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Old Portland, Oregon from the Phantom's postcard collection

Claire Smith,
by Dianne Kochenburg


Dianne is the editor of Clever Magazine. After 25 years of publishing Clever, she has finally written a short story set in Portland, her hometown.

 
Claire Smith, her new name, now lived in Portland, Oregon, over 3,000 miles away from her former life. She was about six months into witness protection, and was getting reluctantly accustomed to being on the west coast. 

Everything about her was different. The US Marshals, who run the witness protection program, turned her into somebody else. Everything about her. She was 25 pounds heavier. Facial surgery included a nose job, chin job, new cheeks, she wasn’t exactly sure what all they did to make her face look so different. The healing took a while. Then voila, a stranger in the mirror. Even her crooked front tooth was capped. She now wore glasses and her hair was brownish, with a few highlights. She no longer wore four-inch heels, or tight black clothes, or bleached and spiked her hair. No painted fingernails, or flashy jewelry. People used to comment on how tall and thin she was, now she stood an average five foot six, and wore Portland clothes, rain coats and low-heeled boots, bulky sweaters, and mom jeans. These days nobody even noticed her. She blended into the crowd. 

The marshals had worked on the way she walked. Of course, that hadn’t been easy. After ditching the spike heels, she needed massage therapy and podiatry so that she could wear low heeled walking shoes. Her stride was different now, and her feet didn’t hurt. She could actually go for long walks, something she always avoided in her spike heel days. 

She no longer had a high-paying tech job in Washington DC. She never wanted to look like the nerd she was while she sat for hours, days and nights at her laptop as a forensic accountant doing data analysis on political low lifes. But now that she was an unemployed witness under federal protection, she looked exactly like the nerd she had tried to cover up in her other life.

Uptown Portland was a far cry from the District and the hectic life of long hours and high drama. You think there’s no drama in accounting, think again. Her Portland condo was in a renovated but still old-fashioned brick building near 21st and Burnside, a classic older neighborhood. It was the polar opposite from her leased condo in Georgetown. 

She could walk to work on a good day, but usually didn’t. She worked in a bookstore/Starbucks near the plaza just off Broadway in downtown Portland, and she rode the trolley that circled the downtown area. It was usually a 15-minute ride to work, the trolley stopping about a block away, on both ends of her short commute.

She was always on the lookout for bad guys who might be searching for her, even though the marshals told her over and over that the bad guys had never found a witness yet, over 8,000 in the program, and their proud record was intact. Still, they kept reminding her to stay alert, watch for strangers, keep track of people she saw when she was out running errands, going to and from work, riding the bus. Don’t stare at people, mind her own business, don’t be too friendly. Good advice. And above all, never mention the program to anybody, ever. 

She tried to control the panicky feeling she got every single time she opened a door to the outside world. She tried convincing herself that she was in fact Claire Smith, bookseller and Portland resident. She never saw a face that doubted her, but she kept an eye out anyhow. 

Accidentally, Claire had found the job herself, which gave the marshals pause. They checked it out and cleared it for her in their unobtrusive way. It was actually perfect for her. No deep background checks, or extensive references needed. She had a phony reference phone number that the marshals answered as her ex-employer. She was offered the job and was working several days later.

The marshals would be watching her closely for the first year and then would gradually back away as she settled in. She never saw them but she knew how to reach them if she needed help. They liked the bookstore, it turned out to be an excellent choice.

She had been sitting in Starbucks one morning, she had been in there many times, usually stopping at the bookstore half of the big store first for a magazine or a newspaper, then coffee, and then snagging a small table at the Starbucks side, where she could sit for a long time and ponder what to do next with her life.

The bookstore clerk who took her money was always pleasant to her, and greeted her like she remembered her. Claire didn’t realize that an innocent habit like sitting in Starbucks would be noticed by anybody. So she was completely and totally surprised when the clerk wandered over and asked if she could talk to her. A heart stopping moment. She tried not to gasp, spill her coffee, or do anything else to give herself away. How could she have been so stupid? Those were her thoughts, as she tried to smile and say, sure, and offered the chair to the nice lady who was usually behind the cash register.

