2008 submission by Chelsea Harlan
It was the hat, finally, that kept Anna from worrying. It was black and unadorned, but seemed nicely made. Sometimes he was close enough for her to see the neat stitching along the brim, the swoop of the soft velvet cup on top. She didn’t know anything about men’s hats, so surely it must be real. Surely she couldn’t have created it in her mind. And if the hat was real, then the man who wore it must be real too. She had stayed up nights, anxiously turning the matter over and over again in her mind, distracted only by the steady drip of the faucet in the bathroom, the rumble of the washing machine deep in her apartment complex, wondering if she was going mad.
The man had first appeared three weeks ago, on a Monday. Anna remembered the exact day because she had been expecting a package from FabricWorld to arrive, a very nice–and discounted!–fleece blanket. The website had stated that standard ground shipping took three to five business days, and after Friday had passed, she knew she would have to wait through the entire weekend. This seemed an endless amount of time, but she comforted herself with the knowledge that the package would be there on Monday, for certain. She had even taken a half day off from her job filing paperwork at Dr. Adams’ office in order to be there when it arrived; she wouldn’t have wanted the delivery driver to have to come back the next day, or–worse–to leave the package on the doorstep, where anybody could come along and take it.
She had sat on the front steps, eagerly watching the passing of each car, already imagining the soft fleece on her skin, the lovely green color against the blue corduroy of her chair. As the afternoon dwindled, the sunlight slanting lower and lower across the brick façade of the building, Anna began to fret that something had happened to the delivery driver–a car accident?–that would prevent the blanket from coming. She stood and walked to the end of the pathway, where it joined the sidewalk, and gazed up the empty street. When she turned to check the other way, she noticed him. She might not have seen him at all, so intent was she upon her search, but for the fact he was standing stock-still.
This frozen stance, this absolute stillness, amid the swirl of fallen leaves in the late-October breeze, the honking of distant traffic, the crying of blackbirds overhead and the chaos of children in the nearby park, startled her. All thoughts of the driver’s whereabouts fled her mind as she stared at the man, taking in his long tan overcoat, the black hat perched on his head, the arms dangling loosely at his sides. He was staring straight at her. She had the impression of a hooked nose below two piercing grey eyes before she turned and hurried back to the apartment, the hairs on her arms standing up like when a lightning storm was coming.
“Just a parent,” Anna said to herself, “heading to the park.” But she decided not to wait for the package any longer, to go up to her apartment instead, where she locked the door behind her. Afterward, going over the odd occurrence in her mind, she thought there had been a sense of immense patience to him, in the way he stood so firmly and immobile; but his eyes had betrayed what Anna could only think of as …expectation. Like he knew what he wanted and was prepared to wait a long time to get it. And she could have sworn that his coat hadn’t moved in the wind. Unease grew in her.
As the week passed, she began to doubt what she thought she saw in his expression, in his still coat, and eventually she put the incident from her mind. She went about her daily routine: Work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; a trip to Santino’s market for a frozen dinner of macaroni and cheese, or Salisbury steak and green beans, eaten in the blue chair during the evening news and “All Girl Summer Fun” (her favorite program), the glow of the screen bathing the room in flickering blue light.
On Wednesday night she went to a movie–one of the ones with a lot of confusing talk and slow, weepy music–and had a large bucket of popcorn with extra butter, a king-size package of Junior Mints, and a small soda. She couldn’t remember much of the movie afterward, and she felt slightly ill from the popcorn, but overall it had been a good night; it was important to get out-and-about at least once a month. On Thursday morning she had moved the fleece blanket from the chair to the bedroom, deciding it looked better with the cream square of her bedspread–although the chair now looked bare without it.
It was when Anna left her apartment for work that day, weighing the necessity of another blanket with the treachery of delivery service, that she saw the man again. He was in the same place as before, on the opposite side of the street, standing the same way: Feet planted, arms limp, gaze steady on her face. A cold finger of fear traced her spine and she dropped her gaze, moving swiftly past him. She could feel his eyes on her back until she turned the corner. She puffed out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“He didn’t really say that, did he?”
