DEAR CHARLIT, IM WACHING U SLEEP
The text came from an unknown number, but Charlotte immediately knew who’d sent it. The first thing she did was casually relocate from the couch in the living room to her bedroom. The living room faced the backyard through a wall of glass and sliding doors, and she didn’t usually bother to press the button that automatically closed the shades. She also didn’t typically fall asleep on the couch.
Once in bed, curtains drawn, she tried to make herself see reason–he wouldn’t be able to get into the house even if he wanted to, and somewhere deep inside her she knew he wouldn’t try. Still, he’d surely seen her check the message on her phone. He knew she knew he was out there.
Falling back to sleep wasn’t really an option, but it was okay. She had to leave for work at 5:30 anyway, unless she wanted to sit in the thick of rush hour. She had been hoping to call in sick to work, but now she’d rather go into work where there were plenty of other people around, just in case.
* * *
She hadn’t put her car in the garage last night, had just gone straight inside to the wine refrigerator. The day had been weird and exhausting, culminating in the encounter with the slightly off-kilter young man at the CVS a block down from her office. He had been struggling to count his cash to pay for the curious items spread out on the counter–box of plastic forks, echinacea, Oreos, tube of purple lipstick–and he came up short. She said she’d cover the remainder, but that she only had a credit card, so why didn’t she just cover it?
The guy, who couldn’t have been more than nineteen, was overcome with gratitude. He lavished Charlotte with thanks, bending his lanky form in half, hands in prayer. When he looked like he might fall to his knees and kiss her feet she said it was nothing, really, and that she had to get home. He wanted to know if he could have her phone number so he could look her up on Venmo and pay her back. She didn’t see the harm.
“I should make sure you get home,” he tells her. He’s still when he says this, the anxiousness and frenetic thanking slowed to a stop, and she could see his face static for the first time, and it was downright angelic. He was so lovely in an ephemeral way, nose and cheekbones long and soft-edged, skin enviably smoothy and dewy. His eyes were also soft, the light brown of toasted almonds, and he was smiling, sober and warm.
“You’re a doll,” Charlotte tells him, wanting to touch his face. “But I’ll be okay.”
He doesn’t insist, but when she walks away, she can feel him following her. She thought she lost him when she got into her car and left him standing in the parking lot, waving and smiling.
But like a stray dog, he found his way to her anyway. How long would it take him to go away?
* * *
The young man was nowhere to be seen when she backed down the driveway, but when she came home, he was sitting on the front porch. He looked terrible, like he hadn’t slept.
“Have you been here all day?” Charlotte asked.
He nodded. The breeze rustled the plastic CVS bag next to him.
She fished an unopened bottle of water out of her bag and handed it to him. He chugged it gratefully.
“You can go home, you know,” she said. “I’ll be okay.”
“But I don’t know when I’ll be able to pay you the money back,” he sad. “So I wanted to ask if there was something else I could do. Like, I’m good at standing guard.”
She wrinkled her brow. “What do you mean?”
His face lights up. “Like, when I was a kid, and it was jelly canning day, my mom would give us each stuff to do, me and my sisters.” He gazes off in the distance, remembering. “Jeannie would peel or pit or whatever. Allie would get to stir the stuff on the stove. And mom would send me out front to stand guard.”
He looks confused. “Jelly thieves, I guess? Raccoons?”
You force a smile. “Of course. That makes sense.”
“Somebody had to do it,” he said.
“Well, I have a security system,” she told him. “I’m not sure I need someone to stand guard. It would be a waste of your time.”
“What if it breaks?”
Charlotte set her heavy bag down by her feet. “What’s your name?”
“Dylan. I’m going to order us some dinner, and we’ll sit out here, enjoy the lovely evening, and talk about what you can do for me, okay?”
He nodded, but his smile was tenuous at the mention of yet another debt to repay.