Estimated reading time — 33 minutes
Back in college, I had a small one-bedroom apartment all to myself on the ground floor of a multi-building complex. The location was great. The complex stood at the end of a rural street seldom visited by cars, nestled in the woods near a large pond. Tributary streams snaked around the complex, and the soothing sound of flowing water could be heard from every building. It somehow cost a lot less than living in a dorm, so it wasn’t hard to persuade my parents to co-sign my lease. (State law said my landlord needed their signature, although I would be paying for the place with my own money.) The apartment’s main benefit was that I could stay in town after classes ended for the summer, and enjoy the freedom from my parents’ gazes that I’d been craving all throughout high school — a benefit well worth the part-time jobs I had to take during weekends and holidays to pay for my living arrangements.
Even so, the apartment had its fair share of drawbacks. Nobody had told me how lonely a one-person apartment can feel, especially once the semester ends and all your friends move away for the season. It’s right in the name, if you think about it: apart-ment; a state of being separate from everybody else. But I hadn’t put much thought into it before, not until all the early mornings and late nights I would spend by myself after I’d finished with work or homework, finding nothing to distract me from my own isolation. For a perpetually single person like me, those hit pretty hard. Also, I had no idea how much heat an apartment can build up, particularly during the summer months. I bought a thermometer to test it, and even at night, with all of my windows open as wide as they could go, and a fan running to help the ventilation, the temperature hovered around or above a scorching 85 degrees.
I didn’t mind the heat per se, but it kept me from falling asleep at night. Now, insomnia itself isn’t so bad if you like spending time wandering through your own thoughts. But I didn’t. Not at all. I could only think of how alone I felt. Of how tired I was, and how little sleep I’d manage before the morning. Of how tomorrow would bring more of the same — the loneliness, the fatigue, the promise of more in the nights to come. And those kinds of thoughts kept me awake even later. It made for a pretty vicious feedback loop, and I couldn’t come up with a way to break it.
I had thought that would be the worst part of the summer I spent out there.
I wish it had been.
* * *
One night, quite by accident, I found a way to alleviate the misery of those hot, solitary hours. Around midnight, desperate for some way to cool the stifling air, I decided I’d try leaving the front door open to see if it helped at all. A flimsy screen door without a lock was on the other side, and I thought it would probably increase the apartment’s air flow. I’d been reluctant to try that earlier because my building faces another one in the complex, and I didn’t want the people there to think I was watching them through the screen. Nor did I want them staring through it at me. Nor barging through it and robbing me blind — or worse — if I fell asleep before bolting the front door. But my complex was a quiet one, and I hadn’t heard of any crimes around my part of town. Nearly delirious from the heat, I opted to take a chance. I figured I’d be more likely to die from heatstroke than from a break-in, anyway.
The deadbolt unhitched with a sound like a cracking knuckle, and the front door squeaked on its hinges. The air outside didn’t feel much colder than what was in my apartment. I took a breath of night air, and, except for its clean, watery scent, it didn’t seem any different than what I’d been inhaling all night. The disappointment sank heavily into my stomach, as if I’d drunk mercury. Regardless, I told myself I should give it a minute. Maybe I could feel a change in a little while.
Since all the lamps in my apartment were off, my eyes had adapted to the darkness, and I could see the world outside in its minutest detail. The dim lamps above every apartment door, including my own, cast dirty yellow light onto the grass and trees and bushes, which in turn cast anemic shadows. The heat’s making everything sick, I thought to myself. Even the plants. Even the lights. Poor things.
Then something white as a ghost banged against the screen near my face. I stifled a shout, and backed away from the door. Another bang followed, and a large white thing fluttered away.
I laughed at my earlier panic. Moths! Who knew they could be so big and clumsy? The large moth approached the screen again, but this time landed gently on it, apparently recognizing the obstacle at last. The light that attracted it shone above our heads. The moth’s broad, thin wings shimmered in its rays.
I had never thought of moths as beautiful before, but I could only describe this one as gorgeous. I had to take a closer look. I drew nearer the screen, but the moth remained. I could see every aspect of it — its large, dark eyes; its feathery antennae; its fluffy body; the layered fabric of its dusty wings, halfway between mica and silk. The moth carried a mesmerizing little world. No, scratch that. It was a mesmerizing little world unto itself.
Eventually I noticed that there were other insects on the screen, too. Some less pretty than my moth, but all fascinating in their own right. By the time I had finished observing them all, it didn’t feel any cooler in my apartment. But when I checked the clock, I discovered that I had passed hours without my noticing. Morning was not far off, and I hadn’t even realized! I wasn’t going to rack up much sleep again, alas, but no less than a usual night.
Unlike a usual night, though, I hadn’t even once thought about feeling lonely.
It seemed I had found a way to pass those sleepless hours after all.
* * *
It came to be that, during nights when I felt I’d be wide awake until the morning — which is to say every night — I would shut off all the lights in my apartment and throw open my front door, waiting for bugs to collect on the screen so that I could while away the hours watching them. I couldn’t tell you what kinds of insects they were, exactly, but that didn’t matter to me. I found them more magical precisely because I couldn’t name them. When I looked at my bugs, I couldn’t see them as dry Latin names, already discovered and classified and rendered as dull and dead as the language that categorized them. They lived, they breathed, they thrived. I could recognize certain species after a while, but I couldn’t name them. And so, with each bugwatching session, it felt as if I were discovering each of my bugs for the first time.
