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The question chokes in my throat as tear drops onto her cheek. Her turned head gives me a profile view of the tear sinking back into soft brown skin. I take shallow breaths through my nose, keeping a silent vigil. She leans forward, dropping her shoulders and dipping her chin to her chest. After her elbows thump against the table, she pulls her glasses off, folds them neatly, and places them a few inches to her left. She tilts her head forward into her hands then collapses onto the table with her face pressed into folded arms. Her deep breaths disappear into hitching gasps with a sniffle every now and then.
As soon as her shoulders start to shake, the calming breaths begin again. Her trembling upper body stills, and the muscles around her collarbone tense. Lifting her head, she swipes away the tears. Her mouth is scrunched, lips pressed firmly in place. She perches her glasses on the bridge of her nose and smoothes down flyaway hairs haloing around her head. Scooting to the edge of her chair, she sits up with her head held high. Her hands rest on the round, wood table. She still won’t look at me.
I walk past the food line to snatch several paper napkins from the dispenser. When I return, vultures have gathered around the crumbling figure. “What’s wrong?” “Are you okay?” “Why are you crying?” “You know you can talk to me right” “You can trust me right?” “Naomi, please tell me what’s wrong” “Are you okay?” “Oh my god, are you okay?” “Are you feeling okay?”
I look at the empty plate in front of her. “Did you eat anything?”
Her head tilts forward as she shakes it, and her gaze focuses on the table. I give meaningful looks to the girls drifting around the table by lifting my eyebrows and widening my eyes. Most of them drift off but one refuses to understand, hovering over the struggling girl. “Come on, you can tell me. What’s going on?”
“Come get some orange juice with me,” I tell Naomi. She falls into step behind me. Once we make it to the orange juice, I throw my arms around her and squeeze. Her hands are cool against my back, and her arms squeeze my torso slightly too hard but I hold on and give as good as I get. The seconds on her watch tick by, and she lets go with another deep breath. She still won’t look at me.
The vulture reappears. “Come on what’s wrong?”
Rolling my eyes, I grab the newcomer by her jacket and gesture roughly to a spot a few feet away. “I think it would be better to give her space for a bit,” I murmur. “She’s not feeling so well and she has a lot of work to do so I think we should all let her be alone. I’ll let you know if she needs you.” She consents and walks back to the table where Naomi has sat down again.
“Well I really hope you feel better!”
Naomi imitates a smile. “Thanks!”
The vulture nods enthusiastically and strides out of the hall with a wave.
I slip into my previous seat and link my fingers together. Feeling her eyes on my face, I glance sideways, but she looks engrossed in the swirls and grains of the wood table.
Finally she says, “You don’t have to stay.”
I turn back, and she’s trying to wipe away the tear tracks with a napkin. “I want to stay,” I tell her.
“You really don’t have to stay. I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll be fine.” She finally looks me in the eye. Her eyes are lined with small puffy bags, and the whites of her eyes are stained red. I can see the long-absent brick walls building in them. “You can leave if you want.”
“I won’t leave unless you want me to leave,” I counter. “If you want me to leave, then tell me to leave.”
She hesitates then, “I want you to leave.” Her eyes widen, keeping her gaze on me as she leans back in her chair.
I stand, swipe my phone and keychain from the table and stuff them in my pocket. Leaning forward, I fling my arms around her again and squeeze. She shuffles in her chair, and her arms come up to constrict my shoulders. “Good luck,” I whisper. She nods. I releaser her, step back and walk away. After a few steps I check on her. Her hands clutch the gold cross around her neck as her lips move. “I hope He hears you,” I whisper.