Maggie saw the old geezer first on the mist-ridden streets of a nameless Scandinavian town during one of her predawn wanderings. He was some kind of hobo dressed in a motley of assorted rags, scavenged from a range of countries and centuries. He had an antique looking pince-nez hanging from his neck, although he didn’t seem to be in need of any kind of seeing aid. His glance had none of the glazed over look of a chronic alcoholic or junkie. The eyes above the shaggy beard, under the matted strands of steel-gray hair were crystal clear and piercing as he passed her by, walking tall and rod straight.
She saw him again on her way to the train station two days later. Maggie only took notice of him when she heard a metallic clank on the ground behind her. She turned and saw the pince-nez lying abandoned on the concrete. The man was nowhere to be seen. After a bit of debate – afterall he could have all sorts of diseases, (except she didn’t think he did) Maggie picked up the pince-nez and went into the station to look for the lost-property desk. She realized how much time had already passed only then; she had a couple of minutes left to catch the train. After a breathless rush with her rucksack bouncing on her back and the air burning in her throat she managed to get on board in the last minute, panting like an Olympic sprinter. She completely forgot about the spectacles.
She was back home unpacking her bag, when the spectacles fell from some hidden nook. Maggie lifted them. “Sorry, old man.” She had a pang of guilt as she found herself contemplating what a fun accessory it would be for a steampunk party. It looked like the real deal, not some cheap modern day replica. She tried it on and giggled at herself in the mirror. It didn’t affect her sight in any way, which was weird. It must have had those cheap drugstore lenses in the frame.
She went down to the bank to take out some money. There was one man ahead of her in the line, and as she waited the strangest idea came to her mind. It was more a series of numbers; 3-4-9-7, flashing in the darkness of her mind to the rhythm of the beeps as the man pressed the buttons. Bullshit. Maggie stepped to the ATM when the guy left and took out her wallet. She got her card in hand, ready to slip it in the slot, when the message on the screen stopped her. It wasn’t the normal ‘please insert your card’. It said, ‘please enter your PIN and press OK’, as if the machine thought it was still the previous card inside. It must be some kind of malfunction. Should she inform the bank? Following some kind of crazy hunch, she punched in 3497.
It listed the possible amounts, all multiples of five, and ‘other amount’. Maggie chuckled. Definitely some kind of malfunction. She chose the smallest amount just to be on the safe side; 5000.
‘Your request is being processed.’
‘Please take your money.’
She felt her grin fade as the fiver appeared in the slot.
‘Do you wish to make another transaction?’ Definitely not. What if this had some kind of legal repercussion?
She walked past the lottery office on her way home. ‘THE WINNING NUMBERS OF THE WEEK ARE…’ the shop window screamed above the blank space. The numbers were supposed to be drawn the next day. Maggie stopped dead.
“Twenty seven, twenty eight, nineteen, thirty,” she whispered. She saw an elderly neighbor inside, a sorry looking fella she ran into sometimes in the elevator or on the corridor. He’d always linger in the park near the chess tables watching the game, arguing loudly about politics. He was living in one of the musty little flats on the 5th floor.
“Oh, hello Miss Fletcher? How goes it?”
“G’day Mr. Anderson. I’m alright, just back from traveling. What are you up to?”
He laughed and waved with one veined hand. “Just the usual. Paying this week’s tax of fools.”
“Try these numbers.” She scrabbled them down on a scrap of paper.
He cast her a sly look. “Do you know something I don’t?”
“Just try them. For me.”
The old man shrugged. “Not like it makes a difference…”
She wasn’t even remotely surprised when she heard about Mr. Anderson’s unbelievable good luck. As she learned later he bought a decent house with a fenced off garden in one of the pricey suburban areas.
“Something is happening to me,” she confided in Sylvia, one of her closest friends she invited over for a tea. She’d been searching frantically for the spectacles for days, but they seemed to have vanished off the face of the Earth.
Sylvia sipped from her tea and tried to act like she cared, while thinking about meeting the guy she kept on the side next to her husband. “Tell me.”
The words turned sour in Maggie’s mouth. Sylvia was the epitome of sober, virtuous domestic life. Maggie used to think she was a bit too goody two-shoes, actually. “Who is he?”
The saucer rattled in Sylvia’s hand. “Who is who, dear?”
Maggie suppressed a grimace. “Never mind. I’m sorry I dragged you here. I’m not feeling too well; do you mind…?”
Sylvia put down the cup. “Do you want me to call a doctor for you?”
