They told Nico he had to go to the picnic or there would be consequences. They told him to stay home, that it wouldn’t matter whether he got the medicine.
The voices followed him into the bathroom, nagging him as his fingers fumbled with the tie. They told him he was overdressing, that he wasn’t dressing up enough, that one had to look respectable at the picnic, that he’d never be respectable.
They crawled between his eyebrows, festering under the skin, clawing at his frown. His cheeks and forehead flinched, but they would not go away. They hunched on his shoulders like an unwelcome hand. He rolled his neck one way then another, but the sensation would not abate.
Nico needed the medicine. He could not live like this, watching the spasming face of a stranger in the mirror. It was his turn to be healthy. He was tired of living alone in his misery.
The newspapers promised that all the shots would be real this year. In the early days, there was only enough serum to treat half the population, but everyone received a shot to give the appearance of equality. Names were drawn at random, everyone given a number. Only the nurses and doctors knew which vials held the serum and which the placebo.
Now that the government promised they had serum for everyone, Nico went to the Immunization Day picnic with the first optimism he had felt in years.
Girls in pink dresses, ribbons fluttering in their hair, squealed as they ran toward the bobbing red, yellow, and blue inflatable castle. Boys in bowties and suspenders abandoned shoes, rolled up their sleeves, and ducked through the mesh curtain.
On the stage, a band played a classic tune about thinking about tomorrow. Couples laughed and danced in front of the speakers until they collapsed onto blankets, sighed into one another, and stared at the clouds.
As Nico waited for his number, the voices told him it was all a lie. There wasn’t sufficient medicine this year. He brushed them off his shoulder with a cheek.
A woman in a sundress collected his name, consulted a clipboard, and handed him badge number 83. A prime number. Surely, that had to mean something.
“Guess you’re one of the lucky ones.” She smiled. With her bob haircut and freckles, she was kind of pretty, not at all like any of the names the voices whispered in his ears.
Nico checked the name tag: Andrea.
“Lucky?” he asked, a little too hopefully.
“It’s a low number. You won’t have to wait long.”
“That’s bullshit.” Nico bit the inside of his cheek, ashamed the forbidden word had escaped. He took his badge and hurried away.
“Good luck.” Andrea called after him.
He loaded up a paper plate with enough fried chicken, potato salad, sweet buns, and fruit salad to keep his mouth occupied. He found a picnic table in the shade, overlooking a lake with lily pads and dragon flies.
As Nico ate, a family with four children and crying baby approached. They considered the empty places around him but settled for a spot on the grass down by the lake. A dog meandered over to sniff his trousers before its owner called it back with a sharp whistle and a stern look.
Andrea drew near. “This spot taken?”
Nico nodded, mostly so his mouth wouldn’t betray him. Insects crawled up his shirt and gathered between his shoulder blades. He tried rolling his shoulders to dislodge them.
“The serum changes everything,” she said. “Last year, I was at this picnic table. Nobody would come near me. Can I tell you a secret?”
Nico shrugged, bugs gnawing his skin. Andrea showed him her forearm, which was covered in puckered scars: a pentagram, a smiley face, a tic-tac-toe grid.
She leaned in. “Immediately after the shot, I no longer wanted to cut myself. I was happy. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
Her gaze shoveled into him, turning over layers of psychosis. He looked away, toward the edges of the picnic where a girl cried by the cake walk. Her father rubbed her shoulders and promised everything would be okay. Outside the bouncy castle, a boy shoved another boy to the ground. Near the swing sets, a couple bickered. All of them dark clouds in an otherwise sunny sky.
“What if it doesn’t work?”
Her hand covered his. “Everything will be okay. You’ll see.”
A loudspeaker announced his number, and he joined the queue winding its way into the medical tent. As he waited, he chewed his bottom lip, and tried to bite off the voices. They yammered as he sat and rolled up a sleeve. Their chitter chatter continued as the nurse swabbed his arm with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball.
“This will pinch a little bit.” She pressed an injector against his arm.
After she delivered the dose, every muscle in his body stopped twitching.
“Are you okay?”
Nico smiled. He was a leaf in a pond, floating under a warm autumn sun.
Nico fixed his sleeve and exited the medical tent. Outside, the band played a soothing ballad, the bass guitar thumping like a newborn’s heartbeat. There was no crying, no screaming, only laughter.
At the picnic table, Andrea smiled and waved tentatively. Nico couldn’t look at her without something tearing inside his chest. She leaned forward in her chair expectantly.
“How do you feel?”
He led her into the throng of happy couples. Andrea dissolved into his arms as they swayed to the beat. Her hair smelled like blackberries, raspberries, the promise of a warm day, daylight pushing the boundaries of dusk further into the evening.
Ringing just below the melody, the voices told him they would never leave him. They told him that they were never there. It was all in his head. Ants crawled along his eye socket. His eyebrows swatted at them.
But in the spot where Andrea’s head warmed against his chest, all was calm.
Jeff Gard is an assistant professor of English at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. When he isn’t writing or teaching, enjoys board games, disc golf, binge-worthy television shows, and music. Friends describe his humor as “dark” or “twisted,” but he prefers to think of it as an acquired taste much like lutefisk or sauerkraut. His stories have appeared in The Arcanist, Daily Science Fiction, Dark Fire Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine.