Strongly recommend reading Pt. I first. This story has a central continuity through both parts.
Ashley has the door locked, the chain on. She sits with the phone in her hand, and thinks about calling 9-1-1, but doesn’t know what she would tell the police.
Through the window, she can see the street. The late 2015 version of 3:15 pm on a Wednesday afternoon produces little difference than the same period from 2014, of this she is remarkably sure, because she has a feeling that she was doing this same thing last year.
Most of the time, she expects to see that man out there, watching her. She wouldn’t be surprised, and almost wants him to be there, because then she can call the police and have a reason for them to come over.
At the computer, she fiddles with photos from the last year of college. Her friends are there: reams of them, all since moved on and far away. She arranges them into montages of a slice in time that will never leave her, no matter how old she becomes. These are dorm rooms and off-campus basement apartments, parties at the pub, and in the background, music.
Eventually, she flips further back in time, to high school. Then to earlier photos that her parents gave her, packaged on a memory stick as a present when she went away to college. She’s in junior high school, standing next to lockers. She’s wearing a sports skirt and swinging a field hockey stick. At an amusement park, she’s with her brothers in a lineup for ice cream.
She flips so far backwards in time that suddenly she’s a baby, and her parents are holding her in a hospital room. There are flowers. Baby Ashley’s eyes are closed. She might not, back then, even have been an Ashley yet, more just an unnamed lump of moist flesh swaddled in blue checkers because her parents still had baby blankets from the birth of her brothers. And through the flowers she spies him. He’s looking straight at the camera. The sunglasses are lower on his nose than usual. The brim of the cap is curved. Big burly hands are touching tulip petals, but there’s no mistaking who this is.
Ashley runs to the kitchen and puts her back to the refrigerator. The tears have their own flowrate, as though they’re destined to create a flood, or to sublimate into vapor that’ll rise into the sky and form the leading edge of a storm that hasn’t happened yet. But it’s not far away.
It’s dark outside, and Ashley is pushed against the fridge, feeling the vibrations through the door. It’s dark outside, and time is slipping away, she thinks. And she’s suddenly sure, positive, that a year ago at this time, this is where she was then, too. Every angle of the apartment seems familiar, as though she’s done this before, inhabited this very space, as time slipped away from her then, too.
You know, I’ve never seen anyone handle turning forty so gracefully. She threw a party in her big backyard, and brought in one of those bouncy castles. I mean, who brings in a bouncy castle for a bunch of adults? That was some kind of party. That Jamie guy had thrown up in the bathroom, and apologized about a hundred times. She’d ended up alone well after three in the morning, naked and totally drunk on the grass. Anything could have happened to her. But nothing did, and when the morning’d come, she’d gone into that bouncy castle and hopped about naked until she was sweating like mad. I felt a bit guilty about watching her that way, but it’s not like I hadn’t seen her naked before.
Three years later, she had a baby. I watched this little thing carefully, to see if he was anything like her. He came out sleek like a rocket ship, and she had him on her breast in seconds. But before he even thought about starting to feed, or anything else for that matter, he looked up at me. I’ll never forget that moment, because you don’t expect stuff like that. You really don’t. But he stared at me, and I stared back, and then he went to work on that nipple. And you know, there was nothing spectacular about this kid, either. No heightened intelligence or creativity or physical strength. Not any kind of imbalance that would make someone look at him and say hey, that kid is a little bit off, better watch him. No, there was just that same thinking thing, that one little moment before any action, the pause before springing into life.
Fifty-five was fun, too. Her kid in her life, and she pretty comfortable in her career. She got back to making scrapbooks that year. It had been a while. Everything on the computer, so convenient, so colorful. She really had a talent for it, putting words together with drawings and photographs. She took a lot of photographs. I snuck into them sometimes. Couldn’t resist. When you don’t know what draws you to someone, that’s when you’re attracted the most. This is universally true, on every planet, in every dimension, in every sphere. And sometimes, that makes you do stupid things. Sometimes, that makes you do something that you know is wrong, so painfully wrong that it’s going to haunt you forever. But you know, that’s life, and as scary as that stuff is, it’s also the sweetest thing. Trust me. It really is.
“Hi babe,” says Jamie, handing her a six-pack. “Mind if I start some music?”
