I won’t tell Jeff about the woman who’s been following me until I’m sure she actually is—he already thinks I’m too paranoid about things, like the way I check the doors at night even after he says he locked the house, but that’s because sometimes if I don’t when I get up in the morning there will be a door he missed, or a light left on in the garage, which is like an advertisement saying RIP US OFF to the people who go around at night and look for stuff they want to steal.
I’m thinking I’ve got something to tell him now though, because she’s been behind me trying perfumes, or pretending to, the whole time I’ve been looking at mascara, and I’ve been keeping her in my peripheral vision, but when I get distracted for a minute looking at this new white mascara they’ve come out with and then look for her again she’s not behind me, she’s ahead of me, in the handbags, and she’s staring right at me as she puts a leather duffel bag under her coat. Up until this moment all she’s really done is follow me around, or at least be in most of the same places I’ve been in Dillard’s, so this really cements it, the lady is crazy, she’s messing with me, and now it’s like a challenge or something to see if I’ll do anything about it.
I should be afraid, or normally I would be afraid, but I remind myself that this could be perfect. This challenge comes at the perfect time in my life, where I’ve finally decided to make real changes. No more being so afraid. No more being The Girl Who Was Afraid of Everything, which was what they called me when I was a kid, like I was a title to a fairy tale, and the contest was to see how bad anyone could scare me. It wasn’t a very hard contest because everything scared me, and the constant watching to see if someone was going to jump out from under a desk or if a stuffed doll that looked like a dead body would fall out of my locker when I opened it, well, those things really took their toll. I’ve spent most of the last million years in therapy and Dr. Roland is barely starting to crack the nut. Me. I’m the nut.
But progress has been made, at least by my measure, and now that this nightmare is following me around there’s room for more. Because like I said before, I’ve been getting ready to make some changes.
She’s still staring at me, and you can’t even tell she’s hiding the duffel bag because she’s wearing one of those full round coats professional shoplifters wear that could hide about ten of anything under it. I want to look away but it’s one of those moments when your eyes lock with someone and you’re just stuck, like you’re the one who’s caught or something. If I could just think of something to say, some kind of fluff thing that would let her know I’m not going to call store security on her, maybe she’ll leave me alone.
How’s it going? I say, only it comes out Mwamwa mwa mwa?
Her eyes widen and she kind of nods, moving past me to the door with an embarrassed look on her face and I decide that’s it, today’s the day. I’m going to face my fear head on. And so I drop the box of mascara—I’m not the klepto here—and follow that fucking tent of a black coat out the door.
I just recently decided to tell Jeff everything because it makes you feel better somehow, when you let someone you trust in on your worries, but I’m not sure the whole concept of safe sharing I thought we were ready for is working for him. I can tell he’s having some kind of problem, and maybe it’s not even with me, but if it is with me it’s like maybe I’ve told him too much, or he’s just not sure what to do with me. I can understand that. I’m a lot to take. But I’m worth it: I’m one hundred percent loyal, I can cook like an Italian grandma, and I’m great in bed. I’m pretty sure it’s that last quality of mine that’s kept Jeff around as long as he’s been here, but even the dirtiest stuff gets old after a while. After too much of it a lot of guys want a girl in white cotton underwear who only does it with the lights out. And that’s not me. Usually I’m about done with them, too, when they’re ready to go, but Jeff’s different. Jeff’s the first guy who kind of gets me.
Following this woman without being seen isn’t too tough at first. Sherry, I’ve decided to call her. Sherry is what my tenth grade geometry teacher called me all term, even though my name is Ellen. I tried to correct him for the first week or two, but he never got it, guy was about a thousand years old and couldn’t hear a word you said, and the other kids picked up on my problem like sharks smelling a drop of blood from two miles away or whatever it is they can do, and everyone started calling me Sherry. Then it was Scaredy Sherry. Sometimes Hairy Sherry, because certain boys knew certain things and couldn’t keep those certain things to themselves, but mostly Scaredy Sherry. This woman’s just Sherry, because I’m not vile and evil like people are in high school.
