29 years ago. It had been 29 years since it happened. There aren’t many things people can vividly remember from that long ago. But this was different. This couldn’t be forgotten. Not by me.
I was 6 years old when it happened. My father had been dead for 2 years at that point, leaving my mother, Anne, to raise me on her own. And she did a great job in my humble opinion. She was the most loving, caring, considerate person I will ever know. Until that day. That day changed things.
I was in my bedroom, playing with whatever toy my mother could afford to buy me for my last birthday. She was in the kitchen and through my closed door I could hear the sound of dishes clanging in the sink.
Then I heard a sound that echoes through my head to this day. 4 steady, solid knocks on the door.
I heard my mother’s footsteps as she went to answer the door. Click, click, click, click, click. 5 steps.
The sound of the doorknob turning. The creak of the door’s hinges. Then, his voice.
“Hello, ma’am.” His raspy, smoker’s voice was unforgettable.
“Hello. Can I help you?” my other politely said.
I could hear a noise that sounded like the man rubbing his hands together.
“Yes, I sure do hope so. I was hopin’ I could use your phone there. My car up and died down the street. Just wanna call a friend to come get me. If you don’t mind, of course.”
My mother probably smiled at him kindly before answering.
“That’s no problem.”
I heard him take two steps inside the doorway.
“The phone is right this way,” she said.
He followed her inside the front room as I heard the sound of the receiver being picked up.
“Thank you so much, ma’am,” the raspy voice said.
“My pleasure,” she responded.
Before I heard the clicking of the rotary numbers, everything became still. The silence was ended by the raspy voice, much quieter than before.
“Is your husband around?”
“I was just— I thought maybe if your husband was here, he could take a look at my car, maybe see what the problem was.”
“Oh. No, he’s…he passed away.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am. That’s a shame.”
Another silence. Still no dialing. I couldn’t explain it, but there was a tightening feeling growing inside me. It was as though my internal organs were caught in the gears of a machine that couldn’t stop turning. My curiosity couldn’t be helped as I put my ear to my bedroom door to listen. My mother’s voice was the first thing I heard clearly.
“Sir, are you gonna dial?”
The man hung up the phone. Click.
“No, I don’t think I am.”
Suddenly, I could hear feet rushing to the door. It slammed shut.
“What are you doing—” she tried to say, but something silenced her. I heard the sounds of muffled yelling followed by a struggle.
I could hear the couch sliding on our hardwood floor. I could hear my mother’s voice being stifled and strangled. For a moment, I thought she had said my name. And maybe she had.
I didn’t know what to do or think. I pulled my ear from the door and crawled into my closet. I plugged my ears. I cried. I prayed.
After what seemed like hours, I heard the front door slam.
And, after what seemed like hours after that, I heard my bedroom door open. It was my mother. She found me and hugged me tighter than I’d ever been hugged before or since. Her eyes were bloodshot and tear-filled. Her lip was bleeding and her shirt was ripped in three places.
She never looked the same after that day. She was someone else. The caring, loving, considerate qualities were still there, but something was just different. Part of her had been stolen that day and couldn’t ever be returned.
I asked her if the police would find the man. She said that they weren’t going to look for him. She said that she didn’t want to find him. Then she told me it was a secret that needed to be forgotten. A secret I couldn’t tell anyone. And I promised her I wouldn’t.
Two days later, I found something under the couch. It was a wallet. I opened it and saw the face of the raspy-voiced smoker that had visited our house. “John Leonard.” The picture on his driver’s license scared me. I knew who he was. I knew, in some way, what he had done. And I knew he had changed my mother into someone else. Someone frightened and sad.
It felt like I had found a cure for my mother’s pain and all I had to do was give it to the police and everything would be better. But she didn’t agree. She told me to get rid of it. She said she didn’t want it in her house and that our secret had to remain a secret. I told her I would throw it away. I lied.
29 years have gone by. My mother passed away two months ago. She kept her secret and so did I. But death changes promises and now I have to keep a promise I made to myself the day I found that wallet.
I have looked at that driver’s license every day for the past 29 years. I had every detail memorized, every scratch, every number.
John Leonard is a fairly common name, but thanks to the internet and a little luck, I found him. He lived just 4 miles from the house he visited that day so long ago. 4 miles. That’s all that separated us from a man that destroyed someone I cared about so much.
