Short Story – A stranger

As what remains of the warmth of autumn has failed to keep up with the cold, re-frozen scabs of November snow litter the streets. It crunches under the feet of a man who stands leaning from side to side, peering into the mall. Hands splayed across the glass. Slender fingers wandering like the arms of an anemone. The lilac ball gown he wears is creased and threadbare, its hem crusty from years of grazing the streets. When sometimes a passerby looks at him – a visitor from the country or suburbs whose eyes are not yet in the habit of looking away from his kind – the fourth thing they notice about him are his bright almond-tinted irises.

He cranes his neck to see through the shopping crowd, to keep you in sight among the gaggle of shoulders. For a moment you disappear and he whimpers and rubs the backs of his hands, but then you resurface as part of the trickle passing the at this hour perpetually open sliding glass entrance. Standing only a half-dozen steps away he studies the configuration of your face and makes up his mind. As you start heading home, he follows.

He keeps his distance well and remains unnoticed. Like the hands of a pianist his gangly legs search their way, dodging patches of snow to tread silently on the ground. Under his breath he hums to himself, a simple song he made up about a breadbox he found in the street once.

You reach the entrance of the place where you live and as you unlock it he sidles up close behind. When you enter he slides his forearm behind the handle and presses his back to the wall, preventing the latch of the door from quite clicking shut. Head straining sideways he observes as you, still unaware of his presence, retrieve from your mailbox an envelope and two loose pages of prices and glossy smiles. As you head up the stairs he reads from the mailbox’s lid and mouths the syllables of your name. He waits until the sound of your closing door can be heard, then enters the building. Still mouthing your name he searches the stairwell and locates the storage closet. He tries the handle and, finding that it’s unlocked, slips inside. Curls up under the shelves and lies motionless licking his teeth. Four and a half hours he waits. The first few minutes he keeps himself busy with the sounds in his mind and then when his eyes have grown used to the dark he watches the lives of insects.

When enough time has passed he crawls up to the closet door and pushes it ever so slightly open. The stairwell is still. He exits. Seen by no one but the motion sensors lighting his path he seeks out the apartment marked with your syllables. Lays his ear to the door. There’s no sound of steps or of voices, nor a computer’s susurrus or TV’s muffled commotion. He produces a parcel of napkins from the pockets of some undergarment. Inside: a selection of small dented rods, crafted from steel wire and aluminum cans. He puts them to use and soon coaxed by his sensitive hands your lock lets him in. His bare feet make no noise crossing the room, in each step first probing the floor with his heel before touching the toes down and only then shifting his weight.

He sits down on the side of the bed where you sleep. Places the tips of his slender fingers upon your neck and works them with delicate circular movements, firm but unfailingly tender, until eventually one by one your muscles unclench and soften and he slides himself off the mattress and kneels to lean over your ear and he whispers softly into it that all will be well, that everything will be alright, and as your dream changes its colors and you pull the blanket up to your chin and for the first time of the day your face splits into a smile he rises and walks, disappearing into the night.

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