The things I’m afraid of come and go in cycles. I mean there’s always the normal ones that never go, like being attacked when you’re out alone at night, or someone breaking into your house while you’re gone, waiting for you behind the shower curtain, or the guy you’re seeing turning out to be a Ted Bundy or something, but there are others that are more like the main features playing at the movies on Friday night, and the regular ones are just the re-runs you watch on TV all week while you’re waiting for the weekend.
The latest fear showing on the main screen in my head is that someone will bury me alive. I got the idea from an actual movie, or was it a book I read? I can’t remember where I got the idea, but the way it unfolds is that some guy picks a random person, of course it’s a woman, isn’t it always, and befriends her and gets her in his car or somewhere apart from others where he can put a rag of ether over her face, and while she’s out he buries her in a box underground out at his lake cabin. Eventually she wakes up to find herself in the tiniest space imaginable, like she can’t move one inch, the top of the box right at her face, and she realizes what’s happened and freaks out, but can’t do a single thing about it except hyperventilate and pass out and then come to again and remember what’s happened and do the whole thing over and over and over until she finally dies. And the kicker is the whole thing is random. He doesn’t care who the girl is, he’s doing the whole horrifying thing just to see if he can.
I haven’t actually told Jeff this one yet, because, well, I was going to say because I don’t want to overwhelm him any more than I already have, and that I don’t want to scare him into leaving me, not yet, but the real reason I haven’t told him is that I don’t want to give him any ideas.
Sherry has been walking pretty fast up until now, but she’s slowing down and I can’t see why until I see her walk up to a trash can and stop and I suddenly get what she’s doing, she’s throwing away the leather duffel bag she ripped off. Like she only took it for the thrill, she didn’t want it or need it at all. Now you want to talk about crazy, I’m thinking, and wondering if I should just let it go and turn around to flag a cab and go home, but I can’t let this one go, not when I’ve come this far and woke up feeling the way I did, prepared to go out and find some way to stop being Scaredy Hairy Sherry. And with a spring in my step I’m back on Sherry’s trail, heading down Houston Street at a clip meant more for sneakers than the four-inch heels I’m in, but I’m good in heels. Not just on my feet, either, but that’s another story.
I’ve been doing a lot of shopping lately, I’m between jobs, have a lot of free time on my hands. I know what I want to do for my next job, which is work in a doctor’s office, answer phones and file charts and stuff. I think it would be interesting when it’s slow to pull charts and read about people’s medical histories and don’t say what about HPPA because who really believes HPPA is even a thing. I’ve been scanning the classifieds, circled a few possibilities, but I haven’t figured out how to handle the whole question of Previous Employment. I certainly won’t be bringing a letter of recommendation with me, ha ha, wouldn’t Julio love to see me come back asking for that. I’m not going to worry myself to death about it, something will come to me—always does—but while I wait for an epiphany I’m just looking.
You see a lot more than usual, when you’re not in a rush to get to work or home from work or back from lunch break. I’m not bored or at loose ends or anything, I know how to manage time so it doesn’t yawn out in front of you forever, like I’m doing Dillard’s one department a day instead of just cruising a floor at a time like I would if I had to hurry. Dillard’s alone could take me a month. Macy’s is next, if I’m not back to work by then. A lot of the extra time walking around I use to check out people, which is what I mean when I say you see a lot more than usual when you aren’t working. Before I noticed Sherry following me, I saw a man who reminded me of my last major fear, before the buried alive thing, which was that someone would stab me with a Christmas Tree. You don’t live through that kind of stabbing unless you have some kind of ace surgeon who gets to operate on you before anyone tries to pull the thing out. I learned about this kind of knife in a book I was reading, or was it a TV show, I can never remember these things, about a guy who was in prison for life, and the thing I just could not get out of my head was that you had to make sure the stabber didn’t pull the Christmas Tree back out of you, because then you’d be dead for sure, it takes all your guts back out with it, and so even after you’ve been stabbed you really have to keep your wits about you and twist away from your attacker and call for help at the same time, hoping the attacker will run or be tackled to the ground by the other inmates leaving you safe to hold the Christmas Tree to your gut. Your only chance is that you’ll get into surgery with the thing intact.
