The sun pierced the canopy of live oak trees, creating a network of light and shadow that blanketed the sidewalk and street. Through Jackson’s distorted vision, the shadows appeared like a living thing, a blend of dark and light that seemed to move as the breeze blew through the branches overhead. Jackson loved how static New Orleans could be; except for a few days twice a year when they shed their old leaves for new ones, the live oaks that shielded the streets of Uptown could always be relied on. In other cities this time of year was cold and barren, but in New Orleans, the weeks between Christmas and New Year were some of Jackson’s favorites. The air was brisk without being chilly, the sun bright but not painful to his sensitive eyes, and since he’d submitted his final grades he had a few days of peace before the new semester started.
The afternoon was quiet, the only sounds the birds and the breeze, the click of Molly’s nails on the sidewalk and jangle of her harness, the soft crunch of his feet and the occasional whoosh of a car driving past in its own blur of color. Jackson could walk forever around this part of the city in this weather, if his legs would allow it. As it was, he’d already pushed his limit, and Molly had sensed this and adjusted her pace accordingly.
He felt her signal to him that they’d reached the curb, then guide him toward the traffic light post, always cautious not to take him off the sidewalk, always measuring her steps for his own more halting ones, signaling if there was an unexpected bump or tree root in his way and guiding him around it. Pretty typical of Uptown’s chaotic maze of sidewalks. He knew the route, and so did she, but he still appreciated her help, especially at intersections.
Jackson couldn’t exactly see the light post, but even if he could, he had no depth perception and generally used his sight only for orientation and relied on his other senses (and Molly) instead. He stretched forward until his fingers felt pole, sliding down until they met the sign that gave the crosswalk instructions. Continued down till he could trace the bottom of the sign, then a few more inches until he found the button, pressing it firmly. He actually wasn’t entirely sure if it made a difference in altering the cycling of the lights, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.
Jackson commanded Molly to guide him to the edge of the curb, listening, waiting for the blurs of color he knew were cars to settle, and trusting that even with a command, Molly wouldn’t let him step into the street if it wasn’t safe.
After a few minutes, he felt the pull in the harness, Molly urging him that it was OK to cross. She measured her pace since steps--even the few inches off a curb--took him just a shade longer to navigate. Once she could tell he was ready, she continued forward. They’d been working together long enough that they knew each other, and he didn’t often have to command her directly. She was his companion and his freedom, and he didn’t know how he’d ever lived without her.
The walk home was uneventful. Honestly, Jackson wished they could detour to Audubon Park for awhile. He loved sitting on the bench in the front of the park, near the water, shaded by the trees, reading or sometimes just listening to the world around him. But while he thought he could make the walk there, his legs were beginning to tighten up, warning him that he needed to stretch and rest, and he’d probably be unable to make it back home afterward. He’d go later tonight if he could, but blind or not, the park wasn’t safe after dark. Sometimes, especially with how well the city had rebounded a decade after Katrina’s devastation, it was easy to forget how dangerous New Orleans could be.
Jackson was a little distracted, thinking about what he’d do with his time off--maybe finally get around to working on his manuscript--but not so much that he didn’t realize they were nearly home. Just twelve more steps and they’d hit the front walk, twelve more past that to the driveway, then ten to the side door he always used because it opened into the kitchen. However, as they neared where the front walk was, Molly slowed and he could feel her tense. It was like her signal when there was danger, warning him to stop. He did, listening carefully. He heard the whoosh of cars in the distance, the leaves moving in the breeze above his head. Nothing that indicated the presence of another person nearby. No footsteps, no breathing. No talking or machinery. Even the birds were quiet, though this time of year most had fled farther south. He commanded Molly forward, and she took one stride before stopping and whining.
“Molly? What’s wrong?” he asked, and it wasn’t the first time he wished she could respond. If there were a tree limb or something in his way, she would have guided him around it, not stopped completely. He tried to command her forward again, and again, she hesitated. In the seven years they’d worked together, Molly had never disobeyed him, but she’d also never led him into danger. She’d had a couple years of training before they were paired up, plus weeks more together, and by now they knew each other's’ stride and body language so that he rarely had to command her anymore. Jackson knew Molly’s working days were coming to an end, but had that time arrived even sooner than he’d expected?
