He leans against the wall beside Barnes & Noble, a three-dimensional shadow in the dimming light of the mall. His black hoodie conceals his face, yet I feel as if he’s watching us – watching me. I imagine his eyes as dark as his clothing, his glare villainous.
My heart pounds as though I have reason to fear him. It’s ridiculous, really. Probably the result of a day run long and an evening sure to run short.
The rapid click of my heels on the tile flooring seems to echo through the rarely-empty space. Most shoppers have left for the night, but a few stragglers remain, likely those in a last-minute rush. Like me. I glance at the narrow-banded watch on my wrist, gold hands ticking over a shimmering pearl face.
Eight fifty-three. Seven minutes until closing time.
John shuffles beside me, smirking as he notices my panicked glance at the watch. “I bought you that thing so you’d be on time once in a while. Clearly, it didn’t help.”
I’d have been late whether I knew what time it was or not. I couldn’t bring myself to leave work until I knew that Jailyn Adams would be safe and cared for. Six years old, so small, heartbroken. She’d have received the best of care with or without me, but I was there when her world fell apart. The least I could do was stay with her until her temporary guardian arrived.
It’s the part of my job I hate most, having to pull a child from their home. Regardless of what they’ve been through – in Jailyn’s case, a world of serious neglect blurred in a fog of drug abuse – it’s the only life they know. I wanted to be a Social Worker to do good for others, but in that moment, when pure fear and agony pours from those little bodies, it feels like the worst of wrongs.
John nudges me with his elbow, a smirk still on his face. “What? No comeback?”
Every night I’m thankful to come home to my husband, to the twinkle in his eyes and quick wit that never fails to clear my head of a difficult day. Lately, I need it more than ever. Confusion and self-doubt cloud every decision I attempt to make, encircling me in a stifling ring of anxiety. It’s a far cry from the confidence I once possessed, but also a necessary evil. Some mistakes shouldn’t be made in the first place, yet alone repeated.
Trust your gut, always.
I grab John’s hand and pull. “Less talking, more walking. We’ve got to hurry.”
Despite the warmth of my husband’s hand and the July heat still clinging to my skin from outside, a shiver curls up my spine. The mall lighting seems to dim, eerily dark in the absence of music, chatter, and hundreds of bodies passing through. It puts even more of a rush in my step, a subconscious need to get out of here.
Or maybe it’s the creep outside the bookstore causing me to feel the need to flee. Why is he wearing a hoodie on such a hot day, anyhow? I glance over my shoulder, hoping to see that he’s gone and relax, but he still stands there, his shadowed face pointing in my direction. I can’t tell whether he has facial hair or not, a narrow or round face, or if his skin is light or dark.
Stop it, Lia. It’s nothing.
But can I be sure? I don’t know anything about him. His wife or girlfriend could’ve just left him for another man, pushing him to seek revenge. Maybe I remind him of her or John of her lover. Maybe he knows who I am, or at least, where I work. He may have recently had a child removed. He could be a mental hospital escapee, a sociopath set on stalking, if not murdering the first person he sees. Me.
The possibilities seem endless, flitting through my mind in a blurring whir.
What I don’t consider is the most likely scenario of all: He is only standing there, oblivious to my existence.
“Would’ve been silly to buy the shoes at the same time as the dress,” John says. “Can’t you just wear black or something?”
Without slowing my pace, I shoot him a glance. “The dress is pink Champaign. Black would look ridiculous. Leila will notice if the shade is off, yet alone the color. She wants her day to be perfect.” My sister is ever the perfectionist, bordering on OCD.
John keeps my pace, but rolls his eyes.
I speak before he has the chance. “Besides, it’s a wedding, not a funeral.”
“Matter of perception,” he says. “The poor sap getting stuck with Leila might beg to differ.”
I nudge his elbow, shoot him my shocked face, the wide-eyed, O-shaped mouth, I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that look. The truth is, he’s right. We don’t refer to her as Princess Leila for nothing.
I swing in the door of Frivolous Footwear, the shop Leila insisted would have the shoes I’m looking for. Of course, that was a few months ago, when I was supposed to get them.
“I confirmed it. They have a store right in Duluth and the shoes are in stock.”
Right in Duluth. Where I work. Where John’s office is. Not where I live, though. Once we’re finished here, it will be another forty-five minutes before I can kick off my shoes and relish in the comfort of home.
At the office they ask why John and I don’t move into the city – the state, for that matter – and save the daily commute. I wouldn’t give up my small town, northern Wisconsin home on the shores of Sandy Lake for any amount of convenience. Other people visit the quaint town for a summer getaway, but for us it’s like we’re on vacation every time we return home.
