“Hey, Sophie,” Carrie says to me as we sit together at the desk in the Children’s Library. “I need you to stay late today and close the library.”
I’m not scheduled to stay late today—Carrie is. But that doesn’t matter to Carrie. Whenever Steve assigns her to close the library, she plots a way to get out of it. Most of her plotting involves asking me to stay. And the truth is, I usually do it. I don’t do it to help Carrie, mind you, but I love the library late in the evening. It’s so peaceful when it’s just me and the rows and rows of books. I love to read, but almost as much, I just love books. I love the feel of the pages, I love the weight of them in my hand—I even love the smell of them. I love gazing at the covers of my favorite books. Sometimes I wish I could spend the night in the library.
But I can’t stay late today. Carrie’s going to have to suck it up.
“I can’t,” I say with satisfaction.
That gets her attention. “Why not?”
“I have a date.”
The amazement is plain on Carrie’s face. “You… have a date?”
“Like, a romantic date? With a man?”
I stare at her. This line of questioning is beyond insulting. And honestly, it’s none of her business. Just because I usually agree to stay, it doesn’t mean I’m obligated. If I want to leave on time, she’s not entitled to quiz me about my personal life.
I think she gets the message because she looks back down at her phone, grumbling, “Fine. I thought you could do me a favor, but I guess not.”
I look at my watch. Quitting time can’t come soon enough.
A few minutes before I’m getting ready to leave, my coworker Jean rushes into the Children’s Floor. Jean is in her seventies, with close-cropped gray hair and horn-rimmed glasses, and always seems mildly frazzled. She hurries over to the desk, her eyes focused on me.
“I was calling,” she says. “But nobody picked up.”
Despite our disagreement earlier, Carrie and I exchange meaningful glances. Jean is absolutely hopeless with any sort of technology, including phones, apparently. Watching her help a customer with a computer is nothing short of hilarious.
“What’s going on?” I ask Jean.
“Well…” She smiles awkwardly. “I’ve got a customer downstairs who specifically asked for you, Sophie.”
Carrie sits up straight in her chair, brushing her blond hair behind her ears as her eyes narrow. “For Sophie? Who would ask for Sophie?”
Because that’s so impossible?
“Well, he…” Jean lowers her voice a few notches. “I think he’s blind.”
Colin. Oh my God, Colin is downstairs. And he’s looking for me.
For some reason, that thought excites me a lot more than going to the movies with Gabe.
“Oh, the blind man!” Carrie bursts out. “I’ve seen him here before.” Her face creases in a smile. “Oh my God, do you think the blind man has a crush on Sophie?”
I stare at her, shocked she’d say that. And then she starts to laugh.
“Well, it isn’t that bad,” she giggles. “He’s handsome, at least. Those muscles… Lord.” She winks at me. “You could do worse, Sophie.”
She laughs again, and to my disgust, Jean joins in too. I can’t imagine what’s funny about it, but I keep my mouth shut. There’s no point.
“Excuse me,” I mutter, getting to my feet. I brush off my skirt and push past Jean to go downstairs. Jean, at least, might feel bad about laughing. Carrie won’t.
When I get downstairs, I immediately see him there. Colin. He’s sitting at one of the tables, but facing outward. He’s wearing his tinted glasses, his green eyes staring into nothingness, his white cane gripped at its midpoint in his right hand. His hair has that adorably mussed look to it, and he’s sporting about two days’ growth of a red-brown beard that enhances his rugged appearance. He’s wearing a green T-shirt that fits like a glove over his perfectly toned chest, paired with baggy blue jeans. He really has a very nice chest. He must work out a lot. You don’t get muscles like he has from sitting around, eating bon bons. At the sight of him, all my anger at Carrie and Jean melts away.
No, I definitely don’t feel this way when I look at Gabe.
Colin isn’t messing with his phone or even reading one of his braille books. He’s just sitting there, patiently waiting for me. It’s flattering.
I walk over to him, and his head snaps up in the direction of my footsteps. When I’m a few feet away from him, I’m ready to open my mouth, when he looks up and says, “Sophie?”
“Yes, it’s me,” I say.
His face breaks into a smile. “Hi.”
I slide into the seat next to him. His head lowers so that he’s almost looking right at me. I wonder once again just how much he can see.
“How did you know it was me?” I ask.
