Book x1 (The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury)
“Chicago’s got more alleys than…anywhere else in the world.”
“Why are we running?”
Charlie’s orange hair tumbled behind her, and I followed it. We flashed past closed garage doors and roller bins, weaving between groups of kids playing in the lane.
“Elena?” one of them shouted at me. I caught a glimpse of more red hair – Charlie’s little brother stopped bouncing his tennis ball to stare at us. The storm clouds overhead roiled with the promise of rain.
“We’ll be back for dinner!” I yelled. The cold air stung the back of my throat as I breathed in.
“Two-thousand miles of alleys,” Charlie said, “all stretched out.”
“Why are we running?”
Charlie slowed to a jog, then stopped. She hunched over to catch her breath.
“You think that much alley could get you to the moon?”
I skidded to a stop beside her. “No. Not enough pavement.”
Charlie turned back down the alley, to the kids in the distance. “We won’t be back for dinner!” Then she looked at me and laughed.
I was always jealous of Charlie’s eyelashes – so long they tangled, swooping over brown eyes and threatening to fall in. She blinked and pointed behind us, at the storm on the horizon. “We’re running from that.”
There was no sky. Just clouds with their bellies tinged orange and pink with the setting sun. The slack powerlines strung like a canopy over the alley looked black in the foreground.
The gravel crunched beside me as Charlie kicked off again.
“You can’t run from rain!” I shouted. It was already starting to smell like it did during a storm – like grass clippings and wet dirt.
“Just watch me!” she sang back.
We ran from the muffled thunder, the sparks of lightening stretching across the sky behind us. When I saw the hum of light in the corner of my eye I counted – one, two, three…ten, eleven, twelve. The sky growled.
Charlie’s backpack kept slamming into her while she ran – faster than me, and with more purpose.
“What’s in the bag?”
“What kind of supplies?”
It was getting darker. The clouds were blocking out the sunset, which was deeper – blues and purples – and I knew there’d be stars out soon. Fragments of the constellations.
“Supplies. Map, torch…reading material…” she breathed, running faster.
I felt drops of rain on my neck, but Charlie didn’t react. She was ahead of me, dodging them, so I sped up.
The alley opened up into a street and I followed Charlie as she made a sharp turn. There was a small bus stop beside the road, alone in the suburban cul-de-sac. We ran under its hard plastic shell for cover.
Charlie pointed at the streetlight overhead. “We’ve made it to the Sun Dome, Lieutenant.” Bugs were already swarming to the warm light.
“Huh?” More drops fell on the see-through roof, and I sat on the cold bench to catch my breath. The air fogged in front of me.
Charlie dug into her bag and fumbled around a little, before pulling out a worn paperback and handing it to me.
“Page 78.” She paused, then said, “Ever feel like this rain is gonna kill you one day?”
“No.” I flicked through the pages of the book. The paper was already starting to bloat from all the moisture in the air.
While Charlie watched me she relayed the story, taking excited breaths in place of commas. “There’s a story in there where it’s always raining, and they go crazy, and they just kneel in the mud with their mouths open – they drown themselves.”
The rain pattered on the plastic above us and on the cement beside us.
“So we’re running from the rain,” she said. Her hair was tangled now too – orange and knotted and framing her serious face.
Wallet x1 (Money, ID, two strips of gum)
The 151 bus pulled up beside the stop. I’d made Elena stick her hand into the rain when I saw the headlights further up the street.
“Uptown?” she asked when she saw the bus number.
“Uptown,” I said, pulling coins out of my wallet. The clouds had started folding in on themselves, darkening as they drifted south with the wind.
Elena wouldn’t stop looking at me like she was about to ask Are you sure? And I was ignoring the question. It was the same look. The same as when I’d show up at her window at night or dip into my mom’s crappy wine collection. Are you sure?
You’d think I would’ve gotten used to it.
“C’mon.” I laughed, pushing her forward when the bus door opened. She jumped inside. I held my backpack over my head and followed, the cold water getting between my fingers and under the cuffs of my jacket.
The bus driver didn’t look at us – he just waited for our money. When I pulled out my Velcro wallet Elena laughed at me. It was pink and outdated, and I’m glad she laughed because it covered the sound of me peeling it open. I paid for two tickets and walked to the back of the bus, trying to shake the water off me as I went.
Elena got the window seat. She had the paperback out and started reading – “‘It was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains,’” she recited. She looked out the window. “We’ve had worse,” she said.
