Mother’s sister, Aria, was ten years younger than her. She had the most interesting name in the family, but there wasn’t a lot of competition. She looked practically albino with white hair and light blue eyes. Whenever she would put effort into anything, even laughing, she would turn purple. She used to come visit us as kids, when she was still sane, that is. When Father won the election she moved to Moldova and hasn’t been seen since. She was always the shortest one in the family, but only physically. Her personality could strangle a wild horse with its bare hands. She would drink her tea so strong that it could knock someone out. She would appear once in a while without warning, walking so fast she’d leave skid marks in her wake. Mother said she would always sleep with one eye open, to make sure no ghosts would come through their open window. When I was a kid she convinced me she could echolocate. Every time we’d be walking in the dark she’d tell us to call forward so as to not hit anything. I thought she was telling the truth of course, so I always pretended to know how as well.
So while I was walking in the dark I felt the urge to call forward. I didn’t because then I’d look even more crazy than I was. I lifted Orion higher because her leg was slipping. Ahead I saw streams of people pulling forward. I walked off the road and into the rocky bushes, and peered over the small crowd. Runners. I hugged Orion. A marathon. If I’m lucky I can just run with them. I held Orion in one arm and began the pull myself down the rocks. Orion panted nervously and wriggled out of my arms. My feet hit the pavement silently.
“Orion, come here.” She looked down at me, pacing back and forth nervously. “Come on Orion.” I finally balanced on a rock and lifted her down. She stayed close behind my leg as I crept forward. I leaned up against a truck and panted. I was only a couple traffic cones away from the race. I heard voices.
“Hey, kid. Where’s your parents?” A construction worker asked. I panicked and made a run for it, straight into the crowd. I heard him shout after me as Orion ran ahead. Eventually he gave up, I was lost in the crowd. I kept getting weird glances. I was too young, and had no number. The tunnel was only illuminated by fading lights in the upper corners. I stopped running and put my hand on my knees. You couldn’t see the entrance anymore, and the crowd was thinning. The sounds collided off the walls, and it was dark. I felt Orion by my leg. I was in people’s way. Spotting a railing across the tunnel, I grabbed on and pulled myself over. Looking back, the walkway was probably for construction workers. I began to walk down the tunnel, and my ears went numb. The echoing sound had been absorbed by my limbo with sanity. It was quieter than silent. Silence in a room hurts. When you hear the ticking of a clock or the sound of forks scraping a plate. But there was none of that. I watched Orion run forward into the darkness without me, but I knew she’d come back. Walking wasn’t very important to me anymore. I had done so much in the last couple days that I could span the universe. I felt my shoulder, and peeled off the plastic. If my arm hurt, that was the least of my concerns. I rolled it in circle to stretch the sore muscle. I wasn’t sure how long I walked for, in that tunnel time and space compressed. But eventually it opened up into New York City. I was here. Really here. It was just cold enough to sting your nose. I hadn’t used my phone in days, so it was likely charged. I shoved my phone back in my pocket and walked along the sidewalk. I wasn’t sure where I was or where to go. When people were lost at sea they would follow the stars. In the city you can’t see them. I clearly didn’t know them well enough anyway, not yet. So I did the next best thing and texted Eric. Where am I? My eyes strained from the light of my phone. He began typing. Where are you? I looked up. My phone began buzzing. Eric was calling. I picked up the phone.
“Aaron! Woah, so you’ve made it to the city!” His voice leaked out of the phone speaker. I started laughing.
“Yeah! Yeah, I made it. Honestly, I’m really surprised.” I said, looking out over the empty intersection.
“Okay, so we need to find you. Do you see any street signs?” He said. I watched a car pass by. I looked around. There was a garden behind a fence and highways stretching across the horizon. I squinted at two green signs.
I raised my phone back to my mouth. “Dyer Avenue and… double-u 40th Street?”
I could hear him laugh through the phone. “You mean West Fortieth? I still am not really sure how far that is so let me check maps. I’ll give you directions to our squat.” “Okay great,” I said, and eased onto the curb. It was night but the sky was glowing in pollution. I heard Eric tap on his phone.
