I'm never leaving
the house again. Can't bear the creeping
anticipation pressing into the base of my neck, cold and sharp like the tip of
an ice pick. Looking for her face around
every corner. No rhyme, no reason. Just...there.
Don't even know
how long I'd been seeing her without seeing her, you know? But it was three
months ago that I really saw
her. Sitting in a content meeting with
my editor, Zach; she brought him a cup of coffee. I only caught a glimpse of
her from behind
and a little to the side, but there was...I can't really say. Something about
the hair, I guess, maybe the
tilt of her chin. I knew I'd seen her
before. Totally distracted me, and I
couldn't focus on the rest of the meeting.
Riding the metro
home, going past L'Enfant, that's when it hit me: I'd seen her the day before
when I stopped to
pick up a bagel at the L'Enfant promenade.
Only yesterday, she'd been ringing the bell just inside the south
entrance. The memory came back vividly,
like a waking dream. I was fumbling with
the bagel, my briefcase, wallet and change as I walked toward the exit. I dropped
a quarter and it rolled away from
me. I followed with an awkward stumble,
dropped the bagel like an idiot, but I scooped up the coin (small compensation)
just before it rolled down the steps to the metro tracks.
I looked around
see if anyone saw my virtuoso performance of clumsiness, cursing in annoyance
at the loss of my breakfast. That’s when
I saw her. The bell had been ringing in
the background of my consciousness, and the sound came into sharper focus as
she met my eyes. She looked at me
expressionlessly, her arm moving up and down almost mechanically, like a human
metronome. The Salvation Army kettle was
the bright red of fresh paint. I waited
for a smile or nod, some sort of indication or acknowledgement that she'd seen
my stumbling and bumbling. You know,
like you'd expect from a fellow human being.
But there was nothing.
I wondered then
she'd truly seen me or if she was just staring off into space; I know that’s
what I’d do if it was my job to stand around all day hoping to score some loose
change for my employer. I don't know
what it was, but for the first time since I'd stopped drinking, I started to
feel a little belligerent (I tend to be a mean drunk, and it's one of the
reasons I quit). I snatched up my bagel
and walked over to her, slamming my dearly departed breakfast into the trashcan
on my way. I held up the would-be escapee
and plunked the quarter into her bucket, never breaking eye contact. Still no
response, but I could tell that she
was seeing me and wasn’t lost in some sort of daydream. Her eyes followed
my every move. All along, that arm went up and down, but it
was the only part of her that moved.
Ding. Ding. Ding.
When I got home,
called Zach. "What's up, Jim? Forget
just curious. Who was the girl who
brought your coffee today? You get a new
things: one, what am I, your matchmaker
now, and B, what are you talking about? Stephen’s
still the gatekeeper. You know, the guy
who showed you into my office this
don't mess around. Young thing, reddish
hair, little too much makeup? Black
I'm not even being sarcastic here--"
"—but I honestly
have no idea what you're talking about.
Stephen brought the coffee, not some redhead."
And that was the
start of it, or at least the start as far as I can tell. And it never stopped;
the dam had broken, the
floodgates were wide, whatever tired metaphor you want to use. Once I realized
that I'd seen her, not a day
went by that I didn’t. It was never the
same place or time twice, and never in the same context. It was like she was
different people. Sometimes she was at a distance, like the
time I caught a flash of red hair and the dark smudge of eye shadow from across
the canal on my morning run. Sometimes
she was so close I could have touched her, like when she just slipped through
the closing doors of the elevator and rode three floors by my side in absolute,
immovable silence. We stopped on six,
the doors opened with a soft ding, and she was gone. It was only after I got
off on my floor that
I realized I hadn’t seen her even push a button. Once, I swore I even
saw her slouching in the
back row of my Wednesday morning meeting, but she was gone the next time I
turned around. Terrence, my sponsor, was
just as incredulous as Zach had been.
