Authors: Ann Aguirre
THE GIRL IN THE GRAY SWEATSHIRT
She’s alone today.
But then, she’s always alone.
My least favorite part of the job is investigation and
reconnaissance. And that’s saying a lot because there’s
to hate. Since losing my free will, I count the
days. Minutes. Hours. Seconds. I know precisely how
long I’ve been serving them. There’s no way to be sure
how long it’ll last, though. How long I’ll live.
If I was braver, I’d refuse an order and force
Wedderburn to execute me. That might be an end to
everything. Ironic when—at one time—I only wanted
that. Now that I’ve lost al control, life has become
precious. If I die, I won’t see her again.
I’m not supposed to consider a catalyst’s thoughts and
feelings, except to gauge how close they are to
extremis. Like a good impartial observer, I watch and
wait. It’s taken on a new dimension with her, however.
I recognize the pain of her hunched shoulders; I’ve
been where she is. I tel myself it’s just a job, but I
want to cross the street and have her look at me.
She’s heavy, but it’s not just physical weight. When she
moves, she trudges, shoulders slumped, head down.
From this angle, I can’t see her face, veiled by a curtain
of brown hair. Even if she lifted her chin, she’d stil be
hiding behind thick glasses. I’ve never seen her smile.
It’s become an impossible dream to me, imagining
situations where I could make her laugh.
Wedderburn would kill me; I’m not allowed to reveal
myself until it’s time to offer a deal.
Her steps are aimless; she doesn’t seem to have a
destination in mind. It’s a crisp fal day and she’s
wearing a gray hoodie that would fit a person twice
her size. The sleeves slip down over her hands. They
look small. If we measured, I could wrap my fingers
half again on top of hers. Her pants are just as baggy,
like she wants to disappear inside her clothes. I
remember that feeling so well, wishing invisibility was
real and that
would ever look at me again.
I have on a light jacket, a cap pulled down, and
sunglasses. Days like this, I feel like a celebrity hiding
from the paparazzi, but real y, I just have to make sure
one girl doesn’t notice me. It’s not tough, as she barely
glances up when she crosses the street. I’m tense,
watching her. Wedderburn wouldn’t want me to let
her die, especial y due to her own negligence. He has
plans for her.
Somehow she reaches the sidewalk where I’m
standing without getting run over. This feels like a
miracle, considering her distraction.
Did I miss
something? What happened?
According to my best
estimate, she won’t hit extremis for months. Which
makes this assignment even shittier; I have to watch
her get sadder and sadder, until she feels there’s only
one way out. With every fiber of my being, I want to
step in. To tell her she’s not alone.
But I’m afraid. Wedderburn’s hinted that he has ways
to make me suffer, even after death—it’s not the final
exit I’m betting on. And I can’t take the chance he’s
tel ing the truth.
She passes me without a second look. No surprise, the
decent weather means there’s a fair amount of people
walking, clustered on corners and waiting for signals. I
wait until she’s two hundred feet in front, then I strol
after her. To the casual observer, it seems that she’s
window shopping. She pauses now and then, but I can
tel that she’s not looking at anything on display.
Instead she’s tear-blind, surreptitiously wiping her
cheeks with bare fingertips. Either she doesn’t have
any tissues or she feels like digging them out would be
an admission of weakness.
Why are you crying? Would you tel me if I could tap
you on the shoulder like a normal guy and ask, “Are
Probably not. From what I’ve gleaned
about her character, she’d get embarrassed and run.
Then an idea occurs to me. Wedderburn wil punish
me if he finds out because this wil certainly impact her
mood, which in turn influences extremis. And he’s so
eager to recruit her. Yeah, he’ll have my ass if he
I don’t even care.
Quickening my step, I hurry past. A woman is standing
in a shop doorway, handing out cinnamon rol
samples. She brightens when she sees me, but that
reaction has lost its shine. If I’d known the pitfalls
beforehand, I wouldn’t have wished to be handsome.
But when you hit extremis young, there’s just so much
you don’t know and could never imagine. Now I’m bait
on a hook, a walking invitation for someone else to
repeat my mistakes.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
“My friend in the gray sweatshirt is having a rough day.
She’d be upset if she knew I was seeing her this way,
so I was wondering...”
The clerk nods and smiles, taking my money with a
conspiratorial smile. “Get going before she spots you,
I’ll take care of it.”
I find a café two doors down and wait with an
anticipation I haven’t felt in a while. My target—and
the girl I’ve come to like—is approaching the bakery.
It’s ridiculous that I care when I’ve only watched from
a distance. In her eyes, I’d be a stalker. Or worse. It
doesn’t matter that I wouldn’t do this if I had a choice.
The end does
justify the means, Mr. Machiavelli.
But maybe I can offer her a spark of joy. Anonymously.
