2015-2016, Short Story

Stranger in the Crowd

Featured in the 2016 Spring Issue of Rambunctious

By Issy Hanick-Herman, ’16

Never look them in the eye. That’s the first thing they teach you at school.

If you see them, keep your head down, look the other way, but don’t you dare on your life look them in the eye.

I’ve seen them plenty of times. It’s no big deal, really. Just do what’s been drilled into you and no one gets hurt. The first time, when you’re a kid, you get dizzy from the realization of what just happened, and more importantly, what could have happened. The first time you see a stranger is one of the most important moments in your life.

“How do you know it’s a stranger?” kids ask on their first day of school.

Then the teacher would smile and sigh a little and say, “That’s a little tricky. Strangers dress just like you and me, but they’re not you and me, see? Anyway, the only way to know for sure if it’s a stranger is to look at their face.”

“But I thought you can’t!” the children always cry.

“No, the face is safe. Just don’t let them make eye-contact with you. So if you see someone and you don’t recognize their face, what do you do?”

“Look away!” said the kids in unison.

And then, there’s always one kid. One kid who asks the question everyone else wants to ask but is too scared to. “What happens if you look a stranger in the eye?”

The teacher hesitates and then says, “Bad things. Very bad things. But it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Just always walk with an adult and…?”

“Look away!”

I only see them occasionally, about once or twice every two weeks or so. It’s usually when I’m walking back from the store with groceries. I see an unfamiliar face and, like clockwork, bury my eyes in a bag of tomatoes. I wait a few seconds, look up, and they’re gone. With nothing else to see, I just go on my merry way.

You don’t really keep track of when you see one, like you don’t remember every time you’ve brushed your teeth. It just happens, it’s over with, and you forget shortly after. Occasionally you’ll hear on the news that someone (mostly children, unfortunately) looked a stranger in the eye. Everyone gets sad, speaks in hushed voices for a bit, then never mentions them again.

No one knows where strangers come from. They disappear as quickly as they show up. I’m just glad you’re safe. After all, you’ve never looked a stranger in the eye, have you?