Didn't I Kill You?
by Boy Howdy
A biting breeze whispered through the trees as I stepped away from the grave. I tightened my coat around me, wondering why I had bothered to come here.
Unsure whether I’d actually heard someone speak or not, I paused and turned halfway around.
“I think I know you.” The voice belonged to a woman. Shivering, she stood with arms folded across her chest and hands sucked back inside the sleeves of her coat like frightened turtles.
“I don’t think so,” I said, irritated by the intrusion.
“I’m sure of it.” With a severe hitch in her step, she inched closer. “Your name’s Ian, right?”
I nodded. I longed for the warmth of my car, but the fact that she knew my name intrigued me. I studied her through repeated clouds of my breath. Dark hair poured over her shoulders and provided a stunning contrast to her ice-blue eyes. Something about her reached a secret, suppressed place deep within me.
“I knew it!” she blurted. “My God, this is incredible!”
Her smile suddenly seemed familiar. When I noticed the small scar that divided her left eyebrow, my hands jumped out of my pockets and I jerked backwards. Leaving a shiver in its wake, the frigid breeze that gave voice to the trees seemed to pass suddenly through my flesh.
“You probably think you’re seeing a ghost, huh?” she asked.
“I . . . s-s-saw you f-fall,” I said, as the cold and a sudden onset of nerves played havoc with my tongue.
“I’m so sorry. This must be so unsettling for you,” she said as she peered into my eyes.
“Look,” I said, as I took a step backward, “I don’t know who you are, but this . . . This isn’t funny, okay, so . . .” With a shudder, I turned away.
Her soft words, “I didn’t die,” halted me. “It didn’t kill me . . . Well, obviously.” She tried to laugh, but seemed unsure of the appropriateness. I remained still.
“Please, you’re all I remember,” she added.
I trembled as I slowly turned back. Could it really be her? I hadn’t seen her in . . . what? . . . fourteen years? Fourteen years, but it all started coming back. Her voice, her smile, her eyes, all so familiar. But how? How could she be standing here? I had killed her.
Well, I might as well have.
“All you remember?” I asked, involuntarily; I hadn’t wanted to speak; I wanted to run.
She nodded. “Almost everything before that day is gone, but your face has always remained vivid in my mind. That’s why I thought you looked so familiar, and when I saw the last name on the stone you were looking at . . . Well, I just couldn’t believe it.”
“How . . . ?” My voice faltered.
“It didn’t kill me. I was just –”
“You were in a coma,” I said. “The doctors said that you’d never wake up, and if you did, you’d be . . . You know, brain-damaged . . . or whatever.”
“I didn’t wake up. Not for five years. Almost right on my twenty-first birthday.” She apparently could see the questions swirling behind my narrowed eyes, and instantly continued. “These last nine years since I woke have been hard; not having a childhood to remember, having to relearn so many things. The doctors said it was a miracle that I could talk, that I knew language and the names of everyday things, that I knew my parents. But there was a lot that I didn’t understand.”
The more she spoke, the longer her voice filled the space between us, the more my shuddering softened.
“Well, that’s not completely true,” she continued. “I said I can’t remember my childhood, but I remember us . . . you and me.”
I did, too.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. In a lot of ways, it was for me,” she added.
“I’m sorry, I’m still having a little trouble . . . Is it really you?” I asked. My voice suddenly reminded me of the sixteen-year-old that used to feel so nervous around her.
“Yeah, it’s me,” she said while flashing a smile. “Remember this?” she asked and ran her finger over the scar in her eyebrow.
Not immediately aware of my own grin, I said, “The only tree on the entire street, and you flew right into it.”
She giggled. “If only bicycle handlebars had seatbelts.”
God, it’s true; she really has risen.
I knew this feeling, the same calm that used to fill me when we hung out together, when every hour felt like a lifetime of its own. I never thought that I could recapture that contented, blind-to-the-world state of mind. But, with every word she spoke, I could feel that ease returning, could feel the warmth of that August day.
The day she fell.
