this is a revision of a story of the same name that I wrote and posted under the penname lilith melpomene a couple years back.
mainly, I would like to let you know that the firebird series is continuing -- if you're interested in following it, review or send me a PM and I'll send you the URL (or you may be able to find the site yourself).
Minnie had finally managed to make everyone disappear.
She sat lightly at the edge of her seat, her hands tucked safely between her knees, so as not to jinx her victory. No part of her touched the grimy counter littered with wooden stirrers and straw wrappers and the sticky circles where cups had rested. Her feet dangled above the beige-tiled floor, away from the dusty footprints and dropped change.
The hallway outside her room had been easy. There had been nobody there but the mumbler from two rooms over, shuffling along and muttering to his I.V. The elevator had been more difficult. Minnie had had to wait ten minutes for one empty enough to avoid brushing any elbows. The coffee shop had been the hardest of all. A pirouette to dodge the man adjusting his business suit, a sideways turn to slip between two chattering patients, a bodily contortion to let the gleeful Band-Aid-covered child pass – it had been a complicated dance.
She watched the busy morning scene like a movie from the farthest corner of the café, an empty chair separating her from the people she had banished into intangibility.
"Could I sit down?" asked a cheerful voice.
A young woman with a bob haircut and a red leather shoulder bag had appeared out of nowhere. Minnie focused on a crumpled straw wrapper and pretended not to hear.
The young woman stepped toward the unoccupied chair. Minnie gritted her teeth; talking to people she'd disappeared compromised the game, but she had no choice.
"That seat is taken," she said without turning her head.
The young woman's manicured hand paused inches from the back of the chair. "I don't see anyone in it." She grinned as if they were sharing a joke.
"I'm waiting for my doctor," Minnie responded unsmilingly.
Minnie felt the young woman looking at her, probably realizing her friendly overtures were unwelcome. After a moment, she withdrew.
Letting her muscles relax, Minnie listened to the noise of the café. Behind her, two doctors argued about a surgery. Over by the cream and sugar, a girl was giving an enthusiastic account of a blind date. Shrieking laughter came from a group of young patients on the other side of the café. The animated voices blended into one dull drone.
A strong whiff of perfume gave the briefest of warnings, and the short-haired young woman let several enormous bags down onto the floor and slid into the seat beside Minnie. "Just had to get my luggage," she said breathlessly. She smiled at Minnie, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear as she settled herself into the chair. "Whew! I've been dragging these monsters around the city all day. Just flew in this morning and of course, first thing I do is get lost trying to find my way here."
Minnie stared at her, disbelieving. "You can't sit there."
"I can't?" The young woman looked around. "I don't know – it seems that I am." She opened her red leather purse and rummaged around. "I had a ten in this thing an hour ago," she grumbled. "Of course it would be gone now."
"You have to leave," Minnie said as sternly as she could.
The young woman was now feeling around in the pocket of her expensive-looking black jacket, her eyes on the ceiling as she searched. "Ah!" Her face lit up. "Here it is."
This was getting out of hand. "Excuse me!" Minnie said loudly. "My doctor and I have a very important appointment today and this seat needs to be free for when he arrives." She glared at the young woman. "So I'd appreciate it if you would please find another seat."
The young woman gazed at Minnie for several seconds, seeming fascinated.
"What?" demanded Minnie.
The young woman grinned. "You're cute," she said. "Over here, please," she called as Minnie's mouth fell open. A frazzled-looking, apron-clad teenage boy on the other side of the counter came over. "One regular coffee and one white chocolate mocha frappuccino," said the young woman. The boy went off. She winked at Minnie. "What do you think? Hot or not?"
"Did you just order my drink?" Minnie demanded.
"He's a little young for me, of course," the young woman said. "But you might like him."
Minnie had had enough. Jumping down from her seat, she stalked away from the counter.
"Oh, sit down," the young woman said with the first hint of impatience she had shown so far. "Relax. Your doctor won't mind someone sitting in his chair till he gets here."
Minnie paused. "What do you know about my doctor?"
"Let's see." The young woman was quiet for a moment. "He's good with younger patients, like you, and… he likes to meet outside the office, in places such as the hospital coffee shop." She smiled at Minnie. "Am I right?"
Evidently she thought she was being clever. "That's irrelevant," said Minnie.
"If he's a quirky, slightly claustrophobic doctor working in pediatrics," said the young woman, "then he's got to be Dr. Robert Krasner. And if that's so" – she removed a crumpled ten-dollar bill from her pocket – "I'm willing to bet he'll be late."
Frowning, Minnie watched the young woman smooth the woeful-looking bill. It was true; Dr. Krasner was never on time.
