On a night not unlike any other, dark dread and a cold need drove two complete strangers on a single path to destiny. One pushed on through the darkness in doubt and agitated fear, while the other lurked there in quiescent determination. Though neither formed the word in their minds, it was death that drove them toward each other, as surely as love lures young couples in spring.
It was 2:11 a.m. A young barmaid watched in dismay as the cab she had called drove mistakenly off with another fare. Mike’s bar was closed and locked up for the night. The alarm was set, and there was no going back inside. She scrambled to pull her phone from her purse, but the number of the cab company was out of reading distance before she could thumb the first digit. Her apartment was a few miles from work, but Mike’s was in a bad neighborhood. It was only a few short blocks to an alleyway that would lead her to the river front boulevard where at least there were lights and traffic. She began walking.
The thin sliver of a waxing moon lent no aid to the intermittent glare of the street lamps. The echoes from her heels danced out under the quiet canopies of white doom they spread, announcing with some fanfare the vulnerable footsteps of a solitary female. She hated working in heels but she needed the tips. It was too cold out to walk barefoot on the street and so each footstep grew louder as she walked.
Predators surely heard them as clearly as she did. A group of young men quieted their conversation to stalk her in silence as she crossed the street to avoid them. She could feel her heart thick in her throat, but their chatter resumed when she’d passed and she didn’t dare look back.
At the entrance to the alleyway, she hesitated. It was only a block long, and the promising safety of the boulevard beckoned to her from the other end. She stood a moment, eying the darkness with innate distrust. A few trash cans and doorways of pitch black all offered potential hiding places, but the alleyway seemed quiet and empty, so she started down it. Halfway through, her heart nearly stopped as the lid of a trash can clattered to the ground behind her. She ran, as well as she could run in heels, toward the other end of the alley, toward safety, toward death.
He heard the clatter, thinking it was probably just another alley cat foraging in the city’s waste. Then he heard her heels hurrying up the alley toward him. Her footsteps were light. She was small. He stood. He waited. When she was close enough, he stepped out into the darkness and grabbed at her wrist as she tried to race by, grabbed at the moment, grabbed at death.
The terrified screams of a young barmaid rang out into the black of night.
Officer Knight stared in contempt at the body sprawled in the street. He was going to have to call homicide for this one and he resented the self-important suits who parked their badges behind desks to take a higher pay grade. There was only one witness according to the call. She stood shivering on the boulevard sidewalk, dressed in a short skirt, heels, and a thin sweater. He flipped the mode on the Christmas lights to strobe, stepped out of the car, and approached her.
The bright beam of his flashlight found her cheeks streaked with tears. She was a young girl, brunette, early twenties, probably a college student working a night job. It wasn’t his job to make assumptions.
“You the one called this in?”
“May I see some identification, please?”
He surveyed the victim while the girl reached into her purse to produce a driver’s license. The body was twisted, splayed awkwardly where it had landed in a contorted heap. He knelt to check for a pulse he knew would not be there, and then stood to inspect the witness’ license.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“H-home. Is h-he dead?” she stammered through her crying.
“Yeah, he’s dead.”
“You got a ways to go yet. Late to be walkin’ that far alone ain’t it?” He handed back her license.
She nodded. “Someone took my cab.”
“Well, go on, then. Tell me what you saw.”
The frightened girl could only shake her head and shrug her shoulders. Her lips trembled badly and her tears fell harder. “Are you sure he’s dead?” she finally blurted out.
“Oh, he’s dead a’right. Better chance o’ resuscitatin’ the worm in a tequila bottle. Call said you saw a car hit him.”
“You get the license?”
She shook her head.
“You get the make and model? You know, what kind of car it was? What color was it? How many doors it have? Come on, think now. Anythin’ at all?”
“I’m so sorry,” she sobbed after shaking her head to each question.
“Well what damn direction ‘d it go?”
She pointed shakily down the river front, oblivious that there was only one way the car could have gone.
“Well there now,” Officer Knight said with sarcastic enthusiasm. “That rules out half the world now don’t it? Damned what good it’s gonna do, but a man’s dead here. I’m gonna need you to come down to the station and make a statement.”
Annie sits up in bed with a sharp shriek. She’s been crying in her sleep. It’s that stupid nightmare again. Every time it’s the same. She’s running… running… down a dark alley. The end of the alley is right before her, but no matter how hard she runs, it doesn’t get any closer. Something horrible is chasing her. Something dark, black, evil. When she’s sure she’s finally going to make it, she reaches the end and finds nothing there but a brick wall, a dead end. She stops and stares at it in stupefied horror, waiting for the evil in pursuit to pounce.
A man steps from where he has been lurking in the shadows, lying in wait for her. He’s frightening in the dark, boney, like a skeleton dressed in the rotten remains of its burial suit. Parched white scraggly fingers reach out and snatch her wrist, gripping her hard and it hurts. She screams in terror. Screaming… screaming… she rips her hand away from him and hits him in desperation as hard as she can with both hands.
The man’s emaciated condition tells a sad history of decimation by starvation. He is a harmless vagrant. Weak from hunger, he staggers backward through the brick wall that isn’t really there. Bright lights flash. There is a terrible thud and she watches in shock, still screaming, as his lifeless body crumples to the boulevard and a car speeds off into the night. No matter how many times she dreams it, no matter how hard she listens to them, her screams can’t erase the words she heard him say.
“You spare fifty cents so I can get a cup of coffee, Miss?”
© 2013 Anne Schilde