The Panoptician by Sara Torres-Albert

 


 

There is a man who lurks outside my house. His skin is alabaster white—a rice paper hide pulled taut over knobby collarbone, ribcage, sternum. Like god ran out of flesh to wrap him with and made do. He stands stark naked outside the window to my bedroom; gaunt, cheekless face pressed against the glass, cloud of white breath billowing from distended nostrils, the only color about him the scraggly brown mop atop his head, the eyes. He does not shiver, though even beneath the heap of woolen blankets I cannot seem to keep the feeling in my feet. For two nights now I have drawn the curtains to shut him out. But even though he cannot see me, I can still see him, the outline of him, a gray and spindling stain upon the muslin; hear the ragged wheeze of his patchy breathing, the fleshy patter of his shoeless feet. And I am tired of it.

I kick the covers aside and feel along the nightstand for my gun. Graze the cool blued steel with my fingertips and snatch it up by the neck. I pad over to the window in the dark, pull back the curtains and he is there, shrunken and shriveled and hunched in the decaying vestiges of someone else’s garden. And he looks at me, his eyes all pupil. I bend down with my hands on my knees, pistol pressed flat against my thigh, and I meet his gaze and I squat there, looking back at him, and I do not blink because he does not blink, and we both remain like that, watching each other. And then his tissue paper face crinkles, and he draws back his lips in a snarling grin. And his teeth are few and black, and I bare my own in disgust. I stand and raise the gun to the glass so it rests opposite his forehead. But him, he just kneels there. Smiling.

“Don’t tempt me,” I say, tapping the gun against the glass. “You make me fire this thing and anyone left in the goddamn five-mile radius is gonna hear it, and I don’t feel like running. Not tonight. But I’ll do it if I have to. Do you understand? Now go. The fuck. Away.”

He bares his teeth at me again and shambles off into the dark. No trace of him but the print of his face upon the windowpane. I know he won’t go far. Tomorrow, when I rise from another night of staving off the usual nightmare, he will be right back where he left me, watching. But for now, I draw the curtains again, lay my gun upon the nightstand, pull the sheets up to my neck, and shut my eyes. And I lie there, blinking in the darkness, and I listen to the crunch of his bare feet against the ash and wilting plants, the low guttural sound of his monotone hum. I will spend the whole night listening, and in the morning, I will peel the crust from my eyes and curse the sight of him.

* * *

Breakfast is a tin of black beans and half a jar of apricot preserves. I plunge my fingers into the can, scoop the beans out by the handful and shovel them into my mouth, brine and all. I have spoons now, but I do not bother with them—not worth the water, or the washing. Still groggy, I let the bean juice dribble from my lips into a little pool on the Formica. My eyes water with the copper saltiness of it, and twice I gag, but I keep on eating. 

When I have licked the black gunk from my palm, I sink my fingers into the tin for another scoop. A light, rhythmic plunk stops my hand mid-dip. I swivel in my chair and he is there again, drumming his blackened fingernails against the window. I leer back at him, but this time he does not smile, just continues to tap against the glass, stare unyielding. My skin begins to tingle, itch, and I wipe the brine from my face with a dishrag, and my hands too, and then I wipe the table.

I make my way across the kitchen, pull open the small drawer beneath the sink and draw from it a teaspoon. This time I sit in the chair opposite the last, facing the window, and I keep my eyes trained on him as I unscrew the lid from the apricot jar and eat. I take small morsels, slosh the tender syrupy fruit around in my mouth and let it settle there before swallowing. Twice he draws his tongue over his cracked white lips, and moans. When I have eaten my fill, I screw the lid back on the jar and return it to its place on the shelf amongst the others. I take inventory again because I can, because he is watching. Seven jars of fruit preserves. Four jars of peanut butter. Eleven cans of soup. Nine tins of beans. Twelve MREs. Five pounds of long grain white rice. Eight cans of assorted meats. Thirteen of vegetable medley. A dozen jugs of clean water. A single container of instant coffee. Bless whoever was here before, whoever they were, and wherever they are now. 

