She came for me at the end of that summer. By then the air had a cautious nip to it, leaves rattled their last breath on the trees, and the streets were finally emptied of summer’s revelries.
I had decided it was safe to sit out on my porch and read the daily paper while I smoked my favorite cognac barrel-aged cigar. A slick low-ball of whiskey sat on the table beside me, half of its quietude already moving in my veins, warm and slow and comforting in the chill air.
The noise of rubber wheels on sidewalk brought me out of the article I was reading ⸺ something about another small business going under ⸺ and pulled my attention to the stroller coming down the sidewalk toward my house.
The woman who pushed it was a pert little thing. One of those young moms who eats smoothies for lunch and does cross-fit in her spare time. I squinted at her. Hell, she had probably run here in her spandex pants and tight shirt, convinced that she did it because it felt good.
I grunted and took a puff from my cigar, savoring the full flavor of it, ignoring the way the woman with the stroller reminded me of another woman, another baby.
She seemed about to stroll right on by, but then she turned and saw me, opened her mouth.
“Oh, hi there,” she said, voice bright and cheery like a damn bell.
I grunted again and waved my cigar in a half-assed attempt at a hello. Move along now, nothing to see. Let me enjoy my porch alone.
“We’re new to the neighborhood⸺”
Of course you are, little missy. Explains why you are on my street speaking to me.
“⸺and I am still introducing myself to all the families nearby.”
“No family here, just me,” I told her.
“Oh.” Her shoulders slumped a bit, but then she said, a little forcefully, “Well, my name is Evelyn, and this is my son, Berlin.”
Berlin? I took another drag at my cigar. What in the hell kind of name was that? “John.”
“Nice to meet you, John. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of each other. Take care.”
She left. I thought that would be it, that I would get on with my life without any more reminders about things I had spent months burying, but a day later, Evelyn came by again.
I was just stepping out of my black Lincoln ⸺ a little town car with a fresh paint job, the dent in the front long gone ⸺ my arms loaded with groceries. I barely heard her creep up behind me.
“John!” she announced, cheerily.
I guessed the neighbors hadn’t told her yet about what happened earlier that year. So I said hello and walked up to the porch, and she had the nerve to follow me, the little thing in the stroller babbling nonsense, and pulled up right at the bottom of the steps.
“Listen, I got to get these groceries in⸺”
“Oh, would you like some help? Maybe I can hold a bag while you unlock the door?”
It was too late to refuse, since she leapt up the porch steps and swung open the storm door before I had time to respond. She held out a willowy arm for a bag.
Grunting, I handed one to her, slid the key in the door, and then took the bag back.
“You’re sure you don’t need help getting them inside?” she asked, as if I were eighty-five, not sixty-five.
“I have two arms and two legs,” I told her.
She cracked a smile. “If you’re sure.” I was just about to close the door with my foot when she held up a hand. “Oh! I almost forgot. We brought you something.”
My arms were beginning to ache a little by then, and I started to protest, but she bounced off the porch and went around to the back of the stroller. Inside the stroller was a toddler with a cloud of brown curls and limbs like stuffed rolls, his fingers grasping the handles of a plastic cup.
I turned away, headed to the kitchen to set down my load of groceries. When I came back, Evelyn stood just at the doorway, craning her head to see inside like a peeping Tom. She grinned when she saw me. “Berlin and I made these for you.” She proffered a plate of chocolate chip cookies. I didn’t bother telling her I was diabetic. “We hope you like them.”
I took the plate. “Thoughtful of you.”
She seemed triumphant at the compliment. “It was great to see you again. We’ll be off now.”
With that, she strolled away. I set the plate of cookies on the counter, and their sweet smell filled the kitchen in moments. I took one, had a bite.
Pictured the little boy mixing the dough by hand. Carefully pouring in the chocolate chips while his mother stirred them round and round.
Appetite lost, I tossed the cookies in the trash.
Evelyn stopped by twice more that week, only waving and asking about the cookies the first time. The second time, she carried Berlin right up my porch, without invitation.
I was on my second glass of whiskey by then, enjoying the fresh air and relative silence that ensued in town after dinner on a weekday. Evelyn took a seat right next to me, a place where no one had sat since my wife died three years ago.
I cleared my throat and stared at her, hoping she’d get that I didn’t want her around. Her toddler reached for my low-ball, but I grabbed it before his grubby fingers could smudge the glass. She caught my look.
“Do you want to hold him?” she asked tentatively.
I reached for the cigar I had brought out. Lit it. “Don’t like ‘em much.” Smoke billowed around us. I glanced at Evelyn, wondering if she would take the hint and get the hell off my porch. Hadn’t I read something about second-hand smoke causing cancer?
Instead, she opened right up about her family. How her husband worked for the navy, moving all around. That she had left her own parents behind in Minnesota, and how much she missed teaching. That she was struggling through potty training Berlin, but of course she wouldn’t expect me to understand because I didn’t have kids.
Sucking down my drink and my cigar, I bore all the talking with only a grunt or two to acknowledge that I was listening. The more she talked, the more she seemed on the verge of breaking, and soon I was standing on thin ice.
“It’s just that, we moved all the way here so that we could be closer to my sister.” And there they were: two gleaming pearls of tears coalescing around her eyes. She clutched Berlin to her chest. “But my sister died recently, and I miss her so much.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I muttered, letting the smoke stream out in front of me, the ribbon of it fading and disappearing over the porch railing. The evening was beginning to hedge toward night, and I squinted in order to see down the street. Which house was hers? She should be getting back home soon, before it gets dark.
