None So Alone
by Raven Blackmane
The tavern hums softly with the usual sounds of conversation as I pull up a stool at the bar. I sit in a quietly defensive sort of way, hunched forward over the polished mahogany, eyes lowered People still smile at me and say hello, in spite of my body language. I smile politely back at them, but the expression doesn't reach my eyes. Most of them I've never met before, but that doesn't discourage them in the slightest; in fact, the only thing that lets me have any semblance of peace and quiet is the fact that most are too intimidated by me to get much past "hello".
Not that I've ever really considered myself an intimidating person. Five feet, six inches tall, with a light frame and a slim build, I'm not exactly the type of woman to strike fear into the hearts of men. I'm not the most drop-dead stunning woman in the world, either: my hair is a very ordinary shade of medium brown, my eyes an equally ordinary shade of blue, and my figure rather slim all over the place -- including the places where men generally want things filled out a bit. My outfit doesn't do anything to draw attention to me, either -- a simple, somewhat ugly brown dress that covers just about everything, hair pulled back into a tight bun like my grandmother used to wear, and an old pair of flats with white stockings give me the appearance of a nineteenth-century English nanny. My face? Sure, it's prettier than a lot of women's, but I'm no supermodel. Anybody who just looked at a picture of me would probably say, "Nice-looking girl. A little on the plain side, but nice."
That I could handle. That I could deal with.
It's when people actually get around me that things start going nuts.
The bartender is with me in another minute. He comes up to me with a big grin on his grizzled, heavy-set face.
"Hello, Shelly. What can I get for ya?"
"Could I have a Mud Slide, please?" I ask, softly.
"Absolutely! Be just a few minutes."
I sit in silence for a minute or two, watching the television up in the far corner. Some presidential candidate is making a speech about how he's going to do this or that wonderful new thing for the country if he's elected. I watch his eyes, his lips, the movements of his hands. In college I studied psychology -- a vain effort to put some sense into the insanity that surrounds me -- and even though my career path didn't turn out like I'd hoped, the training is still with me.
I sigh, feeling a slight twinge of disappointment. He's lying -- I can see it right away. Another con man rounding up suckers nationwide to support him in his latest bid for power. Another person manipulating others for his personal gain. I hardly even pay attention anymore.
It briefly pops into my mind that I could have been a very good politician if ever I'd wanted to be ... but no. It doesn't work over the TV camera. Only in person.
The barkeep brings back my drink, and I pull out my wallet. Looking inside, I see that I'm two dollars short. Payday's tomorrow -- I guess I cut it a little too close this time.
I hand him what money I do have. Smiling sheepishly I say, "Sorry, Gus, but I'm a little short tonight. Could you cover the rest for me till next time?"
"Of course, Shelly!" Gus says, beaming. "No problem at all."
Twenty-six years ago, my parents were driving down a quiet Iowa road minding their own business. It was perhaps two in the morning, a lonely time of night. But the August heat was excuse enough for them to have the top down on their car, and the two of them were holding hands and inhaling the fertile freshness of healthy corn and freshly-turned earth. As young couples in love so often will, they had ridden for many miles in companionable silence.
If the top hadn't been down, they might never have seen it begin. First there was a bright streak of light overhead, shimmering in a thousand rainbow shades. Then there came a bright flash of light, and then...
...nothing. They were at home sitting in their garage, the convertible's engine stopped. Brilliant sunlight filtered in through the small windows, and it must have been a hundred degrees in the unvented building.
Subsequent discreet checking revealed that three precious days had been stolen out of their lives.
Though she hadn't known it at the time, my mother was pregnant with me when that incident occurred. But they seemed none the worse off for their experience, and when I was born the following April they didn't give the slightest thought to that strange night in America's heartland. Indeed, for several years there was no indication that she'd given birth to anything other than a perfectly normal, healthy baby girl.
The little things hardly caught anyone's attention, at first. Michelle wants a drink of water? Let's stop right in the middle of making dinner to give it to her. Michelle asks for a puppy? Viola, she gets a puppy -- even though Grandma and Grandpa are allergic to dogs. Michelle wants to skip the rest of her dinner and have dessert? Well, all right, just this once.
"I swear," said a frustrated Grandma one day. "It's like you two just can't say no to that child!"
It wasn't until I came home from a friend's house one day with half of her dolls that they began to realize that something wasn't quite right.
I suppose I can't blame them for taking me to a psychiatrist. Actually, Doctor Westfall was primarily a hypnotherapist, which turned out to be a good thing. Although he was, not surprisingly, rather incredulous when they first took me to see him, all of his doubts were quickly laid to rest. My mother told me years later what had happened that day.
