When Fear Sets In • Empty Mirror

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I decided not to attend my supervisor’s going away party held in the hallway right outside our office. Outside the window, however, I noticed that the clouds in the sky sagged: each thick, depressive, and full of a storm’s brewing ambiguity. At my desk, I busied myself between the construction of a portfolio and tending to the office’s phone alone, all while partaking in small talk with the influx of guests who wandered in in search of a trash can. I ignored the cackles of laughter and the steady hum of conversation. My supervisor convinced me to grab a plate of chips and dip, but I snuck back to my computer once another guest distracted him with a second-too-long hug that radiated awkwardness. Seconds after I settled in behind my Mac, another guest—one whom I didn’t recognize—entered the office and approached my desk. Unlike the others, he wasn’t looking for a trash can.

“Hi,” he said, his eyes set on me like a trap. “I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

∘ ∘ ∘

Weeks before my supervisor’s farewell party, one of my old high school classmates posted a selfie of herself and her best friend, Jared, along with a lengthy description on Snapchat. I was used to seeing Jared make frequent appearances on my friend’s social media pages. Often, she posted pictures of herself and Jared at a beach vacation in Cabo, at music festivals and concerts, or out for mimosas and brunch on a cloudless mid-morning. To me, Jared had skin the color of sandcastles and kind eyes that reminded me of Texas’ clear, moonlit skies. Usually his dark hair was covered with backwards caps, his face shielded by a pair of glossy aviators.

This time, my old high school friend posted something different. On the post, I noticed “Missing” in bold letters at the top of a digital flyer made by our local police department. The flyer included a picture of Jared and a physical description. Below was information about his last whereabouts: his place of employment, a place called Bowl & Barrel. According to the report’s information, Jared’s family and friends hadn’t heard from him in three days. I blinked as if the words on the image would change, perhaps a misunderstanding, and read something like: “Found, safe and unscathed” right before my eyes; however, the words, the images, the emergency missing person’s phone number never changed. I stared at the digital flyer, blank-faced and frozen in my bedroom’s darkness, unable to move under the weight of my own terror.

Once my brain processed the information about Jared, surging waves of nausea overcame me. On the other hand, who was I to feel this way about someone I’d never met? Someone whom I’d perhaps, maybe once, only crossed paths with a handful of times within the last few years? My self-buoyancy deteriorated, the organs inside me heavy like weights. Where could Jared be? What could I do to help? My former high school classmate, Jared’s best friend, said I could share the image. That second, I reposted the flyer on every social platform. My fingers hoovered over the dimmed screen of my phone until I dozed off to an impermeable land of dreams.

∘ ∘ ∘

This visitor introduced himself to me as Al, a long-time employee from another department two floors down. This burly man, heavy in the midsection and perhaps in his late thirties, leaned against my wooden, two-tiered desk. He had a rectangular-shaped body with no defined waistline. That day, he wore an ugly salmon-colored shirt that didn’t compliment his deeper olive skin tone. Al stared at me as if I was a preserved artifact in a glass case, taking me in from every angle like some sort of exotic specimen in a museum. Apprehension set in as he made his way closer to my desk, inch by inch. The closer he got, the louder my internal alarm blared like a siren. Goosebumps overtook the surface of my skin. Of course, I tried to make myself look as busy as possible to ward off any kind of non-work-related conversations.

At first, despite the frequent visits, I was polite to Al. I rolled my eyes and used the “Is there anything else I can help you with?” tone in my voice whenever he wandered into our office and shared personal information about himself that I never cared to know; like, for example, that Al was in the process of pursuing an associate’s degree in computer science. I asked myself: Doesn’t this dude have anything else to do with his time? If I sounded irritated with his presence, he’d get the hint, right? At times I wished the phrase “Piss off” were stamped permanently on my forehead.

Al’s body language during his interactions with me made the air feel thick, as if it were filled with smoke. For some reason Al looked at my mouth when I talked. His mild eyes ignited and wandered about, first to scan my computer screen and then to the number of open Business Relationships scattered beneath my monitor like tiny portals he wanted to drive straight into my soul. Part of me wished I minimized the web pages I opened. Al leaned in and act interested, his body close to mine, until I thought of some last-minute excuse to escape the small office I was bound to for four days out of the week. In those instances, I often made my way to the mail room for the second, third, or fourth time that day. Other times I’d make the trek to another building for no apparent reason at all.

