"Help! Somebody help me!" Stella gasped for breath as she broke into a flat-out run down the sidewalk. She could hear feet pounding behind her, so steady that she never dared to look back at him. A cold line of sweat trickled down her face, blurring her vision, and making patterns on her brand new striped cotton blouse. She ran past Rosina's deli, past the Pergello's bakery, past the five-and-dime store. She ran as fast as any marathon runner could run, her kitten heels keeping up a jazz-like rhythm on the sidewalk.
She had been walking home from Tenth Street after meeting with one of her clients. It was later than usual, but she had grown up in the city and knew her way around. Plus, she had a small can of pepper spray on her keychain. Her mind had been on the meeting; things had gone exceptionally well, and she could sense an opportunity for promotion if all went as planned.
As she turned at the corner of Ninth and Broad, she sensed a presence behind her. Half turning her head to look, she saw the man reach out for her, and her heart rate just about doubled. Her feet flew into action as if they had minds of their own, taking her on autopilot down the streets of the city. Not for the first time did she wish for more streetlights and a busier nightlife. Finding help was going to be as difficult as finding a safe low-priced apartment in downtown Chicago. But still she tried, crying out with every breath she exhaled, praying with every one she took in.
And then the unthinkable happened; she was crossing the intersection with Mead Avenue and saw someone out of the corner of her eye. Without thinking, she turned onto Mead and headed straight for the man on the sidewalk.
"Help! Please! Help me!"
The man turned, and his eyes grew wide as he saw her. He sprang towards her, his hand reaching out to catch her. Stella stumbled into the brick wall next to him as she fell against his arm, scraping her forehead and smearing blood with sweat. He inadvertently pushed her further against the wall, deeply cutting his own hand in the process, as he put his other hand out to stop the pursuer.
"Freeport Police! Stop right there!"
The pursuer, a surprised expression on his face, stopped himself an inch from the officer's outstretched hand.
"Sir, you don't understand. This isn't what it looks like."
"I'll say what it does or doesn't look like. Now turn around and put your hands behind your back."
"But sir - "
Stella stared hard at her pursuer. Was he - did she recognize him? As he turned she saw a familiar white scar along the base of his ear. She hesitated for a second then ventured a guess.
"Randy? Randy, is that you?"
The man named Randy twisted his neck around to look at her, and she knew.
"Randy! Hey, officer, it's okay. Let this man go. I know him. Randy, what in the world are you doing here? I thought - I thought you were dead!"
"Stella, honey, relax. I wasn't trying to hurt you at all. I just wanted to surprise you! I'm back in town, and I'm back for you. Everything over there is done, it's over. I promise. I'm yours."
Stella inhaled sharply and winced as her head began to throb. She had been holding out hope for months now that Randy would come back, but doubts had begun to creep in as weeks went by and she heard nothing from him. She looked at him with hope, a question in her eyes.
"I have the paperwork to prove it, Stella. I'm out for good. We can get married tomorrow, if you'd like."
The officer was still there, still waiting for an excuse to put Randy in handcuffs. Now he realized he recognized the man, the soldier who had been missing for almost thirteen months, the soldier he'd doubted would ever return. And now - the man was here, right here, standing in front of him. He wanted to give the couple a chance to reconnect, but not before he introduced himself as a new friend. He would start believing now, knowing that there was hope for every missing soldier, hope for families everywhere, that their loved ones would return someday.