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"Adversary"

 by Wayne Faust  

© 2010 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved

  

The hair on my neck should have stood up or something, based on what was about to happen. But I felt fine. I whistled as I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and covered my face with shaving cream. I whipped out my new, disposable Bic razor and went to work on my whiskers. The new Bics had just come out that year so naturally I was one of the first guys to get one. It was a fine Chicago morning in May and the sounds of birds mingled with the rumbling of gas-eating Fords and Chevies cruising to work below my third floor window. I glanced out past the skyscrapers and saw the distant blue shimmer of Lake Michigan, two blocks away. All seemed well with the world.

And then he was there behind me.

I'm not saying I could see him clearly; it wasn't that easy at first. But there was something in the mirror hovering over my left shoulder - a face maybe, but undefined, like heat waves shimmering over a toaster. I whirled around and looked but of course he was gone. He was shy then. The only damage he did was to cause a few globs of shaving cream to fall to the floor and to make me hit my head on the sink as I bent down to wipe them up.

I swore softly and resumed shaving. I was sure I must have imagined him. Maybe I could have defeated him then, before he got bold, while he was merely a wisp. I don't know. I only wish now that I had tried. It's not like me to put something off. I always like to take the bull by the horns as my dad used to say. But this was nothing at all, just a mirage in the bathroom mirror, maybe steam from the shower. Then why the sudden feeling of dread? Why the tingle on the back of my neck? I knew, all right. But I just didn't want to believe. I ignored him and he went away - for awhile.

*****

It must have been five years later when I saw him again. I was bouncing down Halstead Street over ice and snow in my '73 Caddie. It was a brand new car, filled with all the latest stuff. There was enough room in there for a football game. I stretched my arm across the seat and breathed a satisfied sigh. I was making bucks then. Lots of bucks. And I knew that if the money ever ran out, I could figure out how to make more.

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, I felt an overpowering need to glance in the rear-view mirror. There was something in the back seat. It was a manís face and torso but gray and wispy, like a figure made out of fog. It made a faint, hissing sound and a ghostly hand reached up and touched my shoulder, ever so lightly, like a dusting of snow. Needless to say I nearly jumped out of my skin and almost drove up on the curb. I looked again and the figure was gone.

            I began to shiver. I pawed at the frosted windshield and bumped up the heater a notch. As a kid I had always liked winter - sledding, snowball fights, stuff like that. For the first time in my life I found myself wishing I could go to Florida for the winter.

What had that thing in the back seat been? There was no doubt that I had seen it, that it had touched me on the shoulder. Was it a hallucination? Was I working too hard? Somehow I knew that it was neither.

****

My life settled down again and I tried to forget all about the ghost, or whatever it was. The years purred along and I settled into a comfortable routine. I took long walks with my wife in the evenings and went to work every weekday morning. Ď78 turned out to be a record year for me and Ď79 was shaping up to be even better. Spring came and everyone was talking about the White Sox, who looked like they might actually have a shot that year. Then the ghost started to lose some of his shyness and my life started taking a long, slow descent to...well, I would soon find out.

It was Saturday - one of those classic, warm spring days that creeps up on us here in the Midwest in spite of what the weatherman says. My wife and I packed a picnic lunch and headed out the door. We made a whole day and night out of it - picnic at the forest preserve, dinner downtown, and an evening of dancing at Tommy C's. It was one of those things that you can't plan ahead of time, and frankly, after twenty years of marriage I was still head over heels in love with my wife. I know it sounds old fashioned but that's the way it was for me back then.

We got back home and went upstairs for a little roll beneath the sheets. We could still light up the scoreboard once in a while and this night was particularly good. We'd been going at it for maybe 15 minutes and I was on my back, my head propped up on the pillow. My wife was straddling me and I closed my eyes, just soaking up the warm fuzzies. Suddenly I got a creepy, overwhelming urge to crack open my eyelids and look toward the hallway. The door was partway open and light bounced off the full length mirror on the inside of the open closet door. I looked into that mirror and nearly had a heart attack. Someone was standing in the hallway, just around the corner. It was an old man, hunched over, head cocked to the side as if he were listening to us. Then he turned his head slowly, laboriously, and our eyes met.

The old man grinned. The overhead light in the hallway made ghastly shadows on his ancient face, making it look like a jack-o-lantern. He stood up as straight as his ruined body would allow and turned the corner into the bedroom. He shuffled slowly toward the bed, his feet taking little geisha-girl steps and making soft, wispy sounds on the hardwood floor. He looked like a puppet being pulled along by strings. I smelled a heavy odor in the air, like moldy leaves rotting by the curb. Something cold touched my toe and numbness raced up my leg, centering on my crotch.