“You’re going to have to walk for at least half an hour… but this should work. I’ll give you directions.” I stood up and began following his voice. Soon I was surrounded by buildings far bigger than any back home. I had to climb over fences and knotted plants in crowded alleyways. “You should be there soon. What do you see?”
I spun in a circle slowly. “I am surrounded by buildings, there is an alley and a lot of broken glass.” The alley was the only exit, I was at a dead end. Vines fluttered on the side of the buildings. There was one window at my height, and it was smashed in.
“Hey!” I looked up. Eric’s head was stuck out of a broken window. His head disappeared. “Aaron is here!”
“How do I get up?” I called out. The building was brick, but each stone had been worn thin.
He smiled. His hair was grown out to his ears now. “Fire escape.” I nodded. I wrapped my fingers around the fire escape and eased up slowly. The rust had grown so thick it chipped off in my hand. I made my way up the fire escape, jumping over the missing steps. I finally reached the window. “Come in!” I maneuvered around the chipped glass and crawled inside. I looked around. The room was small, but that may have just been from all of the stuff. It was slicked with spray paint tags. Piles of broken glass and wood overflowed across the floor. One corner had been cleared, and there were three sleeping bags. Dirty plastic bowls were stacked knee high, and there were two empty cans of tuna. There was a sunken wheelchair, which was missing one of its wheels missing. The whole room was covered in sawdust. The roof had collapsed in the far corner, and plants had sprouted around the building’s skeleton. There was a doorless door frame with the hinges still attached. I couldn’t see into the other room. “Welcome to our humble home,” Eric said. I turned back to him.
“We? Who else lives here?” I said, kicked a shard of glass.
Eric smiled wider. “Oh, you’re gonna love them.” His eyes were opened wider than I ever remembered him. He’d really changed. Someone knocked on the doorframe.
“Hi!” A girl stood and made her way over.
Eric outstretched his arms. “Moriah! Meet Aaron.” Moriah was about my height with her black hair clipped into a short ponytail. Her sweater nearly reached her knees, and was covered in patches and small holes. Her voice had been sandpapered, the kind of voice you get after a lifetime of chain smoking. “Finally! I’ve heard so much about you.” She hugged me.
I beamed, standing back. “Really? I’m flattered.” I jokingly said, turning to Eric with one hand on my hip. Moriah rubbed her nose, and that’s when I saw her hands. They were swollen and red on her knuckles, and lumps were formed on the back of her hand. She noticed my shocked face and laughed.
“Oh don’t worry, it’s not weird for you to stare.” She said, putting her hands out in front of me.
I looked back up at her. “But… what is it?”
“I have Gout. It pretty much just causes my hands to swell uncontrollably for up to days. Pretty painful too.” She said. “Actually, it’s about time to take my painkiller.” Eric tossed her a plastic bag full of loose pills. She dug through it for a minute, and the dry swallowed three.
Eric looked back at me and put a hand on my shoulder. “You should meet Sir.”
Moriah nodded. “They should be in the other room.” I followed her through the doorway. The next room was much bigger than the last. There were no piles of wood or glass, but the wooden floor itself felt like it could collapse any minute. There was a rusted chandelier sitting on a ripped old couch and two broken trophies full of change and marbles. Behind the couch were stacks of boxes which I later found out were full of loose sticker, broken crayons and moldy paint tins. An old rug was spread across half the floor and a person lay right in the middle. Moriah waved her hand in front of Sir’s face. “Earth to Sir, Aaron finally made it here.”
They looked up from their book and smiled. “Pleasure.” They said, lifting a hand. I shook it. They had short curly hair and was buried in a sleeping bag. Moriah sat on the rug and patted for me and Eric to join her.
“What’s your stories?” I asked, looking at the two of them.
Moriah answered first. “I’m a native New Jersey kid. I grew up with my parents and two sisters. My parents are both Kazakhs, so when they immigrated they brought some of their ideals with them. One of those ideals included not supporting my transition. After a while, I gave up on them and hitched with my friend Tallulah. I was only planning on disappearing for a month or two, but after meeting Sir I decided this place is home.” I nodded.
Sir faced me. “I was born into the González family. That is, just me and my mom. She always accepted the fact that I’m genderfluid, but one day she disappeared. We were squatters at the time, and I never learned where she went. She told me to hide in the closet and count to one-hundred, and then he was gone. That was about two years back. I lived alone for a month and a half and then met Moriah in an abandoned building.” They said.
