Amelia glances over at the tattered bowling shirt I had on, “You any good?”
“Bowling. You good?”
“I was on a league team once,” she said. “Yep, sure was.”
She wants me to ask about it. She wants me to talk, to be interesting, engaging—human, but I just stare off into the distance.
“Wanna know what we was called?”
I look over at her.
“The Tennessee Tens,” Amelia’s smiles. “I was a star!”
“Okay. I lied, they called me Donut. You know, for the spare tire in the back of the truck. What’s your specialty?” Amelia asks.
“I just throw it. Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes I don’t.”
“I hated people like you.” Amelia says.
“Yeah, me too,” I polish off my water and put my eyes back on the road.
At first Chicago is nothing like the pictures and the postcards that we had pinned up on Lucy’s wall. It is gray, dingy, and, overall, a little frightening, up until we hit the city. The buildings no longer look like scenes from America’s Most Wanted. There are massive loads of billboards instead of graffiti covered walls. More unbroken glass than disgruntle faces. Amelia drives me around a loop she calls the inner loop—a collection of crisscrossed highways that had chaos written all over them, but manage themselves as smoothly as a synchronized swim team. I’d never seen so many buildings squeezed into one area. I can’t imagine how people can breathe in this city, or how they see the stars.
“All right, kid,” Amelia says, “where do you belong?”
The image of a magazine photo Lucy had shown me pops into my head. The giant platinum statues, the huge buildings surrounding all sides of me, hiding me and keeping me safe. I know I need to sound like I’m sure. I know that if I give Amelia, an I don’t know, anywhere is fine, she’ll lock the door, take me to Tennessee, and introduce me to her nearly dead parents and Bucket, the snapping turtle. Or worse, she’ll start a bowling league. I look around at the city through the smudged windows of the truck and hear Lucy’s voice, full of excitement and promise. We’re here.
“I found ya something the other day!” Lucy said.
“What?” I asked.
“A flower.” She grinned.
“In the sky.”
I nodded. “You’ve lost it, haven’t you? All that Tang’s finally gone to your head, huh?”
We laughed for a moment and calmed ourselves down.
Lucy looked past me, off into the night sky, her eyes searched the tree about a mile off into the distance. “There,” she said. “You see that group of trees over there?” She pointed.
I followed the direction of her long, skinny index finger and spotted the group of six pines that stood on the horizon. “I think so. The pines?”
“Yeah,” she said, now breaking into her serious teacher voice. “Count the second tree from the right, in between the second and third one. You see that little star. Right there between ‘em?”
I did as she said and found the star, “Uh huh.”
“Now follow it up three more stars, kind of diagonal, to the right.”
“You see that bright one there? That’s Antares.”
“Hop over, about two more stars to the right.”
I was good at following directions.
“It’s got kind of that blinky one to the bottom right of it, and that big one to the top left. That one’s Beta by the way. That’s it. That’s your flower—all those.”
I found the last two stars, and set my eyes back to stare at the eight lonely stars that Lucy so solemnly believed were there as my flower.
“It kind of tilts to the right,” she added.
I squinted, and sighed, “I can’t. I don’t think I’m looking where you’re looking.”
“You can’t squint and see the stars, genius. Open your eyes.”
So I did. And there it was—my flower.
I took in a quick gasp. “Cool,” I smiled, “It’s like, a wilting dandelion.”
“No,” Lucy said turning to me, “not wilting.” Then she looked back at my constellation. She raised her hand up to the black board sky, “Look at all those stars around it—around the flower part.”
I did. There were millions of stars dancing around it now.
“Those are the seeds. You know, those little white things that you blow—that go flying away—to grow in someone else’s yard.”
“I grow in other people’s yards?” I asked.
“Shut up.” Lucy laughed.
She pushed off and kicked her legs out in front of her. I watched her fly back and forth, planting her feet into the gravel and kicking herself higher and higher. These swings had always been our favorite. The beams were about fifteen feet tall. The swings themselves, the chains at least, were about twelve feet long. This allowed us to swing about sixteen feet in the air on a good night; higher than any other traditional swing.
“What’s the first thing you’re gonna do when we get to Chicago?” I asked.
“Fly!” Lucy said.
I joined her, digging my toes into the soft dirt and pushing off. “I’m gonna just walk around,” I said. “I wanna see it all, every bit of it, the first day.”
