I woke up in the middle of the night dripping wet and panting like a Marathon Runner. The window was wide open, rain was whipping in and soaking my bed. I’d woken up from another one of my horribly vivid nightmares. I got out of bed and went to the kitchen for some water, still panting wildly as warm tears slid down my cheeks. I sat in the living room by the window and watched the storm winds play violently with the few puny trees that lay sparsely on the block. My mind was clouded with thought of the turmoil the kids and I had had suffered at the hands of their father over the years.
It’s only been two years since he’d been locked up in that mental hospital, but the memories still haunted me like it was just yesterday. Then suddenly a cold chill shot up my spine, and a more terrifying thought struck me like a ton of bricks. What if, just what if he had somehow gotten out and was trying to find me and the kids? I reclined in the chair, willed my heart rate to slow, closed my eyes and forced myself to relax.
I sat there as the hours dragged on then suddenly, a splash came from the pool. Bewildered, I went to see what was going on, but no one was there. I saw my wedding dress floating in the pool. Getting down on my knees I tried to retrieve it, but it was out of my reach. I stretched my arm out as far as I could; it drifted closer to the tips of my fingers. I clawed at it and managed to get hold of it and began to pull it to me.
Gradually I brought it closer until it was in my palm. It looked at it wondering how it got here. It brought back a flood of emotions and memories. He wanted to be a part of organizing our wedding. It was his way of showing that he loved me and wanted to be a part of every aspect of my life. Unreal as it may sound; he chose that dress for me. If he really did love me, those days were a thing of the past now. I balled it up and attempted to stand, when the rough grip pattern of a shoe pressed into my back. Someone kicked me into the cold embrace of the water. I came up and gasped for air, but as soon as I resurfaced, I was plunged back into the water. A palm spread out over my head kept me submerged for a few seconds. I grabbed and clawed at the hand to get free, but whoever was above was too strong. Then I was free. I resurfaced, took a big gasp and filled my lungs with air. My vision blurred from the water and hair plastered over my eyes. But I recognized the vague figure of a man dressed in black at the edge of the pool. Before I could take a closer look, I was plunged back under the water, fighting for my life. He had repeated the process many times and I was completely terrified and exhausted.
He grabbed a fistful of my hair, my ribs scrapped against the edge of the pool as I was hauled up, and flopped down on the grass like a dead fish. I was lying face down, choking and gasping for air. Raising my head to look at my attacker, I saw a pair of black boots laced up to the ankle. Joseph I said. My scalp ignited as he grabbed another handful of hair and dragged me across the lawn. His slippery gloved hands wrapped around my throat, and pressed me against the French doors of the kitchen. My eyes burned and tears began to roll down my cheeks as I sank my nails into his skin. His cold merciless stare pierced my very soul. I opened my mouth to let out a scream, then the phone rang. I woke up and found myself sitting by the window still clutching the glass of water in my hand.
Helen was calling, I knew, she was practically the only person that called my number. And most mornings she’d call to help me get out of the house on time. I got up and moved to the phone, and glanced at the clock. It was getting really late. Thankfully, the boys were still with their aunt for the weekend.
“Why aren’t you here yet?”
“I just got up. I had a rough night.” I said yawning and stretching.
“I’m sorry to hear that, but you’re going to be late Karen; if you don’t get here soon, you will be late for the third time this week. Try to get here before Mrs. Jennings gets in.” Her voice was sympathetic and filled with love.
“I’m getting ready right now.”
She giggled, and hung up the phone. I got ready as quickly as I could and ran to catch the bus, which I was usually late for. But today was the mother of lateness. The bus was already leaving when I arrived.
“Wait hold on, I’m here, stop I’m here!”
