Oleh Kalina Maryadi
Never Smile at Strangers by Ruth Anne Boothe
God, she loved the city. Walking briskly along the busy avenue, she gazed, smiling, up at the skyscrapers glimpsed through the autumn leaves of robust maples lining the curb, their warm colors comforting and secure. Quickening her pace, with the dense mass of like-minded souls, she continued along, crossing two intersections and eventually turning into a shopping district.
This was Saturday; her favorite day of the week. Her "Me" day. The kids home with their father. The weekend chores on hold. Here she could make her necessary purchases (upcoming birthday and wedding gifts) but mostly, she could do what she loved. Window shop. The large shopping malls sprouting up across the country, with their enclosed, air-conditioned, designer drenched ambiance couldn't begin to compare to the exquisitely open feel of looking through a store window as the gentle breezes, sounds, and smells of the city surround you.
Stopping in front of a popular formal shop, she stood mesmerized in front of a subtly simple long, white and black dress. She could picture herself wearing it to an elite, social function, entering a dazzling room with a singular grace and beauty. The image quickly turned to one of her tripping over a step and landing unceremoniously at the foot of the guest of honor. Wincing, she caught herself and laughed quietly. Now, that would be more realistic. Imagining the dress costing approximately 2 times what her family paid towards a mortgage each month, she sighed briefly and moved her eyes to the other visual treats.
Her gaze stopped abruptly at the reflection of a man standing beside her. Their eyes locked and held. He seemed to be staring at her in familiar fascination. Turning with the thought to ask if she knew him, she felt her mouth go dry. Apart from the ghastly appearance of his wardrobe (in a color too filthy to identify) and his unkempt hair and beard, the piercing eyes – disturbing in themselves – were met and exceeded by his pungent odor. After a frozen pause, she forced a smile in an attempt to hide her abhorrence.
His eyes widened and dropped to her mouth. Mimicking her false smile, he raised knowing eyes to hers, his mouth widening into what appeared to her to be an evil grin.
Turning abruptly, she walked quickly away from him, not stopping until she reached a coffee haus. Stepping quickly inside, she let the velvety rich aroma of strong coffee beans cleanse her sense of smell. What a horrible troll of a man. Surely he knew he disturbed people by staring at them like that. Ordering a double latte, she carried it to a seat by the window when a faint sense of guilt washed over her. Why hadn't she felt pity? She should have given him some money. That's probably all he was after, anyway. Why had she felt frightened and disgusted? Where was her sense of charity? Those eyes - a voice inside her head whispered. With that drilling, relentless stare. It almost felt as if she'd just come face to face with the Grim Reaper. Sipping her coffee, she thought to herself, Well, you can just BACK OFF, PAL.
Feeling her sense of humor and energy restored (gotta love that espresso), she left the coffee haus and bounced along the sidewalk with renewed purpose.
Stopping at a gourmet kitchen shop, she considered several options on display for wedding gifts before finally settling on a modern, artfully twisted iron wine-wrack. Concluding her transaction, she smiled ruefully to herself at the purchase. Ah ... the wine-wrack; her favorite stand-by wedding gift. Her motto "if they don't drink wine, they should" frequently saved her the confusion and stress of searching for the "perfect gift." (Whether everyone actually appreciated the gift was another matter.)
Leaving the store, she took three steps and came to a sudden halt. There he sat – on a bench directly facing the store, staring maddeningly into her eyes. Frowning fiercely, she pivoted and reentered the kitchen store, walking to the back of it. Great. Now she was running from him. How silly. Was she really hiding? The guy was no menace to her. Just incredibly annoying. Walking to the front of the store, she slowed as she approached the glass doors. Through the stenciled letters on the glass, she could feel his eyes on her. Forcibly removing her gaze from his, she left the store and walked purposely towards the street level entrance to a department store adjacent to the kitchen shop. Entering the large building, she refused to look behind her, determined to enjoy her day of shopping.
An hour and several small purchases later, she left the building and, seeing no madman in the vicinity, breathed a shaky sigh of relief.
