THE ATONEMENT

By Gisela Woldenga

“Slow down, Paul, it’s slippery!”

Tina braced her hands against the dashboard of the car and looked into the snow-covered landscape.

“Okay, okay, don’t worry. I’ve got good tires.” Paul eased up on the gas.

“But not front-wheel drive like Dad’s car.”

Paul smirked. “If you weren’t so skinny you could give the car more weight.” He shot a sly glance at his stepsister.

“Oh yeah, very funny!” Tina tried hard to sound annoyed but she was used to her stepbrother’s quirky sense of humour. She expected a certain playful immaturity from a high school senior. Tonight he had treated her to a movie, a belated birthday present. During those two hours new snow had fallen. The streetlights stood like sentries along the road and gave off an otherworldly glow. Random snowflakes tumbled towards the headlights as if they had lost their way and were searching for a home.

Paul steered the car around the corner.

“What’s that?” Tina pointed to something by the side of the road. “Maybe you should stop.”

“You really want me to stop?”

“Yes, I saw something.”

Paul gave the brake pedal a quick touch and skidded to a halt. Tina opened the door and looked back.

“Paul,” she whispered. “It’s a person. Oh God, is he dead?”

Both stepped out of the car and stared at the figure in the snow bank.

“He might still be alive. We can’t just leave him here The least we can do is to call an ambulance.” Paul fumbled in his pocket and looked at his cell phone. “Damn, it’s dead.” He looked down at the figure. The man’s eyes were closed. Was he smiling?  

The dead man smiled. What a title for a movie. Come on, let’s go to the house there. They can phone the ambulance.” 

Paul pushed the chime button on the front door. A man answered. His eyebrows shot up in surprise when Paul told him of the find in the snow.

“My wife will call 911,” he offered. “I’ll come with you. Let me get my jacket and a flashlight.”

When they arrived at the snowbank, he shone the light into the face of the figure sprawled there. “Hm. Strange. He looks familiar. Couldn’t be sure, though.” He shook his head. “I wonder how he got here. Very tragic.”

Far away, they heard the sirens of the ambulance. That was fast despite the icy roads, Tina thought. She shivered in the cold wind. That smile, it’s unreal, as if the man had been glad to die.

“No pulse!” one of the attendants shouted as he knelt by the frozen man. “Let’s get going and try to revive him.”

The man from across the road looked at Paul and Tina. “Glad you stopped. Good of you to care about this person, even if it might be too late.” He waved and walked back to his house.

Neither Paul nor Tina spoke during the last stretch home. At the front door, Tina looked at Paul. “I have a funny feeling about that man. He might not be dead.”

Paul chuckled. “You’ve seen too many movies. Better sleep on it. Want a sandwich?”

“No thanks. See you in the morning.” Cold shivers still ran down Tina’s spine. I probably dream about it, she thought. Before she drifted off to sleep, thoughts about her mother came to her. She had only been two years old when her mother died. Death caused by a drunk driver, her father told her when she was old enough to understand. Tina’s dad had married again, and her stepmother was the only mom she knew. 

Sometimes she would look at the picture of her mother. It was displayed in the hallway next to the portraits of her grandparents. Tina wondered, do I look like my mother, do I act or talk like her? 

Her father never spoke of the accident. All the information Tina got came from her stepmother. She was grateful for that. Why am I thinking of this nowIs my mother giving me a sign? Tina pulled her blanket up to her neck and finally fell asleep.

“Could this mystery be solved? It would be useless to phone the police or newspaper.”

Nothing had prepared Tina for the news that awaited her the next morning. A picture in the newspaper caught her attention. It showed an ambulance with its front tires halfway down a snow-filled ditch. The caption under it read, “Not even an ambulance is immune.”

Tina sat down and read how a man, found frozen in a snowbank, revived in the ambulance, started thrashing around and tried to attack one of the paramedics. In the confusion, the driver lost control of the vehicle and slid into a ditch. They weren’t seriously hurt, but the frozen man disappeared.

Paul ambled into the kitchen. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” 

Tina pointed to the newspaper. Paul let out a whistle.

“Holy cow! Where could he be now?”

“This whole thing is too weird,” Tina mumbled. “I don’t know why, but this is not the end.”

“For now, he’s disappeared.” Paul snatched some cookies out of the cookie jar and headed out the door. “You coming, sis?” he called. “If you go with me, he might not nab you.”

In spite of herself, Tina had to smile. Paul and his jokes! She grabbed her school bag and followed him.  

Even though school had her favourite subjects that day, she had a hard time concentrating. Again and again, the face of the frozen man appeared before her mind’s eye.

After supper, the T.V. news had another surprise. The announcer reported, “A pedestrian has been killed by a car during rush hour. The man carried no I.D. Anyone knowing this person, please, call your local police station.”

