So here I am, several weeks into my fall term at Portland State. It’s my senior year, and I am lugging my stuff up the stairs to my new studio apartment on the edge of campus. It’s raining sheets of bullet-size drops outside, which doesn’t help the hideous cold I’ve been fighting all week. I cough and hack as I dig through my backpack until I locate my precious Robitussin, which I guzzle straight from the bottle as if it’s labeled “drink me,” like the bottle for that other Alice. But this helps to numb my aching throat as well as to dull my senses. Anyway, this is what I tell myself as I replace the childproof lid and survey my dismal new surroundings. The apartment is small and dark, with only one window, and it smells as if the last tenant smoked heavily.
Not for the first time today, I wonder why on earth I am doing this. I know I never would’ve left the security of my dorm room if I hadn’t planned to share this particular space with my boyfriend, Shay Reynolds. Naturally, I haven’t divulged this information to my mom since I know she’ll freak. Not that we talk much, but I figured I should let her know about my change of address. This is especially important due to the fact that she’s still helping with my college expenses since my dad’s Social Security doesn’t quite cover everything. But in the case of my mom, ignorance really is bliss.
Anyway, I had decided, with Shay’s loving encouragement, that since this was my senior year, it was about time for me to experience a little freedom, a little autonomy, maybe even a little fun. Besides, with graduation not too far off, I knew I could get a job if my mom eventually found out and pulled the plug on me.
Then, less than a week after I’d paid my nonrefundable deposit and signed the six-month lease, Shay decided to break up with me. I guess I should’ve suspected something when he informed me that he didn’t want to sign the lease since his credit rating was in the toilet. For a “smarter than average girl,” I can be awfully gullible.
“It’s not you,” he kindly assured me just a few days ago. As if that’s not the oldest line in the book. Then he pushed a lock of sandy hair off his forehead and tossed me one of his famous smiles. “It’s me, Alice. I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment yet. I hope you can understand.”
“Understand?” I echoed meekly, although I wanted to cry out, Why are you doing this to me? “No, I guess not. It’s probably for the best.”
He patted me on the back. “You’re so cool, Alice. I really hope we can keep being friends.”
I nodded and said, “Sure,” then turned away in time to escape being seen with two streams of tears running down my face. I don’t like to cry in public. But I did cry myself to sleep for the next two nights. Last night I didn’t cry. But I didn’t sleep either. I just kept replaying every single scene of our relationship through my head. Shay and I had been together for nearly a year, and I guess I really thought it would last forever. Besides Tommy Randall back in fifth grade, I suppose this was my first real boyfriend, and I felt as if someone had punched me and drained the very breath of life out of me.
But I suppose that’s being overly melodramatic. Anyway, I’m sure that’s what my mom would say. Naturally, I’ve never told her anything about Shay. Why would I? I knew she would not approve of my dating a boy who didn’t go to church, not to mention “fornicating” with him, which is how I’m sure she and her church friends would refer to the idea of the two of us sharing accommodations, regardless of whether it’s true. But by the same token, she would have little compassion for my aching heart now. I’m sure she would say that it’s my own fault and God’s way of chastising me for my folly. Folly is a word that is liberally volleyed around at Salvation Center. Naturally, they have an entire vocabulary that members are required to know. I used to think the word folly was simply their attempt at levity when discussing sin issues. Not that they think sin is funny. No, not on your life! But I try not to think about those things anymore.
Of course, I realize my relationship with Shay had its flaws. It’s not that I’m stupid or blind even. I was well aware that Shay took me too much for granted. And it always bothered me when his gaze casually wandered off to check out other girls. But even so, it was a low blow to be dumped for a freshman who giggles like a thirteen-year-old. Her name is Kiki, of all things, and she reminds me of Britney Spears. I saw them holding hands and laughing near the soccer fields close to campus. I was on my way to class but couldn’t bear to sit through the French Revolution. I try to quit thinking about Shay. Why torture myself?
I attempt to distract myself from him as I pry open a cardboard box, but I am interrupted by a neighbor who has wandered into my apartment. I assume I’ve left the door ajar and am not terribly surprised by this woman’s appearance since people tend to come and go as they please back at the dorm. I figure she’s simply being friendly. I smile at her and say “hey” as I stoop over the box, struggling to remove a heavy stack of English lit books. Did I ever finish unpacking that box? Come to think of it, I’m not sure I ever unpacked much of anything that fall.
