The Man With No Face
Stan’s life changed forever the day he met the man with no face. On that day, Stan was only six years old and his best friend, Sarah, from next door, had come over to play with him. All day long, Stan and Sarah played every game they knew from childhood’s outdoor gaming repertoire, Tag, Hide and Seek, and Simon Says, just to name a few; It wasn’t until they had exhausted all the games they knew that Sarah brought up the idea of going into the woods.
Stan knew very well that the woods was one of the places his mother said were completely off limits. She had told him plenty of stories of children going off into the woods in search of adventure, only to be led astray by an evil witch or demon that inhabited them. Fairy Tales she called them, but he was unable to see how they got such a name; fairies were not scary, but the things in his mother’s stories, on the other hand, were frightening enough to give him many sleepless nights, staring out the window, on guard for any vile creature that would try to take him away. Beside all of that was the fact that it was starting to get dark, which meant it would soon be time to go in.
Unfortunately, on this occasion, somewhere in his six-year-old mind, his normal pattern of logical thought failed him, and he decided that it was a great idea. Soon, the two of them were climbing over the short fence that separated the woods from Stan’s backyard. Stan’s mother was in the kitchen washing dishes and craning her neck to be able to see the television in the living room, which was showing a brand-new episode of I Love Lucy; she was oblivious to anything that was going on outside.
The woods opened themselves up to the six year olds, welcoming them in with the promise of miles of unexplored terrain, as well as the suggestion of buried treasures. Their young minds were spinning with the possibilities. They began looking everywhere in the fading light for some form of fantastical artifact. Before they knew it, it was dark.
“I think we should go home.” Sarah said quietly, as she looked around trying to figure out which direction they had come from.
“Yeah, it’s really dark now.” Stan looked around at the dark forms of the trees which, in his mind, slowly began shape shifting into the monsters from his mother’s stories. He had also lost track of which direction they had been traveling. “Which way do we go?”
“I don’t know.” Sarah said in a low voice with a hint of a whimper.
Stan and Sarah held each other’s hands, standing silently while trying to decide which way they should go. That was when they heard the footsteps in the darkness beyond them.
“What was that?” Stan asked.
“I don’t know Stanley. I’m scared. I’m also starting to get a bad headache. I just want to go home.” Sarah squeezed his hand tighter; then there was the sound of a breaking branch, and she wrapped her arm around his neck, hiding her face in the crook of her arm. Both of them were shaking now. With each moment that went by, it sounded like the footsteps were getting closer and closer, walking circles around them.
Suddenly Sarah loosened her grip. “Hey, I think I see somebody.” She released his hand, and went running into the dark. “Hey, help us please. We’re lost.”
“Sarah, where are you going?” Stan yelled as he lost sight of her. Alone in the dark, his heart began pounding harder than he had ever felt it pound before. His hands were almost dripping with sweat, while his lips had gone completely dry. He slowly inched forward. “Sarah, where are you? I can’t see you anymore.” He heard her gasp from behind a bush.
Stan started a slow walk toward the bush, eager to find his friend, but at the same time scared of what he might see when he found her. When he finally rounded the bush, he stopped dead in his tracks. His drumming heart felt like it had elevated into his throat.
Sarah was lying on the ground, her arms and legs at an angle that suggested that she had just fallen down while running; she was perfectly still. Her eyes and mouth were wide open, and she wasn’t breathing. But, the worst of it all, was the man standing over her, looking right at Stan.
The first thing Stan noticed was the man’s shoes. They were black leather cowboy boots. He noticed these because they were like the ones he had been begging his mother to get him for two Christmases in a row, ever since he saw one of the characters from Gunsmoke, his favorite show, wearing them. The man was also wearing blue jeans and a hooded sweater. The man had his hands stuffed into the pockets of the sweater, and the hood was pulled so tight around his head that Stan couldn’t even see his face. Not that he’d have been able to see much in the darkness anyway. For a moment, Stan had the horrible thought, that maybe the man didn’t have a face. He imagined sticking his hand into that gaping cavernous hood, watching his hand sink in and touch nothing. But that is ridiculous, he thought, everyone has a head … and a face.
Stan could have stood there forever thinking about face or no face, but the man had other plans. “Hello, Stanley.” The man spoke in a voice that was surprisingly common for such a specter.
Stan wasn't sure which was scarier, the fact that this seemingly faceless man was standing over Sarah, who from the best he could tell, might be dead, or the fact that this man knew his name. Stan couldn’t bring himself to say anything; he was vaguely aware that he had lost control of his bladder, and urine was soaking the front of his pants.
“Don’t worry Stanley, you’re in no danger. It was her time. You’ll be fine; in fact, you don’t know it yet, but this is going to be the turning point of your entire life.” The voice was coming from somewhere deep inside the hoods cavity. “I’ll be seeing you Stanley.” The man turned and walked away leaving Stan alone, shaking and smelling of piss.
Stan didn’t know how long he had stood there in the dark woods staring down at his dead friend, but at some point, he heard his mother calling for him. She didn’t sound very far away, so with tears rolling down his cheeks, he opened his mouth to call to her, but what came out instead, was a scream.
