Those Who Watch
by Martin James Hunter
I have been competing in staring contests for almost twenty years now and can recall almost every one. The first one I attended was at the age of nineteen. It was a charity fundraiser for my local town. My then-girlfriend had pressured me into it. Her name escapes me.
The people of Rosslyn consider me a hero. Every year they host a charity event I never fail to attend. The pub’s blackboard invites people to try and beat me. Friends, enemies, drunks, tourists. We raise a lot of money and everyone I meet is smiling. They buy me drinks which I hardly touch. My parents voice their pride and old girlfriends are again infatuated with me.
But I am not there for them. I am there because it is a place and a time where I can be found if anyone desires.
Today I am attending a contest in the city of Glasgow. Some of its competitions in the past have run for over forty-eight hours; its prize is a thousand pounds. I lock eyes with several men and women on my way there, a series of short practice exercises.
Regulars watch me as I push through a thick audience. Banners advertising alcohol and crisps hang above suited men perched by the bar. The air is thick with sweat. In an open area there are a series of tables and chairs. I approach the judging desk, hand them twenty pounds, and register. I am given a lanyard, a cheap-looking pass, and a tournament bracket. From the diagram I can see that I will be competing in six matches. My first opponent is Colin Donaghy.
I sit at my designated table opposite Colin and give him a friendly nod but he does not respond. Already his eyes are locked onto mine. I am not affected by his attempts to gain the initiative. There is no power behind his eyes.
The referee is a man well into his final decade. He lists rules I have heard a thousand times: Both competitors must lock eyes before the whistle has been blown; the game ends when one of the competitors breaks their gaze; competitors are not allowed to distract one another with any kind of gesture, noise or physical contact; anyone interfering or attempting to interfere with the competitors will be removed from the premises.
Staring contests are generally not taken seriously by most. To them it is either a game of patience, or of intimidation. This is because they do not have the capacity to understand it. They think that all they have to do to win is bore or unnerve their opponent. To those who really understand the game, there is much more.
The whistle peeps softly.
Colin is a thug. It is as obvious as the sky is blue. Already my gaze is having an effect on him. He is going back and forward between my two eyes as though looking for something. I stare back, working his pupils like a safe until they dilate. Then I let myself in.
Images spill fast, shuffling highlights of his life. A shoe slamming down on an unconscious man’s head; his wife reeling back from his knuckles during a screaming match; a dog forgotten in its kennel, motionless and bloated. My research is completed within moments, an incriminating mental dossier. Now that it is composed I let Colin know what I’ve seen. He gags as his own memories turn on him, goggling at me as though I am a manifestation from hell bent on rending him. He lets out a soft moan and falls backwards onto the floor.
The old referee blows his whistle. Colin is given a moment to recover, then gently led from the building. He does not glance at me as he leaves. My lesson will haunt his sleep for months.
My second opponent is a young man by the name of Johnny. His eyes are heavy with fatigue. His first match must have been a tough one. But I can also see something else: a vague understanding of the art. A lingering sensation from the past. I feel in a few years’ time he will be a worthy adversary.
The referee blows his whistle and we begin. I decide on a gift for my younger opponent. I dilate my own pupils and allow him a glimpse of something ineffable. He gapes at what he sees.
He twists his head from me, surrendering, reaching out with his arm. The whistle peeps again. He gazes into my eyes again as we grip hands, but not out of competitiveness, rather curiosity and respect. He exits quietly through the thickening crowd, leaving me feeling our paths will cross again.
My third opponent is not worth discussing as it is a quick and unremarkable win. My table now holds the attention of every man and women in the building. A referee brings me a glass of water which I noisily finish while I am waiting for my fourth opponent, Rachel. In this time I reflect on my own training techniques.
This morning was spent gazing at myself in the mirror, refusing to break eye contact for four hours. Even I have to admit my own gaze can be quite frightening, but the exercise is incredibly beneficial. By constantly replaying my own memories, I become bored of them like old videotapes or overplayed songs. If anyone unlocks them during a contest, they will affect me less when they are played back.
Rachel is also around my age, although she has reached there a little more gently than I. As she gazes at me I see there is no competitiveness in her eyes, just a desire to play as though we are lovers dizzy with lust. I smirk as the referee’s whistle peeps.
