FIREWORD • by Deborah Winter-Blood

Lorraine was comparing brands of incontinence products when she realized she was being watched. She glanced sideways and spotted a tall, old man standing at the end of the store aisle. He was leaning on his shopping cart, smiling at her.

Old fool, she thought. She snatched a package of store brand pads and dropped them into her cart before turning away.

She encountered the man again among the frozen foods. She spent as little time in that department as possible, moving through it as quickly as her equally frozen joints would allow. The cold was unsettling. It crept into her fragile bones and hung there like a wraith for hours afterward, reminding her of a time when she used to run out to greet the snow, a bundled-up child clinging to each hand. I used to make you feel alive, the cold taunted her.  How do I make you feel now, Lorraine? Old? Do I make you feel old?

The man brought his cart up beside Lorraine’s. “Pardon me,” he said, “I must make an observation.”

Lorraine turned to look at him. He certainly was old, even older than she, but unlike most people her age he was taller. She had to look up to meet his eyes. “Must you?” she snapped.

The man’s smile was crooked, and of course he thought it was charming. Lorraine was suddenly sure there had been a time when he’d used that smile to tumble young women into bed quite easily. “I’ve been watching you,” he continued. She detected an accent that was as faded as the man’s blue eyes; British, perhaps. “I hope you won’t think I’m impertinent, but you carry yourself like a woman who’s conscious of her own remarkable beauty.”

Lorraine stared at him. “I suppose you think I’m flattered.”

He had his own teeth; they were uneven and stained, but his own nonetheless. All of them showed when he laughed. “I don’t flatter myself that you’re flattered,” was his response, “but I felt compelled to say it.”

She fumbled for a package of broccoli — she didn’t know why; broccoli wasn’t on good terms with her digestive system. She placed it in her cart and moved away again. She moved slowly now, damn it. Her knees were aching and she wanted to get away from the man more quickly than her body would allow. He was following her. Of all the nerve.

“Can you wait just a minute?” he called out softly. He came up beside her at the endcap. “I’m not as quick as I used to be.” His smile was a bit self-deprecating that time.

Lorraine stopped and looked at him again. “What do you want?”

He leaned against his cart again and shook his head. “I’m not sure. I just know that I can’t let you walk away like this.” He chuckled. “You’re looking at me like I’m some rare species of cockroach.”

Lorraine snorted. “Not that rare.”

The man’s laugh was truly merry. “Touché, my dear, touché. I admit that I’ve been a hound. But now you must admit, you spent your younger days being the hare. Pursued. Desired. A tantalizing prey to those who came across your scent.”

He talks like an actor, she thought, like he’s onstage. Something stirred in Lorraine; cherished memories of being able to stop a man in his tracks with one sultry glance from her doe-like eyes. “I had my day,” she admitted.

“Dear lady,” the man said, “your day isn’t done.” He placed a gnarled hand over the area of his heart.

“You’re out of your mind.” She knew she should move away, but she remained rooted to that spot.

“Yet you stay,” he pointed out.

“Against my will,” she said, but her voice had no conviction.

“I like the sound of that, ‘your will’. My name is Will. William, actually.”

Lorraine put a hand up to the French twist of gleaming silver at the nape of her neck. She was conscious of the admiring way he studied her thick hair. “It was nice to meet you, William,” she said with finality.

He really is a pest, Lorraine thought, when she realized he had followed her to the check-out. He could not take a polite hint.

As he wheeled into place behind her in line, a young cashier came up and put a hand on his cart. “I can help you on three, sir.”

William pulled his cart gently away from the young woman. “What?” he exclaimed, “and take me away from this lovely lady?”

The cashier’s eyes widened. She looked at William, then at Lorraine, then back at William, and a smile broke over her face. “Of course not.” She glanced at them both with admiration before moving away to help someone else.

Lorraine paid for her groceries. After they were bagged and placed back in her cart, she lingered at the exit. William’s eyes flitted up to meet hers several times as he fumbled with the card reader. He was obviously delighted to find her waiting for him at the glass doors.

She stared at him for a long moment. “This is foolish, you know,” she said at last. “We won’t have much time.”

William looked around at the other shoppers: A young mother with a lower back tattoo visible above her jeans, a middle-aged man with a smoker’s cough standing at the magazine rack, a teenage girl who giggled as a teenage boy whispered nonsense in her ear. The old people’s eyes met again and he shrugged matter-of-factly. “No one does, darling.”

She considered this for a moment, and then nodded slowly. “My name is Lorraine,” she said.

Deborah Winter-Blood is a writer, dog mom and displaced California Valley Girl. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications (including Every Day Fiction) over the past 30 years. She’s recently finished her second novel, which she hopes to see in print in 2011.

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