The dome of an umbrella bobbed along the top of the fence, beneath the dripping horse chestnut branches. Pink, blue, white stripes. Childhood colours, an adult’s height. It had been raining for days, maybe weeks. Lots of umbrellas bobbed along her fence, but she recognised this one.
It was him again.
Cynthia wheeled herself into the corner of the living room, where she could see the gate but where reflections from the bay window prevented anyone seeing in.
He stood at the gate under his girlish umbrella, not entering, just staring at the house, right into the window of the room in which she sat, as if he knew that she was there, trapped behind the glass. Like an insect in a display case. His eyes were obscured by spectacles with thick lenses, which only intensified her unease. A heavy, jowly face which could have been middle-aged or much younger, collar too tight around his thick neck, disastrous hair which looked like it had been styled by a blind lunatic, a rumpled raincoat straight from the Flasher-Mac Warehouse.
‘He can’t see me,’ she said aloud, ‘He can’t. See me.’
She was safe, it was ridiculous to be so fearful. It was the fault of the chair. Since the accident six months ago, her personality had begun to change. She could feel the chair slowly but definitely asserting its will over her. Up through her useless legs, its metal frame melded itself to her, its leather seat becoming one with her buttocks, her waist. Where all sensation stopped—or began, depending on one’s direction of travel. Eventually they would become one, part machine, part paralysed person: cyberlegic.
At the start, she had raged at the chair, insisted on trying crutches, leg braces, anything that would keep her upright. At eye level with other adults. ‘I’m sorry,’ Dr Azaria had said, not even trying to sound sincere. She had been a ‘challenging patient’, according to the quick peek at her physiotherapy referral letter. ‘The fracture of your spine has resulted in complete paralysis of the lower extremities. In my experience with such cases,’ he sighed, his mind already on other, more compliant patients, ‘there is no prospect of a return of function. ‘
‘Make no mistake, Dr Azaria,’ she had said, with confidence which now seemed absurd, ‘I will get out of this chair one day.’
Cynthia had been through all the textbook stages—shock, sadness, denial, anger—and got stuck on the last one. She had never moved on to the final stage for all those faced with life-changing disasters; the blissful, sunny nirvana of acceptance remained out of reach. A successful criminal prosecutor at the top of her profession, she had not risen to the level of partner by being good at acceptance. She was good at getting people to pay for their mistakes.
None of that mattered any more. That part of her life was finished. Her job was still there, but she had no interest in returning to court to be the subject of prurient curiosity, to be looked down on in her chair. She had loved it, and it was over. There was nothing to fill the void.
One instant. That was all it took for her life to be ruined. ‘Not ruined,’ Sandra the therapist would have said, ‘changed. You need to adjust your point of view.’ At times like that, Cynthia’s anger was a palpable force inside her, streams of molten lava in her veins. Her arms still worked perfectly well—better, in fact, from all the wheeling—plenty strong enough to beat Sandra to death with her leopard-print ballet shoes.
One instant. Step off the curb into the road at one moment in time, distracted by something just at the edge of your vision, and your life goes one way. Wait on the curb for one second longer, and it goes another way. All of those months, lying in the hospital bed, she had ransacked her memory for what she had seen that day. Something had made her move, just at the second she should have stayed. But the answer was lost somewhere in the folds of her cerebellum, not helped by the powerful anti-depressants which kept her away from the knife drawer but also dulled her thought processes.
The world was full of such moments, she realised. The moment when the woman misses the last bus and decides to walk home…the moment when the man checks into the hotel room with the faulty power socket…the moment when the little boy, bored with his toys, find’s Daddy’s gun cabinet unlocked…
Despite, or maybe because of, all the new modifications and gadgets in her house—the ramps, the ugly handrails everywhere, the new shower big enough for a chair, her bed in the downstairs study—she felt her formerly outgoing, adventurous nature draining out of her, a little every day. A slow leak that would ultimately leave her just a pathetic, deflated husk. Before the accident, she would have run the old pervert off the top of her drive with her best courtroom voice. Now here she was, cowering in the corner of her own house.
She felt catapulted into early geriatric-hood. It was wrong, every molecule of her being screamed that it was wrong. This was not how her life was meant to be. The essential Cynthia-ness was leaving, and what remained…what did remain? A carcass sat for the rest of its days in the chair, a creature that ate and drank, peed into a bag, inhaled and exhaled, kept clean by the efficient hands of Maxine, the private nurse paid for by the insurance settlement.
