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Mise en Abyme: III

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Wendy was looking at me from across the table, eyes wide and glasses falling off her nose. It was only our third date. We usually went to the taco truck, but tonight I pushed for Italian. It was the new place in town, nicer, and it guaranteed me more time with her if we had to sit down in the squeaky leather, too-big booth.

“Do you ever wonder if someone’s hiding out there, just waiting to kill you?” She raised an eyebrow as she said this, trying to be dramatic.

“Like a horror movie or something? The psycho killer always knows right where you are?​” I had met Wendy at comic book club. There are only a few sure-fire ways to meet cute, queer girls on a college campus this far out in Iowa. She loved fantasy stories and had an overactive imagination that almost made up for my own complete lack of creativity.

“I was walking home the other night by Mason street, you know, with all the corn fields. I was walking alone and thinking, what if someone just popped out from the corn right now and grabbed me?”

“Well, if they’re popped all you need is the butter.”

“Be serious Colleen, I mean like a man or something.”

I took a sip from my soda. Wendy said the word ‘man’ in a whisper, like one might be lurking somewhere, listening. I looked around the sparsely populated restaurant to make sure the coast was clear before turning back and motioning to her to continue.

She giggled to herself and continued, “I was thinking, maybe if someone did try to attack me I could karate chop them or something. I’d be ready. I’d open up my purse and pull out a machete. Then, I would swing it around and he’d try to run at me but I’d slice off his head. Or I’d chop off his arm and he’d run away screaming, leaving a trail of blood behind for the police to track.”

“That sounds like a reasonable plan to me.”

“But I don’t have a machete. Even if I did it wouldn’t fit in my purse and I wouldn’t know how to use it.”

I pushed the basket of breadsticks towards her. “Practice with these.”

She laughed, her hair getting close to falling into her food. “If you’re worried about something like that start carrying around pepper spray. Or I’ll just escort your everywhere like a big, buff bodyguard.”

Wendy nibbled on the end of a breadstick, the end of one curl dipping slightly into marinara sauce.

“Please, like you’d do any better than me in a fight.” I sat up a little taller in my seat.

“I could fight a bear if I needed to.” I wanted to add ‘for you’ but brushed the hair out of her food instead.

There was a moment of comfortable silence while we ate. It was so natural to sit here with her but I couldn’t help my eyes drifting up to the mirrored ceiling of the restaurant. There was another couple, a few booths away, well into their meal. I watched the woman with long, dark hair twirl her spaghetti upside down. When I looked back down Wendy was smiling at me, her food abandoned.

“You really don’t get thoughts like that? Like any moment you could be out grocery shopping or walking to your car and someone just tries to grab you?”

“I don’t know what they’d want with me. I have heard about that car stuff though. I hear they hide under your car and wait for you to walk up to it. Then, they cut you at the ankle so you can’t run away. I guess there’s some ligament there or something.”

Wendy was staring at me and clutching her napkin in her hands. Backtrack.

“But hey, you don’t even have a car here, so you don’t have to worry about that.”

Wendy just sighed. “I know it’s stupid. It just makes my skin crawl. I remember last week I was grocery shopping in the middle of the day and this guy at the counter was so nice to me. He was asking me how I was, if I got everything, and gave me the deal on my coupon even though it expired last week. But then as I was leaving, he asked for my number and I did the whole, ‘Sorry, I’m gay’ thing but then I swore I saw him again later at Walgreens and again when I was going to my friend Amy’s for game night. And I started thinking, what if he’s following me?”

“Maybe he just needed cough drops?”

“I know I’m being paranoid. It’s a small campus anyway. It just made me stop for a second. What would I do if I was being stalked? Proper stalked. Where they send you pig hearts in the mail and letters written in their own blood and cut up magazines.”

“I guess it could happen. Maybe every time you look out the window they’re out there. But only for a second. Just long enough to make you feel crazy. And then they seduce a plastic surgeon to make a clone of you.”

“I would freak if someone ever made a clone of me.”

“I better not take you back to my dorm room then.” I wiggled my eyebrows at her and felt a pang of success when she laughed.

“Tell me another one.” Wendy was twirling pasta around on her fork, playing with it.

“Another creepy story?”

“Yeah, you’re good at it.”

“Alright.” I pulled on my sleeve.

It started with footsteps. Boots on an empty sidewalk, late enough that the crowds of drunken kids outside the bars had gone home. Boots that were too big because men’s sizes were wider but women’s had too many sparkly buckles. It was cold too. Boots on a sidewalk, echoing in the familiar pattern of hurrying home and out of the wind. An arm stretched across a flannel, clutching it to a chest to keep warm.

And then more steps, different steps.

A different type of cold and the familiar urge to turn around and glare. Of course it was a man, dark jacket, face obscured in the shadows. You could never see his eyes. The arm holding the flannel clutches tighter and the footsteps speed up.

The man laughs or maybe he doesn’t. He speeds up or maybe he doesn’t. Everything that happens next is filtered through the rough breaths, exhaled in soft puffs into the empty air. Eyes searching for others, seeing nothing but dark store fronts and neon signs.

There are conflicting rhythms, the two sets of steps, unevenly matched, and the sudden racing of a heart. Why didn’t I wear a bra? There were not enough layers suddenly. My hips flattened in loose jeans, but there. My hair stuffed into a baseball hat but coming loose and hanging down my neck. Suddenly a woman, walking home alone late at night and a man walking behind her, silently in the dark.

“Colleen, I was just kidding. You don’t actually have to think up another murder story.” The soft background music and the sound of people talking around us rushed back in. I realized I had been staring into space. I looked back up to the ceiling and saw in the dim reflection that the other couple had left.

“Sorry, I was just thinking. I was trying to be creative.” Wendy smirked at me and I started planning our fourth date.

“Okay, let’s hear what you’ve got then.”

“Alright. What if the waiter here was actually a spy. He drugged our food so he could control our minds and force us to marry him. But he doesn’t know that we’re also spies who’ve built up an immunity to mind control drugs.”

Wendy smiled and pointed her finger gun at me from across the table. “I love it. And then we pull out our cool spy weapons to fight him off. I’ve got a lipstick that shoots fireballs.”

“And I’ve got a dart gun that paralyzes people. But wait, there are more spies. I think they could be anywhere. They’re probably surrounding the restaurant right now so we can’t escape.” Wendy laughed and turned around to look for any potential spies at the tables around us. She looked back at me and her glasses were out of place again, just slightly.

Wendy licked over her chapped lips and pushed her glasses back up on her nose. I imagined the spies surrounding the restaurant, waiting for us. There was the table over with a tall man in a baseball hat. He was a spy. The man at the counter waiting for his pick up order, holding a wet briefcase, spy. Outside the rain was falling softly and I hoped it would still be when we left so I could offer Wendy my umbrella. All around us there was the lit-up college town, surrounded by the fields and farms. The streetlights only went so far before it would be the woods and the dark, country paths that were better left undisturbed. I reached over and squeezed Wendy’s hand. She squeezed back.

“I think we’re surrounded. We better sit here for a while and wait it out.”

First appeared in Camas Magazine, Winter 2019
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