It was a clear autumn’s evening when the old man first crept into the bedroom where Hank and his wife Debby slept. The old man pulled himself in through the open window, opened to welcome in the breeze into their stuffy, second floor bedroom. That’s what confused Hank the most. No man, young or old, should have been able to pull themselves through that window. Coupled with the fact that he was unable to move his body, Hank slowly relaxed his breath. It was a bad dream, a night terror, and all he could do was ride it out.
The man straightened up as best he could and dusted off his gray suit. His hair was a wispy white, his eyes clouded over with cataracts. Dark hoods ringed his light eyes. His smile was a crack in his face, lipless and ever present, his teeth like the jagged gravestones of a nearly forgotten cemetery.
He shuffled over to Hank. He didn’t move fast and he didn’t need to. Hank couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t cry out to Debby to leave the room. The old man hunched over Hank, a grip like a vice squeezed his cheeks, and he moved his head back and forth, examining the minute details of Hank’s face. His hands were thin and long, his nails yellowed and dirty. His breath was hot and wretched, the stench of old meat on Hank’s face, and he struggled to catch his breath. He would often stop his ragged gasps to swallow his spittle and then continue his poking and prodding of Hank’s face.
Finally, he lifted one index finger, and pressed it to Hank’s forehead. The finger burned Hank like a cattle prod made of liquid nitrogen, a chill so cold it was hot, and the old man’s face broke into an even bigger smile, the crooked, yellowed teeth seeming to stretch back into the man’s skull for an eternity. Then the old man turned and crept out the window the way he came in.
Hank woke the next morning at 7 a.m., rose promptly from bed and began his day. He did remark to his wife while combing his thinning brown hair about his nightmare. “Creepy,” Debbie said, and continued watching Facebook videos on her phone. Debbie was once very beautiful, but had stopped working when Hank and her married. She didn’t need to — Hank made a modest living and Debbie tended to the house, though she rarely did. Hank still found her gorgeous, on the odd occasion she did her hair and put on makeup.
Hank finished dressing in his too-tight suit (it was tight but only until he lost some weight, at least that’s what he told himself) and drove to work in his Toyota Camry. It was tan and had a spoiler, which made it a sports car in his mind. He drove down the street lined with identical houses, NPR on the radio. He walked into the office and sat down. The old man didn’t cross his mind for the rest of the day.
That evening the man crept in through the same window. Once again, he walked across the room and poked his gnarled finger to Hank’s forehead. Hank’s internal struggle to keep his breathing even and his fear down was more difficult than the night before. The old man’s face broke into a smile and once again, he crept out the bedroom window.
Hank once again woke up, went to work, and came home to bed. The old man never left his mind. That evening, he came home and asked his wife if they could close the window for the evening. “Why?” she asked. “You love having the window open when we sleep.” No reason, he replied. She didn’t respond. So Hank closed the window, and tried to push the old man out of his mind. With the window closed, maybe his nightmares would stop.
However, the old man returned. He walked in through the bedroom door, laughing as he opened the door, the usual silent and oiled hinges creaking. He seemed to mock Hank for thinking a closed door and a shut window would be enough to keep him out. Hank laid on his back, the old man crossed the room with his too-wide smile, pressed his long finger to his forehead. He chuckled again and shuffled out of the room.
Hank strived to keep his eyes open this time instead of letting himself drift off to sleep. When he was finally able to move, he threw back his blankets and dashed out of the room. He looked down the long hall and thumped down the stairs. He threw open his front door and looked outside. A dog barked in the distance. The streetlamps gave a soft orange glow to his lawn. There was nobody there. Hank looked around once more, this time to make sure no neighbors saw his strange manic search, then turned and slowly crept up the stairs.
“What were you doing?” Debbie said, her voice full of sleep.
“Nothing,” Hank said. “I thought I heard something.” Debbie replied with a grunt. She likely wouldn’t remember the conversation by the morning.
Each night for a week, the old man crept into Hank and Debbie’s bedroom. Hank slept little and was stressed from work. His usual punctuality at work had seemed to be replaced with forgotten meetings and deadlines.
One night, Hank left his work softball game early, citing illness. Actually, he wasn’t sure he told anyone, he just left the game. No one would miss him. He spent the rest of the evening combing the home for entrances, locking and re-locking every door and window. He told Debbie he needed to wake up early, and as such he was going to sleep in the guest bedroom, so he didn’t wake her in the morning. Once he was in the guest room, Hank barricaded himself inside. He locked the door and window, moved the dresser over the window and the bed against the door. He stayed awake as long as he could but as with every night, he didn’t remember when he had fallen asleep, only that he had. He woke in the dead of night. Hank could hear the old man, first at the window, rattling the pane. Only seconds later, Hank heard the door rattle against the bed frame. Then it stopped. Hank slept soundly for the first time that week.
The next night he decided to do the same. He first heard the sound of the window, then the door, then once again it stopped. Just before he relaxed, however, and settled in for a deep sleep, he heard a chuckle and a creak, as the old man stepped out of the closet. Hank didn’t see him at first, but felt the now familiar tightening of his muscles, and heard the gasps of breath slip between the old man’s thin, cracked lips.
