It’s my turn to supply the breakroom with bagels.
This is a thing we do every Tuesday at work. I don’t know why Tuesdays are Bagel Day, but it’s a tradition at the Dorchester Library. And tomorrow is my turn to bring the bagels for the staff and volunteers.
It’s no big deal. Usually I hit Dunkin Donuts on the way home, grab half a dozen plain bagels and half a dozen wheat bagels, as well as some butter and cream cheese. That’s more than enough for everyone to get their carb rush tomorrow morning.
Except the last thing I expected when I walked into Dunkin Donuts was to see Colin sitting there at a table.
He’s with someone—the same guy he was with at that sports bar all those weeks ago. A good-looking guy with black hair and a grin that makes him seem like he’s up to no good. It must be Colin’s friend Dan. He told me Dan was the only friend who tolerated his bullshit after he got hurt. The two of them are laughing together as they eat their food, which makes me smile. I’m glad he’s out having a good time.
And then I hear him say, “Her name is Sophie.”
He’s telling Dan about me. Oh my God. He’s telling his best friend. About me. Because he has no clue I’m in this very store.
So I do what absolutely any woman would do in this circumstance: I eavesdrop on their conversation.
I can get pretty close to them, because Dan doesn’t know who I am and Colin can’t see me. I’ve already got my bagels, and I pretend I’m carefully picking out condiments. Salt, pepper, mayo… etc. This decision can’t be rushed.
“After we’re done, I’ll ask her to dinner,” I hear Colin say.
My heart skips a beat. He’s going to ask me out tomorrow. Oh my God.
This means I have to tell him the truth about myself. Sooner rather than later. Yes, I’m scared out of my mind. But I don’t have a choice. I can’t let him find out on his own. He deserves to know. If we have any chance together, I have to tell him now.
As if fate hears the thoughts in my head, Colin suddenly lifts his head in the air and says, “Sophie?”
Oh no. How did he know I was here? I wasn’t talking. He couldn’t possibly have smelled me in this place? Could he? Is he a freaking bloodhound?
If I admit it’s me, that will force the issue. His friend Dan will see what I look like. His mother may be willing to keep silent, but this guy Dan won’t. Dan would never let his buddy go out with a girl without knowing what he’s getting into.
I hear Dan laugh. “Boy, you sure got this girl on the brain, don’t you? You think she’s here?”
“No, I…” Colin shakes his head. “I thought I… I usually recognize her shampoo. But… no, I was wrong. Never mind.”
“Wow, you got it bad, Kelly.”
“Well…” Dan looks around the Dunkin Donuts. I quickly duck down my head. “Maybe she really is in here. Maybe you really do have Super-smell.”
“There’s an old lady at the counter,” Dan says. “Is that Sophie? You don’t really know how old she is, do you?”
“She’s not an old lady, asshole.”
“Oh!” He laughs. “There’s this deformed girl at the counter. Maybe that’s her.”
I feel like all the air has suddenly left my body. I’m afraid to even breathe.
“That could be Sophie, right?” Dan presses him, although I can tell he’s joking. “Should I ask her?”
“She’s missing her ears and… well, she sort of has a nose… not really much of a chin…” Dan is grinning now. “Does your Sophie have ears and a nose?”
“You’re an idiot.”
“Well, you don’t really know Sophie isn’t deformed, do you?”
“She’s not deformed.”
“But you don’t know…”
“Shut the fuck up, Dan.”
“So you’re saying you wouldn’t date a deformed girl?”
“Christ! No, I wouldn’t date a deformed girl, okay?”
Dan laughs like it’s all a funny joke, but I feel like I got punched in the gut. Dan has described roughly what I look like to Colin, and he said outright he wouldn’t date a girl who looked like that. Even if he couldn’t see her. Obviously, it still matters to him.
“Sophie is pretty,” Colin says. “I know she is. I mean, her voice is… she has this great voice. And I just… know.”
Tears prick at my eyes. He assumes I’m pretty because he’s only dated pretty girls in the past, so if he’s attracted to someone, she must be pretty. And when he finds out the truth, he’s not going to take it well.
