The mid-day rush of people frantically making their way to or from lunch swarmed around Kelly as she dodged along the wide, hot sidewalk. Her muted apologies (Sorry!, Excuse me!, I'm so sorry!) were smothered by the buzzing of conversations, traffic and the sound of the world around her. At a little over five feet tall and a tiny bit under 110 pounds, she felt like a (Duck? Water bug? Hamster in a hamster ball thing?) fighting the raging current of a monstrous river. She grinned at the thought of a hamster furiously scrambling in a floating ball before apologizing to a faceless stranger that accidentally elbowed her.
The crowd thinned a few blocks later as she neared her favorite little diner. As was her habit, she glanced at herself in the large windows of the Macy storefront to see if anything was out-of-place. Skirt still where it should be? Check. No under-the-boob sweat spots on my blouse? Check. No toilet paper trailing on my flats- Kelly stopped and turned to look across the street.
An old woman sat in a pile of clothes on the sidewalk across from where she stood. The woman looked proud with her straight back and gray hair pulled into a tight ponytail, slightly lined face staring impassively straight ahead. A small sign written in meticulous letters proclaimed, "I need no money - simply a little food, please." The lady sat cross-legged with her hands folded in the faded red fabric of her dress. Her eyes were a calm reflection of the few clouds that passed overhead.
Kelly bit her lip while watching. Nobody looked at the woman and the woman watched nothing but the space in front of her. She turned back and continued down the block, turning a the small building squeezed between two skyscrapers. The little ding! ding! of the bell over the door greeted her. A large black man behind the small kitchen window yelled out to her, "Kelly, ma chere! Sit down, honey, and I'll bring you your sandwich."
Kelly stood by the register in the front, relishing the sudden quiet and familiar smells. The world felt slow here. Looking through the old, dusty large front windows made the city outside seem like a movie playing at a drive-in theater on a warm summer night. Even the tiny motes of dust floating in the buttery yellow sunlight seemed lazy. "Make it two, Papa Joe. With soup, please? To go."
An older, slim black woman in a crisp, pristine yellow dress looked up from the table she was waiting on. "That for that new man of yours, girl? I told you to bring him 'round so we can meet him. You hidin' him from us?"
Papa Joe's deep chuckle echoed from the back. "Now, Mama, you leave her alone. You know I'm the only man for her." The men (all men today, she noticed) sitting around the small room laughed and Kelly blushed. Papa Joe winked at her from his little kitchen in the back.
"Joseph Keller! You get back to your grill and mind your own business. No woman could stand you no matter how much you wink and croon or I'd have grandchildren by now. Couldn't even fit through the church doors for your own wedding even if you did fool some poor girl into marryin' you." The woman's bony hands flicked imaginary specks of nothing off of the tiny white flowers dotting her dress. A man at the table to her side raised his empty water glass up to her and she turned to him, slapping his hand. "Mr. Stockwell, if you think I'm gonna carry that glass over to fill it up, you have another thought coming to you. You wait till I come around with the pitcher like everyone else." The man took his glass back, momentarily chagrined at the rebuttal. He grinned, though, and his friends made fun of him while Mama walked to the next table.
From the back, Papa Joe raised his voice in song, "Welllll, I remember the sound of the wind through the tree as I sat so young on papa's knee! Mama in her dress and..."
Kelly turned away to look through the stained windows. She could see the old lady at the corner of the street, still in the same position. She wondered if she should've brought the woman into the diner. You couldn't be mad here, or unhappy, and she thought the other woman could use some relaxing in her life. Or something. But, another part of her worried that the old woman would fracture the idyllic peace of the place. There was a hardness around her that Kelly could see even from a distance. No, better to bring food to the woman. She closed her eyes, taking in the murmuring conversations dotted with Mama's sharp interjections and Papa Joe's fine, deep voice. Her body relaxed in increments as it always did when she was here.
A gentle voice at her side woke her from her revelry. "Here y'are, child. Careful with the soup so they don't spill. And you don't mind me askin' after your business. I'm just an old woman that don't know no better and I just worry after all of y'all. Bring that man of yours in whenever you want and we'll cook up something for the both of you. And you watch yourself with that drifter 'cross the way. I don't like her. On with you now." The old woman turned her body slightly while keeping her eyes on Kelly's face. "I heard that remark, young Mr. Green! You can forget yourself having another glass of Coke. Callin' a woman like myself old. I'm addin' to your bill for that one, you better believe it and I'll be wantin' an apology, too."
