He was a mess.
It was very obvious, though nothing out of the ordinary was immediately visible. His clothing was plain and neat – old blue polo, brown jacket, jeans, old but serviceable shoes. His hair, though somewhat long, was clean and fairly well-groomed. No scars were visible, no marks, no gimpy limbs or obvious twitches, but he was a mess. It was his face that gave him away. His eyes were blank in a strange way and his nose seemed to have been broken once. His hands moved slightly in his pockets. He bit his nails but that was in no way abnormal.
He was walking down the sidewalk, somewhat haltingly. He liked walking, especially if he wasn't going anywhere , which was almost always. The streets surprised him when he paid attention to them, and that was enough. The sun was shining bright and warm for April. The grass was so brightly green that it seemed likely to melt.
He had his eyes closed, his face turned towards the sun. He loved the feeling of the sun, but he couldn't stand to face into it with his eyes open. Eyes open, it was as if he was being judged, and he felt that he could never stand up to scrutiny. Eyes closed, and it was like being under a warm blanket. He took a slow step, his foot just a little too close to the pavement, and his shoe caught in a crack. He tripped over his own foot and fell, just in time for a little girl to see him do it.
She was five years old. Her hair fell in dark, grapevine ringlets around her face and over her shoulders. She wore a cardigan and sundress and sandals, all in shades of blue. Her eyes were the color of undefiled chlorinated pools, and as deep as the water below the diving board. Her skin was soft and white, her lips pearl-round and pink, her teeth innocent secrets in her mouth. She was singing to herself, a pop song whose lyrics she couldn't quite remember.
He was still on the ground, fighting his way back to his feet. His hand was scraped and bleeding from the concrete, and a hole had appeared in one of the knees of his jeans. His knee was bleeding, too, when he bent to look, gravel sticking in the reddened skin. His stomach twisted. Gravel in the skin like that made him feel ill.
"Are you okay?"
The girl had come to a halt directly in front of him. She stood looking up at his reddening face, her skin luminescent in the sun. She was playing carelessly with the corner of her cardigan, not nervous but needing something to do with her hands. He looked down the street, trying to see if there was an adult in attendance. No one had rounded the corner, and no one had come to snatch her up and pull her away. That wasn't right.
He stood up and looked at her, using his fingertips to pick gravel from his palm, wincing every time he touched the scrape. It hurt much more than it should have, it seemed. The blood looked too red, the gravel too black.
"You shouldn't be out on your own," he said. His hands were trembling and he was hurting himself more than he was getting rid of anything. "Isn't your mother here someplace?" His voice was soft yet fractured. The simplest words escaped before he could utter them, and it took him several moments to retrieve them.
The girl stared at him for a moment. He felt pinned by her deep-end eyes.
"My house is… My house is…" She thought for a moment, then reached into her dress and slowly pulled out a ball-chain with a dog tag on the end. "My house is here." She showed him the tag.
"Why are you away from home?" he asked. He looked at the tag. There was address on it, for a house about three blocks away. He knew the way. He walked enough, noticed enough, now, to find it. He was certain of that.
She was still looking up at him. There was no distrust in her eyes, no pity. He found that comforting. He wanted to help her in return for her concern. He wondered how she had gotten three blocks from her house without anyone noticing.
"Let me help you," he said. She stared at him, not quite seeming to understand. He offered her his un-scraped hand, and winced as the denim of his jeans brushed his knee. "Let me take you home."
"Are you a stranger?" she asked. It was the first time she had shown suspicion, and even though she seemed to be asking it more from curiosity than animosity, it still jarred him.
"No," he said. "I'm your friend."
He felt wrong. He felt like people were going to get mad at him for trying to help this little girl. He felt like they would call him names – pervert, sicko, other things along the same lines. He didn't understand that.
She put her hand in his, smiling.
"Okay," she said.
Despite her earlier forgetfulness, she seemed to know her way. He followed her, half bent over so she could hold his hand. She chattered as she walked, not looking at him but seeming to examine the world around her.
"What's your name?" she said. "My name's Haylie. I'm five." She nodded for emphasis.
"My name's John," he said. His back was already beginning to hurt from bending over and his hand and knee hurt but it was okay. Haylie was talking to him.
She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stared. A butterfly was fluttering just before her eyes, stagger-flying around the flowers in someone's well-cared-for garden. The butterfly was orange and black, starkly contrasting with the bright green of the lawn and the purple of the flowers. John stared too. It was very beautiful.
He stared a little too long, drifting into abstraction with his back to the sun. Then Haylie grabbed his hand and they began walking again.
"Do you have a job?" she asked. John could hear the effort of maturity in her voice and it made him smile in spite of himself.
"No," he said, shaking his head.
"Why not?" She had stopped again, and was looking at him.
"I had an… an accident." She had sat down on the curb and, with the overlarge gestures of a child imitating an adult, she patted the concrete beside her. John sat down, wincing when his scraped knee bent and bled a little.
It seemed like such a long time ago, when he thought about it. It barely seemed to have happened to him. He knew what had happened, but it was history, like something from a textbook in seventh grade. But it had happened to him.
There had been a fire, he remembered. Something large and heavy had hit his back; something else had hit his nose. He had lost something, he thought, and it had hurt. He couldn't remember so much of it. He had spent a lot of time in hospitals afterwards, and that was just as confused. Sometimes he forgot where he lived, and why he lived there. Sometimes he lost words on the tip of his tongue.
