I’m shelving books in the back of the library when I feel an aggressive tap on my shoulder. I turn around and see Mrs. Horan, the Wicked Witch of the Dorchester Library, standing behind me. She has a sour expression on her wrinkled face. But that’s nothing unusual.
“Ms. Pasternak,” she snaps at me, flecking spittle into my face. “That blind man is being very loud and inconsiderate talking on his phone.”
“Oh?” I say. I’ve only seen Colin on his phone very briefly before, and he has always talked in hushed tones.
“Even if he’s blind, he still should follow the etiquette of the library,” she says primly. “If he’s going to talk on the phone, he needs to leave.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to him about it,” I say.
Mrs. Horan frowns, clearly deciding I’m not angry enough. “You know,” she says, “on another occasion, he sat down at a table where I was sitting without checking first to make sure it wasn’t occupied. It was very rude.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You should tell him to be more careful.”
“I absolutely will.”
I’d like to tell Mrs. Horan where she can shove it, but considering there’s a petition going around to keep me from interacting with the public, there’s no room for me to be anything but nice. Also, this gives me an excuse to talk to Colin. Jean is manning the desk right now, and I’ve got a break coming up.
When I get to where Colin is sitting, he’s just hanging up his phone, a frown on his face. I can’t tell how loud he was being, but there is absolutely nobody else sitting within earshot of him right now. So it’s hard to believe he was bothering anyone.
“Hi, Colin,” I say so he knows I’m there.
He lifts his eyes, but doesn’t smile. “Hi, Sophie.”
I drop into the seat next to his. “For the record,” I say, “we’re pretending I’m here to reprimand you about your phone. So try to look upset.”
I cock my head at him. “Well, now you’re trying too hard.”
“Sorry.” He rakes a hand through his short reddish brown hair, which makes it stand up adorably. “I got in a fight with my mother on the phone.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
He smiles crookedly. “And now I have to figure out how to get home by bus. Uh… do you know where the nearest bus stop is?”
“Yes, I do,” I say. I have to sit on my hands to keep from pointing. “When you leave the library, turn right and go about two blocks. It’s in front of the post office.”
“Okay…” He thinks a minute. “Two blocks. So… how many streets do I need to cross?”
“Right. Okay. And where exactly is it on the block? The middle or the end or…?”
I see a crease between his eyebrows. He’s obviously really nervous about doing this.
“Listen,” I say, “I’ve got a break coming up. Do you want me to walk with you there?”
His face fills with relief. “That would be great. Once I’m on the bus, I’ll be fine. I know how to get from the stop to my house, but I’ve never done this before, so…”
“It’s no problem,” I say quickly. “I’m happy to do it.”
His smile is genuine this time, if a bit nervous. “Thanks, Sophie.”
He gathers up his books from the table while I go to tell Jean I’m taking my break. Unfortunately, Carrie has come downstairs and the two of them are chatting together. The last thing I want is for Carrie’s commentary on any of this. I have a bad feeling she’s going to offer it though.
“Hey, Jean,” I say, conspicuously avoiding any eye contact with Carrie. “I’m going to take my break now.”
Jean and Carrie are both looking over my shoulder. I glance behind me and see Colin standing by the table with his cane in one hand, his tinted glasses in place, his books packed up. He’s just standing there, not moving. It couldn’t be any more obvious he’s waiting for me.
“Sophie,” Carrie giggles. “Are you sneaking off with the blind man?”
I glare at her. This is a moment I’m glad I can’t blush because my face would be bright red. “He needs help walking to the bus stop so I volunteered to help him.”
“How nice of you,” Carrie says.
I shake my head at her. I have a feeling she had a direct hand in Dawn Sheehan’s petition, but I can’t prove it. In any case, I don’t want to give her any more ammunition to make my life miserable. I can’t let her know when she’s getting to me.
I return to Colin. Like before, I touch his hand to let him know where I am, and he grabs onto my arm. I’m starting to love walking this way with him. I don’t know how he feels about it, but it’s not a usual thing for me to be so physically close to a man I’m so incredibly attracted to. And even though he’s taller than Gabe, he’s definitely not too tall for me. He’s a perfect height, actually.
We head out the door together. He’s using his cane too, sweeping it along the floor, the way he did before. It makes me wonder how much information a cane could provide him. “Does the cane help a lot?” I ask him.
