I met him in the way fairytales describe love. A slow, helpless falling and the consequent meeting as his arms engulf your body—a claustrophobia you’re okay with because you’re convinced it has to be safe. That he has to be safe and that true love exists as long as he is cradling you.
“You need help with that?” he asked. He was tall with messy brown hair that barely covered his blue eyes and had a faint smattering of freckles on the bridge of his nose.
I stood at the door to first period, juggling between textbooks, phone, and water bottle, fumbling for the door handle. The first thing I noticed was how close he was. Even if his body wasn’t touching mine in this space, I could feel it in the static place between. I only nodded and he smiled. And that’s when I noticed that he was looking at me. Meeting my eyes with his in their own silent greeting. My instinct was to look away, but this time I sunk into the vulnerability. I let this become a meeting in itself—the careful cradling—as if looking back allowed him to know more about me than I did.
The next day in class, I purposely walked behind him as we were leaving, savoring the anticipation before he turned back and waved me through the open door. He always smiled and I learned to smile back. This became a sort of unspoken tradition between us. I trailed behind him, just behind, never daring to speak in fear of breaking the tension. Granting myself a moment to feel the anticipation before our eyes connected in that silent dance of understanding.
I started dropping my books just so he could pick them up. I pretended not to understand a problem in math class just so he could explain it to me.
He talked to me in a calm voice—soft like a whisper. “First you’ll do this … then you can do this … and then you’ll get this.”
Sometimes, I didn’t pretend. I’d show him a problem, presenting the answer with a flourish just to hear him say, “Good job.”
I liked to imagine he watched me in class, staring at the back of my head, my hair, my shoulders in silent approval. A body deserving of his rumination—his proclamation of “Good job.”
One night, I laid in bed. The house was empty and the sky had darkened to a deep, velvety black. My mother worked most nights, so I sunk into the silence easily. I liked to keep the blinds open when I was alone. It was comforting when I could see the moonlight splayed onto the overgrown grass of our side yard, reminding me the darkness wasn’t all-consuming. I sat cross-legged on my bed, scrolling through my phone, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a silhouette.
It was crouched down amongst the weeds near the corner of the fence. It breathed heavily as if it had been running and though I couldn’t see clearly, I knew it stared directly at me. My instinct was to look back, but something in me stilled. I knew that it was him. And although we’d met eyes many times throughout the week, I looked away now. I knew I should call my mother or the police. That I should be terrified, but I wasn’t. Instead, I stared at my phone, deliberately pursing my lips before lying down on my back. One knee slightly bent, hair splayed on the pillow.
He visited me every night. Usually when I was in bed. Instead of baggy T-shirts and sweats, I wore something that stretched taut around my body. Hair in a messy bun with strands that framed my face perfectly. I imagined my body was clay, and I shaped myself from the outside. Smooth curves and crisp edges; a caricature of a human being, tilting between who I was and who I wanted to be.
We were cautious. For nights straight, he crouched in the corner, melting into the weeds. I always felt him in the same way we first met, the space between us electrified. He stayed there for hours, hardly moving, until I went to sleep.
Weeks after his first appearance at my window, I stood at the classroom door. He opened it for me, and after our exchange of smiles, I turned back around. “Hey,” I said.
“Um, hey,” he said.
We never talked beyond assignments and this sudden break from routine surprised us both. I wanted to ask about the window since the first time I saw him but hadn’t gathered the courage. There was something tempting about the possibility of an admission. To finally know that it was real. A sort of pleasure thinking about the ache in his knees, a soreness in his legs, afterwards, because he was watching me.
“I feel like I’ve been seeing you a lot. Like outside of school.”
He furrowed his eyebrows. “Did you? I don’t remember seeing you.”
I felt myself falling, desperately trying to cling onto air. “Are you sure?”
“I don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind seeing you.”
He gave me a smile. It was a nervous smile, but the kind that spoke towards a shyness at being caught. Like I received a love letter and he admitted that it was from him. “Okay, maybe I’ll see you around, then,” he said.
And just like that, I was swept away. We were dancing a waltz. And I was spinning and twirling. The clock never chimed twelve. All I could feel was the firm grip of his hand on my waist, and I knew I was safe.
That night, when I saw his silhouette, I was wearing a sundress. Puffed sleeves, pastel pink, flowers dotting the skirt. I could still taste hints of the strawberry lip gloss I put on. I moved softly from side to side and watched the dress billow up. I thought he must’ve liked it because when I looked at him, he was completely still, that rising tide of static electricity ebbing back and forth between us. I imagined the up and down sweep of his eyes, a nod of approval, a finger beckoning forward.
