The Man with Gray Eyes
“What do I need to do in order to win?”
It was the most important question, one I ought to have asked before taking the gamble, but I was so concerned about securing my ticket out of here that it completely slipped my mind.
“I believe in fair trade,” the man responded. “A life for a life.”
“Please expound. I want to make sure that I get this right.”
“Before that, take a step back and come closer to me,” he said. “It’s not like you’re going to jump off anytime soon anyway.”
It was then that I noticed the weight had been lifted off me. But it wasn’t gone; I could still feel it hovering over my head, ready to latch onto me again at the slightest sign of hesitation.
I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin as I walked to the man, stopping only when I was two feet away. I could see him clearer now, but his features were… bizarre. I wasn’t even sure that he was a man anymore. From the top of his head down to the soles of his feet, the details surrounding his physical appearance were obscured. He could be anything.
No, he was anything.
“Yes and no.”
I sighed. “Can you please stop reading my mind? I didn’t make a fuss out of it earlier because my hands were full, but it’s getting really uncomfortable now.”
“I can’t help it,” he said, shrugging. “Like it or not, I am connected to you. And the only reason you can’t see me clearly is because you refuse to see me for what I really am.”
“But how could you be… anything?”
“Every person sees me differently, and I take form depending on what they accept me as.”
“So if I start seeing you in a certain form…” I shook my head, trying to rid myself of this unnecessary curiosity. I had to focus. “You were saying something about fair trade?”
“A life for a life,” he affirmed.
A ridiculous idea popped into my head. I looked at him with wide, incredulous eyes. “Are you asking me to kill somebody so I could drag him here?”
He didn’t see that one coming. I said it before I was able to fully process it in my head, so he heard it firsthand from my mouth. He burst out laughing. “Goodness, no. We don’t do that kind of trading here. What I meant is that, since you wanted to be saved and get another chance at life, you need to do the same thing for someone else—someone in the world of the living.”
“But that means he’s alive, right? What chance at life could he possibly need?”
“Angela, just because someone breathes doesn’t mean he lives.”
His words hit me more heavily than I expected, even though I knew he was talking about the other person and not me. I couldn’t understand why it affected me, though. It wasn’t like I identified with it.
“My name is Sam,” I corrected, choosing not to respond to the rest of his statement.
“Whatever.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I don’t concern myself with fake names.”
“It’s not fake,” I argued. “I legally changed my name. You should know that.”
His eyes sparkled with a strange light. “Oh, yes, I do know everything about you.”
“Right, I’m not interested in a history lesson,” I quipped, rolling my eyes. “Just tell me all I need to know so I can start fixing that person.”
He chuckled. “You talk as if he’s a company project,” he said, shaking his head. “But kidding aside, I think it’ll be best if I introduce you to him first. Then I’ll give you the information you need to get started.” He grabbed the doorknob beside him and twisted it. “Follow me.”
I didn’t need to be told twice.
The other side of the door was completely normal and familiar. The ceiling was high, the pillars were thick and white, and the lightly colored marble floor made the whole place glow quite elegantly. A long wooden counter occupied the front of the room, and behind it was a handful of people sitting on swivel chairs, either typing away on their computers or conversing with clients.
There were several flat screen TVs that flashed the numbers of clients that were currently being assisted. It seemed the flow was slow; some guests had eyebrows drawn together, their feet tapping impatiently on the floor.
My eyes shifted to the dark blue letters on the wall behind the tellers.
I had been in and out of this place before, though it was at a different branch, the one nearest my hometown. I wondered if they had already heard about my… untimely demise, and what they could be possibly thinking of doing with my money. Well, they’d better keep it safe until I got my living body back.
Having done enough looking around, I took a deep breath and mustered the courage to finally face the things that were not normal upon my arrival. The first thing that I noticed was how none of the people around me showed any signs that they could see me. They went about their business, not the least bit concerned about the woman who just appeared in the middle of the room out of thin air.
I approached a middle-aged man who was busy filling out a form and loudly cleared my throat, to which he didn’t react, giving me the impression that he didn’t hear me. I then waved my hand in front of his face, but he just stared through it and continued writing down the details on his deposit slip.
I retracted my hand and grimaced. “I don’t like this.”
“You wanted to be invisible when you were a kid.”
