(This is the second story that I submitted for the e-author contest.)
He is halfway to his office, walking along peacefully, when he first notices them. The windows. Watching him, staring at him. Not people in the windows, you understand, but the windows themselves, their hollow, malevolent eyes tracking him as he passes by. The vacancy of their apprehension frightens him, the way their shadowy pupils accept his image and release it, without comment, not even bothering to pretend that he has made an impression. His reflection sliding easily off the world. Here and there, it is true, a pane will wink at him coyly, the sunlight in its eyes dancing with amusement. But for the most part the windows are dull, zombie like, their eyes those of a creature who comes alive only at the sight of prey.
There is no way to avoid them, of course. They are everywhere. He can feel himself being watched, can feel their scrutiny closing in on him from every side. This is how a goldfish must feel in its bowl. He lowers his head, walks on, his eyes glued tightly to the sidewalk. Perhaps if he does not return their glance they will lose interest in him. He can still feel their eyes boring into him though. They are not giving up.
How has he not noticed them before? He has been walking this route for four years now. He looks up, studies the faces of the people going by on either side. They don’t seem to have noticed. Could it be that he’s imagining it? He risks a quick glance. No, there it is, that window was staring back at him, no doubt about it. Could it be that this has always been true? That he simply hasn’t noticed it, till now, because no one ever mentioned it? He thinks of all the years of living near windows, playing under them, dressing and undressing behind them. Could it be that all this time he has been watched, observed, spied on? He can feel himself beginning to panic. He needs to get behind his desk and think this over. In his haste, he starts across a street and almost gets run over by a cab. The driver shouts something rude at him. He steps back onto the sidewalk, shuts his eyes. Get a grip, he tells himself, just get a grip.
In office, things don’t get any better. The office is open plan and his desk faces out of a window towards the building opposite. The building and its windows. With his new consciousness, he can feel them watching him, like patient monitors. He can’t bring himself to work. Every time he tries he is aware of them, aware of their scrutiny, like an itching in his hands, the prickly feeling you get when someone is looking over your shoulder. At some point in the afternoon, desperate to meet a deadline, he shifts his desk around, turns his back to the view. His co-workers stare at him. Never mind. This way at least they can’t see what he’s doing. The prickling sensation has transferred itself to his spine now, but he manages to ignore it.
The trip back home is a nightmare. Everywhere he looks the windows leer at him, only now, in the dusk, their gaze has the greasy feel of a shared secret. Somehow he makes it to the refuge of his apartment, draws all the blinds, throws himself down on the sofa and pours himself a drink. After a while it occurs to him that the blinds are too loose, that the window could still peer in on him, so he brings a roll of duct tape from his toolbox and tapes the blinds firmly to the glass. The strips of black tape look like blindfolds.
The next two days are just as bad. Now that he has got over his initial shock at the discovery, he is able to handle it a little better, by Friday evening he can even feel a certain nonchalance growing in him, a faint defiance, like the contrariness of a man who walks about whistling in a prison yard. But the fear is always with him. He feels naked, exposed. The windows’ constant spying is like a physical presence around him, limiting him, closing him in. He sees windows he’d never noticed before, secret windows, hidden away behind trees or in the corners of buildings, watching him stealthily. By the time he gets home every day he is worn out with the effort of always being aware of what he does.
Hasn’t anyone else realized this, he wonders? He spends long hours of the night on the Internet, searching for references to the conspiracy. ‘Spying’, he types in, ‘secret scrutiny’. And Google comes back with news articles about phone taps, about access to personal records, about government intelligence. But nothing about windows. Can it really be that no one has noticed this? Is he really the first? That Saturday, he goes to the public library to look for books on windows. Even here the enemy finds him, the skylights narrow into deceitful little slits, peer down at him, trying to figure out what he’s trying to do. He hides in the aisle between the bookshelves (where they cannot see him), reads. But doesn’t find what he’s looking for.
Ten more days of this and he’s a nervous wreck. His work is starting to fall critically behind. One day he doesn’t even make it to office. He makes the mistake of looking up at an office block as he’s crossing Broadway and the windows glaring down at him make him lose his nerve. He sits down on the bench in the island in between, stays there, staring up at stories upon stories of livid pupils. Only when evening comes and the windows grow dark and the lights come on behind them does he realize that he’s been sitting there all day. Only then does he make his frightened way home.
Soon he stops going to office entirely. By this time he has put a double layer of brown paper over all his windows, but he still feels as though he’s being watched inside his own house. He decides to minimize movement. He disconnects his phone (he doesn’t need it now anyway), moves all his stuff into the kitchen (where there’s only one small window to deal with). He spends long hours sitting on the floor behind the counter, absolutely motionless. If only he can make them forget about him. If only he can lose their attention. But there are always bathroom breaks, and every time he goes out – to the supermarket, say, or the liquor store – they locate him again, his image leaping back into their greedy eyes, a memory regained.
