I could hear the train whistle blowing, even though it was miles away. I knew how far it was, for I’d walked here by foot after hopping off the freight.
My tablet still worked, and the state park had free wi-fi.
Out of habit, I googled myself to see if there were any reports yet of me having gone missing.
I was glad that nothing came up except my record in the 880 in the middle school track championship from last year. My claim to fame.
How different life had been then. I’d had a home. I went to school. I was a regular kid, even though I was an orphan, I was still a regular kid, because I lived with Gran, and she kept life normal.
After the EMTs came to take Gran’s body, I knew I had to leave. I wouldn’t give them Uncle Scott’s name. They said someone from Child Protective Services was coming “to help me.” It wouldn’t help.
CPS would track down Uncle Scott. I won’t stay with him. Not an option.
Maybe I’d get a foster family eventually. Or be able to stay at a shelter. But that would be after Uncle Scott were declared unfit. Or worse. If anyone would believe me that he’d do what I knew he would do.
Better that I run.
I don’t even think about Gran.
I just think about each day. Up to now, it was just thinking about getting here. Am I safe on the train? Where do I jump off?
Now I’m at the park. I cleaned myself up. I’m just thinking about where I’ll stay, what my story will be.
When this blue-haired girl comes up to me, I think, “OK. First test. Act normal. Remember your cover.”
My cover is that I’m a university student doing field work on the genetic variations in saguaro cactus.
So when she showed me a video about morning yoga routines, I had to think, “How would a scientist respond?”
It felt surreal to talk to somebody my age after so long of being quiet, especially when I was pretending to be so much older.
I kept wondering if my voice sounded weird. It sounded weird to me.
I feel like I must’ve forgotten how to carry on a conversation during my weeks traveling, for she made a face as we were talking.
I reviewed what I’d been talking about. Clouds. I was talking about cumulus clouds. That’s a fine subject, right?
I said something about how I feel safe when I look at clouds because I know that, wherever I am, they’re composed of water molecules from somewhere else, so clouds are wanderers, too.
She started rubbing the back of her neck and saying something about sleeping in a funny position.
She took off after then.
I was glad to be alone again. I’d enjoyed talking to her, though, even if I had said weird stuff and even if she did have a stiff neck. I’d found some solace in sharing a thought.
And she must not have been too mad, for she said maybe we’d run into each other again.
I went exploring the park. It’s pretty much like I’d remembered it. I hadn’t been back since Dad brought me here the year before the accident. I must’ve been around eight, I guess.
That was one of my best summers. Mom was getting her MFA, so me and Dad traveled all summer. I’d loved this park.
We camped out on a bluff back in the wilderness area, cooking our meals on a grill and sleeping under the stars. During the day, we’d look for arrowheads and fossils, or we’d come here to the park lounge to read and find shelter from the sun.
I was pleased to see the library was still there. I even found the copy of The Last Unicorn that I’d read that summer. I found the dog-eared pages that marked my places.
I smelled the book. It was six years ago. Can a scent last that long? I imagined I smelled the clove scent of my dad’s aftershave.
An old steel guitar stood in the corner of the room. I felt my fingers. The callouses had worn off since I’d been traveling. But there was one sure way to build them back again.
As I played, at first I sort of forgot everything–I was concentrating so hard on remembering the chords.
But then, as my fingers remembered, I remembered. I haven’t let myself grieve yet. I don’t know if I ever really properly mourned my mom and dad. I was just a little kid, and Gran was there to take me in, and it seems like I just went quiet for about three years. I don’t remember crying.
I’m not ready to mourn Gran. I’ve been pushing it off.
I think you’ve got to feel safe to mourn properly.
I don’t feel safe.
But if I close my eyes, and focus on the music, I feel safer.
I’ll just keep the pain for another day. For now, I’ll keep pretending my cover: I’m a college student doing field work on saguaro cactus. I don’t have the capacity, at present, to be who I really am.