Experiments show that our senses only detect a tiny portion of what's out there. Worse, our brains manage to process just a fraction of that.
It's astonishing how much escapes our notice - and escapes it so completely that we don't even realize we missed anything. Surely it wouldn't take much to exploit those limitations...
(This story takes place in the "Newer Universe" series.)
Whatever the girl was thinking about, it purely wasn't the groceries she was ringing up.
"Excuse me," Mary said.
The clerk kept grabbing items and typing in the prices.
"Excuse me," Mary said said again, a bit more loudly.
The girl looked almost startled, as if the register or a box of cookies had suddenly spoke up. "I'm sorry?" she asked.
"You rang up my corn twice."
The girl stared for a moment, then ran her finger up the tape coming from the register. She then turned and looked at the clot of foodstuffs at the end of the belt - apparently to count cans. Sullenly, she pulled the microphone to her mouth and called for a manager. Once the sale was voided, the girl silently went back to processing the order. And then bagged it all silently, too.
No one offered to help Mary load the groceries into her car. Martha Brady and Patty-Jo Waller were chatting in front of the exit door; she had to wait quietly for them to notice her and move out of the way.
She piled it all in the trunk of the rusted Nova, and got it started up on the second try. Switching on the radio, she carefully pulled out of the lot.
As she made her way home, she noticed Annabelle on the sidewalk, and almost honked. The girl looked her way - for a moment Mary was sure she looked right in her eyes - but she moved on, and the car passed her. Oh, well, why should the girl even have the time for a middle-aged housewife, outside of choir practice?
Her path took her by the church where their choir sang. She took note of the sign out front: "THE LORD LOOKETH FROM HEAVEN; HE BEHOLDETH ALL THE SONS OF MEN." - PSALM 33:13
Pastor Collins was still on about that "White Event". Not three months ago everything had lit up for a few moments, bright as could be, everywhere on Earth. Many people took it as a sign the End Times had begun - Collins among them. Mary just held to Matthew 24:36, "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only."
The radio people were talking about an earthquake, in some place called "San Salvador". Or maybe "El Salvador". It seemed like both, or something. Just for a moment, she wondered if the pastor might not have the right idea.
Her own worries took over as she turned onto their street, and searched their driveway with her eyes. Mary sighed with relief as she pulled into the garage. Hobart's car wasn't there. If only she could put away the groceries before he got home...
She compared prices, waited for deals, clipped coupons. He still always chewed her out about how much she spent on food. Yet there was plenty of money for beer, or bowling shoes, or paint for his car. If he didn't see her putting it all away, she wouldn't have to hear him go on about it. Or feel him take it out of her hide.
She started by lugging the milk into the kitchen. Even in early October, dew beaded like sweat on their sides. Cold never really hit Georgia until January or so. Maybe December.
As it turned out, she had plenty of time. He didn't show at all, the whole time she was stowing things away, and she got started on dinner. Meatloaf was a safe choice. Hobart never complained about her meatloaf, which was the closest thing to praise that came from him anymore.
It was hard to remember ever loving him. She could recall bare facts - being excited for the wedding, going off on their honeymoon. But the feeling had drained away a long time ago. Even her memories were in black and white. All that was left were smoldering embers of fear and resentment and well-banked, carefully-hidden hate.
She had dinner ready by six. But there was no sign of Hobart. A quarter after, she had a sinking feeling, which had turned into a sick depression by half past. He'd gone for a beer with the boys, or some such thing, and hadn't bothered to let her know. Anxiously she checked the answering machine again, but there was no message.
At seven she surrendered hope, and ate standing up, even as she rushed to get the plates and leftovers put away. There was no way around it, it would be a bad time when he got home. He'd scream about her wasting food, no matter that he hadn't called her. No matter that he'd have screamed just as loud if he'd got home from the plant and dinner wasn't on the table.
The most she could hope for was that he'd be too drunk to think about it until the morning. She couldn't be lucky enough for him to get so drunk he'd kill himself on the road home.
