Lewis Monroe is that invisible stranger beside you on the train. You’ve passed him many times before but you never notice him. He’s nobody, just a man momentarily passing through your world. You do know Hannah Larson. She’s the sweet but quiet young woman that brings you your latte. Lewis and Hannah have never met each other. But that’s about to change.
Hannah gingerly tiptoed across the concrete break wall, carefully avoiding the cracks that exposed the icy waters below. It had been one of the coldest winters in years, one of the snowiest as well. I’d read in the paper that the eighty-something inches marked the third highest seasonal snowfall total in the past century. Imagine that, three out of a hundred.
But it wasn’t like the super-hyped Snowmageddon of 2011, when Mother Nature pounded Chicago with nearly two feet of the white stuff over a thirty-six hour period. That one was memorable, when everything shut down and everyone barricaded themselves indoors. It was as if there was some sort of zombie apocalypse. I remember seeing all the people scrambling to leave downtown early, rapidly packing their bags as if they’d only had sixty seconds before a ticking bomb exploded.
When I finally got ready to leave, the streets were mostly deserted. I waited an hour for a bus. When none came, I walked the two miles home, trudging along the slushy sidewalk and sliding every twenty feet. When I finally got home, I watched from the window of my studio apartment for another forty minutes. Still, no bus ever came.
No, this winter wasn’t like that. In fact, there was nothing notable about it. It was just long and gray. A dusting here. Seven inches of snow there. Another half foot the following Friday. On and on it went. But this winter was no Snowmageddon.
The sun had already set. But with a full moon illuminating a cloudless night, I could watch Hannah clearly from a distance. I’d followed her before. It was easy to do. She always walked alone, off in her own little world. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I stalked her. I like to think that I was actually protecting her, keeping a careful eye to ensure her safety during one of her evening strolls.
When she neared the end of the break wall, Hannah sat down. She took off her coat and rolled it into a ball. She plopped down on top of it, wiggling her butt back and forth until she finally got comfortable. I thought she was crazy. It was quite cold, but thank goodness it wasn’t windy. That’s when I noticed I’d been sweating. So I unzipped my jacket half way down. The cold air swatted at my chest like needles. But it felt good, refreshing. I stood behind a tree, maybe sixty feet back and watched, breathing quietly into my hands so she couldn’t hear me.
She sat with her legs crossed, writing something in a journal. She’d look up from time to time, staring out into Lake Michigan. I glanced around but there was nothing out there, just blocks of ice that drifted aimlessly far out into the horizon. Hannah turned around twice to look behind her. I’m fairly certain she didn’t see me. Or if she did, she didn’t care enough to do anything about it. When she turned back around a third time, I took a peek behind me. But there was no one there, absolutely nothing.
She removed her sweater first and then a white t-shirt underneath, leaving only an opal-colored bra that covered her shivering body. That’s definitely not right. I moved up slowly, ten steps, ducking behind another tree to get a closer look.
Then she jumped. I closed my eyes for a split second, thinking they were playing games with me. I didn’t just see what I thought I saw, did I? I opened them and there was nothing. I heard the splash, but that must have been a mirage as well. One second, then two, followed by three and four. Four seconds of pure silence. And then I heard her. “Please. Help me. I don’t want this. No. Please,” Hannah screamed. I jumped out from behind the tree and took off running. “I’m coming, Hannah. I’m coming,” I shouted.
I’m so nervous. Of course I’m always nervous, so this time isn’t all that different I suppose. But I’m more apprehensive than usual. Because this time, I’m reading for Linus Miller’s A Yellow Rose for Abigail. It’s not like I haven’t worked for Linus before, because I have. But that was nearly five years ago, and I had a measly three lines. I hope he remembers me. He’s a bit, how should I say it, spacey and disorganized. I think he’s often on something. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw him. It was two years ago, when he received an award for directing a play. I said “congratulations” to him when I passed him during the reception. He replied with a nonchalant “thank you” and just kept walking past me, hurrying out the door and into a dark sedan with black tinted windows.
No, I’m not nervous at all, I’m petrified. I need this. I really do. I’ll be honest, things haven’t been great lately. The last gig I had was three months ago, and that was for a TV commercial, a thirty-second spot. I played one of four girlfriends in a local television ad for a micro-brewery. I just had to smile and laugh for fifteen seconds. It took close to fifty takes. My jaw ached for days. But the commercial never aired. The founder of the brewery got caught bribing a health inspector or something like that. The entire company shut down eight months later.
