The Bystander, story by Claire L. Marsh at Spillwords.com
Julian Bossert

The Bystander

The Bystander

written by: Claire L. Marsh

@ClaireL_M

 

Skulking through the smallest of openings in the heavy double doors, arriving purposefully later than the advertised billing. Timing perfect, darkness spilling throughout the room and voices hushing into whisps of air. He looked to the tiny white lights glowing on the floor, a topsy-turvy sky navigating his path. The flip seat creaked as he held it down to assume his weight gradually and unobtrusively. His location one of ritual. The back row, no-one directly next to him and exactingly central. The screen sensed him in position, the film’s certified adult rating flashing for mere seconds. Trailers and commercials evaded, as baseless, hollow abuses of cognitive resources inviting people to carry on loudly with their conversations. Talking in the cinema caused his brows to form an aggressive point above his nose and his lips and eyes to narrow and pinch in abhorrence. His anticipation peaked, conducted by the orchestral fanfare blaring in digital surround sound clarity. He wasn’t excited about the film. In fact, he didn’t even watch it. He watched the people watching the film. Not just any films either. He exclusively watched people watching horror films.

He distinguished between fear and surprise, disinterested in films projecting the equivalent of jumping out and shouting “boo” to an unsuspecting passer-by. The music announcing it before it happens. The momentary flutter of people’s heartbeats, over almost as immediately. Fear stays within a person. A foreign object travelling with them outside the theatre, for days, years or even a lifetime. Reminding them of their vulnerability. The best fear teaches you nowhere is safe, no matter what you do or who you are, you are most definitely within reach. Films were the closest to achieving that as a person could get beyond reality. He knew, he had done his research. He’d watched. Followed behind as people engaged with haunted house gimmickry. Watching them huddle together readying for the wig-wearing plastic skeleton to drop, dangle, flap and flail on its string exactly where they expected. Seeing them as they do a little jump and a scream. Followed by the realisation they are safe, all in their world is rosy. He queued with them at theme parks as they mentally engineered their own danger, allowing the exaggerated health warnings to propagandise their notions of peril. Climbing in alongside them whilst they are whisked at top speed, turned upside down, and bathed in temporary darkness, senses consensually confused by loud music and cold air blasts. All protected by the knowledge this too shall pass, secure in safety harnesses with staff eagerly assisting them to debark ahead of the next wave of empty self-selected exhilaration. The only lasting and truly horrific part, an overpriced giftshop photograph with their eyes clamped shut.

Fear cannot dissipate through a relieved giggle amongst friends. Fear isolates you; it drags you from them, caging you inside your own skull with no means to escape. Burrowing deeper. Digging through previously held self-beliefs, through comforting thoughts and accepted truths. Fear takes root and clings on for the long game. Waiting, lurking, prowling silently until you think you have moved beyond it. Then pounces, fast and brutal. Ripping your breath savagely from your chest. Endure it long enough and it fractures your grasp of reality, makes you question the separation of nightmares. And he felt compelled by it, their fear drawing him in, forcing him to get closer and closer. Nothing felt as intense, no other emotions held the power or the intoxicating allure. Observing them feeling it mesmerised him, he yearned to share in it. Captivated by how bodies tensed and collapsed inward, how faces contorted and eyes bulged. Seeking to understand it, absorb it, to taste it lingering on his tongue. The more he witnessed, the more he wanted. The more he consumed, the greater the fear needed to be to satiate him. A perpetually accelerating hunger.

***

“I heard this is so scary, they’d originally banned it and the director had to take stuff out”. The woman’s long pointy nose and red lipstick filled the gap in the seats as she leaned across to the male.

“They banned it in two countries, in Europe, I think it was. The director re-released a different version over there, but we’ve got the original. At least that’s what I read online. But I did read that like four crew members quit because they found the filming traumatic. There’s a torture scene with a kid towards the end, I’d heard it was that scene”. The deeper voice belonged to a suit wearing, brown-haired male holding her hand.

“Oh, wow, I hadn’t heard that. Reminds me of this old film my dad told me about, from the 90s. It was written by this guy inspired by the death of his girlfriend, about a couple violently murdered, then the guy is resurrected to avenge their deaths. All these spooky accidents kept happening on set. Then the lead actor gets accidentally shot, right before he should have got married”. The female’s gossipmongering tone incensed him.

