Library auditorium. Couple hundred people gathered for a business seminar. Handed a blank slip of paper and a golf pencil when they walk in. Applause as the speaker is introduced. Looks too young for this gig. A weird combination of immaturity and wisdom about him.
“I want you all to take thirty seconds and write down the scariest thing you can think of.”
Time passes. Papers passed forward, dropped in a fishbowl. Speaker draws one.
“‘Killer clown.’ Creepy but kind of on-the-nose. The big red nose, as it were.”
“‘Zombies.’ If you’re surrounded by them with no way out, maybe. Otherwise, too easy to run away from. The fuckers are slow.”
“‘Pecked to death by penguins.’ I like that. Points for originality, but when exactly are you going to come in contact with enough penguins for this to happen?”
And one more.
“‘You.’ Who wrote this? Come on, there was no anonymity promised here. Raise your hand if you wrote this.”
Back of the room. Hand raised only halfway. Middle-aged woman. Chunky scarf even though the heat’s turned up way too high. Hair a bit disheveled so it’s hard to tell if she fixed it that way for the sake of being fashionable or if she just didn’t bother to check the mirror before she left her house.
“Ah, there’s the culprit. Did you mean ‘you’ as in me or ‘you’ as in yourself? I need to know whether I should be offended or not.”
Quiet response over mild audience laughter. The sound of her meekness doesn’t carry.
“You’re gonna have to speak up, ma’am. Do we have another microphone we can send up to her? No? Of course not. Well, just speak as loud as you can. Me ‘you’ or you ‘you’?”
“You ‘you,’ I guess. But maybe me, too.”
Stands up now, timidity slowly extinguishing. Short, maybe 4’10”. Proportional features even though the cutoff for dwarfism is 4’11”. Technically, she qualifies.
“We’re all strangers here for the most part. I mean, maybe some of us came with a friend or a spouse or a sibling, but, in general, you don’t know me and I don’t know you. That’s pretty scary to me.”
“So you’re coming from a place of social anxiety. A room full of strangers is scary because it’s uncomfortable. You don’t know who’s judging you, starting a conversation can be awkward, that sort of thing. Do I understand you correctly?”
“Not really. Sure, that can be scary but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Nobody in this room has any idea what I’m capable of. I could have a gun in my bag and take out three or four people before anyone even has a chance to react.”
“Don’t worry, everyone. My gun’s at home. But I could have a bomb strapped to my chest. Maybe this scarf is hiding the detonator.”
Squirming in seats increases.
“Again, not to worry. No bomb on me. But what about him…?”
Points to a well-coiffed, distinguished-looking gentleman. Nothing suspicious about him except that he now bears the weight of everyone’s suspicion.
To an elderly woman, hunched over even as she sits. Could not look like less of a threat. But what’s she doing at a business seminar? Makes you wonder…
“The point is we all walk through the day trusting that we’re coming in contact with good people. But how the hell do we know? There are days where I’m not even sure what I’m capable of doing let alone what you all might do. Seems like killing a human being is no different than stepping on an ant these days. It happens so suddenly for the ant. And do we show any remorse? Most of the time we’re not even aware we’ve killed something. We’re all just ants waiting for someone to step on us and keep right on walking like we’re nothing. So maybe instead of writing ‘you’ on that card, I should’ve written ‘us.’ Every single person in this room is the scariest thing I can think of.”
Speaker clearly uncomfortable. Can talk people out of fear, but paranoia? Totally different beast.
“And here I thought I was going to discuss how scary success and failure in business can be. Turns out just saying hello to your neighbor might be the most terrifying thing in the world.”
“Not to sound cynical.”
“Oh no, we wouldn’t want to mistake what you’re saying for cynicism. You can have a seat now, ma’am.”
Low murmurings. Audience members look around, size each other up. Is there a terrorist in the next row over, the guy sitting closest to the door for easy egress? Which one is the mass shooter waiting for the perfect time to collect the highest body count? Makes the zombie—or even the penguin—look like the more enviable companion. No surprises with them.
“I’d invite you folks out for drinks after the presentation tonight, but I don’t know which one of you might poison my cocktail.”
Not a single snicker. He’s lost them. Which might be the scariest thing he can think of.
“Why don’t we take a five minute break?”
Michael P. Adams is a native Californian and a graduate of San Jose State University’s MFA program. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in New Plains Review, Reed Magazine, Cardinal Sins, Crab Fat, Nomadic Journal, Dirty Chai, and Mosaic Art and Literary Journal.