The woman was older than Claire, who was in her mid 40s. Claire figured her for maybe late 50s. Easy smile, efficient looking, slacks, long-sleeved turtle neck and burgundy lab coat like the other bookstore clerks wore. A uniform. The store’s colors were the same burgundy and forest green, what Claire thought of as Portland colors. The woman introduced herself, said her name, which Claire promptly forgot, and told Claire she was the owner of the bookstore. It was called Murphy’s. Claire didn’t know that. Murphy’s Books. Nice name. Murphy’s needed another employee, part time, to cover some hours at the cash register, and shelve some books. Would Claire be interested in becoming a bookseller for Murphy’s?

Claire’s eyes widened. This lady has got to be kidding, right? How could this bookstore owner know that she needed work? Then it dawned on her, she was hanging around a coffee house reading a newspaper, fiddling with a crossword puzzle, and she didn’t have a laptop. Of course she was unemployed.

Claire said she was sorry, what was her name again? The lady said, Jo Murphy. Jo was short for Joanne, everybody called her Jo. Claire looked over Jo’s shoulder and noticed another lady was now at the cash register. Jo saw her checking out the cash register area, and told her that that was Kay, who was going to be leaving soon. Kay was the assistant manager, and Jo needed somebody to fill in for Kay. It didn’t matter if Claire lacked retail experience, the job was easy to learn, they had their ways, and she had had her eye on Claire. 

She noticed that Claire had spent time in the bookstore, and Claire might be right for the job. It paid minimum wage for Portland, which was $12 per hour, and she would be working about twenty hours per week to start. Would Claire be interested? If so, they would start the paperwork, check references, all of that, and take it from there.

Claire couldn’t believe her good luck. She needed a job, desperately, to give her something interesting to do. She just couldn’t figure out what. She had lots of money, that wasn’t the issue. She had worked hard, saved a lot over the years, mainly because she was working so much that there wasn’t time to spend it. Then she had gotten an inheritance when her dad suddenly died, and the witness program was depositing money into her account on a regular basis. She was actually awash in money, and she had a healthy IRA and investments. She would be happy with all of it if she could be assured that she’d be around long enough to enjoy it.

The nightmare started when she had been stopped on the street one day just outside her DC office and arrested on the spot by thug-like guys who said they were FBI. She thought she was being kidnapped. Scary times. Finally, all was revealed to her. Her boyfriend was to blame. The bad guy she eventually ratted out was a big time racketeer, her off and on again boyfriend. She was still processing that. She had no idea that quiet, polite, well-to-do Nick Ebolly was a mobbed up drug importer. How could she not have known? Especially that time they went to Miami for the weekend and spent it on a yacht, with his buddies and their girlfriends. The girls were all so drunk they had no idea what was going on, but she had iphone photos that the feds were very interested in.

She knew more stuff than she realized, about a whole slew of bad guys. The feds wanted the info, and they made her a deal. She could go to prison for being mobbed up herself, which was ludicrous, or she could tell them what she knew, appear at trial as a witness if necessary, and then go into hiding for the rest of her freakin’ life. 

As the feds suspected, she was just a clueless prop for Nick, not a participant. They convinced her to tell them what she knew, and they would protect her. These were very bad guys, and she was in a lot of trouble. Once she told what she knew, she would be in even more trouble, especially if she had to appear at a trial. Turned out, the rats ratted out bigger rats, which is usually the case. They stuck a deal, went off to prison and she went to Portland. None of her co-workers ever heard about the incident, either from her or on the news. She never saw them again. Her friends were mystified that she just up and disappeared, but they were so busy that eventually they just forgot about her. The marshals had a hand in it, of course, but nobody ever contacted her after their first few texts went unanswered.

 

Once the initial horror subsided, she was angry. How could this be happening to her? She lost her career, her friends, her purpose in life. Meanwhile, the marshals were busy figuring out how to permanently disguise her, and to help her with the mental work needed to slip into Claire’s skin. 