I shivered. “You need to stop following me places.”
“You were running down my street!”
“That’s not an invitation,” I laughed.
I pulled two pieces of gum out of my wallet – unlatching the Velcro near Elena’s ear – and offered her one. She rolled her eyes and took it, unfolding the paper as I ripped mine off, scrunched it, and tossed it at our feet.
“Page 97,” I said between chews.
Elena took her time turning the pages. She was a nail biter and she stumbled trying to separate the paper, now damp with the rain. “The Rocket Man?” she said when she reached the page.
I looked ahead and smiled until I heard her sigh. Then I chuckled.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” she said. But she wasn’t chewing her nails, and she wasn’t sitting bolt upright and refusing to talk to me. As kids we grew up in running shoes – we were always ready to leave. Me to run and Elena to follow. And as long as I was running to something, not just away from something, she didn’t nag.
She read the story as the bus jolted us down the flooding road. The window to her left was almost black with the early night, and even though I tried to look past her and into the streets, her curly hair got in the way.
I watched her read – watched her hair drift around every time someone else got on the bus and let the gusts of wind in. I looked like a ghost next to her. My hair was overcompensating for lack of colour.
When she was done reading Elena clapped the book shut and turned to me.
“You got anything else in that backpack?”
The bus door opened and let the rain in. It smelled grittier so close to the lake – older, and like rubber tires. I could just see the faint outline of buildings through the curtain of water. I thanked the bus driver and stepped into it, onto puddles that had formed in the dips of the sidewalk.
Charlie watched me from the bus. She looked different under the fluorescent light – scared. Or maybe she was and the light just made it more dramatic.
“You getting off, kid?” the bus driver huffed, not turning his head.
She shifted, watching me. She was biting the inside of her cheek. I remembered her yelling at me about my nails, blabbering about nail polish (“Blood red, pink, blue, black. You’re missing out.”) Meanwhile she was capable of burrowing holes through her cheeks.
“Well?” the bus driver said. He looked at me with his scrunched up face. Shadows made his furrows look like permanent lines.
I stretched out my hand.
Charlie rolled her eyes and threw on her hood, before taking my hand and jumping out of the bus. Her boots splashed on the sidewalk, sending muddy water back up at me.
We looked at the sky. The clouds were starting to pass and the black night peeked down at us, starless. Charlie didn’t let go of my hand.
“You’re crazy,” I said.
The bus pulled away. Across the road there was golden light pouring from small blocks of restaurants. Eclectic music played over one another, mixing and mingling but still distinguishably different.
The Riques Cocina Mexicana sign was the only one visible from the stop, and when the door was held open for a large family the sounds of five-stringed guitars filled the streets.
Charlie dropped my hand, and when her fingers let go of mine I couldn’t help shoving my hands in my pockets to keep them out of sight. Not because I didn’t want her to. Having both out in the open, cold again, made me shiver.
Charlie reached for her backpack. She tore out a crumpled map and started walking, her bag still resting on her stomach. When I didn’t follow she turned around and flashed a smile. “We’re going to church.”
My hands were numb. I was holding the map in front of me, making sure we stayed on the line I’d drawn for us. We weren’t far, and the route was simple. I didn’t really need the map. I just needed something to do with my hands.
We strolled past restaurants, Elena a few steps behind me walking at a normal pace. I pushed forward, knocking shoulders with strangers and trying to look like I was doing something important.
No one stopped for the rain in Chicago. They just kept living, and it freaked me out.
“How come…” Elena started.
“Why are we going to a church?” Elena said. Pause. I tried to come up with an answer. “Scratch that,” she said, “How’d you know I’d follow you?”
“Sh. Plans.” I pointed to the map. The ink was running and I left a fingerprint somewhere over Lake Michigan.
I didn’t notice Elena had stopped until I listened for her heavy footsteps and they weren’t there. She was leaning by the door of a Vietnamese corner shop. I shuffled back to her against the rain.
“Running away isn’t fun when there’s nowhere to go,” I said. She pursed her lips. “Why do you follow me?”
The bell over the door rang as a twenty-something couple launched themselves out of the restaurant. I breathed in the smell of warm rice and soy sauce. The couple were laughing and leaning on each other, and neither of them glanced at us.
Elena puckered lips cracked into a smile. “You can’t be trusted in this city on your own.”
I needed to stop staring at her mouth, so I scrunched the map into a sodden ball. “We don’t even need this. Follow me.”