Audibly swallowing back tears, Evelyn stroked her son’s head while he put his fingers in his mouth. She held him up, suddenly, and felt his bottom. “Oh no! I think he wet his pants.” She looked around, her eyes a bit wild. “Do you mind terribly if we use your restroom? I have extra pants in the stroller, it’s just that I need to have him sit on the potty or otherwise this whole potty training is going to be an utter failure⸺”
“Sure,” I said, before she started full-on sobbing. While exclaiming her gratitude, she grabbed her diaper bag and then followed me inside. I pointed her right to the restroom, which wasn’t in too bad a shape, and hovered by the front door.
Evelyn soothed her son, trying to urge him to use the potty, and then the bag unzipped, clothes rustled. Moments passed.
I fiddled with my cigar, carefully knocking the ashes outside, and wondered what the hell was taking so long. Did the kid have to pee or not?
A quiet sob echoed from the bathroom. Shit.
I put out my cigar. “You okay in there?”
I crept closer to the door. “Do you need anything? A towel?” Not that I wanted to have the kid’s pee wiped on my towels.
“No, thank you. It’s just that I miss my sister terribly. It’s just awful. She was” ⸺ a loud sniffing ⸺ “hit by a car, and had her” ⸺ a choking sob ⸺ “baby girl with her.”
My heart started pounding in my chest, and my throat constricted. I licked my lips. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Fucking godamn hell. She didn’t know. She couldn’t know, saying all that. How could I tell her?
I wouldn’t tell her. She wouldn’t hear it from me. My ears rang, and I suddenly felt the need to sit down. I braced myself against the bathroom door frame, swaying.
A hiccup from inside the bathroom. “She was just out walking her baby. Her name was Emily. Emily Rose.”
“Your sister?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
“No, the baby.” Evelyn’s voice had gone drier. “She was eight months old. She’d just learned to crawl. She was my sister’s first.” Evelyn seemed to be listing facts now, like a list of chores that needed to be done. I could hear the toddler moving around inside, banging something plastic on the tiled floor. “Some old guy hit them,” she said.
I closed my eyes.
Angry, she said, “Some old guy who couldn’t see very well. He never saw her, even though she was wearing neon leggings, even though it was broad daylight, even though she was always so careful about crossing streets. Do you want to know why? Because our little brother didn’t look before crossing the street, and he was hit by an SUV that shattered his arm. So she was always so damn careful. It was like PTSD for us, crossing the damn street.”
By now my insides felt like Jell-O. Cold, whiskey sweat poured out of me. I should apologize, but what good would that do? So, I didn’t say anything, but forced myself to keep listening.
“It’s just so infuriating that there aren’t better laws. Old people should have to take vision tests every year. They get cataracts and eye diseases and can never seen anything. Signs, lights, fucking children. Innocent, small, fragile children. No one ever thinks of them when they get behind the wheel.” She sucked in a breath, and I heard a shoe scuff inside. “But I promised myself one thing.”
I waited, and when she didn’t respond, I cleared my throat and said, “What’s that?”
The door swung open, and before I had time to think, Evelyn shoved a can in my face and sprayed something right at me.
Fire burned into my retinas, and I screamed. Pain lanced beneath my lids, a thousand burning needles stabbing my eyes, and I wiped at them, dragged at them, but it only got worse. I swore and shouted, vaguely aware of the toddler crying, too, and of Evelyn’s steady voice, a dark bell tolling on and on, rolling over the sound of suffering. Like a damned God of revenge.
“I promised that I would find whoever killed them, and stop them from ever driving again. I just want you to remember what you did. I want you to see it, forever. Because that’s what you deserve.”
There was no feeling where my eyes were. I reached for the sink, found the tap and rinsed, and rinsed, and rinsed my face. I tried to open my lids. Nothing.
I stared at the mirror, not seeing the mirror, but seeing the young woman jogging, seeing the stroller too late. The dull, muted thud of impact, a sound too quiet for the way the woman flew up and away, for the way the stroller disappeared beneath the front of my car. The pulse of panic thumping, thumping, thumping as I stared out the windshield. The hysterical screeching of another pedestrian, flailing her arms and pounding on the window for me to get out. The sirens, the lights, the ice-cold boulder in my belly as what I had done sank in.
I hadn’t seen her coming. I’d been watching the road ahead, and never saw the neon leggings or the stroller. I never saw it. I don’t remember what color the light had been, but I was sure it was green. Green meant go. That’s what I had told myself, what I continued to tell myself every day. I could still drive, I told myself. Had to drive. Had to get food, supplies. I was sixty-five for Christ’s sake. A grown man. I could see just fine. Always had decent vision. She just ran out in front of me, and there was nothing I could do.
Evelyn spoke somewhere behind me, raising her voice above my whimpers. “Enjoy being blind, motherfucker.”
I clutched my eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry⸺”
The front door slammed. I fumbled for my phone, dialed 9-1-1. By the time the medics arrived, I had taken enough pills to dull the pain. They gave me more medicine, told me my sight was likely ruined, asked about Evelyn. I gave them all the details I could think of. A week later, they came back to tell me that Evelyn didn’t exist. That the woman I had killed had no sister, but that she did have a brother, married, with a toddler, living in the city. Everything checked out with their alibis. The investigation went nowhere.
And I never saw that woman again, nor anything other than my own trapped memories.