by Leo David Orionis

Nessen drifted.

Sometimes he was a thing; sometimes he was a person. Mostly he wasn't. He drifted.

Once he had been part of something else, hardly more than a thought, an option, a mere notion. Then one day she squatted, and there was something new in the world; himself. Not much of a something, not much of a someone. She named him Nessen, "leaf", and went on her way, as her kind did. He wasn't real enough to care. He drifted.

New people came where he was, after a while. They didn't bother him, but sometimes they could tell he was there. The wild foxes had slunk past him with a flip of a tail, but some of the new things, the dogs, sniffed at him. Sometimes they barked, and he became nothing and drifted away.

Sometimes the children saw him and wanted to play. There was a baby once, bundled in deerhide and lying on the ground while its mother gathered roots nearby. It had big, big eyes. Nessen smiled at the baby. The baby was too young to smile back, but its big eyes looked right at him. He showed the baby a black stone where a creature of long ago was curled up and dreaming, turned to stone itself.

The mother shrieked and snatched up her baby, and ran back to her village, leaving everything else behind. Nessen poked at the small woven basket and the roots scattered around it, curiously. Then he drifted. When the men from the village came with the mother, there was nothing there, except the stone with the ammonite in it. "Little people," one of the men grunted. He gave it to the mother so she would have sex with him, and the baby grew up with the story of the time one of the Little People had tried to steal him away.

Time passed, unnoticed by Nessen and not noticing him as he drifted. The quiet people with the hides and the baskets went away, replaced by noisy people who rode big horses, wore loud shoes, cut and dug and chopped at the world, always stirring things up. A lot of people and things like Nessen went away, whether with the quiet people or somewhere else entirely, who can say? Not Nessen; he just drifted. If he was more often a person or a thing these days than he had been, well, perhaps their noise and their bustle disturbed him; or perhaps he was just older, and become more definite.

One day while he was being a shadow on a sidewalk at the base of a building wall next to a garbage can, a man saw him. He was an indoor man, with a routine and a place of his own, not like the other men who sat and leaned and lay on the sidewalk all the time. Those outdoor men mostly didn't see Nessen; or else they saw too many things, and mixed him up with the rest.

"Hey," said the indoor man, "what're you doin' there?"

Nessen sat up and became someone; or maybe it was the other way around. He made himself to look like the man who knelt by him, arm on one knee, one hand clasped in the other, looking at him steadily, making him real. The man had dark skin; Nessen, still mostly shadow, was darker yet. Clothes were easy to sketch in, except for the hard, complicated shoes. He omitted them, and the things in the man's pockets, and the watch on the man's wrist.

"What're you doin' there?" the man said again.

"Nothin'," said Nessen, a word he heard all the time from the outdoor people; and the literal truth, besides.

The man had kind eyes; Nessen felt no fear of him, even though they were making him more definite by the minute. "You got a name?" the black man said.

He did have a name. It was all that he had. "Nessen," he said.

"Hi, Nessen," the dark man said. "I'm Jesse." He didn't put out a hand to shake, not wanting to frighten the boy. Nessen had seen people shake hands, and wasn't afraid, but Jesse didn't know that.

"When's the last time you ate, Nessen?" said Jesse. "You hungry?"

"I don't know," said Nessen, who'd never eaten, and didn't know what "hungry" was.

"You want to come with me, and we'll get you something to eat?" said Jesse.

"I don't know," said Nessen; but he stood up. Outside the shadow he'd been being, now existing on its own, he was less dark; but he was careful to be as dark as Jesse was. His clothes became more definite, too; his shirt acquired buttons, and his pants a fly. No belt, no tie; but he didn't smell like a homeless person. He smelled like concrete sidewalk, like hot city air; or a dry leaf.

"Where are your shoes, Nessen?" Jesse asked.

Nessen shook his head. "No shoes," he said. "Too hard."

"Hmmm," said Jesse. "Well, one more thing to deal with. Come on." He walked down the street, expecting the skinny black boy to follow. After a second, Nessen did.

Taking Nessen to Covenant House, where Jesse volunteered time and money, wasn't hard. Sitting him down at a table and giving him some beans and rice and orange juice wasn't hard, either. Nessen had seen the homeless people eating and drinking on the sidewalk, and figured out the plastic spoon readily enough. The food and drink were unfamiliar, but he had no idea he could like some things and dislike others; he ate and drank them without complaint and without asking for more.

"Paperwork's a problem," said Miriam Aydin, a Turkish woman who worked at the House full time. "He can't read, and he can't write. I don't think he's an illegal immigrant; he doesn't speak anything but English. But I can't get anything out of him except 'I don't know'."

"Well, let me see if I have better luck," Jesse said, "and you can get back to that monthly report."

"My hero," Miriam said hollowly, but she smiled at him as she handed him the interview forms.

Nessen was watching dust motes dancing in the beam of light from a window when Jesse walked up with a stack of paper and a pencil. "Hey, Nessen, mind if I ask you some questions?"

Nessen switched his attention from the sunbeam to Jesse, and watched him with the same intentness. "I don't mind," he said.

"So, name, "said Jesse, sitting down. "Nessen. How do you spell that?"

"I don't know."

"Well, what kind of a name is it? Is it Nissan, like a car, or Nessie, like Vanessa, or what?"

"I don't know," said Nessen. Then he added, "It's the name the mother gave me."

"So you had a mother," said Jesse. "That you remember, I mean."


"What was her name?"

"I don't know."

"Well, what did other people call her?" Jesse said, expecting another "I don't know."

"No one called her anything," Nessen said.

"How long were you together?" Jesse asked.

"Never," said Nessen. "She made me, she named me, she left."

"Christ!" Jesse said. "And you've never seen her since?"

"Never," said Nessen.

"And how long ago was that?" Jesse said, trying to get an approximate age.

"A long time ago," Nessen told him. "It was after all the big hairy animals went away, but before the quiet people with the baskets came. Then the noisy people with the horses showed up, then this city happened. I wasn't paying attention much," he said.

Jesse stared at Nessen with his mouth open and the hairs standing up all over his body. "Boy, that is the craziest thing I've ever heard, even from a homeless person. I wish my grandma could talk to you and tell me what's up with you."

Nessen looked at Jesse, then looked at Jesse's grandma. "Your grandma is dead," he said. "Do you want to talk to her?"

"Talk to her?" Jesse said. "What do you mean?"

"I know that living people can't talk to the dead," Nessen explained, "and I know that dead people can't talk to the living. They aren't the same kind of people any more. But I'm not either kind, and I can see, and hear, and talk to both kinds. So if you want to talk to your grandma, you can do it through me."

"You can see dead people?" Jesse asked, not sure whether he wanted to believe any of this.

"Not 'see' the way I see a living person. You living people are flesh, and I see you with my eyes. Dead people aren't flesh, and my eyes can't see them. But I can see them another way," Nessen said.

"How, for God's sake?" Jesse said. "With your soul?"

"I don't know," Nessen said. "I just do. Your other words… I don't know what 'god' means, or 'soul'."

"My pastor told me, when I was a little boy, that someone's soul is the part that lives on after death. That God makes it when he makes each person," said Jesse.

"I've seen people made," said Nessen, doubtfully. "It takes a man and a woman, together. I've never seen a third being, another kind of person, there. And I've never seen a 'soul', as far as I know. I don't know everything," he conceded.

"But don't you see my soul when you look at me?" Jesse asked. "And when you look at my grandmother, don't you see her soul?"

"I just see you, and I see her," Nessen said. "I can tell that you're alive, and she's dead. I don't see anything else. Maybe I just haven't learned how to do it," he added.

"Huh," Jesse said. "But she's here right now? You can point to her?"

Nessen said, "She's here, but not the same way you are. Dead people don't take up space, and they don't get older because they don't take up time. I can't point to her, because she isn't anywhere that I can point at, the way you are. But she's looking at you."

"So the dead can see the living? Hardly seems fair," Jesse said. "And hear us, too?"

"Not with their eyes and ears," Nessen answered. "They don't take up space, so their eyes and ears don't work. But they can see the living the same way that I see the dead. But the living have no way to see, hear, or feel the dead."

"Why not?" Jesse said.

Nessen spread his hands. "Because the dead are outside time," he said, "and outside space. I don't know any other way to say it to you."

"So, do you believe him?" Miriam asked Jesse.