He finally coaxed her forward, and they proceeded slowly, though Jackson still couldn’t work out why. His feet met no resistance, and other than her occasional whine of protest, he couldn’t hear anything different. A few times she hesitated, but she obeyed when he commanded her to continue.
But then Jackson heard a crunch, and his balance wavered as he stepped on several small objects that disturbed his footing and made him grip Molly’s harness tighter. She sensed him wavering and paused, stiffening, responding innately to his movements. Maybe he should have trusted his dog the way he was supposed to? What could he possibly have stepped on? Pebbles? His sister would never have used those in the landscaping for this very reason. He walked well now; he swayed subtly from side to side, and especially if he’d been walking a long time his hamstrings would tighten up and he wouldn’t bend his knees as much as he was supposed to, but his gait was normal enough that his blindness distracted everyone from his CP unless he was visibly spasming. But he still had problems with his balance, and Lyn would never have risked anything that would have put him in danger of falling.
Together they took a few steps farther, the crunching sound getting louder, and Jackson’s gait more unsteady. Molly was nervous, Jackson could feel it. It was something he couldn’t explain to someone who had never worked so closely with a service dog as he had, but sometimes it was almost like they shared a brain. Like the harness connected them and the subtlest changes in her body language were transmitted through it, and vice versa. It was one reason the idea that someday soon he’d need to replace Molly made his stomach knot.
“Molly, what is this?” He knew he had no choice. In the murk of his vision, all he could see was the brown of the driveway blended with what he knew from being told by sighted people was sunshine, but to him it just looked like lighter blotches among the brown. He needed touch to give him some clue to help him solve the mystery. But to do that, he needed to get closer to the ground. Between his braces and his balance he couldn’t do so easily; he might tumble over, and if that happened, even with Molly’s help he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get back on his feet, but he had to know.
He widened his stance. Took a breath. “Mol, don’t laugh if I fall, OK?” Then he bent forward, one hand still on Molly’s harness to help check his balance, the other reaching down and ahead, fingers spread. He waited until he knew he was as steady as he’d get before he lowered his left hand until he hit ground. It didn’t take long to encounter some of the mysterious objects. They were smooth on top, irregular in shape and size.
“Ouch!” Jackson said, recoiling, nearly losing his balance in the process. Even before he’d stood back up, the scent of copper hit him, and an instance later, the throbbing pain in the tips of his fingers.
Something that crunched underfoot, that was uneven in size, had a smooth surface yet had the ability to cut him? Shit. “Glass?” Jackson muttered as if Molly could tell him. “My life would be so much easier if you talked,” he joked, but the truth was, he was getting nervous. Why was there glass in his driveway? He readjusted his feet so his stance was more normal and patted Molly’s head with his free hand. He didn’t normally pet her like this when she was working, but he had to reassure himself. What if she’d stepped on the glass? What if she was hurt? He adjusted his grip on the harness and commanded her to the right, away from his house and closer to his neighbor’s, owned by an old woman named Ms. Susan.
When he felt and heard the ground shift to grass, he commanded her to sit and wait for him, releasing her harness. He sucked on his hurt fingers, testing the tips with his tongue to try to feel how badly they were cut. From what he could tell, it was a grazing blow, but it would make reading a bitch for a few days. He shifted his bag from his back, unzipped it and felt around for his folding white cane. Now that he had Molly, he didn’t use it nearly as much, but he couldn’t risk exploring further with her and have her cut her paws. He wanted to check her for injury now, but something told him he needed to figure out why that glass was there now, and not later.
His fingers brushed along the metal of the tubing, and he pulled it out, shifting his bag behind him again. He held the cane bundle in one hand and used the other to pry off the loop of the string that held it together, then let gravity reassemble it with a drop of his wrist. He listened for the click click clack as it unfolded, slipping the loop over his hand and wrapping his fingers around the grip. He tested it to make sure the cane was stable and no pieces had remained unlocked, and then he quieted his breathing, closed his eyes, and listened. Hard. Focusing on any sound out of the ordinary. A stray footstep. A cough. A creaking door. Anything that might suggest he and Molly weren’t alone.
