Sharon Moore's sense of danger was sudden, itching at the back of her neck as she stood on the curb to lock her car door. Although Haight Street one block away was alive with lights and activity, the side street of narrow Victorian houses was dark and shadowy. She turned quickly, her gaze darting up and down the sidewalk -- cracked and chipped concrete as old as the turn-of-the-century homes that stood braced against each other as they tilted forward onto their steep front stairways.
In the distance a woman walked her dog, and further still, a man parked a motorcycle. Neither of them even noticed that she shared the street with them.
Don't panic, she told herself. He doesn't know you're here.
Hoisting her purse strap onto her shoulder, Sharon started toward Haight. She must hurry. Her girlfriend, Lexi Steward, was closing her shop early tonight. And God help me if I'm not home on time, she reminded herself grimly.
Sharon didn't realize she was almost running until she reached the brightly lit street and had to pause to wait for the light. Beyond the traffic Glamour Puss was colorfully garish, the display windows decorated with flags, masks, andmannequins dressed in original designs Lexi had created. High above the windows, gold-filigreed leaves adorned the arched cornice that edged the roof, and at its peak two stone gargoyles guarded Lexi's domain.
Sharon grinned. Her friend from college hadn't made a name in the New York fashion world yet, but she was well known in San Francisco. Women who wanted to create their own style came to Lexi. Her uniqueness was legendary in the Haight, an area that was also home to underground newspapers, artists, corner musicians, psychics, and street people.
Pausing at the entrance to Glamour Puss, Sharon waited as two chattering women came out of the door, their arms full of packages. She smiled at their obvious pleasure with their purchases. Sharon envied Lexi's free spirit, her absolute confidence in her talent to design clothing. Lexi's artistic honesty spilled over onto her customers who inevitably fell for her one-of-a-kind garments and elaborate hats.
How many years since I felt the wind at my back? Sharon wondered.
The question came unbidden, as did the answer -- not since that day almost seven years ago when Paul had come into the ad agency where she worked and captivated her with his intelligence and charm, his calm ability to take charge of any situation. He was the exact opposite of her father. Her dad and mom had both been artists, and they had lived either high on unexpected commissions or in poverty when there was a dry spell. But they had been loving parents, if totally bohemian. She herself had chosen commercial art when she went to college on scholarships, choosing stability over chaos. How very naive she had been to believe life had to be an either/or scenario.
"My goodness!" One of the women stopped abruptly, holding the door open, her gaze darting between Sharon and the mannequin in the display window behind her. "You could be twins." She studied their delicate features, short dark hair, brown eyes, and slender build.
"And the taller one with the long blond hair and blue eyes looks just like Ms. Steward," the second woman said. "I hadn't noticed that before. Amazing -- "
"Not really," Sharon told them, grinning. "Lexi Steward is my best friend. A sculptor we know made the mannequins in our likeness." She combed back her flyaway hair with her fingers. It was a kick when someone noticed the Lexi and Sharon mannequins. How typical of Lexi to have thought of the idea. Even some of the Halloween masks she sold each year were caricatures of close friends, all of whom had been flattered to be included in the line that showcased celebrities as monsters. Only her husband Paul had been furious. Perhaps because his mask mirrored the real Paul.
"Lexi likes everything in her shop to have special meaning, including the mannequins," Sharon explained. "See that little curly-haired boy-figure over in the corner, the one in the Halloween costume next to the display of masks? He looks just like my five-year-old son, David."
The two women moved on, smiling, and Sharon stepped into the store. Glancing at her watch she saw that she was still okay for time. Lexi waved from across the room where she was helping a customer, motioning her to the masks and costumes that were heaped on a table in the back near the dressing rooms. She knew what David wanted for his kindergarten Halloween party -- Woody, the cowboy from the movie Toy Story. Lexi had the costume in stock.
"I've set David's outfit aside," Lexi said in her throaty voice, coming up behind her.
"Thanks. He's so excited." Sharon stooped to pick up a Casper the Ghost mask that had fallen on the floor. "I just hope he's over his cold in time for the party."
