It had been a long time since Anston last saw his ex-wife, and he didn’t know in what ways she had changed. Maybe some parts of her had changed for the better. Based on what he had seen at the institution, he assumed the rest of her had changed for the worse. The problem was that she was unpredictable, and whatever she was up to, and wherever she was going, Anston knew he would have to prepare for the worst.
That meant he would have to ready himself for a confrontation. As he sat in the parking lot thinking it over, he realized he didn’t know when she would come for him, or how, and he wasn’t sure which preventative measure was the most sensible for keeping her away. Based on his commitments and lifestyle, she had several avenues for approach and multiple opportunities to hurt him. Putting all of his focus on just one increased his vulnerability to the others.
If she were to approach him at midday while he was heading to his car, for example, she would catch him at his most defenseless. Although a normal person is less likely to start trouble in the parking lot of a small IT firm, she hadn’t spent the last year at the Happy Place Enrichment Facility because she was normal. Attacking him in public was something she was probably capable of now, especially after surrounding herself with like-minded people for so long. But even crazy people know that attacking someone in private is better. It’s the reason so many slasher films take place at secluded cabins in the woods or in the hearts of spaceships hurtling ten thousand light years to nowhere. Even murderous nut jobs understand that isolation is scarier than public gatherings when confronted by a stalker (even for socially anxious people like Anston). It was more likely she’d come for him once he was alone. The truly unpredictable part was determining exactly when she would come for him. The problem with Anston was that he was usually alone.
But he was a smart guy. He could prepare for that eventuality. If she were planning to impose serious harm on him, he didn’t want to improve her odds by keeping himself defenseless, so he searched his Maserati Biturbo for a weapon. Unfortunately, it was equally defenseless. He searched the glove compartment for a knife, or even a pen, but all he had were vehicle registration slips from years past and copies of his auto insurance. He’d kept the cabin of his car mostly free of junk. There was an aluminum sun shade folded in the rear footwell, but it was useless as a weapon—its soft edges ensured he wouldn’t inflict even a paper cut should she attack. Next, he searched the trunk. He didn’t have much in there, either: just plastic bags, discarded candy wrappers he’d forgotten to throw away after his last road trip, and a teddy bear he’d bought for her when they were dating but decided not to give until after they married (as a token of gratitude) and then forgot about. But he did have a tire iron.
Anston gripped the tire iron between his fingers and marveled at its weight. If swung correctly, it could do a lot of damage to an attacker. He slashed at nothing, just to test the force of its swing. If she came after him in her expected psychotic rage, he would have to aim below the neck to keep from putting her in a coma.
Then he considered his desperate thinking. He was holding a weapon that would stop his ex-wife in her tracks, in ways that prevented her from ever moving again. And he was contemplating using it on her.
He grunted at his shot of lunacy and tossed the tire iron back in the trunk. What had come over him? He closed the lid and cursed at the Happy Place Enrichment Facility as it popped into view over the roof of his car. He had to vacate the parking lot before its dark magic rubbed off on him further.
* * *
As the intermittent glow of streetlights washed over him on his race down the highway, Anston tried to calm himself from the tension the Happy Place Enrichment Facility had left with him. Sometimes, whenever he was stressed, he would turn his speakers up so loud that he heard nothing else. But he would never bob to the industrial beat of his music. He would keep still, lunging forward through fire with his eyes, like a badass. He needed to feel like one of those tonight.
While he circled the same five miles of road from highway, to downtown, back to highway, he decided it was a good idea to check whether his ex-wife was out visiting some of her old haunts. One good way to get ahead of her surprise attack was to track her movements, and if he located her at one of her favorite restaurants or caught her leaving one of her favorite stores, he could follow her to her ambush site. He just couldn’t remember what any of those places were anymore, if he ever knew them in the first place.
He hoped circling the downtown area would trigger some repressed memories. If he recalled, she had often talked about going to this place or that whenever she wanted to leave the house. As he scanned the local businesses, he took note of what he recognized. One shop after another looked familiar, or at least their names did. Yet it all looked so foreign. Had they changed their displays? Designs? Inventory? He remembered her talking about the places she loved, but he couldn’t remember anything she’d said about them. There went Sapstone, the patio furniture store. Did it always sell patio furniture? Maybe. Did it ever sell syrupy ice cream? Also a possibility.
He shook his head. If he pulled to the curb and investigated these places from the inside, he would still be going in blind. There weren’t enough hours left in the night to mount an optimal counteroffensive. He would just have to go home and prepare himself there. At some point, she’d come home. He was pretty certain she was drawn to it.
He parked in an empty spot next to a swath of pubs and restaurants and turned off the engine. The thunderous music in his speakers died with it. He was left sitting there in the stillness of his car, hearing the distant echo of house music, and watching the steady rhythms of attractive couples moving in the dark. He needed some time to really think about his problem.
About five minutes passed before he realized he was staring at the façade of a seafood restaurant through his windshield, and that the line out the door meant it was popular enough that Rebecca was probably somewhere in it. He started the engine and got out of there before she targeted him, too.
