Bethany was still sitting on the ground, crouching, holding her pants up by the belt loops with one hand, wiping blood from her mouth with the other. She stared at the newcomer, wild-eyed, ready to lunge and knock him off-balance if he made a move.
She figured she could hit him square in the nuts with every bit of pent-up survival energy she was storing in her legs and run like hell. But the only move he made was to extend his hand to her.
“Can you get up?” he said. “We shouldn’t hang around here. I don’t like the locals.”
Bethany hesitated, trying to stop herself from shivering, trying to project a don’t-fuck-with-me vibe, but it was impossible to do while squatting on the ground, her face covered in wet grass and blood, holding her pants up with both hands. Only now did she remember the knife in her pocket.
“Jebus Geist,” the guy said, “You look like you could kill me!”
Jebus Geist? She thought. This thought replaced the image of the knife in her mind. This guy didn’t seem to be a threat. Still, she struggled to stand up without taking his hand. She lost her balance on shaky legs and started to fall forward. He lunged at her, as fast as he had moved before, so fast she couldn’t defend herself before realizing he was only helping her to her feet.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get you someplace away from here.”
She didn’t say anything, she just backed away, eyeing him like a beaten dog, until she felt level, solid ground under her feet, then she turned to walk away as fast as she could. She made it as far as a bench about ten yards away, sitting by a small swampy area that smelled of decaying leaves. She sat down hard, shaking. She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. She wanted to kill somebody. Her head was spinning with fear, rage, confusion, and everything else. How is this my life now? Why do I deserve this?
She heard a voice next to her, saying something. “… no one deserves that.” She looked up and saw the guy in the black coat standing a safe distance away – well out of arm’s reach, anyway.
“Anyway, I hope you’ll be okay,” he said. Then he just stood there and smiled at her, his head tilting in that contemplative way that he had had when he was considering hurting her attacker even more than he had, only now his expression was more of comfort than of carnage.
“Who the fuck are you?” she asked, hoping her voice sounded tougher than it did.
“Oh, sorry. You must have missed my introduction earlier.” He extended his hand again but kept his distance. “My name’s Adriel. I’m new here.”
She looked at his hand, but stayed hunched over, her arms wrapped tightly around herself, trying to stop the shivering. Why was it suddenly so cold out? Winter was close, but it had been a warm autumn day. Her eyes moved from his hand to his face. He looked to be about her age, maybe a little older, clean-shaven, pleasant enough smile, but his eyes seemed almost black in the weak light provided by a street lamp that stood about five feet away, off to her left. It shone lightly off the dark brown hair at the top of his head. She looked back at his eyes, and now she could make out the whites, just little specks at the corners, which were delicately crinkled from his comforting smile.
He just stood there, with his hand extended. Perhaps he’s an idiot, she thought. Well, idiot or not, she figured, he had really helped her out of a bad situation. She looked back the way she had come, looking for the men that had attacked her, but there was no one there.
“They’ve gone,” he said simply. “Hopefully, they went to a hospital, so if you wish to track them down, you probably can. Can I help you find some authorities? Police?”
She moved her eyes cautiously back to him. His hand was still outstretched. She saw it held something white… a handkerchief? She thought about taking it but remained wary.
“Who are you again?” she asked.
“As I have said, my name is Adriel, and I am new here.”
“Oh…Christ,” she muttered, letting her eyes drop to the ground. This guy seemed a bit of a simpleton, but harmless – at least, to her. She wondered about the men he had beaten off of her.
“I should have been smarter,” she said. He took a cautious step closer, extending the hand with the handkerchief. Eyeing him, she accepted it. It was clean, so she dabbed the blood from her mouth. “I had this…” she said and started to remove the knife from her jeans pocket.
“Oh, I’m glad you didn’t have to use that,” he said. “That would only have complicated things.”
“Who cares? It’s better than…” she tried to clear her mind of images of what had almost happened. “Anyway, I should have cut their fucking throats.”
“They suffered,” he said. “And you can find them.”