It turned out that Sarah had died of a brain aneurysm, but Stan swore up and down that there was a man there that must have done something to her. The police searched the area for days, but they never found any evidence of anyone other than the kids being there that night.
Stan was so adamant on the fact that he saw a man, that his parents took him to a psychologist. Over a series of several months, the doctor tried to convince Stan that his “memory” was something his mind had made up to help him cope with the shock of seeing his lifeless friend, but Stan could not accept that idea.
Then, came the day that Stan showed just how sure he was of what he saw. Toward the end of their umpteenth session together, Stan realized he had had enough of all the doubt focused on him. He began to clench his fists, his arms visibly shaking. “HE WAS THERE! He said my name.” Stan screamed.
“I know you think he was there Stanley but what I’m trying to tell you is-”
Stan cut the doctor off. “I did see him, goddamn it! I’m not making it up.” He had never used that word before, but he distinctly remembered his mother saying it to his father once, when she was super angry at him.
The Doctor, momentarily surprised to hear such a small child use such language, was at a loss for words. “Okay Stanley, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Tell me, what did the man look like again?”
“I’ve already told you.” Indeed, Stan had told and retold the description to the doctor many times in the duration of their many visits. The doctor had crossed referenced the description Stan had given him with the one given the police the night of the incident in the hopes that there would be some glaring differences between the two, but whatever discrepancy the doctor was looking for he did not find. Stan had told the story in the same exact way every time; nevertheless, Stan started to tell the story again. “He had cowboy boots, blue jeans and…he had no face.” Stan covered his eyes with his hands and began to cry. “He didn’t have a face. He did not have a face.”
The Doctor paused a moment to collect his thoughts, trying to figure out how to proceed without upsetting Stan even further than he already was. “Look Stanley, you do realize that it is impossible that you saw someone without a face, don’t you? Now think really hard. Do you think there is any way that you just thought that was what you saw? Perhaps it was just the shadow of a tree or something like that. You know, your mind could have been playing tricks on you.”
Stan jumped up from the couch. “I’m not lying! I know what I saw! Shadows don’t talk! He talked to me! He knew my name!” He leaped toward the doctor’s desk, grabbed one of the heavy glass paperweights that were scattered all around it, and without any thought at all, sent it soaring through the air until it connected painfully with the bridge of the Doctor’s nose.
It was at this point that the Doctor recommended that Stan be institutionalized, at least for a month or two. Stan’s parents, unsure of what else they could possibly do, agreed.
The day they took him to the children’s ward at St. Christopher’s, Stan seemed to be in a good mood. That is, until his parents got up to leave, and he realized that he was being left with the nurse sitting on the bed next to him. He knew that he couldn’t let this happen. He didn’t know what he was going to do before he did it. The one thought in his mind was that if he showed how bad he was, they wouldn’t let him stay, and his parents would have to take him home with them. He turned, grabbed the nurses arm, and sank his teeth in as far as he could. He felt the warm blood squirt into his mouth which made his stomach turn, so he let go, turned his head, and threw up onto the floor. The nurse, trying to stifle her screams left the room. A moment later Stan heard them call “code grey” over the intercom. Suddenly, several male nurses burst into the room and grabbed hold of Stan. One of the nurses pull a syringe from his pocket and fill it with a clear liquid from a bottle in his other hand. Stan watched the needle plunge into his arm and felt the numbness take over his whole body. His vision started to get blurry and, the last thing he saw before he lost consciousness was his mother burying her face into his father’s chest, weeping.
When Stan opened his eyes again he was strapped down to a hospital bed. He stared at the ceiling trying hard to remember why he was here but no answer came. Where were his parents? Why were they letting this happen to him? When was he going to be able to go home? His mind seemed to be swimming in a fog, which made it hard for him to dwell too long on a single thought, so eventually he stopped trying to figure anything out and instead went back to staring at the ceiling.
He had been looking for a solid hour when a nurse finally entered the room. “How are we doing today, Stanley,” she asked while filling a cup of water.
“Who are you?” he asked as she began unbuckling his straps.
“My name is Clara.” She answered.
“Clara, why am I here?”
"Well, you’ve been through a bad experience that made you a little ill, and you’re here so that we can make you feel better.” Clara passed him a clear plastic cup with a few pills in it. “Here, take these for me, okay.”
Stan had great difficulty trying to follow everything Clara was saying, but he took the pills without thinking too much about it. When he had finished, Clara began to redo the straps.
“Do you have to put those straps back on me?” Stan asked.
“I’m afraid so, but pretty soon you won’t need them anymore. You just have to make sure you keep being a good boy, okay?” She gave a smile as she patted him on the cheek and turned to collect the empty cups and put them onto her tray.
“Thank you, Clara.” Stan said with a slurred speech. He found that it was becoming impossible to keep his eyes open. He knew he was going to fall asleep again but he wanted to look at her one more time. He fought to open his eyes, and when he succeeded he was immediately sorry. Standing in the doorway, staring right at him, was the man with no face. As Clara left the room he gave Stan a little wave, then turned and followed her out.
Part of Stan’s brain told him he should be scared, but fortunately the pills were doing their job very well, making everything seem okay. He closed his eyes again and went to sleep.
