Book x1 (The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury)
By the time the flywire door crashed into its frame, Charlie was already on the street—and I had already followed her.
‘Why are you running?’ Charlies orange hair tumbled behind her, and I followed it—past closed garage doors and roller bins and adults looking up at the storm clouds from their backyards. The cold air stung the back of my throat as I breathed in, my voice shaky on the way out. ‘Why are we running?’
There was no sky outside, just clouds with their bellies orange and pink in the setting sun, and slack powerlines crisscrossed above the alley. It smelt of grass clippings and wet dirt, and as we ran against the wind, we passed kids playing either side of the lane.
‘Y’know,’ she said, ‘Chicago’s got more alleys than anywhere else in the world…two-thousand miles of alleys, all stretched out.’
She turned to me and asked, ‘You think that much alley could get you to the moon?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not enough pavement.’
There was thunder, and lightning stretching across the sky: when I saw the hum of light, dull and far away, I counted—one, two, three…ten, eleven, twelve. The sky growled. Charlie was running faster than me now, and with more purpose, her backpack jolting around as she did.
It was getting darker, the clouds blocking out the sunset and outweighing the brightness. The stars would be out soon, fragments of constellations hidden behind the storm.
‘What’s in the bag?’ I asked. A fat drop of rain fell on my neck.
‘Supplies,’ she said, breathless.
‘What kind of supplies?’
It was my job to ask questions. Charlie had the ability to sit and think about one thing for a long, long time, something I didn’t and would never have the ability to do—she would lie on her bed with headphones around her neck and make plans for things she never went through with. And though she thought plans through so thoroughly, she usually kept them to herself.
‘Supplies,’ she said. ‘A map, a torch, reading material.’
The drops were falling faster now, the rain audible in the distance. We reached the end of the alley, and the small bus stop planted there beside the road, all alone in the suburban cul-de-sac with a streetlight shining down on it. We ran under it for cover.
‘We’ve made it to the Sun Dome Lieutenant,’ Charlie said.
I sat on the cold bench to catch my breath, the air fogging around me while Charlie dug through her bag—she was relentless—and fumbling around a little before pulling out a worn paperback and handing it to me. My hands were wet, but she didn’t seem to mind.
I flicked through the pages of the book, the paper already starting to bloat from all the moisture in the air. Charlie watched me and asked, ‘Ever feel like this rain is going to kill you some day?’
‘Not really,’ I said. The rain pattered on the plastic roof above us and on the cement behind us, and even though we were impervious, I shivered.
‘So,’ I said, cautious. ‘Are we running from the rain?’
Charlie’s hair was tangled, orange and knotted and framing her flushed face. She nodded.
Wallet x1 (Money, ID two strips of gum)
The clouds were starting to fold in on themselves, darkening as they drifted south with the wind, as the 151 bus pulled up beside the stop. Elena took one look at the bus number and said ‘Uptown?’ like it was a surprise, and I said ‘Uptown’ back to her, like it wasn’t.
Elena wouldn’t stop looking at me. She did that, stared without realising what she was doing—and she had that face on, the one that always precedes a question, an ‘Are you sure?’ or a ‘Why aren’t you listening to me?’ It was the same look she gave me when I showed up at her window at night or dipped into her mum’s crappy wine collection.
You’d think I would’ve gotten used to it.
‘C’mon,’ I said, pushing her forward when the bus door opened. I held my backpack over my head and followed, the cold water slipping between my fingers and under the cuffs of my coat. The bus driver didn’t look at us; he just waited for the money.
I pulled out my wallet: Velcro, pink, and outdated. Elena laughed at it, and I’m glad she laughed because it covered the sound of me peeling it open. I paid for two tickets and walked towards the back of the bus, trying to shake the water off me as I went.
Elena shuffled over to the window seat and pulled the book out, reading from my assigned chapter, ‘“It was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains.”’
She looked out the window. ‘We’ve had worse.’
I pulled two pieces of gum out of my wallet, unlatching the Velcro by Elena’s ear before offering 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.
‘You need to stop following me places,’ I said.
I sighed, pointing to the book. ‘Page 97.’
Elena took her time turning the pages. ‘The Rocket Man?’
I looked ahead and smiled until I heard her sigh. ‘That doesn’t make any sense.’
Both of us grew up in running shoes: we were always ready to leave, for me to run and for Elena to follow. Sometimes she would do so begrudgingly, other times with a bit of a jolt, but I knew that as long as I was running to something, not just away from it, she’d be okay.
She read the story as the bus twisted through the flooding road. The window to her left was almost black in the early night, but as I tried to look past her and into the streets her curly hair got in the way, so I watched her read. Her hair drifted around every time the bus halted to a stop and someone new joined us—and with the window so dark, I could see both our reflections. I looked like a ghost next to her. My hair was overcompensating for my paleness.
When she was done reading Elena closed the book and turned to me. ‘You got anything else in that backpack?’
Map x1 (Chicago)
The bus door opened and let the rain in. I could just see the faint outline of buildings through the curtain of water, but regardless of any concern, I thanked the bus driver and stepped out into the night.
