The Loner and the Startled Girl by Douglas Kolacki

Retreating into his apartment, David thought: She looked at me like I was Jack the Ripper with knife raised.

He did not know when she had moved into the building, the girl with that delightful mane of red ringlets. Or if she was already living there two years ago, when he himself moved in. He only knew it was evening, and he had left his apartment to check the mail. She stepped out of her own at that same moment, apartment one nearest the front entrance. His was number five, three doors down the hall.

First mistake: Failing to notice her not seeing him. She opened the front door, her back towards David. The door, its lower half wood and upper half glass, led into a closet-sized vestibule where the mailboxes were lined up, nailed to one wall. A second door led outside.

Second mistake: maintaining his long-legged stride up the hall when he could see she had stopped in the vestibule, checking her mail also, inserting a key into her box. And then his third goof, not easing the door open, but yanking it wide as he always did.

Now, enclosed again in his shoebox apartment, he slouched in his easy chair, stunned. The girl had snapped her head around and fixed him with that stare. Before he could say anything, she’d fled. It reminded David of a mouse he’d once caught in a humane trap and released in a field across the street, the creature’s mad, frantic scramble when he’d lowered the trap to the grass and lifted its door, vanishing in an instant into the tall grass.

Like I was Jack the Ripper. Or the bogeyman. Or the creepy fellow who keeps to himself, doesn’t have any friends, and guess what! Turns out he has bodies buried in his cellar. Of course. Of course.

His maple wood acoustic guitar waited on its stand in the corner. It had a black strap printed with white outlines of angels. The guitar had become the companion he more or less embraced as he withdrew over the years from his fellow man. It would never bully him, or accuse him of being too quiet, or freak out (whatever his mistakes). His goal each week was to finish a new song by Saturday. Maybe he should write a song about this little incident. He could title it “Dear Diary:”.

Dear Diary / I’m sad today / I frightened a pretty girl away…

He pursed his lips. Eyes still on his guitar, he did not really see it, his mind traveling elsewhere. The red-haired girl and all his neighbors—how many of them had he actually met? There was a guy who’d locked himself out and tapped on David’s window, last year sometime? And David let him in. Hadn’t seen the fellow since.

And his co-workers at his job, where he keyed tax returns into the state’s system. He saw them coming and going, but never talked except for greetings and the occasional remark about the weather. During breaks, he remained at his cubicle, reading whatever novel he had borrowed from the library or trolling the internet for new song ideas–

He jerked upright in his chair.

Something from last month returned now to mind. He even recalled the day: it was his fifty-fifth birthday, and his co-workers had brought him a cake and a card with all their signatures. Two of the older ladies got into a conversation, not knowing David overheard. It made enough of an impression on him to become that week’s song—how did it go?

A man came home on Friday

and passed away that night

Of what? A stroke? It doesn’t matter. What matters is

His neighbors came and went all weekend

never knowing a corpse sat among them

until his carcass started to stink–

Before David knew it, he was standing. He knew what to do. It was time to reconnect with his neighbors, with humanity. Over at the square, just a ten-minute walk away, was a French restaurant. He would sit at the bar (it did have a bar, right?) and meet at least one new person. Not everyone, just one new person, female or male, tonight. It wouldn’t matter. He’d introduce himself—when was the last time he’d introduced himself to someone? Talk about whatever. Get to know the person. And go from there. Return the next night, and then, maybe church on Sunday.

Yes. He stirred with a new excitement, a feeling of lightness, as if his weight had dropped away—

Out in the hall, he jolted. There she was again! Coming in from the outside now, back in the vestibule. Back from her errand—how much time had passed? He wasn’t sure; his thoughts seemed blurry, as if he had awakened from a deep slumber and his dream was still clearing away. He would—gently—call out to her, apologize. Didn’t mean to scare you, dear. I was startled, too.

The inner door opened, and she emerged into the hall. The two made eye contact.

Her eyes sprang wide like before. But this time, her face blanched, stark white contrasting her scarlet curls, and she let out a shriek loud enough for the whole three-story building to hear.

He recoiled. “No, no!” He reached out his hands. “It’s okay—” But she was no longer there.

David stood rigid in the dim hallway, the apartment doors silent sentinels on either side, his pulse racing as he tried to process what had happened.

After a while—it seemed like it, at least—he realized he had left his door open. Turning, he saw into his apartment and registered what was there. Saw the lanky, balding man slumped in the armchair.

He turned to ice as the realization sank in. No, he was not going out. Not to any club or church or anywhere else, anywhere people could be found, unless he wanted to frighten them away over and over again.

In the hallway, all was quiet, like always.


About the Author

Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then he has placed fiction in such publications as Weird Tales, Liquid Imagination Online and The Fifth Dimension. He currently haunts Providence, Rhode Island.


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