Somewhere in a small Midwestern City. 7:10 a.m.
She was late for work. Again. Since her husband, Bill, walked out three months ago, everything seemed an effort, and getting out in the morning, hardest of all. Some mornings, she overslept the alarm. Today, it was finding enough clean diapers and formula for the baby to leave at her mother's.
And now she was hurrying to the bus stop, praying she'd catch the quarter-after bus so she'd make it across town by eight. If she was late one more time, she'd lose her job for sure.
"Miss? Excuse me? Miss?"
The voice seemed to come out of nowhere. It was raining, and the morning was dark and very gray. The shops were still closed and there was no one out yet at this hour, so she hadn't really been paying attention and she almost passed him. When she looked up, she saw a man in a rumpled business suit standing by a phone booth. He had no overcoat, no umbrella. His tie was askew and the rain had slicked his hair and soaked clear through his jacket.
"Miss?" he said, "Could I trouble you for a dime?"
Pleasant, polite, but she detected a hint of urgency in his voice. If they'd met downtown in broad daylight, she wouldn't have thought anything of it. But in this place, at this time, having him ask her for money like a beggar was more than a little odd.
She almost pretended to ignore him, almost kept walking quickly past. But when he called out again, her charitable instincts got the best of her and she stopped and turned.
"You need a dime?"
He offered her a rueful smile. "Ah — yeah." He patted a torn pocket. "Seems I'm out of change."
That wasn't his only problem. As she drew closer, she noticed the suit was expensive, but it'd been through the mill. There were also faint, black smudges on his cheeks and dried blood at the corner of his mouth.
"Have you been in some kind of accident?" she asked.
"You could say that." He wiped at the blood with his knuckle.
He might have seemed scary, except that he didn't look like a derelict or a mugger at all. He had a kind, decent face.
"Okay," she relented, and handed him her umbrella so she could dig into her purse. As he held it over their heads, he watched her search, waiting patiently, suppressing an agitation that nevertheless radiated from him in waves.
Finally locating her change purse, she cracked it open and discovered it was empty. "Sorry," she said, embarrassed. "Tomorrow is pay day." She plucked out a crumpled dollar bill instead.
He shook his head, regretfully. "Sorry. I need change. For a phone call."
As she renewed her efforts, she suddenly heard the telltale rumble of a large engine idling somewhere up the block, and the snuffle of air-compressed doors opening.
"Oh my God," she said, glancing up, her fingers still burrowed deep in her purse. "That's my bus. I gotta go."
But before she could, his hand shot out and gently, but firmly, grasped her arm. "Miss — please." She didn't doubt he could swipe her purse in a second, but instead, his eyes merely bored into hers, imploring her.
"Jeez, mister, you act like this is a matter of life and death."
"I'm afraid it is." He sounded sincere and that surprised her.
"Okay," she said again. Could a phone call really be so important? Making up her mind, she unzipped a hidden inner pocket and fished out her bus fare: a quarter and a dime, thirty-five cents. When she passed him the coins, he snatched them up in his fist in triumph, returned her umbrella, and dashed into the phone booth.
She waited a moment, trying not to eavesdrop, but from the few words she overheard, she knew the man was calling his uncle. In the distance, her bus was pulling away from the curb, but what did that matter? Now she'd have to stop at the candy store anyway, to break the dollar and buy a newspaper she probably wouldn't have time to read.
With his phone call finished, the man rejoined her long enough to offer her a heartfelt thanks. "What's your name?" he inquired.
"Helen, you should be very proud of yourself. You just saved the world."
"Oh yeah?" she laughed dryly. "Well, tell that to my boss, Mr. Sanderson. Because the next bus isn't for another fifteen minutes, and if I'm late, he's going to fire me."
The man considered a moment. "Do you have a pen and something to write on?"
She found a ballpoint in her purse, but all she had for paper was her lunch bag. He scribbled a phone number before handing back her pen.
"You tell your boss to call that number and I promise you, Helen, you won't be fired."
She glanced at the number. It was long distance.
"Here's your quarter," he said.
"Keep it," she replied, finding a smile. Rain was streaming along an unruly lock of his hair and down his forehead. "You look like you could use a cup of coffee."
"Thanks," he said, returning her smile. Then he hurried off, around the corner and was gone.
As it turned out, she did arrive late after all, and Sanderson was indeed fit to be tied. But she tore off the phone number and gave it to him, and after he disappeared into his office for ten minutes, he came out with a strange look on his face. He even offered her a grudging apology.
"Wow, what was that about?" her friend, Dorothy, said, looking up from her typewriter.
"Dunno," Helen replied, sliding behind her own desk.
"How come you were late again?"
"I was helping some guy save the world."
From behind her, Dorothy chuckled huskily. "That's a good one!"
"Yeah," Helen agreed as the realization washed through her. "It is, isn't it?"