Anyway this guy I saw the other day kept his hand on his side the whole time he was shopping around in Men’s Accessories, and it made me think of how you’d have to hold a Christmas Tree to yourself while you were trying to get to the doctor. Something about seeing that guy, and imagining that he had the same exact fear I did about getting stabbed, was enough to send the fear on to another screen in another town in some other poor psycho’s head. It was just gone, like a breath, never to be had again. It was great, the relief; I mean I felt so great I had to physically hold on to the clothes rounder to keep myself from going up to the guy and hugging him—actually, wait; I think I might have given him a small hug or something before he left—he was in a hurry, I remember that. Anyway, the relief was so good it was like being high on the best drugs in the world, not that I know about being high, or at least not beyond the typical weed everyone tried when they were at The Who’s third farewell concert or wherever. The problem was, and is, that the relief that comes after the latest big-screen fear leaves town is short, short, short-lived. Like there’s hardly time to go to the bathroom before the previews of coming attractions start rolling and I can’t miss those because I prefer feeling like I get to choose what I’m going to obsess over next.
Sherry is taking us down an alley now, and I’m getting that there aren’t really any people around anymore. Like maybe the people have been thinning for a couple of blocks and I’m just now noticing that, which is something that is normal for me, I get things a little bit after most people do, which isn’t weird for me, I’m used to it, but I must have forgotten that for a second. Anyway, I have my hand in my pocket for courage and I’m not stopping now.
Sherry must know I’m up to something, because she’s looked back a time or two, or maybe a lot, and now she’s turning and twisting around corners and alleys and it’s quite possible I’m going to be lost when this trip is over. I’m trying to ignore the movie playing in my head, where the buildings around me remind me of the tall trees at the guy’s lake cabin, and the clicking of Sherry’s heels are like the sound of his shovel when it hit rocks while he’s digging dirt and piling it on top of the box.
Actually I don’t think I’m going to be able to share this thing that’s happening today with Jeff after all. I just remembered he thinks I’m at a head hunter’s office opening an employment file. Or that’s what he told me I should be doing and I told him I would. Not that I couldn’t still do that later, after whatever happens here is over with. It’s still early enough. If he asks me what else I did with my day I could tell him I went to the library to look up books on careers. That’s what Jeff calls his job, his career. He’s assistant manager at Les Schwab and they have profit-sharing and matching 401(k) money and there are these monthly bonus prize opportunities Jeff’s always going for. He comes home grimy and tired but somehow always has enough energy to remind me about how I need to get a career. When he makes manager I’m not sure I’ll be able to take it.
Sherry’s pretty crafty. She’s got me as far away from normal city life as she can, and I suddenly—well, not suddenly, exactly—get that she’s likely to be nuts. Like she could hurt me. She’s definitely what you’d call scary-looking, with long really black hair and pointy features and dark fingernails. Her shoes are black, her stockings are black. Her tent coat is black. How the hell did black get to be such a scary color, anyway? For all I know she’s got an ether-soaked rag hidden under that huge coat. She could have a shovel and a box under there, too; no one would know. There’s not really a good place to bury anyone out here, that’s something I’ve been working out in my head the whole time we’ve been walking, but I think I have that part figured out.
When Sherry suddenly stops I don’t get it, because like I said I’m a little behind the curve of the average joe, and I nearly bump into her. Even though I don’t actually make contact with her body right then, the next minute I do because my hand is out of my pocket and the rag is over her face before I have time to think about it, which is good because it always takes me so long to figure things out when I think about them. Today’s lesson, or one of them: don’t think, just do.