I walked up the front steps to his house and laid 4 steady, solid knocks on the front door.
I waited for a moment before I heard someone coming to the door. Click, click, click, click, click. 5 steps.
An old man opened the door. He had thick glasses and leaned heavily on a walker. It had been nearly three decades, but I recognized him immediately.
“Hello, sir,” I said, the notion of calling him “sir” nearly sickening me right there.
“Hello there, young man. How can I help you?” he answered, his voice raspier than the last time I heard it.
“I was…just hoping I could use your phone. I lost mine and my car broke down.” I said, nearly laughing to myself at the irony.
“Oh, sure thing, sure thing. Step right on in,” he said.
I stepped inside the house and shut the door behind me. I almost couldn’t believe he didn’t remember saying those same words to my mother. In a way, it made me even angrier; what he had done to her wasn’t even memorable enough for him to recognize anymore.
He pointed to an old black phone on a table in the living room.
“Thank you,” I said, walking to the phone.
He sat down, very slowly, in a chair just a few feet from me.
As I picked up the old rotary phone, I looked at him and calmly asked, “Your name wouldn’t happen to be John Leonard, would it? John Albert Leonard?”
He gave me a semi-surprised look.
“Why…yes, yes, that’s me. How’d you know that?”
I ignored his question and kept digging.
“You’ve lived here for the past 30 years or so, correct?”
“Yes, I reckon I have. Why do you ask?”
Again, I didn’t let his questions distract me.
“29 years ago. Her name was Anne Thomas. You knocked on her door and asked to use her phone. You said you had car trouble.”
He gave me a cold stare. I returned it.
“Listen,” he began, “I’ve made some mistakes in—”
“No.” I interrupted. “You don’t get to make excuses for this. Not for this.”
He tried anyway. “I’m not tryin’ to say—”
Before he could finish, I stepped behind his chair and swung the phone’s cord around his neck, pulling tighter with every word he tried to say.
I moved my face right next to his so I could speak directly into his ear.
“You hurt her. You hurt her in a way you can’t imagine. She lived with it for the rest of her life. So don’t you dare try to defend yourself now. I know exactly who you are and what you did. If it weren’t for her forgiveness and her shame, you would’ve been in jail or worse.”
His eyes began to water as I pulled the cord harder, leaving him gasping as his frail hands gripped the chair’s armrests.
I eased up on the cord for just a moment.
“Say whatever you need to. This will be your last statement,” I said.
He struggled to catch his breath for nearly a minute. Finally, he let out a few measly sentences:
“I was a bad person. I made mistakes. I’m sorry.”
I’d heard enough. I pulled the cord as far back as I could. He barely even struggled.
I looked around the room as his life began to leave him. There were lots of books and pictures everywhere. I noticed a picture of him and an elderly woman. They were smiling. I looked at his face as it was now and could hardly believe it was the same man from the picture. His eyes were wide and watery, his mouth open, his cheeks changing color by the second. I looked back at the picture of him and the elderly woman. I suddenly eased up on the phone cord.
He gasped and struggled to take in oxygen once again.
“Who is that woman?!” I yelled.
He was still trying to recover from nearly 30 seconds without air. But I wasn’t waiting for him.
“Who is she?!”
I smacked his face and he finally coughed out an answer:
“My wife,” he wheezed.
“Where is she right now?”
“She’s down at the library. We check out books every Thursday.”
“Why aren’t you with her?”
“I can’t really get around much. I’d just slow her down, so she brings them back for me.”
I stared at the picture, not even noticing the old man’s continuing struggle to catch his breath.
I looked at him again. He stared right back at me.
“I can’t undo what I did back then. But I can tell you this: I never did that again. Ever. I swear it.”
I clenched my fist and slammed it into his face, breaking his nose. He barely moved as the blood started to trickle from it. Surprisingly, he spoke first.
“I deserve worse. I know that. But my wife doesn’t. She’s a good lady. And as hard as it’s gonna be for you to believe, she loves me. Don’t hurt her the way I hurt people in my past. You’re a better man than I ever was. I can see it.”
“I don’t need someone like you to tell me that,” I said.
“You can choose,” he said. “You can beat me up, kill me or whatnot. Or you can be what I never was: merciful. You can spare my wife the heartache and you can rest assured that I haven’t got much longer to live anyway.”
He left me a choice. And either way, it wasn’t easy. But I knew, deep down, what my decision should be.