I was in my element. Sauntering through Furdin Mall popping the last of my warm, soft pretzel into my mouth before washing it down with my iced coffee. I was feeling good about successfully completing my mission to find my boyfriend an ugly holiday sweater. With my shopping bag hung triumphantly from my right arm, I began my descent toward the mall exit where my car was parked.
As I passed an old man, I watched him pull a tissue from his pocket and drop a small plastic comb on the floor in the process. I smiled. My grandfather always carried the exact kind of comb with him. This man didn’t realize he’d dropped his and kept walking, so I stooped down to pick it up. I had to follow him for a minute before I could successfully get his attention. He took his comb back thankfully.
As I turned the corner toward my exit something seemed to pull me to the big box toy store. Not in a hurry to get home, I wandered in to see if there were any cool new toys I could buy for my cousin’s kids, or if maybe the newest version of Taboo had been released. A wall of books caught my attention first, and I stopped to examine them.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed another old man standing in the aisle. This man wore a bulky tan winter coat, grey slacks and that patented grandfather hat. He reminded me of my own grandfather. He was examining a toy bin, picking up a bright purple box with an egg that hatched into some adorable creature. My heart swelled at the sight. I imagined he was some sweet widowed grandpa in search of the perfect Christmas gift for his young granddaughter.
I moved from the books to the board games around the corner. It was there I spotted the same old man, now at the end of this aisle. Weird coincidence, I figured, shrugging it off and continuing through the large store to see what was new in the doll aisle. I felt my skin start to prickle when I realized the old man and I were walking as a mirrored image. Every time I moved to another aisle, I would see a flash of tan move along with me on the other end.
Trying to convince myself that I was just being paranoid, I turned and headed in the opposite direction, the way I’d come, to the bike section in the back corner of the store. For a few seconds I waited, wondering if the man would also be searching for bikes. When he didn’t appear, I let go of the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. Of course, he didn’t appear. Feeling relieved, I headed toward the exit of the store. That’s when I almost bumped into the man in the tan jacket. I smiled politely and let him pass. He smiled back and continued toward the bikes.
By now I had a bad feeling that I couldn’t quite shake. I couldn’t go to my car just yet. As I left the store, I turned left to go deeper into the mall, away from the exit. I walked down the long mall hallway trying to be reasonable. It was just a coincidence that old man had been in all the same aisles as me. No more, no less. But when I glanced at the blacked-out windows from a store under construction, I saw two figures in the reflection. Up in front was me, in my bright red jacket, and then several feet behind was the old man in his tan coat.
I quickened my pace. I cursed myself for having worn this ridiculously bright red jacket. It stood out. Maybe if I had just worn a black jacket, I would have blended into the crowd and this man wouldn’t be following me right now. I was losing it. Of course this old man wasn’t following me because of my red jacket. He wasn’t following me at all. It was all in my head.
Just to be sure, I turned the corner and into the first small store I could find, the, “As Seen on TV” store. Surely, the old man wouldn’t follow me into this store. There were no aisles to hide behind, just a few racks. It’d be too obvious if he really was following me. Problem solved. Not that there was a problem. Everything was fine. Until I saw the old man standing right at the store’s display window, peering directly at me.
“Go away,” I pleaded in my head. “Please just go away.”
For a second, I thought he would. The old man actually did turn around and headed away from the store! Then he sat down on the bench directly across from the store, where my grandfather would have sat, if he were waiting for my grandmother and I to come out of a store. I swallowed hard. This old man couldn’t possibly be waiting for me. Could he? What for?
I stayed in the store for a long time, examining their merchandise, pretending to be interested, and keeping an eye on the old man outside the store. I felt trapped. I felt scared. I felt crazy. This couldn’t really be happening, could it? Why would a strange old man have decided to follow me?
I considered going up to the cashier and telling them that I suspected the sweet old man sitting outside the store was stalking me. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I worried she would think I was nuts and ask me to leave. I worried I’d cause a scene. I couldn’t bare it. So I continued to pretend to be interested in their products.
Finally, I pulled out my phone and texted my mom about the situation. No, I didn’t know the old man. Yes, I seriously thought he might be following me. Yes, he was still seated directly across from the store’s only exit. My mom told me to go to security. That sounded a little extreme. But with every minute I spent trapped in that store, I realized that I didn’t really have any other choice. Besides, the man was probably just resting on that particular bench by coincidence. I told myself that when I left the store and went to the customer service desk, the man would disappear into the crowd. No big deal.
