I had just finished running a cloudy afternoon's worth of monotonous errands when I spotted the handmade sign advertising a nearby yard sale. Bored by the day's tedium and looking to kill some time before a three o'clock appointment, I drove to the address scribbled on the sign in thick marker and arrived at a secluded, modestly-sized brick house with foldout tables placed along its driveway. As I browsed through labeled cardboard boxes filled with the sale's offerings, I found most of their contents to be rather lackluster—faded clothes, chipped dishes, threadbare bedding, and what amounted to little more than unremarkable clutter.
Eventually a large box that held an assortment of books captured my eye. Before I could inspect them beyond a cursory glance, a sudden voice interrupted me.
“Excuse me, sir?”
I turned around to see a middle-aged woman standing behind me.
“I don't mean to be impolite,” she stated in a tone that was equally apologetic and rushed, “but I was actually just about to start putting everything away. It's supposed to rain soon, and I really don't want to get caught in the middle of a downpour.” She pointed at the book box. “If you take that off my hands right now, you can have it for five dollars. It'd be one less thing for me to deal with.”
“What kind of books are they?” I asked curiously.
“They seemed pretty varied. I didn't recognize a lot of the titles, but there were quite a few about the ocean. I had no idea Uncle Lawrence was such a big reader until I found all the books scattered throughout his house.” The woman gestured towards the slew of boxes surrounding us. “Everything here belonged to him. He passed away recently and I'm the only family left to handle his estate.”
“Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that.”
“Thanks. I can't say that we were close, though. He tended to keep to himself. Packing up his things was like walking through a stranger's house.” She looked at her watch and fixed me with a tight smile that failed to entirely conceal her eagerness to be rid of me. “So, are you interested in the books?”
Minutes later I was setting the heavy box into the backseat of my car. By the time my appointment was over, raindrops were falling steadily from the darkened sky. I went home, poured myself a glass of wine, and settled in to examine my purchase.
It didn't take long for buyer's remorse to strike. Many of the books were dog-eared paperbacks sporting cracked spines, and the rest were frayed, time-worn oceanography volumes with jaundiced pages. I kept hoping to find a hidden gem, but instead each title I unearthed was both terribly dull and devoid of any resale value. I was about to deem the entire thing a total waste of a five dollar bill when I saw a writing journal resting at the bottom of the box. Slender and bound with smooth canvas, it appeared to have been mistaken for a jacketless book and tossed into the box without a second glance. I opened it to discover an entry penned by a trembling, uneven hand.
Thirty years ago, the entry began, I experienced something terrifying.
I blinked in surprise, taken aback by the ominous scrawled words, before continuing to read.
I never found the courage to talk about what happened that night, and I strongly doubt anyone would have ever believed me anyway. Fear of being deemed a liar or considered insane has kept me silent for decades, but none of that matters now. Perhaps writing this down will prove to be therapeutic for me, or perhaps I'm merely wasting paper, ink, and the little time I have left in this world.
Back then, I had every reason to be happy. I was young and healthy, vibrant and ambitious. I enjoyed a great deal of success at work, including a recent promotion, and I'd just moved into a new high-rise apartment by the beach. Each morning I stepped out onto my balcony, breathed in the scent of the ocean, and looked forward to what the day would bring.
One night I couldn't sleep; I'd been up late preparing for an important meeting I had the next day, and I was unusually tense. I decided to take a stroll down to the beach in the hopes that its cool air would ease my nerves. Moonlight guided me as I walked barefoot onto the sand, carrying my shoes in one hand and my jacket in the other. I closed my eyes and listened to the relaxing sound of the lapping waves. No one else was there. I felt like that soothing moment of absolute tranquility had been created just for me.
Looking back, I wish it'd never ended.
Eventually I opened my eyes and was immediately startled to see a man stumbling out of the shadows a few feet ahead of me. When moonlight illuminated his wrinkled face, I saw that it had been stricken with an expression of absolute panic. Sallow and feeble, with age lines etched deeply into his withered features, he looked to be no younger than eighty. His wide, reddened eyes gazed at me imploringly as tears streamed down his sunken cheeks. The old man wore a gray suit and a long gray trench coat that hung limply on his decrepit frame. Sand clung to his shoes like dust, and his thin, colorless hair was wildly disheveled, as if he had been tearing at it in anguished fistfuls.
