The Tenth Row was previously published in a Halloween special from the Yellow Chair Review (which now doesn’t seem to exist).
The Tenth Row
You take your place near the centre. It’s your favourite seat. The shifting light from the advert flickers across your face. It’s half past eleven on a Tuesday morning. You prefer this time to come to the cinema. Now that you’re unemployed, you come as often as you can afford to; it delays the crescendo of emptiness each afternoon brings. Like now, you often get the whole place to yourself. Even the usher has left. The trailers begin. You put your water bottle in the holder. You thumb a mint out of its packet and put it in your mouth. The movie starts. You enjoy the beginning. It’s your type of film.
There is movement to your right. A man now stands at the entrance, illuminated sporadically by the screen; you don’t understand why anyone would watch a film when they’ve missed the beginning. He’s wearing baggy jeans and a black hoodie. Scanning the cinema up and down, he moves forward. Hang on, you think, he looks familiar. But you don’t know from where. He starts walking up the stairs. He turns into your row – the tenth row. In an empty cinema he still chooses your row. Why? Closer he comes. Closer still. He sits down in the seat directly next to you. Luckily your coat is on the other side so you don’t have to move it for him. You expect an introduction, a grunt of acknowledgement at least, but he doesn’t say a word and neither do you. You don’t even turn to look at him. You wonder why someone would behave like this. You would like to get up, move to another seat, but your anxiety glues you to your chair – your anxiety has been playing up; it is one of the reasons you left your job. You know a better person would get up and move – sighing, tutting. But to you, moving would acknowledge the situation; bring it out in the open. You can’t cope with that.
Time sticks to every moment; seconds become hours. You can’t concentrate on the movie. You start to feel warm; a prickly sweat buds on your hairline and your palms get clammy. You want to take your jumper off but don’t want the attention the motion will bring. You want to disappear. Ten minutes finally pass.
He stands up. You can feel your heart. You wish the usher were here. He turns to face your way. He moves towards you. What is he doing? He tries to get in front of you. You do that half-standing-knees-to-the-side movement as he moves past you. You mutter an apology. Why? You watch him walk to the end of the aisle and turn around. You look away quickly, to avoid eye contact. He does look familiar, but from where? You hear him walk along the aisle behind you. You hear him sit directly in the seat behind you. This is worse. Much worse. You don’t even have you in your peripheral vision anymore. You can hear him breathing in the quiet parts of the movie; heavy and open-mouthed – a mucus-click before every exhale. You think you can feel the warmth of it on the back of your neck.
The usher walks in and looks around. You want to signal your distress to her, call for help. But you don’t. She walks out. Who is it behind you? Why is he familiar? Doesn’t he live on your street? Someone you pass every now and again? Is that why you recognise him? Just a coincidence. Or perhaps it was his parked car you bumped into and drove away from yesterday. Perhaps, it was his rear light you broke. Did he see you do it from his window? Has he followed you here? Does he want revenge? No. Don’t be silly. This is ridiculous. Deep breaths. It’s the anxiety talking.
Then it hits you. He’s that co-worker from ten years ago, when you were teenagers working in a fast-food restaurant. The unhealthy guy with long, greasy hair and creepy eyes that always lingered on the female customers as his upper lip twitched. The one who said weird things like: ‘painkillers should be banned because people should suffer, because it’s natural to suffer’. The one who kept showing you weapons he’d bought from that martial arts store in the market – strange sticks and blades he claimed were illegal. The one you think left a dead mouse in your rucksack. The one you had to talk to the boss about; the one you had to grass up about spitting in the food; the one you got sacked – he must have known you were responsible.
You think about leaving. You think closely about the action of standing, grabbing your coat and bottle, and walking out one step at a time. You will yourself to do it, but your nerves hold you rigid. Your muscles won’t yield.
You think of his hands reaching for you from behind. You think about a bag going over your head. You think about a hammer coming down on you. You think about a cold wire around your neck, stifling your screams as he garrottes you. You think about his hand taking handfuls of hair and snapping your head back so he can cut your throat. You think what the blade will feel like.
You’re blind to the film in front of you, paying attention only to the shuffles and creaks behind you. You’re pure anticipation. The film has ten minutes left. You need the toilet.
You feel his hand on the back of your chair. Oh God. Your body tenses as your chair tilts back. This is it. But he’s just steadying himself as he stands. You hear him walk down the aisle towards the exit. You turn to look as he gets further away. He stands by the exit. He looks back at you – he’s smiling. It’s him. It’s definitely him. He walks out. The film finishes. You wait for the credits to finish. The lights go on. The usher walks in. It’s time to leave.