The next couple weeks at work had passed slowly. Every time I’d heard the door open, I’d half expected to see the mystery man, whose name I still didn’t know, walk in with the same cheeky smirk plastered on his face. But, the truth was he hadn’t been in at all; at least not on the days and shifts I’d been working on. The majority of shifts that had been allocated to me were all day shifts – breakfast to lunch hours – and I’d rarely had any evening shifts at all.
After telling Hector, Darien and Rena the conversation that had taken place between the two of us the last time the man was here, that he’d ‘come back when the Balsamic Chicken was available’, I’d partly wondered whether or not Hector and his children were somehow trying to protect me from this stranger out of fear that some sort of harm might come to me if he pursued me further.
Although I knew that each of them had my best interests at heart, a part of me just wanted to be treated as I had been treated before and not be given special treatment. It wasn’t fair that Darien and Rena were choosing to take on my share of evening shifts and, to be honest, I missed having lie-ins more often during the week. Confronting Hector seemed like the most plausible thing to do, yet at the same time I knew it would get me nowhere. He saw me as he did Rena, like his own daughter, and wanted to protect and love me like he would her. All I could do was grin and bear it and be thankful that I was still being given shifts to work, even if they were mostly early starters.
On one particular Saturday night in early June, I had been in the main office filling in my wage slip, having just finished my shift, when the phone began to ring. Hector had always made it clear that the phone should never be left ringing and should always be answered regardless of who was in the office or nearby at the time. I reached over towards the handset and lifted it up to my ear:
“Hello, Lucia’s, Anna speaking. How can I help you?” I answered, using the scripted telephone line Hector had insisted we answer with.
“Anna! It’s Natalie,” answered a hoarse sounding woman on the other end of the line. It was one of the other waitresses that worked at the restaurant who was down to replace me for the evening shift in mere minutes.
“Hi, Natalie, are you okay?” I asked. I could tell there was something the matter if she was calling so close to her shift starting, and her voice sounding as bad as it did.
“No I’m not. I’m so sick its unreal!” she began. Her voice sounded not only hoarse, but very nasally and a little bit whiney, “I’ve felt dreadful all morning and I’ve only been getting worse all day.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, Natalie. Did you want me to tell Hector you’re calling in sick?”
“Would you? I’m so sorry, please let him know that. I would never call in sick if I didn’t really mean it. You know that, right?” she replied with a sense of thankfulness in her tone. She was right, she wouldn’t call in sick if she didn’t real mean it; it just wasn’t in her character to do so.
“Of course I do. I’ll tell Hector and I’m sure he’ll understand; he knows you wouldn’t lie to him. All that matters right now is you getting better.”
“But who will cover me? Rena and Darien are already working double shifts today and Astrid is out of town–”
“Don’t you worry about that, Natalie. We’ll sort something sort.”
“Okay, thank you Anna.”
“Goodbye, and get better soon!” I hung up the phone and sighed. I knew what the verdict would be from this situation straight away. I placed my wage slip into the correct filing tray and made my way towards the kitchen to find Hector. It was busy tonight and the hype of energy on the restaurant floor and within the kitchen was hectic. Hector was busy preparing chicken for tonight’s special and had his face set in a frown with concentration.
“Hector, Natalie’s just been on the phone. She’s sick and can’t make it into work tonight.” I told him plainly. He stopped what he was doing and turned to face me, placing his knife beside the chopping board on the counter.
“She’s what!?” he asked, trying to keep calm and not shout. He was clearly stressed with how busy it was tonight and we were already down two cooks as it was.
“She’s not coming in tonight. She’s called in sick.” I repeated calmly.
“I don’t believe this!” he exploded, slamming his fist against the work surface in front of him, “I do not believe this! Of all the days to call in sick! Of all the days!”
“What’s the matter, papa?” Rena asked with concern as she entered the kitchen from the restaurant floor.
“Natalie’s called in sick.” I filled her in. Hector slammed his fist on the counter again and began to breathe deeply.
“Papa, don’t get so worked up.” Rena sighed at her father. She turned back to face me, “She’s called in sick? But we’re so busy tonight. Darien and I can’t be on the floor just the two of us all night.”
“I’ll cover her shift if you like.” I offered, knowing it was the only realistic option available.
“But you’ve already done a full shift today.” Rena urged, her eyes widening with uncertainty.
“What other option do you have? You and Darien are both already working double shifts, so I can too. I don’t mind.”
“But, Anna–” she pleaded, but was interrupted by her father, who had calmed himself down marginally.
“No, Rena. Anna is right. We have no other choice.” He told her sternly. He then turned to face me with a solemn expression, “As long as you are fine to work longer, I am fine for you to stay on.”
“I’m more than fine, Hector, and more than capable too. What time was Natalie on until tonight? Closing?”