At least Maxine was different, not like therapist Sandra. Cynicism oozed from Maxine’s pores, clung to her like the smoke from her hand-rolled cigarettes. And she seemed to like Cynthia, who did not mind if the nurse smoked in the house. Once Maxine had bathed and dressed her and dispensed her meds, checked for pressure sores and massaged her wasted muscles, they would settle down for a chat and a smoke. Lung cancer, Cynthia figured, would at least make a change. Since the accident, she had embraced unhealthy habits with the same fervor which she had once applied to staying healthy. The blender which had previously been used for wheatgrass and bee pollen smoothies was now pressed into service for the staggeringly strong cocktails that she shared with Maxine. Thankfully, Maxine only needed to stroll a short distance to the bus stop, once her shift was over or the cocktails finished, whichever came first.
‘Did you know that Christopher Reeve was killed by a bedsore?’ Cynthia once asked Maxine. ‘Blood poisoning, from an infected bedsore.’
‘You ask me,’ Maxine had said, with a loud grunt as she heaved Cynthia into the chair, ‘that man was meant to go when he fell on his head.’ Maxine was from Jamaica and liked Cynthia’s house because it was always warm. Warmth was needed to stimulate Cynthia’s sluggish circulation, but Maxine had never adapted to the New England climate. At least two bulky sweaters swathed her uniform, even in summer. Cynthia suspected that there was another reason for the jumpers: Maxine’s uniform buttons had long ago lost the battle of the bulge.
‘Does that mean you think I should have died when that car hit me?’ Cynthia had asked. That was her own view, reinforced with every passing day.
‘You too angry to die, Cyn,’ Maxine had said with a contented sigh, as she settled into the moss-green velvet armchair with the claw feet by the radiator. She examined her cocktail. ‘Looks like my glass must have a hole in it.’
The stalker never appeared when Maxine was there. Nor did he appear when any of her other infrequent guests paid their visits. But there he was again, just standing outside the gate, raindrops suspended from the points of his ridiculous umbrella.
It was the umbrella that did it. She refused to be intimidated by a stalker with an umbrella like that.
All the months of heartbreak, while her life and her legs withered, the parade of indignities lengthened, the monotonous platitudes from well-wishers threatened to bury her alive, the nights of deepest, blackest despair…all of this propelled her to the front door. Driven by a pure white flame of anger, she smacked the button to open it, wheeled herself down the ramp and along the path where she stopped, panting. Only the wooden gate separated them, shedding flakes of brown paint like dead skin.
He did not move away. Suddenly she realised that, in her haste to confront him, she did not know what to say. The only sound was the rain clattering softly on the leaves overhead.
‘Good afternoon, Cynthia,’ he said with a pleasant smile which revealed a mouthful of uneven, nicotine-stained teeth. One of the upper canines was capped with gold. Even up close it was no easier to see his eyes through the glasses. ‘How are you today?’ His voice was confident, the voice of someone used to getting their way, unexpected from a man who looked like a community psychiatric case.
So outraged was she that no words would come, she just shifted jerkily in the chair. It took a moment to register that he knew her name, but then she realised that any competent stalker would manage that.
‘Careful,’ he said, ‘the brake’s off.’
Sure enough, the chair began to roll backward. In an instant, he was through the gate, his hand on the chair to stop its descent, his umbrella shading her from the rain.
‘Get away from me!’ she bellowed, in her most sonorous, menacing courtroom voice, which had shrivelled some of the top lawyers in the land.
He smiled again. ‘You must teach me how to do that sometime. But first, we have some things to talk about. Shall we go inside?’
She was just about to blast him right off his feet with a fire hose of invective, had opened her mouth to do just that, and then stopped, jaws akimbo.
The crowd of people on the curb, everyone impatient for the lights to change so they could return to their warm offices and houses. Elbows, shoulders jostling. Easy enough for someone to lose their balance.
It was him.
The day of the accident.
Just behind in the crowd, over her left shoulder. He had been there.
‘Now then,’ he said kindly, and extended a hand to close her mouth, yellowish nails on his long fingers, ‘I’ve been waiting quite a while. Let’s go inside and get everything in order.’
And before she could protest or do anything to attract attention, he had spun her chair around and wheeled her into the house.
To be so helpless made her even angrier, but frightened too. It was bad enough being a woman, but worse to be a woman who could not even kick him in the crotch. She was utterly in his power. Once in the living room he removed his ugly raincoat and settled himself in Maxine’s armchair, relaxed but business-like. He extracted a small spiral notebook and pen from his pocket.
‘Let’s see now,’ he said, flicking the pages of the notebook, ‘you are Cynthia Hattersley, correct?’
‘I saw you. That day, you were there,’ she croaked. ‘I saw you.’
‘Yes, you did,’ he sighed, ‘but things didn’t go to plan, did they?’ He scribbled something on the pad, muttered, ‘Modern medicine makes my job so much harder. Only a few years ago, a bang like yours would have done the job, no question.’
‘Plan, what plan? Done what job?’ Her mouth was too dry to speak. She swallowed. It did not help. ‘Who—who are you?’ she whispered.
