Short Story by Mona Soorma
11th February. 7.26 am
Some are born to be Queens. Even if they are homeless. Even if all they have to their name is a patch of sky and some four-legged creatures.
She was definitely a queen, though why I assumed she was homeless is beyond me. Perhaps because I had never seen her in anything but her mousy dress and a coat that had seen better days. Or that she was always alone and there, with nothing to take her away from her routine.
Every morning, as I crested the rise, I saw her on her bench in the jogger’s park talking to nature’s creatures, sometimes giving them treats from her goody bag. She seemed indifferent to the human race but the furry bodies sat around her as if they had known each other for aeons. I was mesmerised. My eyes devoured her serene beauty without so much as a by-your-leave, my feet dragged a little to give them more time, and it did not get any easier with each passing day to not turn back and stare. I would feast my heart some more as I passed her again at the end of my walk. Occasionally, our eyes met. I liked to think that her gaze softened a little at that fleeting contact.
That day, she wasn’t there. My heart popped into my mouth and stayed there. It was more of a reflex action that made my ageing legs almost run to her spot, looking for signs of her presence. My brain refused to accept that she hadn’t come. She had to have come. She couldn’t desert me! Eventually, I saw squirrels munching on nuts from a half-torn packet. A scrap of cloth was fluttering on a thorny branch nearby. I hurried to find the beat cop.
“Sir, you’ve got to find her! Anything could have happened. She could have been mugged, abducted… Oh, no! Please do something.”
A long list of routine questions followed, none of which I could answer to anybody’s satisfaction.
“You don’t know if she came to the park, who she is, where she lives.” Bored disinterest dripped from his voice. “You want me to look for god knows who might not even be missing!”
Many entreaties and a few greenbacks later, the cop finally made his way to her bench. I already knew deep inside that he would find nothing. Still, for my sanity, I needed to try.
Several minutes of searching revealed some uneaten breadcrumbs and a slightly loose manhole cover. I stared at it, horrid thoughts circling in my head.
“Don’t even think that, mister. Nothing more than a tiny rat could have passed through that. Must have been a lazy worker who ran off to meet his girl before his shift ended.”
I was an open book. And, he was right, there seemed to be nothing there.
I sat on her bench, desolate, gathering whatever closeness I could, while the cop sauntered away, content that he had delivered more than what was required for the remuneration he had received.
I knew I was never going to see her again and the world suddenly looked fuzzy. By the time my eyes dried up, the ants were beginning to think of making an anthill out of me. I dragged myself back home, dreading the next morning.
11th February. 4.36 pm
It was easy to spot her unassuming grey Ford nestled close to the overgrown hedge at the end of the pavement. True to his name, Cougar crossed the road and was inside the car in less than the blink of an eye. He unfolded his extra large frame in the back and settled down to wait.
11th February. 5.03 pm
The lithe beauty shook her dark hair free from the constricting cap and dusted off her slim tights as she emerged from under her car. The bushes ensured she was unseen while she stowed away her muddy coveralls in the boot as far away from her stuff as possible. The stink was terrible and she needed to get rid of them before all her belongings absorbed the gutter smell. As soon as she touched the door handle, her sixth sense told her she was not alone. A quick yank on the door and she was inside, staring into the dark interior.
“What brings you here?”
His only response to her curt, slightly irritated voice was a huge grin. She was a looker and he suppressed the urge to protect her. That was not a part of his job and in his line of work, one didn’t have any feelings. Period.
“Nothing surprises you.” His voice was dark molten chocolate.
“I would probably be dead before I was surprised.” She tossed her head and sat cross-legged on the passenger seat.
“Gary worries about you.”
“Gary is a pain and so are you! If I have to bear your company, you might as well drive and let me get some sleep.” Her smile was at odds with her manner. She quite liked Cougar, though she would never admit to that.
Cougar. She doubted he himself remembered his real name. He was a useful man to have around, but now that he was here, her plans would have to wait. She closed her eyes and sighed.
