A Brief Encounter
by Noah Miller
by Noah Miller
Paul and Isla looked at the door and then at each other—confusion spreading over their faces. Music from the movie behind them was building towards something. Paul reached for the remote and paused it.
Rain pattered the roof and trailed down the gutters. Isla looked at Paul but he shook his head, as if answering the question she was thinking. He didn’t know who it was.
The knock rang out again—cold and deliberate. It was searching for a response.
Paul gave Isla a look, then climbed out of the blanket and crept towards the door. The light from the street lamp, cast a shadow of a person through the side window. He tried to assess their size and shape but found nothing to hint at who it might be.
He looked back over his shoulder at Isla and nodded—more to convince himself than her. She returned a look of worry. Quietly, he pressed his eye to the peephole and looked out. It was an old woman dressed in a hospital gown. Her cheeks were loose and grey and the skin of her head shone through her hair like a knee through torn jeans.
Maybe from the hospital, he thought. She looked scared, confused, probably lost. He opened the door. “Ma’am?” he said.
Her face was wet from the rain. “They’re coming,” she whispered.
“Ma'am, can I help you? Where are you from?”
She lifted her gown to expose her calf and revealed an ankle bracelet. “They know where I am. You have to hide me. Please, I need a knife.”
Above the band, the woman had a half-inch wide scab that ran up her leg and disappeared into her gown.
“Did you come from Saint Augustine’s?”
She looked passed him. “A knife. I need a knife.”
“The hospital? Ma'am?”
Isla walked up and put her hand to Paul’s back. “It’s okay Paul. She’s cold. Let her in.”
Hesitantly, Paul nodded and stepped back to let her in.
She rushed inside and pushed the door closed behind her—taking care to lock the deadbolt. “They’ll be here any minute.” She looked around the room.
“I’m not giving you a knife.” His words were absolute.
“Scissors then, please.” There was a tremble in her voice.
Paul contemplated whether complying or ignoring her held more risk.
“Here, let me help you,” said Isla, taking the woman’s hand and leading her to the kitchen. “Why don’t you make the call,” she said over her shoulder to Paul. “And I’ll keep her busy here for a moment.”
Paul found the number to the hospital on his phone and dialed. An automated machine walked through a series of prompts before he was able to reach the operator. “Hi, yes. I think we might have someone who walked off from your facility,” he said.
“Does she have a wristband?” the woman on the other end asked.
“Isla? Does she have a wristband?”
There was a moment of silence.
“No,” he said into the phone. “She’s got one of those ankle bracelets though.”
“Okay then, does it have a number?”
“Do you see a number on there?” he called out.
“I don’t know. There’s a serial number or something. Is that it?”
“What’s the number look like?”
“It should have—”
“Actually, ma'am? Can you just send somebody? We don’t feel so comfortable with this woman here and—” he paused. “I don’t know if she needs meds or not, but she looks scared and I don’t think we’re helping.”
The woman was understanding. “Okay then, I’ll send them the request. What’s your address?”
He gave it to her and hung up the phone. He walked back to the kitchen and found Isla. “Where is she?”
She shook her head. “She took off that way. Hiding, I guess?”
“You left her alone?”
A look of confusion spread across Isla’s face. “What was I gonna do? Chase after her? Hold her down?”
“At least watch her. What if she hurts herself?”
He walked down the hall and found the closet door cracked open. He peered around the corner and saw her kneeling with her legs tucked beneath her gown. Wet strands of hair ran across her face.
“This is where I’ll be,” she whispered. “I flushed that little tracker, but it may have been too late.”
Paul felt a shiver run through his body. “Okay,” were the only words he could find.
He shut the door slowly, so that it returned to where he found it. There was some relief in knowing she might stay put and that at least someone was on their way. As he walked back towards the kitchen, he saw Isla standing at the end of it. Through the darkness of her silhouette, he saw a smile of disbelief spread across her face. He smiled back and let out a slow exhale.
When he reached her, he took her by the hand and led her into the kitchen. The rain was coming down harder now.
"I've gotta be honest,” he said. “This whole thing makes me incredibly sad.”
Isla motioned for him to watch the volume of his voice.
He continued in a whisper. “Whoever this woman is, she's lived her entire life—nearly a century of stories and friends and memories—all lost, just vanished from her mind. And here she is in our house, lost and confused, and her head is playing tricks on her." He shook his head. "It's not even a good trick—like she's a famous actress or that any minute her family will knock on the door and come to visit. It's some shit nightmare—a world coming to get her."
