Veronica saw the bleeding man first, then the city bus barreling towards him. The coffee-skinned man stood in the middle of the crosswalk, blood staining the front of his flannel shirt, holding a beat up denim jacket. The ragged hems of his jeans brushed the tops of his bare feet. He turned and looked directly at her.
The bus had to stop. The driver must see him. But it rumbled as it picked up speed at the changing of the traffic light to yellow.
“Hey!” Veronica shouted at the man as her Australian Shepherd, Harry, tugged on his leash. “Get out of the way!” The man just stood staring. It crossed her mind to run out and push him, but she hung back, paralyzed, clutching Harry’s leash up high against her chest.
The bus charged on.
“No!” she screamed at the moment of impact. But then it rolled on, and the bleeding man had disappeared. It was as if he never existed. Nothing marked his presence there—no blood stains on the ground. And around her, people stared—not at where he had been. At her.
Veronica looked back at them, twisting the leash. Seven thirty on a Friday morning, and plenty of Sacramento’s workforce hurried along the sidewalks or rode their bikes. Her cheeks grew hot despite the chill in the air. Plenty of people to see her acting like a lunatic. They had not seen the man with the bloody shirt. Why did this keep happening to her? Now these people thought she was crazy. The burning in Veronica’s cheeks spread to her ears and neck.
Looking down to avoid their eyes, she dug her phone out of her pocket and checked the time. It came as a relief to realize she had to get home with Harry now if she hoped to make it on time to work.
See, she thought at them all, I’m just like you. I have a dog to walk and a job to go to.
With a quick pat on Harry’s head she led him away from the intersection, back towards her duplex. What a crappy way to start a morning. Well, she could put it behind her—forget all about it. Besides, she had plenty to do today without getting distracted by embarrassing herself in front of strangers.
The chill never left the air, even by that afternoon. The whole month of February had been cold, at least by California standards.
As Veronica jogged through the school parking lot towards her little blue car, she could feel the bite in the air putting a rosy glow into her pale cheeks. She could see her breath, too. She fumbled with the keys, her fingers clumsy both from cold and hurry. No time to lose: she had shopping and decorating to do to prepare for her best friend Melanie’s surprise birthday party.
The engine made a bad noise when she turned the key in the ignition but her car started and made no more fuss all the way to the grocery store, so Veronica chose to forget she ever heard the noise. The 1996 Honda Civic had over a hundred thousand miles. She knew—knew, she willed at the car—that it would go for at least another fifty thousand. Bad noises notwithstanding.
She pulled into the lot of the Safeway on 30th and J and hopped out of the car. She had her list in one hand and blue denim purse in the other. She grabbed a cart and trotted into the store. Beer, wine, chips, salsa, crackers, cheese.
Luckily, Melanie’s mother had insisted on giving Veronica a fifty as a contribution to the party prep, or Veronica might have spent some time fretting over how this party would affect her budget.
Turning down the pet aisle she added canned cat and dog food to the cart.
She stopped and contemplated the dog treats. Plain rawhide seemed boring, but was flavored any good? She took a step back and ran into another cart.
“Oh! Sorry,” she said.
A handsome Asian man was pushing the cart.
Veronica sucked in her breath. An intense feeling of recognition washed over her. It was so strong, she felt dizzy. She leaned against her own cart’s handle, blinking at him. Where did she know him from?
“It’s okay,” he said. He frowned a little.
She felt like she knew him. She felt like she should know everything about him—like meeting a brother or boyfriend unexpectedly—but she couldn’t think of where she knew him from. She couldn’t think of his name.
“Are you alright?” he asked. He didn’t seem to know her.
She blinked some more. It was so odd. “Um. Yes,” she managed. He wheeled by her and turned at the end of the aisle, disappearing. She stared after him. Her heart was pounding. She knew him. She knew she knew him. But she didn’t know from where, or how, or anything else about him.
Veronica closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Okay, just let it go.
But the weirdness stayed with her as she hurried through the store and pulled some more groceries from the shelves.
Have to get home and decorate. No sense obsessing over some good-looking guy.
