Joseph felt eyes on him as he crossed his front yard and headed to his car. Once in the driver's seat, his gaze slid from the rear view to the side mirrors, hoping to catch a glimpse of his lurking voyeurs. He saw nothing for the seventeenth day in a row. He first noticed their intrusion into his life while at work. As was typical, he arrived at seven twenty exactly, parked and walked down the sidewalk on the south end of the office building, facing oncoming traffic as his father had instructed. At eleven forty-five, he locked his computer, breaking from the droves of spreadsheets that had comforted him through the morning. In the break room, he filled his water cup, retrieved his coat and the crisp, brown paper bag containing his tuna salad on rye, baggie of pickles and pudding cup and took the elevator to the ground floor.
The courtyard was empty this time of year. He sat and ate in peace. His mind wandered from his numbers to the errands he needed to run and then to thoughts of his former girlfriend. She had left him just weeks before. They always left him. He tried to waste no time lamenting them. He had Angela now, after all, but their faces invaded his thoughts. He knew he wasn't an attractive man. He had too much hair on his back and too little on his head. His teeth were awry and his hands looked like sausages sewn onto a ham steak. His belly hung over his belt and he had to clean the paste from between the folds of his fat before he went to bed at night. He felt he was a dedicated and loving man, though it never seemed to be enough. He could almost hear their voices, shrill and demanding, the way Mother's had been before she left Joseph and his father. He pushed the memories aside and yanked the foil cover off the top of his pudding cup. Too fast. He clenched his eyes shut and scolded himself. "Too fast. Sloppy. Now look what you've done." The foil had torn to liberate only a swath of the gooey butterscotch pudding. He opened his eyes, lifted the cup to his face and delicately peeled the first stubborn corner from the rim of the cup. With only a few centimeters left, he froze, overcome by an unrelenting, uneasy feeling.
Joseph was a happy member of the unremarkable looking population who could pass through a throng of people on the street without any one of them being able to pick him out of a line-up five minutes after encountering him. On the rare occasion that he was noticed, it was only ever by those whose job dictated that they do so. The dedicated teachers who leered at the students they thought might cheat on exams, the sales people that assumed he might be a quick and easy sell, eyes roaming uninvited over him, giving him the same unsettling vulnerable feeling he'd been struck with while trying to tidy his dessert. He was no longer a blank face to be overlooked. Someone was watching him.
His head jerked toward the open face of the courtyard. The building shielded him on three sides but the north end was open to the world. It faced an acre of undeveloped land with a freeway beyond and strip malls beyond that. He scanned the area for onlookers. The grass around the building was kept neat. No one could hide there, even if they lay in the turf like stalking lions. There were no vehicles parked on the freeway and passing motorists would never notice one man on a bench from that far away while driving as fast as they were. The strip malls were too distant. He doubted even binoculars would allow an acceptable vantage. He looked up. No helicopters. Maybe a bird. Maybe it was in his head. He managed to half convince himself he'd made it up. But the feeling of being watched persisted until he packed up his trash and went back into the building.
That evening, he left work and walked to his car looking over his shoulder. As he reached for the door handle, he sighed and shrugged. There were no spies that night. He was certain. He drove home, debating whether he should tell Angela. He pictured the face she'd make if she thought he was being paranoid. Angela, with her pinched features and judging eyes. He thought of all the ways she wasn't right for him, and all the ways he needed her to be perfect. If not perfect, better than the others. She might leave too. His throat tightened at the thought. His vision blurred. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed the tears away with his fist. He would keep it to himself.
The feeling was stronger the following day. The hairs on his neck had stood on end as he took huge bites of his sandwich, trying to force the feeling away. He made the mistake of inhaling as he shoved the last corner into his mouth, felt a chunk hit the back of his windpipe and instinctively spat a mouthful onto the picnic table. He heaved the food from his lungs and gasped for each small breath he could between fits of coughing. His throat and lungs burned. When he'd gathered himself, he saw the mess. Bits of mayonnaise soaked tuna and dark brown bread littered the table. One large clump of chewed sandwich sagged between the green, metal grate of the picnic table. They were laughing at him. Whoever they were. Wherever they were. They were cackling and spitting and slapping their knees at the terrible mess he'd made. Laughing until their stomachs hurt.
He scraped as much of the garbage as he could into his paper bag and dropped it in the waste basket as he went back inside. Clutching the remains of his lunch at his side, he walked to the stairwell and took it down to the basement. His office kept a storage room there, to which he had a key. He liked to eat amongst the numbers when the courtyard was full. The room had no windows and only one door. Banker's boxes full of archived client summaries, budget reports, statements and fiscal year-end totals lined the walls. A small table and one chair had been set up for employees searching files. He made himself comfortable. The pickles smelled sweeter when their aroma mingled with that of old paper and ink. He missed the brisk air but enjoyed being surrounded by his numbers.
