December 4, 2020


(c) J. Singh, 2016

Kelly didn't like working late. Her office was located downtown, but the commute back to her home in the suburbs always aroused her anxiety when traveling at night. She would always try her best to get out of the office before 5pm. But on some days, delays were unavoidable. Today was such a day. She had gotten pulled into a conference call with her counterparts in India and Malaysia, and the meeting had run late.

She sighed as she hung up the phone, looking out the window at the darkness that had fallen all around. For a moment, she considered calling a cab, but it would be too expensive for a ride out to the suburbs. So she shut down her laptop and packed it into her bag, put on her coat and headed out the door.

The cold winter air greeted her as she stepped out into the street. Downtown at night in the city was vibrant with color and activity. Kelly enjoyed her short walk to the subway station. So far, she was in relative safety, surrounded by people and the reassurance of being cocooned in the city center with its department stores, street vendors and other social activity. But once she entered the subway station, there was no telling what might happen. It was like leaving the safety net and venturing into the dangerous wild. She stood nervously at the top of the stairs leading down to the underground subway station, hesitating to take that first step. This was where her pulse would quicken and her anxiety level would rise to almost unmanageable levels.

She winced in pain, angry at herself for her own fear and how it had limited her life. But even then, all the old news stories of attacks on women who were traveling alone flashed through her mind. Her husband would often tell her that she was overreacting and that she needed to get over her fears. But to her, it seemed logical that in a situation like this, an attack was very probable, if not imminent.

She had been standing at the top of the stairs for several minutes and was starting to feel the absurdity of what she was doing. Motivated by the awkwardness of her position, and worrying that someone might notice her and how ridiculous she looked, she took a deep breath and headed down the narrow, grimy stairs to the subway platform.

The platform was deserted. There was nobody in sight. Kelly hugged her coat tightly around her, and pulled her cellphone out of her purse. She glanced at it quickly, and saw what she had expected: No Signal. The next train was still several minutes away. She looked around, a growing feeling of worry starting to well up inside her.

Eventually, someone came down the stairs. He was young, maybe in his twenties, wore blue jeans and a black leather jacket, and was listening to something through his white earplugs. But Kelly didn't notice any of that. It was the turban and beard that caught her attention. A large, round, navy blue turban and a flowing black beard.

She immediately felt uneasy. He didn't seem to notice her, as he stood a few feet away at the edge of the platform, hands in pockets, absorbed in whatever music he was listening to, staring down at the tracks.

Kelly checked her phone again. Still: No Signal. Slowly, she made several small steps in the other direction so as to put some distance between the man and her. She looked desperately at the stairs, hoping that some other passengers might also come down. But there was no one.

She looked at her watch. Two more minutes until her train would arrive. A lot could happen in two minutes. She kept glancing towards the man, checking nervously to see what he was doing. But he hadn't moved. He stood motionless, head bowed, seemingly lost in his own thoughts.

A painful minute passed, seeming like an eternity. Panicked thoughts vied for attention in her mind, each one more alarming than the last. What if he was a terrorist? Maybe he was going to attack her, and was just waiting for the right time? He seemed young and strong, what if he was going to rape her? Nobody would hear her screaming down here.

She looked around quickly. It was just like all the other subway platforms. Benches. Large, thick, metal pillars. Sign boards. Dirt and grime. Flickering fluorescent lighting. She grimaced at the thought of being featured on the nightly news, a rape victim, lying on the filthy ground, traumatized and shocked. She shuddered at the thought.

She considered going up the other stairs and leaving the subway. But that would mean she would have to walk several blocks to the next station. Or wait for another train, which would cause even more delays for her. She was torn in indecision. She kept looking at the man in the turban -- he still hadn't moved.

Finally, she couldn't take it any longer, and decided to exit the station. But just as she was about to take a step towards the stairs, she heard the distant sound of the train approaching. The sound grew louder and louder until there was a rush of wind and then train arrived accompanied by bright lights and screeching.

Kelly breathed a sigh of relief and stepped through the first doors that opened in front of her. She quickly found a seat and sat down, thankful that her ordeal was over. There were a few other people in the train car -- a teenage girl intensely focused a game she was playing on her phone, an obese man carrying grocery bags, and an elderly woman seated quietly near the doors. Their presence was reassuring and calming to Kelly.