And like every night, the old man crossed the room, smiled, held one long finger to Hank’s forehead, then turned and walked back into the closet.
Hank didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. In the morning, he slouched out of bed and got ready for work. It was a hard Monday — he had spent the weekend with very little sleep, and spent his days worrying about the old man. Even Debbie, perpetually stuck in her own little world, looked up from her B-grade vampire show and commented on Hank’s deteriorating appearance, though he had not told her anything for fear of frightening her.
Hank got in the car, reversed out of his driveway and pulled into the street. Then he stopped. He couldn’t remember how to get to work. He thought it was likely a momentary lapse in judgement brought on by the lack of sleep, and decided to continue driving down the road anyways, but the path never came to him. He could remember the building, the familiar brick and mortar walls and gray cubicles, but for some reason, try as he might, he could not remember the route to his building. He pulled the car over and pulled out his phone, hoping maybe he could simply search the name of his office, but he couldn’t remember that either. He racked his brain, trying to figure out just exactly where he worked.
Finally, he realized he likely had some business cards in his wallet, and after a moment of digging, pulled out a dingy, crumpled business card with his name big and bold on the front from behind an Applebee’s gift card, the address printed below. He drove to work, stayed for 3 hours, then told his boss he was feeling a little under the weather.
“Well, you certainly look it, Hank,” his boss, a thin man with a long nose, replied, and let Hank go for the rest of the day, brandishing his long, skinny arms to shoo Hank away. Hank flinched a little when he pointed to the door with a skinny, crooked finger.
“I’ll call if I’m out tomorrow as well,” Hank said. His boss didn’t reply, just looked back at his computer. Hank drove home. Once again, he couldn’t quite remember the route back. He looked up his own home on a map and drove home. The moment he reached his neighborhood and the perfectly manicured lawns and bushes, Hank remembered the rest of the way home and turned off the GPS.
Hank surprised Debbie when he walked in the door. Hank explained he was simply feeling unwell and his boss let him take a couple of days off.
“Oh honey,” Debbie said. She patted his face from the couch where she was watching TV. “Should we take you to the doctor?”
Hank gripped Debbie’s wrist and pulled her hand away from his face. “No, definitely not,” he said. “Can’t go to the doctor,” he said. Debbie turned back to the TV.
“If you say so,” she said. That evening, Hank told Debbie he was going to sleep downstairs, on the couch. He told her he thought he might throw up, and the couch was closest to the bathroom.
The moment Debbie headed upstairs and Hank could hear her a vampire fighting another vampire for the love of a third vampire, Hank headed outside and drove to the nearest gas station. He gathered up supplies: energy drinks, soda, candy, cold brew coffee. Anything he could find with caffeine. He cracked open one of the energy drinks, then another, the cold fizzle aching his front teeth and burning his throat. He had almost fallen asleep during the 2 mile drive on the way to the little gas station.
He got home and drank another energy drink, then brewed a pot of coffee. Once he drank that, he brewed another. His skin tingled with the caffeine and his eyes burned from the lack of sleep. The hours ticked by. Hank spent the time pacing around his home and trying to watch television. Debbie had fallen asleep long ago. At around 3 a.m., Hank was sitting at his kitchen table. His head was in his hands and he sighed deeply. He thought he likely looked insane. He certainly felt it. He stood up from the table to see if maybe he could get a wink of sleep that night. He had only taken two steps when his legs seized up, and he stumbled to the floor. Hank’s face laid on the cool floor, his brown hair laid across his eyes. He could only see the legs of the chair near him. Behind him he could hear the door creak open. He knew, he was positive, he had locked the door just hours ago, but the door slowly opened like there was no lock on the door at all.
He heard the shuffling feet of the old man, heard his little laugh escape between his wretched teeth. He felt a cold hand grab the nape of his neck, a steel grip in his hair. He was lifted from the ground, a tiny groan emanated from his throat. A line of saliva trailed from his mouth to the floor. He was flipped over, onto his back, his arm twisted underneath him. The old man laughed hard and loud, and Hank was surprised Debbie couldn’t hear anything at all. The old man’s rotten teeth and wide smile was framed by loose skin that sagged down towards Hank.
Almost familiar to Hank, the old man reached out his long finger and pressed it to Hank’s forehead. He kept it there much longer than he had the previous nights, the deep cold of his finger burning it’s way into Hank’s skin.
The old man straightened up, dusted off his jacket, and walked back out the door. The moment Hank could move, he rushed into the yard, and ran around the house three times, searching for some sign of a footprint, or a maybe a thread snagged on a rosebush, but his yard was immaculate like always.
He knelt to the ground and wept. He headed inside, knees wet from the grass, when the very first gray of the morning began to lighten the sky.
He sat on the couch and hung his head back, worried that if he fell asleep, the old man might make an appearance during the day. He opened his eyes with a jolt when he heard footsteps down the stairs, then relaxed when he realized they were too light and too quick to be the old man’s.