I wanted to ask just how much she recalled of that day, but fear of her answer weakened my tongue.
Her giggling faded, but our gazes held through the steam of our breath.
“That day –” I began.
“That day sure threw a wrench in my life,” she said. “I hope it didn’t ruin yours.”
“Things couldn‘t have gotten much worse for me than they already were.” I shoved my hands into my pockets and hugged myself through my coat.
“What d‘ya mean?”
“You don’t remember how messed up things were for me? My dad?” I asked, sniffling from the cold.
“I just remember talking about our crushes, teasing each other. We had a lot of fun.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I remember being in love with . . .” Her voice faded. Though not a single muscle in her face moved, pain emanated from her features.
In love? With Cameron?
I hated Cameron.
“Well, you were the best thing in my life back then.” As I spoke, I tried to wipe my nose without looking gross. With nowhere to wipe my fingers, I stuffed them back into my pocket. “But you had a lot of friends. Do you remember them?”
“No . . . Just you, really,” she said.
“Cameron? What about Cameron?”
Her face wrinkled with the effort of thought. “Cameron? . . . No . . .”
I remembered watching her and Cameron getting dressed.
“Cameron was there that day,” I said. I tried to bite back the anger as my stomach burned with the stir of old jealousies.
“You mean the day I . . .?”
I nodded. “You two were . . . You know . . . flirting.”
The hurt in her eyes deepened. “Right in front of you?”
“I didn’t know,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I only remember you, honestly.”
“Do you remember how you fell?”
“No. My mom told me I was being silly. She said that was my usual way.” Her smile still seemed tentative.
“You were . . . Silly, I mean.” I offered my own smile. She accepted it, briefly. “That day, you were just being you. You were talking about Cameron.”
“And I fell?”
“You were looking up at the sky – You always did that when you were talking about, you know, girl stuff – and . . .” I thought that I could repeat the lie again. It used to roll off my tongue like song lyrics. But now, with her standing here after fourteen years, I couldn’t form the words.
With small steps, limping from side to side, she tried to warm herself as she peered up at me and waited for me to continue.
As I thought about the police interviews and the expression on my father’s face, I tried to avoid eye contact with Kaylynn. I could still hear her words from that day, the words she spoke as she stared skyward with her arms splayed like angel wings and her voice like a sigh. She barely held off a giggle as she repeated her feelings for Cameron.
Then she fell.
After the brick caromed off her head.
She landed with a thud and a crack of bones.
That crack had echoed in my head for fourteen years. So how could she stand in front of me now?
“You fell.” I forced those two words out, ending the debate of how to lie again. My fists clenched inside my pockets.
“I just tripped, huh? Looking up like that?”
I nodded and reached up to wipe my nose again. I jammed my hand back into my pocket and twisted the front of my coat in an angry grip.
She sniffled from the cold and emotion. “You must’ve been so scared.”
I didn’t remember fear, only a dog-in-the-manger kind of satisfaction as I looked down at her and smiled.
The smile lingered for a few days, until I became angry at myself for destroying the only good thing I had. Over the following years, failure to control that anger led me to do things that ended with bars sliding shut behind me. I always emerged from the weeklong stints angrier, spiteful. The thirty-day stints saw me leave the cell apologetic, vowing to change, promising God.
After all that . . .
How dare she stand here in front of me!
My jaw muscles rippled and my fists tightened further.
“I rushed down to you,” I said.
She wiped her eyes again, then took time to tend delicately to her own dripping nose. “I’m so sorry.”
That word drew one of my hands out of its coat-pocket sheath. It dangled at my side, like a gunslinger’s drawing hand. My eyes spotted a vase of flowers next to a nearby grave. I could see a lot of them around, but mostly plastic ones. This one consisted of some kind of glass or porcelain, something heavy.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said. I had to force my jaws to work despite my anger and the cold. “It was an accident.”
