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    schwarz: Hesitation

    Far away a woman screamed over and over, terrified, pleading. But faint, so faint that for a moment Al thought they were in his head. Afraid, he looked over at his wife, Laura, who was sleeping peacefully.
    Maybe they were in his head, unleashed by all the liquor he'd consumed at the party. The screams continued for what seemed to be an eternity, but couldn't have been more than a minute. Oh, God, he thought, this is real! What should I do? I'm not dressed, and by the time I get dressed and get out there...

    Call the cops! Yeah! A horn started honking in the distance, over and over, insistent, calling urgently for him, anyone, to help. Al got out of bed. "Jesus," he said, as he pulled on his slacks and slippers and went into the living room. The screaming and honking continuing from afar, almost, it seemed, from another world. He grabbed the phone, dropping the receiver on the floor. Scooping it up, he punched out 911. "Fifth District, Sergeant Walker speaking," said the calm reassuring voice at the other end.

    "There's a woman screaming. Christ, it sounds like they're killing her. You gotta get over there!" "Okay, sir, what is your name and where do you live?" Al couldn't believe the calm in the man's voice, as if he had called to report a dead cat in the road. "You don't understand," said Al, "they're killing her!" "Okay, sir, calm down. First you have to tell us where you're calling from." "Don't worry about where I am," said Al in frustration. "For Christ's sake! The screams are coming from up near the garment district. Probably around Pine Boulevard and Twenty Fifth. Damn it, hurry!" Al hung up and lit a cigarette with a shaky hand. He took a puff and listened hard, but the sound was gone now. Nothing! It had been so faint, so far away, but now it was over. "Oh, my God," said Al as he got out of his chair. He took the elevator down and went out into the hot, humid night. The streets were deserted. He lit another cigarette. The traffic light at Pine clicked loudly, turned yellow, clicked again and turned red. He walked to the center of the empty street and searched the distance. Nothing! No sounds of sirens, no flashing patrol car lights in the distance, nothing! He walked back to the apartment building.
    Christ, it must've been a dream, he thought. Had to have been a dream! That's the last time I'm getting that loaded. I don't give a damn whose anniversary it is, this is crazy! The next day after work he told Laura about the incident. "Oh, Al," she said consolingly, "you must've been dreaming. I didn't hear a thing and I sleep lighter than you." "Yeah, maybe you're right," said Al, feeling reassured. Laura gave him a wry smile. "I think maybe the next time we go to a party you shouldn't drink so much."

    Al frowned. "Yeah, you're right." He wanted to believe that it had all been a dream and that no woman had been violated as horribly as the screams suggested. Yeah, it must've been a dream. But, what if it wasn't? He felt a little guilty about his moment's hesitation in going to the woman's aid. After all, if that had been Laura out there... That evening he searched the papers for news of any rapes or muggings in the Garment District area. Nothing. He read through every paper that week. There was no news of any crime committed close enough for him to have heard the screams. That made him feel better. And when the invitation came from the Turners three months later, he had completely forgotten about the incident. It was early morning as they drove back from the Turners. The sun wouldn't' be up for another three hours and the streets were deserted. Al felt a glow from the many beers he'd had. The tires hissed on the warm asphalt as they rolled down Pine Boulevard and the car seemed to drive itself. Laura leaned against him, sleeping peacefully. Suddenly the car veered to the right as if an invisible hand had grabbed the steering wheel. "Shit," said Al, "what the..."

    He fought for control, braking hard. As the car began wobbling, a wave of relief came over him. "Yo, Al," he said quietly to himself, "come back down to planet earth. It's only a blowout." He pulled the car over in front of a darkened warehouse and looked out the window at the deserted streets. "Of all the lousy places to get a flat!" Laura woke. "What is it, Al? Why did you stop here?" "A flat, damn it. Two lousy miles from home and we get a flat!" He opened the door and got out. "Anyway, don't bother getting out honey. I'll have it fixed in ten minutes." A match flared in the car, illuminating Laura's face. She blew it out. "Honey," she said, the ember of her cigarette glowing as she drew on it, "maybe we could walk the rest of the way and have the garage pick up the car in the morning." "Are you crazy? Walk two miles through these blacked-out streets? Car probably wouldn't be here in the morning, either. Nah, it'll only take me a few minutes anyway." Al pried the hubcap loose and it clattered onto the hardtop, shattering the quiet stillness. Quickly loosening the lugnuts, he positioned the jack under the bumper. He started raising the car, cursing quietly at the loud clacking sound the jack made. Two blocks away, Arthur Downes stormed out of his girlfriend's apartment. The palm of his hand burned from the slap he'd given her. Screw her, he thought. She deserved it. He took his cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket. Finding it empty, he balled it up and angrily tossed it into the street. In the distance he heard a metallic clatter, then a clacking sound. He followed the sound blindly, like a shark homing in on an injured fish in a black night sea. The sound stopped as he reached Pine Boulevard, but by then he'd spotted the car a block down and the lone figure squatting beside it. Al saw the man coming down the deserted pavement and started working faster. By the time he had the tire off, the man was standing over him.

    "You gotta spare cigarette?" the man said. "No, no spares," said Al, hoping the man would keep walking. The man saw the cigarette pack in Al's pocket. "What's that in your pocket, then?"

    You can't show these guys any weakness, thought Al. If you did, they wouldn't leave you alone. "None of your business," said Al. He lay the wheel down and got up. The man frowned. "I ain't askin' you, man. I'm tellin' you. Gimme a cigarette." Al turned to face him. The hatred in the man's face scared him."Give him a cigarette, Al," said Laura with a slight fear from the car. "I have an extra pack." Al quickly pulled a cigarette out and handed it to the man. "Now, if you don't mind, I have work to do." Al tried to keep the fear out of his voice, but it was no use. He could hardly get his breath. He lifted the spare out of the trunk and wheeled it around to the jacked-up side of the car. The man blocked his way. "Gimme a light." Al swallowed hard. He lit the man's cigarette, avoiding the glaring, hate-filled eyes. "Now gimme your wallet," said the man. Al glanced hopefully down the boulevard; it was deserted. "Leave us alone," said Laura from the car, "we gave you your cigarette, now leave us alone." Al tried to push past the man but the man grabbed him around the neck, throwing him down on the street. Al grunted as his knee exploded in pain. "Stop it," cried Laura. "Stop! You can have the money, just leave us alone!" The man straddled Al's back and ripped his pants pocket back to get his wallet. Al reached sideways and found the jack handle. He swung it up awkwardly, striking a glancing blow against the man's shoulder. Cursing violently, the man grabbed it. Stark fear flooded through Al as the man wrenched it out of his hand. The man swung it, hitting Al in the head. Al tasted a warm, salty fluid on his lips. Then, far away, he heard a woman screaming. Over and over came the screams, high-pitched, terrified, but faint. So faint Al thought they must be in his head. Then a horn started honking, over and over, insistent, calling him, someone, anyone to help. Al wondered anxiously what to do.

    Call the cops? Run to her aid? The horrified screams and the honking continued from far away ... almost, it seemed, from another world. Then, as the man struck Al's head one last, savage blow, the screams stopped.

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