The clack of nearby keyboards washed over Toni. She sat there, briefly hypnotized by the sound. A voice – the words indistinct – said something into a phone in a nearby cubicle. The sound of the voice was muffled by the material on the cube’s wall.

Toni scrolled through a Facebook feed which had not changed since she scrolled through it five seconds previously. She clicked on the next tab, and confirmed that the news headlines had also not changed. She clicked on the new tab button, and type “wiki” before the browser offered her the most-likely option, which she clicked on. She clicked the random article link, and was taken to an article about the Second Crusade.

Absent-mindedly she clicked on a link in the middle of the first paragraph, and did the same on the next six articles that appeared. Through Bavaria and Germany, she arrived at articles about the European Union. She wondered whether much time had passed, and looked at Facebook again. Nothing had changed on her feed.

Toni stood up, to stretch her legs, and looked at the brown and dark brown, textured, tiled carpet. The pattern was so nondescript that there were not even any faces that could be seen in the pattern. The brightly colored stress-toy on Toni’s desk looked cheerful in a mocking way. She sat back down, and swivelled the chair a couple of times. She remembered the feeling she had had of sitting in this sort of chair as a child, and wished she could feel that again.

Toni liked to ski. She could be swooshing down a mountain right now, just within her capability and risking a wipe-out with every sweep left or right. She liked to sing, even though she had not done it often enough to sound as good as she would like. She could, right now, be singing along with the radio, or a streaming playlist.

She also liked to write in her notebook. If it was not frowned-upon to use company resources to write poetry – it was an explicit ban by the over-specific higher ups – she’d maybe escape that way. Rhyming or not, it would make her happy.

She liked to play board games, but “frowned upon” was an understatement when it came to using company time to play board games. But then the company was not expecting her to be looking for patterns in the carpet, and checking Facebook every ten seconds, either.

Eventually, and despite all indications, the clock’s big hand finally reached twelve, while the small hand was pointing at the five. Toni did not notice straight away, because she was typing an email for work. The irony was not lost on her.

She stood up, walked to the elevator lobby, and descended to street level. The elevator was filled by other people, with gray, blank faces.

When the door pinged and the people flooded out, the elevator became a sort of last refuge. Toni abandoned it, though, with thoughts of home. She walked through the lobby and through the rotating door onto the city sidewalk. The sound of car engines, people talking, and other street noises merged into a familiar cacophony. Emotionless faces marched without looking anywhere but straight on – focused on their destinations. The gray sidewalk, the gray bus shelter, and the faded newspaper vending machine, did nothing to lighten Toni’s mood.

She walked towards the mass transit station she had used every working day for three years. Her legs knew the route, which had been almost unchanged since that first day. An idea occurred to Toni. “I’ll walk a different way” she thought to herself. Instead of going around the next block clockwise, she turned right early, so that she could turn left at the next intersection.

As she turned, a tall man in a long, dark, woolen coat, wearing a dark fedora hat, with both hands in his pockets, briefly looked startled. He made a studied effort to look completely relaxed and nonchalant. Toni noticed the reaction and looked at him, just a little too long.

The man looked at his watch, and then walked away, as if hurrying towards a meeting.

Toni continued along the street, more quickly now. She was more aware of her surroundings. The steam coming from the drainhole covers in the middle of the street was suddenly more obvious – and was there a hint of blue in it?

As Toni continued to march, she looked ahead to the coming intersection. A man dressed exactly like the startled man, hurried across the intersection. Had he glanced her way? Was she getting paranoid?

Toni reached the intersection and looked both ways. There were no shady people in sight. She arrived at the mass transit station and descended the escalator to the platform she always used, but moved further down the platform than she normally did. She looked around, noticing the edges of the advertisements that were peeling, and noticing the slight crack in the ceiling tile. There were no shady people watching her here.

Toni arrived home with no incidents, and microwaved some leftovers for dinner. She watched TV absent-mindedly until it was time for bed. She slept poorly, as she always did.