The money in his bank account starts to give out. The bills arrive in his mail slot and end up in an unopened pile by the door. He knows it is only logical that this should happen – he’s not working, they must have stopped paying his salary by now – but something tells him there’s more to it than that. It’s the windows. They’re punishing him for being onto them, punishing him for trying to get away. He wonders what to do. Should he report them to someone? Who? Who would listen to him? The enemy’s cover is too good. They would think him crazy.
After a while, he decides to get rid of his apartment – he can’t afford the mortgage payments anyway, and it is a step towards getting his life back. He goes onto the Internet and finds himself a small sub-let. One room, four flights up, no elevator. Cheap. No windows. Just the thing he’s looking for. He sells all his furniture and electronics, uses the money to settle his outstanding bills. He is starting to feel alive again. For the first time in weeks, he shaves, trying to ignore the resemblance the mirror bears to a window. He sells the apartment. To do this, he has to take down all the brown paper and tape. The sight of the windows emerging coldly triumphant from underneath sickens him. The person he sells the house to looks out of the window and whistles. “Great view”! He shudders.
Slowly, he arranges his life around the fact that windows are to be avoided at all costs. He doesn’t have the nerve to go to office anymore, any office, but he still knows enough about the market to be able to pick investments, so he gets in touch with a few former clients, calls in a few favors, and starts up his own tiny advisory service. On the Net, so he doesn’t have to go out. He signs up with a delivery service for groceries – it’s a little expensive, but at least it makes him feel safe. He swears off the vodka. When he wants to eat ‘out’ he orders in pizza, or Chinese. Once in two weeks or so he has to leave the house and go outside, and that’s still hard. But otherwise he’s beginning to feel normal again.
Nervously, tentatively, he tries talking to his friends about what he’s discovered. Discuss it with them, ask them if they’ve noticed too, maybe even warn them. This doesn’t go so well. The handful of them he finds the courage to talk to refuse to believe him. A couple of them just laugh, assume he’s joking. He manages to convince a third that he’s really serious, and she tells him he needs help, he should go see a shrink. For days she badgers him with phone calls, messages. Eventually, he stops taking her calls, blocks her id on his mail.
Pretty soon he doesn’t have any friends left, because having friends means meeting up with them off and on, and he can neither go out nor supply a reason they would understand for refusing to. Fortunately, he’s never been a social person, so this lack of companionship doesn’t really bother him. Still, he wishes he could talk to someone about the windows. He sends out a few feelers on the Internet, but the only responses he gets are from religion freaks and new age junkies. The usual crackpots. He decides to forget about it, deal with it himself.
A little over a year after he first noticed the windows watching him, his life is truly back on track. The investment advice business, fuelled by a few lucky deals he’s managed to pull off, is going well. So well, in fact, that he gets invited to a conference of small scale financial advisors. His instinct is to refuse, of course, but it’s an important conference, a chance to network with some key people, a real opportunity. I can’t let this thing take over my life, he tells himself. He’s been feeling better the last few months anyway. Even his trips out have been more positive – he can still feel the eyes of the windows on him, of course, but he’s learned not to flinch away from them now, learned to pretend that he doesn’t know they’re watching. It’s only a two day conference. He can handle that much, surely. He accepts.
This is a mistake. He realizes it the minute he steps into the gleaming lobby of the hotel and finds himself surrounded by windows on all sides, their mouths spreading open in a wide smile to see him this vulnerable, this deeply in their clutches. He has forgotten how insidious, how lurking they can be, living his sheltered life away from them. He considers turning around and going back, but he is here now, other people have seen him, to leave would be to do irreparable damage to his reputation, undo the work of so many months. He grits his teeth, looks pointedly away from the windows, beaming as they are with unholy sunlight. I will make it through this, he tells himself.
All day, at the conference, he is on tenterhooks, casting nervous glances at the windows around him. It has occurred to him that if they plan to get him this is their chance. He knows he is never going to make the mistake of coming to a conference like this again – and presumably, they too, would have figured that out. So it’s now or never. By the time the first day ends (he gets through it somehow, taking no part in the discussion, offering no opinion unless he is asked and then mumbling something incoherent) he has a headache. Determined to stick with the conference program, he goes down to the bar with a bunch of other delegates. While they talk shop and crack the usual jokes, he drinks steadily. It has been a while since he has touched alcohol. He really needs it today, though. By the time the gala dinner is served, he is drunk. He knows that he should stop drinking now, but he is seated facing the window and it occurs to him that he is not used to sleeping in the same room as a window anymore. He gulps down glass after glass of wine to steady his nerves.
At three o’clock that morning, the staff of the hotel, responding to calls complaining of loud screaming and the sound of breaking glass, break open his door and find him crouched in the corner of his room furthest away from the window. He is naked. He is trembling. His body is bleeding from a hundred tiny cuts. There is glass scattered all over the room. In his panic, he has smashed all the panes with his bare hands.
