Wrong Way

3/30/07

“I never meant to run her over.”

Through his tiny spectacles, the judge glares down at me.  His long black gown sways over the edge of his stand as he bellows, “But you did.”

“I didn’t mean to!”

“There is no erasing what happened.  You ran her over and now you will pay for it,” his low voice echoes throughout the courtroom, enclosing me in a tight grip of certain guilt.

By the time I shoot up in bed, I am covered in nervous sweat.  “It was just a dream,” I mutter soothingly to myself while I fluff up my pillow, “just a dream.”

*          *          *

The soft rays of the sun slip through the slats of the blinds and dance around on my face.  As I slowly open my eyes, the room appears before me.  My grandmother’s old dresser and mirror on the left side, the door in front of me, and the large window to my right.  Stretching and arching my back like a cat, I creep out of bed and get dressed.

“Good morning, honey,” Charlie coos, grabbing the sugar from the cupboard.

I answer groggily, “Good morning.”

He pours us both a cup of coffee, adds sugar, and then stirs the liquid with a tiny spoon.  “I love your hair in the morning,” he declares, taking a sip.

“That makes one of us,” I grumble, tugging at my tangled auburn curls.

“Oh, Karah,” he announces, sliding a pile of mail across the kitchen table, “you have mail.”

I pick up the blue envelope addressed to me and question aloud, “I wonder who it is from.  I wasn’t expecting anything.”

“Well, let’s see.”  Adjusting his glasses, Charlie comes behind me and looks over my shoulder.

Please join us for Abby Chuh’s Memorial Service

Sunday, the 15th of May,

Two Thousand and five.

It is not her death that we will mourn

But rather her life that we will remember.

I bite my lip and place the invitation back on the kitchen counter.

“Karah,” Charlie clears his throat.  “Who is Abby?”

“She’s probably a cousin of mine,” I lie, eager to have an excuse.

Shaking his head, Charlie sighs, “But your family is not Asian, and I don’t think that your mother has an Oriental sister.”

“How do you know?” I accuse.  “For all you know, she could have an adopted sister!”

Throwing his hands up into the air, Charlie exclaims, “I have met your mother, your family, and I know that your mother does not have any sister.  Now, tell me what is going on, Karah.  You are beginning to scare me.”

Suddenly I gasp and blubber, “I do know Abby!  Oh, Charlie, I don’t want to go to jail.”

Charlie pokes a finger into his ear and wiggles it around for a minute.  “Now,” he says, wiping his pinkie off with a paper towel, “repeat that.  I think I had some earwax or something in my—”

“No, Charlie, there was no earwax.  You heard me correctly.  I am going to jail.”  My voice fails me and cracks at the end of my sentence.  I quickly snap my eyes closed, frightened for what is to follow.

Placing his hands on my shoulders, Charlie slides me down into a kitchen chair.  I hear him take a seat next to me.  “Karah.”  He pauses to clear his throat, aspiring to have strength for me.  “Tell me everything that is upsetting you.”

“It was just an accident,” I blurt out, “a mistake.”

Nodding slightly, he rests his hand on mine.  His gesture incites me to continue.

I turn to the window.  Though the blinds are down, I can just make out a man swiftly strolling down the street, apparently on his way to some important meeting.  How I wish to be that guy, on my way to somewhere other than here.  “I—I had merely placed that picture you gave me, the one of you and me on our first anniversary, on the dashboard.”

Charlie smiles, unaware of the misery that is about to escape my lips.

“My vision was off the road for only one second.  You know me; I make certain to follow the rules of the road.  It was not my fault, Charlie, it wasn’t,” I snivel.

He taps his fingers on the tabletop, glancing at me.  “Just get it out,” he advises.  “Then we will decide who is to blame.”

I took a deep breath, Charlie’s words worrying me.  “I was the one who was paying attention,” I clarify.  “The girl had just ridden her bike right into the middle of the street, without a care, devoid of awareness.”

Realizing that it did not matter whether I went on or not, I finished my story.

The impact of the situation hit Charlie all at once and he snatched the envelope from behind us.  “So, this is the girl?  This is,” he asks the rhetorical question, “Abby?”

I do not nod my head, I do not tell him yes, I do not even budge.  He knows now, and I suppose it is high time for me to have the right to remain silent.

*          *          *

“You are going to the service, right?”

The question penetrates my ears in the middle of the night.  I wish to ignore the query and to pretend that I am already in slumber, but Charlie nudges me.

Cupping my hands around his ear, I whisper, “No.  Now, goodnight.”

Charlie snaps the light on and glares at me.  “What do you mean you’re not going?  You were invited, you are the reason that girl is not alive—you will attend.”

Swallowing deeply, I plunge into my pillow, covering my face.  I veto his plan by forcibly shaking my head no.