‘You getting off?’ the bus driver said impatiently.
Charlie watched me from the bus. She looked different under the fluorescent light—she looked scared, or maybe she was and the light made it visible. She was biting the inside of her cheek. She was always yelling at me about my nails, blabbering about nail polish (‘Blood red, pink, blue, black! You’re missing out!’) but she was capable of burrowing holes through her cheeks.
I stretched out my hands, and after Charlie was done rolling her eyes she took it and jumped, boots splashing on the sidewalk and sending water back up at us. The clouds were starting to pass, though, and the starless black night peaked down at us. Charlie didn’t let go of my hand.
‘You’re crazy,’ I said again. It was her identifier.
Across the road, there was golden light pouring from small blocks of restaurants, and eclectic music playing mixing and mingling over one another.
‘Mexican food?’ I said.
The Riques Cocina Mexicana was the closest to the stop, and as someone held the door open for a family the sounds of five-stringed guitars filled the streets. Charlie dropped my hand and reached for her backpack, tearing out a crumpled map, unfolding it in front of her face, and walking with her bag still resting on her stomach.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘we’re going to church.’
My hands were numb, and I was holding the map more for comfort than necessity. We stayed on the line I’d drawn for us. We weren’t far away, and the route was simple, but I needed something to do with my hands.
Elena was a few steps behind me, and I pushed forward, knocking shoulders with strangers and trying to look like I was doing something important. We passed restaurants and their customers streaming in and out of doors—no one stopped for the rain in Chicago. They just kept on living, and it freaked me out—but then I realised Elena wasn’t following me. She’d stopped by the door of a Vietnamese corner shop, and I shuffled back to her against the rain.
‘Why are you so sure I’ll follow you all the time?’ she said. ‘And why are we going to a church?’
‘Running away isn’t fun when there’s nowhere to go,’ I replied. ‘Why do you follow me?’
The bell over the door rang—a twenty-something couple launched themselves out of the restaurant, laughing and leaning on each other, the smell of warm rice and sweet-and-sour-something following them through the open door.
When they turned the corner Elena said, ‘You can’t be trusted in this city on your own.’
Her puckered lips cracked into a smile. I needed to stop staring at her mouth, so I scrunched the map into a sodden ball instead. ‘We don’t even need this. Follow me.’
The rain fell lighter, and 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 rainwater dripping off the ledges of the looming buildings. Cars lined the street, hiding under thin trees.
We passed an alley and then, inevitably, another. At the next, I stopped. It hugged the side of the neighbouring synagogue and swathed 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,’ she said. ‘My parents—’
‘—Can take care of themselves.’
The alley lit up, and though I knew it was there, I was glad to see the window at the side of the building hanging open, inviting.
‘This is illegal,’ Elena said.
I shone the torch at the boarded up windows on the second floor. ‘It’s abandoned.’
‘We’re not breaking into an abandoned church.’
I turned to her. There were streetlights in the background, too dull to make much of a difference, but enough for me to see the look on her face. I could tell when it was fear, or giddiness, of confusion, or if she was smiling a little bit but didn’t let the rest of her face show it. And that’s everything Elena was in that moment.
‘No,’ I said. ‘We’re breaking into an abandoned Synagogue.’
Batteries x 2
The room was small and Charlie was already inside. It was dark behind her, and cloudy. Specks of dust drifted past the beam of light, which was searching the room for something significant. When she didn’t find anything significant: a ghost, or a treasure map, or a homeless person, she stretched her hand toward me.
‘Are you serious?’
Her skin was cold and wet with rain, and as I stepped fumbled my way into the building my foot caught on the windowsill and I stumbled. Charlie reached for my shoulder and the torch when—the momentum backed us into something, it was too dark to tell. The only light came through the window from the moon and the distant streetlights.
We were so close, and it was so cold my breath fogged in front of Charlie’s pale face. She watched me, and when I didn’t move 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 brothers and sisters, she didn’t. At least not in the same way.
The torch had fixed itself in a bump in one of the floorboards and the batteries inside had scattered somewhere, under nearby furniture and into the black. I picked up the torch and handed it to Charlie, then bent down to look for the batteries. But when I looked up the room was bright—there was a bookshelf in front of me that stretched up to the roof, and it was stacked with identical spines.
‘You brought extra batteries?’ I said.
Charlie flashed the light at me. ‘C’mon.’
She grabbed my hand and yanked me out of the room, but my eyes weren’t done adjusting. I tried to blink away the afterimage, letting her drag me along until she became a silhouette—a girl and an outstretched arm in front of me.
We stopped at a set of stairs that spiralled up past the roof. They were covered in dust. I scanned them for footsteps, but Charlie shook the torch too erratically for me to tell if there were size eights soles etched into the dust.
Without hesitation, Charlie pulled me forward to climb them.
‘You said The Rocket Man,’ Elena said. ‘When I asked why we were going Uptown.’
We reached the second floor. There was only one entryway on the landing and the door was askew, soft light coming in from the crack. The twisting staircase kept going, but I stopped.
