of her lying beside him, her warmth or her scent, was enough to get his blood pumping. Where he wanted as much of her as he could get, like part of him was afraid it was all a dream and he might wake at any moment.

“You good to go?” Dave said.

“Yeah, it’s only the lunch shift. Shouldn’t be too bad.”

“I asked Tom to give you section six.”

“Awesome. Thanks, man.”

Section six tended to have the fewest diners during lunch. Perfect for a waiter with a hangover. Black-and-white tiles checkered the floor, and aged photos of various cities in the Forties plastered the walls. A patron sat at a wooden booth and perused the menu.

“Hello!” Jareth said with a smile. “Welcome to—”

“Please. I’m not in the mood. Just get me a water and give me time to make up my mind,” the man said. He tapped his index finger against the menu like a machine and never looked up.

Prick, Jareth thought. “Sure. Anything you say. I’ll give you some time.”

Jareth sauntered off toward the smoking area, and lit a cigarette. He would give this jackass all the time he needed. He took deep, deliberate draws of the smoke until it was down to the filter.

He returned to the table with a smile and water. “Did you figure out what you want?”

The man looked up at him. “Yes.”

Damn, he looks cheap. Probably leaves change for a tip, Jareth thought. As he did, his head swam, as if something foreign, whose presence left him shuddering inwardly, had scattered his thoughts. Maybe the hangover was worse than he’d thought.

“What did you say?” the man said. “I bet this punk spat in my water.”

“What?” Jareth pulled himself together. “I asked if you were ready to order.”

“That’s not what I heard. I’d like to speak with your manager.”

“What?” he said again. Why would he say that? But he left before the man could respond, aiming for Tom’s office. Across the room he heard a plate shatter, a commotion afterward.

Jareth knocked on his manager’s door.

“Come in,” Tom said.

“Some prick wants to talk to you. Not sure what his problem is.” Jareth didn’t care much for Tom, who bombarded him with double shifts even when he asked for singles and who he suspected gave the bartenders an unfair percentage of the pooled tips.

Tom didn’t look at Jareth, but continued typing and staring at his screen. Heaps of paperwork riddled his desk. A minute crawled by before he raised his eyes and locked them with Jareth’s. “What the hell did you do this time, you idiot?”

Again Jareth felt something cold and alien turn over his mind, thoughts running together. Just as suddenly, it pulled back. He shook himself in embarrassment. Tom’s mouth hadn’t moved. And yet he could have sworn he’d heard his boss right. Did this weasel just call me an idiot? Wonder if he’d like everyone to find out what he does with the tips.

Tom’s eyes lit up and his eyebrows clenched. Once more Jareth shivered inwardly. “He knows about the money?” Again the man’s mouth hadn’t moved. Tom looked back at the screen and loosened his tie.

“Uh, did you just say something, Jareth?”

“The customer. Did you just say something? I thought I heard you—”

“Um, never mind. Let’s go.” Tom marched out of the room and motioned for Jareth to follow.

They reached section six, only to find the guy had left. Julie, one of the waitresses, rushed past and tugged Tom’s arm. “I’m really not feeling well,” she said, practically panting. “I’ve gotta go.”

When Tom turned to her to speak, she let out a scream and ran.

“What the hell is going on?” Jareth said.

“I don’t know. Something isn’t right.”

Jareth looked around. All of the customers had left. The front doors were just closing behind the last two. He saw the bartender heading out. “Hey, Simon, wait! Do you have any idea what the hell is going on?”

“No,” Simon said. “But I have to go.”

Another sickening sense of something invading him, violating his thoughts. This time Jareth saw a Rottweiler chewing a bone.

What the fuck is happening? Jareth darted toward the locker, changed his clothes, and threw himself into his car, his hangover a distant memory.

He flew down Route 28, heading for home. His hands pattered as they shook against the steering wheel. His mind was a garbled mess. Tom speaking without moving his lips, the customer reacting to an insult he couldn’t have heard, Julie, Simon, everybody running.

He felt like he had that day when he was eight and thought his parents had left him behind at an amusement park. He’d been scared, so scared, waiting at the information desk while the staff tried to reach his folks. Except they’d never left, and within minutes they’d heard the announcement over the PA and come to find him. But it looked like this time there’d be no easy ending, no seemingly miraculous reversal where everything turned out okay and he could just go for ice cream afterward and forget all about it.