She looked at the bloodied handkerchief, holding it in her lap, and ran her tongue over her front teeth. Still there, still secure. She then looked up at this somewhat off-putting figure. “Thanks,” she said. He just stood there, smiling at her. She sniffed. “I think I ruined your handkerchief.”
“That’s no concern,” he grinned, looking like a shy kid who had tried and failed awkwardly at holding her hand.
“What makes you think they would go to a hospital?” she asked.
“The first had two broken ribs and a fractured collar bone. The second, two broken ribs, a broken nose, a broken jaw, and a concussion. I would think they would need medical attention.”
She stared at him for a moment. He was still a little off-putting, but there was something comforting in his nature.
“Well,” she said. “That sounded like a pretty firm diagnosis.”
“Are you sure you are alright?” he asked. “May I help you find assistance?”
She scoffed. “I’ve been looking for assistance for two months now. Trust me, nobody gives a shit.” She realized how she must look and began brushing off the cruddy knees of her jeans. “I am having the shittiest life,” she said.
He nodded. “Yes, from your perspective, it must be pretty shitty. If it helps, remember those that have it even worse than you. There are millions of them.”
She shot him a look. Was this guy for real?
“Seriously?” she said.
He seemed to briefly consider this retort, then just nodded.
“Yes,” he said. “In fact, in this city alone, right now…”
She raised a hand. “Look, I know people have it worse than I do, but for right now, fuck them, okay?”
He stopped talking and tilted his head again, like a dog that heard an unfamiliar sound. She felt another giggle escape her. Adrenaline, she figured.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I can’t think about that right now. Right now, I have to figure out how to get my life back together, I have to figure out where I can sleep and regroup. I’ve been on the street for two weeks now, and before that I had a short, painful stay at a shelter, so…” she shook her head. She was babbling. Nervous, still rushing on adrenaline. She wiped a tear away before it could fall and open the floodgates. Instead, she let herself giggle again.
“Oh, Christ,” she said. “What am I gonna do?” And then she felt it coming, but she held it back. She would not start sobbing. That seemed like utter defeat. The dark figure in front of her moved suddenly, and a small yelp escaped her as she started to jump up to fight off yet another attacker, but he wasn’t moving on her. He was handing her his coat. Relieved, she let out a sort of half-laugh, half-sob, and took it without thinking. It just looked so warm, and she needed that. She stood up and put it around herself.
“Thank you,” she said. “And thanks for getting those…” she couldn’t think of a word bad enough, so she just shook her head, “… off me.”
“Happy to help,” he said. “Can I help you find the police?”
She nodded. “Yeah,” she sighed. “I think that might be a good idea.”
And she started to walk toward streetlights, not in any specific direction except out of the park. He walked beside her, keeping a respectful distance. She appreciated that. The last thing she needed tonight was a stranger – or anyone – putting an arm around her. She needed some space. They walked in silence, and she felt okay about this weird man with her. She looked over at him a couple of times. He wasn’t staring at her. He walked in step with her, his eyes forward, scanning the scenery, either for attackers or assistance, she figured, like some sort of sentinel. It seemed silly, she figured, like something out of a movie, but this guy seemed alright. Strange, sure, but if he had wanted to hurt her, he could easily have done so by now. She pulled his coat tighter around herself.
“So you’re new around here?” she finally said.
“Yes,” he replied, eyes still scanning as they walked toward the lights of a road.
“Where are you from?”
“I guess you could say I am from here, but I haven’t been here for a long time.”
“Oh?” she said. She waited for him to explain further, but he didn’t. “You said your name’s Aiden?”
“Adriel,” he said, then he stopped. “I am so sorry,” he said, now turning his gaze to her. “In all the confusion, I forgot to ask you your name.”
She almost told him, but a few weeks on the street makes one suspicious and defensive. “Beverly,” she said. “My friends call me Bev.”
He stared at her for a moment, his small smile set on his face. “Alright,” he said after a moment. “Beverly it is. Unless, of course, you don’t mind me calling you ‘Bev.’”