“You should scoot your bed up against that wall over there, away from the door and the window,” she instructs me with a serene confidence that catches my attention. She sounds like a veteran helping the new kid learn the ropes. For a moment I question this kind of interference. But something about her soothing voice with its soft Southern drawl sounds quite comforting to me, and in some ways familiar, like I’ve known her all along. And so I am not bothered by this, and for whatever reason, her advice makes sense.
So, without questioning my new friend, I obediently drag my futon over to the windowless wall and away from the door. And to my surprise it does feel safer there. And feeling secure seems important today, especially in light of how empty I’ve felt since Shay dumped me. She nods her approval, wanders around my tiny apartment, and then disappears. Strange, she didn’t even introduce herself. Oh well, I figure. She’ll turn up again, or I’ll run into her in the elevator or the laundry room.
Now, exhausted from being sick and then moving (unexpectedly by myself with no help from my now ex-boyfriend), not to mention it’s midterm week, I swig down another gulp of cough syrup and finally collapse onto my thoughtfully relocated bed and sleep surprisingly soundly. When I awake, in the middle of the night, I am frightened by something, or maybe it’s just a bad dream or even my new surroundings. But that’s when she speaks to me again.
“You’ll be okay, Alice,” she says in that same honey-coated voice. I sleepily realize that it reminds me of my mom’s Aunt Miriam back in North Carolina. “Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of you.”
Even so, my heart pounds as I fumble to find the light switch on the wall, but I quickly discover that the light bulb is missing. So I peer into the darkness until I think I can see her standing by the window, like a dimly lit shadow. She leans against the wall with her arms folded neatly across her chest.
“Who are you?” I ask, blinking in surprise. Now I’m certain that I closed and locked my door. But then I wonder if perhaps I am still asleep and just dreaming this whole thing. It seems very surreal.
“I’m Amelia. I’m here to help.”
“Help?” I shake my head sharply.
She nods. “I’ve been sent.”
Now, even though I was raised in a fairly conservative—what some people call an overly religious—home, I really believe I left all that far behind me long ago. Or so I like to think. And yet—like a flash from my fundamentalist past—it occurs to me that this Amelia chick might actually be an angel sent down from God. I vaguely recall talk about guardian angels from my childhood. I’m sure it was my mom who told me of such beings, most likely trying to coax me back to sleep after some terrible nightmare. I had plenty as a child. Traumatized, I usually hotfooted it to my parents’ bedroom and tugged on my mom’s pillow, wishing that I’d be invited to sleep with them. But Mom would take my hand and walk me back to my bed. Then she would kneel down and pray with me, asking God to take my demons away, and I’m sure she must’ve mentioned something about a special angel who would watch over me while I slept.
But I had completely forgotten all about such things until this night when I meet Amelia. And for whatever reason I begin to think that Amelia might possibly be my guardian angel. I know it sounds strange. But sometimes life is like that. Now, does this change the way I perceive God? Not much, at least not yet. I still view God—if there truly is a God, and I’m not convinced—as a distant and often angry father who mostly does not want to be bothered. Not unlike my own father before he passed away shortly after I started college. Maybe he’s up there still reading his newspaper and sent Amelia in his place to help me out.
Anyway, my eyes adjust to the lack of light as I study this new apparition now seated on a box marked “shoes and stuff,” and I’m thinking she doesn’t look much like an angel. If anything, Amelia resembles a has-been country singer with her big brown hairdo and red gingham blouse tucked into too tight jeans and her outfit complete with pointed-toe cowboy boots—sort of like Loretta Lynn back in the seventies. I know this because of an album cover in my parents’ dusty old record collection. For some reason they kept all their vinyl LPs in an apple crate in a closet under the stairway even long after the FM stereo had been removed from our house. I think my dad believed that all music was sinful back then. But I discovered that the records were an odd mix of country and pop and gospel, although I felt fairly certain that the religious titles reigned supreme since they were always stacked proudly in front, as if to conceal the more shameful titles lurking in the back.