When he awoke the next day, he was disappointed to see that a different nurse had come in to give him his daily pills. “Where’s Clara?” He asked shyly.
The nurse looked at Stan with a touch of shock, which slowly melted into a look of sorrow. “Well boy, I guess you don’t know.” She took a moment, searching for the right words. Stan began to fear the worst. “Ms. Clara had herself a car accident. I’m afraid she didn’t make it.” Before she could even give him his medicine, Stan began to feel felt lightheaded and everything went black.
The next several months were filled with pills, sleeping, and visits to the man all the other kids called “the shrink.” When anyone asked Stan about the man with no face, he simply answered that he had sent him on his way, along with Santa and the Easter Bunny. The doctors were very pleased with the progress that he had made and he was given his full release shortly after.
Once he had been marked cured, one would think that Stan had stopped seeing the man with no face, but that was the farthest thing from the truth. He still saw him everywhere. If Stan was outside playing, the man with no face would be watching him from the bushes across the street. If he was lying in his bed, the man with no face was staring in through his window. Stan had come to the realization that the man would always be there, and nobody would ever believe him. He had merely taught himself to deal with it.
As he got older, the sightings decreased more and more, until around his seventeenth birthday he stopped seeing him altogether. Although it surprised him that it had happened that way, he was happy that he could now live a normal life without feeling like he was being watched at all times. Slowly, he became more and more relaxed until the man with no face was merely a vague memory that he could no longer imagine as having been real. He graduated from high school at the top of his class, breezed his way through law school, and in the end, he had become one of the most sought after defense attorneys of his class.
The morning of his biggest trial ever, Stan woke up with a troubled mind. He hadn’t lost many cases, but he had a really bad feeling about this one. He got up and walked into the bathroom, took care of his business, then proceeded to the kitchen to prepare himself a breakfast of two slices of toast with a light spread of grape jelly. He put the bread in the toaster and sat down to wait for it to pop. While waiting, he threw his briefcase on the table, popped it open and with a deep breath, pulled out a small stack of photos.
They were copies of the district attorney’s most damning evidence against his client. Stan had gotten his hands on them when he paid an unscrupulous intern working in the DA’s office to give him copies of everything on the case he could get his hands on. The first photo was a picture of a distinguished-looking, old man doing the dicky-dunk with an apparently very flexible woman wearing far too much makeup. The next was a photo of what looked like a homeless man sitting with his back against a wall. Except for the bullet hole between the homeless man’s eyes, it looked like he was in the process of sleeping off his last bender. In the man’s lap was the head of the woman from the previous picture, make up and all. The next photo was the rest of the woman’s body, lying nude, belly down on the ground beneath a dumpster in an alleyway.
Stan let out a heavy sigh. The man in the first photo was his client, a man that was high up in the legal system himself. The client had been a judge for twenty years, and had no doubt sentenced many men for crimes less grisly than this one. The prosecution’s story was that the judge had been nurturing an unhealthy appetite for carnal pleasure, and had accidentally let what he did for a living slip out. The woman, a friendly neighborhood prostitute, developed a blackmail scheme, and with the help of a fellow crack house resident, the homeless man in the second photo, managed to get her next tryst with the judge on film. She told the judge that if he didn’t pay the price, he would end up “paying the price.” Obviously, the judge didn’t take it very well. Stan tossed the photos back into the briefcase and slammed it shut with a grunting expletive.
After breakfast, Stan got dressed in his favorite black suite and headed out to his ocean-blue Jaguar. As he was backing out of his drive, he caught a glimpse of his face in the rear-view mirror. His eyes gave away the secret he was trying to hide; he was worried to death about this case. “It’s just a case,” he told the face in the mirror, “it’s not going to make or break you, man.” Suddenly, on the other side of the mirror, Stan glimpsed a shadow bolt behind the car. He felt a surge of adrenaline as he slammed on the breaks. He realized now that he was breathing heavily. He tried to convince himself that he was just freaking out about the case, but nevertheless, a bad feeling began to brew in his guts. He got out of the car expecting to see one of the neighbor’s kids carelessly riding their bike on the street, or a stray dog getting into the garbage again, but after looking all around, he had to admit that the street was completely vacant. As he got back into the car, he reached over to his glove compartment and pulled out the bottle of meds that he kept there for emergencies. After choking them down dry, he was on his way again.
In the city, the traffic was bumper to bumper. Horns blared and the radios blasting all around created a cacophony that did not help to settle Stan’s mind at all. He was stopped at a red light and was absentmindedly staring at the crowd of pedestrians crossing the road in front of him. His eyes caught hold of a woman wearing a short black skirt, revealing legs that seemed to go on forever. He followed her with his eyes as she walked until she passed behind someone who had come to a complete stop in the middle of the road. The man she had walked behind was wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt. The man’s hands were deep inside the pockets of the sweatshirt and his hood was pulled so tight that even in broad daylight, Stan couldn’t see his face. A familiar tingle rolled down Stan’s spine, but the moment of complete remembrance did not come. The light turned green and a horn blared out behind him. Stan turned and waved a halfhearted apology, and when he turned back around the hooded man was gone.
