“I’ve been watching you. You laugh too freely. You laugh when you need to cry. You make jokes when you need a listening ear.”
Even whimsical Christi Bell does what any sane young woman would do when a bizarre man wearing an army trench coat and goggles says such things to her — she runs. Still the haunting words resonate. The stranger seems to know her, to understand her. Only one man has ever known her very essence… and that man has been dead for exactly one year.
Despite friends’ warnings, Christi investigates. She discovers peculiar things, like the stranger lives in a beat-up old trailer that resembles her toaster. She begins to understand him. But is he a stalker or a protector? If a protector, from what is he shielding her? When Christi learns a disturbing truth, she banishes him from her life. Yet nothing erases the eerie knowledge that they are connected. Now she must find him before year’s end in order to banish her own demons…
THE EERIE CLOWN painted on the rock drifted into focus beneath the bridge. Ignoring it, Christi crawled up on the wooden railing and lifted her hair with her hands, fanning it beneath her fingers to let the cool night air sweep across her neck. Humming sadly, she bent her knees and jounced the rail. It shuddered slightly, sending vibrations through her legs.
Could she still do a back-walkover?
She hadn’t performed one since her tenth grade balance beam routine five years ago. Would she still have the skill, the balance? Would she fall thirty feet below onto the rocks? Did it really even matter on a wretched anniversary such as this? Would they say it was just another dopey ‘Who can tell with Christi Bell’ kind of thing to do? She wouldn’t let them down. Especially not today.
Slowly, Christi raised her arms and leaned back. She arched until stars danced in her vision above. The firmness of the rough wooden railing met her hands and a splinter stabbed deep into her palm. She winced. Then silhouettes of branches from a large maple at the end of the bridge rustled in the corner of her vision. The rustling became whispers. Hushed voices becoming the taunt she knew so well. “Who can tell with Christi Bell… who can tell with Christi Bell?”
Christi grimaced and tightened her knuckle-white grip on the four-inch wide railing. “Let everyone make fun of me,” she murmured, still arched toward the stars. “I bet I can still do this. And if I can’t, then maybe I’ll fall right on that stupid clown’s face painted on the rock.” She pulled, summoning every ounce of strength in her forearms and lifted her right leg, balancing, pulling…
And the whispers came louder. “Who can tell with Christi Bell…?”
As her leg rose into vision, her tennis shoe glowed like an oblong moon against the sky. Her arms wobbled and sweat broke out across her forehead. Over went her leg, then down… down, and she lifted the other. There she poised, suspended in a mid-air dilemma: to balance or not to balance? To remain on the rail, or to… Then a man’s haunting voice cleared the whispers. “Christi — get a grip on yourself.”
Down she came, pulling the second leg straight from its off-angled position. Air puffed across her wrists from where her foot landed, straight behind her hands in a perfect back-walkover. Flinging up her arms, she sprang backward in victory. “Tah-dah! Thanks for the warning, Jared.”
Then, stillness. Christi steadied herself and glanced around. Nobody there. Nobody with her in the center of the park at all.
She sighed, suddenly drained. Then she glanced down and stuck her tongue out at the grinning clown face. It no longer seemed as perverse.
“Too bad, smiley. I’m still good at this,” she called.
She relaxed now that the whispers were gone. She was once again standing alone on the top rail of a secluded footbridge in the depths of Johnson Park. The atmosphere was cool, peaceful. She wished she could feel real peace again.
She began to pace, marveling at her feet marching one in front of the other on the rail like white mice in the darkness. The rail stretched on. She imagined it stretching on for a thousand miles. Below, water swirled lazily around the rocks. Then, from the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a shapeless brown lump lying on the planks of the bridge. Her softball mitt.
Christi stopped immediately. Her arms fell limp to her sides. After a day as bad as she’d had, she hadn’t been able to pitch in the Dingbats’ first softball game tonight. She hadn’t been able to play at all. It hadn’t been fair. Her throat squeezed tight as she stared helplessly down at the discarded mitt. The sky was moonless, yet light enough from the surrounding city to make a trail of tears glow silvery against her cheeks. She pictured herself as a hidden stranger, possibly even the Johnson Park Predator, might see her.
Alone. Vulnerable. Crazy.
