Originally published in The Bracelet Charm, Volume 5, Issue 41.
Joshua McSween pulled his coat tighter around him as he strode across the deserted parking garage towards his car. It did little good. The wind was like winter personified, wrapping its icy tendrils around his fingers and face, and scorning his attempts to keep warm. Not for the first time, he wished he was on a tropical beach somewhere, far away from the rows of concrete pillars that rose around him like silent sentinels, swathed in the graffiti of generations of disenchanted youth; or perhaps on a sun-drenched golf course, working on his game. Anywhere but this dingy car park, where shadows lay siege to the pitiful flickering of the overhead lights, and festering piles of rubbish filled the air with a rank stench of urine, alcohol and rotting food.
Suddenly, as Joshua was nearing his car, he noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head instinctively towards it, expecting to see a rat or pigeon. What he saw instead was a young girl leaning against one of the pillars, watching him. The bulb in the light above her had blown, so her features were swathed in darkness, but he estimated she was in her late teens. Her tangled cascade of greasy hair and filthy clothes suggested she was homeless, yet whatever her lifestyle, it clearly hadn't broken her spirit. She carried herself with proud defiance and her hazel eyes blazed with inner fire like twin stars.
For a long moment the two of them stared at each other across the car park. Then, the girl took a hesitant step forwards. "Excuse me, sir," she said meekly, "could you..."
"No," Joshua interrupted, anticipating how the sentence was going to end. He had always been wary of beggars and made it a habit to refuse their requests for money purely out of principle.
The girl’s face grew sullen. "Yeah, it figures. Your kind are all the same."
"My kind?" Joshua repeated, moving away from her and fumbling in his pocket for his car keys.
The girl dodged around in front of him, attempting to block his path, her former timidity having completely vanished. "Your kind! Smug guys in suits who think they’re all that, just because they’ve got a bit of cash." She shivered convulsively as an icy gust of wind blasted through the car park.
Joshua glared at her. "The only reason I’ve got a bit of cash is because I work hard and know how to manage it, for example by not giving it away to people like you."
"So that’s how you justify yourself, is it?" the girl spat. "Well, know this! Things have a way of turning around. Look what happened to Marie Antoinette."
Joshua raised his eyebrows. He wouldn’t have expected this kind of historical reference from a run-of-the-mill homeless person. Come to think of it, there was something slightly disingenuous about the girl’s voice as well, as if she was trying to make it sound more guttural than it really was. "How long have you been living on the street?" he asked curiously.
The girl blinked at him, apparently uncertain how to respond, then said testily, "None of your business."
Joshua wasn’t sure why, but he got the distinct impression she was hiding something. Much as he hated to admit it, she was starting to interest him. "How about I take you to a cafe and buy you something to eat?" he suggested, thinking this would give him an opportunity to investigate the anomalies further.
"How about you give me the money and I buy myself something to eat?" the girl countered.
Joshua thought about this. "Sorry, no can do. If I just give you the money, how will I know you’re going to spend it on food. There are a lot of other things you might find preferable."
"Drugs, you mean?" asked the girl, pushing back her hair as a few rogue curls fell into her face.
"The thought had crossed my mind," replied Joshua.
The girl seemed to find this vaguely amusing. "Don’t worry, I’m not using."
"I’m glad to hear it," said Joshua.
"Yeah right," said the girl incredulously. "Like you give a damn!"
Joshua looked into her eyes, attempting to convey a sense of sincerity. Her hostility was tangible, like a roiling storm cloud. "Listen, I think we’ve got off on the wrong foot. Do you think maybe we could start over? I only want to help you."
"Why the sudden concern?" she asked.
He considered how best to respond. It seemed he was on the verge of winning her over and didn’t want to mess things up. "I don’t know. There’s just something about you that intrigues me."
The girl let out a loud guffaw. "That’s so lame! Next you’ll be telling me I have pretty eyes."
Joshua gave a start. He hadn’t really noticed before, but the girl did have pretty eyes - so full of passion and youthful vitality. He pushed the thought from his mind, though, sensing this was not the time to mention it. "Of course I won’t. This isn’t some lousy pick-up ploy, you know? I’m on the level."
The girl looked at him searchingly for what seemed an eternity. Finally, she nodded her head. "You can take me to a cafe and buy me something to eat, but that’s it. No funny business!"
"No funny business," he echoed. "Just something to eat. Follow me. I know the perfect place." He turned away from his car and started towards the exit.
"Wouldn’t it be quicker to drive?" she asked.
"It isn’t worth it," he told her. "It’s only five minutes away."
"Right," she said, hurrying after him.