I nearly choked on my next breath and tried to sit up. The weight of my wife held me down and my whole body went rigid. He was coming for me, that much I knew. I finally managed to push my wife aside and I bolted upright. I put my hands in front of my face to protect myself but by then he was gone.

I jumped out of bed and ran into the hallway, my heart pounding. The hallway was empty. My wife called after me as I ran downstairs and checked the living room and the garage and the kitchen. No one. The only sound I heard was the grandfather clock ticking in the hallway. Tick, tick, tick.

I left a light on in the living room and dragged myself up the stairs, trembling and looking back over my shoulder. I climbed back into bed. My wife asked me what was wrong but what could I tell her? She hadn't seen it. I told her that I thought I had heard one of the kids in the hallway. That was nonsense of course, because even then we only had one kid left in the house and he had been away on a sleepover. My wife told me I had been watching too many spooky movies and I said she was probably right.

I tried to get the juices going again that night but I wasn't up to it anymore. Frankly, I had been scared out of my wits, and that icy numbness still had a firm grip on my crotch. Fear tends to do that to a guy. The funny thing is, there was always a little bit of that fear hanging around in the back of my mind after that and love-making was never the same.

****

A few more years flew by and I tried to forget, although once something like that has happened to you, it's real hard to shake it off. I started worrying about my body. I began jogging every day before work. One crisp, October morning I was feeling particularly good as I ran up Michigan Avenue. The sun came up over the Lake as I turned the corner by the health club, where I would shower and shave and get dressed for work. I saw myself reflected in the mirror glass of the door. I wasn't expecting to see anyone else in the reflection. But he was there, standing behind me, grinning that horrible grin.

He looked like the oldest man in the world.  He might have once been tall like me but now his bald head only came up to my shoulder. The freckled skin of his scalp stretched loosely over an uneven skull. His face looked like an old piece of shoe leather. His nose was swollen and covered with angry-looking blood vessels. White hairs sprouted haphazardly from his nostrils, looking like thin maggots. His mouth was filled with rotting, yellowed teeth and his labored, wheezing breaths smelled like decomposing meat.

But it was his eyes which caught me. They were sunk incredibly deep into his wrinkled face but an icy, blue stare penetrated out from the depths, like frozen ponds at the bottom of a deep, deep cavern. Strangely enough, for that first moment I didn't feel afraid, just sad. His eyes seemed so very tired, like they had seen it all and wanted no part of the world anymore.

I once visited my grandfather in the hospital after he had his stroke. He was paralyzed and couldn't speak. His mind had been unaffected by the stroke but he was forever trapped inside a body that would no longer respond. My grandfather's eyes looked a lot like what I was looking at now, reflected in the glass door of the health club.

I just stood there in my sweats, staring.  A hand lightly touched the top of my head and I felt something draining from me, just for an instant. A feeling of helpless dread hit me again, like that night in the bedroom. I opened my mouth to scream but nothing came out. Then he was gone.

I gathered my wits and took a few deep breaths. Finally I bumped open the door and staggered into the health club locker room. I was glad it was so early and I was alone. The sound of my wheezing breath bounced around the empty lockers, mocking me. The mirrors above the sinks glared down on me as I sat hunched over on the pew-like bench. Those mirrors terrified me like nothing before.

I was clearly going off my rocker. I had never had any use for psychiatrists or people who needed them. All you had to do was tough it out and things would be okay. Now here I was at six in the morning, shaking uncontrollably, afraid to look in the mirror.

I finally got the nerve to stand up and start getting ready for work. I took a shower and then it was time to shave and get dressed. I gritted my teeth and stood in front of the mirror. There was nothing there of course - nothing but my pale, sweating face, and a few stray hairs sticking out of my comb.

**** 

I gathered my wits and decided it was time to fight back. Clearly, this guy wasn't going to leave me alone. Eventually he would show up during an important meeting at work, or when I was giving a speech to the Rotary Club, or something like that. Then I would break out in a cold sweat and lose my composure for good. They would have to come and take me away. I was not going to let that happen.

I actually started looking for him. I checked the mirror every morning, I glanced at my reflection in glass doors, and I even looked into shiny plates at restaurants. I had it figured out. If he showed up again I would not hesitate for even a second. I would grab him by the throat before he had a chance to touch me. I would touch him first. Actually, touch is hardly the word. I would throttle the bastard.

I began to work out more often. I spent a good part of my spare time at the club, swimming, lifting weights, and generally getting into the best shape of my life. I seemed to tire more easily but if I needed any motivation to keep going, all I had to do was think of that creepy, little gnome in my mirror. I needed to whip my reflexes into top shape if I was going to catch him. I even began to get a little bit cocky. I told myself that this little problem had been good for me. It had proven to me what I had known all along - that I could handle anything life sent my way.