The courthouse was packed; journalists and reporters lined the walls. The judge’s wife, wiping at her tears with the end of a mascara blotted handkerchief, was sitting with two men in their early thirties that Stan took to be her sons. Stan had a feeling that, win or lose, she was going to take her husband to the cleaners afterwards. He briefly considered slipping her his card, just in case. Soon the presiding judge sat down, the first witness was sworn in, and Stan started spinning his web of lies.
When the verdict of not guilty came out of the foreman’s mouth, Stan could finally let himself breath normally. It turned out that even though the prosecution did have the photos of the judge with the prostitute, they didn’t have anything concrete to pin him to the actual murder. The jury was more inclined to trust a judge of twenty years, despite his sexual proclivities, than the testimony of the cracked-out friend of a dead prostitute. There were groans of disapproval from the crowd mixed in with a few lighthearted cheers; one of which, was Stan’s. Stan’s client vigorously shook his hand with a smile from ear to ear. “My boy, we did it, thanks to you. I swear you’re worth every penny your firm charges. Boy Howdy, I’m a free man.” After a few more whoops and hollers the client left the courtroom, followed begrudgingly by his wife and sons.
Ray Sams, the only man in the firm that Stan could not even pretend to like, walked up to him with his hand outstretched. “Well, I guess congratulations are in order here. Although, I probably wouldn’t have done too shabby either, you know?” After a moment, Ray realized that Stan was not going to be shaking his hand, and let his hand fall to his side. His face took on a stern look. “You know, you’re getting pretty good reviews from the partners. They say that you might be well on your way to getting your name on the company letterhead.”
Stan saw right through the Ray’s public facade. If they were in private, Ray’s words would be a lot less friendly. “Look, Ray, I know you feel threatened by me, but just give me a few more of these cases, and I can retire before I end up beating you at your own race. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bar-stool calling my name.” Stan pushed past Ray and began to walk toward the exit, but Ray followed behind saying something that Stan didn’t bother paying attention to.
Stan looked ahead and could see people rushing by the door in both directions. He was eager to join the crowd and get Ray’s persistently arrogant voice out of his ears for the rest of the day, but as he stepped out into the hallway there was no one there, as if everyone that had been in the hall seconds before had vanished without a trace. Even Ray’s voice had been silenced behind him. His own foot falls boomed in his ears as they echoed off the walls of the empty hall, and he could hear the dripping of a distant water fountain.
At the far end of the hall, someone appeared, as if from thin air. It was the man with the hooded sweatshirt that Stan had seen on the street that morning; from deep inside his psyche Stan heard the voice of a child, the voice of his six-year-old self. “It’s him. The man with no face.”
Stan froze in his tracks and stared into the dark void created by the hood. “Stan,” a voice whispered in his ear, even though the man was still yards away. “It’s about that time.”
Stan started forward, but he wasn’t walking. To his horror, he realized that he was being dragged toward the horrid apparition, his feet effortlessly sliding along the hall’s tiled floor. He wanted to stop. Everything inside of him wanted to scream out, just as he had as a child. The little boy that had been lying dormant inside wanted to do nothing but lie down and cry. That was when a hand landed roughly on his shoulder.
“Hey don’t let Ray bother you like this man. He’s jealous of everybody.”
It was Stan’s friend Mark, apparently just coming out of another trial. The rest of the crowd had now returned to the hall as well. Stan looked down the hall to where the hooded man had been standing, but he only saw a short bald man with coke-bottom glasses, cleaning his ear out with a key.
Mark continued, “You know that little punk-ass hasn’t won a case in five years. I’m surprised the higher-ups even let him stay on.”
Stan wiped a film of cold sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Yah, that’s strange, huh?” Stan began walking forward again on shaky legs. “Hey, I’m going to Murphy’s to toss back a few, you want to come?”
“Man, I would but I have a bit of business regarding the missus at home to attend to, if you know what I mean. You know it’s the first time we will have been home together in two weeks?”
“Wow, that’s pretty rough.” Stan said sarcastically.
“Why, how long has it been for you there Stan-man?”
“Longer than two weeks,” Stan replied with a smile. He was beginning to feel like himself again, his long-practiced talent of lying to himself at work, making him believe he hadn’t really experienced what he had clearly just experienced.
Mark put his hands to his chest and acted like he had been struck by an arrow. “That’s rough, man. You know, one day you’re going to find a girl that’s either good enough or stupid enough to put up with all your crap, and then you’ll get it at least twice as often.”
“Here’s to hoping.” Stan replied.
Mark looked at his watch. “Man, I got to go.” He patted Stan on the back and began walking away. He called back over his shoulder, “Don’t you frisk that weasel too much; They say that makes you go blind.” Both men laughed as they parted ways.
Murphy’s bar was a dive that Stan had been frequenting since he was a rookie lawyer, making a far less extravagant living than he was now. He preferred it to the higher-end places he could now afford. Those places were far too stuck-up, and Stan despised anything that could be described as “trendy.” Not much had changed in the several years that had passed since the first time he had come in. The mirror by the bar was still covered in a mystery substance that refused to be cleaned and would only smear when a rag was taken to it. The bar-stools were still covered with the same worn leather with the stuffing bleeding out of the cracks. Although they had gotten older, had lost more teeth, and had acquired a lifetime’s quota of wrinkles, the patrons had also stayed the same.
