One Step by Natasha Bredle
Who is she? You don’t know.
You’ve only found yourself here, on this park bench overlooking a field of winter-bleached grass. It’s cold outside. Frosty wind bites at your nose. The last visitors, a middle aged man and his bob-tailed rottweiler, left minutes ago. Now only you remain, seated on this ugly blue-green bench. It’s made from bottle caps, some of which you donated yourself, after spending weeks and weeks digging through your family’s recycling bin, removing caps from plastic bottles and stashing them away in ziploc baggies.
You should be proud of this unattractive landmark you took the initiative to contribute to, but all you notice is the way the thick planks dig into your pelvis. You wonder if this is how some homeless people feel when they settle down to sleep on benches for the night—the initial bite of the discomfort, followed by that creeping shadow of hopelessness. Perhaps for the first week or so, but soon enough they probably grow numb to it.
At least the girl beside you doesn’t seem to mind it. You don’t think she’s homeless, but then again, you never know. There’s no way you can tell from her clothes or the expression on her face. Usually you’re adept at reading people, but the girl has a different air about her. You can’t describe it, you just know that it’s different. She’s different. Somehow.
It’s strange; she looks straight ahead, to the hill with the flagpole and the parking lot beyond, but you can feel her gaze on you. The air between the both of you is still, as though waiting. You aren’t counting the minutes, so you don’t know how much time passes before she speaks.
She asks you what your name is.
At first thought the question seems childish, the sort of thing you’d ask a fellow kid in preschool. But your thoughts bring you back to junior high, when an English teacher claimed it was the contrary—someone’s name is the most important thing you need to know. According to her, asking someone’s name is the equivalent of acknowledging that they are human. That they have a life separate from your own, with joys and heartbreaks, wants and needs. Not as if knowing a person’s name automatically entitles you to all of that, or even gives you the slightest glimpse beyond the surface.
But when you give the girl your name, you can’t shake away the feeling that you have just opened up everything to her. Even to you it sounds absurd, but the feeling of vulnerability can’t be revoked.
The girl’s lips quirk up. Only a subtle flicker of a smile, but warm. Grateful. She doesn’t offer you her name in return, and you don’t ask for it. At this point, it seems too precious a gift. Yet you still can’t explain why.
With a discreet glance, you observe her face again. Her blue eyes shimmer like oceans, and you quickly avert your gaze for fear that if you look too closely, you really will see waves lapping inside them. Her hair ripples down her shoulders like a silken tapestry. It stands out against the gray day, glowing as if illuminated by a sun somewhere within. Each fine strand is so blonde snowflakes would melt and become one with them. She is beautiful, you realize, but not in any typical way. Not even in any other rare way that some people are. You almost chuckle inwardly, thinking beauty might need yet another definition. Or a new word entirely. Or, maybe there is a word for this. Maybe you’ll find it one day, in a book or a dictionary. And it will remind you of this girl.
“It’s cold outside.”
The girl speaks your thoughts from just moments ago. If her voice has any cadence to it, it’s neutral. Not energized, not depleted. Just there. But there for a reason. And this is what soothes you.
“Yeah,” you agree. “That’s how it tends to be, in December. I probably should have worn a thicker jacket.”
“Don’t you want to go home?”
A shiver runs through you. For a moment you wonder if your lips will stitch together, like they often do when there are things you want to say, but can’t. But no. Right here, in her company, your mouth moves as freely as water.
“Do you ever feel like you don’t deserve home?”
You don’t regret the words once they come out. They merely hang in the air, like docile animals. Birds, maybe. Birds wondering where their wings went.
The girl does not answer your question. But her silence, you realize, is all that you need. It’s a listening silence, an understanding silence. It comforts you in a way words could not, but it also reminds you of silence’s fickle nature, all the ways you have used it in your life, and the times it has used you. You suppose it is like the sea. The sea can be violent and hectic. It can sweep you up into its maelstrom, submerge you over and over again until water fills your lungs and you can’t draw breath. But the sea can also be still, glassy. The reflection of a clear sky, bringing you some sort of peace.
The girl’s silence is of the latter kind, and you find it has given you the composure you need to ask your next question.
“How do you keep going?” You keep your voice low, gentle with the heavy words. “How… how do you keep on moving, when your whole world is crumbling around you?”
You’re worried she won’t answer. You’re worried she might leave you. You fight back the precipitation swelling in your eyes.
But then she speaks, and for a brief moment the cold around you softens.
“It’s easy,” she says. “I take one step. Then another. That’s all.”
Two minutes later, you’re standing in the parking lot, about to drive home. Your car is right ahead of you, but you hesitate before approaching it.
When you left the bench, the girl was still sitting on it. But there are no other cars in the parking lot.
The girl’s last words resonate in your mind over and over, and as they do, her voice begins to sound more familiar. Not the accent, not even the tone. Something… deeper.
Because she spoke with the voice of a stranger whom you’ve never met, but have known all your life.
You can’t possibly explain this. But you were never meant to.
You don’t know what comes next. All you know is that you will take one step, then another.
Soon enough, it may get easier. Or it may take longer than you’d hoped. But for now, it helps knowing that you no longer just believe in angels. You are certain that they are the realest thing on Earth.