“That is weird. Oh, look, the film’s starting”. He allowed the male’s statement of the obvious to slip past him without anger or frustration, both colluding in their wish for her mouth to close.

He didn’t believe in crossing fingers or hoping for an outcome. Things simply happen or they do not. Wanting, praying, or wishing is futile. Nobody has any form of control. Not really. Still, he flittered away some time imagining, which was different entirely. His mind filled with the female watching the torture scene. Petrified, her body quaking. Smiling to himself, he pictured her red lips forming into the perfect O of a scream. Quickly, he extinguished his mental enactments, admonishing himself for potentially spoiling a later surprise. That sort of surprise was one he could enthusiastically get behind.

His fingers fidgeted with one another whilst the film unfurled. Setting the scene, delicately placing the audience inside the narrative, connecting them to characters to be dispensed with later. All of it icing and decoration, not cake. He sat as patiently as he could muster, biding his time, letting the director pick them up and take them along as hitchhikers. Then it came. The cliff edge, the tipping point. Where comfortability and familiarity slip away because they aren’t holding on tight enough. They miss the director’s sleight of hand pulling it out from under them, like a magician liberating a carefully laid table of its cloth. The cosy protection of a story, not happening now, not to them, dissolves. He could feel and hear it, almost see it. Scanning them. Most retreating inward, shrinking their posture, fabric on fabric battling scratchy urges to bolt yet freeze, transfixed to the screen yet desperate to look away. A young woman to the left, experimenting with distraction. Staring at her lap, she picks and picks at a thread on her tightly gripped coat. Ears unable to be averted, she’s victim to unpredictable noises attacking her in surround sound, performing her like a marionette puppet, limbs and body jolting and leaping. Dancing to the director’s whim.

Amusing, but not satisfying, his gaze wanders. Scan, explore, search, hunt.

Another woman, older. Unblinking. He recognises the mask, the blankness of expression, the absence of flinch. He couldn’t see her eyes, but he knew. Icy voids. She may be watching the film like them, but she wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t like him either. Disdain like stagnant water on his tongue, resentful of a seat sacrificed to such a numb creature. At least they were rare. Then he found the man. Slightly forwards in his seat, face pale, hand tightly clinging to the plastic arm rest for safe passage. The pale man’s forehead glossy with sweat, despite the air-conditioned theatre. Reacting to the character’s imminent danger, silent words formed on his mouth to be overthrown by others considered more urgent. His head flinching sharply to the side, eyes squeezed tight until he can reluctantly peer through one eyelid and emerge once more.

Moving forwards in his own seat, closer, better to absorb the pale man’s experience. Witnessing the man as an emotional ghost, his empathy walking alongside the young child on screen. Shadowing small, tentative footsteps as she explores the rooms of the abandoned old house. Knowing what the girl can’t, knowing what lurks behind the darkness. Feeling her terror bleed with his own for what was certain to come.

Infatuated, besotted, he watches the pale man. All senses open to every drop of fright, desperate to bask within it. Could his inner thoughts be telling him this is just a film, it is not real? Gliding his tongue across his dry, expectant lips. Firmly rubbing his palms down the rough fabric of his jeans, a way to neutralise some of the excitement flooding through him whilst watching the other man’s fear leak out.

A tub of popcorn clattering to the ground with a gasp, as the man accompanies the child another step closer to her end. Sitting himself taller, trying to be braver against the nightmares involuntarily fidgeting from his limbs.

Watching is intoxicating, he doesn’t want it to end. Thinking about an ending starts to pull him away from the man’s experiencing. He refocuses.

The man can’t decide where on the screen to settle his focus, wide eyes darting between the child and the bloodied butcher’s knife. The knife, a serpent’s head. Fixing eyes on the point of most danger, the part most likely to lash out to kill you. But the small child as she inches closer and closer to the blade, so small, so vulnerable drags his eyeballs back. The way you need to look, even if you don’t want to see. The wreckage of a car crash in the opposite lane, your neck swiveling and craning to give you a glimpse of the carnage. So inevitable. And so deliciously satisfying.