And should they still be out there, by some miracle, and planning on coming home, well, let them meet my watcher before they meet me. 

When all is accounted for, I pluck one of the cans of tuna from the shelf and weigh it in my hand and turn my back on the man and pad into the living room. I don’t know why I do it, but I unlatch one of the windows and push it open and toss the tuna out into the yard and shut it just as quick. Maybe it is because I feel sorry for him, revolting a creature as he is, and starving. I don’t think I do, but maybe. Or maybe it is because I am hoping this is all he wants from me and once he’s had it he will fuck off and die. As I pull the latch again, I hear him. His shuffling gait, the strained wheeze of his ragged breathing. He regards the can for a moment, eyes flitting toward me, narrow black slits, and scoops it up in his spindly fingers and scuttles away with it. When he is gone, I stifle a yawn and retreat back to the kitchen, hoping that is the last I will see of him, remembering the first.

* * *

A clapboard house. What a remarkable thing to stumble upon. Glorious vestige of the old world, sitting forlorn at the crest of a sloping driveway, tucked behind the leafless trees and peeking out over the road. As I slogged up the gravel path, I considered the cameras, their lenses swathed with soot. No use now. Something like shoeprints in the ash, days old and barely visible and pointed toward the highway. Another set of prints further up, this one fresher, and shoeless, directionless, plowing circles in the cinders. I traced them to the door, leveled my gun, tried the knob—unlocked. Inside, nothing but the dust; a scattering of flat-packed furniture topped with empty whiskey bottles and glasses and an early-2000s Hustler; a flat screen; the stench of piss and the putrescine smell of something dead and rotting—an animal trapped behind the walls, maybe; I could not find the carcass—more cameras, one for each and every room, prominently displayed, and long dead; and the rats. Set beside the empty glasses, a stack of folded and wilting family photos—a man and five boys, all with the father’s same crop of unruly brown hair, same doleful eyes, no mother; maybe she was lucky, got out of this world early. And in the cabinets, my salvation. Food to last the bitter winter months. Blankets and gear for the nights so cold they set the skin to fire—my most fortunate find; I had no jacket anymore. No tampons, pads, but that much to be expected. And no way to carry it all if the need arose. I cried as I measured what I could fit in my bag—a jar of preserves, five MREs, eight cans of meat and beans and veggies. A single jar of peanut butter. And even then, the shoulder straps strained against my chest, and I felt my spine curl with the weight. So much to leave behind. I comforted myself with the thought that if a place like this existed, there would be more along the way. Little heavens, blessed by some saintly paranoiac who had seen the end coming before the rest of us.

As I set the jar of peanut butter on the counter and trudged back into the living room, I glimpsed my own reflection. Nearly shot it. The face encircled in the Sputnik mirror, beneath the surgical mask, looked nothing like the one I owned, the one I remembered. I raised my fingers to my cheeks, the skin matcha green with grime. Pulled them through the matted nest about my head, gray with soot. My shirt slid about my shoulders, a stained and tattered rag bellying out over the top of my belt. I was smaller than I remembered myself to be, thinner—frighteningly so. Uglier too. But what did all that matter in the face of whole cities charred and leveled, and air still so thick with debris you could hardly breathe it, and black rain, and sterile soil, and the lineage of dead I had left behind, and ten years of civilization lost to some double agent deity? Nothing uglier than that.

Turning away from myself, I saw him. Standing at the window. Gray and naked as the wasteland. Cadaverous as the mother I had lost to it, who still lay unburied on the same damp cot where she had wheezed her last bronchitic breaths nearly two weeks prior. Eyes black as beetles and deeply sunk. He fixed those eyes on me in wonder. Shrank into himself a bit, but didn’t move. Didn’t blink. And as I drew my pistol from my waistband, he raised a hideous hand, gnarled and black with grime, and knocked.