‘I wasn’t answering your question,’ I said.
I made my way forward and stepped into the room. Some of the windows were boarded up, others had been pried open to let in the glow from the surrounding streetlights. Pale curtains draped over the wood and glass, a Star of David hung on one of the walls, and a small, rotating fan mounted on a pillar in the middle of the room.
I didn’t know how long the Synagogue had been abandoned for, didn’t know if it would work, but I dropped my backpack walked over to it anyway to turn it on. The blades started to turn, slowly, and eventually filled the room with an electric hum.
‘Ta-da,’ I said, stepping away from it.
The circulation of air shifted the dust over the floorboards. I turned to see Elena kneeling beside my backpack, a fistful of socks in her hand. ‘You brought socks?’ she said. ‘Why would you bring socks?’
And then my phone rang from the bottom of my bag. It was Dad, I knew, but I didn’t move to pick it up.
‘Charlie?’ Elena said.
I didn’t feel like explaining any of this, to anyone. I needed to sit down, so I did.
I liked keeping things in my head, but Elena never stopped asking questions. Sometimes she was the only one who did, and so I sometimes I looked at her and I was grateful. Other times I was mad—so mad I couldn’t do anything but lie there and be quiet until everyone went away.
I didn’t look up until Elena sat across from me and crossed her legs, her knees touching mine. She’d brought the backpack with her and stuffed it in her lap.
‘Ah…okay,’ I said. I looked back down at my hands, twiddling my thumbs to distract myself from her, sitting right there in front of me. ‘Okay. The Rocket Man, he—he gets addicted to the stars, right? He leaves. He can’t help himself. He keeps getting in his rocket and leaving the people he cares about, right?’
Elena still had a pair of socks in her hand.
‘I’m not leaving,’ I said. ‘The socks are a—precaution.’
She had that face on again. The ‘Are you sure?’ face, the ‘Why aren’t you listening to me’ face, but her mouth hung out too, just a little. I could see the edges of her teeth.
We both looked at the pair of socks in her hand, and I took a deep breath. ‘He can’t help himself. He leaves, and then he crashes into the sun.’
My phone started ringing again. Why did everyone want answers all of a sudden?
‘Please. Stop with the questions,’ I said. I tried to sounds light-hearted, casual, but it was lost on her.
‘Answer one. What’s this about?’
Her cheeks were flushed from adventure, and probably because she thought she was close to getting an answer out of me. That’s why her lips curved, too. How could she look like that holding a pair of socks? How was that allowed?
I took the backpack from her, digging through it to find my phone.
‘Dad?’ I answered. ‘Yeah… yeah. We’re coming home soon.’
Friend x1 (Elena)
The streetlights filtered through the stained glass, scattering down on Charlie where she stood behind the podium. We’d made our way to the heart of the Synagogue, bounded by arched, mosaic windows—shapes of green and blue, yellow and red. The colours scattered across the 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. She had her face in her hands. There was a mural of stained glass behind her, and she stood in the centre of it. The rain had started up again, pattering over the windows.
There were things for Charlie to run from, of course, but that was usually the case for everyone. Not many people put quite as much thought into the plan. There was control in planning, I guessed—something tactile about thinking something through from start to finish, and something comforting about not leaving room for anything but moving forward.
‘So you aren’t leaving?’ I said.
Charlie turned the torch on 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.
She paused. ‘Because I don’t know the answers.’
The rain got louder, another storm rolling overhead, waiting for us.
‘I wanna say something,’ Charlie said.
I headed towards the dais. ‘Okay.’
‘No,’ she said, ‘stop there.’
I stopped walking. Sometimes I’d ask myself why I would follow Charlie, or do everything she asked me to do, or why I listened to her even though I knew—I knew—she was acting out. But I stopped walking.
‘The Rocket Man crashed into the sun,’ she said.
‘I feel like I’m crashing into the sun.’
She looked up at me, her face red and blotchy. ‘You ask too many questions.’
I asked her questions because I wanted to know the answers—I wanted to know what she was thinking, all the time. Why? Why would I want to know what was going through her head, when I didn’t know what was going through mine? I walked towards her, hopping onto the dais.
‘You ask too many questions,’ she said. ‘And you follow me. And you call me crazy.’
She kept spinning the torch—my eyes wouldn’t adjust to her face—so I put my hands over hers to stop the light, and Charlie turned it off. Neither of us moved, except for Charlie scrunching her eyes shut. For a moment all I could see were the crinkled 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 back.
‘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 and it was shaking, but I didn’t want to move it. Instead, I started tapping over her skin, mimicking the raindrops outside, looking down at both of our hands folding on top of each other. There were prayer sheets underneath, on the podium.
‘I like looking at your mouth. And your hair and your face,’ Charlie said. ‘And I’m falling into the sun.’
I let myself look at her looking at me, and I made a checklist.
Eyes: two, brown, worried.
Cheeks: pink, flushed.
Hair: bright, even in the dark.
Lips: soft, twisted.
She was biting the inside of her cheek—a nervous tick, a habit.
So I leaned forward to stop her.
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