It was a cool night on a Friday in September. The street lights were blinding before Eric left them behind as he entered the relative calm of the local park. The tall oak trees alongside the hard-packed dirt road still kept most of their leaves this time of year, but the days were already getting shorter. The sun had already set and a deeper darkness lingered beneath the trees. As Eric entered those shadows, the noise of the city was far away and the temperature seemed to drop; he kept his long grey coat closed with one hand. With the other he pulled a shopping trolley filled with groceries behind him.
Ghent was one of the larger cities in Belgium. Its inner city had large pedestrian-only areas where the use of cars is strictly regulated. Its largest park, named Citadel Park, was an enjoyable route for Eric to take when coming home after grocery shopping; he always left his car at home. By day, the now-empty park lanes would have been filled with students and pensioners. The park had a bad reputation however—mostly concerning the safety of young women—and was largely abandoned during the night. Eric enjoyed walking here when it was empty and quiet. Its reputation meant he had the place to himself. It was a peaceful place. He marched along with a confident stride, his footsteps echoing on the empty road.
Halfway through his route on the tree-lined paths he noticed a dark silhouette along the left side of the road, a single person sitting on a park bench. Eric continued on his way and tried not to look at the person he passed in the night. He wasn’t in the mood to talk to the occasional drunk you could find here, sleeping off their hangover. Of course, he couldn’t help himself and caught glimpses of her from the corner of his eyes.
That she was a woman was obvious from her figure and dress. She didn’t seem drunk, though it looked like she’d been crying. She didn’t look up as Eric passed and he continued on his way.
Just minding my own business, he told himself. Yet he stopped just a short distance after seeing her. He had caught only a glimpse of the girl, but there was something about her that had drawn his curiosity. Calling himself foolish, he turned around.
“Are you ok?” he asked her, a stupid question. She obviously was not.
The girl looked up and smiled weakly. “I’m fine,” she said.
Eric looked at her more closely, noticing her short, wrinkled dress that—without any stockings or leggings underneath—must have been cold that time of the day; her long brown hair that hung loosely around her shoulders; the small golden hoops in her ears and the small silver chain around her neck, whatever was hanging from it hidden in the darkness. A teasing answer came to him right away, something about a woman never being fine when she used that word. It didn’t seem appropriate in this situation however and he kept it to himself.
The girl pulled a lock of her long brown hair out of her eyes, revealing a fine oval face and a pair of glasses resting on her tip-tilted nose. She was cute, despite her red eyes and tearstained cheeks. She was older than he had guessed from that first glimpse. He estimated her to be in her twenties: twenty-four or twenty-five, just a few years younger than himself.
“Are you sure?” he asked. It wouldn’t be the first time a young woman had been assaulted in this park’s dark nights. Eric didn’t want to get involved in some girl’s minor problems, but if something serious had happened, he’d be the first to help. Luckily, the girl didn’t look like she’d been attacked; her dress was fine and she bore no visible marks or bruises.
“Do you have anything to eat, perhaps?” she asked him. The girl’s request caught Eric off guard; food had not been on his mind at all.
“Of course,” he said, pulling the small shopping cart around. He smiled as he opened its zipper. “Most of it needs to be prepared first, but I have some fresh fruits and vegetables.” He rummaged around a bit before finding a box of seedless grapes. “Do you like these?”
“Yes, thank you.” The girl blushed slightly as Eric handed her the box, but she opened it quickly. She smiled more broadly when she propped the first small grape between her lips. The motion looked oddly sensual.
Eric watched her eat, unsure what to do or say to her. He seated himself on the bench next to her. It seemed she didn’t want to tell him what was wrong and that was fine by him. He felt satisfied to watch her eat. She hungrily devoured the grapes, their juices sticky on her lips and fingers.
The girl didn’t seem to mind and she quickly emptied half the box.
Astounded by how hungry she seemed, Eric pulled his cart closer. “I have some apples too if you’d like.”
The girl looked up at him, obviously uncomfortable at his generosity, but unwilling to decline his offer. Eric smiled and dug up one of the green apples—he liked the sour ones—before she could say no. In an unusual moment of chivalry, he offered her his handkerchief first. She blushed more deeply than before, but used it not only to clean her hands, but dry her tears as well.