The sun had set not long ago; it was only six p.m., but the year was late, winding down towards shorter days. The boys and girls were eating dinner in the dining room, under the supervision of the rest of the day-shift employees and volunteers. The evening shift was beginning to arrive, parking their cars inside the parking-area fence where a security guard could keep his eyes on them. Others simply walked in, having walked from their homes or a bus stop a few blocks away. They put their personal belongings in their lockers, donned a Covenant House smock, and went into the dining room to help with the kids.

"I don't know what to believe," Jesse confessed. "If he were a man, I'd think he was delusional, or running some kind of scam. But he seems to be eight or ten years old. Surely that's young to be pulling some kind of psychic racket without an adult partner?"

"He could still be delusional," Miriam said. "Or maybe he's recruiting you to be his adult cover," she teased, smiling. Her dark eyes and dark hair were glistening pools of blackness in the deepening night. She reached to her left and turned on her desk lamp.

Jesse blinked in the sudden brightness. "On the other hand, if he's telling the truth, he's a lot older than he looks," he said. "The megafauna, the mastodons and wooly rhinoceroses, have been gone for what, ten thousand years?"

"It's been a long time since my college classes," Miriam said, "but that sounds about right. But come on, no one lives that long! And what about his saying he's neither living nor dead, so he can talk to both? You have to be one or the other!"

"He says not," Jesse said. "He says our kind of people—human beings, foxes, dogs, cats, fishes—live, and then die, but most kinds of people and things don't."

"So dogs and pigs are the same kind of people as human beings?" Miriam shook her head. "Never mind. It's late, and I want to go home. I don't know if we can give him a bed tonight if you didn't get any more answers out of him that I can put on an admission form. He doesn't seem to be in danger, or sick, or being abused."

"Why don't we talk to him together," Jesse said. "It doesn't have to take long. I don't think he knows that this is a shelter, anyway. I think this is more a look-what-followed-me-home situation."

"And you want to keep him, you softy," said Miriam, getting up from her desk.

They walked to the door of her office, which Jesse held for her. Miriam had left the desk lamp on for Antonio Saltarello, the night-shift supervisor. As Jesse closed the office door behind them, he caught a glimpse of the dark room, with the light pooled around the desk. For a moment, he seemed to see a banked fire in an ancient cave dwelling. Get a grip! he told himself, and shut the door firmly.

While Miriam talked with Antonio, Jesse looked around the busy dining room. Lots of kids eating, talking, with the staff keeping an eye on them. Jesse moved around, talking to other members of the staff, saying hello to the kids, tousling a head here, bumping fists with another there. He was well liked.

"Did you find him?" Miriam asked, catching up to him as he came around to the door again.

"He's not in here," Jesse said.

"Hmmm," she said. "Well, maybe he has somewhere else for tonight. Some of the boys who have been outside for a long time don't feel comfortable under a roof, or trust a lot of strangers around them when they sleep."

"True," said Jesse. "Walk you to your car?"

"Why not?" she said.

"Don't worry too much," she said as they reached her little blue Audi. She pulled her red purse off her shoulder and reached into it for her car keys. "If he wants to be helped, you'll see him again. He knows we're here, now, and he doesn't seem to have anyone beating him, or chasing him."

"No visible injuries," Jesse agreed, "and no fear of strangers. I've seen a lot of boys worse off, that's for sure."

"So you'll probably see him again," Miriam said.

"Actually, I see him now."

"What? Where?"

"Other side of the fence," Jesse said, nodding past a tree just inside the chain-link around the staff parking area. A lot of homeless people were wary, and would run if you pointed at them.

He went back to the gate next to the guard's shack, and circled around to where he'd seen Nessen. Curious, Miriam followed him, putting her keys back in her purse. Nessen was still there, sitting with crossed legs in the dirt, staring up at the sky. It was cloudless, and the moon wasn't up. Only the city haze, a light smog reflecting the city lights back to earth, dimmed the stars' brilliance.

They approached him openly, quietly but without stealth. "Hey there, Nessen," Jesse said. "What are you doing?"

Nessen switched his gaze from the sky to the two of them. "Hello, Jesse," he said. "Hello, Miriam. May I call you that?"

"Yes, you may, Nessen," Miriam said. "You're a guest at Covenant House. We're serving dinner right now. You're welcome to eat with us."

"I'm not hungry," Nessen said. It didn't occur to him to thank her for the invitation. He looked up at the gemful sky again.

"You'd rather look at the sky than eat?" Jesse asked.

"I like to look at the great old ones," Nessen said. "They're beautiful, and they inspire me."

"The stars?" Miriam asked. "Yes, they are beautiful, aren't they?" She crouched down beside the sitting boy, and put one hand on his near shoulder for balance. He didn't flinch away.

"Why do you call them the great old ones, Nessen?" Jesse asked.

"Because they are," Nessen said. "They are big, much bigger than the whole world. Did you know the Sun is one of them? They only look small because they are so far away. Many of them are far larger than the Sun."

"Yes, I knew that," said Jesse.

"They live a long time, too," Nessen said. "Not forever; like other kinds of people, they are born, they grow up, they age, and they die. But not for ages of ages of ages."

"This we know too," said Miriam. "But we called them stars before we knew anything about them, so we still call them that now."

"Did you know they dance?" Nessen asked. "And sing? Around and around they go, each group around its center, all the groups around larger centers, circles inside circles inside circles, each circle with more 'stars' in it than the ones inside it, out to the ends of the universe. As they dance, they sing. The ones that have partners sing to each other, but the ones that dance alone sing worlds into being, and sing to them as the worlds circle around them. And some of the worlds come alive, and sing back to the great old ones that sang them alive. As the Earth sings back to the Sun," he said.

"That sounds like mysticism," said Miriam. "I'm not sure that the Prophet would approve. I need to ask a mullah about that."

Nessen didn't know what "mysticism" or "prophet" or mullah meant. "As you wish," he said.

"What do you see when you look at them, Nessen?" Jesse asked.

"When I look at them with my eyes," Nessen said, pointing at his eyes with the index finger and first finger of his right hand, "I see them by their light, and I see what living people see: bright sparks of different colors."

"But if I look at them with other senses, as I look at dead people and other things that light doesn't show, the picture is different. Light travels in space, and it takes time to get here. Did you know that?" he asked.

"Yes," Jesse said. "But we've only known it for a little over a hundred years."

"Then you know that the great old ones are so far away that their light takes years, or hundreds of years, or thousands of years to reach the Earth? When we look at them with our eyes, we aren't seeing them now. We're seeing them the way they were when the light left them, a long, long time ago."

"Yes, that's true," Miriam said. "I'd forgotten that; but I took an astronomy course in college, and I remember that now."

"But with true vision, that doesn't use light," Nessen said, "the direct vision that lets me see dead people and other things, I can see the great old ones as they are now. I can see how big they are, no matter how far away; I can see the ones that have changed color or size; and I can see the ones that have died, though their light is still coming to us."

"That's amazing," Jesse said. Miriam held out her hand to him, and he lifted her to her feet. "Can we talk again tomorrow? Right now we need to go home, have supper, and sleep."

"I will talk with you tomorrow," Nessen agreed.

"Good night, then, Nessen," Miriam said.

"Good night, Miriam," Nessen said.

"Good night, Nessen," said Jesse.

"Good night, Jesse," Nessen said. "Did you tell Miriam what your grandmother said?"

"What did he mean by that?" said Miriam.

"That's kind of complicated," Jesse said, as they reached her car, "and I'm already starving. There's a great Italian restaurant near my place. Can I tell you over dinner? My treat."

"All right," Miriam said, unlocking her car. "You'll have to give me directions, though. I don't know any restaurants in this part of town." She leaned across the passenger seat to unlock the door for him, as he walked around the car.

"This is a nice place," Miriam said, looking around. The tables were large enough to seat three or four people without crowding, and comfortably far apart. The tablecloths yielded to the red-and-white checkerboard cliché, but they were good linen with the pattern woven in, not plastic with the motif printed on them. The light at each table was a small brass electric lamp, rather than a wine bottle with a candle stuck in its mouth; you could actually read the menu (printed in both Italian and English) with no risk of setting it on fire. The air was full of savory smells: meats, cheeses, wines, garlic and other herbs.

"It's a nice neighborhood, too," Jesse replied. "Your car is perfectly safe on the street here. I live about four blocks away, and I've never heard people even shouting at one another, much less fighting."

