Sunday, October 25, 2015

“Stalker” by Heather Rath

This story was the Grand Prize Winner for the John Kenneth Galbraith literary award and took home the $2,000 prize. Congratulations, Heahter! For more about the Galbraith Award, see here.

I first saw him from a distance. 
At 6:45 a.m. every other day---give or take a few minutes---I ran on the treadmill at KeepFit, glancing out the window in front of me every so often to relieve the boredom of my disciplined run.  Each morning I ran on the treadmill he arrived in the parking lot in his shiny black Mazda3 at precisely 7 a.m.  Not one minute before. Not one minute after.  He always parked in the same spot: third space in from the third row.  I noticed him because he was the lone person in the lone car while I was the lone voyeur peering undiscovered out of the tinted gym window that conveniently overlooked the parking lot.
The Mazda guy always followed the same routine. 
Engine off, he sat in his car for exactly ten minutes (I checked on the treadmill timer).  After ten minutes, he’d open the car door, close it, lock it carefully then test it was locked, walk clockwise around the Mazda slowly, studying it.  After three---always three---walks around the car, he strolled towards the mall entrance continually looking back at his car as if it would suddenly sprout wings and fly away.  During that ten minutes alone in his car, who knows what he was thinking or doing?  He wasn’t smoking or talking on a cell phone.  Maybe he was listening to the radio.  I thought his repetitive behaviour abnormal.  Obsessive even. 
He was good looking.  Average height and build from my vantage point.  His face intrigued me and I thought he might be interesting to see at close range.  He did have a trim little black beard that looked soft and silky from a distance.  Although I couldn’t see his eyes I sensed they were light coloured.  Probably blue because he always wore a sky blue jacket, shirt or top.
Idly I began to watch his daily ritual whenever I ran on the treadmill to see if he deviated from it.  Each time I watched him, he showed the same compulsive behaviour.  It was so weird I even told Glenn, my live-in, about him. 
I never knew where this guy was going, where he worked, or if he only stayed in the mall for a short time because after working out two hours I just wanted to get out of there.
Except this one morning.  I was meeting Glenn for grocery shopping later so headed for Tim Horton’s in the food court for a quick coffee.  That’s when I saw him.  From the coffee line.  The obsessive guy with the trim beard.   For a minute he startled me.  Even more amazing was how our eyes accidentally met and instantly connected.  He had no idea who I was or that I had been spying on him from the second floor gym window.  His penetrating look embarrassed me and I began to wonder if he knew I had been watching him.  I sort of smiled half-crookedly and he smiled back.  A broad genuine smile. 
Suddenly he was beside me. 
“Let me buy you coffee,” he said.
“But I don’t even know you.”
“Hi.  I’m Bill.  Now you know me.”
“Thanks,” I said, thinking what a cocky so-and-so.
“Join me over at that table.”  Bill motioned as the cashier gave me my double cream, one sugar java jolt.
And that’s how the intro happened.  As innocent as you please.
“Name?” he asked with such intensity I paused.                     
“Hi Pat.”
“Hi Bill.  So what am I doing here?” I asked, noticing the dazzling blue colour of his eyes.  He wore a flat gold chain around his neck.  It settled on a cluster of dark curly hair showing above his solid blue golf shirt that matched his eyes.  I had been right about his eyes.
He grinned.  “Having coffee with me.”  He grinned again.  Then, staring at my ring finger, he said: “Happily married?”
“Not exactly,” I said quickly.  “Happily living together.” 
“Good.  Now I know where I stand.”
“Hey, Bill…” I stammered.  “I don’t even….
“Know me?” he finished. 
“Well, there’s not much to know about me.  I’m alone drinking my coffee.  I see a pretty woman come through the door staring at me and think…why not?  Why not enjoy coffee with this pretty woman?  That’s all.”
“Yeah,” I smiled and relaxed a little, slightly flattered.  Only he didn’t know I knew all about his little idiosyncrasies.  His daily ritual in his car in the same parking spot. Circling the car three times.
“So,” said Bill.  “Tell me a little about yourself.”  Like a babbling fool I did.  Told him about Glenn and how we’d been together for five years (“ah,” he commented, “my kid sister almost made five years with her live-in…”) and that I worked in the local library and loved the outdoor life.
“I can tell that,” he interrupted.
“You’re carrying a gym bag and you just came through the door from KeepFit so I figure someone who stays in such good shape must like the outdoor life.”  He emphasized such good shape saying the words slowly and with deliberation that it slightly unnerved me.
