Consider the Living
Elias follows a trail of mixed nuts down the hallway. It’s not an obvious trail: an almond bedded in a thatch of dust by one of the community center’s doors, a brazil nut tucked beneath the drinking fountain, then a cashew bent seductively around the corner, luring him into the stairwell. There, papery filberts balance on each step, off to the side where no one might step, crush, and fall. At least the person placing the nuts showed concern for others. Not everyone is that considerate.
He’s at the community center because of a young woman neither considerate nor sane. He tries not to think of her face or her blood on his hands.
Instead, Elias wonders how far the trail goes. With his luck, it would end at a locked door marked with a menacing, red sign. Authorized Personnel Only. Worse yet, a line of flat-sliced almonds would continue beneath the door, reminding him that although someone tried to lead him through, he’s powerless to follow.
Elias turns from the stairway.
He checks his watch: 6:27. The break is almost over. He should have peed, but the approaching clap-clap of shoes on linoleum tells him that he’s missed that opportunity as well.
He returns to the meeting room and his gray folding chair. He grabs the cold metal, feeling dizzy and out of synch, as he has since the accident. For months he’s attended these meetings, taking comfort only in the solid feel of the chair.
At the front of the room, a middle-aged man in a green sports coat walks to the podium. In drawn-out detail, he describes how he tried to stop his commuter train from slamming into a minivan parked on the tracks. A woman behind the wheel, two kids strapped into the back. The mother obviously understood the mechanical laws governing mass and speed because in that last brightly lit instant, the engineer says he saw a look of peaceful anticipation on her face.
Elias closes his eyes and counts his breaths. Five beats in. Hold. Five beats out. He knows that look of anticipation. The woman standing in the highway that night smiled like she was posing for a portrait or signaling a lover, a smile as piercing as an opera singer’s voice, with the same glass-shattering focus and power.
The engineer describes a silence that haunts him, and Elias envies him this. For Elias, the sounds have melded into a percussive loop that vibrates in his head. Squealing tires. The three-beat thud: his car hits the woman, she lands behind him, then she’s struck by a second car following close behind. Elias doubts that he really heard all this, but it’s there nonetheless, overlain by the crunch of glass and the groan of bending steel.
The engineer is crying.
A woman sits down beside Elias. Helen. He sees her every week, heard her tell of the man who tried to ram his SUV into a bridge; he caromed off the concrete and crushed her Geo – killing her fiancé and cutting off her left leg. Elias can’t imagine how she lives with the reminders, the straps of the artificial leg chafing her skin, the slight click-click the leg makes with each step.
She whispers to Elias. “Did I miss anything”?
He shakes his head.
“I don't know why I bother coming anymore,” she says.
“I’ve never heard your story.”
“Beautiful girl wanted to die. I killed her. I always knew how to please a woman.”
Helen grins. Her good leg jiggles up and down as if desperate to find its lost mate. Elias wonders what it feels like to lose a leg, a critical pillar of balance. At least she has the opportunity to strap on a substitute each day.
She catches him watching and stops jiggling.
“I had my leg cremated with my fiancé. They wanted to do it separately but I wouldn’t let them. You know how it is.”
“Yeah,” he lied.
Helen groans when a young Korean cop takes the place of the engineer at the podium. “This one’s such a talker,” she says. “We’ll never get out of here on time.”
Elias wants to leave, too, but can’t release his grip on the metal seat.
The cop introduces himself as if to strangers. Elias listens politely, though he knows repetition has no power to rewrite the facts. Man fakes hostage situation. Suicide by cop. Three small kids with no daddy coming home.
The cop tells the story anyway and when the moment of death approaches, Elias hears Helen suck in her breath. She pries his right hand from the chair, then squeezes it with cold fingers.
Elias closes his eyes and sees the impossible double image of the woman in his headlights: arms crossed at the wrists and clutched to her chest; arms outstretched like wings. He sees a girl embracing death on cold hard pavement and an angel, willing but unable to fly on her own. Could there be two truths overlapping? The same twist in reason that forces the innocent to kill? He longs to have that moment back, if only to know for certain whether he killed a girl or freed an angel.
Elias breathes. Five beats in. Five beats out. His left hand aches from clenching the metal. In his right hand, Helen’s fingers feel gritty. She leans over and whispers something he can’t understand. He thinks he smells nuts on her breath.
Helen releases his hand and points toward the doorway. She stands and walks away, limping, clicking. She shoots him a smile over her shoulder, then disappears into the hall.
She does smell like nuts, he decides, but did she lay the salty trail or eat it up one marker at a time? He realizes there’s no way to know, not unless he walks through that door.