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By Zachary Rosenberg

Content Warnings: Ableism, violence, horror.

For once, Eric Friedman’s desire to flee a crowded room had nothing to do with general anxiety and everything to do with the monster currently lecturing the class.

Eric tried to focus on his work, steadily drumming his fingers upon the hard wood of his own desk. Fidgeting had always helped him focus his nervous tics, especially when he had to sit still for nearly two hours. Tapping his fingers or feet or toying with his pen could distract him from the overwhelming urge to stand up and start walking. Remaining sedentary was hard enough on a good day in Professor Love’s algebra class. It was nearly impossible when he had to hide his fear of the one teaching it.

Few other students seemed to have the problem Eric did. Even Sandra, who had once considered math a complete waste of time to her ambitions of a hospitality major, was sitting at firm attention while scrawling notes. All around Eric, uniform students sat in uniform rows, neatly dressed and neatly groomed. They focused ahead on their teacher, writing in perfect unison. The sounds of scratching pencils and pens permeated the air, Eric’s nose assailed by lead and ink. 

Professor Love droned on, though Eric had ceased trying to make sense of any of the numbers she attempted to explain. Even when his life might depend on feigning uniformity, math was simply not a subject that had ever captivated his mind. Eric’s own interests were found in the realms of literature, media, and mythology. If given a chance to discuss a classic novel or mythological hero, he could have walked to the front of the class and spoken for hours. When made to listen to how one made an x into a 36, Eric could only force himself to sit in his seat and pay as much attention as humanly possible. He had told himself he would try to pull a passing grade from the class after enough late-night study sessions and tutoring, algebra being the one class that threatened to sink his GPA. 

Not helping matters was how Professor Love handled the disruptive or those caught slacking. She was quite insistent about eye contact.

‘Are you paying attention, Mr Friedman?’ The professor’s voice was so sweet it could have been bottled and poured over pancakes. Her grin was frozen sugar, her gaze piercing. Eric jumped in his seat, almost dropping his pen. One by one, the heads of his peers craned so they might stare at him, over a hundred pairs of eyes boring into him. He fought away the searing claws of anxiety that threatened to tear into his chest and forced a weak smile, tilting his gaze up. 

He looked at Professor Love’s pointed dagger of a chin, brought his eyes up to her saccharine smile that flashed sharp little teeth. She tilted her head downward, attempting to lock eyes with him. On pure instinct, Eric dipped his head down, gaze centred upon the professor’s cherrywood desk. He found solace studying the swirling patterns in the wood, counting the fine, spiralling lines he saw there. They reminded Eric of cinnamon swirls, that amusing thought distracting him from the professor’s insistent attempt at engagement. 

He had always been told it was very rude to avoid eye contact. You showed your respect for people by meeting their eyes. That was how human connections formed, his father always said. The whole sum of human interaction was learning to read the cues written in their eyes. Eric had evidently been given a very different manual to the human condition.

He kept his eyes away from Professor Love’s, scrupulously avoiding her gaze just as he avoided the eyes of every other student in the room, just as he had avoided the eyes of teachers and parents’ friends and relatives his whole life while attempting to piece together just what they were thinking and how he might respond to them. Comics, books, and television had been his teachers on human reactions throughout his life, and he still often caught himself struggling with how to engage in ways that came so naturally to others.

‘It is rude to avoid eye contact, Mr Friedman.’ The professor’s voice was crisp and cool as the air over a frozen stream. Her long, red nails tapped upon her own desk in what seemed a mockery of Eric’s nervous drumming earlier. ‘Has nobody ever told you that?’

‘I’m sorry, Professor.’ Eric’s mumble was a memorised recitation, a performance given countless times to unappreciative audiences. All his life, he had been told how impolite it was to prioritise his comfort over societal norms. He focused only on his desk, his pen and Professor Love’s chin when he dared bring his eyes up, avoiding each uniform, robotic stare from his classmates. All he wanted was to be back in the familiarity of his dorm, to be working on his own writings. ‘I’m paying attention. I promise.’

‘See me during my office hours tomorrow, Mr Friedman. We’ll discuss this then.’ Her voice was the disapproving scold of so many teachers in his life, laden with condescending venom. He wanted to collapse to his knees and scream in helpless rage. He wanted to run to his dorm and let familiar surroundings lift his spirits so he might savour the warm comfort of his bed. He had seen what happened to those who entered Professor Love’s office.

Students tended to change after meeting with Professor Love. She had said at the start of the class she could be most persuasive in achieving results for her students, that she would see them all succeed as they were supposed to. And after their conferences with her, they devoted themselves fully to their studies without any hint of their old vigour. They seemed to have no space in their lives for anything save academics. 

