Woodbury Lane isn’t the sort of place you’d want to grow up. A few of the neighbors might argue its merits, but that is really of no consequence, as this isn’t a story about the neighbors. It is about a young man named Alec who did grow up there, the merits of which he never considered.
Honestly, Woodbury seems a stupid name to me. Woodberry might have been better – a wood that produces a berry, or perhaps a berry that is a bit too chewy and tasteless. Either could have accounted for a name spelled so. Burying wood, however, means precisely one thing to me, and so as far as I’m concerned, the name is stupid. As this isn’t a story about me either, I’ll try to stay out of it like Alec’s neighbors.
Alec’s story is about a random act of kindness, at least sort of. It begins on a narrow alley-sized street that bears a stupid name. There, in three short blocks, the bright lights and bustle of Sloughton’s East End are swallowed up by a quiet slum of ramshackle flats you could easily pass for the cardboard fronts of a cheap movie set. The street dead ends at a battered and rusty iron barrier which on foggy nights has stopped more than one car from plunging into the icy river it barricades.
It was late on a cold and foggy Friday evening. Alec stopped at his letterbox to collect his mail. He thumbed through the posts and stopped to inspect one a little more closely than the others under the flickering porch light. It was addressed to: Alec Smythe, 12 Woodbury Lane. Alec and his parents did not live at #12, and so only one of two things could be true. Either the name on the post was wrong, or the address was. Or so Alec thought. He didn’t recognize the sender, and so he glanced down the street, guessing that #12 must be at or very near the end.
Alec was not exactly the neighborly sort. No one on Woodbury Lane was really, except for old Chas Withers. For nearly all of Alec’s twenty years, Chas Withers had spent the daylight hours on the porch opposite his, talking to anyone and everyone who happened by, whether or not anyone actually had. He’d been a hundred years old and demented for as long as Alec could remember and Alec had never spoken a word to him in return.
Curiosity, not geniality, edged Alec from his porch that night. He stuffed his hands, and the post, deep into his pockets as he turned down the narrow lane toward the river and then, no sooner had he started, than he stopped. Ahead in the darkness, the rattle of carriage wheels on the rough pavement stopped short just as he had, and then started again. Alec peered through the wispy fog to make out two figures walking toward him.
A carriage emerged, pushed by a young woman in ragged attire. She had a lanky, pencil-thin frame with a teardrop face poised above it, and she teetered as she walked like an animated skeleton. Tangled hair, black under the dim street lamps, dripped lifelessly down the sides of her head. Half hidden behind her, a ruddy-faced urchin of perhaps nine or ten, with a choppy haircut, accompanied her. His hand clung to the handle of the cradle she pushed about – a baby carriage, its burden much too heavy to be that of a baby.
Alec continued to watch as they passed him by, squeezing as close as they could to Mr. Withers’ flat on the other side of the street, the way rats hug the shadows as they scurry to safety. He kept his maximum distance for their sake. His quick smile was too late to ease the fear that marked the woman’s face when she glanced briefly his way. Unfamiliar compassion tugged at Alec’s heart and he turned to watch them walk away, her face etched instantly into his memory.
She was young, very young. Premature crows’ feet were carved into cheeks that couldn’t be any older than his own. Yet she had a child. Her thin lips were chapped and marred by an unsightly scab. A film of grime and irritated, red eyes were her only cosmetics. She looked as if she’d been crying, rubbing at her eyes and streaking her grimy makeup with her tears. Perhaps she had once been pretty, but it was something else in her fearful gaze that caught Alec’s heart, something that flickered in her eyes. Alec was sure he’d recognized it: destiny. There are eyes, and there are eyes that were mysteriously meant to meet with yours in some great cosmic plan.
The two strangers stopped again furtively, just before reaching the end of the street, as if deciding before approaching which way they should turn. The narrow lane fell completely silent. In the silence, the girl looked nervously back to find Alec staring after them. For a long moment, the cold of the night settled quietly on their distant connection. The boy remained still with his back turned, hand still grasping the carriage.
“Halloo,” Alec raised his hand and waved awkwardly. His voice sounded meek as the night air tackled his words to the ground.
Cat eyes glowed menacingly from the end of the block at his gesture.
“Good evening, then?”
The woman did not answer. Her eyes remained affixed. Why he should be nervous, Alec couldn’t understand, but he was, feeling his heart beat stronger as he tried to muster the courage to go toward her, toward the look in her eyes that had drawn compassion from his otherwise unsympathetic heart. When he finally managed a step, she started in fear, grabbed the boy’s arm, and they began to push the cart hurriedly away.
Alec stopped in dismay. “Wait, I won’t hurt you,” he called. He pulled the letter from his pocket and held it up. “You aren’t by chance from #12 are you?”
Something genuine in the despair carrying on his voice must have reached her. She stopped again, but did not turn. Instead, she stood still, head half-cocked, listening, prepared to race away at the first sound of another footstep.
“I’m Alec,” he called more softly than before, “Alec Smythe.”
“I live here, number one seventy-two, right?”
Her statuesque pose offered him a glimmer of hope.
“I haven’t…” he stopped. Haven’t what? What exactly does one say to destiny? And so he stood still, as quiet as she, hoping after her and feeling alone with his wandering thoughts.
In his mind, they sparked a friendly conversation. They laughed together at what a stupid name Woodbury was. He remarked that he had never seen her on his street before and asked how long had she been at #12… if she indeed was from #12. Where was the boy’s father and who would leave a young mother such as her to tend her child alone this way?
A phlegmatic and chesty cough interrupted him. It was the young boy. He started to speak, in a voice husky with budding adolescence, but the first word choked him and he coughed again. The girl turned and hushed the boy with an inaudible whisper. Alec stood as still as he possibly could. Nothing at that moment could have been more important to him than this mysterious girl and her young son. His heart was now an angry drum, banging against prison walls of immotile caution.
