This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
To most people a train station is not a particularly frightening place, but for the young woman leaving the crowded platform it is nothing less than terrifying. Every brush of a passerby makes her flinch and clutch her worn backpack more tightly. Not that the backpack contains anything more than the few items she could grab whilst fleeing from her flat the evening before. Her fear does not lie in pickpockets, or even the muggers that the back alleys of London are known for.
No, she fears only one thing. A man. Or a woman, a child, a senior citizen. He could be anyone, today. He is different every time she sees him, but he is always the same man. And he is always close.
The young woman, called Emma Richardson, was quite normal until recently. She went to a university with a vaguely Catholic name in a town which you have probably never heard of, which turned out the usual assortment of bankers, psychologists, and secondary school English teachers. She had modestly good marks, modestly mad friends, and a modestly funny boyfriend with dyed orange hair and an indie rock band called “Stomping Roses”, which spent most of its time tuning its guitars in their dorm rooms or eating greasy fish and chips.
The first time she saw the man she was in the park near their school. She had planned to have a picnic with a group of her friends, but the weatherman’s forecast of rain had deterred all of them from meeting her near the pond, leaving her with only her boyfriend, his band, and a load of soggy sandwiches. Not that anyone had actually believed the weather report, but the overcast sky promoted caution. Therefore, Emma was sitting on a slightly damp park bench near the water, watching her boyfriend’s band lounge in their worn jeans and strum their acoustic guitars in a vague way that befitted a brilliant but as yet undiscovered rock band. She attempted to speak with her boyfriend, but after a few moments of ambivalently nodding in her direction he had moved to a shaded spot beneath the trees closer to the water.
It all left her mildly irritated, but it was difficult to be truly angry with someone who would simply tell her to “chill and let the essence of the universe wash over you.” Honestly, you would think it was 1970 with the way they spoke. She was watching her boyfriend’s carrot colored mess of hair bob to a tune he was picking out when something caught her eye across the water. On the opposite bank of the pond, a man stood, staring intently in their direction. His gaze bored into Emma, making her terribly uncomfortable. She glanced around, hoping to see what the man was staring at. There was no one in the park besides herself and the band, and even their oddly colored haircuts merited little more than a few raised eyebrows. No, the man was not staring at them. He was staring at Emma. Just then, he abruptly turned away, as if all he had wanted was for her to notice him. One of the band members knocked over the plastic cooler with a crash and Emma hastened to clean up the mess. The cans were dirty, and much of the ice was so muddy that she did not bother putting it back in the cooler. She left it to melt into the dirt, packed tight from years of picnics. When she looked up again, the man was long gone.
The second time she saw him she was in the supermarket. Emma’s basket was nearly full with the items from her list, when she turned into the cereal aisle. At the same moment, a tall Chinese man entered the aisle from the other end. Or rather, he did not really enter it. He simply stood there between the shelves, staring at her with a blankly determined gaze. His look made Emma’s skin crawl. She wanted to say something to him, but she wasn’t at all sure what and he did not look as if he spoke English. So, she hastily grabbed a box and headed towards the checkout. It was not until she returned to her dorm that she realized that she had accidently purchased a box of Lucky Charms. She didn’t even like marshmallows, especially not the wonky artificially colored kind. Still, she ate a bowl watching BBC. She did not think of the man at the park. She did not think that the two men were the same. Why would she? After all, there are nutters everywhere.
The next time she saw the man he was an old woman watching her as she did her Christmas shopping, the time after that a middle aged businessman on the tube, and the next time a child holding an untouched ice cream in line at an amusement park. Never did the truth occur to her, although a part of her must have known. Once, he was an elderly man sitting alone before a chessboard in the park. He stared at her impassively through liver spotted lids. And on impulse, Emma pointed him out to her companion.
“Laura, do you see that man over there?”
“That one, by the chess board.” Laura blinked like a camera flash had just blinded her. Then her eyes slid into focus.
“Doesn’t he seem to be looking at us?”
Laura did not seem to hear the question,
“Poor thing, he’s probably waiting for someone. My gran used to do that, you know. She waited for my uncle to come home from school every day for years. Of course, he died when he was eleven. Measles, I think.”
Laura’s mind slid off the man like water off a duck’s back. The old man smiled at Emma. It was not a happy smile, more a grotesque stretching of his lips. Emma briefly saw his eyes flash orange as he moved to take a black knight.
The first time that the man spoke to her Emma was leaving the university library, trying to balance her bag on one knee to stuff her books inside with a free hand. The zipper had closed when she felt a hand on her left shoulder. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up like antennae receiving electrical signals, although the hand was sweaty and small. Some part of her knew who it was, but she still turned to look back at him. A short and bespectacled freshman looked up at her, the same vacant gaze boring into her.
“I’m sorry, was there something that you wanted?” Emma’s voice was surprisingly steady as she faced the unthreatening young man. All of a sudden, his grip on her shoulder turned to iron and he pulled her close. She could feel his steady breaths on the back of her neck. They were cold.
He whispered into her ear. The man’s voice was like something that had been locked deep beneath the earth and left there to decay. She could hear the rot creeping and feel it dampen her skin.
“This is a game, Emma.”
