Watchers – Part 2 (NaNoWriMo 2015)

Waking up is the second worst part of every day. It’s beaten only by the horror of finally rising from bed. The bit in between, when reality soaks back into us and gives ample reason not to proceed in the day is a hell all of its own. It’s the time I use to re-discover which parts of my body hurt (hips, left knee, lower back and, if it’s damp, all the fingers of my left hand) and decide whether I can face the day.

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It’s usually a slog through the after effects of my alcohol and anti-depressant cocktail. Mostly I wake to the sound of static on my radio alarm clock. If it’s set to the beeping I awake enraged by the sound; if it’s the inanity of people’s babble on the radio I would rather kill myself immediately than risk hearing them in the real world; pop music itself is either too chipper or too moronic to suffer. So static works quite well, saving me from any preset rage or irritation. It’s the closest I get to a neutral calm before reality presses down.

Of course, in order to be woken by my alarm clock I’d need to be in the bedroom, usually twisted into a tight knot discarded on the edge of the mattress. That morning I woke up to the sound of screaming. I guess we’re wired to be flicked into awareness by human screams. A remnant of the cave with its mouth of fire burning low and predators stalking into the sleeping tribe. Whoever wakes first warns the rest of us, and we get straight up with our spears in hand. Maybe that’s how music on the radio hits me – like a warning, shocking me out of sleep, primed to fight or defend whatever made such a terrible noise.

I jerked awake, tugged from that blissful emptiness by a woman’s scream, then a man’s, and then the unmistakable sound of doors being slammed and footsteps everywhere. The surge of adrenalin electrified my limbs, unknotting them and flinging the half-full cup of cold tea across the room. I was on my feet before I knew it, stumbling over empty boxes. Being awake isn’t the same as being aware. I had a moment of standing, hands raised anticipating conflict as I absorbed the yells and the running, stumbling sounds from the flat above me and the thunder of feet on the stairs. I’m on the ground floor which is its own blessing and curse – no stairs for me, but everyone comes past.

I hopped over to spread the blinds and see what horrors the outside world had ready for me. Bedlam from the looks of it. I’d been increasingly reluctant to deal with other humans for some time, and the frenzy outside did nothing to encourage me. Cars had crashed during the night (guess I’d slept through that) and been abandoned, slewed across the road. People were just running across and down the road. It was a lot to take in. My eyesight is crap, but thankfully I’d forgotten to take my lenses out the night before. With a few deliberate blinks I realised that everyone who ran down the road was being pursued by a freaky ghostly figure – everyone had one.

Oh yeah… With being woken suddenly I had lost those key moments of reintegrating the day before, separating memory from dream, fear from normality. I knew what I would find before I pulled back from the window. My own shadow stood next to me. Already hyper from being jolted awake, my whole body convulsed and in an unlikely shimmy of joints and muscles I skipped a couple of steps to my left and let my heart race. It had obviously not murdered me in my sleep or taken over my body and gone out to wreak havoc, or stolen my brain and put it in a jar. That was reassuring.

It turned from the window slowly; it had also been peering out at the chaos in the street. Maybe I had been too freaked out last night, but I now had time to look at it properly. It had the colour of those plastic sheets you slip papers into before laminating them, a thick translucent grey. It was the same height as me, and roughly the same build, which is to say average and slight. I’d failed to notice previously that it wasn’t exactly solid. The front was fine, but I could clearly see that it had no back. It was hollow, like a jelly mould. Even its arms and legs had only a front. I could see its arms because it was still copying my movements, with a slight delay between us like a long distance telephone conversation.

It seemed content for me to stare at it. I was already becoming tired of calling it “it”. I’ve always thought that we take control of the world by giving things names. Ghosts aren’t just deathly apparitions harbinging doom, they’re just ghosts. It’s a lot less scary when it’s just a word. Same for monsters: if you know it’s a man eating tiger at least it isn’t a beast with unknowably numerous claws and tentacles set to flense your soul from your meat. It’s nameable, it’s knowable, it’s controllable. I’d thought it like a shadow or a mirror last night, but in the morning’s attempt at daylight it was neither of those things. It was paying attention. It was observing me as closely as I was examining it. It needed a name, a description, a reference that distinguished it from everything else.

“Still here, then.” You can’t just stare at things without talking to them; it’s rude. The observer didn’t reply, though its mouth opened and closed vaguely. “Can you speak, or do you just copy me?” Again, its mouth made shapes as if it were groping for words, even if they were just the words I’d used. “Just copying. Huh.” That’s about as communicative as I get in the morning anyway, so I didn’t find it hard to imagine someone or something else being equally speechless.

We were closer together than we’d been last night, and it hadn’t leaped at me again as it had when I’d first spoken. That was an improvement. I wondered how it had spent the night – curled up on the other end of the settee, or had it flickered out of existence when I fell asleep. Maybe it was like other people when you’re a child: everything ceases to exist the moment you can’t see it and unfolds out of the universe again when you reenter a room. The problem with seeing the world like that is that it’s impossible to test, intrinsically unsatisfying and guaranteed to give you nightmares.