When he reached his apartment complex, he saw his neighbor lurching unsteadily away from the building. “Hey, Jake,” Jareth said. “Have you noticed anything strange happening?”

The other man just shook his head, mumbling, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Jareth fumbled his keys in the lock. Inside, the apartment was cramped and stuffy, the one bedroom lonely. He took a water bottle from the fridge and downed it in one swig. Sitting at the cheap stand that posed as a dining table, he pulled out his cell phone and called Gina. Calm. Stay calm. You imagined it. It’s just a passing thing. This will all be over tomorrow and you can take her to that cottage and spend the whole weekend in bed and we can spend hours just having—

“Oh my God, Jareth! Is it happening to you, too?!” she cried as soon as she answered. He had a yawning, vertigo-inducing sense of standing suddenly naked, cold and utterly powerless against a presence that slipped like ice water through every memory he had. Humiliation at his weakness and exposure flooded through him. Amongst that, an image of Gina and Saul holding each other on a yacht. She was smiling and laughing. “I—oh my God.” She hung up.

The image, and the feeling of invasion, disappeared as soon as she killed the connection. He wanted to throw up.

Gina didn’t answer when he tried again. He sent her a text message asking her what was going on, if she was okay, if he should come over. The reply was short, terse, and missing all those little markers that normally dotted their messages.

Just stay away for now. This isn’t right.

When he messaged back, all he got were network errors. There were sirens wailing in the street, but the radio and TV news stations all seemed to be off air. He paced the apartment, torn between the lingering hope that maybe she’d call back or message him, get in touch somehow, explain what was wrong, and the desire to race off and talk to her face-to-face.

A couple of hours later he heard a knock at the front door and his heart jumped for a moment, until he opened it to find his sister Rachel standing there, head down. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “Let me in but don’t look at me.”

Jareth shuffled back into the room to allow her through. She removed her jacket, sat on his aged couch, and used her hands to cover her eyes. “Damn, it’s a fucking shit show out there. You do know what I’m talking about, right? It’s not just me?”

“Yes. What the hell is going on?!”

“I don’t know. Nobody knows. People are flipping the fuck out. Every time I look at someone I hear voices or see things and I feel like… like someone’s breathing in my ear or… or… like nothing’s safe.”

“When you look at someone?”

“You don’t think it’s that?”

“I dunno,” he said, and as he did so she glanced up at him, red eyes hopeful.

He returned the look and again felt something slide through him, a foreign force oozing through his thoughts, turning them over while he flailed helplessly to keep hold of them. Dizziness and shame swam through him at how helpless he was against this thing, this presence, and as it did he saw Rachel’s boyfriend Matt drinking a glass of water with a shaking hand.

“Oh Jesus,” she said, turning her head, “it happened again. I heard Gina talking. Oh Jesus. I feel awful.”

“I saw Matt drinking water.”

“I was thinking about Matt. Right before I came over. He wanted to know if I’d be okay coming here by myself. I was thinking of calling him to tell him I was with you.”

“Don’t,” Jareth said. “The networks are jammed, and the exact same shit happened to me when I called Gina. Don’t use your phone.” He paused, planting himself beside her, careful not to look in her direction. “What did you hear Gina say?”

“It was just her voice, saying ‘Oh God,’ like she was scared.”

“That’s what she said when I called her. She hung up on me. She told me to stay away, but I was thinking about going round to see if she’s okay or what’s going on.”

“Matt and I are stocked, but you might want to stop off for food and water when you go; you know what people are like, and this is just crazy. Wait, you were thinking about what happened with Gina?”

“Yeah.”

“And I was thinking about calling Matt.”

“Holy shit,” Jareth said. “You think we’re seeing what we’re thinking? We’re actually reading minds? Why? How?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know if it’s real. I mean, how can it be?”

“We should test it,” he said.

“Really? How?”

Jareth snatched a pad and pen from the coffee table. “Here, write down something ridiculous that I could never guess,” he said, ripping off a sheet. “I’ll do the same. Fold it and hide it behind your back. Then we’ll look at each other and think of what we just wrote. If we can recite each other’s sheet, word for word, then we know it’s true.”

