It was a brisk night. Barry turned off and locked the automatic doors at Sterling’s Sports Superstore. The parking lot was empty, save a few random cars. Barry wrestled with the zipper of his windbreaker, finally getting it to catch. He wore pleated khaki pants and had on tennis shoes that glowed with pristine whiteness. He enjoyed the quietness of the night. The tension built up from the day began to melt away.
For a moment, Barry sat behind the wheel of his car trying to forget about the day. When he was first promoted to assistant store manager, Barry swelled with excitement. He believed his life was on the up and up—better wage, more respect, more opportunities. The compensation turned out to be nominally more and he was no longer capable of earning overtime pay—though he consistently worked fifty or more hours a week. Most of the other employees at Sterling’s were snotty high school kids or tired single moms trying to put in some part time hours on top of their other jobs. By day, all Barry had was this dead end job. During the cover of night, he had something else.
Barry rolled down his windows and let the cool air run through his thinning hair. There was a hush over the town as he drove through the suburban side streets. He tried to remember the last time he was on this side of town. It had been quite awhile. Oak Gate Estates seemed like a promising enough neighborhood. Lucky for Barry, there wasn’t a gate guarding the entrance. He grinned at the irony.
Though he had no particular destination, he drove with a purpose. Barry knew what he was looking for, and he would find it when he found it. He drove slowly, so as to carefully inspect each house, though he made sure not to drive so slowly as to draw attention to himself. It was a still night in the suburbs; the children had all gone in for the night.
After driving for fifteen minutes, Barry found a promising home: 1704 Evergreen Lane. On first glance, it looked like any other house on the street. It was a two-story brick house with a child’s bike left in the front yard and a minivan parked beneath a basketball hoop. On the surface, it looked like any of the neighbors’ houses, but the details made it perfect. There was no gate separating the driveway from the backyard. No gate meant no dogs. No dogs meant no barking or biting. From the street Barry could see a large wooden play set, complete with monkey bars, pirate flag, and a covered slide. A few lights remained on in the house, but there wasn’t much activity going on. Barry hoped that the kids had been put to bed long ago. They were always such a wildcard. He had had a couple of close calls with kids before, nothing too monumental, but enough to make him wary.
This house is perfect, Barry thought to himself, this will make up for the lousy week I’ve had at work. I need this.
Barry continued to drive. A few blocks away, he parked his car and began walking to the house on Evergreen Lane. The cool wind tickled the back of his neck, sending a chill down his spine, then deep into his stomach. He noticed his pace had quickened. Barry smiled to himself and slowed down. Relish it all, he thought. He kept his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. In the right hand pocket, he felt and fingered the smooth leather grip of his very small, very expensive binoculars.
Each clandestine step Barry took up the driveway was well thought out and planned. He crept behind the minivan. The kitchen was in this back corner of the house and he saw someone milling around in there. He stayed low behind the van, trying to keep his breathing steady. His eyes scanned the garage and adjacent backyard. There was a single motion sensor searchlight above the garage. Barry knew from research and experience that those sensors have a very limited range and could only pick up swift movements on their far peripherals. Barry remained crouched as he snuck up the driveway to far side of the garage.
Once behind the garage, Barry stood up and stretched. His legs ached. If I want to keep this up, I better join a gym or something, Barry thought. The last thing I need to do is cramp up in some stranger’s driveway. How would I explain that one?
Barry went around the garage and was in the backyard. Only thirty or so feet stood between him and home base: the jungle gym. From there he would have an elevated view with plenty of cover. He took a deep breath and prepared to make a run for it. He was confident that he would appear to be nothing more than a passing shadow in the night from the fluorescent kitchen. He made a silent b-line.
In the fortress, Barry nestled into the perfect spot. His legs were dangling down the covered slide, the walls of the play set guarded his upper body, and his head stuck out enough to see, but not to be seen. This was the only time Barry felt excitement anymore. It reminded him of playing hide-and-go-seek as a child. Barry was never the best at finding the other kids, but none of them could hide as well as him. He would sneak off into some forgotten nook and play the waiting game. Some days he would remain hidden long after the call of ‘olly olly oxen free’ hoping the other kids had already gone home in fear that someone else would discover his masterful hiding spot.
He took out his binoculars and focused on the figure in the window. She was a plain and unadorned woman, and Barry saw great beauty in that. Her long chestnut hair fell across her face as she prepared the next day’s lunches and tidied up about the kitchen. She wore grey sweatpants that hugged her waist and hips and an old ratty t-shirt that hung loosely from her shoulders.
In utter bliss, Barry watched this woman going about her chores. He knew that others might find this sort of daily drudgery dull, but not Barry. Watching people—particularly women—alone, living their life filled him with ardor. If a woman happened to take off her blouse, Barry wasn’t about to look away, but that’s not why he watched. He watched for companionship.
Barry decided her name was Gail.
After she finished with the lunches, she started to put away the dishes. Then she wiped down the countertops and looked over the kitchen with a quiet sense of accomplishment. She seemed to be done, but Barry bit his lip, hoping their encounter still had some life in it.
