It was close to midnight on Saturday, and I was driving home from a visit with Sandra, the two-lane country road wet from a November rain and spattered with leaves, when a girl came running out of the woods and dashed straight for my car. If only she could have been snatched up on invisible strings. Instead we collided, her eyes in my headlights, white with panic. You don’t forget the eyes.Slamming on the brakes, I scarred the road with my skid. But for nothing. Everything happened at once. We met with a sickening squashy thump with wood in it. My airbag fired out. The child went down by the front of my car. A storm of black birds banged inside my head.
What had I done? Shaking, hyperventilating, a cold sweat slicking my skin, I managed to back up a little so as not to do her more harm. Somehow, I put the car in park. I didn’t mean to hit her, but I had hit her. Intent meant nothing.
Get a grip, man, I commanded myself. Inhale. Exhale. Exit the car. The girl lay, bleeding and gasping, by my right front tire. I knelt by her, and I held her hand. She was twelve or so, the age of my middle-school students. Though it was cold, she wore only a T-shirt and underpants, all now soaked scarlet with her blood.
“I’m sorry. Sorry. Sorry,” I sobbed, barely able to choke out my words. I stayed by her side as she died.
Why did I not dial 911? How is it that a decent man might, in an instant, fail himself and all that is right? It was the imp of shame in my soul. I could not bear to be called to account. I knew what this deed would mean for the rest of my life. It would follow me like a tagline: Kenneth Watson was the respected vice principal of Shady Hill Middle School, but—did you know?—one night he accidentally killed a girl with his car. The imp promised me that the undiscovered crime was no crime at all. I had only to rip that black page from the calendar of my life and go on.
The girl’s eyes were open, but there was no one in there anymore. I looked away from their awful upward stare, knelt by her body and, with trembling hands, picked up the shards of my shattered headlight. Then, my heart nearly bursting from my chest, the blackbirds banging in my head, I drove off. Let the world believe that someone else had met her flying leap. I would tell people that I hit a deer.
Get out of there, I told myself. Make it up to humanity in other ways: do good works for the rest of your life.
Collins Road was empty: one piece of good fortune, I thought in miserable self-regard. My hands kept slipping on the steering wheel. An unusual body odor seeped from my sweat. The inside of my arm itched, and I let go of the steering wheel for a few seconds to scratch the troublesome spot. For about a mile, I tried to be angry with my victim. Stupid kid. Flew into the road. Did she think of the lifelong guilt she laid on the driver who hit her? And why me, why me?
Driving with caution, looking right and left for deer and runaways, I turned my agitations from myself. A girl in the woods in the middle of the night. Dressed like that. Dashing toward a stranger, any stranger, for help. Whatever risk she ran toward terrorized her less than the one she fled. Like a person who jumps from a burning building. Like a virgin who hurls herself over a cliff: death before defilement.
Was she being chased? If so, her pursuer might have glimpsed my car, made some note of my license plate. Again, the black birds banged. Struggling with the steering wheel to keep the car straight, I managed to drive home and parked in my garage, a felon. I could still call the police. Blame my delay on confusion and panic. Admit that the power of conscience came at last to guide me. But I did not do that. I spent a sleepless night, tending now and then to that itch.
Around noon, Sandra phoned to tell me there’d been a hit and run on Collins Road right about the time I was traveling it.
Had I seen anything unusual? Was I okay?
I was fine. Hadn’t seen a thing. I felt my neck and back stiffening with post-collision pain. After the call, I took a couple of Motrin. I didn’t phone a doctor for fear my complaints would start an incriminating chain of inquiry. My itch had reddened to a rash.
I went online and searched for information about hit-and-runs. I learned that if the driver isn’t found several hours after the crash, chances are they never will be. I deleted the hit-and-run search from my browser history. As each hour passed, I felt more confident that I never would be caught. In all likelihood, I would remain the respected vice principal of Shady Hill Middle School. I would never be defined by the worst thing I did.