“You sure you want to do this?”

“No,” he said. “But we’ll know for sure then. Just look away if you have to.”

She lowered her hands, scribbled on the paper, then folded it and placed it under her leg. Jareth did the same.

“You ready?” he asked.

“Yes.”

They counted down from three and then made eye contact.

“Enough!” Rachel screamed. She swiveled around. “Pink elephants flying through the rain.”

“Sometimes I drink coffee at midnight,” Jareth said as the feeling passed of being laid bare, utterly exposed and open. He was alone and safe in his own head again. “Do I even have to look?”

“You can if you want, but you know what it says.” She sniffled and wiped tears from her eyes. “It’s like I can feel you there in my mind. Like there’s something inside me and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I want a shower.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s horrible.”

“And it’s the same over the phone? What were you thinking when you spoke to Gina?”

“I was telling myself this was all going to work out, that we’d go to a bed-and-breakfast for the weekend and forget all about it.” He stopped. He’d been thinking of all the things they’d do together, taking refuge in their escape, in the fantasy, most of it sex. Rough, dirty, filthy sex. If she’d seen that… “Oh shit. I need to go talk to her.”

#

When Jareth turned the corner by the local convenience store he saw cars everywhere, some of them abandoned, gridlock in every direction. Horns filled the air, and a mob at the store’s entrance was shouting and banging on the glass, turning on each other here and there as they made eye contact and saw each other’s panic and need to survive at all costs reflected back.

Oh, hell no. No way. Screw this.

He jetted out and sped toward Gina’s. He was so focused on cutting through the chaos on the streets and making it to her in time that he barely managed to stop the car before it hit her garage.

He bolted to the front door and rang the bell. Moments passed before he heard a familiar voice. “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Jareth.”

He heard the lock turning before the door cracked open an inch. “Don’t look at me,” she said.

“I know, I know. My head is down.”

The door widened. He saw blue jeans and black suede boots over cream tiles.

“Gina!” a woman’s voice shrieked from inside the house.

“Look, Jareth,” Gina said, “this isn’t a good time. My parents had a major fight. She just kicked Dad out. Their marriage wasn’t all that great to begin with. I don’t know what Mom saw or heard, but it wasn’t pretty.”

“I’m really sorry, really, but can we talk for a minute? On the phone—”

“Jareth, please. No need to explain.”

“I wasn’t… that’s not what I—”

“No need to explain,” she repeated.

“I saw you thinking of Saul. On his boat.”

“So?” She sighed. “Random thoughts enter your head all the time, Jareth. You know how it is. You could be in a grocery line and something might remind you of a red notebook you once owned. Or you could be in an accident, bleeding, and the spinning tire might make you think of a bike you loved when you were thirteen, when you should be thinking about calling nine-one-one. Doesn’t mean anything. I was freaking out before you called. I was probably just thinking of an escape. But the way it felt when we… I’ve got to think about things.”

Jareth saw her feet shift. “Message me or email me?” he said. “So I know you’re okay?”

“Gina!” her mom’s voice bellowed.

“Sure, Jareth, I have to go. Bye.”

She shut the door and he rested his head against it, his necklace clanging against the wood like a bell tolling. He closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and trudged back to the car with his head down, even though no one else was around.

Jareth headed home in silence.

In his peripheral vision he saw an SUV pacing him on his left. The blast of a horn shook him. The SUV barked three more times before he turned his head. He saw three young men staring at him and couldn’t help but lock eyes for a moment with the smiling one in the passenger seat.

“I can see inside your mind, asshole!” Something jammed into the space behind his eyes, burrowing through his memories with a force and intent he couldn’t resist. An image of the men in a room, laughing at the idea of raping minds, like their new-found ability was something they’d been waiting for all their lives.

He sped up, queasy now, but they followed.

They must have seen Gina in his head. Maybe they were hoping for an introduction. He’d almost passed the next exit when he mashed the brakes and swung hard right while the SUV shot past, the guy’s grinning head lolling out the window like a dog.

