Mejia’s is a real Mexican restaurant in Madera, California. The food is delish even if the size of the joint is miniscule, the neighborhood iffy, and the ambience …
The proper reply to that is, “What ambience?”
Cami whistled shrilly and Petey reluctantly stopped. He glanced behind and seemed surprised to find no one on the other end of his leash. Cami picked it up and scolded the dog.
“You know better than that. If you can’t behave, we can’t come here anymore.”
“He doesn’t look like he cares,” Grant said.
“He’ll care when he’s limited to walks around the block at home.”
“I really don’t think he has that kind of reasoning capacity.”
“I know, but ….” Her voice trailed off as she turned around and began to walk back to the parking lot. “I have to go home and start on those samples and you need to get to the stadium.”
“How ‘bout I come over after the game tonight?”
She pushed her hair out of her eyes. “I don’t think so. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and frankly, your presence confuses me.”
He smiled as he stopped and used his good hand to guide Cami around so she faced him. “I’m confusing?”
She sighed and closed her eyes. “Yes. I’m confused and I think it may mean trouble. For both of us.” She opened her eyes to find him staring at her.
“I’m finally thinking very straight.” His eyes were so intense, she took an involuntary step back. “I’ve fallen for you, Camille Henderson.”
“For years, I’ve been telling the teenagers not to even date someone who doesn’t share their spiritual beliefs. It’s bad news for the future, and now I’ve gone and done the exact same thing. We’re supposed to just be friends.”
“That’s what’s bothering you? That’s not a problem, it’s a hiccup, something to discuss, agree, and move on.” They started walking toward the parking lot. Petey trailed, still watching for the gull over his shoulder.
“But how can we ever agree about the major issues of life when we’re viewing them in two such different ways?” Cami pulled on the leash.
“Can’t we agree to disagree?”
“Not about this.”
“Can we table it for now and talk more later?”
She nodded. “When do you see the doctor again?”
“Tomorrow. We’ll probably schedule surgery for early next week.” His voice grew bleak. “The team leaves after tonight’s game, but not me.”
“That has to be hard.”
He shrugged. “I’ll survive. I’ll call you tonight.”
“I almost forgot.” Maybe she could help take his mind off his problems. “Tara, one of my students at the rec center, wants to know if she can interview you for the Woody High newspaper. Part of a ‘Famous Alumni: Where Are They Now?’ article.”
“Sure. Any time.”
They reached the parking lot where Cami gave Petey an abbreviated rub down and loaded him into her car. She said goodbye to Grant and drove off.
It wasn’t long before she turned the corner onto her street. A red car was pulling away from the curb in front of her house. It had disappeared by the time she reached her driveway. There sure seemed to be a lot of red cars on the road these days. She ignored the unease nibbling at the edge of her consciousness as she let Petey out.
He ran along the inside of the picket fence, nose to the ground as he followed a scent. She found his ratty tennis ball and tossed it across the yard, getting his attention. He brought it back and she continued to throw, making up for the lack of exercise on the beach. After a few minutes watching his happiness chasing the ball, she forgot the red car and enjoyed the spring day with her dog.
Petey finally laid the soggy green blob at her feet and dropped to the ground. He squirmed onto his back, giving her an adoring look. She rubbed his tummy as his tail thumped in ecstasy.
“Okay, let’s go in,” she said, when her arm grew tired. He stood and shook himself and bounded up the steps to the porch and froze. She followed his gaze. A vase of carnations sat in front of the door.
“It’s okay, Petey,” she said. “They must be from Grant.” She tried to hide her smile as she picked them up before entering the house. She moved the stack of mail off the round antique oak table in her bay window and placed the flowers on it. The bright pinks reflected in the shine of the lemon-oiled wood. She inhaled their thick sweetness. Maybe she and Grant could work things out.
The flowers smiled back at her as she ate a bowl of her favorite tortilla soup from Mejia’s. It would be several hours before Grant could call, so after dinner, she headed down to her studio to play with her paints and brushes.
