I make kissy faces at myself in the mirror to watch my lips sparkle in the light. Maybe I should put a little more lip gloss on. I have on my dark, tight, boot cut jeans with a pale yellow, short-sleeve shirt. I’m ready for action, and pretend to shoot myself in the mirror with my fake finger gun. Ready for whatever Alice is up to today. Nothing can ruin shopping though, with only one exception—my dad.
I’ve only seen my dad in a mall once. I was thirteen, and it wasn’t a planned trip. My mom ‘claimed’ she had to run in the mall to pick something up and she’d be in and out. It was mid-summer. And no one in Texas is foolish enough to sit in the car to wait for someone to run in and out of anywhere unless the air conditioner is running. My dad grudgingly got out of the vehicle and went inside the mall. We were in there much longer than a run-in-and-out errand. My dad was furious.
My mom decided to try on clothes, and he ran in and out of the women’s dressing room banging on random doors trying to find my mother. It wouldn’t have been so humiliating if I could have pretended we weren’t related, but he dragged me along with him. Try being thirteen and pulled around by your dad at the mall. He wanted to leave the mall as soon as possible and didn’t want to waste time by trying to find his teenage daughter. The longer it took him to find me the more diverted his wife would get, and she’d end up in the dressing room again; and the cycle would repeat itself.
Never again, that’s all I’m going to say.
My phone chimes signaling a new text message.
Tom – 2nite we’re celebrating
Brooke – celebrating what
Tom – my new job!! no longer an intern. 🙂
Brooke – HOORAY!!! What time?
Tom – 6
Now I have a legitimate reason to cut my shopping trip with loony Alice short!
“Talk to me,” Alice answers.
“Hey, I just wanted you to know I have to be home at four. I have a date,” I sing to her while I dance my happy dance. No one has ever seen my happy dance. It’s a rare occasion like the Aurora Borealis, only it isn’t as pretty and it’s far from graceful. I watch myself in the bathroom mirror. I appear to be getting electrocuted or having a massive heart attack. Spasm, is the word to describe my dancing, but I don’t stop.
“I guess we better hurry since it’s already eleven. Let’s meet by the food court at twelve.” And she hangs up.
I finish getting ready and race downstairs. My sister is eating lunch with my mom and dad. Their ritual lives on every week after church; my dad never goes to church. I stopped going when my dad stopped. I argued that if he didn’t have to go then I shouldn’t have to go, and my mom couldn’t tell me I was going to hell because then she would have to admit that when I died, I would be joining my dad.
“Where are you going?” my dad asks me.
“To the mall with Alice.”
“Who’s Alice? Do I know her,” my mom interrogates me.
“No, we just met.”
“Why didn’t you ask me if I wanted to go to the mall?” Dana asks in a hurt tone.
“Yea, I want to go to the mall too,” my mom whines.
My dad huffs out words too low for me to hear but not low enough for them to miss my mom’s ears.
I stagger over to the wall to regain my legs. My mom slapped my dad on his butt. No one wants to see their parents flirt. Too many images—my eyes! I wave my hand in front of my face to make sure I’m not blind.
“First of all, I didn’t know if we were actually going to the mall today until now, and second of all, I don’t have enough time to wait for y’all. She told me to meet her at twelve,” I glance at the clock on the wall and grab a roll. “See ya later.”
Okay so I fibbed a little, but Alice and my family need to stay far apart. The more space between them the better.
I park and instantly feel the crisp air when I exit my car. I love spring—the flowers are in bloom and the trees are green. Everything decides to wake up at the same time.
Entering the mall, I catch the scent of cinnamon. My mouth immediately waters. As I walk to the dining area I appraise the clothes in the displays trying to distinguish which stores I want to visit. As soon as I get to the food court I see Alice eating out of a to-go bag and talking to someone wearing a baseball cap. So Grayson followed her here. I guess he’s making one last attempt to keep us apart. She sees me coming her way and waves me down. As soon as she waves, Grayson exits the conversation and disappears before I reach her.
“Who was that?” I try to sound inconspicuous.
