(This story was an experiment for me in writing second person POV.)
The first time you saw the man… well, you don’t actually remember the first time. Or the second time. Who knows how long he was there before he registered on your conscious mind?
All you know is that one afternoon, standing in line at McDonalds, as you idly looked around at the customers waiting for their food, your gaze slid over and past a familiar face in the crowd. It was a few seconds before the tingle of memory registered in your conscious mind, and you quickly glanced back to try to locate and identify him, but he was gone, leaving you confused and uneasy.
That face—you knew you had seen it before. More than once. But the click of recognition failed to fire in your brain. You didn’t know who he was; you were sure of that, but something about his cavernous eyes and the lank, greasy hair clinging to his head gave you the same unpleasant sense one might have upon discovering the corpse of a dead rodent inside a kitchen cabinet. Revulsion, and a free-floating dread of what else might be lurking unseen in the darkness.
The worker holding your Big Mac meal and apple pie had to call your number three times before you shook off the disquiet and stepped forward to claim your lunch. Your friend from work joined you to talk shop, and soon you were laughing at a piece of office gossip. By the time you finished your fries, you had all but forgotten the man’s face.
Three weeks later, you were out for a walk with your golden retriever, Peaches. The air was crisp and cold, and you said hello to your neighbors as you passed. Autumn wrapped your senses in beautiful colors, and you gave a deep sigh of contentment just before you spotted him. Cold trickled down your spine like ice water. He was walking toward you down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. Just walking, that’s all. At first it seemed like he didn’t see you. His grubby fingers fiddled with something in his hands that you couldn’t make out, and he focused his eyes straight ahead as he slouched along.
You held your breath as he drew even with you and then passed by without altering his gait. Relief flooded through you. Maybe you were just being silly, you chided yourself. After all, the town wasn’t that big. You were bound to bump into the same people now and then. It didn’t mean anything.
Still, you couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness that clung to you like wet tissue paper. Feeling ridiculous, you cast one last glance over your shoulder… and right into the shadowed eyes of the stranger. He was fully facing you now, boldly staring, his arms dangling at his sides. He hadn’t crossed the street, or made one aggressive move in your direction, but the air of menace rolling off of him was unmistakeable. And you could swear the corner of his mouth was turned up ever so slightly in a smirk.
All attempts at nonchalance disappeared. You didn’t care how it looked. Grabbing the leash, you hauled Peaches along behind you and sprinted home at full speed, checking behind you at intervals for a pursuit that didn’t come, block after block, turn after turn, finally bursting through the door of your own house and slamming it behind you, your breathing explosive and panicked.
That night, you dreamed of trap doors with teeth lining their splintered edges, and spiders crawling in and out of a crooked grin that hung disembodied in the air like that of Lewis Carroll’s tenebrous tabby.
Over the next few weeks, you caught glimpses of his face everywhere you went. Sometimes it was a just a flash in a crowd that you later thought you might have imagined, but other times—waiting at the bank, coming out of the movie theater, in the car next to you at the red light—it was always him, and you grew to dread the moment his eyes would flick to yours, clearly as aware of you as you were of him.
Still, you told no one, because what was there to tell? You had seen the same man several times, and he had looked at you. That was all.
The tension began to take a toll on you. Your sleep was fitful, interrupted by haunting dreams, and you found yourself avoiding going out unless absolutely necessary, choosing instead to huddle in the quiet darkness of your apartment, careful to draw all the curtains shut because the thought of looking out the window to see your tormentor’s hollow face leering back at you made your skin crawl.
One day, hungry, you ventured out to the convenience store around the corner to stock up on ramen noodles. There, in the back corner of the store, as you furtively filled your arms with plastic-wrapped bricks of dried noodles, the sound of someone clearing their throat right behind you made you whirl around in alarm. Packages fell from your suddenly nerveless fingers.
It was him, of course. Hair longer now, still unwashed. Eyes dark and menacing. His fist clamped around some small unseen object. But instead of the creepy half-smile you had come to dread, his face wore a troubled look.
“Have I done something to offend you, Julia?” he stammered.
You blinked. Opened your mouth to speak, then closed it again, like a fish. Finally, faintly, words came. “Who… who ARE you?”
His expression turned incredulous. “Who AM I? Are you serious? What do you mean, who am I? It’s me, Jared!”
When you didn’t register any recognition, he got irritated. “You know—Jared! Jared Poynter?”
“We dated freshman year at Penn?
The panic-frozen wheels in your head began slowly turning again. Jared? This guy was Jared? You hadn’t thought of him in years, not since he started a drunken fight with a bartender on your third date and you broke up with him in a phone message later that night. Peering more closely, you could just make out the recessed butt-chin your friends had teased you about when you showed them his picture on your phone. It was definitely him. But he looked terrible.
“Uh, hi. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.”
He huffed in annoyance. “If you didn’t know who I was, then why have you been following me all around town?”
Well, that was just crazy talk. “Me? You’re the one who’s been following me! I thought you were a stalker!”
He looked truly offended now. He grabbed your hand before you had a chance to jerk away and dropped the sweaty beaded bracelet he’d been clutching into it. “Fine. Look, this is yours. I just wanted to return it. You dropped it on our last date and I held onto it.”
“That was seven years ago!”
“Yeah, well, I liked you.”
And with that, he turned around and walked out of the bodega—and out of your life. You didn’t know it at the time, but you would never see him again.
A few minutes later, on your way out of the store with your bag of ramen, you dropped the bracelet into the trash can by the door. It was so not your style anymore.