After pulling out an assortment of colors and containers, she set aside four sheets of the thin foam sheets she used for samples. First she laid on a layer of amber dawn, not too thick, not too thin. The paint spread over the board and filled in the brush marks, leaving a smooth coat of the pinky brown color.
While it dried a bit, she called Tara to tell her Grant agreed to the interview. There was no answer, so she left a message. Yes, an interview might take Grant’s mind off his shoulder for a little while, but what about after that? She could hardly set up interviews for him with every high school newspaper in the state. She shrugged and returned her attention to the boards. One thing at a time so back to her paints.
She unwrapped the new stipple brush and fluffed out its bristles. She dipped it into warm blush and tamped it on the edge of her palette, taking off excess paint. The brush needed to be almost dry. She pounded it across the board of amber dawn, adding the second shade in clumps. She stopped to look for holidays, empty spots with no lighter shade on top. Again, she loaded the short brush with paint, and pounded more warm blush into the amber dawn.
Satisfied with the paint coverage, she grabbed her badger brush and began to sweep it across the board. This dry brush technique gave her a soft, mottled effect. She set that board to dry and began a second, this one with shades reversed. Warm blush became the first coat with amber dawn on top. Pounding the lighter color into a darker one could make the result chalky, but sometimes that was the effect the customer wanted.
Finally, the phone rang. She snatched it up without looking at the caller ID.
“I’m glad you like them.” It was an electronically altered voice.
She couldn’t breathe. “Who is this?”
“You know me.”
She slammed down the phone and it immediately rang again.
“What do you want?” she yelled into the receiver as she snatched it up.
“Cami? What’s wrong?” It was Grant this time.
Horrified thoughts tumbled over each other but wouldn’t stop long enough for her to speak one.
“Cami. Are you okay?” His raised voice shook her tongue loose.
“No.” She squeezed out the word.
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Grant still had his sling and jacket on, so he grabbed his keys and was out of his house in seconds. He broke a few speed limits but made it to Agua Vida in record time. Parking in front, he was out of the ‘Vette and knocking on her door seventeen minutes after leaving his.
“Cami? It’s me, open up.”
He heard fumbling before the door opened.
“What happened?” he asked.
Her face was pinched and pale. “I thought….” She pointed into the dining room at some flowers and took a deep breath. “Those were here when I got home, I thought they were from you.” She told him about the telephone call with the warped voice. “I panicked and hung up, and then you called for real.”
“Is there a card?” he asked.
“I didn’t see one.”
Grant examined the flowers closely. Arranged in a white glass vase, it was a small bouquet of half a dozen carnations, pink on the ruffled edges, with baby’s breath filling up the spaces. And no card.
“We better call the police.”
“They won’t believe me. Just like with the car on Sunday.”
“They have to believe now.” He picked up the phone.
Since her address was flagged as having recent activity a cruiser arrived in a few minutes. Detective Bermudez had responded to her car vandalism. Now, he examined the flowers and questioned Cami about how and when she’d found them, at what time she’d left her house earlier and who might have sent them. He examined her caller ID. It showed only a blocked incoming number.
“I’m sorry we can’t offer more help,” the officer said. “But it appears you are being targeted by a stalker.”
Grant tightened his fist, feeling the stretch into his shoulder. “Ya think?” he asked.
Cami flashed him a look. Yeah, okay, sarcasm might not help, but geez, talk about stating the obvious.
“Do you have any idea who it might be?” Bermudez stayed focused on Cami.
“None at all,” she said quickly. Too quickly?
“It’s often a former boyfriend.” The officer searched her eyes. “Is there anyone you’ve broken up with recently?”
“I don’t date much. In fact, I haven’t dated at all the last couple years. It’s not an old boyfriend, I’m sure.”
“I’m the one she’s been seeing recently.” Grant said, frustration coloring his voice. “Since the car incident, I’ve been watching her back when she’s with me. And I haven’t seen anything.”
“Is there anyone who makes you uneasy?” Bermudez asked. “An employee at a business you frequent, or maybe a coworker? Anyone who shows more than a casual interest in you?”
