The Strangest People by T.E. Hodden

It was either late night or early morning. Jet lag and nervous energy stopped me being sure. I couldn't face the city yet, so I was in the hotel closest to the airport. I sat at the bar, and watched the jets swooping down towards the runway. Each time they passed over the hotel, the bar shook, and the bottles on the shelves did a little dance. The ice in my tumbler shook and chimed. It was just me, my coffee, and my book.
The Strangest People
The Strangest People by T.E. Hodden
“You don't mind if I sit here do you?” A woman leaned next to me. She was brown haired, caramel skinned, and had a smile in a shade of white nature did not supply. She wore a short leather skirt, under a tight red top, with a necklace that hung down towards her breast. Her build was slight and perky. I gave her a shy smile, and shifted over a little. She sat on the stall next to me, looked around her, and chewed her lip before meeting my eyes. “Okay, this is going to sound a little weird, but…any chance you would order me a drink?” Her eyes sparkled as she spoke. The woman saw my expression and furrowed her brow. She shut up, leaned close, and put a hand on my arm. “Well, sure. Mine would be a vodka and cranberry with soda please.” I nodded to the barman, he raised an eyebrow, and made the drinks. Behind me, I sensed somebody moving. I looked to the windows, to the reflections. I noticed a burly man with a full beard and clipped hair, dressed in a plain, grey suit. He was far too interested in looking over my shoulder. His eyes were full of fire. The girl gave me a look, her eyebrows wriggling as she tried to implore me. I took some cash from my wallet and paid for her drink, wondering why the barman was giving me knowing looks. “I know.” The girl glanced at the floor. “You meet the strangest people at airports.” “Yeah, that's me.” “No. …I mean, I know all this seems weird.” “Why did I just buy you a drink?” I felt myself turning red. “People don't usually want me to buy them drinks. And... Really not...” “Oh.” She giggled a little. “You have such a cool voice. Is that English or something?” “Welsh.” She looked at me blankly. “The other kind of British. Look...” I edged away. “I really don't mean to be rude, but...” “You are sitting in a bar. A strange woman invites herself to sit next you, pretty much orders her own drink for you, and makes big eyes at you.” She sipped her drink. “Right now, you are thinking that I am a prostitute fishing for a job.” “I wasn't thinking that.” “No?” She smiled. You are too sweet? Too polite? Anyway, it is pretty much true. I'm a prostitute. I'm here to pick up lonely travellers.” “Oh. I'm...” “I know. You are the guy in here who looks the least interested in me. But that is kind of the point.” She nodded at the big bear of a guy with his grey suit. “Look, he is expecting me to be here picking up guys. And right now I am...” She didn't quite have the words, but there was an exhaustion behind her eyes. Maybe not physical exhaustion, but she seemed completely emotionally drained. A shell. “Just, let me pretend for a while. We have a drink, I drop hints, you think I am flirting, and when the penny drops, you see me away. Okay?” I shrugged. “Okay. But...why me?” “No offence, but...you kind of looked like the least interested person in the bar.” She inclined her head. “That guy over there is going to be interested, he has been checking me out all evening. And the silver haired one is pretty much fifty fifty.” She drummed her fingers on the bar. “You are not exactly sending out signals that you want to be, you know, partying, so...” “You chose me because I am the least likely prospect in the bar?” She tapped the edge of my book. “There was more to it than that. You aren't getting drunk. You aren't eyeing anybody up. And you are reading...” She looked at the cover of my book. “Dracula? Really? I love Dracula.” I smiled. “I do too.” “It's like... All these stories in one. A man at Dracula's castle. A ghost story where the crew of a ship are picked off one by one, and can't escape. The hunting of the Vampire...” “And the battle of doctors to save a sick girl.” I felt my cheeks redden. “That... I don't know that was always what I clung onto as a kid. This young woman, who was still a girl really, on the cusp of life and death, and the doctor is having this sort of running battle to keep her alive...” “With the garlic plants, and stuff. Yeah!” The girl looked excited. “I love that.” I smiled again. “So, what's your name?” She gave me a warm smile. The big man was walking behind me. “Paddington.” “Really?” She covered her smile with her fingers. “First or last?” “First.” I let out a sigh. “It is a long story.” “Yeah... I don't think I can keep this ruse up long enough for that.” She looked at the bear of a man. She