With relief came the awareness of growing hunger. Smiling, she crossed the street again to walk to the end of the block and to her favorite French bistro. Nestled under iron-framed oak trees, the restaurant faced a 125-year old gothic Protestant Church, whose architecture provided a never-ending study to the appreciative eye. Taking a seat at an outdoor table, she picked up and studied the small menu, quickly settling on the tomato-basil soup and Caesar salad. Thanking the server, she accepted a glass of Petite Syrah – currently her favorite red wine - and relaxed to wait for her meal. Swirling the wine and wondering briefly if it was the aroma of plum or blackberry that she found so enticing, she tilted her glass. Raising her eyes to the steps leading up to the church's impressive entrance, she choked on the sip of wine.
Something, or someone, was sitting in the corner, hidden in shadows. Was it just a shadow? She squinted and tried to focus.
The shadow lengthened, straightened out and stood. Taking a step forward into the light, eyes boring into hers from across the street, he stood. And watched.
Setting her glass down slowly, she felt the blood drain from her face and turn leaden in her veins. Caught in his manic gaze, she found herself fighting a heavy feeling of dread. Unbelievable! Incredible! He was stalking her! The police, she thought. I need to find a policeman. Have him arrested. He can't do this. Can't intimidate a defenseless woman. Defenseless? Me? She snorted, derisively. She'd taken classes. She'd always felt far from defenseless. But this ... they never told her about this ... debilitating fear.
Shutting her eyes briefly, she thought, irrational. This fear is irrational. He's a bum. It's coincidence. He doesn't even look smart enough to be a dumb criminal. Opening her eyes, she saw empty steps. Looking swiftly around, she saw no sign of him.
Leaving a bill on the table, she gathered her purse and purchases and quickly left the restaurant. Halfway to the train station, she stopped, angry with herself for letting someone else spoil her mood and her day, and angry with the stranger for acting like such a slithering creep.
A movie! A movie would take her mind away from this morning. It was still her day of freedom. Her I-get-to-do-whatever-the-hell-I-want-to day! And she'd be damned if she'd let him ruin it! Spinning on her heel, she walked determinedly towards the nearest cinema.
Three city blocks over and four flights up, she sat in a darkened movie theater, watching previews of coming attractions and eating an impromptu lunch of butter-laden popcorn and diet soda. Wondering briefly at the absurdly of feeling safe in a dark room full of strangers, she shrugged, and sat back to enjoy the next few hours.
It always amazed her. The way a movie could capture the spirit and mind and whisk you away to another place and time, leaving its faint trace in memory. A good movie, anyway. And this one had been good.
Stepping lightly from the theater into the contrasting brightness of the outdoors, she carted her purchases over one shoulder and walked towards her last destination. A bookstore. Smiling gleefully as she entered, she immediately smelled the aroma of strong coffee (for what was a bookstore in this day and age without its own gourmet coffee shop) and felt at home. I could die in this store and die happily, she thought. Then cast a quick glance upwards, thinking, but not just now. Okay?
The second floor of the bookstore boasted windows facing three sides of the city with views covering the North, East and carefully tended park to the South. The view was gorgeous. Holding a small pile of novels, including the latest suspense-thriller by her favorite author, she settled down in an overstuffed chair facing the park to skim through the books.
A happy and relaxing hour later, after sneak previewing the stories – going so far as to read the last page (a habit she'd heard some authors grew livid over) - she decided she couldn't wait to get home and start reading. Looking out the window, she saw the afternoon light fading, and decided to call it quits.
Carrying the books to the checkout counter, she reached into her wallet for a credit card. Fumbling with the new credit card machines each store deemed necessary to have their own unique version of (with – according to her husband - the intent of making the consumer feel like a complete idiot), she paid for her books. Gathering her belongings, she exited the store and froze in her tracks.
It was the smell that hit her first. The faintly nauseating, decaying smell of him. Turning slowly, she felt a sort of despairing anger. Meeting his malevolent look with what courage she could muster, she spoke in a halting voice, "What.
Do. You. Want?"
His gaze shifted from her eyes slowly to her toes and back, causing her to shiver with revulsion. The sick leer he gave her was her undoing. Crying out, "Why can't you leave me alone?" she turned and escaped to the sidewalk and began to weave quickly around pedestrians.
