Eye to Eye by Moriah Hampton

[This piece contains violent content.]

for EL

On the morning Lora M. Berty broadcast Doug McKillan’s violent diatribe on the Uplifting Words for the Day program, the people of Merryville left their homes, impromptu, to congregate at the town square. In a mass, they stood before the 45-x-25-foot-tall screen, large enough to show a drive-in movie if the mass media hadn’t been banned twenty years prior “for the sake of public health.” Together, they watched their neighbor, Doug McKillan, shout vile, horrific words at them. “I want to bash in Jill Henderson’s head with a baseball bat. I want to grab Frank Milligan by the throat and squeeze until his eyes pop out.”

Some members of the crowd flinched. Yet everyone kept watching the thirty-second video on autoloop. The Uplifting Words for the Day program, on their community channel, usually featured messages on gratitude, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. Imagine their surprise when Doug McKillan, a man poised to become a beloved community member, appeared on their home monitors and on the town square screen shouting obscene threats against their neighbors.

Doug McKillan himself believed moving to Merryville would rid him of such vile thoughts. That was why, after taking a leave of absence from McKillan Home Security Corporation, he moved from his home to the community-oriented town nearby, convinced it would “be the best thing” for him. Unpacking a small box in his Tudor-style home in Merryville’s oldest neighborhood, he exhaled, relieved. The vile thoughts that besieged him were fading. He was winning the war that lasted months and overtook every aspect of his life.

A few days later when members of the welcome committee knocked on his front door, he felt determined to silence his vile thoughts for good. He found Jim and Kitty LaGrange standing on his stoop, a broad smile stretched across each face.

“Come in,” he ushered, standing aside.

They followed him into the living room, the only room in the house entirely arranged.  Doug sat in the paisley armchair across from Kitty and Jim, on the grey-and-white-striped couch, still smiling broadly. Aside from the realtor, movers, and gate patrols, Jim and Kitty were the only people in Merryville Doug had interacted with since his stay twenty years prior. Then, Merryville was little more than an idea held by a group of dissatisfied city dwellers. Together, they bought a plot of land, determined to build a community bound together by love. He met with them to discuss the purchase of fifteen home security systems. Sitting at the board table in the newly constructed town hall, the only public building standing in Merryville at the time, he was struck by the genuine fellow-feeling shared by all around. The fifteen security systems they purchased that day would be used not to protect each household from danger but to connect neighbors in the town to one another. By the end of the meeting, Doug really didn’t care how they used the security systems as long as he was paid. He had just started McKillan Corporation and desperately needed revenue those days.

Sitting across from Kitty and Jim now, Doug felt perplexed. They seemed different in some fundamental way from the people he met years prior. They certainly cared about community, but there was something off about them, though what precisely he couldn’t say. He sat up paying close attention as they continued their welcome orientation.

“As you know,” Kitty chimed in, “new arrivals need to sign the community standards contract as soon as possible.”

 She placed a manila envelope on the coffee table.

“Once your commitment to Merryville is affirmed,” Jim continued, “then we suggest you start watching our Uplifting Words for the Day program. We believe it’s our responsibility to uplift our neighbors. We don’t expect newcomers to transform themselves into dependable, loyal, generous, and kind community members on their own. We all come here with years of conditioning to put ourselves first in this dog-eat-dog world.”

Jim paused and looked at Kitty who was smiling, nodding yes.

“Once you start to feel a part of the community,” she resumed, “we suggest recording your own speech to uplift your neighbor. No rush. Immerse yourself in the program first and when you feel ready . . .”

At that point, Doug realized what made Kitty and Jim different from the people he met twenty years before. Sure, they showed commitment to community, but they lacked something fundamental, the spirit that made Merryville such a memorable place on his first visit. It was as if they stopped believing in Merryville. Looking at their faces, Doug detected lines of sadness that were sure to deepen once they stopped smiling, and for a moment, he wanted to rip off their smiles to see what lay underneath. Just then, Jim said, “No one worries about getting ahead” and gave him a thumbs up.

Kitty slapped her knee. “What a waste of time!”
They both laughed, and Doug, to his surprise, joined in.

