Fingers and toes

Every day, I get on the subway at the beginning of its route.  About 45 minutes later, I am right downtown, three stops from the end.  With any luck, it’s about 7:30 in the morning, and I have lots of time to get a Starbuck’s.  After my day in the cubicle, I’ll be back in my parking lot by 5:00.

On this miscellaneous morning, Google says it’s gonna be a hot one.  Already, at 6:45, it’s 25 Celsius.  There are plenty of people waiting with me for the silver doors to open.  There’s the whoosh of wind, the strange vacuum sensation, and the expected climax of chimes in C minor.  It’s not unusual for the subway cars to have a few seats already occupied at this, the end of the northbound line.  People one stop down the line will get on, just to have somewhere to sit on the southbound journey.

We all get on, and everyone finds a seat.  Most are occupied, either with their phone, or with one of those crappy cups of coffee from the station’s vending machine. Straight across from me, next to the doors, a young girl sits.  It’s a row of three seats, and no one has sat beside her.  Without being obvious, I fall to studying her aspect and mannerisms.  She wears a pair of lime green gym shorts and a grey zip up hoodie.  It obscures her features to a degree, and her downcast gaze and unwashed hair leave just a runny nose and pouty lips showing out.  She’s about thirteen, I think.

There are some odd things about her that pique my curiosity.  She wears white socks and no shoes, not even flip-flops.  In a pigeon-toed manner, she keeps crossing and uncrossing her feet, bending (and cracking) her toes unconsciously.  She has no phone, or so I assume, but it’s her hands I’m focused on.  Her fingernails are bitten to the quick, but what I see her do fascinates me, as if I have run across some accidental art.  With each hand, she touches, in sequence, the tips of each finger to its member thumb, and then repeats as if part of a game.  Then, the tips of all digits from both hands are brought together and flexed as if in a bellows.  Tiring of this, she inscribes, with a forefinger, letters upon the palm of the opposite hand.  I felt sure that she was spelling something out, and would have given much to read the message.  At the last, and just before my stop, she meshes her fingers together and begins to twiddle her thumbs.  I have heard the expression before, but have never seen someone actually do it.

As I get up to leave, she looks up for a second, and I see keen blue eyes with lashes stuck together as from stale tears.  I step off, trying to think about Starbucks.

This muggy afternoon, I catch my 4:15 to head home.  But you have guessed already.  Serendipity has shone upon the scene, and this girl sits a few seats down from me.  Something tells me she will be there when I reach my destination.  In my briefcase I have a pastry, wrapped in plastic, that I bought for the trip home.  I stand up nonchalantly, as if getting off at the next stop, look at the subway map, then sit down beside her.  She shrinks away a bit, perhaps thinking that I am that weirdo she has been told about.

“I saw you here this morning, and here you are again.  Are you okay?” She says nothing, then moves her feet from the floor up to her seat, hugging her knees.  “Where do you live?”  I do not want to go home she says.  I had expected something a little less formal, like “I don’t wanna go home”.  “Here…are you hungry?”  I offer the pastry to her and she takes it, quickly eating it with her head turned.  They drink and they take drugs and they buy things, but not for me.  They tell me to hide when someone knocks on the door.
“Look, take this money.  Is there a place you can stay tonight?”  My friend’s dad has a hotel.  He makes her work at the desk sometimes.  She could let me stay.  He would not know.  

I pencil my number on the back of a business card.  “Call this number if you need help.
What is your name?”

Layla.

The next day, as I’m eating my substitute pastry,  my phone rings.  Unknown number.

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