“Well,” Dan says, “I hope you’re right.”
I barely make it out to my car before bursting into tears.
After running out of the Dunkin Donuts, I spent most of the night crying. So when I get to the library the next morning, I’m not in any mood to see Dawn Sheehan standing outside the front door, holding a clipboard in her hand. She’s dressed in a knee-length skirt today paired with a crisp blouse, and her silky blond hair is combed straight and tucked behind her ears. She has very pretty hair—as much as I have grown to dislike her, I still sort of want to run my fingers through it.
Dawn is talking to another woman, explaining something in great detail. When I approach them, Dawn stops talking and looks in my direction. She then gives the other woman a meaningful look. The woman nods in understanding.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this one out.
I stride right up to Dawn without hesitation. The other woman quickly slinks away to slip through the library doors. But Dawn doesn’t seem the slightest bit ashamed. She keeps her chin raised as if she’s completely in the right here.
“Hello, Sophie,” Dawn says.
I don’t return her greeting. I nod down at her clipboard. “What is that?”
“It’s a list of concerned parents and citizens,” she says.
“Concerned about what?”
She lowers the clipboard and puts her hands on her hips. “Sophie,” she says, now calling me by my first name like we’ve become friends over the last thirty seconds. “I understand that affirmative action is important, but not when children are being compromised.”
Affirmative action? Is she kidding me? I’m the only staff member with an advanced degree at this library.
“I would never compromise the children, Dawn,” I say.
Dawn frowns at me. She’s chewing on her lower lip, as if debating if she should tell me something. Finally, she lets out a loud sigh.
“I had nightmares for a year,” she says.
I blink at her. “What?”
“Because of you,” she says quietly. “Because of seeing you every day in class. Having you in my house. I… I used to wake up screaming…”
I get a sick feeling at the pit of my stomach. She used to wake up screaming? Because of me?
Dawn focuses her cool blue eyes on me. “Why do you think I switched schools?”
I take a step back. I had thought Dawn moved away and that’s why she left school. It never would have occurred to me in a million years it had anything to do with me.
“I didn’t know,” I murmur.
“Of course you don’t,” she snaps at me. “You have no clue the sort of impact that… someone like you can have on small children. I won’t have that happen to my son. I won’t have him frightened to enter the library the way I was scared to go to school every day.”
I turn away, unable to look her in the eyes anymore.
Dawn notices my reaction and her voice softens. “This isn’t a personal attack, Sophie,” she says. “Please don’t think that. I’m sure you’re very good at… what you do. But the parents in Dorchester are concerned—very concerned. This is not just me.” She holds up the clipboard. “This is a testament to the number of residents who agree with me.”
She flips through the pages of the clipboard so I can see it—dozens of names of people in this town. Dozens of people who agree I’m too scary-looking to be allowed near young children.
“There are plenty of children who enjoy my Storytime,” I say, even as I feel my voice wavering. “The children aren’t afraid of me.”
“But they are, Sophie,” Dawn says in a condescending tone. “You have to be aware of what everyone is saying. It’s not appropriate for you to be working on the Children’s Floor. It’s just not. Children shouldn’t be forced to be exposed to that.”
I feel like I might pass out. Oh God, is she right? Have all the parents been whispering behind my back for the last three years, even though I thought I was doing a great job?
“Excuse me,” I say to Dawn as I push past her to get into the library. I can’t deal with any of this right now. I’ve got Colin coming in an hour to do Storytime with the kids, and afterwards he’s apparently going to ask me out to dinner. Except if he really knew what I looked like, he’d never go out with me. I know for sure now. I heard the words from his own mouth.
I can’t think about it right now.
I go upstairs to the Children’s Floor, where I’m apparently giving all the kids nightmares. Although before I can actually face Carrie, I go to the bathroom and lock myself inside, trying not to cry. I’m proud of myself for managing to get my emotions under control. Although if there’s one benefit to my skin, it doesn’t get splotchy when I cry.
