Bad Signs by Billy Hallal

The first time that it happened was in the supermarket.

You hadn’t been back in town that long. A few months, maybe. You were at the store to get produce. Your parents were always on you to eat healthier, and you thought you’d give it a shot. You stood before the shelves of lettuce, daunted by the scope of your options. Back at your apartment, you were used to choosing between frozen pizza and microwavable burritos. Who cares about the difference between baby spinach and regular spinach?

That’s what you were thinking when it happened.

You sensed, more than saw, the old woman in your periphery. She was down at the other end of the aisle, but she seemed to be looking in your direction. You kept your eyes straight ahead. Small talk, to you, was suffocation.

Another glance. The woman’s head was still turned in your direction. She probably was looking at you. Maybe she knew you. Maybe she had dementia. You ventured to look over at her.

She was staring at you and smiling. It was a wide smile—unhealthily wide. Wider than the woman’s face should have allowed. Face splitting, wild-eyed. Maniacal. It was a smile you’d see on a psychotic clown, on the killer at the end of the movie as the depths of his insanity are revealed.

You blinked, looked back at the lettuce. That couldn’t have been what you saw. You took a breath and glanced at her again.

She was a regular old woman smiling a regular old-woman smile. She was definitely staring right at you—not waving, not saying hello. You’d never seen her before.

You knew you should smile or wave, but you couldn’t. You turned and walked past the registers and through the sliding doors. You’d already opened the car door when you realized you were still carrying the shopping basket.

You took a moment to laugh at yourself. Getting creeped out by a harmless old lady. It must have been a trick of perspective or something. Or maybe it had something to do with the way your brain fills in images. Like the time you came home from school, probably sophomore year, and for a split second saw your mom stooped over, sitting down crying at the kitchen table. Turns out it had just been her raincoat, draped uncharacteristically over the chair.

Or maybe you’d been smoking too much.

You went back to the store and bought chicken strips and packaged ramen. You didn’t return to the produce aisle.

By the time you finish the chicken, chasing it down with a cop show from your parents’ DVR, you’ve all but forgotten the old lady and her smile. All that’s left is a feeling—a slow thread working its way up your stomach to your chest, so thin you barely notice it’s there.

You came back to your hometown to take a beat. Also, because your parents had died.

It was a car crash. You hadn’t been on the outs with them or anything, but you hadn’t been as close as you could have been. You didn’t call them often. Your visits home were rare and fraught with awkward peril. What would you have to talk about? What would you do together? Mostly you holed up in your childhood room. You’d blow bong hits out the window and play on your old Nintendo 64 until it was time for dinner.

On your last visit home, you accidentally overheard your father complaining to your mother about you. He said you were directionless and ungrateful. What did we pay for three years of college for, et cetera. It’s stuff you’d rather not think about now.

The funeral was small. Neither your mom or dad had much in the way of family or friends, and you were an only child. You worried for a while that you didn’t feel as sad as you should have.

Gradually, you stopped worrying.

The house and their money went to you. They’d been thrifty your entire life: middle-class house, middle-class suburb. Every family vacation within driving distance. Store-brand everything. You assumed there wouldn’t be much. You were wrong. Your dad, always circumspect, would sometimes mention that he’d made some good investments. You guessed those were what had filled your paltry bank account.

You thought about your place in the city: a cramped apartment with roommates you didn’t like, paid for with a job that made you stressed and unhappy. Why had you been so eager to run away from the house you’d grown up in? It wasn’t big, but it was open, generous with its space. The beds were wide and comfy. The cabinets and the freezer were still full.

You didn’t renew your month-to-month. You realized you didn’t have to live that way. Your immediate future didn’t always have to be an anxious mystery. You could stay here for a few weeks. You could apply to new jobs, figure out what you wanted to do with the place—with your life. You would stay, you told yourself, until the cabinets went empty.

But your folks had some generously stocked cabinets.

Weeks turned into months. At some point, you stopped applying for jobs. Entire days pass without you leaving the house. You are dimly aware that your old friends are out there and might want to hear from you, but even the thought of that makes you feel exhausted. You can’t imagine what you’d talk about or what you’d do. Your Nintendo 64 only has one controller.

Sometimes, out of nowhere, you get this gnawing feeling. You’ll be playing video games, or eating on the couch, or waking up in the middle of the night. It comes on like a sudden itch: pressure building in your chest. Tightness, shallow breathing. Some part of your lizard brain that handles fight or flight, and it’s telling you to run. You look around, try to take a breath.

Nothing looks different. No threats that you can see.

Stuff like this has happened to you before, sort of. You’ve had panic attacks. It happened a few times in college before you dropped out. It happened at work once when you almost got fired. It’s leveled off. You’ve learned to control your breathing, to list things in the room.

Once they pass, you’re annoyed with yourself. You don’t even have anything to worry about now. It’s probably too much weed. Although, since your return, you’ve slowed consumption, not sure where to get it now, not willing to venture out and find it.

It’s probably just the world, you think. Paranoid times. You don’t care much about the news, but it’s hard to escape. Economic collapse, environmental disaster. Decades-long wars. Word of catastrophe seeps in like noxious gas.

You remind yourself that these things are happening, but not here. You’re safe where you are. You start a new game or a show. Memories of the panic begin to fade. All that’s left is a lingering, bristling feeling.

The feeling brushes against your spine. It caresses your ears like a whisper—like a scream without a tongue.