My Name Is Eri- Ch. 1: "Remember, I"m a Stranger"

Sep 5th, 2014
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  1. The charter bus rattled down an eastward stretch of Americana for eight hours. The view out the windows was unbroken except for the cracks of dry ground and the occasional dirtied row of jagged, toothy mountains. Five hours ago the air conditioner wheezed itself to death. The toilet gurgled into a rank stillness an hour later.
  3. The windows were unlocked and slid open. The natural airflow helped suppress the smell, but only spread the heat between the outside and in. The aisle rumpled and crinkled as rears peeled against their seat's sticky leather upholstery.
  5. Most people closed their eyes, hoping to slip into a more comfortable oblivion for a few hours more. Others sought distractions by playing on phones or nodding along to music from the buds plugged into their ears. You'd be part of that group, but your own music player decided to follow the toilet's example and died, leaving you to fend off boredom, dry heat, and bad smells on your own.
  7. It wasn't working out well. You thumbed through your backpack and pulled out a book, but the words on the page smeared into thick oil across your eyes after reading first dozen pages -your mind refused to comprehend anything under such circumstances.
  9. The passenger manifest was sparse for a bus of this size. A hair less than two dozen people rode in a vehicle rated for fifty. You looked around. An old man stared straightforward in his seat. He might be mistaken for deceased if he didn't blink once every few moments. Another woman scrawled with a nervous hand onto a notepad. A young guy about your age plugged away at a game.
  11. And then there was the girl across the aisle. Your gaze settled on the back of her head like a fly. She hadn't moved in any real way since first taking a seat. The girl was bundled and wrapped in more layers than a mountaineer. She wore a thick jacket over a blue hoodie with the hood up. Her hands fitted into a pair of striped cotton gloves. The off-green cargo pants on her legs tucked into her chest. Heavy boots rested on the edge of her seat. Her arms were wrapped tight around herself, cotton-tipped fingers poked out from under her arms. The girl looked like she raided a Goodwill for all she could carry.
  13. The other passengers unbuttoned their shirts, rolled up their sleeves, and fanned themselves with baseball caps or floppy magazines while sighing outside of opened windows. This girl only deigned to open her window by a slit -any more and the wind could threaten to throw her hood back. Sweat must've rolled down her forehead in great beads. The interior of her clothes had to be an oven. You stared in passive puzzlement and tugged the collar of your shirt.
  15. Her head flicked to the right. You looked straight ahead and feigned innocence, as if staring at her was equal to a misdemeanor. Your eyes slid towards her as she raised her right hand to scratch at the back of her hoodie, the same spot where your gaze planted a mosquito's bite of curiosity. Cloth rubbed on cloth.
  17. You blinked off the fit of irrational panic. Boredom must have taken a strong hold if you were so intent on a girl who looked dead set to melt inside of her own clothes. Must be cold natured. You didn't even know what she looked like. Only the smallest glimpse of her face was seen when she first sat down across from you. Oh well, it's not your business. This trip wasn't meant to sharpen your people watching skills.
  19. You leaned back in the sweaty seat and closed your eyes when the bus driver's voice crackled over the speaker system, announcing a stop at an upcoming gas station.
  21. Your bladder praised God at the news.
  23. The breaks squawked and the engine chuffed to a stop in the parking lot. Passengers stood and hustled to the door as it squealed open. You let a moment pass before stepping off, not wanting to shuffle against other people's shoulders. The girl was still fixed in her seat when you left the bus and didn't move an iota when you returned.
  25. The vehicle pulled back onto the dry road and drove away from the setting sun.
  27. The late afternoon sky turned from a harsh, burnt orange to the cool purples and darkened clouds of evening. Heat evaporated off the cracked concrete of the road and metal ceiling of the bus. A few trees peppered the landscape. Dark green leaves blocked the roadside and turned into blurred shadows. The lights of phones and tablet screens dimmed one by one as people dozed off in the cooling night air. You followed suit and snagged a few flickers of wild colored dreams.
  29. But not for long, however.
  31. The bus took a heavy turn, lurching in fits and grunts. It was the middle of the night -maybe it was late, or very early. The bus pulled into the lot of a terminal. Harsh florescent lights filled the interior, you blinked and shielded your eyes. A few other buses were in the lot. It didn't seem the type of station to get too busy.
  33. The bus chugged to a halt with a metallic sigh as the driver killed the engine. He came over the intercom again, announcing it was the last stretch for the night, and if this wasn't everyone's last stop, then he really hoped their next ride was better than this one.
  35. The doors opened.
  37. People stood and left with creaky eagerness. You remained seated again, waiting for the first wave of passengers to leave. You stood up and stretched your back, taking pleasure as it cracked once or twice.
  39. How far have you traveled? How much further was left to go? Where were you going again?
  41. Oh. Right.
  43. You slung your backpack over your shoulder and stepped into the aisle. You walked two yards before taking pause and turning around.
  45. The girl was still in her seat, arms wrapped tight, legs tucked in and showed no intention to stir. Was she asleep? You looked at the door, then back at her. You could have left, then and there.