After the weeks that followed my supervisor’s farewell party, Al continued to frequent my office more and more. A few times a day he made the journey from his department to use the printer in our office. I tolerated Al’s friendliness until a queasy feeling burned at the bottom of my stomach when he stood behind my chair. Most of the time, Al hoovered into a permanent position next to or behind my seat to snoop: body bent in half, his gut at my eye-level, stretched out just enough to scour my to-do list or pry around in my projects. The skin on my arms and neck prickled like each millimeter of me was covered in ice; however, each time after Al departed, my insides shuddered at the trace of cologne that lingered in the room long after he’d left.

In the ladies’ restroom stall, I tried to calm uneasy thoughts and shove them down to some unknown space located in the pit of my diaphragm. The women’s restroom was the coldest in our building, but also on Al’s floor. First, I’d stare at my reflection in the mirror and examine my dark hair, freckles, and rounded nose. Then, in the musky restroom, my body took its normal position: back against the wall, feet flat on the floor, head tilted to study the ceiling.

He’s just another friendly employee, I thought. That’s all, I said to myself. He meant no harm. Next time I promised that I’d set him straight—that I’d say something, do something—before Al went home for the day.

∘ ∘ ∘

Jared went missing one night after his shift at Bowl & Barrel. A few days later, firefighters uncovered a vacant apartment that contained a hellish scene: a heated, crimson nightmare inhabited with nothing but revengeful flames. Investigators found Jared’s body at the same complex where police located his abandoned frost blue sedan, his body and facial features unrecognizable. An article reported that the license plate on Jared’s missing vehicle was altered and the windows were covered with paper. From the information provided, I realized Jared drove the same model and make of car as I did, yet I imagined he fought his attacker and still managed to dial 9-1-1 with weak fingers.

Law enforcement investigated the scene, unbeknownst that their suspected murderer lived in the apartment just above the makeshift death chamber. More information released about Jared’s death and his killer stung me with the force of a million pins and needles. Exasperated, I avoided the local news for days and buried myself in work, in anything that could distract me from the wicked world I often tried to ignore. My brain couldn’t wrap itself around the idea that someone could exist—living, breathing, healthy, laughing—one day and then not exist the next. Life, to me, seemed like something tangible and resilient, not fragile and uncertain. After the initial release of information on the case, Jared ran through my mind for weeks, like a marathon with no finish line.

My senses heightened. I saw Jared and my former classmate everywhere: in the clouds, in the faces of my own peers, in passerby strangers who meandered through strip-mall parking lots as I studied their facial features. Every time my thoughts wandered back to the investigation, my stomach churned at the thought of a friend’s friend dying alone and knowing that this was the end for him. At night, my body felt submerged, like my thoughts were caught in an underwater current and couldn’t find where air broke the surface and the two touched. Often, my heart rattled like it wanted to escape my chest and the vile feeling returned. When did the fear set in?

∘ ∘ ∘

One day Al visited my office when I was at my desk, alone, and attempted to start another dead-end conversation after he flashed me a few flirtatious glances. I spoke very little, still calm and professional, but then considered filing a complaint of workplace harassment. His mouth moved and twisted about, but I didn’t understand the words that came out. Would my bosses and supervisors blame me for whatever happened?

Somehow, I imagined the interrogation of questions as to why I didn’t turn Al down from the get-go, in addition to how this situation could have been avoided had I acted initially or not waited so long to speak out. In those few moments, I swirled deeper and deeper into my whirlpool of thoughts and potential repercussions, unaware that my babbling coworker asked me a question and awaited my response. I blinked a few times. Al confused my silence as a green light, as if I reciprocated his invitation.

“You know,” Al said, like he couldn’t get the statement out fast enough, “I saw you walking down the stairs yesterday—you were wearing that white shirt—and I imagined us running through a field of flowers together like how people do in romance movies. Know what I’m talking about?”

What the hell? No, no, no. Yet again my body sensed the crudeness, as if my coworker wanted to indulge in me like his favorite dessert. I stumbled over the words like my shoelaces were tied together in big knots. The acidic burning sensation in my belly simmered once more. Al puckered his face in like a fish, pressing for me to reciprocate in the same fashion. I managed to sputter out a nervous laugh just before my boss returned from a meeting, her eyebrow raised. Al exited casually, like usual. This time, anger boiled in me like lava. Why wasn’t anyone ever around to catch him in the act? Lunch sat at the back of my throat until my shift ended.

