(Annnnnnnnnd we're back. NaNo consumed me, as it usually does, but I won (see sidebar!), and while it was a worthy journey, I'm also glad it's over. Normal (ish) posting should resume anon.)
(This week's Flash Fiction Friday is about milestones, and this story is called "Walking After Midnight".)
They said on the TV that the blizzard was coming, but for now, it was just another cold December night. She struggled to hold her black wool coat closed against the wind as she walked. It didn't fit her anymore, and only two of the buttons were left, but it was the coat closest to the door, so she shrugged it on and left. At that moment, speed trumped warmth, but the farther she got down the road, the more that equation tilted the other way. She had to leave, so she left. She wondered if they would look for her, but she also didn't care.
The cold seemed cruel, as if it meant her ill will personally. She knew weather wasn't like that- it didn't care about her at all. But she felt the wind attack her, knifing under the thin coat, chapping and burning her face and hands. She felt persecuted, assaulted by the cold, but she just kept walking, her thin Uggs making tiny incremental gains along the long, straight street. There was a tiny space reserved for pedestrians, due to the absence of a sidewalk, and she looked down at it carefully, trying hard to keep her footsteps inside it.
But the cars kept driving by, driving harder than seemed necessary, the moving headlights casting evil, sharp shadows over the ground. The disrupted air as they moved past her hit her like a wall each time, making her stumble and almost fall. The air was bitter and cold, and it smelled like gasoline. She felt the buffeting winds, and wondered how much more she could take. The smell made her nauseous and sad, but she wasn't sure if that was entirely the smell.
She kept walking, hunched against the wind, her head down to try to protect her face. She saw Bozo Donuts, glowing like a lighthouse amid the closed stores on either side of it. She looked at the giant clown in front, the hedges that surrounded the building, and the red and white decor inside. There was a long counter, with red stools empty in front of it, behind which were gleaming racks of donuts and coffee rolls and danishes behind glass. She steered herself down the driveway without thinking. She wasn't hungry, but her feet, seemingly of their own accord, wanted to be out of the wind.
A bell tinkled gently when she came in through the door. She closed her eyes with pleasure as the dry, stuffy heat started to thaw her skinny jeans and the quarter moon of bare skin at her belly that her sweater revealed when she stood up straight. Her hands and cheeks began to burn with a diffuse, tingling pain as she felt the blood returning to the damaged tissue. There was an Indian woman behind the counter, mopping at the already clean surface with a dirty rag. She was older, perhaps in her 50s, but looked kindly and small, with a tendril of perfectly white hair hanging over one eye. She had a red dot on her forehead, and she was wrapped in a giant turquoise sari with plastic beads and bangles on it.
"Coffee?," she said in accented English.
The cold girl didn't say anything for a moment, then finally opened her eyes and looked at the woman.
"Yes," the visitor said. "Decaf. With cream and sugar." She didn't like coffee, but it would be hot, and she could add enough sugar to make it taste decent.
"Donut?," the woman behind the counter said.
The visitor patted her pockets swiftly, then dug into one, leaning to one side to get her fingers deep enough to reach it, coming out with a tattered five that had seen better days. She looked at the prices on display and appeared to make a calculation. "Yes," she said. "Glazed."
"I give you two for one," the woman said. "So I don't have to throw out."
"Oh," the girl said with surprise. "OK. Thank you." The girl didn't really want the donuts, but it was food, and it might mean she could stay in the glorious heat a little longer.
The woman behind the counter produced a steaming china cup of coffee, a spoon, and a glass sugar dispenser with a silver top, and a three small plastic cups of non dairy creamer. She placed a pair of donuts on a tan plate, along with a silver and black napkin dispenser. "$4.50," the handwritten bill said.
"You don't have car," the woman said.
"No," the girl said, pouring sugar into the steaming black liquid. "I walked."
"Too cold to walk," she said. "Why you walk?"
The girl took a bite of the donut while she thought of something to say, letting the sugar melt on her tongue. She settled on taking another bite.
"Men problems? You have a secret? You look like you have a secret," the woman said.
The girl stirred her coffee and took a sip, wincing at the heat and acidity, then added more sugar.
"Girl walk by herself, freezing cold night, no purse, no phone, no gloves, men involved," the woman said.
The girl took another bite of donut.
"Men always cause problems. Like my mother always say, 'Men always want one thing, women only want one thing. Trouble is, not same thing!,' " the woman said, laughing politely at her own joke.
The girl smiled, and took another bite, finishing the first one, followed by a sip of stinging, still bitter, coffee.
"I no let you walk home," the older woman said. "I get phone for you."
She went behind the donut case and emerged with a silver portable phone.
"Here," she said to the girl. "You call home. Tell him you sorry. He come pick you up. It too cold for little girl to walk."
The girl looked at the phone, and up at the woman's creased, aged face, the misadventures of sons and daughters and grandchildren etched there. The girl wanted to explain, to amplify, to show how she was right and he was wrong. But it was cold, and it didn't seem as important now.
"Women always have to say sorry," the woman said. "Even when we right. Especially when we right."
The girl swallowed, tried to say something, and then swallowed again. She picked up the phone and dialed.
"Daddy?," she said. "It's Jenny......Yeah....I'm sorry, Daddy......No, I am, really........I'm at Bozo Donuts, on Madison.......yeah, I walked here.......I know.........Yeah, I know we have to talk when we get home.....OK, Daddy.....Yeah........I know......I'm sorry, too........Bye."
She set the phone back on the counter. She finished the second donut in one bite, folding it into her mouth. She left the five dollar bill on top of the bill, and used one of the napkins to wipe her mouth.
"Thanks," she said.
"Thank you," the woman replied, watching the girl stand inside the front window. The two stayed where they were, without speaking, until a pair of headlights jerked their way into the driveway and stopped. The girl went out the front door and climbed into the passenger's side of a Ford truck. The woman watched the truck leave, then sadly turned out the lights and locked up for the evening.
The woman knew of the many cruelties men can inflict on women, and parents on children. She had experienced most of them. She didn't know if it was right to send the girl back where she came from, but she didn't know what else to do, and it was cold. Sometimes, the woman thought, that's all you can know.