Say Hello To The Stranger
I stepped off the plane into a Hungarian climate not unlike the one I had left behind. Sunshine was failing to warm a slight chill in the air, but lugging my heavy hand luggage down the metal steps beside the plane left a thin sheen of sweat on my forehead. A slight, smiling woman greeted me at the airport arrivals lounge. Unsurprisingly her English was excellent, having dealt with hapless foreign teachers like me probably hundreds of times before.
She smiled as I approached, and said 'hi' in Hungarian. I replied in kind, remembering the smattering of phrases I had struggled to learn from my phrase book. The drive to the small mountain town that would be my home for the next few months passed with general chatter. My nerves were humming. I had nothing at home, I hadn't moved out, I was a shut in with no job, girlfriend or real prospects, and the choice to come to Hungary had quickly become no choice at all.
Not that I was complaining. My own apartment, my own life and a stable job. Adulthood was past due, I was nineteen and in need of some kind of direction. A direction that took me around the world didn't seem like a bad one at the time.
The town itself was old, set on the slope of a mountain, but modernity was creeping in here and there. There was a supermarket chain and even a bar or two. The school was small, and my welcoming party told me that I was the first foreign English teacher they had been sent. This place was truly uncharted territory, and I hoped for a warm welcome.
It had to be when I was exploring the winding roads, or maybe when I was jogging that it found me. Looking back, it's the only thing that makes sense. A telltale footstep behind me, or a baited breath. I would hear it now, my ears are a lot sharper. Maybe it waited in one of the caves just outside town, or in the scattered clumps of trees here and there. I don't know where it came from, but it found me or my apartment.
All I had was a living room/bedroom, a small kitchen and a bathroom connected by a cramped hallway, but it was mine. My own space, and I loved it. My window looked out over a quiet street that I had been told was the centre of town, although you wouldn't know to look at it. I was happily drinking in the sight of people bustling lazily below me when I heard a sound behind me, a sound almost deliberately quiet.
Shadows flickered as I glanced back. Slowly, I moved to the door that led into the hallway. There were frosted glass windows set into the wooden frame, for no reason I could discern other than to offer a shattered view of the darkness beyond. Again I glimpsed movement, and I opened the door. A wasp hummed frantically back and forth, and I recoiled at the sight of it. My fear of them was irrational, I knew, but the knowledge did little to slow my heartbeat. I swatted the intruder with a book, the sound sharp in the silence, and flushed the remains. Still, I was tense. I glanced around again. Maybe my phobia rearing its head had distorted my memory, but I could have sworn the shadow I spied had been cast by something larger than a wasp. Something much larger.
The kitchen and bathroom were exactly as I had left them, nothing had been moved or stirred. It was quiet. I shook my head, putting it down to nerves and a noise from the pipes. In truth, I barely remembered this incident until later when I knew that something had been there watching me.
The next day I took a walk through the town, and I noticed something strange. The people I looked at were glancing away, speeding up when I tried to greet them. Everyone did this, with one exception: parents with their children. Every time they would mutter something to their offspring in Hungarian, and the children would look up at me in fear. Quietly they would whisper hello, and I would reply as kindly as I could, at least at first.
The more it happened though, the more I noticed. The parents were muttering the same sentence every time. The children would look behind me nervously, they would shrink back in fear, and when they said "hello" it was in the plural form. Who else were they saying "hello" to? I hastened a glance behind me, but there was nothing. I strained my ears, listening for a breath or a footstep, but heard only my own and the occasional sounds of traffic.
The day after I was back at work, but silence fell the moment I walked into the staffroom. The other teachers looked at each other nervously and edged away from me. The headteacher sent me home without an explanation. By now I'd had enough, I was confused and exasperated. I called the woman who greeted me at the airport. She was my contact person, and had told me to call her if I needed anything. She greeted me happily enough, but grew very quiet when I told her what was going on. Before long she was mumbling excuses to hang up. I was done, and I blurted out the sentence that the parents had been saying. My Hungarian was rough, I knew, but I'd heard the phrase so much my pronunciation of it was near perfect.
"What does it mean?" I demanded. "Just tell me, please."
There was silence at the other end of the phone. Finally she cleared her throat.
"It means: say hello to the strangers, or you will be like them." She hung up.
