Nerves prickled Edel’s spine as she answered the knock at the door. She stood, plain faced and unsmiling, a complete contrast to Gemma’s wide grin and excited sparkling eyes.
“Are you ready, Edel?” Gemma asked, bouncing up onto her toes and raising her eyebrows.
Edel cast her eyes to Jay, who was doing his best to ignore this exchange. He was sitting on the sofa with his head dipped low to his phone, eyes fixed on the screen, wearing a look of riveting fascination on his face. She knew he wasn’t really that interested in the news article. She also knew she was on her own here.
She brought her piercing gaze back to Gemma. “Yes,” she said, in her trademark curt and unfriendly one-word answer.
Gemma only smiled warmly. “I’ll look after you. I won’t leave you. And who knows? You might even enjoy it.”
I doubt it. Edel’s face remained passive, but she gave a cursory nod to let Gemma know she understood her words, if not the sentiment behind them.
“The taxi is waiting downstairs. Danny has already organised the driver to collect us from the Gromdon/Branley boundary at 3, so that leaves us with two hours. I figured that would be long enough for you, but he said we can rearrange if you are having a good time and would like to stay longer.”
Longer? Edel did not allow the disgust show on her face. She simply nodded again and wondered why she would allow Jay, Gemma, and Danny to force her into these situations. As far as she was concerned, there were few things worse than spending time in public places. And having to make choices was distressing. She knew Gemma would spend the day trying to coax opinions out of her. “Do you like this? Do you like that? What do you think about this one?” The idea of being forced to give her opinions or make choices troubled Edel even more than mixing with humans.
“I know a great place we can go first,” Gemma said with enthusiasm. “There’s a little shoe shop just on the way into Gromdon.”
Edel’s eyes travelled down to her shoes, then back to Gemma. “I already own shoes.”
“But they are your only pair! You need another pair.” Her brow pulled together, and she peered at Edel. “What do you wear on your feet when you go running?”
Edel’s eyes travelled back to her plain black flats, then back to Gemma once more.
“Those? Surely, you need a running shoe? They protect your joints, and they will be much more comfortable than running in your work shoes.”
“My joints are fine.”
Gemma shook her head. “So, we need running shoes,” she said, ignoring Edel’s argument. “Is there anything else you need?”
Edel shook her head. As far as she was concerned, there was nothing she needed except to be left alone.
“Do you have your sunglasses? And your earplugs?” Gemma asked.
“Yes.” Edel would never leave home without them. In times of stress or overstimulation, they were the difference between remaining calm or losing herself to full-blown meltdown.
“Ok, well, just remember you can tell me if things get too much. If you need to find a quiet place and catch your breath, or if you need to go home, just tell me, okay?”
Gemma’s head bobbed up and down cheerfully, then she leaned past Edel and called into the apartment, “Bye Jay! Is there anything you need us to get for you while we’re out?”
He looked up from his phone, his face deadpan. “Can you bring me a smile for her face?” He jabbed his thumb in Edel’s direction.
Edel understood Jay was joking. As far as she understood, people could not purchase facial expressions from market stalls. But why his joke was funny remained a mystery to her. She turned to face Gemma and brought her nerves under control. Her posture was straight and rigid, her face set in steely determination. She would not allow them to know what this simple act of shopping would cost her.
The two girls arrived at the Branley/Gromdon boundary and Gemma thanked the driver, and confirmed he would wait in this exact spot at 3p.m. The journey had been mostly silent; Edel was struggling to keep her nerves under control, and conversation was just another thing to add to her already overstimulated brain. Edel climbed out of the car and took a deep breath to try to steady herself. The sheer amount of new information to take in was overwhelming, and they had only just begun.
It was noisy here. The border between Branley and Gromdon was always filled with people. This was the divide between the legitimate and the cash societies. Up ahead was the poor neighbourhood of Gromdon, the cash only area. Behind them in Branley was where the legitimate citizens lived. Not the wealthy ones, though. The people who inhabited Branley were only a step above the desperate cashers of Gromdon.
There were hundreds of people, all shouting and jostling each other. Across the street, music blared from a bar and people sat outside a café, talking and drinking coffee. There were too many new scents and too many colours. Too much movement. Edel pressed her back up against the wall of a building and tried not to allow any of the people to touch her as they bustled past. Mothers were dragging their children and yelling at them to hurry. There were dogs running free. People were wheeling their wares towards the market in carts wheelbarrows. Edel’s eyes darted in every direction, and she felt as though she couldn’t keep up with the information overload. Up ahead and to the left was the dirt track that led into Gromdon. Edel could see the market stalls in the distance, swimming with a sea of bodies. The people were brash and loud, yelling out prices and offers, and customers were trying to haggle down to what they could afford. Edel shuddered. If she had dared to show her weakness, she would have begged Gemma not to force her to go there.
Edel looked up, suddenly aware it had been a length of time since they had arrived, and she was still standing with her back against the wall. At some point she had screwed her eyes up tight, and she had clamped her hands over her ears to drown out some of the excessive noise. She opened her eyes, frightened to see if Gemma would be angry with her for being so weak, but there was only patience and understanding in Gemma’s eyes. “You’re doing great,” she whispered.
Edel didn’t feel as though she was doing great. If this had been a task set by the Poly-Gen scientists, she would be face first on the ground, writhing in agony right now.
