The Watching Man


by Shannon Noel Brady


The watching man does just that. He watches.

A forty-something blonde in pink cardigan, who looks like she’s just stepped out of a Swiffer Mop commercial, inspects a pair of dusty sandals. At a table of antique wooden toys stands a big-nosed man, pulling thoughtfully at a clump of grey hair just above his ear. On the other side, an old woman tries on sunglasses bespangled with costume jewels and beads.

The rummage sale teems with such people. They stroll, bump into, and squeeze around each other amidst the tented tables in the parking lot. Some vendors sell secondhand goods from their garages while the artsy types sell picture frames pasted all over with seashells.
It is here that the watching man will find his target.

This is not his everyday spot. He has no everyday spot. Some days he watches from between the Tolstoy and the next T-named author at the library. Other days he watches from the park, tossing seed to the geese while his eyes rove sideways. Still others he watches from the mall, wiping Cinnabon glaze from his cheek while the targets await his choosing.

The watching man will pick, and then he will follow.

He has followed school teachers from Starbucks to their classrooms. He has followed business men from their offices to their mistresses’ apartments. He has followed young boys on bicycles from their houses to gas stations where they bought candy bars with quarters. He has followed teenage girls from smoothie shops to parking lots after dusk where they made out with their dates in mini-vans.

He follows the target for as long as geography and social conduct will allow. He follows until the target disappears behind a locked door, or drives off in a car with no surrounding taxis. He follows until the target looks back one too many times, or heads straight for him with a what the hell do you think you’re doing kind of scowl, at which point the watching man runs.

That has not happened in a long time. He has grown better with practice.

He does not know why he does this. Perhaps because it is exciting. But that is the easy answer. Perhaps it is because it is all about another and not about himself. Because he does not find himself very interesting. Because he has never traveled outside the state and wears pastel blue button-downs and is contemplating Rogaine and says “sorry” before he speaks and has never been able to approach people the normal way.
Because he does not want to be alone.

The watching man roams the aisles of tables, a bead of sweat itching as it rolls down his forehead. The sun’s warmth is amplified by the customers, these walking pillars of body heat. He hopes his target will go somewhere air-conditioned.

But who is his target today?

A tall, skinny man in his thirties hovers near the now-deserted bin of sandals. His neck is long with the two front tendons heavily pronounced, the bottom point of their V sunken between his collar bones. His tee-shirt hangs loose and his hair looks oily. He moves from one object to another as though not truly interested in any of them, constantly looking up as if expecting to meet someone who never arrives.

The watching man is intrigued.

The target continues this way for a while, until suddenly he loses all interest in the goods and hurries out of the parking lot and down the sidewalk. The watching man crosses to the opposite side of the street, hanging back so he is not within sight.

At one point the target swivels abruptly, steps into the recessed entranceway of a restaurant where he leans against the wall and lights a cigarette. The watching man stops at a restaurant on his own side, pretending to read the menu posted outdoors.

The skinny man tilts his head back, blows a puff of smoke. The door opens and a couple passes him, scrunching their noses and waving the smoke from their path. In juvenile fashion the target flashes two middle fingers behind their backs.

The target looks around the corner of the recessed entranceway, perhaps checking that he will not collide with anyone, and then heads off again.

In a determined, straight line the target walks, hands in his pockets and looking unwaveringly ahead. He clings close to the buildings that flank the sidewalk.

Eventually he turns right, down a side street, and the watching man rushes without rushing to the cross walk. He waits for the illuminated “walk” figure to show, yawning and leaning on one hip in feigned disinterest as he tracks the skinny man’s tee-shirt. Finally the figure glows white, and the watching man moves.

The target has stopped at a café, sitting down at one of the outdoor tables. The watching man sits at a bus stop a few doors down. In his peripheral vision the skinny man bites the nail of a thumb, spitting out the pieces as he stares at something in the distance. A waitress approaches and with annoyance he waves her off.

Leaning back in a faux-relaxed manner, the watching man surveys his surroundings. He sees mothers with their children, couples holding hands, lone men with newspapers. Across the street, the forty-something blonde in pink cardigan from the rummage sale exits a coffee shop. Footsteps pass behind the watching man’s bench and he glances to see a redhead carrying a stack of take-out boxes.

The skinny man lurches up, is now walking again with that same determined air of a singular goal. For someone with seemingly nowhere to be, he sure wants to get there. The watching man checks the sign of bus routes and timetables, then smacks his forehead at his pretend mistake.

The target crosses the street between intersections. This will prove problematic. The watching man prefers to obey as many laws and rubrics of etiquette as he can, both to reduce his chances of discovery and because risk-taking is not his forte. But the skinny man is proving more and more curious with his mysterious mission, and with the bus coming to a stop at the opposite bench, to any onlookers his motivations appear clear. He hurries across the road, reads the destination on the bus’s display, then pulls out a map. Over its top edge he hunts for the baggy tee-shirt and oily hair. They are far ahead of him. The watching man must move quickly.

He does, as casually as he can, though not once does the skinny man look over his shoulder. The watching man focuses on the tee-shirt, seeing none of the other pedestrians who crowd his view while sweat trickles down his temples. The target makes several turns and stops, ducking into entranceways or behind sidewalk ads. At one point he spins around and heads directly towards the watching man himself, and for a heart-seizing second he thinks he has been exposed. But the target does not notice him. He stops, peeks behind himself, and then carries on the way he had originally been going. The watching man’s lungs work again.