“Yeah, it really does,” he says. “I would never go out on the street without it. Even a street I know.”
“Curb coming up,” I tell him.
He slows down but doesn’t stop until his cane identifies the dip in the pavement. I guess it really does give him a lot of information. “See?” he says. “Also, it alerts people to get the hell out of my way because I can’t see where I’m going.”
I laugh. “Point taken.”
“Is there a light?” he asks.
“No,” I admit. “But there’s a crosswalk and cars are supposed to stop for pedestrians. It’s only one-way traffic and not too busy.”
“So only a low-to-medium chance of getting run over by a car.”
“Well, here goes nothing,” he says as he steps off the curb.
Fortunately, it’s a quiet street, and I’m obviously there to watch, so he’s fine. No casualties today.
“Hey,” I say, “by the way, don’t go down this block behind the library if you don’t have to. There are all these teenagers who smoke back there. My boss is always yelling at them to stop loitering. They’re probably not dangerous, but… well, I wouldn’t go back there.”
Colin’s lips set in a line. “Yeah, thanks for the tip.”
We walk down the next street together, same as before. After a few more steps, Colin slows down and lifts his head. He looks in my direction. “Hey, what’s that smell?”
“Bad smell or good smell?”
“Good smell.” He cocks his head to the side. “It smells like freshly baked bread.”
I smile. “That’s David’s Bakery and Cafe. It’s two doors down. I love that place. Amazing cupcakes.”
“Oh yeah?” We take a few more steps as the smell grows stronger. “What kind of cupcakes do you like best?”
“That’s a hard question to answer because they’re all so good.”
“Let me put it this way.” A smile plays on his lips as we come to a halt entirely. “If you had to be on a desert island for ten years and you could only have one kind of cupcake, what would it be?”
I giggle. As the sound is coming out of my mouth, I realize it’s a sound I don’t make very often. Sophie Pasternak doesn’t not giggle. Except, apparently, around Colin Kelly.
“Red velvet with cream cheese frosting,” I say.
“Red velvet!” Colin lets go of my arm to clutch his chest. “Sophie, that’s so cliché! That’s like the most cliché cupcake there is.”
“No, salted caramel is the most cliché cupcake there is.”
“Touché.” He shakes his head. “But I don’t get red velvet cake. Isn’t it just chocolate cake dyed red? That doesn’t hold much appeal to me.”
“No, they’re totally different!” I explain. “Red velvet is made with cocoa powder, buttermilk, and vinegar. The chemical reaction between the cocoa power and the vinegar and buttermilk is actually what gives it the color, not red dye.”
He raises his eyebrows. “Wow, you sure know a lot about red velvet cake.
I giggle again. Oh God, I really like this guy. “Well, it’s my favorite—like I said. And the red velvet cupcake is really good here. It will restore your faith in red velvet. I promise.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “You might have to show me sometime.”
“Sure,” I say.
We both stand there a minute, staring at each other. Well, I’m staring at him. And he’s sort of looking in my general direction. My heart is pounding so hard, it’s almost painful.
“How long is your break?” he asks.
Part of me wants to say to hell with the break. But I can’t. Not now. Not when someone’s building a case against me. “Another five minutes maybe.”
He nods, then takes my arm again. He has to feel for my arm a little, and his touch makes me tingle everywhere his fingers go. “I don’t want you to get in trouble,” he says.
We cross the last half a block to get to the bus stop. He walks slowly and I do nothing to increase his pace. I want this walk to last forever. When I finally tell him we’re there, he reaches out to touch the pole. He seems comforted by the feel of it.
“The bus comes about every ten or fifteen minutes,” I tell him. “It should be here soon. So…”
Ask me to wait with you. Ask me and I’ll say yes.
Ask me anything and I’ll say yes.
“Sophie.” He’s chewing on his lip now, his brow furrowed. “Listen, um…”
He lowers his head. “I was just wondering if… if maybe…”
Before he can get the words out, I hear a voice shout, “Colin! Oh, thank God!”
I jerk my head around and see Mrs. Kelly hurrying toward us, having parked totally illegally in the bus zone. She looks very upset. Her green eyes that are a more focused version of Colin’s are full of worry. I’d feel sorry for her if I weren’t so furious she interrupted us.
“Ma?” he says.
