by Susan E. Rogers
She should have known better. A blind date – really? She only agreed because she was afraid her friend Joanie would be angry if she refused to go out with Joanie’s boyfriend’s friend. Never again. He was overweight and overbearing and he babbled endlessly about himself, his business, his golf game and his rich friends. His pudgy fingers stroked her arm, working for an invitation. Even when she whipped it away, he kept at it.
The waiter rolled his eyes and offered her a sad clown expression. His sympathy was the last straw. During after-dinner cocktails, she tweaked the little bit of courage she owned and excused herself to freshen up. He looked smug, thinking himself the victor. She got her jacket from coat check and sprinted out the door.
This wasn’t like her. At all. Margaret Mary Dempsey had been timid for as long as she could remember. An only child raised lace-curtain Irish on the other side of town, she was over-protected and lovingly provided for. Since graduating from high school sixteen years ago, she was sole administrative assistant in a one-man accounting office. No challenges there. She was never brave about anything. She made sure she never had to be. For every action she took, she worried about the consequences. What if she did the wrong thing, got someone upset or hurt their feelings? But, this guy pushed beyond her fear. She hadn’t known she could be so bold.
Then she was outside and scared to death, no idea what came next. She decided she shouldn’t stay in front of the restaurant or he’d be out to claim her. The sidewalks were surprisingly empty, even for a Tuesday night. There were a few cars, but no pedestrians. She rummaged in her bag for her phone to call a cab; her fingers fumbled against everything but. Her mind jumped back to placing it on the kitchen table after she checked the address of the restaurant. She didn’t dare go back inside. Then she remembered the bus stop beneath the clock and started to walk.
She gasped and stopped short, the soles of her shoes stuck like already-been-chewed gum. Her heart banged against her lungs. Her breath whisked around her throat. A hooded figure slithered from the shadowed alley.
“Got a light?” the young male voice slipped from beneath the hood.
“Ungh…” She hiccupped as air spewed past her tonsils. “S-sorry. Uh, I-I don’t smoke.”
“No worries.” He shuffled back to the alley.
Margaret gulped and moved on. The tap of her heels on the sidewalk measured the progress of her hurried pace. The shoulder bag slapped against her side in rhythm with her steps. She squinted to see the clock four blocks ahead. A landmark on its twelve-foot granite post, the clock itself was two feet wide, framed in wrought iron curlicues, back-to-back pearlized faces with engraved numbers and graceful fretwork hands. It guarded the corner, a stalwart guidepost erected for a now-defunct bank. The clock promised sanctuary, a haven from her fear. That’s where the bus stop was. That’s where she needed to be. Then she’d be safe, on her way home.
Eight minutes later the intersection loomed. She was half-way across before she saw him on the ground, his back leaned against the clock, eyes closed. Grizzled beard covered his grayish-brown face and clipped tight curls capped his head. She halted and panic tangled with anger. This intruder had invaded her sanctuary. She sucked up her bit of courage a second time and stepped over the curb.
“Hello?” Her voice squeaked. She cleared her throat. “Excuse me.”
His breathing was ragged and shallow. A blood-crusted gash underscored his left ear. She hesitated and then tugged on the sleeve of his dirty t-shirt, tugged again harder. “Excuse me,” louder, but he didn’t flinch.
Fear swept through her, not for herself but for this man, this stranger. There was no allowance for timid here, consequences be damned. She took off her jacket, gently placed it over his thin frame and tucked it behind his shoulders. Feverish heat accosted her hand when she placed it against his cheek. She stood with hands on hips as the noise of a diesel motor approached. The bus was a block away. She waved for the stop.
Air brakes engaged and the bus squealed in front of her with a whoosh of the opening doors. She took a deep breath and mounted the first step.
“I need you to call 911,” she directed the bus driver. She stood aside and pointed to the man.
“Lady, I ain’t got no phone,” the driver snarled. “Besides, it’s just a bum.”
“Then have dispatch call.”
“Lady, I got a schedule to keep. I ain’t got no time for this. Either get on or get off. I gotta go.”
“I’m not moving until you call.” Her legs quivered like jelly but she didn’t budge.
“I called,” said a voice from the middle of the bus. “They’ll be right here.”
A siren wailed up the street and Margaret stepped back to the sidewalk. The bus screeched away, out of the path of the rescue. Staccato flashes of eye-searing blue and red and white inundated the corner. The clock and the man were fully engulfed by uniforms. Margaret was exiled to the granite facade of the building. But she wasn’t afraid and that felt odd. She heard the man wheeze to the EMT on the way to the ambulance, “At the clock. Knew I’d be safe.”
“Ma’am?” An officer approached her.
“Just wanted you to know,” he said and touched the rim of his hat. “That man has dementia. We’ve been looking for him since he wandered away from home three nights ago. His family will be relieved.”
“Thank you.” She exhaled and looked up at the clock. “Do you know when the next bus is?”
“I think we can find you a ride.” The officer smiled.
* * *
Susan E. Rogers lives in St. Pete Beach, Florida, retired from a Social Work career in Massachusetts. Retirement was a catalyst for beginning her life-long ambition to write. Her other interests include genealogy and psychic spirituality, often twisting these into her writing. She has published and collaborated on numerous genealogical articles. She self-published her first book in 2018 about her own psychic experiences. In 2020, she had poetry and short fiction published in anthologies, and her work has appeared in “New Reader Magazine” and “Tampa Times,” and is pending publication in “Cobra Milk Literary Magazine.”