  47. Instead you made the most important decision in your life and walked to her seat.
  49. “Hey,” you said. “Last stop. Everyone gets off now.” She didn't move. The bus driver was busy at the front, in no apparent rush. You raised a tepid hand and tapped her shoulder. The air around her had a marked warmth this close to her, to little wonder.
  51. Her head ticked like a second hand on a broken clock. She stayed still before taking a long time to turn her head and look you in the face.
  53. Even with the heavy wash of the parking lot fluorescent lights, she had the largest, most vivid hazel eyes you've ever seen. Her firm eyebrows didn't move. She blinked -her lashes dark and full. Her face's skin matched her eyes, a smooth chestnut tan set inside a dark hood bathed in station light. Not a bead of sweat was on her forehead. Slim lips moved.
  55. “If that's the way it is,” she said in a flat way, too quiet to qualify as a whisper. Her legs unfolded to the ground for the first time in hours. Her boots thudded against the floor and she raised from the seat. She was a tall girl who slid past you with ease and without further comment. Only the sounds of her shuffling clothing and footsteps followed her off the bus.
  57. Inside the depot several passengers settled into seats to await their next ride. An electronic display on the wall indicated a handful of arrival and departure times. Your next bus wasn't due until morning. Plenty of time to eat, nap, and get a decent charge on your phone. But every visible outlet had one electronic or other plugged in. You grunted beneath your breath.
  59. The bus terminal had a small convenience store, but it was closed for the night. Vending machines lined the wall, but all carried nothing more substantial than chips, chocolate bars, and gum packets. Your stomach tightened at the prospects. Through the windows of the terminal a good sized gas station could be seen on the other side of the highway.
  61. Perfect, you thought. You stepped through the doors and into the night air. A small troupe of people stood in groups or alone, smoking cigarettes, chatting amongst themselves, or holding heavy bags and awaiting rides to pick come and take them away from this small blip of lights in the middle of nowhere.
  63. A truck roared down the four-lane highway. You ran across the road after it passed, heading for the blue and green neon lights of the gas station. The handful of cars in the parking lot were speckled with nocturnal lights. The door rang in notice of your entrance.
  65. Inside were several of your bus mates who thumbed through magazines, filled cups at the soda fountain, and made idle chatter with the station clerk. You gave him a token nod.
  67. Hot dogs turned slowly under a red heat lamp. Those you ignored. They've probably been spinning since morning. It was a wonder that they had any grease left to sizzle. Instead you grabbed an extra-large bean burrito and put it in the microwave, slammed the door and punched a few numbers. The machine buzzed and the plastic wrapping inside crinkled.
  69. You meandered up and down the aisles, grabbed a pack of jerky and perused the snack cakes. You hadn't eaten a star-crunch in a while. There was only one left. Sugar wasn't the best idea at this hour, but no one was around to tell you otherwise.
  71. The door rang again. You threw a lazy eye towards the entrance. The girl from the bus entered. You stared a little longer than intended. She passed the clerk, checking out a customer, with a brisk walk and high head.
  73. The layered girl stepped past while you looked at the Little Debbies. She stopped in front of the chip display. Out of the corner of your eye you saw her gloved hand reach out, grab a bag, and tuck it into the fold of her jacket.
  75. She paid you no mind and walked to the drink freezers at the back. She opened and closed one quickly. Took a few steps and opened another. Once more where the frozen foods were. The girl looped up and down the aisles with the slick efficiency of a hit and run mission, pausing only for blinks in front of end caps. The clerk trailed her with suspicion from his register.
  77. Her boots thumped down your aisle again, and came to stand right next to you. Her incredible body heat washed against you. You caught the side of her gaze as her hand flicked out and grabbed the last star-crunch before heading to the front of the store.
  79. She placed a bag of trail mix, a pack of m&m's, and bottle of water on the counter. The clerk raised an eyebrow and rung the items up.
  81. “Will that be all?” He said, not with total ease. She nodded. He rang her up and put the snacks in a crinkling thin plastic bag while she paid.
  83. You meandered to the microwave by the front and watched her head to the door. Her hand reached for the handle.
  85. “Are you sure that's all, ma'am?” asked the clerk. She pulled her hand back and turned in full view towards the clerk and yourself. Her face was impassive and the clerk was unimpressed. She put the plastic bag on the ground and stood straight up. She thumped her hands up and down her jacket and jeans. If anything was stashed away, everyone would've heard the harsh crackle of foil and thunk of drink bottles. She even emptied out her pockets for good measure.
  87. The attendant frowned, still unconvinced. “Roll up your sleeves.” The few other customers watched with rapt attention. This was the closest thing that passed for entertainment all day.
  89. She tilted her head and grabbed the cuff of her sleeves. Your heart caught for a beat as she yanked the sleeve past her elbow.
  91. You didn't know what you were expecting, but never before had a normal looking arm surprised you. She rolled back her other sleeve. You half expected her to say ta-da because there was nothing there. No filched snacks or magic rabbits.