“Colin!” The first thing she does when she reaches us is slug him in the arm. Hard enough that he grunts and grabs his muscular upper arm. “What did you think you were doing?”
“You told me to take the bus home.” He shrugs. “I was taking the bus home.”
“I didn’t mean it! I was just angry!”
“Well, it’s fine.” He reaches out and touches the sign for the bus stop again. “Sophie helped me find the stop.”
Mrs. Kelly fixes her gaze on me. There’s something in her expression I can’t quite read. “Well, thank you for helping him, Sophie. But I can take it from here.”
“Ma, I’m fine.”
“Colin, please just get in the car.”
He sighs, and allows her to lead him to her vehicle. For a moment, he turns back to where I’m standing, but that must just be a reflex because he surely can’t make me out anymore.
“I’ll see you later, Sophie,” he calls out.
I watch him get into her car, and my heart speeds up again. She must see there’s something between us—she’s not the blind one. If that’s the case, would she tell him about my… issues? She would, wouldn’t she?
I can’t stop smiling as I sit in my mother’s car on our way home. I probably look like an idiot but I don’t care.
“What were you thinking, Colin?” she sighs.
“I was thinking I’d take the bus home.”
I can’t even be irritated with her. I feel too good about what just happened. Sophie doesn’t have a boyfriend. She walked me to the bus stop. And when I suggested going to that bakery/café with her, she said, “Sure.” I was seconds away from asking for her number when my mother appeared. I’m upset we got interrupted, but it’s not a big deal. I’ll ask her later.
“Yes, myself,” I say with a shrug.
I hear my mother hit the blinker seconds before she makes a right turn. I listen for that sound now, because it makes the car rides less jarring. Although going through rotaries still makes me sick, as well as some of the crazy turns. I never fully appreciated what a damn mess the roads are on the south shore until I lost my vision.
“Sophie got me three new books,” I tell her. “I’m going to try to read them in the next week.”
There’s a silence. It’s at least a minute before my mother says, “Do you talk to Sophie a lot at the library?”
“A fair amount,” I say, unable to suppress my dopey grin. “She’s nice.”
“Yes, she is nice,” Ma agrees. “But… has she told you about herself?”
“A little bit,” I say thoughtfully. I search my brain for facts Sophie told me about herself. “She’s from Philadelphia. And she’s Russian and Polish.”
“Did she… tell you anything else?”
I don’t know what Ma is getting at. “Like what?”
“Like…” I hear the blinker again, followed by a slow turn. “About her life?”
“I guess not,” I admit. She’s right—I know very little about Sophie. I wish I did. I want to know everything about her. I want to talk to her all night until the sun comes up or something cheesy like that. “We mostly talk about books, honestly. And while we were walking to the bus stop, she showed me this bakery that smelled amazing. We’re going to… I mean, I want to try it sometime. And… you know, she’d come with me… maybe.”
And now I’m smiling like an idiot again.
“Colin…” Ma sighs.
She sounds like she’s going to tell me not to get my hopes up. That Sophie is probably just being nice to me because she’s a nice person and she feels sorry for me. But that’s not it. I know it.
She’s quiet for another minute. “I don’t think I’ve seen you look so happy since you’ve been home.”
“That’s not true,” I say, even though I know she’s right.
“It is,” she insists.
“Well…” I shrug. “Maybe I’m finally getting, you know, adjusted.”
She’s quiet again as we’re stopped at what I presume is a red light. All I can hear now is the purr of the engine. “Maybe,” she finally says.
Then she turns on the music and we don’t talk anymore for the rest of the ride home.
I’m taking the bus to the library today.
It’s scary as all hell, but I have to learn to do things like this. I can’t get driven around by my mother all the time. And it’s not financially realistic to take a taxi everywhere I go. I need to get comfortable taking the bus around town.
And then maybe someday the T.
Or maybe not.
Even though I already knew where it was, Ma walked me to the bus stop yesterday afternoon to practice. I didn’t protest because I was scared, and reviewing the route is never a bad thing when you can’t see. I showed her how I could find the bus stop on my own, and she confirmed that I was, indeed, standing in front of the sign for the bus.
This morning is the real thing though. I put on my tinted glasses, grab my cane, and set out the door at ten in the morning, when I figure any rush hour traffic will be over. Ma hovers over me as I’m getting ready to leave.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” she asks.
“And if anything happens…”
“I’ve got my phone,” I reassure her. “I’ll call you. Don’t worry.”