The notion of meeting with the professor during her office hours made Eric’s throat go dry. The desire to stand and pace nearly hurled him out of his seat on the spot, his mind consumed by a wish to return to the safety and security of his afternoon and evening routines. It was pointless to try to reach out to anyone for help. Who would believe that a professor pushing students to behave and achieve could be a negative thing?

‘You as well, Thomas.’ Professor Love directed her gaze from Eric, the collective stares of the drones following suit. Another young man in the front row was hastily pushing a note into his pocket, the professor’s wrath now focused upon him with no less scorching intensity.

‘Professor Love, I wasn’t doing anything!’

‘You aren’t in trouble. It is only intended as a discussion, Thomas. I merely want to talk about the behaviour, no more.’ Love’s smile only grew. Her breathing quickened like the anticipatory panting of a wolf expecting a rabbit to fall within its den. ‘Need I remind you this class is required? Correct, class?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ It was vocalised from nearly a hundred throats, a toneless affirmation of normalcy. Eric simply looked down and tried to make sense once more of the patterns on his desk. He felt delegated to the role of abnormality, a trespasser in the spaces of typicality. There were only a few of them left who did not conform to Professor Love’s notions of what ought to be. Very soon, there might not even be that.

Eric gave up trying to take notes after a point, contenting himself with scribbling drawings and reminders for potential stories. It helped him to focus, to escape the buzz of the professor’s voice, to avoid thinking of what might await him within her office. He did not have to think of whatever strange process took individuals and broke them down to spit out the conforming automatons sitting all around him.

He tried to think of what the heroes of stories might have done, just as he had always dreamed of. He tried to put himself in the shoes of heroes who knew what to do. Heroes who could easily relate to others, convince others of the truth. He tried to believe he wasn’t the person who would sit awkwardly to the side as others socialised. He didn’t even need to be a hero; he just wished he was someone who could meet the eyes of others, whose mind worked the same way theirs did. He tried to smile when the professor’s eyes turned back to him, but it curdled upon his face with no joy behind it. 

‘Remember,’ said the professor. ‘Tomorrow. During my office hours. We’ll straighten all this out then, and I can promise you will excel.’


‘You shouldn’t go,’ Becca’s voice implored while Eric kept his eyes on his computer screen and away from hers. 

‘Do I have a choice?’ Eric’s fingers danced over the keyboard. He was typing rapidly, fear giving him fresh bursts of inspiration as he wrote another story, one of many he left tucked away for fear of rejection. They were in Eric’s dorm, Becca sitting on the bed, her fingers toying with the sheets. ‘Did you take your pills this morning, Becca?’

‘I did, but don’t change the subject.’ Her voice carried a scolding edge as she frowned at him. ‘I’m not blind, Eric. I’ve seen what’s happening, too.’ All around them were students who had once walked with such vibrant energy. All through the dorm, they saw it. 

‘Why don’t you tell someone, then?’

‘They’d just think I was seeing or hearing things.’ Becca’s voice was soft and bitter, not that Eric could blame her. He had seen Becca when she hallucinated and when she could not form coherent speech. She had been there for him at his moments of anxiety, never tried to force eye contact with him, defended him when people called him stupid or careless for not grasping basic norms. He had been there for her when there were delays refilling her medication and protested vociferously when people in the dorm called her dangerous during a particularly extreme hallucination.

‘They’d just think I was making up stories if I said anything. Professor Love just wanted to talk, Becca.’ The words sounded hollow to Eric already. He tried to imagine himself like the others who had visited the professor, just one out of a number of /others./ Maybe he didn’t have to live with people thinking something was wrong with him. Maybe he might find a peace in that uniformity, never to worry that he embarrassed his family or his few friends.

He looked at the words on the page, the actions of a confident hero staring back at him while he fought down the pounding of his heart. ‘You’re still you, too.’

Becca was too shy for eye contact, which others often took for rudeness. She and Eric had met at orientation and become fast friends. They shared the same interests, finding common ground in quoting movies or talking ideas for stories with one another, and Eric loved that she let him talk at length about anything he had been reading. She was not in Professor Love’s class, though she had caught on to the growing strangeness on campus. ‘And I want you to stay you, Eric. Who am I going to write with if anything happens to you?’ She tried to make her smile nonchalant, but even he could see through the strain.

Perhaps it would not be so bad. Perhaps the professor might only take parts of him and leave the fundamental essence of Eric Friedman to appreciate what remained. All he had to do was meet her eyes the way the others had. Just force himself past the threshold of comfort, and then he could be reborn like the others. All the fear and anxiety would bleed away through a sieve, so he might be made new.