Her back and shoulders tensed. At that moment, two girls exited the library and gave them a funny look. The man released her shoulder and smiled at the girls as they passed. In the brief moment before they turned the corner, Emma ran. It was not long before she encountered a crowded corridor, but she soon realized that she could not stop running. She pushed past professors and students alike, giving no heed to the discontented exclamations or explosions of paper from open school bags that she left in her wake. She turned another corner into an empty back hallway and felt a stitch blossom in her side. The adrenaline left her as quickly as it had come and she doubled over, dropping her bag on the ground. Though her ragged breaths filled her ears, she heard the slow approaching footsteps quite clearly. She felt his breath on her shoulder. Emma bolted for a second time, running into a side door and up a concrete staircase. But Emma had never been a runner. In fact, her gym marks had always been her worst and had declined further since entering university. Halfway up the stairwell she was forced to halt, gasping. She looked back and saw that he was standing frozen at the foot of the stairs. His lapine face was contorted in something between terror and loathing as he stared at the concrete. He glanced back up towards her, eyes flashing an irritated orange in the fluorescent lights. He dropped something before turning to leave.
Her book bag.
On the day that Emma graduated from university, she saw him again, sitting in the row behind her parents. She did not see him until she was taking her seat, diploma in hand. This time he was a middle-aged bookish woman with spectacles hanging on a beaded chain round her neck. His blue eyes tracked her like a hawk tracks a small animal on the ground below. There was no urgency in his eyes; he had plenty of time and they both knew it.
Emma did not see the man again for nearly three years, but that did not mean he was not there. Often, she could feel eyes on her while she shopped or crossed the street. But before long he had slipped from her mind like a childhood memory. Her life settled naturally back into its routine, only occasionally bothered by small upsets like her breakup with her orange haired boyfriend and her subsequent relationship with someone who raised fewer eyebrows at Christmas dinner with her family. She acquired a modestly well-paying job and bought a flat on the other side of town from where her parents lived. Altogether, her life became wonderfully mundane again and she learned to ignore the feeling of being watched.
Then, on a Sunday in February she saw him again. She was poring over one of the cookbooks looking for something to make for dinner with the neighbors that evening, when a knock at the door startled her. She left the book on the counter and went to answer. It was a small town, and so Emma was mildly surprised when she opened the door to an unfamiliar face in the uniform of the postman. He wasn’t much taller or broader than she was, but held the large cardboard box with relative ease. The box obscured his face.
“Emma Richardson?” a muffled voice asked form the other side of the cardboard.
“Yes. That looks heavy. Here, come inside and set it down.”
Emma held open the door to facilitate his entrance and then shut it once he had set the box down on the sofa. Emma examined the postmark on the box. It was from her parents. The postman held out the clipboard for her to sign. He was facing away from her, looking at the pictures she had put on the walls just last week.
“I don’t recall having seen you before. Are you new?”
“No.” came the short reply. He was staring at the pictures intently, “I’ve been here quite as long as you have.” Slowly, uneasiness was creeping into Emma’s mind. Something about this man made her terribly uncomfortable.
“You should know me by now, Emma.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
The man turned towards her. He was not Chinese, nor was he an elderly woman in a shop, nor a child in an amusement park, nor an acne-faced university student. And yet, for the first time Emma was quite sure that he was all of these people. He smiled, that same distorted stretching of his mouth and told her, “Our game is almost at an end.”
Then he picked up the discarded ballpoint pen from the floor where Emma had dropped it and left. Emma did not finish preparing dinner. When her boyfriend returned home he found a cookbook open to a shepherd’s pie recipe on the kitchen counter. He also found a large unopened cardboard box sitting on the couch. The postmark was blank. It was empty.
The clock strikes four am and Emma realizes that she has not slept since Saturday night. Not that she could sleep. Even with the train lulling her with its gentle rocking she still cannot shake the feeling that he is watching her. Which he is. She scans the crowd in vain. She knows that she will not see him until he wants her to. Honestly she isn’t sure why she bothered to run. Still, she pushes nervously through the throng of Londoners and out of the train station. The chilly air immediately makes her eyes sting and her ears turn red. She really ought to have brought a hat; she knows perfectly well that spring doesn’t truly reach London until late April from all her visits to her sister.
Most everyone is still sleeping, and so Emma walks unhindered down the street. She passes little shops whose owners are just now stirring behind frosted windows and preparing their morning coffees. A bus stops nearby, the lighted sign on its front end broken and flashing something illegible. Emma runs to catch it and climbs into the empty vehicle alone. It’s eerily quiet on the bus, and when it makes a stop on another street, nearly identical to the first, she disembarks with relief. She looks around and realizes that she is hopelessly lost. Someone turns on the lights in a café to her right, but she chooses not to enter. Instead, she walks until she comes across a small park behind open wrought iron gates. She walks inside and discovers that it truly is small, containing little more than a few trees, a man-made pond, and a few park benches. From somewhere in the trees she hears a footstep.
“Who’s there?” Emma asks.
It is a stupid question. She already knows who is standing in the trees behind her. She feels his breath on the back of her neck. Steady. Cold.
“Checkmate, I think.”
Emma never returned to her flat. Her family and her boyfriend did not see her again. They filed a missing persons report, but after a few months the police stopped looking. After a few years, her family also stopped looking and she slipped from their minds like a childhood memory.
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FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"
Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."