"Would you like another?"
"Just one more," Ian told the bartender. "I'll also take the check."
The café bar was packed. Ian was originally looking to grab a drink somewhere quiet, but since it was the Friday before New Year's Eve, a place like that would be hard to find. The golden light from the chandelier bounced off the doublewide mirror behind the bar, making everything inside reflect back to Ian as a glossy blur.
The bartender brought him his third vodka and cranberry juice, and the check, which he paid in cash. Ian liked to square everything away during his last drink, that way he could just leave when he was finished. He knew he shouldn't have had another. Through the mirror, everything looked shiny, and out of focus. But he accredited this to the gilded lighting.
Ian sipped on his drink, looking around at the seventy or so other patrons, just as he had done countless times that evening. He told his fiancé, Amanda, he was getting a drink with some friends. Ian had gone out a few times by himself since they moved in together over the summer. Not because they had gotten into an argument. He just wanted some time alone.
Ian did the same thing the last few years he lived his parents. He always felt odd about it. And he always worried one of his friends would unknowingly reveal they weren't with him one night in particular. He also wondered if or, more likely, when Amanda and he had a child: how would that affect his occasional alone time?
Alcoholics, drug addicts, and even cheaters manage to get away, Ian thought. So, why can't I?
But, deep down, those closest to those people always know about their problem. Well, those closest to alcoholics and drug addicts, at least. In a way, Ian felt like he was cheating. He hated lying to his fiancé, and his parents before her, especially his mom. Nevertheless, he had to go out, unaccompanied, once in a while.
Ian looked like the only person there who was alone. He didn't mind this, even though there was always the feeling of being judged by everyone who had company. That part he hated. The eyes of strangers — focused on him. There hadn't been this many people when he first sat down about two hours ago. Ian quickly became tired of the place and wanted some air. He finished his drink, faster than he should have, and headed out.
The cold, December breeze did Ian some good. The chill knocked off some of the buzz he had worked up. He walked along the busy sidewalk, taking in the other pedestrians. Like those in the café, everyone seemed to have a companion of some kind. Ian liked seeing other people together. He was also looking forward to getting home to Amanda. But she wasn't expecting him back for a little while, and he didn't feel safe to drive home just yet, especially since he was three towns over. So, Ian decided to do a few loops around town.
A similar golden light, like the one from the café, shined through the windows of the other restaurants and shops that lined Main Street. And like the reflection in the mirror, everything in the windows was obscured.
As Ian passed another shop, which was closed, he could see, out of the corner of his eye, this man step out onto the sidewalk from the narrow archway. He was around Ian's age. He was even dressed similar to Ian; blacks pants, buttoned up pea coat. The only difference was their hats. Ian wore a flat cap; the other wore a black beanie. But this isn't why Ian noticed him. He noticed him because, like himself, this young man was alone.
Ian didn't give it much more thought though, at least for the time being. This guy was behind him, out of sight. Ian went about his business walking down the brick sidewalk. Christmas wreaths and ribbons still hung from the streetlights that lined the block. His car was parked in the opposite direction, just on the outskirts of the town village. Ian figured he would keep walking until he hit the train tracks, cross the street, and head back. Maybe even take a detour past the old movie theater.
There was a light snowfall, but the flakes weren't sticking. Ian watched them disappear as soon as they hit the ground. He wondered what Amanda was up to. She was probably cuddled up with her cat, Ferris, who she had before they got their place together. She'd be happy that he was home, but that would be it. Amanda wasn't the catty type, and she always encouraged him to go out, but she was never in the mood for anything when he got home. That was okay though. After a few drinks, he didn't know for how long he would be able to keep it up; or, if he would be able to get it up at all.
Ian's thoughts soon came back to the man who had caught his attention before. There were many sounds around him, but there was this one swishing sound that caught his attention. He turned his head, pretending to look at anything and everything else, and saw he was still there. Ian took a few more looks at nothing in particular before turning his head back around. Okay, there's nothing odd about that, he thought. There really wasn't. This guy is simply walking around town, just like me. Ian told this to himself more than once.
He tried not to turn his head again, but he couldn't help it. He quickly glanced back, not as casually as the first time, and noticed something new. The young man was looking directly at him, and when they locked eyes, a smirk came across his face. Ian figured the only reasons for this was: the man thought he was someone else; or, he wanted to approach him with a "proposition". Either way, Ian didn't want this to continue. So, as uncomfortable as it made him, he stopped, turned, and faced the man who was clearly following him. He stopped immediately, but with ease. Ian looked him over for a moment as he stared back with that same smile.
"Hello?" Ian said.
He didn't respond.
"Hello?" Ian repeated.
Dumbfounded, Ian didn't know what else to do. He started to turn back around, but did a double take before walking off. And this man, this person, started walking too. He can't be looking to jump or mug me, Ian thought. Not in the middle of town at least. He decided to stay within the crowded town limits. But the crowd would be dying down soon, and he was parked on the outskirts of town. Shit! Ian turned his head to shoot the guy a dirty look, and only felt like an idiot after. He then went through his options. He cringed at the idea of "finding a grown up". He was an adult himself, and here he was, thinking like a child. Calling the police is an option. But do I really have to go there? Ian never called the police or 911 for anything. The thought seemed so final. There would be no going back after that. And what would he say when someone answered?
Ian could see this scene playing out; him standing on the sidewalk, slurring his words into his cellphone as people walked past.
Bluffing was an option. He could just threaten to call the cops, just like a bullied kid in school who only threatens to tell the teacher but never does. "I'll do it," Ian would say, waving his cellphone around before putting it to his ear. But, like the bully, this guy would call his bluff, and Ian would have to lower his arm and keep moving along in shame.