I’d see dozens of different moths, their mouthless bodies waiting for starvation, their huge empty eyes unafraid or uncomprehending. Fly-like insects with long tails and gossamer wings would perch as close to the lamp as they could, their fine features swaying in the weak breeze. Huge black beetles with hydraulic-looking jaws shimmered in the light like rare gems on a brooch. Confronted with such quiet majesty, I could fathom why the ancient Egyptians revered certain beetles.
If my bugs could think, they would have understood that reverence can run two ways. They would have revered me, too — not as some fascinating sight to be regarded in the night’s latest hours, but as a sort of god. If I had wanted to, I could have flicked the screen and banished them back into the darkness they fled. I could go even further and crush them outright if I felt so inclined. I was a benevolent god, however. All I wanted to do was look. Then again, looking can be another aspect of godliness. Seeing all, down to the last detail. Allowing nothing to remain hidden from your roving eye. The power to determine what is private and what is not, and to redefine those boundaries on a whim. There’s good reason why all the world’s religions ascribe the power of omniscience to their highest gods.
I was not truly omniscient, but to my bugs, I might as well have been. As long as they remained on my screen, nothing they did could remain hidden from me. I watched them breathe. I watched them eat. Sometimes I even watched them mate — prolonged yet mechanical and passionless affairs. Their tiny world and all its goings-on were my playthings. Every time I brought my face near the screen, spying on my bugs with only the thin metal mesh between their eyes and mine, I felt wonderful.
So wonderful, in fact, that I began to feel as if the night and sleeplessness were old friends of mine for introducing me to such a pleasure.
That was my first mistake.
* * *
My second mistake was to let my good feelings devolve into complacency and boredom. To fail to remain content with what I had. To grow greedy for more.
You see, there came a night when the several bugs that were drawn to my screen were not enough for me any longer. They still fascinated me, but their numbers were too few, their interactions too rare and limited. I imagined that I could solve this problem by adding more bugs to the equation. More creatures on my screen meant a higher chance of them crossing paths — and who knew what would result? The possibilities enthralled me. So, with the insatiable acquisitive impulse of the born collector, I decided that I would attract more insects to my door. Then I would have more to see. Perhaps then I would be content.
One night, I didn’t turn off my lamps before I opened the door. The lone bulb outside had been sufficient to bait my nightly visitors; I figured that more light, surely, would attract even greater numbers. Keeping the lamps on meant that I couldn’t see more than an inch beyond the screen, for the light reflected off the mesh and back at me, making it seem as if a curtain of blackness had been draped right outside the door-frame. Furthermore, it meant I could be seen from the outside — perhaps without even knowing it. But I had been awake many late nights before, and never once noticed an open blind or door in my neighbors’ apartments across the way, so I didn’t think anybody would be likely to peep in at me. All the same, I made sure that, despite the heat, I was fully dressed.
At first, it didn’t seem like my plan was going to work. The only bugs on my screen were the ones that would have been there anyway. However, I told myself to be patient, and so I stood there and waited. Within fifteen minutes, more insects than I had ever seen in one place had arrived. Practically every species of nighttime bug had gathered to my call, and all of them vied for space on my screen. The door wasn’t completely covered, but it certainly seemed like it. I brought my face to the screen for a closer look. The startling complexity of the bugs thrilled me anew. They parted at the push of my breath, leaving a deep black hole in the blanket of still wings. I peered through it, waiting for another bug to fill the gap.
That was when I saw the face.
It surfaced out of the blackness with tremendous speed, its mouth shut in an inscrutable, emotionless way. Its eyes offered no hint as to what it was thinking, for it had no pupils, its sockets filled with two dull white masses. Even so, I felt it watching me. Pale and hairless, it didn’t appear to have any features except for a face. I’d describe it as marmoreal or statuesque, but it didn’t have the stiffness of a sculpture — it had something fluid about it, although its expression never changed, and it didn’t move except to enter my field of vision.
All the same, it scared the living hell out of me.
I staggered backward and fell flat on my ass, flailing about for the door. I grabbed hold of it, and slammed it shut, hurling my whole weight against it as I reached for the bolt. Even after it slid into place with a heavy clunk, I remained by the door, hoping that my body would be enough of an impediment to keep the intruder from bursting in.
I sat there the entire sleepless night, wishing I didn’t have a reason to stay awake.
* * *
I want to tell you my story ends there, but it doesn’t.
The next morning, I was shaken and exhausted, and in no condition to go into work. I called in sick, and spent the afternoon trying to nap and catch up on the sleep I’d lost. I remembered reading somewhere on the Internet months before about how prolonged sleep deprivation can cause all kinds of hallucinations, and so the sudden appearance of the face had left me wondering whether it was a product of my own fatigue. Either way, a bit of shut-eye was certainly in order, and I thought I could manage some now that the sun had risen. In the daylight, I wasn’t too scared to sleep. But I pulled down all my blinds regardless, and closed and locked the windows for good measure. It was hot and stuffy in my apartment as a result, but it felt safer.
By nightfall, I was fairly certain that I had slept at least a few hours. Per usual, I opened my door, and let the night’s bugs collect on the screen — although this time, I had no intention of leaving the lights on. If the face was going to return, I would see it coming.