"And yet, less than ten blocks that way," Miriam said, nodding her head to her left, "you have the very dangerous area where the House is, with all those poor homeless people living on the sidewalk."

"Too many people don't care," Jesse said, frowning. "They say they do, but they don't give money to help, let alone spend their time. I have to do both, or my parents would be ashamed of me."

"Do you speak with them often?" Miriam asked him.

"They're dead now," Jesse said. "They died in a car accident when I was sixteen."

"I'm sorry," Miriam said, putting her hand on his. "My own parents and grandparents are all alive and healthy. I can't imagine how it must have felt to lose them."

"Thanks," Jesse said, squeezing her hand. Then he picked a slice of garlic bread out of the basket on the table and tore into it voraciously. "Where's our waiter?" he grumbled. Just then, of course, the waiter showed up. Since Jesse's mouth was full of garlic bread (and foot), Miriam ordered first. She asked for the salmon, with a salad of romaine lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, onions and feta cheese. When the waiter asked about the dressing, she said, "No dressing, please. But could you put lots of yogurt on top?"

"Of course," he said. "And you, sir?"

"Let me have the spaghetti alla carbonara, please," Jesse said.

"So what did your grandmother say, that Nessen thought you should tell me?" Miriam asked, when the waiter left to deliver their orders to the kitchen.

"It's kind of embarassing," Jesse said. "Please remember that it's Nessen saying this, or Nessen saying that my dead grandmother is saying it, and don't get mad at me."

"Mad at you for what?"

"Well, according to Nessen, my dead grandma is worried because I'm still single. I should be married by now, with children of my own. And she says, or anyway, he says that she says…"

"Oh, come on, Jesse!" Miriam said, exasperated.

"…she says that you're very pretty, and very nice, and I should marry you," Jesse said.

"Is that all you were sweating about?" Miriam said. "What did you think? That I would slap your face in a public restaurant just for saying that out loud?"

"Um… maybe?"

"You're a nice guy, Jesse," Miriam said, "but I never marry on the first date."

"Date?" said Jesse.

"We're having dinner together in a nice place, and you're paying for it," Miriam said. "Isn't that a date, in America?"

"I suppose so," said Jesse, and smiled.

Miriam smiled, too. "My family also thinks I should get married," she confided. "Although I'm sure that they hope I'll find a nice Turkish boy, or at least a Muslim. You're not Muslim, are you?"

"Sorry, Southern Baptist," Jesse said.

Their food came. Then the waiter poured them each a glass of a house wine, put a fresh basket of bread on their table, and went away again.

"It all smells so good!" Miriam said. "What is that you ordered? I'll trade you a bite of salmon for a taste of it."

"Sounds fair to me," Jesse said, "but it has bacon in it."

"Oh," she said, disappointed.

"Next time we do this, I'll order something without pork in it," Jesse promised.

"Deal," Miriam said. "Want a bite of my salmon anyway?"


She nipped off a bit of the tender fish with her fork, and held it out for him to eat, smiling mischievously.

Miriam was at her desk the next morning, around ten a.m., when Nessen came in the open door without knocking, on silent bare feet. "Hello," he said.

"Hello, Nessen," Miriam said. "You should knock when you walk in on someone."

Nessen gave her the open gaze of an outdoor creature. "Knock? What does that mean?"

"It means rap on the door with your knuckles," Miriam said, getting up and demonstrating. "If the door's shut, it lets the people inside know that you're here. And even if it's open, it asks permission to come inside."

"Permission?" said Nessen.

"This is my office," Miriam said. "It's polite to ask if you can come in. I'll usually say yes, unless I'm busy with someone else who came before you did, but please knock first."

"Knock," Nessen said. "Like letting a tree know that you want to talk to it. I will remember."

"Good!" Miriam said, ignoring the bit about trees. "Thank you." She looked him over. "No shoes, and I bet you don't have a hanky, either."

"No shoes," Nessen agreed. "What is a hanky?"

"We'll take care of it," Miriam promised. "What did you want to see me about, Nessen?"

"See you about? You mean, why did I come to see you?"

"Yes, that's what I meant."

"I wanted to make sure that Jesse told you what his grandmother said. It's important to her, and she's been waiting for a chance to tell him, ever since she died."

"Really? You almost convince me, Nessen. Are there any ghosts around me?"

"Ghosts means dead people?" Nessen asked. "I don't see any in here," he said. He looked around her office. "But there's something…" he said. He walked to the corner to the left of, and behind her desk, and stared up near the ceiling, intently.

Like a cat looking at nothing, Miriam thought, with chills running down her spine. "What? What is it?"

"I don't know," Nessen said. "There's something there, but just barely. Whatever it is, I never saw one before."

"I thought you knew everything about such things," Miriam said.

"I hardly know anything," Nessen said. "Only what I've seen for myself. It's like words," he explained. "If I haven't heard a word, I don't know what it means. If I haven't seen a thing before, I don't know anything about it."

"Is it dangerous?" Miriam asked.

"Dangerous?" Nessen said, dubiously. "It's barely anything at all. I only saw it because you asked me to look."

"All right then," said Miriam. "Go find Jesse now, and tell him to get you shoes and a hanky. And if you see his grandmother, you can tell her that Jesse passed on her message."

After he left, Miriam tried to get back to her paperwork. But it was hard to concentrate. She kept looking over her shoulder, and up, trying to see what Nessen had seen.

Nessen found Jesse in the laundry room, showing a boy and a girl how to sort their clothes by color before putting them into the washers.

"Why can't I just put them all in together?" said the boy.

"You can if you really want to, Bill," Jesse said. "But if you put your red T-shirts in with your white underwear, you know what you'll get?"

"No, what?" the boy said, impatiently.

"Pink underwear," said Jesse. The girl giggled. Bill didn't say anything, but he separated his clothes.

"Hello, Nessen," Jesse said, when the two ten-year-olds had gone. "What can I do for you?"

"Hello," Nessen said. "Miriam said to see you about a hanky, and shoes."

"A hanky's easy enough," Jesse said, pulling open a drawer in a chest opposite the washers and dryers. "Here you go."

Nessen looked at the white square of linen curiously. "This is a hanky?"

"Or a handkerchief," said Jesse. "Same thing."

"What does it do?"

"It doesn't do anything," Jesse said. "It's for blowing your nose."


"When your nose is running," Jesse said.


"What do you do when your nose is full? Wipe it on your sleeve?"

"Full of what? I don't understand, Jesse."

"Right, you're not a person, you don't get boogers," Jesse said. "Well, you can use it to wipe your forehead when you're sweaty, all right?"

"I don't sweat," Nessen said.

"All right then. Look…"

"Even living things don't all sweat. Dogs pant, for instance."

"All right, Nessen. Look, just put it in your pocket, OK? And then we'll see about shoes."

"I'm sorry I made you mad," Nessen said. "But what's a pocket?"

"Those things on your pants!" Jesse said, pointing. "Wait. What are those? They look like pockets, but there's something wrong with them."

"I'm sorry, I never looked closely at clothes before," Nesse apologized. "Do you have some pants that I could look at? I won't hurt them, I promise."

Wordlessly, Jesse turned to the washers and dryers. There was a table between the two kinds of machines, for washer loads waiting to be put into the dryers, and another table to the right of the dryers, for dry clothes waiting to be picked up. He took a pair of jeans from one of the dryer loads, and handed it to Nessen.

Nessen looked them over carefully, front and back. As he did, reinforced seams appeared on his own pants, brass reinforcements in the same places as the jeans in his hands, and a label on the back. "Jesus!" Jesse whispered.

Nessen figured out that the pants could be turned inside out, and did so. He saw that the pockets were square white cloth sacks attached to the slits on either hip, and made his pockets the same. Then he opened the right one, and stuffed his new hanky into it.

"Is that right?" he asked Jesse, giving him back the borrowed jeans.

"Christ, Nessen!" Jesse said, taking the jeans, automatically folding them and putting them back where he found them. "What are you?"

"Nothing much," Nessen said. "Just a mote; a speck; or a leaf, as the mother named me. Not alive, not dead, with no fate and little wisdom. All I know is what I've seen. What skills I have, I was born with."

"So everything you've been saying is true? My grandma, the stars, your age, all true?"