She was doing crazy things and she didn’t care. Let the Johnson Park Predator get her, she didn’t care about that lunatic either. Cupping her hands to her mouth she shouted into the woods, “Come and get me, you freak!” She broke into sobs. “I said, Come and get me! I’m just crazy enough to give you the fight of your life.” But there was no reply, no movement from the trees.
Her shoulders sagged in defeat. Angrily, she leaped down onto the bridge, feeling it shudder beneath her, and picked up the sloppy, well-worn softball mitt. She stared at it a moment, then held her breath, flung back her arm, and hurled the mitt into space. It shrank until it was just a blurry dot in the air, and then was lost from sight in the darkness. She didn’t hear it hit water. Then she spun around and slid down against the rail. It jabbed into her backbone as she buried her face in her hands. What a ghastly day it’d been. Christi realized that once in awhile everyone had a day where everything went wrong, but why to her, and why this day?
After one of the most wretched mornings of her life, she had been twenty minutes late for work when she finally reached the rambling three-story brick warehouse that was home to Baxter’s, a silk-screened drapery business. Christi had charged up the creaking wooden steps, only to wonder why they felt so… sticky. She’d turned to see her big, smeary footprints marring fresh gray paint halfway up the stairs.
Remembering the morning’s frustrations, Christi stomped her foot on the bridge, half expecting her shoe to stick to it. How could she have forgotten that she was supposed to enter through the freight elevator until the paint was dry? That’s when Christi Bell realized this wasn’t going to be just another topsy-turvy Christi Bellish day, even for her.
After she reached the freight elevator and figured out how to work primitive controls which forced it to lumber to the top floor in near total darkness, she was half an hour late. She raced through cavernous storage rooms that reeked of dust and decay until reaching the area in which the Baxter’s ran their drapery business. There she found her best friend since junior high, Gordo Rodo, staring at her with wide, unblinking eyes in the ink-mixing room. Something was wrong.
“Bunny is on the warpath,” he warned in a low voice. “Two seamstresses called in sick, and a pigeon got trapped in here last night and crapped all over the Horizon Lines design we stretched out yesterday.”
Still gasping from her marathon running, Christi rolled her eyes, slapped herself in the forehead with the palm of her hand, and went to punch in.
She got yelled at twice that day by the owner’s pinched-faced wife, Bunny, for nothing in particular. It was probably because Christi had been demoted to a blue-collar worker like most everyone else after the Baxter’s IRS troubles. Just a few weeks ago she’d been downgraded from designing drapery graphics to mixing ink and screening her designs onto the fabric by hand, as Gordo did. She’d gone from wearing a skirt and heels to work to torn blue jeans and ink-splattered T-shirts. But, if her lot in life was going to be an underpaid, starving artist, at least she was going to have a good friend to be miserable with.
But come lunchtime, she’d been mortified to remember she’d left her purse in Bessie, her car. Gordo went with her to retrieve it, and they discovered her purse stolen, along with the bulk of that week’s paycheck. She’d leaned against Bessie’s door, fighting tears. She rarely cried. But when Gordo offered her twenty dollars to get through the weekend, she’d hugged her massive buddy with all her might, thinking maybe she could get through the day… until she’d gotten home and came face to face with the morning’s disaster.
She’d dropped onto her couch and sat with her hands folded together and eyes closed. Like a great arm sweeping clutter off the table, she swept the wreckage of the day out of her mind. She’d vowed to forget about it, to concentrate on more positive things. Just for a while.
But three hours later she discovered her coach had forgotten to turn in her sign-up form for the softball team, and that it was “illegal” for her to play. The Dingbats would have to forfeit the game if someone found out she was playing “illegally.” (Yup, those undercover softball paperwork spies could be everywhere, just waiting to force some team to forfeit because one of the members hadn’t been officially registered. Couldn’t have that.)
So, she’d smiled her wonderfully deceptive “nothing is the matter” smile and wandered away like she hadn’t a care in the world while creepy old Ted Hooker started off as a pitcher in their first game. She was a much better pitcher than Ted, and everyone but Ted knew it. She’d needed that dose of good old confidence tonight. She needed to hear people cheer her on, forcing her to believe she was alive, and that the giant, floating, invisible finger, which had been zapping out rotten things to have happen to her all day, was finally, mercifully, zapped itself.
