“Once Upon a Time…In Central Park”

A Story of “Beauty and the Beast”

by Judith Nolan

 

Her soft boots made no sound as she paced slowly across the dew-wet blades of grass. His long, black coat, suddenly lifting behind him with the passing touch of a drifting breeze, revealed long, powerful jean-clad legs. Leaning down, he bent his head closer to his smaller companion as she sighed her contentment. He caught his breath as she wrapped her arms around his upper arm and smiled up into the shadows of his face, touching his cheek gently with one questing fingertip before she rested her own cheek against his arm. She murmured something only he could hear, and he whispered a reply before their drifting, forward movement slowed even further. He pressed one large hand closely over hers in communion as they progressed downhill towards the next line of trees.

 

The late evening mist concealed more than it revealed of their meandering path through the darker, more secluded reaches of Central Park. But their mutual attention was so wrapped up in each other neither paid but scant attention to the immediate surroundings. It could almost have been as if they thought themselves alone in the universe. They certainly appeared to be completely unaware of a darker bulk of shadow that drifted in their wake, always careful to avoid the occasional shaft of fitful moonlight, as if the couple’s elusive stalker had no intention of being detected. But their every move was being closely observed.

 

When the couple finally stopped, their attendant shadow also halted, retreating silently into the concealment of the surrounding trees, seeming to wait patiently for them to continue their intermittent journey. But this time they didn’t walk further. Obedient to the insistent tug on his arm, the man turned to his companion, gazing down at her with rapt attention. Drawing closer still, the woman trailed her fingers up his arms to his broad shoulders, slipping her fingers through his hair, drawing his head inexorably down to hers. She laughed softly as she kissed her way across the smiling width of her companion’s generous mouth, evoking and enticing a response he seemed powerless to deny her.

 

Cast over the surrounding grass their reaching shadows merged and melded into one as they became totally absorbed in each other, the woman going up on tiptoe to trail kisses across his angled cheekbones. The man’s large hands settled on the rounded curve of the woman’s behind, lifting and drawing her closer still, up into the cradle of his powerful thighs, as he captured her mouth once more in a deepening kiss born of their seemingly inexhaustible and mutual need, one for the other.

 

They only finally parted to draw shuddering breaths of deep contentment. Tucking her securely against his thudding heartbeat, the man rested his chin on the top of his companion’s head, his gaze wandering, unseeing, across the landscape. Despite his reservations about taking such a potentially dangerous midnight stroll, he now felt in complete harmony with all his surroundings, despite the darkness and the cold chill of the early morning air.

 

***

He hadn’t wanted to come here, not into the park in the middle of the night; but his girlfriend had insisted, saying it would be such an adventure. A place where they could truly be alone together without her parents watching and discussing their every move. Now, looking out into the looming darkness surrounding him, he wasn’t so sure it was such a good idea after all.

 

In that single moment of stark honesty, a scudding breeze toyed errantly through the overhead branches among the trees, revealing the briefest glimpse of a large, dark shape topped by two watching eyes, and then the flashed reflection of a large belt buckle. There was the sudden snap and flurry of black material as a cloak whipped out and back in the grip of the wind before the breeze moved on, its disturbing mischief achieved.

 

Abruptly the man pulled back from his companion—frowning into the darkness—unsure of what he thought he’d just seen, if anything. His intent gaze swept the trees once more, but their unknown observer was once again completely invisible.

 

“I thought .…” the man began, taking a step backwards, drawing his girlfriend with him. “I was sure that I saw something … or someone.” He waved a confused hand. “Over there. In those trees. They’re watching us.”

 

“You’re just saying that to scare me. You didn’t want to come here in the first place.” The woman turned to look, still sheltered within her companion’s slackened embrace. “I don’t see anything. Come on, we’ve got an hour or two yet.”

 

“Yeah, well I know I saw something, all right. I’m sure I did. Come on, let’s get out of here. I don’t know what possessed you to come into the park in the first place. Especially in the middle of the night. God knows what’s out there, in the dark, watching us. Could be more than one of them too. Better to have your father watching us; at least we know what to expect.”

 

“But the moonlight looked so beautiful and we--”

 

“Well, the next time you get moonstruck, we’ll look at it from the safety of your parents’ balcony,” the man snapped, hustling her away from the trees. “Come on, we’ll talk about it when we get home. This place gives me the creeps.”

 

“Oh, all right, then,” she grumbled. But she didn’t demur, falling into rapid step beside him as they headed for the nearest exit from the park. “But I still say you’re imagining things

and .…”

 

Vincent moved slowly from the shelter of the trees to watch the young couple’s rapid retreat from his domain. Their arguing voices trailed into the distance. They had been foolish to come here in the first place. Central Park was no place for innocents, especially at this time of night. 

 

He alone knew every inch, every danger and denizen. He’d followed them initially to be sure they came to no harm, but the resultant romantic encounter he witnessed reinforced his troubled contemplation of his own aloneness. There was no one to walk hand-in-hand in the moonlight with him, or to look up at him as if he were the only one who could fulfil the role of friend, confidant … and ultimately lover.

 

He smiled bleakly, scuffing one booted foot through the wet grass. So much for all the poets who had ever lived, and their fine words. They gave no comfort and even less consolation to the burden he carried in silence. But then it was probably only the moonlight and his strangely discordant mood. There was music and life out here--in the gleaming city that surrounded him--and it was passing him by as easily and uncaring as any subway train. There simply was no one, not now and almost certainly never. It was a truth he had already faced and dealt with. But it made it no less palatable.

 

He shrugged his shaggy mantle closer onto his shoulders and looked around, realizing he’d followed the young couple into a secluded area of the park he rarely frequented these days. He knew he was close to one of the lonely roads that snaked through the woodlands, but the area’s bleak emptiness didn’t appeal to his troubled mood. 

 

Looking up at the sky he realized how the time had flown, and he would need to return Below soon or Father would worry. And Vincent didn’t wish to cause his parent more concern than necessary. The old man already complained his son took too many risks, went too far out into the park and—

 

Vincent’s troubled contemplation of Father’s frequent lectures on safety and awareness was cut short by the squeal of tires in the far distance. Then came the screeching thump of a door being slid open before being closed almost immediately with a muffled clang. Again a shriek of tires, and the unseen vehicle departed hurriedly, leaving an echoing void as everything fell silent once more. But there was a different quality to it now, one of taut expectation. Not even the trees appeared to move, the night wind had dropped almost completely. The evening mist crept in, wrapping its way around Vincent’s still and silent form, sifting through his clenching fingers like smoke, almost seeming to beckon him onwards, lifting and swirling downhill.

 

Oddly, the silence made his whole body tense and begin to tremble. Something deep inside Vincent awoke in that single moment, coming to life with a pulsing vibrancy that captured his breath. He pressed one hand to the accelerated pace of his heartbeat as the faint, troubling echoes of a woman’s strangled scream of terror and pain filtered through his consciousness. But who had screamed, and why, he had no idea. He closed his eyes, shaking his great head, but the echoes of the woman’s pain and fear remained like a second pulse-beat, racing in terrified concert with his own. An intense shiver took hold of him once more, closing his fingers into tight fists of impotent despair. He should be gone from this place. His path home lay in the opposite direction and yet ….

 

Of their own volition, his boots began to move, carrying him swiftly through the grass, across the face of the hill towards the roadway above. As he travelled he suddenly realized he had never felt more alive until this very moment, as if something strange and new was about to begin, and he felt completely powerless to prevent it.

 

THE END

 

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