Flutter, Savanah Tebeau-Sherry
“The first time I saw the deceased, he was sitting on a greasy bench at the bus station.
I’d been aware of him from the moment I’d walked into that dingy little place. It was like a sixth sense had woken up within me; I suppose every woman must have that sense to some degree. Most times it’s a groggy, sullen little creature, raising its head to sniff the air when it senses a trickle of danger — a man’s touch lingers on the small of my back for a moment too long, or a group of muscled twenty-somethings is laughing a bit too drunkenly on the street corner. But for some reason, that quiet man on the bus station bench fully roused it, ears pricked and set on a swivel.
The fear only began in earnest when I walked over to the trash bin to toss my granola bar wrapper. Before that moment, I’d been sitting on the slanted yellow bar that acted as a bench — god, the lengths the city will go to in order to ensure there aren’t any comfortable benches for the homeless to sleep on — staring off into space. I’d been thinking about the museum I’d just tried to enter: the website had said that it would be open until 9 pm, but when I’d arrived at 8, the man at the counter told me with a smile that I couldn’t come in to look at the art. “Sorry, but we can’t let anybody in this late. No, not even for a quick look. Are you in town for long?”
I wasn’t, and that was my last chance to see that particular museum. It has this classical sculpture exhibit I’d been eyeing online for years. But what’s meant to be will be, I thought, digging my hands in my coat pockets. My fingertips brushed something crinkled and paper-thin — a granola bar wrapper from earlier that day. Crossing over to the trash bin with the wrapper in my hand, I crushed my disappointment along with the foil in my palm.
As I passed in front of the man, his head snapped up. The sudden motion attracted my eyes, and I met his gaze for a split second — just a second — but it was more than enough. Ice formed on my flesh; I could feel the skin on the back of my neck and forearms rise like the hackles of a cornered animal.
His eyes were flat.
They did not reflect light — not in the slightest. Maybe it was the way his head was tilted, or maybe it was some failing of the dank, sickly bus station lamps. But — no. It was no trick of the light. There was no glint in his eyes, no moisture, no sparkle of kindness, warmth, or even — hell — dislike. There was only a simple, curtained void, and something else, something unexpected.
It was the latching look of a predatory animal spotting its next meal.
I whipped my head forward, trying to ignore the trembling in my hands.
He didn’t take his eyes off of me as I walked back to the other side of the bus station, sat against the yellow bar-bench, and took my phone out of my coat pocket to check the time. A quarter till ten. Only five minutes until my bus would appear and whisk me away.
A dust-caked television flickered blearily from a corner near the station door. I tried to listen to the news to distract myself, but it was all bad news, as usual — an urgent reel of criminal mugshots and grainy security camera footage. It did nothing to ease my nerves. The odor of gasoline and wet pavement seemed to seep into my skin as I waited.
One minute until the scheduled bus arrival, and the man with the button-flat eyes was still watching me. His gaze generated tiny pricks of heat that were growing more and more scalding by the second. He seemed to be memorizing me, perhaps charting my movements internally, waiting.
I jumped at the sound of gravel crunching, but it was only tires on the parking area beyond the numbered doors. The bus! I couldn’t suppress a faint moan of relief as the headlights of the 9:50 bus flitted over me.
The glass door folded open and I could’ve skipped inside. Instead, with a degree of willpower, I walked steadily up to the bus driver and dug in my coat pocket for change.
“That’ll be two-fifty,” he said without looking at me.
I poured the coins into his outstretched palm and he passed me a ticket, then I headed straight for the back of the bus. I sighed as I collapsed into the window seat on the right side. I leaned my forehead against the cool glass, heedless of the grime.
“That’ll be two-fifty,” the bus driver intoned from the front of the bus.
I stiffened. There was only one other person in the station.
I didn’t want to look up, but I knew that eventually I would have to. Reluctantly, I lifted my eyes without moving my head, peering through a veil of hair. The streak of fading purple dye tinged my vision, but there he was all the same, shuffling his way down the aisle toward my, beetle eyes fixed on the back row.
My pulse quickened. I’d been followed home before, but they had always been sloppy men, smelling of sweet-sour whiskey, grinning goofy-drunk and unwound, their legs moving clumsily like marionettes with their strings tangled. “Hey baby, hey sexy, sweetheart, honey, Why ya walkin so fast? Where ya headed? Ya speak english baby?” You know. But this was different. This was the slow, silent circling of a predator.
The man sat down in the seat across from me, in the row directly to my left.
That word, “predator,” sent a memory surging through me, unbidden and long-forgotten: my mother pointing at a frog in a glass enclosure. We were at the zoo, standing in the hot, cloying air of the reptile house. I was six, I think.
“This is one of the most dangerous animals here, kid,” my mom said, brushing the glass with a small, round-nailed finger.
“Yuh-huh,” She insisted, crouching to get a better look, “A poison dart frog. It may look small, but it’s deadly as h… as heck.”
I giggled at my mother’s slip of the tongue; Mom was always doing that. She scooped me up with both arms, lifting me so I could be nose-to-nose with the glass. Mom always smelled like a fading morning, shampoo and coffee.