I jumped in surprise, my eyes scanning the whole room for the shadow, but he was nowhere to be found. “Where are you?” I demanded. “And don’t you tell me this is what I wanted. When I said I wanted to be invisible, I didn’t mean it like this.”
“Tsk tsk,” he said, his mocking voice resounding in my head. “There’s just no pleasing you, eh?”
“Show yourself, why don’t you?” I said acidly. “I feel silly talking to a voice in my head, as if being a ghost doesn’t make me weird enough.”
“I can’t even if I want to. You don’t allow me to take form.”
“No, what’s stupid is you trying to change what’s already happened,” he retorted. “But I’m not going to argue with you about that again. We’re done with that.”
I sighed impatiently. “I thought you were going to introduce me to the person.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” He chuckled. “Ya boy’s behind counter seven.”
“Please don’t talk that way,” I said, cringing. “It sounds so wrong on so many levels.”
“Wow, I can’t even talk the way I want around you.” I could imagine the shadow grimacing. “Instead of nitpicking what I do, why don’t you focus on that guy?”
“Right,” I quipped, my eyes flitting to counter seven. A man in a dark blue button-up shirt sat behind it, typing on his computer and occasionally checking the paper on his desk for reference. His expression was flat; monotonous. It wasn’t difficult to tell what kind of person he was.
“That’s a really bad habit you got there,” he said, interrupting my thoughts. “You shouldn’t be so quick to judge people. But whatever, you do you.” He paused, and I was able to slip a quick eye roll which he conveniently ignored. “His name is Axel Ford,” he continued. “He’s twenty-seven.”
“And?” I prompted.
“And that’s it.”
“Excuse me? You said you were going to give me all the information I need, but you’re not giving me much to work with here.”
He laughed. “Angela, where’s the fun in giving all the answers? You have to figure out the rest yourself. I don’t think you have the right to complain; it’s not like I’m forcing you to do this.”
I sensed the subtle threat in his voice. I decided to switch my approach to avoid getting on his nerves too much.
“How am I supposed to help him?” I asked. “He can’t even see me. We have a major communication problem here.”
“There’s always a way,” he answered.
“That’s not very helpful advice,” I said, frowning.
“Sure it is.”
“There’s got to be something else you can tell me.”
“Na-uh,” he said lightheartedly. “My work here is done. Good luck!”
But the way my head fell into absolute silence told me that he had already left. I clicked my tongue, trying to keep my temper at bay. There was no sense in getting upset; I’d rather use my energy to accomplish my goal.
I headed toward counter seven, stopping only when I was directly in front of it, and surveyed Axel Ford’s every action. Now that I was closer, I could see more of his features. He had jet black hair that was combed back, a pair of gray eyes that rarely made contact with his clients, and a pale, sallow complexion that made him look older than twenty-seven. I noted—as he stood up to make a photocopy of a document—that he was about six feet tall, and though he was not as lean as I would have preferred him to be, he still fell under the definition of an attractive man.
“Hey,” I said as he returned to his desk.
I don’t know what I expected to happen, but I felt a twinge of disappointment when he didn’t respond. Maybe I was hoping he had some kind of ability to see spirits—a third eye or a sixth sense. It was a long shot—most definitely absurd—yet recent events had led me to believe that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to keep an open mind, especially since I, someone who used to diss anything paranormal, now existed in a plane that was anything but normal.
Axel hit the backspace on his keyboard several times with a frown, completely unaware of my presence.
I scowled at him, even though I knew it was not his fault that he couldn’t hear me. It was very frustrating—not being heard or acknowledged—and it dawned on me that I was going to have to get used to this for a while. At least, until I got back to being alive.
“Five minutes and we’re out of here,” the woman behind counter eight gushed, whirling her seat around to face Axel. The plaque on her desk read Jasmine Wright. Her flaming red hair framed her heart-shaped face, accentuating her cheekbones and giving her honey-colored eyes a radiant look. She was pretty, but the way her body inched toward Axel longingly, as if the man was an oasis in the middle of a scorching desert, ruined what could have been a good impression. My suspicions were confirmed when she flashed Axel a bright smile and continued, “Say, want to go to a diner or something? I heard there’s a new place in town...”
“Sorry, I can’t tonight,” Axel replied tonelessly, his eyes not leaving the screen of his computer.
