“Another way?” I stared at him, my mouth open. “What other way?”
“A magical way,” he answered, his face as serious as it had been before. My disbelief dropped my jaw even further. A cold blast of wind shut it again.
Vic’s face split into a wide child like grin and he chuckled, his entire body shaking. Not in the mood to be laughed at, still on the brink of tears, I turned my back to him.
“Don’t bother,” I said. “I’ll figure it out.”
I half contemplated opening my purse to see how much cash I had. Did taxis take credit cards? Were there any taxis around? Did taxi drivers get snow days?
Before I could check, a gentle hand grabbed my shoulder and immediately let go again. “Hold on, hun. I didn’t mean anything by it. I do know a way. One not many others know.”
“Yeah, a magical way.” Sarcasm dripped from my tongue and formed instant icicles.
“I was just funnin’ with you.” His voice softened a little. “In a way, it is magical. At least, for me it is. Come on, let me show you.”
His hand reached around, an open invitation. “It’ll mean getting warm,” he said. I finally turned back to face him. The mirth wasn’t gone, but it mixed well with the kindness in his eyes.
Looking out at the bleak day, feeling yet another cold blast rattle the shelter, hearing the sirens wail as officers tried to get their vehicles to the stranded bus, I made a decision I never thought I would ever make. I decided to go with him. Though I didn’t reach for the open hand, I nodded in assent.
He took his hand back and stuffed it into his coat pocket, shaking his body to adjust his many layers. We both took our first steps beyond the shelter together, shoulder to shoulder. But then, he stopped. Arcing his neck behind us, the grin reappeared.
“Unless you plan on reading that later, I suggest you leave it so someone else can stay dry on those benches,” he said, pointing to my posterior.
Mortified, I reached around and tried to grab the classifieds with my mitten. Vic reached around also, but I spun away, doing a complete circle, my feet barley keeping under me on the slippery shelter floor. Reluctantly resolving to once again remove my mitten, I finally grasped the offending paper and pulled it away, hoping the ink hadn’t stained my pants. It would make for an interesting read, at least.
For the first time since getting my dad’s message, I genuinely smiled. Vic chuckled and we both shared in a brief moment of mirth as I replaced the paper to be caught and stuck to someone else’s cold wet tush.
The newspaper issue settled, I waved my hand to the frigid world outside the shelter and said, “Lead on, Vic.” He nodded and pointed to across the street.
“You ever do building hopping before?” he asked.
We stepped out into the slush and I shook my head no. “What’s building hopping?”
“Kinda like bus hopping but with more exercise.”
With no traffic to impede us, we managed to make it across the street without incident. Vic helped me over the snow bank separating us from the sidewalk – or rather the pile of snow that was supposed to be a sidewalk – without actually touching me, a marvel in and of itself.
“Left or right?” I asked looking in both directions and not liking either.
“Neither.” He motioned to the building in front of us. “We go forward.” Like a gentleman, he reached for the double glass doors and pulled one open, shoving a mound of snow out of the way and marking an arc of white on the ground with the door.
I hesitated. “Are we allowed to go in there?”
“It’s a public building, ain’t it? And we aren’t loitering. We’re just passing through.”
I entered the building and Vic followed, pulling the door back across the snow behind him. The moment the door shut, a blast of warm air hit us. It felt so incredibly good, I didn’t want to move. Until Vic nudged me. “Not loitering, remember?”
I nodded, saddened at the thought of leaving such warmth and returning to the outside.
“It isn’t good to stay anyway,” he continued. “Your body would get too warm with all those layers on. It’d be like an oven in July. By the time we get to the third building or so, you won’t even feel the temperature changes. Everything evens out at one point or another.”
We walked through the lobby, passing a security desk on our way. Though one man behind the desk stared and another glared, they made no move to escort us back the way we came. “Kind of like bears, eh?” Vic whispered conspiratorially. “You don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.”
I smiled and looked back over my shoulder. Both guards had turned back to their work, ignoring us completely. “You do this a lot?” I asked.
“As often as I need.”
“How often is that?”
“Almost every day.”
We came upon a wall. Without hesitation, Vic turned left and continued going. Strange new sounds rose up and filled the corridor we now walked through. Pans clanged, people shouted, and the heat rose considerably the further along we went.
“If you do this everyday, why were you at my bus stop?” I asked, filling my nose and lungs with the spicy aroma that seemed to grow stronger with the heat and the noise.
Vic stopped in front of a pair of swinging doors and turned back. “You want the truth?” He pushed the doors open and motioned for me to enter. We walked into a kitchen, furiously busy. People ran every which way, some with dirty dishes, some with steaming pots, some with knives. “Come on,” my escort said, walking unabashed into the chaos. I hesitated. There was no way in hell I was going to walk into a strange kitchen where people ran around with knives. Not that day. Especially that day, with all the luck I’d had recently.
Vic held out his hand. “You ever walk across the street in China?” he shouted over the din.
“China?” I’d never been to China and told him so. I don’t think he heard me. A man barged between us, the wonderful smell I’d experienced out in the hall emanating from under the lid of the pan he carried.
“Hey Vic,” the chef shouted over his shoulder.
“Hey Jerry! How’s the new girlfriend?”
Jerry set his pot down on a metal counter and gave a thumbs up before moving on.
Vic chuckled while I just stared, trying to take it all in. He waved me forward just as another chef raced between us, this time carrying a covered tray.
“When you cross the street in China,” he shouted. “There aren’t any pedestrian signals. You just go and you don’t stop. Drivers and cyclists time things according to you. If you hesitate, you get hit.”
“What does that have to do with…” Suddenly it hit me.
“Come on then. We haven’t got all day. You have to meet with your dad.”
Vic was right. As long as we didn’t hesitate, there were no issues. We were in and out of there faster than it’d taken me to take my first step through, pushing past another couple of swinging doors to a loading dock. Several dumpsters were lined up a short distance away, one bearing the sign of a local hotel, the very hotel that owned half the building and the kitchen we just passed through.
“This way,” Vic said, pointing to an alley way and another building behind it.
“Hold on a sec,” I said, rushing to catch up. “I asked you why you were at my stop when you do this every day.”
“Yup. And I asked if you wanted the truth.”
I stopped at that, my eyes locked on his. Unfortunately, they should have been on the ground. Ice had found its way even into the loading dock and my feet had somehow found the slick patch. I slid, slipped, and wheeled my arms in an attempt to right myself. Instead, a pair of strong arms caught me around the middle, holding me tight for one moment until my feet finally found purchase.
Surprisingly, I didn’t pull away from Vic right away. Something about the smell of him held me frozen for a moment. Or perhaps it was because I didn’t want to slip again.
“You okay?” he asked, setting me from him. I adjusted my glasses and nodded. He turned away, his face all of a sudden red under white whiskers.
“I’d like the truth,” I whispered, my eyes not leaving him.
Vic turned around, cocked his head to the side, and smiled.