by Sky Hedman, 1352 words

Flora had heard the swoosh of her front door closing. She had turned over in her sleep and reached out for Jerome, his warmth, his hairy chest, his strong hands. But he was gone. Flora glanced at the clock. 3:15 am. Through the window, she saw the November darkness, that powerful fall darkness that robbed late afternoon light and withheld the sun until after breakfast. Flora knew that Jerome usually arrived early at the café to start prepping for the breakfast rush. Still, she felt disappointed that he had not wakened her to say goodbye. Just the feel of his lips on her check, or his breath on her hand…

Flora pulled the floral covers up to her chin and tried to go back to sleep. She slept better with him alongside her. The aloneness kept her awake, but also her worries. Once again, she wondered if she and Jerome had lost that special feeling between them, a feeling that smoothed their differences, that spanned the years between them. She wondered again, was he really looking for a mother, a home, safety? Was he looking for another lover?

Jerome was used to walking the mile to the café in the morning dark. He could have followed on the streets through the little town, but he turned instead onto a path that led him through the woods. The moon was bright, and he could easily find his way despite the hour. Walking was his balm, his therapy, his way to be in the world and to leave it behind. His body relaxed when he left the human chatter. He had grown to love this little town for the ease at which he could escape it.

One jump over the drainage ditch, and a scramble up the dirt path landed him in the forest. The canopy of orange and yellow leaves closed over his head. Seldom did Jerome run into another human being taking this route. In ten minutes, he would be through the familiar paths and come out behind the café.

Only once had Jerome been frightened in the forest: the day that he had explored a new direction, and came upon an isolated cabin. Jerome had stepped out from the trees and stood looking at the unkempt yard, the overgrown grasses, the dirty windows and the mossy roof. Disoriented, he wondered where exactly he was. He was standing still, looking at the old red F150 truck in the driveway when a disheveled blond haired man emerged from the cabin, pointing a rifle at him.

In an instant, a shot rang out over Jerome’s head. Jerome spun on his heels and crashed back into the woods, expecting to be stricken by a bullet at any moment, glancing over his shoulder when he could, feeling close to death. Fueled by adrenaline, he almost tripped when he heard one more shot, but kept moving. He soon dropped into a gulley and scrambled behind a boulder. He crouched frozen, willing his breath to calm down, listening for the man’s footsteps. The forest was quiet. After a few minutes of silence, he picked his way through the brush back home the way he had come in. As he put more distance between himself and the man, his mind tried to sort out what had just happened. In a small town, there are few strangers. Why had he never seen this man before? Where exactly was that cabin?

Jerome saw the red Ford truck again, a few days after his chance intrusion on the cabin in the woods. This time, it was out on the street in front of the café. The same blond haired man was leaning on the truck, one leg crossed over the other. Jerome saw Meghan standing a few feet away. In short order, she turned away from this stranger and came in the back door of the café, directly into the kitchen. Jerome quietly watched her and noted the stress lines in her face. Through the front windows of the café, he saw the truck pull away, and made note of the Washington license plate: SFU943. He considered telling her about his run in with the man, but uncertainty kept him from speaking. He had no interest in tangling with this violent person.

Weeks passed since Jerome had seen the red Ford. Amy was away and the café had a different feel with Meghan in charge. It almost seemed to take on a new life, to feel a little more rad without Amy’s restrictions. The business grew. Jerome had to order more supplies when he filled out the grocery list, and he got less pushback when he requested Cotija cheese and avocadoes. The usual gang didn’t change, but newer faces wandered in, brushing Seattle off their shoulders as they seemed to soak up the peaceful aura of the Excelsior.

The morning of the fire, Jerome had left Flora’s house for work in the dark as usual. He took the forested path towards the café. He was thinking about Flora. He was also thinking about Bilan. Jerome wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Bilan didn’t speak English with enough confidence to start a conversation. Or was she not interested? Yet he felt fascinated by her: her gentle grace, her innocent charm, her understated beauty. Jerome was thinking about Bilan as he approached the back side of the Café. He was startled out of his thoughts by movement that he saw in the dark. Jerome hurried up to the building and almost crashed into the blond haired man. The man was carrying an empty gas can in his right hand, and the rifle in his left. Behind him, flames were licking the café’s walls, while smoke was swirling up to the sky. Just as the man tried to push Jerome into the fire, a powerful brown and white owl flew between them, momentarily blinding them both. As Jerome started to fall backwards, the man snarled “You will be next!”

Jerome caught his balance and scrambled to his feet, twisting around and running back the way he came. Expecting a rifle shot, he retraced his steps in a panic, trying to read the path and not fall on the roots and rocks that made it perilous in the dark. Jumping back across the drainage dish, he approached Flora’s house with caution. The area was still middle-of-the-night quiet as he tried the door handle. It was locked. He soon filled the silence with his knocking. Flora opened the door to a frightened and breathless Jerome. Unable to stop himself,

he spilled his story. That was the moment when Flora felt compelled to act. “We have to call the police,” Flora insisted.

“He’s going to kill me, if he finds out where I am,” Jerome pleaded. As the words tumbled from his mouth, the sound of sirens mixed with smoky air outside Flora’s window.

Jerome was now the one who needed comforting. Afraid to be alone, afraid to walk in the woods, he tried to put up a good front in the days after the fire, but he hardly felt safe without Flora’s presence. The image of the blond haired man’s angry face, the sound of his snarl, the smoke and flames and the rifle kept Jerome from sinking into the deep slumber that he had taken for granted for the last year. He stayed out of the woods, and even when on the streets, he noted every car and flinched when a truck went by.

Flora urged him to share his tale with Meghan, Amy and Phyllis. “Together,” Flora pointed out, “you are safer.”

“You can say that because he’s not out to kill you!” Jerome retorted.

“You can’t live your life in constant peril.”

“Maybe I should just leave. I could go to Seattle. I could go south.”

Flora soothed him by rubbing his back. Despite their relationship, she did feel like his protector. “Let’s get all of them together. Together we are stronger.”

Jerome hung his head. “He’ll kill us all.”

“Or he’ll end up in jail. Your choice.”