When we turned away from the busy street the rain fell lighter. The after-storm smell and the cold that came with it overtook the golden heat of the nearby restaurants. The music lingered in the background, along with the dripping of rainwater off the ledges of the looming buildings. Cars lined the street, hopefully hiding under thin trees.
We passed an alley and then, inevitably, another. I stopped at the mouth of it. The lane was long, but it didn’t have enough pavement to make it to the moon. Instead it hugged the side of the synagogue and bathed it in shadows.
“You said church.”
“I was trying to be nonspecific.” I tugged at my backpack and pulled out a torch.
“I have to be back for dinner,” Elena said, “My parents.”
“Can take care of themselves.” I weighed the torch in my hands then clicked it on – the alley lit up, and though my light didn’t reach the end Elena saw the window that hung open, inviting.
“This is illegal,” she said.
“Look.” I shone the torch further down the alley at the boarded up windows further down. “It’s abandoned.”
“We’re not breaking into an abandoned church.”
“An abandoned Synagogue.” I corrected.
Charlie hopped through the window feet first, and when she did the light from the torch disappeared. I felt my way forward and leaned inside the window. Inside was a small room, but I couldn’t see much. Charlie had the light sitting under her chin and when she saw me poke my head in she smiled a maniac’s smile.
“Are you crazy?”
It was dark behind her, and cloudy. Specks of dust drifted past the beam of light. “Here,” she said.
I started off staring at her outstretched hand like I wasn’t going to take it. Her nails were dark, but I couldn’t tell what colour they were. They just stood out next to her fair skin. I probably let my expression shift, because she laughed.
I took her hand – it was cold and wet with rain. But when I tried to step into the building, as if I were some Hollywood starlet stepping out of a jet black car, my other foot caught on the windowsill and I stumbled.
Charlie reached out to steady my shoulders and the torch fell. My momentum backed us into something – a desk. It was too dark to see what was on it. The only light came through the window, from the moon and the distant streetlights around the corner.
“Sorry,” I said.
We were so close to each another, and it was so cold my breath fogged in front of Charlie’s pale face. She watched me and when I didn’t move she started biting the inside of her cheek. Then her hands fell to her sides and she laughed.
Was that a nervous thing? Charlie laughed a lot around her dad, but when she was in control, with her sisters and brothers, she didn’t. At least not in the same way.
The torch had rolled into a bump in one of the floor boards. The batteries inside scattered somewhere under nearby furniture and into the black. I picked the torch up and handed it to Charlie, then bent down to search for the batteries.
When I looked up from my search on the floor the room was bright. There was a bookshelf in front of me that stretched up to the roof. It was stacked with identical spines.
“You brought extra batteries?” I said.
Charlie flashed the light at me. “C’mon,” she said. She grabbed my hand and yanked me out of the room. My eyes weren’t done adjusting, but I blinked and walked along with her.
My shoes thumped over creaking floorboards and as my eyes pushed past the darkness Charlie became a silhouette – a girl and an outstretched hand in front of me.
We stopped in front of stairs spiralling up past the roof above us. The steps were covered in dust. I scanned them for footsteps but Charlie shook the torch too erratically for me to tell if there were soles etched into the dust.
Without hesitation – like she knew where she was going – Charlie pulled me forward to climb them.
“You said The Rocket Man,” Elena said. “When I asked why we were going Uptown. Page 97.”
We reached the second floor. There was only one entryway on the landing and the door was askew. Soft light from the room spilled out into the landing. Though the twisting staircase kept going, I stopped.
“I wasn’t answering your question,” I said.
I stepped into the room. The windows were high enough to let in the glow of the surrounding streetlights. They were boarded halfway, with pale curtains draped over the wood and the glass. There was a Star of David on one of the walls, and on a pillar in the middle of the room was a small, rotating fan.
I walked over to it and turned it on, going on my tiptoes to do so. The blades started to turn and they filled the room with an electric hum.
“Ta-da!” I said.
Elena stood in the doorway frowning. “What else is in the bag?”
The circulation of air from the fan shifted the dust over the floorboards. The room was warm and musty, but the landing behind Elena looked dark and cold. I laughed but she didn’t crack a smile.
I felt it against my back before I heard it – the ringing out of my phone from the bottom of my bag. The stifled sound made Elena jump, but when the tingling continued she lowered her shoulders.
I reached for it, pulling out supplies as I went.
“You brought socks?” Elena said.