“Sir,” I called out worriedly, “are you alright?”
“My wife!” he wailed, his voice wracked with despair. “I can't find her anywhere!”
“Maybe I can help.” Though I spoke in the most calming tone I could muster, inwardly I was quite rattled by his profound distress. “When did you last see your wife?”
“Almost an hour ago,” he babbled frantically, teetering on the verge of collapsing into unintelligible sobs. “We were walking along the beach. I stopped to tie my shoe, and when I looked back up she was just...just gone.”
My stomach dropped. I glanced towards the water. I fought to push a grim sequence from my mind: an elderly woman's brittle form becoming silently engulfed by the ocean, sinking haplessly into its merciless depths before later returning to the surface to lifelessly float face-down and bloated.
“Let's get you someplace where you can sit and rest,” I said gently. “I'll call the police.”
“No!” the old man cried fervently. “You can't leave me!”
“There's a payphone just a few minutes away. The sooner the police get here, the sooner they can start searching for your wife.”
“But there isn't enough time for that!” he protested. “Couldn't—couldn't you just swim out and look for her?”
“No, sir. It's too dark, and I wouldn't be able to see—“
“Please,” the old man begged urgently, bursting into fresh tears. “She's all that I have left.”
“I'll be right back,” I assured him. “I promise.”
Before he could speak another word, I turned away and broke into a run. I was certain the ocean had already claimed his ill-fated wife and added her to its drowned ranks, but I still hoped against hope that I was wrong.
I'd just reached the payphone when I heard the close sound of weeping. I turned around and found myself face-to-face with the old man. I gawked at him in confusion, stunned by his speed; he had appeared pitifully frail only moments ago, like so much as a swift pace would fracture his spindly legs.
“Why did you leave?” he asked in a wounded voice, as if I'd committed an unforgivable act of cruelty and caused him tremendous pain.
“I told you,” I replied slowly, by now more than a little uneasy, “I need to call the police.”
The old man shook his head. “There's nothing they can do,” he stated gravely.
“Well, how else are we going to find your wife?”
“I don't have a wife, Lawrence.”
I froze. Goosebumps prickled across my arms.
“How do you know my name?” I whispered.
His devastated expression vanished in an instant as the corners of his wilted lips turned upwards into a sly smile. The old man lunged towards me with frightening agility, and the next thing I knew I was running as fast as my legs could carry me. An incredible surge of fear flooded my veins; not once did I dare look back, afraid of what I might see. When I finally reached the safety of my tenth-story apartment, I slammed the door shut before barricading it with a chair. My heart pounded thickly in my chest as I strained my ears to listen for approaching footsteps.
Several tense but uneventful moments passed, followed by several more. Eventually I dared to breath a faint, shaky sigh of relief.
Then I heard it.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
A crashing wave of dread swept over me. I turned slowly towards the glass door leading to my apartment balcony and saw the old man standing outside, grinning wickedly as he drummed his fingernails on the glass.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
I watched in horror as dark seawater poured from the old man's mouth and nose and trickled from his eyes, soaking his clothes and the balcony floor. The horrid stench of decay and rotted seaweed filled my nostrils to mingle hideously with the ocean's scent.
I tore my gaze away from the ghastly figure on the balcony and bolted into my bedroom before locking the door and sinking onto the floor. I sat there helplessly for what felt like an agonizing eternity, drenched with panic-laden sweat and nearly hysterical with fear, desperately praying that the old man wouldn't shatter the glass and step foot into my home. My indescribable terror reached dizzying heights and grew more excruciating with every passing minute, rendering me certain that I would soon be driven mad by unbearable apprehension. Though I heard nothing but benign quiet for the rest of the night, it wasn't until the first rays of sunlight began to peer through the bedroom window that I finally summoned enough courage to rise to my feet and cautiously open the bedroom door.
The apartment appeared as ordinary and untouched as it'd been before I left for the beach. The only evidence of my incomprehensible ordeal was the chair still propped against the front door and the dark puddle drying on the balcony.
