Saturday, March 17th
The bush shook and emitted strange snuffling noises. “Hurry up,” Kate said and pulled her coat more closely around herself. She wished she was better prepared for the weather, but Jake had acted like it was an emergency. The dog was five months and not as house broken as she wished, so if Jake wanted out, she took him out. But the dog sniffed more than peed, and that was the truth.
Kate tugged the leash, and Jake trotted out from under the bush and onto the gravel path. “Are you going to go, or what?” Jake didn’t answer, only dragged her to the next stand of bushes and resumed his olfactory research.
It was early, five-thirty. The sun had just begun to climb from beneath the horizon. Morning fog muted the little light and warmth it offered. She shivered.
Jake had jumped onto her bed and awakened her with a volley of slobbery kisses. Once she was up, he ran in circles from the front door, to her, and back, emitting the frantic yips that she’d learned the hard way meant he had to go. She slid her feet into flip flops, pulled a jacket over her thin cotton pajamas, and took him. Her clothes were scant protection against the wet chill.
Kate had made a left onto her street and walked two blocks to a path leading into the park adjacent to her Seattle neighborhood. She’d trudged along Jake’s favorite route, patiently waiting for him to do his business, but now all she could think about was warmth and coffee.
“Okay, that’s it. We’re going home,” she said to the dog and started to turn, but paused. The silhouette of a man moved toward her. She didn’t want to see anyone. Not this early. Not in her pajamas. She made her way to a small cutoff ahead on the right. She’d take that, circle to the main path and get behind the man.
The cutoff was narrow and not well groomed. Soggy branches reached across it. Weeds poked up through the dirt. She avoided the foliage as best as she could with Jake pulling her this way and that. But her feet were sopping wet after a few yards. She cursed herself for procrastinating about obedience classes. Jake wasn’t easy to manage.
A snap behind her echoed in the quiet morning. She glanced over her shoulder. The man she’d seen had followed her onto the cutoff. Followed her. She was overreacting. The dim light and lack of people in the park made her feel vulnerable. He’d probably been intending to come this way all along. But she picked up her pace anyway.
Soon the crunch of boots grew louder, closer. A thin prick of anxiety traveled up her spine. She began to jog, her shoes flipping mud onto her calves. Was it her imagination or were the heavy steps matching hers?
Jake frisked beside her, jumping and biting at the leash in her hand, happy with the new game. Kate stumbled over a tree root, righted herself, and looked behind her again. The man was so close now, she could see his beard, brown and curling. The rest of his face was invisible, covered by a black hoodie.
The cutoff opened onto the main path. She bolted forward, branches slapping wet stripes across her pajamas. She burst into the open area and looked left then right for another person. Somewhere to run. Safety.
There was a bench a few yards up the path. On it lay a reclining figure. Probably a homeless person holed up in the park for the night. Normally she’d give someone like that a wide berth, but this morning anybody was better than nobody. She ran to the bench. “Hey, wake up. Please.” Her words were quiet pants.
Kate eyed the place where the cutoff had joined the gravel road, but the man hadn’t appeared. Maybe he was hanging back because he’d seen the person on the bench too. “Can I sit with you? I don’t want to be alone. I think someone is following me.”
The sleeping person was dressed in dark slacks and a print top. It was a female. Kate felt a surge of relief. A shaft of early morning sun, shone in her eyes but she could still make out the outlines of the woman, and the open book that covered her face as if she’d fallen asleep reading. Jake sniffed at the figure and whined.
Kate put out a hand and touched the woman’s legs pushing them to the side ever so slightly so she could perch on the edge of the bench. The homeless lady didn’t acknowledge the shove. She must be sleeping off one heck of a blow. “I’m sorry. But I need to sit here for a while, until I’m sure he’s gone,” Kate said.
She settled herself on the bench and scanned the bushes. Jake sat at her feet and scratched himself. Long minutes passed, and Kate’s heart rate began to slow. Jake curled into a ball and fell asleep. The man must be gone, but she would wait a bit longer to be sure.
When the sun began to warm the gravel path with watery rays, she decided it was safe to travel. She pivoted on the bench. “Well, thanks, not that you even know the good deed you did,” she said to the still form. Kate put a hand on the bench readying herself to rise, then she saw it.
The hands resting on the sleeping figure’s stomach weren’t hands at all. The cuffs of the floral blouse lay empty. A jolt of adrenaline shot through her. Kate’s heart thudded. Probably an accident. Probably why the woman was homeless. Nothing to be afraid of. But she jerked upward, an awkward movement, and jarred the woman’s legs. The figure’s arms fell open. The book slid to the ground.
Kate screamed. But not because the homeless woman’s face was horrible. Because it wasn’t there.