September 17, 2001
It had been three days since my last cigarette.
For me, that was a real feat, setting my body alight with a sense of satisfaction that rivaled the finest Malboro. As many times as I had tried to quit, I was really optimistic that I was on to something this time. Judging by the circumstances, I had to be.
The last time I had lit up was before I left Mulligan’s the previous Friday evening. I had decided when I woke up that morning that it was high time I tried to kick the habit again. It had been almost a whole week since I told myself I had to stop, that the world had way too much smoke already. Once again, it was time to make another valiant attempt at staying true to my word.
So, when I revved up the XT, I tossed the box of death sticks into the ash tray, willing myself not to touch them as I pulled out of the parking lot. It was time to let the games begin.
Saturday and Sunday were nothing — they practically didn’t count. There wasn’t much stress involved in staying holed up in my apartment for the weekend, watching Brady Bunch reruns in my pajamas. When my body craved nicotine, I could tune it out by filling it with pizza instead, thanking whatever deity that might reside above for the pizzeria across the street.
Monday was a whole different animal, however. Beginning another week of eight hour shifts at the most demanding high-end eatery around without any chemical aid was a borderline masochistic mission. Despite the low likelihood of me making it out clean, I put on a brave face for eight hours of taking orders and faking smiles, always making sure that my cardigan adequately covered my right shoulder as I brought plates of food to ornery senior citizens and finicky rich couples. During those eight grueling hours, not a single smoke break did I take.
For a chainsmoker working in a place like Mulligan’s, that was really something.
Needless to say, I was in a celebratory mood when I left work on the seventeenth of September. I gave a jovial wave goodbye to Zoe and Dory as I made my way out the oh-so-familiar glass door into the Mulligan’s parking lot. I savored the crunch of the freshly fallen leaves beneath my feet as I approached the car.
I’ve always liked the fall. There’s something whimsical about it, how the world seems so wonderfully bright as everything changes colors, even when so many things are withering away. Macabre as it is, I find it hopeful. That’s the world, after all; things die every day, and yet, life goes on. I find beauty in that.
The weather seemed to match my craving for new beginnings, a rather uncharacteristic optimism bubbling in my veins as I got in the car. As I started the engine and turned on the radio, my mind was occupied with thoughts of dinner. My good mood would have been ideal for cooking, leaving the leftover pepperoni pizza for a night when I was too whacked out from work (or, realistically, the nicotine withdrawals I had read about on the Internet, which were promised to come about at some point.) Perhaps I could make myself some sort of dish out of the assorted ingredients that I let sit in the fridge until I forgot what I had. I hoped that I hadn’t let the eggs rot. When was the last time I had cooked, anyway?
My thoughts continued to wander as I drove, instinct and routine making up for my lack of concentration. It was me and the hum of the radio and the pack of Reds that sat abandoned in the center console, remaining untouched after 72 hours. I stopped at a red light, wedged between an Impala and a Prism. As I sat, I thought about how things were changing for the better. After a dismal year, I was able to start over, kick my bad habits and make something new of myself. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but it seemed plausible. Likely, even.
The light changed, the Impala in front of me inching forward. Shifting the car back into drive, I followed, only for the Impala to abruptly slam on brakes. I gasped, slamming my foot against my own brake pedal, narrowly stopping myself from crashing into the Impala’s bumper in the process. By some miracle, the Prism had avoided rear ending me as well, gears creaking as the driver stopped. I brought a shaking hand up to the silver scale pendant hanging from my neck, a snapshot of the familiar face of a blue-eyed girl appearing in my mind. Thanks, Amy.
Once the sounds of screeching tires and creaking gears stopped, the driver of the Impala continued their trek up the road as if nothing had happened. I reached for the stick shift again, attempting to stop my trembling. It was probably a squirrel, I thought to myself. Or a cat. Yeah, there are plenty of alley cats around here. It must have been a cat.
I soon discovered that it was not a cat, however. Just when I was close to driving off, I spotted a figure out of the corner of my eye, standing motionless in the south bound lane. That was most definitely not a cat.