“No,” she said as they started walking again. “You can call me Bev.”
“Good,” he said. “Then we are friends. How nice for us.”
She scoffed again. “Yes,” she said. “Quite nice for us.”
They had come to the park entrance and walked to the crosswalk outside. There was a police cruiser across the street, the cops inside no doubt waiting for any distress call from within the park. Or perhaps they were just sleeping. Bethany figured if she were sitting in a warm cruiser right now, she’d be dozing pretty soundly. She hoped this little misadventure would at least result in a nice restful night in a hospital bed, or at least in the police station.
“When the light turns green, I will have to let you go,” her new companion Adriel said. “I will stay here and make sure that you get to the police safely, and that they take you in.”
“What?” she said. “Wait, they’ll probably want a statement from you. You know, to back up my story?”
He turned to look at her. He was at least a full foot taller than her, and the way he looked down at her, his eyes took on that all-black appearance again.
“I am afraid I can’t allow myself to get involved in any official capacity,” he said. “They will want identification, a name… these things, I cannot provide for them.”
“Why not?” she asked. She noticed the light had already turned green, but she was hesitant to approach the police by herself. “Are you on the lam or something?”
“On the lamb?” he asked.
“Yeah, why can’t you talk to the cops?”
His dark eyes moved from her to the cruiser across the street.
“It would complicate things,” he said.
Her eyes followed his gaze to the cruiser, and then back to him.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “You’re kind of a hero here. They won’t arrest you.”
“I did injure two people tonight.”
“Well, yeah, but they deserved it! They deserved a lot worse, and I’ll testify to that! Shit, I would’ve killed them!”
He looked back down to her, but his eyes were not as dark as before.
“No, you wouldn’t have, Beth—Beverly.” He caught himself, but she heard him almost say her real name.
“What?” she said.
“Bev,” he said.
“No, what did you almost say?”
“Go talk to the police, Bethany,” he said. “It’s OK, you can tell them all about me, but I can’t be there when you do.”
‘Wait, how do you know my name?”
“I will leave you here,” he said, and started to walk away. She looked from him to the cruiser across the street, and then went after him. This was too weird to let go. And besides, she still had his coat.
“No, wait!” she said, trotting up next to him and matching his pace, which was now slightly faster than the one they had walked with before. “Did I tell you my name when I was… wait, will you stop?” She grabbed his arm. He turned to look down at her again, and again, his eyes looked all black. She instinctively took a step back. When she did, the light must have hit him differently, because now his eyes looked normal again, whites and all.
“Just wait a second,” she said, and smiling weakly, “Come on, I thought we were friends. How do you know my name?”
He paused a moment, then let out a brief sigh. “Talk to the police,” he said. “And then, since we are friends, you can come with me if you like. You may stay at my place.”
“You have a place?” she asked. “Um, yeah, maybe. I thought you said you hadn’t been here in a long time?”
“This is true,” he said. “Doesn’t mean I can’t have a place.”
She stared at him. He broke out a friendly grin, and she had to admit to herself, he did have a kind face.
“Those men are still alive,” he said. “Do what you can to make sure they don’t try that again.”
He had a point. If he was right, and they had gone to seek treatment, then the police might still catch them. She owed it to future possible victims, anyway, to try to get them locked up if she could. She took off Adriel’s coat and handed it to him. It was a long, black coat, heavy, but the material felt very soft. Cashmere, perhaps? She held it out to him. He hesitated, then took it. He reached into one of the pockets and produced a small plastic card.
“Once you have done your civic duty, call the number on this card,” he said. “I’ll take you out for breakfast.”
She took the card, which he held out to her between two slender fingers, and then he turned, throwing his coat over his back, simultaneously sliding his arms into the sleeves, and walked away without looking back. Well, she had to admit, whoever that weirdo was, he had style. She looked at the card. It was a very thin plastic and reflected a spectrum of colors when she tilted it under the streetlight. The number printed on it had too many digits to be a local number. She slipped it into her pocket with her pocketknife and made her way back to the police cruiser.