The Follow Game
Crystal R. Babb
She kept her head down as she walked, chin tucked into her scarf in an attempt to hide her face from the cold winter breeze, ungloved hands shoved deep into the silk-lined pockets of her vintage pea coat. She watched the shadows of naked tree limbs on the pavement, her silhouette a dark shape on the ground to her left that glided over the broken sidewalk and dead, yellow lawns of the old, well-maintained homes that lined the street. Her breath puffed out in front of her in little clouds.
The sun fell rapidly at this time of the day and year, and she knew that the street lights would be coming on soon. The daylight was fading from a fiery orange to a crisp blue; her shadow had gained nearly an inch since the stranger had begun to follow her.
Fewer people were out at this time in the winter - she hadn’t seen or passed anyone during her walk. Even the street traffic had thinned out. Most folks were already safe at home, getting dinner ready and settling in for the evening. Now and then she could see their shadows moving like ghosts across the closed curtains of their well-lit homes. In some cases the curtains had yet to be drawn, and she would instead see residents melting into their armchairs in open, well-furnished living rooms and dens. And yet there was someone behind her, crunching along nearly in step with her at an undetermined distance.
Of course, it was difficult to really know whether she was truly being followed or if she just happened to share the same trajectory as this mystery person, but her fingers curled around the handle of the small knife in her pocket all the same. She always brought it with her when she went out - just in case.
She walked a little faster and listened to her belated companion’s footsteps, their depth and cadence, testing them. They walked heavily - heavier than the average woman, anyway - but their stride seemed short. Was she dealing with a smaller person, or had they sped up a little, too? She adjusted her grip on the knife.
There was an alley between two houses about two hundred feet in front of her. A common shortcut, it lead to another, more narrow street that ran behind the current row of houses, providing access to the basement sublet apartments some of these older houses offered. She pressed on, her heart beating a little harder with the exertion, or anxiety, or both.
She made a sharp left turn at the old lamp post that marked the opening of the alley, then another onto the access road, heading now in the opposite direction. Backyard privacy fences created seven-foot-tall walls that loomed on either side of her. Her footsteps echoed here, and so did theirs.
They had followed her into the alley.
Her heart pounded in her ears and she flicked a quick glance behind her, down and to the left. She saw only their shadow, and it was coming up fast.
She readjusted her grip on the knife and braced herself. There was no question: they were following her. It was now or never.
She stopped suddenly and turned, whipping the knife out of her pocket with practiced ease. The man she pointed it at suddenly looked up and stopped short.
“Whoa!” he said, his gloved hands coming up defensively, eyebrows lifted in surprise, and she saw that he was wearing earbuds; he pulled them out and let them fall around his neck. “Easy!” he said, then gave a nervous and embarrassed laugh as he grasped what seemed to be the problem. Everyone, it seemed, was nervous these days. “Sorry,” he said with a friendly smile. In another life it would have been a smile she returned, maybe even flirted with. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare y—”
She closed the distance between them in two steps and stabbed him in the throat. You came out as a wet, choking sound and he stumbled back; his hands came up to his neck, blood rushing through his fingers, eyes wide, shocked, confused. She followed him and stuck him again, this time between his ribs, then again in his neck when he tried to block her. He tripped over his own feet and fell backward. She followed him down and drove the knife into his throat again, throwing all of her weight into that lunge as she practically fell on top of him.
He stopped fighting. She straddled his chest, wrenched the blade free and stuck him one more time, to be safe. Then she sat back on her heels, chest heaving, breath billowing out in front of her like the chimney stacks from the houses that surrounded them. Her arms hung limp at her sides.
She looked at his face through hooded eyes. She looked, but she didn’t see. She was floating just outside of her body, just a little behind herself, her astral nose buried in the back of her head. But she saw nothing. She heard nothing. She felt only the lightness associated with the release of something large and heavy; she was an unsubstantial frame for nothing, shivering and hollow.
Then she blinked, and she was back, the cold breeze biting the tip of her physical nose, the warmth of his body radiating up from beneath her. His hot blood steamed on the ground, on his face and from his throat. It probably steamed from her hands and her knife, but she couldn’t seem to engage her arms just yet, couldn’t lift them to see.
She rose to her feet slowly. Her legs trembled as she stood and stepped aside. She paused, let the head rush pass, and looked down at him. She saw his wide-eyed stare directed up at the darkening sky, the tiger stripes of blood streaked across his face. She saw now that he was young, not much older than she was, perhaps. She imagined he was a grad student from the local university, then dismissed the idea of his identity altogether.
She looked down at the hand which held the knife in a white-knuckled grip she wasn’t physically aware of then crouched beside his body. She wiped the blade on a clean patch of his grey wool coat - one side, the other, repeat until clean - then stood, slipped the knife back into her pocket, and continued walking in the direction she had been traveling in before, staring straight ahead.
The only two street lights in the alley began to flicker to life, but she knew no one would see her. No one was out at this time of night, not at this time of the year, not when there was still a killer on the loose. They would all be safe and warm inside, behind their seven-foot fences and home security systems, gathered around their televisions as they waited for the next report of the unlucky soul who had gone down the wrong alley that night.
She hunched her shoulders against the cold breeze and headed home, leaving behind the body of the latest contestant in the follow game.