“What are you staring at?”
I don’t think he actually spit as he spoke, but the venom in his voice made me recoil as surely as if he had. I tried to free myself from his gaze, but his eyes held me fast. Those dark, burning eyes so full of hatred. What had I done to draw his ire? What unfortunate string of events had led me to this malevolent encounter?
I’d been walking home from work. My head was bowed, my eyes fixed on the sidewalk. I was avoiding eye contact with everyone I passed. They were just anonymous pairs of busy feet, coming and going. It was my daily routine; I knew every crack in the pavement, every stained bit of concrete. I didn’t know a single face, because I never looked up.
That’s why I didn’t see the woman who’d stopped to answer her phone until it was almost too late. I managed to avoid an awkward collision, but lost my balance and hit the ground. No one offered their help, no one asked if I was alright. Not even the woman on the phone took any notice of me.
Everything was blurry; the fall had knocked my glasses off my nose. After a few seconds of feeling around, I found them and went to replace them on my face. Just before clear vision was restored, I saw him.
He was standing just a few feet away, a pillar amidst the sea of moving people. He alone seemed to have noticed me, but more importantly, in my blurry, no-glasses world, he alone appeared crisp.
I paused with my glasses halfway to my eyes. My eyesight was terrible. Without a quarter-inch of glass in front of my face, everything melted into a cloud of faded colors, but not this man. The edges of his body were sharp, every detail popping in painful focus.
“You got a problem?” he snapped.
I rose to my feet and settled my glasses back into place. “Sorry,” I mumbled as my world materialized from the fog. I finally managed to tear my gaze away and hurried off. Even with my back turned, I could feel his stare. I walked faster. Still, that feeling at the base of my spine. I wanted to look back, see if he was still there—no. If he was, that would be too embarrassing. I kept going, staring ahead, at my feet, anywhere but back.
I reached home just as it was getting dark. I locked the door behind me and let out a deep breath. Safe. Safe from the world and its countless people. Safe until tomorrow when I’d have to face them all again.
Safe from that man.
I don’t know why he’d unsettled me so deeply. I’d deserved his wrath. That’s why I never looked up at people when I walked to and from work. Never made eye contact. Today I’d broken that rule and offended someone. Never again.
I went to the front window, to the curtains that were always drawn, always defending against the world, and parted them ever so slightly. Others were returning home from a long day at work, stepping out of the night and into lighted doorways. I could catch glimpses of their lives through glowing windows. My own home was dark, the better to hide myself in, to avoid their attention. I watched them pass through the world, crisp and clear, then I removed my glasses.
The scene rotted into a pale, dim swamp. Here it was punctuated by a shapeless blob of golden light, there by a brief shadow flitting through the fog. This was my world. That other one, with its sharp lines and well-defined borders, belonged to the others. Like the windows through which I watched families sitting down to dinner, my glasses were a window into that other world. A window, not a doorway. I raised them back to my face, just for an instant—razor detail leapt out at me—then removed them again. I was more comfortable in my own world of hazy anonymity.
I realized, however, that I wasn’t alone in this realm. Someone was walking down the street across from my window. He was more than just a suggestion of a human figure, not the dark, genderless ghost that everyone else was. He was a fully rendered human.
Blinking, I put my glasses back on. He was still there, although he seemed less extraordinary now that he shared the same level of detail as his surroundings. I tilted my head down and peeked over the rim of my glasses, just to make sure. Yes. Exactly like the man from earlier. He was a teenager, but otherwise it was exactly the same phenomenon.
My eyes hurt from the juxtaposition of harsh edges and soft mist, so I pushed my glasses up. I lost sight of the teenager for a second during the transition, and when I found him again he was standing perfectly still, staring at me.
Not staring in my general direction, not staring at my house. Staring at me. I felt naked. The window panes, the curtains, they were nothing. His eyes locked on mine, and even from this distance I could see the anger. He’d paused beneath a streetlamp, and the shadows accentuated his malicious expression. I could make out every wrinkle in his brow, every flare of his nostrils. Stop it, I thought. Stop looking at me!