I ran after it screaming and waving for Ernie to stop. Ernie was a good guy though, a sweet old fella. Most mornings he would stall for a little while in any way he could until I got there. Once he did card tricks and told jokes to distract the passenger till I arrived. Apart fromHelen, Ernie was basically the only friend I’d made since our move to Northridge. I knew he meant well and would have done all he could to help me out. I tapped at my watch and watched the cars as they drove by. “Lucky them” I thought. Owning a car wasn’t a luxury I could afford. Before our divorced, Joseph and I legally separated. He found a way to empty my account and left me broke. When we finally got to the divorce, he declared bankruptcy. He drank, did drugs and gambled heavily, but he wasn’t broke. His rich sister helped him hide all his assets and I got nothing.
My financial woes gave me many sleepless nights, helped me lose weight (a lot of weight) and took most of my hair. I had to find clever ways to support me and the kids. Providing for our daily needs was a challenge, until I finally found work as a nurse. I was in no mood for the crowds on the train, besides it would take 20 minutes to get to the train station anyway. A cab was the only option. Of course getting one of those in Northridge was no walk in the park either, especially at that hour. All I wanted was to go home and lay in bed all day. What’s the worst that could happen? I almost decided when someone whistled for a cab behind me, and drowned out my chain of thought. I turned around and saw a man dressed in blue jeans and a white buttoned down shirt tucked into his jeans. He came and stood right beside me as the cab pulled up, as if on cue. Must be a diplomat I thought; only one of those could catch a ride that easily in this town at eight in the morning. I could feel his eyes glued to me. I tried not to stare back at him. Each time I glanced, he was looking at me, finally he said.
“Good morning, looks like you’re running late today.” He held the door open like a chauffeur.
“Yeah, I guess I am late.” I looked at him confused as he held the door open.
“I’m going your way. Come on we can share a cab.”
I looked at him then at my watch, and tapped the face anxiously
“Ok, sure why not.”
Feeling relieved that I was finally on my way to work, I sighed gently and relaxed. Then my brows knotted in fear and suspicion as I realized he knew where I worked. But how? And why? I looked at him long and hard, he was definitely a stranger. We’ve never met but somehow he knew about me. Pictures of Joseph flashed in my mind. What he was capable of his obsessions, his machinations.
“What exactly do you mean you’re going my way? How do you know where I’m going, and who are you?” I roared.
“Well nice to meet you too.” He smiled politely and reached for a hand shake.
“I’m Richard, I work at that new coffee shop up the street from the hospital where you work. You come in sometimes. How do you manage to get the time to...?” I ignored the gesture.
“Oh how kind of you to notice.” I said abruptly, with a thick coat of sarcasm, and cut him off mid sentence.
“You don’t take too kindly to people being nice to you, do you?”
“Being nice is a smart way to put it, how long have you been spying on me?” I said fiercely. He sensed that I was tense, but kept his composure, smiling politely.
“Well you could say about three months.” He laughed playfully and looked away. “I’m sorry, we got off on the wrong foot. I see you almost daily on your lunch break. Maybe I inquired about you a few times, but I only know the small stuff.”
“Three months? That’s not spying, that’s a covert operation!” I choked on a smile, and managed to giggle a bit.
“It would seem like I’m in trouble for spying. I still didn’t catch your name though.” He seemed even more relaxed than ever.
“Well I didn’t throw it. And don’t play coy with me, you know my name.” I sighed, and finally accepted his handshake.
“So have you lived here long?” I pretended not to hear the question, and stared out the window. Nice as he seemed I was uneasy and perturbed by him. He tried relentlessly to scale the wall of silence that I was building. And the harder he tried the higher I built it. He seemed anxious for me to say something, but that morning I felt more like breaking into jail than breaking the silence I had established. I occupied my mind with the many stores and apartment buildings that flew by. I just kept wishing that the journey would end soon. I got my wish when the car pulled up to the curb at the coffee shop.
He got out. It irritated the breath out of me when he hesitated to close the door, stuck his head into the car, and insisted on seeing me again. He had the nerve to ask if I wanted to car pool to work the next day. My blood boiled, my stare hardened and if my eyes were knives he’d have been stabbed to death that morning. I focused all the anger and frustration and put on my tough face. Which according to Marcy, makes me look constipated. I guess it didn’t deter him because he pressed on. His fragrant hair, glistening white teeth and chiseled face softened my furry. I had to look away and closed my eyes. It was much easier than peering into his clear green eyes.
