Fiction: Paranoia

By Anise Algin

Blog post on August 26, 2023
I entered the subway at Double-Churches station, near the starting point of the blue line. It is hardly ever crowded at 8:15 AM, and this day was no exception. I took a seat by the window facing the train’s doors, and that was when I saw the guy. He was sitting on the single seat next to the doors. What captured my attention was not his appearance or attire–he was quite inconspicuous in those departments. It was the glance he threw my way. He looked at me, then looked away.
It was a random glance at the surface, no longer than half a second, but something about it put my brain on a raised level of alert. For a moment I wondered if it was the glance that bothered me or the fact that he looked away so quickly. Was I that uninteresting? I stopped that line of thought before it got a chance of growing. Did I even want a random stranger to find me interesting? No. I did not. Of that I was sure. I am the type of person who prefers to interact with strangers in the comment sections of blogs, rather than in person, the type who always has to practice small-talk questions ahead of time if she needs to meet new people. It was definitely the glance, not the looking away, that had bothered me. It was that acute attention in it, that sharp sizing, as if he read all there was to read about me from that one look.
Then he repeated it, not with me, he never threw as much as another fleeting glance in my direction, but with other women that entered the train in the next two stations, and one man at the third station. Looked at, looked away, the same fraction of the second every time.  
By the time we reached Milton Park station, the subway train had become more crowded. A couple of teenagers stood in front of me, chatting about their pregnant friend. I could still see the glancer guy from a narrow opening between the two teens, and I kept watching despite my better judgment. That was when she entered.
Unlike the glancer guy, she had a very distinct attire, an unlikely combination of crimson and teal: a wide-collared blouse in crimson tucked inside silky pants in teal. The pants flowed around her skinny figure and cascaded on top of a pair of leather pumps in teal and crimson stripes. She was a redhead, if the color was natural, which it could be–my aunt had the same color hair before it went gray, and she never used hair dye. But the teal streaks were of course dyed in. The hairdo was a short geometric bob, looking like someone took a full hour matching each strand’s length, which most probably, someone did. She was at the same time elegant and goofy. I never saw her face, since she quickly leaned on the pole in front of the teens, but I did see the guy repeat his creepy glance with her.
Looked at, looked away. Same rhythm, except for one thing: After that one glance at Crimson-Teal, the guy stopped glancing altogether.  I had another five stations to go, and in the next three, the guy looked at no one. Zero glances. Zero looking up. Either he had tired of glancing, or he had found in Crimson-Teal what he sought. That latter thought was too creepy, and I became quite uncomfortable thinking about it as the what-if speculations wrapped around me like spider webs.
The next stop was the East Gate station. I had one last station to go and would be very happy to leave this glancing business behind. So what if a guy had taken a few glances? Not every person chancing a look at another was a serial killer choosing their next victim. If that were so, what would it make me? I always watched passengers, one after the other, judging their fashion and guessing at their lives.
The train’s deceleration made everyone lean forward and steady themselves in a rush. The recorded voice announced the East Gate station and, to my relief, Crimson-Teal peeled herself from the pole and disembarked. End of story. I let out a breath in relief. Then, right before the doors closed, the creepy glancer got up and exited too. The doors shut behind him.
My gasp was audible. I craned my neck, unable to take my eyes from the two people that disappeared melting in the crowd, the generic almost invisible glancer and the very conspicuous Crimson-Teal. Then the train began to accelerate, pinned us to the back of their seats, and moved us away.
Ten to fifteen people get in and out of every opening in these stations, a constant flux of flesh and blood. The odds of any two–coincidentally–entering or exiting together are quite high. Humans are wired to find patterns where there are none. We find bears in the stars, elephants in clouds, and a full account of the future in the arrangement of tea leaves at the bottom of our cups.
Humans glance at each other all the time too. Some, like me, are interested in fashion. Others, like me, are hyper vigilant and given to paranoia. We all enjoy judging others. If I had not focused my attention on the glances of that one guy, how many other random glances would I have spotted? The number of possible combinations would be astronomical.
Muddy footprints on your doorstep may only mean a tired city worker took a moment of rest there. A subtle movement behind a curtained window may only mean a remote-working neighbor took a coffee break in mid-morning.
They say trust your gut instincts only if you were specifically trained for noticing such details, if you are a detective, for example, or a visual artist. I am neither. For people like me, a regular office worker whose closest relative, an elderly aunt, lives forty miles away, it stands to reason to be cautious but not paranoid, never paranoid. Fight it. Fight paranoia.  
End of blogpost
I fought paranoia for the next two days. I battled its growing talons and tentacles. I tore at its spinning webs. I made myself stop seeing the glancer creep in every passerby. I had almost killed, or at least tamed, the spider-octopus-vulture monster of paranoia when, early on the morning of the third day, the doorbell made me jump.
I peeked from the glass panel of the front door, fully expecting the glancer behind it. The plain-clothes woman at the door flashed a badge at me–police detective. I raised a finger and showed her my phone. I am the type of person who has to call the police station to check credentials. The detective was legit, so I opened the door and looked behind her. Somewhere out there her partner would be checking the perimeters.
“Ms. Algin?”
I nodded.
“Can you describe the guy you wrote about in more detail?” she said, handing me a printout of my blogpost. “We were running a web search, and our program flagged your post.”
I must have looked puzzled because she continued, “The girl you described never made it home. She is missing.”
My head began to spin. Her next words were a blur. Could I pick him out from a line, for example? I tried to think. Light skin, short hair, trim beard, in neutral-colored shorts and T-shirt. No! I could not pick him out of any line for the life of me, not if everyone in that line matched those descriptions.
Fight paranoia! I told myself, Stick to facts! Many people go missing by choice. That girl may have fought with her boyfriend and be staying with an aunt. Or a long-lost friend may have suddenly turned up with a request for emergency help, and Crimson may have responded to that. Or…I could go on, even though pushing for the positive was not my brain’s style. I was clutching at straws, fully aware that if any of these scenarios were truly on the table, the police would not be knocking on my door.
The detective looked at me with pity and concern. Then she opened her mouth. I was prepared to hang on to every word of hopeful wisdom that trickled out, anything to divert my mind from the poor girl that I could have saved if only I had screamed my head off in that subway train. Or, if I could remember the man’s face. I was always bad with faces, much better at remembering people’s clothes.
“Relax,” the detective said, “I know what you are thinking but don’t worry, at least not yet. What are the chances that the creep stumbles upon your blog post, realizes you saw him, and comes after you?”

Anise is a university teacher who lives near a large city and writes stories during long commutes.