“Tell me you’re not walking through the neighborhood alone again?” Katie’s voice filtered through the static of the phone. She was a thousand miles away, but it was comforting to hear from her friend.
“You’re my backup, that’s why I call you. If someone kidnaps me, you’ll call 911 from clear across the country.” Haley joked to diffuse the growing tension she felt.
She walked down the block from the bus stop, swallowing the nervous flutters in her belly as she made her way through the dark. “I only have four blocks to the apartment. It’ll be fine.”
Say it until you believe it. Hayley chanted to herself as she hoisted her bag higher on her shoulder and tried to keep her eyes peeled in the darkness. She was so jumpy tonight with every shadow seeming extra ominous.
Her apartment wasn’t bad, but the area itself reminded her too much of the place she’d just come from. She couldn’t afford better until her luck changed.
“You’ve got to find a new place to live. I worry about you, Hayley.” Katie said that every time like Hayley wasn’t aware of how dangerous it was.
“Yeah, I know. I’m working on it, but you know how long it took me to get this job. The shitty economy here is not working in my favor.”
As she crossed the street, she passed the same bum who slept in the doorway of the corner mart. He’d never said anything to her so she walked by him quickly. He lay on his side, only the bottle clenched in his hand visible in the street light. A shiver snaked down her spine like a bad omen and she picked up her pace.
Focusing on the sidewalk ahead of her, she tried to ignore the fear that pulsed like a warning sign in her gut.
“Not much further and I won’t have anything to worry about.”
“Until tomorrow at least.” Katie’s worry traveled through the phone and amped up the nagging anxiety Hayley felt.
Glancing back when she reached a next streetlight, Haley noticed the bum on the previous block had disappeared. That uneasy feeling increased to the point that she began a light jog, focusing on the red door that led into her apartment.
“Talk to me, Katie,” she breathed. Silence had fallen between over the line and Hayley needed her to keep talking. The start of that running commentary kept her sane as she trotted the two blocks home.
It felt like forever before she reached her stoop, that feeling of doom dogging her steps. Digging in her bag for her keys, she expelled the breath she didn’t know she held when she slipped the key in and disengaged the lock. Her cluttered apartment was a welcome greeting as she stepped over the threshold.
“I’m in. Thanks for walking home with me.”
“God, Hayley, I swear I worry more about you now than I did…” Katie didn’t finish, but she didn’t need to.
”Anything is better than that and you know it.” She closed the door behind her, tossed her keys on the stand by the door, and felt the anxiety seep out of her. “Maybe I’ll get out early and see if I can look for a new job tomorrow.”
“Can’t you get someone to at least walk you home?” The strain was evident in Katie’s voice. “There’s gotta be a better way.”
If there was, Hayley hadn’t found it yet. She swallowed the knot of despair that had lodged in her throat. No sense crying over it.
“I’ll call you in my way home tomorrow, Kate.”
They disconnected after a short goodbye. She missed Katie more than she cared to admit, but at least Hayley was safe. Or as safe as she could get in the projects of downtown LA. She needed a new place to live just as bad as she needed a new job. For the last week or two paranoia had her feeling like eyes followed her any time she left her apartment.
After scavenging up some chips, she made her way back to her bedroom. Just as cluttered as the rest of the place, she promised herself she’d tidy up this weekend. If for no other reason than she needed clean clothes and dishes.
That rebellious part of her said she didn’t answer to anyone so there was no need to spruce up. The clutter was a comfort to her.
Her back was to the closet when she felt eyes on her again. She glanced out the window. She hated her ground level place because people could see right into her room if she kept the curtains open. Scanning the yard, she had to tamp down the shudder that raced through her.
“Stop being crazy, Hayley.” Somehow the words didn’t decrease the feeling.
As she made to close the blinds, something came into her periphery. It was enough to put her on alert, but left her no time to react. A cloth covered her mouth before her muscles could move to protect herself.
The surge of adrenaline and fear shooting through her helped her struggle some, but nothing could shake the hand holding that sickly sweet chemical to her face. Hayley’s fight leached out of her fast and she lost consciousness within minutes.