* * *

Feeding him was a mistake. As I sit in the living room watching his breath billow out against the glass, his beady eyes dart about the room, I think about what a can of food like that one cost my father, what the lack of it cost my mother. Then, as if overcome by some monstrous instinct, he uncurls his back and straightens and rises, his shoulders popping with the strain, until he stands bolt upright against the glass. For the first time, I am aware how long his arms are as I watch him trundle toward the door, fingers swinging about his scarred knees. Tall as he stands, the transom falls below his chin, too low for him to peer through. But as the brass knob twists and rattles and screeches, I know he is not there to watch me.

“Stop that,” I say, rising from the sofa chair and rushing the door. “Stop. You know what happens if you try to get in here. Stop it.”

I grab the knob to hold it steady. But I can still feel him twisting.

“I will fucking shoot you. Do you hear me? Stop touching it. You’re not getting in here.”

I pull my pistol from my waistband with my free hand and tap it against the glass. The tension on the knob subsides, but he does not back away from the door. 

“What do you want? Hm? What do you want from me? You want me to let you in? I’m not letting you in here.”

The man says nothing. Does nothing. His will communicated only in the hiss of his breath.

“You’re disgusting,” I tell him. It is the closest I have been to him in daylight. I take him in, all of him. The wiry, atrophying limbs. The inhuman pallor of his skin. The scars and grooves that stretch along his throat in a thick salmon band. 

“Christ,” I say. “Where the hell did you come from?”

He wheezes in reply. A low, raspy, heeee.

“Well I don’t care where you’ve been or what you’ve been through. I don’t care how bad it is out there. You’re not coming in here. You can stay out there ‘til you starve, or die of thirst. But you can’t come in here. The cold is coming. And I’m not feeding you again. I’ve got all the food in the world in here and blankets to keep me warm and plenty of water. You want to wait? I can wait too. You want to watch me? I’ll watch you back. We’ll see who lasts longer.”

The man clears his throat as if to speak. A low, gruff hock with no follow up. And as I tap the mouth of my gun against the glass again, he slumps and curls himself back up and trudges over to the living room window to wait. And suddenly, for the first time in a long time, I catch a whiff of myself—the sulfurous and fishy odor of my fetid rags—and I cringe at the smell.

* * *

I work as if in ritual. Plug up the tub with the mildewed stopper. Ball up the fraying washcloth. Grab the sliver of soap from its metal dish, pluck the hairs from it—short and thick and brown—and stick them to the orange subway tiles. Strip, butt-naked, shivering as feet dance away from the cold tile floor, and climb in with one of the dozen water jugs and sit cross-legged and pour. This is the one place he cannot see me—no windows here—but even as I drench my head and nod in surrender to my exhaustion I do not shut my eyes for long. His image lives on the back of my lids, tattooed there, and the longer they are closed the surer I am upon opening them that he is standing beyond that thin ivory shower curtain. Skin still tingling with the memory of him, I scrub my arms with soap and cloth and nail. My pits, my chest, my toes. Turn my fingers on my hair and rip, rip until smooth. Stick the matted tangles to the wall. Watch the water run black with my own filth. Then red. I find myself in a bathtub like this one, but the tiles are white and modern, and I scrape father blood from my hands, teenage blood from my face. And my winter coat hunches in the corner, stained and stinking with their iron. And in the vestibule, my mother scrubs too, hacking gray spit into her surgical mask. I shout at her to leave it; the earth’s all dug up and there’s no safety in staying. But she can’t hear me, or won’t, because the rhythmic scraping of bristles on wood is growing louder, vying to be heard over her cough. I jolt and the tiles are orange again and she is gone and my cheeks feel raw, and I pull my fingers back to find skin sloughed beneath my nails, feel the warmth seep from my face, watch the water run red.