“Woah,” I said, in shock from the flood of information.
“What about yourself?” Moriah said. Sir put down their book and scooted into a sitting position.
I sighed and let out a puff of air. “I’m from Missouri as you know. Same as Eric. I’ve been missing for at least a week, I’m not so sure how many days actually.” They nodded.
“We both left because coming out didn’t go so well,” Eric said. Sir sucked through their teeth as if they could feel our pain.
“Are you both straight?” I asked.
“I am,” Moriah said.
“Ace,” Sir responded, lying back.
I cocked my head. “What?”
“You really don’t know much about sexuality, do you. Here let me explain,” Moriah said, running her fingers through her hair. “Gender is a spectrum. It comes in more dimensions than we can see. If you are straight you like the opposite gender. Gay, you like the same as your own. Bi, you like two genders on the spectrum. Pan and gender plays no role in your attraction. Asexual, or Ace, and you don’t have sexual attraction. And it gets much, much more complicated than that. But I guess those are the basics for you.”
I pulled my lip and nodded. “Okay… okay. I got it.”
Eric patted my shoulder. “She explained it to me when we met, it’s fine.”
I smiled at him. “Okay. Wait, how did you guys meet?”
“Here, let me show you.” Moriah took hold of my shirt and began dragging me along. Sir and Eric followed. Through the window there was another fire escape. From there you could see out onto the skyline of small old houses. The air was a light grey and the clouds hung low. There were no stairs going to the roof, so Moriah held onto the loose bricks of the side of the building. She pulled herself along the wall. Soon she swung herself onto the roof and was gone. “Come on!” She called out to us. I began scaling the wall. The corroded stone dug into my flesh and made gray scratched along my palm. I pulled myself up a little more and clung to the side. My heart pounded in my skull as the wind ripped through my thin clothing. “Aaron! If you’re having trouble grab my hand.” I looked up at her. Her outstretched hand seemed so far. I pulled out my arm and grabbed her hand. She planted her feet against the ridge of the roof and lifted me up. I lay on the windy tin roof and breathed heavily. She leaned over me. “You good?” I nodded. Soon after Sir and then Eric crawled onto the roof. Eric helped me up.
Moriah pointed into the distance. “That is the direction of where Sir and I use to live. We met at one of the best soup kitchens I’ve ever been to, but I ended up forgetting the name. They were the only other kid there so I decided to sit with them.”
Sir nodded and beamed. “I remember that. After sharing stories we decided if we were going to be homeless we didn’t have to be alone.”
Moriah leaned against them and made an awww sound. “We lived in another squat for about six months until it crumbled on a windy day. When we found this place we found Eric too.”
I sighed happily. “And now me.” They all nodded. I shuddered from the wind breezing through my hair.
Moriah looked at me worriedly. “Are you cold?”
“You probably haven’t even showered in a week, right?” Eric asked.
I paused. “Yeah, I haven’t even thought about that.”
“Here, let’s get you together,” Moriah said. Over the next few hours we scavenged for clothes and shoes in dumpsters and alleyways. They took me to public bathrooms to wash my hair with hand soap in the small sinks. We got dinner at a local soup kitchen, and Moriah decided to show us all the best places in the city. “And it’s all free, too.”
She showed us the subway stations where you can hop the creaking turnstiles and brought us to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. She showed us free movies playing on big screens in public parks, and we stargazed from the Highline. Apparently, if you had the right eyes you could find the stars in the sky, according to Moriah. Of course, they were always there. They’re just like hiding. I think she was messing with me, or she confused airplanes and stars. Later in the night, the soup kitchen had a clothing drive so we each got free clothes. We decided this was a cause for a celebration. That night we all did our best to dress up- we washed our old clothes in a bathroom sink and hung them from the fire escape. We all wore our new clean clothes and went out on the town. Eric brushed my hair with a plastic fork we kept from the soup kitchen. Sir wore a dress they ‘found’ hanging from someone else’s clothesline, but we had all done our fair share of stealing. First, we visited a bar that has open mic night every night. Two minutes into a terribly offensive comedy routine Moriah got a smug look on her face.