finished her drink, and patted my shoulder. “I guess...thanks for not being a complete jerk?” I tried to laugh, but it sounded hollow and dumb. She gave me a look with eyes that were big, dark, cold and full of sorrows. For a moment, her mask fell away. She stopped being sultry, and smouldering. She was raw and exposed. “Actually, this was nice.” She patted my hand. I watched her walk away. She became a predator on the second step. There was a wiggle in her step, a sway on her hips, and a smile that played at innocence, but promised so much more. She was most the way to another guy, when the bear of a man grabbed her wrist and hissed in her ear. I looked at the barman, and he made a point of ignoring me. The ape of a man let the girl go. She rubbed her wrist, and walked towards one of the guys, fixing an ersatz smile on her lips. I hurried hurried after her, and did what was the bravest thing of my life so far. I could not save her life. But I could maybe save her from an hour of her life. My heart jerked against my chest. I was sure the police were about to swoop in arrest me. I stepped into her way and gave a terrified smile. “How much?” She shrugged. “For what?” “A couple of hours at my room?” I looked at the floor. “That long story? Breakfast? Anything but being here?” She looked at me a few moments and understood. She gave me a relieved little smile. “So... Do you have a credit card?” I nodded. “Easiest way to book into a hotel.” “Your own card. I mean, I will charge your business account, but you get to explain it yourself.” “It's my own card. I'm not travelling business class.” I slipped her the card. We ducked into a quiet corner, and she rummaged in her purse for a phone with a card reader. “So what do you want? Straight up? Any extras? Do I need to explain my price list?” I was glowing red like a beacon. “Don't make this awkward.” “My boss is listening.” “Just... a couple of hours?” She nodded. “Okay. Done. Want a receipt?” I shook my head. She stroked my thigh with a playful smile. “So, now you have me for a few hours. What do we do?” She grabbed my wrist, glanced at the ape man in the corner, as we ran for the door. * * * * She walked around my room with no sign of the sultry or seductive. She flopped onto the bed and looked at the room service menu. “Okay, any minute now, you are going to wonder if I am conning you. I mean, that is a lot of money you spent for my company. So...” She sat up on her elbows. “I want you to know how much this means. Given what I could be doing right now... It's like... a reprieve. A respite. I...” She looked away. “I know that is messed up, and not easy to think about. But it means a lot.” “It's okay.” I smiled at her. “Really. You don't have to be here. If you would rather be anywhere else, for a while... If the thug comes knocking I will tell him I'm done, and you didn't want to hang around. You know...” I made a vague mime with my hands. “Three thrusts and done?” “I guess.” I flushed at her laugh. “You don't look the type. You look like a holder. You know? The actual rut is quick, but you build up to it slow, and hold on to the moment after, just being connected and talking.” She flicked the pages of the menu. “And I don't want to go. I want to hear that story.” “Oh... Yeah...” I cleared my throat. “What should I call you?” “Mina.” She giggled. “It's my work name. I told you I liked the book. And you are Paddington.” “I am.” She patted the bed. “Come on. Just talk. Tell me the story. You are Paddington. Like the station?” “Like the station.” I poured some spring water from the bottle, and I was about to hand her the glass when I hesitated. “I need to tell you something.” She looked at me. “You never spent time with a prostitute before and you worry that you have given some code word, or something, that makes me think any minute you will expect something you don't want?” “No.” “You want to ask about the girlfriend experience or something you saw on TV?” “No.” I shook my head quickly. “No. I wouldn't want anybody to have to pretend that.” She laughed. “Why?” “I'm just...” I had too many reasons in my head for why nobody would want to pretend that, even for a while. I spat the only word I could find that summed them all up: “Me.” “Okay. I ran out of guesses. What do you have to tell me?” She reached for her glass. I held it away a second. “I'm ill.” “Ill?” “I can't infect you easily, but some people think I can. They get paranoid. I don't want to hand you the glass, and let you drink it, if you are going to think you are in some kind of danger. That kind of fear is stupid, but it isn't nice for people and, if it is a problem, I would rather you knew now.” “Right.” She wasn't laughing any more. She wasn't smiling. “Are you okay?” “I'm HIV positive.” “Like...” She fixed her eyes on mine. “Like