First, they asked the doctor to call in his secretary. After considering for a moment, he agreed. When the woman had arrived, my mother turned and spoke to me.
"Shelly, honey," she said, "Would you help us play a little game?"
"Good. I want you to ask nice lady here to do something funny, okay?"
I am told that my face brightened at that. "Okay!" I said.
My mother did not fully explain the details of what followed, but it apparently involved the woman walking around the room on her hands while singing "Mary Had A Little Lamb". Needless to say, Westfall was fully persuaded.
After a few hours of hypnotherapy, which they reinforced with a several additional sessions over the next two years, Doctor Westfall succeeded in repressing any memory I had of my strange talent and laying a few mental blocks over top of it for safekeeping. I'm not precisely sure how it all worked -- hypnotherapy wasn't my area of expertise in college -- but it was largely successful in suppressing any outward manifestation of my unique ability.
"Mind you," he said, "this isn't a hundred percent foolproof. She may still ask for things from time to time, though the frequency should be greatly reduced. And I can't tell you what might happen if she actually found out about her talent, so do your best to keep from giving it away."
My parents took this advice to heart. They also did their best to squash any selfish tendencies I had at that early age -- teaching me that I couldn't go through life just asking people to give me everything I wanted; showing me how money worked and why they couldn't always buy everything they wanted; stressing the joy of giving and helping others; helping me understand the importance of working hard and taking pride in your own achievements. And, being young and impressionable, I believed them -- at least as much of it all as I could understand at that age. I started helping my mother in her work for the local charities, putting together boxes of food and helping her distribute clothes and blankets. I really enjoyed it, actually -- the feel of doing something nice for other people. I liked seeing the other children smile when we visited them at the orphanage; I even gave them some of my dolls.
So I grew up, little by little, hardly giving a thought to the happy coincidences and random acts of kindness that seemed to follow me wherever I went -- leakage, I suppose, around the edges of those mental blocks Westfall had put in place. Then, one day when I was sixteen, my best friend Maria made an observation that haunts me to this day:
"Shelly," she said, "did you ever realize that you always get what you ask for?"
I laughed. "That's silly, Maria," I said. "There's stuff I want that I don't get. Mom and Dad aren't made of money, you know."
"Yeah, I know that -- and you know that," she said. "Which is why you don't ask for stuff you know they can't afford. But what I said was, 'Do you realize that you always get what you ask for?'"
I didn't say anything. I was beginning to get a very strange feeling in the pit of my stomach...
"Think about it," Maria said. "When was the last time anybody ever told you 'No'?"
I thought about that. I thought very hard, searching my memory as best I could.
"I don't remember," I said. I'm sure I sounded as shocked as I felt.
We did some careful testing and experimentation after that, at Maria's insistence. We figured out that my ... whatever it was ... didn't work over the phone, and it didn't work if we just videotaped me making a request and then played it for someone to listen to on TV. This bizarre magic, or charisma, or whatever, only worked if I was there in person. We never calculated a precise range or area of effect, but my guess has always been that it works on anybody within earshot, not counting any bits of technology that would extend that range -- telephones, microphones, video cameras, that sort of thing. Looking back on it, I'm glad it has what limitations it does. God only knows what kind of trouble I would have caused otherwise...
I made it a point after that not to use the power against my parents. I loved them, and they loved me, and I didn't want any manipulations of mine to change that. But there were other times -- other places -- other people -- when the temptation was too great.
Take Senior Prom, for starters. I didn't have a date when I arrived that night; my looks were too plain to attract much attention from the boys, and my conscience wouldn't let me ask anyone directly. The heartthrob of the year was tall, handsome, charming Jason Hawke, and his Significant Other was the beautiful, sophisticated -- and incredibly snobbish -- Claire DeWitt. All the girls were jealous of Claire, and she made sure to flaunt her "prize" whenever she got the opportunity. Me? I didn't get involved -- Claire had never done anything to me, and I didn't really think it would be fair for me to steal Jason away from her.
My opinions on the matter changed rather dramatically when I overheard Claire badmouthing Maria with a bunch of her friends. I needn't go into ugly detail about what they said, but you'll get the general idea if I mention here that Maria's last name was Rodriguez -- and that Maria was a first-generation American citizen.
I was furious. Claire acting like a stuck-up bitch was one thing; Claire using racial slurs against my best friend was quite another. I waited until she was about to go with Jason out onto the dance floor, and then...
"Hi, Jason," I said, walking up with the biggest charm-your-socks-off smile you've ever seen.
"H-hey, Michelle," he said, with a grin that was somewhere between nervous and dazed. "How are you doing tonight?"
"Great, thanks," I said. "Listen, I notice they're opening up the floor now." I extended a hand toward him, palm downwards. "Care to dance with me?"