“Nah, I’m good. Thanks, though.”
She saw the first of them while shopping for groceries. It was a young girl, standing at the checkout till just staring at her. She was still there as Maggie was paying and packing her stuff, staring a hole into the back of her head.
“It’s not nice to stare, you know,” Maggie said in passing. The cashier turned and looked at her startled. The girl said nothing.
The next one was an old man on a street corner, oblivious of the passers-by or the cool weather as he stood in nothing but a pair of dirty briefs, glaring at her, his fish-white belly hanging down on the stretched rubber band. The woman in the hairdresser’s window, the twins in the bank, the young guy in the doctor’s office. They were at her workplace, crowding around the water cooler. Maggie took the day off. They were gathering outside her 4th floor window staring in, following her with their eyes as she moved about in the flat. She snapped, when she found a disgruntled young man in the living room.
“What do you want?” she screamed at him. The man said nothing. Nor did the multitude outside. Blood oozed discretely from the slit on the guy’s throat.
Maggie reserved an appointment with her therapist, then turned on her heel when she saw the bloated kid in the waiting room, water dripping into a puddle impossibly on the ceiling above his head.
She hurried home and made another desperate, frantic search for the pince nez. She was convinced they had everything to do with what was going on. She even went to the local library to search about the possible symptoms of schizophrenia. She couldn’t do the research at home with that guy standing in the corner. The carpet started to discolor at his feet. So, the library it was. Maggie headed to the gallery, then stopped, library card, mobile, purse spilling from her numb hand. Shiny dots danced in front of her eyes and she thought she’d faint. Three women were dangling from the crossbeam above the stairs in various stages of decomposition. The ones that still had at least one eye left kept it fixed on her even as they rotated slowly at the end of the fraying ropes.
Maggie bolted from the library, startling the passers-by with her screams.
Instead of going home she searched for a coffee house thankfully devoid of them at least for the time being, where she looked up prices and flights. Managing to book a flight for the same evening, Maggie jumped home to throw some clothes and toiletries into a suitcase as fast as she could in front of the watching eyes of the man in the corner. The carpet was mostly red by now and it started to seep onto the floor, so she had to edge past sticking to the wall if she didn’t want to step into it. She hurried to the airport trying to ignore the watchers, and the odd, wrong shapes the moonlight painted on the clouds during the flight. She lost the spectacles apparently, but she still had a chance to find the old hobo. That, or completely lose her mind.
She headed to the same nameless Scandinavian town, trying to ignore the scores of silent watchers wherever she went. There seemed to be more and more of them as she neared her goal. She walked around the city hoping to find the old man, looked for him at the same hour of the day, yet all she found were the eternal scraps of fog drifting on the deserted streets in the predawn murk. Maggie watched and waited. Day by day there were more of her eerie companions. They were gathering for a specific date, she was sure. Every day she’d go out for a walk at dawn, watched the sea on the misty or red or rainy mornings, the streets empty of living, breathing people or near enough to make no difference. Weeks came and went.
It was nearing the end of October. “Where are you?” she hissed to the pewter colored sky, her breath swirling in the chilly air.
The drifter was nowhere in sight, only the specters heard her plea. “Look, I don’t know where your spectacles are. I seem to have lost them, and I’m sorry.” she was aware that she was talking to herself but she was past caring. “Please, make this go away, make it stop.” Maggie was not sure what this was, but it was slowly and surely driving her insane. “I know you have ways to do it. Please.” There was no answer, just the whoosh of salt-scented wind from the sea.
Maggie ran out of ideas how to lure out the old bastard. There was a mound, a group of rocks outside of town she knew of, ornate with the carvings of a lost people. She sat there among the rocks in the hazy light on the last day of summer, in a ring of silent spectators with a blade in hand. As the last rays of the sun peeked in through the pine branches she cut into the soft flesh of her palm. She watched but only the shadows of trees and bushes moved among the drifting scraps of fog. With a sigh she set to put bandage on the wound. Looking for a band aid in her bag she nearly missed him. She caught movement from the corner of her eye and snatched her head up, band aid and bleeding wound completely forgotten.
In his colorless garment he seemed to be just a slightly denser patch of fog. He was pointing at her, his mouth open in silent laughter. The next moment the veil of mist hid him from her.
When she next looked around, she saw she was alone on the hill, accompanied only by the cawing of invisible ravens.
This short story was first published in the Aphelion Webzine in May 2018 and in The Blue Nib in November 2018.