After a similar "what girl?" back and forth, I gave up on the
idea of trying to talk to someone else about it. No one else was seeing her.
And she never
spoke. A dozen times I made up my mind
to say something—anything—to her. But in
those instances when she was close enough to hear me, sometimes even close
enough to touch (though I only tried that once), I couldn't speak. I wanted
I had a million things to say, ultimately some variation of "who
are you and what do you want with me?"
But even as the words formed in my mind, in my throat, they died when I
opened my mouth. And then she'd just
stare at me with those green eyes. They
were flat and dull, like matte paint.
She never blinked.
Three days ago,
coming out of the dry cleaners, and there she was. It'd been three months since
that day in
Zach's office, and that cold, sharp ice pick was prodding at my neck every
waking moment. I was thinking about the
barbecue place down the block (but really thinking about the package store next
door and a paper bag-wrapped bottle of something cheap, brown and harsh). When
I pushed my way out, the bell on the
door gave a little jingle (a little ding), and I half-saw a red kettle and the
robotic, listless swing of an arm just before she floated into full view from
the corner of my eye.
It was the ice
pick, the thoughts of booze, the sound of the bell, but I couldn't take
it. I crossed the space between us in
three quick steps. She was leaning
against the wall of the building, red hair blowing in the chill breeze, one leg
bent and braced against the wall.
Staring at me, as always. I meant
to grab her by the shoulders and give her a shake, try again to force the
questions out. My fingers barely brushed
the bare skin of her upper arms.
And I was sitting
at my kitchen table with an open bottle of rye.
My favorite brand. The good
stuff. I'd poured myself a good three
fingers' worth. I licked my lips,
fearing (hoping) I'd taste the sweet caramel and pepper I used to (still)
love. I was relieved (disappointed) to
taste only salt and skin. I poured the
bottle and the glass into the sink, shaking like I hadn't since an ugly bout
with the DTs back when I first stopped drinking. The smell rose up out of the
drain like a
swamp of sick dreams. I backed away,
resisting the urge to stick my head as far into the drain as I could manage.
I thought about
calling Terrence or Zach. Then I thought
about her shine-less green eyes, red hair in the breeze, her bare arms in
February, and the chime of the bell.
The next day,
sitting at the same table, looking at the dried ring from the whiskey glass and
rubbing alternatively at eyes that felt full of gravel and a face that seemed
to be covered with sandpaper, I did call.
I told Zach I was going full free-lance.
He said I was crazy, and I said I was sick of having to go downtown
every other day. He offered full
telework, I said I'd get back to him.
Terrence was less sanguine when I told him I was going back home to
Omaha. He wanted to know when I was
leaving, where I was going to stay, and if I'd found a meeting or two to
attend, and what my game plan was for working the steps. His deep voice, normally
so smooth, was rough
around the edges and charged with concern.
He was a tremendous sponsor, and he didn't want to let me off the
hook. Took a lot of convincing, and a
promise I never intended to keep to call him every day until I was settled.
When I hung up
with Terrence, I wiped the ring off the table with a wet paper towel, then
scrubbed at my face with it. I was
actually feeling pretty good about my chances of maintaining sanity and
sobriety. I'd always been an introvert,
and the prospect of shutting myself in wasn't exactly terrifying in that
context, not when I held the idea up against running into her again. No shortage of
carryout places nearby, and there was nothing I needed in life I couldn't buy
online and have delivered. And I had
told Zach the (partial) truth; I could go freelance and still live within my
means, thanks in large part to the money I was saving by not hitting a bar or
three a few times a week.
And, in spite of
everything, I still hadn't taken a drink.
The doorbell rang
(ding-ding, I was going to have to replace install a knocker instead). I looked
through the peephole and saw the
crown of a FedEx hat swimming in the fish-eye. I should have known when I opened
the door it
would have been her.
