Tuesday, July 1, 2014

See Me Not by Jackie Bee

Jackie Bee's elderly lady character, doted on by her younger sister, is more wilful, cunning and malicious than she appears.

"Want some more?" Sheila bends over me and checks my plate. "Oh, you've eaten nothing yet! Come on, get started. How do you expect to have any energy if you don't eat?"

Cornflakes float in the milk, and they taste even worse than they look. I have no appetite in the mornings, but it's all irrelevant to Sheila with her mother-hen instincts. Each day she's busy feeding me, taking care of me and, in her words, fixing me up. She lets go a little bit only when the grandchildren - hers or mine - come to visit. Then she gets busy fixing them up, and I'm allowed to breathe for a while.

It's funny how we switched roles. I was ten years old when she was born, and as long as I can remember I enjoyed the responsibilities of being the older sister - watching her, making sure she was fed, dressed properly, not hurt in any way by other children. From the moment she came into my life, I've always felt older than my age. And now we live together again, this time as two widows, and she is seventy already - while I'm still ten years older, no escape from that - and now she's the one who takes care of me. She claims that doing so makes her feel younger, which is fine with me - if only she could fulfill her duties in a less fanatical manner.

"I'm not hungry," I say. "I'd better go for a walk, work up an appetite."

"No-no-no," she says. "You are not going anywhere on an empty stomach."

I give her a look of exasperation, but she's washing dishes with her back to me and doesn't notice anything. Maybe I should get her a dog or a cat just to distract her from myself a little. I'm not young, of course, and sometimes I do need assistance, but still, it doesn't give her a right to treat me like a baby.

Apart from that, I do need to take a walk. While the sun hasn't risen yet and the streets are empty, something needs to be done, and the earlier is the better.

"I'll be back in an hour," I say. "Do we have some bread left?"

Sheila turns around, wiping her hands on her apron, her lips pressed together, but this time she doesn't object. This scene repeats itself almost every morning, and sometimes I play along and eat the breakfast, while on other occasions I take a stand and go for a walk. It's just a daily ritual, and she knows it well enough. She reaches for the bread bin, retrieves a few dry slices and puts them into a plastic bag. My morning route lies across the small river that flows through the city park, and sometimes I stop on the bridge to feed the fish or the birds.

I carefully put the bread into my bag, next to another object inside of it. The object is wrapped in several plastic bags, thick and non-transparent, but I know what it is, and it makes me feel uneasy. I need to get rid of it.

I walk slowly along the road. There's no lights in the windows and the streets are empty. I'm out earlier than usual today, and everyone I'm used to meeting in the mornings is still asleep or just preparing to go out. These early walks unite us into some kind of a sect, make us feel like we are allowed into a secret, granted a right to witness the wonder of a new day being born in those quiet hours before the city begins its restless fuss.

I walk along the alley by the riverside when the first man runs past me. He's young, probably in his thirties, and I see him here from time to time, but he never speaks to me. Young people tend to ignore me, they just run their daily route listening to the music in their headphones, lost in their thoughts.

In fact, from a certain age I started to feel like I was invisible. When you are twenty, people tend to notice you. I remember being young and running in the park, how men would smile at me or say 'Good morning' or throw a joke or a compliment. But when you are eighty, they just ignore you - even though I'm not expecting compliments or smiles or anything, just a nod would do. They act as if one look at me can spoil their mood by reminding that one day they will be eighty too, so they'd just rather look somewhere else.

Morning and evening walks and reading are the only hobbies that I've got, and Sheila is always nagging about how I need to find more ways to occupy myself. She plays bridge a couple of times a week, goes to a swimming pool and to a knitting class - all this in the time free from fixing me up, of course. But I don't feel like doing anything like that.

Not after what happened to Mathew.

I stop at the bridge, retrieve the plastic bag and begin to crumble the bread into the water. The surface seethes immediately as a bunch of fish pounce at the treat, their gray shiny backs flickering in the cold light of morning. My hand feels for the object at the bottom of the bag and I take it out, looking around as I do. The paths on both sides of the river are empty. I open my hand over the water and the object falls down sharply, forcing the fish to scatter. It sinks, leaving but a few rings on the water, and I go on throwing breadcrumbs about, feeling some relief.

Mathew was my favorite grandson. It may have been wrong to prefer him over the others, and I loved his brothers too - I still do - but he was always special. He used to hug me and ask me how I was doing and treated me as a loved person and not just a source of presents and pocket money. I wasn't a ghost to him, he actually saw me, and heard, and loved. And that means a lot, especially when the rest of the world begins to look right through you.

