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"Mom, however, felt obligated to try something different each time, which always led to regret and dessert envy, and she would invariably end up eating my dessert with me."

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05 – Experiment

I was being watched. 

Despite the anxiety I felt over the realization of the meaning behind the strange, scopophobic sensation I’d been experiencing, it was a relief to know my instincts hadn’t been broken after all.  In fact, they were working exceptionally well, even if the rest of me wasn’t.  And I promised myself that I would never doubt my instincts again.

I had polar reactions to the idea that someone was keeping an eye on me.  It was flattering; someone had an interest in me.  Of course, it was frightening too; someone who could kill me before I realized I was dead had an interest in me.  And it was frustrating; someone was interested in me when I wasn’t even interested in me.  Why?  There was no logical explanation.  I never went anywhere or did anything.  I was in high school for crying out loud!  Whoever they were, they had to be dying of boredom…except for when I was nearly taken…and that had probably been a nice change of pace.

It was fortunate for my peace of mind that my discovery of observers had been in conjunction with a move on their part to help me, to save my life.  How much more frightened and unnerved would I be if the ‘helping me out part’ hadn’t been part of the equation when I’d made the discovery?

Second-guessing myself was a natural reaction for me…something I did constantly.  So I tried to come up with a scenario that didn’t involve being under surveillance but still explained being assisted and placed back in my bed.  I came up with nothing.  I couldn’t make it fit, and I gave up trying.   It was a waste of time, and there wasn’t really anything I could do about it anyway.  I just decided to go about my business, keep my eyes open and figure it out as I went.  The worst that could happen, if the pattern continued, was that they might help me again.  And I decided that I could live with that.

But I was crazy with curiosity and so I came up with some experiments that would test the extents of their watchfulness and helpfulness.

I began by carrying a purse, something I usually didn’t mess with because my money fit just fine in my pocket.  So in order for a purse to be convincing I had to put some stuff in it…and I scraped around for things that might legitimately be in one.  Things like a hairbrush, Chapstick, mini-notebook and pen, wallet, some very dark sunglasses and of course, gum.   The final key element, though, was a pocket sized monthly planner, purchased for a dollar at a card shop.  This was going to be the key to setting up controlled experiments and conducting careful observations. 

I was eager to get started with my investigation and surprised my folks by accepting a cursory invitation to join them out to eat dinner one evening.  Normally I would decline and just get leftovers or a sandwich because I preferred being home alone.    Joining them had a double benefit:  I could carry out an experiment and I could also appease my mom by doing something normal with her.

The concept was simple.  When we finished eating or doing whatever, I would ‘forget’ my purse.  If my observers were any good at watching me, and if they were as close as I suspected, they’d notice.  Now whether I would get my purse back was a bit of a question mark, but I was counting on that universal human characteristic…curiosity.  Wouldn’t they want to know what was in my purse?  And wouldn’t they be interested in things I wrote down in my planner?  And wouldn’t they show up at places and times that were marked there?  They would no doubt follow me no matter where I went, but if they had advance notice, like a meeting date, wouldn’t that increase my chances of noticing a familiar face, when I was in control of the time and place? 

My mom was so surprised and pleased that I had said yes to her offer that it made me feel guilty.  I realized how very selfish I had been the last few months.  She was worried for me and she missed me—that was so clear to me now.  The least I could do was spend some time with her.  I could keep my emotions under control for an evening.  Having something new to focus on was going to help with that.

Mom wanted to go to Cheesecake Factory.  This was normally a special occasion kind of place to go, but for them maybe my presence made it just that.  It was also good because it was in the mall and we’d probably walk around for a bit before and afterward…a good opportunity to people-watch.

As usual, the line out the door was as long as the mighty Mississippi.  But, bless him, Hoyt had followed the call ahead reservation procedure, so our wait was only thirty minutes instead of two hours, like it was for other poor, dejected and starving souls sitting around us.

As we passed time on a bench inside the mall but outside the restaurant, awaiting our summons, my mom was beaming with contentment.  It just made me feel more ashamed of my recent anti-social behavior.  She sat between Hoyt and me—the nexus linking us together—one hand around his and the other snuggly around my own.