I rise and reach for my towel, pat dry my skin, wring my hair. I pull on my pants, soft and smooth against my coarseness, and catch my reflection in the mirror again, not entirely on accident. This time, the cheeks are ruddy and clean, but bleeding. The hair silky and free-flowing. The eyes red-rimmed and underscored with sallow bags, but the lashes thick and free of dust. I am thin, but I think the thinning suits me; it is the first time I have seen my cheekbones in my life. This, this is a face I recognize—slender and youthful and pretty. And as I run my fingers over it, I smile.

But as I raise my hands, I watch the tufts spring up beneath my arms—thick and black and coiled. And my pits begin to itch. My legs too, my mons. And I scratch. I scratch everywhere, like something filthy, and as I scratch my eyes brim and my lips wrinkle and it’s stupid. It’s so stupid. But the tears come anyway. I pull open the medicine cabinet and draw from it a razor, dull and orange and clogged with gray man hair, and I hold it in my trembling hand and turn it on myself. Only when I am done, when my skin stings not with the itching, the burning, but with the nicks where my quivering fingers betrayed me, do I stop crying.

***

I wake in the middle of the night, my head fogged with the remnants of that same old dream—the thunderous crack and lightning flash of gunfire; my mother’s warning cry, splitting the midnight air clean through; my father, laid out at the foot of the door and crawling, crawling back towards us, his life dripping from his mouth and mixed with spit; my trembling hands, curled around his blued steel pistol; the pinkish blood frothing from the throat of the man I put down—the teenager; the guttural hiss of his tortured breathing. And I raise my head to find the silhouette of the man, the grotesque shape of him, projected against the muslin. He peers through the slat between the curtains, and as I stir he raises a finger to tap the glass. I groan and roll over to face the wall, but the longer I lie there in the dark, feeling those eyes on me, the surer I am that he has passed through the window and is standing at my back. Heat crawling up my neck, I throw my hand out at the nightstand and snatch the gun and flip over in the sheets, but he is still there. Still outside, breath steaming the glass.

I toss the covers from my legs, swing my feet over the edge of the bed, and bolt out of the room. I tear through the living room, eyes burning against the near-perfect blackness of the night. I stagger into the kitchen, and in the dim light that filters through the window above the sink, I see him. Hunched in the corner beside the table, slumped against the wall, his alabaster skin bathed in shadow. And as I totter backward and raise the gun I blink again and he is a bag of trash, the same one I left beside the closet this morning.

Another rap on the window and he is there again, lips sliding into a toothy grin. I pick up the first thing I can get my hands on—an empty tin resting on the counter—and I pitch it with a grunt that is more like a scream. It strikes the glass where his forehead should be and he flinches but remains, his smile larger than his face. I shiver as he looks at me, run my hands through my still wet hair, throw my arms across my body, my braless breasts, my skin itching beneath my clothes. And I want nothing more than to wash again. But now is not the time.

I dart back into the living room and dive behind the sofa that sits beneath the window, where I know he cannot see me. The fleshy patter of his bare feet on the pavement follows; his wheezing breath, his shambling. He huffs and I can hear the sound of his face sliding against the window as he cranes his neck in search of me. I sit there with my back against the wall, legs folded, and I close my eyes and try to sleep but the itch is stronger now, and it burns. Physically burns. And I scratch my neck to satisfy it and break skin. And I open my eyes again and spot the camera opposite me, and I swear it winks in my direction. And I hear his ragged breath, his throaty snarl, and I know he is looming behind me, standing bolt upright again, and his breath is steamy and hot and putrid like corpse flesh and something wet drips onto my back and it is him, drooling. 

I fly from the living room into the kitchen. Rip open the silverware drawer. Plunge my hand inside and dig out a boning knife. With the knife in one hand and the pistol in the other I pound the face of the kitchen window, where he is waiting, and I motion for him to follow. I sprint back into the living room and unbolt the door and kick it open and I stand there in the entryway, and this time it is I who is waiting for him. 

