Saturday Morning Post #76: Panic, Part 1

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, Christine is having problems with a mysterious stalker who seems to be less human the closer he gets. Keep in mind that all of these stories were set in 2000-01, when the internet was still in its infancy, long before any social media, even MySpace, were created. This story will appear in two parts, concluding next week.

He was there again. Just standing in the courtyard, waiting for her. She peered through the curtains, watching him, looking down, afraid to move. He wasn’t looking at her. He wasn’t looking at anything, and nobody who went by paid him any attention. But why would they? He never bothered other people. No, it was just her. Her alone. And yet, he hadn’t done anything she could complain to anyone about. That was the worst part. He never touched her, never spoke to her. He just showed up, looked at her, stared at her with those piercing brown eyes and gave her that awful, hideous smile.

She let the curtains drop, stood with her back to the wall, purse still in hand. Maybe he’d go away, if she waited. Maybe he’d get tired of this game, let her have some peace. Maybe…

No. She couldn’t think that, it wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t possible.

She spun around, nudged aside the curtain again and looked out. He was still there, but now he was looking right at her. He couldn’t actually see her, could he? She’d opened the tiniest slit. But then he smiled, opened his mouth and curved his lips, revealing those teeth that were far too white, far too sharp, barely human. He raised one eyebrow and she let the curtains drop and sank to the floor, knees up, crying. Her purse fell from her hands, tumbled open. She didn’t care, didn’t even notice. Why wouldn’t he leave her alone?

She still remembered the first time she’d seen him. How could she forget? It was a Wednesday in Spring. The first day of spring, and the first nice weather they’d had in a long time. She’d decided to take the subway to work, so drove a mile to the station, parked, descended the long escalators, bought her ticket and went to the platform. It was crowded this morning, jammed with people going both directions. A lot of the suit and skirt crowd, a lot of domestics and laborers, all jumbled together. All the benches were taken, so she stood against one of the columns, holding her purse with both arms, waiting. As she waited, she watched the people, milling about or pacing back and forth. It was a pretty routine morning.

From somewhere in the distance, the dim hint of a train horn barked. People leaned forward, approaching the dangerous yellow line, peering to see which side was the winner. She couldn’t help but do the same, and almost collided with a skateboarder who went clacking by at the same moment. She jumped back, yelped involuntarily, stared after him. He looked like a college kid, too, old enough to know better. He sailed past her about ten yards, then did a kick turn and stopped, popping the board up expertly into his hands. Definitely older, at least twenty, head shaved on the sides, eyebrow pierced. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and his shorts were hanging way too low, so she could see the designer from which he preferred to buy his underwear. Why did they do that? Wasn’t there any decency left in the world? Didn’t people know how to dress? Just showing off his body like that, his pumped-up biceps, his huge pecs, his stomach — what did they call it, a six-pack? Her ex-husband had a six-pack himself. Every damn night…

She was staring and she caught herself doing it just as the boy glanced her way, stuck out his tongue at her, revealing the silver stud in it. She turned away, blushing, and then she saw the face, in the crowd, staring at her, not blinking. She looked away, peered straight ahead at the grimy tile wall behind the railbed. There was something about that face that disturbed her. Its features were a bit too angular and pointed, and those eyes… In the instant she had caught him, the eyes had jumped out, isolated, like in one of those annoying 3D pictures that you had to look at funny in order to see it.

The train pulled into the station, but it was the wrong one. Its doors heaved open and the great trout migration began behind her. In the commotion, she turned her head slightly, glanced with one eye and saw him there again, now alone as the crowd moved away, leaning against the route board, staring right at her. Grinning. He started to move. She turned and ran, hopping onto the train just as the doors hissed shut behind her. She looked back onto the platform as the train started to move, but he wasn’t there. Good. Maybe she’d scared him off, he’d go bother someone else…

Or was she just being paranoid? After all, she’d looked at the skateboarder a second too long, maybe this stranger was only doing the same thing. It was random, meaningless. She was a woman, he was a man. Yes, it had been a long time since she’d caught a man looking at her like that. Especially a very handsome man and, despite his features being so sharp — or maybe because of it — he was an attractive man. Yet… creepy. She hadn’t gotten a good look at him, but enough to remember that face and have all her alarms go off.