Jasmine’s face fell a little, barely managing to keep up the smile. “That’s okay. It’s not like it’s the first time.” She then turned back to her desk, unlocking her smartphone with her fingerprint and acting like she wasn’t just shut down, but her shoulders slumped down ever so slightly.
Huh. She must have been rejected every time she tried to make a move on him. Not that I cared, but why would someone even put up with that kind of humiliation? It was downright stupid.
At exactly five in the afternoon, Axel switched off his computer, stacked the unfinished paperwork, and headed to the back room where I assumed the lockers were located. When he came back out, he was carrying a leather briefcase.
“See you tomorrow, man,” a male colleague called out to Axel as he headed for the door, to which he only responded with a curt nod.
“Asshole,” another male colleague muttered once Axel was out of earshot.
It seemed like he didn’t have a lot of fans at work. Now that was something I could relate to.
I followed him to the parking lot. His ride was an old sedan—a 2000 Honda Civic that was a shade darker than his eyes. It had a dent on the rear and the headlights were yellowish. As he got behind the wheel, I hovered outside the door of the passenger seat, realizing there was one other thing I hadn’t really given a thought of until the opportunity presented itself.
How could I get in the car?
I tried to get in the normal way, but my hand just passed through the handle, making me freak out a little. It was quite an experience—realizing that even though I could see and feel my body, everything else around me couldn’t. In more ways than one, I was like air, except that I was fully conscious and temperamental.
Wait, who said I should get in the car and follow him around? Maybe I could wander. I wanted to see how the people at work were doing anyway; how they were coping without me. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were underperforming. The marketing department was pretty much helpless without me.
I scanned the area for the exit, and I saw it west of the lot about forty feet where I stood. I started toward it, thinking of looking for the nearest street sign to get a grasp of where in the world I was, but as I took my fifth step, I felt something push me back, propelling me with such force that I went past where I previously stood and just slammed straight onto the passenger seat of Axel’s car.
I gasped, wide-eyed and breathless. What the hell was that?
The sound of the car revving to life hit my ears, my eyes snapping to Axel as he drove out of the parking lot. It seemed I wasn’t allowed to leave his side.
How utterly inconvenient.
Scowling, I settled on the seat, looking for anything to distract me as we hit the main road. I scrutinized the car’s interior. It was as old as I expected, with a bulky CD player and an ancient dashboard to boot. Well, at least the heater worked fine and the seats smelled clean.
I sighed, thinking of my sleek, black BMW. I missed my car so bad.
As we turned around the corner, I caught sight of the street sign that said “Winthrop” and quickly made a note on my mental map. It appeared that I was still in my home state, Maine, and currently weaving through Hallowell, a city that was about fifty miles away from my house in Nason’s Corner.
I looked up at the haze of orange in the sky, growing dimmer and darker by the minute. The day was coming to an end.
The silence was broken by the sound of something vibrating. Axel’s right hand went into his pocket, bringing out—to my shock and bewilderment—a flip phone. An old car was one thing, but a flip phone? Why? Smartphones weren’t even that expensive nowadays.
He placed it against his ear and spoke. “Yes, speaking.” A pause. “I’ll come by this weekend.” Another pause. “I understand. Thank you, Doctor Stone.”
He flipped the phone close and shoved it back into his pocket, his expression unfathomable. We must be getting close to where he lived, the car was significantly slowing down.
A few minutes later, we were pulling into the driveway of a two-story house that, for some unknown reason, felt more eerie than the abandoned bungalow we passed on the way. It had a steep roof, a large chimney, and an untrimmed lawn. The windows were closed, and the walls resembled the color of an old parchment paper.
“Home sweet home,” Axel murmured to himself as he killed the engine.
Well, it wasn’t exactly what I’d call homey, but whatever.
He got out of the car and I made a motion to follow, but then I remembered I couldn’t touch the car door, let alone open it. For a full minute, I played with the idea of just going through the door. If my hand could pass through objects, then I had no reason to believe that the rest of my body couldn’t. This theory had already been proven when I was thrown into the car by the invisible force back at the parking lot. I was not teleported to the seat; I was hurled at it, my surroundings flashing past me in a blur, a strange cold sensation washing over me as I went through the damn door. It was freaky, to say the least, but I’d better get over it if I wanted to make the most of this new… ability.
