The Vagabond

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
March/April 2001

By Michelle Doré Sizemore, Illustrated by Zoe Paschkis

I press my face against the glass, the froth of scarlet fury still bubbling in my throat. The rumbling of the floor beneath me rattles my legs, and I clutch my sports bag protectively to my chest. My mind churns with the rhythm of the engine, and I kick nervously at the bars beneath the seat in front of me. Trying to calm the violence in my mind, I check my watch. The hands inform me that it is 1:53AM, though I know that the stupid timepiece is fast by about six minutes. Either way, it has been about six hours since I began this mad quest. Even now, I am unsure of my precise destination, though I have a stable idea. The bus driver is eyeing me with increasing suspicion in the mirror. I try to keep my eyes off him, for my eyes are always the stool pigeons to my guilt.

A man who has recently left the seat nearby has forgotten his newspaper, I realize. My boredom gets the better of me, and I reach across the aisle and seize it. The front page is chock-full of woe, and I absentmindedly lose myself in the tale of a young man murdered by a gang in a shopping mall. Only half of me is interested; the other half is still dwelling on my own sad events, all now past. An angry sort of depression befalls me whenever the last month crosses my mind, and I try to fight the thoughts away.

With the sound of steam being released from a valve, the bus wails to a halt, and the doors are drawn open. I look over the edge of the seat, wondering which other nighthawks might require the bus at two o’clock. An aged man ambles up the steps, coughing into his hands before paying the toll. The next and only other newcomer is a girl about my age. She is African-American, with a long wool coat and a knapsack slung haphazardly over her shoulder. The older man, probably her grandfather, sits in the seat across from mine, and the girl follows. When they notice I am watching them, my eyes flick back to the newspaper. A sudden shudder and a moan beneath my feet tells me the bus has started up again.

I sigh, folding up the paper. None of the stories can hold my attention. Remembering I have missed supper and have not eaten for thirteen hours, I withdraw a wallet from my pocket. It is not mine, but my mother’s. She does not know yet that I have it, or that I have her ATM code numbers memorized and could easily refill my supply. I count out five dollars; that should be enough to get me a few slices of pizza and a soda from Pizza Palace. Replacing the wallet and slipping the money into my jacket sleeve, I wait for the bus to approach a cluster of restaurants.

“Are you done with that?” The voice startles me, and I look up. The girl across the aisle is looking at me. “The newspaper, I mean,” she adds.

“Oh. Well, in that case, yes.” I lift the newspaper and hold it out across the aisle, and the girl takes it, thanks me, and flips through it to the film reviews. I hear her tell her grandfather that the new Spielberg movie sounds good, but the words make no sense to me. My brow is knit, and I have my head leaned against the window again. A crushing headache has overtaken me.

About ten minutes later, a neon sign catches my eye, marking the Pizza Palace nearby. I hook my fingers on the stop line and pull. A small bell rings toward the front of the bus, and the driver pulls over. I collect my belongings, make my way up the aisle, and thank the driver as I exit. I have to bite my lip to hide my wince. The icy look on the driver’s face as he nods to me is all too familiar; I recognize it as the look in my parents’ eyes whenever they set their gaze on one another.

It is 2:11 AM now. As I approach the Pizza Palace, I shudder in the cold of the night. I chose a bitter time to make this endeavor. Snow is falling, and I estimate that it is below zero outside. Around the outdoor vents, the snow is gray and slushy, but it is immaculate where I am standing. Reverting to a childish habit, I put out my tongue and catch a feather of crystal ice. The very air smells of snow, and there is a certain surreal aura about the wind as it whips the flakes around like debris in a cyclone.

The blast of heat as I open the door to the restaurant is a shock after the chill I suffered outdoors. Like the bus, it is sparsely populated on the inside. I head up to the counter, ordering three slices of pepperoni pizza and a Coca-Cola. The cashier takes my money and her companion hands me my food, which I carry to the table farthest from the counter before seating myself. I barely taste my meal, but at least it does not disagree with me. The waiter gives me an odd look, but I ignore him.

The Vagabond ordering pizza

I head up to the counter, ordering three slices of pepperoni pizza and a Coca-Cola

Reaching into my duffel, I extract a novel. This, I quickly discover, holds me about as well as the newspaper did. Nonetheless, I pretend to read it in hopes of masking my true thoughts to the two people at the counter. My true thoughts, I know, are nothing to share. The fiasco repeats itself in my mind, making me shiver. The sound of a fist upon the table . . . angry voices, inescapable even in the farthest-off corners of the house . . . those five words from my mother . . . a feeling of inexpressible guilt, followed by anger . . . “Richard, I want a divorce!” . . . then silence.

