Time is mischievous.
09/19/2006: The Shadow with a Face
The overhead lights went off, then on, off again, and back on - the signal for closing time at the Old Town Bookstore. I looked up from the row of new releases I was perusing,
and didn’t see anyone else in the store, so I called out to the owner, “Pretty sure I’m the only one left, Mr. Zhou.”
“I thought so, but had to check,” I heard him respond from somewhere toward the back of the store. “Would you lock the front door, since you are there?”
“You got it.” I turned the knobs that secured the glass store-front doors and then headed toward the sound of his voice.
Mr. Zhou appeared from between two aisles near the back door, “You be careful out there, going home, Miss Sam.”
I smiled at the elderly man who, with his wife, purchased the store from Mr. Smith about a year earlier. They knew me by name before the first week was out. It was bound
to happen, since I lived three blocks away and was already in the habit of stopping in every other day. “You too, sir.”
He pointed up, and said, “I do not go far, just upstairs,” indicating the apartment above the store where he resided with Mrs. Zhou.
“I know my way around these mean streets pretty well.” I winked, and he chuckled.
He’d mentioned more than once his move to Novica had been partially based on the low crime rates. “I’ll be back in a couple of days, can’t get rid of me that easily.”
“Wouldn’t want to. You are my best customer, after all, keep food on my table!”
That got a chuckle from me. He pushed the door open, “Sweet dreams, dear child.”
“You have the same, sir.” I plunged into the night, letting the heavy door slam shut behind me. I listened for him to lock up, shaking my head and thinking it was strange so
many people still called me things like child or kiddo even though I was pushing thirty. Guess I ‘m blessed with good genes.
After a step or two, I paused to light a cigarette. The mild breeze sweeping through the alley carried with it - among the dead leaves and miscellaneous debris - the innuendo
of cooler weather characteristic of late September evenings. I took two or three steps more, and then jumped at the familiar screech of the bookstore’s door opening, again.
Startled, I turned, and was relieved to see Mr. Zhou at the threshold. “I forgot to tell you, Miss Sam, the book you ordered will be here the day after tomorrow,” he informed
“Thanks, Mr. Zhou.” I raised my hand in a little wave. “I’ll see you then.”
I walked along the alley parallel to Citrus Avenue, until the block ended at Center Street. There was no traffic, as I expected at 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, so I crossed quickly, slipping back into the alley on the other side. I walked about a third of the way down the second block when I felt a presence.
Given the balmy So Cal weather earlier in the evening, I’d left my jacket at home, and suddenly I felt naked, despite the long sleeved t-shirt I was wearing. Every hair on
my body stood up straight, every alarm in my head sounded, and I knew I was being followed.
My first instinct was to run, fast.
I didn't, because I’d been followed before, though the better part of the year had passed without incident. I was just beginning to think it was all a distant memory, my
lifetime of being haunted, and the recurrence of the sensation irked me. So, for the first time, I decided to face whoever it was, instead of running from him. I stopped and spun
around on my heel.
There was nothing to be seen, so I took the last drag of my smoke and crushed the butt out with my boot before I continued on my path. After only a few paces more I was
sure I heard something, and I turned around again. The alley was still vacant except for me.
“Show yourself,” I challenged. “I’m not in the mood for games.” Staring hard into the darkness, I searched the shadows for any sign of movement, and saw nothing. Then I
turned to continue on my way home, and finally came face to face with the figment of my imagination.
I almost fell, taking a step back from the man wearing sunglasses and a trench coat. The lenses were not dark enough to obscure my view of his eyes, and I felt as if in an
instant he had peered into my soul and captured everything - understanding my mind intimately, more so than a lover yet without the needs one brings with him.
There was no denying he knew me, better perhaps than I know myself. As I returned his gaze, I thought there was a hint of mischievousness in his expression, or perhaps it
was malevolence. So disoriented was I, by his penetration of my existence, I could not determine which.
We’d never met face to face before that night, of that I was certain, though I felt as though I’d known his presence for an eternity. There were glimpses and shadows all around me for as long as I could remember, and in that moment I knew it was him following me all that time.
