“The Lonely Man” (short story)

title: “The Lonely Man”
by Amy Gaertner
genre: horror

He hadn’t seen another living soul for months, and was starting to forget what other people were like: the way they moved, the way they smelled. He could look at pictures, but it wasn’t the same. He had only his own reflection in the mirror to remind him what living, breathing people looked like.

Sometimes he would stand there in front of the mirror and stare. He would picture himself with blond hair, or dark skin—sometimes he would picture himself as a woman, with breasts and hips and soft, smooth skin. He would rub the ash from the candle wick across his eyelids or over his lips, imitating shadows and facial hair. More than anything, he longed to see another person.

When he grew tired of the mirror, he had his books to look at—the ones he’d scrounged from the other apartments, and the set of old encyclopedias he’d inherited with the room. The encyclopedias were the best, because they had lots of pictures with lots of different kinds of people in them. He’d named them all—Maggie the Ugandan village woman and Terence the Venetian gondola driver. He made up stories for them, and imaginary lives. It had kept him occupied for awhile, but he was bored with the game now: he knew the details of each picture by heart. There were no new stories to tell for those people.

It was good that today was the day he could leave the apartment.

It was his own rule that only let him leave the apartment one day a week. He knew he could easily break it and go out on a Monday, or a Tuesday—maybe even a Saturday. But his rule said Thursday, and if he couldn’t stick to his own rules, he’d go mad. A mind needs order, it craves it. That’s why there was a day for every task—every day something that needed to be done. Today was Thursday (he was fairly certain it was), and today he could go outside.

He took his time getting ready; there was no sense in rushing things. Once he was outside the apartment, he only allowed himself three hours, and then he’d have to come back inside; once back inside, he’d have the rest of the day to fill. The longer he took putting on his special boots, packing the supplies he might need, and making lists of the things he wanted to find, the less time there would be left after his return before he felt tired enough to sleep again.

It was just after noon when he was ready to go out. Peeking through the thick, dark curtains he’d hammered up over the windows, he could see that the sun was out. It was glorious to see the sun, but it meant he would need the special dark glasses. His eyes just weren’t used to sunlight anymore.

His destination was what used to be Bridgeport. (He supposed it was still Bridgeport, though there wasn’t anyone around to call it that but himself. He said the word out loud a couple of times, just to hear it and to remind himself that the world was still full of names.) It was a little over three miles there and back, and he’d have to keep a tight schedule if he were going to make it back within his three hour time limit.

He didn’t usually roam so far from home (you never knew what you’d find) but he was desperate for an adventure: the chance to stretch his legs and to find something new. He was headed for a ritzy apartment building he’d seen on one of his earlier scouting missions a little over two months ago. Rich people always had such interesting things. He made room in the big rucksack so he could carry any treasures he might find back with him.

No signs of life out on the quiet streets. He stood just inside the entrance to his building for 10 minutes or so, scanning up and down the roads, just to make sure, before heading out. The streets were empty, as they had been for months: not a sound to be heard, or a movement to be seen. Satisfied he was completely alone, he set off into the bright afternoon sun.

The trip was uneventful: he kept his eyes peeled and his body alert, but he didn’t see another living soul on his way. The city was abandoned, as always: eerie and quiet. He tried to play his usual game of imagining people in the cars and the store windows, jogging on the sidewalk or rushing across the streets, but he just wasn’t in the mood. His mind was on getting there and coming home again, and the sun that he wasn’t used to made him hot, and all he could think about was hurrying his task.

He found the building at last, and darted inside as if he were being pursued. In the dim gray light of the lobby he listened and watched for signs of other people, but all he could hear was his own ragged breathing; the only movement he saw was motes of dust floating softly through the air. Alone and safe, he finally allowed himself to slow down and take his time. He would never roam this far from home for essentials: this trip was about pleasure. He wanted to enjoy it.

Even covered in grime and smelling of mildew, the apartments were clearly expensive, and there were lots of wonderful things inside he would like to take with him. He would have to be judicious, though—he wouldn’t be able to drag anything too heavy back to his own apartment in time.

