They Gathered

old-mug

They Gathered

S.E. Eaton

 

 

Sam hid behind the shield of his mug, suckling the acrid muck with deliberation as he looked through the kitchen window.   There on the sidewalk stood a man, stiff with a fine suit and a notable matching posture. The sight wove a tight knit in Sam’s brow, because from what he could tell, the gentleman hadn’t moved from his spot for at least ten minutes.  Neither had his stoic gaze, which was fixed upon Sam’s house.

The gentleman lifted his arm. Sam froze and watched, his empty mug still pressed to his lips. The stranger reached into his coat, retracted and opened a gold-colored pocket watch.   Sam’s eyes darted back and forth as he surveyed this new development.  Cautious as intended prey, he lowered his mug from his lips and set it on the counter.

After checking the time, the man returned the watch to his pocket and his gaze to the house.   A leaden sensation took up residence in Sam’s gut.  It begged its host to remain in the kitchen, but Sam dragged the ominous feeling with him as he walked out the backdoor to the carport.   The January air bit his exposed arms.  He cupped his elbows and shivered as he walked across his side yard towards the man.

The man kept his eyes trained on the house as Sam stopped two feet in front of him. “Hello,” Sam said.  The man kept silent, and while his eyelids flickered in standard blinks, his face was void of even a ripple of recognition.

Sam arched his brow.  “Can I help you with something?”  The man checked his watch again.  Sam allowed himself a closer glimpse of the contraption.  It seemed odd to pair such an item with well-kempt garb.  Splotches of dull gray covered its brassy shell and a crack splintered its face.  “Waiting for something?” Sam asked. The man maintained his apparent vow of silence as he returned the watch to his pocket.

Yearning for the protection of ordinary company, Sam shifted his gaze to down the street.  He spotted someone else, blocks away, but couldn’t tell if the person was walking further away from or towards the house.  A child’s laugh pealed somewhere in the neighborhood.  A dog barked.  Another dog answered it.

Sam regarded the man again with a quick glance.  “…Didn’t think any buses came this way.”  He scratched his head and took a few steps back from the stranger.  “Well if you don’t mind, Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”  The man remained where he stood.

Sam followed the man’s line of vision.  Streaks of embedded dirt coated the house’s paneling. A starling emerged from the juniper bush his sister planted and hopped around on the frost-covered embankment.   Sam glanced again at the man in his periphery.  “Any particular reason you’re staring at my house?”  The man checked his watch again.

A scornful smirk crept onto Sam’s lips.  “Hmm…alright.”  He shook his head.  “Alright, Buddy, but I’m calling the cops.  If you’re not gone by the time I return to my house, I’m calling the cops.  Okay…? It’s….time to move along.”   Sam looked at the man’s eyes for any sign that he had heard him.  He caught a few more blinks, but their rhythm didn’t suggest such a notion.

Sam scowled and hastened back to his kitchen.  He locked the door behind him and clutching onto the edge of the counter, looked back through the window.  The man was still there.  Muttering a swear word, Sam shut the blinds and fished his phone out of the pocket of his sweatpants.  The pads of his sweaty thumbs left smudge marks on his screen as he dialed.

A saccharine female tone chimed through the receiver. “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

Sam poked a finger into the blinds and peered at the stranger as he spoke. “Yeah, uh, there’s a…man…?  …Standing outside my house…just…standing there, watching me, watching my house, I don’t know….I asked him to leave, but he won’t.  …Doesn’t say a word.  Keeps checking his watch, doesn’t move otherwise.”

“How long as the man been there, Sir?”

“Fifteen, twenty minutes, maybe.  Thought he might be waiting for a ride, or something? …There aren’t any bus stops on my street.  And like I said, he’s…staring at my house, facing my direction.  Won’t talk, won’t move.  Doesn’t really look like he’s waiting for a ride, I guess.  Just looks like I’ve got myself a stalker.” A nervous laugh took him by surprise as it spilled out of his throat.

“Does he have a weapon, Sir?”

“Uh….” Sam lowered his head and scrutinized the man again through the blinds.  “I don’t see a gun or anything, no. But he could be hiding one, I guess.”

“I’ll send a car your way, Sir.  He’s probably just a homeless man looking for a meal.”  Sam regarded the fine details of the stranger’s three-piece suit, his clean-shaven face, his erect stance.  “I don’t think he’s homeless.    Doesn’t look the part…looks more like a catalogue model.”

