PARANOIA


The Nissan Pathfinder was there again—as was the man she knew was watching her.

Katie began noticing the vehicle the week before and at first, chalked it up to coincidence. Besides, there were dozens of other people that chose this time of day to use the trail. There were the chattering ladies that did more talking than walking. The new moms pushing baby strollers. The sweaty teen joggers practicing for the next track meet. And the bicyclist with the warbling radios attached to their handlebars.

So yes, many of these individuals were regulars. Same time, same channel, sometimes even the same outfits. She recognized them and said hello every day.

But something about that beat-up old SUV looked different. Somehow out of place. And it was never empty. There was always a man sitting in it. His silhouette never quite revealing anything but an empty blackness, void of detail.

He parked along the busiest section of the walking trail. There were plenty of shade trees and park benches for scores of people to enjoy and yet not feel as if they were invading each other’s space. The playground was always full, but he parked facing away, so he wasn’t watching that—no, he was watching the trail.

For what, she didn’t know—but somehow, something deep inside her said that he was there for her. That’s ridiculous, she told herself, only half believing it.

Then came the day she passed the playground and his SUV came into view, but this time, to her surprise, he was no longer sitting in the driver’s seat. He stood just off the path, pretending to admire the bark of one of the trees. But what really struck her as strange was that the people in front of her on the trail (usually polite, wishing everyone they encountered and heartfelt, “Hello,” “Howdy,” or “Good morning”), well, none of these people seemed to notice the man standing not three feet off the path. Not only that, but just his appearance should have brought even the most wayward glance of curiosity.

On a hot Texas July day, the man wore a long, button up western shirt, blue jeans, and work boots—as if he’d just come from herding cattle. She almost expected him to be wearing a ten-gallon hat right out of a John Wayne western, but no…perched over his brow was a fading Texas Rangers ball cap. It shaded the top of his head so well that she could not see his eyes. Eyes that she imagined, were following her every move.

Her jog didn’t falter. She continued to run, ponytail, tied high on her head to keep the natural insulation off her neck, danced with every footfall. She thumbed her iPod, increasing the volume until the music masked the sound of her own feet striking the pavement. She did it absentmindedly—only realizing afterward she’d done it to drown out his voice if he happened to say anything to her as she passed.

He was twenty yards away now and no longer looking at the oak tree beside the path. Turning, he walked toward the nearest bench. His long strides casting scissoring shadows on the ground below him. Another bout of panic rose inside her as he walked directly toward her. Now he stepped onto the concrete path and instead of crossing in front of her, he waited patiently for her to pass. His head swiveled toward her and in her head, she heard his neck creaking like a rusted weather vane turning against a southerly wind.

He lifted his head and smiled, muscles pulling the dry, desert colored skin, increasing the deep valley of lines next to his eyes. Crow’s feet, she thought, almost breaking the cadence of her run. They’re called crow’s feet.

Ten yards.

Katie held her breath. The music in her ears faded away the closer she got, replaced by the syncopated rhythm of her legs and heartbeat.

Two yards.

His lips moved, forming words she knew she couldn’t hear, but heard anyway. She heard them loud and clear—as if he’d whispered them directly into her ear. The sound was like a dry, cracking wind—the voice of someone whom had been smoking most of his life.

“Howdy, Katie.”

* * * *

“What’d you do?” asked Sandy over the screaming baby in the background.

“I kept running,” Katie said. “What else did you expect me to do? The guy is really creeping me out.”

“Did you look back at him? Did he keep watching you?”

The baby’s crying stopped almost immediately and Katie couldn’t help but imagine Sandy exposing one large breast for the baby to suckle. She felt herself flush even though she wasn’t actually bearing witness to the act.

“Yes,” she said. “He had a notepad…” Her voice trialed off for a second as she thought back. “No, it wasn’t a notepad. It was a drawing pad…he had it tucked under one arm.”

“So, he’s just an artist out getting inspiration at a public park?” Katie couldn’t help but notice the unspoken accusation in her best friend’s voice.

“I think I need to go…” Katie started to say, but Sandy overpowered her.

“Katie, I’m sorry to sound that way. It’s just…” Now it’s her voice that trials off.

