Me? I see the devils and angels on peoples’ shoulders. Honestly, it’s helpful. Better than astrology by a long shot. None of that woo-woo-crystal-unicorn-believe-in-people nonsense. It’s like being able to see peoples’ red flags, but instead they’re these ever-changing balls of light that hover above each shoulder. You can feed ’em, starve ’em, whatever. Everyone’s got them. Apart from babies. You have to wait until they learn what shame is first.
When I was five, I asked my mum about the floating black and white orbs and she looked at me like I’d thrown up my dinner and started eating it off the floor.
Crazy, crazy, crazy.
I saw her devil pulse a bit there, heard it mutter something about me being stupid. Or being fucked in the head. Or both.
I learned to shut up quickly after that. I mastered my silence in school when some people’s devils darkened into inky black tumours and got so big they took over their brains and hearts and did things like taking part in gang rapes at parties and knife crime. Can’t say I’m a fan — maybe my devil is too underdeveloped.
Not that I would know. I can’t see mine.
Bloated angels aren’t safe either. Volunteering at care homes and helping orphans? Sure, that’s good. But angels take on a weird grey tinge when they hit a certain size. See? No one’s that good. When you see an angel that fat you know their devil’s swelling a little too. Sane people have proportions.
I’ll admit I get tired easily. It’s normal for me to glaze over when someone casually breaks a promise, their devil going tachycardia as they lie. I know it’s not good, but I gave up on remembering names a long time ago. Because I’m distracted. Or disappointed. Sometimes the orbs are too damn bright. Almost blinding sometimes. Golden retrievers are blinding.
Chihuahuas range from grey to dark as sin, of course.
Here’s the thing: It’s not about how fucked up your thoughts are. It’s about whether you want to act on them. Bigger the swelling, bigger the chance. That’s the only difference between you and a serial killer. Or a social worker. Commitment to the bit.
Choices matter, is what I’m saying.
Other people can make your devil and angel grow too. Your mum wasn’t wrong when she stopped you from playing with that kid who liked burning anthills with a magnifying glass. And your teacher wasn’t just being nice when she asked you to help the new kid out. It meant something. Always does.
So when I saw him and his naked shoulders that day I choked on my drink. I was sitting in a café and watching some fool’s devil grow as his thumb flicked through what must’ve been Tinder under the table as his wife cooed at their baby. This other guy — him — sits down next to my table and orders a drink. Like there’s nothing wrong with him. Like he’s never been tempted or regretted anything in his life. Not even a tiny black speck to show me he must’ve shoplifted as a kid or something. Or a minuscule white spark for that time he might’ve helped an old lady across the street.
For the first time ever, I saw nothing.
My eyes bore into him like laser beams, and he must’ve felt something vibrate in the air because his eyes darted around the room and then landed on me. Me, my aye-aye stare, my shocked Pikachu face.
Who are you, fucker? I wanted to call out.
How’d you do it?
When he locked eyes with me, he took on his own deer-in-headlights look before standing up and making his way to my table. I panicked.
“Sorry, sorry, thought you were someone else,” I babbled, my face scarlet and my rage deflating like a balloon. He sat down. I stared at him, my brain useless from all the years of dismissive shoulder-height glances. I felt like a skydiver without a parachute.
Where are they? Where are your sins? Your hopes?
He leaned forward, arms folded and pressing onto the table. His bashfulness would be cute if I could suss him out.
“Quick crazy question? Sorry, I’ll leave in a second.” He looked around nervously like we were about to do a drug deal. “That guy with the wife and kid. What… do you think of him?”
He coughed, anxious.
“Arsehole.” I couldn’t stop myself. “Cheater. Liar.”
“What makes you say that?”
He looked around again and nodded to the cashier.
“Selfless. Kind. Maybe the church-going type.”
“Huh.” He nodded and looked me up and down, not in a creepy sort of way, but like I was too much to take in with one glance.
I said nothing.
“Don’t know,” I eventually croaked.
He propped his chin up, studying me.
“I can’t see yours,” he said quietly.
“Same here.” I took a sip of my now cold drink, my brain reeling.
I’m sitting in front of a serial killer.
I’m talking to a pro-bono-loving lawyer.
I’m looking at a weak-minded, horny, lonely idiot.
I’m sharing air with an egotistical opera singer, a charity worker, a foster parent, an activist, an escort, a drag queen, a rapist, an adrenaline junkie, a family man.
I finished my drink, nerves rattling the cup back into its saucer.
“Hey,” I said.
When he looked at me, I suddenly felt like we’d known each other for a lifetime. Ghosts wound from the same skein of life, wandering with in-grown broken hearts. Always alert, afraid.
Two people-shaped maps, uncharted, undiscovered. Feeling our way in the dark for the first time. Naked and alone and dying all at once. Genuine, terrified strangers.
He was beautiful, and I hated it.
“What’s your name?” I asked. The words fell out like gravel, rough and coarse and small. He told me. I remembered it. And I knew he’d remembered mine.
K.R. Lai is a British writer based in Shanghai. When she’s not procrastinating and fighting Imposter Syndrome, she’s working on a short story collection that’s been sitting in her brain for years and hopes one day it’ll be free to roam in the wild.
Be our Patreon Valentine! We love our supporters.