There's a cigarette in her hand...bending slowly to and from her lips as she sits on the steps of the porch.

Her face lights up as she breathes in...goes dark again when she breathes out...smoke quickly lost in the shadows off to the side...fading like the rumble of the train on the platform above our heads.

I can see her bones showing through her skin...the shape of her cheeks...at her elbows and knees. Even from this far away I can tell she's fading into nothing. She told me once that she wanted to be so skinny that she rotted from view.

I told her then that she'd almost made it.

Alive again when she takes another breath...the dim light from the window behind her like a halo hiding her face. I worry that maybe today will be the one she actually makes it all the way to becoming invisible.

My smile always brings her back.

"You're late," she says when I make myself known...turning my hips side to side with the song I sing in my head.

Watching the color come back in her face is like watching the first drops of rain roll over the window.

"I lost track of time," I say.

Our words don't mean as much as the way our eyes follow each other. We each make a move to brush our hair away...mine the color of midnight...hers more like the white center of the sun.

"How did you make out?" she asks, stepping the cigarette out on the last word. The last spiral of smoke disappears as I reach into my pocket.

My hands are filled with the folded bills from discarded wallets . . wallets left to die in trashcans coming down the subway platform. I can feel the money's color the way I can feel the green from the stem of a plant between my fingers. "Not too bad, I guess," I say, not knowing the exact amount.

It's never worth counting since I don't keep it. I only care that it's enough to keep Sandra from bitching.

I keep a little for myself, since this time there's plenty. Enough to buy something to eat, maybe. But first I have to make sure Sandra gets the rest.

"A social worker's here...dropped by just now," Alexi says.

They come once a month...or at least they're supposed to. It's more like every other month, or less sometimes. It's nothing really...a few questions...a quick look around to make sure it's clean...checklist of food in the kitchen and those kinds of things. Their names never matter...each of them exactly the same, only with different faces.

I see the shadows in the front room that stretch from the kitchen...shadows that move their heads in conversation. I can't hear what they're saying. I can only hear the shouting from next door...the words of the kids gathered under the building security lights across the street...the roar of cars speeding through the traffic lights...dogs barking in the tiny caged yards behind each row home.

Alexi glances back to the house and tosses the cigarette filter to the side. Then she waves the smoke from her last breath to keep anyone from seeing.

"Better get in there...and better keep that away for now," she tells me, motioning my hand back into my pocket with a nod of her head.

I'll have to keep the cash hidden until the social worker leaves...until I have told my lies and said please and thank you the way they like me to. I'll smile like the picture inside my case folder, then they can shuffle all their papers in order and put me away safe in a neat stack before they go.

No big trick to it.