Jake dragged himself out the front door, buttoning his coat as he headed for the driveway. His coffee mug in one hand, his keys and briefcase in the other, he stepped over an icy puddle with his head down.
Grumbling to himself, he dumped the briefcase in the backseat and slid inside. Maybe the heater would kick in before he got to work for once. Still grumbling, he pulled the old car into traffic.
Another Monday. He cursed quietly and rubbed his eyes.
Jake was stopped at a red light when the old woman opened the passenger door and got in.
He was just taking his first sip of hot coffee when she settled into the seat beside him. He choked on the hot liquid, blinking his eyes in surprise.
“Good morning”, she said briskly, settling her bulky red purse at her feet and carefully pulling off her pink mittens.
He was a polite young man. His mom had raised him well. He gulped, wiped his chin with the back of one hand and turned to look at his unexpected guest.
“Good morning,” he replied, a question in his voice. He blinked again, trying to focus on the image in front of him.
“Green light, dear.” The woman nodded toward the light. “Let’s go.” She snapped her seatbelt into place and smoothed her skirt over her knees.
Obediently, he put the old car in gear and rolled into the intersection. He wondered for a moment if he was dreaming. He thought maybe his late-night bad habits were catching up with him. Maybe this was all just a vodka-induced nightmare. He looked quickly to his right, hoping the vision might have disappeared.
No such luck. She was real, all right. Her hair was wispy and thin, curling a bit under her felt hat. The wrinkled skin of her neck was mottled and pale. Although the garish colors of her outfit could be blamed on a bad dream, he knew he wasn’t imaginative enough to have added in those little details.
His head throbbed as he pulled the Focus into the flow of traffic. They drove in silence for a minute or two, his body automatically going through the motions of driving to work, his mind sluggishly searching for a way to explain her presence.
“Um…,” he began, knowing that he should be asking some questions. “I……” his voice trailed off, and he cleared his throat. The old woman looked at him expectantly. He coughed and tried again.
“Can I help you with something?”
The old woman laughed, a surprisingly robust sound from such a frail form. “Yes, dear, you can! You can give me a ride.”
She seemed to think that was answer enough, settling back in her seat and looking with apparent interest at the passing scenery.
“Yeah, but…a ride where?”
Jake realized that his voice sounded thin and whiny. He sounded like a pouty ten-year-old. He smiled awkwardly to cover his bad manners.
“A ride on this road, honey.” She patted his knee lightly. ”You’re doing fine.”
She turned back toward the window, watching the traffic flow by, leaving Jake more confused than ever. His headache kicked up a notch and his eyes burned.
He took another gulp of his coffee and rubbed the back of his neck to ease the stiffness.
“So.” He tried again, hoping to sound firm, assured. “So…my name is Jake.”
The woman looked at him in surprise, tilting her head forward so that she was peering over her blue plastic glasses. Her eyes were large and moist, a very dark brown. Those eyes looked at him sharply, her white eyebrows raised like inverted Vs.
“Of course your name is Jake,” she said calmly. “I’ve been watching you for ages. I know all about you.”
Watching him? She’d been watching him for ages? What the heck did that mean? Was he in the company of the world’s oldest stalker?
The caffeine must have finally begun to kick in because now Jake was getting annoyed.
“And who might you be?” he asked his passenger.
“I’m Sophie!” she said brightly. “Sophie!”
She smiled. “I’m an old friend of your Grandma. We go way back!”
Jake let this revelation sink in. His Grandma? What the hell? What was going on?
She had to mean his Grandma Annie, his father’s mother. He had never met his mother’s mother, who had lived and died in the old country. But his Grandma Annie had lived near his childhood home. Her stout white-haired figure had been a presence in his childhood, at family dinners and holidays. He and his sister had sometimes stayed with her when their parents went away for the weekend. He remembered her with sudden sadness. He hadn’t thought of her for years.
If she was a friend of Grandma Annie, it was news to him. First of all, he couldn’t remember ever hearing the name Sophie. Second, his Grandmother had died almost twenty years ago, when he was just a kid.
This didn’t make sense.
Sophie turned toward him now, her dark eyes shining with pleasure. He came to another red light and slowed with the traffic. For the first time since the strange encounter had begun, he had an opportunity to really look at his odd companion.
She looked like a character straight out of a children’s book. Her skin was milky white, but he could see spots of bright fuschia high on each cheekbone, the color matched by the crooked paint on her lips. She wore a lime green scarf over a bright blue coat. The pink mittens in her lap contrasted sharply with the scarlet of her wool skirt. Her hat was a glaring neon yellow. It hurt his eyes to look at her. He glanced away, searching the cloudy morning for something more restful. More real.
“So, listen,” Sophie began, reaching out and taking his hand in hers. He turned to look at her earnest face. Her dark eyes bored directly into his with such intensity that Jake was forced to glance away again.
“I have a message for you.” Her hand was warm and strong, the thin bones substantial and firm. This was no dream. Reluctantly, Jake turned back to look at her.
“Your Grandma wanted me to tell you something.” Jake breathed in a smell of powder, familiar and comforting.
“Jake, life is short and it’s speeding on by.” Her dark eyes held his as she leaned forward. “Every day is a new beginning. Your Grandma says you’re wasting time. Don’t be such a wimp. She says you should go for it.” With a satisfied nod of her head, Sophie sat back, releasing his hand.
The light turned green, and Jake automatically moved forward. He was almost at work. Time was running out on this surreal conversation. Jake felt a sense of unexpected urgency. He was also suddenly angry and shocked to find himself near tears.
“I don’t get it. What the hell kind of message is that?”
“Think about it, hon! It's pretty clear.”
“No, it isn’t!” Jake felt his heart pounding as his frustration rose.
“I’m not a wimp. What does that even mean? And why am I listening to a crazy cartoon lady at 8 in the morning, anyway?”
Sophie laughed, seeming to enjoy the characterization.
“Take it easy, dear. I didn’t mean to upset you,” she said with the same smile a loving grandmother would give to an overtired toddler.
As Jake pulled the car into the company parking lot, stopping in his usual place, the old lady reached for her purse, dropping her fuzzy mittens inside. She gestured toward the glittering windows of the office building that loomed above them.
“She means all this, Jake.” She tilted her head to look up at the steel and glass structure. Turning back to the young man beside her, she spoke softly, but firmly.
“She means that you should decide if this is what you really want from your life. Is this what you’ve dreamed of, what you’ve wished for?”
Jake looked up, taking in the rows and rows of identical windows, knowing that behind each one there were rows and rows of identical cubicles, housing rows and rows of identical worker bees. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of both hands.
There was silence in the car now, but even with his eyes closed, Jake knew that Sophie was still there. He could smell her powder, hear her steady breathing. He didn’t understand anything about this morning. He only knew that the woman beside him was as real as he was and that she was offering him a gift. He just had to figure out how to unwrap it.
Finally, he sighed and raised his head. They looked at each other for a moment, the sad young man and his colorful angel.
They exchanged a small smile, then Jake sighed, and the moment was broken. He reached for his briefcase, and Sophie reached for the door handle.
“Thanks for the ride, honey,” she said with a smile, climbing awkwardly out of the car. “Oh, and one more thing.” She leaned in a final time, her yellow hat flattened by the doorframe. Her dark chocolate eyes twinkled as she lifted a forefinger and shook it sharply.
“Your Grandma says to get off the sauce.”
With a cheery wave, she walked briskly away, leaving Jake with his mouth open.