NaBloPoMo/NaNoWriMo Day 3

California, Part One

When I get to the train station, there’s something different. Someone, actually, or three someones. Three kids who look just a little older than me. The lady with the collie dog is handing wrapped sandwiches to a tall boy with a shaved head and a skinny, dark-haired boy. A girl, chubby and blond, is rubbing her hair with a towel.
“I can’t believe I just washed my hair in a train station!” the girl giggles.
“You better get used to it,” says the shaved-head boy. He runs a hand over his own head and laughs. “I don’t have that problem!”
The dark-haired boy turns and looks at me. “Hey, what are you, a spy or something? Come over here and talk to us!”
My heart drops into my stomach. I’ve been watching the kids, trying to hide behind my Earth Science textbook.
Reading my mind, the boy says, “Yeah, don’t think I haven’t noticed that you haven’t turned a page in that book since you sat down!”
I feel my face grow hot. I thought I was being so sneaky, with my book!
“Its okay,” says the boy. “Come over here and talk to us. What’s your name?”
I put my Earth Science book in my backpack and walk over to where the kids and the homeless people are sitting. I tell them, “Nicki.”
“I’m Joe,” says the boy. “And this is Jason and Andrea. We’re just passing through here on our way to California.”
“California?” I echo. My fingers twitch at my sides.
Joe doesn’t seem to notice. “Yep. Can you believe we’re from Michigan?” He pulls out his state ID from his back pocket to show me. “I was fast asleep last night, when these two showed up at my house, like, ‘Wanna go with me to California?’”
“Where are you going?” Andrea asks me.
I look at her. “Uh, no where, right now!”
She raises her eyebrows. “I mean, where are you taking the train to?”
The homeless people turn to look at me. I guess they’ve been wondering the same thing. Where am I going?
“I’m not really waiting for a train,” I admit. “I Just like to come here.”
“You like to come here?” Jason interjects. “Why?”
I sigh. “I dunno. I just don’t like being alone.”
Joe puts an arm around my shoulder. “Nobody likes being alone. You know what? You should come with us to California. Then you’ll never have to be alone again!”
I laugh. “I can’t go to California!”
“Why not?” demands Jason.
“Because, I got school, and…” I can’t really think of anything. School? I hate school. School hates me. My family? Sick of me.
“Think about it,” says Jason.
Andrea’s eyes widen. “You should go with us. We can stick together. You know why? Cause we’re both girls!”
“How are you gonna get there?” I wonder. “Are you gonna walk all the way to California?”
“What? Hell no,” Jason laughs. “We’re gonna hitchhike.”
“I thought nobody picks up hitchhikers anymore,” I say.
“Truck drivers do,” Andrea tells me. “We rode in a truck most of the way from Michigan. Didn’t we, you guys? Jason rode in front, and me and Joe rode in the back part.”
“The sleeper,” Joe adds.
“Right, the sleeper! You should see the sleepers truck drivers have! The one we rode in, it was like an apartment! He had a bed back there, and a refrigerator, and a TV, and video games!”
“Awesome!” I try to imagine riding in the back of a truck. My dad is a truck driver, but, ironically, I’ve never ridden in his truck. He says his company doesn’t allow it due to insurance problems. I’ve always thought it would be a lot of fun to ride in one.
“This is my first time being on the road like this,” says Andrea. “We’ve been gone for three days. The first night, Joe and Andrea sat me down and told me every good thing and every bad thing about running away, so I’d be sure I wanted to go.”
“You should really think about it,” says Jason. “Seriously. You only live once, you know?”
“You know what they’re gonna do?” Andrea scowls. “They’ll take you with them, and leave me here.”
“They wouldn’t do that,” I protest.
Jason and Joe look at each other. “You wanna bet?” they hoot.
“But seriously.” Jason puts an arm around Andrea, and looks at me. “This girl here is like a sister to me. I would never leave her behind. I would never let anything bad happen to her.”
A cop walks in just then. He’s wearing a long yellow raincoat, and he’s all wet. My heart drops. I’ve seen this cop before… I think his name is Ramirez… coming into the train station to kick out all the homeless people who are, technically, loitering or trespassing or something. So far, he’s never noticed me. But this time, he looks right at me.
“I need to see your ID,” he says. “And yours and yours and yours.”
I fish my school ID out of my backpack, my hands shaking, and give it to Ramirez. Joe and Jason give him their state ID’s. Andrea tells him she lost hers. She tells him that her name is Kelly, and that she’s seventeen, which for some reason is the age of majority in Michigan.
“What are you doing here?” Ramirez asks me. “Are you with them?”
“No, she’s not,” Jason answers for me. “We just met her today.”
“I’m waiting for my big brother,” I say. “He’s supposed to be coming on the train from Mount Prospect.”
It’s easy for me to lie about having a big brother, because I wish so much for it to be true. I used to have a neighbor, a twenty-two-year-old headbanger named Charlie, who I pretended was my big brother. After school, I would bang on his front door, and he’d let me come in and watch “Beavis And Butthead” in his living room. Or we’d go into the backyard, and he’d strum his guitar while I played with his dog Floppy. When I used to go to Charlie’s house, I’d brag to everyone at school about how I had a cool big brother named Charlie who played the guitar. One of my teachers got concerned once and asked me if I was ever afraid of Charlie.
“No way!” I told her. “Why would I be afraid of my big brother? He loves me!”
Even back then I was unhappy at home. I was always wandering around the neighborhood, bothering people, because I hated to be at home. I used to talk about running away, and Charlie would tell me not to. He would lecture me on how it was dangerous, and how I should just wait a few more years until I was old enough to move out on my own legitimately. In reality, Charlie probably thought I was just a pesty kid who wouldn’t go away. But he spent time with me, and talked to me, and that meant everything to me.
Eventually, Charlie moved away… to Mount Prospect.
Now, I imagine that Charlie really is coming on the train to see me. And Ramirez believes my story, maybe because I half believe it myself!
“You three get outta here,” he tells my new friends.
They laugh as they walk out, waving goodbye to me.
“Will we see you tomorrow?” Jason calls over his shoulder.
I nod. I can’t wait.