The therapist was competent. Over many sessions, Claire took a hard look at her old life and eventually realized just how aimless it was. She didn’t love her work, and admitted that accounting was boring and unrewarding, her friends were superficial, and she had no plan for the future. No, she wasn’t in love with Nick, the thought of spending her life with him actually made her skin crawl. She had few outside interests, no hobbies, and never gave a thought to the future. When the therapist asked her what her life plan was, Claire was stunned. No answer. And then the revelation, the marshals were giving her a chance to start over, maybe do it right this time. So now, early six months after being pulled off the street by the feds, she was finally dropped into her new life. Boom. Just like that. Showtime. 

When she first got to Portland she stayed in a motel on the east side for a while. Miles from downtown. It had been planned out beforehand. She had purchased the condo virtually. The marshals did not like the idea. They preferred the witnesses to live in rentals, so if there was a breach, they could get the witness out of harm’s way in a hurry. Claire assured them she would go quickly and willingly if she needed to. 

They eventually agreed to let her buy the condo. It wasn't all that often that witnesses had their own money, so the rules changed a little. It was unfurnished so she would need a few days to get some furniture for the move in. They scoped things out, found some stores for her online, and planned how she would go about getting things without too much fuss. There was a car waiting for her at the airport, hers. Paid for and registered in her name. A slightly used Subaru, gray, ordinary, fine with her. She also had a valid Oregon license, credit cards and a checking account at a bank downtown. 

As Claire was wandering around different stores around 82nd Street, looking for things that could help her place look like a home, she had sort of an epiphany. Her things, her stuff, was a visual description of who she was. So choose well. The condo would be Claire, reminders of who she was and what was important to her. It would mostly be a visual version of her new identity, the exact opposite of her old self. It would showcase the different person she was in the process of becoming. Who gets do-overs half way through their lives? People like her. She had accidentally fucked up her life royally. Now she had to start over, maybe get it right this time. 

Everything shouldn’t be new so she went to the Goodwill and saw stuff that she remembered from her childhood, forgotten things, knickknacks, little treasures for the coffee table, quirky artwork. Then she noticed the Goodwill bookshelves filled with used books.

Another ah-hah moment for her. Of course, that’s what people packed up when they moved: books! Her workmates were readers and talked about books, complained about having too many, traded books, that sort of thing. She had never chimed into the conversations. It just washed over her, sort of boring.

So she bought some Goodwill books. She saw titles of books that she remembered others talking about. Of course she remembered the Twilight series, and Harry Potter. She had no idea what any of the books were about but she figured they would look great on the built-in book shelves in her condo office nook. She preferred the newer looking books. She tried to choose tasteful ones that weren’t too banged up, with a sort of scholarly appeal. Who knows, she thought, maybe she’d even read them.

She found a shoe box full of old photos in an antique store, so she bought a photo album to put them in it. Instant relatives. The antique store was another first for her. She had never been in one before. Musty and filled with old stuff she never would have spent a minute looking at. An eye opener. She found a few items, a lamp, a small occasional table, some other odds and ends, all part of her new history. 

After a couple weeks on the outskirts of town, she was ready to  move in. After lots of shopping, wandering through lots of stores, listening to conversations, watching her back, getting used to the feel of Portland. She a bad moment when she realized she didn’t have many clothes, just a couple suitcases full. Women have tons of clothes, closets filled with them. Wouldn’t it look peculiar if she didn’t have many? Another item on the checklist. By the time she finished, she had boxes of things to make her condo look like a home. From furniture and artwork, to coffee mugs, pretty dishes and glassware, baskets, gadgets, scented candles, new and used clothes and even a few antiques, it all looked like treasure to her.

There was so much to move in that it made her laugh. The marshals would not approve. She wondered if they were watching her. Probably. And they were most likely blowing gaskets and tearing their hair. But she never heard a word. 

She hired a moving van to haul in the furniture. The movers had also added the boxes from the other stuff she had collected to the load, which was stashed in her motel room, so it all showed up on moving day, just like any other new tenant. 

The condo had been on the market for a while. The realtor was delighted to make a deal virtually, in cash. Everybody happy. They had guaranteed it would be move-in ready, and it was. She wondered how common it was to buy like that. Had she raised any flags? Probably not. Just slightly worrisome. But she was relieved when she met with the manager, signed more paperwork, and got the keys. Routine in every way. 