“Who are you?” Scared to ask, I did only because I had to know the answer.
“Don't you know” He smiled slowly, knowingly toying with me.
I tried to step around him. “Look, it's late, and it's cold ....”
He moved to block my path. “You should be home, warm and asleep in bed.”
“Then if you'll excuse ...” I stopped mid sentence as a scalpel blade of icy wind cut through my body.
“Why should excuses need to be made? We are beyond that now, don't you agree?”
I couldn’t find an answer, so transfixed was I by his voice, which soothed my racing mind. How many times have I seen him, from the corner of my eye? Always wearing
sunglasses, even at night. Always wearing a trench coat, even in the summer sun. Why now, on this night, in this place, is he confronting me?
All I could do was blink. He chuckled softly, and said, “It doesn't matter.”
Did he just read my mind? Confused, immobilized and having no idea what to say, I stood there despite knowing that it was probably not the best idea. “What do you want
One corner of his mouth turned up in response.
I told my feet to run, but they had taken root in the pavement, so I asked, "How long have you been following me?"
“I have been with you always,” he answered without hesitation.
I tried to scream, but when I opened my mouth no sound emerged.
“Are you really afraid?”
I knew I should be, yet when he asked the question aloud, I realized I was not.
Something stirred deep in my subconscious and began bubbling to the surface. As I continued to look into his eyes I could see plainly that he knew me, and for the first time
in my life I felt understood.
Despite this small comfort, or because of it, I found I could not turn my eyes away from his behind the dark lenses, so I squeezed them tightly shut. I could feel his breath
on my ear as he leaned in to whisper, “I am not one you will ever have to fear.”
Counting to ten silently before opening my eyes again I found he was gone, he had evaporated into the night.
Running the last block home, I took the stairs up to my tiny studio two at a time, which isn’t easy with my short legs. Once inside I turned the deadbolt, which was rare.
Most people in the neighborhood don’t even lock their doors. I’d never let out such a deep sigh of relief before.
As I scrubbed the day from my face in the bathroom, I pondered over my encounter with the man in the trench coat and our bizarre conversation. Could it have been the
same man following me all of these years? I felt that it must have been him, in the dark glasses and trench coat, following me all along.
Looking up at the mirror, I had to blink through the image of him that floated in front of me, before I could find my own reflection in the glass. His words, “I am not one you will
ever have to fear,” echoed in my mind. I realized warmth replaced the chill in my bones when he’d said it, and I was certain, beyond any doubt, that he was my shadow.
Shuffling over to my kitchenette, I grabbed a can of Pepsi from the fridge and popped the tab while closing the door with my foot. I gulped half of it down; it made everything better.
Leaning against the counter, I unzipped my boots and kicked them off, leaving them there to be put back on in the morning. My socks were thin, and I loved the feel of the cool wood floor beneath my feet as I rolled them heel to toe across the room to my couch,which also served as my bed. The space had once been a dance studio, where I took
lessons as a child. While the floors and high ceilings remained, the rest was newly remodeled before I moved in four years ago.
Pushing my blankets aside, I found the television remote before I sat down. I already had the third season of Alias in the DVD player, and by the end of the particular episode I
was on, tears were sliding down my cheek. When Syd realized what happened while she had been brainwashed and hidden away, my heart broke for her. In a way, I empathized.
It was nothing nearly as dramatic - I wasn’t forcibly taken and held - but when I embarked on my first attempt at writing a novel, I became so engulfed, as far as Jeff was
concerned I may as well have been in another country. It didn’t matter that I’d put it off until after writing most of his papers through college, or that I’d put all of my extra time
and energy into planning our wedding. In the end, in his mind, it didn’t leave enough room for him.
In my mind, it was better to find out he didn’t support my dreams then, than what would now be over four years into a marriage. I laughed. Almost five years had passed since he’d broken our engagement - he’d met someone who was “more in tune” with his needs. Whatever. I’d moved on.