Her irises glow like a field of azure flowers in the sunlight. The average competitor would be too distracted by this to get past them, her beauty a guardian in itself. Accessing her thoughts is as easy as opening an unlocked door. I tip-toe around her head in silence, allowing her to believe for a moment that her spell is working. Images come to me. Slow at first, then faster. A glimpse of her naked in a tall mirror. An empty cot. Her seventh birthday without her father. Then, faster than expected, I find what I’m looking for. Her greatest fantasy: to be the subject of a voyeur. How fitting.
I play it for her, her own sexual escapism, perverse images growing across her vision like hallucinations and blinding her from the real world. Her lips part as she loses herself to this personal show. Then, slowly, I begin to undress her with my eyes. She does not fight it; I can see and feel how wet she has already become. She is squirming in her seat now I am in complete control. Her chest stutters as her breathing quickens. Millions of tiny hairs standing to attention. Toes curling in their shoes. Eyes flickering like a dying television channel. A sudden tense silence.
Her body convulses as she has the loudest and most violent orgasm of her life, right in the middle of the bar. Everyone watches agog as she writhes and stutters and gasps and curses to herself. A fake nail comes off as she squeezes the table. A spectator whispers Oh my God.
Rachel’s back arcs a final time and she stays there for a moment like a sculpture. Then she collapses onto the table panting. There is a moment of shocked silence before the referee remembers to blow his whistle. This is followed by yet more silence. The judges allow a few minutes for Rachel to compose herself. Then she is led, legs trembling, from the room.
I defeat my fifth opponent within two minutes. He leaves both shocked and stunned. I notice I have gotten the attention of the strange suited men sat by the bar. They watch me with cavernous eyes. One of them approaches in the interval before the final. Towering over me, he begins his prosecution.
“You’re pretty good.”
“Really good, in fact. How’d you get like that?”
“Born with it, I suppose.”
“No, there’s something else. You’ve sussed it haven’t you?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
“The game. You’ve sussed it. No one has lasted more than five minutes with you yet. You’re on a whole different level.”
“All I do is keep staring until I win.”
“I know. But what exactly are you staring at?”
I am thankful when we are interrupted by the referee. The suited man returns to the bar where he continues monitoring me. I push him from my mind and concentrate on the matter at hand.
My final opponent is a grim reminder of just how dark this game can get. Before the whistle is blown she kicks me sharply under the table and I grimace, almost breaking my gaze. Boiling blood shoots through my body and I am picturing her upside down and naked and begging for my forgiveness when the whistle is blown. Not a good way to start but by then it is far too late.
I go at her like a blade, stabbing her eyes and twisting, destroying memories as I spool through them, inflicting permanent mental damage. She glares back, applying the same ferocity as I do. She can sense my power but arrogantly tries to fight it anyway. I hack at her repeatedly, spilling memories like blood. Shelf stacking. Hair removal cream. Dusty being put to sleep. Pissing herself under her desk. Her boyfriend cheating on her. A fear of flying. The smell of burnt hair. No. There must be something. Deeper. Dig deeper. Find it. Stabbing again and again. Gritted teeth. Come on. The smell of shoe polish. Sleeping in all day. Fist fights in school. Being the ugly one. A fear of all men. There it is. A glimpse of a repressed memory. The head of a curious worm. Pinch it between two fingers and pull. Slippery. Don’t let it get away. Not too hard though, don’t crush it. Yes. It’s coming. Drag it from the shroud. Nearly. A memory. Flickering. As though cast from an old film reel. A private showing. Exclusively for the two of us. A grand explosion of emotions pissing over us like rain.
She lies there in silence, her father’s breathing still deafening in her ear, but he has gone back downstairs now to bawl his eyes out.
The asthmatic creature is back. She can hear it under the bed wheezing excitedly, waiting for her to dangle a limb so it can feed. The fleshy thing in the cupboard is there too, staring at her with huge black eyes. Never blinking. They have been there for as long as she can remember. Predators fixated on a single prey. Waiting for her to slip up just once.
She used to fear them. Used to bolt across the room when she needed the toilet so she wasn’t grabbed and dragged under the bed screaming. She used to make sure the cupboard door was jammed shut too, a chair propped against it for good measure. She used to wish she could lock it.
Used to. But now she doesn’t. It lies open and she doesn’t care. Her tired arm hangs over the edge of the bed and she doesn’t care about that either. Not now that she knows what a real monster is.
As the reel finishes a single tear rolls down her expressionless face and my anger drains. I cannot help but feel a little shame for what I have done; in my victory I have destroyed her. The clock ticks heavily. An old man clears his lungs. Someone finishes their drink. Her lids close, leaving me staring at them. The peep of the old referee’s whistle.