I walked fluidly towards the window, one delicate step after another, as if I was a dancer preparing for a jump. I stopped in front of the window, letting a moment pass between us where his gaze took hold of my own. He stood up, still shrouded in darkness, and I knew I must open the window. I pushed it up and closed my eyes as a breeze caressed my face. The low hum of the cicadas was almost deafening now, building its way to a chorus until finally, it reached its climax, edging towards a slow decrescendo. I opened my eyes and expected to see him there, hand held out in silent question: “May I take this dance?” Instead, he was gone from the corner, the brief movement of a body scrambling up the fence—spider-like—before jumping to the other side.
When I fell asleep that night, I dreamed that I danced with a shadow. I wore a pink ball gown and we were outside in the street, floating above the houses. The moonlight, of course, was there as a spotlight. I smiled and laughed as it twirled me to a melody played by a violin. And, finally, when it dipped me, I fell endlessly. Surrounded by darkness and stars, wind in my hair. I woke up after that – a throbbing ache across my whole body. It was the kind that made you want to dig your fingers into your chest and split it open so wide you could burrow into yourself.
When I saw him walking in the hall the next day, my movements turned liquid and my every step waded through honey. Anything I grabbed onto dissolved in my hand like a mirage imitating its original. The only thing solid was his wrist and its steady pulse.
He looked back at me, eyebrows raised. We stood in front of the men’s bathroom. His eyes drifted to my hand. “Can you let go?”
“Why did you leave?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I was supposed to mean something to you. And you were supposed to be there. Ready to take me away.”
“You’re hurting me.”
“Let me go!” He ripped his wrist from my hand and held it close like he was burned.
“Wait,” I pleaded. “We are friends right?”
He paused, and I could feel the weight of the question, heavy in the air. “I’m sorry. I just need you to leave me alone.” Then, it fell. And all I could do was watch as it shattered, feeling the impact in my own stomach. Something mangled and bloody.
That same night, I was tempted to close the blinds. I walked over during sunset, the last rays of golden hour stretched into a pinkish-orange. I watched myself in the reflection as I reached for the cord. My hand shook. It was as if I watched someone else fold in on themselves—the wide eyes, the heaving chest—before it all collapsed in a heap of bones. I left the blinds open and walked away crying to the bathroom. I could feel my racing heart climb up my throat and the stretching sensation in my stomach as I bit back a wail. Something you know would be primal and unnatural enough to give yourself chills. Enough to question if the body you’re looking at with its puffy red eyes and contorted mouth is your own.
When I came back out, he was there. His body bent at the waist, shoulders heaving in that same fuzzy silhouette. Folding in on himself like, eventually, he could burrow into his own skin. It was this strange sense of déjà vu where I was still in the bathroom and was looking in a mirror. I could feel his eyes scan my body as I laid on the bed. Like a warm trace of a fingertip. I was hit by a sense of pleasure. I almost wished I didn’t feel it at all, that I could close the blinds and return to some sense of normal, but there it was: the thrill of being her.
He watched me everywhere now. In class, at lunch, when I walked home. I never saw him, but I felt that need to perform outside of myself, breathing ever so softly down my neck. It gave my skin this feverish sensitivity one wrong move would set on fire. Sometimes I wanted to scream at him, show him the girl that cried in the bathroom—so easily distorted. Eyes scrunched together as if in physical pain, snot running down the nose, mouth stretched into a gaping “O”. I wanted to hold this monster up to him and scream, “Look what you did to me!” But I never did. Because I thought about the loneliness between this monster and me. A loneliness without windows. And I was back in my bedroom, tilting my head to the music with clothes that didn’t quite fit, and I knew I looked perfect.
I always got ready after sunset. And this time, I was in the bathroom staring at my naked body in the mirror. The sharp-edged collarbones, the curve of my hips, my jaw. The way my auburn hair just barely touched my shoulders, the way my cheekbones jutted out from my skin. When I climbed into the shower, I turned the water cold, so I could feel the shock bloom against my skin. And with the liquid caress, I let the thoughts of clothes and hairstyles and the ways I must walk, fall away. All I kept was the sensation of biting cold, of physical being.
I closed my eyes, squeezing water out of my hair, letting my hands skim my face, my arms, my stomach. Then, I felt something else. It started at my neck and spread to my skin—a sudden chill and the burning sensation of eyes on the back of your neck. I was struck by the image of him, behind the curtain, standing still, a smile on his face. Or him hunched down, looking up from the tub.
