Janine sat as silently as she could, hunched over her laptop, listening to the rain tap the outside of the cafe like a billion tiny fingers and trying her best to let the dim, blue glow of her screen lull her into a comfortable trance.
But she couldn't do that, not when He was watching her.
He had been watching her for a while now. She didn’t know when he had actually entered the cafe, but she had felt his gaze lying cold and heavy on the back of her neck for several hours.
Janine was not the type of person who could relax and enjoy a day, she didn’t celebrate life for what it was or live in the “Now” or any of that. No, Janine was a worrier, had been since she was young.
Janine often felt like the only sane person in her small circle of associates (she would never call them “friends”). They were happy, brash and confident, ready to attack life with the kind of vigor only the truly ignorant could muster. She always wondered why they couldn't see what she saw.
Murder, rape, economic collapse, droughts, rampant racism and corruption that had latched onto every facet of government like a leech. How could they be so upbeat, so happy, when the world they lived in was falling to pieces? Rotting and caving in like the belly of something dead.
Janine had become so overwhelmed by what was happening around her that she now rarely left her home.
She secluded herself away from the outside and its disgusting reality, first trying to cope with the isolation by chatting with people online, when that failed to alleviate her loneliness she turned to her TV and her gaming systems, but what little entertainment they offered soon soured under her fears, so she had opted to down pills, drink profusely, and sleep as much as she could in between brief surges of managing her little website, whittling away the days until….
Until what? No, she knew what, she just couldn't bring herself to think on it at the moment.
Really this trip to the cafe, the first in a very long time, was just her way of testing the waters. Hoping against hope that the world had changed in the time that she had been “away”.
But the grit and grime that covered her little urban sprawl hadn't been washed away with the rain. The news was still bad, the people were still desensitized and crass, the air still stank of fumes. It really was hopeless.
Janine heard a car alarm go off somewhere in the distance. The sound made her wince and she felt herself mentally taking check of her own body to ward off the fear that was boiling in her gut like bile.
Her body was wasted from lack of decent food, her skin was pale from lack of sun and her hair was greasy. She knew that she smelled ripe, like feet and spoiled milk, and she could taste what she had eaten three days before congealing between her yellowing teeth.
And that was just the outside. Janine knew that she was faring even worse just beneath the surface: her stomach felt deflated, shot through with the occasional pain of hunger or indigestion, her eyes ached constantly, her gums ached and her libido had long since failed her.
She was a dying machine and she knew it.
And she wondered if He knew it, too.
She chanced a look over her laptop and shuddered. He hadn't moved an inch since she had last looked, his eyes, pale and dull and utterly lifeless, were still fixed on her.
He was seated almost at the opposite side of the cafe, his lanky frame clothed in a gray hoodie and white sweatpants, his feet shod in what looked like white socks of some kind. Janine wondered if the waitresses or someone in charge would come over to evict him for defying their “No shoes, no shirt, no service” policy, but she highly doubted that anyone would want to get close enough to try.
Even from across the way Janine could still tell that there was something deeply wrong about the man. The boneless way his head lolled to one side, the utter stillness of his posture that was only rarely broken by a low, silent breath, the way he never once spoke or even acknowledged the people around him.
And then there was his face.
Janine wasn't quite sure if it was a trick of the light, her own tired eyes, the remnants of the pills in her blood or some combination thereof, but it seemed to her as though the man was deformed in some subtle way.
The face lacked any facial hair, even his brows were bare. His skin was pale and clean and utterly devoid of blemishes, like the face of a newborn. His nose seemed to be small and flat, his eyes were perfect ovals with wet, gray orbs set in fleshy sockets and his lips were thin and colorless.
All of those features were worrying enough, but there was something else that unnerved Janine on a far more primal level. In the entire time that he had been staring at her, the man hadn't smiled, or frowned, hadn't parted his lips to breath, hadn't flared his nostrils, hadn't even blinked.
He only stared.
Those icy, stagnant-water eyes of his bored into her from across the room, studying her, judging her, sizing her up. It was the kind of gaze that she always thought a rapist or a serial spree killer might give a potential target.
And yet there was no lust in those eyes, no interest, no mirth, just something that she couldn't grasp, something small and half-submerged within those eyes of his, like the slimy end of a worm in the mud.
Outside, the rainfall intensified, a man shouted for a cab, a woman screamed at someone whose response was lost in a clap of thunder, and man’s gaze stayed on her, never wavering.
I have to leave. Janine thought, feeling the suffocating grasp of oncoming panic begin to tighten around her neck.
She shut her laptop, wincing at how loud the click of plastic-on-plastic seemed to reverberate off the tiled walls of the cafe. She stood up, tucked her $600 distraction into her backpack and walked towards the front door with as much haste as she dared show.
The Man followed her tentative, stiff movements with his dull eyes that never blinked. She opened the door and stepped out into the rainy night, glad to be free of His gaze.
The rain was refreshingly cold against her warm skin, but Janine found little pleasure in the chill. She was a woman out alone at night in the vast, dark city, a city which stank of smog and fumes and the collective funk of thousands of sweating humans clustered together.
She wondered if the stink would stick to her skin, if it would ever come off. She had tried to be more considerate, had tried to find one small speck of light in the gloom, but the foul stench that invaded her nostrils, the piss-tasting coffee of the cafe, the constant noise and the frightening gaze of the smooth-faced man had proven to her, once and for all, that she was living in an abattoir.
I might as well just leave. she thought, briefly allowing herself to envision her smiling doppelganger riding away from the filthy metropolis in her beat-up Chevy, the sickness in her body being blown away on the fresh rural breeze.
But no, she knew that those places held their own dangers, too; There were no safe havens in the world.
Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap
She stopped in her tracks.
Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap
It sounded like bare feet on the concrete. But who would be out here in this weather without shoes?
Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap
Probably some druggie. she thought, her mind immediately conjuring an image of a wasted, dirty person in ragged, grime-encrusted clothing reaching out with a gnarled, grungy hand with entreaties for change uttered from between missing teeth.
Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap
Janine began to pick up her pace, but, to her horror, she found that her withered, nutrient-starved muscles had not yet adjusted to their renewed usage.
Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap
I can’t turn around. she thought, If it were some bum or junkie, they would have called out already. This is….something else.
The thought quickened her heart, sent nausea rolling through her stomach and tightened her throat at the same time. All of the images that she had come across that had kept her up at night, all of the reports and news stories that she had read despite her knowing that it would add more weight to her already fracturing spirit, all came rushing back to her like a tidal wave.
Slap. Slap. Slap Slap
She turned a corner and forced herself to run despite the sudden pain that the movement brought, as she did she turned and gazed behind her.
There, still following at the same pace as before, bathed in the eerie, gaudy hues of a dozen neon lights, was the smooth-faced man from the cafe, his pale skin and eyes glowing in the dimness like some aberrant fish from the darkest depths of the ocean.
Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap
He wasn't wearing socks… thought Janine, a hysteria-laced giggle worming its way out from between her teeth.
She ran faster, feeling her tendons burn and her lungs ache. She didn’t care, she had to get home. She was blind to the odd stares that the other people were giving her, she was deaf to the inquiries that some of them made, asking if she needed help, she just ran until her apartment came into view.
She crashed through her door, inhaling the sour, stale smell of her apartment as if she had been underwater and was just now tasting fresh air. She slammed the door shut, not caring about any complaints her neighbors might raise, and bolted every one of her many locks.
When this task, made more arduous by the trembling in her limbs, was completed, Janine wobbled and stumbled over to her ratty couch, and fell into the familiar comfort that the cushions provided.
Her body was screaming at her, begging her mind for sleep. But her mind was overflowing with the possibilities of what could have happened to her. Brief flashes of her own screaming face and tearful pleading as dead eyes gazed down at her from a smooth face.
Janine knew that sleep would evade her this night, and she was almost glad for it.
I know I’ll have nightmares about this for a while. she thought, Maybe the sunrise will help me sleep.
She gingerly propped herself up and looked out the window at the city skyline. The deep, pitch black of night was already beginning to give way to the light blue hues of dawn. Soon the first traces of violet and purple would appear from over the horizon to herald the beginning of a new day.
Heaving a trembling, teary sigh, Janine placed her head in her hands to vent out the night’s terrors, hoping that what warmth the sun could bring would comfort her.
She was in the process of wiping away the last of her tears when there came a knock at the door.
Janine looked at the door, at the many deadbolts and chains that hung from it, and decided to chance a look. With a steadier step, she crossed the room and peered out through the keyhole, hoping that she wouldn’t see the Smooth-Faced Man on the other side.
To her great relief it was only Mrs. Wilkes, her neighbor from across the hall. A woman of 78 who owned a great deal more cats than the building code allowed for and who often dropped by, Janine suspected, to keep her company when others didn’t.
“Janine, are you alright, dear?” she asked.
“Yes…..you can go back to sleep. I’m sorry that I woke you.” answered Janine, trying to keep her exhaustion and fear out of her voice with the kind of practised facade that only the truly depressed can master.
There was silence, then Mrs. Wilkes said, “Well….alright. But you do know that you can talk to me if you’re feeling unwell, right?”
Janine felt her lips curl into a small, but genuine, smile as she replied, “Thank you and I will. Goodnight.”
Mrs. Wilkes returned her “Goodnight” and shuffled back to her room, closing the door softly, letting a heavy silence fall.
Janine sighed deeply and felt her way back to her couch. Her heart had stopped its mad tempo and her mind was already growing cloudy with the powerful urge to sleep. All around her, the silence was beginning to invade her limbs, cocooning her senses in a way that was almost comfortable.
Just a little sleep….maybe I can call the police tomorrow. she thought as her eyes began to slide closed.
A noise, muffled and faint, yet still close by, tore through the silence and forced Janine’s eyes open.
She sat bolt upright, feeling a tidal wave of dread sweep through her body. The sound came again, closer this time, close enough for her to realize that what she was hearing was undeniably real and not some figment of her overworked mind.
But it wasn't the distinct sound of tiny rodent claws behind the plaster, it was something larger, something that made a dry scraping sound, like a reptile scuttling up a wall or slithering across the ground.
Again she heard it, this time growing closer as whatever it was circumvented the width of her apartment.
Janine stood, stock still, her limbs shaking, her hair pricking, her mouth chalky. The thing that was making the sound had made it to the far end of her room, where her bed lay above a small grate.
The air vent. Oh, please God no. thought Janine as the realization struck her, its horrible truth piercing through her logic and skewering the reality.
She closed her eyes and held in her tears as the lid to the air vent fell to the floor with a clatter.
She felt his gaze on the back of her neck even as his cold, horribly soft fingers wrapped around her throat.
And as the Smooth-Faced Man’s grip began to tighten, grinding her vertebrae into powder and reducing the fine, delicate latticework of veins and muscle that lay beneath her skin into pulp, she smelled the familiar stench of mingling sweat, pollution and cancerous smoke invade her nostrils.
The police found her, nearly a month later, with her throat crushed and her eyes wide and affixed with pure terror. There were no fingerprints to be found, nor was there any saliva, hair follicles or threads of clothing.
Whatever had killed her had come in the night like a phantom and had left before sunrise.