“He’s an old friend. He was on his way out when we saw each other,” she says, sticking a fry in her mouth. “Are you ready to shop? Anything you need in particular?”
“I’ll need a dress sooner or later,” I reply shrugging my shoulders.
After she finishes eating we go into a department store. We look at shoes but decide to find a dress first and come back for shoes later. There is a limit on dresses that actually fit and look good. We rode the escalator to the second floor and I try on eight dresses, finally deciding on a short, black one. Alice tries on twice as many and she is stuck between two—a red, form-fitting dress with a sweetheart neckline to show off her cleavage, and a long, midnight blue, A-line dress.
“I can’t pick one. I like the red one but I don’t want to look slutty. The blue one is more sophisticated.”
“Go wild! Go for the red one. Slut it up,” I tell her. Okay, maybe I’m not giving her the best advice, but she deserves it.
“You’re right. Okay, now we need heels.”
Women don’t ever really need heels. They are not the accessory. Everything surrounding the heels are the accessories—the dress, the necklace, the hair clips, the jewelry. Think about it—we can dye heels if we need a certain color. They don’t talk back. They make us feel better when we find them. You can take them to a shoe doctor. Plus, they don’t mind being stuck in the back of a closet. They’re always happy to see you when you bring them back out. How sexy is it for a woman to walk around in her house naked just wearing heels?
I pay for my dress first. While I wait for Alice to pay I see a guy staring in our direction, but I can’t make out his face. I don’t need to see his face though, because I already know who it is. His dumb baseball cap and sunglasses don’t fool me. Who wears sunglasses inside? Alice pays, and we retrace our steps to the first floor to seek out the perfect heels. We try on every single pair of pumps in the vicinity and finally find a pair Alice wants, but the sales person has vanished.
I guess we ran him off with all the heels we made him get for us earlier. Note to self: try on random pumps after finding the pair you want so you don’t have to wait for the sales person. We drag another victim into helping us get Alice’s perfect heels as I spot Grayson staring at us again.
After she buys her shoes, we walk to the bathroom inside the food court. I watch for Grayson but he seems to have disappeared. After I wash my hands I stare at my reflection and my stomach churns. Either I’m hungry or something bad is about to happen. My woman’s intuition is acting up.
She’s not going to do anything to me in public. The problem is convincing myself. I exit the bathroom cautiously hoping I’m just hungry. Before I know it Alice abruptly pushes me into the room the mall designates for breastfeeding women. Alice shuts and locks the door, and I’m face to face with the guy sporting the hat and shades. Always, always listen to my woman’s intuition.
“What the hell is this?” I shriek. “Why are we in here? Why did you lock the door? Let me out right now!”
“Shh, be quiet! We just want to talk to you,” Alice whispers. My head starts spinning, and I have to sit down on the bench in the room. What is wrong with me?
“About what? Unlock the door and talk to me in public where people can see us,” I demand. I don’t know why I’m demanding things because I don’t seem very threatening. I hold my hands to my head to stop it from spinning.
“I can’t do that,” the guy in the hat finally speaks. I open my mouth and point at him, trying to get the right words out.
“Y-you … I’m a little confused,” I tilt my head to make out any familiar features on his face to tell me it’s Grayson, because it’s definitely not Grayson’s voice. But I haven’t really seen Grayson since he left for college, and I wouldn’t know what to look for…except the dimples. The dimples are the same.
“Grayson?” I question, squinting my eyes.
“Now I’m confused,” Alice admits.
“But you—and he—you guys were fighting. And you were stalking me. But he—he warned me to stay away from you.” My tone is skeptical. I have no idea what’s going on. This was a bad, bad plan from the very beginning. I’m not really sure what I was hoping to accomplish. I just wanted to have a little fun and cause problems in their relationship, and now I’m not even sure if there ever was a relationship.
“My whole family knows I’m here. They’ll look for me,” I threaten in a convincing manner.
“What exactly does she think is going to happen in this room?” the guy asks Alice.
“I don’t know, but whatever she has in mind I don’t want to know,” Alice states. “Um, if you could start from the beginning. That would be nice.”
