Even now, my hope still remains that he’ll return. I hope he’ll surprise me by crawling into bed and showering me with kisses on my neck, but as I drive home along Cedar Way, I’m afraid my heart knows better.
It all started one week ago when my husband Ellis disappeared during a late-night walk. It was all so typical for him to take walks late at night. I’d warned him about doing it many times, but he wouldn’t listen to me. So a few days after his disappearance, my life became strange.
Presently, I adjust my rearview mirror and notice the car behind me. It’d followed me since I left Kroger’s ten minutes ago. The man inside is bald and chubby; he has on thick-framed glasses and is wearing a brown trench coat. The very sight of him makes my stomach church and makes my hair stand on end. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him around. In fact, he seems to be everywhere I am. He’s even been parked close to my house for hours on end. I know because I’ve seen him waiting inside his car. He was in a driveway of a vacant house down the street as I leave for work in the morning, only to find him there still when I go for an early evening walk.
My house is close by, so I hit the button to open the attached garage door and drive inside. I close the garage as soon as I’m inside and then put away the groceries. Afterward, I go through the house, shutting every blind and drape from the windows and doors. That would help let that creep know he isn’t welcome to stalk or spy on me.
It’s hard to admit, but I don’t as much as I miss Ellis being around. The two of us weren’t exactly getting along these past few months. He had his drinking problem, staying out with friends at the bar until two every night. Then he’d come home angry and mean. I’ve kept my distance these last few months for this reason.
When he’s sober, I still don’t enjoy being around him. Not like I did when we met five years ago. We used to do special things together like hiking, bowling, or a movie once in a while. When he comes home, we each withdraw into our own little corners of the house.
Despite all this, part of me does miss him being around. I need someone to keep me company. My friend Cole from KRT, the TV station where I work, so I dial the main number. After a few rings, the receptionist, Mary, answers the phone.
“KRT 11, this is Mary speaking; how can I direct your call?”
“Mary, it’s me, Abby Wright. Put me through to Cole pronto!”
“Certainly,” Mary said nervously. “Just one moment.”
The phone rang. “Cole Hartman speaking!
“Hey Cole, it’s me, Abby,” I said. He greeted me warmly, and I told him about the man who’d followed me home. Cole is one of the few guys I know who I feel I can trust. He’s been the lead tech engineer at KRT for five years. I know him so well that I let him walk me to my car at night. I’ve invited him over a few times to hang out and clarify that we’re just friends. I doubt he’s attracted to me, but he’s also shown concern for my missing husband. That in and of itself tells me he’s not just one of the many guys I’ve met who just want to get inside a hot brunette’s panties. Their words, not mine. I’m well aware of the looks I’ve been blessed with. In fact, being a TV reporter requires one to be attractive at some level. It’s been proven that people trust those who are more attractive. So, it’s more than just sex appeal in a TV station or news network’s hiring decision.
“If you’d like, I can come set him straight,” Cole says. “I’ll park down the road to sneak up and surprise him. I’d tell him to get the hell outta here and never come back. Maybe I could break one of his windows or something. Send the message clear.”
“I hope to get rid of him altogether,” I say. “But I don’t want to escalate it that far just yet. Maybe if we met for dinner, you’d get a chance to see his face.”
“That’s a great idea,” Cole says. “I’m just a bit concerned for you, that’s all. If this guy’s been following you the last few days, he may have had something to do with Ellis missing.”
I take a deep breath. “That’s what I’m thinking. If Mr. Stalker had anything to do with it, I’d make sure the bastard pays. Listen, meet me at Haley’s at seven.”
“Sounds good; take care of yourself, girl.” We hang up, and I start getting ready to meet with Cole. I put on a shiny silver dress and wear sand-colored pantyhose. I make sure my makeup is done right, slip on stiletto high heels, and leave for Haley’s.
