Heart Eyes

 

He was walking faster than she was, almost two steps to every one of hers. From thirty yards behind her, he couldn’t know that she had her earphones in. It was only a few steps ago that he had noticed her at all, walking along the street ahead of him.

😍

She had only one of the plugs in her ears, as she always did when walking home late at night. The podcast she was listening to was playing on a low volume. All so that she could hear if anyone else was about, perhaps following her.

She could hear footsteps behind her now.

😍

‘I’m not stalking you, lady,’ he called out, mimicking her thoughts. ‘Just on my way home. Like you probably are, too. All just on our way home.’

He slipped off the pavement, into the road, beating his feet on the asphalt, heading to the opposite side. He threw his hands in the air, the passive sign of no threat here. Not that she was looking.

😍

Sidelong, she peered through her hair, listening to the heavy echoes of his footfall. He was a big guy, a long shadow in the streetlights reaching all the way back to her side of the street. And he was staggering all over the place.

‘See, I’m crossing over the road. Just casually crossing the road. Nothing to see here, ma’am,’ he said in an American deputy drawl, then chuckling to himself.

😍

This lady was clearly – understandably – a bit freaked out by his presence, walking in the dark this late at night, while he was bawling all kinds of friendly rubbish to keep her company. She hadn’t even acknowledged his attempt at a joke. The #womenoftwitter were always saying things like

OMG to the guy who crossed the street last night so that I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable when I was walking home

bookended by the Heart Eyes emoji, or sometimes the Smiling Cat with Heart Eyes.

In the thread beneath it, mingling with the praise, someone would inevitably add a link to What you should do if you think someone is following you home, or some other such advice.

Probably written by a man. Or a reformed stalker.

😻

Why had this bloke just yelled something weird across the street about Twitter?

This probably was just another pissed bloke but,  when walking home in the dark, she was always cautious. Not overly, just aware. Primed to run, or to fight. Prepared not to freeze.

The tall wall of the school loomed over her. The coldness of pavement had begun to permeate the soles of her shoes, chilling her feet. The wine was warm in her belly.

Across the street, the man was now whistling to himself. He did seem harmless enough.

😍

Whistling always seems like a good idea, to fill the air of an awkward silence. But right then maybe it did seem a bit eerie, dampened by the dead air, perhaps even to a level of creepiness. Whistling certainly can’t pacify in the same way as the harmony of a conversation. Even if this lady didn’t want to talk back, it would show that he was keeping his distance. Filling the air between them.

‘I don’t have any kids,’ he said, ‘but nor have I ever killed anyone.’ It had seemed like a good, jovial thing to say, even if it hadn’t quite come out that way. ‘Nor have I ever raped anyone. You see, I have a girlfriend!’

😍

It would possibly be better to hear softly pattering footsteps echoing from somewhere in the darkness than to listen to that sort of attempt at humour. Even so, this man was similar to plenty of the guys in the office, filling any dead air with foolishness. Kieran said things like that all the time. He was okay, could be quite funny, but it was no wonder that he was still single.

🖤

A streetlight flickers up ahead.

He has just walked through the strobing light.

A moment later his shadow follows though the guttering brightness.

Two steps in the darkness.

From where he is walking, he can see both of them.

🖤

‘Actually, I proposed to her,’ the man says.

‘And did she say yes?’ the lady replies a few moments later, speaking her first words to the stranger.

They look at each other across the space between them, light illuminating just segments of their faces in the darkness. She can see that he is smiling. She shifts the strap of her bag.

‘She said . . . she’s thinking about it. Which definitely isn’t a no,’ he added, throwing a waggling finger up in the air.

‘It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow,’ the lady replies. ‘Maybe she’s waiting to tell you then. To save on anniversary presents.’

‘Could well be,’ the man agrees. ‘A pretty good idea, too. The only ultimatum I’ve given her is to let me know sometime before I die.’ He puts his hands back in his pockets. Still chuckling to himself. ‘I’m Will, by the way.’

‘Hi, Will.’

So, are you going to tell me your name?’ As he strides onwards, his face is turned at a right-angle to his step, grinning across the street. The toe of his shoe clips the top of a loosened paving slab. It does not make him trip, or alter his stagger, but the tip of his toe jabs into the leather; a minute shock of pain, but enough to erase the smile and raise a curse.

‘What,’ the lady said, ‘so that if I tell you my name then I’ll feel safer walking along the road with you?’

‘I told you that I proposed to my girlfriend. And that my name is Will.’

‘We’re told things in the news every day. That doesn’t make it true, Will,’ she says. ‘In fact, most of it isn’t, if any of it is at all.’

‘I get your point,’ he replies. ‘Even though I can’t guarantee you that I’m safe, I promise that I am.’

‘There are promises in the news every day, too.’

‘That is also true.’

They walk on for a few moments in silence.

😍

While he thinks, he is close to whistling again. I’ll think about it, is a kind of promise. A guarantee is also about as certain as an I’ll think about it. The thinking part is about the money, of that there is no doubt. And that’s okay. More money makes a more certain future. Nothing is more certain than the future.

And a piece of string has two ends and a middle.

😍

Even though he seems to be muttering to himself, drunkenly rambling over some thought, she decides that the man poses no threat. Definitely. But that doesn’t mean that she should make it easy for him. After all, once this bloke leaves her alone, she will have to find the place in the podcast where she was interrupted. Between the aimless sprays of his chatter, she has only been able to catch snatches of it.

🖤

The heavy scent of her perfume lingers in the air behind her. Definitely not cheap. Its aroma would still be breezing through the air molecules two blocks back, marking her trail.