As luck would have it, Baylor Sullivan is also reading for A Yellow Rose. At least that’s the rumor. I don’t know why she bothers. Or why she’s even still in Chicago. She spent three weeks last summer in LA shooting a romantic comedy. She wasn’t the lead or anything like that, but she had close to thirty lines in the film. Yep, I counted them. The movie went on to gross $40 million dollars. How do I know she was out in sunny California for three weeks? Easy, just monitor her Instagram feed. It was non-stop “look at me.”
I know I’m just being jealous. And to be fair, Baylor is nice. And beautiful. And tall. And super skinny. I still have the issue of Shape magazine, the one with her flexing her toned arms on the front cover. I just don’t understand why she’s interested in A Yellow Rose. It seems like something below her pay grade or status level. The production will get a two week run at The Alley, a place that can barely cram sixty people. Maybe the rumors are wrong and Baylor is not auditioning at all. Or maybe she’ll finally just pack up all her stuff and move out to Hollywood.
I hate it when she comes into my café. She’s always with an entourage, at least three people but usually four or five, sometimes more. They all look the same. They’re all equally loud. They’ll spend hours sipping tea or bottled water. Every so often, two of them might split a salad. Not that it matters though, because they’re awful tippers. Once however, Baylor slipped me a ten dollar bill on a thirty five dollar tab. That was nice. But it was just the one time.
I’m glad they didn’t come in tonight. I wouldn’t have been able to handle their screeching, and the ensuing aftermath — a migraine that would keep me up until well past midnight. I couldn’t have that happen tonight. I need a goodnight sleep, because tomorrow’s a big day, my audition for A Yellow Rose. It’s time for bed.
I vividly remember the first time I saw Hannah. It was after work, or rather during work. I mean, I was supposed to be at work, but they had shut down my terminal early. Massive thunderstorms and tornado-force winds had been rattling the building all day. The lights flickered on and off every half-hour. I had to reboot my computer a dozen times, losing ten to twenty minutes of entry after each outage.
Shortly after 9:00pm, the storm knocked out the electricity for good, for as far as the eye could see. When the phone rang, I picked up and listened to the voice of my supervisor, a woman I’d spoken to hundreds of times before even though I had never actually met her. She told me they’d be rerouting my data to another technician, someone in Texas apparently, and that I could leave for the evening. I looked around my tiny, eighty square foot office, double checking I had everything before locking the door behind me and leaving.
I had to trek down twenty-two flights of stairs, guided only by the dim flood lights powered by emergency generators. When I arrived at ground level, all the streetlights were out. People were everywhere, but all you could see were flashlights and the glowing screens of cell phones. It was so hot, one of those hard to breathe, muggy heats. I saw a group of adolescent boys running up and down the street with their shirts off, shouting, laughing and hitting each other. I wanted no part of it so I walked the other direction. I kept heading down the block, around the back of the building and then across another street. I kept going until I could hear the boys no more. Then I made another right turn and started towards home.
I walked up Dearborn Street, stopping periodically to peer into the windows of the old greystone houses. Candles and lanterns cast creepy shadows across living rooms. Every other house was like a different television channel. An old couple sitting in oversized chairs, the man reading a newspaper, the woman doing a crossword. A family of four around a large wooden table, throwing their hands around frantically in a thrilling game of Uno. A couple engaged in passionate sex. I assume it was a couple. I only saw a woman’s back, her head rapidly popping up and down above the top of a couch.
I knew I was close to home when I saw the neon light for The Bottomless Mug. Apparently they had electricity. I had never been inside. I’m not much of a coffee or tea drinker. I like my Mountain Dews and 5-hour Energy bottles. I usually have one of each during the first half of my night shift. I don’t drink either during the last six hours of work though. Because if I did, I’d never be able to get to sleep.
I liked standing outside “The Mug” — that’s what all the kids called it. There were always a group of high school students inside, huddled around tables with extremely thick textbooks scattered across the wooden table tops. I wondered if that would have been me, if I’d actually gone to high school. But the only time I’d ever even been in one was when I worked as an overnight janitor in my early twenties.
I was fixated on two students working on a math problem when Hannah approached the table. Out of nowhere, I immediately felt woozy. Apparently I had forgotten to exhale. My lips dried up and I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was staring at the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She had a pen in her mouth, biting down on a cap as she stood above the two young teens. One of the students said something and she removed the pen from her soft red lips and stuck it into her apron. She smiled and nodded, saying something to the girl before grabbing an empty coffee cup and leaving. She had long, silky brown hair, pulled into a pony tail that ran half way down her back.
