At first I thought it all began with a foul—if an elbow to the head’s not a foul, then what is?—but I figured out, maybe not as soon as I should have, that the beginning had come a little earlier. Just five or six hours, in fact, with me on my way to school and no time to lose. The second the doors of the subway car slid open, I jumped out, hurried along the platform, and took the stairs to street level two at a time. At the top, I was turning left, all set to run the block and a half to school, when I noticed something not right in front of the newsstand by the subway entrance. A homeless woman who’d been sitting outside for the past few weeks—HOMELESS, PLEASE HELP read the writing on the coffee cup she always held—was out there again, only now she’d tipped over and lay on her side. It must have just happened, because none of the people around—and there were lots—had gone to her yet. So I did. I leaned over her. The woman was old, with white hair and a lined face, but maybe because her eyes were closed, I suddenly had this vision of how she’d looked as a young girl. She’d been really pretty. Something about that took away the fear I’d normally have had at such a moment.
“Are you all right?” I said.
Her eyes opened—blue eyes, but so faded there was hardly any color at all, except for the whites, which were crisscrossed with red veins. “Do I look all right?” she said, her voice surprisingly strong and not at all friendly.
I didn’t know what to say.
Her eyes narrowed. “I know you,” she said. “You’re the girlie who dropped eighty-five cents in the cup. And sixty another time.”
My parents said not to give money to street people, that there were better ways of helping, which maybe made sense but didn’t feel right. So all I thought at that moment was: eighty-five cents and sixty cents—not much.
“Sorry,” I said, “but that was all I had on me and—“Before I could finish, strong hands were pushing me to the side and voices were calling “Get back, out of the way.” Two cops had arrived and were clearing space around the woman. I ended up behind some tall people. An ambulance came roaring up, siren blaring. I caught glimpses of EMTs hopping out, feeling her pulse, clamping an oxygen mask over her face, rolling her onto a stretcher, and hoisting her into the back of the ambulance. The crowd lost interest fast, everyone dispersing, giving me a clear view, and what I saw was the woman’s arm dangling down from the stretcher and something slipping off her wrist and falling into the gutter. I went forward and picked it up. It was a braided leather bracelet, possibly a charm bracelet, although only a single charm hung from it—a tiny silver heart.
“You dropped this,” I called, just as the ambulance doors were closing. No one inside noticed me, except for the woman. Her eyes were looking right into mind and seemed to be trying to send some message, but I didn’t get whatever it was. The doors slammed shut, and the ambulance took off.
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