Quick to Judge

I’ve been busy ‘fine tuning’ a contemporary woman’s novel, Dahlonega Sisters, The Gold Miner Ring. It is nearing the final process of being published, but today, I’d like to share a short story which won first place in a writing contest.

I hope you enjoy it and if you do, please take the time to drop me a note. I’d love to hear of similar stories of being too quick to judge.

Quick to Judge

The crisp autumn air greeted Matilda Brumsley as she adjusted the fanny pack strapped around her tiny waist, preparing to begin her ten-block morning hike. The routine commenced each day after her second cup of coffee, come rain or shine. The habit helped offset the depression associated with losing a spouse. Boredom and the need to stay healthy gave Matilda the resolve to continue it.

Matilda’s husband retirement check ended along with the benefit of health insurance when he died a few weeks after their 50th wedding anniversary. Her meager income couldn’t accommodate getting sick. Exercise and occasional exposure to the elements helped her body resist colds and the flu much better than the lethargic, homebound friends who fussed at her.

Relatives often discouraged her from walking alone in the changing community. Matilda saw it as an opportunity to stay in touch with her surroundings. Most of the neighbors she’d known had moved away to fancier homes in the suburbs. Matilda refused to abandon the two-bedroom bungalow she and Bernard had shared for more than fifty years.

Not much got past the wiry octogenarian. She prided herself on keeping abreast of actions occurring, and those overlooked, in her aging township. With no filter when it came to speaking her mind, Matilda often caused friction among the elected officials. Newer neighbors kept their distance from the crusty old woman, but she studied them during her jaunts each day. At night, she watched through slatted blinds, determined to maintain the serenity of her beloved hometown.

Recently, teenagers had taken to gathering near a corner store after dark, stirring brash quarrels and leading to occasional fistfights. She worried drug dealers had infiltrated the aging community, leading to the demise of the tranquility she’d enjoyed. It wouldn’t happen on her watch, if she had anything to say about it.

Matilda slowed her pace as she rounded the corner onto Main Street, remembering the crumbling concrete curb she eyed with contempt each time it came into view. The city officials ignored her demands to fix the deplorable sidewalk, no matter how many times she’d brought it to their attention. The last time she’d stormed into city hall, they threatened to charge her with some crazy nuisance ordinance if she continued to complain.

She kicked a piece of loose concrete into the street and muttered as she marched ahead. “Someone’s going to break a leg before they get off their as—”

“Whoa, lady,” the young man shouted as they collided.

Matilda gasped and jabbed a finger toward the intruder. “Watch where you’re going.” Her narrowed eyes traveled from the ropelike strands of matted hair to the loose-fitting jeans hanging a few inches below the youngster’s waistline. “Get yourself a belt before those pants fall off. No one wants to see your underwear.”

He grimaced, sucking in a deep breath and twisting his mouth before responding. “Excuse me, but you ran into me.” He shook his head and sighed. “Are you okay?”

The unexpected question rattled Matilda. “Get yourself a haircut. You’re never going to get a job looking like that.” She straightened the pack around her waist, glaring at the young man, waiting for him to get out of her way.

He stepped aside, motioning for her to continue. “Please be careful.”

You be careful, mister.” Matilda stormed past him, forgetting the uneven pavement which initially had drawn her attention. Her foot landed on yet another piece of loose rock and tossed her body forward so quickly there was no time to brace. She face-planted onto the street. The buzzing in her head grew loud, escalating until her world went dark.

#

Matilda jerked when she felt someone pull on her arm. Prying one eye open, she searched for the culprit, finding a woman dressed in hospital scrubs. The jack-hammer pounding in her head forced her eye closed.

“Good to see you’re awake, Mrs. Brumsley.” She released the pressure on the cuff. “I’m Becky, your nurse for today. How are you feeling?”

“Like a Mack truck ran over me.” Through slit eyes, she glanced around the room, observing the monitor hanging from the wall and the IV that trailed down to her arm. “What happened?”

“You fell and hit your head. You’ve got a concussion, but you should feel better in a few days.”

“A few days?” Matilda grabbed the side rail and kicked the blanket from her legs, “I can’t afford this. I need to leave now.” Her voice boomed loud enough to draw the attention of another nurse who rushed into the room.

“You’ll need to quiet down.” The nurse placed a hand on Matilda’s shoulder and urged her to recline. “I know it’s difficult to find yourself in a hospital bed, but you’ve got a nasty bump and it needs to heal. Can you try to relax?”

“I can relax in my own bed.” Matilda fiddled with the tape securing the line to her arm, trying to remove it. “Take this thing out.”

Becky took hold of Matilda’s hand and held it. “Please don’t do that. Now, what’s the problem?”

“I don’t have insurance. You’re going to put me in the poor house keeping me here.”

“Someone will speak to you about the bill later. For now, you need to rest. Do you want something for the pain?”

Her nod sent the other nurse out of the room.

Nurse Becky winked at Matilda. “You’re a feisty one, aren’t you?”

Matilda rubbed her fingers on her temple as a half-grin spread across her face. “I’ve had lots of years to practice.”

The second nurse returned with a small paper cup holding two pills. “These should help.”