She swiftly sits down in a chair in the room and smiles. I almost feel compelled to tell her my life story as if she were interviewing me. I glance back and forth between them.
“So you’re not Grayson’s psycho girlfriend who is stalking me,” I say slowly.
Alice turns beet red and clenches her teeth, “Is that what he told you?”
The guy in the shades smiles, and the dimples are missing. Okay, he’s definitely not Grayson.
“No one told me anything. I assumed because that one rainy day you two were acting so strange. And then the ‘following’ feeling I’d been having… ,” once I say it out loud, I feel really stupid. I cover my face with my hands and want to scream. This is all a big mistake. Whatever’s going on is way over my head. I didn’t see it coming.
“That kind of explains a lot. I think Grayson has some explaining to do, and if I would have known…I mean, he kept sneaking away. And one day I followed him—you know what, you just need to talk to him. I can’t really—it’s just not my place,” Alice shrugs her shoulders, officially giving up on the conversation.
“She’s got an imagination,” he comments, while taking off his disguise. “Name’s Chip, and I have a proposition for you. You’re about to be fresh out of college and in need of some cash. How about a job?”
He has my attention. I really need a job. Why didn’t they start with that in the first place? Jobs aren’t scary, they’re welcomed.
“What kind of job?” I ask curiously. I fix my posture and start reviewing all of my interview answers in my mind.
“This is one of those things you have to sign up for before I can actually give you the details,” he concludes. His face is as neutral as a blank sheet of paper. He isn’t giving anything away.
“What does it pay?”
“I’ll pay you a freelance fee for your photos. Four hundred dollars if you get the job done right.”
At least I know it’s in one of my areas of expertise.
“What kind of photos?”
“Are you taking the job?”
“I don’t know…is it legal?”
“It’s legal,” he promises.
“Give me a thousand, and I’ll do it.”
His eyes widen, “Six hundred.” He wasn’t expecting me to negotiate.
“I guess you’ll have to find someone else,” I taunt, eyeing the door.
“Alice, you sure do pick ’em. All right, sweetheart, I’ll give you eight hundred,” he observes my face.
For photos?! “Deal. What’s the job?”
“Are you sure? You can’t back out,” Alice warns me sincerely.
“You said it’s legal, right?”
“It’s legal,” she insists.
“I’ll do it,” I say in a pushy tone. She wants to terrorize me and lock me in rooms but doesn’t want to share the secret with me. Selfish.
Alice starts digging in a gigantic bag that comes out of nowhere. I feel my body tense up. Here it comes! I ball my hands into fists, but she hands me a folder that I don’t bother opening. I watch it dangle between two fingers, pretending it’s a bomb. If I open it, I’m really screwed. I’ll be in it for life.
Chip puts his disguise back on before I get a good look at him, just in case I need to describe him later. Now every time I peer over my shoulder, I’ll be watching for a guy with a baseball cap and sunglasses.
After Alice watches me play with the folder, Chip nods at her, opens the door and closes it behind him. My body relaxes a little, but the fact that she locks the door again makes me wonder what else is going to happen in here.
“Sorry about this,” she sighs. “I don’t want to include you, but I think you’re our only shot.”
“For…?” I encourage her.
“Look in the folder,” she suggests, watching me toy with it.
Doom and gloom here I come.
My hand pulls out three pictures of different people. I spread the photos over the bench and my eyes dash to Alice. Am I supposed to automatically know what’s going on? Turning the photos over gain me nothing because the backs are blank. I really wish we could get this over with so I can get out of this room. Feeling claustrophobic, I begin to fidget and pull at the collar of my shirt.
“And I’m supposed to do what with these?” I inquire, raising my eyebrows.
“Those are the people we’re watching. The government is hiding our man, and we need you to follow them around and take pictures so we can keep an eye out for anyone they’re meeting.”
“I’m not a detective.”
“You agreed to the job,” Alice reminds me with a hint of irritation in her voice.
“Why don’t you call the police or something?”