Eventually the target leads him down a narrow street lined with dingy apartments, plastered with graffiti. The windows are all curtained. Nobody is out. The watching man hangs back, feigning fascination with the door numbers, but the target shows no regard for anything except moving, moving, moving ever ahead. He watches as the skinny man pulls out a pair of latex gloves.

And then he sees her. No… Is it? It must be her, with that same blonde hair and pink cardigan straight out of a Swiffer Mop ad. She is stopping at an apartment. Now she is fishing for her keys. Now she is startling at the footsteps. Now she is dropping the cup of coffee. Now she is yanked into an alley. Now they are gone.

The watching man’s heartbeat pounds in his ears as he steps towards the alley entrance. He does not look, but he can hear her voice, gasping and sobbing. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I said I was sorry. Feet scrape pavement. Thuds and thumps. Again: I’m sorry.

The skinny man speaks: But you did it anyway.

Now the noise of sharp, wet crunches made over and over, harder and harder. The sound of cracking and spurting, ripping and gurgling. The thud of something heavy as it slumps to the ground. The clatter of something else as it is dropped.

Sweat runs into his eyes as he peers around the edge of the wall. Why, why, he thinks, why are you looking, don’t look, don’t look. But he does look, he has to, he must. Because that is what the watching man does.

At the end of the alley the skinny man stares down at the body heaped around his shoes. He pulls off the gloves with a loud flick, places them in his pocket. A crescent wrench lies nearby. The woman’s face is not a face anymore. The pink cardigan is not pink. The blonde hair is not blonde. Everything is red.

The skinny man turns.

The skinny man looks.

The watching man runs.

Down the side street past all the curtained windows, down the bigger roads after that, the watching man runs and runs until he is surrounded by pedestrians. He pushes between their bags and careens into their shoulders. His side feels as if a grizzly bear has taken it between its jaws. He cannot run anymore.

Hoping the skinny man will make no rash actions around so many witnesses, the watching man slows to a swift walk. He longs to stop, to put his hands on his knees and vomit into the sewer drain, but the fear keeps him going.

He risks a glance. The skinny man is a few meters back, his fists clenched and his mouth gripped shut but his nostrils flaring open and closed. He glares at the watching man right in the eyes. The urge to vomit rears again and the watching man swallows its taste as he walks on.

Making sure to stay within the crowd, he wonders why he did not help the woman. Why did he not stop the attack or call for help? He had always considered himself a good person. True, he does not volunteer at soup kitchens nor bring presents to unfortunate kids at Christmas. He has never given more than pocket lint to charity nor chauffeured a friend to the airport. But he always believed that in the moment of truth, when brought face to face with a crisis, he would rise to the occasion. He would act. He would Do.

But he did not.

And now he has become the target. The follower, the followed. The watcher, the watched.

Where can he go?

His first thought is naturally a police station, but he does not know where one is. His second thought is naturally to call 9-1-1, but he knows that the second he pulls out his phone, the skinny man will be gone. But only temporarily. The watched man has a mouth that can snitch and eyes that can spot and a finger that can point and for that reason he can never be alone again.

He walks and walks and does not stop, drawing his path through the city like an Etch-A-Sketch. As long as he is not alone, his follower will not harm him. At multiple points the watched man dashes across the road, hoping his problem will be disposed of by a negligent driver typing a text message.

But the skinny man is always there.

As the sky begins to color itself like a wound beneath a bandage, the watched man knows that some kind of end must occur. He cannot go home. Windows break easier than bone. He heard the sounds that crescent wrench made, and he is certain the skinny man will not spare him such zeal. How will he do it? Will he use another wrench? A hammer, a saw, a screw driver this time? Will it be slow, will he savor it? Will he bash in the watched man’s skull exactly like the woman’s until nothing remains but a bubbling wheeze where teeth used to be?

He cannot be alone.

He can never be alone again.

He knows, in the pit of his stomach he knows, this man will never let him go free.

There is only one thing to do.

The watched man traces his steps until he is once again turning down a side street with dingy apartments and curtained windows. Again he turns down an alley with the formerly red puddle that has darkened to brown. The stench is unbearable. When the watched man kneels at her side, he looks to see the skinny man hovering at the alley entrance, tentative for the first time. His whole body twitches as though live with an electric current, not sure whether to run or fight. He checks side to side for onlookers or cops or maybe a conveniently misplaced handgun.

The watched man takes out his phone. The skinny man steps back.

The watched man dials. The skinny man steps back again.

“Sorry, hello, I’d like to report a murder,” the watched man says, but before the skinny man can flee, he adds, “I killed someone.”

“Yes, it was me.”

“About three hours ago.”

“Alley near Fourteenth and Western.”

“Yes, I’ll wait. I have nowhere else to go.”

The skinny man gives the other man a look of pure what the FUCK, why would you even DO that?

After putting away his cell, the watched man proceeds to pick up the wrench and wipe his fingerprints on its handle. Next he wipes the woman’s shoulders and wrists. A pool of blood fills the sunken hole of her face. Her throat is an open-air channel of vocal cords and vertebrae. The watched man vomits on himself, turning just in time to landslide the left sleeve of his shirt. His hands pat the soggy mess. He flicks the blood at himself, catching a drop on his bottom lip by accident, and all at once his insides seem to rush out of his knees at the knowledge that this is what death tastes like. And to think, the skinny man could have done the same to him.

Sirens come, far at first. When the watched man looks down the alley again, the skinny man is gone. He stares at the rectangle of space until the black and white front of a police car halts in the frame. Blue-clad figures in bulletproof vests approach him with caution. But they have nothing to fear. They are his saviors.

He is safe now.

He will never be alone again.

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