My deed made the front page of the Monday Intelligencer. The girl’s name was Evermay Blair. Police were searching for whoever hit her. There was anonymous tip line. A thousand-dollar reward. If anyone noticed a white car with front-end damage, they were to call the police. On the TV news, her uncle raged from the front door of his shack in the woods, “We’ll find that scum, that dirt bag. We’ll hunt him down.” Then he buried his face in his hands and bawled. He called to mind a guilty husband freaking out in grief to hide the fact that he had chopped up his wife or a homicidal mom hysterically claiming that someone had kidnapped her child. You saw it on the news from time to time. Of course, Evermay was running from that uncle.
I couldn’t tell you how many protection-of-minors trainings I’d given to our teachers and staff and how many trainings I’d had myself. We were obligated to report the suspicion of abuse, and the fact that I would never do so on behalf of Evermay Blair turned my guilt to quicksand. My imp went back on its promise of safe passage. There might be no discovery, but there would be no peace either. Yet, really, was there a reason to investigate now? Cause of death: vehicular homicide. A quick cremation, per the bereaved uncle’s request. Then the guy comforted by the mortuary staff.
I opened my laptop, searched DIY car repair, took notes, erased that search history, then took an Uber to an automotive supply shop where I bought a dent remover, a spray gun, white paint, and ordered a new lens for the smashed headlight. Deer collision, I told the clerk. Yeah, breaks your heart, he said.
I thought of the inquest that might have been, the never-to-occur autopsy that might have turned up evidence of whatever she endured and had to flee.
So, it was Ubers to work and Ubers to the grocery store for a week until I more or less brought my car to the point that it would not attract notice. My rash intensified. I raked my skin until it bled. The pain of the torn skin stopped the itching for a while, so I welcomed the pain.
When I drove it to the shop to get the wheel alignment fixed, the mechanic shot a dubious look at my repair work. I told him the deer story.
“What was it, a fawn?”
“Yes, a fawn.”
“Looks like it. Adults do a number on a vehicle. Attack it with their hoofs. Very serious business, those deer strikes.” Then he asked me if I’d reported this to the insurance company or the cops, and did I want to file with my insurance? A chill ran through me when I thought of a visit by a claims adjuster. I told the guy I’d just eat it, pay cash. Simplest way, I said. Suit yourself, he said and caught my eye. I held his glance a second then looked at my watch, suppressing the urge to scratch my skin.
The rash was already on both arms and had spread to my chest. I went to the drugstore and bought some cortisone cream. That helped for a while. I was afraid that the redness would spread to my neck and face.
Following the accident, I busied myself repaying society for my hit-and-run. To my colleagues, my self-imposed sentence of community service looked like a case of résumé boosting, a campaign for a promotion in the school district, even a run for citizen of the year. At school, I started an Interethnic League and attended every PTA meeting, every basketball game and wrestling match. I headed up our Every Day Is Earth Day club. The anti-violence program I created—I called it Highways to Harmony—got some good press in the Intelligencer, the same newspaper that had scourged me for the hit-and-run. I held a Highways to Harmony poster contest and cooked a pancake breakfast for the winning homeroom.
“You okay?” asked a teacher when she saw me scratching myself.
“Allergies,” I replied. I wore long sleeves and dark-colored shirts in case my clawing drew blood, which it often did.
Over the months, I became, in many ways, a better vice principal—more understanding, less the heavy that vice principals usually are. I handed out fewer out-of-school suspensions than I used to. More parents left my office feeling relieved and understood, less worked up. I brought some kids from troubled homes into Big Brothers Big Sisters. I had always reported suspected child abuse to our state program, but now I was even more sensitive to the issue, possibly even overly suspicious, and I called the agency much more than I ever had before. I thought that Evermay would have wanted it that way. I also knew what Benjamin Franklin said about a person’s name: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation and only one bad one to lose it.” I hoped that my good deeds would block the world from discovering my awful truth.