From behind him, Stan could hear old Mr. Torley spouting out the punch-line to the same joke he always told at the height of his drunkenness. “So, the bartender asks the man is it your lover or your sister, to which the man replies, ‘WHY SIR IT’S BOTH.’” The crowd at the back table exploded with laughter as Torley slammed down another empty bottle.
“Funny how that joke never gets old to some people isn’t it, Stan?” Stan looked up from his glass to see that Greg, the bartender, was looking at him, perhaps waiting for a response. Greg wiped the inside of the glass with a towel, then slung the towel over his shoulder and placed the glass on the rack that said, Clean??? “Why are you looking so down today boy? I thought you won that judge case.”
As Greg took away Stan’s empty glass, Stan absentmindedly started playing with the ring of water that had been left on the counter. “I did win. I don’t really know what’s wrong. I think I’m just a little tired is all.” There was no other course of action but to lie. Nobody would ever believe what had happened in the courthouse hallway just an hour before. Stan was still trying to not believe it himself. “Once I get some sleep I should be fine.”
“Well that’s good to hear. Can I fix you another one?”
The phone rang. Stan’s body immediately tensed up. He couldn’t possibly know who was on the other line, but for some reason a sense of dread filled his mind like a grey fog on the incoming tide. Greg picked up the phone and said hello. Stan listened to a few uh-huh's and a few okays, and was just about to start feeling foolish when Greg held the phone out to him and said, “It’s for you.”
Stan’s heart skipped a beat, and with his mouth hanging wide open, he reached out for the phone and put it slowly to his ear, then half-spoke, half-choked out the word, “Hello.”
“Hello Stanley.” The voice on the other end was extremely familiar. It was warm and friendly, at least until the point that it said, "It's time."
"Okay, very funny joke Mark." It only made sense that it would be Mark. He was the only person Stan had told where he was going, and was also the only one Stan knew that was given to practical jokes. There was only one thing that didn’t fit into that equation. Stan had not told Mark about what had happened in the hallway, so there was no way Mark could know what may or may not have been said.
The voice seemed to take no notice of the fact that Stan had spoken at all. “What time would be the best for us to meet, face to face?” the voice asked.
“Okay that’s enough. Who is this?” Stan was beginning to sweat again.
“It doesn’t matter who I am Stanley, although you will find out soon enough. I suppose you would like me to pick the time and place?”
“Not on your life pal!” Stan slammed the phone down and then got to his feet, trying to catch his breath.
“Are you okay?” Greg asked, looking rather worried.
“I’ll be…” Stan started to answer, but something he saw in the blurry mirror behind Greg blasted all rational thought from his mind. Stan saw the blurred silhouette of a hooded figure standing right next to an equally blurred image of himself. He looked to his side so fast that it felt like he pulled something in his neck, but there was no one there. Without another word, Stan turned and left the bar as fast as his feet could take him. As he slipped into his car, he heard the distinct sound of distant thunder.
Ten minutes later he was driving down the interstate, his windshield being bombarded by what seemed like bucket-sized drops of rain. The day had turned pitch black, but every now and then a silver fork of lightning would light up the sky. The decision not to go home came to him rather quickly. Whoever this hooded man was, was obviously following him. Stan planned to drive to the next town and spend the night in an out of the way hotel. He had briefly considered going to the police to tell them what had happened, but what had happened? What in the world could he possibly tell them? That a man with no face and a hooded sweatshirt kept coming to him and talking to him and then evaporating into thin air? He had a quick glimpse of himself back in the hospital strapped to the bed. Perhaps they would even give him what they called the luxury suites this time, the ones with the padded walls and floor.
Deep in thought, he barely registered the broken tree limb, lying in the road ahead of him until it was too late. There was no time to swerve; he clenched his teeth and squinted his eyes. The car shook violently as the branch passed beneath the car, and over the sound of the falling rain, Stan heard the sharp pop as one of his tires exploded.
Stan slowed the car to a stop on the side of the road. Picking up his cell-phone he saw that there was no signal. With a grunt, he threw the phone into the passenger seat. Stan stared out at the road while thinking about what to do next. He could either sit and wait until the rain stopped, and then try and walk around until he found a signal, or he could get out and see if the tire could at least make it into town. The thought of sitting in one place, while that hooded man might or might not be hunting him down, forced him to choose the latter option.
Mere seconds after he exited the car, Stan was completely drenched from head to toe. The tires on the driver side were fine, but when he made his way over to the other side of the car, he saw that the front passenger side tire had been flattened, a broken piece of the branch poked from the side wall, and the rim looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. His heart fell; there was no point in trying to drive. As he headed back to the driver’s side of the car a flash of lightning lit up the sky, and the inside of the car. Stan saw him. The hooded man was sitting right there in the passenger seat, his hollow hood staring directly at him. Stan gasped and stumbled backward, and tripping over his own feet, landed on his back in the middle of the road.