There was a person in the middle of the road, doing absolutely nothing. There was also a car, coming closer and closer to the place the person was standing. The person showed no sign of running, the car, no sign of stopping.
My body started to shake again, my mind racing. I could just leave, hightail it out of there before any damage was done. Worse case scenario, I’d see it on the news in the morning. I’d shake my head and think about how unfortunate it was as I indulged in a hearty breakfast to match my new healthy lifestyle. “So sad,” I’d say to myself, before getting up and carrying on with my life. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
But something within me wouldn’t let me do that. Call it a heart, or conscience, or common sense, but a voice in the back of my mind was telling me to get out of the car and go, go, go. Come on, April, go help, it, — no, she, — said. You have to help.
“***,” I groaned. Once again, I hit the brakes, causing the Prism behind me to blow the horn. Someone rolled down their window to shout a ‘what are you doing?’ at me as I flung open the door. I didn’t bother to offer an answer or my middle finger in response. There was no time to, — like something out of an action movie, the car was mere feet away from the body of the completely still pedestrian, no one seeming to be affected but me.
Maybe it was all some massive hallucination, some crazy withdrawal symptom or hidden suicidal ideation motivating me. Whatever the case, I was already running, adrenaline pushing me to the limit as her voice told me to run, run, run. I was so close, but so was the car, and I knew at this point that the chances of me and this stranger that I decided to play savior to getting out alive were slim. And yet, I wasn’t stopping. I couldn’t stop. Sure, if I kept moving, I’d die, but if I stopped, I might spontaneously combust. There was no getting out now, whatever I did.
Suddenly, I was touching the pedestrian, shoving the two of us the ground. In my head, I was saying my goodbyes, reciting the will that I never got to write. Mom and Dad, I’m sorry I was an empathetic idiot and ended up causing you more pain than you’ve already dealt with. Angeline, I’m sorry I’ll be dead when you get back from Bora Bora. Lucas, I’m sorry that I won’t make it to work tomorrow. Dory and Zoe, I’m sorry that Lucas is going to work your asses off until he can find a replacement for me.
My eyes closed before we crashed against the pavement, the world telling me to speed this dramatic final thoughts thing up a bit.
Amy, I love you. I relaxed my muscles, ready for whatever lay ahead to pull me under. You better thank me for this.
I would have been okay with dying, right then and there. I felt that, in that moment, if my light went out and my maker (whoever that may have been,) sent me out into that great beyond, that would mean that someone else didn’t end up there. I would have done a noble thing, dying for a stranger. Might have landed me with a gold medal if I did end up in any sort of heaven.
But it didn’t work that way. For one thing, the numbness never came, no deep, dark beyond coming to swallow me whole after all. In fact, I ended up opening me eyes to find that I was still on Earth, on the same road I had been ten minutes ago, the body of the pedestrian beneath me. Oh, God. They had died after all. I had failed. All that bravery, wasted. All I had done was force myself into another traumatic experience. Great.
Soon, however, I realized that I was wrong about that, too. The pedestrian — a man, I now realized, — was very much alive, breathing steadily, despite the fact that he was supporting every bit of my weight.
Okay, maybe nothing’s happened yet, I thought, attempting to catch my breath. We’ve still got a few seconds to live.
That wasn’t the case, either. I looked past the man below me to the ground, my arm throbbing as I did so. Instead of asphalt, our bodies had somehow settled on the graffitied concrete of a sidewalk. Not the kind of thank you I was expecting, I noted silently. Somewhere, I wanted to believe that Amy was laughing.
Despite my body’s protest, I removed myself from the man, sitting on my haunches to face the road. The car that had been coming had now stopped in the middle of the road. The driver, who appeared to be a teenage girl, stood next to her vehicle, blabbering into a cell phone, tears running down her face. “I almost ran over them, Mom,” she said. “But I didn’t!”
Unbelievable! We had made it!
“Oh my God,” I panted.