She went over to the counter and picked up a white pill bottle and swallowed a couple of whatever was inside. Then she ambled over to the far side of the kitchen, as if she were leaving, and then opened the pantry door. She grabbed a box of Milano cookies, picked up a magazine that had been resting on the counter, and took them over to the kitchen table. Putting her feet up on the chair opposite of her, she flipped through her magazine and nibbled on her desert. I bet this is the first relaxing moment Gail’s had all day, Barry thought. She must live such a toilsome and thankless life. I’m glad we can share this peaceful break from it all.
But as suddenly it had started, their tranquil moment had slipped away into the current of life. The magazine was tossed aside and the empty cookie package disposed of. Getting up, the woman Barry named Gail stood over her garbage can, staring at it, as if trying to determine whether to make her son take it out in the morning or do it herself now. She pulled the bag out of the trash and made her way outside. Barry slid further down into the slide, shrinking away from being caught.
Barefoot, she stepped out into the night giving a sudden shiver. She tiptoed toward the trashcans lined up on the side of the garage. After disposing of her family’s garbage, she took a couple steps toward her house before collapsing onto the unforgiving driveway.
Shocked, Barry’s heart crashed through the jungle gym, to the earth below. At first, his mind was blanketed by fear, unable to process a single thought. Then, he squeezed his eyes shut and began to mouth a silent prayer, “Dear God, oh dear and merciful God! Please let Gail be safe. What is happening here? Please don’t hurt her to punish me! Don’t do this to her. Don’t do this to me. Please help this sweet, beautiful woman!”
Barry opened his eyes to scene of terror. His Gail had begun to shake and vomit on the lifeless concrete. The last thing he wanted was for something bad to happen to this beautiful stranger, but he did not want to have to leave his hiding spot. That would only create more problems. I’m not a bad man, Barry reassured himself. But if I do nothing to help Gail, I’d be loathsome. How can I hide here and peer on like some scientist watching mice die?
Never before had Barry interacted with a person he had watched. Doing so would shatter the essence of the relationship. While watching, Barry felt safe and in charge. Gail was a widow who sacrificed herself for the happiness of her children. She read mystery novels and enjoyed the guilty pleasure of reality television. She was kind and beautiful and understanding. But what if she wasn’t? To come face to face with a subject would force Barry to come to terms with their life, their reality.
Off in the distance, dogs were barking back and forth at each other.
I’ll count to a hundred. If Gail doesn’t move by then, I’ll call an ambulance. It’s the only decent thing to do, he reassured himself.
“…98, 99, 100.”
Barry crawled out of his hiding spot and stealthily inched away from jungle gym and garage, going around the opposite side of the house. He scurried across the front lawn and up the driveway, as if he come upon her while taking an evening stroll.
He knelt down beside her. Her shirt was covered in vomit and her eyes were glazed over. “Hello, miss, are you alright?” He waved his hand in front of her face. No reaction. He lifted her head up to give to some support and put his hand in front of her face. He felt her warm breath on it. Barry thanked his God that he she was still alive. She coughed, then groaned.“Can you hear me? Are you there? Please get up.”
Barry removed his phone from his pocket, paused, looking at the small plastic device in his hand like it was some sort ancient guillotine. He glanced back at this woman, possibly dying in her own driveway, in the arms of a stranger.
“Hello, operator? I’ve found a woman passed out outside of her house. She’s lying in a pool of vomit and seems unresponsive. Send an ambulance as quickly as possible.”
“Sir, first things first, can you tell me where you’re at?”
“1704 Evergreen Lane. We’re in the driveway, near the house.”
“An ambulance is on the way. You need to help her until they arrive. Hold her head up so she can breathe. Is she conscious?”
“Umm, I don’t think she can see me, but she moaned a second ago. Is she going to be O.K.?”
“I need you to talk to her.”
“Huh? What will that do? I don’t even know her.”
“It will keep her attached to the world and help her stay conscious. Just talk to her. It doesn’t matter about what. The paramedics will be there shortly. Please do as I say if you want to help this woman.”
There was a brief silence.
“Sir, can I count on you to help her?”
Hesitantly, he replied, “Yes.”
“Great. The paramedics will be there shortly.”
Every fiber in Barry’s body told him to flee. How could he explain being in a residential neighborhood miles from his home and work at this hour of the night? He felt her hair tangled in his hands and could smell the rank vomit.
“This season’s New Balance PB3000 promises to be their best walking shoe to date…”
After Barry had worked his way through the shoe department and on to camping goods, he heard the sirens in the distance. His basic, animalistic instincts told him disappear into the night. But wouldn’t that look more questionable than his simply being there? He kept speaking to her as the flashing red and white lights filled the yard that seemed so tranquil less than thirty minutes ago.
The EMTs rushed out of their trucks toward the woman on the ground, carrying their tools and equipment. One of them asked Barry a number of questions which he responded to in mumbled half-words. They put her on the gurney and started moving her towards their truck. During this distracted moment, Barry found his chance to slip back into obscurity and darkness.
As he faded away from the scene, Barry watched on. He watched the paramedic hopelessly look for him. He watch two terrified children emerge from the house. He watched one of the paramedics try to assuage their fear. He watched the ambulance trail off into the night.
