The Stranger

By Dillon Armstrong

My parents always told me to never talk to strangers. “Don’t speak to anyone you don’t know,” my mom repeated on an almost daily basis for at least five years. My dad warned me about candy, vans with tinted windows (or none at all) and weird, greasy mustaches. Okay, he didn’t describe them as greasy, but I think you get the picture of a man with a creepy mustache. They ran through every synopsis possible: the stranger with candy and a van, the stranger in a van looking for his dog, the stranger at the park by himself, watching the children. . . . The list goes on, but they made sure I knew to never speak to strangers.

They also taught me to help those in need. “For every three shirts you buy, put an old one in the Goodwill pile.” “Go give that man a quarter, he’s not as fortunate as you.” Every Thanksgiving we volunteered at the church to serve dinner. At Christmas we gave out stockings to the homeless filled with necessities such as socks, gloves and lotion. We donated to canned food drives, we donated books needy children, we sent care baskets to troops overseas, and my parents even donated to the World Wildlife Fund and adopted endangered animals at least twice a year.

Long story short, my parents taught me two lessons growing up: 1) don’t talk to strangers, and 2) help anyone in need, even if they are a stranger. I always followed the first rule. It made me feel safe as a child when I walked home from the bus stop or went trick-or-treating. But when it came to helping others, I wasn’t the best person. If my parents weren’t around I didn’t just go up to a stranger on a sidewalk vent and give them money. After all, those people were strangers to me and the whole scene could be a set-up to kidnap a child. In a way, this gave me anxiety.

As I stood at the door, staring at the man on the other side, I wondered what my parents would say. They never gave me advice for this kind of situation. Was I supposed to stay away from the stranger or help the person in need? I wasn’t even sure where I was. The moment I saw the man I spaced out. The sight of him confused me: red streaked all over his sleeves and hands and face, eyes wide, out of breath like he just finished a marathon.

“Dude! Come on!” His voice pulled me away from my thoughts. He was staring straight at me, not bothering to blink. “Let me in! Hurry up!”

Had he asked to come in? I couldn’t remember. I was just getting ready to leave the restaurant. The rest of the employees had already gone home, and I was on my way out the door with the deposit when he bombarded the door. Luckily, I hadn’t made it out the door and he accidentally pushed it shut on me. I locked the door before he could open it. The only thing I could think of was that this man was going to rob me, and for now I was safe locked in the restaurant.

“Wh-why do you need in?” I asked quietly, my voice trembling a little.

He looked confused, like a teacher explaining something for the tenth time to a student who just doesn’t get it. “He’s going to kill me! I just told you this, man! Come on, open up. Please?”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry. . . I don’t know you. I can’t just let you in.”

“What?” He sounded like he was going to cry, like a child who just found out their pet just died. He banged his fist against the door and bass filled his voice. “Open the damn door! I’m going to die out here!”

What was I supposed to do? This wasn’t a decision I could make. I wasn’t adult enough to make a serious decision like this, I couldn’t even decide what to get for dinner last night and drove around for thirty minutes before going home and making macaroni. I wasn’t even a real adult for that matter. I was twenty-one, didn’t have a real job with benefits, was going to community college part-time whenever I had a few extra dollars for tuition, and I still lived in my parents’ house in the same Star Wars themed bedroom I had in middle school. I wasn’t equipped with the ability to make serious decisions.

Without thinking, I opened my mouth and said the stupidest thing possible. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.” I said it with so much confidence that, at first, I thought it sounded good.

“Are you kidding me? I am going to die if you don’t let me in right now!” He wrapped his sticky red hands around the door handles and began violently shaking the door. “Let me in!”

I couldn’t let him in. I couldn’t justify any reason to let him, but I couldn’t justify any reason to leave him out there either. That was the problem. If I let him in I was doing one of two things: saving an innocent man from being murdered, or inviting a stranger inside to rob or kill me. And if I left him out there I was doing one of two things: protecting myself from a stranger who wanted to rob or kill me, or letting an innocent man die because I was afraid to help him.

But how did I even know he was an innocent man? What if he was guilty of something? Maybe he was caught sleeping with a married woman and her husband was going after him. Did he deserve to die for that? Or maybe he had already killed someone, and the police were after him. Then if I let him in he might take me hostage in a massive police shootout. In any case, I did not even know whether this man was innocent or guilty of a heinous crime.

Did any of this make me selfish? Did my concern for my own life blind me from helping someone? Like I said, I rarely ever helped people in need when my parents weren’t around. But this was clearly different, right?