“Mhmm, I’m sure he’ll move along soon enough, Sir,” she said.  Sam wrinkled his nose, envisioning the dispatcher patting him on his head, as though he were a child reporting monsters under his bed.  “Is there anyone else in your house with you?” she asked.

“No,” Sam said.  He swallowed hard.  “Oh, uh, shoot, my, uh…sister…is coming over later.  I’ll…text her, tell her to stay home.”

“Exactly what I was thinking, Sir,” the dispatcher said.  “Just stay calm…deep breaths, okay?  An officer will be there before too long.  In the meantime, lock your doors and windows and don’t attempt any further interaction with the man, okay?  That’s important.  You don’t know what he wants or what he might be capable of.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. He looked outside as the man again checked his watch.

“Do you want me to stay on the line with you, Sir?”

“Uh, no,” Sam said.  “I’ll be fine, thanks.”  He pressed end, pulled up his phone contacts and peered through the blinds again.  The leaden feeling spread from his gut to his chest and poured like concrete into his extremities. His phone started to slip from his hand.   A second man, just as well-dressed, had joined the first.  He stationed himself next to his comrade and he, too, fixed his gaze at the house.  Sam worked moisture into his mouth and swallowed hard.  A few thudding heartbeats later, the second man checked his watch.

Taking large, determined strides, Sam locked the front door and all six lockable windows.   He pulled out his phone again and brought up a blank message field, addressed to his sister, Ashley.  He started to type, but paused.  No need to make her worry.  Worry would bring out the hero streak in his well-meaning little sister, and it could mean her life.

Can we reschedule?  Callie’s here, he typed.  A blaring silence gelled in the air.  Sam paced in the living room, waiting for her response.  His stomach swelled with nerves as his phone buzzed.   He read her reply.

Blow me off for your stalker ex-girlfriend? What is it this time?  Another make-believe pregnancy?  DON’T give her any money, Sam.  I’m serious.  I will kick your butt so hard.

Nothing like that, Sam replied.  She just wants to hang out.                 

Whatever.  Just… be careful, Sammy.

 Sam aimed a wary glance over his shoulder towards the kitchen before typing his response.  Yup.  

 He slid his phone back inside his pocket, crept back to the kitchen and looked through the window again.  The men now numbered five, all in suits, all staring at Sam’s house.  Two were dark brunettes and the rest were various hues of blond.  The rounded cut of the jawlines and shorter stature of two of them told Sam they were women, but all five had the same crew-cut.  At various intervals, they checked their watches.   But not a one of them regarded the others. A car rumbled by, and Sam watched, but the driver didn’t seem to notice the line of people gathered on the sidewalk.

 

Sam sank into a wobbly, punctured-cushion kitchen chair. Hours ticked by, and though Sam kept checking through the window, but saw no sign of the police.  “…Typical,” he muttered.  He took out his phone again, and dialed 9-1-1, but hesitated, his thumb hovering over the green CALL button.   He clicked the red button instead, several times for good measure, and unlocked the back door.

With quick, adrenaline filled-strides, he plowed through his yard towards the strangers.  A sixth man joined them as Sam confronted the first in line on the left.  “HEY!” he said, shoving his hands against the man’s chest.  The man teetered, but regained his stance.  He didn’t look at Sam but checked his watch again.  Sam pushed the man again. “…Who do you think you are?  What’s your business here?” He did a sweeping view of each of them, but none acknowledged his presence.   “What…what do you all want?  What are you waiting for…? Why do you keep checking your watches? What are you doing here?”  No one answered him.  Sam threw up his hands in exasperation and let them fall limp against his sides.   He positioned his body squarely in front of the man he had shoved.  The man’s brown eyes seemed to look right through Sam.  Sam balled his fists. His jaw twitched. “What do you WANT?”   The man checked his watch again.

Sam ran the tip of his tongue over his front teeth and backed up towards the house.  “The cops are on their way!”  He slammed his back door shut and with quaking hands, locked it again.

A knock on the front door lodged a lump in Sam’s throat.  His stomach clenched, he shuffled into the living room and pressed his eye up to the peep hole.  At the sight of his sister’s face on the other side, his heart gave a violent throb.  With her parked outside and with the thick hedge lining the front of his yard, she likely hadn’t seen the intruders.