The night wore on, and my bugs didn’t bring me the pleasure they typically did. I was too distracted to focus on them, too afraid that if I didn’t pay attention to the world beyond them, the face would sneak up on me again. After several hours of halfhearted bugwatching, I decided to call it quits. It was proving too stressful. And I only ever wanted my bugs to make me happy. I tried to find an optimistic way to look at the matter, telling myself that the face’s failure to arrive proved it was a trick of my mind. Although I remained somewhat unconvinced, I shut and bolted the door, and debated what to do instead. Streaming a movie on my laptop seemed like a good option. Not long after I booted it up, though, it practically melted the flesh from my thighs. It was far too hot in the apartment already. It would have been insane to do anything that added to the heat.
Then I remembered that I’d forgotten to open the windows since the afternoon. I didn’t suppose it would make a whole lot of difference if I left them shut, but I figured that any ventilation beat no ventilation. I lifted one of my blinds, unlocked the window, and raised it to let in the air. Several moths peppered the swathe of screen I’d exposed. I bent down to inspect them more closely.
They scattered in a cloud of dust, and the face rose up to greet me.
I screamed, slamming the window shut. I didn’t even think to secure it. I had only the presence of mind to bolt into the bathroom and lock the door behind me. If whoever was out there made it into my apartment, I’d at least have placed a sizable slab of wood between us. It seemed like an improvement over flimsy steel mesh and brittle glass.
Who was that person outside my window? For some reason, the face struck me as a male’s, even though there weren’t any defining features. He didn’t look at all familiar. In fact, he didn’t look like anyone — or anything — I’d ever seen. What did he want with me? Whoever he was, I wanted him out of my sight.
Willing myself into some semblance of calm, I plucked my cell phone from my pocket and dialed the police. The dispatcher promised I wouldn’t have long to wait. I couldn’t tell whether she lied to me. I wouldn’t look at my phone after placing the call, thinking that watching the clock would drive me insane. Even so, I felt as if I waited for hours in that bathroom, the walls seeming to encroach on me, the door looking less secure by the minute.
Then something knocked.
I cried out, but a deep male voice told me to remain calm. He slid a police badge under the door, and said everything was safe out there. Neither he nor his partner had found anybody when they arrived. He added that he would take me to the police station for the night if I didn’t feel comfortable where I was. We could work on a profile sketch of whomever I saw, he said, and distribute it to every law enforcement official in the area. It would be fine, he said; I should come out of there.
Part of me expected this to be a ruse. I imagined I’d open the door and find the face waiting there for me. But the badge seemed too detailed to be a fake. I cracked the door tentatively, and a uniformed officer waved at me through the space. I went out to him.
I looked over his shoulder to the window behind him. A moth clung to it. The face, however, was nowhere to be seen.
It might have been my own uneasiness, but I still felt as if the face were monitoring me.
* * *
They were all really kind to me at the police station. Not that I expected the cops from a small college town to be jaded and mean, mind you. It’s more that I was impressed by how friendly they were, considering how absurdly late it was. I can’t envision most people being anything but cranky at such an hour. The police were surprisingly hospitable, treating me like I was a friend they had invited over. The officer who brought me in provided me a mug of coffee, and deposited me at the desk of a detective while he went to find the sketch artist on duty. He returned with a tallish woman who carried an artist’s pad under one arm, and a case of pencils in the other. The detective helped her set up a collapsible easel stand they kept around the office. Then the four of us set to work creating a likeness of the face I’d seen.
They regarded me strangely when I described the onlooker has having no features. Perhaps because it wasn’t a terribly helpful starting point. Or else because it was practically unthinkable. If somebody told me to picture something without features, I doubt that I’d be able to imagine it. That, however, had not occurred to me until after I’d opened my mouth, and after I’d furnished such an impossible visual. I tried to devise a better way to help the sketch artist render what I’d seen, and settled on pointing out what the face had, instead of what it lacked. Following my instructions, the artist penciled a bald scalp, a smooth forehead, faint to invisible eyebrows, virtually nonexistent lips, and blank eyes. By force of habit, she added pupils to them. I didn’t bother to correct her. By the time she’d finished her drawing, the face looked fairly masculine, although it could easily have belonged to a woman if you imagined a feminine hairstyle on it.
“He looks familiar,” said the detective.
“I thought so, too,” the officer said.
“It does feel as if I’ve drawn him before,” said the artist. “Or someone similar.”
Despite their conviction, I began to suspect that a face as generic as the one we sketched could resemble nearly anybody you wanted it to look like.
“Hey, could you try drawing some matted hair on him?” the officer asked. “Longish, kind of plastered on his forehead.”
The detective nodded as the artist added some hair to the drawing. I certainly didn’t recall any hair, but I figured they knew what they were doing. Adding hair seemed reasonable — it wouldn’t have taken much effort for someone to shave his head for a disguise. After the artist had finished, the three of them made noises of recognition.
“Man,” said the detective. “That is uncanny.”
“Yeah,” said the officer. “I remember that guy. He was a sad case.”
I had to interrupt them. Was? Why the past tense?
They explained to me that the picture matched a photograph of someone they had encountered before. The detective walked off to retrieve the relevant file as the officer related the story. The guy in question was a young man, a late teen or early twenty-something, who had been arrested on charges of voyeurism. He had a thing for looking into people’s rooms, although he never admitted to observing people in vulnerable positions. The people who reported him noted that he’d never spied on them while they were nude or anything — they spotted him as they were doing some quotidian thing, like reading a magazine or playing a video game.
