Penny Lambert sat in the darkest corner of the bar, nursing a glass of Orange juice. She checked her watch... again! Still only ten o'clock. She had never felt so lonely and miserable.
In fact, the whole week had been miserable. Only one week before, she had spent Christmas day with her family. Her husband and two young children had a wonderful day whilst she had tried, quite successfully, not to show the emptiness and guilt that she felt inside.
The accident had broken her.
It wasn't her fault, everyone had said so. He just ran out in front of her. She didn't have a chance.
But she knew. Inside, she knew. Of course, it was her fault. She had looked down at her phone to read the text that had just appeared. It took only a second.
It was enough, that single glance. The thud as the car hit him and the mosaicking of the windscreen as he slammed against it and then rolled off to the side caused her to scream out loud. Even louder, she thought, than the screeching of her own tyres as her foot stamped on the centre pedal instinctively.
A crowd had formed almost instantly, and she stared blindly forwards. She couldn't move. All she could see was the smear of blood where her victim's head had impacted the glass. The thing that stuck in her mind, though, was the flash of colour as the windscreen fractured into a million shards, held in place by the thin layers of plastic laminate that resisted penetration. A shred of the green fabric from his Parka coat remained on the mangled wiper arm.
After a moment, she had shaken off some of the initial shock that had held her in her seat. She released her seat belt.
“No, stay still!” she heard a voice saying.
“Is she hurt?” asked another.
Gradually, the fog in Penny's brain began to clear. As though awakening from a terrible dream. There was no respite, however. It wasn't a dream at all.
Someone had already opened the door, and she began to swing her legs to the side to get out.
“You mustn't look. It won't help you.” The same voice.
She looked at the man. He seemed to be in a mist, his face blurred and unrecognisable, but he spoke gently.
“Please don't get out,” he pleaded. “You are in shock. The ambulance will be here soon. Let them check you over at least.”
From somewhere, a silver space blanket was produced. The unknown man wrapped it around her. It made no difference. Her teeth were chattering now, and she was shivering uncontrollably.
“Try to relax,” The gentle voice was calm. “Take some deep breaths. You'll be fine.”
Within minutes sirens were wailing and, shortly after, the scene was awash with blue lights as the emergency services began to arrive.
The gentle voice of the kind Samaritan was replaced by that of a paramedic. The Samaritan had been right. She was okay, physically, but inside?
“Is he...?” She couldn't bring herself to say the word.
It didn't matter. The paramedic knew exactly what she was asking and shook his head.
“No, he isn't. We'll get him to the hospital quickly, and they will take care of him. Do you feel ready to tell the Police what happened?”
Penny nodded. She knew it had to be done, so better now than later. With the aid of the paramedic, she got out of her damaged car. A policeman took her to his patrol car.
She was a little surprised when he handed her a paper cup.
“Coffee,” he said. “White with plenty of sugar. One of the witnesses got it for you.”
Penny was stunned. The kindness overwhelmed her. She had just knocked over an innocent pedestrian and people actually considered her own welfare.
“Thank you,” she replied, obviously grateful.
It wasn't what she usually drank, but the hot, sweet liquid seemed to spread warmth throughout her body.
The officer gave her a minute or two for the drink to take effect.
“I have spoken to several witnesses,” he began. “It must have been a terrible shock for you.”
As she spoke he wrote down her name, address, and age.
“I was on my way home from work. I wasn't driving fast, and I was in no rush to get home. I didn't see anyone in the road. I don't even know where he came from!” The words almost tumbled over each other as she tried to remember. “Everything is such a blur. It was my fault, wasn't it?”
Penny hadn't noticed, but the policeman didn't write that last question. With pen held in mid-air above the page, he looked at her.
“We will investigate that, obviously, but don't be so quick as to take the blame. You are still in shock. These are just a few notes. So that we can get a better picture. I will get a full statement from you later, when you are more settled, yes?”
Penny nodded, glad that she hadn't mentioned looking at the text message.
True to his word, the policeman had returned. He apologised that it had to be that day, Boxing Day, but, as he said, these things couldn't wait another day. Penny had spoken to the hospital, explaining that she was the driver who had knocked the young man down. The news that he was still critical had upset her. She asked if they would keep her informed. As she wasn't a relative, they had refused.
The officer was sure that there would be no charges brought against her. None of the witnesses had blamed her. The accident was entirely because the young man had run out in front of her, they said. There wasn't even time for her to brake before she hit him. But she was sure, nevertheless, that had she not looked down, at that moment...
Yet again, Penny glanced at her wrist and sighed. Was her watch on a go-slow? Is it possible that only thirty minutes had passed since she last looked? There were still another ninety minutes until midnight. Then what? Will her life suddenly improve just because the number of the year clocks up another one? No, of course not! She felt the anger rising inside her.