“I know you’re in there, loser,” Ashley said.

Sam’s face crumpled as he leaned his forehead against the door frame.  His eyes popped open and he sighed.  “Go home, Ash. I’m—sick.”

“Open the door!” Ashley said.  With sour deliberation, Sam rolled away from the door and opened it.

“…Wow, liar, much?” Ashley barged into the house.  Her dramatic turn fanned her commanding air throughout the living room. She pointed at Sam.  “Callie’s car isn’t here. You know, if you wanted to be alone you should have just told me.” Her eyes lit up with a sassy gleam. “But you lied to your baby sister, so now I’m your new special best friend for the rest of the night!”  She poked a finger into his chest. “I’m ordering pizza and you don’t get any.”

Sam thrust his fingers along his scalp.  “Ash…there’s something going on.”

All mirth left his sister’s face.  “You killed Callie.”  Her lips twitched.

Sam sighed. “Listen to me for a minute. I didn’t want you to come over, because I’m not really sure what they want, but….” He scratched the back of his neck. “Well, truth is, if anyone can figure this out, it’s you.”

A slow arch lifted her brow.   “…Uh-huh.”

Sam gestured with a tilt of his head for her to follow him as he walked into the kitchen.  He peeked through the blinds.  His heart sank.  “They’re still there.  Even more, now.”   With a lazy wave, he gestured to the window.

Ashley gave a wrinkled glance to her brother.  Sam’s eyes widened as he nodded to the window again.  Ashley lifted up the plastic band and looked outside.  “…Whoa.”

“Yeah,” Sam said.  “…But whoa doesn’t freaking cover it, Ash.”

Ashley lifted the blind band higher. “How long they been there?”

“Five hours,” Sam said.  “I called the cops, no one showed.  I shoved them, demanded to know what they want…nothing.  They won’t move, won’t say anything.”

“That one just checked his watch,” Ashley said.

Sam nodded.  “That’s the only thing they do. Check those damn watches ever so often…no rhyme or reason behind it, far as I can tell.”

The blinds whirred and flew upwards as Ashley tugged their string.  She pounded on the window.  “HEY!”

Sam looked on over her shoulder.  The strangers remained unperturbed. “See?” Sam said.  “Nothing.  No reaction. No response.”

Ashley narrowed her eyes.  “Get me a pencil and piece of paper.”

“For what?” Sam asked in a frown.  He heaved a sigh and got into a drawer behind him, pulling out a dull pencil and an unopened bill.

“You said they’ve been at it for five hours?” Ashley asked, taking the materials from him.

Sam nodded. “Give or take a few minutes.”

“How often do they check their watches?” Ashley asked.

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know….a lot.”

The chair groaned as Ashley plopped down at the table.  She checked her phone.  “So…three, about…is when you first noticed them?”

Sam nodded.  Ashley scribbled on the envelope and got to her feet.  “Here,” Ashley said, thrusting the paper and pencil into Sam’s hands.   She had written the time at the top, along with the words Sam’s New Friends. “Watch them,” she said.  “Every time they check their watch, write down the time they checked, and a brief description of which one did the checking.”  She stood and turned the backdoor’s knob.

“You’re going out there?” Sam asked, tossing the envelope and pencil to the table. “I tried that already, nothing fazes them.”

Ashley smiled.  “They haven’t met me, yet, Sammy.”

Sam’s stomach tightened.  “Yeah, just, uh…be careful, Ash.”   She offered him a curtsy and shut the door behind her.

Sam grabbed the pencil and notepad and hoisted himself up onto the brim of the kitchen sink. There were thirteen of them now.  The third from the right checked his watch as Ashley appeared in Sam’s periphery.  Sam checked his phone.  8:23. He jotted down the time and identity.    Ashley put her hand on her hips and faced the man in the middle.    The man second from the left checked his watch.  8:24.   Sam made the note.

Ashley moved on from the man in the center, taking two paces to the left to stare at one of his blond counterparts.  The one next in line to the blond in front of Ashley checked his watch.  8:26.   He frowned, watching as Ashley reached out and patted the man’s sleeve.   Inexplicably, she nodded.  Dread climbed up Sam’s throat as he realized she was looking at the man’s watch.   He held it out for her to see, though his gaze was still fixed on the house.