  93. But she only asked “Anything else?” in a smooth, smokey voice.
  95. The clerk blew out of his nose. “Just go,” he said and turned away from her. She picked up the bag with gloved fingers. She caught your stare with a flash from her full hazel eyes. The girl winked with a razor's swiftness, sharp enough sting your eyes even from that distance. She turned and strolled out, the door rang as she left. Your breath was holding.
  97. Everyone jumped when the microwave beeped. Your burrito was ready.
  99. -
  101. A small fleet of eighteen wheelers blared down the highway before you jogged across the lanes and back to the bus station. You shivered and rubbed your arms. The night had gained significant bite. You paused in front of the soft yellow light emanating from the front door. For eight hours you were stuffed inside a metal tube like processed fish. You were in sore need of open space and fresh air, even if if the scent of cigarette smoke lingered by the terminal front.
  103. You walked off to the side, away from the other hangers-on and sat against the rough, warm wall of the depot's exterior. You legs jutted out on the cool concrete of the sidewalk. You pulled out your oversized, third-rate burrito and a bottle of Dr. Pepper from a plastic bag. The night air hissed as you twisted the cap open and took a swig. Sharp, cold fizzies slid down your throat and you felt every bubble. You were about to rip open the burrito's wrapper when the bundled girl took position to your left
  105. You looked up her tall form. She stared ahead at nothing. A bag dangled on her elbow. From within her jacket she pulled out a big bottle of chocolate milk and took a gulp, then stared at nothing a while longer. An extra large bag of potato chips materialized from the folds of her clothing. She slid down to the ground next to you, her legs tucked into her chest.
  107. She was flushed with warmth.
  109. You watched with distanced confusion. She popped the bag open and flicked a few chips into her mouth. She crunched away, lost in thought. After a while the chips tired her because she set the bag aside and pulled a handful of full-length Slim Jims from her sleeves.
  111. One of them slid in front of you.
  113. “Want one?” She asked.
  115. You blinked and straightened up against the wall. “Huh?” You went a little slack jawed.
  117. “Slim Jim. They taste like plastic mud, but I have plenty. Do you want one?”
  119. You looked at her placid face, then back to the faux-jerky. You saw her pat herself down. You saw her roll her sleeves up and empty her pockets. Curiosity turned peaked. “ did you..?”
  121. She shrugged. “I have my tricks.” Not knowing what else to do, you took the plastic stick from her hand.
  123. “Most of the stuff in the store was past the use-by date anyway,” she said, taking another drink of milk. “Check your burrito.”
  125. You looked at the date on your wrapper and groaned.
  127. “Calm down. It can't taste that much worse.” She pulled an oversized burrito package out of her cargo pants. “Hope not, at least.”
  129. She ripped the plastic open. Steam rose into the cool air.
  131. Your brow drew together in disbelief. She was nowhere near the gas station's microwave, there was no way it was heated indoors. Could the inside of her clothing be hot enough to cook the thing? “Do you have a toaster oven hidden in there too?” you asked. She shook her head.
  133. “Afraid not,” she replied, almost disappointed.
  135. “Then how did-”
  137. “Have my tricks,” she said with whisked simplicity.
  139. You laughed. She was good. Out of all the years in your life, you've only shoplifted once. It was a pack of peanut butter cups when you were eleven years old. You couldn't even find the stomach to eat the things. Paranoia drove you to the point of burying them in the backyard after everyone went to bed.
  141. You tore open your burrito and took a bite. The beef tasted only a little expired. The two of you ate in silence. Plastic wrappers crinkled on the sidewalk.
  143. You put your trash in the plastic bag along with a handful of napkins. You looked towards her. Her head angled down. Her fingers traced the yellow and white graphic pattern on the chip bag. “So, what's your name?” you asked.
  145. She snapped up as if pulled from reverie. “My name?”
  147. “Yeah.”
  149. She blinked and her lips moved soundlessly. For a moment she looked lost. “My name...” She tightened her lips. “Erica.” She nodded. “Yes. Erica. My name's Erica.” She looked at you, eyes bright underneath her hoodie. “Hey,” she said.
  151. “Hey,” you replied. You told her your name and she ate a potato chip in response. The two of you fell back into silence.
  153. Your mind wandered while you gazed at the studded night sky. Your hand reached into your pocket and pulled out your phone to play some music. Of course the battery was dead. It must've bee very late to have forgotten that.
  155. Erica took note of the small black rectangle in your hand.
  157. “Can I see?” she asked.
  159. You handed the phone over to the shoplifter. It was a useless stinking piece anyway. You'd almost pay someone to steal it from you. She turned it over in her hands with great interest.
  161. “Cool phone,” she said.
  163. You snorted and replied “Not really.” The word “cool” was never used in conjunction with your phone. The words didn't even belong in the same paragraph. She pressed the buttons.
  165. “It won't turn on. The battery's dead. I'll have to charge it once some plugs free up inside,” you explained.
  167. Her fingers slid around the phone's edges and circled its buttons. She pulled off her striped gloves, balling them up gently and setting them in a pocket. Turned out she was wearing three pairs. Long, dark fingers were revealed. She flexed her hands before running a thumb across the charger outlet. You heard a small pop of static. Her nails tapped the case and pressed a button. The screen flashed to life.
  169. “Nice wallpaper,” she observed.
