A fly buzzed in the studio. The girl watched it go, as much as she dared. Nothing should move, least of all eyes: they must stare forward. Sweat dripped down her spine, making her itch. She was naked, but it was a hot day, blinds drawn, lights on in deference to her nakedness, and keeping to this odd twisted position, all limbs, was painful and clammy. The men watched her watch the fly. One of them tutted, so she stared at him instead. They liked her gaze. She tried to rise above her body. Thoughts whirred in and out of her mind; she watched them, fighting for zen hush. Had she ironed Ben’s uniform, when was the MOT due, Autumn surely, but that was coming; would she get out of here in time to catch the post and have dinner ready for six, was her belly sagging unattractively in this position, would they pay her today?
The teacher was fidgeting, angry. He paid her, when she got paid. He stood up, suddenly, knocking against his easel, the noise making her twitch; he left the room and returned with a can of spray. The fly had settled on the floor beside her, probably eating filth, spreading germs, but rubbing legs overhead like a cat. She could see its eyes, thousands of them, looking. The teacher did a ninja-style assault with the can, making the others laugh, spraying some deathly chemical inches from her mouth, and the fly leapt up from the floor. It began to buzz angrily about her, its wings brushing furious against her back. If it stuck to the sweat and died there she wouldn’t bear it. But no. It cavorted in the air, kamikaze-like, and the noise intensified.
“They always have a last virile burst of energy before they die,” the teacher said. He returned to his canvas. And, after a moment, “Eyes front.”
She did as she was told, so the fly swarmed in and away from her vision. Did they know they were going to die? Did they die in agony? Did she dare find out, or was it best not to know? It wouldn’t occur to her to kill a fly, although mosquitos and fleas had to go since their messy bites affected the sale of her flesh. But flies seemed so harmless. Spread disease, so they say, but so do men, and flies feed spiders, of whom she was also rather fond. If a spider ate that fly, would it die too? And then a bird, a cat—
Relax. Breathe slowly through the nose. Calm thoughts. Floating down a river. Usually that worked. Although now her river was full of plastic waste and fishing detritus. Why must humans spoil things so? The hell with extinction rebellion. All she hoped for was a moment to rejoice in the extinction before the light went out.
The teacher was glowering at her. They could tell when she wasn’t focused. She forgot to be pretty. Her pictures would be spoiled, and perhaps they wouldn’t hire her again.
She locked eyes with him. He wanted her to hate him, she could feel it, to create a connection between them. But she would not hate him. She couldn’t find the energy for it. He was a dull mediocre dog, not a particularly talented artist, lacking imagination, and she would not favour him with her hate. He didn’t deserve it. She couldn’t even muster contempt. She stared straight forward, face twisted into a sneer. They’d wank over that, no doubt. Let them.
Walking on a mountain in the early sunlight, not another human in view. Slow breathing. If only the fly would die. It was reverberating and cavorting six inches from her face, presumably in its final death throes. Would it be kinder to leap up and stamp on it? But her feet were bare and the men would yell and perhaps, after all, it was a peaceful death, despite appearances. She closed her eyes and heard a tut. The eyes must stay open. Her eyes, soon to become the eyes. Her eyes must stay watchful so in the picture the eyes could stare out, intriguing their audience.
“It’s his own fault. He didn’t have to come in here.”
The fly collided with her cheek. Her mouth was open a little, that tantalising tease of tongue and teeth they liked. Supposing it brushed against her lips? Why wouldn’t it die? How long would it take? She didn’t dare look at the clock. She knew from experience the hands barely moved and you could drive yourself mad willing them forward. She looked at the teacher instead. He was a chubby, balding older man, unhealthy-looking: sweat glistened on his scalp, gut strained against his waistband. He smiled at her, pleased to see her gaze. Calm thoughts.
She remembered reading about the delight the guards in the concentration camps felt when they found they didn’t care about the suffering. They could learn to live with it, become indifferent to it, even comfortable. So liberating. It’s only hardship and death, and they’re scarcely rare.
The fly’s wings folded, reabsorbed back into its body, and the room became still.
© 2019 Melissa Todd
Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.