He saw the woman from behind and thought she resembled Maria. But Maria never wore high heels or a business suit. Her hair was always pulled into a ponytail or twisted into a bun. This woman had sleek hair falling down her back.
The woman paused for a moment to rummage through her purse. As she retrieved a tissue, Carl walked closer. It was Maria. He recognized her despite the mascara trails running down her face and eyes rimmed in red.
“Are you ok?”
Maria looked up at Carl.
“Hey,” she said, so quietly it was difficult to make out over the sound of traffic.
“I just got out of a meeting with our board. I was fired.”
“What? What happened?” Carl wanted to barge in to the meeting room, plea for Maria, describe the unrelenting hope she provided to him. He needed it, he needed her.
“There was a kid staying at the shelter with his mom. He was supposed to be in one of the rooms for families, but he wandered into the men’s dorm. One of the guys had smuggled in some pills. The boy found them, and probably thought they were candy. He’s in a coma.”
Carl remained silent as he absorbed the gravity of the situation. Unsure what to say or do, he kept walking by her side, not saying a word.
“God,” sighed Maria. “These shoes are killing me.”
She stopped walking. She sat down on a bench nearby and removed her shoes. Carl stood next to the bench conflicted. His heart wanted nothing more than to sit next to her, put his hand on her shoulder and offer whatever comfort he could. But he knew the consequences of that action. He wasn’t sure his soul could bear the weight of another late arrival. He reasoned that he had a moment to spare- he hoped so anyway.
“It was my fault Carl. I was on dorm duty that day. I’m supposed to check the bags of everyone arriving at the shelter. I still don’t know how I missed it.”
“Everyone makes mistakes Maria. It’s not your fau…”
She cut him off.
“Don’t say it’s not my fault. This kid could die because I didn’t do my job. You have no idea what that feels like.” Tears resumed trickling down face, giving way to sobs.
Conscious of the clock ticking, wondering if at that very second, he had allowed darkness through the door, Carl could not help himself. He sat on the bench.
“It is not your fault. You didn’t put that boy in the shelter. You didn’t provide the pills. You weren’t supposed to be watching him.”
Carl couldn’t stop now. The words kept coming.
“I know it doesn’t mean much, but you helped me. I know it doesn’t look like it. I never came to your shelter, I didn’t join the programs and get a job and get all better. But you talked to me anyway. You walked with me, and shared stories, and told me jokes. You talked to me anyway.”
Rambling and repeating himself, Carl decided it was time to go. He said what he needed to say. He stood up, wondering if he could make it to the portal in time.
“Wait,” she said.
For an eternity that passed in a second, Carl debated what to do. Stay and let her be the hero, or leave and remain one himself?