Frost crunched underfoot and Jake’s breath condensed in front of him; nanosnow falling silently to the barren ground. This was the edge of town, where the earth was dry and cracked. It was as beige as his parent’s drawing room in the house they’d spent their entire married life in and as humourless. Rocks lay scattered here and there, thrown aside and discarded by tyres from when the high-school kids came out here to burn rubber and turn donuts. There were none here tonight, and that almost seemed prophetic.
Jake turned away from the distant lights of the town and looked out into the night. The stars were out, white and pristine in the engulfing darkness, reminding him that the universe was once thought to be expanding, vast and effectively unending. He looked up, noting the absence of the moon, and counted the constellations that he knew. It shamed him that there were only four, and the rest were just stars spilled across the sky.
He jumped, his heart suddenly thumping hard in his chest and a cold sweat breaking out on his brow. Even as he turned he could feel it freezing, prickling against his skin as his body heat melted it and broke it apart only for it to refreeze. Behind him, wrapped in a torn and filthy stripy shirt, was a waif: a person whose gender he couldn’t identify, huge, manga eyes poking out of a lean, mud-streaked face. A hand, on the end of a wrist so thin that he could see the outlines of the two bones of the forearm knobbling through the skin, stretched out.
“I’m not giving you anything,” he said reflexively. All through his childhood he’d heard his parents dictum: don’t give to beggars. Don’t give away money that you might need for yourself. Think of what that money could be used for and then use it. He wasn’t sure he’d agreed with it back then, but it was a litany now, inescapable.
“Thingth don’t come for free, mithter.” She, or he, lisped a little. Jake squinted, unsure that he’d seen a pointed tongue appearing between teeth for a minute, but the person had closed their mouth again.
“Yeah, that’s true,” he said, waiting for them to get his point. The hand remained outstretched though, and he raised an eyebrow.
“Everyone’s a philosopher,” said the waif, the lisp disappearing momentarily, but the tongue flickered out between the lips with the effort of getting the sounds right, and it was dark coloured, thin, and too long. It might have been pointed too, but the light was bad and Jake knew that the waif was watching him as much as he was watching it. “You don’t get something for nothing says the guy who has nothing, and you tip your hat and repeat back to him because you think he’s offering you nothing in return. But he’s offering you his gratitude for taking a moment to consider him and his situation, same as he considered yours before he asked you. He’s giving you the chance to feel good about yourself for being the big man, for being generous, for being charitable. All these things he offers you, including his shame at having to ask in the first place, and his humiliation at accepting what you’re willing to spare – what you have so much of that you can give it away because you don’t need it – and you tip your hat and tell him that he’s offering you nothing in exchange for your condescension. That says nothing profound, Mister, that says only that you can’t be bothered to think. And philosophy from a non-thinker? That’s a non-starter.”
“You’re male then?” Jake couldn’t think of anything else to say. He had no idea why it was bugging him so much that he couldn’t tell the gender of the waif, but it was niggling away at him that he was missing something.
The waif pulled the shirt open, revealing its nakedness underneath and Jake fell silent, unable to look away. After a few seconds the waif wrapped themselves back up again and shivered. Then the hand poked out once more, palm upwards, slightly cupped.
“I don’t pity you,” said Jake, but his voice wobbled slightly and the lie was apparent. “Not like that, anyway.” That was closer to the truth. “I’ll pay you, but I want to know what I’m paying you for.”
“Directions,” said the waif. “What you came for, even if you haven’t asked yourself that. Directions on a cold, dark night to somewhere else, somewhere where questions can be asked and answers found. It’s up to you if you want to follow them, but they’re worth what you pay for them.”
There was a soft rattle that disturbed the silence that followed, and it took Jake a couple of moments to realise he was listening to the waif breathing. He tried not to think of what diseases might make someone sound like that. Finally he put his hand in his pocket and made a fist, pulling out everything that was in there.
“This is everything I’ve got,” he said, holding the fist over the waif’s cupped hand and opening it, letting the objects fall. Bright eyes watched him from a pale face framed by blonde hair, and then the hand retracted, the other hand appearing to sort through the litter. “There’s no point asking for more, there isn’t any.”
Coins jingled as they moved around a hand, and a paperclip was lifted into the dim white light from the stars and examined. Two pieces of paper were unfolded and folded back up again, and Jake suddenly realised that one of them had to be Alice’s phone number. It seemed too late now to ask for it back. A condom was pushed from one side to the other, and then suddenly both hands disappeared back inside the shirt.
“Accepted,” said the waif. “Follow me.”
“Wait,” said Jake, reaching out a hand, but stopping as he got close, unable to bring himself to touch the waif now. “You said I was getting directions.”
“I said you got what you paid for,” said waif. “And you’ve paid for a guide.”