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Nineties Man

I moved to my little corner of suburbia three years ago. Before this, I dwelt in southeast London amidst a whirlwind of cultures, sounds, experiences, and sights. London never seemed to stop, it constantly refreshed and challenged the senses. Moving to a rather sleepy suburban town in the depths of Hampshire was something of a shock to the system at first. Initially, I thought everyone here looked the same. They dressed the same, they all had that slightly fearful look in their eyes as if any moment their suburban idyll would be shattered by an explosion of youth crime or a mass influx of immigrants. The streets all looked the same. Row after row of soulless Seventies semi-detached houses with perfectly maintained gardens and bins where people had actually taken the trouble to attach a label with their house number on it. How did people find the time to do that?

Lockdown helped me realise there is more than meets the eye in my town. Scratch beneath the surface you begin to discover there are weird and wonderful things happening in the most unlikely places. Previously the dull morning plod to the train station formed the extent of my local knowledge but lockdown forced me to explore further and deeper. And with time slowed down by the earth-shattering virus I started to notice little things I hadn't noticed before.

One such oddity was a man who lives near me that my wife and I nicknamed 'Nineties Man'. This was on account of his rather dated hairstyle which was long in all the wrong places with a harsh fringe that looked like someone used a ruler to create it. The whole thing reeked of a man desperate to cling to the vestiges of his youth. He could often be seen with a permanently gloomy expression on his face, stomping around after his exuberant child with her backpack awkwardly hanging from one arm and a scooter clutched in the other.

We thought, from piecing together various bits of evidence, that he was a stay at home dad. I had seen his wife on numerous occasions at the train station making the long desperate commute into London. She was a sickly pale pear-shaped woman who always seemed to have wet hair clinging to her forlorn face. Every morning I would see her guiltily devour a large latte and chocolate muffin on the train. Perhaps it was her only treat. Perhaps the sugary kick and double espresso shot were all that got her out of bed in the morning.

Back to Nineties Man, I would often try to say hello to him as he stomped past chasing after his daughter (who by contrast was a seemingly joyous child). But I would rarely receive any eye contact and only once did I get a grunt of a 'hello' from him.

Being the sort of person who likes to fill in the blanks I tried to come up with some explanation for his gloomy behaviour. Perhaps he hated being a stay at home dad. It wouldn't be particularly enjoyable in this part of the world, nor many others to be honest. Mum's have their networks you see. You can see them gathered in coffee shops countrywide sitting around talking about their kids, property prices, school places, and all manner of other wildly inane subjects. But you don't see that with dads. Stay at home dads are a minority and I imagined it could feel quite isolating. In fact, this was one of the reasons I tried to say hello to Nineties Dad in the first place. Perhaps we could bond over being dads, I thought. But I got nothing from him.

During lockdown I started to notice him more and more, pacing around the grassy area between our houses with his daughter. He would forever be complaining as she ran off to play with sticks, acorns, and dog shit. He looked particularly uncomfortable when she tried to play with other children. Another overprotective parent in the age of 'everyone's a paedo unless proven otherwise'. Gone are the days where children's laughter filled the air on a Sunday afternoon. These days parents follow their kids around as if they're still attached to an umbilical cord.

After trying unsuccessfully a couple more times to engage him I decided he simply wasn't worth the effort and stopped thinking about him. That was until one evening when I went past his house. Normally I wouldn't go that way. He lived on the other side of the estate and there was a short cut through the grassy park in the middle I would normally take. But lockdown permitted any reason to extend a walk, so the extra few hundred footsteps were taken with relish.

I wandered past the superficially identical houses noting with interest how people had taken something very similar and made something unique out of it. Some had little gardens out the front with benches and hedgerows while others had driveways crammed with as many cars as the laws of physics would allow. And then I noticed their house.

There was a faint blue glow coming from the window which I assumed was a television set. Being nosey as I am I turned my head as I went past keen to get a glimpse of the 'happy' couple's inner temple. They were sitting in individual chairs staring at their television. Something about their expressions gave me a slight pang of anxiety. It's not uncommon for people to look fairly vacant when watching television but this was more than vacancy. It was as if there was nothing behind their eyes, they could almost have been dead, their mouths gaping open awkwardly. I tried to get a view of what they were watching but I couldn't see the television without making myself obvious.