In April, the school board awarded me a special commendation for promoting school peace. My service work allowed me a few moments of buoyancy, but remorse and fear of exposure would always return to weigh me down, especially at night when I was home alone and scratching my skin. The rash had spread to most of my body, but my face it left untouched. I watched a lot of TV. I slept poorly. When I closed my eyes, I saw the eyes of Evermay Blair bright in my headlights. My time off during weekends filled me with dread. Then, to my relief, I found a volunteer job driving dialysis patients to their treatments.
Had it not been for my constant interactions with the middle-school students and the dialysis patients, I would have gone mad. I shrank away from normal conversation with my colleagues, loathe to share even the most harmless personal details—what I had for dinner, what I watched on TV—for fear that I would give myself away. I avoided the faculty lounge. I brought my turkey on wheat or ham on rye and ate at my desk. I substituted courtesy for conversation and cheerful protocol for personal interaction. How was I? No complaints. How’s that allergy, Kenneth? Colleagues recommended remedies and doctors. And how are you? I would ask, eager to shift focus. How’s the family? Thus it was that one Kenneth Watson walked alongside the other. In passing once, I saw in the glass of a school trophy case a stilted and unsmiling man with sideburns and a tense posture. I tapped on the pane of glass to see if he would vanish.
My parents lived in Florida, and I filled my e-mails and phone calls to them with cheer. When I visited them over spring break, I looked with longing at my old pictures. The first Kenneth with his old girlfriends. That kid grinning in front of his birthday cake. Kenneth on family vacations. Who was that guy, who lived with a heart unburdened and calm skin white as snow? He was no genius, and far from perfect, yet he sauntered through life untested by calamity, unaware of the imp within him and the shadow self he would one day meet.
The only way to Sandra’s house was by way of Collins Road, and I could not bear to drive down Collins Road again. For this reason, I had to break up with Sandra. Two weeks after the accident, she asked about making a date. I had her meet me for dinner at a restaurant near me. She told me I looked uncomfortable, fidgety, and what was that rash on my hands?
“What’s going on, Kenneth? Even my parents have been asking why you haven’t been back to the house.”
I went into great and unnecessary detail about the PTA meetings and all my initiatives, filling up the air any way I could with my wholesome news. I described with an eager expression the posters the kids made, their environmental projects, and my new volunteer job driving dialysis patients.
“Well, I guess I don’t have kidney problems,” she remarked dryly. “That must be it.”
How to break it off with her? I dared not tell her I had found someone else. Too easy to get caught in that fib. I politely returned her texts and phone calls, but I initiated nothing. Along with every other thing I hated myself for, I despised myself for starving out the relationship. I missed her. Before the hit-and-run, I had seriously considered marrying her.
One night she called to confront me. I could hear her summon the courage. She said we were drifting. Why did I not phone? Why did I never call to make plans?
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” I said.
I made one last date with her. We met at a diner. Over chicken parmesan, I told her with tears in my eyes, real tears, that I was finding it easy to be away from her. That I didn’t miss her that much. It wasn’t fair to keep it going. I took a gulp of water. I felt that I was putting the best part of my life into a trash compactor.
“I can’t argue with a fading heart,” she said. “I don’t know what more there is to say.” If only she had put on her jilted-girl bandolier and ripped off a round of curses or told me that I was a cold and soulless bastard, more in love with humanity than with her. But she didn’t say that. She wiped her mouth with her napkin and rose from the table. In the parking lot, we embraced one last time. I pulled away, and when I got back to my house I vomited. Then I checked my e-mail to see if any dialysis patients needed rides.
