Returning home from work one day Evan Wilson stopped to collect his mail before going down to his cramped apartment in the basement. Locking the door behind himself he set the handful of items on a nearby table and went over to his desk by the window, where he plucked a half-smoked cigarette from the ashtray and poured himself a drink. He forgot about the mail and cooked supper instead; he watched the news while he ate; afterward, he washed the dishes, then went to his desk and began the night’s work.
Hours later, while he was stumbling around, trying to figure out what else to do, putting off the inevitable moment when he must again fall asleep, his gaze chanced upon that stack of mail on the nearby table and soon his hands were idly sorting through it. At first, it seemed just the usual dreck of bills, coupons, and the like, but then he noticed the plain white envelope with his name and address neatly hand-printed across the front. There was no return address, and besides the postage, nothing to indicate the sender.
Evan paused, wondering, was this a letter? He couldn’t remember the last time he received one; he didn’t think people sent them anymore. Who would send him a letter? And why? It was the mystery of such a thing that bade him set the rest aside and open this at once. He tore off the end and withdrew the single folded sheet of paper that was inside. On it was written this: “I know who you are. I’ve been watching you. I know everything about you. And I love you. I just wanted you to know.” Below that there was a smear of red lipstick, a kiss in place of a signature. And when he held the page up to his face, he could smell the faintest trace of a scent, something sweet and cloying.
He read those five sentences, and then he had to read them again. Was this a joke? He felt cold. It didn’t make any sense. He wiped the sweat from his brow and sat down. He was about to reach for a cigarette but then he got up and closed the curtains, then went to double-check that the door was indeed locked before sitting down again. Then he did light up, and when he exhaled he blew the smoke at the page in his hand, smothering the voyeur’s perfume. If that’s what it was; he didn’t know what it was. Forget about it, it was nothing; there was no threat in those words.
That’s what he kept telling himself, and in the end, it was true: it did not matter, nothing mattered, there was nothing he could do. His heart gradually slowed its pace and he breathed deep, taking a long heavy drag on his cigarette, letting the dusky plumes paint his throat with their passing, fill up his lungs and make them bleed. He exhaled at the ceiling and fell asleep in his chair watching the smoke swirl in withered curls above him.
The next day Evan went to work under a mask of suspicion. Of all the people he encountered in his day-to-day life, these were the likeliest suspects to have perpetrated the letter. If the average person is required to spend approximately eight hours a day in the workplace, then one-third of their life is spent with the people whom they share these environments with. From such proximity, casual observation would eventually reveal the basic traits of one’s personality, from which weak spots could be identified and potentially manipulated.
However, after careful scrutiny, Evan saw nothing to suggest that any of his colleagues possessed such inclinations. They spoke to one another of last night’s game, plans for the weekend, and how the kids are sick or the car broke down; cursory exchanges of verbiage. He saw that most people were too engaged with the mundane entrapment of their own lives and the occurrences immediately affecting them to truly take into account those, like him, who exist at the periphery of their experience, which was just as well.
This was all perfectly acceptable but it didn’t solve his dilemma; indeed, it meant someone outside his sphere of perception had sent the letter. He was being watched; fine, whatever. If he went out in public then that was the risk he faced. A claim to know everything was simply impossible—no one could ever know anyone that well. Furthermore, he lived alone; his parents were dead; he had no siblings; his few friends were visited but once or twice a year. There was no one close to him. He was safe. In and of itself, the claim to love was harmless, too plainly put to be anything else, and the last sentence seemed to confirm this. That wasn’t written by someone who was going to come after him.
At the end of his shift, Evan walked home, staring at the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets, idly kicking rocks as he went. It had rained that afternoon and the air was crisp and still in its wake. The water in the gutters mirrored the gray clouds above, until a stray pebble flew from the pavement, sending ripples from where it broke the surface, rending the sky’s visage into undulations. Evan saw this but took no notice, carrying on without missing a beat. He was soon at home and beginning his work for the night.