The unsolicited advances continued. Each day I crept down the hallways, on alert, ready to bolt if I heard Al’s raucous voice echo from around the corner. I felt like a mouse stuck in an endless maze with no exit. After I shared my concerns with my supervisor about Al, she said she would speak with him. However, she warned me that she couldn’t do anything to protect me outside of office hours. This information lead me to wonder if Al would ever approach me outside of work. A faint sense of worry set into my bones like a constant tremor. That same night, I explained the situation to loved ones.

“I don’t want to lose my job or feel afraid to go to work. I don’t want to be blamed or at fault for whatever happens. Things can’t get any worse, right? He won’t hurt me, right?”

At home, I dug through a junk kitchen drawer and found the stun gun that my grandfather gave me the year prior. Would Al turn malicious if I rejected him? Would he threaten me? Continue to approach me at the office with no one around until I agreed to see him outside of work hours? I wouldn’t know; I couldn’t know. Instead, I shoved the stun gun in the exterior pocket of my bag, its dark case visible from the opening. I needed a sense of security, a sense of safety that someone would likely say I didn’t deserve due to of my lack of straightforwardness. Why couldn’t I tell someone to leave me alone? I tried, but the fear of extreme workplace consequences kept me quiet.

∘ ∘ ∘

When I watched Jared’s family speak out and commemorate his life on the news, my heart sunk like an anchor in sea-deep waters: one that descended fast before plummeting into unexplored darkness. I imagined Jared’s attacker preying, plotting, all while pretending to be a fellow coworker who’d never do any harm. I imagined faceless predators in the bushes, behind parked vehicles, most just out of sight. When the picture of Jared’s attacker appeared on the local news, I wanted to lash out and punch the television screen. I wanted to shut down, turn my body off, and hide under the covers like a child who feared el cucuy outside the window, his nail on the glass pane. Except, this time, the monsters I grew to fear as an adult—as a woman who spends time alone, and often—didn’t have any identifying or monstrous features. These monsters looked like regular people who deceived others from behind a mask of innocence.

The smirk Jared’s killer sported in his mugshot disgusted me. This individual didn’t have any regard for life, perhaps not even his own. To me, the life-sentence Jared’s murderer received didn’t fulfill the void of injustice in our community. To me, those who robbed the lives from others were just another sack of flesh. After the initial hump of anger passed, a rollercoaster of guilt forced me onto its ride without a seatbelt. Even after days of inward reflection, I couldn’t justify why I felt this way about someone I didn’t know, a stranger I knew through mutual people. Alone with my thoughts, I refused to disrespect Jared’s friends and family by voicing how his death affected me.

Jared left the world the week before celebrating Father’s Day weekend with his dad and family. The family’s plans were to go to brunch at a local restaurant, but they instead planned a funeral to celebrate the life of someone stripped from them too soon. Once I stopped avoiding the articles about Jared’s death and read the details of the case, I discovered that the kidnapping occurred in the parking lot of Bowl & Barrel. I assume that, like me, Jared often walked to his car alone, after-hours, perhaps late at night when only the moon and stars kept an eye out for his safety. He didn’t know that, somewhere in the darkness, evil watched him and waited to ambush. I questioned the killer’s motive: Money? The new car? Something stupid like electronics? Then I considered something more haunting: Would the supervisor there have said that they couldn’t protect Jared outside of working hours, too, if he had reported his coworker? Why is it that I escaped a man whom I feared, but Jared could not?

I question whether or not it is normal to miss someone I’ve never met. More recently, I’m vigilant and aware of my surroundings when I walk alone, but I secretly hope Jared’s spirit rests in the daylight or on someone’s shoulder when they need him. Perhaps he shines down on his favorite beaches, free as summer air. Sometimes I imagine he found peace in the ribbon of utopian space where the sky kisses the earth. I envision Jared at all the places he and my former classmate planned to visit during a future spring break trip or vacation to Disneyland. Here at home, though, in the city where I run into former classmates and acquaintances at almost every public place, the proximity of Jared’s disappearance—among the disappearances of many others—convinced me that I’m never safe enough.

About Marina Flores

Marina Flores is a feminist scholar who holds her MA in Literature, Creative Writing and Social Justice from Our Lady of the Lake University. She lives in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas where she writes creative nonfiction and teaches Composition I and II to university freshmen. Marina can be found somewhere with her doxie, Simba, or sipping on a cup of iced coffee. She tweets daily from @marinathelibra.

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