That day, he was going to spend the evening with us. He was eight and was allowed to come by himself, riding his bike.

Sheila made an apple pie. I got him a new book.

He was late.

I came out of the house when I saw the police lights.

A part of the street was cordoned off with a yellow tape, and a policeman was trying to scatter the onlookers, but I came closer, taking an advantage of my invisible person status, and saw an empty sneaker on the roadside and a bent bicycle frame, and some people gathering around, covering their mouths with their palms.

"Please, stay away," the policeman kept saying tiredly. "Nothing to look at."

I don't know if there's life after death. But there's no life after an empty sneaker on the roadside, that much I know for sure. At least my life as I knew it had ended at that moment.

He'd been hit by a drunk driver, for whom it was his twenty-eighth violation - and the first lethal one. On the news and in the newspapers they boiled over how he still had his license after so many transgressions, bringing up other similar cases over the past few years. A schoolgirl bound to a wheelchair, a mother of four hit by a drunk driver and left to die on the roadside, a biker found in a water table by the road. A string of irresponsible drivers, violating the rules again and again until their ignorance took somebody's life - and even then they often avoided proper punishment, thanks to the loop-holes in laws, good lawyers, kind jurors.

I watched the news and read the articles.

"That's life," Sheila used to say. "We can't change it."

But I had to try.

First I found the guy who hit the schoolgirl. By that time he was out of jail, and worked at his factory again. I watched him for a couple of months. I had plenty of time, hanging around, just one of those unnoticeable old ladies walking the streets, feeding pigeons, buying little presents for their grandchildren, reading books on the benches in the park. Nobody paid attention to me, nobody gave a second thought as to what I was doing at this place or another. The general opinion was, by default, that people such as I have no goals - we just live day after day until our time runs out.

But I happened to have a goal - or, to be more exact, a target. I knew when this target left home in the mornings, when he came back, on which days he went to a pub with his friends, until what hour he slept on Sundays. His nephew visited him sometimes, and he seemed to be a good uncle, playing with the boy in his backyard, giving him rides on his bicycle... but I couldn't let that distract me. I felt sorry for the kid, who obviously loved his useless uncle, but I felt sorrier for that schoolgirl in her wheelchair. And the sneaker on the roadside - I had no right to forget about it. Lawyers, jurors and judges could forget sometimes.

I had to remember.

On a cold October evening, when a sprinkling rain showered the empty streets, he was heading back home from the pub. He was drunk as a fish on that night, couldn't even walk straight, and didn't hear me at first when I called him. I stood in a passage between the wall of a garage and a solid concrete fence that surrounded the factory. The place was somewhat secluded and people rarely walked there outside of the working hours - and on that day, thanks to the weather, there was nobody around.

"Whassit?" he said, approaching me.

"What's the time, please?"

He stood there for a few seconds, swaying a little, probably sensing - even in his incoherent state - that there was something odd about my question and my being there at all, but then he just gave out a little hum and shifted his gaze to his watch. While he was trying to focus on the clock's dial, I stepped forward and took the knife out of my bag.

I have never possessed firearms, neither do I know anything about poisons, nor am I strong enough to overpower a man - though, I must admit, I'm still in a fairly good shape thanks to my long walks every day - but in that situation all I had was a sharp knife and the advantage of a surprise. I had a chance for one precise strike, and had I messed it up it would have all been over for me.

But I didn't mess it up.

Next day, the local news and papers had a field day with the murder. People get killed every day, but a body found in a backstreet with a slit throat was still a bit unusual. Several members of the paralyzed schoolgirls' family were called in for questioning and spent quite a few unpleasant hours talking to the police interrogators, but I knew it would be over soon and could only sympathize from a distance. The knife went straight into the river, my clothes with bloodstains on them went into the washing machine and, once again, I was spending my days reading books and traveling around the town.

Eight months later came the turn of the driver who hit the woman and left her on the roadside. His trial was postponed again and again and he was under a home arrest, which obviously wasn't all that strict and didn't prevent him from going to the nearby supermarket. I met him one evening, when he walked home along the river bank, in the dusk, swinging a paper bag full of oranges.

His body was found a couple of days later, washed up on the shore a few miles down the river. Despite the long interval between the two deaths, the media had noticed the similarities and began discussing the possibility of a serial killer operating in the area, targeting the drivers that had been responsible for serious traffic accidents.

Another two years passed before my grandsons' killer was released from jail. And yesterday my hour of triumph arrived.

