My arm strained as I held the handle bar while the bus careened around the interminable corner.
“I meant the impact. Freaking everyone out about it is a bit irresponsible.”
And then the light fades as rain attacks the roof, streaming down the windows to blur the city. A fussilade above, the paper, accusing, on one side, and the damn bottle with the unreal taste of meeting Tom behind. I need a dose of sanity. Some Star Trek tonight to cleanse my mind. We settled down into crawling traffic. The decrepit man exclaims: “Says that the whole thing changed direction.”
“In the papers it says the meteorite changed direction.”
“Well, that’s not actually…possible.”
“Read it yourself.” He thrusts the paper out, glaring. I withdraw, conciliatory palms up. Maybe he lost a lot of money. I turn away and take some wires out from my khakis. Plugs in my ears, staring at the windows, I watch the rain trail down in time to the music. The clipboard dances on my knee, stops as a gust of hot air invades the carriage. The seat sags. I shuffle closer to the window. One earplug catches on a button of her jacket sleeve and we’re trapped untangling the thing, muttering apologies to each other.
She’s got a thick purple jacket on, the puffer kind with the glossy pouches. “Are you warm in there?” I offer. She fingers a nose stud, eyes narrowing to points, she stutters: “I-I thought it would be colder today.” She wraps her arms around herself. Slowly, I pull out the remaining ear phone.
“Well it’s raining now I suppose.” And it is, so I shouldn’t be supposing anything. Tom said I’d kill a woman, and here was one, and I need something to distract me so I say: “Heavy rain too. Should have brought an umbrella myself.” She nods with great conviction, points towards my knees and says:
“You’ll have to use that.”
Turn down the clipboard, turn it upside down. “I can’t. I have to guard these questionnaires with my life.”
Please ask me about the questionnaires.
“Oh, what are those for?” she says.
Relief, I’m back to the real world. “They are for, well, improving the livelihood of the homeless.”
“Amazing! So what are they, summoning spells? Read them out and you summon food? Or a job?” Her smile is a wicked slash, catches me off guard till I’m stumbling: “Well, well, no, of course not, but, it’s important. It’s part of a process. We collect data from the homeless and that way we can decide how best to, well, what policies to enact. It’s part of the process. But in the end it does help. You’d be suprised. Most people don’t know how any of it works but it does, it really does.”
“Well, yes. For example, with these initial ones we do a census of how many homeless there are, where they are, to learn about them. They are practically invisible otherwise.”
Her throat does a funny thing. She croaks, not unlike a frog. “Barrr-balith.”
It might be a tick. No need to press the issue. It would explain her slumping posture, the way she encases herself. I say: “One of the questions is, ‘Where do you sleep?’ The options are a vehicle, the streets, a family’s home, a shelter…and other. Three times I got the same answer in ‘other’: With your mum.”
Her face cracks open, she cackles, then cups her mouth to hide the evidence. She mutters conspiratorially: “Seriously? Can I see?” The top of her jacket presses against my shoulder, her leg against mine- she can probably feel the damn pill bottle, whereas something hard, underneath her shoulderpad, digs into me. I hold as still as I can, make my mouth move only. “I can’t show you, all of this is confidential information. Technically it’d be against the law.” She withdraws. It’s too late to flash a page at her now. Slip my hand in my pocket and re-arrange the bottle, take it out and hide it in my hand. I clasp both together, transfer the bottle, and slip it into the opposite pocket.
Her head turns slowly to face the windshield. I do the same, try not to scan my peripheries. She whips back to face me, “Can I do it?” she asks.
“One of the questionaires? I mean, well, are you homeless?” I could say something corny. About her not being invisible. The words congeal, fail to form a sentence.
“Yes.” She says.
Can’t tell if she’s lying. Being female and homeless, like her. It would be particularly hard. Remember Mira, dessicated beyond her age. Needle pocked, cradling her pregnant belly. It’s too much. Look down and free a paper, hand it to her. It sags in her hands, I proffer the clipboard and she turns it so I’m still holding the makeshift table, placed on my legs, and she writes in the spare moments when the bus is still. From this angle I can see part of a tatoo, poking out of her zipped up collar. Half an ouroboros; one mouth eating one tail. I wait to ask her, when she’s finished, about the tattoo, or her name, or where she’s going, when through the glass behind her head intrudes the smeared sign of St Lorenzo’s children’s hospital. She gets up in a flurry, taking the unfinished questionnaire with her. Her sleeve button catches something under her puffy jacket, a bright yellow string, like the casing of a wire. And then it’s gone, and she turns to look back at me from the stairs, her eyes seeming to be plead. I watch her go, follow her blurry head from my seat. Oblivious to the rain she walks inside the hospital. “Final stop.” The driver reminds me twice, till I calm my pulse and having failed to convince myself that it wasn’t a yellow wire. Perhaps it’s some kind of tool though I cannot think of any that fit.
I get off in time to watch my bus home moon me.
It’ll be at least ten minutes till the next number 21 shows up. Enough time to get her answers. I jog into the hospital, holding the bullets in place so they don’t tumble out.