Weeks passed and there was nothing further. Maybe that’s all there was, perhaps to say it once was sufficient and now the sender, whoever it might be, was content to return to their previous obscurity having canceled the unrequited aspect of their affection. Evan knew naught. He went about his usual business and tried not to think about the letter too much. Without any discernible consequences, it was easier to disregard in the face of more immediate concerns. Evan’s life was one of a productive stasis, and that was how he liked it.
First thing upon returning home Evan typically poured himself a glass of vodka and sat at his desk, where he would often remain until falling asleep. Its surface was a scattered mess of paper, various drafts of whatever he was working on the evening prior. Usually, he started off with something new before turning to refine something previously generated. Whatever he didn’t like was kept separate from his other material. When he was bored Evan would dig out these unwanted scraps, carve them up and arrange them into different configurations until he happened upon something interesting; this way he never quite ran out of things to work on. Countless hours were spent on these endeavors.
But every time he checked the mail subsequently, however, he did so with an ounce of trepidation. What if there was another letter… and in the time between the first and second it was decided that a mere confession was insufficient, that something more was desired now. He lived alone and if anything happened to him it would be a long time before anyone else would know about it. This paranoid notion nibbled anxiety into the periphery of his mind.
The letter itself was cast into the bottom drawer of his desk with the other papers he received over the years and there it remained; nothing else he could do but ignore it. As the weeks passed Evan became more and more certain his initial conclusion of benignity was in fact correct.
Nearly a month later he was again returning home from work and stopped to check the mailbox before heading down the corridor to his apartment. It wasn’t until he was back inside, after locking the door and tossing the mail onto the nearby table, that he glimpsed another plain white envelope among the scatter of deliveries. His mind flared at the sight and a chill rushed through him. He fished it out immediately and went over to his rocking chair, fingers trembling slightly as he opened it to read what was inside.
“I am sorry. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done what I did, to tell you that. But it is the truth and there is no reason I should keep it a secret, even if it is otherwise useless. Yes, I love you, and what good is that? But it was burning in me, ever since I first saw you, and I thought that if I should live my whole life without ever telling you then it would become like a cancer to me, a blight upon my soul. How strange and pathetic this must seem, that I am telling you this. But a secret is no longer a secret when someone else knows. It belongs to you now. And though I know that we shall never be together, I still sometimes wish that we could kiss. Some people use these sentiments to exploit others, I know this and so do you, but I want nothing, only to love you.”
Now he was forced to consider this anew. He was becoming certain of its sincerity; it did not seem to be either a prank or a threat. Nonetheless, it was unnerving that someone out there felt this way about him.
Love is doubtless a tricky concept. It is a strange and unique phenomenon among humans, possibly even exclusive to our species, but only those who are capable, and though there is a consensus on permutation, it occurs differently within each individual, as it should. Evan had even once thought himself to be in love, years ago. All his life he thought he would never get to feel that way about someone, until he met Annie and then something changed. Evan thought he knew what to expect, but the feeling in fact proved to be far less than reciprocated. Had he been more perceptive things might have turned out differently. As it stood he found himself better suited to solitude, that he was forced to dwell upon his own thoughts.
Now, these ruminations were all well and good, but they offered no solution, no course of action to take regarding his present situation. There was nothing he could do; nothing he could do and nowhere to turn for help.
He turned to his desk, shoving the letter into the bottom drawer with the others, and began his work for the night, sifting yesterday’s leftovers to find a blank sheet. He was going to draw a picture. There was a project due tomorrow and he was almost finished. The editorial required one of his illustrations to accompany the text so he would do that and then it would be done. Yes, he would draw picture, that’s what he would do. There was nothing else except to carry on as he would. It wasn’t as though he could write a reply or anything.
After the third letter, Evan had a change of heart. It read simply: “You look beautiful when you smile.”
Slightly misconstrued perhaps, but Evan marveled at the audacity of such boldly naive gestures. To fall in love with a complete stranger was impossible, for one could never truly know that person. What scant details might be garnered from an observation would have to be filled in with either phantasy or falsity, and that was not love. Whoever wrote these letters was clearly delusional, but that they actually believed themself to be in love with him just might be the next best to the real thing.
