A Debt to Pay

Annabelle Collins wheeled herself out to the back porch of her home in Kirkwood, and watched as Paul Searcy continued his yard work. It had been nearly ten years since Searcy had become a part of her everyday existence and nearly twenty-five since he first entered her life. As she watched him work, she again experienced the mixed feelings his presence brought to her. He looked in her direction and gave his customary nod.

“Afternoon, ma’am,” he said.

In all the time she’d known him, he had never called her by her first name. It was always “Ms. Collins” or “ma’am.” Annabelle didn’t mind. She liked the formality of their relationship, as it provided her the appropriate amount of distance from him. Distance was important to Annabelle, particularly when it came to Paul.

“Hello, Paul,” she replied. “The garden’s coming along nicely, I see.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Paul said before resuming work.

Annabelle went back inside and maneuvered around the furniture of the living room to get to her computer. To one side was a pile of medical files waiting to be transcribed, but Annabelle ignored them and went on the Internet, checking her email, then her Facebook account. Finding nothing that interested her, she rolled away from her desk and wheeled around so she could view Paul through the back window. He was tall and his upper body was well developed, and he went about his tasks quickly and energetically. By all measures, he was an attractive man, polite and soft-spoken, and loyal to a fault. Still, Annabelle regarded him with ambivalence, never quite able to get past how they had become acquainted, the reason he was now a part of her life full-time.

As a young man, Paul had been reckless and impulsive. He did not believe he would live long and decided to party as much as possible. By the age of twenty-two, he was already known to the local police for a variety of minor offenses, mainly involving alcohol or disturbing the peace, but he was generally thought of as more of a threat to himself than others, so no one intervened. One evening, while drinking heavily he hopped into his truck and headed off to purchase more beer. That’s what brought him to the same cross-street where Annabelle, who had just gotten the green light, was headed into the intersection to make a left, unaware her life was about to take a horrible turn. She was home from her second year of college, out to visit friends, and paid little attention to the dark pickup, barreling toward her, until it ran the light and T-boned her car, right at the driver-side door, snapping her spine just above her waist.

When she awoke in the hospital several days later, she was greeted by the news she’d never walk again, and may never be able to live an independent life. In the meantime, Paul had been arraigned and was sitting in jail, his parents refusing to put up the money to bail him out. What he could remember of the accident played over and over in his head, and he wondered if he should just save the state the cost for his trial and find some way to end his life right then and there. But something happened to Paul in that cell. For the first time in his life, he decided to take responsibility for his actions. He instructed the lawyer the court appointed for him not to fight the charges. He would plead guilty, accept the maximum sentence the Superior Court of Georgia chose to give him, which ended up being fifteen years, and he’d do the time, which is what he did. Inside, he became a model prisoner, earned his degree, learned a trade, and was the perfect candidate for early release, but every time the subject of parole came up, Paul refused to consider it.

Annabelle defied her doctors’ expectations, and successfully underwent rehabilitation, learning to get around in the chair that now took the place of her legs. It wasn’t just her body that was broken, though. She’d lost her spirit as well. As she gained enough freedom of movement to allow her to leave her parents’ home and get an apartment by herself, she also began to retreat from the world. She did not return to school and became withdrawn from those who’d known her all her life. At the time of the accident, she’d been seeing a young man at her school and they had looked forward to graduation, after which, they’d marry and start a life together. After the accident, Annabelle grew more and more distant from him, until they stopped communicating at all. The last report she had of him was that he’d married another woman and moved to the West Coast.

She rarely left her apartment, rarely had visitors. Even her parents had not been there often, beyond the time they helped her move in, and usually the only time they saw her was when she made her infrequent visits, usually preceded by a call asking her father to pick her up. She completed her degree through computer coursework and settled into a job as a medical transcriptionist, lonely work, staring at a computer screen all day. The bulk of her time when she wasn’t working was spent surfing the Internet, interacting with people she did not know and had no desire to meet in person. Eventually, she earned enough to afford a small house not far from her parents, which is where Paul found her about a year after being released from prison.