Suddenly, I was aware of my body in a new way. I was aware of its permanence, its certainty, slapping me in the face. I scrubbed at my skin like the friction could grind it all down to a pulp. Scratching at my bones like it could shave down the parts he wouldn’t like. But when I looked down, there was only a slight redness. For a moment, I froze. I thought I heard panting on the other side but couldn’t be sure with the shower running. For once, I wanted it to stop. I wanted the ground to swallow me up, tuck me into some corner where I was allowed to exist before I presented myself in the ways I knew were right. But my skin crawled and the panting had grown louder, worming its way down my ear. A breath along my neck.
When I pulled open the shower curtain, all I could see was my own reflection, sopping hair, and an empty room. The air conditioner hummed above me, and I thought how quiet even that was. I went back to the shower and stayed there as long as I could bear before my own teeth began chattering. I was hesitant to turn the water off for fear of hearing the creak of footsteps, but when I did, I heard nothing except the steady song of the air conditioner.
I tried not to be afraid as I got ready. I told myself he could never get into the house. That he would never do that to me. My movements were automatic. Pull on clothes. Dry hair. Brush. The slightest bit of lip gloss. Some blush. And then I walked out, letting myself enter reality again, knowing he would be where he always was.
I twisted the doorknob to my room and stepped through the doorway. When I looked up, I jumped back. He was at the window. A dark shape filling the space, staring straight ahead. It brought a hand up to knock.
It knocked once. Twice. Again and again. With an increased speed and intensity until it was hammering on the glass.
The muscles in my entire body tensed and my blood ran cold. My instinct was to run but amongst the sickening pit in my stomach was yearning. I couldn’t help but wonder if he finally came to soothe this gnawing ache. If he came to save me.
I walked to the window solemnly, digging my nails into my palm, before turning the locks and lifting up. I still couldn’t see his face, but when he stepped into my room, the light hit him. I fell backwards. It was as if the floor had given out beneath me. I tripped over the carpet, scrambling to my feet, bolting towards the door.
It grabbed my shoulder and whipped me back around. The wail I had been stifling, pushed its way out in full force because what I was looking at shouldn’t have been possible.
It had the exact same auburn hair, cut short. The exact same sharp-edged cheekbones and collarbones I had looked at moments earlier. Its own mouth elongated to match mine in its empty “O”. We both wailed in unison, its voice perfectly matching mine. I fell to my knees, and it did the same. I tried not to meet its eyes, but they found me. It was like looking into a mirror except its skin began to slide off its body. Starting from the head, my hair and face fell to the ground with a wet plop. Tufts of brown hair and a face covered in blood peeked out as the creature began pulling at its neck. It didn’t take much traction for the skin to join the pile forming on the carpet in front of me. As the creature moved to its chest, it began to scream louder until all I could hear was one pitch, infinite and all-encompassing. My own scream, thrown back at me. I scooted into the wall, willing it to swallow me whole, as the creature finished crawling out of my skin. The husk laid in one large pile, revealing the man beneath it.
It wasn’t exactly him, but I could see hints in the eye shape, the face shape, the hair color. Everything all twisted together in a disgusting amalgamation of stretched skin and mangled bones that didn’t make sense. Not quite a man but something imitating what it thought a man looked like by combining physical features from every man and boy it had ever seen.
It stared back at me next to the pile of my skin, my body. It stopped screaming and looked at me with a blank face, mystified as to why I was clinging to the wall and heaving. It didn’t move even as I cried, my small gasps filling the silence with an unnatural rhythm. “Are—are you going to hurt me?” I asked.
It didn’t answer. Its gaze drifted to my skin on the floor. I hugged myself tightly, swallowing the nausea building in my stomach. It continued to stare at me.
I sucked in a shaky breath and whispered, “I thought you liked me. I thought you really liked me.”
I looked at it again, meeting those same eyes with my own. And even though, looking at this thing that watched me, that shaped me like clay, that had my eyes, even though I knew it wasn’t the boy that opened the door for me, that smiled at me, even though it wasn’t him, it didn’t matter. I would have continued waiting, solemn and hopeful, in my tower, dreaming of a prince to rescue me. Even now, I saw our happy ending etched into storybooks. The damsel in distress rescued. It was this part of myself, I saw now, in the man before me. It was this part of myself I knew was doomed to play her role and had been doomed to this role from the very beginning.
It scooted closer, holding out a hand. With tears running down my face, I let its hand grab hold of mine, our fingers tightly entwined.
About the Author
Joselyn Hofer lives near Austin, Texas where she spends most of her time reading and writing. She is a student at the University of Texas at Austin currently studying creative writing. She mainly writes horror fiction with supernatural elements and larger commentaries on life.