It became an increasingly big deal when I left the store and the old man stood up and continued walking behind me. What the hell? My mom suggested that maybe he had dementia, maybe he thought I was his granddaughter. Maybe. Or maybe him and that old man I’d picked up the comb for were somehow in cahoots, and I’d fallen right into their trap. Maybe they’d been following me the whole afternoon as I mindlessly traveled from store to store blissfully unaware of preying eyes. I felt sick. As I approached the Customer Service counter my shadow stopped to read the sign at the Santa photo station just a few feet away.
“D-do you have a security office?” I asked the customer service lady in a low voice. For some reason, I didn’t want the old man to hear me. I didn’t want him to think I thought he was following me, if in fact he was really just a sweet innocent old man who happened to be walking in the same general area as me. Talk about self-centered, targeting this kind gentleman.
“Security?” The woman repeated in a loud voice, loud enough to be heard from a few feet away. “It’s down by Alpson’s restaurant, next to the dollar store.”
Shoot. It was literally on the other side of the mall. I tried to telepathically communicate my feelings of impending doom to her without having to vocalize them, but I couldn’t. I thanked her and headed in that direction. I wasn’t sure if he’d heard. I almost felt bad foiling his plan. He really did remind me of my grandfather. And my grandfather happens to be the greatest man alive. But this man was a stranger.
To get to the security office I had to pass through the very crowded food court. I felt a lot safer in there. Surely nothing could happen to me if I were surrounded by people. I even saw a security guard lining up at the coffee shop. Part of me wanted to run over to him and ask for help, but I wasn’t sure about what the proper protocol would be in this situation. Can you just approach a mall security guard with an old man hot on your trail? It seemed absurd.
Instead, I ducked into a women’s clothing store. There were no benches outside to sit at, and he couldn’t inconspicuously follow me in. This time, I texted my best friend and told her what was happening. I wondered if I was being silly. If I should just go back to my car and just go home. Surely, I could outrun this old man and make it to my car. But what if he already knew where my car was? What if there were more people following me that I hadn’t noticed? My brain was spinning stories, each one dimmer than the last.
“DO NOT GO BACK TO YOUR CAR!!!” My best friend texted me with an urgency that frightened me. “I’ve seen this on Forensic Files! Don’t go out there! Go to security!!”
So I did. I walked down a long narrow hallway straight to the security office. There was no sign of the old man behind me anymore. Maybe I’d lost him at customer service.
The security guard was nice. He was young. Probably about 5 years younger than me. I felt shaky and dumb. Like maybe I was overreacting. Like maybe I was wasting his time. Like maybe I’d imagined the whole thing. He brought me a chair and asked me to wait for his partner to come back to walk me to my car. He asked for a description of the man, which I could barely give. Tan coat, old man hat, looks like my grandpa. I’m not that articulate. He didn’t seem surprised or annoyed with me at all.
A second security guard, the one I’d seen in the food court, came back with his coffee in hand. I felt bad for interrupting his break. He was nice too. As we walked back through the mall to my car, he asked what time I noticed the old man following me, and I checked the text I’d sent my mom, and subtracted about 20 minutes. Over his walkie-talkie he reported the information back to his partner and instructed him to watch the security tapes. The tapes! What sweet vindication they’d bring me! I wished I could watch them too. I wished I could see, without a shadow of a doubt, solid tangible evidence that it wasn’t all in my head.
“You’ll see him follow me out of the toy store, into the, “As Seen on TV” store and then sit in front of the store until I leave, and then follow me to customer service.” As I said it, my confidence grew. I knew my story would be corroborated. Not that anyone for a second made me feel like they doubted my account. I did that all to myself.
Thanks to the security officer, I made it safely back to my car. I checked my rear view to see if any car was following me the entire drive home. I worried he was still lurking around somewhere. I worried he’d find out where I lived. But he didn’t.
The security guards took my number and said they’d call if they had any more questions, but they never did. I never found out if they saw him on the tape, or if they ever confronted him in the mall. I’ll never know that man’s story. If he was just a lonely old man, or if there was a much darker intent behind his actions.
I made it out safe, and the incident was really a non-incident for me. But I still picture him appearing on my street sometimes. I still worry he found someone else to follow. Someone who wasn’t lucky enough to notice.