Claire stared daggers at me and cleared her throat rather loudly -- but just as she was about to open her mouth, Jason reached up and took my hand.
"S-sure, Michelle," he said, gazing fixedly into my eyes. "I'd be honored."
And with Claire sputtering in rage, we swung out onto the dance floor. Maria looked on and laughed.
"Jason," I said, while we were dancing to one of the slower numbers, "do you really love Claire?"
He looked puzzled about that. "I think I do," he said at last.
I shook my head. "But don't you see? Claire's a stuck-up, self-important brat. She doesn't care anything about you, except that you're a trophy for her to show off to the other girls."
Jason's brow wrinkled in thought, and he frowned deeply. "When you put it that way..." He trailed off into silence.
"You're too good for her," I told him a few seconds later. "And I'd hate to see what she'd do to you in the long run. Will you break up with her, for my peace of mind if nothing else?"
It took him only a second to respond. "Yes, of course," he said. "You're right, Shelly. Claire's been using me -- it all seems so clear now. Why didn't I see it before?"
"Sometimes it just takes an outside pair of eyes to notice," I replied with a smile. "But come on, let's not think about her right now."
"Okay," Jason grinned. "As of this moment, I only have eyes for you."
We danced for a long time, until one of my favorite slow-dance songs came on. When "Unchained Melody" began to play, I whispered to Jason, "Hold me tighter."
And he did. For the next several minutes we danced in an embrace so tight that it was a miracle neither of us stepped on the other's feet -- though I often think, looking back on it, that some unconscious expression of my ability kept him moving in synch with me. I nestled my head against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around me -- one just below my shoulders, the other further down. His hand gently caressed my bottom as we moved in slow, delicious circles around the dance floor. It was all such a novel experience that I was on the verge of ecstasy -- though it took some effort to shut out the impressions I got of Claire silently fuming on the edge of the dance floor.
As the song drew to a close, I looked up at Jason. He was staring soulfully into my eyes.
"Kiss me," I breathed.
He complied -- a deep, strong, passionate kiss like I had never known before. I wrapped my arms around his neck and returned the gesture, until everyone in the building stopped to take notice.
And that, it shames me to say, is when I really blew it -- when I really, utterly, completely gave in to temptation, succumbed to the feelings that were churning inside of me and the knowledge of what I could actually do about those feelings. That was when I spoke the words that burst the dam, once and for all.
"Will you please love me, Jason?"
It didn't occur to me at the time what the implications were if he literally could not say "no".
My relationship with Jason Hawke lasted for thirteen months and eleven days. It was intense, passionate, and full of a lot of things we shouldn't have done -- especially since they were all my ideas.
At first everything seemed just great; I felt like I was walking on the clouds. The other girls in my class all congratulated me on snatching Jason and teaching the uppity Miss DeWitt a lesson. Jason himself was eager to please, bending over backwards to make me happy.
And as the months wore on, it became increasingly obvious that that was the problem. I began to realize that Jason was expressing his own desires less and less. He never disagreed with me, never even voiced an opinion unless I had first rendered my own judgment on the matter. Near the end, he had no thoughts, no dreams, no goals, except making me happy. He did everything within his power to make me happy.
He had no choice.
I realized one day that there was very little left of the Jason Hawke whom I had danced with that night at Senior Prom. The longer he stayed with me -- the closer we became, and the closer he came to my strange power -- the more his personality was swallowed up, subordinated, suppressed, until he was nothing but an extension of myself. A robot.
And how can a robot love? How can somebody give of himself to another person if there's nothing left of him to give?
That night I visited Jason at his house and had a private talk with him. After sitting him down on the bed, I asked him to go into a trance, like a person who has been hypnotized. In truth, it changed very little, as far as his outward appearance was concerned...
I then told him that I wanted him to be himself again, and I asked him to forget that we had ever had a relationship with each other. I asked him to remember all of his hopes, and plans, and dreams that he'd had before the night of the prom. I asked him to go on with his life and be happy.
As far as I have ever been able to find out, it worked. He moved away to a college in Florida soon after that, and I lost track of him. Needless to say I never spoke to him again.
I have often wondered, though, how much of him really survived our relationship.
Naturally, I went back to Doctor Westfall. He tried his best, he really did; but for some reason my mind refused to accept any further hypnotic suggestion. Whatever innocence and vulnerability in my childhood mind had allowed those early mental blocks to be put in place, it was long gone by the time I was eighteen.
"I don't know what to tell you, Michelle," he said. "I can't predict the extent of your talents, or how they may change as your mind continues wearing away at the suggestions I planted when you were little. Hypnotic mental blocks are rarely broken all at once.