Gripping my arm firmly, Charlie avers that I am going to the funeral, despite my feelings.  I can’t imagine showing up at the funeral, apologizing, making clear that their little girl had ridden in front of me, that I could not be placed with the blame.  There was no way I could face that family; what would I ever say?

*          *          *

“Almost ready,” my mom calls out from inside the bathroom.  “I just have to zip it up.”

“Come on, Gloria, I want to see your sexy self,” my dad exclaims.

“Oh, Frank, stop that,” mom orders.

I grab a handful of peanuts and munch down on them.  I will need energy to get me through tonight.

Emerging from the restroom, mom stands in front of us with her hands on her hips, gives a little twirl, and questions, “Well?  How do I look?”

“Look?  You’re always asking everyone what that says, or how much this costs.  Gloria, I think you need glasses.”

After a moment of silence, mom sighs, “Frank, I have glasses.  I was asking you how the dress looks.”

“Oh, right,” dad mutters, “I knew that.”

I shake my head.  Every week dad seems to be getting worse.  We believe he is suffering from the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  He is extremely forgetful, and he often loses track of the current year.
“You look fine, mom,” I reply to mom’s all-time favorite question.

Her face falls and she whines, “I don’t want to look just fine, I want to look good.”

“Fine, you look good.”

“Well, now you are just saying that,” she complains, frowning deeply.  “Anyway,” she says, playing with the white frill on the dress, “what is new in Karah-Ville?”

“Nothing much, the business is doing well,” I fill them in, eager to be off the topic of clothing.

“Do you have any new customers,” dad asks.  He loves that I am in the photography business.  Sometimes when we all go out shopping together, he wants to stop by my store to examine several pictures.

“Actually, the other day a father and his daughter came in the store and their snapshots are just about developed.”

Dad smiles, perhaps reminiscing about a memory he shared with me.  “Oh, how nice.”

Dong.

Mom sings in a cheery voice, “I’ll get the door.  You all can have a seat at the table.  Hello, Charlie, my how nice you look.  Come in, they are already at the table.”

“Hello, Gloria,” Charlie greets her, letting her give him a kiss on the cheek.

Stepping into the kitchen, the aroma of salty-sweet gravy fills my nostrils.  I breathe in the smell of butter melting on the potatoes.  Passing by the countertop, I notice that we are having salad with fresh lettuce, carrots, and full, round tomatoes that look as red as my mother’s lipstick.

Once we are all seated, we pile our plates with the scrumptious feast.

“How are you, Charlie?” Mom questions in a festive voice.

“Firstly, I must say that this dinner is delicious.”

I think I see my mother turn a few shades darker.

“Things are going very well, actually.  This Spring is gorgeous, I am thinking of buying a Honda, and Karah ran someone over.”

Bringing a spoonful of potatoes to her mouth, Mom giggles, “Oh, what a joker you have found, Karah.”

“I’m not kidding,” Charlie says in a composed voice.

Mom’s spoon clangs down onto her plate, leaving her mouth wide open and empty, and I throw my hands up to my face.  Why is Charlie burying me in a pit I can never crawl out of?

Instantaneously, I can feel all eyes burning holes into me.  I do not care to explain myself, but I feel that I have been set up to the task.  “It is true,” I whimper, “that I ran her over.  But she was the one who did not think to look both ways before crossing the street.  What, does she think I have all this time on my hand to drive extra slowly, to ensure there are no pedestrians, to keep my eyes fixed on the road?”

“Do you mean to say,” Charlie questions, raising his eyebrows and adjusting in his chair, “that children should be expected to pay more attention than adults?  I find that absurd.”

“So,” my father asks, “this actually happened?  Karah, sweetie, you drove over some poor, little girl?”

Tears begin to well up in my eyes.  “It wasn’t my fault!  Why doesn’t anyone believe me?” I defend myself.

Her maternal feelings surging within her, my mother inquires, “How is the girl doing?”

Charlie looks down at his food and pushes the plate away.  “She’s not doing.  She’s…”

My father shakes his head and pounds his fist on the table.  He harrumphs once to keep his tears from overflowing.

“She is going to skip the service.  Can you believe that?” Charlie confers with my parents, as if I am not present, as if I am a child who cannot make her own decisions.

My mother’s face turns stern and she asserts, “Karah, you better add that funeral to your plans!”

“My priorities do not include her service.  Think of it: if I attend her funeral, her whole family is going to be there.  What would her family do if they saw me at her funeral?  Surely they would want to get even.”

“You are going to that funeral, and you are going to apologize.  You will stay through the whole service, no matter how uncomfortable.  No exceptions,” my mother demands.

I have to get out of this.  What do they not perceive that I see so clearly?  “Mom, come on.  You can’t believe I am actually going to go there?  I mean, they want to kill me!”

“Ironic,” Charlie utters.

*          *          *

“Here is your large photograph of your grandma.  How would you like to pay for that?”

“How much is it?” a teenage boy questions.  He seems sweet, as he is blowing up a picture of his grandmother for her birthday.