And now she was going the wrong way. All right, so she’d be a few minutes late. She’d get off at the next station, catch the next train back, blame it on a breakdown or something.

Which is exactly what she did, and Mr. Cooper seemed to accept her excuse graciously. “Too bad ‘rapid transit’ is a misnomer,” he said. “At least you’re doing your part to stop air pollution, huh?” He laughed. She gave him a weak smile — he scared her — nodded.

“Is there anything else, Mr. Cooper?”

“No, Christine. No big deal.” He smiled, then looked at her a moment. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes. Yes, everything’s fine, why?”

“Oh, nothing. Just asking…” He gave her a shrug, turned to the papers on his desk, reaching for the phone. He looked up once, gave her a little nod and she backed out of his office, closing the door.

She drove to work the next two days, then convinced herself she was being silly and decided to take the train the following Monday, although she arrived twenty minutes earlier, to catch the 8:05. The platform was even more crowded than before but she lucked into a bench this time, even though she had to sit near a homeless man who smelled like last month’s egg salad. She scanned the crowd, fidgeting, looking, searching. Nothing. That man wasn’t here. It was just a fluke, ships passing, and she had just been silly and stupid and paranoid last week. Maybe that was a good thing, though. The kind of thing that would keep a single woman in this city out of trouble. Wasn’t that how Loretta in accounting had managed to get beaten up and raped, by trusting a strange man in a bar?

Christine never went to bars, though. What was the point? She didn’t drink and she certainly didn’t do… that. She hadn’t even done that when she’d first met Walter, although he’d wanted her to and she’d wanted to, but of course she couldn’t. She’d accommodated him in other ways before they’d been married and felt guilty enough even though he said it was okay because they loved each other. Loved each other, yeah right, up until he’d left her after eight years, thank god no children, for that bimbo he met in the computer class he was taking at the local CC. “I want to improve myself,” he’d told her when she complained it would keep him out late three nights a week. Apparently, it worked. He’d improved himself right into the lap of some twenty-two year old slut. They’d probably done it the first night they met.

Her train shot into the station and stopped. She got up, started for it, then quickly dug into her purse, pulled out a few singles, set them next to the homeless man. A grimy hand shot out and picked them up, but she could have sworn he said… well, that word instead of “thank” you.

That word. That word she couldn’t escape. They were even practically saying it on the radio all the time now. Oh, sure, it was “Eff you” and “Effing that” and so forth, but it wasn’t that hard to fill in the blanks. She’d taken her mother to the movies when she’d come to visit Christine a few months back, a PG-13 film, and they said that word two or three times. Her mother was outraged and Christine apologized profusely. She’d had no idea, really, but her mother still castigated her for dragging them to a blue movie. That was a week after Walter went off to eff his effing bimbo. The effer. She’d actually thought that at the time. Mother-effer, as close as she’d ever gotten to using that forbidden word.

She took the train every day that week and by the next week had nearly pushed the encounter with the man out of her mind. She’d forgotten all about him by the time she went to the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon and found herself reaching for the same head of lettuce as another shopper, a man probably in his thirties, wearing a suit and tie. Their fingers touched and they both pulled back.

“Sorry,” he said.

“No, it’s okay, you can have that one.”

“I insist, really,” he said. She hesitated, then picked up the head of lettuce. It was wet and rotted on the bottom. She let out an “Eeeew” and put it down.

“Yeah,” the man in the suit said, “Sure is hard to find good head.”

Her mouth fell open and she was about to say something when she realized he’d said “a good head of lettuce.” But no, wait, he had paused after “head,” his eyes twinkled. They were deep blue, piercing. He was very tan, with blond hair. If it weren’t for the suit, she would have taken him for a ski instructor. She felt herself blushing, glanced down, noticed he had no ring on his left hand.

“I bet your wife would be pretty upset if you’d brought that one home,” she said, pretending to examine the rest of the lettuce.

“I’m not married,” he said.

“Girlfriend, then,” she replied, realizing too late she was unintentionally flirting

“No girlfriend, either,” he answered and she looked up. He was smiling.

“Uh, no, well, I didn’t mean… I wasn’t…”

“And why are you shopping alone?” he asked.

