Terrifying Tales Short Story Contest Winner: 18+

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

The Sincerest Form of Flattery by Conor B., 18+, from the Lake Forest Park Library 

I first notice it when I am walking home from the bus stop, a gentle pat of bare feet on concrete, just in time with my own steps. I pause and it stops. I resume walking and it starts again. I whip around to get a good look at my follower, and it does as well, just a quarter of a second after I do. I get a brief look at its face, and it is utterly unremarkable. I run the rest of the way home, and every time I check back over my shoulder it is keeping pace with me.
The next morning I find it standing in my bathroom. As I raise my toothbrush, I see it out of the corner of my eye, miming my sleepy, languid motion, the way I hunch over the sink. I throw a panicky punch at it and feel something connect with my jaw. I recoil and massage it with my hand, and I see it do the same. My wife comes in to see what’s wrong. She does not seem to see the thing beside me. I tell her I tripped.
I dress hastily and leave without kissing the kids goodbye. I do not want to see the thing following put its lips on them. Today it walks alongside me on my way to the bus stop. No matter how I alter my rhythm it does the exact same. I take my seat and it sits across from me. I take a moment to study its face (why can’t I remember its face?). It has… blue eyes. Or are they brown? I look again and I forget entirely the shape of his nose. As I study him, I feel his eyes (whatever color they are) moving across my face. I decide to look out the window for the rest of the ride, and assume he is doing the same.
I get to work. I greet Doreen, Michael, and Laurie. I congratulate Dan on his promotion. Every one of them greets me warmly, then glances at the thing alongside me. Their eyes cloud over and they get back to their work. I get to my cubicle and take a seat, and He takes the empty one beside mine. It occurs to me that I did not hear Him speak when I said hello. We lean back and take a look at each other. I try out a few words; Apple, Prescription, One two one two egg. There is no sound, but I see his mouth (whatever that looks like) move, and I hear a faint breathy whisper. I hunch over my keyboard and start working, all my keystrokes and clicks followed a fraction of a second later by their twin.
We get home late. I unlock the front door (He turns his own pretend key beside me) and walk in with an “I’m home!” He says it, too, although I do not recognize it at first. It is far to nasally, too small to be my own voice. But, I think, it’s like hearing yourself in a recording, you always sound different than you think. Wrong. I think about shoving him onto the doorstep, slamming the door between us, locking it tight and calling the police. But when I tense up to deliver the shove, I see Him do the same, and I know it will come to nothing. So I enter and I kiss my wife, and we ask how her day was, and our kids come running up to us and we give them hugs, and the whole time they never look right at me, or right at Him, but at some indeterminate point between us, as if we were two unfocused halves of the same image.
The rest of the evening proceeds as normal. We eat, we clean the dishes, we help the kids with their homework, read them a story. I linger in the kitchen for a moment, and realize He is not there. I go to bed and find Him asleep next to my wife. I sleep on the couch.
The next morning we brush our teeth, tie our ties, say goodbye, and walk to the bus. On our way I find myself lagging behind and stumbling, while he strides on, undeterred. On the bus I study Him again, and I realize I can see what he looks like. He has a small nose, brown eyes, a wide mouth. His suit and tie are immaculate (was he even clothed the other day?). I look down at my own clothes, find my tie done in an uneven knot. I look in the window at my reflection and I try to see what color my eyes are.
He arrives at work. He greets Doreen, Michael, and Laurie, and he offers to buy Dan a celebratory coffee. I say the same things, but it seems like they are ever so slightly behind, and my coworkers look at me with a puzzled expression. Then I remember, I have a meeting with the boss this morning. They must be anxious to know what it’s all about. I turn toward his office, knock three times. Nothing. I try to check my watch, but it’s not on my wrist. This is the time, isn’t it? My boss, where is he? I look to my left and right, see no one. Where is He? I decide to turn the knob and enter the office, and there He is, seated in front of my boss’ desk. They both turn to look at me, with annoyance, then confusion. “Excuse me?” my boss says, “Do you work here?”
I scream. I lunge toward him and grab him by the collar, I shake him and say Don’t you know me? Then I turn to Him, relaxing in a chair with an amused expression on his so distinct face. I grab a letter opener and try to use it on him when two security guards bust in and grab me under the armpits. They drag me past the cubicles, and I yell out to my coworkers. You and I have lunch together ever Wednesday! Michael, your family had Thanksgiving with us two years ago! Dan, we see you in church every week! I try to shout my name, and choke over the syllables.
I am tossed onto the rough sidewalk with a thud that knocks the wind out of me. I see the guards discussing if they should call the cops, ask the boss if he wants to press charges. I scramble to my feet and run all the way home.
I pound on the door until the wife opens it. I try to explain what a terrible thing has happened, but my voice is raspy, and my words do not sound right, do not make sense. She screams when she sees me, and as I try to bring her into an embrace, she shoves me down the steps, slams the door. A few minutes later I hear sirens, and I run.
Later that night, when it is dark, I look through the window. I see myself come home, greet my children with a beaming smile and hugs, my wife with a kiss, followed by a solemn conversation about the strange man who appeared earlier, and the stranger at work. After dinner, the children play, and I cannot tell them apart. I approach the window to get a better look. My face is inches away from one of theirs. A daughter? Yes. Name? I am close to it. Starts with an “a”. She sees me and screams. I hear myself rushing to the back door. I flee.
Now it sleeps in bushes, alleyways, and in the long, cold hours of the night it thinks Who was it? Who is it? It has no answer. It looks into the windows of closed shops and still puddles to see what it looks like, and it cannot remember, cannot recall the parts of the face. Then one morning it sees a man walking by. Later that night, the same man walking the other way. It watches him for many weeks until it knows him.
Matthew Briar. Age 27. Consultant. Has spacious apartment, good dog, kind boyfriend. Prominent nose, blue eyes, black hair. 6’ 2”, 180 pounds. Walks the same route to work every day. Compulsively scratches ear. Takes long, hurried strides. Matthew Briar has a good life, an enviable life. That is what it thinks as it waits and watches, how good a life Matthew has, how good a life it could have.
There is a vague memory of this happening before, of someone following at night. It tries to recall. What happened? Something followed, and then… It does not remember, but it will. For now, it will follow, and then do what comes next. It hears footsteps approaching.
Matthew walks past, hurried as always. No one else around. It steps out of the alley and follows. It tries to match his gait.

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