“My name is Kami,” she said.
Paul hadn’t asked. He had barely glanced at her as he walked by the bus stop. She was sitting on a dirty bench under the straight arch of clear plastic, with graffiti covering the walls and bisecting the scene at her back.
Behind the bench was a huge hole in the ground, the detritus of roots poking the empty air, feeling with shaggy fingers for the dirt they had lost. The start of construction for the new library, it looked like they’d gotten stalled with the sudden downpour. A group of men loitered under a neighboring overhang, smoking and talking in that particular cadence men get when there are no women around. They obviously hadn’t seen the girl outside the chain-link fence.
There was no time to stop and chat with her, but he had already met her eyes, so he couldn’t just ignore her. Maybe some people could, but his mother’s voice was in his head, lecturing him about respect. So, “Hi, Kami,” he said. “Kami – pretty name.”
“Thank you.” She smiled. When she didn’t say anything else, he gave a half-wave and walked on. A little way down the block, he turned back to look at her. She was still sitting at the bus stop, staring after him.
He thought about her all through the class he was teaching. Students asked questions that he didn’t hear. At the end of the lecture, one boy stopped by Paul’s desk. “Professor Watanabe, you all right?”
“Sure.” He waved the boy on his way.
But the girl and her heart-shaped face lingered. He didn’t know why.
He passed by the construction site on his way home, but no one was there, of course. She had probably caught her bus to wherever she needed to go.
Still, the next day walking to the university, he looked out for her thin face, her dark eyes. But it was a different day and a different time--the bench was empty.
Tuesday again, and he was running late. From far away, he could see the orange and black diggers doing something at the edges of the hole they had made. They’d brought a crane in, although the workers seemed to be watching it sit there, rather than using it. Perhaps this time of day was always their break, he thought – smoke ran in furls up into the air, the thick scent of tobacco blown through the chain-link fence.
He almost missed her. He was concentrating so hard on looking at the progress of the construction. When he spotted the black bob of hair and stick-thin frame on the bench, he felt shock for a moment, as if seeing someone he had thought long dead. She smiled at him, and after a moment, he smiled back.
“Hello, Kami,” he said, pausing by the bus stop. Part of his brain was counting the seconds he was tardy, and the ticking in his head sounded as if it were saying, too late, too late, too late, too late…
“Hello, Paul,” she replied.
“How are…” He stopped. Held her black gaze. “How did you know my name?” he asked quietly.
“I know many things,” she told him matter-of-factly.
The workers were looking over at him through the wide-open fence. A quick glance, and then away again. He wondered if they could hear them speaking, could eavesdrop on this bizarre conversation. Probably, they were too far away.
“Okay,” he said. He wondered if she had looked him up on the university’s website, googled him and come up with the articles listed under his name in obscure scientific journals. Placed name to face.
Maybe. But there was no time to ask, and there seemed little point to pursue it. What harm could she do to him, this slight stick of a girl? “I’m running behind.” As he turned away, “Have a nice day.”
“Thank you,” she said, but his back was already towards her and he didn’t glance back.
He flubbed three formulas that day. Two of them, his students caught, and he corrected the third one before they discovered it. After class, he went to his office and sat in his chair, staring at nothing. Was Kami a previous student of his? Was that why she seemed so familiar? Why could he not remember her?
Finally, he went home past the construction site. He knew she wouldn’t be there. Not at night. Not until the next week.
Paul set off for the university a whole hour earlier the next Tuesday. He could have made the excuse to himself that he had work to catch up on, which he did. But he was a night owl, preferring to stay later after his classes rather than get up when the air was moist from the passing night and the sun still deciding whether to turn the day blue or grey.
Today, it was grey--clouds hovered overhead in the middle distance, not quite threatening rain. As he hurried towards the university, with one eye on the developing weather overhead, he could see the large machines at the construction site from far away. They reminded him of when he was a boy, and he’d had a complete Tonka Toy set, bright yellow and black. He’d played with them for hours, digging, filling up the dump truck, winching the crane until the string broke from too much use. There was still that latent fascination with big toys, that quickening of his pulse as he saw the machines.
Or maybe it was anticipation. The men were by the fence, filling the air with the incense of rolled tobacco. And there, on the bench – there she was. An hour early, like him.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” were the first words she said to him.
There wasn’t really any way to reply to that, so he didn’t try. He had stopped walking--what was the point in ignoring her? His mother’s voice again: Good boys--always respect to women.
“I'm disappearing. You might say – I’m dying,” she said.
It made him look at her, truly look at her. Other than the thinness of her figure, she looked healthy. But looks could be deceiving. “I’m sorry,” he finally said after realizing the pause had gone on too long.
“There is always sorrow when things pass on. But change can’t stop.”