He looked back at his follower. His grin was wider than before. And there was a confidence in his poor, pitiable swagger. Nevertheless, Ian was willing to give this guy the benefit of the doubt — whatever the hell that was. Had he called out to Ian, and told him this was all just a joke on a random stranger, Ian would've parted ways with no ill feelings. He was willing to laugh it up if it meant putting an end to this.
So, he stopped once again, and faced his pursuer. He stopped as well — the smile on his face still present. Ian then worked up a smile; half fake, but somehow half sincere. He hoped it would allow this guy to show some mercy. That didn't seem to be the case though, and Ian lost it. "What do you want?" he shouted. "Why are you following me?"
Ian quickly shied away as a couple in their fifties passed by, giving both of them a look. Ian saw this as a good sign. At least they saw him too. That meant he wasn't losing his mind. Ian then waited for them to pass before he spoke again, this time much lower. "Well, what is it? What do you want?"
Ian scoffed and walked off again. The swishing behind him followed. Not too far ahead were the train tracks. This meant it was time to start heading back. He stopped to cross the street, hoping to see the man passes behind him. He didn't. The road eventually became clear, but Ian hesitated to cross He then saw a set of headlights in the distance and waited for them to pass. Ian could feel his eyes on him. The next set of cars passed, and then the next.
Finally, there was but one set of headlights down the road. They were coming up fast. Ian's heart raced. He didn't know what came over him, but he bolted out into the street, letting his legs take him across. There was a screech, followed by a long, drawn out beep. Ian hopped onto the curb and hurried along. He figured there was no way this guy would've risked getting hit. Out of the corner of his eye, Ian saw the compact crossover — the same one he leaped out in front of — slow down and follow him for several yards. The driver's eyes went from him to something; or, someone behind him.
"God damn it!" Ian turned, and there he was, casually walking along. The snow started to pick up. Whatever buzz Ian had was now gone, and he could see the thick flakes accumulating on the sidewalk. Ian wandered, aimlessly, for what felt like hours. He didn't bother looking back the entire time, as his face would only make him madder. But, he knew he would have to confront him, sooner or later.
Ian wondered what his story was. Did he leave his place tonight planning to follow someone at random; or, did he just decide on a whim? And either way, how did he choose his mark? Here Ian was, trying to be alone; and here this guy was, trying to be with someone. Anyone. Had Ian not come to hate this guy in just this short time, he would've felt sorry for the sidler.
Was this his first time doing something like this; or, had he done this before? And if so, how did that play out? Did he eventually leave the person alone on his own accord? Did the person finally have enough, confront him, and drive him away; or, did he — perhaps in public — kill the person, drag them away, cut them into little tiny pieces, and dispose of the parts? Ian knew that last one was unlikely, but he still couldn't help but wonder.
Ian thought about Amanda again. He knew what he left behind at home — and was now hoping to return to. What did this guy leave behind on his way out tonight? What did he have waiting back home? Not only did Ian worry how this situation would end, the idea of being found out nearly crippled him. There was nothing wrong with his occasional solo nights out, but he still felt ashamed. And Amanda would naturally be curious as to why he lied about where he was.
His brain was so scattered that he didn't realize he had finally reached the old movie theater. The cold air seeped into his bones, and his teeth began to rattle as he looked up at the cinema's marquee. Ian couldn't make out its black lettering, but the golden light — the same one that had been following him all night — shined around the bold figures in the letter board. His checks burned red in the bitter breeze, and his heart pounded in his throat. His mind felt heavy — heavy from the senseless paranoia that had been following him for as long as he could remember.
It took Ian a moment to realize he had come to a standstill. There were less people on the street now. He knew that like all things, this ordeal would come to an end, one way or another. So, he figured he would end it now. Ian turned. There he was, with that same grin on his face. He stood idly by, watching as Ian approached. And without flinching, he took the first blow.
Ian's fist connected perfectly with the side of his temple. He didn't seem phased by the punch. It was Ian who was surprised by it. It had been years, since his junior year in high school, that he had struck someone. But while he seemed more than willing to take it, the impact from the punch knocked him off balance. Ian gave him another with the same hand, and then another. By the fourth swing, Ian's hands became numb, and he couldn't feel them hitting their mark. His only confirmation came from the thuds he barely heard over the whistling winds and whatever street noise there was. But by the time Ian had him on the ground, the street noise had stopped. It was instead replaced by a mad scream. Ian soon realized this scream was coming from him. His fists, one after another, rained down upon the face of his follower, who just lay there on the cold, wet sidewalk and took it.
Ian had finally come to a point where he couldn't tell who the blood on his hands belonged to. He lowered his bloody fists, and noticed the red droppings on the sidewalk. Although no one intervened, he could just sense the eyes on him. It was worse than the quick eyeballs he got for sitting alone earlier that night; or, any night for that matter. When he finally faced the world, it was no better. Everyone in the vicinity was looking at him — like an animal.
He wondered how his life would be different from this moment. How would Amanda view him after this incident, if she were to find out? But even if she didn't, and there weren't any consequences, it would certainly be something he would remember until his dying day.
Some of the onlookers stayed, eying the two of them on the ground. Others started leaving. Ian figured he would follow their lead. While walking away, he could hear a small swarm of people rush over to his "acquaintance". He then heard a light chuckle, which stopped him in his tracks. He had to give him one more look. When Ian turned around, he saw him propped up in a bystander's arms, giving a slow wave goodbye. He felt compelled to give one back.
What were the consequences of his actions? He thought about them on the walk back to his car and the entire drive home. The golden light, along with the swishing, would stay with him for some time afterwards.