"The Kindness of Strangers"
The little diner on 4th and 14th had become a common haunt of the Stranger; before, it had been a church, the lobby of a hotel, one particularly run-down store in the old, decrepit mall. No one questioned him. Not that it would have done them any good to ask—the Stranger rarely had any explanation for anything that he did. In fact, he rarely had any explanation for anything at all.
Very few people remained at their tables that night, finishing meals that had been picked at over the course of several conversations. The hostess scrubbed at a stubborn spot on a now-abandoned booth, though her eyes were fixed on the clock. Half-past ten. Long past the supposed end of her shift. The others, mostly her brothers, were all in the back, talking and laughing and complaining as they packed away the last of the day's wares and began to think of home. One grabbed another by the shoulders, pulled him down, and laughed as the other shouted and tried (without much real effort) to break free. They both smiled—easy, broad smiles, showing teeth yellowed from tobacco smoke and coffee stains.
The Stranger smiled with them. A cup of coffee sat untouched before him, pale tendrils of steam licking insistently at the stale air.
“Dollar seventy-five,” the hostess proclaimed, firetruck-red fingernails rapping on the table as she gave him a weary, forced smile. “We're closing soon, so finish up quick, huh?”
“Of course,” the Stranger murmured in response, his own thin lips parting to reveal crooked teeth. She sighed at him, lingering only a moment longer before drifting away when he made no move to drink.
Every day, he came. Every day, he ordered a single cup of coffee, and then sat at the same little table for hours on end. Usually, he wandered out at closing time. Today, however, he remained a thorn in her side, even as all the others filtered out of the diner like ships cast from their moorings.
“That guy still here?”
A quick quip in fluid Spanish drew her attention as she wiped the board of the daily specials, and she glanced up at her brother as he leaned over a booth.
“Yeah... I'd call the cops, but the man gives me five dollars on a cup of coffee and never asks me for nothin' else. Plus, mama likes him.”
“Hey, how's mama doing, anyway? She getting around okay?”
“No. Doctor said no more getting out of bed for awhile. Her bones are going hollow. You should see her face—like a ghost.”
Silence. Several long, slow heartbeats that seemed to echo in the emptiness between them.
“That bad, huh?”
“Yeah. That bad. She used to come in every day, and now she cries when I tell her she can't anymore.”
“Damn shame, too... No cook on earth can make mama's tamales like she can.”
Another silence; this time longer, loaded with words that passed unsaid. Eyes met and parted. Finally, her hands entered back into motion, steadily scrubbing old chalk off of the smooth black nothingness of the board.
“She's dying, you know,” she said, eyes focused on the greasy blackness.
No response. She sucked in a breath and cursed quietly as the man she called brother disappeared back into the kitchen.
When she looked up again, eyes stinging with tears, she found the Stranger's eyes upon her—pale and disconcerting, with a ghostly sheen in the fluorescent overhead lights. Stories and worlds unknown to any but him danced across his pupils—unnaturally dilated, even in the bright light—and she found herself briefly paralyzed. He was no longer smiling, lips now drawn into a thin line as his spidery fingers cradled the lukewarm coffee.
Shaking off the odd sensation, she returned to work, brow furrowed; his gaze never left her, even as she moved to grab the broom and swept the dull red-checked tile of the floors.
Everyone else was gone. All the cards had been punched, all the hours had been logged; the dim lights fell only upon her and the Stranger, silent and still. He had never looked away. Even now, those glass eyes followed her every movement. Finally, unnerved, she turned to him, hands braced on the broomstick.
“We’re closed—go home. What do you want, huh? You don’t even drink the damn coffee,” she hissed, body tense and rigid.
He watched her in silence, then let out a soft sigh and finally uncoiled his long, gnarled fingers from the white porcelain mug. She twitched away from him as he stood. He was so tall when he rose—when he unfolded himself from that tiny, worn-down bistro chair—that she briefly worried he would knock his head against the lamps. She brandished the broom at him, bristles out toward his pale, plucked-goose neck.
“Don’t you even think about it, you creep!”
The Stranger blinked, lids closing slowly—strangely reptilian—before he smiled again, a small, breathy laugh escaping him as he spread his fingers in a placating gesture.
“Oh—I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he began, voice much smaller than it should have been from a man so unreasonably tall. “I only wanted to offer my condolences.”
The hostess grimaced, slowly removing a hand from the broomstick to wipe away the sweat that had beaded upon her broad forehead. It was hot—too hot for nearly midnight—and she was exhausted.
