It’s sunset when dance class finally lets out, and the fingerprints and small children’s nose-smudges painting the strip mall doors catch the colors and create a network of pink and orange trails. The tangerine sun, round and bright as a stoplight, dips its bottom edge behind the silhouettes of pines beyond the highway. While the orange glow paves a warm new layer over the road, I feel the smooth brush of dusk on my skin. Just out of touch, but waiting.
I’m half-tempted to drop my purse in the studio so I don’t have to stand here with it awkwardly shifting my center of gravity. I could toss it in my backpack, of course, but what’s the point of bringing what I don’t need? I’m standing here, bathed in the final light of summer, and I’d like to think I won’t need things like purses or high heels when fall’s first rays emerge on the other side of tonight. Because by tonight, I’ll be riding in a bus with streetlights flashing by my tired eyes, heading towards California and my sister.
Or maybe I won’t. I feel pinpricks across my arms and down my neck: the feel of half-tangible strings pulling me towards home, towards California, and everywhere in between. But the bus station is just across town, and Addie’s latest postcard and the seventy dollars she sent are jabbing corners through my jean pocket. (‘This should be half of the money you need to get a bus’, she wrote. ‘So you’re technically halfway here. Miss you, signed Addie.’) I want to hear her laugh infused in the words again, instead of having to siphon it from my memories and inject it myself. I want her to pull me into the store where she buys all of her postcards, and go through bulk crates of shaped erasers like we used to do at the general store when we were younger. I want to be able to stand solid at the fringe of the surf, eyes closed, knowing that Addie or her girlfriend, Kenna, will laugh and jerk me back if the water makes a rush for my shoes.
Mom thinks I caught a ride home with some dance ‘friends’, although I don’t think she fully realizes that our relationship is more ‘taxi-driver-and-awkward-rider’ than anything else. Nor does she realize that the people I told her were driving me have been up at their cabin for the past week. I have an hour before the maybe-my-bus to California pulls into the dusty station though, so I can only hope she won’t notice I’m not home before I’m gone.
I’m not too worried. I shoulder my sister’s old backpack and watch the strong orange light emphasize the topography of my skin as I start down the street.
I made up a story for my younger brother, Toby, when he asked me what happened to Addie. At that point, no one knew, but I kept imagining the last time I saw her at her desk, haloed slightly by the lamp. I kept layering meaning over the image — I still do —because maybe she was drafting letters to us that never got left behind, or scouring a bus route map to see which stop she should meet Kenna at, or digging her painted nails into the soft tabletop as she debated bringing Toby or me with. But until her first postcard came for me, she had vanished. So the story I created, technically, was just as true as any other at the time.
I told Toby how Addie slipped out the front door in the middle of the night, and how soft dawn grayness mingled with her frayed braid as she biked down the highway. I related how general-store-Kat said she stopped by at five in the morning, which was true, and that Kat told me Addie bought a handful of limp peach and fuchsia balloons, which was possibly not true.
Toby coiled his comforter around his arms. “And then what?”
I wasn’t sure if there really was a maze-like mass of water pipes crossing the back, outside wall of the convenience store, and I resolved to never look. But I said our sister clambered up them with the balloon skins wedged in her backpack straps, and when she reached the top, she filled them with the sky. They bulged, straining for the dawn — “Because they were the same color, the balloons thought they were part of it,” I explained — and Addie held on. She dashed across the flat rooftop and threw herself into the sky, her fingers tangling balloon ribbons and clouds. The balloons’ swollen stomachs lifted her up above the dimming streetlights, above the awakening town, above us.
And just like that, I pulled truth out of maybe-fact for my younger brother. I wonder who will do that again, when I’m gone.
I know what Addie really did bring though, besides the list of things Kat said she’d bought. I name them in my head as I continue down the sidewalk. Her backpack, of course, the backpacking one she’d proudly purchased from a garage sale before Mom said she could definitely not go out into the wild by herself. She probably stuffed clothes inside in the way she always did, by shoving them so that they sprung out like patchwork flowers when the bag opened, and she took the stuffed animal pig I gave her when I was six. And for whatever reason, she swiped Dad’s half-pack of cigarettes from where they’d been stagnating on the washing machine for two years, as if she thought they’d seep nicotine courage into her skin. But what’s the use in muddling Toby’s truth with another?
I told Addie she should tell Mom. She scowled and muttered something under her breath, but I missed it over the roar of the school bus’s engine.
“She won’t get it,” she said, louder.
“At least try,” I urged, but I could tell Addie was already envisioning Mom shoving her towards the door, shouting. Or worse, turning away in passive-aggressive disappointment, where the situation was officially ‘okay’ but really wasn’t. I guess Addie would rather run than face the unknown.
But then again, how am I any different? How many times have I told Mom an altered truth about what I’m doing, because I can’t help but think of the possibilities of how she could react? My lack of friends, for instance. The hours of creeping through the reedy wetlands behind the elementary school, collecting duckweed on my sneakers as I pursued frogs, replaced with made-up gatherings at the dance seniors’ houses. I’ve created separate lives for every person around me, separate stories that, to everyone else, are pretty much truths.
Addie did the same thing, to an extent.
