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Didn't Your Mother Ever Teach You Not to Stare?

Mystery, dark comedy

© Isabella Bailey 2022

All rights reserved.

There’s a man watching me from the corner booth. 

His eyes are dark and scrutinizing, his expression hard, and he's looking at me with a kind of dull, sinister curiosity that makes my shoulders tense and my arms prickle with goosebumps. He finished his slice of pie—blueberry, I think, or maybe blackberry—five minutes ago, and he’s made no move to get up, to ask for the check. He hasn’t even motioned for the waitress to top up his coffee. He’s just sitting there, staring.

I can feel his eyes every time I turn away, searing into my forehead like sunlight through a magnifying glass. More than once I’ve raised my gaze to stare back at him. Each time, he promptly looks away, fidgeting with his tie, pushing pie crumbs around on his plate, pretending to take a sip out of his empty mug.

What does he want? 

I don’t know. All I know is he’s looking at me like a wolf looks at a particularly appetizing deer.

I swallow, duck my head, tear open a packet of Splenda with hands that aren’t quite steady. We’re the only ones left in the diner at this hour, and the waitress has already retreated to the safety of the counter, where she’s thumbing through an earmarked Nora Roberts paperback. I have no allies in this place. 

My eyes slide to the left; the man’s gaze snaps over to me and then, just as quickly, darts away. I bristle in my seat, my grip on my coffee mug tightening. Take it easy, I try to tell myself, but it’s no use. Unease has settled over me, and there’s no dispelling it.

I know I should be focusing on my work—I’ve got a monster of a deadline looming on the horizon—but that’s not easy to do, not now. He knows I’m onto him, that much is clear. Only one question remains: Does he know that I know that he knows?

I empty the Splenda packet. Take a sip of my coffee. Maybe if I can just drop a hint, nothing too confrontational… Meeting his eyes, I give him a thin smile before returning my attention to my proposal. Sometimes they back off when they know they’ve been made.

Not this guy, apparently. Venturing a glance over the top of my screen, I catch a glimpse of the corner booth, and sure enough, the man is still looking directly at me, his empty mug frozen at his lips in a horrible pantomime.

Alarm bells are going off now, and whatever goodwill I might have had left evaporates. Normal people don’t look at you like that. It’s one of the first things our moms tell us when we’re kids. Don’t stare. He must have some kind of agenda, and if there’s one thing I hate more than anything in this world, it’s people with agendas.

I try a glare this time. The man hunches his shoulders, folding his hands in front of him and dropping his gaze to the table, as if there are untold secrets written there. Then, like clockwork, those bloodshot brown eyes glide back up to me, except now I’ve got the game down. I’m already returning my attention to my papers, shuffling them aimlessly, no longer able to concentrate on the words. I suppose I could leave the diner, but that might be a fatal misstep. There could be more of them outside, waiting for me to leave so they can foist their ulterior motives on me. The world is full of bad actors, people who know other people, people who have plans for you. I’ve learned this lesson well, but it seems I’ve gotten sloppy, let my guard down. I can see now that I’ve committed a grave error in coming here.

He's still watching me. Horrible scenarios flood my mind: Serial killer? Closet pervert? Traveling salesman? I can’t even decide which is worse. Is he trying to wear me down so I leave? What if he follows me out?

My palms are getting clammy. My throat is tightening. The coffee churns in my stomach like kerosene—did he slip something in it? Did the waitress help him?

God help me, is she in on it too?

All right, I think, pushing my chair out from the table with enough force to make the silverware rattle. That’s it.

Buzzing with caffeine and adrenaline, I close the distance to the booth in three short strides. The man stares up at me with those sinister brown eyes, his intentions still maddeningly unclear.

“What?” I demand, propriety going out the window. Then again, I guess it went out the window the second he started watching me.

“Sorry?” he asks stupidly, taking a nervous glance around the diner. As if he doesn’t know. 

I curl my hands into fists. “You’ve been watching me since the minute I sat down. Is it me, is that it? Do you want something from me?”

“Please,” the man replies, looking profoundly uncomfortable, “just leave me alone. I’m not trying to start anything.”

“Then what is it?” I press, aware that the waitress has straightened up to watch. Good, I think. Let her. “Why have you been staring at me?”

The man’s eyebrows pull together as he straightens up in his seat. I’m half-expecting him to stand up, perhaps to lunge across the table, and his next words hit me like a piano dropped from a great height.

“Why have you been staring at me?

© Isabella Bailey 2022

All rights reserved.

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