The next morning, Toni woke to her alarm, showered, ate breakfast, and followed her normal routine. Yesterday’s events, she decided, were paranoia caused by boredom.

She left for work at the same time as usual, but decided to go one more subway station, just to be safe. When the train arrived, she walked through the station with no interactions.

About halfway to the office, she was back on her usual route. Being more observant, she saw a man standing in the bus shelter, wearing a long, black, woolen coat and a dark fedora hat. He had both hands in his pockets, and he was keeping his head tilted down, as if to avoid being identified. Toni kept her eyes on him as she walked on, and made eye contact the second he looked straight at her. A flash of cold moved through Toni’s veins, and then a second wave went through her, causing goosebumps all over her body. The man walked away, quickly – apparently no longer in need of a bus.

Toni entered the shiny lobby of her office, and joined a few others waiting for the elevators. When the door opened, accompanied by a ping and a yellow light, Toni joined the flow of humans into the elevator. She, along with everyone else, turned around to face the doors of the elevator. Between the heads, she just caught a glimpse of someone standing in the lobby, wearing a dark fedora hat, and watching.

The clack of nearby keyboards washed over Toni. She sat there, briefly hypnotized by the sound. A voice – the words indistinct – said something into a phone in a nearby cubicle. The sound of the voice was muffled by the material on the cube’s wall. Toni scrolled through a Facebook feed which had not changed since she scrolled through it five seconds previously.

At the end of the day, having ridden the elevator down to the lobby, Toni walked out onto the street. She was hit by the sound of the city. Rather than turn left towards the mass transit station, she turned right, and walked faster than usual through the crowds of huddling, anonymous people. As she walked, she glanced at everyone who was not walking, and checked them out. No-one stood out, but Toni walked a mile in the wrong direction, to get the subway on a different line, anyway.

When Toni reached the subway station, she took a line that connected to her regular line, and then changed to get back home. At home, she microwaved some leftovers for dinner and watched TV absent-mindedly until it was time for bed.

The next morning, Toni woke to her alarm, showered, ate breakfast, and followed her normal routine. These men, she decided, were definitely paranoia. Given this, Toni went to her usual subway station on the way to work. As usual, she passed a small park, with iron fences all around the outside. As she was a little early, she glanced into the park, and saw a man standing near to a water fountain, looking directly at her. He was wearing black jeans, a black coat, and a dark navy baseball cap, pulled down over his face.

Toni hurried on, looking around herself to make sure that there was no-one else dressed in this way. A man was buying a newspaper from the vending machine, and as he leant down, he peered out from under his dark navy baseball cap in Toni’s direction.

Now Toni ran. She ran towards the subway station and when she was nearly there, she stopped and turned around. Behind her were two men, wearing dark coats, dark jeans, and dark navy baseball caps, also running, apparently to keep up with her. As she turned, they stopped running, simultaneously, and failed to look nonchalant.

Anger rose in Toni, and she marched towards the men. One of them walked away quickly, but the other looked like a deer in headlights.

“Why are you following me, and watching me?” she demanded, angrily.
The man tried to look innocent, and then his face hardened. He stepped closer to her, punched her hard and subtly in the stomach, and ran. Toni was winded and stunned. She just stood there, while the rest of the city flowed around her like a rock in a stream.

After a few moments, Toni realized she had to do something. She half-ran, half-walked to her office. She sat down at her computer and picked up her cellphone. She called her mom.

After speaking to her mom, she went straight to Human Resources, and explained to whoever would listen, what had happened.

“This is very worrying” the HR lady said. Her name was Judy, and she had heard some stories in her time, but this one stretched credulity. Judy thought about the situation. Either this employee was suffering delusions, or she was genuinely in the center of something awful.

The longer this meeting was going on, the less sure Toni felt. “I just confronted a random person on the street, and their reaction was not what I might have hoped, but it wasn’t proof that I am being hunted by some malevolent organization” she thought.

“Perhaps you could take some time away from work. Break up your routine, and do some self-care?” Judy said, kindly.