“I know, but I’m sorry you had to go through that, to see that. I mean, I kind of had the easy part. I just had to relearn how to walk.” She patted her bad leg as she giggled softly. “I did wonder what happened to you, though. My mom tried to contact you, to tell you that I had woken up. But no one knew where you were. And your parents weren’t around anymore.” With this, her gaze traveled over to the headstone that she had seen me observing when she first approached me.
My eyes followed. “Just drank his dumb ass dead one night. Passing out in the back yard in a snow storm didn’t help,” I said. I remembered spying my father’s body through the kitchen window and feeling relief when the coroner made the pronouncement of death official.
“Your mom?” she asked.
“Livin’ in Vegas. We moved there after he died. Had relatives there.”
“Are you with anyone?” she asked.
My eyes flashed over to the vase. My free hand clenched and opened, then rose as I pretended to scratch an itch on my forehead. I opened my mouth to speak, but shook my head instead.
She frowned. “You haven’t spent all this time alone, have you?”
I nodded, eyes glancing at the vase.
“Oh, no. That’s not ’cause of me and . . . well . . . everything? Is it?”
I continued to scratch my forehead, mumbling an untruthful, “No.”
“Just never found the right one?” she asked.
An all-too-familiar memory flashed through my mind. The image, from the day she fell, of a pool of blood swelling from beneath her head into nearby shadows. For an instant, I imagined blood bathing the broken pieces of a porcelain vase.
I shook the thoughts and looked into her ice-blue eyes. “I found someone,” I said, “but they wanted someone else.”
She wiped her nose again and smiled. “Their loss.”
Their loss. I told myself that once.
But, I still threw the brick.
“My mom told me how you sat next to my hospital bed for hours every day in the early going.” she said as she moved a stiff-legged step closer. She seemed to want to hug me. “According to her, no one else came around much, none of my other friends.”
“What about Cameron?” I asked.
“Mom never mentioned anyone by that name.”
She should have known that. She should have known who really cared for her. She should never have made me raise that brick. She should never have fucked Cameron.
Why did she have to do that?
Why did she have to come back?
Why did she make me want just to forget it all and embrace her?
My dangling hand returned to my pocket.
Despite the cold, my cheeks pulled my lips into a grin. “I was the only one who came by?”
“Mom told me that you held my hand for hours.” Her smile held steady now and grew in accord with mine.
“That’s hard to believe. You had so many friends.”
She shrugged. “But only one true one.”
My smile faltered into a bashful flicker.
“Could I get a hug?” she asked. Her grin sparkled and tears gleamed in the corners of her eyes. I raised my arms to invite her. As my cheek pressed against the top of her head, the smell of her hair struck my attention. It seemed so familiar, so pleasing. I squeezed her firmly.
She laughed between sobs. I understood what she felt. My knees nearly went limp with the release of my own painful emotions.
She laughed into my chest. “Alex is never gonna believe me.”
“Yeah. I talk about you all the time.”
“Sort of.” She pulled back to look up at me while still clutching my sides. “We met in the hospital when I was rehabbing my leg.”
“I’m glad you found someone . . . after everything. I guess he’s the lucky one, though,” I said.
“Uh, no. You don’t remember –”
“I need to get going,” I said as angry jealousy coursed through me again.
“Oh, I’m sorry to keep you.” She squeezed me to her one last time and limped back. “I sure hope we can stay in touch. Do you live around here now?”
“Just passing through. On my way to a new job in Salt Lake City.”
“So things are going good then?” she asked.
Not wanting to think about my failures, I restlessly scratched nonexistent itches on the back of my neck. “Yeah.”
“Do you have a number where I can reach you?” she asked. “I’d really like to talk more about old times.”
I fumbled for my cell in an inside pocket of my coat. Struggling with cold fingers and small buttons, we recited our numbers to each other and entered them into our phones.
“So, do you and Alex have any kids?” I asked as I put my phone away.
“You really don’t remember, do you?”
“You were the only one who understood back then. I think it’s what made us so close,” she said.
I scrunched my eyebrows.
She wiped her eyes, then her nose. “Alex and I aren’t married . . . It’s more of a civil union kind of thing.”