He shouldn’t be doing this. He could practically hear his orientation skills teacher from when he was a little kid at the school for the blind, reminding them that if they weren’t sure it was safe, they should get a sighted person’s help. In some ways Jackson still resented his father for pulling him from that school so young, and in others he was grateful. His sister Lyn was thousands of miles away on her honeymoon anyway, and wasn’t this whole break an experiment to prove to her that he was perfectly capable of living on his own?
Jackson oriented himself toward the house, then swept the cane to his left, then took a cautious step with his right. A sweep in that direction, then another step. Purposeful sweeping motions, the cane an extension of his arm, allowing him to “feel” the floor in front of him. The texture of the driveway gave way to bumps Jackson knew now must be shards of glass, then back again to the slightly pebbled familiar concrete. The glass crunched loudly under his feet, and Jackson prayed that no one was lurking quietly in the shadows because he was certainly announcing his presence.
He counted his footsteps, worried about how much glass there seemed to be as he worked his way toward the house. The tip of his cane hit something solid, and Jackson knew he’d arrived. He inched a little closer, sweeping for the change in edge where wall gave way to door. Instead of the thump he’d anticipated, he met no resistance. Jackson’s heart lurched. Where he’d expected to find the door, he’d met only air. Jackson froze. In his blurry, limited vision, nothing looked out of the ordinary. What he’d assumed had to be a shadow must actually be the kitchen. Jackson stretched his cane out into the entrance, searching. When he finally hit the door, it shifted on its hinges, letting out a whine of protest.
The hairs on Jackson’s neck immediately stood on end. He took a few steps closer, crossing the threshold. He stretched his hand toward the door until he made contact. Carefully, he slid his fingertips along the surface until he met the edging that surrounded the window. Paused to listen, knowing he was being reckless, but forging ahead anyway. He found the expected solid glass, then the edge of a shard that nearly cut him again, forcing him to yank his hand back. Someone had broken into his house--how the glass had gotten scattered across the driveway, Jackson wasn’t sure--and here he was, playing the blind detective when the perpetrator could be hiding somewhere watching him. Despite his precautions, that thought made Jackson’s blood go cold. What if the intruder was still in the house? What if they had a gun?
Molly. She was trained not to bark. But if he was in danger, would she? Would the burglar shoot her? Kill her? His heart plunged at the thought, and he knew he had to get back to her as fast as he could. Even if he had full vision, his legs and braces didn’t allow more than a steady walk, but all he could do now was keep calm. He used the doorway to help turn himself around, then swept his cane in front of him until the glass-covered driveway made way to the softer, quieter texture of grass. A wave of powerful relief rushed through him when his hand finally met the fur of Molly’s head and her gentle panting filled his ears. He hurriedly folded his cane, hating how loud it was, and shoved it in his bag. He reached down for her harness, took it in hand, and he could feel Molly had stood and gotten ready to work again. But where did he tell her to take him? Back to school? But what if she was hurt? It was only eight blocks or so, but that was too far if she had glass in her paws, or an open wound.
Jackson was still trying to decide what to do when he heard a door. His body tensed in reflex before he forced himself to relax. It wasn’t his own: this one had a slightly lower pitched groan, like an old man complaining about the weather. He still held Molly’s harness a little tighter than normal, bracing himself. Even if it was ridiculous, because he was a total sitting duck.
A moment later, a gravely woman’s voice called out. “Jacky! Oh, thank heaven!” The creak of an old wooden porch, then a couple steps, and soon he was hit by gardenia, Ms. Susan’s perfume, which she seemed to bathe in and always made him and Molly sneeze.
Jackson stretched a hand out, hoping to find her, relieved when he finally encountered her arm. He realized he was squeezing her a little too tight and made himself relax. “Ms. Susan. Someone . . . they broke in . . .” He could hardly find the words.
“I know, sug, isn’t it awful? Thank heavens you or your sister weren’t home.”
“It’s not safe,” Jackson realized again. “What if he’s still inside?”