“I’m not crazy, Sandy. I promise.”

“I know. I know. I’m not saying that at all…it’s just…what with everything else going on.”

Everything else, Katie thinks. Yeah, there’s certainly a lot of crap in her life right now. Her eyes flick to the fireplace mantle where all the family pictures had been turned face down. But these are not what catches her eye.

She shakes her head to the empty room. “I’m not crazy,” she whispers, knowing that somewhere back in the depths of her mind, the very act of repeating the phrase wouldn’t make it so.

“I’m going to let you go, Sandy.”

“Wait! Just one more thing.”

Katie waits. There’s genuine concern in Sandy’s voice and Katie, at the least, owes her the chance to voice her concerns and opinions. After all, they had (have, she corrects herself) been friends since middle school.

“Don’t go back there tomorrow.”

Katie stares off into space, genuinely confused. “What? Why? I have every right to be there as he does. In fact, I was there first.”

She wishes she could take that last sentence away. Talk about sounding crazy—it’s as if she were back in middle school, stating her case as to why she shouldn’t have to get off the swing set so the new student could have a turn. I was here first! Who cares if she’s new!

She almost laughs into the phone but catches herself. Friends though they may be, she doesn’t think Sandy would find it amusing.

Giving in, Sandy says, “Okay, okay. At least go at a different time. If you feel this strongly that you have a stalker, you really shouldn’t go.”

A sudden inferno seems to well up inside Katie. She heard the inflection Sandy used on the word, stalker.

She doesn’t believe me. My best friend doesn’t believe me! I’ll show her! I’ll show everybody! Just like I showed that bastard husband of mine…

She swallows, pushing the venom in her voice way down deep so Sandy won’t be concerned. “You know, you might be right, Sandy.”

“Really?”

“Yes, I’ve got quite a few errands tomorrow. Probably won’t have time to run anyway.” She pauses, as if looking at the time. “It’s getting late and I bet you need to get Junior to bed, don’t you?”

That’s it, girl. Be nice, be calm.

"Yes, I think the little one has already gotten a milk hangover.” Katie hears rustling sounds from the other end of the line, then Sandy’s voice again. “How are you sleeping, Kay? Any better?”

“Oh, yes,” Katie says, lying through her teeth. “My therapist helped me get some prescription strength Ambien—or something along those lines.”

She had no such prescription. She hated over the counter drugs. And to be honest, little Missy, I haven’t slept in weeks. Not since the night I found that cheating…

She lets the thought trail off. She refused to waste her thoughts on him. Yet her eyes drift back up to the fireplace mantle.

So why can’t you sleep at night? Huh, Kay?

Shut up!

Guilty conscious?

Shut Up!

Or just guilty?

SHUT UP!

“…to talk.”

“What?” Katie asks, shaking her head again.

“I said, let me know if you need to talk. You know I’m here for you right?”

Katie sighs. “Yes…Thanks, Sandy.”

“Good night, Kay.”

“G’night, Sandy.”

* * * *

She hadn’t gotten any sleep the night before. Same story, different night, she thought, rising from bed and gathering her jogging attire. For so many mornings, her ritual had been the same: Spandex underwear (Sandy called them Spanks) beneath nylon shorts with pockets deep enough for her keys and iPod in one and a small bottle of water in the other. Then the shirt, usually of the athletic variety with the sweat wicking material to keep her cool on hot mornings. From time to time though, she would wear a V-neck cotton t-shirt. It’s what she chose today—a pink one with black trim at the neck.

On this day, though, she added one more item to her jogging inventory. Tucked into her waistband was her husband’s (Don’t think about him! Don’t think about him! She thought, striking her forehead with the heel of her hand) hunting knife. Its six-inch length fit comfortably on her hip and wouldn’t impede her movements while running. The built-in tension clip would hold it to the fabric of her shorts with ease. As a test, she pulled it up and out. It came free with a near-silent snap of metal on metal. At the push of her thumb, the blade folded open with ease and locked into place.

Katie smiled.

* * * *

He was there again. Not in his SUV, but already sitting on the same bench he’d occupied the day before. He was bent over his drawing pad, oblivious to the parks occupants as he deliberated over some detail on the page.