“She was, but I don’t want you working that late as you’ve been working since we opened. You can finish at nine. Darien and Rena can manage after then.” Hector informed me.
“Are you sure? I don’t mind working until closing.” I added.
“You will finish at nine. You have an early shift tomorrow morning, also. I do not want you falling asleep whilst pouring people their morning coffee.” He informed. I nodded with a somewhat defeated agreement and didn’t say another word. Hector returned to preparing his chicken and Rena and I returned to the restaurant floor for the evening shifts.
Saturday nights were always busy, but this particular Saturday was even more so than usual. It was the busiest the restaurant had been in a while and it had taken us all by surprise. However, we continued on with our work with an improved gusto and pride about us as we waited and served the sea of customers that night. I was in Zone C and the late summer evening sun shone bright as it began to set behind the buildings across the street. It was nights like this that we had tables set outside on the street front too, which were also within my area of service for the night.
As I cleared away one of the tables outside, I noticed out of the corner of my eye someone staring at me from across the street. I glanced over and saw that they were sat at one of the plastic tables set outside of the small café across the street. My eyes widened once I’d registered the person’s face. It was him, the mysterious man from before. I froze momentarily in my spot, gripping onto the plate I had in my hand so not to drop it onto the pavement below. My breathing suddenly quickened and my heart began to beat harder. I forced myself to look away and speedily finished clearing away the table, rushing back towards the kitchen whilst clutching onto the dirty plates and cutlery for dear life.
I charged past Rena as she was finishing serving a young couple their food. As I glanced at her face quickly, I noticed a look of concern spread across hers. I continued on towards the kitchen, pushing the door open with my spare hand and placing the dirty plates abruptly by the side of the sink and grasping onto the side of the counter tightly. My breathing was still erratic and my mind was all over the place. Rena soon entered the kitchen behind me and came to my side, pulling me to face her.
“What is it, Anna?” she questioned, glaring at me with wide, worried eyes.
“I saw him. I saw him across the street at the café,” I began quietly, barely moving, “He was just sat there staring at me. He just seemed to appear out of nowhere.”
“Who, Anna? The man from a few weeks ago?” Rena urged. She took hold of my shoulders and squeezed them firmly, staring into my eyes and willing me to tell her.
“Yes, the same one.” I answered.
“What’s the matter?” I heard Darien ask from a short way out. I turned to face him and his expression mirrored that of his sister’s. He knew exactly what was wrong the minute he saw my face. I knew he had translated it as fear, though to me I only felt confusion.
“Anna saw that guy outside the café just now. She said he was staring straight at her for ages.” Rena confided in her brother.
“That little creep!” Darien cursed, “What does he think he’s playing at? Do you think he’s trying to scare her on purpose?”
“He doesn’t scare me, Darien.” I corrected him, but he didn’t care what I had to say at that moment. He was getting too wound up over the mere thought of this man that none of us knew.
“It doesn’t matter. He shouldn’t be stalking you like this. That’s the third time this week I’ve seen him skulking around outside the restaurant.” Darien exclaimed.
“What do you mean the third time this week?” Rena asked, confused, “You’re saying he’s been here since the first time?”
“I’ve seen him looking inside at a similar time over the past couple weeks. It’s like he’s checking to see who’s in that night.” He continued.
“Why has he been doing that?” I asked, secretly knowing the most likely reason behind it but not wanting to reveal it and make it true.
“My theory is he’s been checking to see if you were working or not, Anna,” Darien confessed, anger strung around each syllable he spoke, “he soon clears off when he knows you’re not. He’s been coming most nights, from what I’ve noticed, since that first time.”
So this man really had been stalking me. I suddenly felt dizzy and confused. It all felt too much for me to handle. Why me? Why had this man fixated a fascination on me? You hear about it all of the time, yet you never expect that it will ever happen to you.
“You’ve gone pale, Anna. You should take a break.” Rena announced with worry.
“She needs to get the hell out of here.” Darien exclaimed, “It’s not safe with him around here. We don’t know what he’s capable of.”
“We’re too busy for her to go home though, Darien. Even papa will tell you that.” Rena urged.
“We’ll see. I’ll go find him.” Darien rushed off to find Hector leaving Rena by my side. I didn’t want to go home; that would make me feel as though I’d been defeated by this stranger. Besides, the safest place for me to be at that time was in the restaurant where he wouldn’t be able to follow me anywhere – especially home!
“I just don’t understand why he’s doing this.” Rena murmured to herself.
“Me neither.” I added, chuckling slighting to try and lighten to mood. We both knew that the more we stood around worrying and not working, the more frustrated and crabby our customers would get, but this situation felt more important at that moment in time.
