It struck twelve. ‘Twelve in the night is an odd time to be in a small village, especially for a girl’, a man whispered not very far from me. I cringed at the shaky voice. It heavily smelt of booze. Suddenly, I was not alone anymore, and that frightened me more. The man moved away paces but I could feel his eyes on me. The ramshackle bus-stand grew eerie as I stood restless. I cursed the cabbie of my earlier ride once again for leaving me in such a state of panic. Why can’t they check the tanks for sufficient gas before having a passenger aboard? And just how conveniently, he dropped me off to the nearest bus station about 2 miles from the breakdown, to which, quite surprisingly his cab did not resist at all. Exhaling heavily, I tried to concentrate on my book.
‘But surely, he lived in the nearby village, and wanted to make what little fare he could make out of you,’ said Jessica. ‘How can you be so dumb as to not understand their tricks,’ she fumed over the phone. It was not like I was having the time of my life to endure her reprimands now. ‘Relax, Jess. I’ll be fine,’ I said and cut the call. Well, quite obviously, I wasn’t all right and quite naturally scared of the man on prowl. I pulled the travel bag closer to me in a hope to shield myself and just how in vain! Right then, I wished to vanish inside it.
The waft of hot boiling tea from the tea-stall across the street made me want to run, grab a cup and down my worries with the beverage. But a quick glance around, registered what little the secluded bus-stop held. A couple of men talking animatedly in the regional dialect. A man who seemed foreign in the land, was busy reading a book. An urchin was pestering an elderly for money. That’s all the audience I had around me. And then there was the man casting dirty glances at me. Oh, how long, before the local bus picked me up. I didn’t care where the bus took me; I just wanted to get out of that place somehow.
Once again, I tried to not be intimidated by my circumstance and struggled to find the lost thread from the book. The creepy man came and stood right next to me, barely an inch away, muttering, ‘Can I take you somewhere?’ I was so absorbed in my book that it took a second for me to notice that it was the same man. I flinched. My eyes burned and tears start to well up. I distanced myself from this man and cast a dirty look at him. The man who was reading a book at the far corner left his stance and came and took a seat next to me on the broken bench; poising himself between me and the local creep.
If it was his gesture to shield me, I hardly realized and almost burst shouting. But something about the book that he was reading delivered a different message altogether and I held my words back. Invisible Cities. The same book as I was reading. People who read are a lot better than people who don’t. I always believed that. Quickly, wiping away the tears, I looked up at him. He wasn’t more than thirty and with his glasses he looked a lot younger than that. In a casual black tee, faded denims, and a backpack, he looked like a budget traveler. He didn’t look at me first. But when he did, I knew that that look and that smile would change everything for me. ‘Don’t worry, he wouldn’t dare any more,’ was all he said and was consumed by ‘Invisible Cities’ again.
Twenty-five minutes later, a groaning, screeching local ST bus pulled into the stop. I didn’t look back not until the bus had pulled away and all I could catch of his fast fading figure was the patch on his backpack that read Keith Martin. I wanted to say goodbye; but it could’ve been the start of something, or perhaps a thank you; but that would’ve sounded too meek. I gave up and maybe because I was too subdued to attempt, I boarded the bus. I will keep him safe in the recesses of my memory of that night, that village, but will I ever meet him again? And more than that, will I ever forget that look, that reassuring smile that became my sunshine on a dark eerie night?