It isn’t often I get the chance to just walk, you know, for pleasure. It seems there’s always an agenda, either mine or someone else’s. But today being Friday, the judges gave us a half day off to do Christmas shopping. Mine is already done, so I felt like doing something just for me. I walked out onto the courthouse steps, looking up into the afternoon sky. Gray and dreary. And cold. Everything seemed to be in black and white. I cinched my coat tighter as I started to go down the steps, and glanced down. A beautiful, red rose was lying on the steps at my feet. I reached down and picked it up. It was fresh and smelled so sweet. The only thing bright in an otherwise colorless day.
I’ve always wondered just where the sidewalk ends, at least the one going left from the courthouse on the corner. Of course, I know where it goes, I’ve lived here my whole life. But I’ve never really explored that side of town. Going left is counter-intuitive to me, it’s backward, the opposite direction from home. Today, though, I’m going to challenge “normal,” that safe part of my brain that keeps me from being adventurous. Sniffing the rose and smiling, I said with quiet confidence, “I’m going backward from here.”
My journey began as the light changed to green. I stepped down at the curb, hearing the distant calling of shorebirds, and walked across. Then I turned left, toward the docks. Our town square is the same all the way around the Courthouse, lined with shops and restaurants and a small park where mothers take their children to play. The December air was fresh and clean, and I smiled at the thought of all the same footsteps that probably walk our streets every day, mingled together and yet each one traveling in a different direction. If I looked around me now, there would maybe be three sets of footsteps I didn’t recognize from somewhere else around town.
I stopped as I passed the park, leaning on the chain link fence, smiling at the playing kids, wondering what kind of people they might grow up to be. Which ones will seek out adventure and which ones will follow the safe path, already set out for them by someone else? Like me, I think pensively. What makes the difference? My sister, only two years older than me, took off with her best friend the day after she graduated high school to find her “destiny.” I, on the other hand, took a course at the community college and became a court stenographer, living with my parents for… well, I’m still there. We live close enough to my work for me to walk there and back. In the same footsteps. Every day.
Glancing down at my watch, I mumble, “Two o’clock, not bad. I have at least three hours before I need to be home.” So on I go. There really isn’t much of interest as I saunter along for the next few blocks, houses that have seen better days, like most in our small town, an old gas station that’s closed and has several dusty, broken windows. And then, an abandoned house, the yard filled with rustic, useless junk scattered about. This might actually be the most interesting site so far. The gate creaked as I opened it. There didn’t seem to be anyone else near, only my own footsteps clunking through the old treasures.
I spotted an old headboard that might be pretty nice with a bit of sanding and painting. I was walking over to give it a little more inspection, definitely preoccupied. In my mind’s eye, I could see the color and the position of the bed in my room and even thought about finding a table to put beside it. Maybe a pretty white cloth over the table with…I jerked my head up, listening intently. A sound, not too far away, like something drifting up from the back of my mind.
Still, I felt uncomfortable and turned to look over my shoulder. “Anyone there?” I asked tentatively. Nothing, except the sound of my own breath. At that point, I realized how alone I really was, and that I had spent more time looking than I’d thought. The sun was low on the horizon. I began carefully walking back toward the sidewalk, glancing around furtively. Was I trespassing? I scolded myself. I shouldn’t have been here. I hadn’t realized how much I had wound my way into this hoarder’s paradise. When I saw a sidewalk, I started back toward the courthouse, or so I thought. But I had come out a different gate, walking in a different direction, going down a different sidewalk.
As my own footsteps started echoing in the dusk, other sounds seemed closer. The shorebirds, the low moan of a distant foghorn, other footsteps, not my own. My heart jumped into my throat. I could hear them, moving slower than mine, heavier.
My own footsteps started moving faster and louder, taking on a life of their own, matched by the sound behind me, also moving faster and louder. Oh, why couldn’t I be just a little more like my sister? Why couldn’t I turn around, and challenge the footsteps? No, I was just too afraid. To add insult to injury, I realized I no longer knew where I was. I stopped, frantically looking around trying to get my bearings, feeling a little sick, like I might throw up. Nothing looked familiar, nothing, and now I wasn’t even sure whose footsteps were following and whose were leading. Now that mine had stopped, it was quiet and still everywhere around me.
“Stop following me!” I spoke the words out loud, startling myself, maybe trying to calm my fear, to bring some sanity back to my mind. I looked around at the lengthening shadows. Think. Think back to the corner across from the courthouse. How many blocks did I walk? One, two, three…. What was the last thing I remember seeing? Straight from the light past the residential area, past the old station, how far did I go before I saw the abandoned yard? I’m so confused now. That’s when I heard the footsteps… which I realized I hadn’t heard since I stopped. Wide-eyed and holding my breath, I glanced around. If I start walking again, will they still be behind me, and will I end up where I started, across from the courthouse? I knew I had to move, somewhere, in some direction. I turned and began to walk. One step, two steps. On the third step, I heard them again. It took all the strength I possessed, but I turned around, just to prove it was a harmless coincidence. Nothing there. Breathlessly, I searched the shadows for a long time and then, there in the deep cover of the trees, stood the form of a man. He was just standing there, but I couldn’t see his face. “Oh, God, help me, please!” I whispered frantically.
I stared at the spot where he stood, shaking so hard my teeth felt as if they were rattling in my head, trying to decide what to do. He hadn’t moved even one step since I turned and saw him. I knew I couldn’t keep standing here, nor could I challenge him.
