Rose flattened his face with the backside of her new cast iron skillet. Crimson droplets splattered across the glass doors of the soda cooler flanking the conveyor belt. With a thud, his limp body fell face first to the ground. Pooled blood around his head contrasted against the off-white linoleum. She could hear her infant son wailing from the shopping cart and her daughter crying out her name. In complete stillness, Rose flit her eyes from the motionless body, to her kids, to the panicked people in line around her. Releasing her grip, the skillet clattered on the floor.
Twenty minutes earlier, Rose caught the same man peering at her for the second time since she arrived at the store.
She pretended she did not notice him outwardly. Inwardly, her danger detection system was flashing bright red sirens.
Under the fluorescent lights, Rose pushed the shopping cart at a brisk walk. She had a few more items to collect on her list. She was making her grandmother’s famous Apple Crumb Pie for Thanksgiving.
Ben slept in his infant car seat carrier, balanced within the baby seat portion of the cart. Kelsey stood on the back bar, gripping the metal on each side. She insisted on placing each item her mother retrieved from the shelves into the cart herself. Rose wasn’t comparing prices or labels for the items on her list, like usual.
She caught him glancing in her direction again as he pretended to compare tubed cinnamon rolls in the refrigeration section. He was not pushing a shopping cart or carrying any merchandise. After a deep breath, Rose unzipped her jacket and fanned each side out a couple times. She pulled at her turtleneck collar once before she continued forward.
She finally collected the items on her list after what felt like an eternity. She cursed herself for not being a more prepared baker. It wasn’t her thing, but she still found it important to pass on traditions to her children. She started for the check-out.
“Mommy! You forgot the toy section! You promised if I listened the whole time, I could look at the Barbies,” Kelsey whined.
“Honey, we are in a hurry. Can we
go next time?” Rose doesn’t know why she bothered asking. She promised Kelsey. She knew she wouldn’t let it go without a fight.
From Kelsey’s perspective, she held up her end of the deal. How could Rose explain to her, a child, that she was breaking her promise because the man in the black sweatshirt gave her the heebie-jeebies?
She also thought she was paranoid, again. Since Rose became a mother, she would catastrophize most situations. When Kelsey was first born, it took her months before she could bring herself to leave her side, even just for an hour. She hoped with Ben it would be easier. So far, his presence has only exacerbated her anxiety.
And then there was the familiar sting of guilt. Here she was again, preventing Kelsey from experiencing small joys because of her own fear. Soon, Ben would also become a victim. Rose convinced herself that it’s her anxiety asking Kelsey to skip the toys, not her instincts. She was jumping to conclusions that didn’t exist.
“Okay, just for 5 minutes today sweetie. When I say we must go – we go. Deal?”
“Double deal! Can we look to see if they have My Size Barbie first?”
Rose pulled the cart to a stop after rushing to the small, coveted section of the super-store. Kelsey went straight to work inspecting the outside of the oversized doll’s box.
Ben woke and started to fuss in his carrier. Rose pulled a pacifier from the diaper bag under the cart. As she put it in his mouth, she silently prayed it will keep him content long enough to make it to the car. When she looked up, Kelsey was gone.
“Kelsey!” Rose shrieked.
She ran down the aisle with the shopping cart. Ben was crying now.
“Kelsey!” She screamed louder. The color left her face.
When she rounded the corner at the end of the aisle, she found Kelsey standing next to the man in a black sweatshirt. He was kneeled, showing her the pictures on the back of a board game.
“Kelsey! Come here!” Rose yelled.
Kelsey immediately obeyed her mother. She looked up at her with furrowed brows.
The man stood and his black eyes met Rose. “She’s quite the curious child,” he said. His voice was surprisingly warm. Rose expected him to sound like a snake.
“Yes, she is very bright,” politeness was hardwired into Rose. Though, she wanted nothing to do with pleasantries here.
“Come on honey, it’s time to go,” she said as she gripped her daughter’s hand hoping that it would fuse to hers. Ben’s cries started to echo from the tall ceilings.
“I can help you,” he said as he took a step closer.
“You have your hands full. I could push your cart with Kelsey while you calm the baby,” he continued.
“That’s okay, I’m used to it. Thank you,” Rose responded in a clipped tone. The sound of her daughter’s name coming out of his mouth made her feel sick.
“Really, it’s not a problem. I’m not busy.” He reached out toward Kelsey.
“Do not fucking touch her,” she growled through gritted teeth, yanking Kelsey behind her back. “I’ve seen you watching us. Leave us alone.”
“Okay, okay,” he put his hands up and backed up a step.
“It’s a shame such a sweet girl has a bitch for a mom. Someone should take care of that.”
Without responding, Rose lifted Kelsey into the large basket, crushing the grocery items beneath. She kept her eyes on him as she backed out of the aisle. The second they rounded the corner, out of his sight, she pushed the cart at a near run.
They arrived at the front of the store amongst the crowded check-out lanes. Rose considered ditching the cart and making a run for her car, but she thankfully saw a line only two shoppers deep. She took her place behind them.
“Shhhhhhhh, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Rose was unsure if she was reassuring Ben or herself. Her hands shook as she attempted to pacify him.
Rose flipped the cart around, so Ben and the carrier were closest to the cashier. She flung the crunched items from under Kelsey in rapid succession. Kelsey was quiet since the incident; she studied her mother’s every move.
Rose was nearly through adding her items to the conveyor belt but judging by the wide-eyed look on Kelsey’s face, she knew who stood behind them.
Rose peered over her shoulder, and he stared daggers into her through his beady blackeyes. The corners of his mouth slightly curled up.
He took a step closer to them.
She grabbed the skillet from her cart, gripped it tight and paused to think as she stood between him and her most precious cargo.
Keeping her eyes on him, she pulled her phone out of her back pocket and pressed the three buttons it took to call her husband.
Rose pulled her shoulders back and maintained eye contact. “Hey babe. We are checking out now. Can you come inside
to meet us? I’m not feeling safe.” She spoke loud enough for everyone in the lanes around her to hear.
“Thank you. The man standing behind us is making me feel extremely uncomfortable. He has been following us in the store,” her voice raised.
“I will. See you in a minute.”
Rose put the phone back in her pocket. The cast iron skillet hung by one hand at her side.
The man looked around and realized all eyes were on him. He took two steps backward, pivoted to the left, and made a beeline for the exit.