As I make my way back through the group, some faces slack, some slightly confused, I glance at the man leaning against the tree. He seems frozen, his eyes still fixed on mine. I frown slightly. If I knew Willow, his presence probably isn't anything positive. God, did she owe money to someone? Has he been following me to figure out if I'm someone he can collect from on her behalf? I frown. Surely not. I think it's pretty clear after about thirty seconds, that my financial portfolio is, um, lacking.
"I don't know exactly what that meant, honey, but it was pretty," Sherry, Willow's roommate (and by roommate, I really mean that that's where Willow crashed when she wasn't mooching off some boyfriend) says, smiling, pulling me aside and giving me a quick hug.
Sherry is a little rough and looks about ten years older than she actually is. Her hair is dyed blonde, with about an inch of dark roots mixed liberally with gray. She is baring way too much cle**age for a funeral, or for that matter, cage dancing. Her skin is leathery and overly tanned and she is wearing a thick layer of makeup. Her platform, stripper shoes round out the look. But despite the myriad fashion faux pas, she's a good hearted person and tried her damndest to be a friend to Willow. She learned the same lesson I had learned though, if someone is hell bent on self destruction, there is not a lot you can do to change their mind.
When I look again, mystery man is gone.
I bussed it to the cemetery, but Sherry gives me a ride back to my apartment, calling out, "Keep in touch, honey!" as I dash from her car, thanking her and waving goodbye.
I rush inside and quickly change out of my sleeveless black dress and heels and pull on the uniform I wear for my day job. I'm a hotel housekeeper at The Hilton during the day and work part time for a catering company as a server, mostly on weekend evenings, or when I'm called. It's not glamorous but I do what I have to do to pay the rent. I take care of myself and I'm proud that I do. I knew that the day I turned 18, I'd be shown the door of the foster home I was living in, which both thrilled and scared me to death. I was finally free of being a part of the system, free to make my own rules and my own destiny, but I was also more alone than I had ever been in my life, no family and no safety net to land on, not even guaranteed a roof over my head or three meals a day anymore. I had to talk myself through my share of panic attacks. But four years later, and I'm doing just fine. I mean, depending on what your definition of just fine is? I guess it's a relative question.
It's not that I don't want more for myself. I know that I tend to "play it safe" when it comes to most things, including ambition. But I also figure I started out with enough drama and heartache to last a lifetime and "safe" might be boring, but it's also something that is coveted by someone who never had any. And so for now, I'm content.
After hopping off the bus downtown, I walk quickly to the employee entrance of the large hotel and clock in just in time. I stock a housecleaning cart and make my way to the top of the hotel, beginning on the floor where the penthouse is located. I knock quietly and when there's no response, I open the door with my pass key. I wheel the cart in and take in the room. It seems vacated if not slightly trashed, and so I begin stripping the bed. I turn up my iPod and sing along to Rhianna. I smile and shake my ass as I put a fresh sheet on the king sized bed. This is one thing I do love about this job. I can get lost in my own head, the cleaning a monotonous background activity. I pull the fresh duvet up on the bed and begin turning it down when I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and whirl around, jumping slightly and letting out a choked sound of surprise. There is a man standing behind me, leaning casually in the doorway of the bedroom, with a smirk on his face. I take my earbuds out and blink rapidly, embarrassed, "I'm so sorry," I say, "I didn't think anyone was here. If you need me to return later, I'll be happy to do that."
I start moving my cart towards the doorway. He advances rapidly, startling me, and grabbing on to the handle of my cart. "Really," he says, "It's fine. We were just leaving. I was just enjoying the show." He grins and his eyes lazily run up my body, from my feet to my br**sts, and I fidget uncomfortably. I smile awkwardly when his eyes meet mine and that's when a woman walks in to the room. She is beautiful, her blond hair perfectly coiffed, her makeup flawless, and I feel immediately self conscious. I nod my head in her direction and begin moving towards the door. "I'll come back," I murmur, but both of them are moving towards the door as well and as they do, the woman says, "Really, we're just leaving, stay and finish up." She offers me a look of disdain as she shrugs on her jacket, and says, "And make sure you empty the trash, the last girl who was in here forgot to do that." The man smiles towards her and pats her on the ass as she's scooting out the door and she lets out a giggle.