"I don't lie, Jesse," Nessen said, with a hint of sadness in his voice. "Why would I? Nothing affects me. I have nothing to gain by lying, and nothing to lose by telling the truth."

"I'm sorry, Nessen. It's just so hard to believe the plain truth, when the truth is so strange."

"Forget it," said Nessen. "Tell me instead why the first thing you said to me, almost, was to ask where my shoes were, and why Miriam says I should have shoes. Are shoes so important?"

"Most of us wear shoes most of the time," Jesse said. "It looks odd if you don't, unless you're a little child, or you're going swimming. And shoes protect your feet, too."

"Protect them from what?"

"From pain or injury, if you stub your toes; that is, if you hit something with your feet when you're walking. And if you step on a sharp rock or a piece of glass, shoes will often keep you from getting a cut from the rock, or getting the glass in your foot."

"I put my feet where I want them," Nessen said. "Sometimes I do miss a piece of glass that's hard to see; but I just pull it out again. Mostly I don't get stuck, because I step very lightly."

"Yes, you're very quiet when you walk," Jesse said. "But what about infection, if you get a cut on your foot?"

"The sidewalk people talk about infection a lot, but I never knew what it was," Nessen said.

"Well, see, the world is full of these creatures, so small you can't see them, and they can get in your body, and breed, and…" Jesse trailed off. Nessen was shaking his head.

"I can see them; size doesn't matter to true sight. You're right, the world is full of them. But Jesse, they're living things, that feed on other living things. They can't live in me."

"You still need to shoes to look like a regular person," Jesse said. "Too bad you don't really need them, since our budget is so limited."

"No need to spend money," Nessen said. "If I could just examine some shoes, the way I did those pants…"

So Jesse and Nessen left the shelter. But instead of going to a shoe store, and buying Nessen shoes, they went to Jesse's place, where Jesse showed Nessen some dress shoes, some tennis shoes, and some socks. Nessen examined them inside and out, and looked at the shoes Jesse was wearing to see what they looked like with the laces tied.

"How's that?" Nessen asked.

"Fine," Jesse laughed, "but they're supposed to match, Nessen. Two dress shoes, or two tennis shoes, not one of each."

"Oh," said Nessen, and now he had a tennis shoe on each foot. "Better?"

"Yes," Jesse said, but the socks have to match each other, too, and they have to be the right kind for the shoe. For now, anyway, always wear the thick white socks with the sneakers. Wear any of the other socks, the dress socks, with the dress shoes, but always a pair that look alike. And always do wear socks, otherwise you might as well be barefooted."

"It's complicated," Nessen complained.

"And arbitrary and unnecessary, too," Jesse agreed. "But follow these rules, and you'll blend right in." He clapped Nessen on the shoulder. "Come on, let's go show Miriam your new shoes."

Jesse walked into Miriam's office, and stopped. "You moved your desk!" he said.

Nessen rapped on the door. "You're supposed to knock," he said to Jesse. "May we come in, Miriam?"

Miriam smiled. "Yes, Nessen, come in." She mock-frowned at Jesse. "Soon he'll be teaching you how to behave."

"He's already taught me a couple of things this morning," Jesse said. "Come over here and see his new shoes."

Miriam came out from behind her desk, looked at Nessen's shoes, than frowned for real. "But Jesse, these are expensive running shoes. We don't have the budget for these!"

"That's right," Jesse said. "They're the same make and model I bought for myself, in fact, so I know exactly how much they cost."

"Did you give him yours?" Miriam said. "But no, his feet must be much smaller than yours."

"Wait, there's more," Jesse said, grinning. "Watch his feet. Keep watching… Nessen, show Miriam your other shoes."

Right before her eyes, the upscale tennis shoes became black dress shoes, brand new and gleaming; and the white athletic socks because dark blue dress socks with four red lozenges on both sides. There was no transition; one instant he was wearing one pair of shoes and socks, and the next instant the other.

Miriam gaped without comprehension for the briefest moment; then she turned white, and sat down in one of the wooden visitor's chairs in the office. She put her hand to her forehead, then looked at Jesse. "It's true," she whispered. "It's all true!"

"You know how I found out?" Jesse told her. "I gave him a hanky, and he added pockets to his pants so he could put it in them. Seems he didn't know what pockets were, before."

"I wish I could do that," Miriam said. The color had returned to her face. "It would save a lot of money on clothes." She looked at Nessen. "But you're not wearing clothes, are you?"

"Not clothes made of cloth, no," Nessen answered. "It's just how I make myself look. It's all me, except for the hanky Jesse gave me. It's the first thing I've ever owned," he added shyly.

"Oh, Nessen! That's so sad," Miriam said. She'd seen worse at Covenant House. She'd seen kids that had been raped, stabbed, and beaten; she'd seen children that had prostituted themselves out for food. But this simple statement from a non-human creature touched her. She reached behind her desk, picked up her purse, and took out a silk handkerchief. "Here," she said. "Now you have one from each of us."

Nessen looked at the fine cloth, with the red initials MA in the corner, and put it in his other pocket. "Thank you, Miriam," he said, ducking his head.

"So," said Jesse, to relieve the awkward moment, "why did you move your desk from the wall opposite your office door to way over by the window? Did you decide you wanted more light?"

"That's what I told Stan and Josef," Miriam said. "(No, Nessen, don't sit on the floor. Sit on one of the chairs.) But Nessen found something hovering up near the ceiling, behind and left of my desk; and after that, I kept imagining it was looking over my shoulder. So I asked the guys to move my desk, so I'd at least have it in front of me."

"I see," Jesse said. "What was it, Nessen?"

"I don't know," Nessen said. "Something barely there, something I'd never seen before. Maybe," he said, "that's what I look like, when I'm not bothering with time or space."

"Huh," said Jesse. "Is it still here now?"

Nessen looked at all the walls of the office, and the floor, and the ceiling. "No," he said. "There's nothing here now but Miriam, you, and me."

"Are you sure?" Miriam asked. "Don't you want to look under my desk, behind the bookcase, places like that?"

"Those are material things," Nessen said. "A non-material thing would show right through them. Really, it's gone."

"Well, now I feel silly for asking staff to move my desk," Miriam said.

"Do you want me to put it back for you?" Nessen asked.

"What, that great big old wooden desk?" Jesse said. "That probably weighs 200 or 300 pounds, even empty! You can't move that by yourself!"

"I'm sure I can," Nessen said. "I've lifted rocks much bigger than that, just because they sat where I wanted to go."

"Wait, boys," Miriam said. "If I move my desk twice in one day, the staff will think I'm flighty. And they'll wonder who I got to do it, since they'll know they didn't. Let's leave it where it is for a week, and then I can tell them it was too much glare on my computer screen, or something. Or, who knows, maybe I'll decide I like it better there."

"Well, I don't like you having your back to an outside window," Jesse grumbled, "not in this neighborhood."

"I've worked in this neighborhood longer than you've lived in this city, Jesse," Miriam said. "Don't start worrying about me now." But she gave him a smile for the thought. Then she shooed them out of her office, and went back to work.

Jesse, for his part, gave Nessen a clap on the shoulder and returned to his own duties. Nessen wandered around Covenant House, looking in rooms; then wandered around the outside. Finally he sat down again under the tree next to the parking lot, and looked up at the stars, for the light of the Sun didn't block his vision of them. He looked at them for inspiration, and took out the handkerchiefs Jesse and Miriam had given him, and thought about his friends, the first friends he'd ever had.

The next day Miriam and Jesse didn't see him; nor the next; nor the one after that. He had drifted, as a leaf will do.

It would be two years before they saw him again.

"Jesse," Nessen said, "Will you help me?"

"Jesus!" Jesse said. "You scared the shit out of me! Where'd you come from?"

One minute he'd been alone in his kitchen in his small apartment kitchen, thinking what to have for dinner; the next, a voice had spoken directly behind him. He knew he'd been alone; yet there was Nessen, looking the same as he had two years ago, before he'd disappeared.

"Nowhere I could explain to you," Nessen answered. "Does it matter?" He still looked like a young teen-aged black boy, very much like the young brother Jesse had never had, but older. No, that was wrong, he didn't look older, he looked more solid. More real.

"I guess it doesn't matter," Jesse said. "Damn, it's good to see you!" He gave the boy-shaped creature a hug. "What brings you back here? Grandma have something else she wanted to say? Or did you just need new shoes?"