On the front stoop, Doug waved goodbye to Kitty and Jim, keeping his misgivings about the couple to himself. Back in the city, he felt alone so much of the time, as if orbiting a planet populated by people who only knew him from a distance. But moments before, Jim gave him a thumbs up in good fun. When was the last time someone gave him a thumbs up? And throughout, he never had a violent outburst. He longed to laugh more with Kitty and Jim. Soon, he would be living for the community, loving life again.

The next morning, Doug awoke eager to follow Kitty and Jim’s instructions. He sat at the kitchen table, the community contract spread before him. He read it through, nodding the entire time.

“I, ______________________, will uphold the responsibilities of a Merryville community member. I recognize that the Merryville community is a loving community, but that I, as a human, sometimes struggle to be loving. To increase my love for the community, I agree to undergo a deprogramming process. I will face setbacks, but I know it’s in the community’s best interest, and therefore mine, that I complete the program. I agree to engage in community-building exercises regularly to strengthen my connection to the community. These exercises will raise my awareness of the ways my self-interest conflicts with others. I will not ignore this knowledge. When I learn how to love my neighbor in a self-less, abundant way, I will have become a vital member of the Merryville community.

Community Member’s Signature:  ___________________”

He signed off easily, aware of only one part of him that resisted. With time, that part would fall in line.

Attached to the document was a checklist of community-building exercises. Kitty instructed him to fill it in his first few weeks in Merryville. “All new members start by watching the Uplifting Words for the Day program before taking part in community events.” She advised, “Start with a few selections. It can be difficult to hear our neighbors caring in authentic ways. We’re used to questioning motives and dismissing signs of concern for veiled self-interest. After all, that’s how we survive out there. But I encourage you to be receptive to what your neighbors have to say. Know that they are talking to you whether they have met you or not.”

He clicked on the monitor, recalling how Jim said they hung in every home, newer monitors that replaced the ones purchased from his corporation years ago. At that moment, someone in Merryville is watching this program and hearing the same words he hears.

On the screen, a middle-aged man finished talking. After a blip, an older woman appeared, “Jill Hennessy, eight-year resident” scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

“Good morning, Merryville. I am so grateful for another beautiful day. Not so long ago, I was like some of you. I scoffed at the idea of community, believing that people cared only for themselves. But living in Merryville has shown me that not all people are alike. Here, I have met wonderful, loving, giving people, people who put their neighbors before themselves. Not so long ago, I believed I would live out my final days alone in some grand but quiet house, but I realized that I don’t have to settle for such a lonely existence. Life is too short for that. I want to enjoy however many days I have left in Merryville, surrounded by you.”

Doug turned off the monitor to absorb Jill Hennessy’s message in silence. He stared at the darkened screen where his new neighbor had been, feeling only appreciation for Jill Hennessy, not one sliver of hatred.

Months before, he had hoped that when he opened his eyes, Tracy Henderson would be gone from his corporate office. She sat across from him, gripping the armrests, her face tightly stretched. She continued telling him about the recent break-in.

 “I went downstairs to make some coffee, and when I entered the foyer, I saw the front door left wide open. I screamed. My neighbor, who was just leaving to walk her dog, ran over.  We checked the entire house and found only the clay rabbit on my front porch broken.”

 “Thank God you’re all right,” Doug said, surprised that he didn’t quite mean it.

 “I was lucky.”

 “And you’re sure you activated the alarm?” he asked again.

 “I always do, especially when Derek’s out of town.”

 Doug nodded.

 She rose and he followed. Almost out the door, she turned and said, “I like you, Doug. I don’t want to have to take my business elsewhere.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

At his desk, he considered whether Tracy and Derek’s alarm system had malfunctioned. Perhaps there was a power surge or outage that night? But before he could think of another excuse, he imagined Tracy, half-asleep, walking into the foyer, the front door flung open. She screamed, and he grew excited, thrilled by her helplessness. Then he froze. He didn’t want to ask why he had that reaction. He did a lot to keep his clients safe, insisting he meet with them regularly so he could stay informed of their concerns. He was not a bad man. Feeling like himself again, he rang up the tech department and instructed them to run a performance check on the Hendersons’ security system.