But he was relentless. It was like a pair of invisible steel spikes lanced out from his eyes and anchored themselves in my own. I couldn’t turn away. I did, however, retain control of my fingers. I let them fall away from the curtain, let the cloth fall back into place and shield me. The feeling of the teenager’s stare remained, but I could breathe again now that the outside world was blocked from view.
I remained by the window for minutes, still aware of those steel spikes holding me in place. I don’t know how much time passed before I was able to blink, but it felt like hours. When I felt ready to move again, I made a small dinner, read a book, and went to bed.
I didn’t want to go to work that morning. I dreaded the outside world at the best of times, but now I knew there were things in it that could invade my world. I called them things because I didn’t see them as other people, in spite of their normal appearance—well, normal until I took my glasses off. Normal except for the hateful miasma that surrounded them. I couldn’t stand the thought of going out there, joining the crowd and not knowing if the feet in front of me belonged to an ordinary person or one of them. But logic won me over in the end. If I stayed home I’d lose my job and my money. Next I’d lose my house, my fortress. I’d be thrown out into the world I feared, so better to face it on my own terms than to be forced into it without hope of relief.
I paid more attention than usual to those I passed on the way. I searched their faces for signs. It did me little good. Everyone seemed large and terrifying, full of grim judgment, eyeing me with disdain as they grew aware of my investigation. What about that woman? The way she scowled at me, did it mean she was one of them? What about that man? Was his anger the result of my staring, or of an intrinsic wrongness in himself? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know! The not-knowing, that was the worst part. I couldn’t stand the thought of walking beside one of those anomalies and not realizing it. What if its hatred overflowed into violent action, and I was unable to defend myself due to my ignorance?
The only way to tell them from the others, I realized, would be to take off my glasses. I’d be blind, but at least I’d know.
I slipped the lenses off my nose, folded them, and placed them in my shirt pocket.
They were everywhere. Scattered throughout the crowd. Some moved with the flow of half-formed people, others stood perfectly still and watched. My heart pumped ice through my veins. So many. Had they always been there, unnoticed until now? Did they know that I knew?
As if in answer to my unspoken question, several of them turned slowly, their unblinking, loathing glares coming to rest on me. I shrank away from them, unsteadily navigating the sea of ghosts as I tried to escape. No sooner would one vanish around the last street corner then another would appear around the next. There was no relief. I was vaguely aware whenever I bumped into a blurry approximation of a normal human being, but their shouts of surprise and reproach fell on deaf ears.
“What’s your problem?”
That one I heard. The voice came from a child standing in front of me, a child so sharply defined that her outline seemed to make the very air bleed. She spoke with such mature enunciation that I couldn’t help but recoil from her.
“What are you staring at?” she demanded.
I made a lame attempt to choke out a reply, but my tongue was a cold, dead worm in my mouth. The girl took a step toward me. She didn’t say anything more, but she didn’t have to; her eyes spoke for her, her eyes and the set of her lips and the old-man lines etched across her brow.
In response to her advance, I stumbled back, colliding with one of the blurry half-people.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!”
I bounced off the phantom shape and fell to the pavement. There was a crack, a pain in my hand. I looked down at the indistinct shape of my palm, a hazy impression of flesh tones and dripping scarlet. My glasses were broken, bits of the lenses stuck in my skin.
The girl came closer. I could see every thread in her stockings, every scuff on her shoes. What are you? I scrambled away on all fours like a crab before finding my feet again. Around me, pushing through the fog of drifting forms, the others were advancing. All of them glaring at me like I was some kind of abomination that needed annihilating. I ran. Not toward work—toward home. I couldn’t take anymore of this strange world. I yearned for the safety of my nest, my fortress with its locked doors and curtains shut against the outside.
I passed so many of them on my way. Their heads turned to follow me with hellfire gazes. They knew I could see them, I alone in the flood of humanity, and they hated me for it. They couldn’t let me be, not as long as I knew their secret. They would hound me, hunt me down. What would they do when they caught me?