Ms. Susan patted his hand. “It’s OK. He got scared off. I heard a noise and came out to investigate, and he ran. I already called the police.”
Jackson was finding it difficult to breathe, and he wasn’t even sure why. What if Ms. Susan had been hurt?
“Why don’t you both come inside. I’ll make you some tea, and I have some chicken for Molly. We can wait for the police together.”
Ms. Susan’s house smelled old--and it was--musty and ancient, of dust and aging wood but also of its owner, with the scent of gardenia hovering over everything like a cloud. It also smelled faintly of cinnamon and fresh bread, since even in her advanced age Ms. Susan enjoyed entertaining herself by baking for church or friends or other social functions. Jackson had always felt welcome and at ease here. He and Lyn had known Ms. Susan for years, and she’d acted like their surrogate grandmother for most of it, even going to all of Jackson’s graduations and insisting on taking pictures because, she reminded him, “just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean your sister and I can’t.”
But right now, sitting in Ms. Susan’s living room, the unease of everything that happened wouldn’t let him relax, and even if it was selfish, he was tempted to leave Molly’s harness on so she wouldn’t leave his side.
“Here, hon, with lots of honey and lemon just like you like it,” Ms. Susan announced, taking his hand and placing the mug into it. “Oh, dear. Your hand is all cut up. Let me get Molly her lunch and I’ll get something to clean that up.”
Jackson started to raise his voice to protest, but he could tell by the sound of retreating creaking footsteps and the slightly diminished smell of gardenia that Ms. Susan had left. He sighed and cradled his mug with his other hand. The muscles in his legs were spasming. Probably subtly enough that Ms. Susan wouldn’t notice, but enough to be painful and remind him of how badly he’d needed to stretch and rest. It fueled his nervousness. He didn’t want to be here drinking tea and pretending like it was just another winter afternoon. Everything was not fine, would never be fine. How was he supposed to convince his sister he’d be safe living on his own after this?
Oh, shit. Lyn. He’d have to tell her, wouldn’t he?
“How’s the tea?” Ms. Susan suddenly said, startling him. He’d obviously been so distracted he hadn’t heard or smelled her reenter.
He struggled to recover. “Fine, fine,” he said, swallowing and hoping that his face or body language didn’t betray him. Then he took a sip of the tea as if to prove it. “Perfect, as always.”
“Click off this poor girl’s harness, would you, so she can eat?”
“What?” Oh. “Of course.” Gripping his tea in one hand, he used the other to disengage Molly’s harness, the signal that she was on break. Almost immediately, he heard her greeting Ms. Susan with a wagging tail. “Could you check her paws? She may have stepped on some glass.” He’d felt her paws himself as soon as he’d had the opportunity, but he wanted to be sure.
“Of course, dear.”
How long would it take the police to come? Had the intruder stolen anything? Fortunately, Lyn had already moved all her stuff to her husband’s house before the wedding, and Jackson’s most expensive tech was either locked up in his office at school or on his person--his laptop and his refreshable braille display, for example. Though what a thief would do with the latter, he wasn’t sure. Maybe he took the TV? Maybe it had dropped as he escaped and that explained all the glass? Jackson didn’t really need a TV, not if he didn’t have Lyn to explain all the visuals he couldn’t see that made some shows and movies almost impossible for him to follow on his own.
“Jacky? Jacky,” Ms. Susan was speaking softly to him. He felt her take his mug and lay a hand on his arm. “It’s all right to be shook up. It’s amazing what this city has become after Katrina. Stuff like this, happening in a nice neighborhood in broad daylight.”
Jackson realized he wasn’t just spasming. He was shaking. Why was he shaking?
“Molly’s fine. Just hungry. And you probably are, too. I’ll bring you something.”
Normally, Jackson would have protested. He knew Ms. Susan’s house well enough he could navigate it on his own, but right now the idea of staying where he was was reassuring. “Yes. OK. Thank you.”
Ms. Susan patted the top of his head. “Come on, Molly. I have some delicious chicken, and maybe even some bacon for you.”