Nessen returned the hug awkwardly, as expected; odds were good he didn't know what it was for. What he said, however, was "I don't need shoes, but advice. You and Miriam are the only people I know, and I don't know where she lives."

"Sure, glad to help," Jesse said. "Sit down. My place isn't big, but I do have a kitchen table and a couple of chairs. What kind of advice?"

They sat. "There's a… thing," Nessen said. "I don't know what to call it. But I have to accept it, or leave it alone. If I accept it, I will become something definite. If I don't, I will remain as I am, maybe forever."

"You're not giving me much to go on, buddy," Jesse said. "Where is this thing now? What does it look like? Does someone own it?"

"No one owns it, or ever will," Nessen said. "Right now it isn't anywhere; it won't be anywhere unless I decide to go after it. What will it look like? I don't know, and I don't think it matters."

"Talk about a wild good chase!" Jesse exclaimed. "If you don't know where it is, how will you find it? And how would you recognize it, if you don't know what it looks like?"

"If I decide to look for it, I will find it," Nessen assured him. "If I see it, I will know it."

"Well, I don't know what to tell you," said Jesse. "Do you know anyone else who had to make this decision?"

"Only the mother."

"Your mother? The one who gave birth to you, gave you a name, and walked away?"


"So what did she decide to do about this thing?"

Nessen looked at Jesse. "She had me," he said.

"You're going to have to explain what you mean by that," Jesse said.

"Well…" Nessen said, "The mother was like me, you see? The same kind of barely-anything, the same type of barely-anyone. But she was older; she had more experience; she knew more. She had come to the point where I am now; decide to accept a direction for herself, and become something definite. An actual someone, an actual something, you see? Or decide not to choose one, and remain as she was, forever."

"You're making my head hurt," Jesse said. "You're saying she had some special power, like your true sight, to choose a destiny for herself?"

"Destiny," mused Nessen. "Yes, that might be the word. Or maybe fate? But it wasn't any special power. She just had to decide, like you deciding what to have for lunch. Not to decide what fate to have, but just to have a fate at all. If she didn't, she wouldn't have a fate; she'd drift forever."

"So she had you?" Jesse asked. "How did that help?"

"She couldn't decide," Nessen said. "But she was female. That gave her a third option. She had me, and went her way, free of the choice. She passed the choice to me; I inherited it. I'm not female, so I have to make it: choose to have a fate, or choose not to have one. I've avoided the choice for a long, long time now," he said.

He looked at Jesse, with a pleading expression on his face. "What should I do?" he asked.

"That's a lot you're asking me, buddy," Jesse said.

"You, and Miriam, are the only people I know," Nessen repeated.

“So if you decide to go after this thing, you’ll become a different person?” said Jesse. “Have I got that right?”

“I’ll become a person, or a thing, with a destiny,” Nessen answered. “Right now I’m hardly anything. That’s why the mother called me Nessen, leaf, instead of giving me a person’s name. She couldn’t bear the weight of a real name herself, and I was less than her.”

Jesse shook his head, like a bear bothered by bees. “OK, never mind that. And what will this thing look like?”

“I don’t know. It depends on where I find it.”

“Shit! And where will you find it, then?”

“I’ll find it where I look for it.”

“Dammit, Nessen—! That's not helpful!”

“It isn’t a straightforward thing,” Nessen said. “If you want something for your foot, you know what you want, a shoe. You know how to get it; you go to a shoe store. You know what to do there; you try on shoes until you find two that fit, then you pay for them, then you put them on. All in a line, you see? One step after another, in a definite order, in the right kind of place.”

“But this is a fate, or a destiny. A thing like me has to decide it wants it, look for it where such a thing is likely to be found, hope to recognize it if it sees it, try to claim it if it can, and then wait to see what kind of fate it’s found, and what happens next.”

“You were born a human being," Nessen said to Jesse. "You’re a definite kind of person, with a definite human fate. I’m only a leaf; a scrap, a bit.”

Jesse put his face in his hands for a minute, and wished he had Miriam to give him advice on what advice to give to Nessen. "Well, why not?" he said. He stood up, and took his cell phone out of his pocket. As Nessen watched curiously (he didn't know what Jesse was doing), Jesse punched in Miriam's number.

"Hello? Oh hi, Jesse," said Miriam's voice from the phone. Nessen's face broke into a smile; the first one, Jesse realized, he'd ever seen on his face. It almost startled him too much to answer Miriam.

"Hi, sweetie. Look who's here!" He swung the camera around to show Nessen.

"Ah! Jesse, what is that? Are you all right?" Miriam said.

"I'm fine, Miriam, why wouldn't I be? It's Nessen! I thought you'd be glad to see him."

"It's really me, Miriam," Nessen said. "I guess this device doesn't show me right, since I'm not a person."

"Jesse," said Miriam, "what was that noise? Is it coming from that thing?"

"Nessen spoke," Jesse said. "He said it was him, and the cell phone isn't showing him right, because he's not a person. Or sending his voice right either, I guess."

"How do I know it's him?" Miriam demanded.

"Miriam, I'm looking right at him."

"And how do you know it's him, and not something pretending to be him?"

"It's not like he has an i.d. card," Jesse said. "But I feel sure it's him. Wait! Nessen, do you still have that handkerchief I gave you?"

"Yes, I kept it," Nessen said. He took it out of his right hip pocket and gave it to Jesse. If the phone had been pointed at him, Miriam would've seen something quite different; but it wasn't.

"It looks like the one I gave him. Of course, that was just a spare hanky from the laundry room, so there's nothing special about it. But would something else be carrying one in the first place? Somehow I can't picture every little ghost and goblin having a hanky to blow his nose."

"You never did explain what 'blow your nose' meant," Nessen complained.

"What are you laughing at?" Miriam asked. "No, never mind. Ask him if he has the other handkerchief."

"Of course I do," Nessen said. He took from his left hip pocket the one that she'd given him, and handed it to Jesse.

"It looks the same to me," Jesse said, showing it to the camera.

"Quit waving it around," she complained. "Put it down on something flat, and give me a close look at the initials. Much better… I can't tell. I'm coming over!" she said, and the call ended.

"Miriam's coming over. She should be here in ten or fifteen minutes," Jesse said to Nessen.

Nessen smiled again. "Yes, I heard."

"So what's the deal with the phones?" Jesse asked.

"The deal?"

"Why don't the phones show your picture correctly, or transmit your voice right?"

"I'm not sure," Nessen said. "I've seen phones before, and I've seen people using them, but I've never used them myself. My guess is, they only show my core self."

"Your 'core' self? Should your mother have named you Apple, then?" Jesse joked.

Nessen smiled, faintly. "Remember when you first saw me, Jesse? I was a shadow. Then you thought you saw a person in the shadow, and I made yourself look like you, with clothes like the ones you were wearing. And then later we made other changes together."

"So you don't really look the way I see you?" Jesse said, slowly.

"What does 'really' mean?" Nessen said. "I, myself, am not 'real' or 'definite' the way a living person is. You can say I don't 'really' look like this, I don't 'really' sound like this, I don't 'really' speak English, even. But to me it seems I've made myself look like this, sound like this, and sound like I'm speaking English."

"But the cell phones aren't fooled," Jesse said.

"Better to say, that the cell phones aren't good enough to show anything that isn't solid, definite, or material," Nessen pleaded. "What you see of me is truly me, but the phones can't show that kind of truth, only this kind," he said, rapping the table, "or this kind," he said, touching Jesse's hand. "Nor can they handle all of my voice, only the part of it that travels through air and reaches your mind through your ears. The other part, that goes directly to your mind, they can't hear. But it's all my voice."

"I guess what bothers me is that you deceived us," Jesse said.

"Did I? Didn't I tell you right from the beginning how old I was, as well as I knew how to express it? Didn't I tell you that your grandmother was around, and tell you what she wanted you to hear? You didn't believe me at first, but wasn't I open with you?"

"I suppose you formed a habit of hiding yourself, a long time ago," Jesse said.

"It's not a habit, it's necessary," Nessen said. "If I show myself to a bird, or a fox, or a tree, I'm just another kind of thing it hasn't seen before. Even a human baby will look at me and just wonder what I am. But domesticated things are different. A dog will bark and bark and bark, and if it isn't tied up, it will attack me. People will run away screaming, or attack me with weapons and try to kill me. Horses go mad with fear, and can break their legs or their necks running away when there's no need. Cats are the same as wild animals," he added.

