Seconds Away Page 2

Bat Lady said nothing.

“And this”—I held up the old black-and-white photograph, my voice choking, the tears coming faster now—“this isn’t a photograph of some old Nazi. It’s a photograph of that paramedic.”

Bat Lady’s face, already the whitest shade of pale, seemed to grow even paler. “I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I. Your Butcher of Lodz? He was the paramedic who wheeled away my dad.”

Her response surprised me. “I’m tired, Mickey. You must go now.”

“You’re kidding me, right? Who is this guy? Why did he take my father?”

Her hand fluttered up toward her mouth. “Sometimes, we want something to be so badly, we make it so. Do you understand?”

“I don’t want this to be a picture of the paramedic. It just is.”

She shook her head, her waist-length hair flying in the breeze. “Memory is so unreliable. You will learn that as you get older.”

“Are you saying I’m wrong?”

“If the Butcher had somehow lived, he’d be nearly ninety years old. That’s old for a paramedic.”

“Whoa, I didn’t say he was ninety. He’s the same age as this guy.”

Bat Lady just looked at me as though the crazy shoe was on the other foot now. I realized how it all sounded now—like the ravings of a lunatic. The song ended and another began. She took a step back, her ripped white gown dragging across the old wood floor. Her gaze hardened on me.

“What?” I said.

“It is time for you to leave. And you may not see me for a while.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You’ve made a mistake,” she said to me.

Tears started forming in the corners of my eyes. “You think I could ever forget that face? The way he looked at me before he wheeled away my father?”

Her voice had steel in it now. “Get out, Mickey.”

“I’m not going—”

“Get out!”

Chapter 2

An hour later I sat in my backyard—or really, my uncle Myron’s backyard—and filled in Ema. As always, Ema was dressed entirely in a shade of black that matched her hair. She wore black eye makeup. There was a silver skull-and-crossbones ring on her middle finger and more earrings than I could count.

Ema’s natural disposition leaned toward the sullen side, but right now she stared at me as though I had suddenly sprouted a third arm.

“You just left?” Ema said.

“What was I supposed to do?” I countered. “Beat the information out of an old woman?”

“I don’t know. But how could you just leave?”

“She went upstairs. What was I going to do, follow her? Suppose—I don’t know—suppose she started undressing or something.”

“Ugh,” Ema said, “that’s just gross.”


Ema wasn’t even fifteen but she sported a fair amount of tattoos. She was maybe five-four and what most in our society would call on the large side. When we met only a few weeks ago, she sat by herself for lunch at the outcast table. She claimed to prefer it.

Ema stared at the old black-and-white photograph. “Mickey?”


“You can’t really believe that this is the same guy.”

“I know it sounds crazy, but . . .” I stopped.

Ema had this way about her. Her outward shell, the one she showed pretty much the entire world, was defensive and surly. Ema was not what one would call conventionally beautiful, but when she looked at me like she did now with her big brown eyes, with all the concentration and caring emanating from her face, there was something almost celestial about her.

“Go on,” she said.

“The accident,” I began. “It was the worst moment of my life, times ten. My father . . .” The memories flooded me. I was an only child. The three of us lived overseas for pretty much my entire life, blissfully trekking through the most obscure corners of the world. I thought that we were carefree nomads, international bohemians who worked for various charities. I didn’t realize how much more there was to it.

“It’s okay,” Ema said.

But it was hard to reveal more. When you travel that much, you don’t get to make many (or really, any) friends. It was one of the reasons I wanted so much to settle down, why my father ultimately quit his job and moved us to California and signed me up for a real school and, well, died. So you see, what happened after we returned to the United States—my father’s death, my mother’s downward spiral—was my fault. No matter how you wanted to slice it, it was on me.

“If you don’t want to tell me . . . ,” Ema began.

“No, I do.”

Again she gave me the big eyes, the ones that seemed so focused, so understanding and kind.

“The accident,” I said. “It took away everything. It killed my dad. It shattered my mom.”

I didn’t bother going into what it had done to me—how I knew that I would never get over it. That wasn’t relevant here. I was trying to figure out how to transition this back to the paramedic and the man in the photograph.

My words came slower now. “When you experience something like that, when something happens so suddenly and destroys everything in your life . . . you remember everything about it. Every single detail. Does that make sense?”


“So that paramedic? He was the first one to let me know that my dad was gone. You don’t forget what that guy looks like. You just don’t.”

We sat there another minute in silence. I looked at the basketball rim. Uncle Myron had gotten a new one when he knew that I’d be living with him. We both found solace in it, in basketball, in the slow dribble, in the fadeaway jumper, in the way the ball goes swish through the hoop. Basketball is the one thing I have in common with the uncle I’m forced to live with and I can’t quite forgive.

I can’t forgive him. And, I guess, I can’t forgive me either.

Maybe that was something else Uncle Myron and I had in common.

“Don’t bite my head off, okay?” Ema said.


“I understand everything you said. You know that. And, well, this past week has been absolutely loony. I know that too. But can we just look at this rationally for a second?”

“No,” I said.


“I know how this looks rationally. It looks like I should be locked in a padded room.”

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