Now she’s at the door to the pastry shop. Though I
can’t hear what’s being said, my girl accepts a sweet
bun from the tray. She looks bewildered but pleased,
like random good things never happen to her. If I keep
this up, she’l smile before the end of the day; I
Now I have a goal, and it’s better than the usual
Head down, I pretend to peruse the menu when she
ambles by, nibbling her treat. But I don’t linger; the
waitress gives me a look when I get up from the patio
table without ordering. Mouthing an apology, I rush
on. I need to get ahead of her and see what else she’d
like that’s on this street. The pastry was just an
impulse, so I have to do better next time. Let’s see, I
know she loves games and comics—that she’s into
SF—and she reads a lot.
Aha. There’s a used bookstore on the corner.
more of a consignment store, but they have books,
too. I pass her again, knowing that this risk could end
badly. The more I move around her, the greater the
probability that she’ll notice me. I’m willing to gamble
since there’s other foot traffic. Anyway, I don’t think
she’d ever suspect the truth, not in a thousand years.
People as special as she is never seem to believe it, no
matter how many times they hear it.
As long as she doesn’t turn off, this should work out
fine. I do my bit with the clerk inside and she agrees to
wait at the doorway and offer a gift certificate as a
“limited promotion”. This time, there’s nowhere for
me to wait, so I cross the street and keep my eyes on
the girl in the gray sweatshirt, quietly trundling toward
the intersection. Everyone pushes past her and one
guy bumps into her so hard, she stumbles. He doesn’t
pause or apologize. I’m tempted to fol ow
pound the shit out of him, but then I’d miss out on her
reaction to my next surprise.
She’s alarmed when the clerk stops her. At first she
shakes her head—no, not interested—and then she
apparently realizes she’s being offered a prize. She
cocks her head, dubious, but the cashier is earnest,
probably because I tipped wel .
No, you don’t have to
buy anything, no hidden fees. But here’s a $20 gift
certificate good for anything in our store.
They talk a
little more before my girl goes inside. I’m waiting for
half an hour before she comes out again, carrying a
smal cloth tote bag ful of books.
Her expression is definitely brighter, no secret tears.
She lifts her head a little, so when she moves on, I can
see her chin and the frame of her glasses. I’d love to
know what titles she bought and talk about science
fiction over coffee, but that can’t happen. Even when I
final y get to talk to her, she’l be confused and scared.
Once she understands the kind of person I am, she’ll
probably hate me. So this sunny October day is a
microcosm for the two of us. Right now she has no
idea that I exist but making her happy makes
happy. Today, I don’t feel so alone.
I repeat this at a comic shop, where she picks out a
Highlander button, and again when a woman’s sel ing
handmade jewelry out of the trunk of her car,
probably illegally. But my girl won’t take anything.
Damn, seems like I miscalculated.
So after she moves
on, I pick a necklace and thank the woman for trying.
Toward sunset, the girl in the gray sweatshirt heads for
the park. The sky is burnished over the buildings and
the breeze is cool. I sit down near the fountain, where
I can see her easily. She’s reading one of the books I
bought for her, a pulpy-looking paperback. I can’t
make out the title. Nearby I spot a hot dog vendor
packing it in and circle toward the cart.
“Could you do me a favor?” I ask.
The guy seems tired, not particularly eager to
participate in my scenario. “What is it?”
“I’d like to surprise my friend over there. Would you
give her a hot dog if I pay for it?”
“Oh. Sure.” He perks up at the prospect of another
sale. “But… what should I tel her if she asks why she’s
getting free food?”
“Tell her… that you’d like to see her smile.”
The hot dog guy, who’s at least fifty, raises a brow.
“Heh, I don’t think so. That might work for you, pal,
but if I try it, she’ll scream bloody murder.”
I chuckle wryly. “Okay, maybe not. Tell her whatever
you want, just don’t mention me.”
“Deal. What should I put on it?”
As I hand over the money, I answer, “Mustard,
ketchup, relish. In that order, no onions.”
“Sounds like you know her pretty well. Take care, kid.”
With that the vendor fixes the hot dog, then walks
over to the bench.
She straightens in surprise, but he seems to be
working the paternal angle.
Here you go, kid. Dinner’s
on the house.
Whatever he says, it works because she takes the
snack. Casual y I maneuver until I can see her face.
And… she’s beaming. I’m riveted, unable to look away.
God, you have a nice smile.
Her teeth are straight and
white, her cheeks soft and round. Her eyes as she
thanks the vendor are a warm brown. I’ve seen topaz
in just that color. The wind blows her hair back, and
she tips her chin up for a few seconds, hot dog in hand.
The move says,
Right now, I’m happy.
My chest is so
tight I can hardly breathe. I’d give a lot if she’d look at
me, just for a moment. But she takes a few bites, eyes
on the ground again. Pigeons waddle at her feet, so it
seems like they’re begging. She breaks off a piece of
the bun, crumbles and scatters it.
This is the closest I’ve ever been to her, so I actually
hear her voice, sweet, soft and low, when she tel s the
birds, “Huh. This was the best day ever.” Musing,
For me too,
I say silently. It’s a vain wish but I can’t
Wait for me, Edie Kramer. Wait for me.