The teenage boy returned, carrying a steaming mug and a cup crowned with whipped cream. The young woman handed him the ten and cheerfully waved aside the change. She picked up the mug and drank gratefully.
Minnie lingered. If the cafe hadn't been so busy, she would have abandoned the perplexing stranger and risked another dash through the crowd. But it was almost lunch hour. There were too many customers for her to make it safely through.
"I doubt there's another free seat in here," said the young woman around the rim of the mug. "Might as well sit down."
Minnie grudgingly returned to her chair. Perching on the farthest edge, she eyed the young woman. Perhaps if she ignored her, the intruder would finish her coffee and go away.
The young woman put down her mug with a satisfied sigh. "Have some of your drink," she suggested. Without warning, she pushed the other beverage toward Minnie.
Minnie jerked away, reacting to maintain her distance. She recovered and scowled at the young woman, resenting the physical response she had provoked.
The young woman was staring at her, eyebrows raised. "I scared you?"
"You startled me," Minnie muttered. Defensive now, she touched the cold cup in front of her. "What is this again? It looks like mud." She didn't want to endanger the game, but she wouldn't be looked at like that – the way Dr. Krasner did when she refused to shake his hand.
"It's a white chocolate mocha frappuccino," said the young woman.
"It sounds too sweet," said Minnie.
"I think you'll find it to your liking," said the young woman.
Minnie took back her hand. "Did Dr. Krasner call you here for testing?" she asked. If this irritating individual was in the waiting rooms all day, Minnie was doomed.
The young woman shook her head. "I'm here to see my sister."
"Hm." Relief made Minnie generous enough to feign interest.
"I've been hounding Dr. Krasner about her for a while," said the young woman. "He doesn't think she's well enough for visitors. I had to agree to a thousand restrictions before he'd let me fly up." She made a face and drank deeply from her mug.
"You'll burn your mouth," said Minnie.
The young woman finished swallowing. "Oh?"
"It's too hot."
"Worry about your own drink," said the young woman. She took another gulp. "Nobody likes a melted frappuccino. Not even Jas."
"Jas?" repeated Minnie.
"My sister. I'm Tina," added the young woman. She held out her free hand.
This time Minnie didn't flinch. She looked at the lines on the fingers, the ridges of the joints, the chipping nail polish. A thrill went through her: it looked so solid. It was only inches away. But playing the game meant believing if she reached out to touch it, her fingers would pass right through. She held on to the certainty of the hand's falseness, making herself giddy.
Unfazed, the young woman – Tina – withdrew her hand and took another sip of her coffee. "I lied," she said. "I didn't get lost on my way here."
"Oh," said Minnie. She was watching the fingers now curled around the mug.
"I caught the bus that stops down the street from the hospital," said Tina. "But I got off at the mall, instead. You know the mall by the –" Minnie nodded curtly. "I told myself I'd catch the next bus twenty minutes later," said Tina. "I ended up being in the mall for three hours."
"Three hours?" Minnie repeated despite herself. "What were you doing?"
"Shopping." Tina gestured sheepishly to the large bags around her chair. "And buying."
"How on Earth could you buy that much stuff?"
Tina surveyed the array of bags on the floor. "I don't know," she said at last. "I'm sure I'll be hearing from my bank sometime soon about the unusual activity on my credit card."
"Why did you do it?" Minnie couldn't understand such bizarre behavior.
"These are Jas's clothes," said Tina, poking some of the bulkier bags with her foot. "I brought them from home. These are her sweaters." She indicated one bag in particular. "These are her jeans. In here are her sneakers and tap shoes and ballet slippers. It's going to be warm soon, so I tried to fit her summer wardrobe in with the sweaters, but the halter tops kept getting caught in the zipper and I didn't want to crumple the sundresses –"
She halted. Her finger traced the rim of the coffee mug. Minnie watched the nail with its chipped polish go around and around, seeming somehow to betray the youth of its owner. The equivalent of a well-chewed fingernail or a sucked thumb.
"The whole flight," the young woman resumed, "I was worrying because Jas doesn't like to wear jeans and sweaters when the weather is nice."
"So you bought her the whole mall?" Minnie looked skeptically at the remaining bags.
"I don't even know if she'll like everything." Tina sounded gloomy. "She hates logos and built-in bras and colors that make her look pale."
Minnie glanced out the coffee shop window. Dr. Krasner was nowhere in sight.
"What about you?" asked Tina. "What kinds of things do you like to wear?"
Minnie shrugged. "I don't really care." She peered sideways at Tina's watch, restless.
Tina turned her wrist to provide Minnie with a better view. Then she took a look at the time herself and pushed aside her empty mug. "Want to play a game?"
