He was a black hole in a suit. An abyss in a necktie. And he sat down next to her on the train.
Her eyes were on her phone, but it would do no good. She was too distracted to feel his attention like a pulse against her skin, ticking, ticking, the toothed stare testing her for soft spots. She had many.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, barely restraining the mollusk of a hand from reaching out to touch her, “but could I borrow your phone for a moment?”
She blinked the blue light away and looked up, meeting his knife-flash eyes. He swallowed a smile.
“I know, who doesn’t have their own phone these days?” Slowly, he reached into a chest pocket and pulled out a shipwreck of black plastic. “It fell as I ran to catch the train. All the king’s men and all that.”
Her lips twitched but he couldn’t yet tell from what.
“It’s an emergency, otherwise I really wouldn’t ask.” He ran the hand not cradling ruins through hair that rippled with sun. Like fur. “My sister just had a baby, see, and I mean just. I was speaking with her husband when this damn thing fell, slipped right from my grip.” He blew a gust of air into a chuckle, a glassmaker shaping his creation. “It’s no surprise. I could barely hold it steady.”
“Oh. I see,” she said.
Still, he saw her hesitate, and he massaged the tightening of his jaw into an open-lipped smile.
“But please,” he said and extended a hand, palm out, “don’t worry about it. Believe me, I understand. I don’t know if I’d let a stranger I met on the train handle my things, either.” He snorted. “Definitely not one who’s just murdered his own property.”
He sat back at once and started sliding the shards of phone back into his pocket. He turned his fingers, fingers which could dance over a keyboard and spin numbers into suits and shoes and rent and gin, into padless versions of themselves. Sucker-less.
Black plastic clattered to the floor.
“Jesus, my sister better not hand me her baby today,” he said and chuckled as he reached down.
As if his movement had loosened a spring, she shifted forward and bent. “Let me help.”
“I’d keep my distance, though. I’m clumsy enough that one of these could end up in your eye.”
She chuckled. “I think I’ll be fine.”
Her hands were pale enough to belong on a mannequin and just as smooth. If they’d ever done anything more strenuous than pet the dog she surely had, he’d have been shocked. Her nails clicked against the plastic.
“Thank you,” he said as he tucked the last piece into his coat.
“Of course. And here, use mine.”
“No, it’s all right. I can just—”
She offered him her phone. Its cover wasn’t overrun with colourful umbrellas or shabby chic chandeliers, not even with kittens, which he had to admit was a surprise. Instead, it was a scratched black, not too different from the one he’d slammed against a wall.
“See? I think we’re both clumsy,” she said. Her smile lit her face up even as her eyes shaded themselves away from him.
He thought of shifting just enough to touch her hand but undid the thought. She’d spook and he’d have to start again, and she was the only person he’d seen at the station wearing clothes with famous names stitched on their silk labels.
“Thank you,” he said, a murmur that worked as well with men as it did with women. Or at least with the right kind of men. “Not only beautiful, but also kind.”
The colour that flooded her cheeks was blotchy, like acne. If he leaned just a bit closer, he was certain he’d hear her heartbeat. Not that he had any intention of doing that. It wouldn’t be necessary with this one.
He made himself look up and around, forcing her eyes to do the same.
“Did you keep track of the station we’re approaching?” he said. “I’m always forgetting to look.”
“Oh…uh…let me see.”
He slid a small rectangle of black plastic from where he’d tucked it in his sleeve and plugged it into the bottom of her phone.
“Just so I can tell my brother-in-law how long it’ll take me to get there.”
“I think,” she said, craning her neck, “we’re coming up on Leicester Square.”
“Perfect, thank you.” He shifted his hand so that his cuff hid the black rectangle, trusting its electronic brain to do as it had always done, and cast his eyes over the small ocean of icons.
This was the moment when tripping and dragging the tablecloth and the cake with him was always a possibility. Because every phone was different, even those of the same model. People had the annoying habit of making things “theirs” and that meant sweeping icons and functions to the side to showcase an interchangeable child always looking like they were about to start drooling or a flower they had likely never seen not made up of pixels. In the time it took him to find what he needed, the catalyst that would create the unseen breach he depended on, her gaze could return and she could notice that he wasn’t typing a phone number but scrolling.
“I’m just going to write him a quick text. Receiving a call is always dodgy in the hospital.”
“Of course. Take your time.”
Except time was in short supply, because the station was drawing closer and he needed to make a swift exit before he was stuck making chit chat for another stop to distract her from realizing he’d not sent a text.
The train began to tug its power back, electric reins pulling on metal mouths.
His finger twitched and wiped another page to the left. How many cooking apps did one woman need?
Oh, but there it was.
He pressed the pad of his thumb on the icon and started the count. Ten seconds. That was all he needed to drain the letters and numbers that kept her accounts as untouchable as she looked.
The screech of wheels began and his heart lurched into a race that threw off his count, blood pulsing in syncopation to the numbers.
“Is this your stop, then?” she said.
“Yes.” Was it enough?
It would have to be.
Sliding a fingernail in the thread of space between the phone and the black rectangle, he palmed the contraption and allowed it to drop into his sleeve. He cleared the screen and the concentration from his eyes.
“Thanks so much. You’ve been a life-saver today,” he said, standing.
“Glad to help.”
He gave her a smile as bright as light hitting a mirror and extended his hand. It was taking a risk, but it would keep her eyes off the phone for a few seconds longer. Enough to let him leave without a fuss.
“You know, I just realised I asked for a favour and never even bothered with your name. My mother would be livid.” Or as livid as a corpse could be.
She blinked. Rather prettily.
“It’s…it’s Amy.” Her hand was as soft as the inside of a glove.
The train stopped with a hiss. Time.
“It was lovely to meet you, Amy.” He offered the phone, making her release his hand. “You made things very easy for me and for that I am grateful. I’d wish you a nice day, but…”
The sigh of metal doors gave him his cue and he turned, cutting her frown in half as he turned. A few long strides, and the abyss stepped lightly off the train. Eyes filling with glass laughter at the fortune he’d carried off in his sleeve.
Valentina Cano is a student of classical singing who spends whatever free time she has either reading or writing. Her works have appeared in numerous publications and her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Web. Her debut novel, The Rose Master, was published in 2014 and was called a “strong and satisfying effort”by Publishers Weekly.