At first the beast was an idea. The sound of crashing waves put it in a man’s mind, or a shape drawn by the wind in the sand. I don’t know where or when that was. I only know that by the time it reached us it had grown into a whisper.
Laura came home late that day. Old Mrs. Albarran from downstairs was saying goodnight to Jimmy in the hallway, but he was angry with her for some silly reason–some food she wouldn’t let him eat for lunch or some toy she wouldn’t let him play with. He was keeping silent, waiting for her to coax him into forgiveness. I shouted at him to stop it from the living room, barely loud enough to sound serious, and just then the front door opened. Laura had a strange smile on her face, like the involuntary dumb smile of an exhausted runner. She hugged Jimmy and waved at me, and then she bent down to Mrs. Albarran’s ear, and I could see her lips moving, and the old woman’s face struggling to remain calm.
Jimmy gave in and said goodnight. Mrs. Albarran left. We sat down for dinner. Laura talked to Jimmy about school, to me about work, about the neighbors, about her parents–everything except the thing which she had whispered to Mrs. Albarran. I didn’t ask.
I would have forgotten about the whisper if two days later I hadn’t seen another neighbor, Mrs. Combs, bent over her balcony railing, and Mrs. Albarran bent over to her ear, lips moving. It spread down to Mr. Hendricks on the first floor and from there to the neighboring buildings. A month later neighbors who had despised each other days earlier were exchanging warm-eyed looks, as though they were united by a quiet and secret friendship, and you could see that the beast was among us.
It grew. It spread to the teachers at Jimmy’s school, to the grocers and the cigarette vendors on the street. And you could see that from our town it spread further, into the larger cities, for the men and the women on TV, they too shared between themselves that warm-eyed look. Politicians debated on the news, couples argued on the daytime talk shows, but they all had that look in their eyes–their words were a charade. They were all on the same side.
Laura and I had our anniversary. I thought she would bring up marriage again like last year–Jimmy needs a father, we’re living like married people anyway–but there was none of it. She seemed content. We had guests over. They smiled, patted me on the back, kissed Laura on the cheek, ruffled Jimmy’s hair, and then ignored him until he went to bed; but all throughout this vaguely pleasant commotion their eyes shone with the mark. It was something between the position of their eyelids and the way the light reflected on their irises–some presence, some feeling, something where it shouldn’t be, a familiar room with one misplaced object you can’t quite put your finger on.
It spread to my office building. The nameless man in the cubicle next to mine looked at our boss as though they’d gone to school together; suddenly, everyone knew the janitor.
But no one spoke the beast in my ear, and there were a handful of others who remained the same as before, even as the beast grew louder, from a whisper to a murmur to a low, nearly audible voice. I don’t know why that was. Sometimes late at night, when the roaring fades, I like to imagine that we were special, that it hated us, even then. It’s only pride talking, but just as well. It keeps me going, the thought that somehow I might outlive the beast.
One time a man approached me at the grocery store. He was about fifty, tan, wearing expensive shoes. He looked at me like a scared child. He hesitated. He asked, have you noticed? I said I had. He was quiet after that. What could he say–my wife doesn’t shout at the maid anymore? When my sons argue I don’t believe them? We went our separate ways.
Sometimes there were others. We’d share our own secret looks, and I’d go home to Laura and Jimmy and try to pretend I’d dreamed the whole thing up–that this invisible revolution had never happened, that there were no marked and unmarked eyes, no secret glances on the street, no scared man in expensive shoes. Then Jimmy changed and pretending became harder.
Months passed. One afternoon we were on the street, walking among the crowd. I held Laura’s hand. I asked Jimmy for a bite of his ice cream. I pretended they were the same. The sky that day was bluer than it had ever been before, or maybe I just remember it that way, and I lifted my head and looked up. When I looked back down the crowd had shifted. A scattered few remained standing around me, eyes unmarked, and the rest, Laura and Jimmy with them, had gathered together at some distance. I didn’t know whether they were looking at us or at the empty street sprawling behind our backs, but I could see the beast swimming in the sea of their eyes, coming closer and closer.
—Louis Rakovich writes sometimes-fantastical literary fiction. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Bartleby Snopes, Criminal Element, and Zetetic, where his story The Visitors was published in April 2015. He’s inspired by authors such as Truman Capote, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Edgar Poe, and filmmakers such as David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky. He grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and currently lives in NYC, where he’s working on his first novel–a psychological thriller with theological undertones. You can find more stories by him at www.louisrakovich.com, or follow him on Twitter at @LouisRakovich.