Julie heard a metallic screech from below as she gained the landing, of another train pulling into the station. A steady stream of chill October wind blew down from the street above and whipped Julie’s straight blonde hair away from her face. With nowhere to go, the gale slammed into a cold concrete corner, trapping the dead leaves gathered there in its blustering eddy. Julie headed for the last stretch of escalators, checking her wrist watch, as had become her habit, to time the long ride up the mechanical staircase to the top. It was a silly little game, but it gave her sleep-deprived mind something else to concentrate on and forced her memories of last night’s horrors into temporary retreat.
Near the top of the escalator, she twisted to look down toward the fare card machines, shrunken now by distance. Her eyes fell on the man riding at the escalator’s halfway point. From his upturned face, piercing eyes peered from under the brim of his fedora, locked on her. Julie faced forward, and a sudden gust stole the air from under her nose. He was the man who’d been seated next to her, who’d spoken to her on the train. With a sharp inhalation of icy air, she thought back. She’d stood as the train pulled alongside the platform. The man had remained in his seat, as if he weren’t detraining. Julie had had to step over him. Unease was prickling the hairs on her neck. She was still new to the city, but she told herself she should trust her instincts. Something just felt wrong about seeing the man on the escalator when he clearly hadn’t intended to get off at her stop…or did he? Her weary mind sought to excuse her questions. Maybe he was unfamiliar with this part of the city and didn’t realize until the last minute that this was his stop? Perhaps his plans had suddenly changed? She glanced at her watch as she stepped off the escalator and onto the concrete sidewalk. Ten minutes, ten seconds. Not bad, by D.C. Metro standards, she thought. But the echo of another thought reverberated in her mind. Perhaps his plans had suddenly changed.
With a brisker pace than her fatigued legs preferred, Julie turned and headed north up Connecticut Avenue. Her apartment was four blocks from the Metro Station. Even if she could maintain this speed it’d take her seven or eight minutes to get there. And she wanted to get there as soon as possible.
Thirty feet from the escalator entrance the traffic light turned red, forcing Julie to halt at the intersection. She glanced over her shoulder and dread spread through her chest and squeezed her heart. The man in the fedora had arrived at street level. He scanned the south side of Connecticut Ave., and then turned his sweeping gaze north. His survey stopped cold when his eyes fell on Julie, and without looking away, he began to walk toward her. Julie’s head snapped forward, feeling a balloon of panic burst in her gut. Just across the intersection, her darting eyes spied the pastry shop with its glowing sign lit by wavy orange heat lines rising from a garish neon blue muffin. A shrill ringtone shattered the air next to Julie and a startled yelp escaped her lips. The woman to Julie’s right didn’t notice. She glanced at her phone, smiled, and flipped it open. “Stephanie! Great to hear from you…”
Julie stared at the woman’s smiling profile as a momentary sense of calm washed over her. Stephanie. A sign from Stephanie. I should go to the bakery; I’ll be safe there, thought Julie. Maybe it was silly to think her sister was sending her messages from beyond, but so what? The man had to be just feet from her now, only the crowd of pedestrians preventing him from reaching out and grabbing her. Her heart pounded at the thought as the light changed. She bounded off the curb and dashed across the street. Moments later, she slipped into the bakery to the welcoming chimes of little bells hung above the door.
“Good morning,” a robust woman behind the counter called out.
Blindly, Julie moved in the direction of the woman’s voice, watching the whole time over her shoulder and out the storefront windows. The man in the fedora appeared, walking slowly, peering inside. Julie reached the counter but didn’t turn when the woman addressed her again.
“Miss, is everything okay?”
The man with the fedora slowed his pace, looked in with the pinched expression of a game show contestant who's blurted the wrong answer. Or was that the strained look of someone tempted by the rich smell of coffee but running too late to stop? The moment was too fleeting to sort through. She thought she saw one side of his lip curl up into a smile, (or was it a sneer?) before he walked on and out of view. Only then did Julie release her held breath.