John laughs. “You know I’m just kidding. I’m sure Leila’s last two husbands were the problem, not her.”
I spot a row of pumps and head down the aisle, bright and soft colors mingling into a brilliant rainbow of footwear. My head shoots right to left, my eyes searching for the right shade. I don’t let it slow my comeback, though. “They could say the same for us.”
He shrugs. “Second marriage for both of us. Not third. There’s a difference.”
The vibe in the shop is more unnerving than in the corridor, the small space abandoned of all shoppers except for us, half of the overhead lights turned off as if to emphasize that I need to hurry up and get out.
A girl with a name badge pinned to her shirt peers down the aisle and runs a hand through her dark hair. I do a double take, verify that it isn’t my own daughter looking at me. This girl’s complexion is a bit darker than Kara’s and she looks younger, but the way she holds her head – slightly high, a likeable confidence – with long hair sweeping her shoulders, she could be my daughter.
I once had hair like that, a shiny coffee mane absent of the gray that would eventually dull its appearance. Thank God for hair dye and the salon. If only the other signs of age would be as easy to cover.
The girl steps into the aisle. “Is there something I can help you with? My boss is getting ready to close up.”
I glance at my watch again. Five minutes. “I’ll be out in plenty of time.” I reach for my purse, pry it open, pull out a silky swatch, and hold it out to her. “I’m looking for something in this color.”
The girl bites her lip. “I think we have…” She glances over her shoulder, then turns and walks away from me. “Over here.”
I follow her into the next aisle and spot three potential matches lined beside each other, darkest to lightest. I take the swatch back from her and hold it against each of the shoes. Same shade, but too dark. Still too dark, but close. A shade off and too light.
“Carlee?” A voice calls from the front of the store.
The girl turns her head, then looks back at me. “We really need to close now. Can…”
“Is this all of them?” I ask before she has a chance to ask me to leave.
She nods, so I grab the closest match to my dress. Leila will have to get over it. It’s enough that I agreed to suffer the humiliation of squeezing my menopausal belly into a much-too-tight dress. Besides, as her three-time maid of honor, I matched perfectly the first two times. So I’m a little off this time.
Mom would get a kick out of it, this unspoken stand I’m taking against Leila. If she could join us. If she was in her right mind. If the doctors didn’t think she’d now have more bad days than good thanks to the dementia devouring her brain.
The thought causes my throat to constrict, the all too familiar emotion choking off my breath. Mom may be physically alive, but the presence of body cannot replace the presence of heart and mind. She doesn’t speak lately, doesn’t even seem to hear. I miss the sound of her voice, even when she wasn’t sure which of her daughters I was or if I was her daughter at all.
I swallow to open my throat and hand the shoe to Carlee. “Could you see if you have these in an eight? I’ll try them on fast and be out of your way.”
The girl bites her lip again, but nods, rushing toward the back of the store. I sit on a plush bench along the wall and slip my shoe off, readying myself for when the shoes arrive.
I look around, taking in the children’s shoes in the aisle beside me. Little girls’ shoes. Like Jailyn would wear. Her face flashes in my mind, red cheeks, puffy eyes, streaming tears that will haunt me long after they’ve dried.
It attacks me again, that churning in my stomach, increasing heart rate, and cold sweat beading on my skin. If I was wrong, if Jailyn’s circumstances weren’t what I thought them to be…
I take a deep breath, blink the images away. I wasn’t wrong. I couldn’t have been. The physical evidence removed by police proves it. This time.
John stands in front of me, hands stuffed in the pockets of his black dress pants. His royal blue button-up shirt brings out the brilliance of his eyes, the gray streaks in his dark hair complementing the distinguished appearance. He looks every part of the pharmaceutical scientist that he is, save the crooked smirk on his face.
“It’s your fault we’re here,” I bite out before he can comment. “If you hadn’t booked such an early flight, I’d be able to take care of this in the morning.”
He laughs, points to himself. “My fault? Would you rather drive to Florida?”
I press my lips into a line to suppress a smile. We have this humor in our relationship, a way that seems to make everything, even a late night shoe emergency, seem fun. It’s such a far cry from my last marriage, every moment so serious, tense.
John shakes his head, bends down, kisses me. “Fine, I’ll take the blame this time.” He kisses me again. “But only because you’re cute when you’re crazy.”
I feel the tension bleed from me, the effect of his warm lips. “You call this crazy?”
He shrugs. “Well, not as crazy as Leila.” He wrinkles his brow. “Tell me again why we’re going to this wedding?”