The next day, as soon as the school bus drops me off, I sprint back top the train station. To my relief, Jason, Joe and Andrea are already waiting for me there.
“Did you think about coming with us?” asks Jason.
I have thought about it all day long. It was impossible to even try to do school work today. My mind and heart have been racing. But in the end, I am still not sure I should go to California. And I am leaning in the direction of not going. It is weird that I have daydreamed since I was a little kid about running away and having a new start, and now that I actually have the chance to do it, I’m not sure I want to.
“I just don’t want to maek my mom cry,” I explain. And, despite the fact that she often treats me as if she hates me, I believe she would cry. If I died, for instance, or just disappeared, When I’m here, I’m the bane of her existence, but if I was gone, it would break her heart. Its an irritating truth.
“Did she ever make you cry?” asks Joe.
“Yeah, but still…” I twitch my fingers nervously.
Andrea nods. “I know exactly what you mean. No matter what your mom does to you, you don’t want to make her cry. Maybe it’s a girl thing.” She smiles at me. “Now you’re gonna make me cry, thinking about my mom!” ‘
Joe groans. “Girls…”
“Maybe you guys all could just stay here,” I suggest.
Jason throws his head back and laughs. “Hell, no! I’ve lived in this town before, and I’m not staying here a minute more than I have to!”
“Then will you send me post cards?” I ask. Despite having only known them for less than twenty-four hours, these three street kids are the best… the only… actual friends I have. I don’t want them to just fade away.
“OF course,” says Jason. “And if you write down your phone number, we’ll call you when we can. You ever change your mind about coming to California, you’ll know where to find us.”
“But I can’t hitchhike by myself,” I point out. “I’d get lost. I’d end up in Maine, or someplace weird like that!”
“I’ll come back and get you, and we’ll go together,” says Jason.

Jason and Joe go off in search of a store that sells rolling papers and tobacco, and me and Andrea wander around the train depot, talking. Andrea tells me that she and the guys spent the night in the basement of Jason’s mother’s and stepfather’s house.
“We talked about you all night long,” says Andrea.
“For real?” I can’t imagine anyone being able to talk about me for that long!
“For real,” says Andrea. “I think Jason likes you.”
“Why?” I blurt out.
Andrea laughs. “Cause you’re cool!”
“I’m cool?” I’m in Heaven! I have three friends, genuinely cool older kids, and they think I’m cool! And I haven’t done anything besides be myself. Unbelievable! Just my luck that they’re leaving forever tomorrow.

When Jason and Joe come back with their cigarette rolling paraphernalia, we sit outside by the train track and talk. We talk about everything, tell each other our life stories, and goof around, until evening comes and I have to leave. Before I go, I get my notebook from my backpack and write my name, address and phone number three times. I give ach of my new friends a copy. Our friendship has grown quickly and fiercely, and it seems backwards to me that I may never see them again.