He scuttles around the corner to the house and freezes at the sight of me. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, squinting in the dark. I watch as he ducks and bobs and rocks, his gaze fixed on the weapons, each step he advances slow and measured and countered with a backpedal. And as I level my gun and place his hideous visage in my sights, he raises those beady eyes to mine again, and grins.

“Come on!” I hiss. “You want to come in? Come on in!”

He lurches forward with a guttural howl, knuckles scraping the ground. The pistol trembles in my hand and as he closes the distance between us suddenly I am aware that if I miss I do not know which way to hold the knife. And the gun explodes in my hands and for a moment I am deaf but for the ringing and I scream but he is still coming. He is upon me before I can swing, and my arms oar behind me as I fall, and I shriek and flail the knife as my head smacks against the hardwood, and for a moment the world is black. 

But he is off of me before I know it, and scurrying through the living room. 

I choke out a warning for him to stop, but he is in the bedroom before I can stagger to my feet. I shut the door again and lumber after him, gripping the knife like a dagger this time in my left hand while I level the pistol with the right. When I find him again, he is hunched at the foot of my bed. And he is smaller than before—no larger than I am, really; no older, either—and pinker, and his arms are no longer than they should be, and he is shivering. And as I pad into the doorway and spread myself out along it, he snaps his head around to look at me, his eyes more brown than they are black. And they are doleful. And brimming.

“What the hell are you doing?” I say. “What are you—?”

He sinks his nails into the gaps between two floorboards and slips them from their place with no resistance at all and tosses them aside. Does the same with the two beside them. There, where the lip of the bed had stood, I glimpse the beginnings of a railing, a stair, the entrance to something—a cellar, maybe? Something. He turns and looks at me again and wheezes another low, raspy heeee. And as I stagger back toward the wall to brace myself, grip my quivering thighs, he grabs another two boards and I cry out, “Don’t do that! Stop!” But he pulls them from the opening anyway. And he slinks down, down into it, and disappears.

I sidle toward the gaping hole in the hardwood, legs quaking at the knees, and peer down into the cellar to find only darkness in his wake. And as much as I want to shut him in there, I want to end this more. I take the first step after him, the handle of the knife, the pistol grip sliding in my sweating palms, and readjust my hold on each. I keep my shoulder braced against the railing, hold my breath, open my eyes as wide as they will go, but he is gone. The stairs buckle beneath my feet, but I keep going. I keep going because if I turn around I won’t see him. And if I cannot see him who knows what he will do to me. And on the fifth step, I smell it. The ammonia smell of stale piss. The pungent, sickly-sweet ham-and-cheap-perfume odor of rot. Something clatters, clangs below, and I sweep the gun out in front of me. And as I lower myself down the few remaining steps, I see them.

They sit facing the wall, their legs splayed out along the concrete. Three men, all with the same crop of unruly brown hair, shackled by their necks to steel posts to keep their heads from swiveling. They screech at the long, black apparition that is my shadow projected by the dim light at my back. Each as pale and naked as my watcher, and just as gnarled. The youngest of them sits unnaturally slumped, his head lolling against his chain, unblinking, motionless. And as I drop my knife and retch, my watcher scuttles over to join them. I watch as he picks a rusted and bloodied collar from the floor and sits with his back against the empty post and raises it to his neck and clamps it around his throat so that the skin catches between the metal. And as he lowers his hands it falls away and clatters to the ground, and he utters a low and throaty cry and picks it up again and replaces it. And as I stagger back toward the stairs, as my hand finds the railing again and my foot catches on the step, I watch him fiddle with the lock, his body seizing with sobs as the shackle drops into his lap again and again, and he pinches the skin of his throat until it bleeds.


Sara Torres-Albert is a communications consultant by day, an editor of a children’s blog by night, and a speculative fiction writer in the minutes in between. She currently lives in Philadelphia with her boyfriend and a cat named Cream Pop.