It wasn't much after eight when she heard the car door slam outside. Earlier than she'd expected. Maybe even his "friends" had ditched him.
Mary stood in the kitchen, chopping vegetables for tomorrow's casserole. The accustomed tension spread across her back as the key turned in the back door lock. He walked in and made an unconscious sniff when he caught sight of her.
"I missed you at dinner," she said quietly, not looking up.
"I got dinner out. Me and Barry and Hitch went over to Lula."
"Oh." She knew what that meant. A bar there. They went because it got a younger crowd, even some college kids. She didn't even care anymore about Hobart eying girls half his age. It was just that he'd come home to her, and she wouldn't measure up. And he'd blame her.
"Is that meatloaf I smell?" It had started. She risked a quick glance at his face. His expression belonged on an angry grade schooler, maybe even a kindergartener. Not a canning plant worker pushing fifty. Not a tall man with thinning and graying hair, a broad beer belly, and rosacea-ruddy cheeks.
She sensed the fearful, pleading tone creeping into her voice, and hated herself for it. "I thought you were coming home after work. I thought you'd like..."
"I never said I was coming straight home! Christ, it's Friday night! I don't need your damn permission to go out with my friends!"
Right, it was her fault she'd assumed he'd come home for dinner like he did nine times out of ten, even on Fridays. "Of course not, I just thought..." She shrank in on herself, but she was facing him now. She'd need to see when he started hitting.
He bellowed. "You 'thought'! You don't think, you do what I say, woman!" He pulled back his hand. From long experience, she instantly judged how far. The smack would be about average, she saw, and on her cheek. One followup, maybe two. Then, most likely, he'd have worked it off. Some crack about her hair or her spending or some other nonsense, and then he'd go watch TV. She'd probably have to muster up some tears, prove he'd hurt her; actual sobs shouldn't be needed, though. Just enough to make sure he didn't decide to...
Finally she realized the blow hadn't landed.
He just stood there, hand in the air, such an expression of ... of... stupid befuddlement on his face that, despite the fear that was almost comfortable, despite all her instincts, she had to desperately struggle not to laugh.
"Mary?" he called out uncertainly. "Where'd you go, woman?" He sounded strange.
Her mouth fell open in pure confusion. What was he on about? She hadn't moved an inch.
He wouldn't look her in the eye. His head darted around, searching. "Where the hell..." he muttered. Then he leaned around to look behind her. Her heart froze, along with her body. The skin of her arms, the back of her neck, sprung out in goose-pimples. If he was angry enough to taunt her, tease her ... this might be a memorable beating indeed.
But he just walked past her, over to the doorway into the living room, still hunting. "Mary Giselle Watson, you get your ass back in this kitchen right now!"
She'd hunched over, frightened. "I'm right here, Hobart," she said, somewhat tentatively.
He turned around, and she flinched. But he walked past her again to the back door, and opened it to search the backyard. "Mary?!" he yelled. "How ... where the hell are you at?!" She finally placed that odd undertone in his voice.
Fear. He was afraid.
She'd heard suppressed fear in his voice before. Talking about his job or his boss, or sucking up to police officers when pulled over for speeding. She'd just never heard it when he was giving her orders. It made a very strange, unnerving contrast. Especially because he tended to hit her more when he was afraid.
He waited a moment longer, then hollered, "You get your ass back in here right quick, or I'll tan your hide! You'll be black and blue, y'hear?!"
She spoke up again, against her better judgment. Whatever game he was playing, she just wanted it done. "Hobart, I'm right here."
He didn't respond to her. A moment later he slammed the door. He stormed over to the fridge, pulled out a beer, and marched into the living room. She heard the TV come on.
Mary just stood in the kitchen. Completely bereft of any explanation, of any notion what was going on.
It felt like a couple minutes passed. Eventually she went into the bathroom and stared in the mirror at her own reflection. There she was, the same face she saw every morning and night. She wasn't see-through or anything.
.... There is more of this story ...