Toni agreed to take a month off. She called her mom back, and organized to stay with her, in the suburbs.

Feeling sad, and shaky, Toni collected some belongings from her cube, and took the elevator down to the lobby. She was alone in the elevator this time, and it made her concerns seem even less realistic.

She walked through the rotating door and as her compartment reached the street, the sounds of city life became audible, all at once. She looked each way down the street, and saw malevolent faces everywhere. Goosebumps grew across her back, neck and arms.

Toni walked toward her normal subway station, half in a daze. Despite the daze, she was frantically looking for unsettling people to the left and right. Every ten paces or so, she turned around suddenly, hoping to catch someone following her.

Just before she made the last right turn, she saw a man on the other side of the street. He was wearing a brown fedora, and was looking at his cellphone even though the screen was clearly off. Having turned the corner, she watched the man, and made eye contact when he flicked his eyes in her direction.

Toni got into lockstep with one of the people walking faster than her, and stayed out of sight of the watching man by remaining next to that person. In a break in traffic, she ran across the road straight towards the back of a billboard, so that she would remain out of his line of sight. She peered around the edge to see the man who was not looking at his phone. He was looking into the crowd on the other side of the road, trying to find her. In fact, he was walking a little towards Toni, so that he might be able to keep up with her if he had just missed her.

As he reached the billboard, Toni slunk backwards so that the man passed her without noticing. She slipped around the other side and watched the man continue along the sidewalk, still trying to follow her. Her heart rate increased so that she was suddenly aware of the continual thumping in her chest.

As soon as the man reached the next intersection, Toni came out and walked quickly to ensure the man could not slink away. The man was in the next block, assuming she was going to pass that point on the way to the subway. Toni paused by the Walk/Don’t Walk sign, trying to blend in to the crowd.

Before the light changed, the man entered the subway, presumably to confirm she had not passed him. Toni followed quickly, trying to make sure the man would not see her, but also to see where he went, and to discover what these people wanted with her.

She descended the steps into the main concourse of the subway station. There was a newsagent on the left, filled with magazines behind the vendor, and candy on the front, along with a pile of newspapers with exciting headlines. On the right there was a shoe-shining and key cutting shop, before ticket vending machines, and the barriers to the platforms. The man was not in this lobby. Had he gone to the platform?

Toni swiped her transit card and walked through the barrier, looking cautiously as far as she could at the other people on the other side. The man was nowhere to be seen. Toni did a couple of laps of the platform, in the hopes she had not let him get away, before resignedly waiting for the train to her station.

Toni reached her home with no further interactions with the mysterious men. When she opened her door, the familiar scent of home flooded her nose, and she felt more relaxed, instantly. She packed a suitcase and called a Lyft from her cellphone.

When the notification came through on her phone, she went down the stairs from her apartment, back into the bustle of the city street. She looked both ways, hoping not to see anyone watching her. She then stepped gingerly towards the waiting car. The driver of the car lowered the window and gestured impatiently.

Toni sped up, and walked between two parked cars, and into the Lyft driver’s car. As she buckled in, the driver drove off, heading towards Toni’s mom’s house in the suburbs.

As they drove, Toni looked out of the windows, nervously, to see whether they were being followed, or watched. At one point, Toni noticed a car that was taking the same turns as them, but after about five turns, it continued on the main road. Shortly after that, though, another car appeared to take up the baton.

Toni asked the driver to take an alternate route, which he happily did – the longer the journey, the larger the fare – and the car appeared to follow them, even as they took these weird routes. Toni could feel the pressure in her heart. She decided the only solution was to be dropped off at some place she knew well, and that – hopefully – the follower did not know, and then lose them in that place, before making her way to her mom’s home, for safety.

“Can we go to the mall, instead of the address I gave you, please?” Toni asked.

The driver nodded, and made the necessary turns.

At the mall, there was a larger entrance in the middle of the side nearest the road, and then there were smaller doors into the some of the shops on the outside. Toni had the driver leave her at the entrance to one of the larger department stores, and tipped him generously.