A brand-new Eric, to study math and take notes with the others. He looked at his computer screen, poring over the prose he had crafted. A silly fantasy story, nothing special at all. Just a story to compete with a million others born from enterprising minds. But this one was special, Eric thought. This one was his.

‘I guess there’s no point in putting this off,’ murmured Eric. He reached out and closed the laptop. ‘Hey, if anything does happen, story’s all yours to finish, Becca.’ He didn’t look at her, certainly did not meet her eyes. The knowledge that he might find disapproval and pity was too painful then. They were both people pushed to the outskirts. Both knew not to pity the other for it. Not in a world where pity often became indistinguishable from condescension. Eric simply ran his story over in his head, every detail of a confident hero who could wield a sword and save the day. Becca’s heroine was a brusque, humourless warrior who was more empathetic than she let others see. They fought monsters together. It was a good fantasy; they’d even had dreams of sharing it with the world one day. ‘Just stay safe, Becca. If I come back different, just take off.’

‘Where would I go? Do you think anyone’d believe anything I say?’ Becca sounded resigned, a quiet plea in her tone. Eric was never any good at reading anyone, but he understood the hidden meanings in her tone. Don’t give in. Don’t just be what they expect you to be. 

But he didn’t feel he was strong enough for that. Resigned, he stood and gave Becca the best, least-halting smile he could muster. He walked out of the room into the empty dormitory hallway and made his way through an empty hall that had become a grey-walled mausoleum. So many rooms were now crypts where the walking dead dwelt, making tombstones of their textbooks. 

With the knowledge he might soon join them, Eric walked out of the dormitory, heading for the campus. There was a curious mixture of students in the main hallways and by the classrooms, many dressed in black and white, with flat stares that Eric avoided. Other students had their gazes drawn, pausing as the walking dead locked eyes with them. Soon they would join the ranks of the corpses, Eric suspected. But he was good at dodging eye contact. He’d had a lifetime of practice.

His face was expressionless, not reflecting the maelstrom of terror and self-loathing he felt at his inability to do anything but obey. No doubt the professor wanted him for herself after he had avoided her attention for so long. 

Down a long hallway he walked, a condemned man strolling to face his own executioners. The professors’ offices were made of dark wood with golden nameplates distinguishing them from other rooms. He counted them down, one by one, until he reached his destination and looked at her name etched into the metal: Professor Sandra Love.

There were voices coming from behind the door, hushed tones whose meaning he could not decipher. His hand closed on the cold brass of the doorknob and twisted, the door opening just a sliver without even a creak. He recognised Thomas’s voice. ‘I really didn’t mean to slack off, Professor Love. It won’t happen again.’

‘I quite concur.’ Professor Love stood wreathed in shadows. She was not concealed by them so much as she wore them; she made of them a cloak, stood proudly within them. There was no light in the office save a tiny crescent that Eric had created by opening the door. There was not even a window. ‘Please look a bit closer at me, Thomas. This little campus has allowed me to dine well lately. So many students, so many in need of a great change.’

Her voice was raspy with anticipation, her hands snapping out to close on Thomas’s shoulders. Eric clapped a hand over his mouth, his own eyes widening as Thomas struggled. It did him as much good as a fly bound in spider silk. He yelped in surprise and pain, a red-taloned hand cupping his cheek and then seizing his hair. It bent his head down to where the professor’s eyes waited.

Eric caught only a glimpse of them. He saw only a flash of colour human beings were never meant to perceive mingled with the satisfaction of a predator, the cool delight of the snake finding a mouse crushed within its coils. ‘Hush now,’ the professor chuckled, and her voice sounded as though it had been forced through a wall of festering earth. ‘Look into my eyes. It’s so much sweeter when I see you myself. So much tastier.’ She pried Thomas’s eyes open, Eric rooted to the spot and feeling as though he had no choice but to watch. He wanted to lunge and do something to save Thomas, suddenly aware that only a brief delay had prevented him from being wrapped in Love’s hungry embrace first.

Thomas’s shrieks were muffled by the professor’s hand clamping around his mouth, frenzied whines of agony as the boy twitched and jerked. But Love yet held his gaze, her lips curving upward into a sharp crescent of delight. She made rapturous noises, her eyes holding Thomas. Then she released him suddenly, Thomas stumbling back. He rose and stood upright, rigid attention that Professor Love clicked her tongue approvingly at. ‘How does that feel?’