After Jeff and I broke up, I needed some time on my own, to find me again. I’d only been on a handful of first dates, until Bailey came into the Keg for a beer one night, back in January. Since then, between dinner and movie dates, we’d gone on four weekend hiking trips, hang gliding over the Pacific and sky diving in the desert. We had plans to go scuba diving in Hawaii the last week of October.
Maybe his interest in filmmaking helped, but right away I found him to be charming, funny, kind, and intelligent. There were sparks instantly; it seemed we were the perfect match. Yet, I still found myself moping about Jeff again. My biggest problem with the whole thing was that he was engaged to Rita within two months and they were married
another three months later. Was I that big of a mistake?
Ultimately, the men in my life could not keep the dark stranger from slinking back into my thoughts. The more I tried not to think about him, the more he was there. The more I thought about him, the more I felt certain he was watching me, right then, at that very moment. Who is he? And why does he follow me everywhere? Finally being able to put a face to the stalker, who followed me all of those years, only left me with more questions than ever before.
Halfway through the second episode, I decided the TV wasn’t providing the distraction I needed. I turned it off, and pulled out my laptop. My email was nothing but junk. There was one review on the site where I’d posted some work, another broken heart found solace in one of my old poems. I smiled. I closed my browser, and opened the file for the novel I was working on. An heiress to a business empire is stalked by the men who murdered her father for control of his company. A publisher was biting at this one from the sound of it, so I had to finish revisions for my agent by Monday.
The man in the black trench coat would not leave my thoughts. He haunted me, making it impossible to focus on work. Why does he watch me? In the end I went and plugged my laptop back in at my desk to charge, and sat down with my dog-eared copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Complete Short Stories. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice, given the
events of the evening, but he is one of my surefire escapes from the real world, and that’s what I was looking for.
I drifted off to sleep with the book falling on my chest, and was awakened sometime around 3:00 a.m. when it fell to the floor. A shadow out on my tiny balcony started my heart racing, but then I heard Artemis meowing. She was annoyed I hadn’t left the window open for her. As soon as I slid the door open wide enough, she streaked in and
began circling my leg, purring. “Did you have fun hunting?” I cooed, reaching down to scratch her chin.
She trotted to her food dish while I got a glass of water. I realized I dreamt of the man in the trench coat standing over me, watching me in my sleep - but he wasn’t there
when I woke up. The more I thought about it, the more instances of sensing his presence I could recall. Then, I almost dropped my glass when I remembered waking in the night a week before, and feeling that same presence in my home.
Why did this strange man appear in my life tonight, and why has he never confronted me before? These questions were just the first few grains of sand that began to slip
through an hourglass in my mind. My heart started pounding, and I had an eerie sensation time was running out. Time for what, I didn’t know, but clearly this stranger knew something I didn’t, and wasn’t ready to tell me.
In an effort to calm myself, I turned on the faucet to wash my glass. The sound of the running water and the feel of it streaming over my hands were therapeutic, and my
adrenaline levels subsided. I put the glass on the drying rack and lay back down on the couch. Artemis curled up next to my face, and within seconds, we were both asleep.
I was walking down a corridor, lit by torches hung on walls carved from stone. Never had I seen this place in my waking life, but it was familiar to me in my dream. Dead ahead was an archway, and beyond a small chamber, where I saw a shadow of movement pass across the floor. That was what I was following, the elusive shadow, but the corridor stretched further, putting the archway farther away with each step. I started running, needing to catch the shadow in time, but the tunnel only grew longer, and the opening at the end was farther and farther away.
Finally, I became tired and just stopped running. The arch snapped back, like a slinky retracting, and all I needed to do was take one step through to the room beyond the
The circular chamber was an intersection, with three other arches, each leading to another path. Which way did the shadow go? I didn’t know, so I picked the archway straight ahead.
There was a small landing, on a winding spiral stairwell. To the right, the stairs went up, to the left they went down, I could only see far enough to count seven loops each way. One step too far straight forward and I would plummet into a pit of darkness, with no end in sight.