Some days it seems that life is exactly what it looks like. Other days…well it is just a big mystery. Today seemed straight forward, until I stop by the library to see Ian.
“Hey Rach, I just clocked out for lunch. I’m on my way to pick up a sandwich at the Table. Wanna come?”
I grin at him loving his predictability because though I'd left my backpack in the car I'd had the foresight to tuck a ten into my pocket. “Sure.”
The library is set in Old Town Scottsdale, on the corner of the picturesque Civic Center, smack in the middle of the ‘Art Precinct’ or ‘Tourist Central’ as Mom calls it. It is packed with upscale restaurants, posh shops and high-end art galleries. We take a back walkway that leads us across carefully manicured grounds and through a park that is one of the prettiest in the city.
Ian turns to me. “You okay?”
I send him a look. “You mean about the recording?”
When he nods, I shrug. “I guess. I mean, I'm still weirded out, but who wouldn't be?”
We pass fountains, sculptures and ponds filled with lilies, swimming ducks and colorful Koi before we cross a wide walk and arrive at the restaurant.
I follow Ian to the counter. He picks up his meal. We've eaten here before. The food is good but pricey. I decide to order a brownie and a cappuccino and I hand over the ten when the cashier tells me it is $7.02.
“Where do you want to sit?” Ian asks.
I stuff the change into my pocket and grab my brownie. It is noisy inside and I want to talk. I look up at him and ask, “Is outside okay?”
Ian gives me a nod and holds the door for me to go through. We find a table on the patio and settle in. It’s a glorious day. The sun is warm on my skin. I lift my face to it and take in its restorative power as Ian plunges enthusiastically into his lunch.
A shadow falls over me and I open my eyes and squint up to see it is the waiter with my cappuccino. He looks familiar and suddenly I know why. “Hey, aren't you the guy who waited on us at Olive and Ivy last week?”
He eyes me. “It’s possible. I do work there a couple of nights a week.” He looks at me harder and his eyes narrow. “Oh, you! I remember you. You were there with a different guy that night. Good for you!” He gives a soft snort and a roll of his eyes. “That whole setup was just a little too bizarre.”
I find his statement strange. I have to ask, “Set up? What do you mean?”
He wrinkles his face. “That set up. I’ve been party to some strange things but the way that guy came in beforehand and laid out his plan—”
I frown. “Are you saying that Jared came in before we showed up?”
The waiter cocks his head at me. “You didn’t know?”
I screw up my face and aim a look at Ian.
“Oops!” The waiter’s hand flies to cover his mouth. “Well, the cat's out of the bag now. I probably shouldn’t say anymore, but since you have a new beau, I guess it really doesn't matter.
“That guy came in and studied the menu for ten whole minutes before he ordered and told me to play along when he came back with you.” He leans towards me as he tone turns conspiring, “I wasn’t sure what to do after your vegetarian declaration. Lucky for me the bacon wrapped dates were the only issue and you handled that regally.”
I aim the look up at him. “Are you sure—”
“Doll, I’m positive. That guy came in around five and set the whole scene. He picked the table, the dishes, the time, everything.”
I snort because I just can’t believe that Jared would do such a thing.
He flashes wide eyes. “I know, weird, right? But when he pulled out a wad of cash and handed me a bundle, what could I do but play along?”
I start to think the waiter must be confused or perhaps he is a wacko and he must read it on my face because he adds, “But you had a nice evening didn't you?”
I laugh. “You must be thinking of someone else—”
“Nice corner table, a pitcher of white sangria, you and Mr. tall, dark and handsome? Sorry, Doll. No such luck.”
“But Jared didn’t even pay in cash. I saw him hand you a credit card.”
“The cash was before. You saw what he wanted you to see. He handed me a credit card but I didn’t run it. The whole bill was already paid double.” His flashed me a grin wide. “There is no way I could forget that hefty tip he gave me.” His eyes lock on mine. “Why do you think I didn’t raise my eyebrows or ask to see your ID?”
I frown as disbelief floods me. Either the waiter is a wacko or Jared was up to something weirder than I could imagine.
The waiter gives a loud sigh. “At least he was nice to look at.” He aims a wink at Ian. “Sorry. I probably shouldn’t have said that in present company. But you have pretty hot competition fella.”
Ian grins and plays along. “Well, I’ll have to keep that in mind.”
I turn my frown on Ian who just looks blankly back at me before he gives me a shrug. Then I turn back to the waiter. “But that makes no sense. Why would he do such a thing? I mean why go to such trouble?”
“Who knows, Hon. The world is full of kooks. Perhaps it was some kind of test he puts all the girls through. Or maybe, since the two of you were so late, he just wanted some time with you?”
I look back at Ian but he only offers a shakes his head.
“Anything else for you two?” The waiter asks but my thoughts are back on that night. When I come back to reality, the waiter is gone and Ian is watching me over the table.
He lifts his eyebrows as high as they can go. “That sounds really weird to me. Just how well do you know this guy?”
“Apparently not very.” I sigh. “But since he didn't stick around, I guess it doesn't really matter.”
“Is this the guy who met you at the movies the night Patrick and I couldn't make it?”