Barry called in sick for the next two days. He felt overcome with apprehension and confusion. He rarely left his bed, replaying the incident in his mind. For the first time since he could remember, Barry felt proud of his actions. He had saved a woman’s life while putting his own well being in peril.
On the third day, Barry went back to work, back to his life. He felt drawn away as he sold tennis rackets and restocked fishing bait. After he got off work, Barry sat in his car for fifteen minutes trying to decide where to go. He chose Presbyterian General Hospital.
Though he didn’t know her real name, or what hospital she was in, Barry was determined to find her. He needed to make sure that she was all right. He told himself that he needed closure. Going unnoticed had never been a problem for Barry. He wandered the frigid, sterile halls, just another body in the chaos. After three hours of patient scouring, Barry was satisfied that she was not at Presbyterian General Hospital. Good thing, too, he told himself. They really did a number on Uncle Robert when he had his stroke.
The next evening, at United Healthcare Hospital, Barry found her. He stood idly by the nurse’s station on the third floor, when a nurse entered a room carrying a tray of food and water. In the moments before the door closed, Barry found his Gail. She looked pale and lifeless, connected to machines like some sort of science project. Barry had a skip in his step as he walked down the hall toward the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee.
Barry thought he’d be satisfied knowing that she had made it through the night. But as the days passed, he found himself incapable of letting go. He wandered the halls, read magazines in the waiting area, and kept an eye on the woman from 1704 Evergreen Lane. He was able to pick up more about her status and her life as he listened to nurses and watched her loved ones stop by, carrying elaborate flower arrangements and stuffed animals. Her name was Samantha Toulaisse, she was the mother or twins, a boy and a girl, and she was happily married. Her husband, Doug, traveled regularly for work, and had been out of town on the night of his wife nearly died while taking out the trash. A brain aneurism had caused her sudden collapse and the only reason she was alive today was a shy man out for a late night walk.
As Samantha spent the next two weeks recovering in the hospital, Barry was there, orbiting her, watching over her as she healed. One night, Barry overheard the nurses talking about Samantha’s discharge. She would be leaving on Friday.
While driving home, Barry felt an unraveling in his chest. She’s better now, she doesn’t need me anymore, he told himself. Gail is alive and well, and should be for sometime. Hanging around the hospital was fine. It’s a busy public place. Anyone can be there. I can’t keep this up. I’ve always watched a moment unfold and fade away into the mess of life. This moment was a little different, a little longer. I’m not a stalker.
Friday night, Barry took off work a little early. He said he was feeling nauseous. Mr. Sterling grumbled about how he hated closing, but let Barry go. He knew he could never find someone to work such a lousy job for the peanuts he paid. A full moon hung heavy in the sky, as Barry got out of his car and started to walk toward Evergreen Lane. Even though he had been there before, knew the shadows and the corners, Barry heart raced. He had never gone back before.
He snaked his way into the backyard, back into the cover of the jungle gym. Inside, the Toulaisse family had just sat down to dinner. Chinese takeout containers were strewn across the table. The boy was drumming his chopsticks across the table, hitting his plate, the containers, then finishing his solo on his sister’s arm. Samantha laughed, and then took to a coughing fit. Doug got up from the table, filled a glass of water, and brought it to his wife. He placed his hand on her shoulder as he bent down to kiss her forehead. Samantha grasped his hand with her tiny fingers, taking solace in his coarse skin, and then went back to her meal.
It was a typical family dinner. No tragedy or drama, no different than the millions of other families eating across the country.
Barry watched, filled with satisfaction. This will be the last time I see Gail, he vowed. It’s over, wrapped up in a beautiful little bow. He remained watching through dinner, clean up, desert, until all the lights in the house had gone out for the night. He lingered a moment, not wanting it to end, but knowing it had to.
He slid out of the jungle gym, and took a full stretch in the backyard. It was over and Barry wasn’t worried about getting caught. In full confidence, he left, passing within a foot of her backdoor. He let his hand slide across the cool metal of Samantha’s minivan. He paused at the foot of the driveway, looked back, and then left for good.
Barry’s life went on in the same humdrum fashion as it had for years before Samantha Toulaisse had an aneurism while he hid in her children’s jungle gym. He continued working towards the dead end at Sterling’s Sports Superstore. He continued to watch people behind the shroud of night, though it had lost some of its previous luster. He felt at times as if he was going through the motions, like a couple too tired to get divorced.
It was late spring, baseball was in the air and Barry was busy at work. Crouched on the ground, he was discounting winter merchandise. He had a pile of hoodies, varying in size, style, and color. With an ancient looking tagging gun, he covered old barcodes with day glo orange stickers reading ‘1/2 Off!’
He soon found that the store’s fluorescent lights had become eclipsed. A figure loomed over him. His knee aching, he stood up to find himself face to face with Samantha Toulaisse. He felt a lump form in his throat.
“Gai…uh…how can I help you today, miss?”
“I found you,” she said.
Alex Gallegos is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. He currently lives in San Antonio with his wife Kelly and their dog, Fifi. He enjoys cartoons, beer, and Mexican food.