“He did! I was right there.”
“I can’t believe it. There is no way he would say that!”
“Well, he did. I heard him. Believe it.”
“I can’t. I just can’t.”
Anna had glanced over as peals of laughter rang out over the office. Sadie and Maria were leaning toward each other behind the front desk, Sadie smiling smugly and Maria’s head thrown back, mouth agape. She had the impression of gleaming white teeth and pink lipstick before turning back to the filing cabinet. The way those two carried on was completely unprofessional. They were supposed to be greeting patients and answering the phones, not nattering on about gossip. This was a doctor’s office–well, a dentist’s office–and a certain amount of modesty was needed. If Dr. Adams ever saw them behaving that way, he would be horrified. But, of course, the moment he stepped into the room, they would be facing forward, hands on the keyboards, and smiling big shiny fake smiles. Anna shook her head in silent disgust and jammed the file for Mr. Kidman into the pull-out drawer. She was certain she would handle herself with grace and aplume–Aplum? Aplomb?–if she were sitting up there.
“Well, now! Everything okay, Anna?”
At the sound of Dr. Adams’ voice, Anna straightened from the filing cabinet and spun around, face flushed. He stood in the doorway, elegant in his white coat, holding a stack of x-rays.
“Good morning, Dr. Adams,” she said, uncertainly patting the bun at the nape of her neck.
“Hope that filing cabinet wasn’t giving you too rough a time.” She took in his warm smile and opened her mouth to speak, but he had already turned and was saying something to Sadie and Maria. She turned back to the cabinet as the laughter began again.
The man was there when Anna had left the office later that day, standing at the corner, his gaze boring through the crowd. She hesitated. She had to go past him; her apartment was in that direction. But why was he here? Had he followed her? Who was he? What did he want? Fear clawed its way up her throat as she was ushered forward in the flow of pedestrians. She was almost close enough to reach out and touch his coat. As she swept onward, unmolested, his stare never wavered from her face.
“’The clothes I wore yesterday afternoon are lying in a black, twisted heap at the foot of my bed, like some burned-out wreck.’”
She was some author reading from her book–diary? Anna hadn’t quite caught that part– and the girl looked very sad, her mouth all twisted down and sour as she spoke, and Anna switched the channel, reminding herself that this was why she didn’t watch public broadcasting. She was feeling strange that night, sort of impatient and edgy. She didn’t know why. The remains of her Salisbury steak meal lay in their black tray, shoved over on the coffee table. The blue chair felt itchy, the corded lines rubbing through Anna’s black stretch pants, no matter which way she sat.
“…then the bear tore through the screen door into the kitchen…”
The evening news was even a bore. She tossed the remote control down, stood, and began to pace the living room. She was fairly certain he was out there. She was also fairly certain that she didn’t want to look to find out. The smell of the leftover dinner and the noise of the babbling screen swirled around her, suffocating her, making it hard to breathe. A hot egg of anger nestled inside of her, right in the center of her chest, and she felt it swell and throb. She went to the window and peered through the blinds.
He was there. At the corner, in his usual stance, and (although she couldn’t be sure … but wasn’t she sure?) staring up into her window. She backed away, to her chair, where she sat and stared fixedly into the distance as the television chattered on and its light flickered around her.
He began to appear with more frequency. Anna saw him after work, outside of Santino’s, across the street from her apartment whenever she went out and came back. He had begun to follow her, trailing behind, and she could feel him, his grey eyes on her. But whenever she turned to look at him, to maybe confront him, only the usual crush of faces swarmed anonymously around her. He was a ghost, a shadow disappearing in overcast skies whenever she turned her head.
