"No," I told her. I was on my way home; I'd started walking about 7:15, when the sun was still up. But it was dark out now, and I was glad to have my beige jacket on and be a little more visible than in my black trenchcoat.
"Just start walking, Nicole!" the other woman yelled at her. There were two kids with her, little ones. "I'm watching you!"
I exchanged a glance with Nicole, uncertain what was up. "Sorry," I mumbled, continuing on my way; I took the other woman for her mother and I didn't want to get in the middle. The other person sounded upset to me.
But as I passed her, I realized she was just a girl, too -- about the same age as the first. She yelled again, "Just go! Run, Nicole! I'm watching!" Nicole started up the street, reluctantly. I didn't know what was going on, good or bad or indifferent. Was Nicole on a dare from the girl who was yelling?
I turned around and started back towards Nicole. "She's gonna walk with you!" the other girl shouted. I realized that the second girl wasn't actually yelling in anger; she was yelling for emphasis, or perhaps because she didn't understand how she sounded. Voice control is one of those learned skills; children do it worse than adults. Some people, like me, never really get the hang of it.
I caught up to Nicole, who was waiting for me nervously. "Thanks," she said, obviously grateful. "What's your name?"
I fell into step beside her. "No problem. I'm Rowyn. You must be Nicole."
Her eyes widened. "How'd you know?"
I smiled. "Your friend was calling your name. So ... what's the matter?"
The girl looked embarrassed, twisting her hands and pushing them down in the pocket of her hoodie. "I don't like walking alone at night. Especialy through these woods." There were trees to either side of the road here, around a drainage ditch. Not really a wood: you could see through them to the houses beyond. "Ever since Joe told me there was a green monster living in the well here." She blew out an exasperated breath. She, too, was younger than I'd taken her for at first: maybe 12 or 13. "I said, 'why'd you have to tell me that."
"I've never seen a green monster around here," I told her, "but I've only lived here five years so I might've missed it. I'd like to see one." I held up my Sidekick. "I've got a camera here, I could get a picture."
We talked a little more as we went up the street. Her mother was a landlady and owned a bunch of houses in the area. She'd lived here for eleven years -- 'since I was an itty-bitty baby'. Her hair was nearly as long as mine, but it had only been growing for a year. She'd cut it to above her shoulders a year ago. Her house wasn't far, maybe a couple hundred yards. When we got to it, I waited on the street. "I'll watch 'til you go in," I told her. "Just to make sure the green monster doesn't get you."
She ran to the porch and dashed up the steps, waving to me before she went inside. She didn't have to fumble for a key; the front door wasn't locked.
I turned and went home, thinking about it. I was glad I'd changed my mind, even though it hadn't been anything important. I doubt a green monster would've gotten her in the two hundred yards she had to traverse to her home. Or a mugger, or rapist, or child molester. The modern monsters that I sometimes worry about, when I'm walking alone at night.
But it had mattered to her, and I was glad to have made a few minutes of someone else's life easier.
But the thing that really struck me was how bad I had been at appraising the situation. I hadn't gotten the ages of either girl right at first glance, nor had the actual problem -- which seems so obvious in retospect -- occured to me as the explanation. Whatever skills people cultivate for situational awareness, I fail at.
Which isn't that a big a deal, really. It's part of why I'm a bad driver, but I rarely drive, and it rarely matters that I'm oblivious. But it's still something to remember: my snap judgements are bad, so I shouldn't rely on them. It's better for me to ask than assume; my assumptions are probably wrong.