His comfort was short-lived. He felt eyes on him as he left work. He gathered his coat around him and hustled to the car. The day after that was more of the same. He only sat in the courtyard for a moment, waiting to open his lunch bag until after he'd confirmed the feeling was back. Once he had, he retreated to the basement to eat. From then on, he skipped the courtyard. Soon, as if baited by his audacity, they began following him home. There was always one care that kept a steady distance behind hi. First the blue sedan, then a black truck, a silver SUV, all following by three car lengths and driving a lane over when the road permitted. They'd stick with him until he reached his neighborhood, then either turn a street or two early or sail past him as he pulled into his driveway. He shuffled up the sidewalk into his house, shut all the drapes and kept the lights off in the rooms with sheer drapes. His paranoia was getting thick. He felt them while he left for work. He started suspecting his coworkers, imagining them being in on the surveillance, knowing things about him they should not. They judged him. All of them. They always had.
He caught his coworker, the older lady in the next cubical, rifling through his desk drawer when he returned from lunch. When he confronted her, he watched the jelly bounce beneath her puffy cheeks as she lied to him and he tried not to gag on her rancid breath as it wafted in his face. She claimed to be looking for a pack of sticky notes but there was a well stocked supply cabinet in the same room. He caught himself scowling as he walked past other workers in his building, convinced there must be some conspiracy and he could trust no one. He grew leery of closed door meetings and noticed when cubicle neighbors lowered their voice on phone calls.
The only respite he found was during lunch and at home with Angela. He hadn't told her yet. She still looked at him with devotion. She loved him, despite her judgments, and he adored her. He knew she couldn't help but judge him. Everyone did. They would chat as he sat at his basement workbench and worked on his model. It was a model of his property. He liked to lose himself in it, in the numbers, the angles and scale proportions. But he also relished the conversations with Angela. He would drone on while the numbers in his head transformed themselves and flowed through his fingers, creating his art. Angela would listen dutifully and wait for his pause to comment. She was always respectful, always courteous. When his carving tools dulled, he'd sharpen them and it would be Angela's turn to talk. She'd tell him everything about herself, inside and out, from childhood to present. He didn't mind when she repeated stories. He knew those were the most important to her. They would then make love as he thought about her childhood and the love she must have for him to share the deeper parts of herself.
After such an evening, he lay in bed and cataloged her memories in his journal. He let the sound of hummingbirds outside his window calm him as he wrote. And then the unsettling feeling crept over him again. He was being watched. His attention sharpened. He never heard hummingbirds at night. He pulled the chain to his reading lamp, rose from the bed, stood at the window and peeled back the curtains just enough to peer outside. The air beyond his window was calm and empty. He turned back to the bed and managed two steps before he heard a faint crack and spun toward the window. He saw nothing.
He bound down the stairs and ran on his toes to the picture window next to his front door. Lifting a blind gently out of its cradle, he surveyed the front lawn. What he saw filled him with rage. Shadows danced across his yard. He lurched to the right, unlocked the door and flung it open. The motion light flicked on above him. The lawn was calm and empty. He stood on his porch, scanning the area. The shadows couldn't have been there. But he heard something. He was certain. Begrudgingly, he turned and went back in the house, locked the door and ascended the stairs to his bedroom. He may have to tell Angela after all. She may judge him but the stalkers were close now. Watching them at night. She wasn't safe. Or was it all in his head?
The night after that, on the seventeenth day, he let his body drift into autopilot while his eyes remained vigilant. He backed down the driveway and caught a glint of light in his yard. He mashed the break pedal and squinted his eyes shut. "Stupid. Sloppy." He put the car in park and left it running while he got out to investigate the light. He had to crane his body to see the light flicker again. They were watching. They'd see this peculiar behavior and wonder if he knew about them. No matter. No choice. He had to see what the thing was. If they found and removed it before he returned from work where he might pretend to happen upon it on his way to the house, he'd never know. It's better to know. Better to have all the data. After all, who can fault a man from keeping his yard free of rubbish? Wouldn't it be best to remove it before he forgot and found it with the lawnmower months later? Yes. But he could have pretended to forget something from the house. Damn. Too late.
He kept his eyes trained on the last known location and walked toward it. What he saw caught the breath in his throat. He bent to the ground and retrieved from the yellowed grass a tiny motor. He turned it over in his hands and rage filled his core. Beside it, sat a slender piece of plastic with a feather stuck in the jagged section at one end. He collected the plastic with the motor and glanced around for other parts. As his eyes scanned toward the the street, he saw another glint. Not on his property. Light flashed in the lower section of the neighbor's bushes. Not a camera flash. It was too bright a day for that. But a camera. A reflection of light from the lens. He was certain. Joseph rose and strode back to his car, dropped himself in the driver's seat, threw the car into gear and mashed the gas. No time for appearances. Appearances wouldn't help him. They saw his discovery. They must know he's not stupid.
He drove to work. His speed erratic, he weaved through traffic ignoring the horn blasts left in his wake. Once at the office, he tossed his belongings on his desk with a bang and shudder, causing his coworkers to pop their heads above the cubical walls like Prairie Dogs alerted to danger. He sneered at them. They were all in on it. Every last one of them, the sniveling sheep. It made sense to him. Had he not been the best of them? Was he not faster and more accurate? He loved his numbers and treated them thusly while they were only here to punch the clock and collect their paychecks. Though he understood their jealousy, he could not abide it. Something would have to be done. He had enough to get a few of them fired. He'd cleaned up enough of their messes. One of them, the stubby, balding man at the end of his row, was most certainly stealing from the company. He hadn't covered it up but he knew enough to find proof and alert management.
