When I step out of my house at 4:15 a.m. three days a week to catch my commuter bus, I am only marginally awake. I’ve discovered it’s entirely possible to drive to the park- and-ride lot while in a dream state. Buildings and side streets glide by of their own accord under the traffic lights’ silky glow. Often, I prefer this time of day because it is so pure, like a beach emptied of tourists. At this hour, Front Royal could be almost any place.
You don’t see too many other human beings at four a.m., not until you reach the park-and-ride lot. I might see one other vehicle roll down my street now and then as I’m getting into my car. Rarely, there’ll be a teenager strolling down the sidewalk to or from the 24-hour McDonalds.
Despite or maybe because of this quiet, I have a compulsive habit of looking in my backseat as I get into the car. Even though I never watch horror flicks, I’m always happy to be safely on my way with the doors locked. About a year after I started my commute, we installed a motion-triggered flood light above the front porch—don’t know if it would scare anyone away but it makes me feel better.
Still, two days ago, I got the most interesting reminder about what undiluted fear feels like. I’d completed all my morning preparations—showered, dressed, brushed my teeth, fed the cat, made my daughter’s lunch. Finally, ready to go, I set the alarm, opened the front door, and stepped out within the allotted 75 seconds. Juggling my laptop bag and purse, I held the door shut with one hand and started to slip the key into the lock with the other.
A guttural shout came from behind me, over my left shoulder. It was completely incomprehensible—loud, rough, and quick. My heart flew to my throat and time turned slow motion as I swiveled toward the sound. I heard words come out of my mouth but I could swear they were slurred, as if I had swallowed a large dose of valium with breakfast. They must have formed something like, “What did you say?” but to my ears they were an aural blob, sheer terror.
The shout had come from someone standing below me on the sidewalk about twenty feet away, a middle-aged woman with short, dirty-blonde hair. My pulse pounding, I asked more clearly, “What?”
“You got a cigarette?” she asked as if we were sitting next to each other at some dive bar, sharing a laugh and a drink. Her voice was all sandpaper and phlegm wrapped up in a southern drawl.
“No, I don’t smoke,” I shouted back, more than a little annoyed and a bit self-righteous.
“Oh,” she said, and shuffled on her way.
I looked around carefully before I got into the car, every sense still on alert despite the obvious absence of danger. She had hardly been a threatening figure, but I couldn’t believe how easily my body locked down, ready to fight or run. It had been a long time since I’d felt that kind of fear. At least this time, it was a false alarm.
I’m still royally pissed at that woman for scaring the crap out of me but the whole incident was so Front Royal. What would my new town be without the middle-aged, early-morning cigarette bummers? If I were still a smoker, I probably would have given her one, maybe had one with her, maybe asked her why she was walking down the street at such an ungodly hour.
Now I’ll never know—unless she has a regular schedule and a regular route that’ll bring us back together at 4:15 a.m. This time, you’d better believe, I’ll be ready for her.