I saw the need to hide my guilt as an opponent to be bested, so I pounded the second Kenneth with more and more good works. When no one was looking, I raked my tormented skin. That spring at Shady Hill Middle School, I formed the Anti-Vaping League. I created the Drug Awareness Support Group. Some of my colleagues thought I was overextending myself. They said that they understood that there was a gap with Sandra out of my life, but take a break, man. They tried to fix me up with women. I demurred until the offers ended. It reached the point where I had no friends, only coworkers, colleagues, community partners, and the company of the dialysis patients I transported. I loved my conversations with the patients. We spoke on safe common ground, mostly about the weather and sports. When my day job came up, a few of them laughed about their long-ago run-ins with their principals and vice principals. Sometimes talk would turn to donor kidneys. Young donor kidneys were best.
I yearned to confess to the police and get it over with, yet I could not confess. I practiced my charity and good works, but I could repent only to my own conscience. And my own conscience showed me no mercy.
I needed to hide my secret, and I needed to reveal it. This inner struggle led me to do curious things.
I composed an anonymous letter to the police and planned to mail it from an out-of-state post office. I wrote it out in long hand on a yellow legal pad:
To the Chief of Police:
I am the person who hit Evermay Blair this past November on a wooded section of Collins Road in Pillsbury Township, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. Remorse eats at me every day, but the longer I put off turning myself in, the harder it is to step forward. Yes, I am a coward. For me, living with guilt is better than paying the price for my crime. Maybe I’ll turn out to be one of those fugitives who’s the man next door, the guy who mows his lawn, waves hello and keeps to himself.
I want you to know that I feel that Evermay Blair was fleeing someone who molested or abused her. Why else was she in a T-shirt and underpants running into traffic in the middle of the night? Investigate that.
Of course, I burned the letter.
A little while after that, I invited a cop, an Officer Schmidt, to Shady Hill Middle School to address a school assembly on pedestrian and bike safety.
“And what should our middle school students know about pedestrian safety at night?” I asked during the Q&A, feeling daring and a little jazzed to tread this close to my secret.
Officer Schmidt spoke about the importance of wearing light-colored clothing. Adjusting his gun belt, he added, “There’s no decent reason why our youth should be on the street after dark.” Then to my surprise, he brought up the case of Evermay Blair. “Now what this young lady, a person just your age,” he said, waving out to the sea of middle schoolers, “was doing out on a two-lane highway in the middle of the night, we’ll never know. The whole thing’s a keg of worms. But a sleaze, if you’ll pardon my French, ran into her and didn’t even have the decency to call 911. Left her for roadkill.” Officer Schmidt’s face grew dark. A hush went over the students.
I don’t know what sort of look passed over my face, but a colleague standing next to me put her arm around my shoulder.
After the assembly, I approached Officer Schmidt and asked if the child had recovered. He shook his head. “She was dead when we found her. It’s a sin. Just a sin,” he said shaking his head. “Why do you ask?” He threw me a glance.
“It’s my business to care about kids,” I replied as evenly as I could. He did not, I hoped, take me for a morbidly curious goon or detect, with his practiced ear, an extra note of interest in my voice.
I tried to tell myself that Evermay’s trauma was over. For a few days after Schmidt’s visit, I was twitchy. My rash raged worse than ever. Yet, for some reason, my face, my public mask, remained free of the stain. I started a school chapter of Students Against Drunk Drivers.
May broke out in hot pink azaleas, and the students at Shady Hill poured from the buses in shorts and T-shirts, louder than usual and eager for vacation. I would still be transporting dialysis patients after school let out for the year, but I would have a lot more time on my hands, and I needed more good works to fill it. I was casting about for projects when I heard about the Patient Companions program at Mallard Pond Nursing and Rehab Center. Spread over former cornfields in the upper part of the county, Mallard Pond, from the outside at least, looked like a country club. Its residents were mostly elderly. But the center also specialized in care for those in comas and persistent vegetative states—folks who had their lights blown out by stroke, drug overdose, a car crash. Suspecting that these patients might be able to hear and think, the Mallard Pond staff worried that these imprisoned souls might be bored and lonely. So, the center put out a call for community volunteers—patient companions was the term they used—who were to read to these sleepers and carry on with them some kind of a cheerful one-sided chat.