She inhaled sharply, holding her breath. Maybe she did mean to. He was very handsome, and he seemed nice enough. No, no, remember Loretta. But Loretta had been in a bar, not a grocery store. This man looked sincere, friendly.

“My name’s Greg, by the way,” he said, extending his hand.

“Christine.” She took his hand. It was huge, strong, warm. Maybe…

Over Greg’s shoulder, she saw the eyes again, the face. He was staring at her, from the doorway to the stockroom, his smile mocking. He stuck his tongue out slowly, lewdly. It was red and wet. His eyebrows were very thick and black, and his skin had a coppery tinge, as if he had Native American blood. His hair was black, too, but tightly curled, standing up slightly in two ridges on either side of his head. And his features — there was something animalistic about them, not quite human, and yet very attractive.

Greg turned his head to see what she was looking at and she broke from him, trotting away.

“Hey, Christine — “

“I have to go.”

“Can I call you?”

“I have to go.”

And she did, barreling right out of the store, half-full cart and broken heart left behind and when she was outside, she ran to her car, beeped it open from fifty feet away, got in, slammed the door, hit the locks and nearly started hyperventilating. She twisted the rearview mirror, kept an eye on the store as she tried to calm down and catch her breath. That face. Leering. There was something goat-like about it. That was it, that was the animal. A filthy goat. The wide nose, the suspension bridge upper lip, those deep brown eyes.

She’d managed to calm down a bit now, though her heart was still racing. She put the keys in the ignition, glanced in the mirror and saw him, coming out of the store, hurrying toward her. She slammed down the gas, turned the key. She’d flooded the engine and her hand was shaking, she could barely get a grip on the keys. “Come on, come on,” she spat as the engine complained. Then it started, roared to life, not a moment too soon. She looked in the mirror. No, it wasn’t him, it was Greg, and he looked really concerned, hurrying toward the car.

She contemplated stopping for just an instant, racing to him, asking for protection. But, no. Remember Loretta. Remember what happened to her. She threw the car in reverse, spun out of the parking space as fast as she could and raced out of the lot, tires squealing, and she sped all the way home, almost running several red lights, slamming her knee on a planter as she ran to her apartment, up the stairs, in the door, slammed, locked, chair in place, close all the curtains, safe, finally safe from that face, that man, whoever he was and whatever he wanted.

She went to the stereo, grabbed a CD — Debussy — and put it on, turning it up. It was Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, one of her favorite pieces. She went to the kitchen, found a bottle of Marsala in the fridge. She kept it for cooking, hadn’t touched it in months and it really did taste awful. But she didn’t care, she needed this, really needed this right now.

After all, if she never told her mother she drank it all, who would?

* * *
 

Sometime in the middle of the night, she wasn’t sure when, a grinding acidity in her stomach made her get up to vomit. Every horror she’d heard about drinking was true, she thought, as she pitched forward and fired another round of sticky brown liquid mostly into the toilet. After the nausea passed, she grabbed the cleanser and sponge and wiped things up, then went to the kitchen for a glass of water. As she was drinking it in the darkness, she heard voices, faintly. She listened. Voices and splashing. She glanced at the clock. Three in the morning. Some people just had no concept.

She looked out the front window, down at the pool. All the lights were off, but the moonlight sparkled the water enough that she could see it was rippling all over the place. She thought she could see the silhouettes of two heads bobbing around. Probably those frat boys in apartment two down the way. They lived far enough away that she never heard the music that Mrs. Ippolito incessantly complained about, but they’d made their presence known to everyone nonetheless, with at least a party a month. Somehow, they always managed to quiet down before the magic hour of eleven, but some of the tenants complained bitterly and constantly to the management, who said they really couldn’t do anything.

One of the figures below moved to the edge of the pool. Yes, it was them. She recognized the shape of his haircut, even though it was wet. Long on the left, short on the right. He waded to the stairs and walked out of the pool. Christine stared, mouth open in silent indignation. It may have been dark, but it was light enough to see that he was totally naked. At least, she thought so. She squinted, opening the curtains a little more.