She took a few deep breaths and felt the tension in her shoulder and back muscles begin to relax. The doors closed and the train began slowly ambling out of the station. Slowly, it picked up speed. Every few minutes it would slow down and stop at another station. There were only a few more passengers who boarded. The elderly lady got off a few stops later.

Last stop in the city, a long dark tunnel, and as the train exited the tunnel, they were out of the city. The train picked up speed as they came above ground and the tracks ran alongside the highway for a few miles. Kelly looked out of the window at the headlights of the cars and trucks as they appeared to float down the highway in the darkness, like so many lost boats in the night.

She was grateful when her stop came. She felt waves of relief wash over her as she stepped out of the train and onto the platform. Her ordeal was over, she could now breathe at ease. Home was only a few minutes away.

As she walked across the parking lot, she was thinking that she should have a hot bath when she got home. Today had been a long day, and she deserved some downtime. She reached her car and was still fishing around in her purse for the keys when the attack came. It was swift and sudden. She didn't see them coming. Someone snatched her purse out of her hands with a rough jerk. At the same time, her coat was ripped off from behind her, tangling her hair and pulling her head back painfully. The cold air bit at her legs and arms. She cried out in alarm and surprise, but a hand was immediately clasped around her mouth to muffle her cries. Her eyes widened in horror as she realized what was happening. An arm was wrapped around her neck like a heavyweight. She tried to fend off the attackers. Her arms flailed outward, but were immediately pinned down behind her back. Several pairs of hands dragged her down onto the ground. She kicked and shook her head and struggled, trying to scream, but in vain.

Her dress was ripped and torn, and she could feel the icy cold tarmac on her skin. She writhed and twisted and kicked and struggled, but couldn't escape the vice-like grip. In the darkness, she saw three figures towering above her. There must have been at least one more that was out of sight. They were smirking and laughing, taunting her. They reeked of alcohol and cigarette smoke.

Kelly's muffled cries didn't get very far. A dreadful panic overwhelmed her as she realized that she was all alone, and was about to become another statistic, here in this nondescript suburban parking lot.

Then, without warning, one of the figures above her vanished. She heard a different voice shouting at them. A moment later, the second attacker was gone. And then, the third. She felt the grip on her loosening, and as she was released from her bonds, she scrambled to her feet.

Her four assailants were occupied with someone else who had taken their attention away from her. It was the young man in the navy blue turban. They had now encircled and surrounded him, while he, with fists up, met and fended off each of their attacks.

Kelly stood in shock for a moment, shivering in the bitterly cold air. The attackers all pounced at once upon the man in the blue turban, and began pummeling him with blows. She couldn't see him anymore.

Her purse lay before her, its contents spilled out like entrails across the ground. Her phone was among them. She knelt down and picked it up with trembling hands. The attackers had started cursing and laughing again. She could hear them kicking and punching their new target.

Her phone screen lit up. With frozen and bruised fingers, she dialed 9-1-1.

It seemed like an eternity while the dial tone changed to a ring tone. She didn't want to wait until the attackers turned their attention back to her again, so she stood up and ran, barefoot, across the parking lot.

"911, what's your emergency?" The female voice on the line was calm, reassured, and had a strength which was reassuring.

Out of breath and in between sobs and cries, Kelly reported the crime and the location. Within minutes, sirens began wailing in the distance. Slowly, they grew louder and louder, until the police and ambulance were in the parking lot, lighting it up with flashing red and blue lights and a flurry of activity.

The attackers had fled the scene of the crime. Kelly stood alone, shivering in the cold wind as four police officers and an EMT ran towards her. Later, with a warm blanket draped over her shoulders, she sat in the back of the ambulance while police and EMT's worked around her, collecting evidence, treating her injuries, and recording her account of the crime.

Meanwhile, a few feet away, they were lifting the man in the blue turban onto a stretcher. He was unconscious, his battered face and clothes dripping with blood.

"Do you know his name?" a police officer asked her, his notebook open and pen ready to jot down notes.

She shook her head. "No, I don't know who he is. He was on the train. I didn't know that he got off at this stop . . . He saved me from those thugs."

The police officer nodded, glancing back briefly as they were lifting the stretcher.

"Who is he?" Kelly asked. "What is he?"

"Oh, don't you know?" he replied, "He is a Sikh."