Here’s a secret: Someone is following you right now.
You don’t know it. They might not even know it. It could just be compulsion—you were first off the train, you led the march of workers down Yonge Street on Monday morning, you were first into the office—but, either way, you are being followed.
This is what happens when you look over your shoulder one too many times in adolescence. Everyone starts to look like a stalker and, soon enough, you start to believe it too.
Today, the sky and sidewalks match each other perfectly. Standing on the corner of Broadview, I can make out the distant slope of the Don Valley in the distance. It’s a beautiful evening for traffic jams and the spray of icy puddles from tractor trailers. It’s too cold for leather but I wear it anyway. Call it my rebellious streak—or a propensity for stupidity. On good days, the leather jacket feels like a suit of armour against my skin. Today all I feel is really cold.
I am biding my time. If I come home now, I run the risk of being accused of playing hooky from school. If I go home later, I’ll be yelled at for skipping band practise. They do not yet know I haven’t been to band practise since the ninth grade. But it makes a good excuse for coming home late and I still use it shamelessly. No one at home thinks about calling the school and asking after me. They don’t trust me but they trust the school even less.
“Are you staying or going, kid?” a gruff voice asks near my ear.
I jump so bad I almost launch myself into oncoming traffic. I missed the “GO” signal, the little man, flashing at me from across the road and the guy behind me was apparently first to notice.
“You should pay more attention to where you’re headed,” he adds, as if I’m still listening.
I shift a little, to let him pass, and wonder why he’s so eager to rush home. Maybe he has a newborn and a cranky wife to get back to. Maybe he’s worried he’ll miss one of the sports games on TV. Maybe he’s not heading home at all—perhaps he’s on his way to a hot date or taking flowers to his sick mother or grabbing some beers with the guys at the local place. Who knows where anyone is going these days? Pay attention to where you’re headed indeed. I should have asked him the same thing.
It’s still another twenty-minute walk home and I try not to focus on walking underneath the street lamps. Once those go on, things can sneak up on you. It’s an irrational fear I’ve never been able to pack away like I did to childhood toys. While the prospect of scary men jumping out at me from behind bushes is still a healthy reinforced fear, scary men are not the only ones I feel are watching me.
When it comes to the traumas of childhood, one of the many reasons I so heatedly dislike the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is how they live in the sewers. I’ve never liked how, just beneath my feet, without my knowledge, a squad of slimy suckers are on the verge of popping up through a sewage grate. I have never been great with contemplating the darkness of humans, a darkness that is more common than you would think. This also explains my early love for Dora the Explorer instead of shows like Teen Titans. Even Scooby Doo could be iffy.
I don’t like the idea of something, pervert or giant talking turtles, sneaking up on me. So I walk through the city on high alert once the sun sets. Call this paranoia or call it childish. I’m the one who still has to walk home alone at night and, when you don’t even trust the street light the city provides that is supposed to be guiding you home, you’d be a little on edge too.
I come home and the lights are all on though no one is home. This is not too abnormal. Sometimes Gran goes out to pick up coffee when she finally notices we’ve been out for a week. Grandpa is usually over at Carl’s playing bridge on Thursday nights. Mom, as always, is at work.
The TV flickers and, despite myself, I tune in momentarily between shrugging off my backpack and getting myself a glass of water from the kitchen sink. It’s one of those old, black and white movies. The one where the women always look glamorously dramatic and the men always seem to be smoking. Gran loves these movies. I am convinced it’s her way of reliving her glory days.
She and Grandpa have a TV in their bedroom too which I wished they used more often because, technically, my bed being the living room couch makes things awkward when Gran refuses to move during one of her programs and I still have to get to sleep in time to wake up for school the next day. Mom has suggested I sleep in her room. Mom wakes up at an ungodly hour every day for one of her jobs and she’s not very quiet about it. I’ve come to associate the clashing of cabinet doors, the shuffle of her slippers and then the reassuring clomp of her shoes, as the music of her existence. It’s a tangible reminder that she takes space up in the apartment. But at the same time I don’t think I can share a room with her.
It’ll be worse if I wake up with no one next to me morning after morning. At least, in the living room, being alone feels normal. And in the living room, I can hear her come alive for a little while before the sun rises. By the time the apartment floods with light, she is gone and I get breakfast by myself. Gran and Grandpa always sleep in. Then, I make my way to school alone.
My eyes are dragged away from the screen of the television by the distracting blink of red from the landline. We rarely get messages. Intrigued, I pick up the phone and falter for a moment when it asks for a password. After a couple of embarrassing tries, I get it right and the voice mail opens up its secrets to me.
“You have one message,” the monotone, female voice informs me and I smile a little.
I’ve always associated this voice with the government, for some reason, as if it’s the same woman who answers our inquiries about hydro bills and 311 calls. In my head, I always call her Darlene.
“First message, sent today, at 9 am.” Darlene continues and I wait for the message to play.
There is a long pause, as if the speaker is either confused by how an answering machine works or if they are merely working up their courage, until a voice finally buzzes out with tinny, distant certainty.
“Hi, everyone,” the voice rasps and I almost drop the phone, “Um…if it is everyone,” another one of those awful, pregnant pauses. “Just calling to…to see how you are,” he clears his throat, “I know it’s been a while,”
I contemplate deleting it right then but the message plays on with agonizing delays.
“Just wanted to let you know…I might be in Toronto pretty soon…I’m up North at the moment, working a job and…OK, yeah, you don’t care about the job, I get that….but I might be in the area…soon,” another throat clearing and I wonder if he’s catching a cold, “It would be nice to see you. And…maybe I can…Tess,” he stops, as if expecting me to reply, “Tess, I think it would be…I mean, I think about you a lot out here…the sky, I mean the night the sky, you remember? You always used to say stars were…OK. Sorry. That sounded weird…well; just know I’m thinking about you. Tell Rachel I say hi,” he adds blankly.
And that was the end of the message.
“If you would like to save this message,” Darlene purrs, “Press…”
I click off before she can give me the play-by-play of options. I find myself sitting down heavily on the arm of the couch and my eyes once more tacking onto the television screen. Katherine Hepburn is looking dangerous with a floppy hat and a gun. I wonder if it’s her husband or lover she’s going to shoot this time.
“You can take a hike,” I say out loud, as if I’m talking to Katherine Hepburn, “Just leave us alone.”
This request sounds childish in my ears and I wonder if I even mean it. Maybe it’s just reflex. He called her Rachel, which was never a good sign. It meant he was still mad at her. And the night sky up North, the stars…I feel my hands clench at my sides. As if he even cared what I liked at age six or whatever. The guy could jump into a lake for all I cared.
“If you even show up,” I mutter to myself. This was also a consoling thought. He rarely kept his word and perhaps this was one of those times.
On screen, the gun went off. Katherine Hepburn’s tears of remorse look faked. From where I could see it, she looked like she was happy with her work.
Really, in these movies, we all root for the femme fatale to make her kill. Stick it to the system. And Katherine Hepburn really pulled off both the gun and the hat. Girl really was dressed to kill.
By Meagan Gove