"You're chewing your nails I see, and cutting off the cuticles too," he paused. I turned my head towards him casually, my left hand remaining in bent-ready position in front of my face.
"Do I know you?"
He wore a plain black tweed jacket and jeans; looked like someone waiting in back of you in a pharmacy; autumn-aged, good hair - not balding yet or ever likely to.
"Maybe... perhaps not as well as I know you," he continued to look at me, eyes registering my face as one of any other in a crowd. The bus rolled along gently beneath us.
"Look buddy, if you've got some kind of problem, I don't need to deal with it."
"Yes of course, you don't know yourself... amazing that, but I guess some of your type get lost sometimes, I hear the snow covers your eyes," now the stare had turned to blatant curiosity, with a bit of caution twisted in. Before I could begin a rebuke:
"I have to ask," he licked his lips quickly, "what does this snow look like?"
By this point I had certainly had enough. First this guy badgered me about chewing my nails, obviously to the contrary of common manners, and now he had the audacity to ask me what snow looks like. As if he hadn't probably seen more than sixty winters from behind that pale face - I just hoped he really didn't believe he had never seen snow.
I bent my knees to get up from my plastic moulded seat and walked to the front, preparing to get off. Just before I had the chance to descend he rose and added across the length of the bus:
"I wouldn't do that too much in public if I were you, some of them might start to wonder. They're already picking up on you."
Not looking at the man and exasperated I flashed an unknowing look at the bus driver and said, "sorry about that, just some weirdo I guess."
"Huh?" he said, seemingly careless about anything but the street and people in front of him; at least he hadn't noticed.
I stepped onto the pavement, a slight chill in the air, and checked that my gloves were still on. I could feel the approaching snow in the air; the smell was unmistakable. I pictured the buffoon on the bus asking someone what snow looked like when it actually began to fall; I laughed to myself satisfactorily. The wind picked up a bit, chilling my bare face and blowing small gusts through my uncapped hair. I really needed to get a hat, why didn't I have one anyway? I rubbed my hands together and the unfinished ends of my nails caught in the fabric of my gloves. Who did that guy think he was, what kind of damned idiot tells a stranger on a bus that they "see you are chewing your nails?" I could feel a little warmth from some blood that had spilled where I had cut a cuticle too short. I really had to be more careful; I did try to stop sometimes, but it was such a pain and chewing did help take my mind off things.
I reached the curb and climbed the steps into the dinner. My thoughts returned to Max and the - incident - earlier. It was really getting to me; that old guy on the bus sure didn't help settle my nerves. I pulled open the door and said hi to Maggie with a wave on the way in. She returned the favor and added a crisp, yet warm smile. She did have a pretty face. I sat down at my usual table and watched the snow begin to fall; silly old man I thought to myself.
'Now why would Max do something like that?' I questioned in my head. He was always a bit unstable, but lighting his hands on fire with gasoline was far beyond his usual antics and episodes. I just hoped the hospital was taking good care of him. And those screams, those aweful screams, "Stop it, tell it to stop, I can't bear to see it any longer." I had dragged him out to the car, not trying to decipher his messy elocutions at the time; it had been snowing then too. Driving Max to St. Peter's I remembered the blood on the floor. At first I had thought it was from the burning, but when I saw the knife lying on the tiles with pieces of skin still stuck to the blade and then looked at Max's hands more closely I realized he had been cutting at the tops of his fingers; there weren't even any nails left. Max was cowering in the passenger seat, hands wrapped tightly in linens and hiding his head under the dashboard; trying to pretend the outside world didn't exist.
I looked at my own battered fingers, I really had to stop this habit. That old bastard just had to make me even more unsettled after the whole episode with Max; it was as if he knew exactly what buttons to push. And what was that mumbo-jumbo about people starting to wonder? I shook it away superstitiously, trying to forget the peculiar events of the day. If I kept wondering about it too long I'd probably start cutting my own finger nails off, or start describing to strangers what snow looked like. I pulled my gloves off and regretted it almost instantly. My hand went to my mouth to settle its unfinished business, and I pulled back just before the waitress arrived to take my order. It was cold in here too, but something told me to leave my gloves in my pockets.
Maggie herself came over to see to me, her beautiful bossom almost bursting out of her as usual low cut blouse, her slender legs erupting from under that as usual almost too short skirt. And what supple shoulders she had, arms ready to wrap themselves around you at the slightest provocation; I almost felt warm for a minute.
"The usual then?" she said gently, the words falling from her tongue like soft snowflakes.
"Yes please, and make sure its nice and hot... in fact I think I'll have the large bowl today."
She grimaced slightly, "ok, but I still don't know how you take it this time of year," the warm smile returned and she strode away quickly.
It was something that Max said, something in the midst of the jumble of screams, so hard to remember, yet it tickled at the back of my mind like arsenic tickling the heart. In fact it was the old man who had brought recollection back to me, crazy old buggar. It was something about snow, and something about not telling anyone about something. And of course there was that unmistakable shout at the end just before I left him in the care of the emergency room doctors to burn my gloves. I wished I had them on at that moment, the heavy flakes outside were mounting into a small blizzard and I could feel the cold seeping in through the fogged windows. 'I suppose the owner never thought about getting double-paned glass', I thought dryly.
"Here's your soup." She pushed it in front of me gingerly. "Now don't drink it too fast, you might just get overheated."
I laughed abruptly and added sarcastically, "especially in this weather." She smiled, amused, and whisked herself away as fast as she had come.
New England Clam Chowder, my favorite, and especially on a cold day like this one. I could picture a New England beach, ocean waves rolling gently into rocks, snowflakes falling peacefully from heaven, and me sitting on an old-fashioned wooden porch covered by a white topped roof, looking over the cove, and breathing in the fresh air with Clam Chowder in front of me ready to warm away my chills. I really had to get back up there, it wasn't that far. But I couldn't even remember the last time I was there, had it been that long?