Back home the joyful chaos of homelife with children soon made me forget the disturbing sight. But not for long. Later I lay awake in the dead of night with the image of the couple circulating my thoughts like an unwelcome intruder. I tried to ignore it or mindfully let it drift away without judgment but it persisted. Sitting up on my bed I couldn't help myself and peeked through the curtains over at Nineties Man's house to see if the glow was still there. It wasn't of course. Why would they still be watching television at two in the morning, especially with a child? I was about to give sleep another try when I noticed something move just outside their house. A shadow seemed to dart from underneath a car towards their front door.

A fox perhaps? Yes, that was probably it. Or a cat. But then something happened which made both of these suggestions fearfully invalid and chilled my stomach to its core. The shadow rose to around three feet high, opened their front door, and crept inside.

I did not sleep well that night.

The next day, fuelled by caffeine I slumped at my home-office desk and tried to concentrate on work. The familiar sea of emails, video calls, and annoying requests did little to keep my mind off the sights of the night before. I decided that evening I was going to walk the other way past their house which should give me a better view of what they might be watching. That was easy enough to do but the midnight shadow still left me perplexed. My rational brain tried to reason that they had trained their cat to open the front door and save them getting up to let it in. But that seemed absurd, why not just use a cat flap? No, there was only one explanation that made sense and it was one that disturbed me greatly.

The day proceeded without anything greatly eventful. Another trend in lockdown: the days were all the same. How I longed for a delayed train or some work drama to liven things up a bit. That evening I told my wife I was heading to the shop for some supplies. Face mask in hand I went out into the autumn twilight and headed in the direction of the house.

As I drew closer I felt my heartbeat begin to quicken. The faint blue glow was there again. I quickly stopped and looked around for any other people or stunted shadowy shapes amidst the growing gloom and, not seeing any, I approached the house. I was about a yard away from being able to see the television, then edged forwards a step at a time before I got a full view.

It was static. An endless storm of black and white flickering lines. Nobody watches static, I thought, in fact, I was pretty sure it wasn't a thing anymore with digital TV. I took a deep breath and began walking at a normal pace past the window. I quickly turned my head and then stopped in my tracks. There they were, mouths agape, eyes staring into the static aimlessly. I couldn't help but stare back; it was such an unnatural sight, almost obscene.

As I gazed transfixed at their lifeless bodies, Nineties Man's head turned slowly to face me. My mind was telling me to run but I remained rooted to the spot. Something about his expression made me walk closer to the window despite the incredible apprehension I felt. I peered in through the glass at his face trying to make out his expression. He didn't look angry or surprised to see someone staring through his living room window. He looked desperate. Then his mouth began to form words, slowly and strenuously as if each word was agony. "Help me," he mouthed over and over again. It was unmistakable.

My heart was now thundering against my chest and my brain whirred with possibilities. I was about to go and open his front door when something else in the living room caught my attention. A door leading off from the living room began opening gradually. Nineties Man quickly slumped back into his zombie-like position and I backed away from the window out of view but still able to see the inner door.

It opened fully but from my angle, I couldn't see who or what was behind it. It must be their daughter, I told myself. Who else? A hand gripped the edge of the door about halfway up. But it was no child's hand and the sight of it made me stumble backwards in horror before I ran back home without looking back.

Once again that night I could not sleep. The sheer impossibility of what I saw clattered around my brain with jarring stabs of anxiety. I looked down at my clock which said 1:52. Taking a deep breath I tentatively reached for the curtain again. The huddled houses nestled cosily next to one another bathed in the soft glow of the moon. No one could have believed that something dark and horrifying lay here. I looked over to the house with my breath held, looking for any trace of the shadowy thing from the night before. After a few minutes of seeing nothing untoward, I closed the curtain and as I did I noticed a movement at the foot of my driveway. My heart hammered as I looked frantically for any signs of activity. Was my brain tricking me? No, I definitely saw something.