Suddenly, the man stirred next to me, emitting a low grumbling noise in the process. He was lying facing down on the concrete, leaving me unable to see his face. I kind of hated to imagine what might await me when I could see it.
Unsure of what, exactly, I should do, I gently nudged his arm. “Are you alright?” I asked, voice shaking.
Slowly, he rose, giving me a view of his features for the first time. “I don’t know. Depends.”
After the cuts and blood, the first thing I noticed were his eyes. They were a bright shade of green, like moss on the forest floor, soaking up sunlight. His hair was black and sloppily shorn, sticking up in random spots. His nose was bleeding and looked slightly crooked, but not broken. I knew what a broken nose looked like; I had broken Angeline’s once during a game of softball in our back yard. Amy would never let me forget that.
The girl who drove the car had gotten off of her phone by then, her eyes wide when they fell on us. “Are you guys okay?” she yelled.
“Fine!” I yelled back, giving a quick wave of my hand to indicate that we most definitely did not need help. (Well, we sort of did need it, but I didn’t really want it, especially not from the girl who helped cause the problem in the first place.)
She nodded, twirling a tendril of brown hair around her finger as she chewed at her pinky nail, staring at the road, which was now as good as shut down, sans police tape.
I turned back to the man. “Depends on what?”
He sat up, wincing. “Did that really just happen?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “Yeah, it did.”
“Ah.” He shook his head, all too calm. “Then no, I’m not alright.”
“Jesus,” I mumbled, my eyes moving from his face to my arm. As it would turn out, I was bleeding, too. It was actually sort of hard to believe that I hadn’t noticed the wound by then; the skin beneath the purple ink of the rose on my shoulder was covered in road rash, raw flesh, and blood. After gaping at the brutality of my injuries, I came to another realization: the navy blue knitted cardigan that was part of my Mulligan’s uniform (and my saving grace when it came to hiding my tattoo,) had been ripped to shreds from the impact. With a sigh, I shrugged the shawl off, tying it around my wound in lieu of a tourniquet.
“That looks pretty bad,” the man remarked, mossy eyes fixated on the blood and gravel.
“I know.” As was apparent by our calmness despite our abrasions and rapid breathing, it was safe to say that we had both entered a state of shock of some sort.
We fell into silence as I continued to wrap the cardigan around my arm, listening to the frantic chatter of the offending car’s driver and witnesses, some of the cars that were stopped behind the XT figuring out how to maneuver their way away from the scene of the crime. A balding businessman was now talking to the girl, who was nodding fervently at every other word he said, looking down at the phone in her hand. I had to admit, now that the guy I had saved and I were just awkwardly staring at each other while we bled, I was beginning to wonder if this was even worth the effort. What had I gotten from this, other than a skinned arm? He hadn’t even thanked me!
Suddenly, the brunette teenager snapped her phone shut, running over to the sidewalk. Oh, no.
“Stay put!” she yelled, causing the man’s eyes to widen, his head shooting up as if he were a startled puppy. “The police are coming! And an ambulance!”
“Oh, God.” I groaned, briefly cradling my head in my hands before recoiling, a cut on my cheek stinging at the contact. Against my better judgement, I met the man’s eyes. If I had saved his life, he at least owed me a conversation, right? “I really don’t need this right now.”
“Me neither,” he replied, scraped face solemn. “I wish we could just leave, to be honest. I mean, this whole ordeal, what I just did…” He paused, somehow finding the strength to pull his knees up to his chest. “It’s kind of embarrassing, if you think about it.”
Suddenly, I felt as if a balloon was deflating in my chest. Oh.
Well, ****. He was standing out there on purpose. I hadn’t done anything fantastically heroic. I had just botched some guy’s suicide attempt.
As horrible as it may sound, I really wished that I hadn’t. My empathy was coming back again to bite me, even if it was what drove me to rescue the poor ******* in the first place. If I was in his position, I wouldn’t want some crazy chick pulling me out of the way of the vehicle I was hoping would strike me.
As much as I hated to admit it, I had felt that kind of pain before, and I didn’t want to be saved. And yet, eight years later, here I was.