Arriving at the train station at a dead run, she stepped onto the train. Finding her cab and sinking deeply into the seat, she leaned her head back, drew a deep shuddering breath and released it slowly. Home! She was going home! The warm toned interior of the train's cab coupled with the knowledge of her destination filled her with a sense of profound relief.
Shutting her eyes, she let her thoughts drift. They settled on a nearly forgotten memory from childhood. A day she rarely thought of and certainly never dwelt on.
As a teenager, her first job – besides the usually babysitting gigs – had been at a McDonalds. She was 14 at the time but an older sister who also worked there had forgotten and told the manager she was 15. Too young to work near cash or dangerous equipment (and splattering hot grease from French-fries definitely qualifies as dangerous), she had the dubious honor of sweeping and mopping floors, emptying trash, cleaning off tables, bathrooms, and washing dishes. Far more exhausting work than watching movies on a neighbor's sofa while their kids slept ... but at $2.65 an hour (minimum wage at the time) who was she to complain?
One day when riding her bike home after work - a bike ride that on a sunny day could take 30 minutes or more - she flew around a corner and spotted an old black car. Her first thought - that it looked like something from WWII – or the T.V. show Hogan's Heroes – was quickly replaced by "Look at that old man sitting in the driver's seat. He seems so sad."
The next few minutes replayed in slow motion in her mind.
Offering him a bright smile, she approached the car pedaling rapidly. When he didn't smile back, her grin faltered. Her mother always told her to never talk to or smile at strangers. She'd never understood why.
As she drew level to the car, he opened the door and began to climb out, pulling something long, thin and dark out after him. Instinctively pedaling quicker, she headed towards an entrance to an apartment complex parking lot. Looking back quickly as she flew around the corner, she saw him lifting the dark object – what appeared to be a shotgun - up to his shoulder level and begin to aim it at her. Dumping her bike, she dived behind a boat on a parked trailer, rolled into a tight ball and waited for a shot to ring out.
The silence was nerve-wracking.
Inching slowly up the side of the boat, she peaked through the windshield. The old man stood perfectly still, aiming directly at her. For the next two minutes, they stared at each other, traffic sounds muting under the deafening thumping of her heart.
The standoff ended when he turned to get back into his car and – she presumed – follow her. Grabbing her bike, she jumped on and raced home, pedaling as if Hell were at her heels.
And it may well have been.
I could have died.
She opened her eyes in bemused wonder. I could have died that day.
Unable to deal with the reality or comprehend the inexplicable, she'd shoved the memory away from her in an effort to ignore it. Twenty years later, alone in a train car, it resurfaced.
Delayed anger at the nameless stranger began to build, brewing and boiling until the old man and the derelict became one.
Feeling a light sweat trickle down her neck, she leaned to open the window a crack, and noticed that the train had just begun to move.
The moment the window lifted, she jumped back as eight grimy fingers slipped in and grasped the windowsill, and the face she's begun to loathe pressed hideously against the glass. His slow grin – insidiously evil – caused something frail inside her to snap. Grabbing the window she brought it crashing down on his fingers and held it shut. His shocked cry of pain was swallowed in the increasing sound of clacking wheels and train whistles.
Hanging on, he glared at her through the window, crazed eyes boring into her skull. Gazing left, she saw the tunnel opening, and turned to fix him with a level stare. Confused he turned his head to see the fast approaching wall of the tunnel, a tunnel built for the passage of the train and the train alone. Turning back to her, he sneered and spat at the window.
Pressing down heavily on the sill, she smiled coolly at him. His head began a frantic rotation; right and back, each glance back at her with wider eyes, until the moment the train entered the tunnel, and he quietly and permanently disappeared.
Well ... most of him. Looking down at the ledge she saw eight fingers firmly pressed down under the window. As the train left the tunnel, she opened the window and watched as the fingers flew off into the night. One fell inside the car. After briefly considering it as a souvenir, she grabbed a tissue from her purse and delicately picked it up and tossed it out the window.
Closing the window and locking it, she sat primly in her seat and murmured quietly to herself, "Never smile at strangers."