Emily watched a streak of dark blood ooze from the man’s neck and then saw him slump and fall to his left at an unnatural angle. She tried to blink away the sight. Her limbs went clammy and cold as tiny, colorful shapes danced in her vision. The binoculars dropped out of her hand and crashed to the floor. Emily’s hands climbed to her face and covered her mouth, her eyes bulging in fear and shock as she staggered back from the window.
Shit. Shit. Shit. What did I just see? Her mind scattered in all directions at once as if fleeing from the scene of the crime it had just witnessed. That was what she saw, right? A crime? But did she just watch a man get murdered? Or did he kill himself? She could not say where the blade came from nor who held it. Was it even real? She knew what she saw but did not quite trust it. The poor angle, the distance — they conspired to hide details when details were critical. Not again. Not now. Not after so long. I’ve finally gone the rest of the way crazy, she thought.
Her heart raced and her breathing labored to keep pace. The walls crushed in around her, the entirety of her universe collapsing on the single spot she occupied. She fought for control, tried every tool for calming she had, and lost. Emily collapsed in the middle of her living room as the oven timer began to buzz once more.
She came to a few seconds later, the timer still begging for someone to come turn it off. She was relieved to see she had avoided falling into anything on her way to the floor. This was not the first time she had lost consciousness in response to trauma and stress, and she seemed to have somehow learned to faint safely, an unfortunate if useful skill for someone like her. Emily collected herself from the floor and went to the stove, turning off both the timer and the burner. The sauce was no longer of much concern to her.
Though her breathing had returned to normal, nothing else felt right. Emily’s whole body was weak and tired. She felt like she was watching herself in some strange dream instead of living the moments herself. Her feet walked over to the coffee table where she set her wine glass before looking out the window. Her hands picked it up and returned to the kitchen. They topped of the wine and filled a glass of water. Her feet took her to the sofa where she sat, her jaw still hanging slack in disbelief. A deep breath and a sip from her glass made her a little steadier, made her feel something closer to normal.
What do I do? I have to call the police, right? The thought triggered a debate in her mind. What if the police asked her to come identify a body? What if they needed her to lead them to the crime scene? She knew nothing of what might be asked of her, but she could not bear such possibilities . She grew woozy again at the very notion that she might be asked to go anywhere. Maybe I really did imagine the whole thing. Why should I believe what I saw? Emily looked down at her wine glass, sediment collected at the bottom. Plus I’m half in the bag. What do I know?
She rubbed her temples. Her head was hot. Emily went back to the thermostat and cranked on the air conditioning. Part of her knew that the cool fall breeze outside would feel much better than the stale air that pushed through the vents, but that was not an option.
A new choice emerged in her mind. How bad is it if I just don’t say anything? If it really happened, someone else probably saw anyway, right? Besides, bad stuff happens. I don’t owe anybody anything. Emily cringed. That last thought brought a wave of shame. Was she so scared, so weak, that she was unwilling to report a crime — a murder, no less — for fear of her own inconvenience? For fear of her own past? Emily shook her head in disgust with herself. It was a low moment in six years that were filled with them.
Emily threw back the rest of her wine, this time for courage, and stood up. She strode over to the window, picking up the dropped binoculars as she went. The air conditioning blasted in her apartment, and Emily felt her body temperate beginning to drop as though she had broken a fever. The first thing to do was see whether there was anything else going on. She held out hope there would be something to indicate she had misinterpreted the whole thing.
The blinds parted a little in the middle, and Emily pushed them aside as she began to look out the window. She found the building and looked up at the top. No lights on. No sign of anything. The notion that she had imagined it all crept up again, but she knew it was little more than her neuroses looking for an excuse not to do anything. Still, it was a relief to see there was nothing else going on in the building, and she dropped the binoculars back in their basket with a sigh. She was glad she would not need to use them again just yet.
Emily walked the couple of paces over to her workstation. It faced the corner to the right of the window. Close enough to benefit from the glow of sunlight that made it through the blinds and curtains but turned away so as to avoid the panic that set in if she was made to think too long about the outdoors. She sat in her desk chair, a high end model with so many possible ergonomic adjustments she did not even know how to set them all. Living in a small apartment and never leaving left a lot of money for such creature comforts. She put on the headset that she wore during her workday and prepared to call the police. It’s the right thing to do, she reminded herself. It’s your civic duty.
After several deep, steadying breaths, she dialed.
A woman answered. “911. What is your emergency?”
“I…I think I may have seen an attack.” Emily swallowed hard. Her throat seemed to be closing up and fighting against her, trying to prevent her from speaking. “I saw someone cut a man’s throat.”
