When they called it a night, an hour and another half pitcher of draught later, Mona took a longer route home than she normally would. She wanted to clear her head of the decided buzz that was making her stride less than steady, though considering the empty appartment she was going home to, maybe that wasn’t the best idea, never mind her brave words to Jilly. Maybe, instead, she should go back to the pub and down a couple of whiskeys so that she’d really be too tipsy to mope.
« Oh, damn him anyway, » she muttered and kicked at a tangle of crumpled newspapers that were spilling out of the mouth of an alleyway she was passing.
« Hey, watch it ! »
Mona stopped at the sound of the old gruff voice, then backed away as the smallest man she’d ever seen crawled out of the nest of papers to glare at her. He couldn’t have stood at more than two feet high, a disagreeable and uglylittle troll of a man with a face that seemed roughly carved and then left unfinished. His clothes were ragged and shabby, his face bristly with stubble. What hair she could see coming out from under his cloth cap was tangled and greasy.
Oh my, she thought. She was drunker than she’d realized.
She stood there swaying for a long moment, staring down at him and half expecting him to simply drift apart like smoke, or vanish. But he did neither and she finally managed to find her voice.
– « I’m sorry », she said. « I just didn’t see you down… there. » This was coming out all wrong. « I mean… »
His glare deepened. « I suppose you think I’m too small to be noticed? »
– « No, it’s not that. I… »
She knew that his size was only some quirk of genetics, an unusual enough trait to find in someone out and about in a Crowsea street at midnight, but at the same time her imagination, or, more likely, all the beer she’d had, was telling her that the little man scowling up at her had a more exotic origin.
– « Are you a leprechaun? » she found herself asking.
– « If I had a pot of gold, do you think I’d be sleeping on the street? »
She shrugged. « No, of course not. It’s just… »
He put a finger to the side of his nose and blew a stream of snot onto the pavement. Mona’s stomach did a flipand a sour taste rose uo in her throat. Trust her that, when she finally did have some curious encounter like the kind Jilly had sio often, it had to be with a grotty little dwarf such as this.
The little man wiped his nose on the sleeve of his jacket and grinned at her.
– « What’s the matter, princess? », he asked. « If I can’t afford a bed for the night, what makes you think that I’d go and buy out a handkerchief just to avoid offending your sensibilities? »
It took her a moment to digest that. Then digging into the bib pocket of her overalls, she found a couple of crumpled dollar bills and offered them to him. He regarded the money with suspicion and made no move to take it from her.
– « What’s this? » he said.
– « I just… I thought maybe you could use a couple of dollars. »
– « Freely given? » he asked. « No strings, no ties? »
– « Well, it’s not a loan, » she told him. Like she was ever going to see him again.
He took the money with obvious reluctance and a muttered « Damn. »
Mona couldn’t help herself. « Most people would say thank you, » she said.
– « Most people wouldn’t be beholden to you because of it, » he replied.
– « I’m sorry? »
– « What for? »
Mona blinked. « I meant, I don’t understand why you’re indebted to me now. It was just a couple of dollars. »
– « Then why apologize? »
– « I didn’t. Or I suppose I did, but… – » This was getting far too confusing. « What I’m trying to say is that I don’t want anything in return. »
– « Too late for that. » He stuffed the money in his pocket. « Because your gift was freely given, it means I owe you now. » He offered her his hand. « Nacky Wilde, at your service. »
Seeing it was the same he’d used to blow his nose, Mona decided to forego the social amenities. She stuck her own hands in the side pockets of her overalls.
– « Mona Morgan, » she told him.
– « Alliterative parents? »
– « What? »
– « You really should see a doctor about your hearing problem. »
– « I don’t have a hearing problem, » she said.
– « It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Well, lead on. Where are we going? »
– « We’re not going anywhere. I’m going home and you can go back to whatever it was you were doing before we started this conversation. »
He shook his head. « Doesn’t work that way. I have to stick with you until I can repay my debt. »
– « I don’t think so. »
– « Oh, it’s very much so. What’s the matter? Ashamed to be seen in my company? I’m too short for you? Too grubby? I can be invisible if you like, but I get the feeling that’d only upset you more. »
She had to be way more drunk than she thought she was. This wasn’t even remotely a normal conversation.
– « Invisible, », she repeated.
He gave her an irritated look. « As in, not perceivable by the human eye. You do understand the concept, don’t you? »
– « You can’t be serious. »
– « No, of course not. I’m making it up to appear more interesting to you. Great big, semi-deaf women like you feature prominently in my daydreams, so naturally I’ll say anything to try to win you over. »
Working all day at her drawing desk didn’t give Mona as much chance to exercise as she’s like, so she was a bit touchy about the few extra pounds she was carrying.
« I’m not big. »
He craned his neck. « Depends on the perspective, sweetheart. »
– « And I’m not deaf. »
– « I was being polite. I thought it was kinder than saying you were mentally disadvantaged. »
« And you’re certainly not coming home with me. »
« Whatever you say, » he said.
And then he vanished.
Excerpt from « My life as a bird », a short story included in « Moonlight and Vines », by Charles de Lint.