I could think of no safer pro bono summer project and applied at once to Mallard Pond. At last I would have someone to open up to. In all these months, I had never once spoken aloud of my crime. Perhaps I could unburden myself to someone who was unconscious or deep in a suspended state: able to listen, but not respond.
“Mr. Watson, having someone of your caliber in our pilot program is a special privilege for us,” said Jeri Jankowski, the head of volunteer and social services at Mallard Pond.
“I feel like I want to give back to the community,” I responded with a humble shrug. Borrowing a corner of Jeri Jankowski’s desk, I filled out the Patient Companions volunteer application, which asked if I had ever been convicted of a felony. Jeri was a big woman. She wore a cranberry-red pantsuit. Her office smelled of cinnamon. A fan of motivational posters, Jeri had “It’s too soon to quit” and “Never be ashamed of doing what is right” framed on her office walls. I shrank from their rectitude like a shadow fleeing the light.
In contrast to its country club exterior, Mallard Pond’s patient care floors were iced over in linoleum the color of old snow, and its walls were a chilly green. The vapors of vegetable beef soup and instant mashed potatoes hung in the air, interrupted at points by the reek of urine and Lestoil. As Jeri walked me down the hall, she spoke to me of the mystery of the human brain: how some patients in comas awoke and even recalled conversations they heard while unconscious, how others never emerged from their limbo. No one knew for sure where the border between coma and brain death lay.
Jeri showed me into a room and introduced me to Joseph Snavely, aka Joey Tatts, age twenty-seven, lately of the Species. Visions of vicious bikers with brass knuckles and black leather jackets swarmed through my mind. The business of the Species was mostly crystal meth and whatever else they had to do to exact payments and enforce loyalty. Joey Tatts’s rap sheet was a regular not-to-do list: rape, aggravated assault, drug dealing, terroristic threats. He’d done some prison time but was now in Mallard Pond because a girlfriend beat his head in with a tire iron. Joey, explained Jeri, was unconscious and immobile. No one knew if he’d ever wake up or how impaired he’d be if he ever did come to. His roommate was an older man in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. “Joey is calm as can be, but poor Mr. Frable gets agitated. Sometimes he takes a swing at his caregivers,” warned Jeri. “And don’t be surprised if he calls out to family that isn’t there or repeats the last thing he’s heard. He’s quite the parrot.”
At this point, Joey Snavely had lain three months in twilight. His face and head did not look indented at all or swollen from the beating. He had thinning black hair, a long nose, a sharp Adam’s apple. Through a tube in his gut he received formula, and, to prevent bedsores, aides came in every two hours to reposition him. Joey peed through a catheter into a bedside bag. He moved his bowels in a diaper. He seemed a living sack.
I knew that bikers loved body art, but Joey was in a class by himself. His illustrated skin made real nudity impossible. Under his hospital gown, he looked clothed in paisley-printed long sleeves and leggings. Green snakes encircled him, skulls grinned from his arms, on one calf was a Betty, on the other a Veronica. And this was not to mention the chains, the tombstones commemorating departed bikers, the MacDonald’s golden arches, a red and blue Spider-Man, several crosses, and the name of a woman. Was she the one who’d crowned him?
Joey was motionless but for this: as if some internal clock told him it was time to wake, he occasionally opened his eyes. No awareness dawned upon his gaze, but even so I knew that, in his fathoms, he might be able to hear and think. Perhaps the flame of consciousness had not completely guttered out.
“Hi, Joey,” I chirruped at my first solo visit. I felt like a moron. For all I knew I was talking to myself. I thought that Mr. Frable was asleep.
“Hi, Joey. Hi, Joey. Hi, Joey,” Mr. Frable bounced the greeting back at me. Joey, on the other hand, remained somnolent. A piece of me envied his mindless calm. Ah, to be tucked between the clean white sheets of oblivion.