The detective returned, dropping a manila folder on the desk. He flipped it open, revealing a mug shot that did look an awful lot like our drawing. I glanced at the name. Norman C—. I’d never heard of him.
The thing about C—‘s case, the detective remarked, was that voyeurism in our state was considered a low-level sex offense. This didn’t bode well for C—. He was studying education and some other subject at the university; he planned to be a teacher. But, the detective added, you can’t be a teacher if you’re a sex offender. It’s against the law, plain and simple. That left C— in a bad place. It wouldn’t have gone well for him, the detective said.
C— was a sad case. Things wouldn’t have been good for him. Why did they talk about him that way?
My eyes had strayed back to the file. I scanned the vital information. Place of residence. Height. Weight. Eye color. Date of birth.
There was another field they had filled out: Date of death.
“Such a waste,” said the officer. “There’s plenty of time to begin again when you’re that young. Kids never seem to understand that.”
I was afraid to learn what became of C—, but I asked all the same.
Shaking his head, the officer replied, “The poor bastard hanged himself before he could go to trial.”
* * *
After hearing something like that, there was no way I was going back to my apartment that night. Who — or what — had been watching me? I was in no condition to deal with it. As such, the police allowed me to stay at the station until morning. The only bed they had to offer me was in their currently-unoccupied holding cell, but it became surprisingly comfortable after they made it up for me. Plus, since they left the cell door open, and since the cell itself had a small slat of a window near the ceiling that admitted some scant moonlight, it kind of felt like I had a low-end hotel room all to myself. The detective said he would keep me company if I wanted it, but I declined. It seemed safe enough to sleep in a location as secure as the police station, with plenty of other people close by if I needed them.
Sympathetic as the police were, I could tell they didn’t quite believe me. Not that they thought I was lying. They took me at my word that I saw what I saw, but my story seemed so implausible that they likely dismissed it as a stress- or insomnia-induced hallucination. I couldn’t blame them for thinking that. I half-thought it myself. With no evidence to the contrary, what could I say? They never saw the face lingering outside my apartment. And who would honestly think that a dead man could be the one looking through my window? They probably assumed I had seen his photo in a newspaper somewhere along the line, and that I imagined him, or saw him in a particularly lucid nightmare.
I reclined on the bed. Although the cell was far cooler than my apartment, I could tell that I would have difficulty sleeping there, as well. Too many thoughts surged through my brain, preventing me from shutting down mentally. I tried to piece together what I had learned, but it produced more questions than answers. What did C— want with me? I had noted his place of residence in his file, and it wasn’t my room. It wasn’t even my complex, for that matter — he lived somewhere across town. A haunting didn’t seem like a reasonable conclusion — that is, if haunting ever could be considered a reasonable conclusion. I never knew the guy, either. We had nothing in common whatever. So why would he come after me?
All those unanswered or unanswerable questions planted a nagging doubt in my mind: Did the face even belong to C—? When it came down to it, C— was the police’s hypothesis, not mine. The face I saw could have belonged to anyone. You could have called it a Face in the Platonic sense. It seemed like the thing that all faces have in common; the purest instantiation of the category “face.” You could glimpse whomever you wanted to see in it, and you’d be neither wrong nor right, much as you are neither wrong nor right when ascribing a shape to a cloud, since it contains figures that are both there and not there.
My lines of thought led nowhere. If the face were C—, then why him? If not C—, then who else? I had no answers. I could only find dead ends or circular paths, and I felt I would remain awake the entire night tracing and retracing them, irrespective of how fruitless I knew them to be.
Peering up at the slim window from the bed, I could see pinhole stars poking through the moonlight sky. I realized in that moment that stargazing would never suit me as a hobby. The light of possibly dead stars seemed too static to me, too distant to lose myself in. I’d rather have a small thing loom large than witness a huge thing in miniature. Give me realms too small to be seen, rather than shrinking worlds to unseen proportions. Put away the things you’ve reduced to generalities, and hand over the particulars — the unique, the unprecedented, the inimitable. They’re the only things that merit one’s attention. They’re all that can keep you attached to our world of eventual dust and decay…
A fat moth thudded against the tiny cell window, jarring me out of my reverie. I climbed out of the bed to take a closer look. I wasn’t quite tall enough to reach the windowsill, and had to stand on tiptoe to grab hold of it and raise myself up. Peering over the bottom of the sturdy pane, I glimpsed a bug unlike any I had seen. The moth — a bloated, shuddering creature — was colored as dark as the night sky, save for a white patch on its abdomen. Upon closer scrutiny, I found that it closely resembled a human skull. As the moth shuffled around on the window, the skull seemed to grin and gnash its teeth.
The moth began to twitch and vibrate as if having an epileptic fit. Was some kind of parasite tormenting it? My arms straining, I heaved myself up for a closer look. As I did, the moth’s bulbous stomach began to tear at its seams, the skull mark splitting down the center. A dense blackness opened out of the split, as though the moth had ink coursing in its veins.
Then the face emerged.
It started small like a butterfly’s egg, but quickly expanded, forcing its way out of the moth. Soon the insect burst entirely, and the face enlarged itself to its regular size. I gasped and lost my grip on the windowpane, crashing down on the cell’s hard floor. My tailbone smarted, but my fear negated the pain. I had to escape. I scuttled into the corner below the window, where I couldn’t be seen. Curling into myself, I looked up at the windowsill, too frightened to do much else.