Now this guy was in the same position, all because of me. I had the sudden urge to apologize, and yet, he didn’t seem all that angry. Just embarrassed, as he had said, even though I was the one who should have felt like a clown at the moment.
A glance back across the road, however, provided the solution I needed to make the situation slightly less humiliating for the both of us. I turned back to him, lowering my voice as I spoke. “What if I said we could get out of here?”
He sat up straight when I said that. “How?”
I attempted a grin, despite how the numbness from the mix of adrenaline and shock was beginning to fade, leaving quite a few parts of my body sore. “My car’s across the road,” I said. “If we just run, we could get out of this joint before anyone shows up to interrogate us.”
His mouth formed a perfectly straight line, his face completely vacant of expression. “You’re suggesting that we run across the road?”
I held a hand out to him. “If you trust me. If not, you’ll be face to face with the cops before you know it.”
He didn’t have to think for long, one large, rough hand finding mine within a matter of seconds. We stand up on shaking legs, staring at the other side of the street as if it were the finish line at the end of a race. Tightening my hand around his, I readied myself. “Go.”
As fast as two people who had almost gotten obliterated could go, we ran, fingers interlocked as the world seemed to rush by. I could hear the girl screech at the businessman. “They’re running, they’re running! Somebody stop them!”
I would have laughed, but there was no time for that, and, as disturbed as I may have been, this wasn’t really the best time and place for hysterics. Instead, I yanked on the man’s arm, mumbling to him under my breath. “Comeoncomeoncomeon, you’ve got to run,” I said.
The commuters who had been caught up in the incident were really ****** off, shouting for us to stop. Before my running partner could be tempted to look at them, I yanked the driver door to the XT open, all but shoving him into the car. “Get in, get in, get in,” I urged. He was hardly graceful as he tumbled into the passenger seat, knocking his elbow against something in the process. Of all of the things we had just endured, that was what stopped him. “Ow!” he hissed.
“We’ll take care of that later.” I slammed the door as I climbed into the driver seat. “For now, buckle up. This is gonna be a wild ride.”
As soon as I heard the click of the seatbelt, I sped off, clicking on the emergency blinkers. “Won’t they follow us?” the man asked, holding tightly onto his seat.
“Why would they?” I keep my eyes focused on the road, my instinct now working a lot more urgently than earlier. “The police or whoever will have people to work with when they get there. As far as they know, we walked off unscathed. There’s no reason for them to be looking for us,” — I gave him a pointed glance out of the corner of my eye — “unless you were doing something illegal, which I really hope you weren’t.”
“I wasn’t, but I’m not quite sure that’s how it works.”
“Look, can you stop questioning me for a second and let me drive?” I snapped. “You can thank me when we got home.”
“Home?” he asked.
I sighed. “My home. My apartment. I can drop you off wherever you live on my way to work tomorrow, but I don’t really think we have the time–“
“No,” he interrupted. “I don’t have a home.”
Bam. Another bombshell. You’d think I’d be better at spotting twists by then.
I had to keep my composure, however surprised I may have been. “Listen,” I started. “You can tell me your life story when we get there. For now, you should shut up and let me drive.”
And so he shut up and I drove. It worked quite well that way.
It didn’t take long to get to my apartment complex. Once we arrived, I was quick to walk past the staircase to the elevator. I didn’t have the time or energy to climb twenty stairs that night, not to mention the fact that my passenger looked as if he might pass out at any second. I ushered him into the elevator, pressing the button for the third floor. The man stood near the corner of the metal contraption, arms crossed in front of his chest.
Only when I opened the door to my apartment did I realize that I had left it a total mess that morning. Apparently, in my fit of tobacco deprivation, I had forgotten to clear the remains of my last few meals from the coffee table, nor clear the dirty laundry from the hamper. Then again, I hadn’t been expecting to rescue a homeless man from getting hit by a car when I woke up, either. I picked a discarded newspaper off the sofa before motioning for my guest to come inside. “Have a seat.” He nodded before seating himself on the patchy leather seat, looking petrified. I save the dude’s life, and he repays me by acting like he’s afraid of me. Lovely.