Sherry’s already buckling, and I have to lean over to keep the rag to her face. I don’t know exactly how long it has to be on for her to stay passed out long enough, but I do know that too much of it can kill her. At least it can kill fruit flies. I know that because when I was in the tenth grade we had to do this fruit fly experiment in biology where we etherized our fruit flies and then sorted them so we could produce certain gene traits like short wings or sepia eyes when they woke up and started mating, which is about the only thing fruit flies do besides eat fruit. Eat, mate, and die. That’s all they do. No going to the movies or rock concerts, no talkin bout my generation.
I was supposed to get long wings and sepia eyes, but some kids snuck into the lab at lunch one day and over-etherized my flies so that when I went to class the next day all I had was a pile of dead flies. I knew they were all watching me to see what I’d do, and I knew they were all expecting me to cry or something, but I didn’t. When I look back on it now, I can see that what I did do was simply preparation for what I’m doing right now, and so it must be true what they say that life is for learning and everything happens for a reason.
Sherry’s pretty much motionless, but I keep the rag on for another forty-five seconds exactly; why forty-five I don’t really know. Maybe because we’ve been together about forty-five minutes. Or maybe because I used to have pact with this one girl at my school that we would shoot each other if we ever made it to forty-five because that’s officially really old and neither of us wanted to be old. We both felt comfortable making the pact because both of us knew there was no way we’d live that long. I wonder where that girl is now. I’d like to e-mail her and ask her if she’s still in. I wish they had an e-mail directory, like a phone book. It’s impossible to find people’s e-mail addresses unless they give them to you, and I’ve noticed people never want to give those out. Too much spam.
When I take the rag off I watch her close, but there’s nothing going on behind those not-sepia eyes. I look around the alley and see exactly what I was looking for, only it’s a ways off and it isn’t that easy to move an etherized person, nothing like pushing a fly aside with a little poker thing, not that I thought it would be, but still. I finally just start rolling her over toward the dumpster, which isn’t exactly like a wooden box, but I’m thinking if there’s enough stuff in it she’ll be pretty close to the lid and will get that same effect when she wakes up.
Getting her up in the dumpster practically breaks my back, and I’m thinking starting Monday I’m going to go with Jeff to the gym and start lifting weights. That’s another thing he’s always going on about, physical fitness, so this will be good. It will make him happy if I start going. I think. That is if he isn’t getting ready to leave, which I kind of just remembered he might have been acting like he was going to.
After I get her all arranged I have to stop and squat down to get my breath. I even have to close my eyes, I feel so funny, and it isn’t like she was all that heavy. I might have missed the lunch hour, which could explain the light-head but not the dark spots at the sides of my eyes, but it doesn’t matter because after a few minutes I feel good enough to get up, but not good enough to put on the finishing touch, which was going to be to find something super heavy to put on the lid of the dumpster so it would be more like the whole box underground at the lake cabin thing. I think it’s pretty much time for me to go home. It’s been a long day.
On the way home I’m not thinking of anything. Nothing. I can do that sometimes, completely clear my head of any thoughts or ideas. I can’t do it any old time, like when the latest fear starts playing I wish I could do it but I never can. But at moments like these, like after I’ve accomplished something or checked off the final item on my to-do list, I can do it. So I’m walking home, or I think that’s where I’m headed, except Sherry really got me turned around because I don’t see anything I actually recognize, and instead of freak about that I’m not going to think about anything until something comes to me that’s worth thinking about.
That’s when I see the medical clinic that’s not too far from 70th, and that’s when I start thinking again about getting my next job, which, like I said is going to be at a doctor’s office, and that’s when I start thinking about reading patient files, and not just about how they’re going to be interesting, either, all the stuff about their prickly rashes and toenail fungus. There’s going to be other stuff in those files that could not only be interesting, it could be helpful to me personally, in my quest to create the life I want. The long-winged, clear-eyed, fear-free life I’ve up until I met Sherry only dreamed of. I wish I’d gotten Sherry’s e-mail address. I could write her and tell her some of this stuff so she wouldn’t hold a grudge or anything. So she would understand where I’m coming from. So she could see what I finally, finally finally see.