Over on the dance floor, her husband and children danced happily, blissfully unaware of the turmoil that she was feeling.
Right, she thought, I'm going home. At least she could drown her sorrows there without hurting anyone. She would tell Mark and the kids that she had a headache and needed a little peace and quiet. Then she would order a taxi and nobody would be any wiser.
She was about to pick up her phone when she became aware that someone was watching her. A tall slim man. Even in her self-absorbed condition, she could see that he was attractive. He wore an expensive black suit with a crisp white shirt and matching black tie. He had that ageless kind of look. He could have been anything from thirty to fifty, but, really, she had no idea.
Suddenly, he moved away from the wall and walked towards her. She watched him, unable to take her eyes off him.
“Hello,” he said. “I'm Michael.”
“Erm, hello,” she replied. Michael waited patiently. “Oh, erm, Penny.”
“Yes, I know. May I?” He gestured to the empty seat.
Penny nodded her agreement, although she didn't know why. As he took his seat, she felt compelled to inform him that she was a happily married woman.
“Yes, I also know that you are married, but happily?”
She was confused.
“Yes, happily,” she insisted.
Michael looked her in the eye but said nothing.
She tried to look away but couldn't.
“M... my husband and children are just over there,” she stammered. Strangely, she wasn't afraid, more unnerved.
“Don't worry,” he said. “I'll be gone before they even know I am here.”
“Do I know you? I'm afraid that I can't place you, although I feel that I should.”
Again, he smiled.
“No, but I know you. I know all about you. Especially, I know what happened just before Christmas that is making you so miserable.”
“Really?” Penny retorted. “So you can read. It was all over the local papers. Can't you just leave me alone?”
This time he laughed.
“Leave you alone? Yes, I could, but do you really want me to? I could leave you to wallow in self-pity and eventually destroy your marriage. Leave you to drive your husband and children away.”
Penny could feel the anger returning.
“And why would I do that? The accident wasn't my fault! I will get over it, given time!”
Michael held her gaze. Penny wanted to look away, call her husband, but she couldn't.
“Unfortunately, Mrs Lambert, you don't actually believe that, You looked at your phone and you didn't see him step out, did you?”
She didn't reply. He was right, it was entirely her own fault.
“The thing is, I can make it go away. I can make it as though it never happened. You would forget all about it. Have you ever done a recovery on your computer? You know, when you reboot it to an earlier time when it worked better before an update upset it?”
Penny didn't reply. She was confused. What was he saying? That he could hypnotise her?
Michael still looked directly into her eyes.
“No, not hypnotism.”
Her jaw dropped slightly. Was this stranger reading her thoughts now?
“Who are you?” she demanded.
Michael shook his head.
“You don't need to know who I am. All you need to know is that I can change your life. You can wake up tomorrow morning, and all of those bad memories will be gone. They will never have happened.”
Penny's heart missed a beat. This was all too weird. Perhaps it was a dream? Had she fallen asleep? With everything that had happened, she couldn't deny that she was just so tired.
“I think you had better leave.”
“Are you sure? After all, it's not every day that you get the chance to change the bad things in your life now, is it?”
Penny sighed. All she wanted to do was to go home and sleep. She glanced at her watch, ten-thirty.
“Fine,” she said at length. “Tell me how you can make it happen.”
“Oh, it's all very simple. That boy you hit? He will die tonight. On the other hand, I can change what happened on that day, so that he will not die. Then you will have nothing to feel guilty about.”
Penny banged her fist down hard onto the table. Glasses and empty bottles rattled loudly.
“How dare you!” she shouted. “How can you be so cruel. I didn't run into him on purpose. He ran out in front of me. I couldn't avoid him!”
Michael cocked his head to one side.
“Couldn't you? Perhaps... if you hadn't been looking at your phone?”
“How did you know that? Who the hell are you?” she asked again.
“As I said, that doesn't matter. You have until midnight to make up your mind. I will be here until then. I have to warn you, though. If you do take me up on my offer, there will be consequences.”
“What do you mean? What kind of consequences?” Penny couldn't believe that she was actually interested now.
Michael shrugged again.
“Who can say? The thing is, every action has a consequence. You looked at your phone message and now someone is going to die because of it. Supposing that you had not looked at that text message. What if you had not hit him and he didn't die? You would be enjoying your holiday now, eagerly awaiting the fireworks, celebrating another new year. And the young man. What about him? What would he have been doing instead of dying in a hospital bed? Do you see?”
“Yes, I see, but...” Penny didn't finish her sentence. She was alone.
“Are you all right, Honey?” Mark sat down opposite her, just where Michael had been sitting.