“I’m sorry,” I said to the man. “I can’t let you in. I have no idea who you are or what you might do.” His eyes were still wide, but his face fell into a sour mess. As he started screaming and banging the door, I pushed the trash cans in front of the door, and then a table and then some chairs. I wasn’t sure how this would keep me safe, but for now it made me feel better. I stacked the chairs so it would be harder to see him, and then I slinked across the dining room and slid down into a booth facing the opposite wall. Directly across from me was another door, facing the highway in front of the restaurant. Lines of cars passed by, headlights shining bright against the darkness of the night sky and the trees that surrounded the area. How did none of them see a man banging on the door and screaming? And if the police were after him, how had they not found him yet? I had no idea how long it had been since he showed up, but surely it was long enough for the police to find him. Maybe he wasn’t running from the police, but he could still be running from the angry husband. And who am I to get in the way of a scorned man seeking justice for the vows his wife broke?

I was too tired to be dealing with this. I stayed slumped in the booth, watching the cars go down the road, oblivious to the weird man outside. At least five minutes passed without anything happening. The headlights from the cars driving toward us lit up the window, and I saw the silhouette of a man making its way from the end of the building to the door across from me. This had to be the husband. He found the man that was boinking his wife and was ready to kill him. But where was the man at? I hadn’t heard him for the past couple minutes. He stopped banging and screaming. As the shadow got closer to the door I slid under the table. Not that it was going to do anything, but it made me feel better, just like the trash cans.

I held my breath, scared that breathing would give away my secret location to the shadow. Now there was a full body at the door, and as it got closer I could see his face. I let out my breath, relieved that it was the red-soaked man. It wasn’t actually a relief, but for whatever reason, it was better than seeing somebody come to kill him.

He locked eyes with me as he leaned into the door.

“My name is Will.”

“What?” I asked. Why did I need to know what his name was?

“My name is Will. You said you can’t talk to strangers, but I’m not a stranger. My name is Will.”

“Stop. I don’t want to know your name. Just leave so I can get out of here.”

He shook his head, a tiny laugh escaping his lips. “Please. I seriously need help. This man is going to kill me.”

“Well go somewhere else,” I said. “There are plenty of other stores down the road. Stop a car. Call the police.”

“You think I’m that dumb? I’ve already tried everything. All the other stores are already closed and empty. I ran here down the road and not a single car stopped to help me. And I don’t have my phone with me, I lost it when I was attacked. So please, I am begging you, let me in. You can save my life.”

I closed my eyes and let my head roll back against the wall. I seriously just wanted to go home, take a shower, and crawl into bed.

“My name is Will. I have a wife named Helen. We have four kids, three sons and a daughter. Their names are Jason, Kevin, Mark, and Abby.”

I knew exactly what he was doing. I’d seen it in plenty of movies and TV shows. Whenever you come face to face with a killer, you’re supposed to give them as many details about your life as you can. It’s supposed to make you seem more human, or make them softer or something. That’s exactly what he was doing. He was making himself not a stranger. And I couldn’t do anything but listen.

I don’t know how long the stories lasted, but it felt like an entire lifetime. Abby was the only girl on her soccer team and she broke a boy’s tibia when she accidentally kicked him. Jason was on the honor roll and wanted to be a doctor. Mark had the most badges in his Cub Scouts troop, and Kevin was named after his grandfather who fought in one of the wars of the 1900’s. Helen was a school teacher, and Will was a bank loan manager.

It took me forever to realize I was crying. What was wrong with me? Here was this man telling me his entire life story, and I was too afraid to help him get away from a killer. But I needed to know more. I didn’t care about his kids or wife. I needed to know what he did that put his life in danger.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Huh?” “Why is someone trying to kill you? What did you do for that to happen to you?”

He pressed his forehead against the door. “Look. I’ve told you everything about me. I can only promise you that I won’t hurt you, but it’s up to you to believe me. You are the only person tonight who has even bothered to pay any attention to me. I don’t know how long it will be before he finds me, but I need help. I don’t know what else you want me to do, all I can do is beg. I can give you my kidney if you ever need one, but you have to help me in order for that to happen.”

“Stop! Just leave!” I was still under the table, my arm wrapped around is leg like a child hanging on to one of his parents. “There’s nothing I can do for you. Just. Go. Please.” I squeezed my eyes shut. I realized that in all this time I had not even thought of calling the police myself. I reached in my pocket and pulled out my phone. Opening my eyes, my heart sank. Two percent battery, and the only charger I had was in my car. If I tried to go for it, he might rush me. I looked at the door again, the man leaning his entire body against it, staring straight at me. It seemed like he wasn’t even blinking. I just want to go home, I thought as I took my chance with the phone. I slid the screen up and hit the emergency call button. It rang twice.

“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”

“Yes, hi, um. . . I’m locked inside and there’s a man outside trying to get in. He says someone is trying to kill him, but I don’t know what’s true. Please, I really need help.”

