The man standing on the sidewalk in front of my apartment wasn’t somebody that I wanted to meet. I knew that instantly. He stood about 5’9” with steely white hair—a la Albert Einstein—and a face void of any emotion. A cigarette was permanently affixed to his left hand. I noticed him as I rounded the corner of my apartment complex, a renovated historic hotel located in the central business district of town. He had his gaze fixated on the buildings across the street. That was fortunate. I didn’t want him to see me. Every step that I took was carefully planned so I would avoid his peripheral gaze, but the closer I got the colder I became.
I was right at the entrance when his head slowly turned in my direction. That’s when I noticed his lifeless, coal-black eyes. I was told the eyes are the window to the soul, and if that were any indication, his eyes led to a place of no return. I felt my body freeze. I willed my legs to keep moving, but they wouldn’t listen. I tried to look natural. Was it working? A chill raced down my spine as his pale red lips tightened into a smirk. He nodded at me slowly, acknowledging my presence, and lifted the cigarette up to his mouth as he returned his gaze to whatever caught his fancy across the street. The feeling in my legs returned and I made my way to my room as inconspicuously as I could.
I stood in my front of the white wooden door that led to my suite, fumbling around in my pocket until I found the correct key. I closed the door immediately behind me and locked it, concerned that the deadbolt may not be enough. Who was that guy? My mind began racing. A man standing on a sidewalk, smoking a cigarette isn’t an unusual sight, so why was I bothered? Was I overreacting? As hard as I tried to find some sanity, my thoughts wouldn’t leave me alone. Sleep didn’t come easy for me that night.
Waking up the next brought some comforts, but not many. The thoughts of the encounter flew through my mind. I reasoned that the stranger was just one of those people that were born with a face that gave off negative vibes. That’s the way life was sometimes. Our primitive fight or flight mode warns us of potential evils, especially in people. On many occasions that reaction is completely justified, yet there are other occasions where we freeze up, rendering us unable to fight or escape the situation. My first response to seeing that stranger was to get myself out of his proximity as soon as possible. I’ve never seen him before, never met him before, and never talked with him before, yet something in my gut told me he was bad news.
It took several long hours to convince myself of my absurdity. The rest of the day was mundane as usual. I always found routine comforting. There’s no fuss, no confusion, no distractions, no surprises. Running down the clock of a 9-to-5 job was hell for some of my coworkers, but not me. I thrived in this location. I worked a simple, quiet job at my local library, which is right down the street from my apartment. Part of my daily responsibilities was restocking the bookshelves. I found that to be the most relaxing. Excluding the occasional lost soul asking where the Harlan Coben books were, I’d be by myself in the quiet, menially alphabetizing all the books that take us to worlds unknown. E: Evanovich, F: Forsyth, F: Frost, O: O’Shaughnessy, R: Rowling, T: Thor. I swear that the Dewey Decimal System was one of life’s true unabashed pleasures. Yet I’m not sure many people would agree with me.
The sunlight was welcoming and the fresh air was soothing as I stepped outside my second safe place—and my second home. I glanced over at the dark blue Mississippi River, speckled with bright spots of white that danced over each gentle wave. A smile crept over my face as I felt the wind caress my hair. Straight ahead the antiquated brown brick buildings from the city’s earliest history littered each side of the street down a steep inclined road. Churches from every denomination could be seen at every intersection. An old abandoned soap factory that should be used as a filming location for “Paranormal Activity” sat across the railroad that stretched across the middle of the city. The fire department, complete with white brick arches and red garage doors was nestled on a corner at the bottom of the hill a few streets over. These historic sites were like old friends that watched over me as I made the half-mile trek home.
The enjoyable walk quickly turned to terror as I noticed a man standing in the distance, a puff of smoke billowing in front of his face. The stranger’s steely-white hair pierced through the brown color that predominated the streets, his gaze still firmly planted on anything unfortunate enough to be caught in his line of sight. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, the paralysis settling in, the primal fight or flight instinct yelling—no, screaming—at me to go home another way. But there was no other way around the stranger, except to wait him out. I considered that, but decided against it. I couldn’t draw attention to myself, I reasoned. I calculated my next movements carefully. There’d be no way to get in unseen. I knew that the stranger would see me before I entered. The key was to be as painfully nonchalant as possible. My terrible acting skills would have to somehow put a contempt disguise around a tortured mind.
Each step grew heavier with each stride. I felt as if my lungs stopped working. I forced air into my lungs and pushed it back out. My mind swirled with anticipation over this person that has not once exchanged even the simplest of pleasantries. I could make out the checkered pattern on his plaid dress shirt. He took a few deep puffs of his cigarette. He closed his eyes as if everything seemed to please him, but I am guessing it was the nicotine addiction. I wondered how I looked. Did I look scared, confused, worried, indifferent? I don’t know. There was no way to tell. I trusted that my subconscious instincts would take over and lead me to safety. I wished myself back into the library, but I knew it wouldn’t work.