  171. You eyes widened in search for words. That was cheating. Your phone was deader than door nails. Its soul left this earth several hundred miles back and was floating in heaven with that awful toilet and AC unit.
  173. “Wait, wait, wait, hold up, what did you just do? And if you say it's another one of your tricks, then you better start explaining, because I want to learn that one.” You half-entertained the idea that the static built up from her shuffling clothes zapped the battery with enough juice to pull it from the land of the dead.
  175. “I just turned it on.”
  177. You shook your head. “I've been trying to turn it on all afternoon. I couldn't get a flicker out of it.”
  179. Erica shrugged as she navigated her way to your music. “Maybe you don't know how to work it.”
  181. Blankness overtook your mind and your mouth hung open in a dumfounded way. “Sure. I don't know how to work a phone with a dead battery. That sort of tech-savvy is completely beyond me.”
  183. “You should read the manual better next time.” Her lips pursed.
  185. The cloth rim of her hood splashed with the light of your phone. The screen blinked and slid around pictures and sounds at the peck of her fingertips. Clips of music chirped on the corner of the bus terminal. Songs shuffled at a rapid pace until the opening notes of one caught her attention.
  187. “This song's pretty good,” she said.
  189. You checked the track listed and nodded. “Yeah, I like that one a lot.” She looked too distracted by your phone to elaborate on her electronic Lazarus trick.
  191. “A lot of your songs suck, kinda.” Her tone was observant and bland. There was little room to defend your musical taste. You couldn't muster the effort to feel affronted. “But not all of them,” she added.
  193. “Thanks,” you replied.
  195. She put the phone down between you both. Words that belonged to neither of you floated upwards, yet the air felt quiet asides from the indecipherable chatter from fellow flotsam and the passing roar of cars and their trailing headlights.
  197. “I'm going to look through your pictures,” she declared and snatched your phone. In half a second her hands danced on the touchscreen and spilled some of your private indulgences.
  199. “Oh, she's hot. Wow. You're into that huh? Heh.”
  201. Your hands scrabbled to reclaim your phone and scraps of dignity. “Hey, hey, hey!” you cried. “You don't, that one?” You checked the picture on the screen. “Yeah, it's great.” You shook your head. “No, I mean it's not great. Jesus, you don't go slip and sliding through a someone's pictures!”
  203. She shrugged. “Why not? I'm a stranger, what do you care what I think?”
  205. Your words crammed in an effort to come out. “Those are private. C'mon. And why would you care what I have on my phone? It's all personal and. Etiquette. And.” You blabbered and felt your cheeks redden.
  207. “Should've hid them better, then.”
  209. You gawked. “I did hide them.” You backed far out of the album, embarrassed, but relieved.
  211. “Not good enough.” she put a handful of chips in her mouth and crunched away while you tried to explain the meaning of personal privacy. The song still played, oblivious to your confusion.
  213. “I was just curious,” she said.
  215. “Well, ask next time.” You stared straight ahead and put the phone away from her. “Crap.” An unprecedented indignity flurried in your stomach.
  217. She turned towards you, bouncing her hood. “May I look at the dirty pictures on your phone?”
  219. “No.”
  221. She looked forward again and knocked her knees together. “If I wasn't a stranger would you let me look?”
  223. “What do you think?”
  225. “I'm trying to get a handle on the way you think. You're being inconsistent.” She gave a look that declared you to be an irrational human.
  227. “No, I'm being protective over what's mine,” you tried to say with some firmness, but your voice limped off in uncertainty.
  229. “Do you want another Slim Jim? Will that help?”
  231. You narrowed your eyes. “Why are you so interested?”
  233. She shrugged quick, like a bird. “Just a little bored, I guess.”
  235. You pointed to the highway. “You were sitting on a bus for eight hours and didn't move a muscle, where did all this curiosity come from?”
  237. Her lips came together. “So you were watching me the whole time?”
  239. You closed your eyes. “No. No, I wasn't 'watching' you. I just noticed. That you weren't moving. Honestly, when I poked you on the bus I wanted to make sure you weren't dead.”
  241. She thought about that. “I wasn't, though.”
  243. “I see that now,” you said, shaking your head.
  245. “But thanks for checking.”
  247. You waved your left hand. “Sure. Yeah, no problem.”
  249. “But,” she probed, “what if I was dead?”
  251. “Then I'd tell the bus driver and get off that thing real fast.”
  253. Silence would've fallen if it weren't for the music. You tried to relax but that would take a long while to achieve, especially sitting out on the concrete. Going inside did not present any particular allure at the moment.
  255. “I was thinking,” Erica said.
  257. “Hm?”
  259. Her head gestured to the terminal behind her. “On the bus. I was thinking.”
  261. You turned towards her. “About what? The smell?”
  263. “What smell?”
  265. You shook your head and told her you couldn't believe she didn't notice the god-awful reek on the bus. Her eyebrows lowered in straightforward admittance.
  267. “I get a bit lost when I think.”
  269. You pulled your knee up as a resting spot for your left arm. “You must've been real lost then. Take me with you next time. That ride sucked.”
