In the parking lot adjacent to the loading area and connected by a short curved drive, a few cars remained, but the vast majority of cars were gone and with them, the teachers. It never ceased to amaze Miranda how quickly the school cleared out. If you weren’t out in five minutes after dismissal, you were likely to be left behind by everyone else. She wondered if that was in truth a reflection on the school, in that everyone couldn’t wait to get it. If so, it was quite an indictment.
"Where’s your mom?" asked Astora, scanning the entire area that was still visible from the end of the ramp where they slowly moved toward the limo.
Miranda was wondering the same thing. Instead of showing her exasperation, she said: "Oh, she said she’d be here about ten after."
It was already about six minutes after four. The sun was sinking quickly, like a hot air balloon running out of hot air. Shadows stretched across the loading area, and the shadowy limbs from the trees already bared of leaves by the advancing season slowly reached out toward them.
The limo driver exited the limo and greeted Astora with a smile, and opened the rear passenger side door for her, since that door was closest. She was a stout woman, with a seemingly pleasant air about her. A pudgy face with rosy cheek. She wore eyeglasses with shades that could flip up and down as necessary. For the moment, they were flipped up, forming what resembled a four leaf clover, with the top two leaves black and the bottom two leaves clear with big blue eyes in the middle.
"Good after noon, ladies. I trust you had a pleasant day today?"
"Ugh, hardly," started Astora with a toss of her hair. "It was just short of disastrous, wouldn’t you say so, Miri?"
Astora always called Miranda ‘Miri’ when she wanted her to agree with something she said, which, in truth, was always the case. She didn’t mind, because it was a sort of cute name and endearment. She had always wanted to use something similar for Astora, but something told her that it would be taken the wrong way, so she just called her Astora.
"For real. I was just awful."
The woman pouted and looked concerned. "Oh my. That does sound dreadful." But the pout turned around and became a smile. "But look on the bright side: you too obviously made it through, and you made it through together. There’s nothing that friends can;’t handle together if they stick together."
With that said, the woman subtly ushered Astora toward the open door by putting her hand on her shoulder and motioning toward the opening with her chin.
Astora resisted, as she caught Miranda’s eyes and the sudden loneliness that took up residence in them. "It’s already past quarter after. Want us to wait until your mom shows up?"
Just the question was enough to reassure Miranda. She really didn’t’ want to wait alone, but she didn’t want to seem like a scared little chicken either. She knew that Astora would be more than happy to wait with her. The same was not true of the chauffer, who all bust bristled at the mere suggestion of having to wait for some unknown period of time, when there was still a lot of driving left to be done, and more people in need of service and who have already been scheduled. There was no time for dillydally.
"I’ll be okay. She won’t be long."
Astora pursed her lips. "Well, why don’t you give her a call and see how long she’s going to be."
"Ugh, I’ll be okay, Astora! Good grief. You’re such a mom."
Astora flipped her hair. "Well, sue me for caring."
She wheeled and hopped in the car. The chauffer pushed the door shut and was half way around the econo-box hybrid before the door could slam. And they were off like a shot, with Astora waiving bye-bye as the car darted away.
And suddenly, with the claw like shadows of the distant trees gabbing at her feet and legs, Miranda found herself alone. She did not feel threatened in any way, because she knew that her mother was on her way, and she knew that there were still a sprinkling of teachers who had yet to depart for the evening, and she knew that the wrought iron fence would keep away the trespassers, until they were closed with the departure of the custodial crew, who always left last.
She found a patch of sunlight and took a seat on the cold cement curb at the bottom of the rampart. It was getting colder, and the sweater felt inadequate all of a sudden. She was trembling. Only a part of the trembling was due to the cold, however.
Exasperated, she pulled off her book bag and dug into it until she found her cell phone/music player. Her first thought was to play some tunes to help her relax and take her mind off her loneliness. But a more practical reason popped into her mind before she could put the ear buds in. She would do as Astora suggested and call her mother.
"Mother!" she shouted into the phone.
It recognized her voice and dialed her mother straightaway. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Four rings.
Miranda groaned and thought to hang up. She should have known that her mother wouldn’t answer. She had probably forgotten to charge it. Or it was broken. Her mother broke cell phones the way Christians break bread. But she persisted and waited.
Five rings. Six…
A pick up (more than likely, the answering service)…
‘Hello.’ Came her mother’s cheery voice.
Miranda groaned. The answering service.