“Erm, yes. I suppose so. Why?” She looked at her watch. “What time do you make it?”
Mark glanced down at his left wrist.
“Oh, no reason. I thought mine might have stopped. Did you see that man who was here?”
“Tall man, black suit. Very smart.”
He shook his head,
“No, there was no one here when I looked. How long ago?”
“Just a moment ago. He was here for quite a while.”
Now it was his turn to worry.
“Are you sure you are okay? There has been no one here at all. I've been watching you.”
“Well, you can't have been watching me for long!” she replied testily, “He was here for about twenty minutes. He had this strange notion that he could change what happened. He said that boy is going to die tonight.”
“Oh, Sweetheart! Surely that is just your mind playing tricks. No one can change the past. What happened can't be undone. I do so wish I could convince you that it was not your fault.”
He reached across the table to take her hands, but she jerked them back, just out of his reach.
“What if it was my fault? What if I had been doing something I shouldn't?”
Mark was stunned.
“What?” he exclaimed. “Why would you say that? All the witnesses agreed. You could not have stopped in time! Why are you torturing yourself? You will make yourself ill.”
“You sent me a text, and I looked down at my phone to read it, just for a second, and that is when it happened. If I had just waited until I got home...”
“What? Wait a minute. Are you saying it was my fault?”
Penny grabbed his hands across the table.
“No! No, of course not! It was me. I should have ignored it. The whole thing was entirely down to me.”
Mark looked hard at his wife.
“And would you?” he asked. “I mean, would you change everything if you could?”
Penny was taken aback.
“Yes! Of course, I would! Wouldn't you if you were given the opportunity?”
There was a pause which, to Penny, seemed like an eternity.
“I'm not so sure, to be honest,” he replied, eventually. “I believe in fate. When things happen, that's it, they happen. We can't change that, no matter how much we would like to.”
Mark stood up and went to her side. He kissed her cheek gently.
“Look, I'll get Cathy and Martin, and we'll go home. I can tell that's what you really want. We'll put our feet up and watch the fireworks on the TV, yes?”
She nodded her agreement and so he went over to the dance floor to find the children.
“Looks like you have made your mind up.”
Penny was startled. How did she not see Michael return? She glared at him.
“Listen, Michael, or whatever your name is, go away. Just leave me alone!”
His eyes narrowed.
“All right, I'll give you one last chance. If you leave without a decision, nothing will change. On the other hand, if you want peace, tell me now, and it will all go away.”
She almost screamed at him. Instead, she just hissed.
“You are going to change nothing! Now leave before I call my husband!”
“Your choice,” he simply replied.
“Ready then?” Mark asked her, the children either side of him.
“I will be when...” She was about to say when he lets me, but the chair was empty. Michael had gone.
“Are you all right, Mummy?” Cathy asked her.
In her mind, she thought, no, I'm going mad, but instead, she smiled.
“Yes, Sweetie, I'm fine.”
The following morning, Penny awoke alone. From downstairs, she could hear the clattering of dishes. The sweet smell of fresh toast delighted her nostrils.
Suddenly, the bedroom door opened slowly, and Mark appeared carrying a tray.
She sat up and took the tray whilst her husband adjusted her pillows to make her comfortable.
“I thought you might like it,” he said. “Perhaps it will make you feel a little better. You were rather down last night.”
“Oh, I'm okay,” she smiled. “But, thank you. This is lovely.”
Mark sat on the edge of the bed and switched on the small TV set.
“This is the News,” it announced. “On this first day of the new year, reports are coming in that a would-be terrorist has died in a London Hospital. He was hit and fatally injured by a car on Christmas Eve. A search of his home revealed that he had been planning a suicide mission. The intended target would have been the New Years Eve revellers on the Embankment. Detailed plans and an improvised explosive belt were discovered. Police sources stated that if such a large quantity of explosives had been detonated in so tightly-packed a crowd, death and serious injury would have occurred. Had he not inadvertently stepped out in front of the passing car, they said, the devastation he planned for last night would have been unthinkable.”
Penny sat open-mouthed, shocked at what she was hearing. Mark looked at her.
“Well,” he said. "Would you believe it?”
Penny didn't reply but stared at the screen, still trying to take it in.
“Funny how we had that conversation last night, isn't it? I mean, supposing you had been able to change what happened. He could have killed hundreds of innocent people. You actually saved all those lives!”
In her mind, She could clearly hear Michael's voice telling her,
“I have to warn you, though. If you do take me up on my offer, there will be consequences.”
© Copyright 2022 Anna Morgan. Reproduction and transmission in any form, whether by hard copy or digitally/electronically, is strictly prohibited without the permission of the author.