The Kindness of Strangers
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“Gracie, another beer for my new friend here!” The old man – Cliff – called across to the waitress. I thought in one way Cliff was an apt name; he was taller than me and I’m a little over 6 feet, but he was whipcord thin – I had the idea if you could pluck him like a guitar string he’d emit one long, loud and very sharp note – must’ve been around 70 years old but looked like he still worked, no doubt some manual farming job given the area we were in.

We’d kind of met outside the bar in the unlit, cold, slush and ice covered car park. I’d just pulled in looking for somewhere to eat tonight, to have a beer or two and to re-join the human race for a few hours. He’d parked up alongside me in his old pickup, got out and slipped hard on the ice. I was there in a heartbeat helping him to his feet and making sure he was okay.

“That’s mighty generous of you son,” he told me, “I reckon I owe you a beer for coming to my rescue.”

Inside I could see he was well known and liked; greetings were called out in a friendly way. He’d introduced me to the locals – all around the same age as him – and they’d all seemed remarkably appreciative of my Good Samaritan act.

The waitress brought us over two cold beers on a tray, deftly swept them up and placed them on the table, one in front of me and one in front of Cliff. She was sure-handed as if she’d been doing this ever since leaving school around 35 years ago. Cliff picked up the glass in his large and gnarled hand, smearing the condensation into a new pattern. He looked at me over the rim of the glass, “I guess you’ll be wanting to get along soon.”

I nodded in reply.

“Well before you go I wanted to say thanks once more and maybe I can do something for you in return.”

I demurred, it wasn’t necessary, I didn’t need any favours. He brushed that aside.

“There’s something you’re afraid of,” he continued, “Something you can’t face but need to and soon. Tell me what it is son and I’ll tell you how to deal with it.”

His words took me by surprise; how could he have known? I lifted my beer and took a long swallow to give me time to formulate a reply.

“Maybe there’s something in what you’re saying Cliff, but I doubt you can help. I doubt anyone can help.”

He looked back at me and I could feel his eyes tunnelling into my soul, stripping back the layers of protection to reach into my centre. He smiled then, tombstone teeth looking like they’d stood there forever.

“Try me, you might be surprised.”

The nightmare came for me again; I was trapped behind a wall of flame, somewhere on the other side my family were screaming. The universe twisted and I could see it was they who were trapped. I was on the outside trying to reach them. The flames slowly lost their colour, becoming pale, white, then grey before burning black. The screams of my wife and two daughters turned to accusations, threats, abuse: I wasn’t saving them, why was I so useless, why was I letting them die, why was I still alive; they hated me, they cursed me. Their voices drifted away on the wind and the black flames curled into smoke. I was left in an endless desolate land paved with cold ashes. Alone.

I’d not enlightened the old man in the bar, left him guessing or maybe knowing and wondering why I couldn’t speak of it. I’d hurriedly left, climbed into my car not waited for the demister to clear the windshield before I drove out of there. Maybe it had been a bad idea stopping but I try not to add to my long list of regrets so I put it out of my mind. As usual the nightmare left me covered in sweat and feeling sick. It was getting more frequent, I knew I couldn’t run for much longer, the day was getting nearer when I’d have to face what I was most afraid of.

The hotel breakfast sat heavily in my stomach as I checked out and hit the highway still thinking of what the old man had said; could he really have helped? On an impulse I did a U-turn and went back to the bar. Or where the bar should’ve been but in the cold light of today it was an empty lot wrapped in chain-link fencing. I got out of the car to take a closer look; half hidden in the snow and dirt were tyre tracks, they led straight through the fence. I could think of no explanation. Not one that made any sense.

I’d driven a couple miles when I realised I was now heading south for the first time in days; the U-turn had taken me in this direction and somehow the non-existent bar had sent me this way. I was wondering if the bar wasn’t real then where did that leave Cliff and his friends? Was he some spirit or angel with the means to genuinely help me, or someone worse, something sent to make my life harder than it already was? There was no way to tell so I kept driving south.

Three days later I reached home; with a huge sense of relief I saw everything looked exactly as I’d left it. The girl’s bikes were still abandoned on the lawn, my wife’s small hatchback in the driveway. I could see her through the kitchen window looking out at me, her face slowly revolving between anger, hurt and relief. She came running out to meet me. “You’re home! Where have you been darling? I’ve been so worried.”

I mumbled excuses and luckily the girls came running out after their mother with cries of “Daddy! Daddy’s home!”

I pulled all three together into my arms and hugged them forever, “It’s okay, I’m not leaving you again.”

That night the nightmare came again but this time it was different; the flames had not taken hold yet when the whipcord shadow of Cliff appeared. He led me to safety, down the stairs, out through the garage where no fire had reached. In my dream I turned to thank him but he waved it away.

“Just returning the favour son, you saved me and so I saved you.” He looked back at the house behind a wall of flame, starkly lit in reds and oranges while roils of black smoke poured out of every window; the screams had started. “Just a damn shame you took so long in accepting help son, could’ve saved your family as well if you’d been a mite more accommodating.”

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