"You seem the same to me as you always did, buddy," Jesse said, "and I can see where it would be a pain to have everyone in town chasing you as a monster…"

"Yes, that's the word. I'm not a monster, Jesse!"

"I believe you, Nessen. But my curiosity's itching something fierce. I wish I could see what Miriam saw, to better understand why she was so spooked."

There was a knock on the door.

"Uh oh! Showtime, Nessen," Jesse muttered. "Stay there and look harmless."

Nessen spread his hands wide. Doing my best, really!

As soon as Jesse opened his door, Miriam was all over him. "You're all right? It didn't hurt you? Are you sure? Oh, I was so worried, sevgilim!"

"I'm fine, honey," Jesse said, holding her tight and rocking her a bit. "It's Nessen, really. See for yourself." He swung them both out of the doorway so she could see behind him.

Miriam looked. "It does look like Nessen," she said. "It even feels like him, although… I'm not sure what I mean by that."

"It's me, Miriam, really," Nessen said.

"I think it is," she said, and smiled. "No, stand over there one more minute," she said, holding out her hand in a warding-off gesture. "Where's my hanky, Jesse?"

"Right over here on the back of the couch," Jesse said. "What are you doing?" he asked, as she took a magnifying glass out of her purse. He recognized it as the one that came with an old bound copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which she had at her apartment.

"This handkerchief was made by my grandmother, for my mother. Then, because we have the same initials, my mother gave it to me, when I left Kocaeli for America."

"Wow," said Jesse, "A real family heirloom! But what's that have to do with Nessen?"

"There are tiny little red love knots in the initials," Miriam said, "that grandmother Elif put there, after she finished the handkerchief. Then, before she gave it to me, my mother Miray added more, in white, around the initials. So you see, this hanky is unique. No other hankerchief in the world has these knots—and there they are!" she said, her face glowing. "Take a look," she invited him, handing him the magnifier. But she didn't move aside, and he put an arm around her shoulders as he looked through the glass.

"Wow," he said again. He looked at her accusingly. "You never gave me anything that precious."

She smilled, and batted his nose with her left fist. The diamond ring on her next-to-last finger gleamed in the light of the ceiling fixture. Then she seemed to remember they weren't alone.

"Nessen," she said, "want to see?"

"So you believe me now?" Nessen said, coming over to her and to Jesse.

"Really I believed as soon as I saw you in person," Miriam said. "But my handkerchief is proof, as far as I'm concerned."

"I see," Nessen said. "Yes, those knots are very fine. But with the true sight, I can see them easily, even from all the way across the room."

"But you didn't have any reason to look for them, did you?" said Miriam. "Or any idea that they were meant anything?"

"No, but…"

"Never mind, Nessen," Jesse advised. "She believes that you're you. Quit while you're ahead."

"All right. Um… You two seem much closer," he said, diffidently.

"We are," Jesse confirmed.

"We're engaged," Miriam said, displaying the ring he'd noticed.

"You're going to be married? And the ring is a token of that?" Nessen asked.

"Exactly so," said Jesse.

"That's happy news," Nessen said. "What is the proper thing for me to say?"

"So you can choose what your fate will be?" Miriam said. "How fortunate! Human beings can't do that."

They were sitting at Jesse's kitchen table, Jesse and Miriam next to each other, Nessen across from them. The overhead light was on, but otherwise the apartment was dark; and the night outside the windows was lit only by the moon filtered by fog. For a moment, remembering that Nessen wasn't human, Miriam shivered a little. Then the moment passed, comforted by familiarity.

"I'm sorry, Miriam, but you're mistaken," Nessen said. "Definite things, like human beings, are born with fates. You determine what they are, every moment, by the choices you make and the actions you take. If you become ill, and don't have it treated, you can die of the illness. If you step off the sidewalk without looking, you can be hit by a car, and die from that. In any case, you will grow old; and sooner or later, you will die from age. That's the fate of every human being, every butterfly, every dog and cat and pigeon, you see? You are born with a fate. You can choose how soon it comes, and how it arrives, but it's coming."

"I'm well aware," Miriam said. "That's what we mean when we say Inshallah. So, what is it that you want our advice about? I don't think I understand."

"Things like me," Nessen said, "aren't born with a fate. We're not important enough, we're not definite enough. We're flitlings, specks, motes. We don't have a fate headed our way. The world doesn't care about us one way or the other, time doesn't notice us, space doesn't contain us. We're not really here, or there, or anywhere. We're not really anyone or anything."

"Is that bad?" Jesse said. "You've been around 10,000 years or so, and you don't age, and nothing hurts you or bothers you, right? What's the problem?"

"I'm not explaining it well," Nessen said. "It's a problem of potential. Without a fate, something like me can't grow, can't become more. Without a destiny, I can't bear the weight of something like a real name, a purpose, an aim. I can learn things, here and there, but I can't stay definite for very long; eventually I have to drift, when the weight becomes too great. I might exist forever, but I can't ever become anything, I can't ever do anything. Eventually…"

"Yes?" Miriam said. "Eventually, what?"

"I don't know!" Nessen told her. "Eventually, everyone like me goes away, whether they choose a fate or not. They choose a fate, and they meet it; or they don't choose, and they drift on. No one talks about it. No one tells me anything. I need advice, and you're the only people I know." He looked at them with pleading eyes.

"It feels like, if I don't become more, I become less. I could exist forever, maybe, but only existing; and the longer I exist, the thinner I feel like I'm being stretched through time, the shallower it feels like I'm rooted in space. I'm holding on by my fingertips, you see? And I could lose my hold at any time."

"I don't know anything about your situation except what you've told me, Nessen, but it sounds like you need to deal with it," Jesse said.

"It sounds like a boy I knew in college," Miriam said. "He'd never worked a day in his life. His parents supported him, and never asked him to pay for his tuition, books, or anything else. I met him a couple of years after we both graduated, and he still wasn't doing anything. He was still living off his parents' money after they died, and when that ran out, sleeping on friends' couches and eating their food. Lots of people have told him it can't go on forever, and he needs to do something for the future, but he just shrugs and smiles."

"He has a fate," Nessen said. "He might not talk about it, but eventually he will die. He chooses not to put any effort into shaping his future, but it's been coming for him, ever since he was born."

"It sounds like you've made up your mind, Nessen," said Jesse.

"Yes, I have," Nessen said. "It's taken me a long time to face it, but talking to you has helped. That's what I needed, someone to explain it to, I guess."

"I suppose there's no use asking how long you've been around," Jesse said.

"No use at all," Nessen said. "I drifted… Sometimes there were mountains of ice, sometimes there weren't; the animals around here were often different from one time to the next; for most of the time, there weren't any human beings…" He shrugged.

"How will you begin?" Miriam asked him.

"I have begun; I've decided. Every step I take now is part of the journey."

"How will you know what steps to take?" Jesse asked.

"I'm feeling a pull, now that I've started," Nessen said. "Almost like a tug on my arm, or a scent in my nose. As long as I follow the trail, and don't turn aside from it, I will find a fate. Then I have to recognize it, and have the courage to claim it."

"How do you know these things?" Jesse asked

"I don't know," Nessen said. "I feel them, that's all."

"What happens if you turn aside from your path, or don't recognize your fate, or refuse it?" Miriam asked. "Would you have to start over?"

"There's no second chance here, Miriam," Nessen said. "One chance is all that anyone gets."

Nessen had only been looking for advice as to whether he should seek a fate for himself. Jesse and Miriam agreed that he should, but they also wanted to help, if they could. Miriam took the next day off from Covenant House. Jesse wasn't working there any more, but had a higher-paying job with the city government, to earn more money for their future life together. But he didn't work on weekends in that job, and the next day was Saturday.

On Saturday morning, then, Miriam and Jesse got out of bed, and showered. Jesse dressed in clean clothes, Miriam in some clothes she kept at Jesse's apartment. When they called for Nessen, he appeared next to them. He'd spent the night sitting on the roof of the apartment house, invisible and intangible, looking over the town; feeling the path before him; holding a vigil, perhaps.

They ate breakfast at a Denny's, and Miriam insisted that Nessen eat with them. He ate readily enough. The food meant nothing to him, but sharing the experience with his only friends meant quite a lot. Other diners smiled at the family group they believed they saw: the handsome black man, his beautiful wife (Latina, perhaps?), and their boy.