“That’s a very mature outlook to take on it.”
“No,” she said sadly. “I have lost many friends. Some cried and some threatened. But they all disappeared. So I am who I have always been.”
He nodded his head to her. “I see,” he said. Attempt at consolation.
But he didn’t.
She smiled when she saw him next. He noticed her teeth were slightly crooked, and it made her look like a child.
“How are you feeling today?” he asked politely.
She waved a hand around her, as if to say, As well as to be expected. Behind her, the workmen talked with each other in their corner of the fence. The steel skeleton of the structure was reaching for the sky, but it was all jagged edges, incomplete. Around it, the dirt humped up in brown waves, exploding outward from the rising building.
“It was beautiful once,” she said, following his gaze. “A long time ago, there was a forest here. The trees spoke, and their conversations could take a season or more. Rabbits and badgers and foxes lived here. Deer and unicorns.”
He would have laughed at her whimsy, until she turned her serious black eyes on him. “Unicorns?” he asked instead. She nodded.
“Were you here then?” He didn’t remember a forest at this spot. In fact, he didn’t remember what had been here before. He had lived in this neighborhood for ten years, and he suddenly realized that this space had always been a blank to him. Perhaps an empty lot? That didn’t seem right.
“I hid it,” she told him. “After the trees were cut down and the animals died. I hid this place from those on the outside, but I was weak and couldn’t hide forever.”
“What do you mean?”
“No, that’s a lie,” she corrected herself. “Perhaps I could have continued hiding. But I was lonely.”
He half-smiled. “You’re a lovely girl. Don’t you have parents? Friends? A… a boyfriend?” The questions felt inappropriate.
She shook her head.
After a hesitation, she said, “Thank you for speaking with me. All these times when others would not--thank you.”
He had so come to expect her there every week that when the next Tuesday came, he paused at the bench automatically even though he had seen from some distance off that it was empty. For once, the men were working rather than taking a break. They’d filled in the structure and were putting in drywall with spaces cut out for windows.
“Sorry,” he heard behind him, and he turned to see her coming up the sidewalk. She seemed out of breath, even though she was moving slowly. She sank down onto the bench and her chest rose and fell too quickly. For the first time, he sat beside her. Put his hand on her arm. She was so small, so skinny.
“Are you okay? Can I help you? Do you have medicine?” He looked for a purse – every woman had one, didn’t they? – and was stumped to see she carried nothing. Come to think of it, he’d never seen her with a bag.
“There is no medicine I could take,” she finally said. Her cheeks were flushed and her face shiny with sweat. “Not much longer now.”
At her words, he found there was a thickness in his throat. He swallowed past it and glanced behind her. Unnoticed by him, the men had paused in their work while he’d watched Kami walk up, and now they were eyeing him through the fence, smoke curling out of their mouths and noses. At his glance, they turned their backs, deliberately. But they didn’t speak, just smoked until their cigarettes became small stubs, and then lit fresh sticks from the old embers.
“Don’t worry about them,” she said. “They’ll be all right. None of them will die from cancer.”
Paul turned back to her. He’d never seen anyone with eyes so dark, so black, that he couldn’t distinguish the pupil from the iris. On a whole island of dark-eyed, dark-haired people, he had never once seen eyes consume the light like hers did. Never seen eyes with so much history.
“Is that what you have? Cancer?” he asked.
Her mouth moved, but it was not quite a smile. “No.”
“What can I do?” he said. “I need to be able to help you.”
“Remember me,” she said. Then, “Remember unicorns. Trees talking. Rabbits.” She laughed.
He laughed with her, but when he took her hand, it was light as air. It was as if it wasn’t there anymore, even though he could feel her bones through the thin skin of her wrist and fingers. After a moment, she took her hand back and he stood up and walked away.
It was weeks later that it happened. What he had been dreading. Weeks later when they took away the bulldozers, the diggers, the cranes, the machines. When the building was finished and sat empty, waiting to be filled. The ribbon-cutting ceremony would be next weekend, but everything else was done. The workmen were gone, their smoke was gone, the hole in the ground was gone.
And so was she – gone. He never saw Kami again.
Later, he went to the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Entered the building that had taken the place of the forest of whispering trees, the unicorns he’d never seen, the many small lives of the wild places--the badgers and the rabbits and the long-lost spirits who protected them.
He remembered Kami’s stories. He remembered her black, black eyes. He remembered her.
Alison McBain is an award-winning author and Pushcart Prize-nominated author with work in Litro, Tiferet Journal, and Quail Bell Magazine. Her debut novel The Rose Queen received the Gold Award for the YA fantasy category of the 2019 Literary Classics International Book Awards. She is lead editor for the small press publisher Fairfield Scribes, and associate editor for the literary magazine Scribes*MICRO*Fiction.