by Shannen L. Colton

I’ll never forget the first time I saw him.

I say him, but I don’t really know. He resembles a man, but I’ve never seen his face. The first time I saw him, I thought I must have seen wrong. My son was young, only five months old; taking care of a baby leaves one sleep deprived, and this would not have been my first nighttime hallucination while caring for him. Surely, then, it was just the car seat set against the wall beside the crib, with a shirt or a blanket thrown over it. That had to be it, or so I told myself.

But as I rocked with my son in the nursery chair, barely breathing in that dark room, I knew it wasn’t a tired hallucination this time. I couldn’t stir from it, couldn’t blink it away.

It was a man, or something like a man, hunched over on the floor next to the crib. He stared down toward his knees with his head against the wall, and he didn’t move.

Neither did I, aside from the gentle rocking motion that quickly becomes second nature to any new parent. I tried not to look at him, but inside I swelled with panic. I dared not make a sound; if I did, would he look? Would he turn toward me?

The thought was unbearable. When my son was fed and back to sleep, I left the room. Left him in the room with the other him. You might think me a terrible mother, but if you’d felt it, you would have left too. This man, this thing…to ignore it was the only thing to do.

The next morning he was gone. My son was fine. I didn’t tell my husband. He’d say I was too behind on sleep, too mentally exhausted from my five months of motherhood. He’d tell me to see a doctor.

What new mom has time for that? And I knew it wouldn’t help.

A few days later, I saw him again.

In the mirror, this time. In our bathroom. He was standing in the empty shower behind me, staring at the wall. I was so startled, I let out a squeak, but I quickly cut it off and held my breath, remaining entirely motionless as long as I could. He didn’t move. I just stared at his back in the mirror while he stared at the opposite wall. I could see him better now. He wore a white button-down shirt and black pants. His hair was dark. He might’ve looked like a normal person if you were walking behind him on the street. But he was behind me in my bathroom mirror, and when I turned around to see him without the filter of a reflection, he was gone.

The next night he was in the nursery again. Same place, beside the crib, facing the wall. Hunkered down like a person frozen in anguish. My son was crying in my arms, so loudly I thought the tension of the moment might kill me. Surely he heard it. Surely he would look. He didn’t. He just stared down. I risked humming a song. He still didn’t look.

What would happen if he did? Did he have eyes? I didn’t know why, but something in me knew that if I learned the answer to that question, the price would be unpayable. I didn’t know if I would die or if something worse would happen, but I knew I had to prevent it at all costs.

I couldn’t sleep that night after putting my son back to bed. What would happen if the man, the thing, shifted so he was staring into the crib instead of at the wall?

What if my son saw him, looked right into his face?

It was a fight not to run back into the nursery. Not to wake my husband and scream my fears into existence.

But he would hear me if I did. He might look.

I might see.

I lay there awake all night, and in the morning everything was fine.

My son is seven months old now. I see him nearly every day, somewhere in the house. The nursery is his favorite, but he’s often in the bathroom, at least in a reflection, and I’ve seen him in every room in the house at least once. Always facing a wall, his face hidden from view. He’s bolder these days. Sometimes he rocks while he holds his knees to his chest, or shakes his head back and forth. Once he drummed his fingers on the shower wall in the bathroom, and the sound nearly gave me a heart attack, the sudden tap-tap-tap-tap of nails on fiberglass. More than once I’ve heard the floor creak behind me when my husband’s at work, and I know it’s him. I never look.

Sometimes I wonder if my husband has seen him too, but like me he knows better than to bring it up. I still don’t know what he would do if he heard us talking about him, but the panic inside me is answer enough. I have to ignore him. I have to act ordinary. If he knows I can see him, he might look. It’s terrible, but I dread the day when my son learns to talk, the day he might ask me, “Mama, who’s that man standing by the wall?” I pray it never comes. I pray my son can’t see him. I pray it’s only me. The tension, the secret of him is killing me, but I can endure it to keep them safe. I can keep looking away. Keep ignoring him. Maybe someday he’ll stop appearing, or at least he’ll be so commonplace to my eyes that I no longer notice him, no longer feel the fingers of dread caress my spine every time I see or hear him.

I worry he’ll only grow bolder, louder, but there’s nothing else I can do.

I’ve learned to be especially careful when my husband and I go to bed for the night. We always leave the door open a crack; the latch clicks loudly, and we don’t want to wake the baby. But now I make sure to push the door into that almost-closed position rather than guide it there with my fingers wrapped around the edge like I used to.

Because sometimes his fingers curl around from the other side.

Published in the Library on August 1, 2019
The Noctrium