That night, he dreamed he broke into Tracy and Derek’s house. He walked through the foyer, into the living room, a knife in his hand. He heard Tracy stepping down the stairs, and when she entered the living room, he gripped the knife tighter. He awoke, feeling still like the man from the dream.

In the morning, he told himself, “Dreams are dreams. Who knows what they mean.”

But at work, after he was informed the problem with the Hendersons’ security system was bad wiring, he imagined breaking into the Hendersons’ all over again. What if he didn’t fix the problem? What if he left the Hendersons’ home unprotected? As long as he didn’t act on these fantasies, he didn’t see the harm.

He called Tracy that afternoon to give her an update.

“Good news,” he said. “We’ve identified the problem.”


He took a breath, trying to steady himself, then launched into the intricacies of wiring and how even the best techs sometimes miss problems. But the more he paced himself, the more tense he became. Did she think he was to blame for the problem? By the end, he was shouting, “All it takes is one faulty wire and the connection is fucked.”

He paused, hearing only silence on the other end.

“I’m sorry,” Doug said.

“Don’t bother, Doug. Just send a tech over by tomorrow,” she said and hung up.

Doug sat there, his hand resting on the phone in its holder, wondering if his outburst was really that bad.

A few days later, seated before a pair of new clients, he drifted into a fantasy about breaking into their home, unable to stop himself. This time he reached their bedroom door that stood closed.

“Mr. McKillan. Mr. McKillan,” his client called.

The channel switched in Doug’s head.

He continued, “Of course. We use only the best parts in our security systems,” looking at the couple seated across from him, expectant. But he didn’t want to make them feel safe. He wanted them to feel scared, terrified even. Why should he hide it? Soon, he was yelling again. “You may pay a little extra, but it’s goddamned worth it.”

The pattern persisted. During every client meeting, he fantasized about breaking into their home. At night, he would dream about each crime in more detail, confronted by pictures of families displayed in their living room, children’s drawings on the fridge, wine glasses left on the kitchen counter from the night before. In his dreams, he would go farther each time, till he was standing over their bed, his clients sleeping, knife drawn. The last time, he awoke, swearing, wanting desperately to return to his dream.

And still, he believed he had control over the situation. Occasionally, he would lose his temper with clients, but nothing too serious. And he always made excuses to George Monroe, his acting VP, after any incident. All that changed the Monday after the fourth quarter ended. In the conference room, he sat looking at George, the board of trustees, and top investors, the same conference room where he presided over meetings for nearly twenty years. Polite questions about his health preceded an announcement. A unanimous decision had been reached: he should take a leave of absence. “Take a few months off, Doug. Hell, take a year,” they said and “continue collecting profits from the company.” Turning towards him, George assured, “We all want McKillan Corporation to continue generating profits for a long time.” All the men nodded around the table, several growing stern. “Of course, we’ll call to consult you on all the important decisions.”

“You damn well better consult me,” he barked, emboldened by the idea that he could be ousted from his own company.

“Of course,” George consoled, patting him on the back while pointing him towards the door.

At home, sitting on his leather sofa, he considered how to challenge the board’s decision. Then a slip of paper on the coffee table drew his attention. It presented a step-by-step plan to break into Tim and Elizabeth Elseworth’s home, disarm the alarm, and assault them. He studied it, baffled. He saw the familiar slant of his h and the boldness of his y. A deranged mind wrote the note, but the script was unmistakably his. He turned over the paper and imagined his haggard face with the boldfaced words “Wanted. Doug McKillan: A Danger To Society.” The board members were right. He definitely should take a leave of absence. But then what?

That night he couldn’t sleep. He fluffed his pillow. He covered himself with an extra blanket. He rolled to the other side of the bed. At dawn, he awoke, dazed, the word “Merryville” lodged like an axe through his brain. He returned to the place he visited twenty years earlier, drifting in and out of sleep. A warm handshake. An easy smile. Genuine interest in her eyes. A comforting pat on the back. How good he felt there. Like himself. By morning, he had decided to sell the house and move to Merryville. “It was an easy decision,” he told George over the phone, “a change for the better.”