A man entered wearing a dark brown and black coat, a bit thin considering the season. He began to brush at his shoulders as if seeing dust no one else could, and then stopped abruptly, looking around him cautiously. What first caught my attention was that he wasn't wearing any gloves, and me here shivering inside without them; it must have been well below freezing outside. But then there was something familiar about him, as if I had known him a long time ago in the past. 'Well, unlikely that,' I wasn't even from this area originally. What a bizarre day this has been, I thought.
Without noticing me the man approached a table just two away from mine. I could see him quite well but he would have to turn his head at a funny angle to see me. That's why I always chose this table, I liked my privacy, and still the possibility to invade others'. 'Hmm, I wonder when I did first start coming here?' I thought, the detail had slipped my mind at the moment. The man took off his jacket, looking uncomfortable about doing so, and under was a rather thick sweater. 'Well, that might explain his improper outerwear', I thought. Looking a bit worried he took off his sweater too, revealing fine tan skin under clumps of dark hair through a grotesque pink tank-top. He positively looked like a lion in winter, 'no wonder,' I thought, 'he must be freezing in here.'
I took another drink from my soup, the warmth radiating down and out through my body. The man in front of me - I was almost positive I had seen him somewhere before, maybe on some strange circus show on TV - started biting his nails and looking left and right as if someone might be watching. Not able to resist after the episode with the old man, and hoping to catch a possible celebrity, I straightened and said across the tables:
"Are you worried somebody may start to wonder?" I left a big, round smile on my face.
His head darted up, revealing his shock; his face went white. Then seeing me he relaxed a little and smiled, and amazingly got up and sat down in front of me.
"Oh there you are, I wasn't sure how I'd find you." He paused briefly. "It was a good idea to get rid of those gloves, they were much too obvious." He smiled.
I stared at him blankly, it was now my face's turn to go white. The words he had said came pouring back to me:
"Don't let them see you do it, don't let them see you with your gloves, get rid of them, get rid of the damned things! Just stop biting them; don't look at them, they're so white!"
"So how is old Max doing? We heard he got himself pretty bad, I guess that one still needs more looking after." He sipped from a cup of coffee that Maggie had brought him at his former table. "I guess some of us do get lost sometimes, the snow can cover our eyes from time to time," he frowned and looked sadly at the brown and tan stripped veneer table.
"I saw the Old Man", I barely added.
The man's face lifted and his eyes lit up brightly. "Really?" he said, intrigued. "Is it true that he can see us as we are - that he knows who we are?" He changed his tone a little. "I heard that he might be dangerous, that he may intend to identify us to the Others, that he knows about our nails - and about - snow." He dropped the last word as if with an anvil on a crying baby.
"Its true Sam, I think we should be cautious of him, but I'm not sure he's too dangerous." I paused a minute pondering how to put it most correctly, trying to catch myself up to speed. "He does seem to see us for who we are, or at least he can pick us out from the crowd. But in the past he's only talked to us, given his cryptic warnings. He's never actually tried to put us on the spot, so maybe he's harmless. He may even be helpful, who knows what he is exactly. It's possible he's just another one of the Others with a rather special talent - or some third kind." I paused again, not wanting to drop the next bit. "He may even be a Lost One." I stopped short.
"Really!!??" Sam almost leapt up from the table in excitement. "I had heard of them, but I didn't think there actually were any". He paused, pondering. "Does that mean we really have been here before?" he finished, almost salivating for answers.
"Now, I don't think we should jump to any conclusions, we still don't know who or what he is. Until we do we need to hold our judgements and keep our distance, he still may turn out to be disastrous for our plans."
"Yes, I understand," he said a little disappointedly; curiosity still sparkled in his eyes.
Another man came in wearing a tank-top and shorts; the tan line under his straps might as well have been the border between Yin and Yang; the suntan lotion reaked from across the room. Maggie came over to serve us coffee again, "you guys really like to stick together," she said, amused. "What is this, the North Pole club or something? You know there's supposed to be a record high today? 103 I hear," she shook her head in consternation.
"Just old friends," I said, thanking her for the coffee and waiting for her to leave before I continued.
"I think we need to stop meeting in public," I said definitively, "maybe we can lose the sweaters too," I paused, ready to continue. "And about Max, I think every one of us should keep a little something about us on our person at all times - just a little reminder of who we are - in case the snows start... to cover our eyes," I swallowed uncomfortably, chunks of nausea threatening to clog my esophagus. Max had been my roommate and First Mate since we had arrived. He was - had been - the only one I could really trust. Sam started an odd look at me but I continued quickly before he could ask the question; I would let his insubordinous gestures slip this time.
"You will tell the others? We don't have time to waste."
He snapped back to attention, "yes sir! Whatever you say sir, you do know what's best."
"Right, do it."
"Yes sir." He paused, frowning again. "Sir, I don't mean to say it like this, but I think some of the others are getting nervous. I don't think they'll stand being silent much more about you not telling us about our past; they want to know." He paused, the next words already on his lips. "What if something should happen to you?" he chewed nervously.
"I understand your concerns Sam, but you're all just going to have to wait. As you said, I do know whats best for us." I was going to have to keep a tighter reign on them. "We have more important things to worry about now; we have our plans. One day."
"Yes sir, I understand." He nodded sadly, a touch of uncertainty still evident. Getting up silently he left the dinner after paying his tab, his jacket slung over his free arm.
'And that one day had better come soon', I thought to myself. I turned and looked out the window, hands on my lap - the snows were getting heavier.