When she disappeared into the kitchen, I exhaled, finally remembering how to breathe again. From that night on, I always walked up Dearborn Street, stopping every chance I could get to spend a few minutes with Hannah.
The. Best. Day. Ever. Don’t call me Hannah anymore, for I am now Abigail! “Outstanding,” was the first word out of Whitney Bryant’s mouth. She’s the executive producer of A Yellow Rose for Abigail. I can’t remember what she said after that, but it was something along the lines of “Thank you. That was nice.” It took a lot of effort, but I’m fairly certain I was able to suppress a smile. “Act like you’ve been there before,” my drama teacher used to scream at me. “Behave like a professional lady,” she would add. I looked over at Linus, leaning against a chair with his arms crossed. He didn’t say anything, but I swear I caught an ever so slight smile.
It didn’t take long, three days to be exact, for them to get back to me. It felt like three weeks though. I started crying almost immediately. “Ms. Larson, we are pleased to extend to you the lead role of Abigail Madden in A Yellow Rose for Abigail. If you have a calendar and pad handy, I’d like to go over some details,” said Whitney’s assistant. Then the phone went dead. I’d screamed in joy so loudly that I inadvertently dropped the phone and disconnected the call.
When the assistant called again, I answered on the first ring, turned on the speaker phone and set it down on the dining table. Then I sat on both hands, making sure my sweaty palms didn’t come anywhere near the vicinity of the phone when she spoke. I said “I’m so sorry” three times before the assistant interrupted with only laughter. My hands shook the whole time, but I managed to jot down all the details — the rehearsal schedule, paperwork I needed to fill out and my pay. I’d be receiving a $600 stipend for the entire run. It was less then what I received for the microbrewery commercial, but I didn’t care. At least someone would see me in this. After the call, I finally calmed down, and only then did I act like I’d been there before.
I pulled down the cookie jar from atop the fridge. It’s where I put all the “Hanna fun” money — any extra funds left over after rent, utilities and groceries. It had been nearly two months since the last time I’d emptied the jar, when I used $237.42 to replace my stolen bike. I’d taken the front wheel (the only thing the thief left behind) to the bicycle shop, asking them how much it would cost to replace everything but the tire. I think the salesman thought I was joking. Apparently that’s not how you buy a bike.
I never count what’s in the jar until it’s time to empty it. It’s sort of a treat like that, a total surprise. I don’t know much is there until I pull out all the bills. Outside of emergencies like the bike, I only open it twice a year, on my birthday and during Christmas. Or on special occasions, like today. I poured all the money out on the table. But before I started counting it, I stopped. I grabbed a ten and several singles from the pile and ran out to Walgreens, where I spent ten minutes deciding which bottle of Chardonnay to buy.
The wine tasted so good, possibly the best I’d ever had. I finished off a second glass before returning to the dining table. I pulled out three dollars and some change out of my jeans, money left over from the trip to Walgreens. I straightened out all the bills, organizing them into piles of ones, fives and tens. I knew there was also a twenty in the jar, but to my surprise, there were two! The final tally was three nickels over $137. It was originally only $127 when I found an extra ten dollar bill that had fallen onto the floor. Today was full of wonderful surprises.
I set the quarters aside for laundry and put the rest of the change back into the jar. With $130 in hand, I’m now off to have a Hannah day of celebration! I’m going to stop by the Gap first. I’d been eyeing an Indigo dress for a couple of months. I’d been hoping they’d drop the price by now, but oh well, not everything can be perfect. I’m buying it. I can’t wait to wear it to the cash register, have the cashier clip the tags and just hand me a receipt. I figure that’ll leave me with about $70 for a movie, with popcorn and a drink. And a large one at that. And then who knows? Maybe I’ll treat myself to some flowers at the farmer’s market. Or maybe I’ll have a nice meal, some place like Mia’s Tapas to show off my new dress. I might even order another glass of wine. The. Best. Day. Ever.
I was the fifth person in line, leaning against the concrete wall an arm’s length behind a young woman. She was part of a group of four who apparently all knew each other. Three of the girls held phones in their hands, two thumbing away on the key pads in rapid fashion. A theater attendant stopped their loud chatter, but only for a brief moment, when he unlocked the front doors. But it wasn’t time yet to enter. He held it open for a co-worker, who dragged four stanchions out onto the sidewalk and connected them to each other via retractable elastic belts. A few minutes later, a mother with two teenage daughters got into the line behind me.