Sam felt a trickle of relief as Ashley turned and walked back towards the house.  He ignored the sensation to help her in the last few feet with a forceful shove.  She slipped back into the kitchen, her eyes glistening and her smile compliant.  She sat down at the table.

Sam stared at her. “Well…?”

Ashley shrugged.   “I think they’re just waiting.”

For what…?” Sam asked, a crease in his brow as he slid into the seat next to his sister.

Ashley sighed and pointed at the envelope.  “Keep recording the times, Sam, okay?”  She sent a cautious glance towards the window.

“Okay…what happened out there?” Sam asked.  “Did they say anything to you?  Why did look at his watch like that?  Was he…showing it to you?”

“Look, I’m…” Ashley said, scratching her head.  “I’m gonna take off, Sam.”  The complete lack of Ashley on her face scared Sam, almost more than did the strangers outside.

“What do you mean?” Sam asked.  The chair scraped on the floor as Ashley got to her feet.  “Ash, you can’t leave…you have to help me figure this out…please, don’t leave. You can’t…!”  Lacking her Ashley ambled towards the front door.   Sam followed her.

Ashley put her hand on the knob, but paused.  Turning, she smiled up at Sam.  She pressed her cold palm against his cheek. A thick veneer of elsewhere clung to her eyes.

Sam darted in front of her, blocking her exit, but with an unexpected strength, she shoved him to the ground.  Sam scrambled back to his feet.  “Ashley!”  His sister sprinted towards her car.

The door shut itself with an angry snap. Sam yanked on it, but it wouldn’t budge.  A slew of swear words tumbled from his panicked lips.   He jogged to the backdoor.  The knob turned but the door remained lodged into its frame.

“God, help me….!”  Numb, Sam looked through the window again.    There were at least fifty now, the cue layered three or four lines thick.   A chirp of a siren sounded.   Sam took in a shaky breath and licked his lips as a cop car came to a stop outside.  Even as two officers emerged from the car, the strangers kept their stances.  The cops approached the man at the end of the cue.  One removed his gun from its holster.  Sam jutted his head forward, his eyes wide as the officer held out his hand, his gun resting on his open palm.   A hoarse whisper escaped Sam’s lips.  “No…”  The stranger took the gun and slid it inside his coat.

Sam’s eyes swiveled to the other officer.  She tipped her hat to the intruder and surrendered her gun to the next man in line. As he pocketed it, the officer looked over her shoulder.  Sam’s muscles stiffened as the officer trained her eyes on him.  In jerky motions, she tipped her head towards her shoulder as a slow smile blossomed on her lips.  The vision of it wrapped itself like tentacles around Sam’s mind, sucking the moisture from his mouth.    His pulse thrummed as he stared while the officers fell in line with the strangers.  His phone buzzed with life on the counter, making him jump and suck in a sharp breath.  With a shaking hand, he checked the message, sender Unknown.

Have another cup of coffee, Sam, the message read.  It’ll be a while. 

Sam gave a sidelong glance to the strangers outside and took large strides through the dining room and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him with a soft click.  Night cloaked his numb shoulders.  Sleep would not come easily.  He grabbed a bottle of cough syrup from his nightstand, ingested several mouthfuls, and pulled the blankets over his head.

It was still dark when Sam woke.  Groggy from the cough syrup, he stumbled into the kitchen.  Filled with dread, he glanced out the window.   His gut flew up into his throat and his eyes danced back and forth. Blinking several times, he leaned into the window and craned his neck to get a closer view.  The men were gone.

The phone rang. Sam’s brow shot upwards.  Unknown number, his phone read.   He felt a prickle on the back of his neck as he cleared his throat.  “…Hello?”

Heavy breathing ebbed and flowed on the other end and mingled with the crackle of static.  Sam scowled and looked out the window again.  The street was still void of the strangers.  “Who is this?” Sam asked.

More static sounded, making it difficult for Sam to identify the owner of the sharp, pain-ridden inhale that he heard next.   “…Ash?  Ashley?”    Sam griped the edge of the counter.  Ferocity twisted his features as he pressed the phone closer against his face.  “Where is my sister?” An unintelligible whisper drifted through the earpiece.  Pressure build behind Sam’s panicked eyes.  “…Ash?”

The static cleared. A man spoke. “Check your watch, Sam,” he said. “…It’s time.”

 

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