His secret admirer; Evan smiled at the thought. He imagined this person was perhaps somewhat like himself, lonely and bereft, feeling mostly cold inside, but with an ember of hope smoldering somewhere deep down, something that caused her to try and reach out, try to make a connection. It made his heart glow in some way. Although they revealed nothing of herself that he could discern, the crippled purity of her actions was comforting. There was real beauty in those letters: words from a soul bleeding its affection.
He told no one about this—his few friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, no one knew anything. It was his secret, his precious treasure, the only thing left that was truly good and pure in the world. It was for him and him alone. No one else could know otherwise they might become jealous and try to ruin it, try to make him like them again. So the letters remained hidden and unbeknownst to all others, kept only for his eyes. And by the time the fourth one arrived, he was even looking forward to it.
Late one evening Evan went for a stroll to prevent himself from nodding out again and waking with his face mashed amid his papers. Impulsively he took a detour through the park, stopping to sit beneath a tree and smoke a cigarette while gazing up at the stars as they emerged, a canvas of pinpricks in the abyss slowly taking shape. By their pale light, he withdrew the most recent letter from his pocket and looked at her writing, inscribed so delicate and fleetingly, like it might evaporate from the page; he read it over and over just in case it did.
And it was there, sitting beneath that tree with his cigarette and her letter, a stark panorama of constellations overhead, that Evan was overwhelmed with a profound sense of calm, serene elation engulfing him, knowing that he looked upon the void of space from Earth’s surface as it spun on its orbit and was able to witness this with genuine awe, knowing that by some deviant miracle in this moment he was alive, and that though there were troubles in these times, no such things afflicted him. Knowing that somewhere out there was someone who loved him.
So overwhelmed was he that Evan could not move as he sat there, not even to lift the cigarette to his lips, this feeling of pure bliss washing over him; a miraculous denouement. Some people spend their entire lives not feeling this. Even the trees around him, they too were alive, and with the decrease of heat emanating from the solar bulb, were also aware that another day has passed and night began. But as a human being, he had the privilege of a sentient consciousness with which to more vividly experience this moment. This feeling, it was better than any drug.
It was love that did this to him—he was in love, strange as it might seem, but at last he truly was. Before those letters, his life felt barren in some indefinable way, and with each new arrival, he felt a weight lift from his chest and warm energy imbuing him from the page.
Around him the other night prowlers made their appearances: the cyclist zooming through, dog-walkers out with their pets, a couple strolled hand-in-hand. He saw them and thought there was really no need for such immediate interaction as that, not if you truly love someone. Engaging physically only unleashes a host of terrestrial problems that dampen the feeling and bring it down, put a stain on love’s purity.
Though not here, but somewhere out there, Evan knew she existed, the one who loved him, for whatever reasons, which were wholly her own, and whom he, in turn, loved back, simply for loving him, for causing this feeling within him. He wondered what she was doing right now, at that exact moment, what environment was being perceived through her own unique lens. In his mind, he smiled upon her, wherever she was, whatever she was doing. Knowing this was good too—knowing that she existed—as well as being loved by her, even if it was someone he was unaware of ever encountering.
What was love anyway? This warm benevolence that lit him up inside—was this love? Two people who never met and never would, now sharing a mutual… something? Indeed, it was the purest love, he thought—a perfect romance. There was nothing that could possibly ruin their affections. And so, on it went.
It came to pass that letters were not all she sent. On Valentine’s Day, the front desk paged him to come sign for a bouquet of roses, which had been delivered anonymously. As he carried them back to his desk Evan was aware his co-workers were watching him curiously. They all knew about what happened with Annie, how he walked in while she was cheating on him during a staff party, but they knew nothing of any ladies replacing her since then, and indeed, none had. Their subsequent inquires about the bouquet were carefully veiled, to which he yielded only his own surprise at its mysterious arrival.