The wind hit them like a freight train as they left the car park, chilling Joshua to the bone with its cold caress. He glanced at the girl. Her teeth had begun to chatter and she was shivering. Reluctantly, he pulled off his coat and handed it to her. He wasn’t a particularly gallant man by nature, but it was clear she needed it more than he did. Besides, as he'd already said, the cafe was only nearby. The girl took the coat from him and wrapped it around her shoulders with a small grunt that might have been a thank you.
They made their way along a dingy alleyway, overlooked by a spattering of broken windows, and joined the river of humanity flowing along the pavement at the end. It was then that the snow started. It was gentle at first, falling around them in playful flurries, but quickly gained momentum until it was one step away from a full-blown blizzard. The way ahead was indistinct, lost in a haze of powdery white.
Joshua grabbed hold of tyhe girl’s hand and pulled her under the shelter of a nearby ionic portico which belonged to the one of the city’s many art galleries. "Damn this snow!" he said grumpily, brushing the snowflakes from his suit. Looks like we might have to give the cafe a miss. Unless we can wait it out."
"I thought you said it was five minutes away," said the girl.
Joshua leant back against one of the columns and hugged his shoulders, trying to keep warm. "Honey, when it’s snowing like this, five minutes is like five miles."
"Do you mind not calling me that?" said the girl.
"What - honey?" he asked.
Her face darkened. "Yes - honey."
"Well, what do you want me to call you?" he asked. "In case you‘ve forgotten, I don’t know your name."
"I don’t want you to call me anything," she said. "I don’t even know what I’m doing here." She wandered across to one of the windows at the rear of the portico and peered into the brightly lit gallery beyond.
Joshua pointed along the street. "Nobody’s forcing you to stick around; if you want to go, then go already. Just make sure you give me back my coat."
The girl didn’t answer. Something in the gallery seemed to have caught her eye and she was staring at it intently. Joshua strode across to the window to find out what it was.
On the wall ahead, there was a giant painting of a falling angel. It was done in a modern surrealist style which Joshua wouldn’t normally have found appealing, but even he couldn’t deny the skill of the execution. The picture was a riot of fiercely contrasting colors that seemed to shift with each passing moment. As he looked at it, he found himself becoming steadily dizzier, as if he had joined the angel on its plunging descent into hell.
The girl stretched her hand out towards it. "Look at his face. So realistic! A face that hints at pain beyond the realms of human understanding. Can you imagine the passion that went into painting it?"
"Not really," Joshua admitted.
"It’s more than a painting," the girl told him earnestly. "It’s a window to a tortured soul." She lapsed into silence and continued to study the picture with an appraising eye.
"What’s your name?" asked Joshua, who was finding himself more and more drawn to her.
"Esmeralda," said the girl distractedly, "or Ez for short."
"Pleased to meet you, Ez," said Joshua. "I’m Joshua."
Joshua and Esmeralda never made it to the cafe. Instead, Joshua offered to pay the admission charge to the gallery, and they spent the next few hours gorging themselves on a feast of art. Each painting held new wonders for Esmeralda, and to his surprise, Joshua found her enthusiasm to be highly infectious. He also found himself becoming increasingly enamored of her company. So much so, that he was more than a little sorry when the time came for them to leave.
He pulled a handful of bills from his wallet as they stepped back out onto the portico. “Here, I’d like you to have this.” He wasn’t sure how much he was offering, but he guessed it was in excess of a hundred dollars. Easily enough for her to pay for somewhere warm to spend the night, which was bound to be an attractive prospect for someone in her position. Admittedly the snow had stopped, but the wind was freezing.
“I thought we were going to a cafe,” said Esmeralda, sounding disappointed.
“I’d like to,” Joshua told her, “but it’s late and I have to get home. My wife will be wondering where I am. See you around, Ez.”
“Goodbye, Joshua.” She pulled his coat from around her shoulders and handed it back to him, but made no move to take the wad of banknotes.
Joshua waved the money at her encouragingly. “Take it. It’s about time I did something to help my fellow man.”
Esmeralda’s eyes flickered back and forth between Joshua’s face and the handful of crumpled notes. Then, at last, she took them. “Thank you, Joshua,” she said softly, and with that, she was gone, trudging away along the snowy sidewalk.
Joshua thought a lot about Esmeralda the following day, especially after work as he was making his way across the parking garage towards his car. He was just telling himself for the umpteenth time that he would probably never see her again, when the silence was broken by the sound of her voice, “Hello, Joshua."
He looked looked around in surprise and saw her leaning against a wall beside an aerosol reproduction of the angel painting from the art gallery. She looked cleaner than when he had last seen her and there were a few less tangles in her hair.
