The Stranger: You’re walking home from work one night and taking shortcuts through a labyrinth of dark city alleyways to meet someone on time. Suddenly, a stranger parts the shadows in front of you, comes close, and asks you to hold out your palm. You oblige.
There is one main rule anyone who lives in the Fenway/Symphony Hall area of Boston knows by heart: you never go through the Fens at night.
The colleges in the area beat it into your head at Hour One of orientation. Neighbors will warn newcomers the first chance they get. It’s just not a smart move.
But sometimes you find yourself coming home late from work and the idea of going around an entire park is exhausting. Sometimes you want to cut through. And that’s exactly what I did one night.
I had been stuck at work for way later than I wanted to and I was already running late to meet some friends by the Northeastern Campus. I had two choices: go all the way around the Fens, only to essentially backtrack by the Museum of Fine Arts, or just cut through the Fens, well-meaning undergrad OLs be damned.
I wove my way through one of the running paths, past the community garden, and through a labyrinth of bushes. I made my way through a clearing and was just steps away from the footbridge to the main road when a man stepped in front of me, blocking my way forward.
“Hold out your hand,” he said.
“What?” I spat out, taking a step back.
“Come closer, and hold out your palm,” he said.
I looked around. Not a single other person was in site. Running in the opposite direction wasn’t an option — I already had a tough enough time walking the gravel paths in heels — so I took a deep breath and a step forward.
“If it’s crack, I don’t want any,” I said tentatively, slowly opening my palm up to him.
“It’s not safe to go alone,” he recited. “Here, take this.”
He pressed something into my palm, closed my hand up, and darted away. When he was lost to the shadows, I darted as well — only I was going over the footbridge and into civilization again. I kept my fist tight until I was safely by Huntington Ave. Under the shelter of a street light, I opened up my palm.
Resting in its center was a folded piece of paper. I swallowed, unfolded the paper, and brought it up to the light. Inside was a map of the neighborhood, including multiple paths around the Fens, drawn out in colored markers, with the estimated length of time to take each path written out beside them, along with Xs in the park area to show where drug deals typically take place or homeless people sleep.
I couldn’t help but chuckle. I silently thanked the man — most likely a former OL reinforcing the rule about walking through the Fens at night — and went on my way to Northeastern University.