Traffic isn’t bad, so I make it to Haley’s in no time. Just as I expected, the ever-punctual Cole is already waiting for me by his car inside the parking lot. I’m blown away by how big he is each time I see him. He’s at least six-four and likely upwards of about three hundred plus in the weight department. I have to admit that having a guy like him as a friend makes me feel secure, but I figure most would. He notices that I’m here and we both smile and wave to each other.
He scans me head to toe and says, “You look wonderful!”
I thank him, and he takes me by the arm as we head into the restaurant. The look on his face tells me he’s dismayed. Likely because he didn’t expect this to be a date, and I’m caught off guard by this confusion. It wasn’t my intention to lead him on and dazzle him with elegance. These looks were for my stalker to see. Not to impress him but to give him the impression that Cole and I are dating. I’m hoping he’ll see Cole and take a hint and stop following me. I’ve gazed around the parking lot to see if the scumbag is behind me, and thankfully, there’s no sign of him. Still, I’m keeping my eyes peeled just in case.
Once we’re seated, the waiter asks for our drink orders, Cole orders a lite beer, and I stick with iced tea. As much as I’d like to request a Spritz, I have to drive home and can’t risk being pulled over by the cops, let alone get a DUI. Of course, being a local reporter doesn’t make me an A-list actor, but I still have a reputation to protect. It would take one news story reading: “Abby Wright’s DUI arrest,” and I’d never work again.
“So, what are you ordering,” Cole asks me?
I have to admit I’m not good at creating small talk, and there’s just a chance that I might bore Cole tonight. But I’m making this a date when it shouldn’t be. “Baked Artichoke Hearts,” I say. He makes a funny face, and I can tell he’s disgusted with my choice.
Then he says, “To each his own,” and I nod.
The waiter comes after a long wait, and we each order. I go with the Artichoke, and he orders a fried fish.
“So, have you seen you know who here,” Cole asks?
“Thankfully not,” I respond. “Though I only took a quick glance around when we got here.”
Cole stands up. “I’ve got to excuse myself for a minute. Be right back” I nod, then watch him walk away. He doesn’t have to tell me why he’s getting up, and I don’t have to watch him because I already know.
When he returns, the look on his face tells me he saw my stalker is here somewhere. Unfortunately, the way this restaurant is laid out doesn’t allow me to see the front. There are two separate sides, both divided by a lobby area in the front, making it impossible to tell where the man might be exactly.
Cole sits down and cups his mouth. “He’s in the smoking section,” he whispers. I nod but say nothing, then quickly change the subject to the Bengals and their lousy season. Eventually, I asked about his football career, which never lifted off. Still, he played linebacker for Ohio state about ten years ago. Finally, he tells me about breaking his leg his junior year.
When the conversation turns boring, I start gossiping about our coworkers. I can’t say I feel bad, as most backstabbers deserve it. It’s like it’s every man for himself at KRT. Coworkers are constantly snitching, talking about you behind your back. I can’t stand most of them.
Our food comes sooner than expected. All throughout our dinner, I make sure to keep the subject of my husband at bay. Whenever he mentions Ellis, I get us onto another topic as fast as possible. Cole will have to understand my public image, regardless of how small that audience is. The last thing I need is rumors or innuendo about what might have happened to him or whether or not he possibly left. So far, I’ve done an excellent job of keeping my personal problems under wraps and prefer to keep them that way.
As I stand up from my seat, I lose my balance and try to catch myself on the table. Unfortunately, my hand grabs my dress inadvertently, pulling one side down far enough to expose my left bare breast. I’m sure to catch myself quickly and fix my dress. I figure my face must be red with embarrassment, but it doesn’t matter because I storm off to the front to get away from the situation.
Before we leave, Haley’s Cole pays the bill like the gentleman he is, and I don’t protest. Instead, I take an inconspicuous look around for my stalker, but he appears to be gone, which is a relief. As soon as I stop him, I tell Cole I’ll wait outside for him. Due to the whole debacle back at the table, the faster we leave from here, the better.