Understanding that a car could come by any moment, Stan wasted no time in standing up; when he looked into the car again, the only thing sitting in the passenger seat was his cell-phone. He took off his sodden sports-jacket, rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt, wringing the cuffs out as he went, and got back into the car. He buried his face in his clammy hands and concentrated on controlling his breath. His heart was thumping at what felt like a thousand beats per second.
Had he really seen the man with no face? Had the man been sitting in his passenger seat, or was it just a trick of the light? Six-year-old Stan sounded off in his head, “I know what I saw. It was a monster, just like in those stories mom used to tell.” He shook his head to get rid of the intruding voice.
Stan had been pondering silently for about an hour, when he saw a truck pull off the road and stop a few yards ahead of him. His anxiety returned and his breathing became more rapid. Stan watched as a big man with a face full of hair jump out of the truck and after getting control of a coughing fit, came ambling toward him. When the man reached Stan’s car he rapped on the window as if he didn’t think Stan had seen him. Stan rolled down the window just enough to hear what the man was trying to say.
“You got a situation here buddy?” The man asked with a wide smile and then began another series coughs.
“Yes,” Stan replied “I ran over a tree branch a few yards back. I don’t think it appreciated it very much.”
The man looked down gave a sigh. “No, I wouldn’t say it did. I saw it as I was walking over here.” The bearded man chuckled. “Look, I’m headed into town, and seeing as it’s pretty late in the evening, you’ll be hard pressed to find a decent tow-company. I’d be glad to give you a ride into town if that’s something you would want.”
Stan quickly accepted and followed the man back to his truck. When they were both safely inside the vehicle and making their way down the road, Stan was finally able to relax enough to breath. He extended his hand, to which his savior gave two firm shakes. “My name is Stan, and I really appreciate this, man.”
“No problem. I just hate to see people stranded on the side of the road. I know if I was in that situation, I would want someone to stop and help me.” While coughing yet again, the man reached into his shirt pocket pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He slipped one out and threw the rest of the pack onto the dashboard. “Don’t mind if I smoke, do you?” Stan shook his head. “By the way, my name is Chuck.”
“Well Chuck, it’s great to meet you.” Stan said.
“What the…?” Stan only had a second to wonder about Chuck’s response, because all of a sudden, Chuck was slamming on the brakes and the truck came to a skidding halt, stopping a few yards away from a figure slumped in the middle of the road. The figure was just beyond the reach of the truck’s headlights, creating a dark silhouette. Stan watched Chuck’s cigarette fall from between his lips and hit the floor. “What does this yahoo think he’s doing sitting in the middle of the damn road? I better make sure he’s alright.” Without wasting another second Chuck jumped out of the truck and slammed the door behind him.
To Stan, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. He knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, who it was, but a part of him was still refusing to accept it. He wanted desperately to warn Chuck, to call out to him to leave the man alone and get back into the truck, but he couldn’t muster up the courage to raise his voice above a whisper. Instead, he watched powerless as Chuck walked over to the shadowy figure, his arms waving about, as if he were yelling at the man. He may have been; Stan was finding it very hard to keep his grip on reality.
As Chuck approached the figure, it stood up straight, making evident the fact that it was a good foot taller than Chuck. Chuck stopped waving his arms and took a step backward, but it was too late. The silhouette’s arm shot out and its hand immediately grasped Chuck by the neck, raising him off the pavement.
The hand, illuminated now by the truck’s high beams, was old, and wrinkled, with flaps of withered flesh hanging off like rotting old rags. From the ends of the fingers bone-white claws protruded; Stan watched as those claws clasped tightly, digging into the soft flesh of Chuck’s neck. Chuck struggled to break free, but nothing he did seemed to faze the silhouette. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, Chuck gave up the struggle. Now, he hung there, shaking. His mouth opened and closed silently, like a fish out of water. When he stopped moving completely, the rotting hand released him, and he fell lifelessly to the ground. His dead, glassy, eyes stared up toward the starless night sky.
To Stan’s further horror the figure turned toward the truck and started walking toward the driver-side door.
With a shaking hand, Stan reached over and slammed down the lock pin on his side, then reached across, as quick as he could, and did the same for the other side, just as the man with no face approached the window. There was no denying it now. The man with no face was back, standing outside the locked door and staring in at Stan.
Stan was too scared to think; his six-year-old self was screaming in his head. He couldn’t run; there was nowhere to hide. He felt paralyzed by fear, a deer in the road staring unblinkingly at the lights of the eighteen-wheeler about to crush out his very existence.
The man with no face placed is hand on the door handle and there was an audible click as the door creaked open. Stan’s eyes widened but other than that, he remained motionless. Without a sound, the man with no face slid inside the truck, taking a seat behind the wheel and closed the door behind him. He placed one clawed hand on the steering wheel, and the other one on the gear shift. He turned his head so that the hollow hood faced Stan directly, and a low voice issued from the void. “Let’s go.”
The truck lurched forward with such speed that Stan’s head snapped backward hitting the window behind him. He glanced at the speedometer and saw that they were already doing well over eighty. He sat in his seat shivering, not knowing what to do or say, and then the man with no face started talking.