I smile so as not to let on how terrified I am. But I want to do this. I need to do this. And if I make it to the library, I get a reward: Sophie.
That would motivate me to do just about anything.
I leave the house and walk down the block in the direction of the bus stop. I’ve got my cane to make sure I’m not walking headfirst into any obstacles—without it, this trip would be impossible. I still shudder when I think of the way those teenagers behind the library threatened to take it away from me.
I find the bus stop without much difficulty. I swipe my cane to the left, it clanks against the pole. I feel for the sign, double checking just to reassure myself I’m at the right place. Then I wait, fiddling with my cane in my hand. Like I said to Sophie, the cane doesn’t just help me “see,” it’s also a sign to others that I’m visually impaired. The bus driver needs to know my situation.
After about five minutes of waiting, there’s a loud screech of brakes as a large vehicle comes to a halt. The bus. I hold out my cane and walk in the direction of the curb, stopping when my cane hits the stairs to board.
“Big step up,” a voice says. Presumably the bus driver.
“Thanks,” I say. “Sorry, just give me a minute.”
“Take your time, son.”
I grasp around for the railing, which takes me several seconds to locate. This is not fast. I’m being very careful, trying not to trip and fall. I take a step, and now I’m in the bus, at least, but I’ve got a long way to go.
“This is ridiculous,” I hear a man muttering from inside the bus. “Are we going to be waiting for him all day?”
My ears grow hot. I can’t go any faster than this, though. The stairs are steep and I’m not even sure how many there. I hold my cane out to help me detect the top step. I go up three steps and then I’m at the top.
“I’ve got a disabled bus pass,” I say as I start to dig in my pocket.
“Don’t worry about it,” the driver says. A shadow moves in front of me and then his hand is on my arm. “Let me help you get to a seat.”
He has to tell some people to move to the back, then he directs me to a seat. I sit down, but my ears feel like they’re on fire by now. It won’t always be like this. Next time will be easier.
“Where you goin’, kid?” the driver asks me.
“The stop for the post office,” I say.
“Okay, I’ll let you know when it’s coming.”
He hesitates. “You a vet?”
“I saw the tattoo on your arm,” he says. “You were in the army?”
“Is that how you lost your vision?”
“Geez,” the driver says. “That’s a wicked shame. You go blind for your country and what do you got to show for it, right?”
I grunt and shift in my seat. Civilians just don’t get it—the sacrifice that soldiers are willing to make for their country.
“You have the PTSD too?”
I shake my head. “No.”
Lots of other guys I know from the service ended up with PTSD. Bad nightmares, got angry over nothing, couldn’t concentrate or hold a job. I never had any problems like that. I do sometimes have nightmares about being back there, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.
The driver spends the rest of the ride babbling about his nephew, who served in Afghanistan and now has bad PTSD. I’m half-listening, concentrating more on how I’m going to get off this goddamn bus and to the library.
After about fifteen minutes, the driver says, “It’s gonna be the next stop. Okay?”
“My name is Jim, by the way. Just in case you get on this bus again. If I see you, I’ll say it’s Jim, so you know it’s me.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’m Colin.”
“Colin,” he repeats. “You Irish?”
“Me too,” he says. “Catholic?”
“You go to church?”
“Uh…” My parents go every Sunday, but I’ve begged off most weeks. “Sometimes…”
Jim laughs. “Well, I’ll be praying for you, Colin.”
I don’t know what to say to that. Thanks? People always tell me they’re praying for me. He can pray all he wants—I won’t get my vision back.
“We’re here,” he says. “You need help getting off the bus?”
“No, I’m okay,” I say. Hopefully.
“All right. Just remember—I’m Jim.”
I find the railing for the stairs and carefully climb down the three steps. I think I’m the only one getting off—or at least, I don’t hear anyone else coming out of the door with me. But maybe they got out the back door so they wouldn’t have to wait for my slow ass to get down three stairs.
And now I’m off the bus—only two blocks from the library.
I let out a breath. I did it. That is, I almost did it. But I can walk two blocks. I know where the library is on the second block. This next part will be easy.
As I start walking down the first block, I smell it: that great baked bread smell. It’s that café Sophie likes—David’s.
I pause on the street. It’s not like I’m in any kind of rush. Maybe I’ll bring Sophie a treat.
To be continued...