I stepped outside my favorite pub near Union Square for a smoke, belly full of bangers and mash. I was used to the cold, damp fog of the Bay Area by then, and there was no shortage of it that night. I had just taken my first long, after dinner drag when a teenage girl–no more than seventeen–with an Army jacket and backpack walked up to me, ghostlike and wordless, communicating her desire to bum a cigarette with a faint hand gesture. In the flame, I could see that her face was blue and green on one side, and for a brief moment, her dark brown eyes pierced mine. They were hard eyes, but there was something about the way she looked at me that let me know that she was in great need. Before I had a chance to ask, she was disappearing into the fog at a swift pace, glancing back at me only for a moment.
I had grown accustomed to the significant number of people on the street; she was just one more person. There were people in need everywhere I turned, and I’d learned that it was best not to make eye contact with them because there’s something about the eyes that make people believe that you might be of help to them. She had caught me off guard.
I walked back inside for a final toast to another day of being a lonely drunk in a city that mostly ignored me, even on the occasion of my thirty-fifth birthday.
I might have forgotten her altogether except that I saw her again the very next night, tucked in the shadows near the pub. She seemed to be watching me. I held out my pack of Camels, but she didn’t move, so I popped out a cigarette and lit it up for myself becoming distracted by a group of boisterous young revelers streaming into the bar.
When I turned to face the street again, she was there before me, just as she had been the night before; silent, weary, and bruised. I held out my pack and expensive Dunhill lighter, waiting for her to take it. She looked at me with hard, discerning eyes and then at the lighter.
“Help yourself,” I said.
She took them and flitted away. I opened my mouth to call after her, but she was gone before any words formed. I finished the rest of my cigarette, stamped it out, and began my walk up to my apartment. When I reached my block, I stepped into Li’s for a new pack and a new lighter.
“Camel Blue?” said a small, middle-aged Chinese man behind the counter.
“Yeah, and a lighter. Just had mine stolen.”
“Stolen? A pickpocket?”
“No. Just what I get for showing a little kindness.”
I grabbed the first disposable lighter and dropped it on the counter with a twenty. Li pulled down a bottle of Scotch and held it out to me.
“Have a drink with that, Mr. James?”
I thought of my quickly-dwindling supply and nodded. Never hurts to be stocked.
When I got to my place, I tucked the bottle under my left arm and fumbled for my keys, but I dropped them. On the ground next to the keys in the center of my welcome mat was my Dunhill lighter. I picked it up and examined it for a second then looked around quickly to see if the girl was nearby.
For the next few evenings, I watched for her, but if she was there, she had kept herself well-hidden. Then one particularly chilly night, I walked out of the pub with leftover dinner and saw her once again in the shadows across the street. I held the styrofoam box out to her, and she swiftly crossed and took it from me.
We repeated this ritual for most of the next week. She never said a word.
When I arrived by foot at my first-floor apartment around the corner from Chinatown, I picked out a Laphroaig 10, filled a tumbler, and settled into my leather club chair to hopefully pass out into a dreamless sleep. The chair had been my bed for the months since I’d moved here.
I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep until I was suddenly awake again. She didn’t move. She didn’t even blink. She just stared back at me with a single question in her weary eyes. I wasn’t sure if she was actually there. My body still slumbered in a scotch-induced stupor, but my eyes were awake, and the shock of seeing someone at my window in the middle of a cold night had set my ears ringing. I understood what she was asking. When I opened the door, she bolted in and quickly shut it behind her. She was breathing hard and shivering. No words had come to my mind, so I did not speak, and even if they had, my tongue would have been too slow with drunkenness and sleep to form anything but foolishness. She gave me a hard look then sat down on my couch.
For someone who seemed to be living on the street, she didn’t smell bad–only of damp, night air and cigarette smoke, and her clothes looked relatively fresh; same jeans, Army jacket, backpack, and sneakers. I poured her a brandy from a crystal decanter – the one thing I kept for myself when I left – and sank back down in the leather club. She put the glass to her lips, her eyes never leaving mine, her mouth showing only a trace of a grimace from the strength of the drink as she swallowed.
She broke the silence. “I’m Amy.”
I took a sip of scotch and cleared my throat a bit. “I’m James.” The words hung around my spinning head as if they weren’t mine. “What’s going on? Are you in some sort of danger?”
But she did not answer. She wrapped herself in the Indian wool blanket slung over the arm of the couch and took another sip of brandy, making a sour face this time. She put it down on the coffee table between us.
“Do you need to call anybody?” I asked.
She shook her head and pulled the blanket closer around her. She was calming down.
“Amy, are you ok?” I asked.
She nodded and laid her head down on the cushion. She seemed so at home–or maybe just too exhausted to care.
I watched her sleep for a while and listened to her breathing–almost peaceful– unconsciously timing it with the ticking of the mantel clock. Asleep, her face was a child’s, spoiled only by the fading green and purple bruise under her right eye.
She was gone when I awoke the next morning. The blanket was folded on the arm of the couch precisely as it had been when she’d arrived, brandy snifter put away.