‘It feels right, Professor Love.’ Thomas’s voice was flat, as though all the individuality had been bled from him. The professor’s gaze shifted, hungry lights gleaming in the dark. A cold shard stabbed deep into Eric’s spine as he felt her gaze turn toward him. 

‘Ah, Mr Friedman. May I call you Eric? Please come in for your appointment.’ Her tone made it clear it was no request. ‘I’ve been saving you. Those with minds like yours are such a special treat. It will only hurt a moment, Eric, and then, you will feel better. You’ll belong. Come to me. Look into my eyes.’

All his life, Eric had been told he could not look away from others. Authority was to be obeyed if he wanted to get ahead in life. And never had he failed to listen. Until that moment. 

He avoided her ravenous gaze, twisted away and ran down the hallway. He bolted as fast as his legs could bear his shaking body, fearing they might betray him at any moment.

He tore through the student body, once more trying to avoid every look as students who had joined the emotionless throng peered at him. Each tried to meet his eyes, but Eric turned his gaze from all of them, fleeing down the hallways out of the building. He ran for the only place he might feel safe. He ran for his room, for the comfort of familiarity, like that might make all of this terror vanish.

He wanted to break down and cry, though nothing seemed to be pursuing him now. Nothing dogged his heels as he opened the door to the dormitory. Instead, in front of each room was now a student, each in grey and white and black. Their heads turned as one to greet him, followed him as he ran through the hallway, his footsteps thundering all the while. ‘It’s better,’ they said, different throats to make one voice. ‘It’s better.’

He tore open his door and slammed it shut behind him. Becca was gone, he realised, sinking into his seat. He thought of her, praying she was okay. She would avoid eye contact with them. He just had to call her, and they could decide what to do together. He grabbed for his cell phone on the desk, opened the screen and began to type in a text when the door opened.

Professor Love’s slender frame filled the doorway, her foot delicately tapping a rhythm upon the floor. ‘What am I going to do with you, young man?’ She tsked, shaking her head. Her movements were stilted, unnatural. The motions of something that knew it was wearing an unfamiliar skin and attempting to pantomime motions it had only heard of in the vaguest terms.

But what frightened Eric most was that Professor Love was here. Here in his dormitory, here in his place of sanctuary. This was the only place he could feel safe amidst the comforts of routine, and Professor Love was taking even that from him. The barest illusion of security shattered when Love crossed the threshold between hall and room. ‘All you ever needed to do was look in my eyes, Eric.’

The window was at the back of the room. They were on the first floor. He could reach it and fling it open and try to run, but he realised he would likely not get far, futile scenarios parading about in his head. Professor Love’s smile only grew as she walked into his room like a shadow bleeding its way towards him. He could feel her eyes on him, one question coming to his mind. He asked it with deceptive calm: ‘What are you?’

‘Would knowing make it better, Eric?’ Her skin appeared to flake, like old plaster crumbling from a poorly painted sculpture. There was something beneath it that could not be described as skin. ‘I have eaten very well here. I’ve tasted of every soul that’s met my eyes, one by one. That is how I feed, dear boy. Those like me slide into your disharmony, and we consume your very souls. Little nibbles at first as we strengthen, though sometimes we gorge ourselves. The end result is the betterment of what you are now, Eric.’

She drew nearer to him, a ravenous intensity in her voice. The manic vehemence of her dialect was lost in the hungry smacking of tongue to lips. ‘Don’t you want that, Eric? To fit in? To be like everyone else? To not despair that you’ll be misunderstood, that you’ll embarrass those around you? I’m giving you the choice to do it easily. It won’t hurt as much if you’re not forced by me or if I don’t consume you by proxy. All you’d need to do is let me eat away the parts you don’t like about yourself. 

‘Just meet my eyes.’

Icy hands burnt his shoulders, resting there in an inescapable grip. Eric looked within himself, realising, to his shock, that he was considering Love’s offer. ‘People will know,’ he breathed out in a weak protestation.

‘You think they don’t already? Why would they mind, Eric? I am not giving a choice beyond an easy way or a hard way. Nobody would care.’

‘I would.’ Becca’s voice came from behind the professor. She stood framed in the doorway, a mirror image of how Professor Love had arrived. She was shaking, trembling with a fist clenched, and Eric wanted to yell at her to run, to go before Love turned her attention fully upon her.

‘I’ll be with you in a moment,’ Love replied, already dismissing Becca from her thoughts to focus on the meal before her. ‘Or you can go if you want. It isn’t like you’ll be believed anyways. They’ll just attribute it to being, what does your kind say? “Off your meds.”’ She chuckled, and the noise was so hateful that Eric felt a surge of rage.

