The man walked with a stiff gait. If she squinted and deliberately unfocused her eyes, he became a zombie, rocking from side to side with locked knees as he staggered toward her.
Lisa passed him every morning, walking before dawn on the footpath alongside the beach. His skin was ruddy and he wore a gray hoodie beneath a green and black plaid flannel shirt. His eyes were wide, unblinking, and his mouth expressionless. His vacant look terrified her.
She held her breath when he passed by.
The first few times, she’d smiled. Once or twice after that, she’d said good morning. That was before she realized he always wore the same shirt, the same hoodie, and the same frozen expression, edged with terror. He didn’t appear to recognize she’d acknowledged him. He didn’t speak, and he didn’t move his lips into anything resembling a smile. He looked directly into her eyes, not blinking.
Lisa stopped offering a greeting. She tried to look away, but it was difficult to avoid that stare. His eyes bored into her. She began to imagine he wanted her to know something, but she had no idea what that might be.
Why didn’t he speak? Why didn’t he blink? Cold wind swept across the beach and twisted around them, pulling their eyes toward each other. Enough pre-dawn light bathed the sky to show his eyes were dark brown.
Some days, she wanted to run in the opposite direction. Other times she wanted to steer a wide path to avoid those eyes, blazing with hatred, maybe. Malice, maybe. He was waiting for the day when no one else was walking. Inside his pocket, clutched in his fist, always hidden from view, was a knife. She was sure of it.
Choosing another route meant giving up the pleasure of crashing waves, the sun rising over the cliffs with splashes of pink and orange on cloud-streaked mornings, or pale blinding yellow on clear days.
At work, she complained to her officemate. “He gives me the creeps. That staring.”
“Stare back at him.”
“It seems as if he wants something from me.”
“Maybe he wants you to stop staring at him.”
“If he wanted to hurt you, he’d have done it by now.”
“I don’t think he moves that well. I could outrun him in a heartbeat.”
“Then what are you worried about?”
“He stares at me.”
“You mentioned that.”
If you hadn’t seen it, you couldn’t image the shine in those dark eyes, the enlarged, terrified pupils. His lips were rigid and lurid red.
Why wouldn’t he stop staring at her? Through her? Past her? She wanted to keep her gaze on something else, but it was drawn back to his as surely as a fisherman reeled a line in from the surf to take hold of his catch. His eyes were sharp hooks, drawing hers inexorably to his.
After a while, she began pressing her lips upward ever so slightly, if only to ease the tension — a whisper of a smile. It was absurd to greet someone who gave nothing in return but a hard, terrifying stare. He began to creep into her dreams. Seeing him on the path from a distance filled her with growing dread. She didn’t breathe easily until they’d passed each other.
Now, the sun was just cresting the cliff. She started up the slight incline as he was lurching down. She stepped into his path and put out her hand. He tried to move around her. He teetered for a moment and regained his balance. “What do you want?” Her voice was too loud.
He stared at her.
A woman sitting on the bench at the top of the incline stood. She called out — “What are you doing?” She walked down the slope and took the man’s arm. “Why are you harassing my father?”
“Leave him alone.”
“He stares at me. I don’t like it.” Lisa felt petty.
The woman clutched the man’s upper arm more tightly. “He’s had a stroke.”
“Oh,” Lisa said. “Oh, I…”
“He can’t speak. He can’t move his facial muscles. He has a right to be here.”
“I didn’t say he didn’t.”
“You’re upsetting him.”
The man stared at her. A tremor fluttered across the skin beneath his left eye but he didn’t blink.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. He must be frightened, not knowing what will happen.”
The woman glared at her, a look not unlike her father’s. “What are you saying?”
“To be locked inside your head until you die,” Lisa said.
“He’s not locked inside his head.”
“You said he can’t speak.”
“We’re very close, I know how he thinks.”
Lisa smiled, suddenly tired of the conversation.
“You shouldn’t assume you know things about people,” the woman said.
“I said I was sorry.”
Behind her, the sun had come up. The clouds to the west were pink beside the pale blue, as if the sky were blushing. “I guess we shouldn’t talk about him as if he’s not here.”
“He’s fine,” the woman said. “He’s amazing, really. He has no fear of what will happen after.”
Lisa looked at the man’s face. She stepped to the side. “I’m sorry I drew the wrong conclusion. I’m very sorry. For everything.”
“He likes to walk by the beach.” The woman returned to the bench and pulled her mobile phone out of her pocket.
Lisa smiled at the man. The tremor beneath his eye throbbed. She shivered.
The woman didn’t know what was inside of him at all. No matter how close they’d reportedly been. His immobilized lips, his unblinking eyes, the slack skin on his jaw revealed absolute terror. His whole life, past and future, were trapped inside his skull.
Then, as she watched his face, she saw he wasn’t staring at her after all. He didn’t care what expression he presented to the world. He wasn’t concerned with what others perceived. He was gazing at something beyond.