The theater was small, the stage tiny. I practically had my choice of seats. But I paused for a moment, waiting for the four women to pick first. I wanted to sit as far from them as possible. I was happy when they finally unblocked the aisle and made their way towards the front, picking out center seats in the first row. I took a seat in the far back, on the left side, all the way in from aisle. I watched the audience filter in, a sense of excitement filling the air. It didn’t take long to pack the place, but that’s not surprising. I figured there were a hundred seats max, if that. The crowd continued to talk in a low murmur, all the way up until the overhead lights dimmed. When the curtains began to pull back, the theater grew silent. All I could hear was the light squeaking of wheels against a metal curtain rail, and my own breathing.
“Oh, Abigail. You must not stand out in the rain like that, dear. Please, darling. Come in, warm yourself by the fire. You must keep up your energy.”
“Mother, please. I can’t. Not now.”
Abigail’s eyes swept across the theater, from left to right and then back again. She let her gaze linger for a moment, and I could feel her eyes meeting mine. I immediately slumped down, afraid she’d see me. But I quickly returned upright when I realized how far back I actually was, and that the theater was too dark, the overhead stage lights blinding Abigail to the seated audience.
She began to cry, the tears flowing slowly down both cheeks. She wiped them away with her left hand. Her right arm had been immobilized, pressed against her body in an over the shoulder sling. I couldn’t figure out what the play was about. Perhaps I should have glanced at the playbill first. Too late for that now. It was mostly dialogue between Abigail and her mother. So this is what theater is all about? I don’t think this is for me.
There was a lot of arguing, then comforting, between the mother and daughter. A doctor would periodically walk through a door and onto the stage. She’d provide updates about a girl named Penelope, apparently Abigail’s best friend. Penelope had remained in a coma after a car accident. As the play continued, you could see a transformation in Abigail. The cast on her right arm disappeared. But her face aged, becoming thinner and paler through each new act. Make up, I presume. That part was neat.
Near the end of the play, Abigail answered a knock on the door. It was Penelope’s father. Abigail looked much older than she did during the first act, maybe fifteen or twenty years older? Her mother had aged too. She sat asleep in a wheelchair, a wool blanket pulled across her lap. The dad said they were taking Penelope off life support. He left Abigail with Penelope’s diary and a single, dried yellow rose. Abigail read an entry from the diary, examined the rose and smiled as the curtains closed.
Why me? I don’t deserve this. Why does this always happen to me?
I can’t stop replaying it over and over in my head. I looked. I always look. The car came out of nowhere. I didn’t even hear it. I heard a screech, so I turned. The next thing I knew, I woke up and I’m lying in a hospital bed. I pleaded with them to let me go. I had to get to The Alley immediately. I couldn’t miss my appointment. It was the most important meeting of my life, I told the doctor. He shook his head and kept apologizing. “Please stop moving, Hannah,” he said. “You have internal injuries.” He called two nurses over. They held me down. One of them stuck something in my arm and I fell back asleep.
The police visited me three times. That was two times more than anyone else. Only Molly, my co-worker and friend from The Bottomless Mug, came to see me. On the first visit, the police asked me a lot of questions. But I had little to offer. I didn’t see anything. I remembered nothing. I had just finished dinner at Mia’s Tapas when it happened. Was I with anyone, they asked? No, I had dined alone. I wasn’t sure why that even mattered. But that was the gist of it. I couldn’t remember or add much else.
On the second police visit, I asked all the questions. The officer’s answers were polite. They were still looking for witnesses. They were still processing evidence from the scene. They’d get back to me as soon as possible. On the third visit, they told me they’d found the car. It had been stolen, but beyond that they had nothing else. “Don’t worry,” said the officer. “We’ll keep searching for the hit and run driver.”
Don’t worry. I can’t get those words out of my head. It’s all I think about now. I begged Whitney and Linus, but they said there was nothing they could do. They couldn’t postpone production. Another play was already lined up at the venue after A Yellow Rose’s run. Linus said sorry once and left the room. I never saw him again. Whitney let me cry in her office for a half hour while she worked at her computer. She said she would consider me for another role. But when I asked her what she had in mind, Whitney said she wouldn’t be producing anything until the following year. And even that was a maybe, she added. So they went with Baylor as my replacement.