As if sensing my presence, the stranger turned his head in my direction again. His coal-black eyes met mine and locked on. Again I willed my legs to run, but to no avail. What happened next stopped me dead in my tracks. He spoke.
“How are you doing?” The sound of his voice felt like a dropkick to my stomach. His voice managed to be smooth and gravelly at the same time. I didn’t know what to do or how to react. I was hoping that the fear inside me didn’t appear in my expression, but there’d be no way for me to tell.
“I’m good,” I lied, “And how are you?”
“Can’t complain. The weather’s been getting much better.”
“Yeah, it has.” I felt the conversation had already gone on too long, so I pushed myself back toward the double doors. I felt his lifeless eyes follow me though I couldn’t see them. I kept my hands in my pocket as if they were my only source of security.
Once I got back to my room, I quickly closed the blinds and took a seat on the couch. I knew I was going to need something to preoccupy my mind that evening. Two days in a row “Creepy Craig” had been standing at that very same spot on the sidewalk, right outside my apartment complex. He said very little, did very little, and yet he instilled in me more fear that I have felt in my entire life. Even gnats left him alone. I decided to distract my thoughts with a little bit of the mind-numbing pleasures of the picture tube—aka my simple HDTV—which seemed like a standard household appliance these days.
Nothing caught my eye, yet channel surfing seemed therapeutic enough. Commercial. Commercial. Talk Show. Evening News. Commercial. How I Met Your Mother. Cop Show. Celebrity News. Commercial. So many damn commercials. Spongebob Squarepants—okay, I watched that one a little bit. Nostalgia’s a pretty big motivator! After about fifteen minutes of mindless channel surfing, I felt the need to hear about what the current events of the day were, figuring I’d just hear something harmless, unimportant, or boring (or downright dreadful). I could actually feel myself begging for a fluff piece about someone who beat cancer or some unsuspecting waitress who was tipped a thousand dollars or something. Anything!
I flipped to the local news station. I listened as the anchors mentioned the death of some beloved celebrity. Then, there was a brief segment that dealt with the current political climate. I ignored that stuff. Like Thanos, politics bore me. I used to like them, but lately it’s become a biased mess of bigotry and hatred. I will always support the right to free speech, but I firmly believe that that doesn’t mean you have to talk. The first half hour or so of this was uneventful. As I reached out to the grab the remote and begin my mind-numbing channel surfing exercise, something made me stop in my tracks. Anchorman Larry Porter sat with his practiced stare into the news camera, speaking slowly to make sure that each and every articulated syllable out of his mouth was clearly heard to anyone who happened to be tuned in at this time.
“This is a breaking news report,” Larry roared in his much-too-rehearsed TV personality voice. “Four people have been found dead in Jersey, IA. The names of the victims are not yet being released. According to police chief, Gerald Fletcher of the Jersey Police Department, a neighbor went over to the house to borrow some sugar and noticed blood in the garage. As of right now, no suspect has been apprehended, but local witnesses claim to have seen this man”—cue photo—“walking around the neighborhood suspiciously. The police would like to ask that if anyone has information regarding this person’s whereabouts to call the number at the bottom of the screen. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the victims.”
If my heart was still beating, I couldn’t tell. I tried as best as I could to rationalize it away, that my mind was just playing tricks on me. But even lies told in the sincerest of circumstances are still lies. The picture that materialized at the top right hand side of the screen had been taken with a run-of-the-mill cell phone camera. Though the picture was grainy and of low quality, there was not doubt in my mind that the man in the picture was the same man that was staring me down no more than an hour ago.
The picture staring back at me on the screen redefined the definition of terror. As safe as I was in my locked apartment room on the second floor in a key-card accessed hallway, I felt exposed and vulnerable. I quickly flipped off the television as if it would erase all that I just heard. My heart began racing faster than a Formula One racecar. Fear, adrenaline, something kicked in and I felt it course through my entire body. I was finding it harder and harder to breathe. An invisible hand had taken hold of my lungs and started squeezing. Had I really come across a mass murder twice in the last two days?
I weighed my options. Twice. Three times. The best course of action would have to be calling the police. I picked up my phone and dialed the number on the screen. Before the phone call was even answered, I heard three loud knocks on the door, each knock pounding my heart farther in as if it were a boxing match. Gathering up all the courage I could muster, I snaked my way over to the wooden door that I felt protected me. I leaned down and peered through the peephole in my entrance door.
The stranger was there. And he was holding a knife…