“Anyway,” I said.  “Gotta go and meet Glenn.”
“Your special man.” 
“Well, nice to meet you, Pat with the golden hair and shining eyes.”  He looked straight through me and I felt an odd shudder.  “What’d you say your last name was?”
“I didn’t.”
“Well, I’m curious.  It’s……Smith?”
“What?” I said laughing.  “No, it’s Ryan.”
Then I stopped laughing.  Using the oldest trick in the book, he had my last name.  I didn’t like that because I already knew he was a bit unusual.  “Thanks for the coffee, Bill.”
“No problem Patricia Ryan.”
The way he said my full name bothered me.  Damn.
“Bye,” I said, “and thanks again.”  I picked up my gym bag and ran to the parking lot to the car.  Something made me look back.  I saw Bill watching me get into my white Toyota.  Why was this unease slowly spreading over me?
As soon as we connected, I told Glenn what happened and how agitated I felt and for no good reason.  Just a strange prickly feeling.  “Nonsense,” he reassured me.  “You librarians read too many books with too many plots and you think a guy whose bought you coffee has some kind of sinister ulterior motive.”
That evening the red flag started to wave.  About 9 o’ clock, the phone rang.  Glenn answered.  “Who was that?” I asked.  “No-one,” he said.  “A hangup.  Probably someone realized they had a wrong number.”
Ten minutes later, the phone rang again.  “I’ll get it this time,” I shouted from my downstairs office and hit the button. 
            “Hello,” I said.
“Hi Pat.”  My heart stopped beating for an instant.  I said nothing.
“Have you forgotten me already?  It’s Bill.”  I knew damn well who it was and I was annoyed.  Still, I knew it was best to downplay my reaction.
“Oh, hi Bill,” I said.  “Why on earth are you calling?”
“Oh,” came the smooth reply.  “Just wondering if we could have coffee together again tomorrow, same place, same time.”
“No.  Sorry,” I said in a clipped voice, thinking why am I saying I’m sorry?
“No problem,” said Bill.  “We can always get together another time when it’s more convenient for you.”
“Sorry, Bill.”  There I go again with my sorry bit, “but it’s impossible.  You know I’m committed.”
“Well, silly me,” he taunted. I could feel those penetrating blue eyes piercing me through the phone line.  “I didn’t ask you to go out with me,” he blew softly.  “I only asked you for coffee.” 
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said and quickly hung up.  I stared at the phone, breathing hard.  What the devil was happening here?  Why did I feel so jumpy?
“GLENN!”  I yelled running upstairs.
Ten minutes later the phone rang again.  “Don’t get it!” I shouted.  He already answered. 
“Another hangup.”
 “Let’s get caller ID,” I said, insecurity building in my voice.
On my next workout day I rushed to the gym at 6:30 a.m.  From the treadmill I watched the parking lot like a hawk.  At precisely 7:00 a.m., Bill arrived in his shiny black Mazda.  This time I shivered when I saw the car.  He parked in the same spot: third space in from the third row.  With the engine off, he sat in his car for exactly ten minutes.  Then he opened the car door, closed it, locked it, carefully checked the lock, then walked clockwise around the Mazda slowly three times, studying it.  Finally, he began to stroll towards the mall entrance all the while looking back at the Mazda. 
I ran faster on the treadmill.
Still feeling uneasy after my shower I decided to ignore Tim Horton’s this morning.  Grabbing my gym bag, I rushed through the exit. 
My heart stopped.  It was him.  Waiting outside the gym door.
“What are you doing here?” I frowned.
“Hey, Pat, pretty lady with the golden hair and shining eyes,” smiled Bill.  “Just looking for a little company while I have coffee.  You don’t have to get so jumpy.”
“Look,” I said firmly.  “I don’t really know you.  So sorry. No coffee.”  Damn, there was that ‘sorry’ again!  “Besides, I need to get to work.”
“Ah, yes, the library,” he smiled.  “No problem. We can catch each other another time.”
Trembling, I held my breath as I unlocked the Toyota and slid into the driver’s seat.  When I stole a backwards glance at the mall door, he was standing there.  Watching me.  I shuddered.  Worse, I suddenly spied a note on my windshield under the wipers.  Even without opening it, I knew it was from him.  When I looked at the mall exit again he was standing there.  Waving.