All of a sudden, Hector came bounding over from his work station with Darien not too far behind him. His face was pulled tight with frustration and anger, with his cheeks slowly growing red in colour. He stormed over towards the kitchen doors pulling them open heavily and commencing across the restaurant floor. Rena and I both glanced at one another knowing exactly where he was heading. We both rushed after him, trying to keep up with his pace.
“Papa, don’t cause a scene!” Rena pleaded, pulling on her father’s thick arm.
“Don’t tell me what to do, Rena! I’m sick and tired of this man thinking it is okay to harass my staff!” he shouted across the restaurant floor. People stopped and stared at the scene we were all causing as he pulled open the front doors and spotted the man in question. He strode across the empty street and towards where he was sat.
“Papa, please!” Rena cried, trying her hardest to pull her father away.
“You!” Hector shouted at the man, whilst pulling him up to his feet by his collar. His face filled with, at first, confusion and then fear as he stared into the face of the red face middle-aged Greek man before him, “You like making my staff feel uncomfortable and scared, yes?”
“N-n-no. Not at all!” he stammered, quickly glancing towards me before locking his sight back to Hector.
“Well it sure seems that way.” Hector boomed.
“I meant n-n-no harm. Honestly! I meant no harm a-a-at all!” he pleaded, trying to pull himself away from Hector’s grasp, “All I wanted was to see her again a-a-and maybe ask her t-t-to dinner. I wanted to g-g-get to know her.”
“By stalking her?” Darien questioned, standing beside his father with a foul, disgusted expression spread across his face. I felt so embarrassed by the scene set before me and could feel people staring in our direction from all over the street.
“I wasn’t stalking her!” he cried, fear filling him as Hector pulled on his collar tighter.
“Then what were you doing?” Hector argued back.
“Like I said! I just wanted to meet her and get to know her properly.” He pleaded yet again. I could see the fear spreading across his face as each second passed and I felt truly sorry for this poor man. This was my fault and I didn’t want any harm to come of him, even if he had made me feel the way I had. Besides, if what he was saying was true, his intentions hadn’t been to frighten me at all so I had to at least give him credit for that. I stepped forward between Hector and the man.
“Hector. Stop.” I told him straight, looking directly at him, “Let him go now, please.”
“But, Anna–” he urged through gritted teeth. His eyes questioned my intentions and urged for me to change my mind. I shook my head gently and continued to stare sternly directly at him.
“Please. Stop.” I ordered calmly. Hector sighed defeated and let go of the man’s collar before turning back towards the restaurant and leaving the scene. Darien frowned scornfully towards me and followed his father angrily. Rena quivered slightly, folding her arms and cocking her head towards the restaurant prompting for me to follow her back. I began to move when I felt a hand grasp hold of my forearm gently from behind. I turned to face the man who was recovering from Hector’s grasp. His eyes were glossy, almost as though he was about to cry, and his smile was faint.
“Thank you.” He announced with gratitude. His breathing was heavy and his body movements appeared jerky.
“No problem.” I responded. I began to turn away when he pulled me back to face him once more.
“Can I see you again?” he asked sternly. His gaze was strong and eager, but I was unsure.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” I responded truthfully.
“Please,” He begged, “I honestly meant no harm before. I just wanted to see you again. I’ve not stopped thinking about you.”
“And neither have I,” I confessed.
“You haven’t?” he asked with a flicker of surprise and excitement in his voice.
“But probably not in the same way as you have.” I answered matter-of-factly. I pulled away from him and began to walk back towards the restaurant with Rena by my side.
“Wait!” I heard him shout behind me. I turned back to face him as he ran over to me from across the street, “Let me make this up to you.”
“How?” I asked him.
“Let me take you out, as a way of an apology.” He insisted.
“And what if I refuse?” I questioned, folding my arms and tilting my head coyly to the side, similarly to how he had done the first time he’d toyed with me. He smirked weakly and sighed.
“Then I will leave you alone.” He answered, placing his hands in his pockets.
“If that is what you wish.” He continued. I could tell he was being truthful in what he was saying but I couldn’t bring myself to trust him completely. At the same time, this man still intrigued me despite how much he also confused me. I knew that letting him leave me alone forever would be the smart thing to do but I’d always been renowned for not always choosing the smartest option.
“Meet me outside here tomorrow night at six.” I told him flatly. I saw the corners of him mouth rise slightly but he hid it well so not to give away too much of the happiness he clearly possessed. He nodded nonchalantly and took my hand, allowing my arms to unfold.
“Tomorrow.” He said, kissing the back of my hand gently, looking into my eyes the whole time, “I look forward to it... Anna.” Shivers went up my spine as he spoke my name, something I was unaware he had known, and additionally as he smiled sweetly as he let go of my hand before turning to leave. Had I really just agreed to meet up with this man? Although he’d learnt my name, I still had no idea what his name was. I just wished I could fully trust my own judgement and that it wouldn’t let me down.