Desperate for relief, Matilda swallowed the meds. Once the two nurses left the room, Matilda closed her eyes, recollecting the accident. A vision of a young man with the unkempt hair surfaced, along with the angry words she’d spoken to him. A wave of guilt crept over her as she replayed the scene.

The young man had not been at fault for the collision. She’d ran into him and had been too startled and stubborn to admit her inattention had caused them to collide. A sharp tongue and being too quick to judge were two of her many imperfections. Most of the boys who wore low-hanging pants and tangled hair showed little respect for themselves and others. Still, this fellow had been polite, even asking if she was all right. An apology was in order, but not knowing his name would make it difficult.

The thought leapfrogged to the conversation she’d had with the Becky. How’d she know my name? The only things Matilda carried on her walks was her house key, some lip balm, and a few pieces of candy to keep her mouth from drying out. She never dreamed she’d need identification. The question played on her mind as the pain killers forced her eyes closed.

A knock on the door stirred Matilda from her nap. A woman entered the room holding a large clipboard. She smiled, revealing a huge set of pearly white teeth, reminding Matilda of a Cheshire cat.

“Mrs. Brumsley?”

Matilda pushed herself upright and threw a hand up in the air with her palm facing the woman. “I’m not paying the damn bill.”

The abrupt announcement left the woman with her mouth agape. When she recovered, she stepped closer. “I need your signature on a few forms.” The woman pulled a rolling cart close to the bed and set the paperwork on it.”

Matilda folded her arms and looked toward the window. “I’m not signing anything. I told you, I’m not paying. You can’t get blood from a turnip.”

The woman pursed her lips. “The hospital needs to get paid for its services.” She flipped a page and pointed to it. “It’s not a bill. It’s an authorization releasing your records.”

Matilda squinted as she tried to read the fine print. Frustrated, she pushed the pen away. “Nope. Not signing it.”

Heaving a big sigh, the woman turned toward the door. “I’ll be back.”

Becky returned with a tray. “Thought you might need something to tide you over until dinner.”

“Thanks.” Matilda took the lid off a bowl of broth and looked up at the nurse. “How did you know my name?”

“You were a Jane Doe until yesterday.”

“How long have I been here?” Matilda scrunched her face. “And what changed yesterday?”

“An ambulance brought you in three days ago. You fell off a sidewalk on Main Street.” The nurse fluffed the pillow behind Matilda. “Yesterday, a lawyer identified you as Matilda Brumsley. Apparently, he knows you.” She reached in her pocket and withdrew a business card. “He left this.”

Matilda started to shake her head, but the motion triggered more pain. She studied the name on the card. “Jeff Masterson. He handled things when my husband passed away, five years ago.”

“You should give him a call.” Becky handed the receiver to Matilda and walked out.

She dialed the number, hearing a familiar voice answer. “This is Matilda Brumsley.”

“Mrs. Brumsley. I’m so glad you’re awake. Do you remember me?”

“I remember.” She paused, trying to gather her thoughts. “How did you know I was here?”

“It’s a long story. I’d like to come by and explain. Would four o’clock be all right?”

Matilda nodded. “Yes. That would be fine. I’m a little confused right now.”

“Understandably. Hopefully, my visit will clear things up.”

“Four o’clock.” Matilda set the phone down and folded her hands on her lap. She replayed the accident scene in her mind, remembering the broken concrete walkway. The memory made her stomach knot. If they had listened to her at City Hall and fixed the damn thing, she wouldn’t be sitting in a hospital bed. The irritating thought stirred in her mind as she faded back to sleep.

The squeak of a chair startled Matilda.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.”

The young man with the dreadlocks sat near her bed. She studied his handsome face, peering at his larkspur-blue eyes, wondering how they’d gone unnoticed during their previous encounter.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been worried about you and wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“His name is James.”

The man’s voice drew Matilda’s attention to the other side of her bed where the lawyer stood.

“He’s been your advocate while you were in a coma.”

“My advocate?” Matilda looked back at the young man.

“When you fell, I didn’t know how to help. You had no identification on you, but I’ve seen you walking often.”

Matilda frowned. “I don’t remember seeing you.”

A dimple formed on his left cheek. “I was inside my house, studying. You pass my place every morning, at a pretty fair pace, I might add.”

Matilda’s face flushed warm. She’d misjudged the young man completely. “I owe you an apology. That crazy hair and those clothes. You know, first impressions.”

He nodded. “Yeah. I get that a lot. But I dress like this on purpose. Some people get freaked out around men in suits. Others can relate to my more casual look.”

“James missed his interview with me for an internship the day of your accident. When he explained how he’d talked to half of Niceville trying to find out who you were and where you lived, I gave him a second chance.”

“I couldn’t leave you all alone, even if you didn’t like me.”

Her eyes grew moist. “It was my fault. I’m sorry.” She wiped a tear that trickled down her cheek. “Thanks, for caring.”

“I’ll wear a suit, maybe even cut my hair, when I’m a lawyer in court. For now, I’d like to change people’s perception of guys who look like me. We’re not all thugs.”

Jeff touched Matilda’s arm. “The City will be paying your medical bills. That sidewalk should have been fixed a long time ago.”

Matilda shouted out, “Hell yes,” and fist-bumped the lawyer. Her outburst carried into the hall and brought Becky rushing into the room. Matilda shrugged, “Sorry. I’m a work in progress.”