Jim kept on talking but I didn’t hear a word he was saying. My ears were tuned to Dex’s conversation.
“I can’t talk about this now,” he said roughly into the phone, his voice trembling slightly.
He closed his eyes to whatever the person on the other end was saying. His brow furrowed, scrunching up his forehead in a landscape of expressive lines and the grip on the phone tightened. His other hand came up to his eyes, covering them. I could almost feel his breath seize. I had never seen him like this before. It was fascinating.
Finally, he took his hand away and looked up at nothing in particular. His eyes were red, but not watery. He looked plain scared. I wish I could have heard what the person on the other line was saying to make him look that way.
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” he said to the mystery party, his voice breaking. He looked around him wildly, his eyes catching mine for a second but they didn’t “see” me. Dex could have been anywhere at that moment.
“I can’t do this now,” he cried out.
And then he got up, knocking over one of his beers and started hurrying down the stairs with the phone to his ear, shaking his head as he went. I leaned over and picked up the beer before the spillage reached my feet.
“Bad news?” Jim asked me. I jumped and looked at him, making an uncomfortable face.
“I have no idea,” I said quietly.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said sincerely and then turned his attention back to the game, hinting that I should too.
I tried. I really did, but now all I could think about was Dex. What was going on? Was he OK? As intriguing as it was, I also felt for him. Whatever was going on wasn’t good.
I mulled over what it could be but my inebriated mind couldn’t really come up with anything and the game’s commotion kept distracting me.
Jim tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up to see him standing. A bunch of people on his end were trying to get out and needed me to stand up so that they could pass. I guessed even though there were 15 minutes left in the game, some people liked to beat the rush and leave early.
I flashed them a quick smile, trying not to look annoyed, and rose out of my seat to let them by. They blocked my view of the game momentarily and at what sounded like a very exciting moment.
As soon as they had passed I sat back down just in time to see the Canucks’ goalie, Roberto Luongo, make a great save with his pad. The crowd chanted “Luuuuuuuu,” as they always did when he made a good play (or any play) and I joined along too.
And then I noticed there was a woman sitting in front of me in the previously empty seat. She had probably sat down while I was letting the other people pass. I didn’t know why anyone would catch the last half of the last period but people were fanatical here.
I looked back at the game but something strange brought my attention back to the person. I couldn’t see her properly because a rail was between us and she seemed as short as I, but a feverish tickle at the back of my neck was letting me know something here was wrong. I knew not to ignore that feeling.
My breath slowed as my eyes locked on the back of her head. The hair was old–fashioned, like something Betty Grable would have worn with short, perfectly coiled curls. It was the shade of the palest smokey lavender. I had seen that hair color on someone before.
I wanted to lean forward to get a better look at what she was wearing but I already knew what I was going to see. The puffed taffeta collar at her neck was enough of a hint. As were the glimpses of pom pom appliqués through the rail.
I froze in my seat. My thoughts slowed. I only had one.
She was here.
The lady shifted, subtly, like she was receiving some incoming message from me, and turned around at an excruciatingly slow pace. She really was in slow motion – the rest of the world around me continued on at its regular go.
And then her eyes were peering up at me through the space in the railing. Blank pools of darkness rimmed by a shoddy makeup job. Below them her mouth was spread wide in a disturbing grin, her face cracked by the corners of her shellacked lips. It was a mask of pure and utter derangement and it was looking at me. Looking into me.
Every inch of my body was telling me to run; my nerves were sizzling at their endings from the build–up of dread. I wanted to look at Jim to see if he could see what I saw, to make me feel safe, to make me feel sane, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything but watch.
Time seemed to lose all meaning and I wasn’t sure if it was seconds or minutes that passed while I was under her spell, while we just stared at each other like two equally immovable corpses.
They look at you the way they looked at me.
Her lightly accented words formed in my head, much like they had on previous occasions. She had the ability to talk to me without opening her mouth.
I opened my mouth to say, “Who?” but caught myself. I don’t think I could have formed the words if I’d tried. It didn’t matter anyway because her voice continued resonating inside my skull like I was hearing someone yell underwater.
They’ll always be afraid of you.
Who? I projected.
He’ll fear you too.
Dex? I thought. He had already told me that on several occasions.
A different kind of fear.
What kind of fear?
I loved her so much but the fear drove her away. They put me away.
Who? Who did? Who is she?
It will happen all over again. They’ll take you too. And I won’t be able to help you. It will be too late.
Help me? I thought, while waves of dizziness pulled at my eyes. Despite the anguish in her words, her face remained caught in that same, creepy clown–faced expression. How are you helping me? What do you want from me? Why are you here?
