She didn’t move. She didn’t even blink. She just stared back at me with a single question in her weary eyes . I still wasn’t sure if she was actually there. After downing five drams of single malt some time earlier, I had passed out and had only just awoken at the sound at the window–actually, 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. But even still, I understood what she was asking.
I could just make out her face in the dim, halogen porch light of my Powell Street home on the edge of China Town. I’d seen her earlier that evening down the street outside of Foley’s when I stepped out into the foggy night for a smoke. She’d approached me, ghostlike and wordless, communicating her desire to bum a cigarette with a faint hand gesture. I didn’t speak and I barely even looked at her, save a single moment of eye contact as I lit her cigarette, then she walked away glancing back at me once. In her eyes I could see her need, and on her face I could see the bruising of a cruel hand.
A dilemma had frozen me in the stare, our eyes locked in an unanswered plea. I’d met my share of hustlers in this bay city, but, she was so lovely that it would almost be worth the hustle. But no, the need on her face was real, and she couldn’t have been more than seventeen.
But why me? Why would she follow me? Why not a friend or family…or a shelter? Jesus! I was a stranger to her–a drunken, lonely bastard of a man on the street; too young to be her father, too old to be her lover.
I broke the stillness with a nod.
She was pale and shivering from the cool, damp night. I watched her intently and silently as she passed over my threshold into my living room. No words had come to my mind, so I did not speak, and even if they had, my tongue would have been too slow to form anything but foolishness. She sat on my couch, and I handed her a heavy woolen blanket.
She had not been on the street for long, I guessed. She didn’t smell badly–only of damp, night air and Marlboro. Her clothes looked relatively fresh–jeans, hoodie, backpack, and sneakers. I poured her a brandy from a crystal decanter–the one thing I kept for myself–and sank back down in the leather club chair where I’d just moments before been sleeping and had been every night since I’d moved in three weeks earlier. She put the glass to her lips, her eyes never leaving mine. Her mouth showed only a trace of grimace from the strength of the drink as she swallowed.
She broke the silence.
I took a sip of scotch, and cleared my throat a bit.
“Hey, Amy. I’m Brian.” The words hung around my spinning head as if they weren’t mine. “How can I help you?”
She shrugged her slender shoulders. “Can I crash here tonight?”
“Why here?” I replied, clumsily, perhaps even coarsely.
She shrugged again. “I guess you were nice to me in front of the bar?”
“Look,” I started, “if this is a hustle, I….”
“It’s not a hustle!” she shouted, her voice breaking. “Listen, I just need a place to stay tonight. That’s all.” Silent tears began to rolled out of her eyes pleading for just an ounce of mercy.
“Ok, ok. Relax.”
Gesturing toward me, she said, “I guess you seemed–I dunno–like you’re running away from something, too.” Her body relaxed into a slump as she dried the tears on her hoodie sleeve. She sniffed 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?”
She shook her head, and pulled the blanket close around her.
“Amy, are you ok?” I asked, my tone softening.
She nodded and settled back into the couch. 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 green and purple bruise under her right eye.
She was gone when I awoke the next morning, the runaway. The blanket was folded on the arm of the couch exactly as it had been when she’d arrived, brandy snifter put away. I might never see her again, and I wasn’t really certain I’d ever seen her at all.
As I let the steam from my freshly brewed coffee rise to my face, I pondered her words:
you’re running away from something, too…