“That’s better,” Eric said with a smile. “You’re already getting back some of your colour.”
The girl’s blush turned scarlet and she looked away, covering the motion by taking a quick bite out of the apple.
Eric turned away to put the box of grapes back in his cart and let her compose herself. I could leave now, he thought. There was really no reason for him to stay and watch her eat the apple. Yet it felt impolite to just stand up and go. He felt obliged to stay, to actually help her with more than just an apple and some grapes. Maybe he was just curious, but he felt like he cared for her, even though he didn’t know her at all.
“When was the last time you ate?” he asked.
“Yesterday,” the girl answered, wiping her chin with his handkerchief. “Around noon I think.”
Eric’s stomach rumbled. He hadn’t eaten since noon today and already felt unspeakably hungry. He couldn’t imagine not having eaten for a whole day or more. Some of the vegetables in his cart were destined to become a salad as soon as he got home. Dinner was on top of his to-do list.
“How come?” he asked her, unsure how to ask her why she was here in the park, alone and hungry. For a second he thought she might have run away from home. Except, twenty-four-year-old girls didn’t run away from home. Most of them didn’t even live at home anymore.
“I just… Didn’t have enough time,” the girl said evasively.
Eric could hear the lie on her tongue. She was obviously embarrassed about whatever it was and did not want to tell him. But he didn’t need to know; her business was her own. “I was going home to make dinner. You can have some if you like.” He’d surprised even himself with the offer.
The girl looked at him askance. “I don’t know…”
Eric smiled. “I’m sorry, I hope that didn’t sound creepy. I don’t have any bad intentions. I just wanted to help.”
“Oh, no. That’s fine,” the girl said, trying to assure him that was not what was on her mind either. “I’d like that… The dinner, I mean.” She blushed again. “I’m Charlotte, by the way, Charlotte Harps. What’s your name?”
“I’m Frederick Vandenburg, but please call me Eric. Nice to meet you, Charlotte.”
The girl smiled, as if by sharing their names they were no longer strangers.
Charlotte followed the man she’d just met on his way home; she walked half a step behind him, letting him lead. She was unsure how to behave around him. He was a whole head taller than her, with short brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard that gave him a very distinguished look. She wasn’t usually shy around men, but not all men appeared as a handsome hero rescuing her on a cold dark night. From his clothes, she could only make out the heavy grey coat he wore; it was too dark to distinguish anything else.
The coat reminded her of how cold she was, wearing nothing but her dress. She wondered if he’d offer it to her if she told him, like some gentleman in a story. She blushed again and decided she was too embarrassed to try.
The park was dark and quiet except for their footsteps and the cart’s two little wheels; yet somehow, she felt safer now than she had before. They didn’t talk; Charlotte wondered what he was thinking, but she wasn’t ready to tell him about herself. The silence was comforting and they didn’t break it until they reached the other side of the park and entered the bright streetlight-lit streets.
“Do you like cabbage?” Frederic asked her. “I was going to make a salad with some apple mixed in, but I might use the rest of the grapes now.”
“I do,” Charlotte replied enthusiastically, happy with the subject he had chosen. In the light, she walked more confidently, more beside him than behind.
“Good,” he replied, seemingly uncertain what more to say. “And do you eat meat? Pork? I sometimes like to add tiny strips of bacon…”
“I love bacon,” she replied. In fact, her stomach was rumbling. “Do you live far from here?”
“Just past the next crossover,” he said; guiding her, he stopped for the red light, even though there were no cars in sight.
They arrived at a relative large townhouse with a beautiful old façade in red brick and a large door with a wrought-iron grill. Charlotte looked up at the three-story building and hesitated as Frederic opened the door. It had not occurred to her yet that he might not live alone, but the large house was more fitting for a family than a bachelor. It was strange that she felt less confident considering the aspect that he might have a family.
She didn’t have much time to think about it though, as Frederic turned around and held the door open for her. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
“No,” Charlotte replied. “I just didn’t expect you’d live in such a large house…”
Frederic smiled. “Yeah, it’s a bit big for me alone, but I like it.”
Charlotte suppressed a sigh of relief. She quickly entered the warmth of the hallway as Frederic pulled the door closed behind her and turned on the lights. “Please take off your shoes, if you don’t mind.”