The landlord just stopped by and said I was now three weeks late on rent. I showed him my cast but he just laughed. He said I had twenty four hours to pay, or else he’d start the eviction process. But before that, he’d report me to a collection agency. He said he’d destroy my credit and my life would be ruined. I didn’t exactly understand what he meant by that, but then he gave me one other choice. I could go upstairs with him to his apartment and we could “work something out.” I screamed at him and told him to get out of my apartment. “Fine then. You have twenty four hours to pay or else you’re out.” I could still hear him in the hallway laughing when I threw my “Hannah fun” jar at the door. The glass shattered, spilling coins everywhere.
I asked Molly if I could stay with her. She balled the whole time we talked, telling me she wished she could help. But she’s a single mom with an eight and a twelve year old, all in a one bedroom apartment. Maybe I could ask our boss to loan me some money, she suggested. But my manager said they don’t do that anymore, not since a waitress ran off with over a thousand dollars of unpaid debt.
So there you have it. This is it. I’m left with no options. If you’re reading this, then I want you to know everything. The landlord’s name is Bruce Keener. He’s a vulture, a horrible person. Please make sure everyone knows this. I don’t have much, but anything that’s left here in my apartment; I want my friend, Molly Hawkins to have. Anything she doesn’t want should be donated to charity. You don’t need to notify anyone else. No one cares about me, so there’s no reason to stick around. So long. Bye.
I jumped out from behind the tree as quickly as I could. “I’m coming, Hannah. I’m coming,” I shouted. I didn’t know if she heard me, but I wanted her to know I was on my way, hoping it would calm her. I had barely gone ten feet when I felt me left leg slide. There must have been a patch of ice underneath the pile of leaves.
The next thing I knew, I woke up with a throbbing bump on the back of my head. I reached back to massage it and felt the bleeding. I remember still lying on my back, staring straight up and seeing all the stars in the sky. I immediately caught a glimpse of Orion the Hunter, and it reminded me of the summers I spent on my uncle’s farm. I’d lie out in a corn field with my cousin and we’d spend all night searching for constellations.
I don’t know long I was knocked out, but judging from the tiny pool of blood on the snow, it wasn’t that long. I walked briskly, paying extra caution to the uneven ground, until I arrived at the pile of Hannah’s belongings. I walked past them and edged out onto the break wall. My feet slid some more, the second time dropping me to my knees. I crawled the rest of the way until I reached the end. I stood up slowly, flapping my arms to maintain my balance.
“Hannah?” I shouted. I squinted my eyes as I stared into the water. But nothing. I dropped onto my stomach and pushed up my right sleeve. I parted the small ice blocks to get a better view into the water. But it was so dark, mocha like. I couldn’t see deeper than a couple of inches. “Hannah. Where are you?” I screamed. I turned around and looked at the beach behind me. I’d hoped that maybe she had swam back to the shore and was standing above her clothes, just watching and laughing at me. But all I could see was her journal resting on top of her neatly folded clothes.
When I pulled my hand out of the water, it felt like someone was stabbing entire right arm. I breathed into my palm but it did little to counter the numbness on my fingertips. I continued to look around, searching for any movement in the water. But I began to feel dizzy. I touched the back of my head again and felt the blood oozing through my fingers. “Help,” I yelled as loud as I could. Maybe a jogger might be passing by. Or a park district ranger making his nightly rounds. But no one came. No one heard. I searched for Hannah for another twenty minutes before retreating back to the beach, to the safety of land.
Maybe I should have jumped in. But then what? I don’t know how deep the water was along the break wall. What if I couldn’t pull myself up? How long could I have lasted in the water? My fingers felt like they were going to fall off, even just after a minute in the icy waters. I didn’t know what else to do. I collected Hannah’s belongings and started back across the park. I tried running but immediately felt unsteady again, as if I was about to fall over. So I slowed down and walked. When I get back out to the street, I’ll call the police. Or flag down a driver to dial 9–1–1.
I don’t know why, but I never hailed a car. I didn’t go to the police either. I just walked back to my apartment. I threw Hannah’s clothes and journal onto the floor and went to the bathroom. I soaked a towel under the faucet, squeezed out the excess moisture and pressed the towel to the back of my head. I went back out into the living room and dropped to the floor beside Hannah’s stuff. I spread out her clothes on the floor, picturing her warm body inside of them. I could smell the faint fragrance of her perfume on her sweater. The diary was wet, the ink smeared on the pages inside. I pulled the pen out from the spiral binding of the journal. When I saw the bite marks along the cap of the pen, I smiled. She was so beautiful.