Lucy laughed. “Ele, you can’t see it all in one day. Chicago is, like, the size of a thousand Murphy Cities. Ten thousand Murphy Cities.”
“Yeah,” she said, “population overload.”
“So why go there? Why Chicago?”
Lucy smiled at me. A smile brighter than any constellation we’d found that night. “You’ll see. When we get there, you’ll see.”
It took me a few minutes to get as high as she was, but soon we were both soaring and laughing, our feet miles above the tree line in the distance. I traced my flower with my toes every time I descended. And then I closed my eyes, gliding back and forth through the universe, rising and falling back to earth, only to rise and fall again, being propelled by inertia—one of my favorite concepts. An object in motion will stay in motion, but an object at rest will remain at rest. It was so vague, yet so finite. You either keep moving or you don’t.
Amelia maneuvers the rig through the swarming streets. Luckily it’s just Jenny. If she was pulling a load, she probably wouldn’t stop for me in the first place, or she would drop me off on the side of the freeway miles ago. But Amelia, eyes focusing on the tiny vehicles surrounding her, drives Jenny as easily as compact car. I think for moment about what Canada might be like, about how life on the road in a big rig would suit me, but then I remember, I am supposed to be here. Chicago is our city.
Amelia pulls the truck over as far as she can and turns on the emergency lights. She leaves both hands on the wheel, gently gripping it while straightening and flexing her fingers back around it. She stares out the window at the park and follows a few people with her eyes. “All right, kid. It’s been grand, but we knew the time would come. Let’s not make it difficult.”
I look over at my transporter. She is still staring somebody down out in front of the truck. Her eyes squint, like during one of her coughing fits.
“Get outta here.”
I pull hard on the rusty knob and the door swings open. The cold air hits my cheeks and slides under my shirt. A convulsing shiver moves up my body.
“Here,” Amelia says, reaching back behind her seat. She grabs a large, black coat, it hosts the same company logo that’s on her ratty, blue sweatshirt, and tosses it over to me.
“What about you?” I say, pushing the coat back to her.
“Hell, kid. In three days I’ll be at Daytona Beach. It ain’t gonna do me no good down there, now is it?”
I shake my head, thinking about how cold Canada must be, but I refuse to try and convince her to take the coat back. “Guess not.”
She nods in approval. I nod back. Then I slide out of the truck with the coat and bag in my hand. I stare up at Amelia as I wrap her coat and her smells around my shoulders.
“Oh here,” Amelia says, scrambling around on her dashboard. She picks a gum wrapper and a pen out of the mess of trash and starts scribbling. “I aint hardly ever there, but don’t be afraid to use it. My house. Nobody ever calls me, so I only check my voice box once a year or so, but still.” She slides over and hands me the silver wrapper. “Don’t let me see your face on the five o’clock news, Cookie.”
I take it from her hand and read over it for a few seconds, committing it to memory before sticking the wrapper in my new coat pocket. I smile, nod, and slam the door shut. This is goodbye.
Amelia takes off with the next change of the light, forcing screaming cars to yield to her massive hunk of metal. I smile at her “How’s My Driving” sticker. She honks her horn twice and disappears around the next corner. Amelia evaporates into a cloud of rusty smoke.
A gust of wind sweeps under my coat. I fumble clumsily, trying to clasp the cheap buttons on this putrid jacket, reeking of cigarette smoke and licorice. Once I manage to situate myself, getting each individual button in its place, I look up and there it is, just like in the picture. I let out a soundless gasp. It’s Lucy’s city.
The sounds of the city rise up around me. It is so loud, so in your face. This isn’t Kentucky. This isn’t Murphy City. Everywhere I look, there are people and cars and bikers. A constant drone of construction and puffs of exhaust fly up out of shiny, expensive looking vehicles. I inhale, and instead of fresh pine and maple, I choke on hot dogs and garbage juice from the truck that just rolled by.
I try to will myself to move forward, to walk towards the park, to go inside the picture, but my eyes and ears are drawn in opposite directions. My heart seems to beat out of time. People maneuver around me, only to stare and go on about their business. I look out at the bustling sidewalks and wonder where all these strange faces are going. I wonder if they are wondering about me; if anyone is wondering about me. I wonder if anyone is looking for me. I’d left so suddenly. I didn’t even say goodbye to Lucy’s parents.
