By Abby Traina
It was a late night in November, the kind where the air chills your bones but the colourful neon lights of the city illuminate the faces of passers-by. The air was electric with the sounds of car horns and the metallic clanging of alley cats rummaging through the trashcans. All those busy faces, each meaning something to somebody, somewhere — and yet not one meant anything to me.
I had nothing but twenty dollars and the clothes on my back. I had learned not to carry much in these parts of town. Anything else I owned was currently stashed inside a musty cupboard in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. But nobody needed to know that. I looked grimly at the broken shop window to my left. Other windows above had been covered hastily with boards, and there were gaps in the brickwork. People around here weren't the friendliest, but they were sticklers for tradition. Places like Rickman's Boutique and Lechton Convenience were well respected, but any new shops didn't stick around longer than a few months.
I ducked down an alley, cutting across to the next street, and approached the glass door with the gold-coloured handles. This was one of the classier establishments in Lechton — it actually had a tile floor and soft yellow lights that seemed to melt away the bitterness of the cold, busy streets. I strode through the hotel lobby and tried to look distracted. Nobody questioned my presence. That's the thing; people always seem to think that distracted people belong. In truth, I was the only one who suspected I was out of place. Why, I didn't even know where I would spend the night.
Heading toward the elevator, I heard a ding, and the doors slid open. I stepped aside to let the passengers pour into the lobby. They regarded me with cold stares, as if taunting me, sneering, you don't belong.
I stared right back at them as the imaginary accusations dissolved into blurs of nothingness, tinged with thoughts of work and responsibilities and meals waiting for them at home. I stepped carefully into the elevator, watching the doors slide shut. Safety.
"Floor eight, if you'd please," came a voice from behind me. I turned around to see an elderly gentleman with a silver hat perched atop his head. Strangely, I hadn't seen him get in. I looked at him for a moment, startled, before nodding politely and pressing for the eighth floor. Then I stared blankly at the rows of buttons, wondering which one I should pick to be my destination. I could feel the man's eyes on the back of my neck, and I knew I had waited too long to look like I knew where I was going.
"I'm on eighth, too," I said quickly.
"Really," mused the man, as if he hadn't even heard what I had said.
I folded my hands and felt the elevator lurch into motion. Then I waited for the doors to slide open. A second passed. Then another. And another. Still, they remained firmly closed. I pressed the button to open the door. Nothing.
"Broken, I suppose," said the old man, as unperturbed as if he had discovered a spot on his shoe. "They'll fix it soon enough."
I glanced at him again and nodded. His eyes were hidden in the shadow of his hat, and he sported a grey suit that clung to his thin frame.
I looked away, preoccupied with where I would go once I got off the elevator. I sure couldn't stick around there for too long, especially since I didn't have a room booked.
I took the time to inspect the floor of the elevator — worn red carpeting pressed down by decades of fading footprints. I could see the faint outlines of shoe soles: some wide, some pointy, some large, some tiny. They were busy footprints. Belonging footprints.
"You think you're not supposed to be here, huh?" commented the old man.
I turned to face him, shocked. "What... What do you mean?" I stuttered.
He grinned, the corners of his mouth stretching wide across his face. "So I was right."
I tried pressing the elevator buttons again, to no avail. For a moment, the silence seemed overbearing. Then he spoke again.
"Why are you worried?" He asked curiously.
I stiffened, then wondered what I had to lose. "I... I don't really have a room here," I admitted.
"I figured as much," he said, still grinning. "Don't you worry. I don't care who comes and goes."
I hesitated. I meant to stay quiet, but something made me want to tell him the truth. That was something I rarely had the opportunity to do.
“I came here a year ago,” I told him. “I found a place for sale on Main Street and opened a barber’s shop.”
The man chuckled. We both knew how quickly shops around here went out of business.
“Shop closed, couldn’t pay rent,” I muttered, “And now I’m stuck washing dishes at Rastelli’s for just enough money for food, and I’ve nowhere to stay...”
“Tell me,” he said, “What did you really want to do with your life?”
I paused for a moment, suddenly embarrassed. “It’s silly,” I started, “but I always wanted to be a cellist, performing at concerts and festivals across the country.”
He looked at me curiously.
“I played as a kid, but it’s been a long time,” I added hastily.
His eyes twinkled as he removed his silver hat. I realized I had probably told him too much. But instead of mocking my childhood ambition, he simply said, “Things didn’t quite go according to plan, eh?”
I shook my head.
I looked at him, puzzled. “Pardon me?”
“Good,” he repeated. “That’s just about the worst thing life can do to you, you know. Go according to plan.”
I mulled that over, wondering what he meant. The man stepped over to the panel of elevator buttons, and pressed for the twentieth floor. The top. The button lit up and the elevator suddenly lurched into motion.
“How’d you do that?” I gasped, as the door slid effortlessly open and the cold air from the roof flooded in. A small yellow light on the side of the elevator hummed with electricity. His hat was back on his head, casting a shadow over his face. Any indication that he’d heard me was hidden.
We stepped out onto the cement, and I shoved my hands into my pockets. I realized I hadn’t noticed the stars when I was down on the street, surrounded by streetlights and smog.
“Do you come here often?” I asked him. He shrugged.
“It’s as good a place as any.” He gestured up at the sky and grinned wildly at me. “If things had gone according to plan,” he mused, “d’you think you’d be here?”
I shook my head confusedly.
“Then what’re you worried about?”
I laughed at the innocence of his question. I wondered to myself what I wasn’t worried about. My career gone down the drain, my friends and family practically nonexistent, the struggle to get a meal each day, the strain of wandering the streets night after night, belonging to no place and no one.
Then I said simply, “I have nowhere to go.”
The man looked at me thoughtfully and then shook his head ruefully. “That’s not true.”
“Of course it’s true,” I told him, exasperated. I turned away and looked up at the stars again. He kept talking.
“That’s not true,” he repeated. “Think what would have happened if things went according to plan. If you’d become a famous cellist, hey? You’d practise. Perform. Repeat. If you’d kept that barbershop on Main? Wash. Rinse. Cut. Repeat. Who knows, maybe you’d be satisfied. Maybe not.” He shrugged.
I kept looking at the stars, trying to trace the constellations, watching as the pinpricks of light danced and buried themselves in the night sky.
“When everything’s set out for you, like a list, not a life…” He shook his head. “That’s when you have nowhere to go. You hear me? Not now. Not here. You have everywhere to go.”
I turned around, ready to argue with every false idea he’d constructed about my life, but when I turned to face him, I was suddenly at a loss for words.
“Will I live on the streets forever, then?”
He shook his head, grinning again. “You’ll go far. Trust me. But in which direction, nobody knows.” At that, he tipped his hat in a farewell, and wordlessly stepped back into the elevator.
I never did see the old man again. I stood on the roof that night, wondering if there was truth in what he had told me. The billions of stars danced in the edges of my vision, each one spinning and glimmering like a tiny silver hat.
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