“So you’re a copier then?” I couldn’t call it a ‘copier’; I’d be expecting to change its toner cartridge or refill its paper tray. ‘Mimic’ just sounded terrible and made me think of the sci-fi horror film where beetles have evolved to resemble humans wearing coats and hats in the American subway system. They didn’t offer a positive connotation.

“I’m going to call you my Watcher, for now. Until I can think of something better. You don’t look like a Steve.” It was actually getting better at making the mouth shapes, the same way you do when you’re talking to someone in a really loud pub and can’t quite hear them. Apparently mouthing words at the person who’s talking to you is really irritating and distracting. I certainly found I was watching its grey lips as it mouthed along with me. I wondered if it was learning my language. I wondered if I really thought I was in some kind of first contact situation. If I was they weren’t doing it very well, judging by the people running around outside. I wondered why I wasn’t running away too. The evident futility of fleeing might have something to do with it, but while I’d perhaps describe myself as quite rational I didn’t really expect to be cool and collected under pressure. But I wasn’t properly awake yet.

“Okay. I need to have coffee. I’m guessing that this is acceptable, and that you’re not desperate to climb inside my skin or anything,” I speak, but I don’t necessarily think about what I’m going to say. There was no good reason to put ideas into its backless head, but flippancy has ever been my way of dealing with stress and awkward situations. I’ve got friends big enough to either cause trouble or get us out of trouble, but it’s always been my mouth that works for me. Thankfully my watcher just mouthed along.

“Have you made coffee before?” Talking is relaxing, and it was helping me. Even if this thing was just copying me I could hardly ignore it; I didn’t yet have a reason to dislike it beyond its unusual presence and invasion of my flat. Those were things I had to forgive people for all the time. At least this one wasn’t talking back.

Somewhat gingerly I made my way to the kitchen. The books had become an impressive obstacle course. My watcher came with me. Its legs were still strangely distorting rather than bending at hips and knees. It was also odd to look behind me and see it look behind itself as well. Made me feel like we were in some endless Magritte mirror. I found I was slowing down so that it could follow my movements. Clearly I was in dire need of coffee. I’d probably have to do something about the tea and bourbon I’d sloshed all over the floor too. But coffee was a priority. It’s the only single-purpose device I’ve got  – technically it can make cappuccino as well as espresso but I can’t see the point in diluting the stuff. My watcher stood next to me, slowly copying the process of smacking the coffee tray against the bin until the solid mass of yesterday falls out, the refilling it and twisting it back into the machine.

The odd sensation of silent company surrounded the coffee making ritual. I certainly wasn’t afraid of this thing, but as yet I’d given very little thought to what it was, where it had come from and what it was here for. Those were all issues better dealt with after coffee, and preferably after a shower and getting dressed. Now those were thoughts that gave me pause. I live alone, though not through choice, and I’m used to my privacy. I was treating my intruder like an only slightly unwelcome guest. It had after all stayed up all night while I slept, which I don’t expect a houseguest to do. I find that I’m very much ‘one thing at a time’ in the morning.

We settled at the breakfast bar together. There’s only one chair, an ungainly piece of junk I’d been intending to replace. It creaked alarmingly as I mounted it and swivelled to ideal comfort. As long as I don’t move at all after I’ve settled the chair feels almost safe. My watcher bent at the waist, its legs folding as if it too were sitting on a chair. It didn’t have to touch the floor I noticed. Well, that made sense – it had no back so why would it be rooted to the ground? It did make me wonder how it was going to handle stairs. All I’d heard were my neighbours fleeing from the other flats; I didn’t get to see their watchers floating behind them. We sipped our coffee together. I drank and the watcher carefully raised its hand, fingers clawed round the imaginary coffee cup. I had the Eric Carle The Very Hungry Caterpillar cup. It’s a child-sized mug, but it’s perfect for letting the espresso machine run into, with what was about a triple espresso. Brain sparks. To avoid the weird effect of turning to see what the watcher was doing only to have it look away I took to nonchalantly drinking and watching it out of the corner of my eye. Its own eyes were so indistinct that I couldn’t tell whether it even had eyelids. Its face was just a plastic mask. I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or not, but its lips seemed to become more pronounced and defined as we enjoyed our coffee. It also made me think that I look quite weird when I drink.

When you’ve got a guest, deciding to do something that doesn’t involve them is always a little strange and forced. We say “well then, time for a shower!”, announcing our intentions with a slap of the knee: “excuse me, I’m going to leave you now and become naked in the next room. When we next meet I shall be clean you but will never see my wettening skin.” It felt like that: awkward. So far we had been in the same room, the hybrid living room and kitchen that many flats inflict on people, never realising how limiting it can feel to have these two important spaces mashed together. I was delaying the next step for as long as possible, but there was not only the usual business of needing to prepare for whatever the day might have lying in wait, but after drinking all night and now having coffee, there were an increasing number of typically private activities I was keen to undertake.