We both go into the parking lot after paying the bill. I look over to Cole and whistle. “Let’s meet at the park.”
He waves to me and nods.
When we get to Chester Park, Cole tells me to follow him. He leads me to a trail into the woods. I watch him step inside while I stay back. He turns around soon enough, then says, “Come on.”
My eyes lower to my dress and high heels; Cole notices this. “I can’t. Look at the way I’m dressed.”
He smiles and shakes his head. “Just get in here; I’ll take care of you.” I smile weakly, then mosey on in. The start is easy enough, but I still find the idea of hiking in a dress to be absurd, to say the least. Even Cole isn’t dressed for this. He’s wearing a pair of khakis and a polo shirt, with dress shoes to top it all off.
Eventually, we come to a steep hill. Cole extends his hand to me. “Let me help you.”
Before I grab his hand, I take my shoes off. “I can’t do it with these things on. But, boy, what’ve we gotten ourselves into, Cole.” We both run down in sync until we’re near the bottom, and we both stumble and fall. I end up on top of Cole, and we have one of those moments. As awkward as it is, I quickly roll off of him and give him a light tap on the chest. The both of us crack up.
“Hey, at least we didn’t get hurt,” Cole says. Our laughs become more intense, and we meet face to face. I can only imagine that he’s thinking about what I am, and I pull my face away from him. I feel like a fool believing romance wouldn’t spark between Cole and me, but it has. Anyway, it’s too late to take it back, but I need to end this moment, so he isn’t offended. Besides that, it still feels a bit awkward to me.
I quickly stand up, then grab Cole’s hand and pull him up with a smile. “Let’s get out of here before it gets dark,” I say. He nods, and we continue to walk.
After we go about five hundred feet, a rusting sound can be heard below us. Its initially hidden by tall weeds but comes into view. We both stop and look at each other with wide, panicked eyes. “Run,” Cole whispers, and we both sprint ahead. He burns me hard, and soon I lose track of him. Soon after, I’m thrown off by a slight dip and lose my balance. I feel the rush of cold blood when I realize I’ve come to a steep hill. Sure enough, I slip and roll down headfirst a few times, unable to stop. When I come to the bottom of the barrier, I quit due to pain in my calf. Upon favoring it, I feel liquid. When I check my hands, I see blood. The sight of it makes me faint.
My eyes are slowly open to a world of a greenish-brown blur. I hear a muffled call directed toward me but don’t recognize the voice. Maybe it’s Cole, but I’m too out of it to know for sure.
I expect to see someone checking on me, hoping that it’s Cole, but no one is in sight. Slowly I return to my feet but avoid checking the massive scrape on my calf. My hand still has blood on it from the fall. I move on ahead, expecting to see Cole, but he’s nowhere around. I find it puzzling that he wouldn’t come back to check on me. Indeed, he’d have heard me screaming when I fell earlier; how could he not be here? “Cole,” I shout, but there’s no response. I move on ahead and continue to call for him again but still hear nothing but the chirping of crickets and locusts buzzing about.
After another five minutes of walking, I approach the exit right outside the park. It led to Park Avenue, which is a state road. Chester Park is a short way ahead, so I head in that direction. A car comes about halfway to the park entrance, and I watch it closely pass by. It’s a silver Chevy Impala, just like the one Cole has. I wave while jumping up and down, but the car doesn’t stop. My expression turns sour, and I’m hurt because I’m sure it’s him. I flip him off and cuss him out. Then the car stops. A large man gets out, but he looks way different in the face. I laugh and then apologize, telling him that I thought he was someone else.
I get home a short time later. The sun is already behind the mountains, and dusk has overtaken the bright sky. I slowly make my way inside the house, clean up my wounded calf then plop down on the couch. I reach for the phone, grab the receiver and then call Cole’s home number. An older woman answers, and I ask if Cole is there.
