All of the elements and matter in the universe was created from exploded stars. Each part of our complicated existence is literal stardust. I always found that to the most fascinating thing. I was constantly reminding myself of that in times like these. Nothing is wrong with me, because I am made of stars. It was then I realized that part of me still loved my family. But when I was with them, my love for life slowly died. Pieces of myself would fall off when I ran to keep up with them. I had chosen to make my own path. I was collecting myself slowly, retracing my steps, relearning myself. I wandered the streets of D.C. to relieve my energy. My shoe soles had worn down to stumps from all the walking I had done in so little time. My muscles were tightly wound around my bones, and all of my joints were weaker than ever. I was limping with both of my legs. Soon I found a freeway. I was back to scratch, standing on the edge of a road, waiting for someone to rescue me. I could always go lie down, give in to my joints. I could wait to decompose. I could tie rocks to my feet, climb into the lake and let it be over. I could lie in the center of the road, wait for someone to do it for me. But I did none of those things. I stood at the side of the road with one thumb in the air. My hair was sticky and knotted, my skin was bruised and stained. My clothes were reduced to rags. Less and less people stopped on the road to pick me up. No one dared pick up the child with the bloody face. No one was going toward New York. It was all home to Virginia, Tennessee, Delaware. Eventually I just sat next to the road and watched the cars go by. And then I lay down. The sun wasn’t even near the horizon, but I already knew there was no hope. I lay on my back, gravel scratching against the back of my head. A thin sheet of cloud painted the corner of the sky, and that was it. Why does it have to be so hard just to get one car to stop. I wasn’t angry, but I punched the ground anyway. I let out a gurgling yell, which ended in a groan. Look at me, the whining homeless child. Great role model if I ever have kids. There was a sound ringing in the distance. I brought myself to a painful stand, and looked at the mountains. I wasn’t even sure where I was anymore. Not anywhere near the city. Something was singing through the rolls of earth.
“It’s freedom ringing,” I said sarcastically. I saw something peek over the hill. I strained my eyes. It got louder. Music. Psychedelic rock. A bus began to pour over the horizon. It was spray painted with tags and covered in stickers. It crunched along, pausing every time the base pumped out of the speakers. It would then lurch forward, tossing whatever was inside along with it. Red curtains streamed out of the windows. Two middle-aged women leaned out the window too, their hair in long braids. One was holding an orange smoke bomb in her hand, waving it in the wind. The other was strumming a guitar to the music. You could see heads bobbing inside. A pair of legs dangled outside one window. A torn red sofa was strapped to the top of the bus with bungee cords. As the bus glided closer, I desperately stuck out my thumb and prayed. One woman leaned inside for a minute, stuck her head back out and waved to me with her free hand. The bus eased to a stop, and the orange smoke began to fill the air.
“Come on in!” The woman called. I smiled gratefully and jogged over. The door cranked open and I took my first step on board. I was immediately overwhelmed with people shouting welcome aboard and a chorus of hellos. The woman slid out from the window, a crushed smoke bomb in hand. There were at least twenty-five of them. The bus was full of furniture and mattresses. “Welcome aboard.” She grinned. Her face was worn but her eyes still had bright lights behind them. “My name is Joy, and this is the clan.” She sounded off people name by name, and one kid who was about eight. There was Shea on the guitar, Miguel with hair to his elbows and China with no hair at all. The bus driver, Rick was shorter than the steering wheel. He had a stack of textbooks under him just to see past the dashboard. The kid was named Clover, and she was Rick’s kid. I lost track of the rest. When Joy reached the last two, she paused. “I’m sorry dears, I forgot your names.” She turned to me. “We picked them up only a couple hours back.” They said their names, but I hadn’t been listening.
“I’m Aaron, nice to meet you all.” They all waved.
“First order of business,” Joy said, “I won’t ask why it’s there but you need that blood off your face.” She handed me a bucket full of distilled water. “Wash your head out the window.” The bus churned forward, and the music started back up. I made my way over the knot of limbs. Sticking my face out the window, I poured water over my head. A splatter of red stained the road behind us, but my face was cleaned. I looked forward, staring down the road ahead through squinted eyes. “Where to.” Joy said from behind me.
I slid out of the window. “I’m trying to get to New York City. What about this bus? Any particular direction? My standards are pretty low at this point, so if you’re going to Mexico that’s honestly good enough for me.”
She spread her arms. “Where we’re headed? I guess it’s wherever the wind takes us. Twenty of us did this in the eighties, and we just wanted one more go. Why not pick up some new friends on the way?” She smiled. I nodded and slid down onto one of the padded benches. I rocked my head to the music they were all singing, which led to humming, and eventually a full-fledged sing. I’d probably never see these people again, so who cared anyway. Someone handed me a harmonica, and I proceeded to play notes at random. It didn’t work with the song, not even a little bit. But they all cheered me on hysterically. I couldn’t tell if it was sarcasm, but it was fine either way.
I danced around on bare feet, a pile of untied shoes shoved under the driver’s seat. Clover set off a smoke bomb inside the bus and no one could see for a wild ten minutes. Insects danced along the windows until finding their way into waxy kerosene lamps. We painted the corners of the bus interior, the rest was already covered in murals. When we ran out of space we began doodling on the bowling pins that were holding up the table. China painted my face with Sharpie. She called it an ‘Abstract Picasso’. She taught me how to make balloon animals and to whistle. We opened up a hole in the roof and let the rain pour in, and screamed with the thunder. Soon Miguel was tattooing people in the back of the bus. I sat in back with them and talked to the victim to distract them. Rick had the rest of his tattoo sleeve filled in, with a koi fish the size of a hand.
