A Fateful Evening
by Bob Welbaum
Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Fate. Perhaps you have heard of me?
Maybe by another name. Some people call me Luck; others, Good Fortune. Occasionally it’s Irony. But it’s all the same to me.
I know people have strong opinions about me. Some think I’m sadistic; others, mischievous. Others consider me a guardian angel. I don’t ever worry about that. I’m just... here. Think of this as my job.
Would you like to hear how my day went?
* * *
As the train began to slow, Ruth couldn’t resist opening her purse and taking the letter out one more time. A soft smile of anticipation crossed her lips and she read it yet again.
What great news that you will be passing through my hometown! It’s been so long since we were in that cramped dorm room together all those months. I still can’t thank you enough for helping me get through that last year.
Congratulations on Robert’s proposal. I am so very happy for you! I know you have a lot to do, but I do hope you can stop and stay over, even if it’s just for one night. My house is very easy to find— just go three blocks north of the train station, then turn right on Forest Street. My house is the white Victorian on the next corner, 349 Forest Street.
Please try to make time for me. It would be great to see you again!
Yes, it would be great to see her old roommate. As soon as Ruth received Helen’s letter, she wrote back her intention to stop and spend a night. Robert would just have to wait another day. She thought the world of him too, of course, but this was a girl thing.
Ruth closed her purse, clutched the letter in her right hand, leaned back and closed her eyes as the train shuddered into the station. Fortunately, she was traveling light, especially for her. Shopping for her new wardrobe would be done with Robert.
She stood, pulled her suitcase down from the overhead rack, and moved down the aisle toward the door.
* * *
Helen lived in a small town, just big enough to have a train station. The platform wasn’t very large. Ruth walked through the station in ten steps, exiting under a large round clock that read 8:30. Perfect! Right on time!
Smiling as another wave of anticipation washed over her, she turned left at the sidewalk and started walking.
“Taxi, miss?” A burly male voice called from a hulking black car parked at the curb.
“No thanks,” she called back briskly as she stepped self-assuredly onward. No need to spend the money for a four-block trip. Besides, her suitcase wasn’t heavy. A bit bulky perhaps, but not heavy.
There was just enough twilight to look around. It was a nice little town, with towering oak trees lining the streets and small but neat houses framed by well-manicured lawns. Over on the right was a cute brick bungalow, and just down the street...
How many blocks has it been? Time to start looking for Forest Street. She had just crossed Elm, next was Maple...
A feeling of unease began to rise in the pit of Ruth’s stomach. It had been more than three blocks now, and no sign of Forest Street. It was a shame the sky was so cloudy. If she could see the setting sun, she could confirm she was indeed going north. But she couldn’t. It was rapidly becoming moot anyway, with the daylight almost gone. Suddenly her suitcase was feeling bigger and very heavy.
Another block and still no Forest Street. No doubt about it now, she must have gone the wrong way. The joyful anticipation was now apprehension on the verge of panic, a young girl walking the streets in a strange town. If only she could...
And then she saw it in the block just ahead: a small neon light, “Pharmacy”.
Hope it’s still open. What time is it now? No, she pushed all negative thoughts out of her mind. It has to be open; the light is still on.
A sudden rush of energy hit her as she hurried forward, crossed the street, and made it to the door under the sign. The pharmacy was open! She pulled on the door and half-ran, half-stumbled inside.
“Help you, miss?” a kindly voice asked. She peered to the back of the store to the pharmacist’s counter, where a grandfatherly type was standing expectantly.
She didn’t have to play the helpless girl; it was written all over her face. “Boy, I sure hope so. I just came in on the train from St. Louis, and I’m trying to find a friend’s house. She said she lived four blocks from the station, on Forest Street. I must’ve gone the wrong way, because I can’t find Forest Street anywhere.”
The pharmacist smiled sympathetically. “Yes, I’m afraid you did. Forest is north of the station. You somehow went east, toward downtown.”
Ruth’s shoulders sagged, and the suitcase dropped from her hands, hitting the floor with a thud. “I knew it! That’s just like me. I guess being in a strange town and all, I should’ve taken that taxi.”
The pharmacist’s eyebrows went up. “Taxi?”
“Yes. At the train station. A big black car, the driver said it was a taxi.”
A quizzical expression crossed the pharmacist’s face and he cocked his head to the side, so that his right ear was facing her. “What time did you say you got in?”
“Eight-thirty. On the train from St. Louis.” Ruth was feeling another wave of unease. “Why?”
The pharmacist was no longer smiling. “Don’t know how to tell you this, miss, but there’s only one taxi in the town. And it’s not black. And...,” he leaned forward toward her, “he always goes home at eight.”
* * *
Ah, the “taxi” not taken. A disaster averted? I know what you’re thinking. But life is never that simple, especially when Fate is around.
“Hey, Mac! I told you to move that heap. Now move it!”
“Right away, officer. Sorry.”
Stu sighed as he turned the key, and the black Buick sputtered to life. Just can’t seem to get a break. All I’m tryin’ to do is make a living, for Chrissake. Pick up a couple of quick fares when no one else is around and maybe then I could afford a cab license. But no, not Stu. Can’t even get money for gas. Must be a better way.
No, he’d tried other, “better” ways, and all it’d gotten him was hard time. Can’t make that mistake again.
