Flipping to the economics’ section, Ned folded and angled the newspaper against his bent knee before his arthritis demanded a change of pose. He sipped his coffee through the slit in the disposable lid, milky sweetness coating his tongue. A trio of runners passed by while he perused the far column and a summery gust fingered his receding hairline. Two dog walkers strode along in their wake, the long strides of the humans and smaller strides of their pets creating a staccato rhythm against the gravel trail. Grinding of strollers rolled on but Ned didn’t glanced up until another set of looping wheels stopped before him and sneakers shuffled.
“Is this seat taken?”
The young blonde in a peach track suit tilted her head at the other end of his bench.
“No,” said Ned.
She frowned and pulled off one of the wrap around ear pieces blasting a bopping tune.
“No,” he said again and inched to the bench’s opposite side, leaving as much of the flaking green paint exposed as possible.
Plopping down, the blonde maneuvered the stroller before her and dug into the bottom compartment. Her rummaging failed to disturb the babe nestled within a padded cocoon of honey-yellow fabrics. The woman produced a downy lemon blanket and proceeded to tuck it around the child, as if the summery warmth had suddenly gone icy.
Ned looked away when she glanced in his direction and submerged himself into the newspaper’s fine print. He noted, however, her wave and the arrival of a second stroller and young redhead in pink spandex. She pulled up alongside, plopped down with an equal lack of ceremony and parked her matching stroller with a similarly slumbering child in gender neutral sage at her sneakered feet.
With a sigh, Ned sought the details of the recent bailouts, the opinions of those who were in the know, and the speculations of others who saw the world about to end or on the other hand on the verge of creation. He blotted out the women’s banter, their discussion on pumps and wipes, of what little X and done and how little Y looked so cute doing Z. He didn’t break out of his protective shell of numbers, dates, distant politicians, and the shakers of the global marketplace until he heard the static.
Frowning, he checked his hearing aid. His quick flick of the switch, turning it on and off, failed to resolve the buzz. He upped the volume and caught the first words.
“…take the boat into international waters.”
Ned homed in on the sounds and found himself peering out of the corner of his eye at the redhead’s stroller.
“Do you think that’ll be safe?” The question emerged from the blonde’s blanket-stuffed compartment by the carriage’s gravel-scuffed wheel.
“They’ll be so lost trying to work out what’s happened, they won’t be looking in that direction,” said the first voice, his cocky tone wafting from beneath the redhead’s slumbering babe.
They fell silent, as if they could sense they were being overheard.
Giving the strollers a sidelong glance, Ned flipped his newspaper over, and sought a diverting bit of world news.
“Then we’re still on?”
Ned ground his teeth, risking dislodging his dentures, when the second voice whispered again. The nervousness and excitement in his tone made Ned’s feet itch.
“Of course. Tonight it’ll begin.”
“Tonight. You know….”
“Are you okay, Mister?”
Ned jolted as the redhead touched his shoulder. The newspaper fluttered in his hand and he shifted his staring gaze from her child to the woman’s face with its thick veneer of makeup and one thin wrinkle of concern.
“I thought I heard something….”
She glanced at her babe, sleeping without a sound.
“You don’t—” He chuckled, inspiring a wary laugh from both women. “You don’t happen to have a radio or anything inside there?”
Both women blanched, their sudden iciness making Ned want a blanket for himself.
“No,” said the blonde. She stood and laid a protective hand on her stroller’s handle. “We should get going.”
The other nodded, and then her features relaxed into a smile. If not for the hardness a second earlier, Ned might have almost believed the warmth wafting off of her like some freshly spattered perfume.
“Have a nice day,” she said, wheeling her stroller to align with her companion.
“You too,” said Ned.
He watched them start power walking away, the grind of the plastic wheels and thump of sneakers dominating the voices rattling in his skull.
“What happens tonight?” he whispered.
The blonde glanced over her shoulder and he offered an awkward wave before returning to his paper, in a sudden hunt for a hint of what might be on its way.