I lay down to go to bed. My head hits the pillow. I run fingers through my hair and find a layer of dry leaves. I look over to her with playful annoyance.
“Was that you?”
She smiles shyly and buries her face in my shoulder. I reach over her and grab a fistful of grass. I sprinkle it on her hair while she laughs. I hug her tight and look back at the stars above the city. The Space Needle blinks from across the water. It’s a blue and yellow night. The hill we lay upon is alive with locals; friends and lovers, pets and their owners, and curious children. The murmur of the crowd and the whisper of the city.
I trace the flowers of her white dress. Night is hardly fallen. In this moment, we feel more as one, two strangers watching a city fall asleep beneath our hill. Neither of us moves. Her breath grows slower. I feel her arms relax on my chest.
“Are you ready to go home?”
She nods without opening her eyes. I kiss her forehead, stand up, and turn to help her to her feet.
We stumble over the hill, the city to our backs, slowly being eclipsed by the hillside. Trees are scattered around the base of the hill, more than I remember there being. Brush and weeds start to scrape at our arms. She holds onto me tighter. I can no longer see the moonlight. I turn around, thinking I’ll go back the way I came. But it’s just as dense and foreign as what’s before us, no sign of the hill or the crowd or the stars. Everything is dark blue and dark green and dark. I hear owls and cars and rustling. She looks up to me, squeezes my arm, and
I am alone in an empty hotel room. The bed is messy. A clock blinks 6:30am.
I notice my packed suitcase sitting next to my backpack. The dressers are empty. My shoes are by the bed, a sock sticking out of each. Something fades from my memory. I can’t remember what.
I sit down and pull my knees towards my chest, my back against the hotel bed. I slide the socks over my feet, tie a fast knot in my shoes, and use the bed to pull myself up. I tap my shoes on the ground, making sure they are tight, and start jogging down the bridge.
It’s warm. It always is here. I peek over the edge of the railing and watch kayakers drift below in the dark blue river. Vertigo brings my focus back to my run. Athletic pedestrians run opposite to me as I jog towards the city. Skyscrapers framed by spring trees wait for me. Today is the day I will finally make it to the Capital building. I pace my breath accordingly. I reach the end of the bridge and stop at the traffic light, jogging in place. My breath is heavy. The edge of downtown Austin sits before me. Traffic slowly moves past. I hear another runner arrive behind me. I press the button to cross the street. An automated voice says
“Wait. The valet is bringing a car around now. You can sit over there.”
I follow his directions and pull my suitcase to the bench by the hotel entrance, taking a seat. Someone new enters the hotel, and the smell of warm breakfast pours through the revolving door. My stomach rumbles.
I have to eat. I turn and look over my driver’s seat. Blue Jeans looks up at me from the back of the SUV. I consider taking some of her food. A car drives by us and stares through our windows. I wonder if they can see how hungry I am. I debate spending my last four dollars on street food or gas. Prudence wins.
I rummage through the storage bin that normally holds food. It is still empty. A homeless man pisses on the pavement outside of the car. I wonder how long before I join him. I turn back to face the steering wheel, my knees jingling the keys as I do so.
I take the keys from the valet’s outstretched hand and pull my suitcase towards the rental. It’s a white Toyota Camry. It is clean. I open the trunk. It smells like freshly-vacuumed carpet. I lift my suitcase and place it in the back of the car. I slide my backpack off and set it beside the suitcase. I shut the trunk, move to the front of the car, open the driver-side door, and sit behind the wheel. The air inside the car is humid and salty. I pull the door closed behind me, face the steering wheel, and start walking towards the beach.
It’s my first time seeing the Pacific Ocean.
In my mind, I know I can’t see any further than when looking out across the Gulf of Mexico. But my heart is aware of the vastness. I can feel it. I can feel the island of Japan, China’s coast, Oceania. The other side of the world. The cool water washing over my bare feet is the same water running against foreign shores.
My feet sink into the blonde sand as the sea foam crackles and recedes. I feel Blue Jeans’s leash tug my belt loop in the opposite direction. I turn to look at her. A silent meow passes through her shocked expression. I worry she won’t like Seattle. Cars honk at one another along the PCH.