I leaned over. “What are you thinking?”
She tried to hide her malicious smile. “I have an idea.” She stood up and beckoned for us to follow. We trailed her in the dark for what seemed like hours until we came upon a glowing building. It was white and grey, stretched with wide windows. Through you could see people dining. It didn’t look terribly fancy, but most definitely out of our price range. Above the clear windows, there were black letters reading Linette.
I turned to her. “What is this?”
She smoothed her ponytail. “Dinner.” She confidently latched onto the door handle and pulled it open. The rest of us statically followed her, jumping with nervousness. She strutted up to a waiter. “Table for four please.” The man looked at us, shrugged, and showed us to a table next to the door. We slid into our seats.
“Moriah, what the actual fuck?” I asked under my breath.
“Don’t sweat it.” She replied calmly. We were passed our menus. I decided to just go for it. I ordered one of the most expensive things on the menu. Moriah winked at me and gave me a thumbs up. That night I ate better than I had in weeks. Maybe it was just because I had lived off dumpster and soup kitchen meals, but that was the most delicious food I had eaten in my life. Eric caught me almost crying into my plate with happiness.
He elbowed me in the ribs. “You look kinda crazy, cut it out before someone notices.” I laughed and nodded, straightening up. By the end of the night, we all had our pants unbuttoned from the mountains of food. I balanced on the back legs of my chair in exhaustion. “When we get back I am going straight into a food coma.”
Moriah cackled, finishing off her plate. “Sleep is for the weak.”
“I can be weak, but I sure as hell won’t be tired.”
“Okay, slugger. As long as we can draw on your face when you fall asleep early.” She fired back.
Eric snickered. “We should probably get out of here. You never told us how you plan on paying.”
Moriah licked her finger and held it up. “Ah. Watch and learn.” She pulled out a twenty dollar bill. “I swiped while we were in a crowded area today.” She carefully folded it into a fan. “Ta-da.” She held up the folded bill.
“Exciting.” Sir said sarcastically.
“I wasn’t done,” Moriah said, sticking her tongue out. She slipped one end in the check, which was delivered minutes before. It appeared as though there were four twenty dollar bills in the check. “Now make your way to the door as quickly as possible. We stood and shuffled out nervously, relying fully on Moriah. The moment we hit cold air Moriah began running into the darkness. We ran off into the night laughing hysterically.
Sir trailed behind us desperately. “I can’t run in my dress, wait.” They whined, scooping it up into their arms. They elongated the word while trailing behind us. It turned out no one had been chasing us, but it was fun to pretend we were running from lions.
When we got the apartment after my first night alive, we found a person in one of our sleeping bags. I made my way around the breathing lump and peered at their hand sticking out of the top. A pair of round glasses lay upside down next to the person. “What should we do with them?” I whispered. Sir crouched next to their head and placed a hand on the person’s shoulder. Sir shook them a bit, until the lump shifted. Shifting on its elbows, the lump became a person. She had damp curly hair tied into a bun and her arms were shaking vigorously.
“Oh my god.” Eric pulled the other sleeping bags off the floor and wrapped them around her shoulders. Her jaw chattered violently as we tried to get the cold water off of her shoulders. Moriah dashed to the pile of wood. She gathered boards and balls of paper in her arms and made her way to the tin trash can we used for heating. Dropping the pile with a loud thud, she pulled a box of matches from her pants pocket. Striking the match twice, she dropped the flame into the drum. She emptied the rest of the matchbox into the blaze. The fire danced in her eyes, and she beckoned us to bring her over. The woman pulled on my hand and brought herself to a stand. She slowly made her way over to the trash can, sinking to the floor. She closed her eyes and dried, so we decided to leave her alone. Soon she was asleep, and the fire began to sink into itself. I fed Orion the scraps from dinner, who had been sleeping in a mostly hollowed couch all day. The rest of us slept on the roof under one wool blanket. I gazed up at the starless sky next to their dreaming bodies. I reminded myself that I couldn’t read the sky without constellations. I closed my eyes and hummed, practicing my echolocation. I hummed to map out my stars under my eyelids. Just as long as I didn’t forget what they looked like I could keep this rolling city as my home.