Coincidence or the answer to his emptiness?
This is the completed version of a story I wrote in first draft while Medium readers “watched.” You can read that first draft with in-progress comments here.
Evening fell hard that night. Its blackness descended while, oblivious, I fought to balance my overdrawn checking account. Outside, the night-chatter of frogs and hum of insects rose in the dark. I neither heard nor felt their presence until, an hour after sunset with an orange gibbous moon rising in the east, I pushed back from my computer, ran my hand through my scraggly, sandy hair, and gave up. Only then did I noticed them, their calls enveloping me like the chatter of old friends. Increasingly these nights, I felt grateful for their unseen companionship. Aside from them, I had no one. I had moved out here three years ago to the middle of nowhere, Montana to get away from people, but sometimes, when the night closed in, I longed for someone to talk to.
At first, life here had seemed idyllic. Back in Denver, I’d known nothing but loss and irritation. No family left, no true friends, not even any colleagues I particularly liked. A failed law student, for twelve years I’d shuffled papers and appointment calendars for a modest law firm. It paid well enough, but the grind and office politics wore me down. I ended each day feeling like I’d been run over by a sixteen-wheeler. I tried to lie to myself, tried to convince myself it would get better, that personnel changes would moderate the politics, that the work load would ease. But no. Finally I realized the insanity of contenting myself with discontent. I chucked it all — job, condo, everything — and fled here to make a living off the internet.
No, I didn’t go off half-cocked. I planned my upheaval. I hatched a scheme to earn money writing legal blog posts, supplemented by advertising. I even wrote up a business plan. I just hadn’t realized how hard it was to translate dreams into reality. And now? After three years of struggle, insolvency loomed as large as the rising moon. What I needed, I thought with some desperation, was a guardian angel to knock on my door and fix all my problems.
Yes, I actually thought that, leaning on my elbows at the kitchen table, staring into my laptop screen, hiding in my cabin in the woods. I nearly fell out of my chair when immediately someone hammered on the door and a woman’s voice, brimming with desperation, cried, “Is anybody home?”
The coincidence was too much. I felt my insides flip but could only stare at the door. The pounding subsided for a moment before resuming with increased vigor. “Please, is anyone there?”
Her plea moved me to action. I hurried to the door and flipped on the porch light. Without removing the chain, I cracked the door. I’m not sure what I expected to see. A tall, ethereal beauty affixed with white billowing wings, maybe.
In fact she was rather small, only five foot five including the thick brown hair flowing over the crown of her head and pulled back in a pony tail. Her dark eyes blinked at me in astonishment, or maybe fear. Dressed in a short green skirt and white blouse, she clutched a little white purse before her with both hands.
“I’m sorry,” she nearly cried. “I’m really sorry.”
Feeling like an idiot scared of his own reflection, I undid the chain and eased the door open. “For what?”
“Do you have a land line? I can’t get any reception out here.”
I peered into the night but couldn’t see a vehicle. She must have had car trouble out on the road, I supposed. My cabin was set a quarter mile up a gravel drive. Nobody would walk up here in the dark by choice.
Whoever she was, she didn’t seem dangerous, so I opened the door wide. “Yeah, come on in.” While she scanned my spartan one-room as though it hid mortal traps, I closed the door behind her and refastened the chain. “Car trouble?”
“Ran out of gas. Stupid of me, but I really thought there would be a gas station.”
I gave the room a once-over, too, fearing it might be too messy for such a pretty visitor. The kitchen in the back corner wasn’t exactly choked with dirty dishes, but I hadn’t cleaned it up today. My bed in the opposite corner — a queen because I tended to flop around in my sleep — was unmade but didn’t look too disreputable. Although I hadn’t yet lit a fire in the tiny stone fireplace, uncleaned soot and ash had accumulated there. Its smell suffused the air.
Her nose wrinkled as though she had only just noticed. “You live here alone?”
Wasn’t it obvious? “Yeah. Here’s the phone.” I led her to the kitchen and retrieved the device from the table.
She took it and studied it as though she’d never seen one before. “I just realized, I don’t know who to call.”
“Family?” I suggested. “A friend?”
She shrugged. “Don’t have any.”
“Me, either.” As soon as I said it, I wished I hadn’t. I had no interest in forming bonds, however tenuous. “I don’t suppose you’re a triple-A member?”
She shook her head. “I’m pretty hopeless, I guess. Do you have any gas, like for a lawn mower?”
“Afraid not.” I didn’t bother telling her lawn mowers were of little use in a forest.
She pulled out a chair. Although distraught, she slipped into the seat as easily as if it were her own kitchen. “I guess I’m stuck.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll find emergency service for you online.” I sat around the corner from her, in front of my laptop. Only then did I realize uncleared dishes from dinner — and lunch, and breakfast — cluttered the table. I pushed as much of it aside as I could to give her room. “Sorry about the mess.”
She regarded the clutter without much interest. “I guess it doesn’t seem so important when it’s just you.”
“Depends on the day.” I entered search terms into the computer and located the one and only roadside emergency service in our area, a place over thirty miles away. “Here we go. It’ll take them a little while to get here.” I turned the computer so she could see the number.
“Thanks.” She turned away as if by so doing she might secure her privacy. I heard the beep of numbers being punched into the phone, then she set the device to her ear. “Hi, I ran out of gas. Could you send someone out?” She listened, gave our location, listened some more, and signed off with a resigned, “Okay, thanks.”
She handed the phone back and gazed at the darkness beyond the kitchen window. “Three hours.” She sounded miserable.
I couldn’t send her out into that dark to wait on her own, yet I didn’t want company. I came out here to get away from people. Why, I asked nobody, did this woman have to run out of gas here of all places?
