By Jarad Johnson
He stared at it. That awful presence had been tormenting him for months, watching his every move, watching him. Its eyes bored into every part of his body, stripping away his defenses and leaving him exposed. It knew the deepest, darkest parts of him; it knew everything. At first, when he still doubted what he knew incontrovertibly but would not admit, he had tried to ignore that feeling. When he slept at night, he would awaken to feel its eyes on him, always. It never left, never slept, never did anything but watched him. That was its only occupation. He stayed up sometimes, when he was not comfortable enough to sleep, contemplating what it was, what it wanted. To this day he still had no idea. It may have been some malevolent force sent to torture him before his descent into Hell, or an invention of the government to keep watch on his every move. Whatever it was, he wanted to be rid of it before it drove him mad. He was already well on his way to becoming mentally ill. He hardly ever slept or ate, and when he did venture outside, he was cautious and was always looking over his shoulder. He had to get out, had to leave. Or he would go crazy.
He had moved out of his posh apartment and had gone, “off the grid,” as his daughter would say. He had left in the middle of the night, leaving his wife sleeping in their bed. Of course, she would never understand what was happening. She had even naively told him that it might be a good idea to check himself into a facility, to cope with his, “odd behavior”. It was all too peculiar to believe without experiencing it first, he supposed. He now resided in a little one-bedroom loft above a foul-smelling Italian restaurant; however, the upside to his broom closet was the fact that it had only one window. Normally, he would have detested the idea of inhabiting a space that so closely resembled a prison cell. But for some time now, he had awakened to the sounds of gunshots or dogs barking instead of that despicable feeling of observation, which was sadly an improvement. He carried on with some semblance of his older life. He worked the crosswords every morning with a cup of coffee, and then went for a run. Most of the time, he would come straight home, but sometimes he stopped to get groceries or for a latte, if he felt like treating himself. In short, some semblance of his normal life and routine returned. He began to feel secure in the knowledge that he was no longer being watched, that he was finally free of it. But of-course he was wrong, wasn’t he? Even as he slept fitfully on that hard, lumpy mattress for what felt like the first time in months, some part of him knew he wasn’t free. He could never truly escape those eyes.
It started with coffee, as do most things. He had just come back from a run, craving caffeine. He hadn’t slept the night before, and if he wanted to continue to live in his crusty little apartment, he couldn’t sleep through the day. The only way he had been able to make any money in his exile was to fix the odds and ends around the building in exchange for lowered rent each month. He was just staring into his coffee, contemplating his semblance of a life, but he couldn’t suppress an involuntary gasp when he saw those damned eyes again, a gasp that caught the attention of everyone. As he was staring at the apparition, he heard a voice behind him say, “Sir, are you all right?” He turned around to see a clerk looking at him like he was some sort of loon, along with all the customers. He tried to act normal, and looked back down to his coffee, but it was still there, watching, always watching. He panicked, and threw the mug blindly, shattering a front window. Panting, he ran down the street.
It was then that these episodes occurred with more frequency. At the grocery store, he saw it in the mirror, dropping the gallon he was going to buy. At the gas station, he opened a cherry coke, and it stared at him through the liquid, reminiscent of the coffee shop incident. In his building’s shitty excuse for a courtyard, trying to decide whether or not to tell Tyler, the manager, that the expensive coy fish he bought were all dead and rotting in the pond.
And most notably, he saw it when he was in the park, behind a tree trying to avoid old cigarette butts and beer bottles, when he was taking a picture of the old stone fountain in the park in the perfect light. Then, he saw the face in focus right through the lens, staring back at him with that maniacal smile. He had never gotten a good look at it until then, usually because it flitted away just at the edge of his vision. But now he saw it straight on, and it was not what he expected. As he stared closer and closer, he felt a scream building up at the back of his throat, and his entire body went numb with shock. He couldn’t see any definitive features that would mark it as male or female, but it was definitely beautiful. Or rather, it would have been if not for the unnaturally large smile that covered nearly half of its face. Also, its perfect features were rotting and filled with maggots. As soon as he noticed them, they crawled out from between its overly large teeth and started wriggling towards his eyes. He screamed then, as he had never screamed before. It reverberated around him through the trees. He dropped the camera, leaving on the ground, shattered.
After that, he couldn’t leave his apartment. He locked the doors and covered the window. He awoke one night a couple of weeks later to a ringing cell phone. He had told no one where he was going, and consequently had disposed of his iPhone and gotten a prepaid, untraceable flip phone. Who would be calling him? He had spoken to no one, made no friends since he had gone into hiding. He had made himself unnoticeable and unmemorable, so as not to attract attention. He looked like every other person getting off that subway, didn’t he? With shaking hands, he answered the call. “Hello?” he said in a breathy whisper. He waited almost a full minute, with the phone pressed against his ear, heart thumping against his chest. He worked himself into more of a panic with each passing second, thinking that it was a wrong number or a prank call. Then, he heard an intake of breath, and his blood ran cold. “I see you, Thomas.”