Once everything was moved in, hooked up, plugged in and arranged, Claire was proud of herself. She had created a life, a backstory and a lovely little nest for herself. It had one bedroom, one and a half baths, a galley kitchen, dining area, and office nook. A long, covered balcony ran from the bedroom to the dining area, with two sliders, one from the living room, the other from her bedroom. The iron railing seemed sturdy, tile floor, and big pots spaced out along the edge. It looked across a side street into another apartment house with no balconies. She would get herself some patio furniture. And maybe she would plant something in the pots. To hide behind. She loved the idea of outdoor space that was private. 

She wondered if people on the street could see her. A chilling thought. If somebody was looking for her, how would they start? Would they search internet records? Snoop into the marshals’ database, learn something that way. If they could find out her new name and the city she was in, could they get to her that way? That’s how she would do it, use her forensic skills. Or would they just stand on the corner and watch for her to come by, gaze up at her balcony? Nah. That was what they did in old movies.

If the mob guys hired a private detective and all he had was a photo of her old self, and no info about where she was, she was safe. Maybe that was old thinking, a private eye standing on the corner looking for her. Maybe the marshals were smart enough to encode her online records that kept her safe from outside hackers. Codes within codes could do it. She figured she was safe if the marshals were as smart as they bragged about. The bad guys wouldn’t know where to start. And since there had been no publicity, they hadn’t been bad mouthed in public. So no face-saving was needed. But ice-cold revenge was another thing altogether. If Nick heard somehow that she snitched on him, he would go after her. That idea gave her chills. 

 

So now she went to work in her Portland clothes and her burgundy lab coat. Bingo! It was actually a perfect disguise for her. In her old life, she would never have worn a uniform, or clerked in a store. Her glasses with tortoise shell frames, plain glass on the top half and readers on the bottom, added character. She wore them all the time. It’s surprising how different a person looks with glasses, a bookstore ID lanyard around her neck, and a burgundy lab coat. She even ate dessert once in a while, rarely had a drink, went to bed early, and often thought about what she would like to do with the rest of her life. 

She remembered Prince, from her music loving years: Party Like it’s 1999. She had no idea that the party was just now getting started, some twenty years later. In the Rain, in Portland. 

The days were routine but full, the bookstore made lots of little sales from tourists and locals. There was a gift corner that sold Made in Oregon merchandise for tourists. Candy, nuts, small things like scarves, and tee shirts, caps, airport goodies. A nice selection of books. The shelves lined the wall, and tables of books filled the center of the store. Book selling was a real puzzle for Claire at first. Murphy’s sold best sellers, of course, and trade sized and mass market paperbacks, the mid list, some classics, coffee table books, magazines, and newspapers. A lot to keep track of, neatening the shelves was a constant job, running the cash register was the other important piece. Get the money. She liked the work, brainless as it was. At first she was unnerved when customers asked her to recommend a book. Eventually she got the hang of it and always pointed out the best sellers. 

 

Claire pretended not to understand the computerized cash register and merchandise databases. The other employees took their time to train her, which entertained her in a deceitful way. Her secret, she was a computer wiz. They didn’t need to know that. 

She worked full days during the holidays, leaving her condo around 8:30 in the morning and not returning until dark. Business was brisk, as they say in the trade. She and the others in the backroom all pitched in and the store did very well. It was crazy time.

She had never been around totally bookish people before. Their humor was dry and sarcastic. She learned the difference between ironic and sardonic. Backroom debates. They were competitive about what they read, made fun of each other’s book choices. But they seemed to know she was just learning the game and were positive and solicitous about her reading preferences, which she didn’t reveal because she didn’t have any. They gave her advanced readers that publishers would hand out to bookstores so the booksellers could read the newest books not yet on the shelves. Homework.

Claire knew nothing about books. After she left college, she hadn’t done any pleasure reading ever. She was anxious to learn what she could about the business, and about the hobby of reading books. Her one small pastime had been Sudoku puzzles. So she switched to crosswords. Unbelievably hard. She had to look up words, one puzzle might take a week to complete, sort of. She thought it might help her bookstore career to learn some odd words. 

Some mornings while waiting for the trolley she felt safe, nobody watching her, looking suspicious. How could the bad guys possibly find her, or recognize her, hidden so well among all these Portland folks. She looked just like they did, bundled up, heading off to work. Other times she was sure somebody was gonna come up behind her and whisper something awful in her ear. And the game would be over. 
 