An hour later, when the elevator doors open and Colin steps out, my heart leaps in my chest the way it always does now when I see him. He’s texted me a bunch of times last night, but I didn’t respond, even when he asked to confirm we were still on. This is a change from my usual habit of texting him back within five seconds.
No, I wouldn’t date a deformed girl, okay?
I swallow hard as he shuffles toward the desk, feeling his way with his white cane, the tinted glasses obscuring his eyes. He hesitates when his cane hits the desk, a nervous smile on his face. “Um, Sophie?”
“Hi,” I say as his shoulders sag in relief.
“So…” He scratches at the back of his neck. “You didn’t confirm, so I wasn’t sure if maybe… well, anyway, I’m here. I brought the book, so… I’m ready. If you still…”
He looks so nervous, any anger I’d been feeling melts immediately. I can’t stay upset at him. I like this guy more than I’d imagined it was possible to like a guy. I’ve always kept myself from feeling any sort of real attraction to a man because I knew how it would end up, but with Colin, I let myself go for the first time. And now I can’t reel it back in. It’s too late.
This will not end well. But I can’t help myself.
“No, you’re right on time,” I tell him.
His face brightens. “Oh, great. Are the kids ready?”
“Not yet,” I say. “I’ll call them over in a few minutes. In the meantime, I’ll show you where the chair you’ll be sitting in is.”
I walk to his side. I touch his hand like I always do, and like last time, he takes my hand in his. His hand is so warm and big. This can’t be the last time I hold his hand. It can’t be.
“Your hands are so small,” he comments with a grin.
“Nobody ever told me that before,” I say. Which makes sense, since no guy has ever held my hand before.
“They are,” he says. “They’re very petite.”
I laugh. “Okay.”
“And soft,” he adds.
I lead him to the wooden chair where I do Storytime. He sits down and digs the book out of his shoulder bag. The book I chose is called Blueberries for Sal. It’s about a child and bear cub who swap mothers. It’s one of my favorites—even back when I was a kid. I can’t wait to hear Colin read it.
“Okay, just hang tight,” I tell him. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
He grins up at me. “I have to admit, I’m pretty nervous.”
“Don’t be. They’re just preschoolers.”
“I’m still nervous.”
I touch his shoulder. “I’ll be right here.”
His brows scrunch together. “And… maybe we could talk after?”
My breath catches in my throat. I know exactly what he wants to talk about. “Yeah. Sure.”
I leave him to call over the kids for Storytime, but before I can do it, Carrie grabs me roughly by the arm—I can feel her fingernails digging into my skin. She pulls me to the side, where nobody can hear us. I look at her face, and see the anger etched into her features. But to be fair, she always seems a little angry.
“Sophie,” she snaps. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Storytime,” I say. “It’s my day, right?”
“Yes, but…” She points at Colin. “What is that man doing here?”
“I thought he could read to the kids,” I say. “I have a braille picture book. I thought the kids would enjoy it.”
“That’s completely inappropriate, Sophie.”
I stare at her. “It is?”
“Isn’t it enough that you read to them once a week?” she says. “Do we really need to subject these poor children to that?”
“God, Carrie,” I say. “He’s blind, not a sex offender. I thought it would be educational for the children to learn how people with vision problems read.”
“You know the parents won’t like this.”
“I’m sure your friend Dawn Sheehan won’t like this,” I retort. “I think the other parents will be thrilled.”
Carrie throws up her hands. “Fine. Do what you want. But when Steve starts getting complaints, I’m going to tell him you went behind my back.”
“Fine,” I say through my teeth.
I’d really like to meet the women who complain about a blind war hero reading a book to their children. But I’m sure Dawn Sheehan will figure out a way to make it sound like a tragedy for the kids.
I’m so nervous, my palms are sweaty. I know it’s dumb that a bunch of four-year-olds could make me so scared, but they do. Ironically, I’ve always been good at public speaking, but not around kids. Kids are entirely different.