Sitting in his new kitchen, he left off the monitor, recalling Kitty’s advice. “Take it slow.  No one becomes a caring member of the community overnight.” Outside his kitchen pulsed the Merryville community. Jill’s speech must be working, he thought. He hadn’t wanted to spend time in public for months. He grabbed his panama hat, which he bought just for the move, and headed outdoors.

On the sidewalk, he passed stately homes with front doors thrown open to the sunshine. He turned towards the town center, greeted by people saying “fine day” and “three cheers for the community.” He tipped his hat, buoyed by their well-wishing. Soon, he would know them all by name. Soon, they would ask about his health.

He continued walking, noticing a group of people gathered near the town square. As he approached, he saw Jill Hennessy in the center of the crowd, beaming. “We loved your talk today,” one man called. “So honest, so true,” a woman sang. Jill’s smile widened, her eyes blazed, then she threw up her hands and shouted, “To the real meaning of community.” Cheers poured from the crowd as Doug watched, thrown off balance by the sound of someone shrieking. He looked for someone with fear in their eyes, someone who wanted to hide, but everyone continued gazing at Jill Hennessy with the same cheerful expression. He turned and saw, up ahead, a large screen. On it played one man’s Uplifting Wordsspeech for the day.

That afternoon, Lora M. Berty sat in the screening room of the Merryville Media Center, watching recordings. In the year she worked at the Media Center, she had already sent three recordings to the Safeguard Community Office for review. While they passed official guidelines, she found the speakers disingenuous, which raised concern. She knew people wear masks to get away with doing harm. Her father was such a man. He did horrible things, yet gave wonderful speeches, even winning the Uplifting Speech Award. She wouldn’t let someone else pretend they were good, while at home they destroyed their family, slowly, with every searing word. Pausing over a recording, she watched it again. She trusted this man, believed his words. She selected his speech for the next day’s broadcast. It reflected the best of the Merryville community.

The next morning, Doug awoke, eager to build on his work from the previous day. Then he heard the shriek again, loud and strong. Who was the person looking at when she screamed? Was it him? He recalled what Kitty said. “Internal resistance to the good is part of the problem.” He may not always want to hear about gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness, even if it is good for him. He dutifully turned on the monitor just as Bud Jackson, five-year resident of Merryville, spoke.

“What a wonderful day to live in Merryville. I know it’s wonderful because you all are here. You make Merryville wonderful. You make my life wonderful, so wonderful I’ve never been more thankful. I want to take a moment to stop and breathe in this wonderful air. Will you stop a moment and breathe in Merryville’s wonderful air?”

Doug placed his palms on the kitchen table and inhaled deeply.

“Feels good,” Bud said.  “It gives me such joy that we are all breathing in the same air.”

Doug looked up just as Bud’s image disappeared. He clicked off the monitor. He wanted to feel Bud next to him. He wanted him to promise to return so he could bear his loss.  Determined, he clicked back on the monitor and watched three more “Uplifting Thoughts” segments, immersed the entire time. He felt so good, so attuned with the people on the screen.  “This community is too good to be true,” Bud Jackson said. “But it isn’t,” Doug mouthed in unison.

Two days later, he sat at the kitchen table, his speech for Uplifting Words pouring from him. Reading it over, he believed every word. The speech reflected who he truly was, had always been. It expressed his genuine hope to be part of a loving community.  He faced the camera above the monitor and, using the remote control, pressed record.

“Doug McKillan here. I’m new to Merryville. I moved here because I needed a change.  The truth is I was desperate for a change. My life in the city was not much of a life. Sure, I had everything—money, success, respect. But I started to hate all those things, and I started to hate the very people who gave them to me. It was as if I had accumulated all I could and on the other side of the mountain was hatred, hatred of the people who helped me achieve so much, hatred for those who did not prevent it. So I moved here, desperate to find another way to live. And in just a short time, I’ve found Merryville to be a loving community. It’s not the place but the people that make Merryville what it is. You are Merryville. We are all Merryville. I never really felt part of a place before, and by that, I mean part of a people. But I do here. Thank you for showing me another way to live.”