Ian rolls his eyes. “That was one of our stranger nights too.”
My thoughts turn to Anna. “Ian, the other night you asked me how well I know Anna. It got me thinking and you're right. I've just met this girl and here she is completely ingrained in my life. From an outsider's point of view, how does she strike you?”
“Anna?” he asks.
I nod and he replies, “She seems chill. Why?”
Something stirs at the edge of my memory. Half-forgotten bits of conversations float up in the mist. I take a deep breath and will them to come into the light. “Uh,” I begin only to find I can't really give voice a single example. After I moment I just give up. “Something about her just seems…err…different.”
He gives me a steady look. “You mean the part where she's a witch? Or the part where she's staying at your house because a ghost is haunting hers?” He draws a deep breath and says, “As far as I can tell, she's okay. At least she’s not sneaking around setting things up…”
I snort. Suddenly I’m certain that he is right and that the apprehension I’m feeling isn't stemming from Anna or even Jared but from me and my actions and how the whole paranormal aspect of my life seems to be ballooning up out of control because I'm certain now that something is off. I can feel it in the tone of the Universe and how it feels like something has snagged and pressure is building behind it waiting for it to burst free, an unavoidable eruption that's going to end up crashing down all around me. I put my face in my hands.
“Hey are you alright?”
“Me? Yeah, I’m fine. Just sitting here wondering if I might be losing my mind.” I glance up and confide, “A lot of really weird shit keeps happening and I have been having the craziest dreams.”
“You're not dreaming that your sprouting teeth and hair and running out into the night to eat people are you?”
I laugh. “No nothing like that. I'm just working—”“
His face falls as he cuts me off, “Those are the worst. I hate work dreams. You go to bed and work all night and wake up even more tired the next day.”
“You work in your sleep?”
He gives a sigh. “Some nights I am stuck at the library wandering the stacks looking for a book in a catacomb of shelves that tower twenty feet high, or sometimes it’s shelving from a cart that has no end…”
I smile but my thoughts drift back to Jared and the idea of him setting up our evening together. I mean why would he do that? We'd only just met. Why go to the trouble? My cappuccino is still untouched when Ian’s lunch hour ends.
“I’ve got to go back,” he says as he stands.
“Okay. See ya later.” I give him a small wave as he shoves in his chair. He starts back to the library and I stay at the table, sipping from my cup, contemplating the weirdness of my life and my new friends.
The hour shifts. I shake off the weirdness, swallow down the last of the cappuccino and push back my chair. I toss the last of my brownie to a group of sparrows before I start toward the library parking garage.
It is a picture-perfect day with white fluffy clouds floating across a sky of brilliant blue. A soft breeze flutters my hair and I let my worries slip away as a ringtone sounds, playing the first bars of a catchy tune. I pass the fountain and the pond of ducks. Then I veer off toward the parking garage’s entry, pull the door open and trot down the stairs, footsteps ringing loud on the metal steps.
I'm deep within the concrete structure nearing my car when the very same ringtone sounds again behind me. Is someone following me? I bristle and spin around, eyes darting quick. Only to see, there is no one behind me. I stand quiet, head cocked to listen. I watch and listen for several heartbeats but all is still on this end of the parking garage. There is nothing to see or hear but my pounding heart. Fear shivers down my back and I turn and rush to my car. My quick steps are loud on the cement. Other than a mother and her preschooler, I encounter no one. Still my hands tremble and fumble as I try to fit the key into the lock. A soft cry bursts from my lips when I finally get the locks to pop. I jerk the door open, fall inside and hit the locks. The engine growls to life and I put it gear and flee.
The garage is almost empty. I navigate it quickly and make the street without seeing another soul. I pull onto the street and dart my eyes to the rearview to watch but no one follows. By the time I turn down my street, my panic has turned to amusement. I give a soft chuckle at my ridiculous paranoia as I pull up front and park. My good mood returns as I slide out of the car and wrestle my things out. But as the door clicks closed behind me, the same ringtone begins to chime and my heart lurches. Oh my god! It’s not my imagination. Someone really is following me!
I spin around. My heart begins to pound as my head comes up fast, eyes going everywhere. I freeze and watch and listen but the street remains empty. There is no one to be seen. I hold the pose frozen for several long moments watching, waiting, but when the street remains still, my thoughts begin to rationalize that if someone was following me then they were doing a real sloppy job… or else they want me to know they were there... My eyes narrow as I pick at the notion, weighing the growing evidence: the magazine, the bottle caps, the eyes on the recorder... Undeniable evidence was piling up. Either I had a stalker or was victim of some prank... Is that what’s happening? Am I being pranked?
The thought makes me angry. Tears spring up to sting my eyes. I let out a long breath and slide my eyes to the empty house knowing that Anna is at work and Mom drove off early to the convention in New Mexico.
I give the street another searching glance. There is still no one in sight, and with no hint of where the ringtone might have come from, I start to the house. My nerves are jumping as I rush up the path, hands flying as they work the key into the front door lock. It seems to take forever to get it turned. Finally I wrestle the door open, rush through and slam it closed again. My fingers tremble as I turn the bolt, and fall against the door watching, waiting for nothing but my heart rate to slow.