“We can’t involve the police—didn’t you hear me? The government. I warned you before you said yes. What’s wrong with you? He’s going to pay you for your time.”
My anxiety increases. What happens if something goes wrong and the person I’m following sees me and decides to make me disappear? Alice observes me, her eyes flitting around my face, trying to read my expression. I pull at my collar again.
“Tell me what’s wrong and maybe I can fix it,” she says in a calm tone.
“W-what if I disappear? I’m not a detective. I’m a photographer. I’m not the best person for this job.”
“Oh, is that what you’re worried about? Someone will be with you. You’re specifically for the pictures. We’re hoping you’ll acknowledge the angles and lighting to see if there’s something we’re not catching.”
Now I know why she asked me. Duh! She found me in photo club. I guess she was looking for a recruit, and I was the sucker she picked. I stuff the folder in my purse and stand up to leave. Alice follows me out the door.
Once I exit the room I can breathe again. I take a deep breath and try to focus on getting home in time for Tom’s celebration. It would be easier if Alice would let me walk by myself. Her presence isn’t helping me ignore the folder she gave me. I walk as fast as I can through the mall, and Alice walks silently by my side. I check my cell for the time, four-thirty.
As soon as we reach the parking lot I remind Alice, “I have to go. I have a date,” hinting she needs to stop following me to my car.
“Right. I didn’t think it would take that long. I hope Chip didn’t scare you. He’s a good guy. He just comes off as scary.”
I swallow. “He was fine.”
As I turn to leave, Alice seizes my arm, “He’ll be watching you,” she cautions. “You know—keeping an eye on you. To make sure you don’t tell anyone.”
“How do I know when he’s around?”
“You won’t. No worries. We’ll be in touch,” she grins, hugging me as if we’ve been friends forever.
I try not to think about what happened at the mall but I catch myself checking the rearview mirror for a tail. Not that I know how to check for a tail, but at least I’m trying. Does that mean he’s stalking me? Maybe she’s exaggerating. He can’t track me. I’ve never seen him before, and he doesn’t know where I live. I sing to the song playing on the radio to distract my thoughts. As soon as I get home I run upstairs to change for Tom’s celebration.
“Brooke, is that you?” my mom yells.
“Come down and eat something.”
“I’m going out with Tom.”
I change into a pencil skirt and a silky slim-fitting, low-cut shirt. I proceed into the bathroom and try to fix my hair. I pin it back and curl a few pieces. While I touch up my makeup the doorbell rings. My hand shakes as I try to apply eyeliner. Focus Brooke. No one is watching you.
“BB, Tom’s here,” my dad yells.
Baby Brooke—my dad’s nickname for me when I was little only comes out if he feels over-protective. My mom stands next to my dad as I come down the stairs, but as soon as she sees my shirt, she pulls him into the kitchen to eat. There is no doubt he would have made a comment about my low-cut shirt, so it’s better if he doesn’t see it.
“Let’s eat before the food gets cold dear. It’s nice to see you again Tom,” my mother adds.
“You look beautiful,” Tom admits. He opens the front door for me before my dad decides to interrogate him a little longer.
“You don’t look too bad yourself,” I compliment him casually. He is hot! There is nothing casual about him. He has on some black slacks and a red, long-sleeved dress shirt. He opens the car door for me: such a gentleman!
“So who’s helping us celebrate? Bob? Business associates I’ve never met before,” I inquire trying to find out what kind of a night awaits me. Is it going to be dinner and stock talk or shots out of the pretty girl’s belly button? Maybe dancing on stage or a wet T-shirt contest?
“Actually, it’s just gonna be you and me. For everyone else it was too short of notice,” Tom explains as he carefully catches a glimpse of my face. I hope I don’t look anything like I feel, because at the moment, I’m a little excited. Hot guy—all to myself—and he has a nice cushy job after he graduates.
We pull up to a seafood restaurant and he has the valet park the car.
“I hope you like seafood,” Tom beams as he opens the restaurant door for me.
“Sure, as long as it’s not alive while I’m eating it,” I say in a light tone.