It was a tiny frog, rather sweet-looking with its round eyes and splayed, toy-like toes. It’s only extraordinary quality was its color. It was the most vivid purple I had ever seen in my life, peppered with black spots. It didn’t look real.
“See that color? That’s a big ol’ warning flag to predators — anybody that might want to eat him,” Mom gazed fondly at the little frog. Mom always knew everything there was to know about animals.
“What’s he warning em about?” I asked, eyeing the reptile with newfound curiosity.
“That he’s the most poisonous animal around! Touch him, even just a little, and BAM!” — Mom lunged suddenly for my sides, tickling as I squealed in delighted protest — “You’re done for!”
I swatted playfully at her with the fabric belt around my waist — I was still wearing my white-belt karate uniform from my class earlier that afternoon. Once the giggling ceased, Mom moved on to look at the snakes, leaving me to ponder the frog in its tank. We looked at each other, me with a mildly puzzled expression, and the frog with the blank peacefulness of a creature accustomed to the constant press of children’s faces on his enclosure. A creature that would never harm anyone. Not an animal with deadly poison secreting from every pore. Its color, however, was an alarm bell, a warning flag.
Something about the frog bothered me. But even as an adult, hunched in the back of a bus trying to make myself smaller, I couldn’t remember what it was.
Now is not the time for reminiscing, I reminded myself. How could I get the driver’s attention without arousing the man’s suspicion? I thought of pressing the red button on the seat in front of me and talking to the driver at the next stop. But then … what would I say? That the man beside me was following me, yes, but what evidence did I have to prove it? What if he was just getting on the same bus? He’d been sitting at the opposite end of the station, so it was unlikely. But still, he hadn’t done anything illegal or even technically threatening yet. What could I say? That his eyes were too flat? Oh, officer, arrest him! His eyes aren’t interacting properly with the lights! A thousand men were suddenly sitting in the driver’s compartment, all of them shaking their heads. Women and their accusations these days, they all said. So quick to point fingers.
I pulled out my phone. No bars. I opened the texting app and typed a small message — “Hello!” — to my best friend, Liz. For a moment my phone seemed to think about it, and then it decided: Not delivered. A red exclamation point. With a small sigh, I typed again: “Hey, I’m on a bus on my way back to the house right now, and there’s a man here who I think might be following me. Probably not, but just letting u know in case. If I don’t call in 20, call someone.” Sent.
Not delivered. (!)
I was being silly anyway, I thought; it was for the best. Next time the bus passed someplace with Wifi, the message would be sent, just to ease my ridiculous worries. For now, I would be fine. In less than ten minutes I would be home, my little terrier, Milk, prancing with excitement at the front door.
After a minute, I became dimly aware that the man had a runny nose. Every twenty or so seconds, he gave a loud sniff, never raising a hand to wipe his face but continuing to inhale noisily. It grated on my already raw nerves.
Why was I so afraid? He was just a quiet, sniffly man. An incredibly nondescript one, at that — I realized with a jolt that besides his strange eyes, I hadn’t registered anything about his physical appearance. He was white, about six foot, and … that’s all. I tried to peek at his clothes out of the corner of my eye, but could only make out a dark wash pair of jeans.
Oh, what the hell. There was nothing to worry about anyway. Here I was, all wound up, when he was just another man trying to get home on a Tuesday night. I imagined what I’d say to Liz when I saw her the next day at lunch: “Sorry about that weird message; turns out I’m as high-strung as my dad. Lemme tell you a story…” We’d laugh, she’d joke about my father, and I’d watch the ice cubes in my drink bounce as the bartender poured me another. I had a long night, I’d chuckle. But I guess that’s not exactly how it went. Do you think it’s better this way? My mom always said that everything that’s meant to be, is. It’s a comforting thought, isn’t it? Do you think that’s the case? What? — Right. The bus.
My neighborhood was the next stop and I pushed the red button, already feeling lighter. The brakes whined as the bus ground to a halt, and I was up and stumbling toward the door before it had stopped completely. I gave the bus driver a little wave as I descended the steps:
“Have a good night.”
“‘Night,” he returned, eyes on the road ahead.
The sidewalks were silent at this hour, and I found myself enjoying the quiet as I set off toward home, the whispering brush of my sneakers on the pavement the only sound. Until —
Another pair of feet hit the sidewalk some twenty feet behind me.
The chances of him living on the same quiet residential street were slim to none. I knew there were only three other houses on it besides my own, and I knew the people who lived in them. A dim, panicky portion of my mind threw out the desperate idea that perhaps he was a family member coming to visit one of my neighbors, but the creature in my stomach knew that this wasn’t true. It was bristling, retreating against my spine with its muscles taut.
I began to walk more quickly, digging into my pocket. My right hand still clutched my phone, but I knew that without a signal I wouldn’t be able to call 911. I’d have to make it home first. Just make it down the street.
My left hand found my keys, and I wrapped them in my fist with the longest piece of metal, the key to the house, jutting from the flesh between my pointer and middle fingers.
The man behind me sniffed.