‘You have reached blah-blah-blah bla-bla-blah blahblah blah-blaaah. I am not available at the moment. Please leave your name and number and I will return your call as soon as possible. Thanks and have a good day." Beeeeeeeeeeeep!
"Ugh, mom! You said you’d be here at ten after. It’s four thirty and everyone else is gone already! What time are you going to be here. It’s getting cold. Bye."
The bad thing about cellular phones (and as long as they have been out, it’s a wonder that no one has developed a way to do it yet!) is that you can’t slam the receiver down to cut off the conversation in a pall of fury. There’s a certain satisfaction in displaying to total anger in that way. It certainly beats hitting something with your hand or kicking something. She thought about throwing her phone to the ground, but that would just break it to pieces and then she’d be as bad as her mother, who broke them by just being her mother.
To make matters worse, she thought back to her gripe and damn if she didn’t’ sound just like her mother. The only difference is she had a legitimate reason to complain, whereas her mother really didn’t need any reason at all. Perhaps that’s how it starts, though. You start complaining about legitimate things, then, as you descend toward the slippery slope and find it more acceptable to hear yourself complaining all the time (as there is potentially always something to complain about it you are predisposed to do so), you just start complaining for the sake of complaining. Just whining with no resolutions attempted.
She sighed and sought the music at long last, popping in the ear buds and scrolling though the vast selection of music that the device stored. She liked the oldies. Seventies music, they called it. Her mother hated it. She didn’t like it because her mother hated it. She liked it because it was cool. It was a more innocent time and the lyrics seemed more upbeat and optimistic. The love they sang about was true love, not solely carnal love the way it became later and still was.
She decided on a Barry Manilow tune…
And soon she forgot about her mother’s apparent irresponsibility, and the cold, and the shadows of distant trees draped across her slender figure and sang:
"I remember all my life
Raining down as cold as ice.
Shadows of a man,
A face through a window cryin in the night,
The night goes into
Morning just another day;
Happy people pass my way.
Looking in their eyes,
I see a memory I never realized
How happy you made me."
But through the sounds of Barry, his piano, her own singing, she thought she heard something—someone—whisper: "go home now"
She killed the music with a start, and her wide eyes scanned all around her, but she saw no one. Then she heard the sound of the door at the top of the ramp close. It drew her to her feet, and over the rise, a long, lanky figure carrying a briefcase appeared. It was nothing but a shadow of a figure, for there was no light to illuminate it from the front yet. The lights at the top of the rampart could only cause the figure to cast a shadow upon itself.
But she was sure it was a man, and as he came down, his long legs carrying him at an easy gait, she was almost certain that she recognized the manner of motion. And when he got half way down the ramp, he passed through the last shaft of orange sunlight and was illuminated briefly. As he returned to the shade, and as he drew closer, it was no longer a doubt that it was Mr. LeMan.
"Why Miss Oliver, what ever are you doing here at this late hour? You should have left a good forty-five minutes ago."
"I am waiting for my mother. She’s picking me up."
He stopped in front of her. He seemed taller and, if she didn’t know better, more menacing than he did in the classroom, with his dark leather trench coat on and his collar pulled up around his face. His eyes looked at her intently and almost seemed to glisten like the coal black eyes of a reptile. Then, as he put his hand on her shoulder, they seemed to scan the area around them quickly, almost as if her were looking for something.
But his voice was gentle. His expression was unseen. "I can take you home… if you wish."
"No thanks. She’s going to be along in a minute."
If she could have seen his face, she would have sworn that it turned dubious if not suspicious. "Then perhaps you might want to wait in my car. It’s getting chilly out here and my car will be warm in a few minutes."
"I’m not cold," she said, her teeth chattering.
He was silent for a while and his hand upon her should, squeezed gently and seemed eager to urge her toward his car, but instead, he lowered his hand along the length of her arm as it fell away from her.
"If she’s not here by the time I pass, would you at least like me to wait with you? Students really shouldn’t be left unattended on school grounds after hours."
"I know. But I-I’ll be fine, really."
"Very well, Miss Oliver. Flag me down should you reconsider."
He nodded toward her, and trudged off toward the parking lot.
There were so many things that she did not like about that conversation, but they paled in comparison to her anger at her mother for being late and making her have to wait and have to go through that conversation in the first place. And the longer she had to wait, the worse the situation was bound to get. If she let Mr. LeMan get away, there was no telling how long it would be before another teacher or the cleaning staff left. And if she had to resort to waiting for the bus after all, she would have to wait alone or with some unseemly strangers, or, worse: alone with some unseemly strangers.