I look up and realize the light is green. The car behind me honks again.
I pull through the light and make a left. I merge onto the highway, the small Toyota racing south. I mentally run through the short list of my belongings, making sure nothing has been left behind. Water bottle. Laptop. Sweaters. Shirts. Jeans. Socks. Cables. Wallet. Phone. Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, headphones mouse journal pens-
I roll the windows down to drown the thinking. The wind deafens my ears and tears at my hair. Rain beats against my face. It’s loud enough that no one can hear me howling with the wind. I look down and watch the waves crash against the cliffside hundreds of feet below.
Everything that isn’t the steel blue ocean is a shade of grey or green. Pine trees surround me. The thin wooden railing rocks under my hands. I imagine myself falling into the waves below, dissolving into foam. I lift one arm, thinking of Titanic. But the wind is stronger than me, and I quickly re-grip the flimsy wooden rail. I look back at the swaying rope bridge that has brought me to this point, and imagine it blowing away in the storm. I wonder if it always rains here. I picture whales swimming beneath the choppy waters below. We’re almost there. Seattle. I am closer to Alaska than I am to Texas. The clouds break, and I see the sun peeking through. For a moment, the grey disappears.
I reach for the sunglasses hanging from the neck of my shirt and carefully put them on, not taking my eyes off of the road. I read the signs, looking for Terminal A. Cars change lanes at the last second. I am careful not to wreck the rental into frantic flyers. I find the exit for my terminal and drive towards the heart of the airport. I park next to the other rental cars. A man in an Enterprise uniform approaches and takes the keys. He is smiling. I grab my backpack and suitcase out of the trunk and head inside the airport. I find the counter for my airline. No one is there. A taped sign informs me, “Lunch Break”. I take a seat next to a security guard. He is eating a sandwich. He looks up.
“Going on vacation?”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“I mean I’m not going back. I’m done.”
“You’re just going to quit?”
I nod. He strokes his mustache.
“You realize what this means, right?”
“And can I get a name for that?”
“Charlie,” she scribbles my name on a paper cup. “Gotcha. Alright Charlie, just wait there and we’ll call your name when it’s ready.”
I nod and walk to the other side of the counter, dragging my luggage with me. I look at the other travelers. Everyone is tired. I grab my coffee when it’s called and head back to the counter for my airline. The security guard has left. I wait for the employees to return from lunch. I take a sip of my coffee and move to set it on the ground, carefully balancing the cardboard cup in the grass. My hand is shaking. She notices, asking what’s wrong. I take a deep breath.
“There’s something I haven’t told you.”
The employees return and switch the light above the counter on. Travelers start forming a line. I join them.
“I don’t live here.”
The line shuffles forward.
“I don’t live anywhere.”
I finish writing my name on a paper tag and tie it to my suitcase. I move to the front of the line and place my luggage on the scale.
“Do you have a ticket?”
“It’s on my phone.” I reach into my pocket and answer my phone.
“Is this Charlie?”
“Hi Charlie, I found your number on Blue Jeans’s collar, I wish I had good news-“
BEEP. The digital ticket scans successfully.
“-don’t know how to say this, she’s… she was hit by-“
An employee grabs my suitcase. It disappears into the abyss of the airport.
“-so, so sorry. I moved her off of the road, she’s across the street from the firehouse-“
I start walking through the airport, looking for the security terminal.
“-you probably shouldn’t see her like this, it’s- do you have a friend who can pick her up for you?”
I step onto a moving walkway and grip the rail with white knuckles. I wait to be carried to the other side, listening to the quiet woosh of the machinery. It sounds like
Ladybird Lake’s gentle waves drift against the shore. I watch them from the bench I slept on last night. It’s strange to me, how no one has asked to sit on this bench. It has a view of Austin’s skyscrapers rising up from the lake’s horizon. I hear the faint echo of traffic and horns from my seat, just a few miles away. My heart catches, in apprehension and in awe. The unreality of the situation is overwhelming. I think of the house I grew up in, my parents. I wonder how long before they realize I am gone. I half wonder if I’ll be gone long enough for anyone to notice. Maybe I’ll go back home tonight and pretend this never happened.
