A week passed without any contact from Jay, and by god, it was blissful. Emma, Rose, and Kimmy had all blocked Jay, a sign of true solidarity. Emma had been kind enough to reach out to him and tell him to give me space until I came around, and that sometimes I overreacted when I was scared. It was a lie, something to make him back off enough for me to feel safe, but it had worked perfectly well so far.
I had another usher day on a day Jay had off, which was particularly nice for me, as I got to enjoy the shows without checking over my shoulder constantly. Watching the shows meant I would get to see new evening shows– and, if I stayed late enough, rehearsals for the annual winter flashmob– a tradition Steph had that involved volunteer performers to come out and dance with patrons in the lobby between evening shows. As Nutcracker and the Holiday Show had become a nightly routine, one show at five and one at eight, it left plenty of opportunities between shows for the morning performers to interact with the patrons of the theatre.
The day went by slowly, the first two shows only attended by one school and a nearby daycare, Brigadoon relatively well attended by two nursing homes and a large college theatre class. I went to lunch with Dakota at Taco Hell, sitting across from him and distracting myself with my phone from the itching paranoia that kept eating at me.
I looked up when Dakota laughed at something on his phone, grinning slightly. “What are you laughing at?”
“If you’d sat over here you’d have seen it yourself.”
I laughed at his quip. “You could just turn your phone–”
“Come sit over here,” he growled.
“Shit, fine,” I said, putting a hand on my chest as I stood up. “Jeez.” Once I had sat down in the booth next to him, he proceeded to shower me with tumblr screenshots and cute animal videos, until I couldn’t stop smiling.
We both looked up at an older, portly man in a chef’s coat– one of EJ’s employees, I assumed. I smiled while Dakota reached across the table to shake the man’s hand. The chef’s attention was purely focused on Dakota, however.
“I saw your post on Facebook about your great-granddad,” the man said. “How’s he doing?”
“We’re just waiting,” Dakota said softly. I looked back at my phone, hiding my wince. I had forgotten about Dakota’s family drama in the midst of all this Jay bullshit. How self absorbed could I be? Stupid, insensitive–
“Nothing else to do sometimes,” the chef said, giving Dakota a sad sort of smile that told me he knew Dakota’s struggle on a personal level. “Send my love and prayers to your family.”
“Thanks, man,” Dakota said, and the chef wandered away to get his food.
“Are you okay?” I whispered. Dakota shrugged, focusing on his phone again. I sighed and left it alone until we both had to head back.
The rest of the shows were well attended, and I loved every second of both. Dakota was only in Nutcracker for tonight, as Steph tried to alternate performers as much as she could so nobody’s schedule was over-full, which meant he was rehearsing for the next night’s flash mob during the Holiday cabaret show. I enjoyed Steph’s angelic performances of O Holy Night and Noel 1913, marveled at the choir-style performances of S’vivon and Carol of the Bells cackled at the parody of Twelve Days of Christmas the cast had put together, and was dazzled by the various dance numbers.
The thing that really got me, though, was Steph standing in the middle of the empty stage, lit by only a spotlight, reciting the poem Alfie the Christmas Tree. When she’d been singing, she’d been in a well fitted red gown that highlighted her baby bump beautifully, or in the choir numbers, a simple black dress. For this number, however, she sparkled, in a white gown that sparkled like freshly fallen snow, her long hair falling over her shoulders in doll-like coils, glistening silver pins keeping the curls from her face. I was struck down to my soul, watching this wonderful woman– a woman who had become a sort of parental figure to me, an idol, someone I aspired to be like someday– spoke of giving and loving, of nature and nurture, of peace.
The audience gasped as one as the orchestra began to play The Peace Carol, and the black curtain behind Steph opened, revealing the entire cast in all black, save one woman, a stunning blonde with a round face and a full figure, who wore an emerald gown that almost– almost– rivaled Steph’s. The two held hands as they sang the verses, looking more at each other than the audience while the other was singing, until they sang together, completely ignoring the rest of the world. I wondered who this woman was that Steph obviously adored, as much, if not more, than her own husband.
Once the song was done, Steph and the blonde hugged, and I realized my face was wet. I swiped away the tears and applauded, probably louder than anyone else in the audience. My boss, weird as it was, slayed me.
Steph grinned and turned to the pit, waving her arm to signal them to start the last song, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
By the time I left, I was in the Christmas spirit and then some. The other ushers and I did a final check of the auditorium before heading out, waving idly at the performers as they put their stuff away, and the evening costuming crew who were handling the last of the laundry. I got on the bus with Mindy, who had stayed to watch the Holiday show, sitting in the back as I usually did. We were chatting about the show and how wonderful it had been when a familiar face caught my eye.