Smiling, Lexi took the mask from Sharon. "You worry too much about David. Kids catch everything under the sun once they start school."
Sharon nodded. "It's just that David seems susceptible to all the viruses that come along. If he could just..." Her words trailed off.
"Be a kid?"
There was a pause.
"You know the cure for that, Sharon," Lexi said, then went on gently. "You've always been a take action kind of person. Why not now?"
"It's not that easy, Lexi. Look what happened last winter when I stayed in the women's shelter. Paul turned up with an affidavit from our family doctor that stated I was unstable -- and testimonials from neighbors and friends who praised him as a caring, loving husband and father. They let him take David home and I went, too -- because I had no other choice." Another hesitation. "I can't lose custody of David, Lexi. That would kill me. And Paul will never let him go, even if it means destroying David in the process. A son is the symbol of his manhood, his mortality -- it's sick."
"And his wife is personal property -- who only exists for his needs." Lexi's tone hardened. "You know that I believe -- "
Sharon threw up her hand, reluctant to talk about her situation. At the moment she was unsure of how to proceed. One thing was certain. She had to do something -- for both her own and David's sake.
"You can always come to my place," Lexi went on. "And I'll stand up for you in court. I know who Mr. Paul is behind all that perfection and success."
"But no one else does." Sharon couldn't bring herself to say that Lexi would not be a good witness. Paul would cut her liberal lifestyle to shreds in court and only strengthen his case against Sharon. And she'd be afraid for Lexi if she stayed with her. Paul hated Lexi.
"How did you get away tonight?"
Sharon glanced down. There was a time in her life -- before Paul -- when she would have become militant at the assumption that a man should have the last word on whether he let his spouse do anything. She had always believed that couples were equal, as her parents had been. What's happened to me? she asked herself. But she knew. Motherhood. In protecting David she had become terribly vulnerable.
"My latest assignment at the ad agency is to put together a billboard advertisement on the importance of exercise. I needed to see the billboard locations in order to determine the focus of my layout."
"My God! He actually let you go?"
"He had to be home for a business call from Honolulu, seven o'clock our time, four o'clock Hawaiian." Sharon could not meet Lexi's discerning eyes. "And he didn't want me telling my boss that my husband won't let me out of his sight, even for my job."
"Jesus!" Lexi sucked in her breath. "Always the perfect husband to the outside world. It's amazing that he still allows you to work. Of course it's from home where he can keep his thumb on you."
"You make me sound like a wimp."
Lexi's frown creased her plucked brows together, but she didn't apologize. "I'll bet he doesn't know you stopped here to pick up a Halloween costume for David."
"No, he doesn't."
Lexi shook her head. "I wondered how Paul's fundamentalist attitude would suddenly allow David to wear a Halloween costume for a holiday he considers pagan."
"Paul's forgotten how it feels to be a little boy -- "
Lexi gave a wry laugh. "Sharon, get with the program. Paul was never a normal little boy, I'd stake my life on it."
"His parents are dead so I guess we'll never know."
There was a pause. Then Lexi dropped an arm around Sharon's shoulder. "Listen, I'm sorry I brought the subject up. Just remember that I'm here for you -- whenever you need me." She moved past Sharon to open the dressing room curtain, revealing a simply cut forest green cocktail dress on a hanger. "I have to get going -- meeting Al at the Cliff House for drinks -- but I wanted you to see my latest creation."
"It's gorgeous!" Sharon stepped forward to finger the velvet fabric. "Understated elegance. I love it!"
"Good." Lexi grinned, flashing perfectly capped teeth. "It's my Christmas gift to you early -- in case you get a chance to attend your company party this year."
"It's not even Halloween and you're thinking Christmas," Sharon said, laughing. She sobered suddenly. "But I can't accept this, Lexi. It's too much. The dress would sell for four hundred fifty dollars at least."