  271. She laughed sounded like someone throwing a handful of gravel.. “Alright. I can do that.” She showed a cut of straight white teeth in her smile. “Tell me where you're going.”
  273. “Where I'm going?” You sounded surprised.
  275. “Yes.”
  277. You chewed your tongue and thought 'screw it.' You told her the name of the city you've been winding towards. She pulled some napkins out of her pocket and wiped chip crumbs off her hands. For a moment it seemed she lost all interest before speaking up.
  279. “That's funny. I'm heading there too,” she announced.
  281. You frowned. “You're lying.”
  283. “No, I am.”
  285. “Lemme see your ticket, then.”
  287. She reached two fingers into the depths of her coat and slid the ticket towards you like a knife point. You read the destination, and yes, it was identical to your own. You handed it back to her with loose suspicion.
  289. “Okay,” you conceded. “I never thought it was anyplace special myself.” You crossed your arms.
  291. She leaned close. “So why are you going there?”
  293. “There's just a little place I want to check on. I have some business to take care of,” you said with more weight than intended. You looked away from her.
  295. Erica's hazel eyes flashed with the yellow lights of a passing car. “Is or...” she pressed on the foot of the next word, “personal business?”
  297. You looked at her from the corner of your vision. She edged near and smelled your hesitation.
  299. “Remember, I'm a stranger. Who cares what I think, right?”
  301. You relented, figuring she wouldn't ease up unless you threw her a few bread crumbs. “It's personal. Very personal.”
  303. “Oh wow, are you going to beat someone up?”
  305. “What? No, of course not.”
  307. She reeled back and raised a finger. “Meeting an old girlfriend?”
  309. “No.”
  311. She raised another finger. “Job interview? Didn't think so. You're not dressed for it.” Three fingers raised. “Seeing family? Did someone die?”
  313. You dipped into silence. “There's just...a little place I want to see.” She spread her hand away from you, backing off.
  315. “Okay. Fair enough. Mysterious cross country journey, I can dig it.” She hid away her small horde of contraband. “Are you sure you don't want another Slim Jim?” She waved the red package around. You shook your head and she stashed the jerky away.
  317. You rubbed your arms to shake off the cold. “What about you?” You asked. “What's the reason for your trip?”
  319. Her hood ticked like she wasn't expecting the question. “My reason?” You saw her lips move beneath the cowl. Finger by finger, she put each layer of her gloves back on. “I'm looking for something.”
  321. “What kind of something?”
  323. “I don't know,” she said.
  325. “Are you being mysterious or do you really not know why you're,” you gestured to the landscape, “why you're sitting on the ground in the middle of nowhere to start with?”
  327. “Sort of?”
  329. “Oh boy.”
  331. “I don't see the problem.”
  333. “I see a lot of problems. Like not knowing what to do next, that's a little scary.”
  335. “Maybe.” She knocked her knees together once. “But you're a stranger, so I don't care what you think.” Her neck bobbed left and right. “It's Takes a bit of impulse and improvisation. Nothing a smart person can't whip up. It keeps things interesting, I suppose.” She frowned. “You keep shivering, are you okay?” You assured her you felt fine, but she shook her head. “Dummy, you should've brought a coat. And you think I'm being irresponsible.”
  337. “I can go back inside.”
  339. “But do you want to?”
  341. You checked your phone. It was fully charged. Other than the comparative warmth inside, you had no desire to be in the terminal. The people around you dropped to zero. Anyone fortunate to have a ride from this purgatory was long gone. The chill drove everyone else inside.
  343. “Here.” Erica scooted closer and linked her arm with your own. Body heat flowed through you and stilled the shivering. Her raised leg bounced against your own. The baggy fold of her cargo pants ruffled. You were about to say something before she leaned her head on your shoulder. You felt the soft cushioning of her hair beneath the hood. Cotton tickled your ear.
  345. “Is that better?”
  347. Your free fingers rubbed against your palm. Her approach was uninvited, but the warmth was welcome. “Yeah, actually,” you admitted.
  349. “It's nicer out here anyway.” Her eyes looked up. You could only nod. Her voice floated downwards. “I can think better out here.”
  351. You shifted looks to her. “Still not done thinking?”
  353. She shook her head. “No. I've got a lot to do. But don't let me keep you up, if you're feeling tired.” Your lids were heavy, and mind a bit stiff. Odd how exhaustion can effect you even after sitting down all day. “Our bus isn't coming until morning anyway.”
  355. You wondered if you should trust her to wake you up. There was a possibility she'd swipe your bag, your phone, hop on the bus, and leave you alone on the sidewalk.
  357. A possibility, yes.
  359. Despite knowing her for all of an hour, you don't quite think she'd do that. 'Screw it,' you thought for the second time that night. It's not like this entire trip was based on good judgment. Besides, the thought of losing your meager possessions didn't cause much stress.
  361. “I won't look through your dirty phone pictures if you doze off. Promise.”
  363. That made you feel much better.
  365. “But do me a favor,” she asked.
  367. “Hm?”
  369. Her voice was whispy. “The song playing right now? It sucks. Turn it off.”
  371. You fumbled at the phone and quieted the device.
  373. “Thanks,” she whispered.