The fury in my heart rises to a fever pitch; I jam my plastic fork into the crust of my pizza, doing so with the intensity of a murderer driving a knife into the heart of a screaming victim, I blink rapidly, and the words on the page before me are scumbled. My parents are better off without me, I am positive. They will not quarrel without reason, and if the reason is removed, the hostility will end forever. There is no effect without a cause. I was an idiot to drive them that far in the first place; perhaps there is still a chance. I rub my eyes with the back of my hand and check my pocket. That grubby little bit of stationery is still there, the address of my Aunt Margaret in Hartford still scrawled upon it. Aunt Margaret is a widow; I will not be able to break up her marriage, at least.

Crumpling my napkin, I carry my tray to the pile near the trash bin, take my sports bag up in my arms once more, and return to the cold of the outside. The snow is thicker now, and the wind is picking up speed. If there is a blizzard on the way, I need to get a move on. Though I’ve already been sixty miles, Hartford is a full forty miles away yet, and I want to be able to get there as soon as possible. My bare head is encrusted with shards of diamond, and icy water is dripping down the neck of my shirt.

Zipping up my sweatshirt-jacket, I rub my hands together and set off down the street. In a few minutes, I happen upon a bus stop. I will take the bus to Hartford, or close to it, I decide. If I cannot get there on just one bus, I’ll take two or three. Now, all I need to do is wait for the bus.

My feet are soaked to the skin. I stamp around, trying to keep warm, all the while my mind on the goings-on at home. Those voices keep on pummeling my brain, and my wrath with myself and my parents is heightening still further. Cold and miserable, I silently curse the bus for not turning up. My headache is agony, and I am starting to feel congested.

I have nothing else to do but look around me. A sort of woeful apprehension seems to be rising in my chest. There are lumpy heaps of cloth slumped in the alley, shuddering in the cold. Time seems to be standing still. I hear one of them sneeze. Like me, they are all alone in the world. A lump is rising in my throat. What if Aunt Margaret has no place for me? What if she tries to send me back, and I have to run off again? I do not want to end up all alone, without a family, huddled in some dark alley. Nonsense, I tell myself, Aunt Margaret would not turn me away. But the fear lingers. Where will I go if Margaret drops me?

When the bus finally arrives, I am damp, as though I have just been through a light rain. Only the contents of the wallet remain dry, I notice, while I count out $1.50 for the toll. “Does this bus go all the way to Hartford?” I ask hopefully, wondering if I can avoid the bus switching. The driver shakes her head. I realize I am the only person on the bus. Of course, it is 3:42 AM now, and even the late-nighters and drunkards have gone to bed. I take a seat out of view of the driver’s mirror so as to avoid any funny looks from the driver.

“How close to Hartford does this route get?” I inquire. The driver says that the bus goes within four miles. That is a start. When I ask how long that will take, she replies that it will take about an hour. “OK. Could you drop me off there, then?” She agrees. I bunch up my duffel bag and put it in the corner of the seat. I lie down and place my head upon it with the intention of going to sleep. The bus driver, however, is obviously lonely, and is intent on making conversation. My reverie must wait until the driver gets tired of me. I wearily prop my heavy head up on my hand, while the driver tells me how odd it is that I should be out so early, and on a holiday, too. Thinking fast, I inform her that I am going to Hartford early to get my sister a Christmas present. “I forgot about it until tonight,” I say cheerfully, “and my parents said it was OK if I went to get it now.” I bury my face in my duffel as I hear the hum of her voice.

I have a strange feeling in my chest, perhaps a replacement for my anger. It is like there is a bottle of fizzy soda right beneath my throat, and the cap is loosely screwed on and about to fly off. The conversation I overheard almost eight hours ago keeps running through my head . . . “I’ve had it up to here, Louise!” . . . “You don’t understand anything anymore, Richard!” . . .

God, I wonder, what did I do to make them hate each other so much? And they have to hate me, too, because they must know how this is killing me. I think the nightmare all started when I was seven, during a tee-ball game. I had lost, and I came out of the locker room to see my parents fighting awfully. Now, five years later, I have pushed them to the limit. I do not know what I did, exactly, but I know it is my fault. I cannot stay violently mad at myself forever, but I know I’ll never forgive myself. They do not deserve to go through a messy divorce, and I am the nuncle who got them started on that path.

I begin to sob silently into my sport bag. The driver does not notice. She, apparently, is in the middle of a very funny story about her daughter’s last Christmas present. “Get a handle on yourself, you idiot!” I hiss, clawing one hand with the other like a cat. Gulping, I put my chin on my hands, both lips clamped between my jaws, and stare at the snowflakes. I mumble something like “Yeah” when the bus driver asks if I would like the radio on, not really paying attention to what I am saying.