Back in his cubicle with the crimson blossoms shading his desktop Evan wondered how he could have allowed a simple infidelity to ruin his relationship with her, realizing that if he had truly loved her then those things shouldn’t have mattered. If he had truly loved her, that alone would have been enough. But the past didn’t matter anymore. At the end of the day Evan took the roses home with him and they slowly wilted on the windowsill facing him as he worked.
Another time he returned home to find a somewhat squishy manila envelope tucked under the door. Once he safely locked himself out of sight Evan opened the envelope to find silk panties inside. He fell to his knees right there by the door and held them in his hands, feeling the texture of its fabric running under his fingers in a compulsive caress. On the loop that goes under was a little damp even. He brought the panties closer to his face and took a deep whiff in case he could smell something. It was faint, but it was there—something tangible of her, something more than just words. Swooning at the scent he scarcely knew what he was doing when at first rubbed them over his face then crammed the panties into his mouth so he could taste the scant juice of her sweet nectar, gnawing on them, teething-like. His throat swelled and heaved with them trapped in there.
A few days later there was another manila envelope slipped under the door. Inside this one, Evan found a number of pictures taken while she was spying on him, evidently from a significant distance. As photographs they were quite good actually; whoever took these exhibited an innate skill with the lens. It was interesting to see himself within the context of his common environments but from outside his own eyes.
Evan tried to figure out what she saw in him. After all, there was nothing exceptional about himself; he was just one among many. Of all the men in the world, why him? What had he done to elicit this sort of attention? Those things he was aware he might never know. However, what the photographs did was reaffirm a fact he had sublimely ignored of late, and that was to be stalking someone required a certain proximity to that person. Somehow he overlooked what he should have known much sooner: she was closer than he thought.
Perhaps they should meet, Evan mused one day while sitting in traffic. Surrounded by a sea of random people, each fellow passenger on this vessel, each sharing the condition of being indifferent strangers. No one looked at each other, not daring to risk eye contact, nor exchange any words. Each focused upon their own journey, their own destination, getting off at the necessary stops and the bus kept shuttling along, taking with it whoever remained and those who joined. Out the window, he could others quite similar, safely tucked away into their automotive spaceships, a dense cluster of islands with wheels in the midst of traffic.
Looking at those people, Evan wished desperately that he could see her, even just once—in person, in the flesh—just to know that she really was real, not just an imaginary figment. If he saw her then perhaps he could thank her somehow, maybe take her by the hand and look into her eyes and show her how much he appreciated what she had done for him. Because of her his life was now illuminated by moments of a joy previously absent, and to him, that was worth more than anything else. After all, this time and everything that happened, how strange that someone so distant and faraway had finally caused the rumor to manifest. She did this much, the rest was up to him. It would be a breach of their tacit agreement but nevertheless. Surely she meant for him to seek her out, all those enticing clues.
At first, his vigilance revealed nothing apart from the ordinary canvas of unfamiliar faces, the same milieu he was confronted with every other day. Searching among them for something that sparked his vision Evan wondered just precisely what he was looking for anyway. In his thoughts, he always imagined her as a beautiful but intensely lonely woman, someone who had been hurt in the past and knew that to continue with conventional modes of romance would only result in further hurt and disappointment. This woman would then likely do whatever she could to deflect the attention of others onto those who sought it with cosmetics and revealing attire. Her face would be devoid of makeup, wearing clothes that obscured her figure, hair unstyled, possibly glasses.
With these scant clues in mind, he continued his search. For days, weeks, he kept watching—watching for someone he might otherwise overlook, someone perhaps excessively shrouded by garments with shaded eyes—but to no avail. How was one to stalk a stalker? As time went on, however, Evan did become aware of someone lurking nearby, but who was never in full sight, always staying at the edge of his perception. So long had this presence been with him that he almost didn’t register it as tangible until a chance encounter at the library confirmed his suspicions.
