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The Watchful Eye by Jeffrey Tan from Vantage

Watched

I still can’t get gas by myself. I have never figured this part of it out. Windows and door locks I get. I see the connection. My parents think I’m OCD, but at least I see why. I’m not sure they truly understand though. And this bothers me too. Unless you were there, it’s hard to feel what it was like. I think I saw him earlier today. But, truthfully, in the past few years, I’ve seen him everyday. Tall, brown hair, typical.

I have to be across town in thirty minutes. It’s tennis practice and I have plenty of time to get there. I’m pretty sure I locked the side door. Or did I? I brake at the end of the driveway and back up to check the lock. I thought I saw him earlier today in the car next to me at a stoplight. He lived with his parents, and I don’t even know if he drives. I mean, he should still be locked up. If I could have seen his eyes I’d know. I check the door, it’s locked. It always is.

I brake at the end of the driveway: did I lock it or unlock it? Shit. I could repeat this forever.  Lauren, you locked it, I say to myself. All the way to tennis practice it bothers me. It moves under my skin and I can’t get at it.

It happened when I was twelve. I stepped off a bus and my life changed as definitely as the street light across the road turned from green to yellow. It was only a half block from the bus stop to my house, and I’d listen to CDs or read a book to make the walk go faster. But on this day I had neither a CD nor a book to distract me. I remember thinking how long a walk it seemed to my door.

He was jogging in my direction on the opposite sidewalk. I was counting my footsteps, careful to avoid the cracks. When I looked up, his eyes were already fixed on me. He had quit following the slow curve of the sidewalk that bent around the empty wooded lot. For the first few seconds I wanted to dismiss him as another crazy from St. Luke’s Home across the street. But he never looked away. There was a boldness in his gaze that was not echoed in his running style. The way his eyes locked on me made me feel cornered and exposed, but I found myself looking for him again and again, not allowing myself the child-like luxury of looking away. I quickly realized that there was something wrong with this ordinary man who ran toward me like an animal.

Getting out of the car is still uncomfortable. It’s not that I feel safe in my car; it’s just that the first step out reminds me that I can’t trust anyone. As soon as I get out of the car I press the lock button several times, watch the lights blink, and then press the lock button a few more times. The entrance to the tennis bubble is about a twenty-stair climb. Halfway there I turn around and press the lock button again.

It’s dark and quiet but I don’t feel alone. I always feel watched. It’s a relief to get inside; I smile to all the people greeting me but quickly look down.

It was when he was about to cross my path in my front yard that I cut across the lawn right up to the side door. I clenched my key, turned the lock, and slipped through the door, locking it behind me without looking back.

I closed every blind in the room. It was a converted breezeway now used as a TV room with windows on each side running the length of the room. Knowing the door was locked, I conveniently dismissed the stranger I had escaped from in my yard.

I now realize that it is a child’s mind that can conveniently dismiss the danger of a predator left stranded at a door, and assume that all will be safe within the walls and closed blinds of home because things have always been safe there. Yet this is exactly what I did.

Crazily, my thoughts turned to food, as they did every day at this time. I didn’t even grab particularly healthy food. I raided the pantry, grabbing a handful of cookies and a pack of Pop-Tarts, and skipped down the stairs to my room.

My dog, Alex, was lounging on my bed with his legs sprawled in mid-air. It was ten minutes later when the doorbell rang. Alex and I looked at each other. Usually he is the first to answer the doorbell, but on this afternoon he didn’t budge. Before we had a chance to decide, it rang again. I grabbed my dog and crept up the stairs.

When I had almost reached the top of the stairs, the door began to pound. I peeked around the wall at the top of the stairs and saw the shadow of a man through the frosted glass window next to the door. The pounding got louder and the man began hurling his body against the door. The doorbell began to ring continuously. I fought to hold onto Alex, afraid of losing him. My hands were sweaty and felt odd against his thick coat of fur. I tiptoed down the stairs to get the phone and dialed my mom through the tears now running down my face.

“Mom… there… there… there’s a man outside. He’s…”

“Lauren, are you okay?” I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. I was shocked, and horrified. By now I was choking on my tears. I worried he could hear me whispering over his loud pounding.

I collected myself.

“There’s a man outside… and I think… he’s trying to get in.”

She asked me where I was. She asked me who was trying to get in.

“This man.”

“What man?”

“The man who followed me from the bus stop and is throwing himself against the front door.”

“Lauren, Honey, calm down. I’m not sure I’m understanding what you’re telling me, but everything is going to be okay.” My mother kept talking to me. I listened vaguely to the familiar pattern of my mother’s voice. I moved slowly toward the door. I was no longer sobbing, but the tears continued to run down my cheeks, not only soaking my sleeves, but also the fur on Alex’s head. The more I began to view this whole scene from outside my body the tighter I clutched my dog.