I reached my house and sealed myself inside. Dark. Quiet. Alone. I leaned against the door to catch my breath, wondering how many had followed me. How many lurked outside? I wouldn’t dare look, wouldn’t dare meet their eyes again.
The day passed. I cleaned and bound my injured hand—not an easy task without my glasses. I kept all the curtains drawn, but a sliver of sunlight still crept in through the living room window. That light spun around the room, faded, died. Night.
By this time all my neighbors would be home from work, sitting down to hot dinners, relaxing in front of the television. None of them knew of the things stalking among them. The anomalies.
My ears pricked up. Was that a sound against the front door? It was too soft to be a knock, louder than a gentle scratch. Had it even come from the door, or was something pressing against the glass on the other side of the curtains? I thought of that little girl pressing her face against the outside of the window, all those angry and unnaturally adult features compressed into a horrific mask. I thought of that teenager slapping a hand against the door, fingers splayed and arcing into claws.
I jumped as the doorbell rang. My gaze flew to the front door, nothing but a fuzzy dark patch to my handicapped eyes. It seemed to grow and throb, swelling with the presence of something on the other side. I held my breath and waited. Seconds passed in silence, and I began to relax.
It rang again. Twice in quick succession.
No. Go away. I curled up on the floor and whimpered. This is my world. Stay out of it! Go away!
But it didn’t. The doorbell was replaced by a relentless banging. The knob rattled violently, and the shadows swelled. My chest hurt. I sucked in great, quivering breaths, but no air reached my lungs. The banging went on and on, faster and faster, louder and louder.
And then it stopped.
My ears rang. The silence was so complete it made me dizzy. I waited for several seconds, and when nothing more happened I dared to hope that it was over. I crept to the window and gingerly nudged the curtain aside.
There they were. The man from yesterday, the teenager from last night, the girl from this morning. And there were others. They were arrayed outside my window like a firing squad, their guns replaced with loathing stares. I yelped in surprise and jerked back, letting the curtain hide their livid faces from view. I was trapped. Whatever those things were, I had no doubt they could wait all night. They’d still be waiting come morning, and they wouldn’t leave until they had their prey.
I retreated to the center of the living room floor where I curled up and began to cry. What had I done to deserve this? It had been an accident! I never took off my glasses, never looked at anyone. If it hadn’t been for that woman answering her phone yesterday, I wouldn’t have fallen, wouldn’t have noticed them. I was overcome with rage at that woman. I wanted to hurt her somehow, do some irreparable damage so she’d know how she’d condemned me. My hands, seeking something to destroy, grasped uselessly at the carpet.
If only I hadn’t seen.
Then it hit me. They were hunting me because I could see them. What if I couldn’t? Would they leave me alone then? My mind wandered to the knife rack in the kitchen, but the mere thought made me sick to my stomach. There were other ways, however, less permanent methods to blind myself.
I went to my bedroom and found an old t-shirt. Ripping off a strip of cloth, I tied it around my head as a blindfold. It was effective. Some light managed to penetrate the fibers, but without my glasses all I could see was a field of dark gray.
I had to test it. I made my way back to the front door, relying on touch and my memory of the house. I fumbled for the doorknob and stepped into the cool night.
I wasn’t alone out there; that much I could tell. I could hear them breathing around me, moving with me. Their footsteps escorted me down the driveway. I can’t see you anymore, I thought. Now leave me alone!
It was hard to gauge how far I’d walked. It seemed an eternity ago that I’d stepped outside my home, but I was taking tiny steps. Although I couldn’t see them, it felt like my tormentors were pressing in, standing as close as they could without actually touching me. I wanted to run back to my house, but I had to prove to them that they were invisible to me. I had to keep going until I was sure they were gone—
The light was so bright it burned through my blindfold. A car horn blared, and I felt a crushing pain explode through my body.
I didn’t have long after that. The impact dislodged my blindfold enough that I could see. I was still surrounded. They stared down at me, their brows wrinkled in hate, but there was something different.
They were smiling.
One by one they turned and walked away. Moments later, I was gone.