A swirl of music dances to my ears, while I thrum my fingers against my cheekbone and glare at the snow outside. Rather pretty, how it catches the light whenever it enters the orb of light around a streetlamp. After several minutes, I begin to drift into an uneasy sleep, but I wake sharply at mention of my name. There it is, on the radio! The OJ is going over the news.

“. . . Police say that twelve-year-old James Peter Chapman left his home at approximately 8:15 PM last night, possibly carrying with him a red, white, and blue duffel bag. He is described as being five feet, three inches tall, with a slight build, only about 102 pounds, auburn hair, and very bright blue eyes. He was last seen wearing black jeans and a white T-shirt, and he could also be wearing a black hooded sweatshirt with a zipper. If you see the little guy, police say to contact them at 291-3859 . . . “

The driver promptly halts the vehicle and turns around to get a better look at me. I stare right back at her, those telltale eyes giving me away, as usual. She reaches for the intercom. A sinking feeling catches hold of me and pulls me like a kappa into the murky depths. “Hello, Mabel? Get me the police department, please.” The kappa’s long fingers seem to close around my neck. “Hello? Yes, I have some information on that missing boy, James Chapman. He’s right here with me, on my bus.”

Directly before he strangles me, the kappa whispers that now my parents will fight again, and have no chance to be happy.

*          *          *

They practically have to drag me from the bus. The policemen try to be nice, and they allow me to ride in the front seat of the police car, but I do not want to come with them. The words of my conscience are still alive in my head, hammering me. The buzz of the car engine and the flash of the lights on the snow around me engulf me. I am swimming in sight and sound, though none of it is truly registering.

After an hour or two, as my parents’ house comes into sight, I sink into a state of brooding silence. The policemen open the door for me and lead me up to my house. This is probably half out of kindheartedness and half because they have to make sure I do not run off again. One policeman rings the doorbell. The singsong chant of the bells has barely begun when my parents’ faces are framed in the doorway.

The Vagabond hugging parents

Mother and Father fling their arms around me as though I have just returned from the Great Hereafter

They look glad to see me, but I know that all too soon they will start arguing again. Mother and Father fling their arms around me as though I have just returned from the Great Hereafter, drawing me into the house. Mother invites the policemen into the house for a cup of tea, but they refuse, and they leave.

The clock chimes six times at almost the very instant the door closes. Surely, the fighting will begin now? No, not yet. My parents, of course, demand where I have been for the past ten hours, and what I thought I was doing. “I was just going to Hartford,” I tell them, “so that I could live with Auntie Margaret.” I go on to explain, slowly and logically, that if I left them alone, they would not fight, and I was simply trying to spare them the agony of a divorce.

“Darling,” Mother says to me slowly, “it is not your fault that your father and I are getting a divorce. It’s been a long time coming, really. Your father and I are very different people. Can you understand that?”

How can it not be my fault? They always fight around me. But do they always fight because of me? I look at my parents, perplexed. My mother tells me that it is all right if I am upset about the divorce, but to please never run off like that again.

“Listen,” Father says, “we should put all this behind us for a day and try to have a good Christmas. We should be thankful that bus driver found James, and enjoy another day together as a family before we discuss this anymore.”

Mother starts to say something about Father always taking charge of things, but she glances at me and sighs. “I’ll agree to that,” she says.

Before I know it, a fire is lit in the fireplace, and the Christmas tree is aglow. As my parents and I exchange gifts, I can tell that it is hard work for them not to fight. For the first time I see that my parents are much more than just my parents. They are people, and they both have very difficult personalities. The divorce might be painful, but perhaps it is for the best.

In that lullaby time between the exchange of presents and the eating of Christmas breakfast, my parents avoid each other tactfully during the preparation of bacon and eggs, while I sit on the built-in seat beside the window. I press my face against the glass, gazing out into the lazy blizzard. The sun is almost up, as I can tell from the streaks of light gray shining forth through the stormy dark.

I have enjoyed my morning, but after the happiness is gone, once again I am gripped by the mad depression that possessed me before. I know it will not last, that one day I will be spending my Christmases split in two. The family feeling will disappear. And though I am somewhat aware I have little to do with the problems in my family, I will be immensely affected by them. No matter what, though, I will try to make the best of it. I would rather travel between two parents than travel on my own.

The Vagabond Michelle Dore Sizemore

Michelle Doré Sizemore, 13
Seattle, Washington

The Vagabond Zoe Paschkis

Zoe Paschkis, 13
Newton, Massachusetts

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