"Of course you can accept it -- even if you have to leave it here for a while." Lexi waved her objections aside. "Go ahead, try it on." She gave Sharon a nudge into the dressing room. "I'm going but you can lock up when you leave," she added, pulling the curtain closed. "David's costume is on the counter." Lexi's voice trailed behind her as she hurried to the front of the shop. "You've got the place to yourself. I'm putting the closed sign in the window."
"I'll leave a check -- how much?" Sharon called after her.
"No charge. It's my trick-or-treat for David. Tell him it's a present from Auntie Lexi."
Before Sharon could answer, the door closed after Lexi. The abruptness of the silence was dramatic, as if Lexi had taken the energy of the store with her. Sharon slipped out of her jeans and sweatshirt and put on the dress. It was a perfect fit, the simple lines and scooped neckline molding her figure as only a well-designed dress could do. Lexi's designs have never gotten the attention they deserve, Sharon thought, as she stepped back into her jeans. Her friend's name should be a household word -- like Calvin Klein or Liz Claiborne.
As she pulled on her sweatshirt, Sharon was stricken with a sudden sense of urgency. She needed to get going if she were to be home before Paul became suspicious.
Wimp? she wondered again. You really are, she told herself. But not by choice. Before she had realized what he was doing, he had undermined her with everyone: close friends, neighbors, her doctor, his co-workers as well as hers. Now, her concerns were met with nods and knowing smiles. Somehow, without realizing when, she'd lost her true identity and credibility.
Sharon whipped back the curtain and stepped out of the dressing room, headed for the front counter. She had taken two steps when the lights went out, plunging the shop into darkness. She stopped in her tracks, instinctively ducking behind the costume table. The breath went out of her. Don't be scared, she told herself. It's probably only a power failure.
Absolute silence permeated the darkness. Then she heard faint shuffling sounds, like carefully placed steps on the polished wood floor, moving toward her. She crawled around the table to the wall of masks. The light switch was by the front door. She must get to it,
The entrance door stood open, and beyond it the lights of Haight Street were as bright as ever. The power wasn't off anywhere else. Someone had intentionally turned off the store lights.
Don't panic -- don't panic, she repeated silently. Just get out.
More shuffling, this time closer. Then, beyond the nearby sounds, hurried footsteps turned into the store. "What in hell is going on here?" Lexi's voice rang in the darkness a moment before the lights came on.
Sharon stood up. Across a display table she glimpsed a hunched-over figure with long witch hair in a flowing black cape. The apparition ran to the door, knocking Lexi to the floor before fleeing outside. Its backward glance caught Sharon's. For an instant pure malevolence looked into her eyes.
Her knees buckled and she grabbed the table to brace herself. The intruder was wearing her caricature mask. Her gaze flew to the display on the wall. The Sharon mask was gone.
"You all right?" Lexi sounded shaky as she got to her feet. She quickly closed and locked the door. "Good thing I forgot my wallet and came back for it."
"He was wearing my mask." Sharon tried not to sound as scared as she felt.
"I know. He must have grabbed the closest mask. How awful that it was yours."
"You don't think it was deliberate?"
Lexi shook her head. "Probably just a coincidence. Someone trying to scare you so they could rob the till. Didn't realize that I'd already closed it out."
She went to the phone. "I'm calling the police. Some of these street people are getting pretty bold, thinking they can rob my place. I'm putting a stop to it -- right now."
Lexi spoke to the police dispatcher, then put down the phone. "For God's sake, what has to happen before the cops think it's an emergency?"
"They aren't coming by?"
"Oh yeah, but not right away. No one was hurt, nothing stolen, no damage," she said, mimicking the dispatcher. She poked at the phone buttons again. "Hell, I have to cancel my date so I can be here to make out a police report."
Sharon composed herself while Lexi talked to Al. When she hung up she seemed calmer. Al, a gentle, red-haired giant, was coming right over.
When he arrived a few minutes later, Sharon had David's costume under her arm, ready to go. They walked her to her car and watched while she stowed the Glamour Puss bag in the trunk, then climbed behind the wheel. Stiff shaken, Sharon managed a grin as she put the car in gear.