Without another word, he jumped into the driver’s seat and the car purred to life under his large, capable hands and sped away into the sunset. He switched on the radio and let the baritone of the singer cohabit their comfortable silence.
A few minutes later, the announcer came on with the breaking news.
“In yet another example of the apathy of our administration, the underground sewage tunnel right under Square One is on fire. The firefighters believe that the build-up of gases because of clogged exhaust pipes caused the explosion. The basement of Square One which houses the municipal archives is completely gutted and there seems to be little chance of salvaging any of the records. We are awaiting a formal announcement from the Mayor’s office”
The announcer was rudely cut off by the booming voice on the car’s audio.
“Where are you, Saira?” The system was programmed to pick up phone calls automatically.
Saira debated whether to open her mouth or not. Where would she be? She was irritated. The end of a job always did that to her. After about twenty seconds, Cougar decided to answer that.
“Highway 28, half an hour to the shack.”
“She fell asleep. Quit worrying Gary. You know her.”
“Her new assignment starts next week. Tell her to be ready”
The phone was cut off abruptly and the announcer’s voice came back on, introducing the next song. Saira’s thoughts went back to the breaking news. Her job was a success. Not that she or anyone else doubted it would have been. Still, it was a good feeling.
Cougar began to hum and she fell into a relaxing sleep.
14th February. 7.18 am
Now, I hated the park as much as I loved it earlier. Cresting the mound had become my most dreaded moment of the day. It did not help that today was Valentine’s Day. Perhaps, I should stay at home today, but the urge to go back was too strong to resist. I don’t know what I was looking for. I wish I could cling to hope but something in me knew she was never coming back. I wish I had talked to her, heard her voice… anything that could be called a connection, enough to justify the feeling of loss. I was afraid to give our relationship a name. Relationship? I almost laughed. A few tangled glances and one erratic heartbeat didn’t make a relationship in any book. Slowly, I started walking towards the mound.
It had been three days, and the empty bench had become the new normal. Perhaps, that’s why the shock made me stop at the crest. I gawked at the slender figure putting flowers on a small stack of stones. If she had not been so different, I would have sworn she was her, they were so alike. My mind didn’t register the contradiction. I stood motionless, unable to stop my heart from pounding as I watched the dark-haired beauty in the chic suit near the bench.
Saira could feel his stare sear into her. She took out the small card from her pocket with the words “I love you mom” and placed it under one of the stones she had gathered.
“This one is for you, old man. You need this closure as much as I do”, she muttered under her breath. It was a fitting grave for the park lady. She gave it one final look and walked away before the old man had a chance to move.
She had expected to see him and her plan was foolproof. Her plans always were. That was why she was such an asset to her employers. A tinge of guilt stabbed her for a moment, but she brushed it aside.
“Your fault old man, that you fell for a ghost. Your bad luck too!”
She would miss him.
When Saira was sure she was out of sight, she whistled softly and Alex and Frido, the tan mutts who called the park “home” came running, ecstatic to see her. She opened the back door of her Ford, bundled them in, and eased into the traffic. They would be the perfect mementoes of this life. Gary would skin her alive if he found out what she had done. She suspected Cougar knew, but he would keep quiet as long as the job was not in danger. And she was in between jobs.
She looked back one last time at the park and smiled wistfully. Poor old man.
You could fool a man a hundred times, but the dogs- well, they were another story. They always knew. She tossed a couple of hide-bones for her fur buddies to munch on and smiled happily.
The next song came on, filling the air with the sound of her favourite singer.
“And when you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while…”
Happy Valentine’s Day!
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Mona Soorma is a poet, writer, and translator from India. She enjoys writing in every form and loves to experiment but her genre of choice is poetry. She has authored several books of poetry and prose and is always looking to expand her horizons.
Apart from her writing, she focuses on giving a platform and a voice to Indie writers with her various initiatives to help them along in their journey.
You can find her as manicsylph on your favourite social media.
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