AIDs?” “Hopefully not.” I looked at the floor. “But, maybe one day.” She took the glass from me, and sipped her water. “This is good.” I smiled. “Is that a problem?” “I'm a big girl.” She let out a sigh. “I know what condoms are for. What happened?” “I always had it.” I sat on the seat away from the bed. “So, you know what Halloween used to be about? Long before it was All Hallows Eve, it was this pagan ceremony. As autumn became winter, there was this night where the veil between the world of the living and the dead would be thinnest. The spirits and the dead could reach through as shades, but all they could manage were tricks of sound, and illusions woven from mist and shadows. So, what the villagers would do is gather everybody together, bring their cattle back to the village, offer a tribute to the spirits, and slaughter one of their cows for a big old feast. There was safety in numbers and they made a party out of it.” “But you didn't want to be out in the fields by your own?” Mina leaned forwards, watching me. “That is what I am. I'm a trick. Woven from mist and shadows on Halloween. I was found in a plastic carrier bag in Cardiff station. Nobody was ever able to find who left me, or why. I was left under an emergency call station. Somebody pressed the green enquiry button, and told the guy in the office that my name was Paddington, and left me. There was some grainy CCTV footage of a man, but I don't know if he was my dad, or a friend, or... anybody.” I sat back. “I was taken into care, and fostered, but was never adopted. I am pretty sure the name Paddington was a joke. Like the books.” She shrugged. “More vampires?” “No.” I laughed. “I needed a surname, and somebody gave me Hallow. I don't know who. I don't ever remember being fostered by Hallows. I was bounced around a lot. Nobody wanted me for too long.” “Because you were...ill?” “Maybe.” I shrugged. “A lot of kids moved around a lot. A lot of kids were troubled, going in and out of care. Some, just a few, acted out and made trouble. I was a good target for that. I had a nice big stigma they could twist. And... I learned pretty quickly that not everybody understood. I was with this one family, this great family, for a few years. The mum already had two kids, girls, who were all sporty, and jokey, and full of life.” Mina matched my grin. “I know the kind. They were a handful?” “Yeah. Well, one of them would tease me. Not like the bullies. Not like the people who called me a freak, shoved me down the stairs, or told me I should hurry up and die. Not like the kids who thought I was gay, or had to think of more and more colourful reasons my mother would be...like me... She teased me to see me laugh. We would talk about stuff, and sometimes she was bravest when she was laughing. Does that make sense?” “Yes.” Mina sounded thoughtful. “I think it does.” “Her name was Alison. She wanted to go to Barry, to the beach, and had nobody. I was doing homework. For both of us, actually. A science project. We were year eight, I think. Maybe twelve or thirteen years old. She took my book and was running around the garden. She was screaming I could have it back if I promised to go with her. If I got out the house with her. We ended up tumbled together, and she was holding me down, laughing, making me concede when suddenly this shadow is over us. The mum's boyfriend. He hauls Alison from me, and sets her aside. He threw me across the garden, trying to march me into the house. I hit the patio door so hard my nose broke. I have no idea what I had done. He didn't hit me. He just screamed at me, over and over, that I was not to touch her. That I—I could not touch her, because I might make her like me. That…that he would not see her rot inside out, like me.” She winced. “You were thirteen. He thought you were getting too close?” I nodded. “But that wasn't how he saw it. He—he didn't know what might infect her. My touch. My sweat. He blustered around the house in a frenzy. All the toothbrushes were thrown out, and suddenly mine was in a plastic bag. He started to spray cleaner in the shower any time I used it. If I sat on the sofa with the girls, he would want me to help in the kitchen, or expect me to sit in the other chair. It...” I looked away. “The mum came home and went spare. The care workers got involved. Things went wrong with the boyfriend. And...yeah...there was a part of me that believed it was all my fault.” “That he hurt you?” “People were scared of me. I was a boy. It was easy to believe that people became like that because of something in my blood. Because I was radioactive.” I laughed. “And did you?” She shuffled along the bed until she was close to my seat, and she put a hand on my knee. “Did I what?” “Ever get with the girl?” “Alison. No...” I looked away. “She was a friend. I loved her as a