This short story was submitted to the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Awards 2016 and received a commendation. This year’s judge, Laurie Steed called it “a tale of stalking with a twist, and while the twist was familiar to me as a reader, the story shows a writer punching above it in search of a nicely measured building of tension.”
The sun cast long shadows against the concrete paths of the sleepy seaside town. The disappearing light did little to take the chill off of the winter’s afternoon. Tucked in to the shadows, head bowed against the rising ocean breeze, The Watcher went unnoticed by passers by. The air smelled of a curious mix of the ocean intermingled with wood burning in fireplaces as the towns inhabitants settled in for the night.
The stone wall was cold and damp against his side. Drizzle earlier in the day left puddles on the ground leaving him with wet, uncomfortable cuffs. But the cold went unnoticed, veiled by the overwhelming hunger in his soul, a screaming desire that would not be silenced. It had been too long. Though he stood perfectly still, his mind raced as he surveyed his surroundings
He watched a pair of elderly friends make their way slowly down stone steps. They walked with a comfortable silence that grows between old friends. The smaller of the friends walked slowly, a cane gripped firmly in his wrinkled hand. The small man stumbled as he descended the last step, uttering a low groan that reflected the pains of an aging body. His tall friend reached out an arm to stabilise him, a nod of gratitude all the thanks he needed. As they continued along the path, the Watcher raised his head, his cold green eyes fixed on the small, frail man.
The watcher slinked to the top of the stairs; from here he could see the last crescent of the setting sun disappearing into the ocean. The dark sky behind him would have disguised him in shadow if the old men had turned to look his way. They never turned back though, for he moved as silently as a ghost. From his shadowy perch he studied the small man; his thin, grey hair was hidden under a tattered blue scarf so that only a little of his leathery face was visible. Yet something in his stance, in the stiff way that he walked, was familiar to The Watcher. His eyes still fixed firmly on the old man, he was transported through memory to a time long forgotten. A warm house, a fire crackling and popping so close that the radiant heat made his skin tingle and then it all changed. He remembered the violence which had been so unexpected, the hunger that grew so quickly inside him and then death. Now the hunger consumed him, the compulsion to feed it overwhelming. He lowered his leg slowly to the first step, his eyes never leaving the back of the small man.
As The Watcher approached the bottom of the stairs his senses heightened. He was acutely aware of the thin veil of salt that the ocean breeze had deposited on the stone steps beneath his bare feet. The wind delivered the scent of the men who smelled like beer and cigarette smoke. A gull called to its flock somewhere out of sight in the looming darkness. The men ahead of him paused for a minute, the tall man pointing at something on the horizon. The Watcher froze, knowing that if the men turned back now he had nowhere to hide, aware that the long cane that the small man carried might still be useful as a weapon, even in the hands of a frail old man. But the men did not turn around, continuing on their walk; oblivious to the presence behind them. They rounded a corner leading them to a dark, shadowed underpass.
The Watcher hurried forward with the stealth of a lioness stalking her prey, peering around the corner into the dark tunnel, not wanting to lose sight of the small man. Pressed hard against the stone wall, The Watcher was concealed by metal garbage bins. The wind picked up the grease stained pages of a discarded newspaper that was sitting on top of the days refuse. The Watcher didn’t notice the gruesome headline or photographs detailing a string of victims in unsolved crimes which had shaken the sleepy seaside suburb in recent weeks. As the wind blew the paper against his leg, he shook it of deftly, paying little attention to the words it held. The men were leaving the tunnel at the other end, their silhouettes backlit by a dull, yellow street light. The Watcher hurried into the tunnel, pressing his body hard against the wall of the underpass, knowing from experience that any sound he made would be covered by the whistle of the wind which was now blowing strong. Weary of the wooden cane, he stayed to the left of the men, hurrying in the darkness as they turned and walked up the street ahead.
In and out of shadows he followed them. They never knew he was there. As the men climbed the battered wooden steps to the porch of the rickety looking seaside shack, The Watcher stayed back, concealed by overgrown shrubs and plants in a garden that looked once loved but long neglected.
The tall man helped his friend up the stairs, it appeared he didn’t intend to stay long, leaving the door slightly ajar as he helped his friend inside and settled him at the kitchen table. The Watcher saw his chance, running up the un-lit garden path he slipped through the open door and hid himself in the dark front room. The house smelled stale and dusty. He could hear the old men talking in the front room. The cane was resting on the side of the table; the tall man was setting a cup of tea in front of his friend.
The small man reached for the cup with unsure hands, in the manner of a man losing his sight. His tall friend gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder as he said goodbye and let himself out of the house. The Watcher listened for the click of the door closing and the deadlock snapping into place; at last he was alone in the house with the old man.
As the man sipped his tea, The Watcher approached emboldened by the departure of the taller man. He crouched low, hoping that the table and the man’s failing eye sight would conceal him. There was a dusty light bulb above the table; the dull light it emitted barely reached the corners of the room. All of the other lights in the house were off. He moved forward, the masculine scent of beer and smoke and old age tingling in his nostrils. His eyes were well adjusted to the light and on the wall he could see framed photographs, a collection of memories from a long and happy life, a smiling woman featured in many of them. The story told by the photographs was unfinished though, the last images looked 30 years old, the woman sick, surrounded by a group of family, their faces sad and smiling all at once. No-one had added to the wall since that photo. The Watcher remembered a time in is youth, a kind woman, a warm house. As always the happy memory was replaced by the events that came soon after, the events that had lead The Watcher to where he was today, to what he had become.
Slipping past the empty chair opposite the man, The Watcher slipped under the table. The old man sensed movement “Hello?” He called out into the room, “Is somebody there?” The room was silent except for the whir of kitchen appliances and the scraping of trees against the windows, animated by the wind outside. The old man felt no fear, he had lived a long and eventful life, now he sat calmly at the table, sensing the movement near his leg. He reached a hand down into the shadow cast by the table top.
When the hand made contact with his back, The Watcher shuddered with the memory of his violent past. But as the old man gently stroked his back, neck and ears he remembered a time sitting on a woman’s lap, in the flickering firelight, purring gently to the rhythm of her gentle strokes. Fear left him and he leaned in to the man’s touch, nuzzling at the sleeve as the hand on his back moved to gently feel his loose skin and protruding ribs. The kind old man muttered no words, but scooped up the hungry animal under an arm as he stood and felt his way to the cupboard to find something for it to eat.