“Do you know how hard it was to find you tonight? Well I suppose not, although if I’m not mistaken, it seemed as if you were trying to hide from me.” Stan’s stomach was doing flips, as the truck began to hydroplane, sliding from side to side on the wet asphalt. “I also didn’t expect for you to have any company. Don’t worry, his time was almost up anyway. Emphysema, He’s been a smoker for years. Even after being diagnosed, he continued to ignore his doctor’s requests for him to quit.”
“How can you possibly know all of that?” Stan whispered, almost inaudibly.
“You know Stan, I’ve been following you for a long time.” Stan didn’t know if the man with no face was ignoring his question, or if he hadn’t heard it at all. He was too scared to repeat it. “Yes, I was there when you hit your first little league home run. I was there for your first kiss. I watched as you graduated with top honors. I even kept up with a majority of your major cases. Of course, my work keeps me rather busy, so I didn’t get to catch everything.”
Stan listened silently, watching everything outside speed by in a blur, but as the man with no face spoke, a question began burning in his mind. It was bubbling to get to the surface, and although he tried to repress it, it spilled out of him nonetheless, “Why!?”
The man with no face’s hand went to his chest as if he had been offended. “Why? Do you know how many times I’ve been asked that question? Why? Why does everyone take everything I do so personally? Do you want another why? Why is everyone so frightened of me, just because of my lot in life? I’m sure you have heard that old expression, ‘it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.’ How true that is”
Stan’s fear was starting to subside a little. Now, he felt like he was in trouble for some reason. Like the man with no face was scolding him.
“I suppose your next question will be asking me who I am, so I will go ahead and beat you to it. I have many names. So many, in fact, that I can’t even remember them all. Do you think that everyone would be as scared of me if they knew that my real, parent-given name was Brian?”
Stan was hit by a sudden revelation. This man he had been so frightened of his entire life was nothing more than a deranged stalker and lunatic. A surge of courage rose up in Stan, as he peeled his back away from the seat, turned toward the psycho in the hood, and growled, “Pull this truck over right now, before I make you pull it over.”
The hooded freak began to laugh. “So, you’re finally trying to play the role of the big, bad, tough guy, are you? Not so scared of me anymore? Well then, we’re finally getting somewhere.”
Stan figured that his moment had finally come. It was either let this man kill him in his own sick fashion, or go out with a fight. Stan shifted in his seat so that his legs were pointing directly at the man with no face, and with all the force he could muster, he kicked the arm holding the steering wheel. The truck lurched to the left, leaving the road, and dived into the woods.
The truck was driving full force down a densely-treed hill. Stan didn’t know how, but they seemed to be missing tree after tree by mere inches. A passing tree limb smashed the windshield, and the glass was reduced to a cracked and jagged spider’s web, before bursting in completely, and raining down on both of them. Stan felt the jagged flecks scrape his skin and the warmth of blood pouring down his now lacerated cheek. The whole while, the man with no face’s cackling laughter was spilling into his ears. The rain was now pouring in on them, and still the bastard was laughing. They could be pulverized at any moment by any given tree, and still, the lunatic was laughing his ass off. Despite the rush of adrenaline pumping through his body, Stan felt suddenly tired, and utterly defeated. In fact, the split second before they hit the tree, and the world went dark, Stan realized that he no longer cared what happened. He wanted the madness to end, one way or another.
When Stan awoke, he was blinded by little rays of sunshine, beaming in around the evergreen branches and through the open space where the windshield used to be. When his eyes finally adjusted, he saw that the front end of the truck had been obliterated; pieces of glass and twisted metal lay, strewn about every which way along the forest floor.
For a few moments, his mind was in a fog, but slowly, the image of the crazy man in the driver seat took shape, and his next breath caught in his throat as he turned his head to see if the man was dead. The man wasn’t there at all. In fact, there was no sign that he was ever there. Maybe, hopefully, he had been thrown from the car.
Stan remembered the cuts on his face and quickly twisted the rearview mirror his way to look at the damage. His spotless face stared back at him; He was surprised to see that there was no scratch, not even a single speck of blood. He sat back in his seat, breathing a little easier now. He had won. He was alive, and the man with no face was out there, at this moment, no doubt suffering from a major head rearrangement. Surprisingly, the thought made him laugh. With a slight struggle, Stan opened the door and crawled out of the wreckage. The mud outside was so slippery that his cowboy boots almost lost traction.
Stan looked up the hill that the truck had come down, finding it hard to believe that it had made it as far as it did. He knew the road was right up there, but he could hear no traffic; it was probably still early. He started up the hill, wondering if he would find police tape and officers searching the area for Chucks vehicle. Of course, that was unlikely. He had no idea how far away they had traveled from where Chuck met the man with no face, but based on the speed they were going, it had to be at least a few miles.
A gust of icy wind blew so hard that it felt to Stan as if little mice were trying to make a meal of his ears. Without thinking about it, he pulled the hood of his sweater up over his head to block it out. As he neared the top, he began to speed up his gait a little. His foot hit an exposed tree root, causing him to stumble and almost fall, but he managed to reach down and touch the wet ground to regain his balance. He wiped the cold moisture from the ground off on his blue jeans. Now, even his hands were freezing. He found that they were quite warm in the pockets of his sweater.