But she knew him. Oh, it was just too strange.
Home was a small duplex next to the train tracks whose chief attractions were being walking distance to the library at McKinley Park and having a low rent.
Veronica’s two cats greeted her with concerted attempts to trip her, as if she might drop open cans of food in the process. Blossom was a long-haired eight year old white cat and Binky was a handsome, if chubby, three year old seal-point Birman.
She sang to them an altered version of the “Pinky and the Brain” theme song from the old Animaniacs cartoons as she went to the kitchen to put away the groceries and pour them some dry kibble.
“The Binky and the Bloss, the Binky and the Bloss,” she sang. Blossom sniffed the kibble and walked away, unimpressed, but Binky tucked in. “One likes to eat, the other likes to fuss.”
Veronica stroked Blossom a few times to show no hard feelings and then opened the door to the tiny backyard where Harry spent the day when Veronica was at work.
Harry barreled over and licked Veronica’s hand, dancing around her and wagging his stub of a tail. Like all of Veronica’s pets, Harry was a rescue. This show of affection and enthusiasm warmed Veronica’s heart doubly, because she could still remember a time when the dog was afraid to be touched.
“I almost got you a rawhide bone today, bud,” she told him. “Sorry I didn’t.” The encounter with the familiar man had so rattled her she’d moved on without selecting a treat. “I’ll get you one tomorrow. You can hold me to that.” Harry ran to his squeaky ball in the living room and barreled back to the kitchen, squeaking all the way.
“Okay, maybe in a while. Gotta decorate the living room first.”
The living room was small, with few items of furniture.
One corner of the room was devoted to painting, with a drop cloth, easel, stool and canvas.
She had a framed poster of Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina on one wall, and on another, her prized autographed photo of Sophia Loren at the Romanoff, taken in 1958, a gift from Veronica’s Aunt Cybele. That and some rugs were about it for décor.
The first thing Veronica did was take the large canvas she was working on off its easel, then she moved everything for her art into her bedroom.
She stopped for a moment to look at her work in progress: an angel. A co-worker was going to buy it when it was completed. It would be Veronica’s first real sale.
She had been painting variations of this angel for as long as she could remember. Her personal attachment to each picture showed in that they were getting so populous that they crowded ever square foot of her bedroom walls. The new painting was going well, and she wasn’t sure she was going to be okay with parting with it.
Veronica grimaced. This was not the time for thinking about her art. She had so much to do for the party! Going back into the main room, she blew up five balloons before she started to feel light-headed and tied them together with ribbons which she pinned to the wall.
Pink, green and blue streamers she taped across the room, standing on a chair to make sure they were high enough not to make people duck under them. Bloss decided to help and started wrestling with the green streamer roll until she’d gotten herself tangled, then chased around the duplex with Binky in hot pursuit while Harry watched, looking concerned and puzzled.
Veronica laughed at them and finally rescued Blossom from the streamer monster. The cat jumped onto the window sill and set about taking a bath and pretending nothing had happened.
Ten minutes later the first guests arrived. Harry went nuts barking at the door. She took the dog to the back and put him out.
Guests came in a steady stream. Veronica put out refreshments and made small talk. A few minutes before three she got a text from Angie, Melanie’s teenage daughter, who was in on the surprise.
“They’re here! Okay everybody!” Veronica said.
A cacophony of shushing and shuffling made Veronica worry that they would give everything away, but she could hear Angie’s voice coming and then suddenly everyone inside went quiet. Veronica hurried to the doorway of the kitchen.
The knock came.
“Come in!” she called.
She could hear Melanie muttering something and Angie say, “Just open it, okay? I have to be home by three thirty so Grant can call me.” Which made no sense since she had a cell phone but worked perfectly as teenager logic. The door swung open.
Veronica caught her breath. Her hands flew up defensively.
Walking through the door was Angie, but her skin was an awful shade of blue.
She was soaked.
She turned to Veronica, opening and shutting her mouth. No sound came out.
Veronica clamped her hands over her mouth to stifle a scream.