The red hair was
tucked up under the cap, but the downcast listless green eyes, the smear of eye
shadow, the over-red lips, the set of her shoulders were immediately
familiar. The old ice pick was back,
poking away. It was just too much. The
words forced themselves out. Finally, blissfully free. Of course, they came out garbled, more of a
"wha-tha-fah" than what I intended, but the meaning was clear.
Her eyes darted
up, fixed on mine. Off at the edge of my
vision, one of the neighborhood kids came flying down the street on his bike,
the playing cards threaded through the spokes of his wheels sounding like a
soft chainsaw. For the first time, her
mouth opened to speak. She looked almost
surprised as the blood poured out; it was the first real expression I'd ever seen
on her face besides a flat acknowledgement of my existence. It flowed down her
chin and spattered across
the welcome mat. She raised a hand and
pressed at the doorbell.
couldn't have been more than twelve, blew past on the opposite sidewalk
(clickety-clickety-clickety) with a whoop. And it was the bike that did it,
I backed away, gasping. She followed me into the house stiffly,
shuffling like her bones were made of shattered glass.
I said, trying to breathe. "I
didn't mean to. I never saw you!" She
didn't say anything back. Just stood there, mouth open. Blood still leaking over her lips.
And I there I
was: behind the wheel, checking my
texts, the screen of my phone reflecting against the night-dark
windshield. The smooth burn in the back
of my throat speaking to the evening, a well-enjoyed blur. Huh.
Must’ve forgotten to turn on the headlights. Oh well, be home in
a second, why waste the
effort? A glimmer of motion from under
the streetlight, a series of impressions and sounds more than anything
else. A light crunch from the right
front corner of the car, a short scream and the flash of copper hair, dark
eyes, red lipstick. The smack of her head
on the windshield and the hollow crack of the glass as it starred out from the
impact. The scraping thumps along the
roof. The squeal of brakes, too late.
And there I was,
standing at the edge of the sick yellow glow, never remembering stepping out of
the car. Looking down at the mangled
ruins of a red bicycle. Handlebars at my
feet. I heard a gurgling grunt from the
other side of my car. Saw the blood on
the fender, the windshield. Something
again from the other side, a wet and whispery sound, somehow plaintive. Begging.
No way I was going
to go look at what had made the noises. I
stepped back, unsteadily. Ding.
The sound was so shocking, so incongruently cheerful, I almost fell down
in surprise. I looked down at the
handlebars again. Damndest thing, there
was a little bell on them. Like a
I stumbled back
the car, slid behind the wheel. Drove
away and never looked back. Put the car
in the garage, covered it with a tarp, and started taking the metro everywhere.
A wet cough, the
gentle spray of blood across my face, brought me back to my living room. My
shoulders were pressed against the wall,
and the girl was standing before me. So
close, like she was coming in for a hug.
She leaned in, and I could hear the broken wheezing of her lungs, like
cogs grinding in a bucket of sand. Her
mouth moved in the parody of a whisper, but only a mist of blood and the sound
of the bell came out. Ding.
Her arms came up,
her hands cradled the back of my neck.
Right over the spot where the ice pick pressed its cold point into my
I said, but
my own arms rose. I tried to force them
down, but they moved on their own. I
could see the muscles standing out in my forearms, felt the ache in my
shoulders. I couldn’t fight it.
I drew her close, in the parody of an
embrace, and her smashed body melted against me. Her rasping exhalations were
my ear, but her blood was hot on my chest, soaking through my shirt
instantly. She was a small girl, but she
was suddenly incredibly heavy in my arms.
Her weight was as inescapable as the blood, the breath, and the flat
green eyes. As relentless as the chimes
that came with her. She pulled me down
into the soft darkness. The darkness
smelled of whiskey. It sounded, faintly
echoing, of the sound of the bell.
JD Baker is a
counterintelligence agent and combat veteran who began writing speculative
fiction to cope with PTSD. His short fiction has previously appeared in the North
Woods Anthology, the Dan River Anthology, and the 101 Words Flash
Fiction Anthology. He recently completed his first novel.