He got out and stood there, not even having the decency to cover anything up, even though his back was to her. Then, his friend got out of the pool and stood there, whispering. She couldn’t hear what they said, but then the first guy picked something up off a lounge chair and they ran toward their apartment, leaving dark footprints. Christine leaned her head and watched as they finally passed through a pool of light. Both of them, completely naked, not even ashamed, not covering it up. Sure, it might have been this ungodly hour, but what if they ran into the paperboy making his rounds? What if they ran into anyone, didn’t they care? At least they’d been quiet. If she hadn’t been sick, she never would have known they were there.

There was a whump and a splash. Now someone else had jumped into the pool. This place sure was going downhill. Her eyes darted back to the water, which was flailing and cresting. She couldn’t see anyone there, but she watched and waited. Gradually, the water settled down. Nothing. No shadows on the surface, no movement.

Then her eyes began to adjust, or maybe it was just the moon shifting, but the water started to look bluer, lighter. And there was someone there, standing in the deep end, completely submerged. They weren’t moving, but they weren’t drowning either. She watched and things became clearer, and then the figure turned under water, facing her way, tilted its head back, lifted its face to her…

She jumped back from the window, almost screamed. It was him again, and when his face appeared everything became crystal clear and bright. She could see him perfectly, face just emerging from the water, body below, that horrible smile, his hair not even wet. How had he found her, had he actually followed her? How had he gotten here without the frat boys noticing him? Or had he been watching them, too? She wouldn’t put anything past this… creature at this point.

She picked up the phone, dialing as she went back to the window and looked out.

“Nine one one emergency,” the voice said. She looked down. The pool was empty and the water wasn’t even moving and everything was dark and quiet.

“Hello, nine one one emergency,” the phone said again. Christine put it to her ear, muttered wrong number and hung up. She kept staring out the window, waiting for him, but there was nothing there. She glanced down the second floor walkway leading to her door. Nothing.

The phone rang and she almost screamed again. Who would be calling her now? “Hello?” she answered.

“Ma’am, did you just call nine one one from this number?”

She sighed, relieved. “Yes, but… it was an accident. I… I guess I hit speed dial. I got up to go to… got up and stepped on the phone — “

“So everything is all right there?”

“I’m fine, yes.”

“Is there someone there with you and you can’t talk?”

Christine thought about it. Yes, there was someone there, but he wasn’t there now. Should she tell them? If they came out and found nothing, what would they do when she had to call for real? “No, I’m alone,” she said.

“Ma’am, if you’re not alone, say ‘yes’ now, all right? Just the word ‘yes.'”

“No. I’m alone. I really am. Sorry to bother you.”

Christine hung up. She couldn’t get back to sleep, not knowing that he might be out there. This had never happened to her before. Of course, for eight years, she’d lived with Walter in their house — yeah, right, his house — in a safe neighborhood and why did she sign that damn pre-nup, anyway? Hadn’t her mother told her not to do it? So here she was in a shabby building with a bunch of degenerate neighbors who skinny-dipped and had wild parties and did god knew what else.

She didn’t feel comfortable again until the sun came up, but then she felt awful, physically. She called in sick, the first time ever, told Georgia she’d probably eaten something bad the night before, maybe she’d be in that afternoon.

“Oh, I’m sure Mr. Cooper will say it’s all right,” Georgia told her. “You never get sick, so it must be bad.”

“Very bad,” Christine said. “Thanks.” She hung up, fell asleep and woke up much later to the familiar whine of the gardener’s leaf blower. She still felt terrible, but at least not terrified. She showered, got dressed and grabbed her car keys. That thing wasn’t likely to pop up in broad daylight, was it? Of course, that thing knew where she lived now.

No, she had to have imagined it last night. The wine, and it was dark. He, it, whatever, couldn’t have just stood there under the water that long, then gotten out without making a splash. Besides, the gardener was still out there. He was a big, burly man, looked like a professional wrestler, only uglier, and he and Christine were on a first-name basis. If anything happened between here and the car, he’d help her. She knew he would.