As she got out of the car, she was aware of the watcher’s car sitting a distance away, with the engine idling. It seemed they were not even being subtle now. Did he smile at me, as I looked at him? Toni was shaken by this, and her chest felt tight. She went inside the shop, and once she was out of sight of the door, rubbed her sternum to try to ease the tension. As she did this, she cursed her bra for – once again – being in the way of her comfort.

She weaved her way through the rows of clothes and other products, ensuring she could not possibly be seen by her follower. The mall was laid out in a large pentagon shape, with larger stores at each of the five corners. She headed anti-clockwise to the next store, hoping that there was only one person after her, and that they could not possibly cover all of the entrances.

As she walked she texted her mom, asking for a lift, and telling her where she would be. While she waited for her mom, she perused the electronic items for sale, including video games which were updates to the ones she owned, and which she was tempted by, as well as smart watches, drones, and all sorts of other adult toys that she could happily waste all her money on.

The electronics store had large glass windows on the outside, and while she was not visible through them from the outside – she made sure of that – she was able to see when her mom arrived. Toni took a circuitous route around the store, to make sure she could see her pursuers, and then when she was sure she was alone, headed for her mom’s car.

“Thank you mom,” Toni said, nervously.

“Oh darling, it’s been so long – yes, yes, of course I’d give you a lift if you ask… Are you okay?” her voice turned towards anxiety at the end, as she saw a furtive, nervous look on her daughter’s face.

“Yes, mom, I’m fine. I’m just – this is going to sound crazy – I’m being followed, so can we move quickly? I am going to slouch down so they cannot follow me to your house, okay?”

Nodding, Toni’s mom pulled away and headed towards her home. She looked around for anything suspicious, but was quite sure there was no-one following them, which was reassuring.

When they got home, Toni’s mom made her a cup of British tea, and sat her down in the living room. “Darling, what’s happening?” she asked.

Toni explained what had happened over the last few days.

“This is very odd” Toni’s mom said. “Do you think we should call the police?”

“I did wonder that,” Toni lied, “but I feel like I might sound crazy. And I don’t know who they are.”

“Did you take a picture of any of them with your cellphone?”

“That would have been a good idea…”

After a few minutes, Toni’s dad came home from the golf course. “Hey, honey, how’re you doing?” he asked, jovially.

“I’m alright” she said. And then to both of them, “Can I stay a few days?”

Toni’s dad shook his head. “You never, never, never need to ask.” he said, coming towards her for a hug.

“Want some dinner?” he asked, and headed into the kitchen.

The next morning, Toni and her parents ate breakfast in the conservatory on the back of the house. Even when it was quite cold outside, the double-glazed windows, and a bit of sun, made the conservatory very comfortable.

Toni’s parents checked she was okay, and then went out to run errands, and play table tennis together. Toni sat, curled up in her robe, nursing a mug of coffee. She looked out across the large back yard, and felt relaxed. I wonder if I’ll see a deer.

A while later, she woke suddenly. She had dozed off in the conservatory. She went to the kitchen and topped up her coffee. As she was walking back to her seat, she stopped suddenly, dread flooding through her veins like rapidly-growing rose thorns. There was a man, wearing a dark fedora, standing in the woods on the edge of the back yard. He was clearly trying to be subtle, by standing against the black trunks of the trees.

Toni turned around and walked calmly and slowly to the living room, and sat in her dad’s comfortable recliner. She cupped her mug, and tried to recapture the feeling she’d had before she fell asleep. The doorbell rang, and Toni’s head snapped in the direction of the front door. As she did, she caught sight of a car that looked a lot like the ones that had been tailing her Lyft. The doorbell rang again.

Toni placed her coffee mug on the table next to the chair, and walked gingerly to the front door. She leaned towards the peep hole and saw the top of a black fedora. Without thinking she stepped backwards in shock, and then ran up the stairs to her bedroom, and hid under her comforter. As she pulled the comforter over her head, she heard the doorbell ring again.

I wish my parents had a dog.