When he first thought about visiting her, he wrestled with the decision for several weeks. He knew she probably wouldn’t want to see him, and so, when he made the decision to proceed, he didn’t call first, just looked up her address and made plans to stop by some afternoon. He had no idea how she’d dealt with the aftermath of the accident. Other than her presence in court on the day of his sentencing, he’d not seen nor spoken to her and then she’d been silent, staring blankly at him conveying nothing of how she felt.

On her trip outside to get her mail, Annabelle noted the man standing at the bus stop a few houses down and something about him seemed familiar to her, but she concluded that he must be someone from the neighborhood and paid him little attention. She hardly knew any of her neighbors, so she had no idea who belonged and who didn’t. After she’d gone back inside, ten or fifteen minutes passed before the doorbell rang and she was surprised to find the same man at her door. As was her custom, she’d locked the iron security door outside, so when she opened the front door, she knew there was a safe barrier between her and her visitor.

“Can I help you?” Annabelle said.

“Ms. Collins? I’m Paul Searcy.”

It took a moment for the years to fade away, but suddenly she was again looking at the face of the man who’d put her in that chair. He looked a good deal older than the disheveled twenty-two year-old who’d sobbed as he repeated, “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry,” from the witness stand at his sentencing. She had not reacted at the time, still emotionally numb from the experience, unlike her father, who angrily took Paul to task for his actions. In the intervening time, she had come to regard the scene with contempt, feeling his whole show of guilt was an act put on for the court. Now, he stood before her, much taller than she remembered him, with a military-style buzz cut, his shoulders back, and looking at her with his head turned slightly away from her.

“I remember you. What do you want?” she said coolly.

“I was hoping I could talk to you a moment.”

“I honestly don’t think there’s anything for us to talk about,” she said. “I wasn’t even aware you were out of prison.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “I was released last year.”

“Isn’t someone supposed to notify the victims?” she said. “Should you even be here? I mean, aren’t you violating your parole or something?”

“I’m not on parole, ma’am,” he said. “I served the full term. I guess they figured I paid my debt to society.”

“That’s really nice to know,” she said, a note of sarcasm evident, “I’m really proud of you. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”

She started to close the door, but Paul put up his hand.

“Ms. Collins, please, I’d really like to have a few words with you,” he said. “I promise you I’m not here to harm you—”

“More than you already have?” she spit back at him.

“That’s fair, I suppose,” he replied, looking down. “I just have a few things to say to you and once I’m done, I’ll leave and won’t bother you again. I swear.”

Annabelle stared at him a long moment. Seeing him brought back a rush of emotions she thought she’d buried and her first instinct was to slam the door and call the police. Something in how Paul presented himself suggested to her he was sincere, however, so despite her misgivings, she unlocked the security door and rolled back into the living room, allowing him to enter.

“Twenty minutes,” she said, “and if I tell you to go, you go — understand?”

“Of course,” he said. He went to the couch and sat.

“How’d you get here anyway? I didn’t see a car.”

“I don’t drive, ma’am,” he said. “They told me I could probably get my license back, but I’d rather not get behind the wheel again.”

“That’s good news,” Annabelle said, dryly. “So what is it you need to tell me?”

“I wanted to see how you were,” he said, “how you’re getting along.”

Annabelle spread out her arms.

“Here I am!” she said. “Is that all?”

“No, ma’am,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of time to think the last fifteen years. I’ve always tried to imagine what I’d say if I got the opportunity to talk to you— I guess now that I’m here, the words are a little hard to come by.”

“Time is short, so make something up,” Annabelle said.

Paul stared at her a moment, then chuckled.

“What?” Annabelle said.

In response, Paul reached into his pocket and removed a photo which he held out for Annabelle to take.

“I was just thinking you haven’t changed all that much,” he said.

She rolled over and took it from him, finding it to be a photo of her from college.

“Where did you get this?” she said.

“Your father,” he said. “About a month after I went to prison he visited me and gave it to me.”

“My father went to see you?” she said holding up the photo. “And gave you this?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “He told me he wanted me to always have a reminder of what I’d done — like I could ever forget.”

She handed the photo back and rolled away from him. “That sounds like my father.”

“I understand both your parents are deceased,” he said, “my condolences.”

“How do you know that? Have you been stalking me?” she said. “Maybe it’s time for you to go.”

“No, ma’am,” he said, sliding to the edge of the couch, “it’s not like that. I ran across their obituaries when I was trying to find your address.”