I stand motionless for a minute after the door has shut behind them, trying to recoup the careless attitude I had before they interrupted me but the mood has suddenly shifted and I feel melancholy in a way I don't really want to think about.
I finish up my shift and as I clock out, my friend Nicole rushes up behind me and swipes her time card.
"Damn slobs on the twelfth floor," she rants. "I swear, you'd think some of the people who stay here were raised in a barn. It took me two hours to clean three rooms on that floor. Disgusting. Don't even ask. Now I'm late to pick up Kaylee. Walk with me to the bus stop? My car is in the shop." She grabs for her coat as she's talking.
I grin at her and shrug on my own coat as we walk towards the door. "Maybe we could make up a 'for the consideration of your housecleaning crew' list to hand out at check in?" I offer sarcastically.
"Yes! Number one, please for the love of God, wrap your used condoms in toilet paper and deposit them in the trash. It is beyond my job description to scrape your dried… stuff off of the carpet after you toss the thing under the bed."
I fake a vomiting noise but I'm laughing as we hurry towards the bus stop. "Okay," I continue, "Number two, please don't clip your toenails in bed. I prefer not to get a clippings shower when I shake out your comforter and then have to go around on my hands and knees attempting to collect them all off the floor."
"Oh God! Truly? Animals!" But she's laughing too.
Her bus is just pulling up to her stop so I give her a quick hug goodbye saying, "See you Wednesday night!" as I start walking across the street to my stop going in the other direction.
Nicole never ceases to make me smile with her carefree attitude and funny sense of humor. She's married to a really great guy named Mike and has a three year old daughter, Kaylee. Mike is an electrician and makes good money but Nicole works housekeeping a couple days a week to bring in a little extra and she'd tell you, to enhance her shoe budget. She's got a thing for shoes, the higher the better. I don't know how she walks in some of those things.
Nicole and I hit it off quickly when I met her at work three years ago. She and Mike have me over for dinner at least once a week and I love spending time with them and Kaylee, soaking in the joy and comfort that is a loving family, doing nothing more special than having a meal together and sharing their evening. What they don't fully get is that, to me, a loving family dinner isn't just special, it's everything. Everything I never had.
Nicole and Mike know that I grew up in foster care but not too much beyond that. They're kind, hardworking people who live in a cute little two bedroom house in a decent neighborhood and I don't want to bring stories of drug abuse, pimps, and molestation into their world. Not that they're naive about the fact that all of that stuff goes on, but in a lot of ways, they're my bubble, my safe place away from that world and I want to keep it that way.
I pull out my novel and start reading as the bus begins its journey across town to my apartment. I'm so engrossed I almost miss my stop, jumping up just in time to make it through the closing door. I walk the five blocks to my apartment and let myself in through the front door, shaking my head at the broken, again, lock. Okay, so security isn't exactly high but it's decently clean and it has a sunny balcony off the back where I can grow a few fruit trees in containers and several pots of flowers. Sometimes I sit out there in the evenings with a good book, feeling content. And it's enough.
I'm slightly disappointed that my stalker is obviously off duty this evening. It is not lost on me that this is not the healthiest of thoughts. I smile anyway.
I take a shower, standing under the spray longer than I know I should. Hot water doesn't come for free. But I allow myself this little luxury today as I shed the tears I knew would come for Willow. "Rest in peace, princess," I whisper as the warm spray washes over me, mixing with my tears. After not too long, I get out and towel off.
I pull on a pair of black yoga pants, a purple tank top and a big dark gray sweatshirt that falls off my shoulders and trudge into the kitchen to make myself some dinner. I heat up some of the homemade vegetable soup I made a couple days ago, and toast some bread. There is enough soup left to put in a small tupperware container so I ladle it in and then walk down the hall to Mrs. Jenner's apartment, knocking lightly. When she answers, I smile and say, "Have you eaten yet? I have some homemade veggie soup if you haven't."