But if management was in on it, they wouldn't reprimand anyone. That is, anyone but Joseph. He sat, booted his computer and stared at it while it loaded. Once his email program came up, he banged out an email to his supervisor.
I came to work but I'm too ill to stay. I have a severe stomach flu that I'd hate to pass to the rest of the staff. I'll call in the morning if I'm still unwell.
He clicked the send button before shutting his computer back down, collected his things and left. Eyes followed him to the door. He walked to his car, unable to feel that unsettling feeling. Perhaps they thought there was no point in watching his office building since he'd stopped eating outside and they had spies within the walls. They'd know soon so he need to be quick. He drove home, attentive to all traffic laws. He pulled into his driveway and lifted the garage door. He had to move a few boxes before parking inside but he thought it best to stay off the street.
Once inside his house, he paced the living room floor. The people he'd seen the night before had been trying to retrieve their downed drone. He wasn't crazy. The humming he'd heard, the shadows on his lawn, he'd known. They were spying on him. He grew more agitated as he thought about them. He needed to speak to Angela. She could calm him. He would show her the drone pieces and she would believe him rather than judge.
He walked to the kitchen, clicked the release to the basement door and slid the panel to the side. Angela looked surprised to see him. He paced in front of her as he collected his nerve enough to tell the story. He pulled the drone parts out of his pocket and dropped them to the floor in front of her. Her eyes followed him as he walked from left to right across the room. He blathered his story between fits of inner dialog and outward speculation. He hadn't looked at her since he started. He looked at each surface of the basement, telling her about the spies and how they'd destroyed his lunches. About how they'd invaded his thoughts, distracted him from his numbers, turned his coworkers against him and littered the sanctity of his home. When he'd finally explained the events of that morning, he faced her, lifting his gaze from the floor to her eyes. She was weeping. Her stare dropped from his to the floor. Her body folded in on itself to the greatest extent she could muster, legs in a ball in front of her, arms clutching at her chest. His heart sank to see her. He knelt to her level and pleaded with her.
"Oh, baby, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to rant. It's going to be okay. We just need to take a trip, that's all. As soon as possible. Before they start watching me again. We'll go somewhere nice. Your pick." Tears were streaming down her cheeks. "Now, I know you don't want to. I know we've made a life here. I understand that you're happy. But we have to. I don't know who they are or what they want but it can't be good. It must be something with the company. Industrial espionage or internal corruption... I don't know. Whatever it is, I haven't done anything wrong and I won't subject us to this."
He reached toward her to caress her cheek and she shook her head away from him. "Angela, please. I'm only doing what's best for us."
She looked him in the eye and took a deep, palpitated breath. He tensed as her brow furrowed. She looked at him as if he were made of glass and she sat ready to release the wrecking ball. She opened her mouth to speak but closed it like a bear trap and looked away, her thoughts carried tumultuously in another direction. He saw what was coming. He'd seen it before. She hadn't just listened. She had judged him. She had sat through his terrified and angered pleas and deemed him worthless. She would leave him now, just like all the rest. She squinted her eyes, opened her trembling mouth and squeaked out the words. He barely heard them. He didn't need to hear her. He was certain. "Please, sir. Please. I'm not Angela. My name is..." He slapped her across the face.
Kneeling in front of her, eye cold as steel, he spit on her. The blood rushed to his head and he felt his ears start to burn. His heart raced and his fingers curled and tightened into fists. He stood and towered over her. His voice was rigid. "You ungrateful bitch. I knew you would leave. Just like all the rest." He chucked the words at her as she shook her head wildly and whimpered for forgiveness. Adrenalin surged through him. "Why can't we just go back to the way things were? You used to love me. You were there when Mom left and you loved me, I'm certain. It all goes back to the fucking kid, doesn't it? Well I won't apologize for that. He tried to take you away. He deserved what he got. But I was eight years old, Angela. And you haven't stopped judging me since."
He walked to the workbench, just feet away from where Angela lay shackled to her bed. He took a pry bar from the pegboard tool rack and strode back to her. In one elegant motion, he lifted the bar above him and brought it down on her head, stopping her scream with the sound of knocking teeth and breaking bone. Blood spattered along the wall but didn't gush like he'd hoped. He swung again, this time feeling the cleave of her skull and lodging the pry bar in the crevice it made. Heaving, he felt his pants shift to accept his forming erection. He bent to better hear the crackling of air mutter through the blood pouring into her mouth and was interrupted by people yelling outside his door. He looked to the ceiling and listened for the voices when he heard a loud bang against his front door. He heard another bang followed by wood splintering as his door burst open.
He stood and smiled as footsteps rang through the house and forceful voices yelled his name. They demanded that he give them his location and lay on the floor, face down, with his hands behind his head. He looked at Angela's broken face and laughed. "You stupid, stupid cunt."