“Well, that other woman said she was going to get you,” he says. “And also, I…”
I raise my eyebrows. “What?”
“I recognize the smell of your shampoo,” he admits. And then his face turns bright red. It’s really cute. I always thought blushing was very sexy. It’s something I can’t do thanks to my damaged skin. I can’t sweat either in my face and chest. “Sorry, that was a weird thing to say.”
I laugh. “Well, I figure if you can’t see, you have to notice other things.”
He nods. “It’s true.”
I tug at the hem of my skirt. “So, um, do you need anything?”
“No, I…” He laughs awkwardly. “My mother had to run some errands in the neighborhood, so I asked her to drop me off at the library while she was out, but… well, they didn’t need to come get you. I just asked if you were here, and all of a sudden, that woman was running to get you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “I was on my way downstairs, anyway. It’s almost quitting time.”
“Do you live nearby?”
“In Quincy,” he repeats. He grins at me. “You’re not originally from here, are you?”
I laugh. “No, I’m from Philadelphia originally. How did you know?”
“Well, you say Quin-see,” he explains. “If you were from here, you’d say Quin-zee.”
“And you’re from here, I assume?”
“Born and raised in Dawchestah,” he says.
I laugh. “Oh, I could tell.”
“No, you couldn’t.”
“I totally could,” I insist. “You’ve got the accent.”
I smile at him, even though I know he can’t see it. I always feel like smiling when I’m around this guy. “Okay, I want you to say, ‘Park the car in the yard.’”
“Park the car in the yard,” he says in what is an absolutely terrible British accent.
I cover my mouth to keep from giggling. “No, do it for real.”
“What—like this? Pahk the cah in the yahd.”
I laugh, and he laughs too. He’s looking at me but not quite looking at me. I feel a sudden urge to reach out and touch the reddish brown stubble on his cheek. I want to touch him. I want to feel his skin under my fingers.
Oh my God, what is wrong with me? I barely know this guy! This isn’t like me at all.
Get ahold of yourself, Sophie.
“So, listen,” he says. “There is one thing I was hoping you could help me with.”
“Sure. What do you need?”
“Well, I was wondering…” He scratches at the back of his neck. “Do you have A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on audiobook?”
My heart skips a beat in my chest. “You want to listen to it?”
“Well,” he says thoughtfully, “I figure if it’s the one book you’d take with you on a desert island, it’s probably worth listening to once.”
Colin Kelly wants to listen to my favorite book. It will probably take God knows how many hours, but I’m sure he knows that. He wants to do it anyway. And he recognizes the smell of my shampoo. I wouldn’t even recognize the smell of my shampoo.
I clear my throat. “Um, I’d have to check if we have it.”
“Hey, if you’re leaving soon, you can check tomorrow or whenever,” he says with a shrug. “I could give you my number and you can text me when you have it.”
My throat suddenly feels very dry. “Your number?”
“Well…” His cheeks grow pink again. “That would be the easiest way, wouldn’t it?”
He wants to give me his number. He’s trying to give me his number. This sweet, sexy, intelligent guy with muscles from here to eternity would like me to call him. On the phone.
Get ahold of yourself, Sophie!
I realize at that moment whatever little vision Colin has, there is no way he has any idea what I look like. He can’t see my face at all. His mother never told him. Because if he knew, he wouldn’t be sitting here with me, nervous to give me his number. I’m not saying that because I have low self-esteem. It’s simply a fact.
“Ah, I see you found each other!”
It’s Carrie’s voice. I lift my head, furious at her for breaking into my conversation with Colin. I’m sure she knew I didn’t want to be bothered. I don’t know why she’s even down here.
“Yes, we did,” I mumble.
She smooths out a crease on her white blouse. “Jean offered to stay late tonight. So you’re off the hook.”
As if I was going to stay late even if she hadn’t bullied Jean into it. “Wonderful,” I say.
“So I’m off,” she says. She eyes Colin, who is just sitting there, possibly waiting to be introduced—but that will never happen. She looks him over, from his tinted lenses to the toned muscles in his arms and chest, to the cane leaning against the table. Her lips curl into a smile. “Have fun on your date tonight, Sophie. Be good.”
Colin’s head jerks up at the word “date.” I want to strangle Carrie. She’s a horrible person. Why would she say that? What the hell is wrong with her?