Not being able to see my audience doesn’t make it better. It makes it much worse. Because I don’t know if the kids will be smiling or bored or ready to throw tomatoes at me.
Even though I can’t see the kids, I know they’re there. The pitter patter of their light footsteps shuffle across the carpet. Their giggles and mumbled questions reach my ears:
Who is that man?
Why is he wearing sunglasses indoors?
He looks weird.
By the time Sophie hushes the kids, I’m almost ready to have a heart attack. The only thing that calms me down is feeling her hand on my shoulder. She gives it a squeeze which lowers my heartrate slightly.
“I’d like you to meet someone very special,” Sophie tells the kids. We talked beforehand about how she would refer to me. I wanted them to just call me by my first name, but she insisted there should be some address of respect. “This is Captain Colin. He fought for this country in Iraq, and today he’s here to read a book to you.” She pauses. “Captain Colin can’t see, so he’s going to read using something called braille, which is a way to read using your fingers.”
There’s another pause, and Sophie says, “Yes, Ava C?”
A little girl’s voice pipes up, “Why can’t he see?”
“Captain Colin,” Sophie says, “do you want to answer that?”
“I hurt my eyes when I was fighting in Iraq,” I tell the children. “But I’m okay. I can still do everything. I just have to use my other senses more.”
“Now while Captain Colin is reading,” Sophie says, “I’m going to ask you not to raise your hands with questions because he won’t be able to see your hands. Save your questions until the end, and I’ll call on you.”
My hands are shaking as I pick up the book from my lap. I practiced reading this book so many times yesterday, I almost know it by heart. Still, I need to feel the braille to prompt me. Unfortunately, as I’m opening the book, it slips from my sweaty hands and falls to the floor.
A few kids giggle, which is at least better than gasps of horror. I lean forward and feel for the book on the floor, but my fingers don’t locate it. Blood rushes to my ears and my heartrate spikes again.
“Let me get that for you, Colin,” Sophie says, placing a hand on my shoulder.
She hands the book back to me. This time, I keep a death grip on it. I run my fingers along the page and recite the words, “One day, Little Sal went with her mother…”
Once I get started reading, it goes fast. I’m glad I practiced this a lot, because I don’t have to hesitate over any of the words. I keep the book on my lap when I’m feeling the words, then I lift it up to show the pictures at the end of each page. The kids are great. Not a peep the whole time.
Oh shit, did I bore them to sleep?
When I finish the final page, Sophie starts off a round of applause. I try to wipe sweat off my brow as surreptitiously as possible.
“Does anyone have a question for Captain Colin?” Sophie asks the kids. She’s so great with them. “Yes? Caleb?”
“How long did it take you to learn to read dots?” asks a little boy, who sounds actually a lot like the little girl did.
“I’m still learning,” I admit. “Sophie here has been helping me practice.”
“Is it hard?” he asks me.
I nod. “Yeah. Braille can be tricky at first. Many blind people don’t know it. But I’m practicing hard at it, so I can get better.”
I answer questions for the next ten minutes or so. None of them are about the book. Some are about my vision, others are about what it’s like to be in the army. By the end, I’m really enjoying myself. So I’m happy when the last question, from little Ava C, is, “Can you come read to us again sometime?”
“Absolutely,” I say.
And then it’s the end of Storytime. The kids clear away, and Sophie pries the book out of my sweaty hands. I take my cane out of my shoulder bag and get to my feet. I don’t entirely have a sense of where I am in the room right now or which way is the exit. I usually try to pay better attention to that, but I was too nervous.
“Sophie?” I say uncertainly.
When she doesn’t answer right away, I get worried. But a few seconds later, I hear footsteps and then her voice close to me: “I’m here, Colin.”
And then I feel her soft hand against mine. I love holding her hand. But I also fantasize a lot about kissing her. I won’t yet though. Our first kiss needs to be a mutual thing. I keep imagining leaning forward to kiss her and somehow falling on my face.
“I’ll take you to the elevator,” she says.
We hold hands as we walk to the elevator together. I promised myself today would be the day I ask Sophie out to dinner. I’ve got to make good on that promise.
