Part V of my short story New Beginnings. Part I is here, Part II here, Part III here, and finally, Part IV here. We left off with a roar of thunder and our narrator leaving home and everything she knew for Montreal.
Eric grabbed my arm, digging his nails into my jacket. I glanced down at his fingers and raised an eyebrow wordlessly. He chuckled. “Sorry. Storms make me a little leery, especially when I’m traveling.” I did not speak because I knew before it got better, it would get worse, but how could I tell a stranger that?
I chewed on my fingernail, scraping the black polish off with my teeth and trying my best to remain calm. Maybe it’s just a pop-up thunderstorm, I told myself, these things happen. That’s when the whispering began swirling around in my mind. The voices that haunted me every step of leaving home from pulling my duffle bag out of our closet to paying for the bus ticket. I couldn’t discern what they were saying, but from the way my heart was pounding in my chest, I could tell they were displeased.
“Do you believe in spirits?” I asked him.
“Like ghosts?” he asked, wrinkling his nose.
“Yeah, sure,” I muttered, “something like that.”
He looked around, then admitted, “Yeah, I do. Veronica swore up and down there was a ghost in the cellar of our old place. I never went down there, but she told me sometimes, when she was doing laundry… I don’t know how to explain it, but she said she didn’t feel alone.”
“Fool,” the voice hissed in my ear.
“You think you can run,” it continued, “but you are dumb, girl.”
I remembered what my psychologist had said about grounding myself. I took a deep breath, feeling the air whoosh through my lungs. It wasn’t a spirit, I tried telling myself, it was a shattered part of my psyche.
But that thought wasn’t reassuring.
As I boarded the bus to Montreal, I could sense that, as well as Eric, my ghosts would be my traveling companions, try as I might to escape them.
Part IV of New Beginnings, as requested by one of my readers. You can find Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.
He offered me a sheepish smile. “Sorry about earlier. You know, the pissy attitude and all.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Guess this whole trip is eating away at me more than I expected. First-time traveler and all.”
“Oh yeah?” I grinned back. “Not a veteran of long bus trips up North?”
He chuckled, shaking his head. “Not a veteran of any trips. Haven’t left town since we moved here back when I was three.” A distant look crossed his face, then he stuck out his hand. “Anyway, I’m Eric.”
I glanced down at his hand and shook it. “Nixie,” I introduced myself.
“Nixie?” he echoed, raising an eyebrow. “As in, Nikki? Nicole?”
I corrected him. “Nixie. It’s a name most people get wrong. Nixie, as in, Phoenix.”
“Rad,” he replied, “you reinventing yourself?”
I wrinkled my nose at him. “Rad?”
“I’m bringing it back.”
I shrugged, then slouched back on the bench. Somehow, his being eager to talk exhausted me. It was like being around a wound-up puppy when you were used to old dogs. He sat down beside me. I rummaged through my beat-up bag and yanked out my tarot cards. I did a three-card spread for myself.
He sunk into himself, humming a melody under his breath. “You hungry?” he asked, gesturing toward a food cart. “Thinking about getting a sandwich.”
I gnawed on my lower lip. Out of nowhere, my stomach gurgled. Must be hungry. “Sure, I guess.”
Eric strolled over to the food cart with a sloping sort of confidence, the nonchalance of a kid who didn’t care much about anything. It was in his walk that I realized this guy could actually be a powerful weapon to have in my arsenal.
I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I definitely wouldn’t have any friends in Montreal.
He came back, small triangular cardboard boxes in each hand. He tossed one my way. “Didn’t know what you liked, so I got you a vegetarian one. Cucumbers, mayo, sprouts, I don’t know, maybe shredded carrots or something. That cool?”
I nodded. Anything sounded good in that exact moment. My phone rumbled in my bag, vibrating against some of its contents. I ignored it, some of my old nerves reawakening as I ripped open the cardboard.
Eric shoved a mouthful of egg salad into his mouth and began asking about the cards I had pulled.
I told him what each one meant, but I didn’t tell him that I saw trouble in my future.
Correction: I saw trouble in our future.
He said, “I play an instrument, and I was in a band. The band kicked me out when they realized they’d rather shoot up than play gigs. I heard you can make a killing busking out in Canada.”
“An instrument, huh?” I replied between bites. “What do you play? The mandolin? A didgeridoo?”
Eric sighed, exasperated. “I used to play drums, but I’m not bringing those on the road, so I stuck with guitar.”
Through the glass dome ceiling, a streak of lightning split the sky and thunder shook the building. The hairs on my arm rose.