Carrie waves to me and flounces out of the library. My fists bunch up the material of my skirt while I wait for Carrie to be out of earshot. As soon as I’m sure she can’t hear us, I turn back to Colin, who is chewing on his lip. I want to reach out and touch his shoulder, but I stop myself.
“So, um—” I begin.
“I’m really sorry,” he interrupts me. “I didn’t realize I was keeping you from… something. You should… you know, go.”
“Really,” he says. “My mother will be here soon so… I mean, you don’t have to feel like you need to sit here with me. I’m fine—really.”
“It’s okay,” I say quickly. “I’m not late or anything. I mean, it’s not even… not even really a date… exactly.”
His eyebrows bunch together. “Not a date exactly?”
“Well, you know.” Now it’s my turn to laugh awkwardly. “He’s sort of a friend and… he asked me to go to the movies, so… it’s probably just a friends thing. I don’t even know if he wants it to be a date.”
“Oh.” He leans back in his seat. “I’m sure he wants it to be a date.”
“I’m not so sure.”
He cocks his head at me. “It’s just the two of you?”
He shakes his head. “Trust me. He wants it to be a date.”
He has no idea.
“The real question,” he says, “is do you want it to be a date?”
It’s something I’ve struggled with ever since Gabe extended his halfhearted invitation to the movies. I doubt anything will happen between us, but at this point, I don’t even know if I’d want it. The truth is, all I can think about is going out with the man sitting in front of me.
No, kissing the man sitting in front of me.
I want to kiss Colin. I want to kiss him so badly, it’s physically painful. I want to feel those toned muscles pressed against my body. I want to feel his hot breath against my lips. When I think about it, I get a very real ache in my chest, like nothing I’ve ever felt before in my entire life. I want this man. So, so bad.
Yet I don’t want to want him. It’s very un-Sophie of me. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying not to develop infatuations with men. I’ve gotten really, really good at it.
This is bad.
Before I can answer his question, I hear a ding from Colin’s bag. A text on his phone. He touches it with his hand, but doesn’t check his messages. “That was my mother,” he says. “She said she’d text me when she was on her way back here.”
“How could you tell it was her?”
“Who else would it be?” He shrugs. “Anyway, thanks for keeping me company… and, you know, have fun on your date.” He smiles crookedly. “Or whatever it is.”
“I’ll check on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” I promise him.
He shrugs again. “Yeah, sure. I’ll be back to renew the books I didn’t finish on Monday, so… if you have it, I’ll just get it then.”
My heart sinks. He isn’t trying to give me his number anymore. He’s probably not going to drop in here randomly to see me again. I blew it. And the thought of it makes me want to burst into tears.
God, what am I turning into?
I’m an idiot.
I was this close to exchanging numbers with Sophie. I was going to give her mine, and then obviously, I’d get hers when she texted me. I’m wicked smaht, right? Then I figured we’d start texting each other and I could ask her if we could get together outside of the library.
What the hell was I thinking?
There I was, trying to figure out a way to ask her out, when she was on her way to a date of her own. With a guy who—just guessing here—probably isn’t blind. I bet she was looking at her watch and trying to work out a nice way to tell me she had to leave. Usually I pick up on cues like that, but it was hard when I couldn’t see the expression on her face. I really thought…
Well, it’s stupid to think about that. Obviously, I was wrong. She was just being nice to me because I’m so goddamn pathetic. She felt sorry for me.
Looking back, she did seem uncomfortable when I offered to give her my number. Why did I do that? Shit, I hope she doesn’t think she needs to have a talk with me where she lets me down easy. Just the thought of it makes me not want to ever come back here again.
But I need to return my braille books. And get new ones. Even though I feel like I can barely face Sophie again, I want the next set of books she picked out for me. But maybe I don’t need to listen to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Christ, why did I say that to her? I sounded like such a goddamn pathetic loser. Stupid, stupid…
All right, the damage is done. Nothing I can do about it now.
After several more minutes of sitting at the table in the library, silently berating myself, I get sick of it. My mother won’t be back for at least another fifteen minutes, so I decide to go take a walk. It’s a nice day—I’d rather be outside. Maybe I’ll walk around the block.
It’s nice outside. The warm, summer air makes me feel marginally better about the whole thing. I still want to punch a wall, but not as much. I figure I’ll do one loop around the block, and get back before my mother arrives and has a panic attack because she can’t find me.