She glanced at me as though she’d heard. It was stupid, but the fear that she might be able to peer into my mind embarrassed me. “You can stay here,” I offered by way of contrition. “I’ll walk you to your car when the time comes.”
She smiled gratefully while objecting, “You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s okay.” Which it wasn’t, not exactly. Yet my shame at having wished her away melted in her smile, and I realized how good it felt to have someone understand. Assuming she did. I might have been imagining it. But so what? If nothing else, sheltering her would give me an excuse to ignore my financial mess until tomorrow. “You want something? Coffee? Tea?”
“Coffee would be nice.” Her smile persisted, warmed me, and I found myself returning it. “But really, I don’t want to be a bother.”
“It’s no bother.” I got up, flipped on the coffee maker, and took a pair of mugs from a cupboard.
“Sure it is. You don’t like people, do you? I’m an unwanted intrusion.”
I felt myself flush. She could read my mind, after all! “I’m a bit of a loner, I guess.”
“Where are your parents?”
“Dead. Their house burned down. Faulty wiring, the fire inspector said.” As the coffee dripped through the machine, I turned to face her. I’d answered automatically and wished I hadn’t. I didn’t want to open that wound, not tonight, not in front of a complete stranger. In fact, we’d missed a few steps in the process. Why hadn’t we introduced ourselves? “What’s your name?”
She gave me a coy smile. “What’s yours?”
“I asked first.”
“So you did. No brothers or sisters, I guess?”
I shook my head and turned away. The interrogation should have irritated me, but I couldn’t manage anger. Her questions forced me to acknowledge the deep hollow in the pit of my stomach, a void carved out of me years before.
“No woman in your life?”
She laughed. “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em?”
Why would she ask that? Did she have designs on me already? Had I sparked her pity, ignited her interest, or inadvertently fanned her desire? I couldn’t see how, but such thoughts imposed themselves upon me anyway while the coffee finished brewing. Forcing a few breaths to steady myself, I poured and brought the steaming mugs to the table. “They can’t seem to live with me. Best you don’t even think about it.”
“Hmm.” She took the mug in both hands. Her face melted in ecstasy at its warmth. “I’m not thinking anything. You’re the one who called me.”
Not understanding, I watched her drink the whole mug in one long swallow, steam curling about her face, her eyes never leaving mine. She had beautiful eyes, eyes you could fall into and never find your way out of. “What’s your name?” I asked again.
“Take your pick. I have so many. ”
She held out her mug to ask for more coffee. I hadn’t touched mine yet and found I had no interest in it, so I pushed it to her. “Your real one will do.”
With a nod of thanks, she wrapped her hands around the mug and lifted it to her lips. She blew on the steam. “Zoe.”
I laughed, probably because I’d been expecting something more common, like Susan or Mary. “Like the second Doctor Who’s companion? You don’t look a thing like her.”
“She was named after me.” Zoe drank down her second mug in one protracted gulp, then delicately wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Who do I look like?”
I didn’t know, but something about the shape of her face and the turn of her mouth reminded me a bit of my mother. A fragment of anguish rose in my throat and tried to choke me. I forced it back down. “I have a strange feeling you know. In fact, I’ll bet you know a lot more about me than I know about you. How is that possible?”
She held out the mug. “I don’t want to impose, but . . .”
I got up and gave her a refill, which she downed as quickly as the first two. Then, setting the mug gently on the table, she rose. “I should go. If I stay, I’ll run you out of coffee.”
“Go where? You need gas.”
“Nah, I just said that so you’d open the door.”
She crossed the room and started to undo the chain on the front door, her movements slow, elegant, hypnotizing. I suddenly realized I didn’t want her to go. I didn’t know why. I only knew that if she left the night would close in again, and I couldn’t take that anymore. So I rushed after her. “Wait! I don’t know who you are. I don’t even know what you are!” Reaching her, I put my hand on hers to keep her from turning the knob.
“Oh, so now you want me to stay.”
Her rebuke jarred me as though she’d slapped my face. “I . . .”
She smiled and enfolded my hand in hers. “For now, that’s enough.”
A moment later I was alone, not remembering when or how she had slipped through the door, or even if she had. She could have dissolved into mist and floated up the chimney for all I knew. And yet, even though she was gone, somehow she lingered. Here at the door. There at the kitchen table. In the smell of the coffee and the chirp of frogs in the night. She filled the place, and so I knew she wouldn’t be on the road when the emergency service drove by. I checked my phone’s call list, thinking I should tell them not to bother, but I couldn’t pull up the number. No call had been placed that night
Still, Zoe was real. She lingered for days, never out of my thoughts. I wondered who she was, where she lived, how I might find her. I looked for her online, but with only a first name it was a fool’s quest. Could she live in a nearby town? I forced myself to venture out of the cabin to find her, but to no avail. I talked with servers in mom and pop restaurants, with gas station attendants, with librarians, with the well-to-do and the poor going about their daily business. Nobody had ever heard of Zoe or anyone quite fitting her description. Not with her thirst for coffee, anyway.
Now, a strange thing happened while I searched. As people learned who I was, I started to help some of them. While not a lawyer, I knew something of the law, and from time to time someone would ask advice. I could at least guide them to services or answer basic questions.
The further I ventured, the more I gave, the less I craved solitude. Not that I abandoned my cabin. It remained a safe retreat at the end of the day, surrounded by the sounds of night creatures, the crackle of a fire, the smell of coffee, and the memory of Zoe’s smile. Yet I began to see I needed others at least a little, and just possibly others needed me in turn.
Because of Zoe, I’m rediscovering the world. But then, how could it be otherwise? For I know what she is now. She’s not just any woman. She’s . . .
Oh, you’d never believe me. Go look her up for yourself.