I’ve been listening to the same song for the last four hours. It’s a song about love by the beach, sung by a stranger I barely know. I have no other plans for the day. I can hear the ocean in the background, and wonder if I’ll ever see California. The song fills me with fear and desire. It’s all my dreams wrapped into a melody.
I take a deep breath and look around. Runners periodically jog on the trail behind me, quickly disappearing in the cedar trees. Maybe I should take up running, I think to myself. The song loops again.
It’s my first day living as a homeless artist in a city I have never been to before. I spend most of the day listening to this song, imagining what the person singing it might look like. I picture myself working up the courage to venture into downtown. I don’t know that, soon, I will know every street and intersection in the greater Austin area by heart.
Blue Jeans sharpens her claws against the trunk of the nearest tree.
I remember this moment with violent jealousy. I think about all of the places I never knew I would go. The people I never knew I would meet. The goodbyes I hadn’t said yet. But none of this concerns me. I’m a stranger, a kid, sitting on the same bench I slept on the night before, listening to a song from a girl I’ve never met. I have no idea how long this will last. It has never occurred to me that it won’t last forever.
I will sleep here again tonight, I think. The song loops again.
A young woman calls to me from across the crowded airport. She is waving to me from behind a help desk. I am standing at the end of the walkway, the rubber track rolling against my heels. I walk over to the waving woman. I don’t remember why I’m here.
“Hey, sorry about that, you just seemed a little lost. Is there anything I can help you with?”
I look around. I see a crowd of people, moving through an airport. Laughter rises above the murmur, and though my skin remembers the sound, no face comes to mind. My eyes turn to the ceiling. Yellow leaves are raining, fluttering down in the middle of the building. Wind begins pouring through the anxious travelers as they slow down, frozen in time. My hair is cast about me. I feel a chill. At the far side of the airport, behind the still mob, I see the shadows of the mountains of El Paso, watching over the hills of West Texas. The sun is sinking between twin peaks, the airport is cast in vibrant orange. Long shadows stretch across the white walls and laminated floors. Everything is burnt orange and shifting black. I look away, gazing past the help desk. Outside, through large windows, I see a girl, waiting for me in a churchyard. She holds a paintbrush and a cup of coffee. She smiles through hurt eyes, and I remember where the laughter came from. Something brushes against my legs. I look down to see Blue Jeans purring for my attention. Tears fall down my face. The crowd begins to roar, the voices crash and swell, and a sea of people becomes a sea. I grip my stomach as I smell the food trucks of Austin, carried by the wind. A stranger’s hand reaches out, offering a twenty. My friends and family stand beside me. They wish me well and ask when I’ll be back. In my pocket I feel a letter, from a friend I might never see again. My arms are covered in the tattoos of every place I’ve ever been. I hear the sound of a car that won’t start. I hear a hundred miles pass. I hear a storm in the distance, tires screeching while I fall asleep. I see stars above a desert, graffiti in an alley, protesters at the park. I see a burning building. I see old friends abandoned, a lifetime left behind. I see my initials etched into a tree. I see a city shrink, a wolf in a parking lot. There are gunshots in the distance, fists banging on my window. I am running up a mountain, my breath begging me to quit. Rain soaks through my clothes. My knees hang off a cliff, my arms pull me up a bridge. My body grows numb in the cold, my mind goes ragged in the heat. My clothes fill with holes as I become nothing but skin and bone. I am covered in dirt. I am robbed of pride, and I am void of shame. A thousand eyes watch me as a thousand more ignore me. My heart pulls through my body. Time and space escape me. Someone’s arms wrap around me. I grip soft hands with shaking breath. There is a bullet of loneliness buried in my chest. I punch the earth and scream in the night. I beat my chest and run from the sound. I dash my hopes and forget my dreams. I am everything and nothing. I am everyone and no one. I am lost. I am free. I am youth. I am
A clock blinks 6:30am.