I saw the face.
How had it passed through the glass? I heard nothing break. And those kinds of windows were designed to be unbreakable! But there it was, staring down at me with its blank yet greedy eyes, slowly advancing toward me.
I scrambled to my feet and dashed for the door, refusing to lose sight of my tormentor. Then my shoulder crashed into stiff metal bars, knocking me to the floor. The door had been shut! But I hadn’t heard it! Surely it should have made some noise — wasn’t jail once nicknamed “the slammer” for a reason?
Dazed, I turned to look back at the window. The face was not there. My lungs could not seem to draw in enough air. I made for the blocked door.
The face waited beyond the bars.
I screamed as it drifted through them, its expressionless visage unchanging.
Then I awoke in the bed where the officers had left me.
My sheets were damp. I didn’t bother to check whether it was sweat or something more embarrassing. My eyes darted toward the door. The cell remained open, precisely as it had when the officers gave me my lodgings. I rolled onto my back with a sigh. Wondering whether I would ever sleep soundly again, I let my eyes wander to window.
A pair of blank eyes in an equally blank face regarded me through it.
That nearly ended me. I screamed all the air out of my lungs, and when that ran out, my throat muscles kept pushing on soundlessly. I tumbled from the bed and dashed out of the cell. Tears streamed down my face as I fought for air. The detective, having heard me scream, met me partway down the hallway. I collapsed into him. He asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t answer. My voice refused to form words, and loosed only cries.
The detective tried guiding me back to the cell so I could show him what was the matter, but I planted my heels. Nothing could persuade me to go back there. He realized that soon enough, and went off on his own. He returned in a span of seconds.
“There’s nothing out there,” he said, sympathetic but uncomprehending. “Nothing at all.”
Impossible! He must have seen it. I couldn’t have been the only one! Driven solely by incredulity, I staggered back to the cell and glanced at the tiny window. All I found was the dark night sky, and a couple of pinprick stars.
* * *
I left the police station the following morning. I worried that, if I had any more sightings that they couldn’t substantiate, or if I had any more outbursts they couldn’t account for, they would have me committed. What would happen then? I’d be stuck in a small room for who knew how long, where nobody would take my sightings seriously, and where all the face’s apparitions would only serve to keep me there longer. Obviously, that wouldn’t do. So I thanked the police for letting me stay the night, and resolved to set out on my own.
It became apparent that if I were to stop this thing from pursuing me, I would have to do it alone.
The first thing I had to do was determine whether the face truly had anything to do with C—. Know thy enemy, right? I didn’t have any clue as to what I would do afterward, but it seemed like a worthwhile first step.
I had gleaned C—‘s last place of residence from his file, and figured I would check it out for any clues. The address didn’t list an apartment number, so I imagined he had rented a house, or a room in one. I made my way across town to the address I remembered. The roads led me to a wooded residential area. Houses nice enough to suit any of my professors fit snugly between dense copses of trees, sunlight dappling their rooftops. It looked like the kind of place where I’d want to live. But then again, that slasher movie Halloween took a comparable neighborhood for its setting. Come to think of it, so did Nightmare on Elm Street. And Blue Velvet…
Lost in thought, I almost wandered past the house on C—‘s file. It was a comparatively simple one-story affair with a small backyard that ran up to the treeline. It had no garage, but the empty driveway looked wide enough to park a car or two. A bold red “FOR SALE” sign poked from the ground near the mailbox like some weird flower. From the street, I could see bare walls and floors through the house’s windows.
What poor timing, I thought to myself. What could possibly be left there if its owner had cleared it out already? I swore under my breath.
Then I thought: There’s nobody home; nobody coming home.
And then: Well, the one certain way not to find any clues is not to look.
I looked around to ensure there was nobody coming up or down the street. Then I headed for the backyard, where the trees would help conceal me. I tested the back door. It was locked. Several of the windows had also been secured. I tried the bathroom window last, as it was much higher off the ground than the others. Also, it appeared to be one that opened outward rather than upward, and thus would be a pain to try and enter. With some effort, I wedged my apartment key under it. I jimmied it around, hoping to pry the window open, when I heard something snap. I cursed, thinking my key had snapped, but it turned out that something on the window had given way. The window protruded at an angle like that of a can lid improperly opened. It didn’t make for a terribly wide entrance, but it would have to suffice.
I wriggled my way through, nearly finding myself stuck when my shoulders — and then when my rear — reached the frame. After a few minutes of undignified writhing, I tumbled through the window, landing hard on the linoleum of the bathroom floor. My body ached from the impact, but otherwise I felt fine.
Since the house had a single story, it didn’t take long to explore. One bathroom. One mudroom with laundry machines. A kitchen. Something approximating a den. Two small rooms, one with an empty closet. I began to think that breaking was a pointless exercise.
Until I found the basement door.
With no windows near the house’s foundation visible from the outside, I hadn’t counted on there being a basement. But there it was. I had come too far not to explore it. The door opened unto a steep wooden stairwell, conspicuously lacking a banister. I flicked the lightswitch to my right, but nothing happened. The electric company must have cut the power to the house, I thought, since nobody lived there at the moment. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring a flashlight, and I cursed my lack of foresight. Leaving the door open, however, admitted a bit of sunlight from upstairs. I estimated that it would help me see fairly well down there once I gave my eyes time to adjust. Granted, it was not the soundest of plans, but it was the only one at hand. Treading carefully, I followed the shaft of light down the stairs.