I walk slower than even my usual pace because I’ve never done this loop, and I don’t want to accidentally walk off the edge of a curb. I can feel curbs with my cane, but I still get nervous when I have no idea if it’s coming or not. Once I have a mental map of this block, I’ll feel better about it.
In front of the library, I can hear the noise of the street, but as I turn the first corner, it gets a lot quieter. And darker. When I get to the next corner, I smell garbage—I must be near a trash bin. I slow down my already shuffling steps, not eager to walk into a pile of garbage or dip my cane into one. I also start breathing through my mouth. Walking through garbage is not making me feel better.
And then I smell cigarettes.
Smoke isn’t great for me. I spent over a month on a ventilator when I was first in the hospital—I even had a trach for a while. My lungs were scarred, and while I can breathe okay again now, any type of smoke makes me cough. I’ve got a rescue inhaler at home, which I don’t bring with me when I go out, because as I said earlier, I’m dumb.
I’m not coughing yet, but I’m questioning my decision not to turn around when I first smelled the garbage. It’s also dark back here, like I’m in an alley. It’s hard to see even outlines. I wonder if it would be better to turn around now or just keep going at this point.
“Hey,” a voice says. One of the cigarette-smokers. He sounds young. Like a teenager. At first I think he’s talking to me, but then he says, “I think that guy is blind.”
“Oh yeah,” another voice says. And he laughs.
My grip on the cane tightens. If I could see, I’m pretty sure I could kick the ass of either of these kids or likely even both at once. I bet they’ve got scrawny girl arms, and don’t even know how to throw a punch. But the fact that I don’t know where they are makes it challenging.
“Watch this,” I hear one of the kids say to the other. A moment later, his voice reappears, louder this time: “Hey, mister, you gotta pay a fee to pass here.”
He’s close to me. I can almost make him out. I want to take a swing at his abdomen. I’ve been trained in hand-to-hand combat, and I’m convinced if I could get my hands on one of them, I could grapple him to the ground and it would be all over. Maybe. But the problem is, there are two of them. I’m having trouble envisioning how any fight between me and two guys who aren’t blind doesn’t result in me getting my ass handed to me. (And possibly getting dumped in the garbage bin.)
“You gonna pay up?” the kid asks me.
I don’t know what to do. I didn’t bring my wallet with me, but I’ve got money in my pocket. I have a ten-dollar bill I took from the carefully organized piles of bills I keep in my room. I didn’t expect to be spending any money, so I almost didn’t bring it.
“Hey, mister, can’t you talk?”
“Maybe he’s a mute. Right? Like, a blind-mute?”
That’s a deaf-mute, you dumbass.
I decide to just keep walking, figuring these kids are all talk. But before I walk another step, I feel a hand shove me in the shoulder. I can now see the dim shadow of one of them right in front of me.
“I told you, you gotta pay to pass,” the kid says. “Shit, are you dumb or something?”
“Just grab his bag,” the other kid says.
“No!” I yelp. I’ve got stuff in my bag I don’t want to lose. My phone, for one thing. And my books. I quickly fumble around in my pocket for the ten-dollar bill. “I’ll give you money, okay?”
“So he can talk,” one of the boys snorts. “Hurry up, mister. Or we’ll take your cane too.”
Fuck them. Fuck these assholes. I want to swing at them so bad, but I know at this point that they’ll take everything I’ve got if I try to fight them. So I pull out the ten-dollar bill and thrust it in the direction of the boy I can almost see.
“That’s all you got?”
“Yeah, it’s all I got,” I hiss at them. “You think I’m rich or something, asshole?”
“Hey, who do you think you’re calling an asshole?”
I feel another shove in my shoulder, and for a moment, I think I’ve got a fight on my hands, and I don’t mind one bit. I want it. I want that moment when my fist connects with one of their faces, even if I get it worse than they do. I feel my hand balling into a fist. What’s the point of lifting all those weights if I can’t even hit some punk kids who are trying to mug me?
But then I hear one of the kids say, “Leave him alone—we got his money. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
I hear their footsteps against the pavement. And then their voices and the smell of cigarette smoke fades into nothingness. All I can smell now is garbage. Comforting, safe garbage.
I take a deep breath, collecting my bearings. Okay, it could have been worse. I’ve still got my cane and my phone and my bag. The only thing I lost was ten bucks.
And my dignity, of course. But that’s not worth anything anymore.
To be continued...