He pressed “send” on the remote control and sank into the chair. He had recorded his first uplifting speech as a new man. He thought back to the vile words he spat about his clients as president. That man would never be welcomed in Merryville. That man would have to find another place to live.

For the last hour, Lora reviewed the speeches for Uplifting Words for the Day submitted earlier that day. She felt indifferent about the ones she’d heard so far. There was really nothing special about them. Then she listened to Doug McKillan’s speech. She listened to it again. She liked this newcomer; he admitted his imperfections. He didn’t seem the kind of man who would damage his loved ones while, in the same breath, claim to love mankind. She decided to feature his submission in the next day’s program. He would remind everyone of what it means to live authentically.

Doug felt elated the morning his speech aired on Uplifting Words for the Day. It came in between Lucy Harwick’s and Frank Milligan’s speeches, both long-time residents of Merryville. When he saw his face on the screen, he sat up in his chair, proud. He had often felt important as president of McKillan Corporation. At board meetings, up until recently, he felt like his words mattered. People believed in his vision, and they followed his advice. But this was different. To be selected for this program meant he contributed something good to the community. It meant there was some good in him.

Walking around town that day, he enjoyed all the greetings he received. People recognized him. They wanted to approach him. He paused on the sidewalk, listening to different versions of the same compliment. “Good day, Mr. McKillan.” “Your speech today really moved me.” “We are all Merryville indeed.” After the fourth exchange, he muttered, “A bunch of clones.” He halted on the sidewalk, wanting to erase his thought. The people of Merryville give to him. He gives to the people of Merryville. He believed this, knowing hatred had no place in his heart.

Still, he did not tune in to the Uplifting Words channel for the rest of the day. He intended to watch at least five more segments, reaching the quota he set for himself, but at bedtime, he realized he had not watched even one. He felt a stab of guilt. He let Jim and Kitty down. He let the community down. He let himself down. Yet he did not want to think he hit a setback. Tomorrow. I’ll try tomorrow, he told himself and pretended to believe.

Lora M. Berty sat in front of the monitors at Merryville Media Center, fuming. On her way in to work that morning, she noticed Tom Shelton in front of her at the coffee shop.  “Hello,” he said cheerily to the attendant, then ordered espresso and a sunshine muffin. After, he thanked her, free from concerns. When it was Lora’s turn, she jumbled her order, furious that Tom Shelton—shifty, double-talking Tom Shelton—was walking around Merryville, ordering sunshine muffins like he was an upstanding member of the community. Tom Shelton was a fraud. He said he really loved the community, but she could tell by the way his eyes clouded on-screen that he had something to hide. Maybe he embezzled funds as Merryville’s treasurer? Or maybe he rigged the election to win a second term? Lora had noticed the false ring in his tone whenever he said “love,” so she reported him, but had heard nothing back.

Turning on the controls, she considered why the commission had not done anything.  Didn’t they notice the way he smiled too eagerly and grew teary-eyed as if on cue? Tom Shelton should not be allowed to walk around Merryville as if he was one of them. He was like her father, free to do harm. She decided to assist the commission by compiling all the videos she already sent and delivering them at the end of the day.

Anyone of Doug McKillan’s neighbors watching would notice the lack of activity at his house. He had not opened the front door once, or walked the path through his yard to the sidewalk, or backed his car out of the garage. Anyone watching would know Doug McKillan had not left his house for days. He had boarded himself inside, the monitor covered, refusing all contact. He had not submitted a second speech to Uplifting Words for the Day or made another mark on his community-building exercises checklist. He didn’t see the point. He despised the people of Merryville. He could not remember ever wanting to laugh with them, or to chat with them on the sidewalk, or to have dinner at their homes. He hated them with the same intensity that he hated his former clients. He started to recite all the reasons he despised them. They all make the same comments. They have only one expression, a fake smile. All they care about is appearances. The list grew until he stopped thinking clearly. He tore through the house, cursing Merryville, the people, and the idea of community. In a red daze, he stood before the camera in the kitchen, pressed record, and spewed the last speech he ever made.