Minnie stared at her. "I dunno."
"There's a game my sister and I play. She came up with it when we were kids." Tina straightened, her face abruptly bright with anticipation. "Pick someone."
Minnie blinked. "Who?"
"Anyone," said Tina. "As long as you don't know them. You could pick the girl drinking the smoothie over there. Or that patient by the window, the one in the flip-flops." Her eyes darted about the café as if all the customers had suddenly become prizes waiting to be seized.
"What happens when you pick someone?"
"You take their hand," said Tina, "and see how long you can hold on before they let go."
It was the most outrageous idea Minnie had ever heard. "You can't go around harassing people like that. They'll call the police on you."
Just thinking about it mortified her. Why would anyone draw attention to themselves like that, invite such bald physical contact with no possible buffer or excuse and call it fun?
"You don't just grab them and refuse to go away," Tina laughed. "You pretend to mistake them for somebody else, or you offer a handshake, or you tell their fortune." She leaned forward. It took all Minnie's willpower not to shy away again. "Try it."
"I don't think so," said Minnie.
"It's easy!" Tina insisted. "You'll get the hang of it really quick. Here, I'll show you."
"No, it's okay," said Minnie hurriedly, but at that moment the weary-faced teenage boy who had brought the drinks paused on his way to the cash register.
"Can I get you anything else?" he asked. He was on the edge of his next footstep, clearly trying to send them on their way.
"Yes," said Tina. "Could I see your hand for a minute?"
Minnie couldn't believe she was actually doing it. "Stop that," she hissed.
The teenager looked startled. "What?"
"Your hand," Tina said. "It's for a study I'm doing." She smiled at the boy. Her voice was chipper, her eyes wide and innocent.
The teen looked hesitantly toward the cash register, then wiped his palm on his apron. He cautiously extended his hand.
Tina took hold of it. "Hmm," she murmured, studying his wrist closely, and then the back of his hand. She ran a knuckle experimentally down the lines of his palm. Then she bent his pinkie back and forth. "That's very… interesting."
"What?" The boy craned his neck to see what she was looking at. "Why is it interesting?"
Minnie turned her back on the two, staring fixedly out the coffee shop window. If she willed it hard enough, Dr. Krasner would appear. She could piece together his outline from the forms of the people outside the shop. That line could be one of his broad shoulders. That profile almost matched his, with its softly rounded chin, and there, the way the back of the head joined the neck, the hair with just the suggestion of a curl –
"…if my friend here agrees, that is."
Minnie turned around quickly. Sure enough, the young woman's free hand was out to tap her on the shoulder. Minnie fumed; Tina beamed.
"I was just telling Ian here" – when had they gotten cozy enough to exchange names? – "that if I could get a second opinion, I'd be sure."
"Sure of what?" The teen looked questioningly from Tina to Minnie.
Tina offered his hand, which she still grasped, to Minnie. "Care to take a look?"
Minnie shoved back from the counter. Ducking under a nearby woman's outstretched arm, she made for the coffee shop door.
The crowd swallowed her immediately. A corpulent man loomed from the right, forcing her to swerve, which nearly caused her to collide with someone in a patient gown who appeared suddenly in her path. Minnie jerked away from the patient, lost her balance and fell.
The caramel-colored tiles of the coffee shop floor came up fast to meet her outstretched palms. Grains of dirt and coffee grounds dug into her skin. She pushed herself up to a sitting position. Everyone around her was staring.
"Are you all right, sweetie?" asked a nearby woman.
The fat man started toward her, his hand outstretched to help her up.
The game had been going so well, and now she had the eyes of the entire coffee shop upon her. By refusing the helping hand, she would draw even more attention. Maybe someone would call security on her. She shuddered at the thought of their patronizing hands, always trying to clasp shoulders, guide elbows…
"Come on, honey, up we go." The woman who had asked if she was all right was advancing, arms out – horrors! – for what looked like it would be something between a hug and a full-bodied lift. "Isn't anyone in charge of this child?" she asked the shop at large, raising her voice – as if everyone weren't goggling already.
Minnie gathered her breath for a scream as the arms came closer. She had promised Dr. Krasner she wouldn't make a scene. But the outcome of the game was at stake.
"She's contagious," said Tina, appearing off the side.
The woman took an automatic step back. She eyed Minnie with new wariness.
"Better keep away," Tina said brightly.
The woman seemed to decide that there were other candidates to bestow her maternal instinct upon. She vanished into the crowd.
"Come sit down," Tina said to Minnie. "They'll stop staring in a second."