Tina gasped. “That’s him! It’s the same man we found yesterday.” What was going on? One does not die and live and die again. And then what?

Paul got up. “Death number two. Any more? This confuses me.”

Tina shook herself. Could this mystery be solved? It would be useless to phone the police or newspaper. The man would be long gone by now, just like he disappeared from the ambulance.

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

The next week flew by, filled with schoolwork and a snowstorm. Tina hoped never to hear from the mystery man again. However, a few days later, the newspaper carried a headline, “Dead Man Disappeared.” While police were still waiting for friends or relatives to identify the body of the hit-and-run accident, the morgue had lost him.

“Lost him?” Paul chuckled. “Man, he was lying on a slab with a tag on his toe. How could they lose him? How about the autopsy? I hope he is still in one piece.”

Tina’s stomach felt like a hand was squeezing it. “It will start all over again.” Like Paul, she had her doubts about the whole thing. How could it be the same person?

The next day was warm and sunny, with a hint of spring in the air. Tina decided to take the long way home from school through a nearby park. The sun felt good on her face. This will bring out my freckles again, she thought. Her friends and Paul would tease her about it. She sat down on a dry bench under a big cedar tree and watched busy sparrows scurrying through the bushes and around her feet. As she got up to continue on home, a shadow fell across the walk. A man approached and stood still. Tina looked up and froze. Her heart jumped into her throat. She heard a deep calm voice.

“Yes, it’s me. Please, don’t be alarmed.”

Tina swallowed; she had a hard time breathing. Did this deep, calm voice really belong to the mystery man who had occupied her thoughts all these days?

“May I talk to you, Tina?” the man asked.

She could only nod; she was unable to control her voice. How did he know her name?

As if reading her mind, he said, “When you and Paul found me, I knew you were sympathetic souls. If I tell you my story, will you help me?”
Tina looked up at him. His dark-blue eyes were kind and a bit sorrowful. How old was he? Forty, fifty? She was not afraid; she was calm now.

“I will make it as short as possible,” the man promised.

“Okay, go on.” Nothing wrong with listening, she thought.

“I have to die to atone for things I did – or neglected to do. It has to happen once more. But don’t worry about it. The important thing is that you come to the playground near your house one week from today at seven o’clock in the evening.”

“What am I supposed to do there? Why do you need me?”

“I need you to be my witness and to forgive me,” the man answered.
Tina was puzzled. “Forgive you? For what?”

The man sighed. “Let me start at the beginning. My three deaths are ones I should have prevented but didn’t. My friend fell drunk into a snowbank and froze to death. Instead of carrying him to shelter, I laughed, staggered home and went to sleep. The second time I was drunk again, ran down a pedestrian with a car and didn’t stop.”

“The police didn’t catch you?” Tina’s looked at him wide-eyed.

The man shook his head. “That punishment would have been easy. The third death started with a fight in a pub over a girl. I pulled a gun I had hidden in the inside of my jacket. I didn’t even remember whether it was loaded or not. I pulled the trigger. Instead of shooting the man, the girl fell. I ran, left town, got rid of the gun. Then strange things began to happen. A voice told me, ‘You must atone for those three deaths.’ I didn’t want to listen. Every night the voice came back. I didn’t know what to expect or where it came from. After my first death, I knew that I had to experience all three of them.” He paused and looked at Tina. “What I have to tell you now will shock you. You might not be able to forgive me. The pedestrian I killed was your mother.”

Tina stared at the man. “My mother?” she whispered.

The man nodded. “Do you remember her at all?”

Tina shook her head. “Only from pictures. I was a baby then. My stepmother is the only Mom I’ve known. When I was older, she told me that my real mother was killed in an accident.”

The man looked away. “I was the one who killed her. Now you might understand why I chose you to find me in the snowbank. I realize that it is a lot to ask you to forgive me and be my witness when my own time comes. It’s all part of my redemption.”

Tina still struggled to understand it all. “How do you know all this about me, how to find me . . .”

“The voice told me.”

“But what do you mean by ‘when your own time comes?”

The man took a deep breath. “That will be my real death. My life has been
bad. I was callous and a coward. I want to try again for a new life.”

“How can you do that?” Tina remembered reading about reincarnation once and how she had been intrigued by it. “Is that possible?”

“That’s my only hope. I believe I’ll be granted that much.”

Tina looked down at her hands. “How are you going to die?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he answered. “Just be there, please. My next adventure will be on the news. But – can you forgive me? If you do you’ll be my saving angel.” The man got up, gave Tina’s arm a light touch and was gone.

She sat still for quite a while. This encounter was too fantastic. Should she believe this man? Could he really be the drunk driver who robbed her of her mother and her father of his wife? Again, she tried to imagine how horrific it must have been for her dad. What would happen if she decided not to forgive him and not show up at the playground next week? No. Somehow she didn’t find it in her heart to condemn him. To go through three deaths was suffering enough aside from the guilt he must have felt all those years. And now, he was facing his own demise. The man would be gone forever.

