Miriam was in the box stores again when I saw the woman. She walked in front of my parking spot. I don’t think she saw me. Hell, I don’t think she saw anything. Not the dozens of cars, the stores. Nothing. And, yet, I believe she saw everything too. I’m not even sure what that means but that’s how it felt.
She was toting one of those little rolly suitcases behind her. A carry-on one, with the telescoping handle. Her eyes looked ahead but seemed unfocused. And a smile played across her lips, like when someone is drunk. But she didn’t stumble, not a bit. If anything, she was very confident, very much I’m walking here and fuck you if you don’t like it. I could respect that. I wished I could be more like that sometimes.
As she continued past my Ford, I expected her to stop at one of the other vehicles. She didn’t. And, now, thinking back on it I shouldn’t have been too surprised. There was something off about her, yes, but it wasn’t just that. It was her clothes, dishevelled and a little soiled. She looked like a street person.
You see these people at streetlights. They’re not necessarily homeless, more like home-challenged. When I was younger there were squeegee kids who’d wash your window and take a bit of change if you offered it. I don’t know what happened — perhaps they do as good without washing windows? — but now they stand there with signs and take what people give them. I’m not judging, it’s just what I’ve noticed.
This woman was different though. She looked down on her luck. Maybe she was just odd. Well, yeah, she was odd. But she looked like she wanted nothing from nobody.
She continued past the parking lot, over the curb and onto the grass between one of the box stores — some men’s suit place — and the road. Her little suitcase banged against the concrete before joining her there. Without even looking she crossed the street and came to another grass-covered area. This was on the edge of box store land, with trees beyond it. There she looked all around, up, down, behind, ahead. Satisfied, as if this was it, the spot of spots, she laid the suitcase on its side and sat down with her back to it.
She sat there, in the grass, next to a bunch of box stores. Like it was something you did every day. Shit, maybe she did do it every day. But, no, I’d know, I’d have seen her. I was there pretty much every day. If you would’ve told me that’s what I’d do with my retirement… I drive Miriam here and I wait for her. She has issues. I guess I do too for enabling her.
I wished Miriam would come back so she could weigh in on the situation. But I also didn’t want her to come back yet, I wanted to see what was going to happen. Anyway, there wasn’t much chance of seeing my wife for at least another hour. If I was lucky.
The woman sat there a minute, maybe two. Then — bored? — she shifted forward a little and reclined against the suitcase, using it as a pillow. She gazed up, into the sky. It was a beautiful day; a few thin strands of translucent cloud dotted the rich blue. Nothing changed for the next several minutes.
I watched as if it was a film, riveted. What would she do next? I thought that, maybe, I should go to her, make sure she was okay. But she seemed fine. She was just looking at the sky. Was it that strange? The location, the rarity of it, sure, but that didn’t mean there was anything wrong.
Yet I had a feeling I couldn’t shake. There had been something about the woman’s movements. It reminded me of something I’d seen. Then I had it: robots. While waiting for Miriam I sometimes perused videos online. One of them had been a demonstration of these new multi-use robots. You know the type; they can pack shelves, pull trucks, climb stairs, jump, whatever. But they don’t look right. You see them moving, these machines, but the movements are too smooth, too sure. Your brain doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s not an animal, it’s not an inanimate object. What is it?
This woman was like that. No, I didn’t think she was a robot. Okay, not for more than a second or two anyway. What? I was bored, wanted some excitement. Reminder to self: you should be careful what you wish for. Anyway, her movements were the same as a robot, different than a normal person’s. Why? I had to find out.
I got out and started across the asphalt. Not running or anything; walking, casually. The woman was just waiting there. I was sure that’s what it was. Did she have a ride coming? Hey, pick me up in the grass next to Jerome’s Big and Tall. Nah, that wasn’t it. But she was waiting. People have a look when they’re killing time. This woman could’ve been at the doctor, waiting with all the other schmucks.
I crossed the road and stepped onto the cement curb that ran around her grassy waiting room. Hey, ma’am, we’re calling number 45. Is that your number? I wanted to call out something snarky like that. I don’t know why; it wouldn’t have been nice. And it didn’t feel appropriate. Actually, about then I was thinking I should have stayed in the car.