The soles of my shoes sounded against the basement’s concrete floor, but they didn’t echo. At first, I found that odd. As I traveled further, however, it turned out that half of the basement had been finished, the floor covered in wall-to-wall carpeting, the insulated walls boarded over and painted. If I squinted, I could see the slats where the boards didn’t quite line up. I imagined that someone lived down here at some point. Renting rooms or finished basements is common practice in college towns, after all. There was no furniture that I could see, but I could feel divots in the carpet that might have corresponded to a desk and a bed-frame from some time ago.
I dragged the heels of my shoes through the aging plush beneath my feet, hoping to locate something worth investigating. I caught myself on another indentation, but it was so deep and compacted that it put up some serious resistance and tripped me. I toppled over, crashing elbow-first into the painted wall. Something snapped. I feared it was my arm, but I only felt a vague smarting where my elbow collided with the wood. Climbing to my feet, I turned around, and discovered I’d punctured a deep hole in the boards. Shouldn’t those have been insulated or reinforced?
If they were a standard wall, I realized — but not if they covered a hiding place.
I stuck my arm down the hole, half-expecting to grab a handful of rat or scrape myself on a rusting nail. Instead, I touched something flat and solid. I clawed around until I could feel out its contours, then took hold of it and eased it through the hole. It looked like some kind of book. I thumbed through its pages, but it was too dark to read it where I stood. So I went back to the stairs, and sat myself on the bottom step where the light from above made the pages legible.
It turned out to be a notebook. Each leaf in it had been filled, but I noticed a dramatic shift in penmanship. The first pages, while nothing calligraphic, were comparatively neat. As they progressed, however, the handwriting devolved into messy, frantic scrawl. Occasional punctures dotted the later pages, where the writer must have pressed his or her pen too forcefully. The entries seemed shorter toward the end, as well, as if the writer had less and less time to record things. Or else was growing bored with writing.
I started at the beginning. It opened with a date and salutation. So I had found a journal! Like most private journals, though, it didn’t provide any context. I had no idea who this person was, or why I should care about him or her. Even so, it seemed likely that this journal had belonged to C—. The first entry mentioned the excitement of leaving home to go to college, and wondering what his professors would be like. It also expressed some curiosity — or skepticism — about how one teaches how to teach. It looked to me like something C— could have written.
The entries detailed insipid, mundane happenings for longer than I cared to read. Like me, it seemed C— didn’t sleep well. Many entries spoke of long walks at night, and things he thought about while awake in bed. He didn’t think anything profound, either. Poor C—! He seemed to have a terribly boring life. No wonder he took to voyeurism. I couldn’t be bothered to read all of the things he’d recorded, so I skimmed through the pages until I landed on one where his tone shifted from semi-interested recollection to something far different.
* * *
May –, —-
I saw somebody outside for the first time when I was out walking tonight. At least, I think I did. It was hard to tell. I didn’t talk to them or anything. At first I saw a white flicker from the corner of my eye, and thought it was some kind of animal. It was gone when I turned to look. Later on, the same flicker came back. That’s when I thought I spotted someone wearing all white approaching one of the nearby houses.
Probably a neighbor returning from a late-night jog or something. Why bother wearing reflective colors like white if you’re about to rob a house?
Maybe I’ll run into them sometime. It would be nice to talk to somebody on my walks.
May –, —-
Out walking tonight, I passed the person in white again. This time he was by a different house. It looked like he had paused there for a breather during his run. I thought really hard about saying hello. I know I should be more outgoing than I am, but it’s hard to do, especially when you’ve been an introvert for so long…
Anyway, I blew my chance. The person had moved on by the time I decided to introduce myself. Dang!
But it’s no big deal. It seems like nighttime adventures are part of his routine. I’ll catch up with him eventually. Maybe we can be friends.
May –, —-
I’m not sure I want to meet the guy in white anymore.
When I set out tonight, I promised myself I’d extend a greeting. And I swore I’d follow through…. Until I ran into him.
I spotted him standing in someone’s front yard. I thought he was stargazing at first, but when I came closer, I realized he was staring directly at the house. Not even at anything in particular. All the blinds were drawn, so there was nothing to look at. He was simply staring.
It seemed like a better idea not to call attention to myself.
What a strange person. I guess he wasn’t hurting anybody, though, so maybe I shouldn’t judge. But still…
June –, —-
I don’t think he’s a guy.
I’m not even sure what he is.
Tonight, I told myself I’d call the police if I found him staring at a different house. Well, I did. Thank goodness their blinds were down!
But I blew my cover. The guy hadn’t seen me coming, so I had that going for me. When I reached into my pocket for my cell phone, however, my elbow cracked really loudly.
He heard it. And turned around. And I’m sure he saw me.
The thing is… Man, how do I say this?
“Turned” doesn’t seem like the right word. He kind of glided, like he wasn’t touching the ground, and rotated on a single axis.
And when he looked at me… He didn’t look much like a guy. He didn’t look like much of anything. I can’t describe his face, because there was hardly anything to describe. Only the basics — mouth, nose, eyes. Nothing else.
Maybe it was a mask? I don’t know how else to explain his appearance. Although that certainly doesn’t explain how he moved.