“It’s such a pleasant evening.  How would you feel about taking a walk at the park after dinner?” she asked me.

“Sure, that sounds nice.” 

And a good opportunity to get looks at people going by or hanging around, I thought.

“Or, we could take a river cruise.  There’s one that sets off at eight.  We could probably make that,” Hoyt offered, with quiet enthusiasm.

Mom was instantly sold on that idea and turned to me hopefully. 

Oh, all right, I thought, with a bit of concealed petulance.  But again, this would be an even better opportunity since no one could move away too far and I’d be able to get a very good look at fellow passengers.

“I’ve never been on a cruise.  That’s a really nice idea, Hoyt,” I responded, trying to match his enthusiasm.  Mom’s pleased expression washed over me like a warm breeze.  I was thankful they made it so easy to like them.  It was a powerful incentive to be likable in return.  

We had passed a jewelry store on the way into the mall and I excused myself for a moment because there was something I wanted to look at again.  It was just across and down the hall, within sight of the bench we were sitting on, so I could feel the eyes on my back the whole time.  Thankfully I was spared from hearing the accompanying comments—though I’m sure I could guess.

In the jewelry store window facing out into the hallway was a beautiful, beach themed display.  The background was a photograph of a sand dune, with cloudless blue sky above, and a lone seagull soaring high in the sun.  Real, sparkling, buff colored sand was layered all around, and miniature, but very real looking sea oats were growing from it.  Colorful seashells and sand dollars were scattered in strategic positions, adding interest.   And in the center, like a lost treasure resting in the sand, was a gorgeous aquamarine, set in a platinum band with a lattice of diamonds on either side. 

The stone was a rare, deep blue color, with only the barest hint of green.  Normally aquamarines were sky blue.  I had never seen one like this in person.  I was tempted to go inside and ask to try it on.  But I was sure they’d laugh at me, or more likely, no one would wait on me, so the desire to feel the ring around my finger swiftly transformed into a velleity (a mere wish, unaccompanied by any effort to obtain it).   Sometimes it seemed like ‘Velleity’ would have made an excellent middle name for me.

I wasn’t usually big into jewelry.  What pieces I owned I had received as gifts from mainly my grandpa, who definitely was into jewelry—well, the gemstones that eventually became jewelry, that is.  I didn’t wear any of it though, because it made me sad.  But the mesmerizing blue beauty of this stone, like a big drop of water from some tropical sea, frozen in stone and set in glistening platinum, was completely dazzling. 

I purposely didn’t look at the price tag, which was discretely propped in the sand near the back of the window in tiny print.  The fact that this single ring was displayed all alone in valuable marquee space indicated that the price was ‘if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.’  

I stood there for the longest time, just staring and imagining.  The bright display lights that shown down on the scene made the jewel, the diamonds and the sand sparkle in a way that was entrancing.  The lights also warmed the glass, adding to the sensation of being at some warm tropical destination.  The warmth felt good on my face.  It was a very pleasant escape.  In any case, it was nice to not have to make conversation…I’d have plenty of that to do at the dinner table.

I saw the buzzer flashing in my mom’s hand when I glanced over my shoulder.  Taking one last longing gaze at the beautiful blue beryl, I turned and sauntered back to her side and then into the restaurant.

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Dinner was good.  Hoyt ordered fish, as always.  Mom and I shared a pasta dish and then we each had our own dessert.  I always ordered the same thing, Chocolate Tuxedo Cheesecake.  It was wonderful every time, and the obvious choice because I couldn’t tolerate surprises or disappointments when it came to dessert.  Mom, however, felt obligated to try something different each time, which always led to regret and dessert envy, and she would invariably end up eating my treat with me.

“Isn’t that what you got last time?” she asked after the waitress headed off with our dessert order. 

“That’s what I get every time, Mom,” I replied, as I briefly locked eyes with Hoyt, who without saying so, acknowledged that we’d had this conversation the last time with a nod. 