Stu turned the car off Main Street and headed into the country, his mind working overtime as he mumbled to himself. “I stayed with James and his little brother the last two nights. Probably wore out my welcome there. Haven’t seen Bill and Liz for a while. Let’s try there tonight. If I’m lucky, they’ll give me some gas.” Then he smiled. “If I’m really lucky, Bill won’t be home!”
Not much farther. The lane should be... What is this?
A small figure was sitting by the side of the road. It looked like...
It was. A little girl was sitting on the shoulder, both arms around her knees, pulling them close to her chest. Stu didn’t know much about kids, but she looked, maybe, five years old.
Stu stopped the car and rolled down the window. “Hello, little girl. You lost?” It was all he could think to say.
The little girl look up with mournful eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. She didn’t say anything, she just nodded.
Stu hesitated, then asked the next thing that popped into his mind. “Do you know where you live?”
Still crying, she just gave him a blank stare.
Stu looked around, looked at the girl, then looked around some more. Nobody in sight.
He got out of the car. With this, the girl cowered almost ball-like. She watched his every move with fear in her eyes.
Stu hadn’t felt this helpless since, well, in a long time. Then he remembered something. He shoved his hand deep into the left pocket of his jeans, felt around, then pulled out a mangled piece of plastic. “Would you like this?”
Her head was so close to her knees, all he could see were those fearful eyes.
He smiled, waited, then looked down at his hands. “Oh, yeah.” He unwrapped the plastic to reveal a small, striped piece of hard candy. Holding it out, he mustered the warmest smile he could.
Her head raised, revealing an open mouth. Stu leaned down, gently dropping the candy into her mouth, then stood back and watched the fear melt away.
“C’mon, dear, let’s get you some help.”
* * *
When he heard the door open, the desk sergeant glanced up reflexively. Then he froze, eying Stu with a mixture of concern and alarm. “Whatcha doin’ here, Stu?” His eyebrows furrowed as he studied the bundle in his arms. “What in the world is that?”
“Hi, Frank. I found this little girl on Hilltop Road a couple miles outside of town. It was getting pretty dark, and no one was around. She won’t say a word, and she looks really young to me to be off by herself. ’Specially this time of night.”
Stu gently laid the bundle in a chair, then carefully pulled back the blanket. She was curled up in the same position as by the road, seemingly staring off into space. “’Specially out there.”
The sergeant stared open-mouthed at the little girl, then shifted a suspicious gaze into Stu’s eyes.
Stu threw out his hands. “Hey, I thought this was the right thing to do. I don’t know nothing about little girls. I couldn’t just leave her there. Could I?” He stood there, hands outstretched, pleading look on his face, as if this were a courtroom.
The sergeant looked back at the girl, then fumbled through a stack of papers on his desk. Pulling one out, he looked back at the girl. “Is your name Sadie?” he asked in a soft voice.
Nothing. The girl continued staring at the far wall, then began a gentle rocking motion.
The sergeant shot a quick glance at Stu, then started to read. “MISSING — Sadie Johnson, white female, four and a half years old. Last seen on her grandparents’ farm, Joseph Johnson, 12848 Hilltop Road. Sadie is developmentally disabled, does not interact well with people, and does not speak. There is a reward for her return.”
The sergeant let the words sink in, then spoke wistfully, as if to himself. “Knowing the family, it’ll be a nice reward.” Then he looked sharply at Stu. “Don’t blow it this time, okay?”
Satisfied? A good day’s work? No, not for me. Fate never rests. Just stay with me a bit longer.
* * *
Helen peered into the twilight with an expression of concern. This was the night Ruth was supposed to be here, right? That was what she’d written down. Maybe she was mistaken. Maybe there’d been a change in plans. She’d leave the porch light on, just in case, and go back to her reading.
She was just nodding off when there was a tentative knock at the door. What time was it? My goodness, it was completely dark outside!
Rushing to the door, she opened it to see a tired, disheveled figure holding a small suitcase.
“Ruth! I was wondering where you were. Come on in, quickly.”
“Thanks.” Ruth slowly made her way to the sofa and collapsed in a heap.
Helen made a beeline for the kitchen. “Let me get you some nice, hot tea,” she called over her shoulder.
Ruth stretched her legs out, leaned against the sofa with her eyes closed, and sighed. “Sorry I’m late,” she mumbled.
In a couple of minutes, Helen hurried back with tea service, two cups, and a plate of cookies. “Here, have some tea. I started to get worried. Then I knew you were pretty level-headed, so I figured you must’ve changed your plans.”
“Thank you.” Ruth roused herself enough to grab a teacup and cookie. “No, I tried to walk here from the train station and just made a wrong turn, that’s all.”
“Oh, I am so sorry. I should’ve arranged for someone to meet you.” Helen took a sip of tea. “I really should learn how to drive.”
“That’s okay.” Ruth sat up to grab another cookie. “Your directions were clear enough. I just made a mistake in a strange town.”
“Still, I’m really sorry.” Helen took a sip of tea, then laid the cup down. “There’s just no one I can count on around here anymore.” She sat back in her chair and stared off into space. “Only one around now is a first cousin. But he’s not the type you would want to meet.”
Ruth looked up. “Oh?”
“I’m afraid so. He was in prison, you see.” She shook her head sadly. “Don’t know what he’s up to these days. Afraid to even think about it. Someone said he’s driving all over town in this big, black Buick, but I’d prefer not to get involved.”
Maybe that is enough for one day. But I’ll be here again tomorrow. Who knows, maybe I’ll even meet you!
Copyright © 2014 by Bob Welbaum