So he does. Jamie slides through the apartment, talking to everyone. There are enough people that the sitting space has been used up, so there are people leaning against the walls or sitting on the window ledges. He visits them all, even if only to say a few words. When he’s done, he cajoles the people on the couch to make room for him, and then becomes the loudest thing in the apartment. The boy from accounting is sitting on the arm of the sofa next to him, laughing.
Ashley is taking photos. She smiles as she does this, explaining that this party will be the last part of her scrapbook. The last page. Soon, she’ll be moving out of the apartment. Moving on from this part of her life.
The music gets louder, and someone changes the playlist. People begin to dance. Ashley dances with them, snapping her photographs. In her back pocket, she has her mini-journal, and occasionally she takes it out and jots something down, explaining to everyone that she’s making notes for the book.
“I want you to smile,” she says to Jamie, kneeling before him. She’s sweating, and this would be a good time to give him a kiss and remind him of who he is to her, but the boy from accounting is right next to him.
“How come we’ve never had a party in here before?” Jamie shouts. “I mean it’s a bit small, but this is great!”
“This is my September story,” she tells him.
“I like that, September story.” He raises his bottle. Then he leans forward. “Listen babe, I had a look at those photographs you sent. I wanted to talk to you about them.”
He looks away, as though to make sure everything’s okay. For a moment, his head bobs to the music, and Ashley thinks to herself – “human with a touch of jazz”.
“Can we talk about it after the party? I can help you clean up.”
“You can sleep over too, if you want. In case it’s too late.”
Brian tilts his head at the boy from accounting, who’s trying to listen to the conversation. And with that, there’s a knocking at the door. It’s so loud that it cuts through the music. It cuts through the voices, too. People stop and stare. The noise keeps going, long rhythmic pounding. “Wow,” says Brian. “Someone’s really interested in coming in.”
All the noise and the warmth of the people around Ashley suddenly vanishes, until she’s alone. As if she is alone. Human with a touch of jazz, she thinks.
She’s walking to the door, turning the handle. The door opens with a swish of hallway air, a vague hint of cigarette smoke. But there’s no one out there. No one knocking, no figure responsible for the distraction.
She turns around. The man with the cap is sitting on the couch, an arm around Jamie, a hand on his knee. But Jamie doesn’t seem to notice. Jamie is drinking a beer, and somehow doesn’t seem to have any clue as to what’s going on around him. None at all.
Ashley closes her eyes. She thinks about where she is, what this means. And in that precise moment, time is still. It’s not slipping away anymore, it’s just here, gathered around her. “Thoughtful but not overly,” a voice says to her, in her mind. And yes, she thinks. Yes. That’s me, and this is the end of my story. My September story.
Okay, so I screwed up once along the line. It happens. I messed up with her because I couldn’t stay away. It was a good party, I just wanted to hang out. I’ve followed other people before, but never actually done that, walked into their lives. Blame me all you want. Just go ahead, doesn’t matter.
Anyway, I stayed with her afterwards, too. When she turned sixty-eight, she got a chronic back condition. Seriously affected the way she walked. Amazingly, she was still having sex when she was seventy-three, so impressive. She had grandkids, three in total, all of them pretty good. I watched every one of them be born. Sat in the hospital room to check out what they would do when they were out. It was always the same thing. You know what it is. That thing that sticks with me, and makes me wonder.
Eighty-four was a fantastic year. Eight-five, not so much. Her buddy Jamie died that year, several decades after realizing that he was gay. But ninety was wonderful again, kind of a resurgence. She carried a camera everywhere, taking as many photos of herself in as many places as she could. Sure, I showed up in some of them. But it didn’t seem to bother her anymore.
When she was ninety-four, I thought about talking to her again. Good on me that I didn’t, though. I left her alone, there in the hospital bed. It’s crazy how the places where people die are so similar to the places where they’re born. She lay there with family around her, so calm. Her fingers twitched, like she wanted to take a picture of the moment, something to take with her, but actually you can’t do that. You don’t take it with you, not ever. Not even the best photograph stays with you.
In those last moments, she looked at me. Sure, I did that much for her. I appeared, just enough that she could see me at the back of the room. I figured I’d driven her a little crazy being in her life that way, so the least I could do was remind her that she wasn’t actually nuts. And don’t you know that she actually smiled a bit before she died! I think I might have been the last thing she ever saw. I know that’s not entirely a good thing, but don’t blame me too much, all right? We all make mistakes when we’re this old, and this much in love.