Like breadcrumbs to a bait box.

🖤

‘I’m turning right on the next street,’ he says. His hands are again up in the air, one finger signalling the direction. ‘Just so you know,’ he quickly adds. ‘Telling you advance that I’ll be crossing the street. Forewarned is fore- . . . something. See, I told you I was safe.’

‘I’m sure you are,’ the lady replies. She finds that she is smiling now. The moon is bright above the schoolgrounds tonight, dampened only by the streetlights. ‘Actually, I’m going that way, too.’

‘Oh! Okay. Whereabouts do you live?’

She laughs. ‘All you need to know is that I’m also heading in that direction. I’m not going to tell you where I live!’

‘I could walk you home,’ he replies with a shrug. ‘Now that you know I’m safe. And then I’ll know that you got home safely, too. Always sticking to the opposite side of the street, of course.’

Shaking her head, looking straight ahead, she laughs. ‘But then you’ll know where I live. I don’t think that’s a very good idea.’

‘That is a very fair comment,’ he says. ‘Well, I live in Marlborough Avenue, right then left. Again, just so you know my moves before we get there.’

‘Thanks,’ she says, discreetly turning up the volume on her phone. ‘Good to know.’

😍

The podcast has just reached a bit where Julia has met Adam at the airport. So she did decide that she would go, after all! Avoiding the minefield of social media and chat rooms all day, she finally knew – if not why Julia had actually chosen to go with Adam over her friend’s warnings. She could set her alarm early tomorrow to catch up. Could do, but she knew that she would have to listen back to the podcast tonight. A warm cup of cocoa before bed would be conducive to a good night’s sleep. Not that she had drunk much wine, but staying up later was always better than getting up early.

Even though she had missed the last ten minutes of the podcast, at least this guy walking with her meant that she hadn’t needed to keep an alert ear open, mindful of anyone who might be following her.

😍

Following the curve of the school wall, she turns into Culverden Road. Although she hears the guy as he crosses the intersection, to join the opposite side of Culverden, she doesn’t turn to watch him jogging over the asphalt.

😍

The tall wall continues ahead of her, brushed by the hanging branches of the lime trees lining the road. On the other side of the road there is a pattern of fence, semi-detached house, fence.

A cat drops down behind one of the fences.

A cloud drifts in front of the moon.

☁️  ☁️  ☁️

He turns the corner.

She is ahead of him, walking in the deeper darkness cast by the tall wall.

On this road, the canopies of trees smother the streetlights, an obstacle of fallen shadows.

Sidelong, she peers through her hair, sees him creeping across the road, heading towards the drunken man.

Smiling, she slips into the light, crossing with him to the other side of the street.

🖤

[The alternative ending  🥰  Like a Piece of String}

The tall wall continues ahead of her, brushed by the hanging branches of the lime trees lining the road. On the other side of the road there is a pattern of fence, semi-detached house, fence.

A cat drops down behind one of the fences.

A cloud drifts in front of the moon.

☁️  ☁️  ☁️

With a box of chocolates and a Valentine’s card in his hand, the man walks into the kitchen. The cat is slaloming between his legs with each step, making him watchful of his tread. She has her back to him, stirring the porridge on the hob. From its bracket above the microwave, the television is on, the volume at medium. As he slides his way towards her, she leans to one side, grabs a pinch of Muscovado and sprinkles it into the pan. That was a regular the quirk of hers, but the marshmallows that she scatters on top are a new addition to her breakfast.

‘Happy Valentine’s Day,’ he whispers into her ear, a kiss on the neck. She tenses momentarily. He reaches an arm around her waist, the card and chocolates pressing against her stomach. ‘For you.’ Turning off the heat, she takes the chocolates, the card, and puts them on the side. Still she faces away from him. ‘You can have one of the chocolates now, if you like,’ he says. ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’

‘Nothing,’ she says. She knows, as he does, how clearly obvious it is that nothing had sounded.

‘You haven’t even opened your card. It’s a kinky one, too. Wait, something must be wrong. You didn’t even look at the chocolates!’

‘I just . . . don’t feel like chocolate.’

Now she turns around to him. She is scraping her front teeth against in the inside of her bottom lip.

‘Look,’ he says, picking up the box. ‘You don’t have to have one. I just want you to at least see what I got you.’

He removes the lid from the box of chocolates. After a slump-shouldered smile, she glances down at the box. And then she looks again to see the ring, balanced on the chocolate heart in the centre of the box. Picking up the chocolate, ring on top, he lowers onto one knee.

On the television, the broadcast changes to the local news, simmering in the background.

“. . . was attacked late last night, or possibly in the early hours of this morning . . .”

Will you marry me?’

She places a hand on her stomach, low down, beneath her bellybutton.

The cat is rubbing against his thigh.

“. . . was found unconscious outside the front door of a house on . . .”

‘I’m pregnant.’

‘You’re what?’ He stands, puts his hand above her hip. ‘Really? Then why are you upset? That’s good news, isn’t it? Do you want to get married, become a family, or do you want me to get you an abortion for your birthday?’

“. . . is now in intensive care, under close observation. Police are appealing for any witnesses who might have seen . . .”

She peers around the room, her eyes finally settling on the television. There is a face on the screen.

‘Oh my God.’ She puts a hand to her mouth, her other hand grabbing the sideboard.

‘What?’ he asks.

‘The TV. That man. The one who was attacked last night. He was walking home with me, on the opposite side of the street.’  🔚

 

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