  375. Your eyes closed by themselves. The world dropped into a natural silence, toned with long-traveling winds, distant passing clouds and the rise and fall of her chest beneath layers and layers of clothing. The sound of Erica's slow, steady breathing brushed away any unease. You were almost aware of her fingers wrapping around your own before drifting into dreams.
  377. -
  379. Erica woke you up six minutes before departure time. She nudged you in the side with the tip of her ungainly boot. The sun was barely over the horizon line when you rose off the ground in a drowsy panic. Your rear and calves crowed with stiff, prickled pains that came with sleeping on the sidewalk.
  381. Morning obligations alerted themselves after your legs came to working order. “Uh,” squeezed your eyes. “We have six minutes?”
  383. “Five minutes, now.”
  385. “Ergh. I gotta use the bathroom,” you groaned. You had no intention of being the guy to break next bus's toilet.
  387. “I don't. I'll be on the bus. See you there.” She waved to you and went inside. You trailed in a scatter-shot hustle.
  389. By a miracle of determination and speed you took care of business with enough time to wash your hands and zip your fly. You almost tripped over yourself in the rush to get outside and on board. You saw Erica in her seat through the window. She noted you, held up a pair of fingers and mouthed “Two minutes.” You raised your hands in a “don't rag me” gesture.
  391. You climbed into the bus and thumped down in the seat next to her. She didn't bother looking away from the window. Her sitting position was identical from yesterday.
  393. “You did that on purpose, didn't you?”
  395. “Waking you up?” she muttered. “Yeah.”
  397. “No, I meant late.”
  399. “You're on the bus, right? You got your plumbing work done. That's just good timing. Feel proud.”
  401. “I don't need that kind of stress at this hour.”
  403. She shook her head without looking at you. “Gripe, gripe, gripe...”
  405. You sighed and rubbed your eyes. “Fine, fine. Thank you for waking me up. Kind of in time. Next time I'll set my alarm clock, though.”
  407. “If that makes you feel better.”
  409. “I don't think it would, really. Not on my phone.” She made a noncommittal noise. “So how'd you sleep?” you asked.
  411. “I didn't.”
  413. You frowned. “Really? All night, you just sat there?” She nodded. “Well...I guess a hobo didn't come up and stab me in the night, so thanks for keeping an eye out like that.”
  415. “There were a few homeless,” she said. “Me and them talked for a bit. I gave them some snacks and they went on.”
  417. “Oh. That was nice of you.”
  419. “Nice...” her tone was ponderous. She dug into the depths of her many clothes and handed you something wrapped in plastic. “Here. Since I guess you couldn't snag any breakfast.”
  421. She gave you the Star Crunch, grabbed from last night. You accepted it, looking a little hazy-eyed. “Thanks.” You flipped it over in your hand. “Wait. You're not giving this to me because you think I'm homeless, are you?”
  423. She rested her head against the seat. “Are you homeless?”
  425. “No.”
  427. “Okay then.”
  429. The wheels turned. The bus moved. You pulled the chocolate snack cake out of the plastic. “It's been a while since I've had one of these. I always loved them as a kid.”
  431. “You had a doe-eyed look when you were staring at 'em last night.”
  433. “Is that why you grabbed it?”
  435. Her fingers drummed on the side of her coat. “It drew my attention. I guess I wanted to see the look on your face.”
  437. At the moment, you could only see the back of her hoodie and the light reflection of her face in the window. “And how was it? The look on my face?”
  439. “A little flabbergasted,” she said. You didn't like the idea of someone using that word to describe you. “A little concerned. Especially when that fat guy at the counter tried to call me out. You were staring at me a lot last night, weren't you?” Her eyes in the window widened.
  441. “You kept doing so many interesting things, how could I not?
  443. Her reflection smiled. “Guess I was.”
  445. The bus moved at a steady speed. “You know, I never stole anything before. That was my first time.”
  447. You leaned forward in your seat, a little surprised. “Serious?” She nodded. “That had to be the slickest escape I've ever seen.” Although you couldn't recall seeing anyone steal or escape for that matter.
  449. “I was freaking out on the inside.”
  451. “You didn't show it.”
  453. “Well.” Erica scratched the back of her head. “Maybe that's not the right word. I could've paid for it if push came to shove. I guess I felt something else. A thrill. That's it.”
  455. “Of taking stuff?”
  457. “Not exactly. I was...I was more interested in seeing how everyone else reacted. Little girl in a gas station late at night, so obviously up to no good. Taking things that aren't hers, but then it turns out that she doesn't have anything. Guaranteed to stir a few things.”
  459. “The guy could've called the cops.”
  461. Erica blinked. “That late at night? At his salary? No. He doesn't get paid enough to deal with that kind of bull. The writing was all over his forehead. Would've been exciting if he did, though.”
  463. “I don't think I like your idea of 'exciting.'”
  465. “Most people have a sucky idea of 'exciting,'” she said with surprising harshness. “It's only exciting as long as they're safe. As long as they can come back to,” she raised her sleeve and spun her hand around, “Whatever it is they're comfortable with at a moment's notice. Houses and cars with good AC. Restaurants that pass health inspecitons. People don't want excitement, they want a safety net.”