Claire got through the holidays, which came up quickly. She was on her feet for long stretches, more hours than she had signed up for. There had been a staff party on Christmas eve, after they closed up. Apparently, this weird little group didn’t have much family either, other than Jo, who had catered a small feast for them. Good food, champagne, and small gifts for each of them, bonus checks too. A box of chocolates to bring home. Good cheer all around. So Christmas day at home alone with a slight hangover headache seemed familiar to Claire. A tree in her lobby, smiling staff. It all felt just like Christmas. Quickly done with, over and gone. 

Claire’s Christmas gift to herself was a cookbook with pictures, easy recipes. She didn’t have any fancy appliances because they scared her. Except a crockpot. Her mom had had one, and Claire remembered some good meals from it. 

Being alone on Christmas Day felt odd. No phone calls, no friends nagging her to go out somewhere noisy and irritating, no mobster boyfriend hanging around watching tv. It had been a long time since she was really alone. She would dump some stuff in the crockpot for dinner and try not to think about the bad guys. Tomorrow she had to go back to work. Retail sales would continue through the end of the year, then her hours would be cut. She’d have more time for other things. Something to look forward to. Maybe. 

In her old life, Claire had hired help to clean her house, do errands. Her housekeeper did many chores for her, she was at her apartment nearly every day doing something. Now Claire did her own laundry, grocery shopping, errands, cleaning and so forth. It felt more like really being alive and in tune with the world than before. 

So she would experiment with cooking, make some one-dish meals that she could eat for a week. And pack her lunch like her co-workers. No more lunches out or brought in. She filled up her pantry with food, a stockpile of goodies and rations so she wouldn’t have to pick up groceries or carry-out every day. She had vague thoughts of just holing up for days on end. She had a cozy nest, why not just lock out the world and cocoon in the safest place she could think of. The building, with its doormen, front desk and security staff made sure the residents were protected. 
 

What seemed strange was how friendly Portland was. Strangers said hello when they met up at the trolley stop. Doors were held open, people reminded each other to remember your umbrella, simple acts of kindness. Was she reading it right? Weren’t people generally like that? She tried to remember back to her old life. It never occurred to her to notice or be suspicious back then. Even though her work group was constantly investigating the seediest low lifes in the District. 

Portland drivers, way more polite and attentive to walkers, or was she making this up? What an odd feeling. She was puzzled by all the passive attention by strangers. She breathed a sigh of relief once she got home, and was sorry to leave home the next morning. 

Words and expressions tripped her up. Her handbag was now a purse. Nobody said purse back east. And the shore. Portlanders talked about going to the beach, not the shore. Some called it the coast. Big slip ups would be: where’s my handbag, or I wanna go to the shore this weekend. Yikes. She listened carefully for other expressions and said little until she was comfortable. She had never been the chatty type, that didn’t change. 

She opened one of the Goodwill book boxes she had been saving and pulled out a few books. They needed some freshening up. There were stickers and price tags on them. Fingerprints, pencil markings and dust too. Ugh. She would carefully scrape off the stickers and shine up each book. She had heard she could clean the dust jackets with a little alcohol. She wanted them to look like she loved her books.

She picked up one titled Cold Mountain: it was fiction, about the civil war, a third edition. Another one, The Goldfinch, she remembered everybody talking about that one. Was it about a bird? Maybe she would find out. And the Girl books. She'd ask the backroom guy about them. She learned quite a bit from the guy who unboxed the new books and entered them into the store database. He was a goldmine of book trivia. They all knew how ignorant she was about books, and were happy to help. At least she wasn't another bookseller know it all. It was all so nerdy. 

She decided she would examine her Goodwill books one at a time, at her leisure. She got out her ipad and looked them up on Amazon. Some info on the author, and what the customers said about the book. They were mostly fiction, mostly uninteresting to her. It was a puzzle. As she read the book jackets, she was searching for the answer to the puzzle, what book would finally interest her? One of these days she would choose one. Maybe. At the moment her advanced reader paperbacks were on her nightstand. She’d read a few pages and fall asleep. Better than pills. The next night she had forgotten what she had read.
 