We follow the hostess to our table. I sit down, and he sits next to me instead of across from me. It doesn’t bother me because it’s easier for him to point out the different fish he thinks I might like to try. My hands shake nervously. Is this an official ‘unofficial’ date? Did he set this up? Should I ask him? What if he’s trying to be nice? Maybe everyone really did have other plans. He texted me this morning so he had to have texted everyone else at the same time.
Tom orders two glasses of wine and crab dip for an appetizer. We both order the lobster because I can’t pick an entree and the waitress recommends it. The conversation is casual and he doesn’t try to make a move on me. No arm around me or hand on mine. Who would have thought Tom and I would get along so well by ourselves? It’s effortless. He’s a perfect gentleman. He even stands up as I leave to check myself in the bathroom. Who knew gentlemen were still around? The evening is so perfect it actually makes me sick.
We talk about random things for hours and irritate the waitress for sitting at her table for so long. Meandering slowly to the front of the restaurant, we wait for the valet to bring the car around. Before I know it, we’re in front of my house. Do you ever notice how time flies while you’re doing something fun? He gets out of the car to walk me inside. We stop on the porch, and he hugs me.
“I need to tell you something before—,” but Tom is interrupted by the porch light and my dad opening the door. Tom and I squint at my dad. As soon as Tom confirms it’s my father, he pushes me inside.
“I heard someone on the porch and thought you could use some light,” he huffs, feeling better that he ruined our moment.
“Good night Brooke. Mr. Hudson,” Tom nods at my dad and leaves.
My dad sees my shirt, “BB, they don’t buy the cow if they get the milk for free.”
“Dad! No one’s even close to my milk.”
“Better not be,” he scoffs and sets off for his room.
My cell phone rings. It’s Tom.
“Well hey there scaredy cat,” I tease.
“I know better than to stick around when your dad turns on the porch light,” he states in a wary tone. “I just called because I really need to talk to you about something but I can’t do it over the phone.”
Oh no! He’s trying to make it official! I’m not ready for that. What if I say yes and it ends terribly? What if I say no? What if we get married and my mom says I told you so? Can I tell him I’ll think about it and get back to him in a month or two? That might be awkward on the way to and from school.
I stumble on the stairs, and my other line beeps. The perfect excuse to get off the phone. “My other line is beeping. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I catch the other line, “Hello?”
“Come to my house,” Alice gushes in a hurried tone. Something is wrong. Do I really care if something is wrong? I mean, I barely know the girl, and she doesn’t hang out with the best people. Grayson is definitely not good company, and Chip—basically stalks people. But she did say Grayson has some explaining to do. Maybe if I help her out, she’ll answer some questions I need answered for the sake of my curiosity.
“I don’t know where you live, and isn’t it a little late?”
“I’ll give you directions, and hurry.”
I scribble down the directions and tiptoe back downstairs; I snatch my keys and slowly open the front door. I run to my car and race it down Main Street to get to the freeway. Why didn’t I ignore the phone call? I’m supposed to pretend nothing out of the ordinary happened today, but yet, I’m on my way to Alice’s house. Maybe I should turn around … but what if it has nothing to do with the folder she gave me. Maybe she needs help moving around her furniture, or she got stuck in the toilet and needs my help to pull her out—at eleven o’clock at night. It could happen—right?
I arrive at her apartment complex in less than fifteen minutes. I strain to see her building number and finally find it in the back. I get out of my car and stop to fix my skirt. I only bend over a little because I don’t want my chest to pop out. I should have changed before I came. I feel like a hooker going for a booty call dressed like this, sneaking off in the middle of the night. I don’t even stand up straight before someone restrains me from behind and puts a cloth over my mouth.
I head-butt the person behind me and immediately feel the pain from hitting something hard. My arms are thrusting, and my nails are scratching but I can’t get away. Before I know it, I can’t lift my arms, and my legs weigh heavily beneath me. My eyes won’t stay open and sleep calls to me.
Need to read more? Buy the book —> Entangled Collateral
Take me to the next Chapter —> Chapter 3