Was it her father, who had saved her? No: it was the black soldier, touching her arm now ever so gently. It was morning already, and the time, he showed her on his wristwatch, was exactly 7:00. His shift, guarding her, was over. Though the rifle was still on his lap.
She shook her head when he asked her whether she wanted some coffee. As suddenly, time was important again. She was yet to fully comprehend why. But she was in a hurry, and needed to catch the train.
How did he know to wake her up on time, she couldn’t tell. But she returned the favor and gave up on the idea of the taxi, when he insisted on leading her to the station. As this part of town, he explained, was a dangerous place for a girl like her to be walking alone. Even the taxis were no good here, he said, hanging his rifle back on the wall. He then opened the door for her, and that when she noticed – was she still dreaming or what – a bullet hole in the door; which wasn’t there, she could swear, when she entered the room last night.
Outside, a new day greeted them with lucid blue skies. The rain had gone away, leaving everything in mint condition. And again, she pushed his wheelchair while he directed her and protected her all the way, a long way, to Union Station. Where he refused to go in with her: it was time for her to walk alone, and go home. And for him, it was mission accomplished. She was safe.
She hugged him and kissed him on his broken lips. And he held her hand long and strong.
“Be happy, child. Your father is alive.”
“How can you tell?”
“I’m an old dog in this game,” he cracked a smile. “And if anyone ever ask you how you know he’s alive, you just tell them because I told you so.”
“You told me so?”
“That’s right, my child. Phantom John told you so.”
And only after he’d said that, he released his hold on her hand and turned his wheelchair around. And rolled away from there so fast, he was gone in a second. Disappeared like a morning breeze. Like smoke in the air. A phantom.
Joy was left alone, gazing after him for a long, long time. Until finally, in spite of herself, she turned around and entered the station. And soon boarded a train that would take her back to Chicago, then Springfield. Back to face her mother – the mother who had lied to her. Lied to her because she was hiding something from her, Joy was certain of that. She was hiding the truth, maybe: a secret. A buried secret she was going to unearth, no matter what.
* A short story excerpt from my novel: Very Narrow Bridge.