Sweat trickled down from the crease in his forehead, first to the corner of his right eye, then down past his nose onto his lip. He wanted to wipe it away. But he didn’t dare. His hands clenched the sides of his jacket – tightly, to stop them from trembling. Controlling even the depth of his respirations to limit the movement of his ribcage, he stood facing the wall.
Just a whisp of a shadow, ever so briefly, but he saw it. He saw it as surely as he had seen it in his childhood. Oh, those long nights when he lay frozen under his sheets. Those horrible nights when he wished, he wished his mother or father would come into his room to check on him. They never did, not on those nights, only on those other nights when he was alone in his room. How he had wanted to cry out for their help! But he didn’t dare. He knew: no movement, no sound, no acknowledgement of the heinous presence in his room.
Perhaps they were frozen in fear in their own room, or in the kitchen, or on the sofa in front of the TV. He never knew; he didn’t know now. Neither did he know why he never told them of his night terrors – yes, he did know – that would have been acknowledging the presence. That would have set it in motion. That would have been the end.
That was so long ago. Certainly, he was safe now. He wasn’t a child anymore to be harassed, to be terrified, to be held at bay by such fear; those were childish night terrors, nothing more. It was never real, he told himself. But still, he was terrified. His six foot-three, well-muscled frame ached with the rigidity of his stillness. His toes curled in his shoes, as if to grip the pavement. His throat burned with the acid that crept up from his stomach.
He shifted his gaze to the right, careful not to move his head. He saw nothing. He shifted his gaze to the left, nothing. Not even a hint of a shadow. I imagined it, he told himself. I’m standing here about to wet myself, and for what? My own imagination. I’m forty-three years old. If anyone saw me here like this – how embarrassing.
And yet he wished someone would come, embarrassing or not, someone who could confirm that it was not behind him. He squeezed his eyes tight, opened them slowly, and looked to his right, to his left, keeping his head perfectly still. Nothing. He almost laughed aloud. He closed his eyes and took a normal breath, not a deep breath, that was beyond his courage. When he opened them – again! That fleeting wisp of shadow on the wall next to him.
The doorway was only a few feet away, but he knew he couldn’t move fast enough to get through it and slam the door behind himself. So, he stood with sweat trickling down his face, down his back, down his chest. His clothes sticking to his moist skin. He began to feel light-headed from the prolonged shallow breathing.
Maybe there was nothing there. Maybe he imagined the ever so slight noise it made as it approached. Maybe he imagined the hair rising up on the back of his neck when he first sensed its presence. Maybe it was a cloud moving past the sun that only appeared to make a shadow on the wall.
If he could just glimpse behind himself, know if he was imagining this. But if he turned his head – no he dared not move. He’d wait it out. That’s what he’d do. It would leave. Like it did when he was a child. As long as he did not move, it would leave, and then he could dart into that doorway and lock the door behind himself.
His calves cramped first, then his back. He wasn’t sure if he could release his grip on his jacket, or if his fingers would ever be straight again. But it didn’t matter; he didn’t dare try it. Twenty minutes passed, then more time, then more. He couldn’t see his watch, but as the light in the alley began to fade, he knew he had stood there, as still as the wall he faced, for much longer than an hour.
Sweat dripped off his hair, past his face, making an almost audible plopping noise onto the pavement. He felt the heat in his body and the throbbing in his chest, his neck, and his temples as his blood pressure threatened to rob him of his ability to withstand the stress. He began to feel dizzy. The nausea that had begun long ago was beginning to send gagging impulses up to his throat.
This is ridiculous, he told himself. I didn’t see anything; I can’t hear anything. I’m standing here like an idiot. I can’t wait any longer for someone to come by and – and what? To say something, to ask why I’m standing here, to confirm that there is nothing there behind me? That’s what. But no one has come, and no one will come.
Enough, he told himself. No more of this. If there was something there, well, I would have known by now. If I don’t move soon, I’ll drop. I have no choice. Come on idiot, move! he told himself, just turn around! And so, he turn
It was a homeless person, looking for shelter for the night, who found him and called for help. No one knew why he had left the office building through this side door that opened onto the alley. The presence of his wallet and watch testified to the absence of criminal activity. The doctors found no evidence of injury, and their expensive scans and bloodwork detected no medical abnormality. And yet, his face frozen in fear, he lay in a hospital bed, no sound, no movement, his fingers curled into his palms.