Strangers. I was a stranger to the people here to be sure, but who or what was with me? Again I strained my ears, and again I heard nothing.
That night I sat on a chair with my back to the wall. Looking out at the room. My heart was pounding so hard I could see the veins move in my wrist. The thing that struck me after a few minutes was that I had no idea what I was looking for. Was I even looking for a thing? A person? What was it doing? Why? What did it want? Most importantly, where was it? Questions flew about my consciousness, fogging up my brain.
I don't know how long it was before I fell asleep, but I awoke in pitch blackness. I was about to turn on the lamp beside me when I heard a low hiss. I froze, and waited. It came again, enough for me to realise that whatever it was sat directly beneath the chair I was sat on.
My hand gripped the lamp tightly, and my fingers found the switch. The sudden light made me blink as I leapt up out of the chair and fixed my eyes on... Nothing. There was nothing there.
I edged closer, crouching to examine the spot more closely. There wasn't so much as a trace that something had been there. I straightened up and cast my eyes around the room. Could it have moved when I got up? Maybe, but only if it had moved blindingly fast. My hackles stood to attention. Not only was it here, it was faster than me by far.
Had it been with me all this time in the town? No wonder people were scared of me. How had it stayed hidden?
"There's always a blind spot," I muttered to myself. There was no way I could see everything at once, no one can.
By now I was shaking, breathing heavily. I slowly walked to the door, keeping my eyes fixed in front of me. Nothing flickered in my peripheral vision, it had to be behind me. I cracked the door open and edged through, using my body to block the way from my pursuer. I slammed the door behind me immediately and locked it. I stood back, gasping in relief.
There was a pause. I giggled to myself a little hysterically. I had been imagining things, I thought. I leant against the silent door, shoulders shaking with mirth.
Something smashed furiously against the door. I leapt back and tripped, falling straight on my back, my head jarring on the floor. Stars exploded in my vision and I blinked rapidly, trying to clear it.
The door buckled. A crack had appeared in the middle of the door, running along a seam in the wood from the floor to the ceiling. I scrambled to my feet and bolted down the stairs, bursting from the apartment block like a racehorse.
I had to go somewhere, anywhere with people. Maybe one of the bars, or the train station. The street was empty, but I felt eyes on me, I could see curtains flicker as a I passed houses, screaming for help.
One of the bars was ahead of me, neon lights casting an unnatural glow into the road. Music, some cheesy pop song, was coming from inside. I was bearing down on it. Fifty metres, forty, thirty. I could hear it's footsteps behind me, outpacing me. I could feel something sharp flicking against my back, and hot breath on my neck. My clothes tore as it sliced at me.
Fifteen metres, ten, five. I threw myself at the door. It was blacked out glass, casting a near perfect reflection of the street, my tear soaked terrified face, and the monster bearing down on me.
It's skin was pale, and it was gaunt, perhaps five and a half feet tall. It's thin arms supported three fingered hands, topped by claws that seemed perfect for holding and prying more that slashing. It's body was sinew and bone, and it's face was fixed on me. It's features were distorted, scarred and almost reptilian, and it's eyes were dark hollows. I don't even know if there were eyes in there at all in truth, even looking back now.
My body hit the door with a soft thud. It was locked. I gaped up in disbelief and cried out as the creature leapt on my back and wrapped it's hands around my face.
I remember the next few moments in slow moments in slow motion. The glimpse of hooked claws. Falling. The weight of the creature as it pinned me. The snap of my finger bones as it took a hold and twisted them. My eyelids tearing as it reached into my head, the scrape of its claws against the bones of my skull. The light pressure as it grasped my eyes between its claws, and the sickening tug as it began to pull. And finally, the sharp pain as my optic nerves were ripped away and the sudden blackness that enveloped me.
Most of all, I remember the bar, and the way the people inside turned up the music to drown out my screams.
I was sent home when they found me, moaning, babbling and bleeding, laying curled up on the front step of the bar. My parents screamed like I had when they saw me, and that has stayed with me just as much as the stranger that took my eyes.
The basement I let for independence and adulthood is now my dark prison, where I am shut away from prying neighbours and laughing children. Maybe it's a blessing that I can't look in the mirror. I would only see a gaunt, pale figure, three twisted fingers on each hand, and a scarred, ruined face with only dark hollows for eyes.
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