“Don’t you want to try something new?”

 No. 

“Mom, Tuxedo Cheesecake is fabulous every time.  Besides, you need to have something reliable to fall back on when yours doesn’t work out like you hoped,” I said with a smile because I knew I had her there. 

She just smirked but Hoyt flashed me a quick smile and a wink, validating me again. 

“Neophobe,” she accused.

“Homophobe,” I accused right back, but with lots of cheek because I knew she would feel obligated to explain my response to Hoyt (whose expression was now decidedly alarmed) and thereby have to use the word ‘homosexual’ in clarifying that although fear of such was an alternate meaning, a person with a fear of monotony or sameness was the primary definition of what I had accused her of being.  

Hoyt hated our game, and couldn’t play even if he wanted to.

When dessert arrived, even before she took a bite of her White Chocolate Raspberry Swirl flavored cheesecake, she was eyeing mine, lustfully.  With an internal sigh, I took a knife and cut my dessert in half.  Then after feigning interest in her dessert I offered, “Mom, would you like to split and share?” 

She gave me a sympathetic look, as though she felt pity for my plight of being stuck with a whole slice of boring old Chocolate Tuxedo Cheesecake.

As if she was deliberating about whether she should decline and teach me a lesson or take the high road and be charitable, she paused before answering my query. 

“Well…okay,” she finally said with a sigh.

She finished off her half of my dessert before I did. 

As we were walking out of the restaurant she asked, “What were you looking at for so long at the jewelry store?”

“Oh, they have a very rare deep tone aquamarine on display.  It’s amazing.  I was surprised to see it at a store like this.  I can’t imagine anybody around here buying a ring like that.  It’s not the kind of piece you’d normally find at a mall jewelry store.”

She was intrigued. 

“Let’s go see it,” she suggested enthusiastically.

She was always especially interested in things I liked.  But I entertained no false hope that she might buy it for me.  I knew the price had to be well into the five-figure range.  But she enjoyed gawking at beautiful things as much as I did, so we strolled arm in arm back across the hallway to the display window.  Hoyt was opening up his cell phone and promised to catch up momentarily.

I was surprised to see a completely different arrangement in the window…some kind of black pearl necklace and earring set.  I looked around to see if I was at the wrong window…they did have more than one…but I was sure it had been the closest one, right beside the bench.  I walked over to the next one, which contained a ruby necklace display, same as before.  The windows on the other side of entrance were full of the same merchandise as before. 

Strange.  

Mom could see the confusion in my face. 

“It’s not out here any more,” I muttered, still mystified.

“Why don’t we go in and ask about it?” she suggested. 

I nodded in agreement and we entered the store.  She did the talking when a sales lady approached.

“Excuse me, we were wondering about the aquamarine piece that was in the window before we ate dinner,” she began.

The sales lady had a puzzled look on her face, but then shook her head, as if banishing a thought, and smiled at us.

  “Yes, the three carat aquamarine in platinum?  We just sold it, not thirty minutes ago.” 

She was beaming, I realized.  It was, no doubt, the afterglow of a large commission enhancing her mood.

Mom countered, “Well, that’s too bad.  Do you mind telling me what was the price?  We didn’t see before.”

The sales lady took on a bit of an arrogant aura as she informed us, “That piece was priced at just under fifty thousand and worth every penny—absolutely stunning.  We just received it this week,” she said, turning a little wistful. 

Mom raised her eyebrows as she looked at me.  That price sounded right to me, and my eyebrows stayed relaxed in place.

Mom wasn’t done digging.

“Do you mind telling me what kind of person bought it?”

She leaned in, happy to dish. 

“It was a man buying it as an engagement ring for his girlfriend.  I bet she’ll say yes,” she said and laughed at her joke.

It didn’t seem funny to me, though.  I felt a prick of jealousy.

“No doubt,” Mom agreed.

“Can I show you ladies something else?” she asked hopefully.

“No that’s all right.  Mystery solved.  Thanks for your help,” Mom concluded smoothly as we exited the store. 