  467. That sounded like a reasonable position for most people to take. She was skirting around an idea with a fundamental difference from 'excitement.' “You're talking about danger.”
  469. Erica's arm hovered in the air. “Danger? Maybe, but I can handle that. No worries at all, I can handle that,” she sounded a little grim. You suppressed a shiver, but you're not sure why. “But what I'm after is...I'm not sure, actually. Something new.”
  471. You studied her reflection in the window. She wasn't smiling. “Is that why you're on this bus? You're looking for something new?”
  473. She nodded. “Yeah. I'm just...not sure what the 'new' is.” She scratched the length of her arm. “I'm finding little new things, here and there. But I'm waiting for it all to come together. I'm looking for something big.” She drew her arm inwards. The girl said nothing more.
  475. You tried to figure her exact age. She overflowed with a lot more youthful energy than you could ever remember having, that was certain. She spoke with an abandon that felt naïve, maybe even reckless. But she displayed an almost physical drive behind her words that could tear down walls, if need be.
  477. After all, Erica did somehow slide out of the station scott-free, and there was still the matter of her phone-charging fingertips. You wanted to pursue those thoughts, but she showed no intention of explaining herself anytime soon.
  479. You were hungry. You pulled the Star Crunch out and snapped it in half. You bounced the two halves in your hand before coming to a decision.
  481. “I'm not that hungry,” you said and handed her a piece. She turned towards around, looking first at your hand and then at you.
  483. “Oh,” she smiled a little, and took the cake. Then she frowned. “You don't think I'm homeless now, do you?”
  485. You took a bite. “Honestly? I'm not sure what to think of you.”
  487. “Hah,” She said. “That's good.” She took one bite, as if in victory, and turned to the window.
  489. You held the candy close to your mouth. “You're trying to be mysterious again, aren't you?”
  491. She didn't respond.
  493. “Hello?”
  495. Nothing.
  497. “Earth to Erica.”
  499. Her arm drifted in the space between you. Her hand went to your head level. Erica raised a single gloved finger and pressed it against your lips.
  501. “Shhh...” her voice was a textured puff. Her hand withdrew.
  503. You touched your mouth and looked at her in the window. Her eyes were unblinking, and focused on something that you didn't think anyone but her could see. She had Thinking to do. You couldn't say how long she'd be lost in her own little world.
  505. The bus ran over a rough patch of road. You jostled in your seat. Erica didn't budge.
  507. -
  509. Erica woke you up again. Your neck cricked as she tapped you back to the land of the living. You'd kill for a proper bed to sleep in.
  511. “You snore loud,” she stated, lips moving no more than necessary.
  513. “Are we there yet?” You checked the windows. The roadside moved by at a quick pace. The sun was notably lower than before.
  515. “No. I just wanted to ask you something.”
  517. “Like what?”
  519. “Like, what are you looking for? Your personal business, understand? I want to pry in it.”
  521. “Why?”
  523. “I'm bored, and interested. You interest me, even though you're boring.”
  525. “Can't you go back to thinking and let me sleep?”
  527. She shook her head in the gravest manner. “I can't. Not until you tell me all of your personal secrets.”
  529. You frowned. “All of them?”
  531. “Well,” she considered, “Maybe not all of them. But come. Let us make conversation. I told you something about myself, I want to hear about you.” She smiled, but her eyes looked hungry. “It's critical.”
  533. Her voice spooked you a little. You needed to know your position in this battle. “How much time left until we get there?”
  535. She thought. “About six hours. If nothing goes wrong, that is.” She bit her lip and looked for all the world like she hoped something would go wrong.
  537. “And you won't let me sleep until I tell you something, huh?
  539. She shook her head.
  541. You rubbed your forehead. “Jesus. Okay. Let's kill some time then.”
  543. Erica bit her lip in victory. Her legs fluttered up and down as she turned to face your direction.
  545. “I'm going to an ice cream shop,” you said and followed up with a groan because of how lame that sounded to you.
  547. Her eyes narrowed and she scrutinized your face. “You're screwing with me, aren't you?”
  549. You shook your head and fidgeted in the polyester seat, feeling an immense discomfort coming on. Dimples sprouted on Erica's face. She could smell amusement in the air and loved it. “I'm being honest here. Honest. It's so dumb, why would I make it up?”
  551. “Why would you think it's dumb? I mean, irrational maybe, but if it gets your rear in gears and gets you moving, then it can't be completely stupid. At least you have a solid destination in mind, right?”
  553. “I suppose...” You looked away from her.
  555. She slid her wrist under her chin. “So. Tell me about the ice cream shop. Is it fancy? It's not a Baskin Robins, is it? Because if you're going through all this just to get thirty one flavors you can get anywhere else, then yes. Yes, that is dumb.”
  557. “No, it's not a Baskin Robins or Marble Slab or any franchise places like that. It's a local joint. You know -the kind of place ran by an old guy wearing a pin-stripe apron and white hat? One that looks like a paper boat?”
