Raymond Holmes in Brampton, Ontario. He writes plays, novellas and short stories. His stories have been published in Unleashed Ink, an anthology created by the Barrie Writers Club, The Northern Appeal, a Simcoe County literary magazine and Commuterlit, a Toronto based ezine. His plays Boris and Hermanand The Lonely Vigil Of Emily Baxterhave been performed at the South Simcoe Theatre in Cookstown, Ontario. The latter play was awarded third prize in the 2014 Ottawa Little Theatre Playwriting Contest. His play The Pooman, will be read at the South Simcoe Theatre in June, 2018. Raymond also enjoys making furniture and playing the violin, although he admits to performing the latter activity rather poorly.
What I am about to tell you is true. I swear it.
At first, I thought it was a dream during a period of restless sleep later that night, or the product of an imagination distorted by the exhausting double shift, but now I’m convinced it really happened.
It occurred on September 28, 2017, a rainy night. I’ve been a cab driver for twenty-five years. I like my job, but it’s tough slogging: long hours, all kinds of weather, traffic jams, cooped up in what seems, at times, like a mobile sardine can. On the plus side, meeting people is the best part of the job. It helps if you like your fellow human beings.
Most fares are decent souls, but there’s the odd drunk or disgruntled individual to deal with. Early on, a cabby learns to accept people for who they are. Encounters are brief and annoyances, for the most part, are dust to be brushed away and forgotten.
Out-of-the-ordinary events do occur, but nothing like what happened on that wet, cold evening last fall…
It rained all day and into the evening. The axiom More rain equals more fares and more money wasn’t in effect that night.
Cab drivers always pray for rain. No one likes to get wet and if you don’t have your own vehicle the only options are to use an umbrella or take a cab. People don’t seem to like umbrellas.
The downpour fell across the black top like a drifting curtain, dancing whichever way the wind urged it. Islands of golden light shimmered on the surface, breaking into pieces then re-connecting again as the wind moved tree branches back and forth across the yellow gleam of the street lamps. The tires of the cab emitted a coarse whisper over the deserted, wet road. Brilliant flashes of lightning hung in the sky like twisted knives, followed by drumbeats of thunder.
The radio was silent, punctuated by intermittent static.
“Need a car for area four,” the dispatcher said.
Couldn’t take the fare. I was in area six.
No street pickups and no radio calls. Enough driving for one evening, I decided.
On the way home, I noticed a short, solitary figure standing at the corner of Belmont Street and Middle Road under a tent of light cast by the street lamp. I stopped the car and watched. The person wore a long-sleeved hoodie and track pants, arms clasped against the chest. I could see the sheen of water-saturated clothing and rain dripping from the elbows. Who would stand outside in this deluge? The sight sent shivers up and down my cramped back muscles.
The bus in this area ran on the hour and it was ten past—a long wait for the next one. Could it be a fare? Even people who rarely used cabs often got tired of waiting in inclement conditions. I held back. Mike in car number 457 was robbed a month ago by someone with a similar description. Maybe this person’s a druggie. Perhaps I should keep going. The figure had a slight build. A youth, perhaps? It was a terrible night; unfit for man or beast. I’d be grateful if someone stopped to pick up my child in this kind of weather. It wouldn’t be right to just drive away.
I stopped and lowered the glass on the front passenger power window. I kept the doors locked until I could see the face. You can tell a lot by how they look. Addicts have a wild, desperate appearance. Crooks and thugs look mean and threatening.
The person was motionless, head bowed. The face wasn’t visible through the gap bordered by the folds of the hood.
“Lousy night. Need a cab?” I said.
As the head lifted, the dripping edges of the hood parted to reveal the pale, round face of a young woman. The tension in my hands relaxed. She bent down to look in at me but didn’t reply.
“Hate to see you standing out here alone, soaking wet.”
She stared for a few moments. I expected her to decline, but she said, “Yes, I would like a ride.”
The voice was soft and even. Her teeth should have been chattering from the soggy chill, but in spite of being drenched by cold water, she didn’t appear to be uncomfortable.
I unlocked the doors and waited, but she made no move to enter the car.
“Sorry. Forgot my manners for a moment,” I said, before jumping out and opening the rear door. Doing that for customers was a long-lost courtesy in the taxi business.
She slid into the back seat. Good thing it was vinyl covered. Wet cloth seats are a bitch to dry out this time of year. I got back in and took a tissue to my rain-spotted glasses.
“Where can I take you?”
“I want to go home,” she said, in a plaintive tone that reminded me of a tired child about to burst into tears.
She hesitated, as if unsure. “It’s Twenty-three Stone Gate Circle—in Bennington.”
Hadn’t been to that address before. After turning on the meter and tapping the address into the GPS, I pulled away. “Okay. That neighbourhood’s not far from here,” I said, noting the time and distance displayed.
