Are You Okay, Miss?

The heels of her boots clacked against the wet pavement, and her steps were firm even though the traction would have kept her from falling. The only light in the water-filled potholes came from the light pollution above the buildings. The rain had stopped but there was a chill in the air, and she had on a long khaki coat that swayed sharply as she walked. Her hair, long and slightly curled, was loose to obscure her face. With strong strides, she realigned the strap of the small bag over her shoulder and securing it under one flap of her coat.

Somewhere behind her on the darkened street, an engine cut. Someone in heavy shoes slammed a car door and started walking. She stepped up off the road and onto the sidewalk. She was being followed.

In her head, she ran through her checklist: she scanned her surroundings keenly but casually, swung her hair off her back and onto her shoulder, and hugged the little bag even closer to her torso. Her car keys were in her coat pocket, and she slid her hand into it and grasped them between her knuckles. Merely a precaution. All the stores and restaurants on the street were closed, and in their black mirror windows she kept an eye at the street behind her.

Someone cleared his throat. With alarm, she realized that the footsteps were closer, much closer than she would have thought possible in that amount of time. She lengthened her gait, not noticeably, but enough to carry her faster, forward, towards the flush of the busy street a few blocks up. 

The throat cleared again, hacked obscenely and spat, and she was suddenly cold despite the coat. He had to be mere yards behind her, judging by the footsteps, but she couldn’t see him without swinging her head around, and that would give her away. Just across the next narrow cross street she spotted a tepidly glowing open sign. She fought the animal instinct to bolt, stepped down off the curb into the street, and then up onto the threshold of the bar. She pushed open the door with her hip, slipped inside, and stepped back out of the view of the window. 

The door jingled tiredly and there was a soft sucking sound as the rubber seal closed again. The place was hardly lit, unaesthetic, and empty except for the bartender, who was eying her curiously as he wiped down the counter. To save face, she sat down on a bar stool. She watched the street through the window, waiting for him to pass. No one did. Stifling a shudder,  she took the bag off her shoulder and rummaged through it. All there was inside was her phone, her wallet, and a chapstick. She never carried much when she was out alone. She removed the chapstick and ran it back and forth over her bottom lip. It was really just a way to look occupied. A better way would have been to order a drink, but she didn’t want one. The bartender was still looking at her. 

“You okay, miss?” he asked. He was middle-aged, beer-bellied, and oily. He had a receding hairline and a shirt that needed ironing. 

“Yeah,” she said without looking at him. “Just on my way home.”

She ran the chapstick over her lip again and again. No one walked past the bar, or in to it. Maybe she hadn’t seen him pass or he had turned back. Or maybe, she reasoned, no one had been following her at all. 

Over the man’s shoulder, she looked at herself in the bar mirror. Her eyes looked glassy and her face was the kind of empty that only came from daydreaming or fear. She pulled in the looseness of her features, smacked her lips, and tried to conceal what she, and quite possibly he, saw: just a shaken woman, by herself. 

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