The voice had an almost reptilian quality, with all of the s’s being accentuated and lengthened. He could feel sweat trickling down the small of his back as he tried to formulate a response. Finally, he said, “Who are you? What do you want?” He thought he might be having a panic attack, but that seemed unimportant at the moment. What it said next was all he was focusing on.
“You will never escape me, Thomas. I will never leave you, so long as we both shall live. Till death do us part.” The call was ended with its whispery laughter. At this, he really did have a panic attack. He hyperventilated and saw dark spots on the edges of his vision. The panic and terror he felt were crushing; he could not breathe. He tried to rise from the bed, and passed out in a heap on dingy carpet, taking part of the blanket with him.
The next morning, he felt like he had a hangover. He got up, fixed his coffee, and as he sat down, he felt better. He could always move again, right? Maybe out of the country, in a remote part of France. Yes, that would be nice. There was a morning paper on his table; it must have been there for days. He picked up the paper and started reading. It detailed the story of one man who had exposed the intelligence agencies in the US for overreaching in their surveillance. That didn’t make him feel any better. As he continued reading, he came to the Politics section. That always made him feel ill, so he tossed the post in the trash.
When he was done, he gathered up his things and headed for the door. It was then that he noticed. He saw it first in the mirror by the door, then in the glass fishbowl where he kept his tiny angel fish. As he spun in faster and faster circles around his apartment, he realized, with a growing horror, that IT was everywhere. It had the ability to duplicate itself and change into multiple variations of the original. No longer was it contained within a cheap wooden frame with those gaudy curtains. No, now it was everywhere, everywhere he looked, and on every surface, watching him, taunting him. He shrieked and ran into his bedroom, blindly looking for an escape from this awful demon, this evil incarnate. Once inside, he took every effort to barricade himself. He stacked the desk, his dresser, and the one comfortable but substantial chair he had against the front door. Faintly, he heard music playing in the background; a sort of tinkling, like a music box wound too slowly. He rustled through desk drawer for his letter opener. The music got louder and louder until he was nearly doubled over from the sheer volume. The only thing louder than the music was the cackling of it, that thing. The letter opener was all dull and rusted. It was barely serviceable as a letter opener, much less a weapon. He sat on the bed, clutching the knife and waiting. He waited for some time before he heard it. An awful banging at the front door, like a battering ram was trying to make its way through. He could hear the door buckle with every blow, and of course it was only a matter of time before it gave way.
Thomas backed slowly away from the bedroom door, and as he crept backwards, the crashes got louder. He stood with his back to the window, and by this time, he could hear the door splintering. But instead of light peeking under the door, he saw only darkness, terrifying darkness. Crash! That disgustingly familiar voice. “You see, Thomas, there is no escape. I am always near, wherever you go, wherever you run.” He was suddenly very angry. He dropped his knife and turned to face the window. Instead of letting light in, it was the opposite and completely dark, like the door. He wanted that thing gone. It had ruined his life and his sanity. But it was too strong. Already, he felt it dragging at his arms, pulling him toward it, telling him to stop and lay on the ground. Desperately, he flung himself at his assailant, going through its cavernous maw, and for a brief instant, he felt the measure of his success. He had done it. He was free!
Later, the police officers, who had received a call from the manager of the complex, came out of his apartment to examine the body of the man and call it in as a suicide. He had obviously been mentally ill, but they could find no history of mental instability. But it was when the victim’s picture aired on the local news that everything really fit into place. His wife and children came forward, describing how it had been more than a year since they had seen or heard from him, and, they said, six months before his disappearance he had been acting strangely. He had boarded up all the windows in their house, and kept them in a perpetual state of gloom. How he kept talking about these eyes he was seeing. A barista and a grocery store clerk had come forward telling the same version of that story more or less. A suspicious looking man had been mumbling about a pair of eyes he saw, with a tormented air about him. However, after the examiner manged to pry the poor man’s body from the pavement, he noticed something unnerving. Thomas was smiling, as if he had been experiencing euphoria moments before his death. They went through the usual procedures of notifying the family. Presiding over it all was that ridiculous window that had been tormenting him, broken with half a curtain flying out of it, as in defeat. And if you looked closely enough, it appeared that a shadow was fading from the glass, looking for another place to inhabit with its malicious intent
Jarad attends Middle Tennessee State University, loves tea, and tries to spend every spare second reading. Jarad is majoring in English. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!