Lucy and I were up in her room, our favorite place to waste time our junior year. The White Album was rotating on the record player. Lucy liked vinyl. She liked classics, vintage. Something about her, something in the way she moved and talked, something in the way she loved me was just as vintage, just as classic as the albums we played in her room. It was as if everything about her was done right the first time, just like “Dear Prudence”, and as if everything she did was just as sweet as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
“Girls!” Lucy’s mom yelled from downstairs. “Come here a minute please.”
“Race ya!” Lucy said. She jumped up and took off, but I didn’t feel much like running.
By the time I got downstairs, Lucy had already joined her mother and father at the dining room table. Frank and Pearl, with fake smiles pasted on their faces, looked at me like a caring passerby would look at a stray dog or a homeless person.
“What’s up with the interrogation set up?” Lucy joked with her parents as I planted myself down in my seat.
Pearl looked at Lucy, then over at me. “Ele. You know we love having you here. And we’re so happy that you feel safe and at home here, but we were wondering. Don’t you think it’s about time for you to go back home? To your home?”
I stared at the china patterns on the wall behind them.
“You’re kicking her out?” Lucy asked.
“No,” Frank said. “We were just simply expressing concern about the fact that Ele hasn’t gone back home, to her family, in over a month.”
“Her family’s dead. I’m her family now,” Lucy bellowed.
“Ray is not dead,” Pearl said in a tone that called for Lucy to apologize for saying such a horrible thing.
“Why can’t she just stay here?” Lucy asked.
“Luce,” I said, trying to calm her down.
“No,” Lucy said, holding her hand up to my face to shush me. “She doesn’t want to go.”
“Ray’s worried about you,” Pearl said to me. “He calls every day.”
Lucy blew her breath and slammed herself back in her chair.
“Lucille Day Gulliver!” Frank’s voice rose above the table.
“Lucy,” I whispered.
She looked over at me.
We all sat silently for a moment. This used to be a game that she was good at, but after her parents started reading those self-help and parenting books, their household battles were no longer one-sided. She stood up, pushed in her chair, and stomped up to her room.
Pearl reached her hand across the table and grabbed my hand. “When’s the last time you talked to Ray?”
I searched the vaulted ceiling for answers—nothing there but a phony crystal chandelier and cobwebs.
“Mrs. Webster said that you’ve not been around since your mother’s funeral.”
I stared at her.
“I know it’s hard to face.” Frank sighed, “I can’t imagine what you must be going through right now, inside. And we want to be here for you. You’re like a daughter to us.”
“It’s just,” Pearl sighed, equally as dramatic as her husband’s, “I don’t think it’s helping you, not going back. That’s your home. I know it must feel a bit emptier now, with your mother gone, but it’s still your home, right?”
I shook my head.
“No?” she asked.
“I’m happy here.”
“Okay,” Frank nodded.
“I’m not ready to go back yet.”
They both nodded.
“Well,” Frank said, sliding the phone over to me, “will you at least call? Call and talk to him. Let him know you’re alright.”
I nodded. I moved my hand slowly towards the phone, picked it up, and forced myself to punch in the seven numbers. The ringing was like little bee stings in my ears. It rang three times.
“Hello?” Mrs. Webster’s voice sounded from the other end.
I swallowed hard. “Hello.”
“Elena!” she squealed. “Oh, darling, it’s so good to hear your voice. We’ve been worried sick about you. How are you, dear?”
“Ray, it’s Ele! Pick up.” she yelled. “You know, a sixteen-year-old girl like you should be home, honey, with your family—”
The phone clicked. “Ele,” Ray spoke in an unfamiliar tone. “Sweetheart, how are you?” He paused. “I got it, Fran,” he yelled back to Mrs. Webster.
I heard the phone click once more. Then the real Ray, the Ray I knew, spoke up, in a hushed, gritty whisper, “You listen here, you little ungrateful bitch. Don’t think ya can hide from me. I own your ass. You’re mine.”
“Okay,” I said calmly, nodding, looking at Lucy’s parents, who held smiles of complete satisfaction on their faces.
“You’re gonna get your ass back to this house—”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Or so help me, goddamn it—” he continued.
“You, too,” I nodded.
“I will find you. I will always find you. Your ass belongs to me.”
“Bye.” Then I hung up.
I smiled and put the phone down on the table.
“Is everything okay?” Pearl asked.
“I bet he was happy to hear your voice.” Frank smiled.
I nodded. “Thank you. For letting me stay here.”