That night I told Glenn about Bill’s sudden appearance outside the gym door and showed him the note: Let’s have coffee together Pat.
“Relax,” said easy-going Glenn.  But he did frown. “He knows you aren’t interested in having coffee.  I’m sure you won’t see him anymore.”
Glenn always sounds so reasonable about everything so I calmed down.  That evening, no phone calls.
Each morning I went to the gym now I held my breath.  I even considered changing my workout time but then decided no oddball was going to rule my life.  Besides, there hadn’t been another impromptu meeting with him for a week or so.  I slipped into a more relaxed mode.
That is, until one day at work.
I was at my desk when unexpectedly I heard, “Hi there my pretty little Pat with the golden hair and shining eyes.”
I didn’t have to look up to know it was him.  My body stiffened in automatic response.
“What are you doing here?” I said, trying hard to keep my composure while my insides reeled in anger.
“Hey lovely Patsy,” he crooned.  “Why so upset?  This is a public place after all.”
His nonchalance and familiarity infuriated me.  On top of that, he called me Patsy, a name reserved for Glenn and some close friends.  Another emotion crowded my fury, though.  Fear.  He had obviously and deliberately come looking for me at my place of work.  I felt like a bug under a microscope.
“When’s your coffee break?” he crooned again, his voice dripping with honey.  “I was just chatting with your friend, Nancy, over there.  She tells me you’re both taking off this weekend for the country with some friends.  Gee, sounds like fun.  Want another friend to go along too?”
Using all my self-control to remain civil I decided to confront him with what I now considered the Bill problem.   “You seem to be following me.”  I accused.  “Are you?”
“Well, Patsy, I don’t think so.  I may have seen you around over the past days and weeks but you haven’t seen me.”  He grinned.  Like the proverbial Cheshire Cat.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He grinned again.  “Well, you and Glenn sure lead an active life.  Movies…did you like Trainwreck...visiting friends, friends visiting you…looked like nice people, the guy was a little loud… tennis, gardening in the yard….”
Enraged, I stared at him.  “You’ve been watching us.”  A shudder caught in my throat.
“No.  Just you.”
“Please stop!”
“Dear Patsy,” he said.  “Don’t you know I can’t?  I feel tremendously attracted to you.  From the first moment our eyes linked.  And I want you to be mine.”
“You’re crazy.”  Fear squeezed my heart.
“Only crazy about you.”
“Hi there you two!”  Nancy breezed by. “Just met Bill a few minutes ago and he told me you guys are friends from way back.”  And she sailed on by with books in her arms.
With a crooked smile, Bill just looked at me, arching one dark brown eyebrow over a piercing blue eye.
“You’re harassing me.”
“No-o-o,” he said calmly.  “We just happen to meet each other once in awhile.  That’s hardly harassment among friends.”  He turned to leave.  “See ya, Patsy love.”
I sat staring after the closed door frozen in my thoughts. 
Breathing deeply, I analyzed the situation.  Bill was harassing me.  I knew there were laws against it.   But I couldn’t go to the police.  I didn’t even know his last name.  And what he said was true.  We didn’t see each other but he just rolled off every activity Glenn and I had been doing recently.  So he must be watching us…me.  The fear factor raced down my back again.
Our girls’ get-together at Nancy’s cottage was set for Saturday.  I was joining the group later because Glenn and I had business to tend to first.  He was leaving his company for another and we were finalizing financial and logistical details.  When I finally left for the cottage later in the day, Glenn kissed me on my nose.  “Have a great time,” he said.  I kissed him back.  Good, gentle, Glenn.  How I had come to appreciate him.
It felt fine to be off by myself.  The drive gave me a chance to sort out disturbing thoughts about the Bill dilemma.  Glenn was not so complacent about Bill now and insisted I document each time he contacted me and my reaction.  If we went to the police, I needed facts.  My biggest problem: no personal information on the guy. 
Halfway to the lake I casually glanced in the rear view mirror.  The traffic had thinned; there was only one car in the distance behind me.  I kept an eye on it as the driver slowly inched closer. 
Turning left onto the gravel road I checked my rear view mirror again.  The car behind me turned left, too.  I frowned and a vague uneasiness settled in the pit of my stomach. Then I shook myself: C’mon Pat.  The driver is probably going to a cottage along the road, too.  Truly, I was over dramatizing events.