“What the hell?” he exclaimed. With a dawning horror, he realized that he was wearing the clothes of the man with no face, but how, and more importantly, why? All of his good feelings quickly floated away, and he was left with a lead weight in the pit of his stomach. What he saw waiting for him on the top of the hill only made it worse.
There was a man standing there, looking out at the road. The lead weight seemed to gain twenty pounds when Stan saw that the man was wearing his black suit pants, and white shirt. He had Stan’s suit jacket slung over his shoulder.
“Come here Stanley.” said the man in a cold, and cutting voice.
Stan walked forward slowly, not sure why he was bothering to obey. When the man turned to face Stan, he felt his empty stomach seize up. If he had eaten anything recently, he would have vomited. Instead, only a dry heave escaped his throat. He was looking at a dead man.
As Stan stared into the face of the living corpse, its skeletal face stared back at him, bits of withered flesh stretched tight across its surface. It looked like the face of a corpse that has been exhumed after being buried for years, and the smell coming from him was much the same. The corpse’s withered lips pulled tight into the semblance of a smile, and it spoke.
“So, now you see.”
“See what? That you’re crazy and a dead man?” Stan lost all feeling in his legs and they failed him. He dropped to the soft muddy earth. “I’m insane.” Stan whispered.
“Oh, come on now.” the corpse said in a chastising voice. “Neither of us is crazy. Surely you can see that, now that you’ve been chosen.”
“Chosen?” Stan spoke in complete disbelief of the situation. “What have I been chosen for? Who chose me?”
“Well, Stanley, it doesn’t exactly work like that. Trust me, I asked the same things you are asking me now when I was in your shoes.”
“What do you mean was? You are in my shoes. Those are my two-hundred-dollar pair of imported Italian dress-shoes”
“Okay. You need to calm down. I don’t have all day.” The corpse pulled a small golden pendant on a chain from around its leathery neck. The pendant was covered in all sorts of strange symbols, with writing that Stan did not understand. “This is something much bigger than you or me Stanley,” the corpse continued. “It is a job.”
“Yeah? Well, I already have one of those, so thanks, but no thanks.” Stan was still looking at his shoes on the corpse’s feet.
The corpse shook its head, but continued as if it hadn’t heard. “Like most jobs, this one is no fun, but as I told you last night, somebody has to do it. Otherwise, well…we won’t go there.” The corpse held up the dangling pendant. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, Stanley, but my time has come. I’m passing the torch.”
Stan stood up but no words escaped his mouth.
“That’s pretty much all there is to say.” With that, the corpse placed the chain over Stan’s head.
Stan felt the pendant fall against his chest and there was immediate warmth emanating from it. The heat was coming off in pulses; every one, a bit warmer than the first. With each pulse, images of death and dying flooded Stan’s mind, each lingering for a brief instance before disappearing and being replaced by another. He was seeing people he had never known die in almost every conceivable way. The pulses grew stronger. Soon, the pendant was so hot that it felt like it would meld with Stan’s skin. If he could have, he would have pulled it off and thrown it back at the corpse, but he seemed incapable of moving at all. Image after grisly image, burning blinks of time, pounded into him. Stan was in so much pain that he rocked his head back and screamed, but still the images came. When it finally stopped, Stan found himself on his knees with his forehead touching the ground. Tears poured down his face, but finally, he understood.
With a grunt, Stan got to his feet and looked the corpse directly in the eye. “Why me?” he asked.
The corpse looked silently back for a moment before responding, “I asked the same question. There is no answer.”
“But,” Stan paused, trying to find the questions that had been buried by the barrage of images. “For how long?”
“You’ll know.” The corpse took the jacket that had been draped across his shoulder and put it on. “You know what to do now, right?”
“But I have more questions.” Stan protested.
The corpse looked into Stan eyes, “The questions you have can only be answered by time. I have been here too long. You must do it now. I am ready.”
Stan raised is hand, placing it on the top of the corpses head. He felt the warmth gathering in his fingertips. The corpse closed its eyes, and the withered smile returned. Stan released the warmth that now filled his entire hand, and the corpse took one last breath before falling to the ground like a marionette that has just had its strings cut from the puppeteer’s hand. The corpse was dead, and Stan had taken its life.
Stan walked toward the road as a green car was driving by. He held out his hand and felt the warmth again. As the car passed, the lady in the driver’s seat seemed to be looking right at him. He wasn’t sure if she could see him, but he knew that in about an hour she was going to lose control of her vehicle and drive straight into oncoming traffic. It would be quick; she wouldn’t suffer. He turned and looked at the lifeless corpse of the man with no face one last time, but he knew he couldn’t stick around too long. In five minutes, someone in Manchester was going to choke to death on a scone, and after that, he had a full day with a tribe suffering from malaria in Uganda. He knew that his old life was over now. For all intents and purposes, Stan the lawyer, was lying on the ground in front of him. For a moment, he listened to the song of a bird that had not yet flown south for winter. Then he started walking. After all, he had a job to do.