Jay sat at the front of the bus, his eyes darting over to me over and over, failing miserably at any attempt to be discrete. I gripped my phone like a lifeline as I started to type out what was going on in a note, shaking too hard to spell words correctly. It turned out I needn’t have bothered.
“Is that Jay fucker still bothering you?” she asked, her tone hushed enough for the other chatter to cover it.
“He waited for me in the parking lot the other night,” I whispered, staring out of the window. I wished Dakota was with me, then shook the thought from my head. Just because he was male didn’t mean he’d want to protect me from an overzealous ex. Hell, he might even find it funny, for all I knew. When I’d told him about Jay following me out of work the other night, the only response he’d had was to ask if I was okay. Even still, I texted him.
Jay’s following me again. He wasn’t supposed to be here today.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” Mindy promised, then linked her arm through mine. Whether it was to comfort me, or to send a blatant signal to Jay to stay the hell away from me, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t particularly care.
We lingered once off the bus, watching Jay walk away. He loitered by the benches at the stop for a few moments while Mindy spoke, loudly, about work and how hectic it had been, and how she really wanted to punch someone to get the frustration out. Eventually he took the hint and walked away, and Mindy put her arm back in mine to lead me through the parking lot.
“Look, if he ever approaches you at work, let me know,” Mindy insisted. “I’ll kick his ass.”
“Thank you,” I said, lost for words. For all Mindy’s weird quirks, namely her ability to switch from cute to scathing to cute again in less than five seconds, she was being fiercely protective. I couldn’t help but feel grateful to her.
“Here, take down my number and text me when you get home safely.” We stopped, about halfway through the parking lot, so that she could add her number to my phone. “I’m parked right over there, where are you parked?”
I looked into the considerably full lot and frowned. “That way, pretty far out I think,” I said, though I wasn’t entirely sure how far. “I should be okay from here.”
“I don’t want that douchebag following you to your car or waiting for you there.” Mindy looked behind me and smiled. “Hey, Dakota.”
I turned, relief and embarrassment hitting me at the same time when I saw him walking up behind us. He put an arm around me and smiled at Mindy. “Hey. You two okay?”
“Piper needs someone to walk her to her car,” Mindy said sweetly. “You’re probably parked closer to her, would you mind?”
“Sure thing,” he said, stepping away. “Come on, Doofus. Night, Mindy.”
“G’night guys! Text me when you’re home, Piper!” Mindy trotted away toward her car as I shouted an okay after her.
Dakota took my hand as we walked, listening to me babble in my panic. “He wasn’t supposed to be here. It’s his day off. Why is he here? How could he have known I’d be here? Is it just a coincidence? What the hell?”
I couldn’t keep myself from scanning the rows of cars, looking for Jay’s or his friend Nikkie’s. I saw neither, though I’d taken several double-takes, paranoia playing tricks on my eyes. It wasn’t until we were almost to the back of the lot that I realized I had absolutely no idea where I’d parked. The panic escalated, my throat closing, my entire body trembling as I tried to think back to that morning, tried to ground enough to remember where I was, where I’d left my car.
“Piper.” Dakota’s voice was level, calm. He stood in front of me and spoke softly. “Were you past the first stop sign?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling my face heat up. “I don’t remember what I was listening to this morning.”
Dakota frowned. “I don’t understand, but okay?”
“I associate almost everything with music,” I explained, trying to dig through the panic and the fog and remember this morning. “People, places, events– I can remember what I was doing when I listened to a specific song, most of the time.”
“That’s weird, but okay.” Dakota looked out to the lot, still frowning. “I can only imagine what song you associate with me.”
“Bulletproof,” I said immediately. I didn’t have to think about that one.
“Shoot me down, but I won’t fall,” Dakota sang, and I shook my head.
“That’s Titanium. Bulletproof by La Roux is the song I meant. That and Honeybee, kind of. But only because you sang it to me so many times.” Before he could respond, my memory clicked into place. “I know where I parked.” Without waiting for an answer, I strode off toward the farthest corner of the lot.
“At least you found your car,” Dakota said, catching up to me. “I’m not far back that way.”
“Want a ride to your car?” I asked, but he shook his head.
“Nah. I’ll be fine. Just worried about you.”
As I reached my car, I regarded him. For a wiry beanpole of a man, he was stronger than he looked. I had no doubt that he could protect me if he wanted to. Clearly, he cared enough to worry about me and my stalker problems. “Thank you for walking me to my car.”
“No worries,” he said, as I threw myself at him for a hug. He gave me a squeeze, then stepped away. “Get home safely.”
“I will,” I promised, getting into my car and watching him walk back to his. I gave the lot one more nervous glance to the rows of cars around me, then peeled out of the lot and headed for the safety of campus.