At home, he flung himself on the couch and flipped on the television. News stations were back on the air. An aerial view from a helicopter over Washington, D.C. showed scores of people rioting and looting. Flames erupted from buildings. An anchorman, eyes kept carefully out of frame by the camera’s tilt, described the carnage. He reported the same devastation in other American cities. The flush of the anchorman’s cheeks distracted Jareth, and for some reason he wondered if the makeup crew had overdone it, or if they’d quit and it was just the man’s own raw emotion showing through. Then he wondered if the effect even happened over TV, whether they were just playing it safe—after all, he could still hear the anchor and nothing was happening—and found he couldn’t blame them if they were.

On another channel the President was addressing the nation in a prerecorded statement. He urged citizens to remain calm, and promised that the government would find a solution to the inexplicable situation. He told people to wear hats, visors, anything to keep from looking directly at each other and exacerbating the hysteria. To stay indoors if possible. To keep off the roads. To wait for further advice. He suggested texting instead of calling. He said that while the emergency services were overburdened, they were already working hard to find ways of doing their jobs despite the phenomenon. He pleaded for those who could, and those employed in critical industries supplying food, power, or other vital services, not to abandon work, to keep the economy from failing and the country from collapsing. He reiterated that America wasn’t alone, that the event was worldwide, and that the country would stay in a state of emergency until the current mania diminished.

Jareth had enough food for a few days if he stretched it. Enough smokes for two if he didn’t cut down. If it meant he could stay hunkered indoors until the world was sane again it’d have to do. He meandered toward his bedroom, lit one of his precious cigarettes, and pulled out his guitar. He half-heartedly strummed a few songs, let the nicotine buzz spread through him, and tried not to think about Gina or the shape of the future.

#

A month since he’d last seen her. Jareth sat in the car, flicking his necklace against the empty soda can in his hand while he stared at Gina’s front door, willing himself to get out. It made a sound like pennies falling out of someone’s pocket.

A month.

It had to be over by now—she would have been in touch otherwise, wouldn’t she?—but he still didn’t know why, and it didn’t deserve to have been left the way it had, hanging loose in all the early panic. With what they’d seen in each other’s heads left unexplored and unforgiven. Maybe they could still get past it. Maybe it wasn’t all lost. It could be good between them again. Even though it had taken him weeks to build up the courage to go see her, the final step was still a hard one.

He knocked on her door. She wore a purple visor when she answered it this time. “Hi, Jareth.”

“Hi.”

“Come in.”

He wondered whether he should have come, feeling like he was here to ask her for a loan he couldn’t repay.

“I haven’t seen anyone if that’s what you’re wondering,” she said when she sat down.

“I was wondering about us. Is there an us?”

“I don’t think there can be, not now.”

He looked down at her feet. Brown suede boots on the fluffy carpet.

“How are your parents?” he said.

“They’re done,” she said. “So many couples didn’t make it. Seeing what the other person truly thinks, their deepest secrets, I’m not surprised.” She sighed.

“You remember Rob and Jenny?” he said. “They didn’t break up. They wear visors now, of course, but they weathered the storm.”

“Great for them.” She moved her feet. “I hear it’s all casual sex for most people now. No ties. No drama.”

He laughed. “Yeah, I’ve heard the same. Like being at college.”

“Makes sense,” she said, “considering how hard it is to have a real relationship now when nothing’s private.”

“Julie from work set up an agency. ‘TruDate.’ They have these speed-dating sessions where sign-ups intentionally look each other in the eye so they can figure out if they’re compatible, or if the other person’s a liar or worse.”

“Oh my God,” she exclaimed. “I could never do that. That’s dangerous. I’m not strong enough.”

“She’s run a couple evenings already. Apparently pretty popular with the right type of person once they get over the sensation of it. Keeps everyone honest.”

She crossed one leg over the other. “You know, it’s one thing for someone to see different shades of who I am. The happy me, or the sad me, or the angry me. But it’s another thing for someone to see inside of me.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’s something you can manage in time. Hey, think how many arguments it could solve… “

She shook her head. “It’s like my mind is completely bare. Now I have to worry that someone could see the real me. The naked me. And for that person to be someone who has the power to break my heart, it’s the scariest thing in the world. That’s why I can’t be with you, or anyone else. Not now.”

