The sun crept into the morning sky, signaling Nathanael Greene Park was officially open for the day. She walked out of her apartment, climbed into her baby blue Corolla Hatchback and headed south. Ten minutes later, she turned off Scenic Avenue and drove across railroad tracks and through the park gate. It was Thursday, January second, and most of Springfield, Missouri’s residents were returning to work after being off for the holidays. But not her. Thursday was her scheduled day off, so she got a reprieve.

   She parked in her usual spot and exited the car. All in all, it was a nice day––44⁰ with a sunny sky. She shivered as a chilly wind blew her light brown hair away from her neck. She started to pull up the hood of her sage green Eddie Bauer jacket but decided against covering up her naturally curly hair––after all, it was her best feature.

   There were several parking lots at Nathanael Greene, and if all were as empty as this one, she had the park to herself. Up until three weeks ago, that thought would have made her introverted self very happy. But on this day, she was hoping she’d come across ‘him’ jogging on the path around the lake. In fact, before she’d even gotten out of bed this morning, she’d daydreamed about him rounding a bend, seeing her sitting on a bench and stopping to talk.

   She walked to the far side of the lake and sat on the wooden bench she’d visualized in her dream. Four geese were congregating near an outcrop of rocks. After five minutes, she pulled out her cell phone and snapped a picture. She waited a few more minutes, and thinking the morning shouldn’t be a total loss, sent the photo to her mother.

   She stood, adjusted her jacket and patted the bulge in her left pocket. Time to move on. D’Artagnan would be expecting her and she didn’t want to disappoint. She resumed her walk and soon left the official limits of the park for a path that ran between Missouri State University’s Darr Agricultural Center and Sunset Avenue.

   She made her way to the hole in the fence created some time ago by the intrusion of a small tree trunk. The tree had been removed, but the gap it had created still remained. She pulled an apple from her pocket and smiled at the colt walking toward her.

   “D’Artagnan, did you think I wasn’t coming today?”

   “How do you know his name is D’Artagnan?” came a male voice from behind her.

   She jumped at the man’s words and slipped her fingers through the ‘eyes’ of a kitty knuckle weapon in her right pocket. She turned around to see the man from her dream.

   “Oh, hi,” she said. “I don’t know his real name. I always thought if I ever got lucky enough to have a horse, I’d name him D’Artagnan.”

   “The fourth Musketeer, right?” he said. She nodded. “Good name.”

   She let go of the key ring in her pocket and stuck the apple through the hole.

   “Is that your Corolla in the parking lot?” he asked.

   “Yes,” she said as the colt ate the apple.

   “I figured so. Everyday it’s there, I see you somewhere in the park.”

   “What parking lot do you use?”

   “None of them. I live close by so I include the distance in my daily run.”

   “Oh,” she said, dropping her eyes. An awkward silence followed.

   He knew her type. Scared of her own shadow this one. No confidence where men were concerned. Wouldn’t know what to do with a real man if . . . bet she’s still a virgin.

   “What do you do on the days you don’t walk here?” he asked.

    "I work as an accounting assistant in a nursing home.”

   Low-end car. Low-end job. Too bad, cause she’s ripe for the picking. Might do in a pinch though. Things are getting tight.

   “I need to keep moving,” he said. “Want to walk with me to the lake?”

   “Sure.”

   “You originally from Springfield?” he asked.

   “No, I’m from St. James,” she said. “Just completed an accounting certificate from OTC and will start an associate of arts degree in a few weeks. What do you do?”

   “Actually, I’m a disabled Afghan vet. I have seizures due to a traumatic brain injury. Can’t drive because of them. That’s why you’ll never see my car here. Don’t own one.”

   “Oh.” She was at a loss for words so fell back on what she’d heard other people say to veterans. “Thank you for your service.”

   They were almost to the Dwarf Conifer Garden when he said, “There’s a bench under a trellis on the other side of this section. Want to sit for a while?”

   "Sure.”

   They walked around a gravel path and sat down.

   “At least this part of the park is green,” he said. “Most of the trees around here are deciduous. I imagine it’s pretty in the spring when the leaves return. I’ll even bet there will be flowers growing up the trellis, don’t you think?”

   “Probably,” she said. Another round of silence ensued as she got lost in the long lashes surrounding his brown eyes. Grabbing for anything to restart the conversation, she cabbaged the same question he’d asked her. “Are you from Springfield?”

   “No, Arizona. But I’ve had enough of desert terrain,” he said. “I actually came to the Springfield area because of my best friend. He was from Nixa. We were members of an Army Ranger team assigned to the Global War on Terrorism.” He leaned down, picked up a small rock and tossed it into the trees. “Our vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Kandahar Province. I have seizures. He died.”

   She didn’t know how to respond.

   “He asked me to take his belongings to his mother if he didn’t make it, so I did. She’s kind of adopted me, now. Nice lady. Was coming up on her fifth year of being cancer free when she got word the cancer had returned. Docs have told her it’s not looking good. Don’t feel I can just up and leave her now.”

   “What kind of cancer?”

   “Pancreatic.”

   “Oh.” She paused, then said, “I’m Amanda. What’s your name?”

   “Juan Lopez.”

   She smiled. “Is that Mexican?”

   “Why? What difference does it make? Do you think they should have built a wall sooner so my wet-back father couldn’t have come to the U.S. looking for a better life for his kids?”

   “I’m sorry––.”

   “Yeah, I was an anchor baby, but I paid my family’s dues. I served this country, and I’ve got a steel plate in my head to prove it!”

   Suddenly she was scared. She stood and said, “I didn’t mean anything disrespectful.”

   "Your kind never does.”

   She took a step forward. He maneuvered his body to block her from getting back on the path. She tried to sidestep him, but he shoved her back. He heard the train in the distance. Right on time. He moved in closer.

   “Bitch,” he said.

   She started screaming as the train’s whistle sounded. He put his fingers around her pretty, lily-white neck and squeezed.

 

 

   At 7:30 P.M., a park ranger placed an orange card on a lone baby blue Corolla in a parking lot at Nathanael Greene Park. The placard warned if the car remained for another 24 hours it would be towed to an undisclosed location.