Sunday was a good day to visit the library. Well established as the day of rest, most were content to idling at home or with friends while waiting to go through the motions for another five days that would deliver back to this point, and begin the cycle anew. With its available hours only half of those on other days, very few frequented the library on Sundays, thus allowing one to work utterly undisturbed. Evan went there to obtain a number of books pertinent to his research. Somewhere in a wing on the second floor is where they were to be found.
Then, there it was, just what he was looking for. As he picked the book from the shelf Evan glimpsed through the sliver of space it occupied a flash of movement on the other side, shifting so as to be out of sight. For a moment he stood still and listened carefully to hear any further movement—the rustle of fabric, or a floorboard, even the sound of breath—but there was nothing, only silence now, and a leaden stillness. Nevertheless, he had the distinct impression someone was over there, directly across from him. It was her. So close now, she was virtually within his grasp—if it were possible to reach right through the shelf he could touch her, that’s how close she was.
Evan crouched to peek through the crack to see if he could see anything, but of course not. Shaking his head he stood and attempted to resume his former pace, book in hand, heading for the back, uncertain if he was being followed. Evan knew which door was for the exit to the alley behind the building. He went through it and down the stairs, hearing the door hesitate ever so slightly as it closed behind him, though amid the din of his footsteps echoing in the fire-proof chamber of the stairwell he heard none but his own.
Out in the alley, he started walking, listening as again the door gave a brief halt in its swing to slam shut. Now they were both here, just the two of them. Evan didn’t turn around to confirm this, however, he just kept walking. If she came this far then perhaps she would come a little further. At the alley’s mouth, there was a roadway, across which was a park. He looked both ways and crossed the lanes to find himself more relaxed making his way over the gentle knoll under the canopy of branches overhead.
Lighting a cigarette Evan moved through the trees until he found a path and following it along the water’s edge, walking slow enough to hear if anyone was behind him and keeping an eye out for somewhere suitable to lure her. Ahead there was a lookout point, a cement tier extending over the water. Evan headed over to stand at the railing and observe the dismal panorama downtown offered: a dense cluster of skyscrapers and condominiums blocking the horizon.
He noticed a narrow stairway leading down the sharp incline of the bank to a metal door situated on a small landing near the water’s surface. He descended for a closer look. Standing on the platform with the water lapping inches below his feet Evan was suddenly stricken. All those feelings in his head, angsting over the burdening need that precipitated this imminent encounter, it was all just shapeless mindvapors. Right now he was without a definite thought in his head and she was almost here, she was so close, what was he going to do?
Tingling with excitement he sensed the tentative approach. Behind him a lingering drew near; it was at the top of the stairs. Resolutely he kept his gaze fixed on the view before him. What now? Would she descend to join him here? Would she come and stand wordlessly beside him and together watch the day end? He stood still, bringing the cigarette to his lips, and waited. He waited, and as he did, he sensed a step was taken. And then another. And another. He waited until a sufficient proximity was gained and then he whirled around. At the last second, she must have caught wise to his scheme, for all he saw was the fleeting shape disappear.
Afterward, Evan had to lean against the wall for support lest he collapse. His head was spinning, his heart pounded. It was her. And so close, she was that close. Just that glimpse alone was worth something. Waiting for his pulse to subside Evan stayed where he was until the cigarette was finished and then he went home feeling strangely uneasy.
There were no more letters after that. Evan wondered what was the cause of this. Why did she stop? Was she okay? Was she sick? Or bored? If it suddenly ended that she just left him hanging then she shouldn’t have started in the first place. For a while he suspended hope that they would resume, checking the mail each week like before as though nothing happened. In his heart, however, he knew it was futile. Though he wasn’t altogether certain about the nature of his transgression, Evan was sure one had been committed.
That uneasy feeling slowly grew livid in his chest, as though all his organs were replaced by a dump can of swarming moths. He was alone again. There was no one he could turn to, nowhere he could go, and nothing he could do to remedy this feeling. Evan felt her absence even more distinctly than her presence, such as it had been. He was alone again—in the city, in the world—completely and utterly alone. All the years he had lived through prior to those letters seemed unfathomable now, and the prospect of having to live through countless more… he was bereft the word to articulate this crippling debilitation, the seemingly irreparable vacancy that was once his love.