He smelled…wrong. Not like stale sweat or another body odour. This was the smell of things shut away from the light for years, of things buried deep in the ground, forever. Her guts contracted with a desperate desire to be anywhere he was not. On another continent. Or another planet. Bile stung her throat. The phone was out of reach, the house screened from the street by the trees.
‘Come on, Cynthia, you know who I am. Think about it.’ He nodded encouragingly, like he was trying to help her to pass an exam.
Only a few hours ago, her only concern had been whether Maxine would remember to bring more rum. ‘You were there to…to kill me? You’re a…a hit man?’ Her voice rose with incredulity, at the idea that the scraggy specimen could be a professional killer. Her mind began to itemise all the criminals living out their days in jail because of her. It was not impossible.
‘I am not a hit man, Cynthia.’ His voice was different. It had a new, resonant quality. Gone was the joviality, the nicotine-stained grin. ‘I am THE hit man.’
He removed his glasses. Where his eyes should have been, there was only emptiness: two voids of unending, obsidian blackness. They pulled her like two magnets, the chair inching slowly towards him. ‘Time to go, Cynthia.’
She could not move, could not look away. The room went cold and dark around her, the central heating no match for the frigid gusts coming off him. It was spring outside the window, but deepest winter in her living room.
She would have screamed but she had no voice. She would have fainted but was not the fainting type. A crazy thought flashed into her mind: ‘It’s a good thing that I’m sitting down’.
He replaced his glasses, and the room returned to its normal temperature. ‘Sorry to rush you, luv, but I’m on a schedule. We’ll just take care of the formalities and be off.’
‘Off?’ So many times, since the accident, she had longed for death, but now that he was sitting in her armchair she desperately wanted to live. She wanted to watch the sun move across the panes of her bedroom window. She wanted to get drunk with Maxine while they watched her soaps. She wanted to go back to work. Suddenly, she wanted so many things.
‘Yes, dear. You were due to go when you stepped off that pavement. That meddling Dr Azaria is causing me no end of grief, you wouldn’t believe the paperwork. Let’s see here,’ he consulted his notebook, ‘you are Cynthia Eleanor Hattersley—’
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘Not me.’
‘I know it’s a shock, dear, but rules are rules.’ He tapped the notebook with the pen. Impatient now. On a schedule.
‘No, I mean, yes, it is a shock. But no, that’s not me. I’m Cynthia Anne Hattersley.‘ She extracted her driver’s license from the purse by her feet. ‘Look.’
He studied the license, his face growing more and more pale until it was almost white. A deep, expressive sigh. ‘Shit. I hate it when this happens.’
‘What do you mean?’ Her voice had returned to full strength. ‘When what happens?’ She leaned forward, nose wrinkled against his smell. ‘Do you mean that you, the all-powerful, have screwed up? And not for the first time? Has it not occurred to you that it might be time to find a different line of work? Like dog-catcher? Oh, wait, you would probably catch the wrong ones.’ She began to laugh, loud honking guffaws which cleared her lungs for what felt like the first time in months.
‘No need to get nasty. Everyone makes mistakes,’ he said, with a defensive whine , beyond white now and beginning to look opaque, his voice growing weaker. ‘Mind if I smoke?’
‘Of course I do,’ he said, pulled a crumpled butt from his pocket and lit up. ‘You won’t tell anyone about this, will you?’
Her lawyer’s brain began to work for the first time in ages. How many more were there like her, victims of the most colossal administrative blunder in the known universe? This could be the biggest class-action suit in history. ‘You have to leave now. But if I were you, I’d get a good lawyer.’
Almost totally transparent by this point, he said, ‘Very well, but I will see you again in, oh, about—’
‘Get out!’ she screamed, with all the power in her crumpled body. ‘Get out!’
And he was gone.
The armchair was empty. Her heartbeat gradually slowed. She was tired from the unaccustomed exertion. The rain had stopped. The chair was dry where his mac had lain. The only reminder of him was the lingering smell of cheap tobacco. Maxine would soon take care of that.
Elation and relief battled for control of her face. She tilted her head back in the despised chair, smiling while tears flooded her eyes. She would return to work. Yes, and she would get Maxine to take her shopping. They would go to the new Caribbean restaurant that had just opened. Now, anything was possible.
And then her left big toe began to tingle.
Vanessa Lafaye was born in Tallahassee and raised in Tampa, Florida, where there were hurricanes most years. She first came to the UK in 1987 looking for adventure, and found it. After spells of living in Paris and Oxford, she now lives in Marlborough, Wiltshire, with her husband and three furry children. Vanessa leads the local community choir, and music and writing are big parts of her life.
Her debut novel Under a Dark Summer Sky came out earlier this year.
Find out more about Vanessa on her Website www.vanessalafaye.wordpress.com