“Alright, I need you to slow down and tell me where you are. Can you do that for me? I need an address.”

“Um, yeah. It’s four-three-six-eight Timber Road.”

“Okay. Now does he have any weapons? Has he tried to physically harm you?”

“I don’t know, I’m locked inside. He’s bloody, and he keeps asking me to let him in. I can’t tell if he. . . hello? Hello, are you there?” I pulled the phone away from my ear. The screen was black.

“Damn it,” I whispered to myself.

“Who was that?” His voice broke the short silence.

I looked up at him. “The police are on their way. They’ll be here any minute.” Was it true, though? Sure, they had the address and I told them what was happening, but what if they didn’t come? What if they forgot, or got busy with something else? Is that how the police work? I’ve never even called the police before, what if 9-1-1 wasn’t the number I was supposed to call?

My eyes were heavy. I could feel the dried tears on my cheeks. My entire face felt disgusting, my nose stuffy and dripping and my lips wet from all the crying. I tried to stay awake. I tried to force my eyes to go as wide as they could, but nothing worked. I fell asleep, clinging to my parent-table for protection, praying that this man—Will, the stranger—wouldn’t find a way in.

I could hear sirens. My eyes opened. Everything around me was blurry until I rubbed my eyes, rubbed myself into another galaxy of swirling colors and stars. I opened my eyes again, this time to a clear picture. Where were the police? I could hear the sirens, but nobody was around. I crawled out from under the table and stood up, my joints stiff from being so cramped. What time was it? The sun was starting to spill through the windows. I pulled my phone out of my pocket, forgetting it was dead. I looked around. Where was Will?

“Hello?” I called out. I was half-expecting an answer from inside the store, but there was nothing. Was he gone? My eyes made their way around the dining room, stopping at every window and checking underneath every table. I tiptoed to the counter and peered into the kitchen. Nothing as far I could see. I reached into my pocket and found my keys, pressing the unlock button and sliding the key between my fingers in case I needed shiv. This was my chance to get out.

I made my way to the main door, where I first met Will, and pushed it open. I stood still for a second, waiting for Will—or his killer—to jump out and come for me. But nothing happened, so I stepped through the door. My car was only a few steps away. I just had to get inside and lock the door. My feet carried me down the sidewalk to the car. I stepped off the sidewalk, reaching my hand to the door handle, but instead of opening the door I went down. My back hit the ground hard, my head next. I could feel something wet on my shirt. I felt around, my hand landing in whatever was wet. I held my hand in front of me, covered in red, dripping onto me.

I pushed myself up. Staring back at me from the back of the car was Will, his skin pale and his eyes permanently open. “Oh my god,” I whispered. His arm was stretched out in front of him, and his hand was wrapped around a crumpled piece of paper. I crawled forward, aware that I was about to touch a dead body and the killer may be waiting for me, and pulled the paper from his hand. It was a picture, smeared with his blood, of five people: Will, his children, and his wife.

My parents told me not to talk to strangers. I tried to listen. I tried to follow this rule, but it was hard. I spoke to him, even if it was just to tell him I couldn’t speak to him or help him. And now he was dead. I spoke to him and he died. Was this my fault?

We did a project in second grade about helping people. We made little baggies for homeless people and handed them out, and we volunteered at nursing homes and pet shelters on weekends. Mrs. Baker, the teacher, was so proud of us. She posted pictures of us on a bulletin board outside the classroom and wrote a short play about the power of helping others, which we performed for the school. We were even in the newspaper, and my parents cut out the article and framed it. What would Mrs. Baker think about this? She would probably be ashamed. “You had the chance to help someone, but you failed.” But surely she would understand the situation, right? It was life or death, and I chose my life over his. He was a stranger, and he was so much older than me. I couldn’t risk my life, only twenty-one years old, for his. Mrs. Baker’s face flashed through my mind. Blond hair, blue eyes, a freckle underneath her right eye, a gold necklace in the shape of a heart that she wore every day.

I looked at Will’s body. Mrs. Baker would just have to be okay with it. Besides, she wasn’t even involved in this. She was just a lesson, a voice from my childhood, that I carried with me. It’s not like she remembers me or knows Will. I was reasoning with a lesson I learned when I was eight, nothing more. I grabbed the door handle and pull myself up. This picture was still in my hand. I loosened my grip, getting ready to drop it, but Will’s wife caught my eye. I tried to wipe the blood away from her as I held it closer to my face.

She had blond hair and blue eyes. There was a freckle underneath her right eye, and she was wearing a gold heart-shaped necklace. Mrs. Baker was going to be so ashamed of me when she found out what happened.

 

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