Hoyt was standing across the hall at the display window of a golf shop, daydreaming, along with several other men, about a new set of clubs.  He snapped back to reality when we approached.

“Do we still have time for the cruise?” Mom asked, suddenly remembering we were supposed to be on a schedule.

“Sure.  It will be close, but I called while you were in the jewelry store and they’re not sold out.  We’ll be fine on time, if we leave right now,” Hoyt assured her.

“Is that what you’d like to do, then?” she asked me, though I had already agreed.

“Sure,” I confirmed as she took one of my hands and one of Hoyt’s, so that she could walk between us on our way back to the car. 

In my free hand I carried a doggy bag, which held two completely untouched halves of a slice of White Chocolate Raspberry Swirl Cheesecake—but not my purse.

The riverboat cruise was nice.  We rode on the famous ‘Belle of Louisville’, the height of luxury and comfort in river travel in the early 1900’s.  No other river steamboat in American history has lasted as long, been to as many places, or traveled as many miles as the Belle.  I hoped I looked as good when I was in my nineties.  She was even still racing her old nemesis, the Delta Queen, in The Great Steamboat Race, held every year since the sixties on the Wednesday before Derby Day.  We got to see the ‘Golden Antlers” on display in the Captain’s office.  It was the trophy that resided with the winner each year.  Belle had beaten Queen twenty-two versus nineteen times up to this year.  Hoyt seemed to believe the rumors that the winner has always been predetermined, but I clung to the notion that the race’s winner was determined by steam and good old fashion girl-power gumption, not sterile coin flipping.  They had the calliope going while we sailed, and I particularly enjoyed that.  As it turns out, Belle has a beautiful voice, too.

It was a warm night, but not too hot, and the breeze coming off the water felt wonderful on my face.  The sun was low on the horizon, but it didn’t get dark until close to nine o’clock, so I could see fairly well.  I’d been planning to wear my sunglasses, thinking that this would help disguise my staring at people, but the dusky lighting made it too dark to get away with it.  So I just had to be surreptitious about my snooping.  I tried to look carefully at each face, particularly the eyes.  This was trickier than I’d thought it would be because once we were moving, most people were standing with their backs to me, facing out toward the river to see the water and the scenery floating by. 

I counted thirty-eight passengers on the top deck.  A handful of people were inside, below, but it didn’t seem likely that someone watching me would spend the whole time out of sight hitting the bar.  I did what I could to observe the people around me but there were no suspicious or familiar looking characters, so eventually I switched to enjoying the scenery myself.  There was a gorgeous glowing sunset, the orange and pink and purple kind, and it made the occasion all the more pleasant. 

The cruise lasted for an hour, returning to the dock around nine.  We were making our way to the stairs to disembark, when, in a moment of stupid forgetfulness, I had an involuntary turn around reaction to the sensation of not having my purse with me.  But then I went with it, realizing that it was exactly the right thing to do, if I had actually lost it.  Mom noticed my hesitation and body language and asked, “What’s wrong?”

I answered with appropriate concern, “My purse.  I think I left it.” 

We backtracked to where we had initially been seated, before rising to stand at the rails like everyone else.  There was no purse, of course.  I acted concerned and a little upset, though its loss, including the actual purse itself, would constitute no more than seven dollars of financial set back, I estimated.

Mom tried to soothe me by asking, “Honey, do you think you may have left it in the car?” 

 No.  I smiled inwardly.

“Maybe…I hope so,” I replied with real nervousness, wondering if anyone was watching and listening to this.  I couldn’t tell for sure, and it was frustrating.

We eventually made our way to the car.  Hoyt hit the button on the remote to unlock the doors and I climbed into the back.  It was nearly dark now.  I stepped on something as my feet came to rest behind my mom’s seat.  To my amazement, and wonder, and dread, I pulled up my recovered purse, placed for me where I would think I’d left it, in my step-father’s locked vehicle, while I’d been sailing on the river.

Now I knew for sure that I would need to be extremely careful, from this moment onward, because people with tricks I couldn’t begin to imagine were watching me very closely, and responding to my experiments.

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