He almost never left home, and the garbage bags his wife was dragging out of the house were always full of empty beer bottles. On Sundays, she used to visit her friends, and yesterday, when she left the house, I knocked on the door on their dark, messy porch, clutching the knife. The moment he opened the door, I struck. He never found out why - but how did they say in that old western? If you want to shoot, shoot, don't talk. I knew why. He didn't deserve any explanations.

As I come back from my morning walk, the streets are full of cars and the sidewalks are full of children heading for school. There's a police car parked in front of our house. Sheila must have noticed me from the window, because as I climb the steps slowly, she opens the door. There's a complex expression of pity, confusion and a kind of a guilty triumph on her face. Behind her, I can see two silhouettes in blue.

"Please take it easy," she says, and begins to weep. "Remember that man who hit Mathew? He... he was found dead."

I enter the house. Two young officers seem to be a little confused and out of place, but having been assigned the task of talking to us I can see that they take it seriously. They watch me with attention, which is somewhat flattering - as if they admit that it's too early to wipe me off the slate.

One after another, they hold out their hands and introduce themselves, earning a few more points in my eyes.

"Do you always go for a walk so early?" one of them asks.

"Would you like to have some tea?" I say in reply and begin to fill the kettle with water. "Officer...?"

"Smith," he says patiently, although he has told me his name only a minute ago. "Your sister has offered us tea already, thank you. I would appreciate if you answered my question."

"We have a great cake," I say. "Sheila baked it yesterday. She is very good with cakes."

"Madam, answer my question please."

"What question, pardon me?"

"Do you always go out so early?"

"Ah, that. Of course. I prefer early walks, the air is so much fresher, you know."

"Do you take walks in the evenings, too?"

"Usually, I do." I turn the kettle on.

"And where did you go yesterday?"

"Mostly around the park, I believe." I shrug. "My memory is not so good nowadays. But it's usually just the park."

They give me examining looks.

"You see, madam, as you sister has already told you, James Brown - the driver that ran your grandson Mathew over a few years ago - was found dead today. We have a reason to suspect that he was killed..."

Sure you do. Throat slit from ear to ear, hell of a reason.

"I can see you are not too surprised to hear that?" says the policeman.

I give him a confused look.

"Mathew?" I say. "Someone hit Mathew?"

They exchange quick glances. The kettle begins to whistle.

"Would you like to have a cake with the tea?" I say. "Officer...?"

"Smith," he says again.

"We have a great cake," I say. "Sheila baked it yesterday. She is very good with cakes. Mathew likes them very much."

Sheila stares at me from behind their backs.

Eventually, they will leave us alone. They don't really believe that someone connected to the families of the car accidents victims is responsible for the murders. It seems more likely that there's some kind of a crazy Robin Hood operating, with a goal of scaring reckless drivers. That will look even more likely after the fourth murder takes place - which will happen in another two to three months. I have almost finished the preparations. Initially, I've planned four murders - this way the one I did it all for will look just like one in a series of others, not the first and not the last one. Not a special one.

After that, I could stop - or at least that's what I thought at the beginning. But lately, I've begun to have my doubts. Will I be able to stop? Will I want to?

After all, Sheila's right.

I can have a hobby, too.

12 comments:

  1. this is such a great story, touching on a number of important points.
    i found it so easy to get into (compliment!), great characterisation.
    i´m definitely on the side of the elderly Lady.

    Michael McCarthy

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    1. Thanks for your feedback, Michael! Im glad you enjoyed the story!

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  2. I love how the story keeps your eye on the left hand, then, with a puff of smoke, pulls the rabbit out of the hat with the right. Great surprise! And I'm with Michael, wonderful character development. I felt like I was right in the lead character's head (and what a devious one it was!). Nicely done.

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  3. Clever story, good writing! Who could ask for anything more.
    Beryl.

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  4. I enjoyed this story a lot. The invisibility of an older person seems so true, and I liked how feigning forgetfulness/dementia was so easily believed. I was expecting a twist at the end but was still surprised. Good job!

    Cliff ...

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  5. The exposition is handled masterfully. The propulsion builds once it's clear she intends to mete out vigilante justice. Undervaluing of the aged plays to her advantage as she takes advantage of the corresponding underestimation of the aged that accompanies the dismissive attitudes. Two thumbs up.

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    1. Wow, I've even learned a couple of new words from your review :) Thanks a lot!

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  6. An engaging story. I was hooked and fascinated as the hint of sibling conflict at the beginning turns into sisterly solidarity when under threat.
    The use of 1st person helps emphasize the locked-in qualities of old age.

    Brooke Fieldhouse

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