I ran home before I even thought of calling the police. I don’t think I was followed. I left a report with the police over the phone. They’ll catch him if he’s up to no good.
I hope they nab him soon. I’m too scared to go outside while he’s still out there.
June –, —-
No word about the masked man on the news. Looks like a night in for me. I’m not sure what I’ll do. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a good movie on TV.
June –, —-
He found me.
I was watching TV late at night with the landlord, since I guess he’s had trouble sleeping, too. We had the windows open to let in the air, so we didn’t have the blinds closed. You could probably see us from the street. Damn it! I can’t believe I overlooked that!
During a commercial, I glanced at the window. I saw his face looking in at me. No features. All white. Even the eyes.
I screamed as soon as I saw him, but when the landlord checked, he was gone.
My landlord is calling the police this time. I didn’t mention what the guy looked like. I only said that someone was peering in at us. Good thing I didn’t go further. He might doubt my sanity!
June –, —-
I’ve been reading the police logs in the local paper. Nothing like the guy in them. Not good.
Pretty uneventful day. Remedial summer math classes as usual. My mind has been elsewhere, but I’ve been bringing home pretty good grades.
Bought a steak for dinner tonight. Figured I could use something nice in my life for a change. Even if it’s little more than a decent cut of meat.
POSTSCRIPT: 2:45 AM
Blinds don’t work anymore. Oh, god. Oh, god!
Went to the bathroom a couple of minutes ago. Left the light off, because it would have blinded me. I pulled aside the blinds while I was waiting to finish, thinking maybe I’d see some fireflies.
He was there instead. Face against the screen. Staring right at me.
Scared shitless right now. Partly from the shock. But mostly because I can’t figure it out… How did he know I’d be there, in that room, at that moment?
June –, —-
Spending the night at my parents’ place upstate. Will keep the blinds down at all hours.
POSTSCRIPT: 1:15 AM
WHY DID I OPEN THEM?
I know why. Because I figured he couldn’t be there. Because I kept the lights off as an extra security measure. Because the peace of mind would have done wonders for me.
I was wrong.
My bedroom here is on the second floor. Nothing to stand on or hold on to outside the windows. Thought that would be to my advantage.
He was on the lawn when I first peeked outside. At the far edge by the street.
I dropped the blinds right away. Then I thought I might be seeing things, or mistaking someone else out there for him.
Second viewing: He was all the way across the lawn. Standing at the base of the house. Staring up at me.
He must have made it there in the span of two seconds. And we have a BIG lawn.
Lowered the blinds again. Steadied my breath. Parted a slat in the blinds with a finger, making space enough for only my eye, thinking I could spy on him from above and have a better look.
And there he was. Right there. An inch away from me, with only thin glass between us.
My screams woke my parents. They didn’t see anything when they checked outside. I’m sleeping on their floor tonight in a sleeping bag. Like a pathetic eight-year-old who had a nightmare. But I admit I feel a little safer here.
Not that I’ll sleep. Too much to think about. How did he — it — find me? Who — or what — am I dealing with?
June –, —-
Parents are no help. They think I’m overworked. Suggested I stay longer. Not happening.
June –, —-
Fell asleep in the university library. Near a window. Couldn’t help it; too tired.
Had this horrible dream where a huge moth landed beside me on the glass, then the face burst out of it.
The worst part: The face was there when I woke up. Watching me. Enjoying my fright, I think.
Locked myself in a stall in the men’s room. I’ll leave in the morning.
June –, —-
Afraid to sleep. Afraid to go outside. Afraid to be near windows. Afraid to tell anyone about it, because they’ll think I’m out of my mind.
Hell. Maybe I am.
POSTSCRIPT: 3:30 AM
Can’t even piss in this house without thinking it’s on the other side of the blinds…
Once it catches sight of you, it won’t ever leave you alone. Of this I’m certain.
I hope nobody else ever has to see it.
July –, —-
I’ve been spending evenings at the coffee shop downtown, loading up on caffeine so I can stay up all night and sleep during the day. Never a big crowd — usually only me and the barista — but she lets me stay until closing all the same. And she closes late.
Better to be up all night. The face has never been there in the daytime. That I know of.
Fell asleep in the shop tonight. Had the exact same nightmare with the moth. No less terrifying.
I woke up to another moth. It looked an awful lot like the one from my dreams. Soon it fattened and split, and the face emerged from its ruined body. I think I wet myself.
And then I woke up again, finding myself in the coffee shop.
With the face staring in at me through the window.
Took a taxi home; wasn’t chancing walking. No windows in my basement room, thank god. But what do I do? How do I make this stop?
POSTSCRIPT: 4:00 AM
Been thinking about how the face-entity works. Seems to enjoy tormenting me. That much is obvious.
But I think it’s more complicated than that. It likes to watch me. But I think it enjoys watching me the most when I’m suffering. Similar to how cruel little kids like playing with flies after they’ve plucked the wings off them.
I feel like a bug in a jar that keeps being shaken. I don’t know how long I can take this.
POST-POSTSCRIPT: 4:30 AM
Regarding the suffering part: I have another idea. There’s a specific kind of suffering it wants from you. It wants to trap you in your nightmares. If I’m right, it explains the nested dreams. And the identical nightmares. Maybe it only has the ability to induce a single type of nightmare.
I don’t know how it does this. Or why.
Or why me.