Sometimes my dad punished me for coloring on the table or some such childish act of indiscretion or rebellion, and I was sent to the stairway closet to “consider the gravity of my transgressions.” He thought the darkness would impress me with the significance of “walking in the light.” But as soon as my dad’s footsteps faded away, I would pull the cord on the overhead light bulb and then entertain myself by thumbing through the stack of funky old albums. I studied the faces of singers from the sixties and seventies, and in time they became familiar, like old friends to me. I suppose I must’ve spent a fair amount of time in that closet. But Loretta Lynn was always my favorite. Her smile seemed so genuine and warm. And I thought she probably gave good hugs.
I glance back over to where Amelia was sitting and discover she’s not there anymore. But this does not strike me as odd. In fact, I quickly accept that she’s just like that. She comes and goes at will. Not unlike my old roommate Chelsea. But I must give it to Amelia; she’s right there when I need her. She wanders in and out but always seems to show up when I need support or comfort. So, I tell myself, even if Amelia doesn’t exactly look like an angel, her voice is kind and comforting, just like you expect an angel’s to be. And for the most part she seems dependable enough. Not to mention thoughtful and helpful, and since I enjoy her companionship, I take to listening to her.
“Alice,” she warns me after a few days, “you need to be more careful. There are people out there who want to hurt you. Don’t let your guard down. You need to be on the lookout for them.”
“What people?” I ask. “Here in the building? Where?”
She narrows her eyes. “Just you watch out, honey.”
It sounds crazy, but I take Amelia at her word, and I begin watching out. And sure enough, she is absolutely right. I do begin to notice people out there who like to follow me around, people who talk meanly about me and even threaten me with bodily harm. It doesn’t take long before I realize they may want to kill me too. At first I think it’s only my ex-boyfriend, Shay. I see him everywhere, lurking in the shadows, ducking down an alley, and always, always watching me with those dark, sinister eyes. His little girlfriend, Kiki, sneaks along with him, whispering what a terrible person I am and how Shay should have broken up with me long ago. Soon I realize that he sneaks into my apartment at night sometimes and says mean, hateful things to me. But it’s not long before I realize there are others, too. The man down the hall. A woman in my psychology class. The teenager who works at the corner market.
Amelia shows me ways to protect myself. First I stack the boxes (the ones I haven’t unpacked) like a fortress wall, all around my bed. It makes me feel safer, more secure. And then I use all my pushpins from my bulletin board to hang my unzipped sleeping bag over my only window to keep people from looking through the flimsy miniblinds that anyone can see do absolutely no good to protect me from prying eyes. It doesn’t matter that my studio is on the second floor because I know someone, especially someone as athletic as Shay, can easily scale that brick wall if he really wants. I am certain he might be inclined to just hang there on the ledge, to peer in and watch me.
I continue going to classes at first. But I keep a constant, vigilant watch, always looking over my shoulder. And following Amelia’s sage advice, I begin to layer on articles of clothing, just in case I need to make a quick getaway. They keep me warm and secure and help me disguise myself from the growing number of people after me.
One morning on the way to class I run into Chelsea, my old roommate from the dorm. “How are you doing in your new place?” she asks in what I’m sure she hopes is an innocent sounding voice. Amelia has warned me to trust no one, especially those who used to be my closest friends.
“Why?” I study her with open suspicion. Has Shay sent her to spy on me? Has he asked her to check on my whereabouts? Is she his new girlfriend?
She acts like she doesn’t understand my question. “I just wondered how it was going is all.”
“Everything’s cool,” I snap, glancing past her to see if that’s Shay hiding behind the maple tree in front of the library.
“Are you okay, Alice?” I sense her penetrating gaze, as if she’s trying to strip away something, to see beneath the layers of my protective clothing to the hidden places inside me.
“I’m fine.” I turn and hurry away. But somehow I know she’s following me. I run a zigzag path, just to throw her off, before I return to my apartment. I don’t go to classes for the rest of that day. Or the next.
“Chelsea is telling everyone that you’re crazy,” Amelia informs me later that week. “You can’t trust her anymore.”
“I know,” I reply. “Shay probably set her up.”
“He wants to hurt you, Alice. Shay thinks you know too much.”
I want to escape everyone and everything that has to do with school now. I want to fill my backpack with a few important things and just get out of this place altogether—and never look back. But fear is confusing. It tears you in two. Half of you wants to run far, far away, but the other half is paralyzed, frozen, immovable. And the hard part is that you never know which half is going to win.
From the Trade Paperback edition.