Two feet from the door, the mail slot started swinging open. I stopped dead in my tracks.

“Lauren, are you still there? What’s happening?”

“His fingers are coming through the mail slot.”

“Get away from the door! I’m calling Eva. And then I’m calling the police.” I backed away from the door in a cold sweat.

“No. Don’t. Promise me you won’t leave me.”

Suddenly, the mail slot went dead. I looked wildly around the room at all the windows with the blinds wide open.

“Oh my God.”

“Lauren. Lauren. What is it?”

“Everything is quiet. I don’t know where he is.”

I stood still and listened. My mother was still talking to me on the other end of the phone line, “Lauren, are you listening to me?” I heard her voice but I was still listening to the silence, waiting for a sound that could now come from any direction.

“Lauren, listen carefully. Go upstairs to my bedroom and lock the door.”

I surveyed the expanse of the living room that I would have to cross to reach the stairs, and it seemed almost impossible that I could make it without him spotting me from any number of angles.

“Honey, are you going upstairs?” I slowly sank onto the balls of my feet, curled up as tightly as I could. I wasn’t answering my mother. I was just listening with the phone cocked at an odd angle away from my ear so I could hear her and the silence. Suddenly, I felt a tremendous blow delivered from outside of the very wall I was squatting against. It was so forceful it knocked me off balance and I screamed.

“Lauren, Lauren, are you okay? What’s happening?”

Now he was pounding repeatedly against the wall as if he knew where I was. He hurled himself wildly against it. Then, he started slapping the wall methodically, moving away from me toward the corner of the house. Every so often he would hurl himself against the wall again and the whole house would shake. He turned the corner into the backyard, continuing to slap and pound the house. When he reached the windows he slapped and pounded them so hard I feared they would shatter.

As he moved along the glass, slapping and pounding, his eyes searched the living room with a frenzied focus. I followed him intently, through the crack of the sectional sofa, frozen with fear.

When he moved toward the far end of the house I became conscious again of my mother on the phone.

“I’m calling Eva.” She was beside herself. “Is that him pounding?” she screamed. “Is that him pounding?”

Now he was pounding at the far end of the house. The walls seemed to be closing in on me with the force of his circling. For a moment I felt like a small animal being flushed from the bushes and without a single preliminary thought, at the precise moment I unconsciously determined him to be at his furthest point from me, I scurried on my hands and knees back to the stairwell. I sat on the edge of a step several from the top, poised and ready to run.

The stairwell was not the secured fortress of my mother’s locked bedroom. But it would never be the prison of that locked bedroom either. As he rounded the house a second time his pounding grew louder and more desperate. I realized that I wasn’t holding Alex anymore, that he must be hiding. Finally, the pounding stopped. I waited for one whole minute. Two whole minutes. Three. The pressure was unbearable. I had just spent twenty minutes avoiding the psychopathic gaze of a sick and twisted animal hunting me for a reason I was at a loss to explain. Yet, I found myself creeping up the stairs and toward those very same living room windows to see what I could see. I peeked around the corner at the frosted glass by the front door: he was not there. Nor was he at the front window to the right of the door.

I took a deep breath and stepped around the corner and saw that he was not at the window that overlooked the backyard. I paused at the threshold to the kitchen. I studied the reflections in the window of the microwave to see if he was at the back door. Then I wondered if the back door was even locked. I had not checked it since I got home, and my family was often careless. Then, I thought that if it was unlocked I shouldn’t be worried about whether he was outside waiting for me. I should be worried about whether he was inside with me.

For this reason, when I stepped into the kitchen, I looked to the right at the coat closet that used to be a pantry. Its door was ajar. Before I reached for the knob to open it, I glanced over my shoulder toward the back door to make sure he was not behind me.

And there he was, outside, filling up the entire frame of the back door. The screen door must have been unlocked because it was closing against his backside. He was breathing heavily, against the door. We were so close I could see the prints of his fingertips pressing into the pane. He stared directly into my eyes, as if he knew all along this was where he would find me.

I did not scream. I held my ground and awaited my fate. And after several seconds our interlocking gaze was broken by the commotion of my next-door neighbor, Eva, bustling toward him, shooing him away. He turned once and looked at her, turned back to look at me, a car pulled in my driveway, and he ran.

Lindsay and her mom Leanne were in the car that drove up. They were taking me to lacrosse practice just like they drove me to tennis practice throughout the year. I hurried to open the front door, grabbed my bag, and then ran to their car and jumped in. Eva was chasing him past the car and down the sidewalk, flailing her arms at him, motioning for him to go away and leave me alone.