As he sped away from the crush of restaurants, he continued to think about safer measures than using a tire iron for subduing his vengeful ex-wife. He didn’t want to put her in the grave, or even in the hospital. He just wanted to give himself time to escape. But he needed to consider the likelihood that she could catch him anywhere. That meant he’d have to carry with him some form of deterrent. At all times. It was the best way to handle her while not killing her. He needed a humane solution.
He decided after several minutes of racking his brain that the answer to his problem was likely sitting somewhere at the mall.
* * *
When Anston pulled up to the mall’s south entrance, he spotted a group of teenagers loitering on a low wall, each one smoking a cigarette. The girls were flirting with the boys, and the boys were flirting with each other. Most of them had tattoos, and all of them were communicating with each other almost exclusively through rude gestures and filthy language. He wasn’t sure if they were capable of intelligent speech. He rolled his window all the way down and tested them, anyway.
“You kids know of a shop inside that sells Tasers?” he asked.
The boys collectively shrugged. One of the girls thought about the answer.
“Maybe the Screw Yourself store might have one,” she said with a sneer.
“You know where that’s located?”
“Yeah, in the Bendover District, next to the Kissmyass Department Store.”
Anston smiled and shook his head.
“No idea where any of that is.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Next to Starbucks, dude. Everything is next to Starbucks.”
He gave her the thumbs up.
Anston drove to the other side of the mall and parked there. He didn’t want to confront these kids when he approached the entrance on foot. They had looked and smelled like trouble. But at least they were helpful. Given their appearance, he was expecting the runaround.
Inside the mall, it was readily apparent that everything was shutting down for the night. Even with the holidays approaching and mall hours extended, it seemed he hadn’t gotten here soon enough.
But he raced through the mall anyway, steering clear of the few stragglers still lugging their shopping bags around, trying to find anyone who was looking for one last sale to make. He really needed a Taser. Even though he’d never used one, he knew they could stop deranged lunatics at the press of a button. Plus, there was real power in carrying one, like transporting a handheld kiddy lightning bolt. He’d often dreamt of shooting a bad guy with one. Never thought he’d have to use a Taser on his wife, but it seemed that day had come, anyway.
He found a security guard by the food court. When he approached, he made sure his face was composed.
“Tasers?” he asked.
The guard pointed toward the maze of shops in the distance.
“Better hurry,” he said. “Mall’s closing.”
Gates upon closed gates sped past his peripheral vision in a blur, but he didn’t let it dissuade him. A few gates were still half open—most of them clothing stores where girls like the one at the other entrance could change their identities and interests at the flip of a switch—but each one had employees standing by, sweeping floors and preparing for the final pull that explained to customers that all new purchases would have to be made the next day. And ultimately, it didn’t matter because every store he passed was a rip-off of its neighbor. None of these places sold Tasers.
But then luck smiled on him. He turned the corner to find a Starbucks, a clothing store, a Starbucks, another clothing store, a fitness store, a tattoo parlor, and another Starbucks, and across from that third Starbucks was a kiosk that sold pocket defensive items. And the salesperson running the booth was still there. She was packing up her cashbox, but she was still there.
Anston startled her when he ran up behind her, screaming “Hey!” just inches from the back of her head. Without thinking, she grabbed for one of her products, a vial of pepper spray, and unloaded it in his face. He screamed from the utter pain of it.
“What the hell?” he cried.
“I might say the same to you, pal,” the salesgirl said.
“I was trying to buy one of your products before you closed for the night!”
“You’re a customer?”
“I wanted to be!”
She put her hand on his shoulder.
“Calm down. You startled me is all.”
“Calm down? My eyes are melting in their sockets.”
There was a change in the tone of her voice. She was all sweet and businesslike now. Probably. It was hard to tell through all the fire.
“So you know the product works well.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
She released his shoulder.
“Tell you what. I’m closed for the night, but if you come back in the morning, I’ll sell you this bottle for half off. Just remind me that you’re the customer I sprayed in case I forget.”
“I think you should just give it to me now, for free.”
Anston had his hands over his eyes, and he was on the verge of crying. He could already feel his sinuses congesting from the overpowering jolt of two million units on the Scoville Heat Scale (twice the intensity of a ghost chili pepper and a thousand times hotter than a jalapeno) destroying his will to live.
“Sorry, my boss would get mad. But come back tomorrow morning. I think I can give you a discount. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Anston stumbled out of the mall with his face turning inside out. He had tried rinsing his eyes at the restroom sink, but the custodians had already locked them for the night. He still attempted to wash them at the water fountains, but none of them were powerful enough to clear the mouth guard. It was a futile effort. Now he was outside, daring to face the dust floating under the night sky.
Laughter erupted beside him. He peeked through his fingers to see the boys and girls from before mocking him between each puff of their cigarettes.
“Look at this ass,” the head girl said, “like he’d just got kicked in the face by a stripper with standards after he tried to start a conversation.”
The others laughed with her.
“I guess you found the Screw Yourself store?”
Anston shook his head. He’d chosen the wrong exit, would still have to find the right one, and he couldn’t even walk away with the ability to protect himself.
He was definitely in for a bad night. He felt it under his skin.