He was watching me all along, the whole time I walked down the center aisle looking at the historical displays. It didn’t seem fair. He had all that time to prepare himself and I just got that one moment, when he stepped out from behind the covered wagon.
Under a big sheepskin jacket, he wore jeans, a black t-shirt and hiking boots. He had brown hair that stuck up all over in different directions. Caveman hair, like the comb hadn’t been invented yet. I waited for him to say something or do something, but he didn’t. I took another step toward him and said, “I’m Oona. I was told to come here.”
He fainted. Folded up and went face down on the marble floor and whacked his head.
He was already trying to get up when I got to him. Once he made it to his hands and knees, I grabbed the collar of his jacket and pulled until he was standing, sort of leaning on me. I looked around for somewhere to take him, but the only places to sit down were in the museum displays. At the back wall was an emergency exit and bathroom signs, so I turned him that way.
I figured I wanted to be on my own territory, so I picked the women’s bathroom. It was big and drafty, with black and white tiles on the floor. There were four wood toilet stalls on one side and four sinks on the other. At the back, under a glass block window was a wicker couch. I steered him over there and practically dropped him on it. I thought he was going to puke the way he was sucking air in and choking it out, but he didn’t. Finally, he looked up at me and said, “You’re real? You’re real?”
“Yes,” I said and nodded really hard. I knew how it was to feel that way. He grabbed me then, around the waist, and held on. His head was in my stomach and one of his hands was on my butt and he stank. Homeless-haven’t-bathed-in-a-long-time stank. I don’t know if it was supposed to be a hug, but it freaked me out.
Maybe it wasn’t very nice, but I shoved him away, right as he started crying. I knew how that felt, too. I wanted to say, “It’s okay,” but it probably wasn’t.
I got him some toilet paper out of a stall and after a few minutes, he stopped crying and blew his nose.
He said, “I’m Lee. What’s your name?”
“Oona.” He squinted at me, so I spelled it.
“Louder. You have to talk a lot louder. I blew out my eardrums.”
I said it louder, so loud I worried the old lady would think I was in the bathroom talking to myself.
“Oona? They sent you? You hear it, too?” He had stopped crying, but he was back to breathing hard.
“Yes. I hear it. That’s how I knew to come here.”
He fumbled in his jacket pocket and pulled out something I recognized. Oh, how I recognized it. A pile of note cards, two inches thick, bound with a rubber band. The top note card, like all of them I was sure, had a drawing of a tree and a leaf on it. I didn’t even have to read what was written on the back. It was a white ash tree. Death by fire falling from the sky. I had a card just like it, only his tree was hand drawn and perfect.
“You drew that?” He nodded. “That’s beautiful.” I was careful to say it loud enough, but he didn’t seem to care.
“Which door, which one were you called through?”
“Hornbeam,” I said. I only whispered it, but I knew he understood. He’d known what I was going to say. “Look, I’m supposed to be in school right now.”
“I skipped school to come here. I can’t stay long.”
He laughed. The big, deaf crybaby laughed at me. “You skipped school? You’re worried you’ll get caught skipping school?”
“Why is that so funny?” Honestly, he was starting to make me mad. I wished I could walk away. I wished that was one of the things I could do, but I knew the voice wouldn’t leave me alone.
Lee ran his palms over his face, rubbed at his eyes, and then went to one of the sinks and washed his face and hands. When he finished he looked around at the bathroom.
“Is this the girls bathroom?”
“You wanna know what’s so funny?” he said. “I ran away from home two weeks ago and hitchhiked here.”
“Where did you hitchhike from?” Really, I was wondering if it had been two weeks since he took a bath, but that was too rude.
“Is that in Texas?”
I sat down on the couch, because that scared me a lot. I’d been scared to skip school and the voice had managed to drag him halfway across the country.
Read Full Post »