“No. This is a small town and everyone is friendly. Maybe too much so. We all know each other’s business. But I can’t think of anyone with an abnormal interest in me. Although….” She paused.
“Yes?” The officer’s tone was reassuring.
“Well, at the rec center today….” She glanced at Grant before continuing. “One of my art students asked if I was engaged and said all the kids were talking about it. I told Tara I wasn’t and questioned her about who ‘everyone’ was, but she didn’t give any specific names.”
Grant closed his eyes, conflicting emotions slugging it out in his gut. This was his fault. His presence was making this creep bolder. Adrenaline surged until he had to fight to stay in his seat. Well, too bad. The pervert was going to have to give up. Because he wouldn’t.
“I’m afraid we’re not going to be much help until you have some possibilities.” Bermudez’s tone was kind, in spite of basically telling them there was nothing to be done.
“You mean I have to live like this, scared and feeling like a prisoner?”
“Is it possible to go away for a while? An extended vacation?”
“No.” She sounded dismayed. “My business is finally taking off. Leave now and I’ll be starting from scratch when I come back.”
“Then my best advice is to be alert. Always be aware of your surroundings, especially the people around you. Try not to go out alone, particularly at night or in parking lots. Here.” He handed her a card. “This is the number of the Victim Advocates Program. They may be able to offer some help, also.”
“Thank you.” Cami took the card and set it by the phone. “How did he make his voice so creepy?”
“You can buy a voice distortion gadget for about twenty-five dollars. It’s easy on the web.”
“Too easy.” Grant spoke up.
“Maybe. That’s a different discussion.”
After the officer left, Cami sat on the couch and dropped her head into her hands. Grant sat beside her and gingerly put his good arm around her shoulder. After a moment, she raised her head, her eyes dry and determination in her voice.
“I will not be a victim, and I will not be held hostage in my own home.”
“I mean it, Grant. I’ve been a walking wounded in the war of life. It took me a long time, some therapy, a lot of love and support and prayers from family and friends to help me start feeling like a valuable member of God’s creation. I’ve worked too hard to let some cowardly twit take that from me.”
“Sweet and demure Camille Henderson has a streak of pure titanium running through her.”
“And don’t you forget it. I almost did, but no more.” She got up. “I want some tea, would you care to join me? And I have some left over dessert that Meredith brought the other night.” Her voice was light, though a little trembly.
“I’ll have tea, but no dessert. Since I won’t be having those strenuous workouts I’m used to, I’ll have to watch my eating a little closer.”
“Then I’ll pass too. But the tea’s coming right up.” In the kitchen, she turned the burner on and he could hear mugs and tea tins rattling. “Herb, green, or black?”
“Herb, it is. Chamomile Calmness, Perfect Peach or Really Raspberry? ”
She rejoined Grant a minute later, and set a mug in front of him.
“I picked two bags at random. I think you got the peach and I got the raspberry. Is that fine or do you want to trade?”
“Peach is just peachy.”
She sat beside him on the couch and sipped her tea, then leaned back and closed her eyes. He watched her closely. She was not dealing with this evening as smoothly as she said. Sure enough, a tear squeezed out from under each eyelid. He reached out and covered her hand with his good one.
“I’m fine.” She spoke with a fierceness that startled him.
“I know. But it’s okay to be scared. And angry. And a bunch of other things.”
“No, it’s only okay to be fine.” She sat up and straightened her shoulders.
“Have you ever heard of a little coping mechanism called ‘denial’?”
She smiled. “But have you ever heard of someone truly coping and being fine?”
“Hmmm.” He paused as he rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and pretended to think. “Nope.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“Come here.” He let go of her hand and put his arm around her. He wiggled until he was half reclining on the couch and he guided her head into the niche of his pain-free shoulder. She resisted the movement. “It’s okay, that’s the good one. You won’t hurt me. Let’s sit here and relax for a bit.”
After ten minutes, he felt the tension leave. Her body snuggled into his and her breathing grew slow and even. They sat there for a long while. Finally, she slept.