Even stalkers eventually settled into a routine.
After Reese left her apartment in the mornings, I’d go for a run. It was four miles back to my place, and I usually sprinted half of it, fueled by the frustration of watching her walk away each morning.
The late-night snacks had stopped a week ago. She didn’t even look in my direction anymore. I suppose I should have been grateful she was only giving me the cold shoulder. Her threat had been all I could think about lately. What the hell would I do if I watched her walk into her building with another man, and he didn’t come back out? The thought made me run faster.
How long would it take?
It wouldn’t take long.
Even though I normally ran the same route across town, today I didn’t. It wasn’t a conscious choice; my feet just led the way while my mind was busy with thoughts of Reese.
When I hit Amsterdam Avenue, I realized how far off course I was. And where my subconscious had taken me. Little East Open Kitchen.
The shelter where Peyton had volunteered.
Where Eddie had eaten every day.
I hadn’t been down this block in almost seven years.
I stared at the window for a long time, my eyes dropping below it to the empty spot where we’d frequently found Eddie sitting. The place had aged, but not much had changed.
I hated the sight of it. It made me angry and brought back that feeling of helplessness I’d had when I’d gotten that last phone call from Peyton. Powerless and weak. It made me feel like a victim.
Yet I wandered inside, unsure what I was looking for. It was early, and the place was practically empty. Only a couple and their two children were eating breakfast. A few volunteers kept busy going back and forth, carrying metal trays of food out from the kitchen and dropping them into their spots on the assembly line.
Looking around, I had no clue what the hell I was doing inside. Then the framed pictures on the wall caught my eye. When the interior was redecorated all those years ago, each volunteer had donated a poster of an inspirational quote. Peyton never did get to show me hers. I walked around the room, reading some of them.
You don’t need to climb the whole staircase. Just take the first step.
You have two hands—one to help yourself and one to help others.
The next one got me thinking.
If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you’re heading.
Where the hell was I heading? Thanks to Frick and Frack, I wasn’t sitting in a bar anymore from dawn to dusk. Instead I was sitting outside a woman’s apartment from dusk to dawn. I owned a successful company that I hadn’t been to in weeks, and I’d lost a woman who was the best thing that had happened to me in years. Maybe lost wasn’t exactly the right word. Given up, unfortunately, was more like it.
My anger was heavily laced with regret. I hated that I felt so undeserving of everything I had, and that because of it I’d sabotaged the things that meant the most to me. But I had no idea how to change what I felt. Right or wrong, the emotions were real.
“I stare at that one every morning when I get in.” Nelson, the shelter manager, slapped me on the back as he came to stand next to me. “How you been, Chase?”
“Hanging in there.” By a thread. “You?”
“Not too bad. Not too bad. I’m so sorry, man. Some crazy shit, cops finding out after all this time that it was Eddie, huh?”
I tensed but somehow managed to nod.
“Unfortunately, a lot of our patrons have mental health issues.” He pointed his chin toward the family finishing off their breakfast. “Families down on their luck because someone lost a job are a small part of our service these days. Every day we see more and more people who should be getting mental health treatment. But even when they do, they get spit out after a few days of observation because insurance won’t pay for more or they don’t have insurance in the first place.”
“How’s anyone supposed to feel safe in here?”
“In here is where it is safe. It’s when they walk outside these walls that they can’t manage the things going on in their head. We lose a dozen knives and a half-dozen forks every week. Makes me wonder what they’re doing with them on the street.”
I stared at him. He couldn’t possibly know the knife Eddie used had come from me. Detective Balsamo came to me after she’d interviewed the shelter workers. Plus, if there was one thing I knew about her, she didn’t give out anything that wasn’t necessary for people to know.
“Nelson!” a man called from the kitchen.
“Gotta finish up breakfast. Good to see you, Chase. Don’t be a stranger.”
He slapped me on the back and began to walk away. Turning back, he called to me. “Have a framed picture of Peyton in the back. Think I’m going to hang it there next to her quote.”
He lifted his chin in the direction of the framed poster in front of me. Peyton’s was the last in the line of inspirational quotes, the only one I hadn’t read.
Don’t focus on the what ifs. Focus on what is.
That afternoon, I felt like a stranger showing up at my own office—like I should’ve called ahead to let people know I was coming, even though I own the company and have no one but myself to answer to. At first, people were hesitant to approach me, which worked to my benefit since I really had no desire to make idle small talk.
The pile of messages and emails I found would take a week to return. I specifically left the blinds drawn to attract as little attention as possible while I worked, but, of course, that didn’t stop Sam. The woman was a bloodhound with my scent in her nose.
“You look like shit.”
She should have seen me before I showered and shaved a little while ago.
“Nice to see you, Sam.”
“Are you back for good?”
“I’m working on something at night. I’m not sure how much I’ll be in.”
“Oh? A new product?”
Years of dating had taught me the art of avoidance when being pinned down. “Have you found someone for the vacant IT director position yet?”
“I have a few candidates. But I’ve been busy…trying to fill an open marketing position.”
She could open the door all she wanted. I wasn’t walking in. Not today.
“Good. Glad to hear it. Not paying you to sit on your ass all day.”
“I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I like obnoxious, sober Chase better than drunk, nice Chase.”