The phone is ringing when I walk into my house. My parents are not home yet, so I answer it.
“Nicki?” says Andrea. “Guess what? I’m going home!”
“What? How? When?” I stammer. It only took me fifteen minutes to walk home from the train depot. How could everything have changed that quickly?
“After you left, I called my friend back in Michigan, and she told me that my mom is really sick. So I decided to go home. I called the police, and they’re coming to pick me up,” Andrea explains.
“I’m gonna come say goodbye to you again!” I tell Andrea, “And you gotta give me your address at your mom’s house!”
“Okay, but the cops are coming for me right now, so you better hurry,” she replies.
I hang up the phone and run all the way back to the train depot.
Officer Ramirez is there, talking to Andrea. I burst in, shouting, “Andrea!” we run to each other and hug, hanging on for dear life.
Ramirez stares at us. “How do you know each other? Are you a runaway too?”
“No, I just met her yesterday,” I remind him.
“Didn’t you meet those other people here yesterday, too?” asks Ramirez.
It takes me a minute to realize that Ramirez doesn’t know Andrea is the same person as the girl we called “Kelly” yesterday. I shrug, and say, “Uh… yep!”
“Where are Jason and Joe?” I whisper to Andrea, while Ramirez is talking into his radio.
“They took off so the cops won’t find them,’ says Andrea. “They could get in big trouble for helping me run away!”
“That sucks,” I say.
“I know. Oh my God, I’m gonna miss you so much! Maybe you can come visit me in Michigan.”
“I will,” I promise.
“Andrea,” says Ramirez, “time to go.” He touches his handcuffs absentmindedly.
“Are you gonna handcuff me?” asks Ramirez.
Ramirez looks alarmed and says, “No.”
I watch him lead my friend out of the train depot. I stand at the window and look out as Ramirez opens the back door of his squad car for her. My eyes tear up.
The homeless woman, the one with the collie dog, comes up behind me and puts her arms around me. “Its better this way,” she says. “That little girl would have never made it on the streets.”

The next day, Andrea calls me from Michigan to tell me she made it home. She had to wait until one in the morning, in a holding room at the police station, for her mom to drive down from Michigan. She tells me that Joe and Jason got caught by the cops, but her mom didn’t press charges on them for helping Andrea to run away. In fact, Andrea’s mom begrudgingly gave Joe a ride back to Michigan, although now that they are back Andrea isn’t allowed to see him anymore.
“What about Jason?” I ask. I’m sure that Jason, the self-appointed leader of the group, went on to California by himself.
Andrea’s voice lowers. “Oh my God, he’s going to jail for a long time!”
That is definitely not what I am expecting to hear. “Jason? What? Why? I thought your mom didn’t press charges on him!”
“She didn’t,” says Andrea. “He had an old warrant. You’ll never believe this, but he molested an eleven-year-old kid.”
“No way!” I picture the energetic bald-headed boy who made me laugh and who swore he’d hitchhike all the way back to Illinois to get me if I ever changed my mind about going to California.
“Yeah. I didn’t get to talk to him, so I don’t know much about it. All I know is, when Ramirez brought me to the police station, I saw another cop bringing Jason in in handcuffs. I yelled out to Jason, and the cop said, `Ask your boyfriend why he raped an eleven-year-old!’”
“Do you think he really did it?” I ask.
“I dunno. I never thought he would do something like that,” Andrea replies. “And I’ve known Jason a long time. But I guess you never know for sure.” Before I can respond, she adds, “My mom wants me to get off the phone now cause its long distance, but I’m gonna write to you, okay? My mom didn’t want me to, at first, but I told her how cool you are. I told her you’re the one who first made me think about going home, when you were talking about making your mom cry.”
“For real?” I say.
The irony could kill me.

I promise myself I’ll keep in touch with all three of the other kids, one way or another. I write to Andrea and Joe, and I buy a prepaid phone card so I can call them from the payphone at the train depot.
I write a letter to Jason, too. I don’t mention what Andrea told me, but I tell him that I heard he got arrested and that I hope he’s okay. I don’t know how I feel about the reason Jason was arrested. Its hard for me to imagine how a kid, just a little older than me, could do something like that. I figure, if Jason writes back to me this time, I’ll write to him again and ask him for an explanation.
I don’t know exactly where Jason is now, though. So I mail the first letter to Ramirez at the Palatine police station, including a note begging him to forward it to Jason for me.
My life is different now. I am different. Its like I’ve been given a glimpse into an alternate universe, where people give a shit about me, where people think I’m cool just the way I am. When I keep in touch with Andrea and the boys, I feel like I’m keeping that universe alive. And maybe someday, when we’re a little older and don’t have to be runaways, Jason and Joe and Andrea and me really will make it to California.
For real.


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