And heaven forbid if she had to…
She didn’t even want to think about it!
She saw the lights from Mr. LeMan’s car before she heard it approach. Actually, it wasn’t a car at all, but a minivan with tinted windows. It was pretty non-discript aside form the tinted windows. It was the most popular silver color with some door dings along its sides. It had basic aluminum alloy wheels. It was quite. It was the perfectly average, hum drum, no attention-drawing vehicle.
He slowed down as he passed, and the front passenger window rolled down. The shadowy figure within leaned to speak out the passenger window, but his face was unseen. The voice was Mr. LeMan’s.
"I’d really fell a lot better if you came with me. I hate leaving you out here like this."
Although he was just a shadow, she was almost certain that he wasn’t looking at her when he spoke. She could have sworn that he was looking around the area to see if anyone else was around.
"I’ll be fine. Really."
His sigh was audible. "Well, good night, and be careful."
His window rose before she could answer and he and his minivan burbled away.
When his taillights vanished behind a turn, she started on her way home at a brisk gait. The walk was fifteen blocks. She would have to walk past the bus stop and perhaps no one would be there and she would be able to wait for the bus in peace. She checked the time, and if she wasn’t walking so fast she would have stomped her feet with disgust. By the time she reaches the bus stop, it will have already passed and the wait would be almost a full hour. And by that time, it would be pitch black. As it was, it was going to be pitch black by th time she made five of the fifteen blocks. The street lamps were already on, and everything already seemed eerier than it had only fifteen minutes ago. The wrought iron gate, as she passed through it, reminded her of the gates that surrounded cemeteries in those horror movies that her mother was obsessed with.
The cones of cloudy light that the street lamps projected at the ground hid more things with the shadows it created than it revealed to someone walking through them. It seemed that something moved or skirted along the edges of them, something small and furry. A cat, perhaps. A dog, possibly. A squirrel, maybe. A rat, potentially.
But what worried her the most was the people. Dogs, cats, squirrels and rats were fairly predictable. They did not trick you, or deceive you, or conspire against you with demons in their heads the way people did. They did not go out of their way to harm you. They did not delight in your suffering.
She passed through a small park about two blocks from the school. It was on the same street as the bus stop. It was unlit, tree-shaded, with a trio of benches facing each other in the form of a triangle about 20 feet apart. In the center was a trash can that had already been kicked over. It was erect this morning. Trash was strewn from it. And upon the bench was a sleeper. She couldn’t know if he slept there for the night or if he was a denizen of the night who had yet to awaken to perform his rounds.
She was through the park in a heart beat, her heart beating like a drum from fear and exertion as she hastened even more. She stopped cold in her tracks when she saw the bus stop. Three loud talking men, obviously already under the influence of some sort of substance, were loitering about. Every other word from their mouths was a swear. She couldn’t hear what they were talking about despite the volume, because it was drug muddled gibberish. But she knew enough of their conversation to know that she didn’t want it directed at her and she didn’t want to become a part of it. She scampered back through the park, past the sleeper, who seemed to stir suddenly and lurch up like a revitalized zombie. He was apparently still too close to sleep to see her as he shadow darted past, and she found herself on a back street, moving away from home.
She almost wanted to cry, because she was going in the wrong direction, and deeper of the safest path. She continued her way only because it was the best lit street around, and each and every street that she wanted to turn up in order to head in the right direction was worse than the one before it. It was either darker than the last, had more loud talking people than the last, more pit bulls growling and snarling at ripping at each other than the last.
At last, she came upon a cleaner, wider, more brightly lit street, and headed up that one. It was a major thoroughfare with row homes on either side of the street, which took traffic in both directions, and had strings of parallel parked cars on both sides. There was a good deal of traffic, but she opted to walk on the street side of the parked cars so that she would not have to walk on the sidewalk between the parked cars and the dark and shadow-laden row homes. You’re too boxed in on the sidewalk and there’s no reaction time should a dog, or a person jump out on you and haul you away into the recesses of the darkness.
She was, strangely, now eighteen blocks away from home, and still had yet to traverse the most difficult and dangerous part, which was the big park. Going through the big park was the quickest way, and probably easier than trying to skirt it, for the neighborhood around the big park was rife with danger in its own right. All the blocks around it were similar to the one she had just escaped from, while the park was, if nothing more, well lit in most places.
The Reason Why We Love Copyright © 2006 by Walter R. Milton