The air didn’t feel right; it had the smell of ozone. Metallic. She didn’t make a move as I took a step onto the grass, though she must have heard me. I’m not a small man, not quiet at all. Miriam always tells me that. Always.
I opened my mouth to ask if she was okay. For a moment I wondered if she had died, had a heart attack or something. But, no, her chest moved up and down. So, I opened my mouth, but before the words could come out everything changed.
The world I mean. The air got stranger, that smell increased and the hairs on my arms stood up. Static, I suppose. What the hell? The woman didn’t seem to notice. Even though the hair on her head was sticking off in all directions. She looked like she had stuck her finger into an electrical socket. I walked closer; saw her closed eyes. I reached out, to shake her shoulder — expecting the jolt of a shock when I made contact — but didn’t get that far.
The lights made me jump back.
I say lights but it could have been lightning, what with all the static. Something, anyway, jumped out of her and into the air. Now, come to think of it, it moved too slow to be lightning. I followed it as it moved. It was more like those sparklers you have sometimes in the summer. The ones you can use to trace your name in the pitch of the night. The afterimage stays with you. These lights were like that.
They rose from her head. Yeah, sounds crazy I know. I’m only telling you what I saw. Judge me if you like. I don’t give two fucks what you think. That goes for you too, Miriam. These streaks shot out from her head and into the air above her. It was broad daylight, remember, and yet I could see them. No problem at all.
They hung there a moment, waiting, like the woman had been. Then another streak, larger, came from above, from the sky. It passed by quickly, but I saw it. I want to make that clear: I saw it. Because you’re going to doubt me, going to call me nuts. But I saw it. See my previous statement about me not caring about what you think.
It was as if someone had thrown a Frisbee across the grassy spot. The disk, more solid than a plastic Frisbee, more like a dinner plate, passed above us, a few feet or so. The little lights, the ones from the woman’s head, streaking here and there the whole time, merged with it. Then it was gone. It didn’t disappear, vanish, no. It just kept going. It sped up, it must have, it was gone so quick.
Well, that does sound crazy, doesn’t it? But I swear it’s what I saw. It all happened in a second or two. It felt like minutes though. It was the woman who brought me out of it. I was looking at the sky. My brain was working through what it had seen. Trying to work through.
“Who are you? What do you want? Where am I?” the woman asked in rapid succession.
I looked down, startled by the very normal voice. It felt like I hadn’t heard someone speak in days. She was clutching the suitcase across her chest, as someone does with a life preserver. That piece of luggage was keeping her afloat.
“What?” I asked.
“How did I get here?” she asked, looking all around.
“How did you get here?” I repeated her question back to her, as confused as she was.
She nodded but said nothing. She was scared. I was too. I should have stayed in the car. But I was there and she needed help.
“You walked here,” I said.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, ma’am, I saw you myself. You came from over there.” I pointed toward the Megamart where my wife was still browsing and spending.
“I didn’t,” she said. “I didn’t. Ididnt, didnt.” She clutched the suitcase closer and shook her head continuously, back and forth. She was losing it.
It’s strange, the things you notice in moments like that. Her suitcase had stickers on it, lots of them. And they were from all over. Most of them were of the I visited blank variety. There were ones from the US, Canada, Mexico, a few places in Europe. Even a cartoon kangaroo with a speech balloon saying G’day mate!
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She stopped shaking and looked up at me, tears in her eyes. “Darlene.”
“Hi, Darlene,” I said, smiling. I offered my hand. “I’m Samuel. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She shook my hand lightly, tentatively. Maybe afraid I wasn’t real. Or fearing that I was, that the whole situation was, indeed, real. I sat in the grass next to her. “Now, why don’t you tell me the last thing you remember.”
“It’s summer,” she said, not answering me, maybe not even hearing me.
Her eyes darted everywhere, taking in everything. But there was no certainty, no confidence in those glances. She was shocked. By everything. I didn’t tell her about the lights or the dinner plate. That was for the best. She had enough going on. I wished I could forget them too.
“Ah, yeah, it is,” I said.
“No, it’s not. It’s February.”
“No, Darlene, it’s July.” I reached into my pocket and fetched my phone. I had never dialled 911 before. It was a day of firsts.