Katie approached. She didn’t run but walked quickly, arms raised to her head as if she were cooling down and catching her breath. She made a point to cross to his side of the walkway. For some reason, she wanted to see what he was drawing. Maybe, just maybe, if she could see what he’d been so intent on these last ten days or so, she could flush her plans down the drain. If she could prove to herself that he wasn’t here watching her, then maybe everything would turn out all right. It’s not as if she’d be able to sleep better at night. Heaven knows, the Roseland Park Stalker (hmm, she thinks, that has a nice ring to it) wasn’t the one keeping her up at night.

Guilty conscious again, Katie?

She ignores the voice and continues, glancing down at the artists drawing pad as she approaches.

Sensing someone approaching, the man looks up and meets Katie’s eyes. A glimmer of panic flashes through them and this surprises Katie. Then she sees why.

On the page is a black inked sketch of the park. Flowing through the center is the paved trail bordered by trees whose branches cast intermittent shadows on the its surface. A single figure, a runner, frozen in time as only can be in such drawings and photographs. The figure is of a woman, running away, left foot pushing off from the pavement while the right foot makes its downward descent. She wears black spandex underwear (Sandy called them Spanks) beneath loose-fitting nylon shorts. Her shirt clings tightly to her back, the fabric coming together midway down in the shape of an X.

But what catches Katies eyes the most is the hair. Caught in mid-bounce, the artist drew a pony tail, tied high up on the head to keep the insulating hair off the nape of the neck.

There was no doubt in Katie’s mind—the woman in the picture was her.

“Please…” the artist started to say, but the rest of his statement was washed away by a crimson river that suddenly flooded his vocal chords.

* * * *

Five people saw it happen.

Immediately after, twenty people saw the brunette with the bouncing pony tail running through the park—with what looked like red paint splattered all over the front of her pink V-neck cotton t-shirt.

Two people saw her get into the grey Honda Civic sitting in the Capital One Bank’s southern parking lot.

One of those two people managed to take video of her license plate as she sped south on New Copeland Road.

Of the twenty-seven, only ten called 9-1-1.

Ten was enough.

* * * *

If it didn’t happen now, it surely would have happened eventually. She hadn’t been smart enough to cover all her tracks then, and she wasn’t this time either. The difference was the first time, it was a crime of passion. She was just lucky her vehicle hadn’t been caught on the hotel security cameras. Remembering that night: sitting outside the hotel room while he was in there with that…that…

Guilty conscious? asks the voice again.

“Your damn right!” she says to the empty living room. Well, empty is a relative term. She’s here, her husband is here. What’s left of him anyway. Her eyes rise to the fireplace mantle, settling on the gold urn. “You got what you deserved,” she spat, startling herself with a voice much louder than she intended. Then she says, in barely more than a whisper, “Now I’ll get mine.”

She cocks back the pistol's hammer.

It clicks into place and that’s when the tears begin to flow for the artist. It’s as if that simple little action brought on the weight of what she’d just done. She laughed quietly as realization crept in and wiped away the paranoia that had been clouding her mind this last week and three days. No, she thinks, looking at the urn again...much longer. She’d convinced herself the artist was something more than human—some sort of apparition that only she could see.

But that was far from the truth. No one paid him any attention because he was always there. The curiosity of his attire was commonplace and did not warrant a second glance by those that new him—or those that saw him in the park day-in and day-out. He was a staple of the community and well known—just an artist working his magic on paper. His work was on display in various galleries around town and in many of them; people—always drawn from the back to preserve their anonymity (and negate any legal ramifications for the artist should one of them sue for using his or her likeness without permission).

The Roseland Park Stalker—that wasn’t the artist. It never had been. Now her laughter wound up a notch, mixing maniacally with the contradicting tears.

She was the Roseland Park Stalker.

The sirens were close now. They were louder than normal because she left the front door open. No use shutting and locking it when they’d just break it in anyway once they hear her pistol discharge.

At least four sets of tires squealed to a halt outside.

She only had one more decision: Where? In the mouth? Under the chin? Or at the temple? Did it really matter in the end? No, she thought. Any of them would do.

Katie wiped away the last tear she’d shed over this. Time to move on.

- CJT

July 25, 2018


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