Our eyes met in the rear-view mirror. The hood dropped to her shoulders, revealing strands of long, straight blond hair streaked darker with wetness. As she leaned back, the soaked fabric hugged the curves of her upper body.
Her face appeared devoid of makeup, including the bow lips, and the most remarkable thing about it was the skin—whiter and clearer than any I’ve seen—the pallor relieved only by bright, round, green eyes fixed on mine. With a hand the colour of a white cloud she brushed stringy tresses from her cheeks and wiped her forehead. How old was this attractive young woman? Sixteen, seventeen, perhaps?
She looked around the inside of the car, as if riding in a vehicle was a novelty. I’d had all sorts of women passengers: prim professionals dressed in neat suits, young, provocatively dressed flirty ones, faded middle-aged housewives, gabby washed-out old women and everything in between, but nothing like her—a captivating, mysterious presence.
Many of my fellow drivers didn’t talk to customers except to ask where they were going and announce the fare at the end of the run, but I always tried to connect. People liked to talk about themselves, and some were interesting. This young woman had vulnerability written all over her. Despite my initial misgivings, I was glad I stopped.
“What’s your name young lady?” I said.
She continued to stare at me. I shouldn’t have started by asking a personal question. You had to be careful what you said to women. “Forgive me, Miss, I—”
“That’s all right. My name’s Cece.”
“Is that short for something?”
“That’s a nice name.”
“I don’t like it, and prefer just Cece.”
“Is it all right if I play the radio at low volume, Cece?”
“I don’t mind.”
“You like music?”
“Yes. I know Elvis Presley.”
“You like Presley? Great singer, but he died in 1977. I figured you’d like more recent stuff by U2, Ed Sheeran or maybe some of the indie groups.”
“I know George Michael, David Bowie and Prince, too.”
“Yeah, they’re more contemporary. Too bad they’re all dead now. It’s tragic how talented lives can end like that.”
“It’s sad for any life to end; saddest for those left behind,” she said in a flat tone. Her previously sallow face glowed, now that she was sheltered from the damp, cold night.
“What grade are you in?”
“I was in grade ten.”
Was? She’d dropped out of school. Her whole life ahead and no education? Well, not any business of mine to give her the Stay in school spiel. I’m sure her parents did.
The rain, which had eased, now intensified. I adjusted the defroster and switched the wipers on high. Fog settled on the road ahead like a grey blanket, the headlights of oncoming cars piercing the hazy wetness.
She wasn’t much of a talker. A stale smell of wet clothing and hair drifted forward. The rancid odour reminded me of a wet dog, only not as strong or objectionable.
At a stop light two blocks away from our destination Cece was no longer visible in the rear-view mirror. Did she lie down? Was she ill?
I pulled over and turned to look.
There was no one there.
How could she have left without me knowing? Passengers rarely jumped out to evade paying the fare, but when they did it was impossible for the driver not to realize. I chased one asshole a year ago—he bolted to avoid paying a four-buck fare, but he turned on me with a knife. Now I don’t bother going after them. Could be worse—someone who pukes all over the car. Big bucks to clean that mess up and a chunk of lost time.
Was I micro-sleeping: having temporary episodes of sleep so brief that I felt continuously awake, but in fact had lost consciousness and failed to respond to sensory inputs? That must be it. That’s when she left.
I reached over and placed my palm on the seat. It was dry.
My thoughts tumbled and collided. Nothing made sense.
The meter over the dash continued to click. The digits displayed $6.20 then flipped to $6.30. I turned it off.
The location marker on the GPS blinked—the destination address displayed at the top of the screen. Black letters on a white band read 23 Stone Gate Circle—the address she gave me. It was only two blocks away. Why would I have imagined an address I had never heard of, nor been to?
I had to go there.
“You have arrived at your destination,” said the synthetic, feminine voice of the GPS a few minutes later.
The neighbourhood was upscale—wide roads bordered by large, mature maple trees and populated by an enclave of ivy-covered older brick and stone Georgian-style homes. I turned into number twenty-three’s wide, circular cobble-stone driveway flanked by flickering gas-fired coach lamps. A plaque on one stone column read Hanson.
The lawn and gardens were expansive and meticulously kept; the perfume of wet grass and cedar trees, strong. I imagined a blazing fireplace inside the home, an elegant decor and luxurious furnishings. The owners must be well-to-do.
The rain stopped. I stood at the end of the flagstone walkway for a few minutes inhaling the fresh, clean air and staring at the house. Wind rustled leaves on the trees like whispering voices. The face of the moon glimmered through a clearing sky.
Why was I here? What would I say to the occupants? They’d think I was a fool. I could almost hear their derisive laughter. You should go away now, I thought, but the urge to know was overpowering and pulled me up to the polished, heavy oak front door. I noted the brass intercom box to one side of it and the security camera mounted above.