“Twenty.”

The boy fishes in his pockets for a second.  After a few minutes, his face falls and he becomes worried.

I put on my professional voice and offer, “If you don’t have the money today, I can hold the picture in the back for tomorrow?”

Shaking his head, the boy whines, “No.  I know I put that twenty in here somewhere.”  Turning out his pockets, a few lint balls fall to the floor.

I roll my eyes—another thing to vacuum.

“Here it is,” the boy sighs, handing me a crumpled twenty.

I wave goodbye.  “Thank you, and here your picture is.  Have a nice day, and come back!”

The next customer steps into line and says, “Look.”

I take the photograph from his hand and turn it over.  Peering up at me is a little girl standing next to her bicycle, grinning fiercely.  She appears accomplished.

“Why are you showing me this?” I question, losing all air of my professionalism.  A shady vision flashes through my mind: I am spinning the steering wheel frantically and making a sharp turn.  I get up in my seat and peer out of the back window.  There is a girl lying in the middle of the street, the wheels of her bicycle slowly rotating.  Pressing the gas pedal, I zoom off into the distance, leaving tire marks as my trace.  I do not turn around.  I do not go back to assist the girl or her friends.  Driving straight ahead, I shove the incident out of my mind.  The saying is true: out of mind, out of sight.

Coming back to reality, I find that the customer is my father.

“That’s you.”  He grins, motioning to the picture.  He turns around and walks out of my store, not taking one glance back.

I lay the photo on the counter.  It gives me a sense of guilt; like I can still ride a bicycle, I am still able to go outside and play, my life is still being lived.

All at once, I am hit with such intensity that I feel my legs weaken and I must sit down.  I have taken away Abby’s life.  I have cheated a child of her adulthood.  I have confiscated Abby’s chance to be great.

I am fully aware that I do not want to attend her funeral, but I realize that I must put my own life behind Abby’s, for now.  I decide to attend Abby Chuh’s memorial service.

*          *          *

I gaze out upon the graves as the warm breeze licks my face.  My feet seem to be implanted in the ground; I do not wish to advance for fear of sensing the sinking ground, and I dare not step backwards because I am frightened that the family will see me exiting the service even before it has begun.

Visiting cemeteries is not what I make a habit.  When I was younger, my father instilled in me such a strong memory that even the sight of a graveyard causes me to quiver:

“Graveyards are not for the fainthearted,” my father had whispered one night while we all gathered around the firelight.  “If you ever take a stroll through a graveyard, the soft new patches of ground will open and swallow you up whole.  You will never be able to find your way out.”

Perhaps it was my dad’s way of telling us to keep out of private property.  Maybe it was the way my dad tried to keep us from running off.  Whatever it was in his mind, his little rant had petrified me enough that I made sure to never step on the grounds of a graveyard again.

That is, until today.  Until I was forced to.

Tentatively, I edge forward as if I am dragging a large boulder with me.  When I arrive at the gravesite, Abby’s mother glances over at me and wearily lifts herself up out of her chair.

“Hello, Karah,” she sighs.  She seems so very exhausted.  “I am glad you were able to make it here today.”

“Me too,” I reply, noticing that it was the wrong thing to say the very moment the words exit my lips.  “I mean, I came here to apologize and to give my deepest sympathies.   It was not—” the words are on the tip of my tongue.  But how can I stand here in front of Abby’s mother and claim my innocence?

“It was not meant to happen.”  I save myself.  “I am certain Abby was a wonderful girl, and it breaks my heart that she … that she …”  I cannot think of what to say, and I begin to fret.

“It is alright,” Abby’s mother mutters, placing a warm hand on my arm.  “You do not have to struggle to speak; I understand what you are saying without words.  Just, just apologize to her.”

“Of course.”

I make my way to Abby’s grave and watch as everyone disperses and disappears into their cars.  As they drive away, I kneel down.

My fingers trace each letter engraved on the gravestone.  Before I begin, I stare up.  There is one lone, puffy cloud drifting through the sky.  I wonder if Abby can see me now.  I contemplate for a while on whether she has forgiven me, on whether she can.

The headstone is tainted a light tinge of pink.  “I’m sorry,” I cry out, sliding a finger down the side of the stone.  I feel foolish, all of a sudden, and purse my lips.  “I’m so sorry,” I continue, after a few moments.  “I should have been watching the road better.  I never should have been distracted for one instance.  It is my fault, and I give you my deepest apology.

“I took your life away, Abby, I know.  I have cheated you, a child, out of your adulthood.  It will always haunt me to know that I have snatched the opportunity for a child to become something, to do things in the world.  I am a horrible person.  I did not want to admit to it before, but now I know that I must if I ever wish to improve.

“I hope you accept my apology,” I lower my voice.  I push up on my knee to help me stand upright, and then begin walking back towards the entrance.  Taking one glance back I see that the sole cloud has dispersed, and I gain the courage to move on.

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