The mall was so crowded and Bronwen couldn't stand it anymore, couldn't stand being surrounded by people, talking and shouting and moving and she had to get out, she had to get away from everything. She slipped out of the crowd and into a relatively empty coffee shop.
Feeling guilty about being at the shop and not buying anything, she approached the counter, intent on getting a bottle of water. Radiohead's "Creep" started playing on the speakers and she noticed that the barista had two different color eyes. The left was green, while the right was brown.
"A water bottle, please," she said and the barista blinked and the color of her eyes switched. The right one was brown now, while the left was green. Bronwen stopped and backed away.
"Two dollars," the barista said and placed the water bottle on the table. Bronwen looked closer at her, trying to convince herself that she imagined it.
The barista smiled and suddenly she had three eyes, a third eye stuck right in the middle of her forehead. It fluttered open and looked at her with disinterest. It was a strange brownish green color.
Bronwen turned and ran out of the door. She encountered the same crowd as before, but this time she tried to get lost in it, tried to escape from whatever delusion she was having.
She followed the crowd wherever they went, but occasionally she would catch a glimpse of something off, something wrong. Someone would have an extra arm or too many fingers or a tail...
She was on the second floor when she saw it. She had just followed the crowd, trying to shut off her mind, going up the escalator, when she saw it digging around in one of the mall's trash cans. Its hair was long and stringy and dark red and its skin was mottled. It looked up from the trash and straight at Bronwen and she could see its thin face and there was something crawling underneath its skin, something trying to escape. It looked at her and opened its mouth and it had no teeth, only gums and a tongue that stretched out at her and she ran, she ran down the escalator again, down past the people rushing upward, ran until she was out of breath.
It was on the bus back home, after she had convinced herself everything was a delusion, that she only needed to see a psychiatrist, when a man sat down next to her. She didn't like people sitting next to her, but there was nothing to be done until it was her stop.
"I call it the Rag-picker," the man said. She glanced at him and he looked back with sunglasses over his eyes.
She didn't say a word, just scooted away from the man and looked out the window. And she saw the thing again, red-haired and mottled, digging in the trash. She gasped and then heard the man say, "It picks at the rags, the discarded ones, the dregs and outcasts."
She looked as it dug deeper into the trash and then asked, "What is it?"
"It's a stain," he said. "A black mark on the world. A mistake, a defect."
It turned up its face from the trash and looked at her as the bus pulled away. Its tongue was still too long and was licking the inside of the trash and Bronwen closed her eyes and tried not to think about it. "What does it want?" she asked.
"To feed," the man said. "Probably. I'm not sure. But I know it won't go away. You'll keep seeing it. And the world around you will become riddled with mistakes, with imperfections and stains and weird mutations. Until you are living in the Rag-picker's world."
"And then I don't know. Nobody knows."
She turned to look at the man and asked, "And how do you know all these things? How did you know it was after me? Who are you?"
The man's skin was wrinkled and sagging. "I'm a remnant," he said. "An echo of a man. I'm just here to warn you." He took off his glasses and suddenly he had too many eyes. "Like I was warned."
He opened his mouth and his tongue was too long and then she was alone on the bus.
She left at the next stop and walked home. She tried to ignore other people, only catching the occasional glimpses, once of a woman with three mouths, one of a child with thorns growing from his skin.
She walked back to her home and tried to keep herself from going insane.
And the Rag-picker followed.