“I hope you aren’t in any pain, Joey,” I continued. It hardly seemed as though the guy could process a word. I told him my name was Kenneth Watson and that I was a middle school vice principal. I tried to make a joke about being the heavy at school and said I was a softie at heart.
“Are you my son?” Mr. Frable called over to me. “My son’s coming to visit me.” He kicked his covers and kept asking if I were his son. I didn’t know how to reply.
I began my session by reading issues of Spider-Man and Archie comics, then moved on to Batman and Fantastic Four. I commented on major sports and how funny the late-night comedians were as I tried to tell a few of their jokes. I vented about my problems with the cable company and my broken garbage disposal. All the personal trifles I withheld from colleagues at Shady Hill Middle School, I lavished on Joey Tatts. The staff at Mallard Pond was delighted by my dedication, especially since the number of patient companions had dwindled. I kept the required observation logs and noted Joey’s reactions, which were always nil. For the first few weeks I babbled on, weirdly high on my own chatter. But at night my remorse returned with visions of Evermay in the headlights. Blood from my scratching often speckled my sheets.
My first self mocked the goodness of my second self. I wanted to confess aloud my crime to Joey Tatts and kept waiting for the right moment. Being an outlaw, I thought that he would understand.
One day when Mr. Frable appeared to be asleep, the room TV droning through a talk show, and Joey between visits from nurses and aides, I sat by the side of his bed. I spoke to him in a penitent voice. “Joey, I have done things I should not have done and left undone things I should have done.” I told Joey the story of my disaster, said that I wondered if the girl’s act was a plea for rescue or an act of suicide. I told him that I suspected the uncle and of my secret restitution through good deeds. How self-serving it all sounded and far from true repentance, yet as I spoke to him I noticed that, for the first time since the accident, I felt no urge to scratch my skin. I told him that I could not bring myself to confess to the cops. Maybe I was doing the right thing in telling all this to Joey, but the more I revealed, the more ashamed I felt.
“Joey, you’re the only one who knows that I hit Evermay Blair.”
Just then Mr. Frable started to hyperventilate and began to kick off his covers. “You hit Evermay Blair! You hit Evermay Blair!” he shrieked. “You lousy bastard.” The old man lurched out of bed, his hospital gown billowing, and came at me. I dashed from the room and called for help. Some aides hustled in and wrestled with Mr. Frable, who continued to thrash and shout Evermay’s name. The aides put Mr. Frable back in bed, fixed him in restraints, administered a sedative.
“I don’t know what that was all about,” I said, putting my hand to my chest. My heart fluttered like a moth, and those old blackbirds banged in my head.
“He goes off like that sometimes,” said one of the aides. “Who is Evermay Blair? He’s never said that name before.”
I gestured that I hadn’t a clue.
“Kenneth, you look pale. Let me take your blood pressure,” offered the other aide.
Jeri Jankowski hurried toward me. “Kenneth, please accept my apologies. I feel just terrible about this!” She took my hand. “Look how upset you are.” She urged me to go home, but I said I wanted to say goodbye to Joey first.
As the staff hovered around us, I reached for Joey’s hand.
At my touch, Joey opened his eyes. This was no reflex, no blind awakening. Coherence sharpened on his face. He gazed up at me and silently he said: I am sorry. I am sorry for your troubles. But you hit a kid? You didn’t stay with the body? Man, even I would have done that. Turn yourself in for God’s sake.
I nodded back. For a moment I felt light, restored, and calm. I knew what I had to do. Then Joey sank back into his twilight, and the leaden doors of my outer self locked tight again.
The next morning, I called Jeri and told her that I could not return to Mallard Pond. The conversation was quick. I stayed home for a few days, cleaned my garage, shredded some old papers, washed my clothes. But soon I heard the call, and once again the second Kenneth took up his charge, for there was no end of damage in the world and more than enough work to fill my darkened days with purpose.