“Okay, well your time is running out none-the-less,” she said with urgency in her voice. “So whatever you have to say, just say it.”

Paul nodded. “As I say, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I did. I’ve always wished there was some way I could make it up to you, but I realize nothing I do is going to be sufficient. I thought, maybe if I saw you, talked to you, I’d be able to think of some way to help.”

Annabelle shook her head and sighed loudly.

“I get it. This is some sort of twelve-step thing where you go around asking for forgiveness from all the people you’ve hurt. Well sorry, Paul. I’m all out of pity.”

“I don’t want your pity, or your understanding, or your forgiveness,” he said. “I don’t deserve any of that. I’ve never forgiven myself for what I did. I never will.”

“Then what do you want?” she asked.

He lowered his head. “I took your life away from you. I’m here to offer you mine.”

Annabelle stared at Paul for a long time, totally caught off guard by what he had just said to her.

“Are you saying you want me to kill you?” she finally said.

“No, ma’am,” he replied. “I want you to use me.”

“Use you for what?”

“Whatever,” he said. “Maybe you need work done around here. Maybe there’s something you can’t do. Whatever you need.”

Annabelle again shook her head.

“Unbelievable,” she said to him. “You think you can come in here and do a few odd jobs and everything will be okay between us.”

“You’re not understanding what I’m telling you, ma’am,” he replied. “I’m not talking about doing a little work for you. I’m talking about being there for you, for whatever reason, from here on out.”

“You mean, like a servant?” she said.

“If that’s what you need, yes,” he told her. “If you just need somebody to fix things, or build things, or just someone to talk to, I can do that too. Whatever.”

Annabelle considered his words for a long moment.

“I think, if I’d ever tried to imagine how this meeting would go, this would have been the last thing I’d have come up with,” she finally said. “What makes you think I’d even want you around here? You went to prison? You paid your debt? Well guess what, you got out.” She indicated the chair. “I’m still there because of you and I’ll never get out.”

She rolled away from him then turned to face him again. “And now you expect me to have you around my house? Working here for who knows how long? My god! The mere fact that you’re still sitting there, that I haven’t gone into my room and gotten my baseball bat and beaten your brains out is a testament to the remarkable level of restraint I’m showing you now.”

“I appreciate that, ma’am,” Paul said with some hesitation.

“I don’t even know what to say at this point,” she replied. “I am officially stunned into silence.”

They sat without speaking for a long time and Annabelle took the opportunity to examine Paul. She’d carried the image of the remorseful young man around with her ever since the trial, but the man who sat across from her now seemed completely different, calmer, and more thoughtful. Since the time of his emotional pronouncement at his sentencing, she had never believed him to be sincere, but now, looking at him, she began to suspect he might be telling her the truth, that he truly wanted to make amends for what he’d done. Still, she had no reason to trust him. As she considered what her response would be, Paul glanced at his watch and rose.

“Well, I guess that’s twenty minutes,” he said. “I appreciate you taking the time to hear me out.”

“Wait, you’re really just going to leave?” she said.

“I told you I would,” he replied.

He started toward the door.

“I could use a ramp,” she said without facing him.

“Excuse me?” Paul turned back toward her.

Annabelle wheeled around so she was looking at Paul.

“The only way I can get out back is to go out the front and around the driveway,” she said. “If I had a ramp to the back porch, I could go out the back.”

Paul considered it.

“I learned some carpentry in prison,” he said. “I could do that.”

Annabelle nodded.

“After that, we’ll see,” she told him. She rolled toward him then pointed, “But understand this. I am not your friend. I am not your charity case. When I need something, I’ll let you do it, but otherwise, keep your distance.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Paul said. “I can start tomorrow if that’s okay with you.”

Annabelle nodded. “That’s fine.”

Annabelle considered the time in between her accepting Paul’s offer and now. Having him around had been difficult at first, but the more he was there, the more she grew accustomed to having him there. She eventually let him move into the basement, so he could be around if she needed any help in the evenings. He kept the house and yard in good shape as well as keeping her company, and over time he had become a reassuring presence in her life. She was not sure she would ever consider herself to be his friend, and she was pretty sure she could never forgive him, but, at least, she knew she could trust him, and for Annabelle, that was all that mattered.

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