Part III of New Beginnings, you can find New Beginnings Part I here and Part II here.
I tapped my soft box of cigarettes against my hand, more for something to do with my hands than to pack the tobacco. As I shuffled to a wall behind us, I wondered what I was doing with my life. Leaning against it, my stomach twinged. I flicked my lighter and inhaled deeply. The comfort of tobacco and cloves flooded my nostrils.
The clove was more pungent than I remembered, but maybe my senses were more heightened than usual because the gold cellophane wrapped around the box seemed to shimmer in the dull light.
I tried not to think of what I was leaving behind but to the future. The great unknown I was throwing myself into. The smell of my cigarette reminded me of the first day I had smoked.
I had cut history class and walked to a cemetery near campus. The air was crisp, cutting through my jacket then, just as it did now. I had found a sprawling tree to sit under and watched a burial a few feet away.
Vee had seen me that day. I hadn’t known her yet. We barely spoke, but we shared thatcigarette like it was the last one on Earth. She had snatched my phone from my back pocket and typed her contact information. That night, when I had called her, her smoky voice sounded as though she had expected my call.
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block out the past five years of memories with Vee. We began dating when I was seventeen. Still a teenager and moldable. I was a lump of clay and she was the sculpting chisels and hammers.
Almost unbidden, I remembered the hell that was high school. Slouching in a chair in the guidance counselor’s office. Mrs. Reed’s heels clacking against the linoleum as she paced back and forth. The way her watery gray eyes traveled from my mother to me. Thinking of all the time I spent with Vee instead of working on my homework. All the times we snuck out and smoked in the cemetery. Mrs. Reed telling my mom that I had been cutting class. That I was reckless.
“Maybe it’s just a phase,” Mrs. Reed had said, hope glittering in her eyes. Mrs. Reed who smelled like Christmas cookies had begged my mom not to let me ruin my life.
That was before the state psychiatrist and psychologist. Before the diagnoses. Before the hospital stays in psych wards.
My relationship with Vee had endured five tumultuous years, but numbers were just numbers. 1,825 days didn’t matter unless you gave them meaning. As I smoked, I didn’t see the guy from the bench approach me. After a minute or two lost in memories, I saw him.
I wondered how he saw me. Dyed auburn hair with black roots. Heavy eyeliner. I felt like a childactor, pretending to be an adult. He made me doubt me, and he had barely spoken two wordsto me.
My hands began to shake when my phone vibrated. I stubbed my cigarette against the wall and began to curse.
“Expecting a phone call?” he asked with a smirk as I stared at my cell phone, horrified. What would I tell her? What could I tell her? She probably had just finished her shift at Blackburn’s. Maybe she was already back at our apartment. I began to shake violently.
I took a drag of my cigarette and buried my phone deep in my bag. His eyes flashed. “You forget to tell someone where you’re going?” he asked, his voice a touch concerned.
“Doesn’t matter,” I muttered, “what about you? You tell your whole family and all your friends where you’re headed?”
“Hah.” He rolled his eyes. “Like Veronica cares.”
“Girlfriend?” I arched an eyebrow, watching his face.
“My mom,” he mumbled, “my friends won’t even notice. Too high to even care if I’m in the same room or not.” He waved the idea away. “Doesn’t matter. They won’t ever think to look where I’m going.”
“Where are you going?” I asked quietly.
“Montreal.” He grinned, his dimples deepening.
I didn’t speak but thought I had just found a partner-in-crime for the trip.
In the twelfth grade, my heart was sore like a bruise you put pressure on to remind yourself why it hurts. I hung out with a girl who wore oversized hoodies to hide her abortion and outlined her eyes in black for the drama. One afternoon, we were cutting class, but instead of hiding under a bridge and writing poetry like usual, she took me to a stranger’s house.
We sat around, the air thickly perfumed with pot. I watched a boy several years older. His eyeswere the color of sea glass and distant as well. He didn’t say much, but then, neither did I. A big Siberian Husky lay on the floor. A person everyone seemed to know came in and let in a draft of blustery winter air. We all yelled for someone to shut the damn door. The dog’s name was Neko like the singer.
No one bothered to close the door, so we, strangers and friends alike, huddled close for warmth. Neko jumped up and ran out the door. The boy with light eyes and I leapt to our feet, without saying a word, and in our heavy winter boots, chased down the dog. The yards were covered in snow, and we ran without losing our breath, the winter air crisp in our lungs. We ran down those empty streets, chasing a dog neither of us knew.
What if you were that boy— eyes the color of sea glass?