“The shoe shop is just up here,” Gemma said, pointing the way. “It isn’t usually too busy, most cashers prefer to buy their wares from the market because it is cheaper, and they can usually bargain with their own items. We can go when you are ready. There is no rush, Edel. Just take your time.”
Edel nodded. “I am ready,” she said.
“Do you want to put your ear plugs and sunglasses on?” Gemma asked, and Edel could detect no judgement in the question. No fear either. It seemed Gemma was only trying to make this excursion more comfortable for her.
“Yes.” She robotically opened her bag and pulled out the glasses, placing them on her face, and then inserted the earplugs into her ears. The calming white noise helped immensely to drown out some of the other sounds in the area, and the sunglasses took away the harshness of the light and the vivid colours. Her senses felt soothed already, and she felt confident she could do this task that had been set for her. She could visit the shoe shop and purchase running shoes.
She followed Gemma. Her head was angled to the floor, and she walked in silence, trying her best to block out all unnecessary stimulation. She followed Gemma through the door and closed it behind her. Once inside, the noise was greatly reduced, but the overpowering scent of leather and rubber came as a shock to her olfactory senses.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” a cheerful voice called from behind the counter. Edel looked around to take in her new surroundings. The shop looked ancient. It sported a dirty and threadbare brown carpet and the counter looked like it was made of old wooden crates glued together. The shoes were stacked haphazardly on wire racks, and a thin layer of dust coated everything in sight. It was nothing like the shops she had visited before with Jay.
“How can I help you today?” The cheerful man asked.
“We’re just looking, thank you.” Gemma said, and guided Edel to the shelf that displayed sneakers.
“Edel, do you know your size?” Gemma asked.
Jay had measured her feet once before when he bought her the shoes she was wearing. “8,” she said with certainty.
Gemma trailed her fingers along the shelf of shoes. “Do you see anything you like?”
There it was. The question she had been dreading. How should she know if she liked any of them? They were different colours and styles, some chunkier than others, but did she like any of them? Their purpose wasn’t to be liked. Their purpose was to be worn.
“How about these?” Gemma pointed to a pair of bright white sneakers with hot pink laces. Edel stared at them in disgust, certain she didn’t want them anywhere near her feet, and then looked up in alarm as she heard Gemma’s tinkling laughter. “Relax, I’m joking! So, you might not know what you like, but it’s obvious that you know what you don’t like. That’s a start.”
Edel had never considered that before. Deciding what she didn’t like was much easier than knowing what she did like. Gemma smiled and pointed to a neon green pair. “How about those?”
Edel’s eyes were wide and fearful as she shook her head. She wasn’t used to saying no. She wasn’t used to being allowed to decline, or refuse.
“These?” Gemma’s finger pointed further along the shelf, and Edel shook her head again, growing in confidence. “These?” she asked again.
It took a long time, but Gemma finally found a pair that Edel didn’t say no to. They were plain black with thick soles, and the laces were black with flecks of blue in them. Edel could tell by the look on Gemma’s face that she thought they were ugly, but she kept on reassuring her that it was her choice. Edel ran her finger along the body of the shoe and fingered the laces. She tried them on and thought they felt fine, though it was difficult to tell since she had only ever owned one pair of shoes in her lifetime.
Gemma pointed to her watch and said, “The taxi should be here soon, Edel. Are you done here, or do you want me to call Danny and have him rearrange our transport?”
Edel stared around the small shop, trying to figure out where the last two hours had gone. Choosing a pair of shoes had taken all afternoon. She had been so engrossed in her task of deciding what she didn’t like that she hadn’t even noticed the other customers coming and going. She was certain there were places Gemma wanted to visit today, and things she wanted to buy for herself. “I’m sorry, Gemma. I didn’t know it would take so long.”
Gemma smiled widely. “It doesn’t matter, Edel. I can come back another day.”
Edel paid for the shoes and carried the box close to her body. The feeling of accomplishment rose higher in her chest. She chose this. They were hers and she picked them out herself.
Edel sat in silence for the entire journey back to Helstain. But it was not the same dread-filled, nervous silence that filled the car on their outward journey. This was a prideful, self-satisfied, accomplished silence.
The car pulled up outside Edel’s apartment building and she turned to Gemma, still clutching the new shoes to her chest as though they were a prize. “Thank you, Gemma.” She murmured, hoping Gemma understood all she was thanking her for today.
Gemma beamed back at her. “We will have to do it again sometime!”
Edel gave a nod, but hoped Gemma would not push for a date. This might have ended well, but she was in no rush to repeat the experience.
Gemma laughed at Edel’s expression, then said her goodbyes, and Edel watched the driver pull away.
She returned home carrying the box, and Jay jumped up immediately. “You bought something?” he asked, elated.
“New shoes, like Gemma suggested?”
“Well, let me see!”
Edel carefully opened the box and pulled the new shoes out onto the table.
“Gemma chose these?” he asked, making a face at the ugly black shoes.
Edel puffed up her chest proudly. “I chose them.”
She collected them and placed them back into the box, then walked past Jay towards her room. His face was a picture of surprise and pride, and Edel felt that tingle of accomplishment rising in her chest once more.
Thanks for reading. To learn more about Edel, Jay, Gemma, and Danny, please check out the Almost Human series, available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B098TMZ8MH
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