I opened my window slowly and peered over the edge down towards my front door. Nothing. But the silence was oppressive. Normally, even at this hour, there would be some sound, a train roaring through the night in the distance or a drunk ambling home. But there was only silence. That was until I heard the creak of a door opening in the distance. I looked up quickly to see the door to Nineties Man's house close with a thud. I closed the window and shook my head. This was all getting too much.

I slept fitfully for what remained of the night, my dreams full of shadowy creatures, gormless gaping faces, and that impossible hand on the door.

The next day, even groggier than the previous, my brain tried to make sense of everything I had seen. There had to be a rational explanation. Perhaps, in my tiredness, I had imagined seeing the shadowy shape or perhaps it was just an animal and the darkness had distorted my view. The sights in the house were harder to rationalise, however. After a while, I realised I only had one course of action: to go and knock on Nineties Man's door on some pretence and get to the bottom of it all.

I headed out on my lunch break knowing that the stay at home dad would likely be in. As I passed the living room window there were none of the horrors of the night before, just a slightly child-trashed lounge and the usual furnishings one would expect in a suburban home. I started wondering if I really had imagined the whole thing as I rang their tuneful doorbell. Monsters don't have melodic doorbells, do they? As I waited I wondered whether he'd remember my strange behaviour from the night before. If he could remember it, that is. He had seemed so distant, only half there and I expected my face had been shadowed by the moonlight outside.

A tired-looking Nineties Man answered the door and was slightly surprised to see me.

"Er yes, can I help?" he grunted. Nothing about him suggested anything untoward had happened the night before.

"I live just up the road. We're running a neighbourhood watch programme and we're coming round to check you've got all the necessary precautions after a spate of burglaries recently," I replied. I suspected given his demeanour and given where we lived that home security was one area he'd find difficult to turn away. I was right.

He murmured something and led me into the lounge. I glanced at the TV which was off and then took an awkward seat in the chair I had seen his wife slumped in previously. A worry crossed my mind. What if the TV has mind control? I didn't even tell my wife where I was going. I quickly dismissed it as ridiculous as he sat in his usual spot expectantly.

His daughter came bounding into the room and stopped when she saw me.

"Oh hello!" I beamed. "I'm Richard what's your name?"

She looked very shy all of a sudden and ran to hide behind her dad.

"Her name's Annie, she's a bit shy at the moment," her dad said. He seemed oddly uncomfortable with his daughter being next to him and I caught him wincing slightly when she touched him.

"Hello Annie. Sorry, I don't know your dad's name. But I've seen you both around the place with your wife," I said, making small talk as I got out some leaflets. I actually was a member of the local neighbourhood watch so I wasn't lying entirely and the reading material I'd been given when joining might finally find some use.

"It's John. Er yeah, she's upstairs working," he said without making eye contact.

"So I just need to check if you lock your door at night?"

John nodded. I thought back to the shadowy figure entering the house two nights before.

"And it's just the three of you living here?"

He nodded again.

"Four," said a voice from behind him. It was his daughter's voice but something about it sounded different, harder-edged. Nineties Man suddenly had a nervous look on his face.

"Hah, what are you saying love? Sh-she's good at counting but sometimes gets the numbers wrong…" he said with a stammer.

"Four…" she repeated, more firmly this time, moving into view and sending her father a withering look the likes of which I'd never seen a child give. I shifted in my chair uncomfortably.

She then calmly walked towards the front door.

"No!" her father shouted springing to his feet but she shot him another glare which made him shrivel back into his chair. I looked on confusedly as she proceeded to lock the front door.

"Wh-what's going on?" I said, terror building in my chest.

"You… must get… get out," her dad said to me through gritted teeth as if he was forcing the words out.

I turned to the daughter who had a terrifying scowl on her face. Something about her eyes seemed ancient and withered. It was horrifying to look at. She then turned the television on and the silent static appeared immediately.

"Don't… look…" her dad urged, grimacing. She then grabbed his hand and gripped it so tight that I heard a cracking sound. He let out an agonised wail.

"Jesus!" I cried leaping to my feet.