“I’m sorry—”

“I don’t care what you were thinking or what I was thinking. But you’ve seen inside me, Jareth. Just the fact that you’ve been in my mind—it’s more than I can bear.”

“I understand,” he said after a while. He couldn’t, no matter how much he’d have liked to, come up with a counter argument, something to persuade her otherwise, that she could trust him and that it didn’t have to be over. But it was. “I guess I should go.”

“Take care of yourself, Jareth.”

“Goodbye.”

#

When Jareth reached Rachel’s house she offered him a beer, and they both sat in her living room, not looking at one another. The habit came easily now.

“How’s work?” he asked, breaking the quiet. “You went back, right?”

“Yeah, but it’s so different. Everyone has visors now. It’s all emails. It feels so empty. Lots of people haven’t come back yet. They’re recruiting, but that’s something else.”

“People who can hold eye contact?”

She leaned forward. “How did you know?”

“Customer at the restaurant I was talking to yesterday. One of the few we’ve got. He’s a cop. They’re trying to identify officers who can do the same thing, look at a suspect without giving away too many of their own thoughts and without freaking out at the mental contact. Could revolutionize investigation, he reckoned, once people get used to it.”

“Huh. That’s a mess of lawsuits waiting to happen.”

He grinned, wondering as he did if she even saw him, and pulled out his phone to read the text on the photo he’d taken. “Funny you should say that. I saw my first billboard on the way over. ‘Are your 4th Amendment rights being abused? Don’t let a cop look you in the eye without contacting us first—Jeffrey & Dermichael.’ There’s nothing on Earth faster than a lawyer with a niche to exploit.”

Rachel laughed. “They’ve got a point, though. The first time evidence derived from reading a suspect’s mind comes to court it’s going to be argued over for months. You can’t go fishing in someone else’s mind on a whim.”

“Your company’s trying the same.”

“The opposite, and strictly voluntary. We’re looking at the commercial side. Trying to train people to focus on business only, to allow clients to see the truth behind an offer and buy in confidence without giving away that you think they’re a jerk or that you can’t wait to go home and get laid.”

“‘Eye Contact Approved’?”

“Something like that. I’m not sure how they’ll get past seeing the client’s thoughts as well. They’ll have to figure something out. The world’s got to keep turning. We can’t wall ourselves off from each other forever.”

“Tell me about it. We’ve put screens across the tables at head height at work, but not many want to come and eat in public. We sell take-out now as well. That does a whole lot better. A lot of shut-ins out there now. Still, if half the staff weren’t already gone, I don’t know if I’d still have a job.” He raised his bottle in toast. “At least Tom’s gone. Died in one of the riots before the cops figured out how to keep order without having to eyeball everyone. Prick. How’s Matt?”

“Okay. As okay as can be. We’re getting by.” She swallowed some beer. “So many families have fallen apart.”

“I guess it’s traumatic to find out what someone truly thinks about you. Even when you love someone there’s always something in the background.”

“Even the few seconds you and I had looking at each other was too much for me. Not that you had any terrible thoughts about me, but just you being there made me sick. I’m glad we didn’t see anything neither of us wanted to.”

“Me, too. It was like if you saw me naked, but worse.” He took a healthy swig. The bubbles fizzed until the beer settled.

“Gina?” she said, voice softer.

“All over.”

“There’ll be someone else. Someday. Things will get better, right?”

He tried a smile. “The world’s got to keep turning.”

#

Later, as Jareth stood by his window and lit a cigarette to take the edge off what he knew would be another hangover come morning, he rolled Rachel’s words around his head. The silver of his necklace reflected in the glass and winked at him. There were a couple of people waiting at the bus stop down the street, heads down, visors on. None them had turned on their fellow citizens or gone mad from the shock of it all. Life was returning to normal, sure, it was just that the rules had changed. You had to keep your guard up, protect your naked self, but it also kept you honest, for fear a stray glance would show you to be a liar. People would exploit it or block it or find ways around it because that’s what people always did, but the world would never be what it had been before. They knew now, unequivocally, that they all shared the same fears and guarded the same secrets. What made them vulnerable also made them equal. And sooner or later he’d find someone able to handle the new nature of things. He’d put Gina behind him and move on, and he hoped she would too.

“Things will get better,” he said, looking his own reflection straight in the eye.

###

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