I play-slap his arm. For the past two weeks he’s been making up forgotten business meetings, unheard of illnesses, and a variety of appointments to get out going with me. I only waved him off. He may not admit it, but the truth is that he’d never send me off to deal with Bridezilla on my own. He too supportive for that. He’s my rock, the one person I know I can always count on for anything. “Because she’s my sister. Whether I like it or not.”
“Could be worse,” he says. “At least Mitch isn’t going with us.” His voice lowers, the pain of a father-son argument bleeding through.
I tip my head, unsure of what to say. I know how much it hurts John to have his only child angry with him. They’re usually so close, practically inseparable. There’s more to it, though, and I know this is what John worries about. Although I won’t admit it to John, I’m a little worried, too.
John sits next to me, exhaling slowly, deflating. “I’ve never seen him so mad.”
I’ve seen Mitch this mad before, even angrier. John has seen it, too. He just doesn’t want to allow himself to remember those days, the unwarranted outbursts, Mitch locking himself in his room, the constant fear over his safety and unspoken musings over ours.
But that was a long time ago. Mitch is a different person now, confident, sweet, stable. He’s just…off. Today. A one-time thing, surely.
John shakes his head. “He ran to Maggie, for Christ’s sake! He never does that.”
Maggie. The woman who gave birth to Mitch. That’s where her parenting ended.
I rest my hand on his thigh and squeeze. “He’s a smart, good boy. He’ll get over it. Everything will be…”
A loud bang echoes from within the mall.
John jumps from the bench and looks toward the front of the store, his back to me. Voices echo off the walls, angry shouts. Then another bang.
John spins back to me. “A gun.” He grabs my hand, pulls me to my feet and toward the back of the store, one shoe on, the other still resting on the floor beside the bench. I limp, lopsided without the other heel. He keeps me close to him, maneuvering through rows of shoes to the counter.
A woman around my age, her hair rolled into a neat, loose bun appears from behind the counter and I guess that she’s the boss, the one in a hurry to close. Her gaze shoots to the front of the store.
Another series of bangs, loud, echoing, one right after another.
“Back here!” The woman says as she runs behind the counter. John follows, pulling me into a storage room lined with metal shelving and boxes.
Bang. Bang, bang.
Closer this time.
John guides me to the corner of the room, behind a shelf of shoe boxes that towers over my head. He leans against the wall, pulls me close to him, wrapping his arms around me as if to shield me from the spray of bullets somewhere outside of the store.
He must feel the way my heart pounds, throbbing against the wall of my chest. “It’ll be okay,” he whispers in my ear. “Whatever is happening is out there.” He nods toward the store exit. “We’re safe.”
I nod, chew on my lip. What he says makes sense, but then why don’t I feel safe?
The answer crashes in on me, an image recreated from moments ago: The man in the hoodie.
Is he to blame for this? Were there others posted throughout the mall, all dressed in black, waiting to strike? Maybe I’d been right to fear him, a psychic voice in my head warning me.
The next bang is even closer, possibly right outside of the store. I whimper slightly, turn and bury my face in John’s chest, try to find comfort in the familiar scent of his cologne. He squeezes me tighter.
My head dizzies with my racing heart, my ears ringing, but not loudly enough to drown the sound of approaching footsteps.
“John!” I whisper, but it comes out in panicked shrill.
He holds his finger to his lips. “Shh.” He gently pulls me to the floor, both of us crouching as if reducing our height will make us invisible to the madmen out there. The cold, damp concrete seeps through the thin fabric of my dress, chilling my skin.
The steps grow closer, louder.
The next bang slices through my ears as if the bullet has pierced my head.
I pinch my eyes shut, squeeze John’s arm. The footsteps don’t stop. John rises slightly, wrapping my body with his own, shielding me.
The footsteps pause, a false moment of relief.
“Back here.” The voice is deep, like a roll of thunder.
Despite my terror, I can’t help wondering who he is looking for. Carlee? The owner? Maybe they had reason to close the store in a hurry. Or maybe it’s just another sign of a world gone bad. Another shooting, more innocent lives lost.
I hold my breath, pray that mine isn’t one of them.
The next bang I feel as much as hear, vibrations shooting through me as if I’d been the one to pull the trigger. I peer out from beneath John’s elbow, see a pair of black clad feet nearing. They stop, the toes awkwardly pointing inward, pigeon-like.
Another bang. Then two more.
John’s body slumps, pinning me beneath him. A sticky, warm liquid dribbles onto my cheek. I want to scream, but I can’t even breathe.