January landed hard. The weather got worse. Portland is known for its rain, but it’s more than just rain. The city is divided by a huge river, the Willamette, downtown Portland on the west side of the river, and suburban Portland on the eastside, with lots of huge, soaring bridges connecting the two halves of the city. Interstate 5, the main artery from California to Washington state, also divides Portland, so there is constant traffic moving in all directions.

There’s a river smell to the city, and the air has a certain watery feel to it. She could feel it when she crawled into bed at night. A clamminess that permeated the sheets. Oregonians take the rain and the big river for granted, but when you add the fog, sleet, and steady wind, it can be miserable. The Willamette River meets up with the Columbia River just north of Portland, another huge raging river, wide and muddy in places, fast running, rushing to the Pacific Ocean. Water everywhere, along with cars, buses, the train, trolleys, light rail, all in a hurry. Claire was accustomed to densely populated areas but Portland seemed different, more dangerous somehow.

Waiting for her trolley after work was usually challenging in the rain, and it was often raining by closing time this winter. She bundled up to stand in the bus shelter which didn’t actually provide much cover. Folks stood in building doorways and glanced up now and then as various transport came by. The cold crept under her coat, into her boots, under her hat. She stood there shivering for long minutes waiting for her ride. It got dark early, the familiar low-hanging black clouds promised rain or maybe worse. January was Portland’s snow month. Some years they didn’t get snow, other years it came down in buckets. That’s what her book pals told her. Snow stories, there were many. The aura of Portland was odd, very nice people living in a pretty place under dark clouds. She blamed the clouds for a certain sense of unease she felt. She couldn’t blame being in the program for that vague sense of doom she felt, or could she?
 

It was a grim Thursday afternoon in the middle of January, when a warning came through from the mayor and the local weather officials. Jo heard it first. A warning message on her iphone, a stern and serious warning. Snow inbound, lots of snow. They were predicting a whiteout that could last hours, or even days. The forecasters had never seen so many storms lined up so closely in the Pacific heading directly at Portland. A river of snow, to be followed by sleet and freezing rain on top of the snow if the temperature rose to a certain level. It could be the worst storm ever to hit Portland.

The mayor encouraged all non-essential businesses to close up as soon as possible. They were to send employees home immediately. Jo came down from her office on the mezzanine to alert the staff. Close up as quickly as possible. Lock up tight. We’re heading home. Everybody swung into action. Soon blinds were drawn, closed signs put up, customers ushered out, computers shut down, and employees gathering up personal belongings. Hugs all around, and they were off. 

Jo lived upstairs, so she stood at the door hurrying everybody out into the cold. Don’t come back to work until further notice. Think Monday at the soonest.

Claire couldn’t decide whether to hoof it to the condo or to wait for the trolley. It was 20-some blocks to her place. There were so many people waiting with her. Most would be riding the official numbered city busses. The trolleys were used by downtown residents and tourists. 

She spotted a trolley and pushed her way into the street. The trolley crowd was not as large and she got right on, dove for a seat in front and was successful. She held on tight to her tote bag, and loosened her jacket. The trolley filled up and took off. The snow was already falling steadily. She was surprised to see it had covered the ground and was piling up onto parked cars and the curbsides. That was frightening. There were still tracks on the street that were bare so they would be okay for the short ride home, or so she thought. She looked around. The other passengers were hanging on tight, checking things out. Nobody talked. Unusual. Like holding their collective breath, please hurry. 

The usual driver was behind the wheel, a large middle-aged black man in a busman’s suit and cap. He had a microphone pinned to his collar. He usually called the streets and the sights to be seen as he drove, and he paid special attention to tourists who might be riding along. Not tonight. He called the streets, and issued a plea to hang on tight and take care when leaving the trolley. No joking tonight. The first few stops went well enough. The trolley was now filled with standing passengers. Two men stationed themselves at the door and helped folks get off. 

When the trolley got to Broadway, the main street through downtown, the street lights were out, cops were directing traffic. Horns honking. A mess. The patient bus driver was humming softly to himself, an old spiritual that Claire recognized. Regulars were accustomed to him. She thought he did it to calm himself down. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home is what he hummed, sometimes he sang the words in a low baritone voice. Pleasant, calming sound. Then he’d caution the other drivers, also in a very low voice, Slow down, ma’am, wait your turn now. See that truck up ahead? Uh huh. See that?