"Thanks Lexi, Al -- for seeing me to the car."
"You okay to drive?" Lexi reached through the open window to touch Sharon's shoulder.
Sharon nodded. "I'm fine." She relaxed her grip on the wheel and tried for a lighter tone. "I just wasn't expecting Halloween early."
Lexi stepped back. "I'll call you in the morning. Drive carefully."
In seconds Sharon was headed down the street. It was a random incident, she told herself. The black figure in the mask was not after her. She forced her thoughts to David, and the costume in the trunk. At least Woody the cowboy wasn't scary.
The car lights were already muted by the fog before Sharon turned the corner and disappeared from Lexi's view. She stared after it. "Maybe I should have followed her home," she told Al. "If it weren't for Paul I would have." She hesitated. "He hates my guts and the fact that my friendship with Sharon predates him."
Al placed a comforting arm around her shoulders as they walked back toward Haight Street. "I know the type -- a self-important snob."
"He's far more than that. He's crazy, and I'm worried about what could happen to Sharon and David."
He pulled her closer. "Yeah, so you've said. Why doesn't she leave him?"
"Scared to. He's brainwashed her to believe that she'll lose custody of David."
"Mothers almost always keep their kids in a divorce."
"Not if the father has everyone in the world convinced that the mother is paranoid."
"Is that what he's done?" His usually soft voice hardened.
"How in hell did he do that?"
"First he undermined Sharon with her friends by confiding his concerns about her, that she was jumpy and nervous, fearful of everything, and over-protective of David -- that he was worried she'd become mentally ill." Lexi hesitated. "Except me. I told him he was full of shit when he played his poor me, long-suffering-martyr routine. He's obviously one of those insecure men who needs to dominate, who requires obedience from a woman, who is threatened by anyone -- family or friend -- who has any relationship with her."
"Sounds like the type of guy who could be a wife-abuser. Hadn't she seen these traits before they were married?"
"Nope. Paul is the perfect mime of a real person, so Sharon rationalized -- that Paul only changed after David was born, that he'd gradually become more and more threatened by her independence. She still thought he just wanted the best for his wife and son. Paul was as much Sharon's motivation for working from home as her need to be with David. She wanted Paul to feel secure about her and about their life together." She laughed harshly. "As if anything could make an asshole like Paul feel secure!"
"Jeez. He is a sicko."
"Yup." They had reached Haight Street and stood waiting for the light. "By the time Sharon realized what Paul was doing behind her back, he'd already planted the seeds of her instability with everyone around them. And the more desperate she became for someone to believe that Paul had lied about her mental state, the more they wondered if she was a nut case."
Al tightened his grip around her, as though to protect her, and Lexi welcomed his strength. She loved his sensitivity, his kindness -- and the fact that he was so much bigger than her.
"You just be careful of this guy, you hear?"
For the moment Lexi forgot about Sharon, her thoughts shifting to her evening ahead with Al.
Sharon was only minutes away from her house in Noe Valley, a district below Twin Peaks and Haight Ashbury, when her cell phone rang in her purse. Startled, she swerved out of traffic to stop under a streetlamp. With shaking hands, she retrieved the phone, attempting a calm hello.
"Sharon? Where are you?" Paul's voice sounded cool...normal.
"Five minutes from home."
"Good. Glad I caught you. David spilled the whole carton of milk and I thought you might pick up another at the store. You'll pass the supermarket on your way."
"Of course -- I'll get the milk." She held the phone away from her ear, about to disconnect.
"Yes." She leaned back into the phone.
"Was your research helpful?"
"Uh-huh. I'm all set to get started on the layout."
"Good. See you when you get here." He ended the call.
As Sharon pulled into the supermarket parking lot she felt sudden relief. At least she knew that Paul had not been the figure in the Sharon mask.
Guilt pricked her. How could that thought have even crossed her mind? Paul would never have left David alone.
Copyright © 1999 by Donna Anders