Intellectually, I understand the safe world of my childhood is gone. Long gone. And yet, I optimistically venture forth expecting to find more good than evil. It seems for the most part evil is confined to outside my zip code. Sure, there’s the occasional petty thief or drug user taking other people's money to support their habits. However our murder rate is so low, it’s almost nonexistent. I know. Any murder is bad. I agree. But the ones in my corner of the world are, sadly, usually the result of a toxic mixture of alcohol, relatives and stupid arguments. Strangers don’t drift into my quaint hometown to murder. I live in the kind of town where it’s safe to say "Hi!" to total strangers. There’s an unspoken mandate in small southern towns that we feel compelled to exchange a friendly greeting when passing another soul. It’s as if the motto is, “A stranger is simply a person who isn’t my friend yet.” I never gave that attitude a second thought until Tuesday night, when weirdo reality invaded my world.
I didn't like the feeling.
It was hubby's birthday. We’d opted to stay home and eat pizza rather than dine out but a few ingredients were needed. Having already been Birthday Person this year, I volunteered to go shopping. Hubby teased that with me limping like I was 150, he’d be surprised if I got back before bedtime. He added that perhaps my last birthday had put me into the Aged and Infirmed category. I shot back that it was just a pulled knee muscle and reminded him I was still the younger one. Grabbing my car keys, I found the dogs waiting at the door. My two furry bodyguards and I took off for the only grocery store in town.
I’ve never been a fan of shopping after dark. It goes back to working with State Troopers who often held the belief that anyone they didn’t know was suspect and probably up to no good. Darkness was just a cover to aid them. After leaving that job, the feeling of constantly being on alert faded. But it still raises its head like a silent alarm if something feels off kilter. Women call it intuition. My Troopers called it survival skills. To me, it’s the “Little Voice”. Not my conscious or any condition needing medication. It’s an internal early warning system when something’s not right. Always listen to that little voice, the Troopers would tell me. There’s a reason for it. And it’s usually right.
I’m glad it still works.
Gimping into the grocery store I grabbed a cart and greeted the cashier. Up ahead an older man stalked off with a cart like he was on a mission. Leaving a polite distance between us, I stopped for bread. The man spun his cart around and parked it in front of mine. Okay, who hasn’t walked past something while shopping, only to realize they need it? But he’d blocked me in. With an inward sigh and a grumbling knee, I backed up. As I stood in the Produce section searching for a decent bell pepper, the man left. Then suddenly he spun around. As I mentally noted he should’ve made a list, he blocked my path and worked his way over to reach for something right at my head. It irritated me he couldn’t wait five seconds. My brain labeled him rude. My aching knee used language my mother doesn’t approve of as I maneuvered away. I paused on the next aisle. I’m not a slow shopper. Knowing what I need, I grab it and go. Like a bad magic act, the man appears behind me. Again. This time my little voice whispers, “He’s way too close!” Before I can put space between us, his hand brushes through my hair as he leans in to grab an item over my head. The hair on my neck stands up. My insides turn cold. That wasn’t accidental. It was a little too lingering. The little voice insists I just move, not confront. I walk off, careful not to look like a scared rabbit. Or future victim. What if I’m being paranoid because I’m tired and my knee hurts? I start to go down another aisle, realize it’s the wrong one and turn at the last minute. Hearing an odd noise, I glance over my shoulder. Having started down the same wrong aisle, the man is overcorrecting his cart to get back behind me. I turn down the next aisle. So does he. I reach for an item. He stops, reaching for one three feet behind me. I stand still, as if searching the shelves. He does the same. I take a step forward. So does he.
Maybe I’m not paranoid.
There’s a part of my brain I refer to as “Crisis Control”. It allows me to remain calm and function like a well oiled machine in the midst of a crisis. I can be scared later, when I’m home. That leftover law enforcement habit begins taking notes. White male. Late 50s, early 60s. Wearing a white windbreaker, white t-shirt, white pants and once white sneakers. Except for the shoulder length white hair, he’s so average he borders on nondescript. Ghost-like. Practically invisible. That realization sends my internal alarm up a notch. I make eye contact with the kid stocking shelves. Ghost man retreats. Stopping next to the kid, I peer around the corner as nonchalantly as possible. Ghost man’s in line. Feeling somewhere between ridiculous and uneasy, I wait until he’s looking the other way to slip down another aisle. I finished shopping in record time and didn’t give him another thought… until I had to exit. To go into the cover of darkness, where evil mischief dwells. Scanning the area before stepping outside, I don’t find any ghost like vision haunting the parking lot. And yet, as I gimped toward my car at half my usual speed, I felt vulnerable. Was this what I had to look forward to as I grew older? The realization I can’t outrun trouble? As I sat behind the steering wheel, looking around again, one of the dogs leaned forward and nuzzled my cheek. I was safe. And I wasn’t yet victim bait. Maybe I was proof that being careful is a good practice. No matter what your age.
I told hubby about my “creepy” encounter and he asked why I didn’t tell the Manager. The Manager doesn’t work nights. So why didn’t I ask a bag boy to carry stuff out? Two little bags. Like I’m helpless or something? And that was when the little voice offered, “But you weren’t. You listened to me. You didn’t panic. And he saw that.”
My Troopers were right. That little voice is there for a reason. Listen to it. And act accordingly.