He reached his hands to Love’s chest and shoved her from him. Her frigid grasp slipped from his shoulders, and she rocked back on her heels, mouth forming a small circle of shock. Eric looked past her and met his friend’s face. He met her eyes, seeing Becca’s desperation and remembering days of friendship. He remembered the stories they wrote together. He remembered their talks about movies, books and shows. He remembered the faith they had in one another.

I would, Eric thought.

What did it matter if one other person saw the value in him compared to the rest of the world? What did that mean if he did not value himself? 

Love was straightening, and the thin veneer of politesse was lost, cast away with such fervour that if the professor needed it, she would be incapable of discovering where it lay. Instead, there was nothing but cruelty and ageless hunger, her voice slipping into a bass fury as she lunged for Becca. But Eric was faster, catching Love back and locking his arms around her. He felt the cold, almost burning his skin as he pulled her away from his friend.

Love struggled against him, snarling. Becca scooped up a textbook off the desk and swung it savagely at the professor’s head, Eric suddenly grateful for the overpriced and thick volumes they had been made to purchase. Love’s head snapped back, but she recovered and lashed out, knocking Becca into the wall. Eric struggled against her, attempting to regain some grappling hold on whatever Love was. She pushed him away with almost contemptuous ease, her mouth now a sneering gash upon that peeling plaster face.

‘What makes you think this isn’t all a hallucination?’ she asked Becca, receiving no response. Snorting, she walked to Eric, gliding silently to him and seizing him by the hair. She bent his head back, eyes pulsing with that manic light. ‘Stay still. I’m going to fix you.’

‘I’m not broken.’ He pushed his hand up, stabbing a finger at one of those lights. She tried to twist her skull from him, but too late. His finger sank into her eye, a sensation like he was sinking the finger into warm jelly. The disgust nearly made him pull back, but he pushed beyond that feeling to drive his finger onward. Becca lunged at the professor’s back before she could turn her remaining, now-panicked eye to Eric. His friend did not wear her nails long, tending to bite them out of nervous habit; they sank into the other orb all the same.

There could be no eye contact if there were no eyes. 

Two students with no business fighting back against a thing like Love held on, pushing their fingers in so only ruined flecks of her eyes fell to the floor. Love screamed, a keening howl. Terror mingled with agony as her body twitched, skin flaking and peeling away to reveal something else, something indescribable. It bucked and convulsed, writhing in sheer terror, trying to look with its broken and ruined eyes.

Then it fell still and silent, dissolving until nothing was left but ashen stains upon the carpet and fearful memories.


Eric wasn’t really sure anything had changed in the following weeks. The students had mostly returned to normal, the haze lifting from their minds with Love gone. With a replacement algebra teacher found, the next exam had been administered. Eric had gotten a D. He was planning on a study group to try to balance that out soon.

But now he was sitting at his desk, typing away at the story while he and Becca exchanged ideas. She had taken her medication for the day and was lucid and relaxed. The two had not spoken overmuch of what had happened with Love, whose life had been reduced to little but an extra housecleaning bill. 

After a moment, Becca asked, with a smile on her face, ‘Do you feel better?’

He considered it. Love’s destruction had not changed the core of him as a person. She was no avatar for his divergence from the norm, and destroying her had not altered the course of his mind or life. Perhaps there was more confidence in him now, but he still evaded eye contact. He still focused on books and movies. He focused on their story, which might not have been anything special but was theirs and nobody else’s. ‘I do,’ Eric said, meaning it. He nodded for emphasis, keeping his gaze on the screen. He managed a smile.

‘You know, there might be others like her out there,’ Becca said. Her voice was suddenly soft. ‘What if they know she’s gone? What if they come after us?’

‘That’s life, isn’t it?’ he asked her. ‘There’s always going to be something.’ Truthfully, he had no idea. All he could do was take it day by day, accepting himself all the more as he went on. All he could do was try. ‘Guess we have to face it together, huh?’

‘Like you can get rid of me that easy. So, what happens next?’ Becca leaned forward, a smile playing on her lips that Eric managed to mirror, reflecting the emotions within him. Life was difficult for those who didn’t fit in, for the alternates. To stare into society’s eyes and see the crowds looking back could leave one bereft. They would always have to cope with difference.

Perhaps they’d face it afraid.

But not alone.

Zachary Rosenberg

Zachary Rosenberg is a Jewish writer living in Florida. By night, he crafts fantastical and terrifying tales. By day, he practices law, something even more frightening. His debut books will be released by Brigids Gate Press and Darklit Press. Look for his released and forthcoming work from Air & Nothingness Press, Deathknell Press, Nosetouch Press, and Seize the Press.

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