“It’s a brave idea, to leave,” she asserted in one of her postcards, after I wrote about the time I went to a party and spent the whole time sitting awkwardly in the corner, hidden in the glare of the color-changing lights. “You don’t have to tell anyone about not really having all those friends you said you did, and deal with Mom’s disappointment and whatnot. You can just appear somewhere else and be who you want to be.”
I wish she would send letters rather than postcards sometimes, so that she could slip a photograph in the envelope and show me who she really wanted to be, and who she claims she is now. My only clues are her words, assuming she’s not writing me more false truths, and the marks that appear on the postcards: smudges in the corners and coffee rings overlaying the shiny pictures. When I rub my fingers over the slightly-raised circles, a chill darts down my arms. My sister never drank coffee; the warm, bitter scent always calls to mind rushed commuter adults and makes me wonder what I will find in California, if anything.
There’s a playground across the road from the bus station, a remnant of the now-defunct day care. The equipment is painted green, and the now-purplish light is tinting it a navy shade while the metal’s joints catch the last glints of sunlight. Addie, Mom, and I used to come here to pick up Toby.
Does Toby have a multi-truth life yet, or is he too young? He’s peering over the edge of childhood, ready to dip into middle school, and I know it will be too late when he finally enters. He’ll learn how to turn lies into truth, just like Addie and I did.
I watch a thin dribble of golden light slide down the swing set pole as the sun finally disappears behind the optometrist building. The clock on the corner, with its face protected behind yellowed plastic, shows eight-twenty. I have ten minutes before the bus comes, so I slowly start across the street. It’s quiet now, almost eerily so; the crickets have stopped chirping as summer seeps out of the air, the highway’s noise has quieted to a drone, and the usually-present families around the clump of restaurants have been replaced by a single cashier reclining on a bench outside the pizzeria. Somehow, I thought that my mind at least, would be crowded with emotions and jostling thoughts, but it too, is quiet. Everything seems to revolve around Addie, Toby, and me.
Will Toby make up truths? Will he know that I, too, climbed aboard a bus when I got tired of my life, or will he say that I chased after the sister with the balloons, inflating my own as I ran? I tell myself that I shouldn’t be thinking about him, that this is about me now, but I can’t help but wonder what this will lead to. Will sneaking across the country become almost a rite of passage, a tradition? Will my brother leave Mom behind, wondering what she did wrong?
What did she do wrong? I try to pinpoint a specific event, but all I can unearth is a writhing sense of discomfort. It wasn’t a single happening; it was dozens, hundreds of little ones that slowly, slowly stilled my chattering mouth when she was around. And then, after Addie left, it was as if my sister had left a ghostly hand behind. Every time a flock of thoughts lighted around me when Mom and I were together, I’d open my mouth to share them, and my Addie’s arm would shoo them back into the sky. Back into my own mind.
That’s why I need to go. I need to get back to Addie, so we can let them free again.
The man behind the ticket counter doesn’t say anything as I walk into the bus station. There’s a family with a little boy perusing pamphlets in the corner, luggage-less, but the handful of other people who look like they’re actually traveling are mostly scattered across the stiff-backed benches.
Why do I want to suddenly look up and see Toby, watching me over one of the armrests?
Addie’s postcards stick their corners through my pocket and prick my side. “Come on,” they urge, in my sister’s voice from three years ago. “Get that ticket already.”
I want to tell myself that I’m hesitating because of fear, but I can’t. I’m not scared; not while I have pictures of far-off cities and the Pacific Ocean stacked in my pocket like a pile of tiny windows. I’m more scared of staying here, sinking into false versions of myself, and yet I can’t move.
No one looks at me as I merge my sneakers with the red-orange tiling. I imagine Mom realizing that I’m missing tonight. Will she panic, like she did with Addie? Or will she somehow know where I’ve gone, and why?
Not why, though. I don’t think she’ll ever know why.
I hear the purring of a bus in my ears, even though the station is quiet. It’s a phantom, really: a memory of Addie’s bus, a prediction of mine. Maybe a forethought of Toby’s when he decides that this is how to be brave, and tries to shed the non-truth layers of himself he’s built up. It’s rumbling past, but I can’t see if I’m among the faces behind the tinted glass.
Maybe that doesn’t need to happen, but what about Addie? Maybe she’ll send me her phone number one of these days. Or maybe she’ll disappear again. But either way, she has Kenna. She has me, and Mom, whether she thinks she does or not.
But I could still go…
The windows are near-perfect mirrors now, on account of the darkness outside. But when I study my reflection, which is as illusion-like as I feel, a spark winks from beyond. It’s the streetlamps flickering to life, but when I blink at the closest one, more emerge like stars at dusk. The lights outside Toby’s school glint through the trees. The purple strands outlining the ice cream shop, where our family used to go together, are barely visible from their spot far down the street. And far after, even though I can’t see them now, are the lamps on either side of my house’s doorway. A glow will be emanating through the windows from the kitchen, where Mom and Toby will be waiting for me over bowls of cooling spaghetti.
I can fold false truths so seamlessly around people. I can give people a lens through which to see me. But I can also push back through the bus station door, I can follow the sparks, I can feel dusk disintegrating around me…
I can pull back the worlds I’ve constructed for people, wipe away the falsities, and build everything back together again.
Lauren Otolski is a senior at Minnetonka High School. In addition to writing, she enjoys exploring parks, volunteering at a local farm, and playing clarinet in her school’s marching band.