Trapping his tingling hands under his thighs, he stops himself reaching out to touch the man. To feel him, as he feels all that terror.

The woman with the red lips has pulled her small bag into her chest, squeezing. He flips between her and his preferred experiencer, the man. A buffet, consuming too much of one could reduce his appetite for the other. The man is making shapes with his mouth again, pleading to no-one silently for the child’s suffering to end. No, for his exposure to the child’s suffering to end. The red-lipped woman’s mouth is curled in repulsion at the incident displayed on screen. Repulsion is the incorrect response, stop it. Her repulsion has put a blanket over her fear, an escape hatch for her inner thoughts. A damn loophole. Annoyed, he goes back to the man, currently chewing skin from the side of his fingernail. His jaw clenched firm.

“Oh god, no!”, the man proclaims, snapping his face momentarily away from the screen. His verbal outburst attracting the amused attention of the person sat to his side. Immediately his empathic connection to the child severs. Fear succumbing to embarrassment and pride. The terror slithers away from the man, dragging excitement and lust from the bystander’s ravenous mind. Recoiling its traces from his body, the itchy palms, the fidgeting limbs. Until he is empty, again.

***

He waits until everyone else has left, until he is alone to grieve what just slipped through his fingers. His disappointment grows as he returns to his car in the multi-storey car park, footsteps echoing loudly. The stark strip-light above his old, red estate is signalling to him – a blink on and off, a buzz for accompaniment. At the driver’s side, fumbling for his key, buzz and blink. Almost total darkness reflecting the hollowness within. What if he can’t feel fear because he is fear? Buzz, blink. His big plastic key and bright yellow smiley-face keyring gleam in the light, illuminating the stupidity of his musings. Pulling the door open, he extends a long leg readying to enter. Footsteps cause him to pause.
“Don’t move, don’t look at me. I’ve got a gun. I want your wallet”, the male voice came loudly from behind.

He simply had to lower his foot and he could get in his car. He could drive away. Something started to creep into the space inside him. It was anticipatory, baiting even. He welcomed the sound of the stranger’s footsteps getting closer. Closed his eyes and let the exhilaration spread throughout his body as he felt metal cold to the back of his skull, heard a small click. The stranger wanted him to take the threat seriously. He obviously could do exactly that, clearly and sensibly voicing he would retrieve his wallet from his pocket. Surrender it to the stranger.

He flipped around excitably, appreciative of the bouncy soles of his athletic shoes. Facing the stranger, who at an inch or two taller than him, was considerably broader. He extended his smile broader still, teeth gleaming in strobing light. He stared into the stranger’s dark brown eyes, unmoving.

“I will shoot you. Give me your wallet, now!” The stranger’s entire body thrusted forward with the urgency of his words.

He cocked his head to the left. Fixing the stranger with the brightness of his blue eyes, a feature he been informed was most alluring. “No, thank you”, he replied. “I want your gun, please”, he stretched out his hand, stepping closer to the serpent’s head.

“Are you on something? Back off or else”. The stranger, following his own sensible advice, backed up three paces.

“If you intended to shoot me friend, I’d be very dead by now”, laughing, he continued to approach his new acquaintance with freshly acquired understanding. His films manufactured fear, but it was too fragile, too tenuous for him to grapple and possess. He needed to insert himself into another’s experience. To create and control the fear. Life and limb, life and death. Darting toward the stranger, he charged for the weapon, getting one hand on the end of the pistol.

His ears were suddenly so much deeper inside his skull, rippling tides of reverberations coming in successive waves. The only sound the inside of his own eardrums, a deafeningly loud static. Time felt poorly edited, skipping and jumping, scenes spliced together sloppily the linearity abandoned. The stranger wasn’t there. He laid on damp concrete, alone, staring at the malfunctioning car park light. Blood draining from his abdomen, staining the ground around him like a single angel’s wing. Yet where he knew there should be fear of dying, he felt only a hollow. He wanted disappointment, instead he remained empty.

Claire L. Marsh

Claire L. Marsh

My writing usually has some theme or angle from psychology within it. I get my inspiration from people acting outside traditional norms or questioning their sociocultural context. I work in a policing organisation currently but was a lecturer in forensic psychology for almost ten years at a UK-based university.
Claire L. Marsh

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