She likes how the spiral staircase snaked up. Charlie lives on the fifth floor and rarely takes the elevator. Each evening, she walks two streets over to the Blockbuster and rents one movie. The store is run-down and putting in little effort to stay alive, but it has several regulars. Harry Lagger lives right across the street and drops in after work. He has a finance job in midtown making stellar PowerPoints. He’s seen Pulp Fiction once or twice. He pierced his left ear to honor Vince Vega. Vince Vega has declined to comment. He leans one arm on the counter and flirts with the cashier. Keith and Marie rent one horror movie every Sunday night. On Fridays and Saturdays, they get shitfaced. The rest of the week they work and, well, we can assume continuity. Mr. Fregoli is older than the rest. He never rents movies. He comes in only to browse. He stays for half an hour, walks through each genre one time and leaves. The cashiers rotate. In the evening they are kids from the local high school. During the day, they are kids who graduated last year but never left town.
Charlie likes to take her time in the Blockbuster. It’s the highlight of her day. Maybe tonight she will retreat to nature with Malick’s charming murderer? Or will she trap herself in the suburbs with the dreamy Lisbon sisters of Coppola’s offspring? Or will she be a whip-smart detective out to catch William H. Macy?
Charlie bathes in this process. She floats through each row, scanning for her favorite directors, lingering by the newest releases. There’s no rush here. At work, everything has been spinning rapidly outward, shifting and morphing. But certain small rituals – what to eat for breakfast, what bar to go to after work, what movie to watch at night – are still petrified and fossilized, safe and sound. The Virgin Suicides or Fargo?
Her choice in hand, Charlie heads home. The two streets between the Blockbuster and her apartment are a mixture of townhouse ruins and new construction. Charlie likes walking back at this time of night — around 9:00 PM. It’s March and the sky is dark but not black. The construction has stopped by now. There is a stillness and an emptiness.
But tonight there is an exception to Charlie’s routine, a slight encroachment. There are footsteps, heard faintly in the distance, but nearing closer. The red shift of the doppler. She strains to hear the comforting clicks of heels on pavement, or a soft flip-flop echoed by the small patters of a mother and child, or the in-unison stride and panting of a couple walking their dog. But the footsteps are void of these markers; they are a singular thud on the pavement, growing louder as the distance closes.
Thud and a thud and two more.
Charlie walks faster. One foot in front of the other. Only two blocks away from home. She grips her keys into a claw, fitting one key in between each finger, an old schoolgirl trick. One foot in front of the other. Almost home now. Her heartbeat picks up. She tells herself to relax. Stop being dramatic. It’s a residential area. She tightens the keys in her hand, knuckling white against the metal.
“Miss,” he is right behind her. She turns.
It is just Mr. Fregoli. A wave of relief. See no reason to worry, but her knuckles stay white, slower to respond.
“You dropped this outside the Blockbuster, dear.” Her receipt.
“Oh, thank you.” He smiles, showing his aged-yellow teeth, marked with various lines of time. Charlie becomes momentarily fixated on his teeth. They seem surprisingly strong and intact for someone of his age. She reaches out to take the receipt and slip it into her purse.
Mr. Fregoli nods and gestures towards her DVD, “Great choice. That’s a fun one, ‘Oh you, betcha.’ You’ll enjoy it.”
“Thank you, I hope so.” She turns to walk home.
“Well have a nice night, kiddo. Careful on the way home.”
Charlie nods and continues her walk. One foot in front of another. Only one block left now.
“He was a little guy, kinda funny-looking… Oh, just in a general kind of way.” Charlie is tucked into her couch. What a description. Buscemi fits the bill perfectly with his blue eyes bulging out and overtaken by the whites, his hairline lifting and dropping into a Sine curve, his teeth yellow and sturdy. His lit-up face catapults Charlie out of the Minnesota winter and back into her apartment. She looks around and is finally aware, for the first time in the three years she has lived here, how alone she is. It’s a studio apartment, hallowly furnished. The building is older and reminded of its age by frequent creaks and echoes. Charlie has never minded these. It’s decorated in a disproportionate mash. There is a small sofa, the size of a loveseat, that Charlie stretches out on after work. There’s a side table with three legs that hobbles in a crooked triangle. There’s a twin-sized bed in the corner and a broken clothing rack. There’s a galley kitchen, tucked away and forgotten. And across from the loveseat there’s a fifty-inch TV. It is by far the most expensive thing Charlie owns, but it was an investment. The only light in the room is that bright wall of screen. Fargo is paused on the last scene that jolted Charlie back to reality. Buscemi is sitting in a car. Shadows fall across his face cutting it in thirds, with only his eyes and nose lit up. His face takes up almost half the screen. She can’t look away. Charlie always finishes her movies. She never falls asleep. She never stops them early if they are bad. She never takes a break to do something else. She watches them straight through, all the way through, every night.
But tonight she gets up from her loveseat with the screen still paused. She double checks the locks. Unlocking and locking. She stands on the wobbly side table to check the windows. Unlocking and locking. She goes around a second time. Pushes the door. Locked. Stands again on the wobbly side table and tries to push up the windows. Locked. She turns on the lights in the kitchen. And then the ones in the hall. And the bedroom. And the main room. She sits back down and presses play, but she doesn’t make it to the end.
Monday morning Charlie skips breakfast and goes straight to the bus stop. She gets on the red line and chooses a seat near the window. She looks across the street at the new Starbucks. Fresh and cutting. The Monday crowd shuffles inward to the city, pooling in and out of the coffee shop. She sees a man in a gray overcoat leave the store with a bagel and a newspaper. He smiles, toothy and yellow. She places him as Mr. Fregoli and tightens the grip on her purse. Then she blinks and sees Mr. Fregoli coming out of the Starbucks again. Still toothy and yellow. But this time his coat is tinted brown from the sun. She looks away and further down the street at a yellow bus piling up with scrambling kids.