July –, —-
I don’t deserve this. Aren’t I good person? Or at least a good enough person?
July –, —-
It’s predatory, in a way. Must be. But it’s a random predator. Prowling with no rhyme or reason. Pursuing someone only if they catch its attention…
July –, —-
This will end me.
Nobody deserves this.
August –, —-
I’ve been pretty good about hiding from it, I think. I don’t leave the basement after dark if I can help it. I’ve taken to relieving myself in bottles at night, and emptying them in the bathroom during the day.
The landlord has been kind. He brings me groceries when I need them. I bet he imagines I’m slaving away at a term paper.
No sightings to report since late July.
August –, —-
It can come out of any dark place, even in the daytime.
I thought I saw it in the pantry, when I left the door open while cooking dinner. It wasn’t there when I double-checked. Later, I spotted it at the top of the stairs when I was about to go to bed. Hovering there, motionless. But it vanished once I turned on the lights.
Maybe I imagined it. Whatever. Lights on all the time from here out.
August –, —-
Lights seem to be working. No sightings in a week.
August –, —-
Nothing this week, either. The moth dream on occasion. Perhaps a residual nightmare, since I’ve been through a lot.
September –, —-
Starting to worry. What if it loses interest in me, and goes after someone else?
I have to warn the neighbors.
I’ll start with the ones who don’t close their blinds at night. How to contact them? By phone? They’ll probably hang up on me…
Well, I’ll think of something.
I have to.
* * *
The journal stopped after the September entry. A handful of blank pages near the end told me that C— hadn’t simply run out of space. The entries must have ceased following his arrest. Reading C—‘s words left a leaden sensation in my stomach, and an ashen taste in my mouth. I felt badly for him, imagining a broken loner, helpless and afraid, in this sad little basement.
As his writings sunk in, though, I felt even worse for myself.
I kept re-reading the part about how the face could materialize in any dark setting, and how C— vanquished it with lights. I wondered whether the light actually drove it away, or whether it simply rendered the thing invisible. Light hadn’t done much for me, after all. If anything, that’s what attracted the face’s attention in the first place.
Not that the dark felt any safer. The unlit basement felt less secure by the second. Where would I go next? If that thing had marked me already, it would go wherever I went…
That was when I noticed the slant of light thinning on the open journal. It slimmed down to a tiny line, and then disappeared completely. The door atop the stairs squealed as it closed. I hoped a breeze from the open bathroom window was to blame, but it didn’t matter. Blackness surrounded me.
A blackness the face could emerge from any moment.
In a panic, I started crawling up the steps, groping my way forward in the dark. I could see the silhouette of the door outlined in faint yellow light. I pulled myself closer to it. Nothing could persuade me to look over my shoulder.
One of the rough steps drove a splinter into my outstretched palm. I yelped, and before I could stop my own reflexes, I withdrew. I steadied myself before I could tumble down the stairs, but I ended up facing the other direction.
I saw nothing.
I tried to remain calm. If it were coming for me here, I told myself, it would have shown itself already. All I had to do was turn around and climb.
Something soft and delicate fluttered from the darkness and landed on the back of my hand. I brushed it away. Then it perched on my shoulder. This time I swatted at it. It stuck fast to my fingers, batting its dusty wings wildly. I tried to rub it off against the stairs, resigning myself to another splinter. It wouldn’t come off. I beat it against the wood, my panic rising. Its wings flapped more frantically with each futile blow.
This is a diversion, I thought. It’s hoping to distract me. I can’t give in.
I resumed my climb, attempting to smother the thing attached to my hand on each step. It didn’t seem to work, but I neared the door nonetheless. At the top, I carefully raised myself to a stand, feeling about for the doorknob. Eventually I caught hold of it. I twisted the knob, and threw open the door.
In near-complete darkness, a pale figure waited on the other side, staring at me with wide white eyes.
I cried out and lost my balance. I toppled backward. I could imagine the pain of those stairs against my spine, of the concrete floor against my skull…
I awakened to find myself at the base of the stairs with C—‘s open journal draped over my chest. Light streamed down on me from the doorway above, precisely as I had left it. My pulse raced, but my body felt uninjured.
For a split-second, I felt the need to look around, to see whether the thing was out there watching me. But I quashed the impulse. Clenching the journal in one hand, I bolted up the stairs. I wouldn’t waste time scrambling through the window again. I unlocked the front door, and let myself out.
I didn’t look back at the house. I couldn’t. I simply ran. Out of C—‘s neighborhood. Through the town center. Past the point where my stamina faded. Ran until I found a bus stop, where I could ride to the end of a line that would take me somewhere, anywhere, far away from the places I had been.
* * *
I’ve been on the road for quite a while now.
I’ve traveled from New England to the Midwest, from the Great Lakes to the American deserts. I’ll do temporary work to earn some food or clothing money or bus fare. I’ll hitch rides to wherever people are willing to take me.
It would be a romantic life, in a way…
Except that it finds a way to be wherever I am.
Motel rooms. Campgrounds. Train cars. Trucks. Anywhere there’s a bit of shadow, it can come for me.
It always does.
I hope you never see it. Or rather, I hope it never sees you. But I think you’ll be fine, because it hasn’t finished with me yet. Far from it. If anything, it has only become more insistent, more ferocious. I’m beginning to think it will tail me until my last days. I won’t be free until I’m dead…
Then again… Who says that needs to be a long way off?
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