friend.” “Yeah?” She beamed me a smile. “That seems a pretty good reason to become more. So why not?” “I never...knew anybody that way.” “Never?” I shook my head. “So... You would be a virgin?” “I have never been in love.” I could hear the stammer in my voice. I could hear how defensive I was. “Or at least, not the kind that is loved back, with kisses, and holding hands, and putting it into words. The...the kind from afar, when you have all those words boiling in your head, but can't say them? I had that enough times. But—but the kind that is shared?” “She didn't love you?” “As a friend.” I tensed against the touch of her fingers on my thigh. “Don't.” She looked at me. “Sorry.” She drew her hand back. “I'm not afraid.” “I guess not.” “So...I think you would have had a chance you know.” “With Alison?” She nodded. “You just had to talk to her. Why didn't you?” “Because when she was single, I—I thought I was radioactive. And if I loved her, even if we didn't do anything, she would...she would become radioactive too. People would fear her, and bully her, and think she would poison the blood of their kids.” I tried not to let my pain into those words. I tried to bury it deep and speak in a matter of fact. “I adored her. I loved her. I could never make her that. And...I missed my chance. Then, nobody else I ever met, was... I liked other people. But it never became that. Dates never became more than dates.” “Why are you here?” She pointed at my hold all. “That is a carry on bag. I don't see a suitcase. And you aren't here on business. You don't have a suit. You look like you dressed in a hurry. And, if you don't mind me saying, you don't look much like a guy who comes to San Francisco for a holiday. You would fly to Boston. You would fly somewhere with history, and culture, and beauty, but not this kind of history, or culture, or beauty. I think Boston would chime better with you.” She gasped. “Oh! But I just bet Alison is a Frisco kind of soul. I bet she likes good coffee shops and soul food. Bars with music?” “She came here for work, and didn't look back. She met a guy, got married, and for a while it worked. We stayed in touch, best we could, with the internet and stuff, but a few days ago she rang me to tell me she was... she's...” “Things not working out with the other guy?” “He just moved out. It got rough. I took some leave and promised to be across as soon as I could.” I looked at the wall. “It turns out jumping on the next available flight is not always the best plan.” Mina laughed. “That is so sweet.” “She's a friend.” “She's also single?” “It isn't like that.” I held up my palms. “She is a friend. She is in trouble—” “And you came all this way.” Mina folded her arms. “Do you know how many of my friends would do that for me?” I shrugged. “If I was a good friend, why would I be hiding here, looking for excuses not to...you know...” “Go and tell her how you feel?” “No. I'm too afraid to go and be there for her, as I am pretty sure I will tell her how I feel, and ruin everything.” I am not entirely sure I ever managed to think that aloud, let alone tell her. “I can't do that to her.” “You can't make her happy?” Mina rolled her eyes. “She called you for a reason.” “She doesn't want me.” “I don't know. Maybe she does. Maybe she doesn't. But she trusts you. That is why she called you. You are her friend, and she trusts you. So, just tell her. If she doesn't want this, she will trust you not to be jerk about it.” She looked me up and down. “I think she trusts you not to be a jerk. Just tell her.” I laughed. “So, when she says 'no', I should not be a jerk? I…will do my best.” She giggled. “You will do fine. You are doing fine. You are terrified, like a rabbit in headlights, but you are going to do this. You aren't toxic. You aren't radioactive. You aren't. I have seen some pretty terrible people in my life. I have seen a lot of normal people, just as nice and kind, and lost as anybody else. But I have seen some terrible people.” She got up, stood over me, and lowered herself to a gentle kiss on my cheek, that like fire and ice all at once, and she smelt of cherry blossom. “You are one of the few people good enough to start making up for the worst ones. If I can see that this quickly, then your friend will already know it, with all her heart. Just tell her. Now. Text her. Ring her. Scream her name. But, if it was me...I would want to know you were in the country.” “In the morning...” “It is morning.” She walked to the window. “See that? The sun is rising. It's a new day.” She looked at her phone. “And it's already a good one. I got to spend a while feeling human.” I laughed. “Yeah. Me too.” I took out my phone. She got up and walked away. She left me alone to do the bravest thing of my life so far.

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