DAD flashed in blocky pixels across my screen. I hung up. When the ringing stopped it felt quieter than it had a moment before. Elena was closer now, frowning with bunches of socks in her hands.
“What is this?” she said. My head fell back. I didn’t feel like explaining this. “Charlie?”
I needed to sit down, so I did. Right on top of the dirty floorboards with the whirring fan pushing dust particles up my nose. I didn’t look up until Elena sat too.
“Charlie,” she said.
“Ah…okay,” I said. “Okay…The Rocket Man… he – ”
“He leaves.” Elena still had a pair of my socks in her hand, clamped in her fist.
“I’m not leaving. The socks are a…precaution.”
“A precaution?” she said. Her mouth hung open, just a little. I could see the edges of her teeth. She looked at the pair in her hand with a puzzled expression. “He leaves, and then he crashes into the sun.”
“I shouldn’t have brought that book.”
She shook her head and I swear her tiny curls coiled even further. “Why’d you bring the socks?”
My phone started buzzing again. It was in my hand but I didn’t move to stop it or pick it up. I knew it was Dad. Why did everyone want answers all of a sudden?
“There are like eight pairs here.”
My phone kept buzzing. “Please. Stop with the questions,” I said, trying to sound light-hearted, all casual and fun. But it was lost on her.
“Answer one,” she said. “What’s this about?”
She was still holding my socks. Her hair had dried curling up into the air. Her cheeks were flushed from adventure, and because she knew she was close to getting an answer from me. That’s why her lips were curved, too. How could she look like that holding a pair of socks I wasn’t even sure had been washed?
My phone set off again. When Elena’s eyes fluttered to the phone I took the opportunity, treating the gesture as a chance for a prison break.
“Hello, Dad?” I answered. “Yeah…yeah. We’re coming home soon.”
Friend x1 (Elena)
Her hair was brighter. I couldn’t pinpoint it when I first saw her standing behind the podium, but the streetlights had filtered through stained glass. There were diamond pieces grouped together in big arched windows – green and blue, yellow and red. The colours scattered across dusty pews, leaving the tall ceiling in darkness, looming.
“You’re crazy,” I shouted as I stepped forward. It was Charlie’s synonym, and it echoed out from where I stood. The rain had started up again, pattering over the windows.
“That’s me,” she muttered. She had her face in her hands. There was a mural of stained glass behind her and she stood in the centre of it.
“And you aren’t leaving?”
Charlie clicked on the torch and started spinning it idly on the surface of the podium. As I walked down the aisle towards her the light blipped at me, like a lighthouse or a pulsating star.
“I don’t answer any of your questions,” she said.
“Why?” I asked before I could stop myself.
She paused. “Because I don’t know the answers.” And she laughed. It was only light, and the rain almost drowned it out, but it was there. “I wanna say something,” she said.
I headed towards the dais. “Okay.”
“No,” she said, “stop there.”
I stopped walking. “So…The Rocket Man?”
“The Rocket Man crashed into the sun,” she said.
“I feel like I’m crashing into the sun.”
“You ask too many questions.”
I hopped onto the dais.
“You ask too many questions. And you follow me. And you call me crazy. And…”
She kept spinning the torch and my eyes couldn’t adjust to her face. I put my hand over hers to stop her. Charlie clicked the torch off. Neither of us moved, except her eyes – she scrunched them shut. For a second all I could see were the crinkles either side of them, and all I could hear was the rain.
“Quick, while I can’t see,” she said. Confused, I didn’t say anything. “No.” She shook her head and opened her eyes.
Her eyelashes were so damn long.
“You pout at me, and frown and smile and…I like that you follow me,” she said. She let the rain pour, for a second, between her sentences. “I like that you call me crazy.” Her eyes flickered. “I like looking at your mouth.”
My hand felt hot over hers. It was going to shake. I needed to move it but I didn’t want to, so I started tapping over her skin, mimicking the raindrops outside. We looked at our hands and the torch they awkwardly rested on. There were prayer sheets underneath.
“I like looking at your mouth. And your hair and your face. And I’m falling into the sun,” she said.
Charlie never claimed to be a straightforward person. It was still raining. It felt strange being inside the tall building – the pattering stopped short above our heads, caught by the soaring roof.
“Why a church?” I asked.
“Synagogue,” she corrected.
I let myself look at her. Eyes first, they looked brown and worried. Cheeks, they were flushed. Then mouth – lips.
Her lips were twisted. She was biting the inside of her cheek, so I leaned forward to stop her.