A few minutes passed, and Toni started to feel confident that the fedora-wearing man must have given up when she heard the unmistakable creak of the third step on the staircase. Her parents and she knew the creaky one, and always placed their foot further to the left than normal, to stop it from creaking.

Someone’s in the house.

Toni jumped up from the bed, and pushed the large vanity towards the closed bedroom door. Once it was in front of the door, she took the drawers out of the dresser, and piled them on the vanity. Then she dragged the empty dresser in front of the vanity. Anything else loose in the room, she piled in front of the bedroom door. As she finished, she heard the door knob turn, and the handle hit the top of the vanity.

Desperate and scared, Toni looked around for a weapon, in case this person who had so brazenly broken into her parents’ home – and somehow found her parents’ home – made it through the barricade. She didn’t find anything, but as she scanned the room, she saw the window. Perhaps, I can escape, she thought, and ran to the window. She pulled the large opener and swung out, grabbing the guttering above the window as a hand-hold. She scanned the street below, in case there were more of them.

The car she had noticed before was still there, and now the passenger door opened, and a tall, slender, fedora-adorned man stepped out.

Toni climbed out of the window and with agility she did not know she had, she pulled herself onto the shingled roof. She climbed up the roof to the ridge-line, and then traversed the roof to the large, brick chimney. The man from the passenger seat slowly walked across the road, and up the path in front of Toni’s parents’ house. He appeared to be in no hurry at all, which unsettled Toni even more.

As she sat there, huddled against the chimney, and suddenly realizing how cold she was, another black car appeared, and two more men in fedoras and dark coats got out. They walked up the path, and pointed directly at Toni. One of them appeared to be climbing the front of the building.

Oh God, oh God.

Toni closed her eyes tightly, and willed her parents to come home.

She was not sure how long had passed, when she heard her dad’s comforting voice from the front yard. “Toni, are you okay?” he called.

“Dad, the people, they were here,” she said, desperately.

“There’s no-one here now,” her mom reassured. “You can come down.” Toni’s mom did not look as calm as she was trying to sound.

Toni climbed down to the roof line, while her dad retrieved a ladder from the garage. He helped her climb down, while her mom grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around her. “Let’s get you inside,” she said, gently.

After a lunch of mac and cheese, Toni’s dad went upstairs to get a screwdriver for a loose kitchen cupboard door.

“Toni, love” he called down the stairs, “Did you lock your bedroom door?”

“I barricaded it because of the men,” she said, quietly to her mom, looking sheepish.

Toni’s mom stood up, and walked up the stairs to explain the situation to her husband. As soon as she was out of sight, the doorbell rang and Toni screamed. The scream was immediately followed by the sound of her mom’s feet running down the stairs.

“What is it?” she asked, urgently.

“The doorbell… I’m… I’m sorry…” Toni cried.

“What about it?” she asked, sitting down next to Toni.

As her mom asked, the door flew open, as if hit by a police battering ram, and two fedora-clad men ran into the room. Toni pulled her legs up, and curled in a ball, pointing at the intruders. She  buried her head in her mom’s side and tried to meld herself into her mom’s brave being.

One of the fedora-wearing men approached Toni, and stroked her hand gently.

“It’s okay” he whispered, in a woman’s voice. Toni opened her eyes, and saw a horrific grimace on the man’s face. “It’s okay,” the lady’s voice whispered again, stroking her hand gently, “It’s not real.”

The other man stood at the foot of her bed. Wasn’t I on the sofa. He smiled kindly.

“Would you like to do something? Be less bored?” the nurse asked.

Toni looked at the female nurse who had been a man only moments before, and looked around the hospital ward that she was in. “Where’s my mom?” Toni asked, nervously.

The nurse sat on the bed, and stroked the back of her hand rhythmically, to keep her calm.

“Your mom and dad died, Toni. Do you remember?” the voice was so gentle that it didn’t upset Toni to hear this. The mist that had been in the room started to clear, and Toni felt peaceful and melancholy.

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