He had already taken off his own, so Charlotte kicked off hers and placed them next to his. The warm parquet floor felt strangely homey beneath her bare feet. The hallway led straight to a large living area with a sitting room with a big TV and a large sofa on one side and on the other side a modern wooden desk with a single big computer screen and a stack of papers. There were some small cabinets against the walls and most of them contained books.
A small grey cat greeted Frederic as soon as he entered, purring and rubbing its head against his legs. It ran away when Charlotte bent over to scratch it behind its ears.
“Don’t worry,” Frederic said. “She’ll be back soon enough, she’s very curious and friendly to strangers.”
“Just like her master then,” Charlotte said with a smile, following him to the adjoining kitchen. Just like the living quarters, this room was neat and tidy, very different from how her own apartment had been.
Frederic dropped the cart on the kitchen’s tiled floor—he had been carrying it so it wouldn’t track dirt inside—and started unloading its contents. Most of it went into the fridge; some things, like a fresh cabbage and the half-empty box of grapes, were left on the counter.
Charlotte felt quite useless while she couldn’t help, so she occupied herself by looking around his kitchen. A big window opening into a small garden had pots of fresh herbs on the windowsill; a stack of dirty dishes was left in a corner, waiting their turn for the dishwasher; on a small separate table lay a collection of cookbooks and in the middle of all that stood Frederic.
He wore a chequered shirt above clean brown trousers and looked even more handsome in the light than he had before.
“Eric?” She suddenly realised that she’d been referring to him by his full name in her head. She felt the long name suited him better; it seemed more distinguished, more fitting for this handsome, accomplished gentleman. “Can I help with anything?” she asked with a blush, wondering why she felt using his shortened name was too intimate.
“You can cut the grapes if you’d like,” he replied. “Just cut them in half and the big ones in quarters.” He handed her a small kitchen knife and cutting board, while taking a bigger knife himself and promptly cutting the cabbage in half.
Charlotte very rarely cooked herself. Most of her meals came prepared from the store, kept frozen and only needed to be heated to eat. It felt satisfying to work in the kitchen, though she couldn’t help eating a few more of the sweet grapes as she cut them. Next to her she heard the steady chop-chop of Frederic cutting the cabbage into thin slices.
“Do you always cook yourself?” she asked him. “I mean, do you ever eat premade meals?”
“Oh, I do have some pizzas in the freezer,” he replied. “But I find cooking relaxing, even if it’s just for myself. It’s some time away from the TV or my computer.”
Charlotte smiled. Frederic sounded so… responsible. If it was up to her, she would have already been on the sofa with her feet up eating pizza while watching yet another TV series from beginning to end.
Finished with cutting the grapes, she added them to the bowl in which Eric had already collected the cabbage. She then watched him put a frying pan on the fire and add chopped-up pieces of bacon. The kitchen filled quickly with its recognizable and oh so tasty smell. While the bacon turned crispy above the fire, Eric added nuts, dried fruits, and some dressing to the sliced cabbage. He handed her two plates and some cutlery and asked her to set the table.
The large kitchen table with four sturdy wooden chairs—and room for more—stood at the other side of the room. Charlotte wondered if Frederic often invited people for dinner, as the table—like the rest of his home—seemed too big for one man alone. She placed the plates so that they would be seated facing each other.
“Please sit,” Frederic said as he mixed the bacon in with the salad and placed the bowl on the table. Somehow, he had found time to grab a wicker basket with bread and a pot of butter as well. “What would you like to drink? I don’t have much. I usually just drink water or a bit of wine, but I have some orange juice as well.”
“I’ll have what you’re having,” Charlotte said. She already felt he was going too much out of his way for her. The salad bowl stood enticingly before her and she couldn’t wait to taste it.
“Feel free to start,” Frederic said. “I’ll be right there.”
Too hungry to be embarrassed, Charlotte did as he said and filled her plate. She was just putting some butter on her bread as Frederic placed a small glass of white wine beside her plate and seated himself in front of her. “Bon appetit!”