Another of my opponents is led from the room in silence to no applause. I just sit there for a moment, the focal point of the room. Someone’s shoes scuff against the wooden floor uncomfortably. I am brought a cheque by the reluctant old referee. No one shakes my hand. A camera flash goes off without enthusiasm. The audience go back to their drinks leaving me feeling like a monster.
I can feel them glaring at me as I gather my belongings. They sense something and have misinterpreted it for evil. Yes, the art can be dark, but not it is not primarily so. A kitchen knife has the ability to tear open flesh and rend organs, but the majority of the time it is used to prepare food.
It was a mistake to play whilst enraged. However, I will not lose any sleep over it. I am just leaving this grim building when the suited man steps from the shadows to stop me.
“An incredible finale. Allow me to express my congratulations.”
“Thank you. I was just leaving.”
“Just a moment, I have a proposition for you.”
“I’m sorry. I have to go.”
“A real contest against someone like yourself. A man who has been playing for decades and has never been beaten. He longs for a challenge. Longs to play a real game. I’m not going to pretend I know exactly what he means when he rants about it being an art, but I imagine you might,”
“He’s offering fifty-thousand to anyone who can beat him. What do you say?”
“…I’ll do it.”
I am led from the bar by the suited men into a Volkswagen. We cross half the city until we come to a Western part of it I have never seen before. We traipse down an alleyway past a homeless man vomiting over a bin bag until we come to the back entrance of a restaurant. Then we head through the kitchen past oblivious employees until we come to a room hazy with cigarette smoke.
Men in loosened shorts and ties bark words laced with alcohol, and money is slapped against wood and crushed in balled fists. There is a table and chairs in the middle of the room. My opponent is already there as though he has been waiting for me all week, and it appears he has not slept in years. He watches me intensely as I sit, and already I can detect his skill. A vast rug of money separates us.
The rules are explained again but neither of us are listening. We both know this will be a contest like never before. The whistle sounds.
We begin gently, sharing our pasts like dinner guests. My adversary is Gareth Willis. He is divorced, and like me has lost interest in women. He is 5’11’’ and weighs exactly eleven stone. He is an atheist, an individualist and a conservative, and has indeed never lost a staring match. Neither have I.
We carry on passing information to another, a friendly bit of note-swapping. It is always like this when I face someone who truly understands the game. It never lasts though.
Our searching quickens, intensifies, and we are going at another like thieves ransacking offices. He discovers I once fucked an unconscious girl at a college party, and isn’t fazed. I carry on exploring his head, looking at the traditional hiding places but knowing there is something else out of sight. Something much more powerful but cleverly concealed. Images and words spill past me. A waterfall of information. Pushing a child over in the street for no reason. A glimpse of his ex-wife’s asshole. A videotape purchased from the internet of a young woman being tortured and eventually disembowelled. But there is something else. Something much more precious and infinitely darker, nestled under layers and layers of mental concrete.
The men around us chant ferociously amidst the electricity. They have never felt a match like this, and neither have I. My opponent is fighting back now, rejecting my attack. I feel the concrete crumbling under the pressure. A single point giving way and spiderwebbing. His top lip twitches. A bead of sweat rolls over his grimacing face and he mouths something to himself. Around us money is crushed into tighter balls. There is a snap and the spiderweb spreads and I can see the dark shape he is trying to conceal. The head of the worm. Grab it firmly but not too firm. Pull it from its shelter. He is using my own memories against me now. Familiar images flash across my eyes, but I have no idea what belongs to whom. Kicking a drunken tramp until he stops singing. Cumming on stolen panties. Hitting a child with a car and continuing on. Every pore in my flesh leaks as though my body is malfunctioning. I feel as though I have pushed a spring in as far as it will go and all that remains is to be hurled back in defeat. My own concrete begins to crack. And splinter. I give the spring one last squeeze. A second breath. An eardrum bursts with the pressure and half the room is draped in silence. My nose stings with smoke and sweat. He squeals like a trampled rat. Digs his fingers into the table. Give it to me!
He drops onto the table, a steaming motionless pile, and I vomit over my legs. When I am through I sit there gasping and dripping and barely conscious, watching my opponent, expecting him to sit up laughing at any moment. The smell of sweat is intoxicating. My functioning ear is alive with the scream of tinnitus. Once again, my audience do not applaud.
Eventually I stand from my seat and sweep up the money. I tap several bundles straight and pocket them. My legs feel like I have just violently cum. No one tries to stop me as I leave.