When the police finally arrived, they determined that the assailant had broken into the home but hadn’t stolen anything, and the glass was from the window in the door they’d smashed in order to gain entry, some of which had probably been shaken loose from their clothing when they’d fled. Ms. Susan had called a nephew of hers who did contracting work, and he’d replaced the door with something solid and sturdy at a fraction of the cost it would have taken for anyone else to come so quickly. She’d also offered to let Jackson and Molly stay in her spare room, but Jackson insisted he was fine and had some work to do anyway.
Of course, once he was alone with Molly in the far too quiet house, he realized he was too stressed to focus. Ms. Susan had insisted he keep his fingers bandaged for the rest of the day since the cuts kept reopening, so it would mean reading and typing with only one hand, which was awkward and slow.
Even though he’d hung up Molly’s harness, she was sticking close to him. Not so close as to trip him, but it was obvious she sensed that he wasn’t his normal calm self. Though the chances of another break-in within the same day were slim, every sound, even those so familiar he would normally have ignored them, set him on edge.
He’d finally given up and climbed into bed, stretched his tight legs, and then figured he’d listen to an audiobook for a little while and that would help settle his mind, Molly’s head on his thigh. Normally he didn’t let her sleep with him, but it felt like they both needed this tonight, and rubbing her ear absently helped him relax and focus on the narrator’s voice in the novel he’d been getting through slowly.
Suddenly, the audiobook was interrupted by his sister’s ringtone, and the computerized voice announced, “Lyn Santoro. Lyn Santoro.”
He tapped the bottom right of the screen, listened for the computerized voice to identify he’d found the answer button, then double tapped to accept the call. “Hey, Lyn. How’s Maui?” he said in the most casual voice he could manage.
“Don’t ‘how’s Maui’ me,” she practically growled. “Ms. Susan called me. Were you even going to tell me?”
Jackson sighed. “I didn’t want to ruin your honeymoon. I’m fine, Molly’s fine, the house is fine. Everything’s fine.”
“Ms. Susan said you were hurt.”
Jackson pinched the bridge of his nose. “A few cuts on my hand. Nothing serious.”
There was a pause, and he could hear his sister’s breathing, almost like she was trying to work out what she was going to say or how. “I’m catching the next flight home.”
“It’s not safe for you to be alone. I knew it. I should never have let you talk me into it.”
“Jesus, Lyn, I’m not five years old. I have Molly. Your husband already thinks of me as your pathetic, helpless blind little brother. I’ll never live up to it if you cancel your honeymoon because of me!”
A sigh, and his sister’s voice was softer when she spoke again. “Jacky, you’re a creature of habit by necessity. You take the same route to and from school at the same time five days a week. Do you know how easy it would be for someone to follow you? To hurt you? What if you’d come home just a few minutes earlier today? Ms. Susan said the police suspect the burglar had a hammer or some other blunt object that he used to break the window. He could have killed you, Jacky.” Any trace of the bossy big sister of earlier had faded to pure concern. Of course she had a point. Wasn’t that exactly why he was hiding in his bedroom with his dog instead of going through his normal evening routine?
But he had already fought hard to convince his sister that he could live alone once she got married and moved out, and he wasn’t going to let a broken window change that. “It’s winter break. I turned in my grades this afternoon, so I won’t be going to campus every day. And Molly and I know other ways of going to school. And I have that navigation app, too. We can mix things up, so my schedule isn’t so consistent. And you know Ms. Susan looks after me. We’ll be fine.”
Another sigh. “Are you sure you’re OK to stay there tonight, though? I could book you a hotel. You could take a cab--”
“No, I’m better at home. Molly won’t let anything happen to me.” He scruffed her neck. “Will you, girl? No you won’t.”
“Just call me in the morning so I know you’re all right, OK? And give Molly a kiss for me.”
Jackson disconnected the call and leaned back, focusing on his breathing, on staying as calm as he’d pretended to his sister that he was, even though his heart was beating about a thousand miles a minute. Living on his own for the first time in his life was a milestone Jackson had fought hard for, but at the same time, especially after tonight? He doubted himself more than he had in years.
Continue to the next segment, 02 ---->