Minnie got to her feet and followed Tina through the shop. Tina hopped back onto her original seat; Minnie followed suit. The normal chatter of the coffee shop slowly resumed.
"I'm not contagious," said Minnie.
"Sure you are," said Tina.
"What do you mean?"
"Your sunny smile is positively infectious." Tina waved over a worker – a different one; the teenage boy was nowhere in sight – and ordered another coffee.
"Why did you do that?" asked Minnie.
"I dislike looking at an empty mug."
"I mean why did you talk to that woman."
"I was playing your game," said Tina, raising her eyebrows. "I got the rules right, didn't I? Strangers aren't allowed to touch you."
Minnie looked away from the young woman's scrutinizing gaze. She leaned forward, touching the tips of her elbows to the counter, and picked up the sweating drink Tina had ordered for her.
"Thought it was too sweet."
"Maybe you should worry about your own drink," said Minnie.
She sipped through the straw. The drink was delicious.
"How is it?"
"Too sweet," Minnie lied.
"You don't have to drink it."
"I know," Minnie said irritably.
Several minutes went by.
"Your sister must be waiting for you," said Minnie.
Tina didn't answer. Her coffee came and she stirred it without drinking it.
"I said –"
"She went into a coma eight months ago," said Tina.
Silence. Now Minnie felt the weight of the quiet, in a way she hadn't during any of the other silences with this stranger. She kicked her heels. It didn't help. She latched onto her straw and took a long drink of the melting ice-liquid mixture.
It was just starting to numb her brain when Tina spoke again.
"I just keep seeing that hand," she said.
She looked at Minnie as if searching for confirmation, or an explanation. Minnie was perplexed. What did the young woman think she could possibly say?
"I was sitting with him at the kitchen table a few days before it happened," said Tina. "Laughing and joking with him. She walked in wearing her leotard from rehearsal, and I said" – she laughed, sounding more incredulous than mirthful – "I said, 'You can't wear that around the house anymore, Jas – there's a man living here now.'" She shook her head. "I can't believe..."
She sounded the same, flippant and self-possessed, but now there was something grim pushing behind her voice. That childlike finger was again tracing a frantic circle around the rim of the untouched cup of coffee.
Curiosity bested Minnie. "Who –"
"That hand," said Tina. "She went to the fridge and he came up behind her. He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed it." The words came slowly, with great concentration. "Such a normal, fatherly, affectionate gesture." She shook her head once, disbelieving. "I see that scene in my head now and I can't forget that hand."
"Your father?" asked Minnie.
"Our stepfather." Tina glanced at her. "It could have been going on for months before he moved in. I never even guessed. How could I?" She prodded the coffee mug sharply. "I should have guessed."
"What happened to –"
"Pills," said Tina. "Our mother found her on the bathroom floor. She wasn't dead, but she didn't wake up – the doctors said there was brain damage."
Minnie took another long, mind-freezing pull on her straw.
"They said she would probably never come out of the coma, but if she did, she would never be the same."
A white coat outside caught Minnie's eye and she recognized Dr. Krasner.
"My doctor's here," she said. "You have to go."
Tina looked out the window. "Of course," she said. She picked up her full mug of coffee, still steaming. "Let me take this with me –"
Smiling a goodbye, she got up – and stumbled.
Half the mug of coffee sloshed over the rim, drenching her hand in near-boiling liquid. She cried out in pain.
Minnie reacted without thinking. Leaning forward, she grabbed a handful of napkins from the counter and applied them to the young woman's hand. She dried the hand off and inspected it, assessing the damage. The skin was bright red.
"Dr. Krasner says it'll keep on burning unless you cool it off," said Minnie. "You should run it under cold water."
She looked up from the hand to find Tina staring at her with eyes full of tears.
"I know," she said.
Minnie released her hand, startled. Tina turned and hurried out of the café, weaving effortlessly through the crowd.
Disoriented by her abrupt departure, Minnie stood by the two empty chairs, watching her walk quickly up to Dr. Krasner, who turned to meet her. The two had a brief conference – Dr. Krasner seemed to be questioning her, and Tina shook her head once, giving the doctor a quick smile.
Then she strode briskly away, melding with the people exiting the main hospital doors.
When Dr. Krasner came into the shop, Minnie was looking down at the massive suitcases and bulging plastic bags the young woman had left behind.
"Sorry I'm late," he said. "Just had to tie off one loose end." He hoisted himself onto the seat that Tina had occupied. "So – how is your game going, Jasmine?"
The game. Minnie lifted the hand that had reached of its own accord to take Tina's. She turned it over, remembering the young woman's bright red skin and imaging the burning that still progressed.
"I think," she said slowly, "that I might have lost."