My right hand trembled as my finger hovered over the ornate doorbell button. I drew in several deep breaths, straightened my jacket and smoothed my hair. I pressed the button, heard the resonant notes of the chimes inside, and waited.
“Who is it?” a female voice said through the intercom.
I looked up at the camera so my face was clearly visible. “I’m Paul Wilkins—a cab driver.”
“What do you want?”
“I’d like to talk to you, if I may. It might be important.”
After a pause, the voice said, “Are you alone?”
“Yes,” I replied. Couldn’t she see that from the camera?
After a few moments I heard a deadbolt retract. The door opened a little way and a woman’s head appeared.
“Yes? May I help you?” she said, a thin, inquisitive smile on her face.
I cleared my throat. “May I ask if a young woman named Cecilia lives here?”
The door swung open and the warm air of the dwelling’s bright interior caressed my face, making me blink. The person standing in the doorway was an old lady, wearing a dove-grey dress, with neatly coiffed hair, a patrician appearance and a round, wrinkled face with clear skin and bright green eyes. Tasteful and expensive jewellery glittered from her neck, hands and wrist. I glimpsed a framed photo on a side table just inside the door; a familiar-looking young face with fair skin and long, blond hair. My mouth was dry. It was difficult to swallow.
The woman’s weak, questioning smile collapsed.
“Why are you asking about her?” she said.
“She was a passenger coming to this address but left the car just before we would arrive. Since its dark and the weather’s so terrible, I was concerned that she got home okay.”
The woman’s eyes flared with anger and she jabbed her finger at my face.
“If this is your idea of a joke sir, I don’t appreciate it. You’ve got some nerve coming to our home at this hour.”
“I’m sorry, I—”
“Don’t you think we’ve been through enough pain all these years without people like you adding to it? Is planning sick pranks like this your idea of fun?”
“I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”
Her voice cracked. “You know darn well what I mean. Did someone put you up to this?”
“Making a joke out of our daughter’s death.”
The last two words struck me like stones. It felt like my heart stopped. Coldness crept up into my torso like a sponge soaking up ice water.
“Death? But I just—”
“You’re insinuating that you didn’t know that our sixteen-year-old daughter Cecelia was killed on this day thirty years ago?” she said.
The shock must have taken my mind elsewhere for a few moments. The next thing I recalled was observing the woman’s lips moving, then hearing her insistent, irate voice rising in volume.
“Answer me, Paul, the cab driver. Are you pleased with what you’ve done? Now you can laugh about it with your friends. They’re likely as depraved as you are.”
“No… You don’t understand, I—”
“I understand you and your kind well enough.” Hate boiled in her eyes.
“Where did this happen to your daughter?” I said.
Her hands curled into white knuckled fists. Her eyes shone with moisture and the veins in her neck reached out. “Near the intersection of Belmont Street and Middle Road, as you well know. She was struck by a hit and run driver on a rainy night like this and died broken and alone in the gutter.”
Her words flew into the air, circled like birds, then settled into my consciousness.
“But that’s where—”
“People like you are evil.” Her words came out like hot nails.
“Spare me your fake sympathy,” she said, in a mocking tone.
“Do you know what it’s like to bury your only child? They never found the driver. It’s hard enough for us to get through this day without you coming here and doing this. Have you no humanity or feelings?” She sniffled and tears made tracks in her mascara. “Even decades of passing time can’t erase our heartache and loss.”
Each word was like a lump of white-hot coal. I tried to explain what happened. “Please let me—”
“Leave our premises now before I call the police,” she screamed and then slammed the door.
I sat in the car a long time before driving home. After tossing and turning I drifted off to sleep. The noise of a dripping tap woke me up at 3:00 a.m. It had never interrupted my sleep before. Did I dream of an encounter with a dead girl whose life was absorbed by a city street corner like a sponge and re-animated decades later? Her name and address floated among the jumbled images in my mind. I thought of the hurt on the mother’s face. It was all so real. I went down to the cab, turned on the GPS and touched Destinations on the menu. The last address was 23 Stone Gate Circle. Things didn’t make sense. Perhaps I was going mad.
The next day I travelled downtown to the library to access archived microfiche copies of the city newspapers. There it was on the front page of the September 29, 1987 morning edition of the City Examiner:
YOUNG WOMAN KILLED BY HIT AND RUN DRIVER
Cecilia Hanson, sixteen, of 23 Stone Gate Circle in Bennington was struck and killed at the intersection of Belmont Street and Middle Road last evening. There were no witnesses, but police are…
Cece, I think of you often. I could have reached back and touched you that evening—known if you were tangible or phantom. Would your milk-white hand have felt warm and alive in mine, or merely air slipping through my fingers?
I’m sorry you couldn’t go home. Wherever you are, I hope you can find peace.
THIS AND OTHER ENTERTAINING AND IMAGINATIVE STORIES CAN BE READ IN RAY HOLMES COLLECTION AVAILABLE FROM AMAZON