Gathering all my courage and willing myself to move, I turned around and took a step forward, moving toward… well, I wasn’t sure where, but I had to go somewhere. I focused my attention on the town square and hoped that any direction I took would take me back there. I chose a direction I thought was right and started walking, slowly and softly at first, listening for those other footsteps. After several blocks, I was fairly certain his footsteps were no longer mixed with mine. So I started running, running as fast as I could. I wasn’t even sure where. But eventually, I came to the square, from the back side. There were no people in the restaurants, the shops were dark, and the mothers had all gone home, taking their little ones with them. The clock in the square said it was nine-fifteen. That just didn’t seem right, but then everything around me said it was.
I knew where I was now, just a few blocks from home, so my heartbeat slowed, I began to breathe easier, and I slowed my own footsteps. I saw our sleepy little town a little differently now. Those three sets of footsteps I thought I would not be able to recognize out of my whole town, became the center of my thoughts as I walked home. Really, only one set of footsteps, which shook me to the core. “Who could he have been, where had he come from, and most of all, what did he want?”
That night, laying on my bed with the December moon streaming in my window, safe under the covers, I replayed the events of the afternoon. Did I dare go back another afternoon, find him, confront his ominous presence in MY sleepy little town? I smiled at my own foolishness. Who am I kidding? I’m not my sister.
The thought stayed with me, but the courts were busy for the next few weeks, and there never seemed to be a time to pursue my investigation. Not that I truly tried to make time. In the back of my mind, I realized it could have been someone who intended to harm me.
As luck would have it, I didn’t have to go for the headboard after all, in order to find the footsteps man. I was leaving the courthouse, with a group of others on the Friday afternoon before Christmas. We were talking and laughing, and the light turned green. I looked up to cross and there he was, standing against the lamp post on the opposite corner, in a long woolen coat, scarf around his neck and a dark colored hat pulled down just over his brows.
At least this time I was with a group of people and didn’t have to feel vulnerable, but I felt glued to the spot. I took a moment to study him, to look for identifying details. I knew it was him because of the way he stood. I broke from my involuntary stare in time to realize everyone had crossed the street except me, and the light was red again.
Perfect! I had plenty time now to study and be studied. I don’t know why, but I felt he was studying me, too, but I couldn’t see his eyes. The light turned green, and he pushed away from the lamp post, heading my direction. I faltered. I started to turn around and go back into the building. But, a voice inside me said, “Stay where you are, do not retreat.” Where did that come from, because every fiber in me was screaming, “Run!” He stepped from the curb and started walking toward me.
I must have looked like a deer staring into the headlights of a freight train. Dipping his head, he reached out and offered his hand to take some of the bags of gifts and cookies from our office party.
“Good afternoon, may I help you with some of your things?”
What should I say, or do? I started stammering like a foolish little girl, but I gave him a couple of bags and we began walking toward home. How stupid am I? I could be walking a serial killer to my home! I stopped dead in my steps, looked into his silver-grey eyes, a vague feeling of deja vu coming over me, and blurted, “Who are you, where did you come from? Why were you following me the other day? And what do you want? This is MY town and you don’t just get to appear out nowhere and sneak around.” None of that made a bit of sense to him, I’m sure, but it’s what had been on my mind since that night.
“Can’t a gentleman help a lady in distress?” he asked politely, smiling at me.
He did look harmless if a man with deadly good looks could be harmless. “The help is fine, I suppose,” I answered, “but that was you the other day, following me. You scared me. Why?”
“I’m sorry I scared you, Tiffany. It was not my intention. I was only shadowing you to offer protection. The streets over there are not the nicest areas of town.”
When he said my name, my heart seemed to catch in my throat. “How do you know my name?” I asked breathlessly.
“In a town as small as Weatherdale, it isn’t hard to know a ladies name.” He began handing me my bags. “Here are your things. I’m sorry I frightened you. That was never my intention.” Bowing slightly, and turning on his heel, he walked away, his long coat whipped by a sea breeze.
I watched him walk toward the courthouse and hesitated. Should I ask him to walk me home? I turned around. No, not today. Maybe I’ll meet him another day. Slowly, I walked toward home, my mind turning toward Christmas Eve with the family, and seeing my sister.
I heard those footsteps behind me again, this time not quite so menacing, but a little unnerving, nonetheless. I turned to say something, but no one was there. Just echoes in my mind, I guess.
Christmas came and went, but I couldn’t help thinking about the man with the silver-grey eyes. Quite a lot actually. I would almost call it daydreaming. I thought about him on Monday morning as I walked back to work, and again when I stopped at the grocery store, and especially as I crossed the street at the town square that afternoon. My sister had given me a gift card to the soda fountain in the old drug store downtown. I decided to head over for a treat. I ordered a small Strawberry milkshake, always keeping an eye on my figure. I sat on the leather stool at the antique, polished bar, admiring the old ornamental bronze settings that must have recently been restored. I hadn’t been here since I was about thirteen when I would come in with my grandmother. But what the heck? What was one milkshake after fifteen years?
The counter attendant handed my shake to me with two cherries, a straw, and two coconut cookies on a napkin. I looked up to say thanks, and my heart skipped a beat. I was thirteen again, looking into the silver-grey eyes of the guy who had been about sixteen the last time he had handed me my order.
He smiled, and winked, “Hi, Tiffany.”
Now, I knew the man with the footsteps matching mine. It had been fifteen years, but he was back again. This was his sleepy little town, too.
This is one of the first stories I wrote to share with an audience besides my husband or one of my children or grandchildren. It was actually an assignment for a writing course I was taking at the time.
In the comments below, tell me about an encounter you’ve had with someone from your past.