“Do you like it?” she asked, pointing at the picture with her thumb.
Joshua sighed. “I don’t suppose I need to ask you how it got there. You realize there are laws against this kind of thing? They call it vandalism.”
“Of course I realize,” she said matter-of-factly, “and frankly, I don’t give a damn." She cocked her head to one side. "But you haven’t answered my question - do you like it?”
“Yes, I like it,” Joshua admitted, though in reality, this was a gross understatement. The picture was amazing, faithfully capturing everything that had struck him about the original, whilst adding an even greater sense of fluidity. He pulled his gaze away from it with an effort and looked Esmeralda in the eye. “What are you doing here?”
“Aren’t you happy to see me?” she asked, her breath catching.
“I didn’t say that,” Joshua replied. “It’s just I wasn’t expecting it to happen. I thought we’d be like ships passing in the night.”
She walked towards him slowly. “Not much chance of that. I sleep here sometimes - when there isn’t anywhere better.” She paused, curling a lock of hair around her forefinger and looking at him coyly through her long eyelashes. “Besides, there’s something I wanted to give you.”
Joshua felt his heartbeat quicken. “What?” She was in front of him now, her full lips curling upwards in a hint of a smile. Not for the first time, he was struck by her beauty. It shone through the streaks of dirt on her face like an exploding firework.
“This,” she said fervently, leaning forward and kissing him on the lips.
He pulled away. “Don’t. I...” The words died in his throat as she kissed him again.
Time seemed to come to a stop. It was as if he had stumbled into an ethereal void where nothing else existed but her mouth. He clasped her closer to him, giddy with the taste of her, his knees growing weak beneath him.
Then, abruptly, the feeling ended. He opened his eyes to find her drawing away. He reached out his hands to pull her back, but she slipped nimbly between them. He raised his eyebrow questioningly.
“Don’t panic,” she said. “I just have a sudden desire to see the inside of your car, that’s all.” She winked at him playfully, leaving him in no doubt of what she was getting at.
There was nothing he would have liked better than to give free reign to his rising passion, but unfortunately, there were complications. His wife, for one thing. Their relationship had been on rocky ground for the best part of a year, but he still cared for her and didn’t want to do anything that would hurt her. “I can’t do this.”
Esmeralda looked taken aback. “Why not?”
Joshua held up his left hand, so she could see his wedding ring. He stabbed it with his finger. “That’s why.” His eyes dropped and he studied his feet.
She lifted his chin. “Look at me, Joshua. I love you and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all that matters.”
“You love me?“ he said. “But we’ve only just met.”
“I know,” she replied, “but I also know the way I feel. My heart’s been screaming it out to me all day. This is going to sound completely loco, but I think I’ve found my soul mate. Can you honestly say you don‘t feel the same?”
Joshua shook his head. Try as he might to deny his feelings, her words made perfect sense. “It’s true there's a spark between us, but is it love? I don’t know. What is love?”
She pressed against him, looking deep into his eyes. “Love is what you’re experiencing right now. Don’t turn your back on it. If you do, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
Even as she said this, he knew it was true. He cared for his wife deeply, but he didn’t love her. Not the way he loved this impassioned artist, this dazzlingly beautiful spirit of the street.
His car was only a few steps away from where they were standing. Nodding his head with sudden resolution, he took hold of her hand and led her across to it. He pulled open one of the doors and gestured at the back seat. “If you really want to see my car, far be it from me to stop you. Why don’t we start with the rear? As you can see it’s extremely spacious, with...”
Before he could finish, she pushed him down onto the seat, smothering him with kisses. Then, she was on top of him, pulling the car door closed behind her. Joshua closed his eyes, surrendering to the moment...
Joshua and Esmeralda spent as much time together as they possibly could in the weeks that followed. They fell into each other’s arms on a regular basis, making love with wild abandon, and roamed the city’s many museums and galleries deep in conversation.
One day, as they sat in a nondescript cafe, seeking sanctuary from the harsh grip of winter over a cup of hot chocolate, Esmeralda pulled a small notebook from her pocket and tossed it across the table. “I’d like you to see this.”
Joshua picked it up and turned it over in his hands. It was bound in expensive leather and he wondered vaguely how Esmeralda had been able to afford it. Pursing his lips, he opened it at the first page, and found himself looking at a sketch of his own face. The picture was so well done it was like looking at a black and white photograph, though his features had been subtly enhanced to make them more aesthetically pleasing. He wasn’t sure he had ever seen a drawing where the shading so well captured the interplay between light and shadow. “Looks familiar,” he said glibly. “Anyone I know?”
“Could be,” she replied. “Have you looked in any mirrors lately?”