  559. Coming out of your own mouth it sounded like load of pre-packaged, microwaved bullshit. Erica had the good grace not to say as much.
  561. “I thought those places went extinct with like, drive-in theaters and Galapagos tortoises,” she said.
  563. You shrugged. “Even when I was little I knew it was old-fashioned. The place was never that crowded, but it was, y'know. It was nice. My mom would take me, my brother, and my sisters there some days after school or on weekends. In summer the guy who ran the place -his name was Mr. Sanderson, would give you double ice cream scoops for your floats.”
  565. “How generous,” she leaned on the armrest dividing the two of you.
  567. “No, no, the man was a genius.”
  569. “Tell me how he was a genius.”
  571. You laughed. “Okay, this is, he did this thing. He made a big show about making coke floats with grape soda. He'd dump two fat scoops of vanilla ice cream into these tall glasses and flood it with purple soda 'til the fizz would spill over the rim.” You could almost see the treat sitting in front of you on a stained but well-polished wooden counter Purple foam bubbled with soft, cold cream.
  573. Your hands curved over an invisible, frothing mug. “Swear to God, the thing was this huge. There were four of us, and one was more than enough.” Erica looked on as if seeing it too.
  575. “Sounds great.”
  577. “It was great. Here's the kicker -guess what he called them.”
  579. She bit her lip and looked to the top of her head. “Hmm. Is Grapes of Wrath too obvious? What about Lilac Lunacy? Purple Haze? Purple People Eaters? Going Grape Shit?”
  581. “You really think those are clever names, don't you?”
  583. Her vigorous nod was infectious. You shook your head, almost sorry to disappoint her, and revealed the name with the gravity of a weapons tester. “Purple Cow.”
  585. “Oh hell,” she spat and couldn't stop smiling. “I have to see this for myself. It sounds too rinky-dink to be true. You're either a liar, hallucinatory, or a time traveler.”
  587. “Why in God's name would I lie about this?” Your palms opened up in hapless honesty. “It's dumb.”
  589. She shook her head. “I said the place sounded rinky-dink.” She closed her eyes and said “Maybe even dorky, but not dumb.” She raised a finger. “That's a big difference. Understand?”
  591. “Not really, but I'll say I do.”
  593. “You're being lazy now.” Her hand rose from under her chin to her cheek. “Alright, so this place is the bomb with the bombest coke floats, right?”
  595. “Mr. Sanderson kept a Pac-Man arcade machine in the corner too.”
  597. “Bomb ice cream and bomb arcade games. Got it. So. I know where you're going. You've told me what they have at the place you're going. But why-oh-why are you going?”
  599. You took a deep breath and let the seat slide back as far as it'd go, which wasn't that far. “Could be I decided to leave for no reason at all.”
  601. Her eyes shed their amusement. “Would you do that? Really? Hop on a bus with nothing but a ragged backpack and a ticket to nowhere?”
  603. The challenge in her voice caught you off guard. The look on her face told you that laughing would be the worst thing to do. “You put a lot of weight on spontaneity, don't you?”
  605. She blinked and looked uncertain of her words and surroundings. Her body inched away from you. “People,” she began, “and their impulses. It just,” her right hand waved over her hood. “People can drive me crazy sometimes.”
  607. “Call this a cruel assumption, but you've probably driven more than a few people crazy, am I right?” Her eyes darted downwards and her mouth formed a shape that blurred the lines between a guilty “yes” “no” and “I'm not sure.”
  609. Odds were that would be the clearest answer she'd give for now. You decided to move on. “I'll come clean with you. This little vacation isn't a spur of the moment decision...although it's not exactly well thought-out.”
  611. She stared unblinking and then moved only her lips. “Go on.”
  613. “I don't know what I'll do after I get there. No, that's a lie. I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to order the fattest Purple Cow the old man has on tap and I'll sit on the counter and stay there until he locks up.”
  615. “And after that?”
  617. “No idea in the slightest,” you said with a combination of lunacy and dread.
  619. A hint of a smile returned to her. “So you're making this up as you go along?”
  621. “Eh...No less than you are. At least I have a solid destination in mind.”
  623. Erica rocked back and forth in slow contemplation. “You still haven't told me why you're going.”
  625. You let out a long exhalation. “I need to get some thoughts in order.” You pointed in the opposite direction the bus was moving. “Back there? I couldn't do it back there. No way. I'm hoping I can find a little bit of, I dunno, peace. I'm looking for a little bit of time and space where I can make sense of things. I don't think I'll find it in a soda shop ripped out of a hallmark card, but really, I can't think of anyplace else. It's a start.” You scratched your head. “I guess.”
  627. Erica stopped rocking.
  629. “Let me tell you something, I'm a little bit jealous of you're ability to zone out and think for hours on end. I'd pay all the money in the world and a good chunk of my soul to do that right now.”
  631. She looked you over again and asked “So why do you need to make sense of things?”
  633. For a moment the only noise was the sound of the bus driving over paved highway. “Might be the same reason you're looking for something new. Besides, isn't that what everyone wants?”
  635. She fell into silence, satisfied for the moment. Questions and trains of thought piled up in your mind, and you had no hope of untangling any of it.
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