By JoAnn Baca

The elderly woman called out to Catherine from a bench in Central Park.

Interrupting her daily run, Catherine approached her. “May I help you with something?” she asked somewhat breathlessly, assessing the stranger for any signs of distress. Not finding anything discernable, she wiped the sweat from her upper lip with the back of one hand as she waited to hear more.

“You are the lovely young woman who was missing for over a week, aren’t you?”

It was a question Catherine had become used to hearing. Even now, more than two years after the event, people occasionally approached her to ask about the attack, or about the ten days she was out of sight. Curiosity, it seemed, never died…nor notoriety.

With a resigned slump of her shoulders, Catherine nodded, replying with a perkiness that was partly a shield, “That’s me!”

Surprisingly, the stranger then asked, “And do you live on the top floor of….”

As she rattled off Catherine’s address, resignation changed to concern. Catherine’s chest constricted. Why would this woman be asking her such questions? She studied the speaker appraisingly: perfectly coiffed blue hair, a Chanel suit at least adecade out of date, a sense of calm entitlement that allowed her to assume a stranger would treat her respectfully - nothing remarkable to set her apart from thousands of other rich old women who called Manhattan home.

After relating Catherine’s address, the lady on the bench finished with, “You have that lovely balcony.”

Warily, Catherine nodded, her eyes darting from the path to the trees behind the old woman, wondering if this was some kind of set-up for a reporter. It wouldn’t surprise her if it was.

“Please, dear…don’t be alarmed. My apologies for being so abrupt and for frightening you.” With some difficulty, the woman rose, using a beautifully carved rosewood cane to assist her. “I’ve handled this badly. My name is Abigail Cochran.” She indicated the bench with her free hand. “Please, sit for a minute and let me explain?”

When she had satisfied herself that no one was lurking about, Catherine nodded, taking the other’s elbow to help her reclaim her seat, thenreluctantly sitting down next to her.

Abigail settled herself comfortably and began relating her personal story. “You see, I’m a widow. My Matthew passed away a year ago. The love of my life.”

Catherine murmured her condolences, wondering if it was mere loneliness that had caused this woman to stop her in the Park, despite the oddness of knowing where Catherine lived.

Abigail nodded silent thanks to Catherine before she went on. “We had 55 wonderful years together. Now I live alone.” She gave Catherine her complete address, right down to her zip code.

The building was several blocks from Catherine’s. It was more than likely that Abigail’s apartment windows faced her own, albeit from afar, if the woman could recognize Catherine’s address as having a balcony. She waited, fearful of what else the woman might say, yet trying to tamp down her reaction, not wanting to alarm Vincent…at least, not yet.

It had been a scant few weeks since a stalker had spied on Vincent and her; the resulting near-death experience had been terrifying on many levels for both of them, and she had become doubly watchful as a result. Now, from a completely different direction, she appeared to be facing another possible stalker – as unusual a one as she could ever have imagined, true, but Catherine didn’t discount the possible danger this woman nonetheless represented. At least, Catherine surmised, this one would be unlikely to dump her into a car trunk on her own.

Abigail had been looking down, perhaps composing herself after speaking about her deceased husband, and so missed Catherine’s narrow-eyed contemplation. She continued explaining. “As you can see, getting around is difficult for me. I take a cab to the Park most days to get some fresh air and have lunch.” She indicated an old-fashioned wicker basket on the ground at her feet. “I also like to people-watch. I’ve seen you running here, and I recognized you from the newspapers.”

Catherine nodded, and Abigail went on, “At night…well…I have an old telescope of my husband’s. I almost got rid of it a while back, as it’s useless in a city with so many lights. But since his passing, I’ve used it,” she began to blush, her face taking on a becoming pink tone, “for other purposes.”

Anticipating what the woman’s next words would be,Catherine closed her eyes for a moment.She wasn’t at all surprised when she heard them; she had guessed correctly.

“I suspect you already know what I’m going to confess.” At Catherine’s tense nod, Abigail came to the reason she had stopped the younger woman. She flattened one hand against her chest to emphasize her next words. “He’s…beautiful.” She sighed dreamily. “I can’t believe just how beautiful. Strange, to be sure, but in such a stunning way.”

Catherine’s eyebrows rose at the description, making Abigail laugh. “Not what you expected? Well, it’s how I feel.” She looked down, plucking at a few cat hairs on her wool skirt. “The first time I saw him was an accident, of course.” She looked up at Catherine again. “But once I’d seen him, well…” She smiled. “Do you know he often comes at night and doesn’t knock?” At Catherine’s look of surprise, she added, “He…keeps watch, I think. Standing on the balcony, gazing at the lights. Sometimes he stays for hours.”

Catherine, stunned, murmured, “I didn’t know.”

Abigail nodded. “I thought as much, which is why I was determined to find a way to meet you. That young man…”

Catherine, unbidden, whispered, “Vincent.”

“Ah, perfection! Well…Vincent,” she said, emphasizing his name,obviously cherishes you. So many times when you are standing with him, you might be looking out at the city or reading from a book, but his eyes never leave your face.”

Catherine’s concern eased more with each word Abigail spoke, and now she was intrigued – absolutely not what she had anticipated.

Abigail added, “Yet, despite how besotted he looks, I don’t know if he’s told you. He…well, he seems to hold himself…apart. I’ve never seen him enter your apartment, for instance.Does he usually?”

Feeling strangely able to respond honestly to this complete stranger, Catherine shook her head.

“I thought not.” Abigail sat back, satisfied that she had read the situation correctly. Then her wrinkled brow furrowed more deeply. “At first I considered that perhaps you didn’t return his feelings…but from watching you when you’re with him, I sensed that is not so. You love him desperately. Am I correct?”

Dumbstruck at this woman’s intuition, Catherinecouldn’t help herself; she murmured, “With all my heart.”

Abigail’s dimples showed, despite the many creases in the skin around her mouth. “You see, age brings some benefits. When we’re young, we don’t take the time to really study others; we get distracted by things that don’t matter. As we get older, those nonessential things fall away, and we can focus better on the important things, like noticing how other people are feeling. And we understand that what matters most in life is kindness, compassion, connection…bonding. Do you see what I’m saying?”

Without waiting for a response, Abigail glanced at her watch, then tapped the younger woman on the knee. “Well, I won’t keep you, my dear.” Her smile brightened, the wrinkles crinkling around her faded blue eyes. “You are such a lovely woman, Miss Chandler. The perfect complement to him.” Then, as if pulling herself out of a romantic reverie, she shrugged her shoulders and her voice turned brisk. “Go on now, finish your run!”

Catherine rose, stunned into silence. Then, on impulse, she bent to kiss the stranger’s cheek. Abigail’s eyes misted at the gesture, and she said, “I won’t intrude on your privacy anymore.”

She patted the younger woman’s cheek with a gnarled, arthritic hand andthe mist in her eyes turned into tears.“I just wanted you to know that someone was watching over you,and that the love you have for each other is obvious, even from a distance. And now, when I think of the two of you together, I will smile, hoping that you two will someday truly be together.”

She leaned forward to whisper, “And the telescope will stay in its case, I promise. I have dreams now, to keep me company.”

“I do, as well,” Catherine answered. “And I share your hope. Thank you, Abigail. You are like an angel, sitting there.”

Abigail closed her eyes, raising her head to the sun. Catherine gazed at her for a long moment before continuing her run. And when she turned back at abend in the path to wave…Abigail’s bench was empty.