The little bell rang again as Kelly opened the door, the sudden flood of noise drowning out Mr. Green's "Awwww, Mama..." behind her. Everything was sudden too bright, too loud and too fast around her. She held the paper bag close to her chest while she watched and waited for a chance to cross the street. A bicyclist in advertisement-laden white Speedo and a large curved bike helmet zipped past in the bike lane, tires whirring as he passed.
With the light changed to red and no cars turning right, the street was empty and Kelly scrambled across to the other sidewalk. She approached the old woman cautiously, unsure of what to do; she'd never met a homeless person quite like her. As she neared, the old woman spoke, her voice slow and gravelly, "I thought it might be you. Sit with me, little one. Will you share your food with an old woman?"
Kelly paused, heart in her throat. She didn't sound crazy. Well, her words sounded a little off but they were put together. And that accent, she wondered, European? Russian? No, that's not right, nothing is just Russian any more, was it? It's all Bulgarian or Czechoslovakian or something, right? Now the woman finally turned to look at her. "Well?" She asked.
"I... yes. Yes I'll sit with you." Up close she could see the woman's eyes and they were a mixture of green and brown and hidden golden flecks. Kelly sat a few feet away, facing the woman. "I bought some soup and a sandwich. You don't have any food allergies, do you?"
The woman watched her closely. She sat as if she'd never move again, perfectly still. Nearly predatory. Kelly found herself having to remember to breathe now and again. The pressure of the woman's gaze was intense and she never seemed to blink. "No. I have no such things. Do you know? I have sat here since dawn. Here in this cluttered, noisy place. Never once did anyone offer their sympathy or their food. This food, it is not yours but I will accept it."
Kelly tilted her head. "But, it is mine. I paid for it."
"Yes, you've paid for it. It is not made by your hand nor from grains you've reaped or animals you've hunted. I will not fault you for it, child of the city. Thank you for the food you're sharing." The hands that reached for the wrapped sandwich were weathered but strong. Long, slightly stained fingernails tipped each finger. They weren't blackened by the grime of the city or... whatever homeless people seem to get on their hands - it was as if she'd spent the day working the ground. The woman herself had an earthy smell about her. But, deeper than that in some way. Things stirred in the shadows of Kelly's dreams and she shifted uncomfortably against the feeling.
"You're welcome," she told the older woman. "May I ask? What's your name? I'm Kelly."
"I'm-" the woman paused briefly. "It doesn't matter. The sandwich is very good, even if the woman in the store dislikes me. It is well made. Tell me of yourself, Kelly. Sit and talk with an old woman."
"I... what do you want to know?" The old woman made an ambiguous hand gesture while her sharp teeth bit into the thick sandwich. Kelly swallowed and continued. "Okay. I'm 23 and I work at a bookstore a few blocks away. I like to paint - that's what my degree is in. Art. Basically. It's, well, basically art. I also sketch and draw and I get commissioned sometimes. Online, mostly. That's, I mean, the Internet. Where I get commissions. Sometimes. If I could bring myself to draw naked women, I'd be able to do a lot more commissions but I can't seem to do it. Wow. Wow, I'm just babbling, aren't I? I'm so sorry. I just kind of-"
"Stop apologizing, child." The woman's voice was sudden and stern. "And? Is there a man in your life? Someone keeping you warm at night?"
Kelly blushed. "There's... there's... yes. But, no. He doesn't live with me. We only recently decided to be exclusive. After four months. He asked but I wasn't seeing anyone else anyway. He's... he's a very nice man. I like him a lot. I've known him four months now. Wow, the time flies. Four months. Um. Um. We're going slow with things. Like... but... not... augh!" Kelly hid her face against her knees. Her voice was slightly muffled when she continued. "I'm shy. Sometimes I worry I'm too slow and dumb for him. My family was strict and I worry I don't know what to do. He's... he's my second boyfriend. And the first one dumped me after a month when I said I wouldn't sleep with him yet. Why am I telling you this? I'm so sorry."