But she hadn’t been able to play. The final insult. So she’d pulled on her skin of indifference, tucked her mitt under her arm, and slipped into the woods at the nucleus of Johnson Park to brood on the unfairness of it all.
Deep down, of course, Christi knew life wasn’t fair. One year ago to the day, this life had taken away her soul mate, Jared. Life hadn’t been fair to Jared at all.
Now Christi’s hair hung in clumps over her face. She didn’t brush it away. The hard planks hurt her bones, but it didn’t matter. The splinter embedded in her palm throbbed, big deal. She shrank farther into the shadows on the bridge, hugged herself with her arms, and rested her head between her knees. She thought nothing in particular, listened to nothing in particular, felt nothing in particular. Until the hairs on her arms began to prickle as a strange presence manifested next to her, she hadn’t felt alive. Un-alive people didn’t get goose bumps.
“Do you realize that if you’d fallen from the bridge rail, it probably wouldn’t have killed you?” a male asked. “But you could have broken your neck and become paraplegic. Perhaps a quadriplegic.”
Slowly, Christi willed her frozen neck muscles to move. She pulled her head out of her arms to look at the entity now resting casually next to her. The way her day had gone, she shouldn’t have been shocked at what she saw. Yet she was. Her mouth hung open in amazement.
Good grief. It was Goggle-Man. And he could actually speak.
Goggle-Man was her nickname for a strange, lanky fellow who drifted mysteriously around the ballpark, silently stabbing cigarette butts and candy bar wrappers with his trash stick. The first time she’d seen him she had been sitting alone on the bottom of the bleachers, staring down at her feet while waiting for her other teammates to arrive. Something sparkled briefly at the corner of her eyes. With a lightning stab and a subsequent whoosh, an M&M wrapper at her feet disappeared.
Startled, she’d jumped, then jumped again as Goggle-Man bent over to stare straight at her from behind a pair of massive goggles, a strange form of glasses resembling sunglasses on steroids. There was no way to see his eyes behind those endless dark lenses, giving Christi the nerve-wracking sensation of being scrutinized by some enormous, intelligent bug. Then he merely turned and walked away, adjusting his baseball cap, his ratty trench coat brushing against his knees.
The man was strange. He rarely spoke. He showed no emotion. He just drifted around the park, silently creeping between parked cars, bleachers, and fences — and stab-stab-stabbed at the litter. Most people, having grown used to his presence, learned to ignore him. Christi wondered if she was the only one who made the connection that Goggle-Man had started showing up just about the same time kindly old Mrs. Fisher vanished.
Mrs. Fisher was known as the Flower Lady. On almost any sunny afternoon she could be found out in the park, hunched near some lonely fence post in her raggedy white shawl, planting flowers. But her disappearance had only been the beginning of the nightmare. Within a span of several weeks, someone was found strangled. A twenty-nine-year-old schoolteacher who’d been jogging near the woods. The murder created such panic that now nobody — nobody — remained alone in the park after nightfall.
Except Christi, of course.
She now found herself staring numbly at Goggle-Man as he stretched his long legs out over the planks and rested his head back against the rails. By his countenance, he appeared to be gazing peacefully ahead behind his ridiculous goggles.
Maybe the Johnson Park Predator’s next victim would be an almost twenty-year-old dopey girl named Christi Bell. But Christi’s initial terror had by now transformed into an anesthetized form of calmness. “Maybe walking on the rail was stupid, but if you’d had a day like I had, you would have been doing stunts up there with me,” she finally said.
Goggle-Man folded his hands on his lap. They were narrow but strong-looking hands with long fingers and neatly kept fingernails. He continued to stare ahead, but his voice was mild. “What happened?”
Christi sighed, wiggling her leg in frustration. “Oh, I just locked myself out of my apartment this morning without my keys, found my favorite plant, Fernando, smashed when I crawled in through the window, then I backed up over some kid’s bicycle in my hurry to get to work, got in trouble at work, then had my purse stolen, and later found my apartment burglarized because I forgot to close and lock the window I crawled in through.” She wasn’t about to tell him about the terrible anniversary this day represented for her, though. Couldn’t quite do that.