I’m always here. I always have been. But you can’t end up like me.
How the hell would I ever end up like you? I mustered.
It’s easy. You let them talk to you, you talk to them. Everyone will pull away, all the ones that you love, and you’ll realize they never loved you. Not enough. Blood runs thin. There are no ties. And they’ll take you too.
Take me where?! Panic and frustration shivered up my spine. I didn’t know what she was talking about and it was terrifying. She was talking inside my head. She was here. She had to know something.
You’re not crazy. But I’m not here.
What the fuck?
Be there for him. He may be the only one there for you in the end. The end. When they come for you. That’s the end. Then it’s just you and me. Forever. Forever. Forever.
Her words grew louder and louder as they bounced around in my head until they were as loud as a jackhammer and as painful as a drill. I closed my eyes in pain and put my hands to my ears, vaguely aware that people were staring at me. I thought I heard Jim ask, “Are you all right?” but it was barely audible above the racket inside my brain.
Her face flashed before my closed eyes and she was inside of me. I was unable to escape her stretched, inhumane face. The darkness started to close around me like a cloak. There was no way out.
I screamed and jumped up, stumbling over my purse. The bright lights of the arena blinded my eyes but I kept them focused enough on the ground in front of me. I grabbed my purse and made a run for it, nearly tripping again over Dex’s empty seat, and then flung myself awkwardly down the steps, almost taking out a young boy who was making his way into the stands.
“Sorry,” I cried out, and I got a quick glimpse of where I had been sitting. The crowd around me was staring at me full of amusement and concern, while Creepy Clown Lady sat there, watching me. Always watching me.
I looked away before she could get in my head again, before I could hear her demonic chanting, and booked it down the hallway that lead into the rest of the building. I ran until I was out beside the concession stand we had been at earlier. It was now closed, which made me feel even more creeped out, but there were enough people milling about, leaving the game early, so that I wasn’t entirely alone.
I leaned forward, my hands on my knees. I needed to catch my breath and to lasso my brain, which was running wildly all over the place. What had just happened? And did it actually happen?
I listened, half expecting her voice to resonate in my head again, but there was nothing but the sound of my heart pounding madly and the pulsing flow of blood. I wasn’t as relieved as you would think. I was just worried. She said she wasn’t there, but I had seen her. I had heard her. Rarely do your illusions tell you they are actually illusions. Just how fucking crazy was I?
As I pondered that, my mind running over what she said, what she could have meant, I realized that Dex was standing nearby. He was leaning against the wall near the entrance to the restrooms, his back to me, his head bent over. It didn’t look like he was on the phone anymore. He looked so vulnerable in his ratty jersey, back to me, back to the things he was afraid of.
A different kind of fear.
I straightened up and walked over to him. Even if he wanted to be alone, I sure as hell didn’t.
“Hey,” I said. I still hadn’t caught my breath yet so the word came out in a whisper.
He didn’t move or flinch. I stopped in front of him. He kept his head down, staring at a spot on the floor. I followed his eyes. There was nothing there.
Did he just have the same experience as I had?
“Dex,” I whispered. “Are you OK? Did you see her too?”
He blinked, a sign that he had heard me, and lifted his head. He looked horrible. His eyes were dull like they had given up seeing anything, his lips were raw and chewed on. His hair was messier than normal, as if he had been pulling it out. I forgot all about clown lady and immediately wanted to embrace him, to smooth down his hair with my hands, to make everything OK. If only I had that power.
“Oh,” he said listlessly. “I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Neither are you. You look spooked.”
“I am spooked. About you.” And Creepy Clown Lady but for some reason I didn’t feel like I should bring it up, lest the attention get diverted to me. I wanted to know what happened to him. I needed to know.
“Who was on the phone? Who called you?” I asked, carefully placing my hand on his shoulder. He stared at me. From that angle, with the way that his arched brows connected with the bone, he was as unnerving as she had been. I thought he was going to kill me.
I took my hand off of his shoulder. That action broke his concentration. The hate left his eyes, his forehead relaxed.
He came off of the wall and stretched his arms above his head. He groaned, holding the pose for a few seconds, then let his limbs flop to the side. He shook out his shoulders, pursed his lips and said, “You want to get out of here? Game’s almost over. We have this one in the bag.”
There was nothing I wanted more than to get the hell out of there, but I wasn’t going without an answer of some kind.
I sighed and stood rigidly, hoping I conveyed business. It was hard to feel authoritative at my height.
“We’ll go when you tell me what the hell is going on,” I said sternly, keeping my eyes as hard as steel.
He gave me a wry look. “No offense Perry, but some things are a private matter.”