The old woman reached her hand out to place it on Kelly's small shoulder. "Because I asked you to tell me. And so you have. I would take you and teach you purpose and confidence but our paths lie separate. I will go now, young woman. You have my thanks and my blessing. May it give you strength." Kelly felt the woman's hand against her own and then something pressed into her palm. She peeked with one eye to see what it was and gasped to see a large, heavy gold coin shining brightly.
Kelly gasped, eyes wide. "I can't ta-!" The woman was gone. There was an empty sandwich wrapper rocking slightly in the wind but no trace of the woman. Not a single sign that she was here and nowhere for her to go so quickly.
A sudden searing pain bloomed in her hand and Kelly screamed, dropping the coin. Except, no coin fell to the ground. She grabbed her right wrist, feeling the hand pulse with pain but, when she turned her hand over, nothing was there. The palm of her hand was reddened but there was no burn and she could already feel the pain lessening. She clenched her fist over and over again as the nerves in her hand slowly stopped screaming. Opening her hand completely, Kelly caught faint white lines traced in a vague shape amongst the many creases crisscrossing her palm. Like a fancy optical illusion, the lines seemed to vanish into the wrinkles of her flesh.
Kelly stood and immediately fell against the cold marble of the building next to her. Bright pins of light exploded in her eyes and the world darkened around her. The back of her neck broke into a cold sweat and for a brief, terrible moment, she wasn't sure whether she was still standing or not. Her ears rang with a loud screeching sound while she tried to tell if the surface against her side was the building or the sidewalk. Slowly, lights and sounds returned to her. She was standing and gasping for air, arms hugged around her slight form. The cold sweat ran from her neck to her legs and then turned warm before passing. She spent several minutes just breathing before she dared to move.
The old woman left no mark, no disturbed dirt or trash or any trace of her existence other than the discarded paper from her sandwich. Kelly bent, careful of her balance, and cleaned up. Her own stomach roiled at the thought of eating her food so she took her the diner's paper bag with her as she threw away the bits of trash in the nearby bin. Her earlier good mood was gone, replaced with a strain behind her eyes and a dull ache near her ears. She caught herself nearly yelling at someone as they bumped into her and, instead, focused on her feet and controlling her temper. Once back at the book store where she worked, she gave muted assurances to her coworker's worries.
It took her manager gently telling her to go home before she realized she was simply staring at the books rather than reshelving them. Her stomach was in knots and the pounding in her head was getting worse. Her coworker gave her a ride back to her apartment and she spent nearly the entire trip huddled into a small ball, gripping the seat belt. She couldn't remember if she said anything or embarrassed herself or simply said nothing and the walk from the car to her bedroom was dream-like. She finally collapsed into her bed, still dressed in her work clothes. Bright sunlight filtered through her cheap blinds, covering her in curving bands of light and shadows until sleep finally, mercifully took her.
Kelly startled awake, gasping for air and then wincing at the pain behind her eyes. She was completely covered in blankets and it was dark outside. Silvery moonlight glowed around the edges of her closed blinds. Someone was sitting at the edge of the bed but she was having a hard time focusing her eyes. When she spoke, the words caught in her throat. Her mouth was completely dry -- lips stuck to teeth and tongue clung to the roof of her mouth.
The form stirred and reached for her. "Hey, you."
David, her mind told her. She relaxed, sighing, both pleased he was there and wishing he wasn't seeing her like this. His voice sounded warm and careful. "Hey," she whispered back to him.
He brought his hand to her face, brushing a loose strand hair away from her eyes. She tried to shrink away from him but her body felt incredibly heavy. Instead, she closed her eyes and pushed slightly against his hand. His touch was comforting. "I went to your work to give you a ride home and they told me you were sick so I came here. I hope it's okay? I used the key you gave me last week. Oh, and Sally said you forgot your lunch in her car so I brought it. It's in the fridge. Can I make you anything? Or bring you anything?"
She shook her head slightly. "No," she rasped. "Yes. Water. Please." Her small bed shifted slightly as he stood and she heard him clinking around in her kitchen - still a stranger to how she arranged her kitchenware. Eventually she heard her faucet run and then he returned, kneeling by her bed. When she tried and failed to sit up, she felt his hand work its way under her head and then slowly and carefully lift her. She could feel her own sweat against his cool hand. He tipped the water glass against her lips and she nearly choked on the first sip. With small gulps, she finished the entire glass. "Thank you," she told him. Her throat hurt. Her head hurt. He whole body ached.