"The best advice I can give you is to be very careful the next time you get into a relationship. Maybe you if can avoid asking him for anything, you can stave off the effect that your ability had on Jason."
And of course, I was more careful. The next time I fell in love with a man was in college, and I committed myself from the very beginning that I would not use my power on him.
Too bad it happened without me even trying.
As it turned out, the influence was unavoidable -- and my power seemed to be growing in the years since I had first used it on Jason. I never asked Mark for anything in all the time I knew him, but as we became closer to one another that accursed charm of mine started doing its thing. The more intimate we became, the more his personality faded away, until I finally admitted to myself -- a year and a half after the relationship began -- that he was becoming another Jason. In the end I wiped his memory and cut him loose, hoping that I would spare him the pain of a break-up. According to our mutual friends he remained mostly upbeat, and far more himself than he had been lately -- but there was still this sense about him, like there was a piece of him missing.
I never told them that, in all likelihood, that piece of him was missing because I had consumed it.
I tried relationships a few more times after that, but each time the result was the same -- assuming I let it go that far. Usually I just broke off the relationship when I saw the first hints of glassy-eyed submission start to appear in their faces. I tried more intelligent men, more strong-willed men, more eccentric men, hoping to find someone who could resist the uncanny influence I had on people -- but in each case they were eventually swallowed by my own damnable charisma.
It wasn't just romantic relationships that fell under the curse, either. Maria and my parents had not been drained when I was a child, but the use of my power on Jason broke open all the mental blocks that had been placed in my mind -- and as I said before, the power has grown in the years since then. All the friends I've made since I left home have fallen prey to my unconscious whims and desires if I let them get too close. Say what you will, but friendship just isn't the same if you literally can't squabble about inane, silly little things, or discuss the different ways you view the world. What fun is it to carry on a conversation with somebody who always thinks the same as you about everything -- especially if you know that, whether they realize it or not, they're only agreeing with you to try to make you happy?
My friendship with Maria stayed strong, but we mostly kept in touch through mail, the telephone, and the 'Net -- we were going to school halfway across the country from one another, so in-person visits were rare. And when I'd completed my education and was ready to move out into the work force, I made a point to pick a job opportunity that was a good distance removed from Maria and our hometown. I was terrified that somehow the curse that affected all my other friends would finally affect Maria too, and I loved her too much to let that happen.
She's married now, to some nice Christian guy from Chicago. I was the maid of honor at the wedding, but since then we've seen each other even less. Not that I blame her, of course -- she has a husband and kids to look out for now. We still write to each other a lot and talk from time to time, but the truth is that she has more important things to worry about than some friend on the other side of the country -- a friend who's afraid to even have a conversation face to face...
I sit at the bar, slowly sipping my drink. The man on my right -- a handsome fellow in a business suit -- has struck up a mostly one-sided conversation with me. In a few minutes, I find out that his name is Jack, and he's an investment broker with one of the semi-big corporations you see advertised on TV all the time.
"So, what do you do?" he asks.
"I'm in Sales," I say, feeling another wave of familiar self-revulsion. I hadn't asked for the position and hadn't wanted it. After what happened to Mark, I realized that my power made me far too dangerous to be anywhere near the field of psychiatric medicine. I switched over to business management -- a nice, safe job, I thought -- and I did pretty well in it. Unfortunately, the company that hired me eventually transferred me over to Sales (at twice the salary) because somebody in upper management decided that I had "a natural talent for persuading people". If only they knew...
"Ah," Jack says, nodding. "You must be one of those folks that's good with people, then."
I swallow uncomfortably. "So I've been told."
There is a pause.
"You seeing anybody?"
Jack smiles, reaching into his pocket. "Tell you what," he says. "Here's my card. If you're ever in the neighborhood and wouldn't mind sharing my company for dinner, I'd be delighted."
I take the card, slip it into my own pocket, and drain the rest of my drink. As I get to my feet, I turn and look him in the eyes.
"Could I ask you a silly question?'
Jack the investment broker grins. "Sure."
I take a deep breath. *Please don't say yes ... please don't say yes...*
"Do you love me?"
"Absolutely!" Jack says. "Completely. Totally."
My heart sinks, and I turn away. "All right, then. Forget I asked you. Forget we even met."
There is a moment's confusion from the man behind me. Then I hear Jack's puzzled voice.
"Excuse me, Miss?"
I turn around, to see an equally puzzled face to match the voice. "Yes?"
He squints at me, tilting his head a little. "Do I ... know you?"
"No," I say, shaking my head. "No, you don't know me."
I turn again, and walk out of the bar. Two tears run down my cheeks as I hear myself whisper:
Copyright 1999 by Raven Blackmane. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.
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