He wanted most of all to add to his collection of people. In a service room, he found recycling bins: one of them was full of old magazines. He settled down on the concrete floor to paw through them, picking out his favorites to bundle into his pack and take home with him. There were some nice pictures in there, full of beautiful, smiling people. He lost track of the time.

When finally he heard the footsteps, it was too late—it took him too long to recognize what they were. It had been months since he’d come across another living being, and he’d forgotten what one sounded like. When he finally realized what the footsteps meant, he startled, knocking over a bin full of cans and alerting the other human to his presence. He had just enough time to jump up and slam his body against the utility room door before whoever it was could catch sight of him.

“Wait!”

It was the first voice he’d heard in he didn’t know how long. A woman, he was fairly sure. She sounded young.

A second later she reached the door, and began banging on it.

“Let me in, please!” she called. “Please!”

He closed his eyes, and started counting to himself to block out the sound of her voice. He would have covered his ears, but the door didn’t lock, and he needed the strength of his arms to keep her from getting in. “15, 16, 17…”

He could still hear her pounding, even over the crash of blood against his eardrums. He counted louder. “21, 22, 23…”

She kept yelling, desperation creeping into her voice. “You have to let me in! I haven’t seen another person in weeks…”

“29, 30, 31…”

“Is it…are you frightened? You don’t have to be…I won’t hurt you…”

He stifled a mirthless laugh: of course she wouldn’t. He squeezed his eyes shut and prayed for her to give up and leave. “44, 45, 46…”

“I just…I thought I’d never see anyone again! I thought I was all alone… Please open the door, please!”

He banged his head against the door in time with his counting. His throat was raw, but still he counted.

It was her tears that did it in the end. She broke down sobbing, wailing against the door, pleading with him to open it. She sounded so helpless and all alone—just as alone as he was. She said she hadn’t seen another living soul in months. Where had she been? How had she survived? She sounded so very scared; her wails had taken on a keening tone. For a moment, he could let himself forget…

He hadn’t meant to open the door to her. She must have felt it slacken when he stood back to stare at the handle. He really hadn’t meant for her to get in, but as he stood there dazed and blinking back his own tears, she managed to push the door open a crack and wedge her body inside the door.

It started the second her eyes locked onto his. The panic exploded around him like an icy wave, and then everything was fire.

He couldn’t stop it happening: he’d never been able to. Once he felt the fever rising, his body was no longer his own to control. He could only stand there in the eye of the storm as chaos burned around him, a force so strong he thought he would be consumed. (Instead, it was always those around him whose bodies were eaten up in the flames.)

He had only seconds to look at her before she was gone: brown skin smudged with dirt and streaked with tears; deep brown eyes wide with terror. There wasn’t much to her, she was so very lean from months of not eating or sleeping well; it didn’t take long to use her up.

For a time, she seemed to glow from within, the flames surrounding her like an aura. Her skin cracked, and then it crumbled, but before she fell into a pile of ash he noticed that she was beautiful, and in his heart, he knew she must have been kind.

***

The lonely man is back is his own apartment now. He doesn’t remember walking there: he tends to forget things for awhile after it happens. Somehow, his instincts always take over, though, and he isn’t surprised to find he has made his way home.

He’ll have to make up a story for her later: something happy and meaningful, full of love and joy. He’s sure it’s what she deserved.

In the meantime, he finds one of the used candles, and rubs the burnt-out wick between his fingers. The wall is covered with ash-black smudges. He finds the place where he last left off: in the kitchen, just above the sink. He drags his finger diagonally across a series of four slash marks to make a set of five. He’s supposed to count the marks now, every single one, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Tomorrow: he’ll save that task for tomorrow.

On his way into the bedroom, he passes the mirror in the hallway. He catches the flicker of his own reflection, but he doesn’t stop to look at himself.

He’s seen enough people for today, and all he wants now is sleep.

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