David brushed more hairs away from her face and she smiled at him. Or tried to. "Do you want me to stay? I could sleep on the couch and make you breakfast. Or hold your hair back if you have to throw up. Although, I charge extra for the clean-up afterwards." He chuckled lightly, tracing his finger along the side of her face. She rubbed back against him again.
Yes, she thought, please stay. "No. I'll be fine. Just. Just need rest." Her breathing came in gasps. The effort of an actual conversation made her heart rate speed up.
"You're surprisingly stubborn, Kel. But I'm the same way some times. I put your phone on your night stand in case you need to call and it's plugged in. Your left overs are in the fridge and I'll refill your glass and put it by your phone. Promise you'll call if you need anything?" She watched him stand and wished she could see the way his forehead creased when he was worried about something. She liked to count his wrinkles when he did that. She'd always tell him that he was like a tree, adding new wrinkles for every worry in his life and he'd soon look like one of those funny little dogs with too much skin for their own good.
"Yes," she told him simply and even that took effort. "I will." She closed her eyes again and listened as he moved around to pick up and refill her glass. She heard the deadbolt click loudly before he spoke again.
"Good night, Kelly. Call me? When you're better or if you need anything. You promised."
She nodded even though she knew he couldn't see her. The door opened and then closed again and her body relaxed when David locked the deadbolt. Her lower back ached as if she'd been lying for too long and she couldn't seem to find a comfortable position. The blankets were too heavy and hot but she worried she'd freeze without them. Her short, auburn hair lay in sweaty clumps on the pillow around her. The pale light permeating the room blinked out as a cloud slowly obscured the face of the full moon. Kelly tittled her head to look over at the window, small, delicate cheekbones dotted with small beads of sweat. She held her breath as her eyes focused on the window. Mesmerized. Slowly, moonlight dawned again and her breath rattled out of her through suddenly clenched teeth.
David stared at his phone for the millionth time. Three days and I haven't heard a thing. Do I call? Is that too needy? I hate this stuff. Why can't it be more simple? If I want to call, I should just call. Right? Dammit. But I told her to call me if she needs something. What if she's dead? I should just- His phone rang to sudden, heart-stopping life as his hand hovered over it. "Jesus fucking Christ!" David yelled. He answered the call with a frantic swipe when he saw who it was.
"Kelly?" He could feel his heart hammering against his chest.
"David! Hi! It's Kelly! Oh, but you already said that. Hello! I'm all better!" Kelly's voice was a raging torrent of enthusiasm in David's ear. He held the little phone out from his face but grinned while doing it. "Do you want to come over tonight for a little I'm-Not-Dying celebration?"
"That sounds like a great idea, Kel. Is 7 a good time? I'm really glad you're doing better. I'll bring some cheesecake, yeah? And a movie?" Shit. Romantic comedy? Action? Drama? Maybe a romantic comedy. She likes them. I can suffer through some with her. Oh, right. The one. With the guy from Star Trek and Inception. Ummm... This Is War or something. That looked funny as hell and she'll like it.
Kelly's laugh trickled through the phone and David felt a warm emotional rush from it. He loved the way she laughed - her face made little dimples and she hid her mouth while she did it. It was one of the most adorable things he'd ever seen. He'd always wondered what writers meant when they said someone's eyes sparkled and it took Kelly to show him.
"That, sir, is a date but make it 6, okay? I may even give you a little kiss for your efforts. And the cheesecake. But, just a little one. See you in a few hours!" The connection clicked off and David cocked his head to the side slightly. He'd yet to see this playful side of her but he liked it because usually she was quite reticent towards sex and even intimacy. Still, his pulse quickened at the thought of a quiet evening with Kelly and a simple kiss at the end.
David stood at the door in his faded blue jeans and simple brown t-shirt. Ignoring the doorbell (he always thought it was rude or lazy to use a doorbell first) he knocked three times and waited. He held a grocery bag in this left hand with two plastic containers of a cherry cheesecake and a plastic container with the movie "This Means War" inside.
There was a muffled "Just a min-ow!" from inside the apartment followed by muttered, low grumbling. The plain white door (apartment 12, with the number '2' slightly crooked) rattled for a second. David heard Kelly mumble something under her breath before the deadlock clicked open and the door swung wide.