I cocked my head. “You mean . . . ?”
“Remember how confused I was?”
“That’s right; you were . . .” my voice caught in my throat.
Her smile hung somewhere between pride and embarrassment.
In the piercingly cold breeze that chapped my face and stung my ears, I felt hot as memories played in my head.
Most of the kids that climbed up to the top of the press box, which towered above the bleachers at the high school football field, did so to smoke pot while skipping class. But some found it a good place to make out, or more, during the summer break.
I’d found her and Cameron there.
I watched them as they dressed after their coupling.
Then, after Cameron left, I dazed her with the brick. She stumbled and bumped into the knee-high wall and tumbled over. As she dropped, her leg twisted around the hand railing on the steps that led to the interior of the press box.
“You were so understanding, so supportive. I felt more comfortable around you than with my own family,” she said, bringing me back to the present. I could barely hear her over the raging blood in my ears. “I was so confused and scared,” she continued. I remembered her fear that her religious parents would discover her secret. “I used to flirt with boys to see if I could change myself. I even slept with one,” she added.
“Really?” I asked, confused. She had said that she didn’t remember Cameron.
“I don’t know who it was, but apparently it wasn’t long before I fell, because . . . Well, heh . . .” She turned and pointed. My eyes followed her finger to a headstone, one with a porcelain vase full of flowers in front of it. The inscription read: BABY IAN.
“Wait . . . That’s . . . ?” My mouth gaped. I couldn’t believe that I’d forgotten.
She nodded. “Died at birth. About nine months after I fell. Mom said she named him after you, ’cause you were so sweet for sitting with me so much.”
The sickening twist in my guts returned. It had taken fourteen years to unravel it, but now it tightened worse than it had that day, the day that the aim of the school’s least athletic, most uncoordinated kid proved true.
What makes a boy so angry? So jealous? What makes a boy capable of murder? So capable of throwing a brick at the only good thing in his life?
What makes a man want to do it again?
What can stop him?
I stared at the vase. Thoughts of how much damage it could do flashed through my mind. Then my gaze shifted to the name on the gravestone as I thought of the day I watched them lower the tiny casket.
“It was Cameron,” I mumbled.
“The one I slept with?”
I nodded. “The day you fell.”
Her hand clasped her mouth as she turned her head and stared at the headstone.
For several moments, only the swirling wind whispered between us.
Finally, I cleared my throat. “We really do need to talk some more, don’t we?”
We stared at each other for another quiet moment, noses on the verge of dripping. The incessant breeze wisped our steaming breath around the sides of our faces.
“I hope it hasn’t been too disturbing for you, running into me like this,” she said.
I shook my head, eyes darting all directions. “A little surreal, yes, but . . .” I laughed softly, drawing a giggle from her. “Really, as much as I try to forget so many things from back then, I do love thinking of the fun we had.”
“Oh, I do, too,” she blurted happily. “I miss it so much. It’s the only memory I have from my youth, but at least it’s a good one.”
“The best one from my life so far,” I said.
“We had a blast, talking about who we liked and . . . Who was it that you had such a crush on? You were so obsessed; you used to swear that you ‘ached!’ Who was that?” she asked, then giggled as the old carefree feelings of youth stirred beneath stifling maturity.
My smile wilted. My gaze locked on the ground between us. My hands hardened back into fists.
She giggled a bit louder. “You had it so bad. Who was it?”
My throat barely allowed the word to escape.
“Oh, Cameron. How funny . . . Wait, you mean the same Cameron that I . . .?”
My eyes pulled away from the ground and rose to meet hers. After holding her gaze for a few long seconds, I nodded.
She clutched her chest and covered her mouth. “I’m so sorry; I can’t believe I did that to you. You must’ve hated me.”
I swallowed and forced a smile through clenched jaws. “I was pretty jealous, but, heck . . . it’s not like he was ever gonna be into me.” I sniffled and wiped my nose. A porcelain vase lurked in my peripheral vision . . .
. . . The end . . .