After that, of course, there is no place to go but the institution. Not that it really matters any more. After so public a breakdown there is no way he is ever going to get work as a financial advisor again – his career is over – and he might as well be in the institution as anywhere else. It isn’t a bad place, either, the institution. The grounds are quite nice, and once they have understood that he is only dangerous if he is around buildings (and that he isn’t suicidal anyway) they are happy to let him wander about where he wishes. There are high walls around the institution so you can’t see any outside buildings, and (more importantly for him) they can’t see you. The institution’s main building itself has windows, of course, and this is a problem, but they manage to find him a room which has only the tiniest skylight, and he can always just walk away from the building and hide himself behind the trees if he wants to leave the windows behind. Besides, those little white pills they give him every morning have a calming effect on his nerves, so he’s less jumpy around windows anyway.
The company is a little trying, of course. All sorts of madmen – troubled souls whose minds have long abandoned their struggle with reason. Still, months of living with the threat of the windows bottled up inside him has got him used to little company, so he doesn’t really mind. Besides, it feels good not to have to keep the facts secret anymore, good to be able to tell people the truth even if the people listening are only lunatics and can’t understand what he is saying. “The windows are watching us all the time.” How wonderful to be able to say that out loud and not have people stare at him in shock, but rather nod understandingly, as if they accepted what he was telling them.
The person most interested in what he has to say is the Doctor. The Doctor is a frail, slightly graying man, who meets with him twice a week to talk about the things he knows or (and the Doctor is quick to emphasize this) thinks he knows about windows. The Doctor listens very carefully to what he has to say, but in the end dismisses all his beliefs as so much paranoia. The Doctor says it is all his imagination, that windows are lifeless and neutral, that he has only to learn to trust them again and then everything will be fine.
At first he thinks the Doctor is deliberately trying to mislead him. Maybe it is all a plot to lure him into a false sense of security, and then betray him at the critical moment. Perhaps the Doctor too is in on it, or no, no, perhaps he is just an unwilling dupe, perhaps the windows have got him fooled too, as they have everyone else. No, he will not go near a window, not touch one, as the Doctor repeatedly urges him to do. He will not fall into that trap.
But slowly, as the weeks pass, doubt begins to grow in him. What if the Doctor is right? He is a doctor, after all, he should know about these things. What if it is he, and not the Doctor, who is the true dupe? What if he really is just imagining it? His mind jerks violently away from the thought. If that is true it means that he has destroyed his life for nothing. If that is true it means he has gone mad. And he is not mad, of course. He is the only sane one here.
And yet. His thoughts keep coming back to the possibility that the Doctor might be right, like a dog circling, warily, some dead animal. What if windows really are harmless? Call it not madness, but a mistake, an error of judgment. What if he is wrong?
Slowly, little by little and with the Doctor’s help, he forces himself to face up to the windows, look at them, through them. His fundamental suspicion of them remains, of course, but he begins to think of them as weaker, more subservient. Not the mighty overlords he once imagined them to be, but sad, silly creatures, hyenas of light, who will harm him only if he shows cowardice. It does him good to think this. Soon, he is able to ignore the presence of windows around him. A little while more and he is even able to walk towards a window to get a better view through it. They move him into a special room, one with a tall window, so he can be challenged more. He doesn’t mind.
Touching a window though, making actual contact with it, remains beyond his power.
One day he wakes up and the sun is shining through his tall window. It is late. He must have overslept. Surprisingly, nobody has come to wake him. That has never happened before. He stares at the window, glowing golden with the morning sun. It looks so harmless, so innocent. For the first time in almost two years he finds himself looking at a window without thinking of it as an evil presence, out to do him harm. He struggles out of bed, walks over to it. It seems so clear, so guileless. A little voice in his head cries out that it is a window, an enemy, but he manages to silence that voice. He considers touching the window. He finds less resistance to the idea in his head than he had expected. Slowly, hesitatingly, he extends his hand, places it lightly upon the pane. Nothing happens. The surface of the pane feels like a skin of smooth whiteness pressed against his fingers. He feels a sudden joy blossoming inside him. So the Doctor has been right all along! Windows can be trusted! How foolish he has been! In the exhilaration of the moment, the obstacles to getting his old life back seem surprisingly slight. He can go back to living his regular life. There will be some questions of course, and some initial trouble – he might have to accept a job that pays less – but he will explain to people what happened to him exactly as he now comprehends it, and they are bound to understand. He has been needlessly paranoid, but that is over now. He is ready to start living again. He is ready to trust the windows. In his excitement, he presses himself to the window, leaning his weight against it as if to hug it in glee. The window, left unlatched, swings open.
By the time they get to him, he is dead, his spine broken in three places by the fall. Above him, the window hangs open, its clear surface laughing in the late morning sun.