“It’s a lot easier than running after the bus every morning.” His voice took over my thoughts and blocked out the portrait I was staring at.
“You want to car pool to work in a cab every day?” I said scornfully.
“My car will be out of the shop tomorrow. I could drop you off at work in the morning it would be no trouble, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t my mama said never to take rides from strangers. It sounds like your care isn’t very reliable anyway.”
“Your mama is right about that, however, since we got to know each other so well this morning, we could consider each other as…acquaintances. And I had the engine washed yesterday. I couldn’t wait for it then so I’ll pick it up today.” He was still smiling, when all I wanted was to cause him unimaginable pain for some unfathomable reason.
The driver was getting irritated and complained that the meter was still running, and someone would have to pay. I agreed hurriedly, he closed the door with a disgusting smile of satisfaction on his face. I watched him go into the shop as the cab drove off. He was attractive I admitted; he had brown wavy hair and an athletic body. Dressed himself very well, too. But I thought he was presumptuous and over confident, no matter how nice he seemed to be, and it annoyed me.
The next day was my day off, so I wouldn’t be there when he showed up, now, it was my time to smile satisfyingly. The thought made me giggle when I imagined him showing up and waiting for me. I only stopped smiling when I realize that the driver was staring at me threw the rear view mirror. I got to work quite late that morning. Thankfully, Mrs. Jennings wasn’t in to sit me down for a whole university style lecture on punctuality. Thankfully. I didn’t have my morning coffee either so my day was already ruined; in fact, my stomach was churning from hunger, on top of the fatigue from a poor nights rest. My only option was that horrible sludge they tried to pass off as coffee at the cafeteria. I forced down a few sips, and munched on a bagel to get some energy to start my day. Bad as things were, it wasn’t a total loss. I was planning to get a decent cup at that new place later in the day. It was my treat for working hard. I will admit, on days when my performance wasn’t so hot, I still sneaked a cup or two. Since it opened I haven’t had one bad coffee break, it’s something to look forward to, inspiration for going to work and of course a reward for not erupting when Mrs. Jennings or other coworkers just grind my gears. In the middle of all my planning I remembered that I’d have to face Richard and I was not going to deal with him again. My day got even worse when Mrs. Jennings came in.
She didn’t hector me about the tardiness. But she asked me to work extra hours until the night shift nurse who called just minutes before my shift ended to say that she would be late. The smirk she wore told me she enjoyed delivering the bad news. I was considered among the entire staff, an antisocial pessimist and they treated me accordingly.
I was always the topic of work place gossip, and left out when others were the hot topic. I wasn’t invited to hang out or included in the many cliques that the nurses formed. And I didn’t mind it much but when word got around that Mrs. Jennings would shorten other nurse’s shifts and load the extra hours onto mine, just for getting back at me. I got a bit suspicious. I never found out if the rumors where true, or if she even had the authority to do it. It didn’t matter if the rumors were true, I knew my attitude was foul, and anything was better than getting fired. So I wore a paper thin smile to work each day and nodded a yes or no in conversations that got too personal.
Working extra hours was the worst thing that could happen, I couldn’t. The boys were due home and I was supposed to pick them up. Mrs. Jennings gave me an ultimatum, leave to pick up my kids or wake up to no job tomorrow. With the track record that I had, you could say I was sitting on her lashes, and if she wanted to, all she had to do was bat her eyes and I’d fall off. She started going on about my punctuality and that we were short staffed and needed the extra hand. I listened impatiently, wearing my most convincing attentive façade. She babbled about the “willing spirit” of other staff, there was also some talk of selfishness but my brain shut down after the first two sentences, so I can’t recall weather she was accusing me or just describing herself. I agreed to work until the night shift nurse arrived just to shut her up and called Jill to pick up the boys and baby sit at short notice. For me this was an emergency, I needed her to be there to make sure the boys were properly cared for. For Jill though this was the perfect opportunity to shake me down for a few extra bucks.