“Thanks,” she muttered after a moment had passed, her ample weight shifting from one leg to the other. “Now can you please leave? I’ve got to lock up.”
The Stranger hesitated. His eyes flicked between her and the door, fingers steepling together as he bent at an awkward angle from the waist.
“Well, I… yes, I’ll leave, of course. But I have… an offer,” he began haltingly, eyes remaining on the floor as he slowly hunched his shoulders into a half-shrug. “If you’re interested.”
“I can help your mother.”
She stared at him, face twisting between disbelief and rage.
“It’s an honest offer—“
“Get the hell out.”
The broom swung toward him, and he leaned away from the blow—dusty wind hit him instead, and he coughed as he brought a thin arm up to catch the next strike. She cursed him in Spanish and struggled to wrest control of her improvised weapon. When he tugged her toward him, nearly toppling the both of them over with impossible force, however, she found herself unable to look away from the intensity of his gaze.
“I can help your mother. I can cure the sickness.”
She stilled. Slowly, her fingers released the broom, letting it clatter harmlessly to the floor.
“I… can’t say,” he replied, straightening up as his fingers knitted together. “And you may not like the results.”
“…But she’ll be better? She won’t be sick anymore?”
“No, she won’t be sick anymore,” he drawled, hesitating on each syllable.
Caramel-colored fists grabbed hold of his dingy suit, tugging him down and sending his arms flailing for balance. Their eyes locked, molten glass meeting hot earth; she was searching, lips moving as she worked out a silent puzzle. His eyes slid away from hers at last, his bony frame surprisingly yielding in her grasp.
The flames of candles danced in the small, crowded room like so many stars; they reflected in the Stranger's glass eyes, twisting and turning into stellar bodies dancing around one another in the vast, inky void of his pupils. He stood tall and still, hands clasped tightly together as women bustled around him and spoke in hurried, angry phrases of Spanglish. One of them—the eldest, save for the woman rasping deep breaths on the large bed in the center of the dimly-lit room—kept glancing at him, a perpetual grimace on her thick lips, before repeating the same words that she had about a dozen times before: “This is a bad idea.”
“He said he could help her, tia,” the hostess spoke, hands on her hips.
“Oh, demons say lots of things before they drag you off to hell,” the woman quipped sharply in response, shaking her head as she adjusted the large spectacles over her eyes. “You shouldn't have brought him here. Your mama needs rest, not for some crazy gringo to come tromping into her home to do God-knows-what.”
The young woman rolled her eyes, watching as another sister moved to mutter a prayer over one of the candles.
“They can't hear you, you know. They never answer.”
“Don't say that! You gonna piss off the orishas, and mama's never gonna get better,” came the plaintive cry, accompanied by a panicked flailing of hands.
The Stranger only watched and listened, head turning this way and that to take everything in as “Tia” moved to offer the ailing mother some sort of concoction in a mug not unlike the one he had nursed at the diner.
“For health,” she whispered. “Babalú-Ayé will see you through this. Nothing bad happens without something good coming from it.”
Once more, the young hostess rolled her eyes as she watched her mother drink deeply from the mug. The ailing woman's lips twisted into a grimace, and she immediately began to cough.
“God, Lupe, what the hell did you put in that? Oh, it tastes like wet dog,” she groaned before pushing the rest of the cup away. “You got more candles going in here than a midnight vigil for some dead person, too. I ain't dead yet. Hotter than hell in here, though.”
The Stranger found himself smiling, unable to help a small chuckle at the woman's attitude. He remembered late night conversations they had shared before she had fallen ill—remembered a woman much larger and less frail than the one that lay before him—and found himself wishing he could turn back time, just for a little while, to see her standing at the head of her kitchen and barking orders to the wild young men once more.
“Is that you, Ziggy? C'mere, friend, let me see you. Damn,” she laughed, grinning with a mouth full of holes where teeth should have been, “just as skinny as ever. Don't they feed you?”
He shrugged, smiling at her nickname for him. The first had called him such when he had first arrived in the sprawling city, and the name had simply followed him like a lost dog ever since.
“They try,” he began, reaching down to gently clasp her hand as the other women moved to extinguish candles and watch him with suspicious eyes. “But you know me. Never hungry.”
“He says he can fix you, mama,” the hostess interrupted, glancing at her aunt as the woman irritably adjusted her cheap white robes and put out the flame of another candle. “Says he can make you not sick anymore. If so, he's doing a hell of a lot more than any of tia's stupid orishas.”