At last, she got up and made her way home. She had made up her mind not to talk about her mother’s death to her family. What good would that do? Everyone would just be upset all over again. And they wouldn’t be able to understand the man’s plight and his connection to her mother.

“Only a black circle showed in the grass, and a strong smell of something burning lingered in the air.”

“Tina, where have you been?” were the first words she heard on opening the front door. Her mother looked worried. “Are you okay? You’re two hours late.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. Something’s happened. Are Dad and Paul home?”
Her mother pointed to the living room.

“Okay, come and listen.”

Paul stood in the door. “Can’t we eat and listen? I’m starving.”

“It won’t take long,” Tina promised. “Your stomach has to wait.”

“It’s this strange guy again, right?” her father asked.

“Yes, and even if you don’t believe me, please, listen, ‘til I’ve finished.” Tina related the events of the afternoon. She was careful not to mention her mother’s accident. She realized how sympathetic towards the man she had become.

“You’re not going to the playground alone,” her father stated. “Whatever
crazy idea this guy has; I’m going to be there! This is rubbish.”

“No!” Tina almost shouted. “That might spoil it for him. It’s going to be all right. If he’d wanted to harm me, he would’ve done so in the park. Sometimes –“ she paused, then “things are not what they seem.” She saw Paul going over to her father and talked to him quietly. Then her father nodded.

Paul switched on the T.V. “Let’s see if he’s died again.”

“Too early,” Tina said. “It’s going to happen tomorrow.”

But neither the newspaper nor radio or T.V. mentioned anything out of the
ordinary the next day.

“The day isn’t over yet,” Tina persisted. “He wouldn’t lie to me.”

Paul looked at her. “You’re so convinced; it’s amazing, almost annoying.”

“If you had met him, you would believe him, too!” Tina shot back.
Against her normal routine, she stayed up that evening to check on the late news. She almost jumped out of her chair when the announcer reported, “There has been a shooting in a downtown bar. A fight over a girl ended in the wounding of a man in his forties. He was last seen staggering into the street. Police have not been able to locate the victim. Hospitals have been alerted.”

Tina flew up the stairs. Without knocking, she burst into Paul’s room. He
stared at her open-mouthed.

“He’s done it! He’s been shot!”

Paul turned off his CD player. “Really? Man, that’s cool.”

“Now, are you convinced that I’ll have to go to the playground on Monday?”

Tina felt triumphant.

“Yeah, maybe that’ll be finally the end of it. You have a way of shaking
me up – again.”

Tina tossed and turned that night with images of guns and speeding cars threatening her dreams. In the morning, she had only one regret: Monday was still five days away.

On that day, the weather was again mild and sunny. Small groups of
parents and children played ball and had fun on the swings in the playground. Tina started to worry. What if their presence interfered with the man’s fate? What if he did not come because of them? Go away, she thought, please, go home.

She leaned against a tree and tried to take a few deep breaths. How must he feel knowing he had to die? “God, let it be fast,” she prayed.
She checked her watch. Ten minutes to seven. Through the pounding of her heart, she heard laughter and children’s delighted squeals from the play area. At five minutes to seven, the atmosphere changed. A breeze came up, and dark clouds appeared in the sky. Tina could have sworn that she heard a faint rumble like thunder. The people looked up, and words like “Let’s go, it’s going to rain” drifted towards her.

She huddled closer to the tree and checked her watch again. Seven o’clock. The air felt heavy. Clouds hung directly overhead. The rumbling got louder. Then she saw him. The man walked from the entrance into the middle of the field. He raised both arms as if to greet her. Tina’s knees were shaking. The next moment a blinding lightning bolt shot out of the cloud, followed by a crash. Where the man stood, flames shot high into the air. Tina covered her ears and screamed. In an instant, the flames subsided, and a deep quiet surrounded her. The dark cloud had disappeared. Then she felt an arm around her shoulders.

“It’s okay; it’s over.” Paul’s voice brought her back to reality.

“Where is he?” A sob bubbled up in Tina’s throat.

“He’s gone. The lightning got him,” said Paul. “I was too curious to stay home. I saw it all.”

They walked over to where the man had stood. Only a black circle showed in the grass, and a strong smell of something burning lingered in the air.

As Tina got closer, she felt a slight touch on her arm, and a voice whispered, “Thank you, Tina, we’ll meet again.”

She wiped away her tears and smiled. He had given her a sign. She knew his atonement was complete.


Gisela Woldenga was born in Germany, came to Canada in 1954. She has published seven books (Black Opal Books, Scholastic Canada) and various short stories and poems in many magazines. Book no. eight is at Black Opal right now. Most books are sold privately, at launches, at Amazone’s etc. She lives in Coquitlam, BC, Canada.

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