I locked my door and pressed against the back of my seat. I was still breathing hard. Leanne looked at me and looked down the street. “Is there something going on I should know about?”

I stared down at the floor. “He’s been trying to get in for a while.”

“Get in? Do you mean your house? Do you mean that man? Because I know him. I mean, I know his mom. You know my friend Sally?” She turned and studied me carefully, “You don’t know him, do you?”

When I got back from lacrosse, we called the police and an officer stopped by to take the report. We told him we had witnesses, but he said all he needed from us was the man’s name. He returned thirty minutes later. The man wasn’t there, but he talked with the man’s mother. Everything was fine. My mother and father exchanged glances. The man had dropped his wallet jogging and simply wanted to know if I had seen him drop it. My father asked him what he was doing jogging with a wallet. My mother asked what was a forty-year old man doing living with his mother. The officer shrugged. As far as he knew there was no law against jogging with your wallet or living with your mother. He smiled and shrugged again as if he were hamstrung by a series of odd but harmless events. I felt foolish and betrayed. So that was it, a harmless misunderstanding. Then, as he turned to open the front door he struck a cautionary tone, warning us that there were predators out there, in our very community, in fact. I got lucky this time, he said, but I wouldn’t always be so lucky in the future. “Call us if you ever feel threatened again. We’re here to protect,” he said, stepping out onto the front porch. “Have a good night.” And he disappeared forever into the darkness.

 

My tennis lesson ran over several minutes, which is unusual for this teacher who always had another student and parent waiting. He had been trying for weeks now to get me to lean forward into my shots. I’ve always had a tendency to fall back defensively to the point where I take myself out of play. I walked off the court, picked up a towel and wiped off the back of my neck. I picked up my phone and noticed I had missed a few calls. My mom had left me a couple voicemails but I never listen to them anyway. I had a text from Lindsay asking me to call her. This was funny because I hadn’t seen her in a while. My phone vibrated again and another message from Lindsay appeared, consisting of a few question marks. I called her immediately and she picked up on the first ring.

“Hey. Where are you?” She sounded rushed but at the same time almost hesitant.

“I just finished a lesson.” I began to gather up my things. I waved at my coach, threw my bag over my shoulder and headed toward the exit. “Why? What’s up?”

“Do you remember that guy?”

I knew exactly who she was talking about.

“Well you know how my mom knew his mom?” I didn’t answer. “Maybe I should just come over. Or would you like to meet somewhere to get something to eat?”

“Lindsay, just tell me.” I gripped the phone tighter, fighting off the image of his face pressed up against my backdoor.

“My mom ran into his mom a couple days ago, and somehow they got to talking about him and that girl he accosted a couple weeks after he chased you—”

“Is he out?”

“Don’t get—”

“Is he out?”

“No— Yes— I don’t know exactly.”

“Lindsay—”

“Well, he’s getting out, but that was a couple days ago. So I don’t know if he’s out now. But he will be. So I thought I should call you.”

“And your mom didn’t tell you for a couple days?”

“I know. I know.”

“So what did she say?”

“Oh yeah. I remember now. They got on the subject because the woman, Sally, was telling my mother about the divorce she just got.”

“From that guy’s father?”

“Yeah. And get this. When my mom asked her if she was worried about her son getting in trouble again, she said that she didn’t know, but that he wouldn’t be living with her. And when my mom raised an eyebrow to this, the woman said ‘He didn’t get it from my side of the family.’”

I stood stock-still, twenty yards outside the bubble, right where I had stopped walking. I could hear the vibration of volleys and serves echoing over the open parking lot.

“Lauren.”

“I gotta go. I’ll call you later.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

All the way home I watched myself driving like there were two of me in the car and I wondered what it all meant, and how it would or wouldn’t change my life. When my phone rang I answered without thinking. It was my mother.

“Peanut! Where are you?”

“On my way home.”

“Are you going to be home for dinner?” She was at work and she was bored. It’s always like this. She calls with nothing to say and I carry the conversation.

“Yeah.” I looked down the road and the light was red. And we didn’t say another word to each other until I pulled up to the light. “I just talked to Lindsay and she just told me something pretty interesting.” I was about to tell her the whole story, but I paused. Instead, I looked at the guy in the car next to me. He kind of looked like him. But he wasn’t. It gave me chills anyway. Then I looked at the jogger coming the other way. And he kind of looked like him too.

“What did Lindsay tell you?” She had a lot of time to kill and she was ready to talk as long as I wanted.

“Did you lock the back door?”

“I don’t know. I think so. Why?”

“Do you think Eva’s home? Do you think she could walk next door and check?”

“Why? What’s wrong, Lauren? What did Lindsay say?”

“She said her mom talked to Sally, that guy’s mother.”

“And what did she say?”

“He didn’t get it from her side of the family.”

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