A gang---or is it a gaggle?---of mature girlfriends guarantees a fun time.  We drank early, barbequed late, skinny dipped in the lake, and gossiped.  The best kind of freedom day.
I was still recovering from our Saturday party on Monday morning.  The ringing phone on my desk was an irritating interruption during the usually early quiet hours in the library.  Sighing, I lifted the receiver.
“Hello,” his voice purred.
I stiffened.
“Don’t hang up,” he crooned.  “I have something to tell you.”
I should have hung up but instead I clung to the receiver, paralyzed.  Like a deer at night caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.  I realized later I should have picked up a pencil to start recording his words but his call shocked me.
“You have a beautiful body,” he breathed.  “I was captivated when I saw you in the lake.  No clothes on.  You’re in better shape than any of your friends.  I keep looking at the shot I took.”
I slammed down the receiver, quivering.  Nancy looked over, raised her eyebrows quizzically, then continued cataloguing.
So the car behind me had been him after all.  I should have trusted my gut instinct.  But where could he have seen us?  Was he on the ridge that ran behind the cottage and beach?
Jittery, I changed my workout time to match Glenn’s after his work day.  When we met, I told him about the phone call.  “Jeez, this is getting serious, Patsy.  We’ve got to lodge a complaint.  He’s stalking you.”
His reaction didn’t help.  Glenn, always so calm and reassuring, was expressing concern.
“Patsy,” he said.  “You know I have an overnight in Ottawa this week and now I’m worried about leaving you alone.  Why don’t you come with me?”
“This is ridiculous, Glenn.  We’re letting some creep dictate our life.  It’s crazy.  You go ahead.  If I really feel nervous I’ll stay with Nance.”
When Glenn left for the airport I was a Nervous Nellie.  Reassuringly, he called me constantly.  I told him, half-joking but dead serious, that I hid a kitchen knife under the runner on the table by the front door.  “Just in case....” I sort of laughed.  I didn’t tell him I intended to put one under my pillow, too.  A long pause on his end.
“Patsy,” he breathed.  “We have to take decisive action about this stalker creep when I get back.  We’ll go to the police.  I can hardly wait to see you, hold you.  Love you, girl.”
“Love you, too, big boy,” I crooned with much more bravado than I felt.
A pink striated sunset washed the twilight sky the night I was alone.  The heat of the day melted with a welcoming evening breeze as I stepped outside to drink in the natural beauty.  Suddenly my peripheral vision caught a fast movement to my right.  Quickly turning, I spotted the black squirrel as it rustled among the leaves in the birch tree.  He chattered at me as if to say, you are such a silly goose!  I laughed and took a deep breath.
Chiding myself for overreacting, I gazed down our stone-lined path.  That’s when I saw him.
With racing heart, I watched Bill casually saunter towards me as if he lived here. When he stood face to face with me on the porch, he stopped.  Puzzled, with rising panic, I digested everything that followed in slow motion.
 “Good evening, Patsy-Love.”  His piercing blue eyes terrified me as he inched closer.  Casually, he leaned against the porch column.  “You must be wondering who I really am....”
Unnerved, I could not answer.  Only stared at him.
“Once upon a time,” he began slowly as I desperately tried to think of escape... “your loving Glenn broke my little sister’s heart.  I loved my kid sister with all my heart.  Your Glenn led her on a merry chase of pretend love then abandoned her for YOU.”  I feared how he shook with rage.  With narrowed eyes he whispered menacingly, “she was fragile to begin with but after Glenn left she was devastated....”
He paused, shaking, breathing hard, like some monster. 
I took a deep breath.
“I vowed I’d hurt your GLENN....” he spit out his name with a shout  “ he hurt my sister.  She killed herself over that worthless piece of shit...”  Suddenly, he lunged towards me.
Gasping, horrified, speechless, I reeled away quickly.
With brute force, he pushed me hard and backwards against the door and into the house.  The last thing I remembered was reaching for the butcher knife....

Heather Rath has known writing would be a major part of her life ever since she won her first writing contest at age 11. She has been a finalist for the Galbraith Award three times before finally winning it this year. She has been a reporter, editor of a weekly newspaper and of a monthly business magazine, and head of communications for a multinational company. 
Her writing has been published widely and some of her children’s stories have been translated in Braille and has edited and contributed to two anthologies of southwestern Ontario writers. Her novel, starring a runaway woman, is looking for a good home. Visit Heather’s website here.  

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Barrie, Bracebridge, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.  

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