The red line starts up again and weaves in and out. It reaches the Midtown stop. The bus empties quickly and fills up again. Right before the doors shut, she sees Mr. Fregoli leap two steps at a time onto the bus. He smiles at her. His coat is black now. She grips her purse, puts her briefcase on the seat next to her, and averts her eyes. There are two beads of water falling down the windowpane. She narrows in and watches them race in crooked lines down the glass. She holds her breath to see who will win. She exhales slightly when she sees, through her peripheral watch, Mr. Fregoli take a seat in the back. Five minutes to the next stop. The next stop is her’s. Now four minutes to the next stop. She bumps her knee up and down. Crosses and uncrosses her legs. Touches her briefcase to make sure it is still there. Screeching stop. She rises up halfway in her seat, back hunched against the windows, and prepares to beat the crowd. The bus stops fully and lurches back. She tips over slightly and then darts out into the aisle, pushing the shuffle aside. And she is out.
She lets out a long-held, suffocating breath and steps into the sidewalk. Her office is only a block from here, in one of the new buildings. She can see it in the distance, reflecting every worn face of the city and darting them back out onto the street. It looks like it is made entirely of glass, easy to run into and smash until each face becomes a crystallized shard. But beneath it are the same bolts and pipes from the building her company bulldozed. She stops to look up and find her own mirror. But instead, she sees scenes flashing. The highrise is now a Minnesota winter with two men in the car. Each reflection is grinning in a Sine curve with bulging eyes. And now they’re all him. Every shuffling blur in a brown and gray and black coat has stopped to look up at the glass. And looking back is a scintillating reflection of one face.
She feels the suffocating breath build again and wants to let it out in a high-frequency scream that will crack each reflection in two, but she blinks and turns to the right. Everyone is moving and bumping into her. They’re not standing still and looking up and there are no Mr. Fregolis. But maybe today the glass is not reflecting. She looks up again and sees the same horrifying tapestry of toothy, yellow homogeneity. What if he is in there, on her floor, in her office, smiling down at her magnified and multiplied. Laughing. Taunting her. She runs back to the bus stop. Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t look. Her bus is here, and she steps on, concentrating on the lift and stomp of her feet. One step, two steps, three steps. Now step to the right and sit. Feet pointed forward now. She counts the stops back to her apartment. The bus halts and falls back, eyes on the ground, that’s one stop. Again, that’s two. Again. She watches the feet of passengers in the aisle line up to get off the bus. She scans and logs – a pair of red flats with a bow (she used to have the same ones), black stilettos, Danskos, and brown loafers, black loafers, gray loafers. She can’t tell, but she won’t look.
And now it’s her stop. And she’s off again. One foot forward, quickly. Her own shoes become a blur. Up the staircase, one step up the red carpet, and again. Keys in the lock, twist and snap. She darts in and shuts the door. But she is still suffocating as her eyes dart around. Was the table leaning the other way when she left? The love seat looks dented in. She feels a thud and a thud and another of her heart pounding up and into the built-up breath. She inches towards her galley kitchen and reaches for a rolling pin left out on the counter. She wraps her fingers around the chipped wood until splinters dig in. She nudges towards the bathroom, the singular hidden space. She grips the glass knob with her free hand and twists slowly, pushing it open. And there he is. Quiet. Smiling toothy in wait. Staring straight at her. She lets out a curdling scream and feels her pounding heartbeat into her hands until her hands are beating and beating and beating in unison. She raises and lowers the rolling pin again and again. She smashes as blood splatters and her coursing, suffocating, beating breaks each tooth into a shard.
When she finally stops, there is nothing but glass and blood. Her bathroom mirror is shattered on the floor. Her hands are cut from the rolling pin causing ricocheting mirror fragments. Her suffocating breath is hitched in her throat. But she is not done. She runs out of the bathroom and checks the windows. Locking and unlocking. She pulls all the curtains down. She checks the door again. She sees the Blockbuster DVD case lying on her crooked table and pauses, rolling pin still in hand. She waits to turn, knowing what must come next. She spins slowly on her heel to face her TV. Not yellow this time, but black and shadowy and just as toothy. He is there mirroring her, raising his own weapon through the screen. Taunting her. Smiling. Laughing. She steps forward and lunges to hammer and hammer and hammer, beating away fifty inches until there is nothing left. Her final blow sends splinters across the entire screen, finally cracking the icy Minnesota winter into a voided black. She falls in exhaustion. Her knees land on shards of screen and her splintered hands drop the rolling pin. She exhales and sits in her bloodied mess. Her eyes fog over until she can barely see the outline of her torn hands. Yellow and orange dots light the corner of her peripheral and glassy wisps dominate her center vision. She sees him floating there, between the yellow and orange. Laughing. Smiling. Still taunting her.
And then she hears the spiral staircase creaking. And a deep, old breath echoing. And the floorboards outside her apartment creaking. And a laughing “You betcha” echoing. And the doorknob jangling. She lifts herself from the floor, using her splintered hands as eyes. She feels for her pin and grips it tightly, knuckling white against the wood. She stands. Fists pound against the door.
Faye Holt is an aspiring writer from Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently studying linguistics and computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She serves as editor for her university’s arts and literary magazine, is a student writing fellow for Reboot, and a member of the Atlanta Writers Club.
© 2022, Faye Holt