One time when Anna had spotted him, she thrust out her arm in a spasm of panic–no, not panic exactly, but for something else, for confirmation, maybe–gripping a passing pedestrian and demanding if they could see him too. And the person had looked at her strangely, almost in fear–as if she were crazy–and twisted away in silence, scurrying off to join the crowd.
But she wasn’t crazy, and she knew it. She had thought about it, a lot. The hat, to begin with. And the way people moved around him on the street. No one touched him, but that was normal because when someone is standing in the way, completely impassive, and you have to go around, you don’t want to be rude and bump them. And she was pretty sure she had imagined his coat not moving on that first day.
In fact, if she was being totally honest with herself, there was something strangely comforting about his presence. He had never made any effort to approach her or talk to her; he only watched and followed her at a distance. And although she knew she should be afraid like she had been at first, that this wasn’t normal, she couldn’t help but feel comforted, grounded. Like his eyes kept her pinned to the earth and if he ever closed them, she would float up into the sky and melt away like a cloud.
The decision to stop going to work was an easy one. Anna awoke one morning to find that the effort of getting dressed, of traveling to work, of having to smile through the day as Sadie and Maria laughed with Dr. Adams, was impossible. The calls from the office tapered off until, toward the end of the week, the phone lay silent. Her last paycheck came in the mail, along with a note she threw away without reading. She spent most of her days in the blue chair, watching reruns of “All Girl Summer Fun” and cooking shows on TV; the frozen dinner trays began to stack up on the coffee table and kitchen counter, small brown flies buzzing around them; her hair and skin felt greasy; a faintly sour smell clung to the apartment. Anna would be staring blankly at the TV when, with a jolt, she would be certain that the man was no longer outside watching over her. She went to the window increasingly often, peering through the slats of the blind. He was always there, and she could feel the pressure in her chest ease, at least for the moment.
Anna wasn’t sure how long this situation may have gone on for–she would have run out of money at some point, and then what would she have done?–but she knew it had ended when she saw the Asian man smiling out at her from the television screen one day. She had promised herself she wouldn’t watch public broadcasting anymore, but something about his face made her pause in her restless channel-surfing. Even though he turned out to only be a statue–a bronze figure of Buddha, the narrator said–she was still struck by the peacefulness that radiated from his expression. She pictured it as golden rays, shining out of the screen and onto her own face. For the first time in a long time, she couldn’t feel the egg in her chest, and she didn’t think about the man in the black hat outside her window. When the program ended, she turned off the TV and sat for a moment, feeling the stillness of the apartment. She knew what she had to do.
Anna sat on the edge of the bed, staring into her open palm, at the wicked glint of the razor blade that lay cupped in it. Doing it here, instead of in the bathroom, would be messy, but she didn’t have a bathtub to lie in. Determinedly, she gripped the edge of the blade and flipped her left arm over, exposing her white wrist. The pale blue veins criss-crossed just beneath the surface. Anna knew there was a right way and a wrong way to do this, and she very much wanted to do it correctly. Were you supposed to do it across or lengthwise? Cutting all the way across seemed the most effective, but she thought she remembered reading in the newspaper recently that a girl had cut herself the other way. So lengthwise then?
She dug the edge of the blade into her skin and was surprised at the sudden gush of bright red, of the pain that quickly followed and seemed to burn up into her arm. She cried out and instinctively threw the blade away, heard it skitter across the linoleum as she wrapped her right hand around the gash. Tears leaked down her face as she curled up into a ball on the green fleece blanket. Her sobs sounded muffled, like the walls were absorbing them, filing them away with other memories of this place.
A rustling noise stirred Anna from her moans, and when she looked up, she was not surprised to see the man with the black hat walking toward her. The bed shifted under his weight as he sat, and Anna let him reach out and take her wounded arm. His hands were cold as he gently, even tenderly, folded her fingers around a small metal object. Anna held it up and saw it was the razor blade. She looked away from it, up into his grey eyes, and saw that he was smiling. She smiled back.
© 2008 Chelsea Harlan
Filed under: 2008 Submissions |