They got in the car: not the little Audi that Nessen knew from two years before, but a larger truck with room for all three of them in the front; Miriam driving, Jesse on the right side, and Nessen in the middle where he could talk to them both. "That way, I think," he said, pointing.

"Downtown?" Miriam said, doubtfully.

"I don't know. But that way."

They drove downtown, but not directly to the very center of town, where Jesse worked and where all the office buildings and trendy shops were. They drove beyond it, at Nessen's directions, following some urge he couldn't explain, but felt strongly. The streets grew dingier, and the potholes more frequent. There were boarded-up stores now, and liquor stores instead of restaurants, bars instead of bistros.

"Stop here," Nessen said.

"Here?" Miriam said. "Are you sure?"

"It's not safe, Nessen," Jesse said. "If we leave the truck here, it might get stolen. And we might get attacked, in this neighborhood."

Nessen looked at them. He had lived alone on these streets for more years than either Jesse or Miriam had been alive. He'd never been attacked, rarely been threatened. Of course, that was when he'd had no purpose, and was barely there. It might be different now that he was more definite. If so, it was part of his search, and he couldn't turn aside from it.

"From here, I have to go on foot," Nessen said. "This kind of search has rules, that I have to obey. Both of you can't come with me, anyway. Three is too many, when only one of us is searching. I can have one companion, but not two."

"Where are you getting this from?" Miriam said.

"I don't know," Nessen said. "But I know that it's true."

"Inshallah, then," Miriam said. "God's will." She looked past Nessen at Jesse. "Are you going with him?"

"I feel like I should," Jesse said. "What if he went by himself, and we never saw him again?"

"Inshallah," she said again. She leaned across Nessen and gave Jesse a brief, fierce kiss. "You come back to me!" she said.

"Yes," he said simply. It was a vow.

"And you," she said to Nessen. She hugged him close and planted a kiss on his forehead, and one on each cheek. "Go with God. Be faithful to your quest. Come back to us, if at all possible."

"If I can, I will," Nessen said.

"Go carefully then," she said, "and watch out for each other. Jesse, you have your cell phone?"

"Right here," he said, holding it up.

"Put it in an inside pocket," she said. "As soon as you're done, call me. I'll find a safe place to wait until you call, then I'll come get you."

"Sounds like a plan. See you later, darling."

She didn't reply. Perhaps she didn't trust herself to speak without weeping. Perhaps she was afraid to tempt fate any further. She put the truck into gear and drove away.

She didn't look back.

Nessen walked through the shabby streets, following the call that only he could hear. Jesse went with him, worrying. Had he known the neighborhood, he would've known it wasn't as bad as its reputation, which magnified every bad thing that happened. Also, early on Saturday morning, all the real hard cases were still asleep from Friday night. Besides that, Jesse and Nessen were black, and weren't dressed rich.

"Relax, Jesse," Nessen said. "Act like you live here. These people have enough problems of their own; they're not interested in yours."

The next person they passed, a man in an overcoat with his hands shoved in his pockets, Nessen gave him a bright smile and said, "Good morning!"

The man smiled back. "Good morning right back at you, son!" He looked at Jesse. "Fine boy you have there, mister."

"Thanks," Jesse said. The man walked on, still smiling. After that, Jesse walked less nervously.

Jesse and Nessen entered a plain building through its single door. There were no signs on the outside stating its purpose. It was just a set of stairs, a door, and enough wooden wall for a room on either side of the door, set between a bigger building on its left, and the corner of two streets, each with its own sidewalk and people walking by. A few cars were parked on each side of each street, and more were driving past. It was a totally anonymous city street, with nothing to draw attention.

Inside was a long hall with four doors on the right side, and one at the far end on the left. All were closed. The four doors on the right each had something on it. The one closest to the outside door seemed to be a set of L shapes pinned together at the top. As Nessen looked at it, it began to spin, until the four L's made a counter-clockwise swastika; then it stopped, and collapsed into the hanging L's, but now they faced to the left. Then it spun up again, into a clockwise swastika this time. Then it went through other configurations, where some of the individual pieces were L's, and some were backward L's.

While the figure on the fourth door was doing that, the thing pinned to the third door was going through its own evolutions. Originally two silver balls, one above the other, they began to change. The one on top became rectangular, taller than it was wide, and metallic. Step by step, a Byzantine icon took form, in metallic colors, and glowed with a pure golden light. Meanwhile, the lower ball took various disgusting shapes, glowed in muddy colors, and began to drip fluids onto the floor below it.

The figure on the second door started as an empty square frame, with nothing in it. It changed to other geometric forms: a circle, a triangle, an oval, a trapezoid, a hexagon, an inverted triangle, a half-circle closed with a straight line, and on and on and on, endlessly.

The thing on the first door was impossible to describe. Its only constant was change. One moment it was large, another it was small; one moment it seemed almost regular, like a flower or a seashell, the next it flowed off to one side like it was melting. Its color changed constantly as well. Sometimes it looked like a dragon, or a butterfly, or a tropical fish; sometimes like a tree in a storm; sometimes like a cloud changing shape. Nessen reached past Jesse and touched it, and it changed to the shape of a leaf.

Jesse woke up, and realized that he'd been asleep on his feet under the hypnotic influence of the changing, spinning, flowing figures on the doors. They were all still now. He rubbed his eyes. "What just happened?" he asked.

"I made a choice," Nessen said.

"So now what?"

"It's a door. Open it?" Nessen moved Jesse back from the first door, and tried the handle. The door opened, and something black and four-footed streaked down the hall and out the door they'd entered by.

"What the hell was that?" Jesse said.

"Come on!" Nessen said. He went out the door, and Jesse followed. Outside, the creature was waiting for them.

It looked like a cat, but no kind of cat Jesse had ever seen. To begin with it was big; its back came up to Jesse's kneecap, 30 inches tall, and it was a good 50 inches long. The tips of its long ears, shaped like spear blades, were at least a yard above the sidewalk. That was a big cat and no mistake, and not a domestic cat, either. Jesse would have thought caracal, or lynx, but the creature was short-haired, with a solid black coat.

It sat on its haunches and looked at them, and the people walking by didn't seem to see it, but they walked around it anyway. They didn't stare at it, they didn't freak out over it, they acted as if it weren't there; but at the same time, they walked around it.

Nessen walked up to it, and held out his hand. Jesse winced; he could only imagine how long and sharp its teeth and claws were. But the cat (he supposed he should call it a cat) sniffed at Nessen's hand, then butted the hand with his head, and said, mau. Then it turned around and began padding down the street. Nessen started after it.

Jesse caught his arm. "Nessen," he said, "Do you know what you're doing?"

"No," said Nessen, removing Jesse's hand. "Do you? Does anyone?"

"You're just going to follow it wherever it leads you, no matter where that is?"

"That's right," Nessen said. "Either I follow it to my fate, or it was all for nothing."


"Goodbye, Jesse," Nessen said. He caught up with the cat, and placed his hand on its neck. It said mau once more. Then the thing shaped like a short-haired black lynx, and the other thing shaped like a young black boy, walked on together, with matching steps.

Jesse watched them until they were out of sight. "Goodbye, Nessen," he whispered. "Good luck, buddy." Then he took his phone out of his shirt pocket, and punched Miriam's number.

One evening, about three years after that, there was a knock on the front door of Jesse's and Miriam's house. Miriam was in the baby's room, tucking her in and making sure she had her bear; Jesse was in the kitchen, washing dishes. "I'll get it, honey," he called to her. He dried his hands on a dish towel, then walked to the door.

"Yes? Can I help you?" Jesse said.

The black man on his porch chuckled. "Don't you recognize me, Jesse?" he said.

"Oh my god," Jesse whispered. "Nessen, is that really you?"

"It really is," Nessen said, smiling widely. "May I come in?"

"Yes, yes, come in where I can get a look at you! My god, how you've changed!" Jesse grasped Nessen's hand and pulled him into the living room.

The Nessen he'd known before seemed like a boy of ten, perhaps, but this Nessen seemed the same age as Jesse, and just as tall and broad. Like Jesse, he was clean shaven, with no beard or mustache. He wore, or appeared to wear, good slacks, a good belt around his waist, a good quality white shirt with a blue tie, and a jacket. He wasn't wearing a hat, but there was an expensive-looking watch on his left wrist. His shoes—damned if he wasn't "wearing" the same dress shoes Jesse had "given" him all those years before!