“Hey, Sophie?” I say as we come to a stop in front of the elevators.
There’s a tremor in her voice. Why is she nervous?
“Listen, I was wondering…” I take a deep breath. “If you’re not too busy, I just thought maybe we could have dinner together… sometime?”
There’s a long silence. Long enough that I’m suddenly terrified I misinterpreted everything. I don’t want to be the creepy blind guy who asked her out. But for Christ’s sake, she let me hold her hand! That’s got to mean something!
Christ, why isn’t she saying anything?
“Okay,” she finally says, after I’m about ready to keel over. “Um… when?”
“How about Saturday night?” I ask, just to drive home the point that this is most definitely a date. Unlike with that other idiot who canceled on her. What the hell was that guy’s problem, anyway?
“Sure,” she says softly. “That would be… really nice.”
I let out a long breath. “Great. That’s… I mean, that’s great. So… I guess, we can text to work out a time?”
“Well, I’m working that day,” she says. “So we could just meet here?”
“Okay,” I agree. “And… I mean, you’ve got a car, right? Because… I can’t drive.”
Obviously, I can’t drive. I don’t think that needed to be said, but for some reason, I said it.
“We can take my car,” she says. “No problem.”
“Okay,” I say.
My first real date since my injury. The logistics of it are troubling. I can’t pick her up because I can’t drive. I won’t be able to open the car door for her or pull out her chair at the restaurant without risking major injury. And when I pay, there’s a fifty-fifty shot I might accidently try to pay with my library card. It’s not what I want by any means.
Still, as I say goodbye to Sophie, I don’t feel anything but happy.
I watch the elevator doors close with Colin behind them. Even though I know this can only end badly, all I can think about is how much I like him. I want this date to happen. I want to sit across from him at a restaurant. I want him to hold my hand across the table. I want to talk with him about Betty Smith or John Irving or even what he had for breakfast. I’m not picky.
I’ve never had it this bad for a guy. I wish I hadn’t let my emotions get the better of me, but now that I have, there’s no going back. With Colin, I’ve let it all go. What I feel for him is twenty-eight years of pent-up lust. Well, not just lust. But yes, the thought of going to bed with him makes me weak at the knees.
I wonder if it will ever happen.
“Did the blind man just ask you out?”
It’s Carrie’s screechy voice behind me, like nails on a chalkboard. All the good feelings I had a second ago drain out of my body.
“His name is Colin,” I say with irritation. “So you don’t have to call him the blind man.”
Carrie rolls her eyes. “Sorry, Miss Politically Correct.”
“It’s not political correctness,” I hiss at her. “It’s respect. For a man who served his country.”
She cocks her head to the side. “Respect, huh?”
“So tell me, Miss Respect,” Carrie says, a mischievous look in her eyes. “Did you tell Colin about your… issues?
I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I open my mouth but no sound comes out.
“You didn’t!” she laughs. “Oh, Lord. You’re lecturing me about respect, but meanwhile, you’ve been deceiving him this whole time.”
“I’m not deceiving him,” I mumble.
“Oh really?” she snorts. “So if I go downstairs and clue him in, that would be just fine with you?”
My knees tremble. “Carrie, please don’t. Please.”
“Well, you should tell him.” She folds her arms across her argyle sweater. “It’s the right thing to do, Sophie. You’re sort of making a fool out of him.”
“I’m not,” I whisper. “I just…”
I expect that look of pity I’ve grown used to, but Carrie doesn’t pity me. She hates me. I see it now so clearly. She thinks I’m after her job and she’s willing to do anything to keep me from getting it.
“Please don’t tell him, Carrie,” I say. I feel tears springing to my eyes, but I hold them back. I will not cry in front of Carrie.
“I’ll think about it,” she says vaguely. “But really, you need to tell him.”
No, I wouldn’t date a deformed girl, okay?
I can’t. Not yet. I want that night with him first. I want to have a date with him. I want that, then I’ll tell him the truth.
And then it will be over.