“I’m going into the bathroom. I don’t want you to join me.” I’d said it, and clearly established a line which ought not be crossed. It was worth a shot. I was still making no sudden moves – I wasn’t afraid of the watcher, but as I woke up properly I was more aware of how little I knew about it. I sidled off to the bathroom door. It followed. It was perhaps four paces behind me, and stopped when I did. Clearly it was beginning to choose what it had to copy, because when I turned at the edge of the bathroom to face it, rather than also turn around it just looked at me. It’s not a big bathroom and I was hoping that there was some minimum space that had to be maintained between us. Attempting to infer such rules feels like it can work, and we persist as humans in assuming we can anticipate and predict the actions of others. I think I was tricking myself into such beliefs because it was copying me, so it ought to also be mimicking what I would do in a similar situation. I wouldn’t follow someone else into their bathroom, certainly not without an invitation and even then only under some pretty clear and obvious situations.

Stepping backwards into the bathroom I pulled at the door handle. It’s one of those horrible sliding doors which hides clumsily inside the bathroom rather than the proper sort of door you get in a nice flat. My watcher also reached out and took hold of the door handle. It was a confusing moment – was it mirroring me, or doing the same thing? I pulled the door across and it assisted. I could feel the slight pressure it exerted and the door got perhaps half way across the doorway before it stopped. A flicker of panic tickled my belly. I tried again, to no avail. The watcher was stronger than me. It was looking at me with what felt like curiosity, its head slightly tilted, the same way I do when I’m considering whether to answer a stupid question.  I gave it another try and the door slammed shut as if the watcher had let go entirely. It was a relief, but one I wasn’t yet comfortable enough with to relax. I hadn’t known what it might do had I closed the door on it, but it had let me do it, so everything must be fine. Why then did I have the distinct sense that it was sulking?

Since I was alone I made immediate use of the privacy. There was no telling how long it would last. I’d just turned the shower on and laid my clothes in an untidy heap on the toilet seat when I heard a faint whisper. Internally an unsurprised sigh fought with that panic again. I was even more trapped now – inside a room with one door inside a flat with only one door. The watcher slid around the edge of the door, its hollow frame popping back into shape as it emerged from the gap, flowing around the tiny bolt I’d drawn as quietly as I could.

“Oh. Hi.” I don’t know what you say to someone invading your bathroom. The watcher just stood by the door, fully unfolded from the narrow gap. “Look – I’m going to take a shower.” The room was rapidly filling with steam, giving my watcher an even more ghostly appearance. I was already naked, save for the shower curtain I’d tugged across myself. Into the shower I went, being careful to keep an eye on the shadowy figure I could make out through the thin shower curtain. It felt a little like after I watched Arachnophobia when I was fourteen and could hardly bring myself to close my eyes in the shower. No, it felt exactly like that except that I already knew it was in there watching me. Possibly the creepiest thing was being able to see the watcher’s actions following mine. Strangely obscene, as if I was catching sight of my often naked neighbours across the street, but all masked in a fog of steam. The sight made me reluctant to, you know, wash thoroughly. But I found that if I looked away it was less weird.

After going through the invasive strangeness of showering together, getting dressed while an increasingly dexterous shop window mannequin pretended to dress itself felt positively normal. I’d been rather distracted by my visitor, that and being woken by screaming. I’d quite forgotten about the outside world. That had been happening more and more often anyway, but I certainly didn’t need any encouragement in withdrawing from others. Dressing gave me my first glimpse of a clock that morning. I can’t abide the sound of clocks ticking, so the only timepieces in my flat were the bedside radio alarm clock, the microwave (should I ever go through the tedious set up process) and my phone. I used to be obsessive about ensuring my phone remained charged – how else would I be able to reliably check on Facebook that everyone still loved me or read emails from restaurants? Lately I just let it run down. That reflexive check of social media made me angry that I was dependent on it for community – a thing I didn’t need or want. It’s absence had been freeing, but had only further isolated me. The alarm clock told me it was both later than I’d expected and earlier than I’d hoped. Ten thirty-five was too late to go to work but left a disturbing chunk of the day still hanging over me. I found my phone and plugged it in. I could at least text my boss to apologise for my lateness. That would smooth out the tension I felt building in my stomach at the prospect of dealing with someone else’s expectations and disappointment.

It had not occurred to me, despite the racket earlier, that the rest of the world would be dealing with what I had woken up to. The string of missed calls from my parents and text messages popped up as soon as the phone booted up. I put it back down on the counter. That was a lot more hassle than I was prepared to involve myself in. With my hand on top of the phone I sighed. My watcher similarly laid its hand over nothing on the breakfast bar and subtly shrugged. It seemed like maybe we were going to get along.

 

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