Finished with his dinner, Eric leaned back in his chair and observed the girl he had invited into his home. They hadn’t talked much while eating. She had told him she liked the wine and had complimented him on the salad. He had responded by saying he had just thrown something together, but had particularly enjoyed the grapes. What was left of them anyway…
At some point his cat—Shirine—had joined them. She had even jumped on the table, though he had promptly put her back down. She was now meowing and begging for their attention from beneath their chairs. Charlotte absentmindedly scratched her behind the ears as she looked out the window at the rain rattling against the glass. That had started some time ago and he had seen her staring outside often ever since.
“I can drive you home if you want,” Eric said. “You don’t want to go out in weather like this.”
Charlotte looked from the window to him. “I don’t have anywhere to go.” She said it with a voice so quiet he could barely hear.
He didn’t know what to answer, but suddenly things started to become clear to him. Why she’d been alone in the park, hungry and crying. All she had with her was a small purse and the dress she wore. He should have realised it before. Her dress was cute and modern, a dark blue and reached halfway down her thighs. But it was very wrinkled and Eric wondered whether she had already spent a night outside in it.
“I have a guestroom; you could spend the night if you want?” he said. “I always keep it ready in case I have guests, so it wouldn’t be any trouble.”
Charlotte looked at him with wide eyes. “Yes, please. Thank you!” She sounded as if he’d offered the world to her and tears appeared in the corners of her eyes.
Eric felt slightly uncomfortable and stood up, clearing his throat. “Let me show you around,” he said, unsure of what else to do.
Charlotte followed him to the hallway and up the stairs. “How many rooms are there?” she asked him.
“Four,” Eric replied. “There’s my bedroom and the hobby room on the first floor and the guestroom and an oversized pantry on the second floor. There’s also a bathroom on the first floor in case you need it or want to shower.”
There wasn’t much to see in the guestroom. There was a neatly made two-person bed and an old wardrobe empty except for an old chest at the bottom; the window looked out at the street out front. They were quickly headed down again.
“Is this the bathroom?” Charlotte asked as they passed it on the first floor. “I could really use a shower.”
Eric showed her where to find fresh towels and returned to the kitchen alone. As he cleared away the dishes his thoughts were with the cute girl showering in his bathroom and all the vivid imagery that came with such thoughts. She’s a poor girl in need of your help. Try to be a gentleman, he scolded himself. He banished any further thoughts of soft, bare skin assaulted by streams of hot, steaming water and covered in white foamy soap; instead he piled the dishes in the dishwasher and retreated to his living room with a book.
He had been reading this one for a couple of days and easily lost himself in the story. He was able to forget about the girl he had ‘rescued’ for a while, until he heard her come back down the stairs. She wore a white towel like a turban on her head and one of his old bathrobes, though he had to admit she looked a lot cuter in it than he ever had.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said, fumbling with the robe. “I found it in one of the drawers.”
“Not at all.” Eric put away the book and moved over on the sofa. Shirine had already taken her favourite spot on the armrest. The thoughts he had banished before came back unbidden as the robe did little to hide her magnificent figure. “Would you like me to turn on the TV?” he asked, more to distract himself than her.
“Oh, no,” Charlotte replied. “I don’t want to interrupt your reading.” She didn’t sit, but smiled at him with an odd look in her eyes.
“I was bored with the story anyway,” Eric lied. “Please sit, make yourself at home.”
Charlotte placed herself next to him as Eric grabbed the TV’s remote from the coffee table. She sat closer than necessary on the large sofa and her legs, bared beneath the short robe, brushed against his.
“I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done,” she said softly.
“Please don’t mention it,” Eric said. “I’m glad I could help.” The TV turned on with a loud noise and Charlotte rested comfortably against his shoulder. She felt warm to his touch and smelled of fresh soap. An old movie was playing and they watched it in silence. Eric had trouble concentrating on the movie as he was constantly reminded of her presence beside him. Many thoughts whirled through his mind: put your arm around her shoulders, how soft would those creamy thighs feel beneath my fingers, she smells so nice, is she wearing anything beneath that robe, why is she sitting so close, should I try to kiss her… But he did none of those things and in the end felt it was for the best; it would have been inappropriate of him to take advantage of her, as vulnerable as she was right now.
When the movie ended, they went upstairs together. He wished Charlotte goodnight as he entered his bedroom and she continued up the stairs to the guestroom on the third floor.