****

Spring came again and I took advantage of the nice weather by setting out for a jog around Lincoln Park. It was early evening, just after a rainstorm, and the park smelled like a jungle. I had just come from the hair transplant clinic and the top of my head hurt whenever my feet pounded down onto the pavement but I was determined to finish my run. The sun had gone down and the light was getting real bad but I only had one more lap to go around the fountain before I headed home.

As I rounded the fountain I glanced into the smooth, wide fall of water that poured down into the basin. He was there, reaching out for me. For months I had steeled myself for this moment but now I froze. All my pre-conditioning and all my reflexes failed me. The only reflex I could muster was the one to run away as fast as I could. I twisted away from his outstretched arm and took off down the path, sprinting like it was the fifty-yard dash. I began to wheeze and cough but still I ran. Finally I glanced over my shoulder and saw the fountain, way back in the distance. There was no one chasing me, no one else on the path at all. I slowed to a walk and tried to catch my breath. I cursed. I had blown my chance.

I shuffled through a few puddles of water that the rainstorm had left on the path. I hung my head and watched the water splash off my jogging shoes in the dim light. Suddenly one of the splashes turned into an old, withered arm that reached up and touched the back of my left knee. I let out a yelp and tried to jump away but my knee collapsed under me. I lay on the pavement, looking towards the puddle, mouth open. I was torn between my anger at another lost chance to fight back, and my terror at the thought that something would come for me while I was helpless on the ground, my knee throbbing and swelling with each beat of my racing heart.

I don't know how long I lay there like that but it must have been quite a while. It was fully dark by the time I decided to try and get up. My knee hurt like hell and it was all I could do to keep from crying out but I was alone on the path and probably alone in the whole park. I wasn't about to spend the night out there.

I gritted my teeth and pulled myself up to my feet. I managed to make it back to my car by hopping slowly on my one good leg and dragging the injured one behind me. By the time I got to my car I was covered in sweat and had nearly passed out more than once. But I had made it. I wasn't totally useless after all, at least not yet.

****

I never jogged again. My knee wasn't strong enough, even after surgery. They can do some pretty amazing things in the operating room these days but they can't give you all your confidence back. They can't make you forget that your knee once let go and dumped you down onto the pavement.

To be honest, I suppose all my confidence was shattered by then. I had worked real hard to get ready for a confrontation that finally came and I had come up hopelessly short. How could I be so weak? I began to question my worth, my abilities, even my identity. What was I, some kind of sniveling coward?

My wife noticed the change. Actually, she noticed it a lot. I had withdrawn into a shell and I wasn't about to let her or anyone else inside. She tried to bring me out but I just barked at her and limped into my den to sit in my rocking chair and read. By this time I was reading everything I could get my hands on about psychology. As I said before, I was never much for psychiatrists but I was getting desperate. I wouldn't bite the bullet and go see somebody but maybe I could figure it out myself.

I tried a hundred different things to shake the fear I was feeling. It always came back. I couldn't bring myself to look into a mirror at all any more, or even to glance at a reflection. My job suffered until I had to take early retirement. I became a mole - a frightened, desperate mole.

****

My wife left me in '88 and I felt really lousy for a while. But then I began to look on the bright side. After all, I could now arrange my life exactly the way I wanted without worrying about anyone else. I took out all the mirrors in the house and drew all the curtains. There weren't going to be any reflections to look into any more. I arranged for food to be delivered so I didn't have to go out. I had lots of time to read, although there seemed to be some kind of a film forming on my eyes, fuzzing the pages.

The old man stayed away from me for a long time. I settled into a comfortable routine and didn't think much about him. I should have known he would eventually trick me just one more time.

****

It was midnight and a nasty December wind howled off the Lake and swirled around the high-rises outside my window. Reading in my chair, I felt a draft seeping in from behind the drawn, heavy curtain behind me. I suddenly wondered if it was snowing outside. That thought must have been planted in my head because up until then I hadn't cared what it was doing outside. I should have known something was wrong but I let my guard down. I put my book down on the end table and stood up. I drew the curtains aside and pulled up the shade.

He was there waiting for me. I saw him in the window glass, reflected against the black night behind him. My heart pounded in my shallow chest. I lost all ability to fight against him as our eyes met. My fear drifted off and I was left with that same twinge of sadness I had felt that morning outside of the health club. He looked so fragile, so forlorn. How could I have been so afraid of him? He was just an old man made of rice paper.

I reached up my arm to touch his ancient head, to comfort him.

He raised his arm at the same time.

I stopped.

He stopped.

I waited.

He waited.

I moved my hand toward his hunched frame.

He moved his hand toward me.

Our fingers met. I expected to feel rough, shoe leather skin but instead I felt cold window glass.

I froze.

He froze.

I pulled my hand away quickly.

He did the same.

No, I thought.

But I knew.

            He was no longer outside the window. He had come inside to stay.

END


 

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