I shut the door behind me and headed for the bathroom, retrieving some rubbing alcohol, as well as a box of cotton balls and gauze. We both probably needed better care than I would be able to provide with my first aid expertise (or lack thereof,) but it was already quite apparent that neither of us wanted to set foot in a hospital. I closed the cabinet and made my return to the living room, scuffed shoes making scraping noises against the hardwood floors.
“So,” I said, arranging my materials on the coffee table. “I don’t believe I caught your name in the midst of all the chaos.”
“Grant,” the man said, eyeing me as if I might bite him as I sat down in front of him on the floor. “It’s Grant.”
I gave him a sweet smile as I pulled a triangle-shaped cotton pad from the box. Come on, b*stard. You can’t be scared of me now.
“Nice to meet you, Grant. I’m April. April Fielding.” I tipped the bottle of alcohol in my hand to soak the pad. “You got a last name, Grant?”
He shook his head. “No? Guess that’ll have to come later, then.” I lifted myself to my knees, bringing the cotton up to the cuts on his face.
“No.” He gritted his teeth, hissing when the alcohol made contact with the lesion.
“No, what?” I asked, moving on to the next scrape.
He winced. “I can’t give you my last name.”
I pressed the pad to his temple a bit harder in my frustration. What the hell was up with this guy? “And why not?” I asked, my voice a bit sharper than I had intended. I sighed, pulling the cotton away for a second. “Look, if you’re on the run or something, I swear I won’t rat you out. I’m not a snitch.”
He shook his head. “It’s not that.”
“What is it then?” I returned to working on his face.
He let out a low groan. Whether it was caused by the burning of the rubbing alcohol or my interrogation, I wasn’t sure. Finally, he opened his mouth and offered me a response. “I can’t remember it.”
I scoffed, pulling away to dig in my box again. “You’re messing with me.”
Now Grant seemed to be as frustrated as I was. “I’m not, I swear. I can’t remember it.” He looked down at his feet, avoiding making eye contact. “I can’t remember anything.”
I dropped my box then. I mumbled a ‘d*mmit’ under my breath before picking it back up and returning my eyes to Grant. “So you’re telling me I brought a homeless, suicidal amnesiac into my home?”
His mouth dropped open. “Homeless? Suicidal? What are you–” He stopped, appearing to come to a realization before shaking his head vigorously. “No, no, no. I’m not homeless. I’m not suicidal. You’re confused.”
I forced a laugh, though I didn’t find the situation funny at all. “I’m confused? Oh, buddy, you’ve got things way backwards.” I pulled a Band-Aid from the box and ripped it open. “If you’re not a homeless, suicidal amnesiac, then what are you?”
He rolled his eyes as if I was the one being stupid. “Look, I wasn’t trying to kill myself earlier,” he started. “And I have a home. I’m just not sure where it is.”
I snorted. “I guess I’ve got the amnesiac part right, then.” I lifted the Band-Aid, positioning it above a particularly nasty cut above his right eyebrow. I stuck it on and smoothed it out, watching as Grant focused on my face, mossy eyes void of emotion. I pulled away and stood up with a sigh, placing a hand on my hip.
“I’m going to take a shower,” I said. “God knows I need it. There’s pizza in the fridge if you’re hungry.” I turned around, making my way back to the bathroom. “If you need anything, don’t call!” I yelled to him before shutting the door behind me. That was a b*tchy move, sure, but, with my current predicament, I was entitled to a bit of bitchiness. It was my natural response to entering a world of trouble.
Once the door was locked, I turned the water on as hot as I could stand and stripped myself of my dirt and blood streaked clothes. Once I had washed the residue from my hair and lathered my skin with body wash, relieved to see that the inked skin of my rose tattoo wasn’t damaged, I sunk down to the floor of the shower. Not even flinching as the water hit the marred skin of my arm, I buried my face in my hands. What the h*ll had I gotten myself into?