“Oh, hush. Don't you talk like that. Your tia's helped me through all sorts of shit with her friends, and I'm not about to go slandering them in this house.” Still, the old woman turned her eyes to the Stranger's, the light of the few remaining candles glinting dimly off of her dark skin dampened by sweat. “Can you, Ziggy? Think you've got a few tricks up your sleeve to help this old lady? I wanna go back to work,” she whispered, tears welling thick and heavy in the darkness of her eyes. “I wanna see my kids have kids. I'm not ready to die, Ziggy. I'm not.”
He watched her for a moment, lips pursed together. There she was, the unbreakable rock that stood as the foundation of the diner, of the family, broken before him like shards of glass. He had not been prepared to see her like this. He had not been prepared for the ritual, for the numerous attendants, for the spectacle of healing. All eyes looked to him, expectant and concerned, and he felt himself much smaller than a man his size; he felt as if he were a single speck of dust in the vastness of the universe, especially as the tiny stars of candlelight were snuffed out one by one. They prayed not to their orishas, nor to the God that reigned above them; here, in this moment, drowning in their desperation, they turned to him—a stranger among men.
His fingers twitched, and the next breath he took rattled strangely in his chest. He was afraid. This was something he had done before, time and again—but never before such an invested audience.
“I... yes,” he finally choked out, a shiver running through him as his body hunched itself smaller. “Yes, I can help you, but...”
The others stared at him, identical dark eyes shining from nearly identical dark faces. Below, on the bed, the mother cried openly.
They all said the word, now; all made the same plea, except for one: the aunt in her white robes. She stood to the side, shaking her head as she said the same words she had been repeating from the start: “This is a bad idea.”
Quietly, he took in another breath. He remembered the glow of the dead candles, the way they had shone as stars in their miniature universe. His eyes slid over to the woman on the bed, dark and glassy, and he saw her as she was: a fading being of light, stardust formed into a human shape. He saw the sickness, saw the strange concentration of unnatural light—and he felt himself drawn to it, like an insect. This was not enough. This was not what he desired; he had not been able to feed properly in years, trapped as he was within this net of flesh. But it would have to do.
His once-glass eyes were now glossy black voids as his jaw opened wide, gaping snake-like as his whole form seemed to shimmer and distort. Crooked teeth jutted out at every angle, writhing inside the gums as he leaned in closer.
Her light flowed into him. Slowly, the concentration of unnatural light grew dimmer, more faint—and so did the rest of the shimmering dust that made the woman. He drank deeply, felt the heady rush of desire and satisfaction, and let out a hissing sigh as he rested a hand on the woman's chest. It was the best drug he'd ever known; the high sent him careening through the universe, bouncing off of satellites and reflecting the light of a thousand suns, giant beyond giant as he consumed, remembering all that he was and would be again. He laughed, giddy and hungry for more, before the vision faded from him, bringing him back to himself as he clenched his teeth together and forced himself to stem the flow of precious ambrosia—and reverse it, just enough to fill the cracks he had left behind.
Slowly, little particles of light bounced out of his gullet and into the woman who lay beneath him, seeping into bone and flesh and blood. Color returned to her pale cheeks, and her breathing grew more even. Finally, the light faded from the both of them, and he was able to see her properly: a woman, and nothing more. Or...?
She smiled; he grimaced.
The others shrieked, crying and laughing as they embraced one another before rushing to do the same to their mother. She was healed: her eyes were bright, her cheeks were rosy, and she looked to be at least a decade younger than when he had first walked into the room. None of them could see the echoes of the future as he could; the horrible twist to her teeth, the inhuman curve of her spine, and the rigid hook of her fingers as they grew into long, terrible talons like knives. They could not see the boils, the welts, the skin falling off in sheets to leave raw flesh and exposed bone behind. They saw only their mother, their sister, their aunt, restored as if she had never been ill.
So had gone every healing he had ever performed. The young man in the church, the daughter of the woman who worked the kiosk in the mall, the ailing hotel owner; all of them had fallen ill, and all of them had met the Stranger's curative touch as he desperately sought sustenance on this hellish world. All of them had become monsters in his eyes, though they looked as healthy and whole as ever to anyone else. Some were beginning to show the signs. The young man was peeling constantly, picking away at his skin as he studied his Bible and sang from the hymnal. The daughter was losing more teeth than she should have at her age, and constantly growing them back—sometimes two or three for every one that she lost. This woman, strong and full of fire, would be the worst of them all.
Without a word, the Stranger left.
No one noticed. No one ever did.
No one ever did.
Site & Written Materials Ⓒ "Kaimera" 2023