But he knew his way around town now.
"I'm sorry," he said. He shook his head. "I forgot what you said."
Haylie had lost interest. She was playing delicately with some weeds she had pulled from the cracks in the sidewalk, staring at them with a quizzical expression. Her fingers were very small. Her expression brightened suddenly and she gave a small handful of grass to John. He took it, feeling that his hands were very large and clumsy compared to hers.
Haylie stood up and grasped his hand. He got up, and they continued down the street.
The houses here were neat and respectable, all painted white or other pale colors. They weren't large, but they had a kind of dignity all their own. Most were fenced in with chain-link about rib-height to John, and much too high for someone Haylie's height to scale. Many of the fences had bicycles and garbage cans chained to them, and they kept in gardens full of children's toys and grass and dandelions. It was a beautiful day, but no one seemed to be outside. All the people who lived here were at work, and their children were inside or in the backyards, watching television or playing on swing sets.
Haylie had stopped again, this time to look at a clump of dandelions growing out of the sidewalk, right by the roots of an old, shade-giving tree. The roots were already starting to wrinkle the sidewalk a little, but the dandelions were bright, rich yellow. Haylie picked the whole clump, leaves and all, and gave one of the flowers to John. She wiped the milk on her dress and clutched the dandelions tightly in her other hand. John stared at the flower. It seemed to glow in the shade, bringing its golden light into contrast with Haylie's moony whiteness. John smiled and put the dandelion in the top buttonhole of his jacket.
They had come almost two blocks. John held tight to Haylie's hand as they crossed the street, starting up a gentle hill. The house on the corner was large and dark and crumbling.
"Who lives there?" Haylie asked, coming to an abrupt halt under the stop sign on the corner.
John eyed the house mistrustfully. The porch was beginning to cave, and the brown shingling on the outside was rough and old. The windows were covered with plywood and wire. The screen door hung loosely on its hinges, and the inner door's glass panes had all been broken and repaired hastily with duct tape. John could vividly imagine the mice living in the carpets inside, the rotting wallpaper coming down in strips from damp. He shut and opened his eyes and was about to take Haylie's hand again when the door swung open. John's breath caught in his throat as a very large woman stepped out onto the sagging porch. Her hair had been bleached to yellowish-white with gray and brown roots, and she wore a loose, flowered dress and slippers. She was smoking a cigarette.
"What're you stopping for?" she called.
John stared at her.
"Think I look funny?" Her gaze fell on Haylie, who had pulled back behind John's leg. "What you doing with that kid?"
John swallowed, finally finding the voice to reply. "She's…" He took a deep breath and shut his eyes for a moment. "She was lost. I'm taking her home."
"Yeah? Well you just better, mister." She half-turned to go back into the house. "I know weirdos when I see them," she called. "I'm watching you." She stepped back across the threshold, into the darkness, and pulled the door shut with a bang.
John took another deep breath and took Haylie's hand again.
"Come on," he said. "You're almost home."
They took several steps in silence, working their way up the street slowly. Haylie looked back over her shoulder several times, though whether it was because of the woman in the corner house or because she had dropped her dandelions at the stop sign, John was not sure.
"Where's your home?" she asked suddenly.
"It's not far from here." He had forgotten the word "far" in the middle of the sentence, and it took him a few moments to retrieve it.
"Can you come over to my house and play?" She was looking at him now, lips pursed with hope.
"I don't think so." He bent down for a moment and examined the little dog tag around her neck once again. They were nearly there. Just a few more houses, and Haylie would be safely in her own home. He dropped the chain and dog tag back around her neck, feeling her hands pick at his jacket sleeves.
"You're almost home," he said. He could see, up ahead, a house with the gate hanging open. That must be hers. He stayed bent down, looking into her face. She dropped his jacket sleeve and stared straight into his eyes, her own twin swimming pools shining in the sun. Her eyelashes were so dark for someone with such pale skin. She smiled suddenly, and laughed.
John smiled back. He stood up, and led her the few feet down the block to her house. A concrete path led from the gate up to the front door, a dignified, dark wooden one set beyond a porch railing and a swing. She stopped at the gate, and turned back to look at him again. She tugged at his jacket until his bent down, then gently wrapped her arms around him.
"Thank you Mr. John," she said. Her cheeks were soft against his. Her hands barely reached past the armhole seams on his jacket, but he could not feel them. He patted her gently on the back.
Quite suddenly, she broke apart from him, and skipped up the concrete path to the porch. He pushed the gate closed and reached over it to do up the latch. He looked up.
She was waving to him.
He heard the door open and turned away, as if simply passing by, but he heard a woman's voice asking quiet questions of the little girl. "Where were you?" the woman's voice asked. "Who brought you home?" He thought he could almost feel, could almost see, Haylie pointing down the path tot he sidewalk, and he definitely heard her voice say, "Mr. John brought me home."
"What did I tell you about talking to strangers?"
"He's not a stranger. He's a friend."
The woman's voice continued speaking, but the door was closing behind her. John realized he had closed his eyes again as he listened to their conversation, and made a conscious effort to open them.
It was a beautiful day, and he felt, somehow, that he had accomplished something in bringing Haylie home to her mother. He turned to head back for home and faced, open-eyed, into the sun.