I took a deep breath and readied myself. I had to get going—Axel was already by the front door of the house. Before I could move any further, though, I felt a strong pull from the depths of my chest, knocking the air out of my lungs and sending me hurtling past the front lawn and through the wooden front door.
“God!” I screamed furiously as soon as my head stopped spinning, my feet back on the ground. “Don’t I just fucking love that?”
I placed a hand on my chest—trying to calm my racing heart—as I struggled to see through the dark. I heard the flip of the switch to my left, blinding me as the light came flooding in. The first thing I saw was Axel with his back to me. I shot him a reproaching look. Apparently, I had to stick to him like glue. We couldn’t be apart for more than ten feet.
He walked toward the room on the right, locking the door as he disappeared behind it. I scoffed. He could go and lock all the doors in the world, but he still wouldn’t get much privacy with me around. Of course, that didn’t mean I wouldn’t keep my distance while he was changing clothes or taking a shower. I could at least give him that.
I decided to check out the house. The living room seemed ordinary at first. There was a couch, a glass table, and a small book shelf that barely held books; but as I looked closely at the room, I found some peculiar things. There was a telephone with a curly cord, hooked to the socket near the coat rack; an old television that certainly didn’t look like it was capable of running cable; a VCD—not even a DVD—player; and a radio with a built-in cassette player that was probably made before I was born.
What in the world was this? Just what era was this man living in?
When he stepped out of his room, he was wearing a pair of gray boxers and a plain white shirt. The shirt hung loosely to his body, his shoulders slightly hunched, his expression ghastly empty. I thought he was just not lean enough, but without the bulk of his work clothes, he was borderline skinny.
I followed him as he dragged his feet to the kitchen and looked over his shoulder as he opened the fridge. There was nothing in it except for a few cans of beer and a single pitcher of water.
He grabbed a can and sat on the table, the sound of beer bubbles reaching my ears. He lifted the can to his lips, taking big gulps, his blank eyes staring at the empty seat across from him.
“Is that all you’re having for dinner?” I asked, my eyes narrowing at the beer disapprovingly.
He finished it in less than two minutes. He stood up, crumpled the can in his hand, and tossed it in the bin. Without so much as a parting glance to the kitchen, he headed to his room, clearly not planning to have a proper meal.
I slipped into his room just as he closed the door, not wanting to be left alone in a stranger’s house for the night.
It was dim inside. The only source of light was a small lamp on the bedside table, and it took me a few minutes to adjust to my surroundings. As Axel settled in his bed, I walked around the room to try and see what else he got in there.
There was a wooden closet on the left corner, a huge work desk on the right, and a window with the curtains drawn beside it, eliminating any chance for the moonlight to stream in. I noted, with relief, that there was a chair adjacent to his bed, and I decided that was where I’d stay at night, for as long as this little mission went on. After all, this situation was weird enough without me sitting on his bed.
The work desk intrigued me. I could tell from the shadowy outlines that there were a lot of things on there, but the faint light coming from the lamp didn’t reach this far in the room and I had no way of seeing what they were. I’d just check it out next time.
I walked back to the chair and saw that it was occupied by his briefcase. Although it didn’t sit well with me to share the chair with an object, it wasn’t like I had a choice, so I settled in it and tried to ignore the coldness of the leather on my back.
Axel switched off the lamp, the darkness swallowing the whole room. The dark didn’t scare me, but the thought of doing this every day did. So was I just supposed to sit here all night and watch him sleep?
The epitome of boredom. Fantastic.
It filled me with so much dread that I racked my brains for anything that could make the time pass quickly, however I knew there was nothing better than a good night’s sleep. It made me wonder. Could ghosts fall asleep, too?
The idea sounded ridiculous, even to myself, but I sighed and closed my eyes anyway.
At first there was nothing; just complete blackness and silence. But then the black started distorting, spinning, until it dissolved into uneven patches of white, growing bigger as the seconds ticked by. The sound of rail tracks hit me before I was able to make sense of everything around me, and the slight hum reverberating through my body gave me the impression that my seat was moving.
As patches of white filled every corner of my sight, I found Axel Ford sitting across from me, on what seemed to be an empty subway train going fifty miles an hour. He was staring at me, his gray eyes cold and unwelcoming, as if I had just barged into his personal space.
“Well, this is new.”
The sound of his voice and the fact that it seemed directed at me caught me by surprise. I pointed to myself and blurted, “Did you just talk to me?”