How could this be? There was scarcely anything to begin with—only those letters, plus a few photographs and some panties. How could those few material items devastate him so? He went to them then, taking down the shoebox where he kept everything stashed on a shelf in his closet, and sat on the floor to sift its contents, holding each item with his eyes closed. In the end, he went away feeling somewhat foolish and little else. Those things were just molecules, atoms condensed into matter, nothing more. But it was what they had incited in him…
She may still be out there, somewhere in existence, just another ghost on the spaceship following her path, now without his being somewhat analogous. Guilt-ridden, antagonized dreams haunted his sleep, nightmares in which he began receiving letters again, only these contained no professions of adoration, but rather were inscribed with words blackened by loathing. With an elephantine drag upon his every movement, he was unable to do anything except open those letters and face what was inside, unable to look away.
“Now that I know what you are—you’re just like the rest—I find you despicable… you deserve every misery that comes your way.”
Reading such things he would quake back into consciousness to find himself alone in a bed whose sheets were soaked with sweat, safe within the shadows of his apartment. A delirious moment would follow in which he always looked to the window, fearing to see the face behind the pane staring back at him, gnarled into contortions of hatred. Only then, after seeing nothing more than inky darkness, would he allow himself to slip back into an uneasy slumber.
In alcohol, Evan found a much-needed succor. The stainless steel flask in his pocket became a surrogate companion, the fluid it harbored inducing a contended haze over his mind, making his thoughts occur without potency. Alcohol also opened the door to a supplementary cure, one commonly employed to alleviate the ache of a broken heart, and that was by taking to promiscuity, for if love can be so easily decimated then all that truly remained were transient pleasures.
Evan thought it folly to seek the shallow comfort derived from replacing what he lost, a practice doubtless encouraged by the notion that there is someone out there for everyone, which is truly just subversive breeder jive to keep people looking for love because sooner or later they will fall in love again, and then make love and make babies who will grow up and become taxpayers and product consumers. Only a fool or a masochist would pursue another romance, Evan thought. He would surely die if he ever felt that way again.
As the days and weeks and months passed Evan managed to put it all behind him, lost in the numbing cycle of sleep, consciousness, work, leisure, feeding, bathing, and all the other things that were to be repeated on each of those passing days, smeared into a blur of days that passed, stretching endless back into the past. In the days to come, he could only see more of the same, doing these things to stay alive.
One night, he was returning home from the pub. He staggered from his car and into the building, clutching the rail as he climbed the stairs, then wobbling his way down the corridor toward his suite. As he came around the corner, he saw a hooded someone dressed in all black kneeling to place a package at his doorstep. His heart skipped a beat at the sight, and then it started pounding. It was her, he knew this instantly. She came back.
Without thinking he started walking toward her—not a clue as to what he would say or do but knew he couldn’t miss this chance and risk losing her again—the floorboard beneath his foot creaking its betrayal of his approach.
Startled, she turned to face him, revealing herself. He could see who she was quite clearly now. And she was beautiful, in the way he knew she would be, her eyes dark and smoldering as they stared right into him, and him back into her. Their gaze was locked for what seemed a split-second of eternity.
That moment only. Then she rose and calmly started walking away. He took a few steps after her, reaching out, his mouth opened to say something—anything… but he was utterly speechless and could say nothing as he watched her go. His outstretched arm swung silently down as she made it to the end of the corridor, went around the corner…
And was gone.
The story has a somewhat open ending. What do you think is in the package? Why did the stalker return? Will something happen? Will it be the ending the protagonist desires or is it something ominous?
I generally dislike vague endings, but these prospects were a lot of fun to think about; besides, the story maintains the mystery element throughout and we’ll never know the rest of their love story, the same way love itself can be so elusive and mysterious.