About one hundred yards away, I could see my home, a little brick house with a wash of ivy creeping across its surface. The kitchen windows were dark, but the window to my living room emitted a faint glow. I’d left a lamp on for my dog, who loved to bask on the couch in its yellow warmth while the television played. I could see the pale light of the TV dancing on the windowpane, reflecting a snippet of some fast-paced, blue-washed channel — the news, probably.
I clutched my keys hard enough to send sparks of pain shooting through my fingers. Fifty yards. If he had been heading for a neighbor’s house, he would have turned by now. No, there was absolutely no mistaking his intentions now.
That’s when he started whistling.
A slow, high-pitched tune. It was ironically cheerful, but the jauntiness of the notes was twisted by the unhurried, almost lazy pace.
I broke into a run, terrified that I’d trip, fall and end the chase right there. Behind me the whistling continued, deliberate and far, far too close.
I skidded to a halt in front of the front door, my sweaty right hand fumbling as I dialed 9-1-1, my left trembling violently as I tried to insert the key in the lock. The key stuck halfway in — it was prone to jamming.
“Fuck, fuck fuck fuck…”
I wrenched the key free, gasping.
Ten feet behind me, the whistling stopped.
Facing the door, I froze, keys in hand. Slowly, I turned around to face the man with the flat eyes.
There he was, standing on the sidewalk in front of my concrete porch steps. The streetlamps were too distant to illuminate him, but the gleam from the television in my living room rippled cooly over his features as if he were standing at the edge of a pool. I could even hear the television set faintly, some harried reporter repeating a criminal watch warning.
“If you have any information on this man, please call the following number…”
He was smiling, but it didn’t reach his eyes. His left hand was buried in his jacket pocket, and I could see that his fingers were curled around an object. For a beat, he stood and watched, savoring me. He began to walk toward me, drawing the small hunting knife from his pocket.
His smile faltered as I took a step forward to meet him. He’d been so predictable.
Before he could shift his weight, I buried my key in one of those blank button eyes.
As his blood spouted upward like the contents of a burst pipe, I thought about my mother. I used to think she knew everything about animals. About instincts and predators, wilderness and defense. But none of that knowledge could defend her when it came to humans — some creatures you just can’t predict. On a Sunday, on her way home from the grocery store, a man had grabbed her. Her body was found the following week. I didn’t know why, or who. Only that she’s gone now. Things like that happen all the time nowadays. Crazy, isn’t it?
The man’s screams reverberated down the sidewalk, shrill and gargled in the still night. His eyeball reflected the street lights now, a glistening tangle of nerves lying on the pavement like an uprooted bulb.
His left arm swung hysterically at me with the hunting knife, but I swatted it away, pulling his arm across my leg smoothly. His shrieks grew louder and rawer, but they didn’t mask the thick snap of his arm breaking, or the crunch of his elbow giving way.
The hand that had previously held the knife was quickly ground beneath my foot, the fingers twisting and popping. The human body is easy to break, in the end. Even a strong man twice your size can be crushed like a finger joint. You just have to learn how. You have to have the element of surprise. Luckily, I had it. And I used it in self-defense.
As I slit the man’s throat open with his hunting knife, I remembered what it was about the poison dart frogs that had bothered me. It was their colors; so vivid, flashy enough to alarm their potential attackers, to tell them not to bother attacking. “Why warn your enemy,” I thought, “when you can make sure they never attack again?”
Yes. I did kill him. But you understand, it was self-defense, as well as to save others. Wouldn’t you have done the same?
When I was finished, I sat on my front steps, still clutching the knife, and listened as the sirens drew closer and closer. Inside the house, my dog was yapping insistently at the door, but I didn’t want him to get lost outside amidst the chaos of the fast approaching police cars and ambulances. He would understand.
While I waited, I listened to the television set through my window. It continued to flick through its reel of nightly news, always repeating that alert had been popping up periodically on television for the past week.
“This man has killed at least three women, and raped four…”
Isn’t it insane that people like that are allowed to just roam around? I mean, the police do try to catch them, but not hard enough. People are dying. People like my mother.
The reporter added that the criminal was still at large in the area, and seemed to be preying on women mostly in parking lots, bus stops, and train stations.
“So don’t go to these places alone unless you’re looking for trouble, alright ladies?” the reporter advised.
I tossed the knife into the grass and waited.
This statement attached is true and correct to the best knowledge and belief of the undersigned. Under penalties of perjury, I declare that to the best of my knowledge and belief, the statements contained in this Affidavit are true and correct.
Signature of the Witness(es)
About the Author
Natalie Orga · Gettysburg College
Natalie Orga is a senior at Gettysburg College who studies English, Creative writing, and Studio Art. She hopes to someday become a published novelist specializing in horror, dystopia, historical fiction, and science fiction. This piece first appeared in The Mercury. To see more of her work, her author’s website is writers.work/natalieorga.
About the Artist
Savanah Tebeau-Sherry · University of Central Arkansas
Savanah Tebeau-Sherry is a graduating Studio Art major at the University of Vermont. She has been passionate about art all her life and over the years have persisted to explore as many aspects of the subject as she could through both traditional and digital media. She particularly enjoys exploring the human figure and still lifes in drawing, painting, and photography. This piece first appeared in The Gist.