She smiles big and says, "Oh dear, you're always so sweet. Thank you so much."
I smile back, saying, "You're welcome. Night, Mrs. Jenner."
Back in my kitchen, I put my own dinner on a tray and take it back into the only other small room. I sit on the floor and lean against my loveseat as I eat. A studio apartment doesn't allow for a lot of furniture, but that's okay because it's not like I entertain. I put The Shawshank Redemption, one of my favorite movies, into the dvd player and push play. I don't spend the extra money on cable, so I rely on the dvd's I've picked up at garage sales, but I'd usually rather read anyway, so it's fine by me.
After I clean up my dishes, I end up falling asleep in front of the movie and when I finally drag myself into bed, it's after midnight.
My alarm goes off at seven a.m. and I pull myself out of bed and put on my running gear. It's a chilly morning and so I pull on ear muffs and a fleece jacket. I take a minute or two to stretch outside my apartment, my breath coming out in white puffs in front of me as I take off down the street. I tighten my fist around the door key I have in my pocket, like the self-defense instructor taught us to do in the course I took at the community college. It gives me comfort. I hold onto it until I jog into the semi populated running track of the park and then I zip my pocket closed with the key inside and take out my ear buds and push play on my iPod. I run my usual three miles and return home, feeling strong and energized.
I take a quick shower, drying my long, dark hair and putting it up into a ponytail and pulling on a pair of worn jeans and an oversized gray sweater. It's my day off and I'm going to do nothing more than putter around, make a trip to the library and spend the rest of the day on my balcony under a blanket, with a good book and a cup of tea. I briefly wonder if this plan might qualify me for early social security benefits. While other 22 year olds are sleeping in so they're well rested for the club later tonight, I'm taking stock of my tea collection. Yup.
Thirty minutes later, after making my bed and doing a quick pick up of my studio, I'm just beginning the walk down the street to the local neighborhood library, when I spot a dark silver BMW parked about a block up the street from my apartment. I don't know anything about cars, but I note the model on the back, M6. I smile slightly to myself. On duty today, I see.
I make it to the library and spend about an hour there, picking out a new stack of books for the upcoming week. I have four novels, a budget friendly cookbook, and a book about The Second World War. I may not have the money right now to go to college, but knowledge is only a library card away and I pick up a new subject each week.
As I make my way back to my apartment, I clock tall, dark-ish and handsome about a block behind me, walking leisurely and pretending to talk on his cell phone.
I make a decision. I pass my own apartment and I pick up my pace a little and as I turn the corner, I break into a run and turn into the small alley in the middle of the block. I run down the alley, hoping to double around and come up behind him.
I'm out of breath as I turn the corner on my own street again and walk very swiftly to the end of the block and peek around the corner. Sure enough, he's standing in the middle of the block, clearly confused and not knowing where I disappeared to. I walk quietly up behind him and say loudly, "It's impolite to stalk strangers!"
He whirls around and jumps back slightly, as he sucks a loud breath in through his slightly parted mouth. His eyes are wide. "Jesus! You scared the shit out of me!"
"I scared you?" I say incredulously, glaring at him, "You're the one following me like a creeper." I c**k my head to the side. "By the way, pointer, if you're going to stalk someone, you should be less obvious about it. For instance, standing in the middle of the street gawking at your victim tends to be a giveaway." I narrow my eyes.
He remains silent, staring at me intently, his lips slightly parted. His lips! They're really nice lips! Don't be distracted, Evie! He could still be a serial killer! At the very least, a serious weirdo.
I put my hands on my hips. "Don't despair though. I'm sure with some study, you could get better. There might be an instructional video or something you could pick up… maybe a book on the subject, Creepy Stalker for Dummies?" I raise one eyebrow.
He stands still, continuing to stare at me without saying a word for several seconds, and then he bursts out laughing. "Well, holy hell, you really are something, aren't you?" but there's appreciation in his voice. And his laugh. Wow, his laugh is really nice.