“You look like shit, what happened down here?” He turned to reply to his wife, his mouth hung open when he forgot her name. He furrowed his brow in concentration, his memory hearkening back to their first date, their wedding, their 10th anniversary, but he couldn’t remember her name.
“Hello? Are you okay?” she said. He replied that he was just fine. “Hank? I really think you should go to the doctor.” He replied that he needed to call his boss, let him know that he might not come into work today.
He tapped the screen of his phone, and tried to use his fingerprint to unlock the phone. Passcode needed to unlock phone it said, but he couldn’t remember his passcode. He brought the phone over to his wife, and held it out.
“Will you put my passcode in?”
“Seriously? Go to the hospital.” She handed the phone back to him. He opened up the phone app and scrolled his contacts, but he couldn’t remember his boss’s name either. He didn’t remember what he did for a living, or what day his birthday was.
Panic started to rise in his throat, fear clouding his mind. He called out to his wife that he was going to the doctor and left the house. “Alright, I’ll be at my sister’s the rest of the day,” she called back.
He drove down the road and pulled onto the freeway. His brain was on the fritz, a lack of sleep meant his only thoughts were like static from a radio. But one clear thought managed to continually burst through the fog: Hank desperately needed to get away from the old man.
He drove most of the day, only stopping to buy snacks and water. He forgot the PIN code to his debit card and so he tossed it out. He drove until it got dark and found a hotel in a small town a mile off the freeway.
He rented a room for the night, all expenses going on his credit card. No PIN needed. The pimply young college student earning minimum wage didn’t blink an eye at Hank’s disheveled appearance and didn’t seem to notice the panic in Hank’s voice.
Hank locked the door and checked the windows of the little brown room. He moved the dresser in front of the door and flipped one of the two beds in front of the window. He pulled the small desk away from the wall and pushed it up against the closet door. He shut the bathroom door after checking the tiny window above the shower and jammed a chair under the door handle.
The other queen bed on the right side of a little nightstand seemed to teem with bedbugs, but Hank didn’t mind. He laid down and tried to get a wink of sleep, confident he ran away from the old man enough for one night. He didn’t have a plan for the morning, just wanted to escape the old man for a single night. Maybe he could find out his wife’s name again, or find a coworker to re-explain his job to him. Maybe a doctor could fix whatever was going on in his head. But for now, he wanted rest and a night free from the old man.
He never did fall asleep that night, and when the old man appeared, it wasn’t from a door or window, but directly out of the shadows. Hank heard him long before he saw him, the ragged breaths and slow shuffling of the feet. He smelled the rancid breath as the old man drew near. He saw the sagging white skin of his jowl. He felt the usual paralytic of fear.
As the old man walked around the small beige couch of the hotel room, Hank felt something snap inside of himself, a guttural scream loosed from his lips. He swung himself out of bed and charged the old man, who threw back his head and laughed, his yellow teeth cracked back into his skull.
He reached for the old man’s throat and choked him. The cold of the old man’s skin burned his hands, and even while Hank was choking the air from the old man, the ragged gasps of breath never stopped.
The old man gripped his cold hands around Hank’s wrists and pried them away from his neck. His white eyes were wide with excitement and his laugh grew higher and higher in pitch, louder and louder. The old man released his grip on Hank’s wrists and snapped forward, his long fingers snaking their way around Hank’s throat, his other hand reaching out with that long white finger, burning its way to Hank’s brain.
When the old man let go, Hank dropped to the floor. He started crying, which only seemed to amuse the old man even further. Hank began to crawl away, rising to his feet and running to the door. He pulled down the dresser in front of the door. It crashed to the floor and he swung open the door, hard enough the door knob broke through the drywall behind it.
He pulled the keys from his pocket, and… and he couldn’t recall how to drive the car. He knew he had to get away from the old man, but he couldn’t remember where he could go, or how to start the car, or what his own name is. He started to run down the street. His eyes filled with tears. He tripped and landed on the side of the road, the grayish sand and gravel dug into his elbows, a passing car’s headlights shone through the tears. The sound of the engine and the tires on the road masked the first chuckles from the old man behind him.
“No, please, please,” cried Hank, who couldn’t recall when and why the old man began terrorizing him. The old man reached out, one last time with his long, white finger, that wand of death and despair, and burned into Hank’s forehead. He heard the heavy breathing of the old man, his long gray tie tickling Hank’s nose, and he forgot how to breath. The old man laughed as Hank struggled for air, drowning in his own mind.
Moments later the old man stood over the quickly cooling body, laughing into the autumn air, then turned and shuffled back to the hotel. The door to Hank’s car and hotel room still stood open. The old man turned and walked down the rows of windows and doors of the crusty motel. He spotted an open window, just a couple down from Hank’s. He crept to the open window and crawled through. He stood and dusted off his gray suit. A young woman lay in the bed next to her sleeping husband, soft hazel eyes and rosy cheeks staring back into the cloudy white eyes of the old man, who laughed and laughed and laughed.