“Okay. Was this at your location? I’m showing you at —“
Emily cut her off, hoping to prevent any chance of someone coming to her building. “No, no. It was…it was maybe a block or two away. I…I don’t know the address. I saw it from my window. It’s probably the tallest building around here. Like twelve stories or so. It’s brick, and it’s got a sign from some old coffee roaster on it.”
“Okay. Thank you. We are sending someone to investigate. An officer may come by to collect a statement. Please confirm your address. I have —“
“I-I-Is that necessary?” Emily stammered, her heart rate beginning to climb. “I mean, um, can it be a phone call? Doesn’t this count as, you know, a statement?”
“Ma’am. We take calls like these very seriously. If an officer needs to take a statement, that’s what’s going to happen. Your number shows as registered to an Emily Cadwell residing at 217 West 14th Street. Is that correct?”
Emily closed her eyes, tears sneaking out of the creases. “Yes. That is correct.”
“Thank you for your cooperation. We — “
Emily hung up and sobbed.
Two hours after the 911 call there was a hard knock on Emily’s door. It was past eleven o’clock, a time when she would normally be in bed either already asleep or soon to be. Instead she sat on her sofa drunk, trembling and terrified. She had not moved since she hung up except to to open a second bottle of wine, make one trip to the bathroom, and to plop onto the couch. That second bottle now sat empty alongside its sibling on the coffee table in front of her.
Despite her dread that the police might come, the knock still took her by surprise and she jumped in her skin at the sound of it. She tried to take a long breath to prepare herself to answer the door, but it came out in a series of staggering, jittery bursts. A second hard knock made her jump again, her frayed nerves ready to flinch at the slightest stimulus.
“I’m coming,” she shouted.
Emily stood up and steadied herself on the back of the sofa. The room seemed to rotate around her, as if the earth was spinning under her feet but she was not rotating along with it. She dragged the walk to her door out as long as she could, arriving right as the third knock landed. Emily looked out the peephole and saw two officers, one male and one female. She rotated the deadbolt open but left the chain guard, and reluctantly pulled the door open.
“Can I help you?” she asked, peering through the narrow slot allotted by the chain guard.
“Evening, ma’am,” the male officer said. “I’m Officer Dunwoody, and this is Officer Green.” The female officer gave a curt nod at the sound of her name. “Are you Emily Cadwell?”
“And did you report a possible assault earlier this evening?” The officer looked down at a small notepad as he asked his questions like an actor who had yet to learn his lines.
“Um, yes, that is correct.”
“Ma’am, would it be possible to come in? We have some questions.”
Emily closed her eyes, wishing her world would blink back to normal when she opened them. She hoped it might still be no more than a bad dream. Please just let them disappear. Let this be over. She opened her eyes. Officer Dunwoody just stared at her, his expression stoic but his eyes showed a measure of empathy.
“I…I’d really rather not if that’s okay. Can we talk like this?”
The officers looked at each other. Officer Dunwoody shrugged and Officer Green stepped forward.
“Ma’am…Emily. Can you tell us what you saw? We have the report from dispatch, but we would like to corroborate it with you personally.”
Emily told the officers what she saw — or thought she saw. That they were asking about it made her question her memories once more. As she finished her story, the officers exchanged glances again. Their expressions suggested that they did not buy it even if it was at least consistent with its earlier version.
“Emily,” Officer Green spoke again. “We found no evidence of a crime at the location you described. We checked the top three floors of the building to be sure, but we found no evidence of any wrongdoing nor of any human presence. Only the first three floors of that building are in active use at present. Is it possible you were mistaken?”
The officer’s voice was calm and kind, more so that Emily thought she deserved. She was more certain than ever she had lost her mind, and she was certain the officers knew they were dealing with a crazy person. They probably had a lot of experience with that, but she still felt ashamed and tears began to make their way to her eyes again.
“I don’t know,” she said, sniffling through her words. “I know what I saw, but now I’m not sure anymore.”
Officer Dunwoody stepped back up to the door. “Look, Ms. Cadwell, we believe you meant no harm, but bear in mind that falsely reporting crimes to emergency services can land you in a lot of trouble, not to mention it’s very dangerous. Do you understand?” His voice was stern, like a disappointed parent.
“This is just a reminder and a warning, okay? Please, if you see a crime — a real one — do not hesitate to call.”
“I understand,” Emily said. Her voice had grown high pitched and squeaky, worn out with emotion and fatigue. “I’m sorry for any inconvenience. I must have been mistaken.”
“Get some sleep ma’am,” Officer Dunwoody said.
The two officers nodded at her and disappeared back down the hall. Emily rushed to close the door and restore the deadbolt. She went back to her living room, moved the coffee table aside, and pulled out the sofa bed that transformed her living room into her bedroom. Emily threw herself down on it and cried herself to sleep in her pillow, convinced whatever tenuous grasp of reality she thought she had was gone for good.