Guilt

He sat on a bench in the train station waiting room, watching the women. His highly discerning eye sought out characteristics; he had a check list. Women who walked with a confident step were out. The same with older gals. Ladies who looked flustered were never a sure thing; he looked for secondary signs to confirm their vulnerability. Hair undone, short of breath, too much luggage.

He dropped behind a fair girl in her twenties and fell in step.

“I know what you did.” He told her.

She shot him a bemused look and walked a little faster.

“I know what you did,” he said to a harried brunette scrambling through her purse. She shot him a look that said she would flip him off if her hands weren’t occupied.

The morning waned. He filled up his thermal mug with free coffee from the carafe. He was about to write the day off and go home when he spied a promising sight. She was that nebulous kind of pretty that could have been late teens or early twenties, or perhaps even pushing thirty. Hair mouse-brown at the roots, leaking to kool-aid red in uneven streaks. Habitually pulling her skirt-hem down. Fingernails bitten to the quick. Nervous.

He strolled over as if making for the magazine rack behind her, stopping just behind her shoulder.

“I know what you did,” he breathed in her ear.

He was rewarded almost instantly. Her body stiffened, then slouched as if the string supporting her had been cut. She started blinking too much.

“Um, I um, what?”

He repeated himself. She tried to laugh, but the hand holding the map shook.

“I don’t know what you’re…” she shook her head.

Now he allowed himself a small smile.

“I know what you did,” he insisted.

Her mouth fell wide for a moment, wobbling, and shrank as suddenly as if she’d pulled a drawstring. Her eyes watered. Lower lip bunched out. Jackpot.

“Not here,” she whispered urgently, “please, not here.”

He nodded amiably, laying a hand on her shoulder and savoring her repressed flinch. “Of course, of course. If you’ll come with me…”

They left the station.

He let the silence drag on for too long, savoring the moment. The girl had drawn into herself, adopting a kind of waxen catatonia that looked like ardor when he drew her to his side. To any outside eyes (and there were a few, here and there) they looked like a young couple out for a stroll.

Ten minutes in, she burst into tears. It was shameful sobbing, blubbing her shoulders and spilling out her nose. He was still too enraptured in the moment to be disgusted.

“Oh p-please,” she gasped, “please, I’m so sorry, I know it was wrong, it’s all wrong—” she barked out another sob and buried her head in her arms.

He hid his glee behind a stern look. “Well, don’t you think that just makes it worse? Knowing it’s wrong, but still doing it?”

He was rewarded with a fresh wail as she tilted her head back, exposing her bottom teeth. Pretty, white, and even.

He dug a little deeper. “You want to fix it, don’t you? Make amends?”

She shook her head fast and loose, mouthing ‘no, no’ over and over again. He gently steered them to the left in a fork in their path. Up ahead, there was an area where the trail had been cut into a hill in anticipation of a road, leaving canyon walls taller than his head.

“Aren’t you sorry?”

She took a wavering breath. “Ye-he-he-hes!”

“Then don’t you want to make up for it?”

“I can’t!”

He was treading a fine line now. He had been careful to stay vague, but if she caught on now, well…

He shook her a little. She sobbed harder. “Why can’t you? Don’t you want to be good?”

“I can’t! I can’t!”

“Why?”

She stopped crying. Turned to look at him. “Don’t you know?”

They had come to the private place. He sensed control slipping from him, tried to assume a sterner mien to frighten her back onto his plan.

“Of course,” he snapped, “I know exactly what you did. Now you have to make up for it.”

Something was wrong. The corner of her mouth twitched almost into a smile and her nostrils flared and dilated like a hound with a scent.

“You don’t know,” she said, a note of contempt in her voice.

He resorted to shouting. “Yes, I do!”

“No you don’t.”

“I do!”

He pressed forward, invading her personal space, but she was shaking her head now, shaking her head and laughing while tears still streamed down her face.

“You don’t know,” she gasped through peals of laughter, “you have no idea, do you? What I did…oh God, there’s no way back from that.”

He switched tactics, becoming conciliatory. “Don’t say that. There’s always a way.”

She stopped laughing and crying. Looked at him. “Not that.”

Sweat beaded his neck and armpits. He saw her now, past the fingernails and the hair, and wished he didn’t. Her lip curled again in a sneer. Her teeth looked sharp.

He held up his hands. “Look, just apologize and we can forget this.”

She stared at him. Her gaze was so, so still.

A group of retirees on their daily constitutional came across a wet scrap on the trail later that evening, dismissing it as coyote leavings. A porter at the train station noted the insulated mug left on a bench and dropped it in lost and found. When it remained unclaimed a week later, he took it for himself. The only occupants of the bench were train passengers.

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