Thunder rumbled in the distance as storm clouds blocked out the night sky sooner than expected. A woman clutched her too-thin coat around herself as a cold wind blew through it and drove the first frigid raindrops into her face. She fumbled in her bag to find her umbrella and hurried down the front walk from her apartment building to the street. The rain quickly intensified before she could protect herself from it, and her limp brown hair was dripping wet by the time she got her umbrella open. Clumsily swiping strands from her face, she rounded the corner and found her obsolete compact car where she had crookedly parked it early that morning. Getting stuck with the worst work shifts after being on leave for so long, she had been too tired to care about how close she got to the curb or whether she was perfectly within the faded white lines on the pavement.
At least they hadn’t given her job away, she thought to herself as she climbed into the driver’s seat. After a few false starts the engine turned over, and she drove away, wishing she could have had a little more time to rest and recover before returning to the real world. The agency had paid her well enough and had even provided health insurance for her while she was out of work, but that money couldn’t last forever. However, the impending return to near destitution and her awful menial job hadn’t even been the worst of it. Even knowing from the start how it would all end, she could hardly bear the moment when the nurses took the baby away from her and handed him to the picture-perfect couple waiting across the room.
Her vision blurred as she drove through the rain to her job, though whether from her wet hair or fresh tears she couldn’t be sure. Wiping moisture away from her eyes, she scolded herself aloud and turned the radio on as a distraction for the rest of the drive. Sadly, the thoughts that replaced those of the baby she had carried to term and delivered were of the thankless job she was driving to. Upon arriving at the empty office complex, she would don her custodial smock and rubber gloves and set to work scrubbing restrooms and vacuuming cubicles for minimum wage. Every day she wished she could quit, but that would require finding another job. She wasn’t qualified for anything that she might actually enjoy, or at least might not despise, so if a job change would simply be a lateral move, what was the point? Better to just keep what she had rather than risk not getting hired anywhere else and wind up unemployed.
An impossibly bright flash of lightning interrupted her thoughts; when she closed her eyes, her eyelids showed her an afterimage of something large. She screamed and slammed on her brakes, keeping her eyes squeezed shut and bracing for the impact. The car screeched to a halt, probably losing another several months of its already dwindling life. Remarkably, the collision never came; neither did the thunder that should have accompanied the lightning. Slowly, she peeled one eye open, then the other, her hands still gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. Standing in the road, inches from her car’s grill and oddly illuminated by its headlights, was perhaps the largest man she had ever seen. Well over six feet tall, he loomed in front of the car, his massive frame preventing his drenched overcoat from closing around him. She couldn’t tell whether he was muscular or obese because of the coat, the poor lighting, and the pouring rain. She also couldn’t make out his facial features, since his height kept his head out of the headlights’ illumination. Regardless, he seemed unharmed, standing motionlessly in the driving rain and unfazed by having almost been run over. Part of her wanted to back the car slowly away and then drive around him, hoping he would move off the road, or at least not prohibit her from continuing on her way.
Instead, she rolled her window down, stuck her head back into the downpour, and called out to him. “Are you all right?”
A few seconds passed before she got a response. “No.”
His voice was a deep, rumbling growl, not unlike the thunder she had expected to follow the lightning flash from moments ago. He said nothing else, remaining immobile in the middle of the road. Was he really hurt? She hadn’t felt an impact, and he was standing, and she would be crazy to get out of her car on a night like tonight and put herself within arm’s reach of a towering, bulky stranger. But by the time she finished that thought, she had unbuckled her seatbelt, opened her door, and stepped out of the car. If she really had injured him, she couldn’t just leave him here in the pouring rain. She approached him slowly, still trying to discern his features in the poor lighting. “Are you hurt?” she asked. “Do you need help?”
He tilted his head downward to look at her. Being closer to him, she could see that his hair was mostly gray, and the lines on his face gave him a grizzled appearance. His left eye was hidden from view by a black patch, but his right eye seemed to scrutinize her through the rain falling between them. “Julia,” he said ponderously, perhaps with a hint of recognition in his voice.
A cold fear gripped her heart. She tried to take a few steps backward, away from him, but encountered her car’s front bumper instead. “How do you know my name?” she demanded.
He nodded down at her to point out something on her person. “Your nametag.”
She glanced down at herself, seeing the plastic badge pinned to her shirt peeking out from her open coat. “Oh, right, sorry, I…” Before she could lift her gaze back up to his face, something at his midsection caught her attention. The left side of his abdomen appeared to be bandaged, a dark stain marring the white fabric strips. “My god, you are hurt! Let me get you to a hospital, it’s not too far—“
“No,” he interrupted forcefully. “No hospitals.” He closed his coat a little closer, perhaps trying to hide his injury from view. “Not important. Just need coffee.”
Her head jerked back in surprised skepticism. “Coffee?” she echoed in disbelief.
“Yes,” he growled. “Or large amounts of alcohol.”
“Coffee it is,” she replied, her eyes widening momentarily. “I guess I’m driving.”
She hurried back inside the car, hastily pushing her drenched hair out of her eyes again. The man slowly climbed into the passenger’s side, the car lurching as his full weight came to rest on the seat. He had to hunch to fit his head under the roof, and if circumstances were different she would have giggled at the sight of him stuffed beside her into the compact car. Instead, she put the car into drive again and proceeded down the street. “At this time of night, there won’t be much open. Hope you don’t mind greasy diners.”
He didn’t reply, just sat in his soggy coat facing straight ahead. Once or twice more she tried to engage him in small talk, but he would have none of it, so she simply drove them to the nearest place she could find that was still open. Hopefully, this diversion from work wouldn’t take long; she wasn’t at all looking forward to cleaning up after desk jockeys, but she didn’t want to lose her job. A cup of coffee, some smiling and polite conversation, she’d call him a cab, and then she could get on with her meaningless life.