"Why not?" Nessen said. "It isn't as though they'll wear out."

"You read minds now?" Jesse said.

Nessen smiled. "I always did," he said. "But now I understand what I'm reading."

Miriam came out of the baby's room. "Jesse, who was at the—Nessen!" she shrieked. She came running across the room and wrapped her arms around him. Jesse reflected, not for the first time, that Miriam was more perceptive than he was.

When the excitement died down—fortunately, the baby wasn't easy to wake once she was asleep—Jesse said, "How did you find us? Neither of us is living in the same house, or working at the same job."

"You can't imagine how much I've learned since I saw you last," Nessen said. "I don't need to know your address any more, or any clues like that. I wanted to be where you are, so I came here. Anywhere I wish to go, the thought makes it happen."

"Handy!" Jesse said.

"Are you well, Nessen?" Miriam asked. "You look well, but did you find what you were looking for? Oh, but I wish you could have been at our wedding! All my family was there, and what family Jesse has, and all our friends; but I missed you."

"I was there, actually," Nessen said. "But I couldn't show myself. I had to watch from outside time and space, so no one could see me. I tried to find a moment to say hello, but neither of you was alone for a moment, I swear!"

"But why?" Miriam said.

"Because I still hadn't learned to fool cameras yet, and they were everywhere, all the time. And I hadn't learned to make dogs think I was human, and there were plenty of dogs around, too. I did leave you a present," he added.

Jesse said, "You did? Sweetheart, did we have a gift we couldn't account for?"

"Of course," Miriam said. "There's always at least one! What was it, Nessen? I hope I didn't give it away, just because I didn't know who gave it to us."

"I couldn't leave a card, because I didn't know how to read or write yet," Nessen said. "The gift was a very, very old plate, or platter, thirty inches across, beaten out of a mixture of silver and platinum, and hand polished. It has patterns stamped around the rim."

"That? My god, Nessen, that's the most valuable thing we own. We don't even keep it here in the house, but in a safety-deposit box! You gave us that for a wedding present?"

"It was only fair. Miriam gave me her handkerchief," Nessen said.

"I'm going to cry," Miriam said, putting her face in her hands, overwhelmed.

Jesse put his arm around his wife's shoulders. "Why are we standing around? Come on, let's go sit down and talk." Jesse and Miriam sat on the living-room couch, and insisted Nessen take the comfortable chair that Jesse sometimes used to watch TV.

"You liked it then?" Nessen asked.

"It's magnificent, Nessen," Jesse said. "We tried to get it appraised, but no one could do it. The value of the metal was no problem, but no one had seen art like that. They couldn't begin to guess who'd made it, or when, or what culture they belonged to."

"I didn't even think of that," Nessen said. "I just wanted to give you a nice wedding present; I still knew hardly anything about human beings. The thing who made that, made it before people came to this continent, and he made it with his own hands and a few stone tools. He gave it to me for… well… call it chasing pests out of his house."

"And you kept it all those thousands of years?" Miriam asked.

"What?" said Nessen. "Oh, I see. No, he made it a long time ago. He gave it to me maybe a month before your wedding. And Isha did most of the work, not me," he added.

"Isha?" said Jesse.

"The black cat we found downtown," Nessen said, "my fate guide. I called her Isha, which means 'cat'."

"The same way Nessen means 'leaf'?" Jesse asked.

"Exactly the same way," Nessen said, "and in the same language. It's not a human language."

"Can I see her?" Miriam asked. "Jesse said she was very beautiful."

Nessen shook his head. "She led me to my fate, and I earned the right to it, and I learned all the things I needed to know. We're done with each other now. I do miss her," he said wistfully.

"Well, I'm glad you found what you were looking for," Jesse said. "So you're a living person now?"

Nessen looked astonished. But before he could speak, they were interrupted.

"Anne!" (AWN-nay, "mommy") cried a little voice from the baby's room, and Miriam got up and hurried away. In a moment she was back with a sleepy bundle in pink footie pajamas, blinking in the light. She had straight black hair, like her mother, and brown eyes like both her parents.

"This is Ceren, our little girl," she said, pronouncing it JARE-ehn. "It means 'baby gazelle' in Turkish. Would you like to hold her, Nessen?"

"I don't know how," Nessen said; but he plainly wanted to.

So Miriam showed him, and he held the two-year-old baby in his arms, looking down on the sleepy face. "I've never held a baby before. Not a baby person, anyway."

Then he looked up at Miriam, and grew intent. "Did you know you're going to have another baby soon?" he asked. "This one's going to be a boy."

"No!" said Miriam. "I had no idea!"

"How soon?" Jesse asked.

"Very soon," Nessen said. "Only eight months from now."

They laughed, relieved, and didn't explain the joke to him. Miriam put Ceren back to bed, and rejoined Jesse and Nessen in the living room.

Nessen said, "I wanted to see you, and let you know that all's well with me. But before I go, I have a gift for you."

"Not another heirloom made from precious metal, I hope!" Jesse said.

"No, this one's alive," Nessen said. He put his hands together in front of himself, then opened his hands. There in his two palms was a sleeping black kitten, with oversized spear-blade-shaped ears, and oversized paws, testifying to the size he would have as an adult. As they watched, he stretched and yawned.

"Is he safe?" Jesse asked. "We have a child—children," he corrected himself. "We can't keep a wild animal, Nessen."

"This is one of Isha's children," Nessen said. "As loyal as a dog, but as smart as a human being. Treat him as a member of your family, and he'll protect all of you with his life." He stood up, and put the cat at Miriam's feet. He bumped his head against her leg, looked up at her, and said prrrrau? She patted her lap, and he leaped up, then settled down and started to purr. Entranced, she started to pet him. After a minute, he grabbed her hand and started licking it.

Miriam looked at her husband helplessly. "Oh Jesse, it tickles," she whispered.

Jesse knew that look. "Looks like we've got a cat," he grumbled. "Thanks a lot, buddy. Now I suppose we'll need a litter box in the bathroom, and have to buy cat litter."

Nessen said, "No, why would you think that? I told you, he's as smart as a person. Show him how to operate the toilet, and he'll use it. Just leave the toilet lid up for him. You might have to flush for him, until he gets big enough to reach the handle."

The wonder cat had fallen asleep, still holding Miriam's hand in both of its paws, still with its little pink tongue extended to lick. "Thank you, Nessen," she whispered, as the two men stood up.

Nessen bent over and kissed her cheek. "Thank you, Miriam," he said. "What I owe you, I can never repay."

Outside the house, the sun had set and the stars were out. Jesse said, "Will we see you again, Nessen?"

"Every now and then," Nessen said. "It isn't good for the Story to appear in the story too often."

"What?" said Jesse. "What does that mean?"

"I found my fate," Nessen told him, "but it wasn't a human fate. I'm a definite thing now, but I'm not a human being, Jesse."

"Then what are you, Nessen?" Jesse asked.

"I'm a Story," Nessen said. "Whenever people remember a story, and tell it to other people, and pass it on to their children, there's a Story that embodies it. The story can be written down, or printed, or made into a movie, and its fame will spread; but those are books, or oral traditions, or movies, or TV shows. They aren't Stories, they're just the expressions of a Story. A Story is immortal. All the expressions of a story can be chewed by mice, burned in fires, ruined by floods; but the Story goes on, and can be expressed again."

"Huh! What a strange notion," said Jesse. "Have you met other Stories?"

"A few," said Nessen. "I'm a new Story, and a small Story; I haven't traveled much since I found my fate. I did meet Superman once."

"Superman?" Jesse said in astonishment.

"He's a big Story, and a popular Story, and they're still printing comic books about him, and making movies. He's a little blurry, though; they keep changing him. If they're not careful, they're rob him of his individuality, like Hercules."

"I never even thought about a Story being an actual thing," Jesse confessed. "So, whose Story are you?"

Nessen smiled fondly. "Yours, Jesse," he said.

"What? Mine?"

"Well, yours, and Miriam's, and your children's, maybe. We'll see how that works out. So you see, I can't appear in your story too often, because I am your Story. But I'll be watching you, all the time."

Then, while Jesse was still too stunned to speak, Nessen faded away.

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