He sits in a crumpled heap, the ruler of all he can see in the wheezing broken stench of an alleyway, and he counts his stars.
Precious, pretty stars.
They are tinfoil, each of them shiny and bright. Treasures and trash; easy come, easy go, but he always keeps the best of them. They sparkle and dance at his command when he lets them out of their wrappings. Only when it’s safe.
Such a fine collection he has. One, two, three… He touches them, can touch them, always touches them, and they wobble and shine just for him.
When the stinking air of the alleyway sizzles and sparks with blue light, he quickly draws his little stars up. No one can touch his pretty treasures, especially not this ghost-woman who unfolds herself out of a pocket in the air, not even if she spins and falls and pirouettes in front of him like a ballerina.
He wonders if she is unstrung. (A loose end left untied. A story never finished.) He wonders if she, too, has forgotten her name.
Her hands are busy with the blinking lights at her waist, pretty little lights like stars. She breathes white clouds into the night air.
It occurs to him that she might be an alien.
He quickly tucks his stars out of sight and roots around for his cap. His special cap, the one he saves just for such an occasion. Just in case he meets an alien.
It’s tinfoil, too.
The sound of his scuffling draws her attention, but that’s ok, or will be once he gets his cap on. His fingers close around it; careful, careful, careful not to bend or break it. He dons it and, mind protected, turns to face her.
“Oh, hey,” she says kindly, but he doesn’t like her voice. It has the wrong kind of music in it, the kind of which aliens are fond.
Never trust a British accent, his favorite star whispers from his pocket.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you. You alright there?” she asks.
Wouldn’t she like to know, muttered another.
She leans over, not close, but closer, which is enough. “Are you OK?” she asks gently, but she blinks when she gets a look at his face, and for a moment, he wonders lucidly if he really looks that bad.
“Oh,” she says softly. And then again, “Oh.” Such a soft, round syllable. He thinks it’s possible that his stars might be mistaken about her accent.
“Well, hello there,” she murmurs. He just stares and stares and stares. Always better not to answer right away. Better to wait and see.
She tries again. “Do you know who I am?” she asks, and he blinks. If she doesn’t know, how can she expect that he will? Still, she has nice eyes. Trustworthy eyes, brown eyes. Not blue.
“Do you know your name?” she asks, and his hackles rise once more. Why does everyone ask him that?
“I never tell people my name,” he informs her, and watches her lips twitch in response.
“Yeah.” She sounds amused. “There’s a lot of that going around.”
“Are you an alien?” he asks, because it’s best to be sure.
She sits back on her haunches and smiles. “Depends who you ask.”
He looks her over, considers it. “No,” he decides. “You’re rather pretty. Too pretty to be an alien.” He tips his head to one side. “Also, your ears are too small.”
She chuckles. “Thanks.”
Her laugh is gentle and brown, like her eyes, and he thinks that maybe he’d like to give her something, if only an answer.
“My name…” He ponders over it for a moment. “Harry?” he questions. Is that right?
She purses her lips. She doesn’t like it. He thinks about it and decides that he doesn’t either.
“Harvey,” he rasps. “Maybe Harvey.”
“Maybe,” she allows. “Something beginning with H, at least…”
He nods solemnly. First letters are important. They are at the start of everything.
“Are you OK here?” she asks, surreptitiously eyeing his little alleyway kingdom. She glances over her shoulder, down toward the street, and he looks, too.
Can’t be too careful.
Biting her lip now. “Do you want me to help you find a shelter? I don’t know what’s around here, but I could–”
“No.” He says it harshly and then winces at the volume of his own voice. “No,” he repeats, softer this time. “Full of thieves, they’ll take my stars.” He clutches at his stash of possessions, his precious collection. “You can’t have them,” he says. Snarls.
She holds up her hands, a surrender. “Don’t worry. I won’t take ‘em.”
“You should be careful,” he advises her. Warns her. (Threatens her.) “There are other collectors out there. Alien ones. Too many hearts and not enough.”
He can tell from her eyes that she knows it, too. And he likes the watchfulness that he sees there now, washing away the wretched stink of pity.
“He’d come take you, take you away forever,” he sing-songs. “Put you in a pink paper crown. A pink paper dress.” He doesn’t notice how she starts, or he just doesn’t want to. “He’d wrap you up in plastic to keep you safe forever in a bright, blue tower.” He leans in conspiratorially. “He likes to take princesses. Likes ‘em young.” He stretches up a hand, reaching toward her hair. “And blonde.”
She catches his hand, mid-air. “No,” she says, and she squeezes his hand until it hurts a little. “You’re wrong.” She smiles, and the street lights glitter brightly against her teeth. She leans in closer, like a lover, like a child whispering a secret. “I’m not the princess.”
He recoils, sees the truth of it in her eyes.
Fierce brown eyes, almost as bad as ice cold blue.
“Harris,” he rasps, this time trying to wield his name like a weapon. “Hammond.”
She lets go of his hand. “It’s Henry,” she says gently. She stands up, pulls away. “Your name’s Henry.”
Ah, yes. That was it. Henry.
“I used to rule the world,” he murmurs. “Built my castle on pillars of salt and sand. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. Now I’m just King of the mud, and that’s all I can see.”
“Yeah, but all the turtles are free,” she says, a smile in her voice. “As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be?”
“Fuck the turtles,” he mutters, and she laughs.
She reaches into her jacket and pulls out money, British pounds and American dollars and French francs. With a toss, she scatters it on the ground at his feet.
“I’m sorry,” she says, just once, and then she fades away, a story without an end.
He scrambles to pick up all the money before someone else comes along to claim it. With shaking fingers, he counts it and sighs in relief. She has given him back his name, and it echoes and shrieks inside his head, but that’s all right.
She’s given him enough to erase it again.