There’s something in the air. As she approaches her flat, Lucy can almost feel the presence in the long shadows of the falling darkness. She takes off her glove and paws through her tote for her keys. The icy wind keening mournfully between the buildings pushes her quickly down the path, and her accelerating breath plumes over the evergreen shrubs along the way.
She’s never seen him, but for years she saw him everywhere. His silhouette stooped low in dusty doorways as she walked home from work. Hands on hips, bundled in timeworn layers, menacing from the roadside as she drove her kids to swimming. She couldn’t even escape him by getting away from the city. Visiting friends on the peninsula, or taking the family for a picnic, his effigy lurked in the apple orchards and the sunflower fields, stuffed into denim dungarees, arms flung open at the sky.
Every note in his strange spidery script was crumpled and tied with an old red ribbon to a small bundle of criss-crossed straw. You will never stop being afraid, his final offering read. It was a promise he had kept, even as he disappeared into her past.
Lucy had spent years of her life obsessed with the meaning behind her unseen stalker and his strange gifts. She had pored over academic folklore resources and grimoires of every kind, looking for clues, for hexes or symbols that seemed similar. She learned about Braucherei, old world German practices still decorating modern Pennsylvania barns. She learned about wicker men and apotropaic St. Brigid’s straw crosses from Ireland. She studied voodoo, Santeria, candomblé. She read about Balkan rituals, Mexican magic, Appalachian customs, Indigenous shamanism. She searched symbol bibles from every culture on Google. Nothing matched.
So she looked through psychology textbooks and global crime archives, wondering whether there were patterns anywhere that could help her understand what this was.
She never knew his identity, or what it was he wanted from her. If it was somebody that she knew, or a random mind game, she had no idea. One day she started receiving bundles of oddments with cryptic curses attached. They could turn up anywhere she went. The office fridge, in a brown paper lunch bag with her name on it. In her locker at the pool. Hanging from the rear-view mirror of her car, once, like an oversize dice. In her mailbox, every time she changed addresses. One Christmas, the tree’s crowning star had been replaced with a crude cluster of hay tied and fanned out like an asterisk. Then it all stopped as abruptly as it began.
There was no rhyme or reason, no pattern she could find. Lucy had never been in trouble. There were no jilted lovers. She had not been unfaithful: there were no unexpected paternity possibilities to ponder. She had no association, that she knew of, with any underworlds. She hadn’t dabbled in any cults, or in the occult. She had not taken drugs or sold them. No one in her family was in prison or otherwise involved with criminals. She had never dated someone in the mafia. She had never inadvertently witnessed a crime. She had no history in the military and had never seen a UFO or a ghost. She did not have money, new or old.
It had been decades since she received the final threat. Things were almost normal year in and year out, as middle of the road as a life could be, working in admin at a car parts company, a small family, two elder tabby cats. Except they weren’t normal. The scarecrow was always there, at the edges of her mind, waiting in the dark, driving alongside her in traffic, sitting a few pews away at church, dining at the next table when she met a friend for drinks. Still, without new notes or tchotchkes, there was no confirmation she was being followed. She could almost believe it was all in her mind.
I miss you, the rumpled paper said in spattered ink, tied with a scarlet string to a shapeless straw bundle. It was waiting for her inside her teapot, the same pot she had used the day before, and the day before that.
Lucy knows from the gloomy weight of the cold twilight that he is waiting for her at long last. She could turn back, duck into the cheap glowing warmth of the plaza tavern, or the pharmacy on the ground floor of the building. She can dial the police, but what have they really done to help her all these years? Besides, this is her home. And her family is inside. Perhaps most of all of that, she simply needs to know.
She approaches the lobby doors, heart racing, expecting to find him huddled on the bench, with vacant eyes and a blurry hollow face, dirty and dishevelled, just as she has imagined him every day of her life for as long as she can recall.
We meet at last, she is ready to say.
But no one is waiting for her there in the cold. There is only the fading stink of a cheap cigar drifting away in the frosty silence.