Miguel looked up at me. “You want one?” I raised my eyebrows, but gave in.
“Just a dot. So I don’t forget this.” I said, sitting down next to him. He smiled, wiping my arm.
“Are you sure you don’t want a shape? Like a square? I don’t have any stencils so it might come out weird.” He said, setting up his tattoo gun.
I thought. “Can you do a star?” He nodded.
“Take a deep breath.” I closed my eyes and felt a scratching burn on my shoulder. I squeezed my eyes shut. Halfway through I gave in.
“Okay! Okay- okay I’m done.” He pulled the needle out of my arm. I looked over at the mostly done, slightly lopsided star. I smirked. “I love it.” My arm was aching.
He packed away the gun and covered my arm with plastic. I stood up, wobbling.
If there was one thing those people could do, it was to keep up the energy. They played songs for hours straight without taking a breath. Eventually, my lungs dried out and I lay on one of the many worn recliner chairs. I rocked back and forth as they sang enthusiastically in plumes of iridescent smoke. I smiled and rolled onto my stomach. Orion scratched my back with her paw. Orion was the dog that came with the bus. Joy said they found her sleeping in a pile of trash, skin, and bones. I pushed myself onto my back, and she rolled over my face. Soon she fell asleep on me, and later I joined her.
I woke to the clan sitting in a circle on the floor, telling stories. I sat up and made my way over. I squeezed myself between Miguel and Rick. Joy was driving now, and the stack of textbooks was spread across the floor. The bus was only lit by a warm desk lamp, which was antique and dusty. Rick was telling everyone about his hike in the Appalachian Mountains. The room was filled with his voice, everyone was watching intently. Every time he would pause, silence would return. When he finished the story, he looked over at me. “What about you, any good stories? How does a kid like you end up on a bus like this?” He smiled. All the eyes in the bus fell on me, and I breathed through my nose.
“How does any kid come about running away?” I asked. “I didn’t pack any bags, if that’s what you’re thinking. I just walked out of my house… and never came back.” I smirked, my speech faltering. “I came out to my parents. I’m not even sure how many days ago.” I stopped talking, the stares choking me. “It didn’t go well, I guess. I mean, I’m here.”
Miguel put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay. You don’t have to tell us the details.” My throat loosened. He whispered in my ear. “Should I change the subject?” I nodded. He then went on about his family and the attention rolled off of me. After half an hour of stories, China stood, lifted a bell from off of a desk and rang it to command attention. Heads turned to them.
“Dinner?” Everyone cheered, standing instantly. Rick switched with Joy in the driver’s seat. Bread and pieces of chicken were passed around on a plate. “One for everyone, we weren’t expecting this many.” I took a bite of the bread and smiled in relief. I hadn’t eaten since Pup chased me with a pistol. Miguel eased down next to me.
“Are you okay?” He asked.
I looked up from the paper plate. “Yeah, fine I guess.”
He began eating. “I ran away when I was seventeen. I don’t really like to talk about it either, so I can only imagine.” I looked at him.
He looked at me, confused. “What?”
I bit my nail. “Why did you run?” He looked at me, still processing my question. I probably should have respected his privacy.
“I didn’t feel loved. For a while, I didn’t really want to live. Eventually, I realized it was my family. So I made the decision to run, and I have never regretted it. I’ve never questioned my need to live since.” He said, folding his finished plate.
“What changed? I mean… what kept you alive?” I said.
He thought for a minute. “From the beginning of time, creatures have only existed so others can. To keep the species alive. Our reason for life was always to create. I felt like in ending myself, I would be taking away my soul purpose. I would be ending everything I could create, a whole line of existence.” He seemed satisfied.
That’s when I hit the wall with a crack. I heard screams as the bus skidded sideways violently. As it slowed floor tilted, and I hit the windows with a crash. The glass shattered as bodies fell toward me. Have you ever lay, covered in blood, and wondered if it was someone else’s or your own? I breathed into the short silence and pulled myself to a stand. The bus had rolled over. “There was… a person. In the road.” Rick said. He unbuckled himself, collapsing onto the wall. I grabbed a bowling pin.
I need to get them out of here. I stood facing the windshield and lifted my arms. The pin hit the glass, and it shattered into glitter. I looked back at the people lifting themselves from the concrete. There was smoke in the air, and it was a suffocating grey. Rick staggered up. Orion limped around my leg. “Take her.” He said. I looked at him, confused.
He looked at me pleadingly. “Just take her. There’s one thing we didn’t tell you when you boarded. None of us have a real driver’s license. You gotta go. We’re gonna have to call the cops and none of us are your legal guardian. Just, run.”
I stared, and nodded slowly. I pet Orion, and she shivered. “Come on girl. We’ve gotta go.”
Rick grabbed my arm. “The Lincoln Tunnel should be within ten minutes from here, and I think there’s a marathon. If I’m right, you can get to New York.”
I lifted Orion in my arm because her legs were shaking. I stepped out of the shattered windshield and into the dim road. I looked back, I wondered where the person on the road was. Maybe they had been crushed under the bus. I inhaled to steady my heart rate and walked into the darkness.