That afternoon, Lora M. Berty sat in the Media Center, reviewing the speeches for the day. Since reporting Tom Shelton to the commission, she had seen him gallivanting around Merryville twice more. It was like her efforts didn’t matter. It was like the people in charge really didn’t care about community safety. What’s the point, she mused, fast forwarding through the speeches of all the wide-eyed, cheery Merryville community. If someone can put on a good show, then they are believed to be a good person. What’s happening at night in private isn’t real; the psychic scars left on loved ones aren’t real; only what is on this show is real and the uplifting messages endlessly chanted around town. She decided to randomly pick speeches for tomorrow’s program, when she saw Doug McKillan’s inflamed face and popping eyes on the screen. He was screaming at her. She gasped, then smiled. At last, something real.

She pressed play and leaned towards the screen.

“Guess what, Merryville? I hate every last one of you. I hate all your fake smiles. I hate your cheerful greetings. I hate the love you broadcast on every occasion. I hate the way you try to be someone else—kinder, gentler, happier than you really are. I won’t pretend I’m like you. I want to bash in Jill Henderson’s head with a baseball bat. I want to grab Frank Milligan by the throat and squeeze until his eyes pop out. I want to do the same to each of you.”

Lora pressed stop and exhaled. Doug McKillan is a maniac. No one could deny that.  She thought of her dad ruling over the dinner table, no family member unspared. Her father never stopped and no one ever stopped him. She thought of Tom Shelton. Who knows what he does at home to people he is supposed to love. Who knows who he hurts while putting on a smiling face. And Doug McKillan. It was clear the kind of harm he does. She settled the matter and began pressing buttons on the control center, her determination building.

Doug stood in front of the dining room window the next morning, watching people walking by on the sidewalk, all heading in the same direction. A long line filed past his home, none of them smiling. His anger expended from the day before, he grew curious. What could be disconcerting them? he wondered. He wanted to know what spoiled their happiness. He wanted to know if it would last.

Seeing a break in the crowd, he left his house and followed at a distance. Silence shrouded the town. Even the sounds of nature had grown quiet. Off in the distance, Doug could hear a man’s voice shouting. He sounded like a man who hated the world. After a moment, he realized the man was him.

Oh, God. His speech. He had lost it again. He continued following the crowd, surprised that they were moving towards the speaker blasting his speech. They weren’t scared but rather wanted to be near his rage. As he rounded the street corner, he could see directly down the hill to the town square. Hundreds of people were assembled. They all stood with their backs towards him, facing the 45-x-25-foot-tall screen. On it, his face spasmed as he flung insults.

He noticed a young woman approaching from the opposite hill. She stopped when she saw him and looked from him to the crowd and back to him, smiling.

A momentary blip, then his speech started over again. No one moved. The people of Merryville stood side-by-side gazing at the screen, listening to the raw hatred he spewed. No one turned away. Several even stepped forward, reaching out to touch the screen. He waited for someone to shout, “He’s not one of us and never will be.” But no one did. Then his speech ended and someone turned to look at him. He froze, fused with the horrible man on the screen. Then everyone stood looking at him. He heard a single clap, it grow louder, then faster until everyone was clapping, with no sign of ever ceasing, for him. I am a horrible man. I am a horrible man, and I don’t have to hide it. The applause continued, crowding out his speech, then silence. Bud Jackson yelled, “Hey, Doug McKillan, I’d like to hang you from a light socket.” Then Jill Hennessy shouted, “McKillan, I’d like to shoot you between the eyes.” Laugher exploded as Doug backed away. Soon, everyone started screaming vile threats against their neighbor. He gazed at the crowd, unsure if a massive fight was about to break out or total revelry. As the insults and laughter died down, four black sedans drove up. Large men with stun guns got out. Jim and Kitty LaGrange jogged towards the men, waving and shouting, “It’s okay. Everything is okay.”

Thereafter, the incident at the town square was known as the inaugural event for the Love Your Neighbor or Else Day, proposed by the town commission.

Moriah Hampton received her PhD in Modernist Literature from SUNY-Buffalo. Her fiction, poetry, photography, and photopoetry have appeared in WordgatheringQuail Bell Magazine, Brief Wilderness, The Sonder Review, and elsewhere.  She currently teaches in the Writing and Critical Inquiry Program at SUNY-Albany.