Since she started walking to work, she’d realized that most people she encountered in the early morning hours fit easily into one of six categories. The Wanderers were by far the most unsettling. She glanced behind her and saw no trace of the stocky man wearing the Council Rock Field Hockey sweatshirt. She unclenched her fists subconsciously, no longer facing immediate threat.Do guys even play field hockey? she wondered.
She tucked her mousy hair behind her right ear, exhaling small clouds into the frigid air with every step. She wished she could wear her hair in a ponytail, but all the self-defense experts advised against it. Ponytails are very grab-able, practically an invitation to attack, they said.
The Early Birds, as she’d come to think of those out in the pre-dawn hours, fell into six categories – most of them harmless. Men comprised almost ninety-five percent of the people she saw during her morning commute, most women too smart to be on a city street alone during the dead hour.
The dead hour: that narrow window of time after energetic 20-somethings have stumbled home from the bars, but before ordinary 30-pluses have to drag themselves out of bed to report to their soul-sucking jobs.
Every now and then, she’d run into a group of guys who had kept the party going too long. They drunkenly perched near the 24/7 cheesesteak place, gorging themselves on chemical-cheese-products and fatty Grade-D beef at 5:45 am on a Tuesday. Someone from their squad inevitably stood a few yards away, pissing on a parked SUV.
Ah, The Drunks, Jess thought. Category 1. She usually slipped by them unnoticed. But if they spotted her, they barked vile things in her direction, occasionally staggering after her for a block like zombies. It was probably the only Early Bird category she could outrun if push came to shove.
If stagger came to chase.
But for the most part The Drunks left her alone, fixated on whether or not to order another Wiz Wit.
Jess continued down 9th street, tearing past the nearly deserted Italian Market storefronts. When she was the only one on the sidewalk, no Early Birds in sight, she felt a mild sense of serenity. The city seemed almost magical in its stillness.
Further ahead, she knew a handful of ambitious produce vendors would be setting up shop on the sidewalk.
The Workers. Category 2. Jess appreciated how early they got up and knew she’d see the same guys on her walk home that night. They worked long and hard. As she passed, she eavesdropped on their banter while they unknowingly provided her protection by being within earshot of a scream.
Other people fell into The Workers category, too. People like her, dressed in their pressed work slacks and wool coats. Guys in scrubs hastily took a drag off the last cigarette before starting a 12-hour shift. Hookers leaned against dirty walls and lazily scrolled through glowing Instagram feeds. All of The Workers had a legitimate reason to prowl the streets at such an ungodly hour: a paycheck.
For the first time since beginning her commute, Jess noticed that it was an unusually quiet December morning.
People must be in holiday mode and sleeping in, she thought. Lucky them.
She chided herself. She was lucky, too. She finally had a job – and one she liked, to boot – after being unemployed for just shy of two years. It’s easier to get a job when you have a job, the experts like to say.
A LASIK doctor she’d found on Groupon botched her surgery, blinding her indefinitely. Her old company initially supported her as she visited doctor after doctor. Her boss sent a card she couldn’t read and flowers that smelled like roses.
Most of the second, third, and fourth opinions she sought indicated she would heal over time and regain her vision. Other doctors recommended she get more surgery, which she nixed given her already stretched budget. As time passed, her company grew impatient and eventually said Buh-bye.
Who could blame them?
But they let her collect unemployment. Without those checks, she could very well have joined the ranks of Category 3: The Homeless. These guys usually seemed more afraid of Jess than she was of them. One tried to smack her with an umbrella as he yelled Crazy bitch! a while back, but they mostly kept to themselves, huddled close to steamy grates to stay warm.
After almost nine months of doctor appointments and antibiotics, her vision had fully returned. She’d never be 20/20, but Jess didn’t care about that anymore. Her vanity and insecurity over how she looked in glasses had disappeared as the blurry sights in front of her became more clear.
Jess passed over Christian street. She instantly raised her guard, the next four blocks the most perilous stretch of her walk to work. In four blocks, she’d hit South Street, which was practically Center City. Once she hit South, there would be plenty of Categories 4 and 5: The Joggers and The Dog Walkers. Every morning she looked forward to patting Don Draper – a black, scraggly, long-haired mutt – on the head and watching his butt swivel as he wagged his tail in response.
It’s the little things.
But she had to get there first. Christian to South equaled four blocks of darkness and solitude. No storefronts, long blocks, and a park which seemed to attract that scariest of categories, The Wanderers. She kept her eyes peeled for the sober people sauntering around without a dog pulling on a leash. The clear-eyed Early Birds not sporting work clothes or exercise gear. Their hard, appraising stares and lack of purpose sent chills through her already freezing body.
Ahead, a man walked down the rippled sidewalk toward Jess. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt, no coat despite the cold weather. He stood only a couple of inches taller than her, maybe 5’7” tall. When he noticed Jess approaching, he stopped walking and leered at her, hands stuffed in his jean pockets.
Jess studied his face.
Make eye contact, don’t let them intimidate you, self-defense experts advise. Predators like to prey on the weak.
Her doughy face did its best to produce a scowl, her eyes narrowed to slits. She looked him dead in the eye as she passed, her pace matched only by her thumping heart. After hurrying ahead another half block, listening carefully for any noise behind her, Jess glanced over her shoulder. The man had continued down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. Triumphant, Jess reveled that South Street sign stood just a few yards ahead.
* * *
Matt shuffled down the street, getting his bearings after last night’s unexpected tryst. He realized with a smirk that Marilyn had been his first true One Night Stand. He’d met her at a bar he didn’t go to very often. He went back to her place knowing he’d never call her or – hopefully, see her – again. Her childish voice grated on him. She was overly flirtatious, trying way too hard to turn everything into an innuendo. The sex had been vanilla.
But, hey, sex is sex, he thought. He’d felt immense relief as he slipped out of her house without waking her up and having to pretend that he would text her later.
He stopped dead in his tracks as he realized his keys were not in his jeans pocket. They must have fallen out at some point the night before. Fuck! He kicked himself for not wearing a coat, which is where he usually stashed his keys. But he didn’t want his good winter coat to reek of smoke after spending an evening at The Dive.
He stood on the sidewalk considering his options. He could go back to her apartment, knock on the door and wake her up, and get his keys back. Or he could go home and try to break into his own apartment or call a locksmith to let him in.
He stood, brow furrowed, and decided that it would be easier to break into his own home than endure Marilyn’s squealing voice and, God forbid, a breakfast invitation. He looked up to see a woman rush past. She stared angrily at Matt; he thought he may have heard her growl.
I wonder what the hell her problem is, he thought.