"I know. Did you see her eyes? They were terrified. I'm not sure I've ever seen someone so freaked out in my life." Isla stopped—her face lost in thought. "How can something so obviously fake, feel so real?"
They stayed in the kitchen and continued talking until they were interrupted by a knock. Paul looked out the side window and saw two men. The man in front’s hair was matted tightly against his head and his nose had a well-defined crook in the middle that cast a long shadow down his face from the porch light. Paul walked to the door and opened it.
“Evening,” the man in front said. “Hate to bother you on a night like this. Did an old woman come by here by chance?”
Paul leaned in and whispered. “She’s scared. Thinks you’re coming to get her. So I’m going to say no. But yeah,” he nodded. “She’s here.”
The man smiled. “Smart.”
“Haven’t seen her,” Paul said loudly. Then in a whisper again. “Down the hall, first door on your left.”
The men were big. They’d have no trouble getting her. They walked in and slowly, carefully, crept down the hallway.
Isla nudged Paul.
He looked at her and mouthed the word “What?” to her.
She nodded her head towards the men. Paul looked but saw nothing, so turned back and shook his head, confused. She tapped her hip. He looked back and saw a gun holstered to the man’s waist.
He leaned his head towards Isla. “Probably security,” he whispered.
She smiled, but he wasn’t sure she agreed.
Suddenly, the closet door banged open and the old woman let out a blood curdling scream. “No!” she shouted. “No! God! No!” She was crying.
The men pulled her out of the closet. She kicked and flung herself away from them, trying to break their grasp. The bigger of the two men locked his arms around her chest and the other grabbed her feet and together they hoisted her into the air.
The old woman’s eyes locked on Paul’s. “Help me!” she screamed. She twisted her body violently in an attempt to pry herself from their hold.
Isla grabbed Paul by the arm and squeezed. “It’s okay,” she said to the woman. “Please don’t do that to yourself. They’re taking you home. They’re going to make you better.”
The woman ignored Isla and continued thrashing about.
Slowly, the men walked her out the front door, struggling to restrain her—her voice still shrieking for help.
“Thanks and sorry for the inconvenience,” one managed to say.
They closed the door behind them, but it did little to shield the woman's screams.
Paul and Isla stood together in the doorway. Isla closed her eyes. When she reopened them she was looking at him. "This doesn't feel right Paul."
His face tightened. "I'm sure it's fine."
"She seemed so scared. Did you see her face?"
"That's dementia." His stomach felt hallow. "You lose grasp of what's real and what's not."
Isla didn't say anything but her face had turned pale and she looked like she might throw-up.
"I'm going to go look," she said.
Before Paul could respond, the door was open and she was headed outside. Quickly, Paul threw on his shoes and followed behind.
When they rounded the corner, they saw the men shoving the woman into an old van. The car was once a bright orange, but now a dirty copper and the paint was peeling away from the steel.
The side door slid closed and the men removed their badges and tossed them into the dirt alongside the van.
Isla's eyes widened and filled with tears. "Oh fuck." She started for the car.
Paul fumbled for his phone. "Get the license plate number," he shouted.
Before the front doors had closed, the engine fired up and the car began moving in reverse. It swiveled backwards, stopped, and then launched forward—wheels chirping on the wet pavement.
Suddenly, a deafening pop rang out and the windshield splattered red. The roar of the engine fell away and the car swerved right. Then a second pop pierced his ears and the window went opaque behind a thick sheen of blood. The car rolled into an embankment and jolted to a stop.
In the silence that followed, Paul tried to find his breath.
The back door of the car slowly opened and the old woman crawled out. In her hand, she held a gun. A trail of vapor rose form the tip. The heat of the metal against the night air, churning steam into existence.
She looked to Paul and Isla. Her eyes were distant and lost. She opened her mouth and put a finger to her ear, making small circles with her hand as if trying to flush the ringing from it.
Then her eyes narrowed. She dropped the gun and turned to Paul and Isla. She held her hand up—her thin fingers stretched high—and flicked her wrist at them as if saying, "What in the world were you waiting for?"
She limped away down the street, muttering something to herself that Paul couldn’t make out. As she reached the edge of the parking lot, a white van with the words “County Hospital” printed on its side, pulled in past her.
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