She opened the front door, peered out and looked both ways. Nothing. She was being stupid and silly. She closed the door, locked the knob and the deadbolt, and headed for the car. It was a beautiful blue-sky day. Warm, sunny. Safe. She went downstairs, nodded hello to the gardener, then headed back to the parking lot. On the way there, she passed apartment number two. That frat boy was out front, at least he was clothed this time, alternately strumming a guitar and drinking a beer. He nodded to her as she passed. She muttered “hello” and gave him a quick glance. He seemed so respectable, except for that weird haircut and those loud parties. How could he be so downright evil to not even care who might see him naked? No, it was worse. He did care, but he wanted to be seen. She would never understand guys like that at all.

She got to the office around two and the rest of the day went fairly normally, except that Mr. Cooper kept coming around to see if she was all right. He even offered to pay her for the day, not use up sick time, but she insisted. She was fine now, really. Just something she ate. The rest of the day and the rest of the week were normal, except that on Friday afternoon, Mr. Cooper called her into his office. She was expecting some big warning speech, but instead he told her that she’d been doing good work, she was too valuable to lose, and would a five percent raise, starting immediately, be adequate? She insisted that she made enough, she hadn’t even asked for a raise. He gestured down her protests.

“I want to do this,” he said. “And you deserve it. I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Five percent is more than enough,” Christine told him, then let herself out of his office. That was very strange, she didn’t know what was going on. Then Georgia brought her the papers to sign for the increase.

“Why is he doing this?” Christine asked.

“You’ve never been sick,” Georgia winked. “How did the interview go, anyway?”

“There was no interview, I was really sick.”

“It’s okay, honey. Hey, it worked, didn’t it?” Georgia went back to her desk with the papers, Christine watching her, wondering what was going on. That was when Joyce came over.

“Hey, congratulations,” she said, Christine wondering why news always traveled so fast here. “Listen, are you going to Max’s show tonight?”

“Show?”

“Yeah, you didn’t know? He’s in a play. Some dumpy small theatre, but he is the lead.”

“I don’t know, I’m really busy.”

“Come on, a bunch of us are going. You need to get out, celebrate. Maybe you’ll meet someone…”

Joyce laughed as Christine blushed. “It’s been long enough since that jackass dumped you,” she went on. “Live a little.”

“I… okay, all right. What time…?”

Joyce handed Christine a flyer. “Eight o’clock, and please show up. It’ll mean a lot to Max. And to me.”

“Are you in it?”

“In the play, no,” Joyce laughed again, a nasal braying. “But I might be in his pants if I bring enough people to the show.”

Joyce laughed harder at Christine’s reaction, added, “Hell, he’s the only straight boy in the mail room, and I say, if it’s available, go for it. See you at the show.”

She walked away and Christine could feel her ears turning red. Joyce was at least ten years older than Max. Sure, Max was cute, but he was just a boy, fresh out of college. It was shameful for Joyce to act like that, even worse to admit it openly. Christine headed back to her desk and, speak of the devil, there was Max, paused with his cart to deliver her mail.

“Hi, Christine,” he said. “Coming to the show tonight?”

“I… yes.” She made up her mind when he looked at her. He seemed so sweet and innocent, how could she say no to that face. He grinned and grabbed his cart. “Stick around afterwards, I think we’re all going out.”

Then he walked away and she watched him go. She never even knew he wanted to be an actor. He was just some tall, lanky farmboy who’d wound up in the big city. Then again, she was a farm girl who’d landed in the same place, miles and years away from that small cold town in Minnesota where her mother still lived. Everybody here was from someplace else. She guessed that’s what made the big cities big — their penchant for sucking people in from everywhere, like a gigantic glass and concrete black hole. Get trapped in their gravity, it was hard to ever leave again. She hadn’t been home in a good five years.

She wondered, very briefly, where that strange man with the piercing eyes came from. Probably escaped from the nearest prison or nuthouse. Definitely somewhere dark and dank and evil. Then she pushed him out of her mind. Next time she saw him, she’d confront him, or definitely would call the police. Even if he hadn’t done anything yet, anybody could see he was a menace. Right? One look at him, nobody would argue that point.

And she didn’t think of him again the rest of the day, and soon it was five o’clock and everybody was leaving, but she’d see them all soon again, later, after she’d gone home to change. Maybe she’d even get all fancied up. Why not? This was The Theatre, not some dumpy movie house, and maybe Joyce was right. Maybe what Christine needed was a man in her life again, a new husband, and then the stranger would leave her alone for good.

* * *
 
To be continued…

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