I went to work in a daze. My memories of that day exist only in hazy fragments—my ashen reflection staring back at me in the restroom mirror as I splashed cold water onto my face, the incessant ringing of my office phone as I sat numbly at my desk, my visibly-frustrated boss rubbing his temples as I mumbled little more than a scant few words during the meeting I'd so painstakingly prepared for. I felt like I was staggering through a heavy fog with no end in sight, where I could think of nothing but the night's horrifying events. Exhausted and overwhelmed, I left the office early to go home. I took a sleeping pill and climbed into bed, where I soon drifted off into what I hoped would be a dreamless slumber.
I slept deeply and awoke the next morning feeling sluggish. I emerged groggily from my blankets, opened my bleary eyes, and felt a gasp rise up my throat like rancid bile.
Trailing across the bedroom floor, up the walls and along the ceiling before coming to a halt directly above my bed, was a path of wet shoe prints.
I wish I could claim that I was brave. If I had been brave, if I had scrubbed away the shoe prints and attempted to do something, anything, to protect my home from the gray-clad stranger, then perhaps my life would have turned out drastically different than the bleak existence I live today and these words would have never been penned.
But the truth is that I am not a brave man. The truth is that I packed whatever I could fit into my suitcases, bought a train ticket, and left that very morning.
I never returned to the idyllic beach town that brought me so much happiness. My fear of the gray man was so incredible that it drove me to abandon my apartment and possessions, my hard-earned career, and the promising future I had worked so diligently to obtain. I went back to my hometown—a small city far away from any beach—and began to eke out a quiet living. I remain there to this day.
I cannot help but wonder what my life would be like now if I hadn't gone for that fateful walk on the beach. Sometimes I lie awake in bed, unable to sleep and sickened with regret, and feel utterly consumed by bitterness. All these years later, I still don't understand who—or what—the old man was. For decades I perpetually glanced over my shoulder, afraid that I'd catch sight of him in every dark corner. I left my house only when necessary, and eventually I began to never leave it at all; most of my family is gone now, and the only people I ever see with any regularity are the ones who deliver my mail and the volunteers from a local charity group that leaves lukewarm meals on my doorstep. Painful, insurmountable loneliness continues to haunt me like a melancholic specter.
But last night I looked outside and saw something standing inches away from my window, bathed in moonlight and staring back to meet my gaze.
I know the old man will be here soon. But I don't have thirty more years left in me to spend hiding, and I'm much too tired to run. It's funny—after living in fear of this moment for so very long, I find that I'm actually not afraid now. I'm ready to be at peace, to no longer be trapped inside the reclusive prison I have confined myself within. Whatever happens, I hope that tonight ends with me finding the same freeing tranquility I felt decades ago during that serene moment on a calm, quiet beach.
I'd like to think I've earned it.
My hands shook as I flipped through the journal to discover that the rest of the pages were blank.
I didn't sleep that stormy night. Instead I read the entry over and over again, captivated by the strange tale told within its lines, and even transcribed every word of it onto my laptop. In the morning, when the rain was finally over and the sky was blue once again, I grabbed the journal and drove back to the brick house. I hoped to find the woman there. I knew the questions I wanted to ask her would seem confusing and odd, or maybe even alarming. But it was the only way to quell my overpowering curiosity—I had to know what happened to her unfortunate Uncle Lawrence, and if the old man was responsible for his death.
As I pulled into the house's secluded street, I saw that the yard sale had already been set up for another day of business. But when I approached the driveway, I noticed that everything looked wet; rain had heavily saturated the cardboard boxes, rendering them soggy and limp, and all the clothing items appeared damp to the touch. I realized then that nothing was put away after my departure—everything from the soaked blankets to the rain-filled teacups had been left to the mercy of the weather.
Just as I was about to reach the front door, I caught sight of something peering out of an upstairs window. Something that caused me to drop the journal as if it were on fire and run back to my car. Something that scared me so badly that I've been holed up inside my house for the past three days and haven't once dared to look outside for fear of what I'll see. Something that has forced me to do everything I can to stay awake—including writing this post—because I'm afraid of what will come into my home if I fall asleep. Something that made me wish I'd never gone back to that house or read a single word written in the journal.
Written by CertainShadows