 

He went on like this when times were tense on the street. Like tonight, especially. Some impatient passengers got off the trolley. She didn’t blame them. It might be easier to just trudge through this mess. The snow was coming down harder now. They crept across Broadway and up toward the Park blocks. Slow going. Please hurry, please hurry. 

The driver announced that he would stop anywhere along the street if somebody needed to get off. A low mumble went up from the otherwise silent crowd of passengers. The trolley’s windows steamed up, the odor of sweaty bodies in smelly jackets rose. The tension and anxiety rose. Groans were heard, and the buzzer started chiming. Off, off, gotta get off. 

The trolley crawled along slowly, heading west on its usual route. More passengers began buzzing to be let off. The driver accommodated all requests. It stopped often, and passengers carefully made their way out, helped by the two guys at the front. The snow continued to pile up, now covering cars and curbs. Cars drove by slowly, looking for parking places, bringing traffic to a further crawl. Precious minutes few by. Claire had been aboard nearly 45 minutes now. She kept her own fears to herself. No anxious looks, no eye rolling. Stay calm. 

As it became less crowded Claire noticed that the snow was falling even faster now, just as predicted, not much visibility. The driver kept humming, interrupting himself to call out the stops. His patience was failing and she thought she detected a panicky edge to his usually slow and even demeanor. 

Just before they swung north, he turned off his mic to take a call on his cell. She guessed it was his boss. We were now nearing Claire’s stop. They just needed to cross Burnside, another major thoroughfare. As the trolley stopped at the corner, the driver sighed into the mic, and then announced that the bus would not be completing its route. One more stop and then it would go offline at a gas station about four blocks away. Please consider getting off now and take shelter as soon as possible. Otherwise, the last stop was the gas station. The bus would park there. Businesses were being asked to allow those on foot to shelter inside until visibility improved. Complete whiteout was imminent. It would be dark within minutes. Everybody was encouraged to get inside somewhere as soon as possible. 
 

Passengers called out: could they stay on the bus? Could they shelter at the gas station? Would another bus pick them up? What about Uber? No to all questions. All public transportation was halted. Things were dire. Visibility would soon be zero. 

Crossing Burnside. Cars couldn’t stop for the red light. Cars were sliding sideways, jumping the curbs, gently bumping each other. The trolley slipped and lurched through the mess and finally landed at her stop on the other side. Most of the passengers descended the steps with the help of the two humanitarians. Once everybody was safely off, the guys gave the driver a quick salute and headed off. Claire guessed that most people on this trolley lived nearby and would be safely home soon.

There was a small market and a hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeout at her stop. Most folks hurried by. The market was still open, doing a good business. Claire stopped in for some last-minute groceries. She stuffed the purchases into her tote. The clerk said, Thanks, stay safe. She nodded.

The smell of Chinese lured her next door. She stepped inside and was overwhelmed. She was hungry. A table was set up with prepackaged cartons of fried rice, almond chicken, other favorites. The owner was loading cartons into bags, tapping credit cards, and handing off the packages with a quick bow. She chose a few items. He added a small bag of fried won tons, and said no charge for the won tons, with a bow. Claire smiled her thanks and grabbed her bag. Back on the street quickly, slipping toward her building’s entrance just a few more steps further. 

The doorman helped her inside. She nearly cried at the sight of him. The lobby was crowded. People milling around, obviously not residents. She was shocked. Chairs, couches were being pushed around, pillows, bedding, piles of sandwiches, apples, water bottles. Folks sitting on the floor against the wall. Stranded folks waiting it out in the lobby. She hurried by. Stopped to pick up her mail. The hall to the elevators was roped off, an employee she knew was gate-keeping. Residents only on the elevators. 

She was almost home, just a few more minutes. Panic once again threatened her. Nothing to worry about. Just breathe. She tried to stay calm. She belonged here. Nobody was looking for her. Nobody would run up to arrest her, like on that fateful day. Just a few more steps, push the elevator button, ride up to the quiet fourth floor. 

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