“I think that’s the problem,” said Joshua. “When I look in the mirror, I see a guy with a dodgy complexion and a nose that’s too big for his face. When I look at this picture, I see a work of art. I might be many things, but I’m no work of art.”
Esmeralda leant across the table. The love in her gaze was like a gentle wave washing over his body. “You are to me. What you see on that page is what I see when I look at you.”
Joshua dropped his eyes to the notebook, afraid he might drown in her beauty if he looked at her any longer.
“And you, Joshua?” she went on. “What do you see when you look at me?”
He thought about this for a moment, analyzing what it was about her that he found attractive. “I see the most beautiful girl in the world. I see the goddess of the street, proud and strong, fearless and beautiful. She wears a cloak of dirt and grime, but this doesn’t hide the inner light that shines from within. I see one of the city’s many homeless people, but I also see the intelligence and talent which make her unique.”
There was a long silence. Esmeralda seemed lost in thought, and he wondered if he might have said something he shouldn’t have. His cheeks colored and he turned his attention back to the notebook. The pages were crowded with sketches of the city and its many inhabitants, each one a lesson in dark secrets and human misery. Very quickly, the skill with which they were drawn began to cast a spell on his imagination, drawing him down into a graphite world of hardship and uncertainty - Esmeralda's world.
Abruptly, he realized what it was that had first drawn him to the girl. It was the idea a flower could bloom and endure in a quagmire that swallowed lives on a daily basis. “These drawings are incredible,” he said. “You could be a professional artist.”
She didn't answer. He raised his head to look at her. Her brow was knotted in thought and she was staring fixedly into her hot chocolate. “What is it, Ez?” he asked gently. “You’ve gone awfully quiet. I hope it wasn’t something I said.”
“It was something you said,” she replied, “but not in the way you think.”
He looked at her blankly.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” she went on slowly. “I’m not the person you think I am.”
“In what way?” he asked.
She sighed. “In a lot of ways, but mainly in that I'm not homeless.”
Joshua was stunned. “I don’t understand.”
“The truth is, I’m an artist,” she said. “Not a famous one or anything, but good enough to make a living out of it.”
Joshua bit his lip. What she was claiming certainly made sense. It had always struck him as odd that a talent like hers could have gone unnoticed for so long. He let the notebook fall from his hand onto the table. “Why the big pretence?”
“For a long time, I’ve wanted to put on an exhibition that showed what it was like to live on the streets,” she replied, “and I knew the only way I could do it convincingly was to experience it for myself.” She leant forward in her chair, her eyes aflame with enthusiasm. “So for the past few weeks, I’ve been living the life of a homeless person to find out how it feels. I’ll never truly know, of course, because I have a home to go back to when I‘m done, but at least I’ll have an idea. Call it dipping a toe in the ocean. Does that make sense?”
Joshua nodded. “It does. A mirror can’t reflect something if it doesn’t come close enough to catch the image.”
“Exactly,” she agreed.
There was a long pause. “So it was all bull?” he asked eventually.
Her expression grew earnest. “Not all of it. My feelings for you are a hundred percent real. What you and I have hasn’t changed.”
“Oh, but it has,” he replied. He folded his arms and stared at her coldly, allowing himself to assimilate what she had told him. Until today, he had believed he was in love with her, but this confession changed everything. No longer was she a rare diamond in a mountain of coal. Now, she was just another flourish in a predictable pattern. He would never have guessed it before, but it seemed he had been in love with the idea of Esmeralda, as opposed to Esmeralda herself. “I don’t love you anymore."
Esmeralda looked at him disbelievingly. “What? How can you say that?”
“Because the person sitting opposite me, isn’t the person I fell in love with,” he told her. “That person was a lie.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m still the same.”
“No, you aren’t,” he said. He pushed back his chair and stood up. Rage was bubbling inside him like molten lava and he was afraid of what might happen if he allowed himself to erupt before he could leave. “I’m sorry, but this can’t go on." He turned away. “You and I are finished.”
“But... I love you...” she stammered.
“Goodbye Ez,” he said. He walked quickly away, fighting back the approaching explosion, his fists clenched at his sides, his teeth gritted.
As he pushed open the door, he glanced over his shoulder at the girl he was leaving behind. Her head had fallen into her hands and she was weeping softly. He supposed he should have felt sorry for her, but he didn’t. He felt only anger and bitterness.
Taking a deep breath, he stepped out into the jaws of winter, shutting the door on a cruel trick of fate. Then, he stuffed his hands into his pockets, turned towards the parking garage and prepared to go home to his wife.
The right of C. J. Carter-Stephenson to be identified as the author of this story has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author, or a license permitting restricted copying.