“Who is this? She asks.
“I’m Cole’s friend Abby; I just need to make sure he’s ok,”
“Sorry, but no, Cole is living here,” she responds.
I recite the phone number I dialed back to her, and she affirms that it’s correct. “But know this is the right number.”
The old lady apologizes, then hangs up on me. In frustration, I toss the receiver down onto the floor. I blame the fall on why I’m sleepy, which is strange due to how absurd that thought is. Either way, I don’t feel like talking to anyone else tonight. I figure I can call Cole at the station tomorrow to tell him what an asshole he is. For now, it’s for the best if I turn in for the night.
A harsh knock comes on my front door in the middle of the night. A gruff man’s voice can be heard shouting. “This is the police; open up.” My body is frozen, and I can’t bring myself to say anything either.
The pounding continues, and after waiting a few minutes, it’s clear whoever this (I don’t believe it’s the actual police) isn’t going away. “I know you’re in there. This is the Sheriff’s Office. If you don’t open up, this door will be broken down.” I take his threat seriously and tiptoe to the peephole. My blood runs cold when I see who’s standing outside. It’s my stalker. The same middle-aged, chubby, bald guy, waiting like a hungry dog to its prey. He’s wearing a gray trench coat, oversized, rimmed glasses, and a fedora. On the pocket of his jacket, a badge is displayed. Still, I don’t see uniformed officers supporting him, so there’s no reason to trust him. Slowly, I step away from the door and head upstairs. I admit that falling asleep on the couch was a mistake, but turning the lights out was at least something I did right.
When I get upstairs, I head for a storeroom in the middle of the hallway. Inside, a wardrobe allows me to stay hidden via a small, concealed door. It leads to a small room only accessible from the cupboard. It’s something Ellis and I had done because we love The Chronicles of Narnia so much. I climb inside the hidden room and lock the small catch behind me. There is a sleeping bag inside to sleep in, so I get it out, lay on it, wait, and listen.
The pounding at the front door continues until it doesn’t. I shut my eyes and waited for sleep to come. This room is entirely safe due to a metal shutter Ellis installed, so I forget about what’s going on below. It’s easy for me to thank his attention to safety. When we first got married and moved in here, he had this installed and went over a plan with me in case of a break-in. The plan was simple. Come here and lock both doors. As long as we’re quiet, no one will suspect we’re in here or that this even exists. Unless, of course, they happen to be an architect.
While I wait for sleep, I become aware of at least one voice coming from upstairs. “She’s got to be in here somewhere. Come on out, Abby. I’ll find you one way or another. I’ll flip over every bed and check every closet.” I remain still and quiet. My pulse races when I hear someone talking, and it’s coming from outside the wardrobe. A few knocks to the back of the wardrobe fade, and a minute goes by when the voices suddenly seem distant again.
Morning comes, and I’m already downstairs brewing coffee. I slept until nine, which is sleeping in for me. The front door was shut, and I decided to deadbolt it. I came downstairs fully expecting the front door to be knocked down, but it wasn’t. Safe to say that he got in somehow else, but that isn’t clear because all the windows are down, locked, and unbroken.
Saturday is usually busy for me, but not today. The rainstorm going on outside tells me that’s a good thing. This evening I have a dinner with KRT; it takes place at six PM. Originally Ellis was supposed to go with me, but I’ve already arranged for Cole to take his place the other day. I plan on calling him again around noonish to make sure we’re still on, though I’m still peeved at him for leaving me in the woods last night. We can discuss it, but I want to stay on good terms with him. He’s the only one I feel I can trust since Ellis was gone. I think I can trust him right now. At least he’s the only one in Chester, Ohio.
Right after I finish brunch, which consisted of Eggs, tomato, and pepper, a frittata I whipped up, I take a quick stroll around the block, then ring Cole. I’m sure to use the backdoor when I leave and return and lock it each way.