She laid her hand on the counter covering the quarters she wanted to use to buy the newspaper. She wasn’t sure how much it cost and since she didn’t talk, and didn’t have any more coins than what were under her palm, she gave the man behind the counter a big smile.
Eli’s smile was her gift. It was odd how people knew exactly what she wanted or needed, most of the time. She didn’t consider herself pretty. She didn’t speak. She never understood how things always worked out. But they always did.
The man had a mustache and dark brown skin. Eli liked to make up stories about people, where they came from, and what their dreams were. Or really, it wasn’t making up stories, it was telling their stories. Eli knew there stories were important. She didn’t know how or why they came to her, but they did, in her dreams. Dreams were important to Eli. Her favorite part of sleeping was her dreams. She had learned how to stay in them. Not everyone could do that.
When she was young, soon after she realized she wasn’t ever going to speak again, she had the first dream she could ever remember. The house was finally quiet. The fighting was over. He mother and father were each passed out in a different room and her brothers, both teenagers, left just as the fighting was starting. It was quiet now. She could relax.
She was four, an accident that no one wanted to deal with. She wondered that if she had never been born, if she wasn’t allowed to pop out as her brothers said, she wondered where she would have popped out?
Eli knew and she didn’t know how or why, but she knew, that people are not just bodies they live in. For some reason, Eli always knew that time really didn’t matter, either. She felt others around her, ones she couldn’t see but could sense. She could hear them. They would always be there. She had dreams.
All of that added up in Eli’s mind to more. There was more to see that we can’t see. More that must be touched that we can never touch. More we don’t hear, or don’t want to hear. More of everything. Living was very crowded and busy and noisy if you really listened and watched and touched.
That night after the fighting and the silence filled the house, Eli simply told the others who were still making noise that they must leave her alone, go to sleep, or at least sit quietly. She was thankful when the sounds that couldn’t be heard stopped.
“Thank you, ” Eli whispered to no one and pattered into her bedroom closing the door so she couldn’t hear her parents snoring.
She pulled the soft covers up to her chin and closed her eyes. She should have brushed her teeth, but she didn’t want to waste time in the quiet. Soon the sounds would begin again and she didn’t want to impose on them to ask them to stop.
She closed her eyes and was soon deeply drawn into a warm slumber. Eli didn’t understand the dream. She knew some of the people and not others. She didn’t quite see the place clearly, but she heard the voices and the sounds. She didn’t understand what it meant but she enjoyed being there. And the dream continued all through the night until the sun spread its light into her room. That’s when she realized she had the ability to stay in her dream and it was the only time she would ever talk.
“Sun, stay away for a while, I want to finish my dream,” Thick clouds rolled over the sun covering it blaze.
“Thank you, sun.” Eli always gave thanks.
“Come back. I didn’t see what happened. Please come back, I want to play.” Eli spoke to the specters in her dream and they obliged. And the dream took a turn. No longer was it a story Eli didn’t understand, at least not yet. It was her perfect playground with perfect playmates who laughed and played with Eli.
Finally, when Eli was tired and felt she had stayed too long, although she didn’t know why she felt that way, she thanked her dream friends and bid them a farewell.
Then she heard the clomping but there was no shouting. And she saw the smoke. There was smoke everywhere. He door burst open and something that looked like a robot grabbed her and ran out of the house. She couldn’t see much through the smoke, but she felt hot and the noise was deafening. She didn’t scream, because she couldn’t, or rather she chose not to so as to add to the noise.
The fire burned the house and her mom and dad. Her brothers set the fire and she never saw them again. Eli was sent to grow up with an aunt, the sister of her mother, who didn’t know how to raise a child. She had none of her own. But it was quiet in the house with no one wandering or making noise. Eli didn’t know why Julie’s house was so different than the rest, but she was happy to be there.
Yesterday was Eli’s thirteenth birthday and she wanted a New York Times newspaper to remember the day by. So there she was in front of the newsstand with her quarters.
“What do you want?” The mustache wiggled as the man spoke. Eli thought she might like a mustache if she could speak. She wondered if it tickled his nose.
Eli pointed to a New York Times behind the man. There must have been twenty or more different newspapers lined up behind him. Somehow he knew that she was pointing to the Times.
“You need another dollar.”
Eli looked down and pulled the corner of her mouth down in a half frown.
“Hurry up. I don’t have all day.”
Eli sighed and looked into the man’s eyes. He was busy thinking of many other things. It was very noisy.
“Here. Is that enough?” A large hand reached toward Eli’s with more quarters.
“Good.” And the mustache man took the money, all of it, turned away, slipped a New York Times from it shelf and plopped in onto Eli’s hand. She looked to see what was on the other end of the large hand with the money.
“You’re welcome.” The man nodded his head and walked away.
For a moment Eli thought. She listened and something told her to take the paper and catch up to the man. He wasn’t moving fast so she almost bumped into him not judging how fast she needed to run.
He stopped and turned even though she hadn’t made any outside noise, inside there were loud cheers and happy squeals.
“You’re welcome.” And he continued on his way.
Eli ran fast to stop in front of him. She handed him the paper.
“Thank you, but no. It’s yours.” He nodded again.
She nodded back but didn’t move.
Her head was chest level to his so she had to look up to him. He had a sweetness about him, something gentle. The sounds around him were soothing and welcoming. This was one time Eli wished she had not made the decision to stop talking.
“Is there something else I can help you with?”
Eli didn’t know what to say. She started to say, something, anything, but it wouldn’t come out. Words and shouts filled her head. She wanted to ask him a thousand questions. She wanted to thank him.
“Well, if there’s nothing else, I need to be moving on.” He waited. She felt the words fall into her chest piled in a cluttering and clattering heap. She nodded. He stepped around her and continued on his way.
Eli stood with her back to him. She didn’t want to see him disappear around the corner or into the crowd or cross the street into traffic and the other side of the world. She wanted to hear his voices, see his people. She wanted a hug form the man who looked like her brother. Not the one who started the fire. But the one who stood with him and accepted part of the blame so the sentence would not be so harsh.
He didn’t say anything. He was just about to open his mouth and ask her a question, when Eli turned around. She knew he was there.
She wiped her eye.
“Can I get you a cab? Or walk you home? Is it near? Where do you live?” After each question he waited. She didn’t want a cab. She didn’t want him to walk her home. It wasn’t near. She didn’t live anywhere.
He could see how she was dressed, the filthy backpack overflowing with items that we necessities, not niceties. Her face was dirty and her hands were rough. The shoelaces on her shoes were worn and knotted together. She was homeless, her aunt having passed and leaving no instructions for her care. Eli left the house as soon as it happened so there would be no instructions. That was three months ago.
“I’m Jake. I work at the Compound. Do you know what that is?”
Eli just stared into his eyes. She thought she knew what the Compound was, a place for homeless to be safe for a while. She was doing pretty well, but she just spent the last of her allowance on the newspaper. She was going to have to have instructions.
He turned and continued his walk. He knew she would follow. She was young but you could never tell how young. The street made children old. It broke him but he knew she would follow.
Eli knew she could trust Jake. His people and voices and sounds swirling around him made beautiful music. She didn’t know why. But she would follow him.
She caught up quickly but didn’t walk with him side by side with him. She followed behind. She wanted to watch him. How he moved. Who danced with him. Who sang his songs.
Jake could sense she was there behind him keeping a distance comfortable for her people. He could feel them and hear their songs. All was going to be well.