We talked for another ten minutes. Sam filled me in on some personnel stuff and rates she was negotiating with a new insurance carrier. When my phone buzzed on my desk, I caught the time. I was going to be late to Reese’s if I didn’t get moving. Surprising me, Sam took the hint when I started to shut down my computer and pack up some files. I’d assumed she was going to take another run at my personal life.
“Well, I’ll let you go.”
“Thanks, Sam. I’m kind of in a rush to get out of here.”
She took a few steps toward the door and then turned back. “Oh. One other thing.”
Here it comes. “What’s that?”
“Pink Cosmetics wants a reference on a former employee. They asked to speak to you personally. John Boothe from Canning and Canning is the VP now. Remember him?”
“I do. Good guy. Sure, I’ll give him a call.”
“I’ll text you the number.”
“Thanks. They’re in Chicago, right?”
“Who left New York and relocated to Chicago?”
We locked eyes. Mine asked the question, even though I already knew the answer.
That night, I sat on the steps across the street from Reese’s apartment. The warm sun from a late Indian summer day was gone, but the heat was still oppressive. It was humid, hot as hell, and my heart was beating rapidly. Before today, I’d been wallowing in self-pity and guilt, but ever since Sam told me Reese was considering leaving New York for a job, a new emotion had taken over: fear.
I hated it. I’d considered stopping at the liquor store on the way here to soothe my anxiety. But there was no way I was drinking on the job. Even if it was my own insane mission I’d created, and Reese didn’t want me here anymore.
It was about an hour into my shift when a man who looked familiar approached her building and went inside. It took a minute for me to place where I knew him from. My fists balled when I remembered he was the guy who’d been in her apartment the night the alarm went off.
A second date.
I knew how my second dates always ended.
Fifteen minutes later, the two of them emerged from the building. Reese wore a halter-top dress with a little sweater over it and high-heeled sandals. Her hair was down, and the humidity made it fuller and sexier. She’d never looked more beautiful. Stopping as they reached the sidewalk, Reese lifted her hand and fanned her face. It was hot as hell. The ache in my chest grew almost unbearable when she slipped the tiny sweater off, revealing a healthy amount of cleavage and an almost completely open back.
Beads of sweat dripped from my brow as I watched it all play out in front of me. I was in my own private hell. He stood behind her and took the sweater from her arms. My heart thudded away, and it was all I could do to not run over and tell him to get his fucking hands off of her. Yet I sat and did nothing but grind a layer of enamel off my teeth.
I have no right to stop her from doing anything anymore. Although it felt like he was touching something of mine. Something I very much had rights to.
Watching them walk down the street, I stayed frozen on the step until they reached the corner. Then I grumbled a string of curses and got up to follow them. New duties added to my security detail. Apparently I was taking this stalking shit pretty damn seriously.
I walked on the other side of the street for four blocks, keeping a safe distance behind them as I focused on their body language. They walked closely, like two people who had a certain comfort level with each other, yet they didn’t hold hands or touch. When they strolled into a small Italian restaurant, I thought I’d have to wait around for an hour or two before the continuation of the show. Lucky for me, the hostess sat them right in front of the picture window.
After a few minutes, I wasn’t sure if it was a blessing or a curse that I would have to watch them all night. Regardless, I found myself a doorway diagonally across the street. It concealed me but still allowed for comfortable viewing.
They ordered wine and appetizers, and it looked like there was no shortage of conversation. Each time Reese laughed, I felt happy seeing her beautiful smile. Then a crushing feeling would slam down on that momentary joy when I remembered it wasn’t me who’d put that smile on her face.
At one point, I watched in slow motion as her date reached out and touched her face. His hand cupped her cheek in an intimate gesture, and for a second, I thought he might lean across the table and kiss her.
Fuck, I can’t take it anymore.
I had to look away.
My head fell into my hands, and I struggled to figure out how I was going to move on from this. How could I let her walk out of my life? I needed to break free from her.
I’d been trying for weeks, yet something kept holding me back.
Suddenly it hit me.
It was my heart.
She was already inside my damn heart.
I could physically walk away from her, but she was already inside of me. Distance wouldn’t change that. She’d be in my heart, even if she wasn’t in my life.
How could it all be so clear when five minutes ago I couldn’t see any of it?
It had to be the threat of losing her. Up until now, I hadn’t actually believed she would move on. But seeing it with my own eyes was a wake-up call.
Now it was a matter of what I was going to do about it.
What if we were together and something happened to her? What if I wasn’t there to protect her? What if I failed her? Failed us? What if…she left me someday like Peyton had?
I wished I had the answers. Wished I knew how things would turn out.
My mind raced for the longest time, going back and forth between all the reasons I should beg her to take me back to all the reasons I should let her go.
What if I failed her?
What if she needed someone stronger than me?
What if…she was already starting to move on?
I looked up just as Reese threw her head back in laughter at something the asshole sitting across from her had said. As I closed my eyes in physical pain, something from earlier in the day flashed in my memory—the framed quote Peyton had chosen to hang up at the shelter. For seven years I hadn’t been inside Little East Open Kitchen. Why today, of all days, did I decide to wander in there? It had to be a sign.
Well, it was a sign in the literal sense. Now I just had to understand its figurative meaning.
Don’t focus on the what ifs. Focus on what is.