He turned to her. “All in one day? Is that why you didn’t play in your team’s first game and why you threw your glove into the river?”
Christi lifted an eyebrow and held his dark-goggled gaze. “So. You’ve been spying on me. I’m not surprised. I don’t even care. I’m past caring.”
He seemed to ignore her comment. His manner was strangely contemplative. “You don’t even care,” he repeated. “Maybe you should care about some things, maybe things like gaining a little weight.”
She snorted. “I’ve been skinnier. If you’d spied on me for more than one night, you’d know that.”
He nodded but did not reply.
Christi grinned sadistically to herself. Maybe Goggle-Man was like the witch in the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. Maybe he wanted to fatten her up before roasting her. How quaint. How sad it was she didn’t even care. She smiled her “Christi Bell… who can tell” smile at him.
“You probably think doing stunts thirty feet in the air on some old hidden footbridge in the park is pretty weird, don’t you?”
Christi grew bolder. “Do you have any idea how crazy you look? What’s with the weird wardrobe? Why do you wear those goggles?”
He turned away from her. “It’s complicated.”
“I see. Complicated.” She feigned indifference. “I guess I don’t care if you come from Pluto as long as you keep the park clean.”
“Why is that?”
She shrugged. “No one else would do it.”
He nodded again, saying nothing as his lips drew into a tight, grim line. She squinted in the darkness, trying to guess his age. His chin was stubbly, but the skin surrounding it smooth. His nose was long and sharp under the goggles. Strands of dark hair shot out under his cap only to be buried in his collar. He was probably early twenties, she guessed. Oddly, she wished she’d paid more attention to him all of the times she’d seen them in the sunlight.
“Why do you act clueless so much of the time? Don’t you want people to respect you?” he asked.
Christi’s mouth fell open. “What?”
He sighed. “I’ve been watching you. You laugh too freely. You laugh when you need to cry. You walk off when you need attention. You make jokes when what you really need is a compassionate ear.”
What did he say?
Christi stiffened in indignation, her mouth skewering from shock as she tried to absorb his words. Those patronizing words. What nerve! What absolutely, revolting nerve. She jumped to her feet, clenching and unclenching her hands.
What is Goggle-Man talking about? Does he think he can see through me, straight into my soul?
All at once she scampered up onto the railing, eyes stinging. She stood over him in defiance. “Who do you think you are? Why do you think you know me so well?”
“Come on down.”
“No. I like it up here. It’s farther away from you.”
“Please come down. I’m sorry about what I said.”
Christi shook her head and closed her eyes, fighting the despair that had drawn her out to the middle of the park in the first place.
What Goggle-Man had said was true. How he’d sensed it all was unfathomable, but true! She pressed her eyes shut against the tears. Only one person, outside of Gordo, had ever really known her. Now that person was gone. He’d died exactly one year ago. How could this Goggle-Man know all of these things unless…unless…
Her mind blurred. She became disoriented, dizzy. Could it possibly be?
'“Jared, is that really you under there?” she asked, opening tear-streaked eyes in hope.
Goggle-Man was standing, still as death, on the railing in front of her. She had never heard him climb up. Christi gasped and stepped back. Her foot slipped off the rail. She thrashed wildly to get her balance when, in the last second, she saw Goggle-Man grinning at her. This time he showed his teeth. Nasty teeth, as jagged as the rocks below. And suddenly Goggle-Man’s face replaced the spray-painted clown face in her mind.
“Christi Bell… go to hell,” he whispered. Then he shrugged, stretched out his arm, and reached to push her.
At once something warm wrapped around Christi’s legs and pulled her forward. She opened her eyes, for real this time, to find Goggle-Man standing on the bridge beneath her, tugging her toward safety. Spiraling, she toppled on him. Both fell to the planks in a noisy clump of elbows and knees. Struggling to regain composure, Christi pushed herself off the strange-cloaked man and scrambled to her feet. She backed slowly away, heart pounding.
He remained there, propped up on his elbows in the shadows, staring at her with that blank, expressionless mouth and those stupid goggles now hanging askew on his face. Christi caught a horrific glimpse of a white, pasty-looking glob where one of his eyes should have been, then turned around and ran.