"You've been meddling little man. Peeking into our window in the dead of night. Seeing things you shouldn't see." She spoke in a cold voice devoid of the innocence one would expect from a child. I began to tremble with terror and edged backwards. I looked over at her father who was weeping silently in his chair, his fingers crumpled and bloody.

"It's time to put a stop to all that meddling," she said with a grin.

She rushed towards me with unnatural speed and I jumped out of the way just in time as she crashed through the chair. Without thinking straight and seeing only one exit I bolted through the other door to the second floor.

I raced past a small room that appeared to be the mother's office and shuddered as I glimpsed her lying flat on the floor with her eyes wide open. Dead perhaps. Realising I had effectively trapped myself I headed into the master bedroom thinking perhaps there was a chance I could drop from the top floor down to the porch.

The bedroom was entirely empty except for two sleeping bags and one oddly incongruent mirror. It was huge and extremely old with crude animalistic carvings scratched violently into a dark wooden frame. I ran over to the window praying it wasn't locked as I heard her climbing the stairs.

Shit! It was locked. I began frantically looking for the keys. Surely they should be near the window. She had reached the top of the stairs and was now walking across the landing with heavy thumping footsteps. I raced over, slammed the door shut, and tried to drag the mirror in front of it. It was impossibly heavy. I pulled with all my might but was too slow, the door flew open.

She stood menacingly with the light behind her shadowed face.

"Wh-what do you want? I'll leave you alone, I'm sorry…" I stammered.

"I don't want you to leave us alone little man. I want you to stay here…forever," she snarled.

I took a last desperate look around for the keys and my heart jumped when I saw them peeping out from where I'd managed to move the mirror a few inches.

I reached down quickly as she charged toward me gnashing and snarling. I kicked out my foot and caught her in the jaw with a crack. The keys in my hand I sprinted over to the window but she caught me by the heel sending me to the floor. Her eyes were like hell as she bore down upon me. I kicked with my other foot and caught her in the forehead, sending her sprawling backwards with a hideous guttural screech.

Fumbling with the keys I forced them into the lock and opened the window. She was up again. At that moment I saw something which confirmed the dreadful suspicions I'd had since I'd seen that shadowy shape in the dead of night and those hideous claws clutching the door. Where her reflection should have been in the mirror I saw a shifting form of pure and hateful darkness. It flickered like static and exuded a malevolence the kind of which I had never experienced before. I turned to face her in horror as she rapidly shifted between being a little girl to that thing in the mirror.

It was the last thing I saw as I fell from the window.

I woke up in the hospital a day later with a concussion and a broken leg. I was lucky to be alive, the doctors said. Apparently, I had spent the last few hours rambling about demons and a trapped family but they put it down to the concussion. My poor wife was understandably baffled by how I'd managed to fall out of the first-floor window of a neighbour's house. I came up with a half-baked story about helping Nineties Man with his guttering which, given I didn't even bother with our own guttering, did little to convince her. But I couldn't tell her the truth, no one could know the truth of what I saw. In fact, I began to think or hope my own brain was failing me, that I'd been under too much stress at work and that the added complication of lockdown had driven me mad.

But deep down I knew that to be a lie. I know what I saw.

After a week in hospital, I was discharged on crutches and with a cast. As we drove past Nineties Man's house I shuddered but then felt a wave of relief as I saw a 'for sale' sign in front.

"Looks like your new friend is off then love?" my wife said. "Shame, I know it's tricky for blokes to make friends round here."

This was one friend I could do without. As my leg healed over the next few weeks I began to mimic Jimmy Stewart's character in Rear Window, spending most of my time gazing surreptitiously out of our bedroom window. I said it was because the light upstairs was better for reading but of course the real reason was vigilance. Each day and evening I watched that cursed house like a hawk. I never saw Nineties Man, his wife, or his 'daughter' ever again. I suspected they fled when their terrible secret had been revealed.

But to this day, many years later, I am still haunted by what I saw that dark day. Every now and again I notice something out of the corner of my eye, a shadow in a mirror that shouldn't be there or a flicker of static on a TV screen where there should be none.

Writes weird fiction, sci-fi and horror short stories.