Merlin found her on a park bench, staring listlessly at the puddles forming underneath her feet. She had a ratty, tattered umbrella. Her hair, misted with rain, started to frizz. She hated it when the rain did that. He had seen her several times before in his rearview mirrors, walking past his car in the morning, trying to comb her thick hair with her fingers.
He didn't know really why his curiosity peaked whenever she walked past the lot, lots of girls walked to school and work on that route. Now he was staring at a woman from behind a tree like some dirty old man. The rain was beginning to come down harder, and she wasn't moving. Merlin bit the inside of his lip, agitated. Something was off. The woman wasn't waiting for anybody, and she didn't seem to have a mobile. She was just sitting there, staring at the puddles and glancing around as if she was afraid of being noticed. As if she was hoping that, the bench wouldn't give out from under her. As if she was contemplating sitting there awhile, possibly all night.
Was she like him? Homeless? The thought sunk deep in his empty stomach. He hoped she wasn't. She didn't look exactly street smart, wary like the other women and girls he'd seen, moving through the shadows, sleeping soundly on stoops as if they were feather down beds. She didn't look like the type to go on holiday in the woods in a camper either. She looked lost.
Merlin stayed out of other people's business. He really did. He even stayed out of the park, a go-to spot for those just thrown out onto the streets. But the police knew about it, and the park was really too small for living like most of them wanted. He had just been passing through, from outskirts of the city to his car.
Still. If he left, he would keep thinking about her, wondering if she was all right, if she was cold.
He took a breath and resolved to gracefully duck and run if she so much as gave him a warning look to stay away-no use scaring women on park benches or getting a face full of mace.
He knew he shouldn't have stuck his hands in his pockets, but he really didn't feel comfortable enough to walk up to her with his hands awkwardly at his sides. Besides, he had left his gloves in his car and it was getting dark and cold.
The woman didn't squirm or move really when he walked purposefully toward her, never breaking eye contact. She stiffened, defiant. Good girl, thought Merlin. If she was new to this, she was doing it right. She eyed him suspiciously, her knuckles whitening on the umbrella. She would use it as a weapon if she had to.
She was intent on staying there for a while.
"Hello," he offered, a bit too cheerily he thought but she didn't seem to mind. As he got closer, he pointed at the bench, unsure of how to say I-would-like-to-sit-down-but-I-don't-want-to-freak-you-out.
She shifted over to the far left edge of the bench in reply.
A moment of awkward, rainy silence passed and Merlin tried to say something helpful or interesting, but it came out as: "Your brolly's looking a bit worse for wear."
An obvious statement with an obvious answer.
"Yeah," said the woman, a breathy shaky reply. He was making her nervous now. He should go, he really really should go but he couldn't just leave there after just sitting down and making an obvious attempt to talk with her.
"Are you waiting someone?" He was giving her chance to lie now and tell him yes, she was and give him a cautious and graceful way to leave the park and her alone. But the moment has passed and she was still trying to form her words, still trying to decide. She looked desperate.
"Do you have mobile?"
She shook her head.
"No, do you?" She asked.
Merlin stifled a chuckle in the back of his throat. If only he did.
"Erm, no I don't. But…"
Merlin sighed softly and reached carefully into his coat pocket for his wallet. He pulled out a few coins, enough to pay for a phone call in a pub or something, but hardly anything else.
But the woman shook her head again and gave him a polite smile. There was no one to call. She was alone.
"It's gonna get dark fairly soon."
He hoped the woman would take that as a hint she shouldn't try to stay here tonight, whatever the reason she was here.. He wished he had enough for a cab so he could send her somewhere safe. But even then, he didn't know where it was really good and safe anymore.
"Yeah," she said, uncommitted.
Didn't get the hint then.
"You can't be sitting here all night," he said jokingly.
"No, of course not," she said little forcefully. She was a terrible liar. Merlin was better at reading people than most, especially when people were lying to him. So many already had.
"Well, if you get tired of sitting and need coin for a phone call I'll be down the road a ways in the pub."
"Yeah, okay," she said, still a bit shy.
"My name's Cathal," said Merlin offering his hand to her. He didn't like giving out his real name to people he wasn't ready to trust with such information, and he had learned how to lie better than most. His toothy silly grin broke the woman's stiff demeanor and she shook his hand back.
"Freya," she said with an easy smile.
Merlin's grin only faltered a split second.
There was no recognition in her eyes, nothing. They both looked different, her hair was shorter, her eyes maybe a slightly different shade of green, he was skinnier than he ever should be, his ears covered by a beanie. Nevertheless, they were still them in the end. And she didn't remember him.
"Nice to meet you Freya," he said, as he stood up and shoved his hands back into his pockets, still stinging from the moment of contact.
"Nice to meet you too, Cathal."
Merlin nodded and smiled back at her before walking off in the rain, trying to calm himself down before he got back to the car.
He took the long route, feeling shaky all the way.
It didn't help.
He still took a shot, at first calming him down and then it was all stars and suns, the glow of the moon on a lake he knew too well and he still saw those damn puddles forming at Freya's feet.
Merlin sobbed into the cushions of the backseat and finally fell into a restless sleep.