“May I walk with you?” he finally stammered. The words clung to him in stubborn refusal to reach her ears.
Silence. The boy coughed again. Silence.
“Just walk?” He put the letter back in his pocket and raised his hands in a show of innocence.
The girl still made no sound, but from where he stood, Alec was sure he caught a slight nod of approval. Head spinning now with furious pressure, he slowly took one careful step and then another. He nearly stumbled and fell, so overwhelming was his relief when the girl stood anchored, watching him warily in feline distrust.
Warmth had replaced the cold night air when he stopped short a few feet from her. She gestured almost imperceptibly for him to walk ahead where she could see him. The boy, in full view for the first time, stared fierce, protective daggers through Alec’s knees.
“You want me to lead the way? How would I know where to go?” Alec half-laughed nervously.
The scowl staring back from under her messy hair might as well have been accompanied by a spitting hiss, but the girl’s voice was soft, steady and almost musically sarcastic.
“We won’t be walking very far then, will we?”
Alec hesitated. Her voice touched him with the familiarity of a mother tucking her child in at night. He began walking casually ahead, turning left at the corner, back the way he had come, back into town, back toward the safety of lights. Listening without looking, he smiled to himself at the sound of the carriage wheels just behind. Destiny has a more comforting sound at your heels.
“You have names?” he asked.
Behind him, the girl’s unseen expression struggled with one reluctant answer after another, but she gave none.
Alec elected not to push.”How long have you been on the streets?” he asked, fishing for any answer,
“Too,” the girl said quickly.
“Two?” Alec considered the laden carriage. “Two years?”
“Forgive me if I sounded intrusive before. I only asked about #12 because…” he pulled the letter out again, “You see, I’ve received this post addressed to me at the wrong addy. I meant nothing by it. Never heard of the name on the postback.”
The letter disappeared from his fingers, but Alec didn’t flinch. He walked ahead unperturbed, not wanting to alarm his skittish friend.
“It seemed like it would be a fine coincidence is all,” he continued.
Scaffolding on the building fronts gave way to paved concrete and then, twenty grand floors above them, the familiar white neon glow of the Hyatt Sloughton rose up into the night sky. Alec marveled at it. He’d passed it a thousand nights before with no more than a thought of disdain, but tonight it commanded the sky in a regal glory he had never noticed before.
Alec turned around and began walking backward. It was the girl who held the letter, but she had finished looking at it, and her face bore no expression.
“You never answered about your names,” Alec reminded. “I’m Alec.”
“Smythe,” answered the girl. “So you’ve said.”
“Well, you have me at a disadvantage then, don’t you?” Alec smiled.
The girl stopped. Alec reciprocated. When she extended his letter, he stepped cautiously toward her to take it. To his surprise, when he reached for it, she held it fast.
“You were already at a disadvantage,” she said.
Only then did she release the letter. A quick chill brushed the back of Alec’s neck that did not belong to the night. He gave the return address a perplexed look. It still made no sense. He stuffed the letter back into his pocket and began walking slowly backward again.
The first look of concession flickered briefly on the girl’s face. “Estelle,” she said.
Alec started to ask the boy’s name, but the look she gave penetrated him so quickly his voice disappeared of its own volition. “Are you hungry, Estelle?” was what came out instead.
Estelle’s emaciated frame suggested that she should be, but she had no thought for hunger. She shrugged. Alec glanced into the carriage to see what it held. It was too dark. Her eyes followed his with a fierce expression that dared him to judge her.
“When did you eat last?”
She shrugged again. The boy fidgeted but said nothing.
“The Hyatt has a restaurant and lounge.” This time, Alec directed his question as much as he could toward the boy, and when the boy did not look up, he added, “My treat of course.”
The girl’s hand caught the boy’s before the young lad could look up. She waited for Alec to look back to her before speaking.
“What’re you about?” she asked in an assumed voice. “This in’ about no post.”
Alec was a flap jaw. Never in his life had he been caught without words. Yet there was no manual for this, no words for how you answer to destiny when it asks you why you followed it. He stood still. He was bothered by the sudden realization that sometimes destiny gives you a once-over and moves along with never a second glance your way.
For perhaps the first time in his life, Alec Smythe didn’t know what to say at all. His eyes fell to his toes and his mind lost all contact with the moment. He was sure when he looked up, there he’d be, alone with his letter with the bad postback, and nothing but his imagination for an excuse as to why he’d left his porch.
She was still there, however. “Maybe the Postale will return it for you,” she suggested. “You know, with the bad addy and all.”
“What did you mean I was already at a disadvantage?” Alec asked.
The girl smiled. “You shouldn’t be so trusting,” she said.
An odd feeling of imbalance touched Alec at every moment of his forever all at once. “You shouldn’t be so distrusting,” he replied. “You can practically smell the bacon from here.”
She gestured again, and Alec, nearly delirious, led the rest of the way to the rotating doors of the Hyatt Sloughton. He gestured in turn for Estelle and her boy to enter ahead of him. With the timidity of mice who’ve seen a baited trap before, they pushed through. He put his arm around Estelle’s waist courteously to escort her, cringing slightly at how she felt even thinner than she looked.
Before Alec followed, his attention fell upon a suitcase sat curiously in the shadows just outside the hotel door. Glancing up and down the street both ways and seeing no one it might belong to, he bent to pick it up and carry it inside where it would be safer. Attached to the handle of the suitcase was a travel tag. On the travel tag, was a name, a name Alec recognized, a name in a more curious location than the suitcase. Alec hesitated, and then he picked up the suitcase anyway, and followed through the glass turnstile into the Hyatt Sloughton’s luxurious lobby.
© 2014 Anne Schilde