Grand Central was absolutely packed. It was a weekday, so it was filled with commuters. Stephen smiled supportingly at me as we got in line for a train ticket.
“Hi, I’d like to take the Metro North train to Poughkeepsie.”
The woman had a pudgy face and a large mole on her right cheek. She stared at me unblinkingly. I handed her the money, which she took wordlessly. She must really love her job.
I would take the Hudson line all the way up to Poughkeepsie. From there, I’d head further up Dutchess County to a town called Rhinecliff. It seemed like a safe place to be. I think an aunt from my biological family also lived there. I haven’t seen her since I was maybe five years old; all I remember is that she was a freelance artist, wore her hair in a bun, and owned three cats.
“Hold on a sec. Can you grab the water bottle from my bag?” My hands were full, or I would have done it myself.
“Mm-hmm.” Stephen rummaged in the side pocket for a moment before handing it to me. I thanked him and filled it with fountain water.
“Um, Blake,” Stephen muttered after a minute, “there’s a man staring at you.”
My breath caught in my throat. I fought the urge to whip my head around and forced myself to stare down.
“Look away,” I said quietly, through gritted teeth.
I finished filling the bottle, so as not to look conspicuous, and walked away with my back turned. Stephen strided after me. The man shouldn’t have been able to see my face.
We turned into a gift shop. I hastily led Stephen behind a bookshelf. I barely even spoke before he growled at me.
“What did he look like?” I asked breathlessly.
“Blake, what’s going on?”
“First just tell me what he looked like!”
He narrowed his eyes disapprovingly and sputtered, “Medium height, early thirties, cropped black hair. I think he wore a black coat.”
All of that described Dirk. Why he was here, I didn’t know, since he should have been at school. Then again, so should I. Maybe that’s why he was here—
“I have to go—”
He grabbed my arm. “No you’re not, not yet. Are you in trouble? Do you know him?”
I bit my lip fiercely and hesitated. I cursed myself for it. “Yes, I do know him. And no, I’m not in trouble, and even if I was I wouldn’t concern you with it.”
“What if I want to be?”
“Except you really don’t. I’m sorry Stephen. Thank you for everything.” He opened his mouth like he was going to say something else, but shut it. He looked into my eyes, completely stunned. I knew he wanted to help me. I knew he was a good person. I gave his arm a sharp squeeze, smiled more melancholy than I meant to, and walked away.
Barely a second had passed before I was deep in the crowd and I heard him call out behind me. Tears brimmed in my eyes but I didn’t turn around.
I boarded the train as fast as I could and found a seat in the far back. I pulled up the hood of my peacoat up over my face and squeezed my eyes shut. I will not cry, I commanded myself. I will be strong. I will be resilient.
Eventually the train began moving. Still worried, I looked over the seats only enough to see the other passengers. None of them had both black hair and black coats.
I focused on slowing my breathing and getting my heart to stop racing. Once I was much more calm and all my bags were secure, I took out my iPod and earbuds. Music might just be the only solace you get when life upturns the very ground you stand on.
I dozed off for an hour. When I woke, the sky had completely clouded over. The train still sped north, and by this time had become fairly crowded. I estimated that an hour was left to my trip; Poughkeepsie was the very last stop.
Outside, a wall of forest covered the entire right side. The Hudson River, cold and grey, stretched out on the left. Tiny islands assorted at random speckled across it. Mid-November left the ground hardened and colorless as winter edged in.
My brain began running a mile a minute. How did Dirk find me? Did he really not show up to his job because of me? And if he found me, what was he going to do—grab me by the arm and force me to come back home?
I wished the girl in my dreams would just talk to me. She never explains anything; she acts as if I already know exactly what’s going on. Maybe if she would stop being so cryptic, I could figure it out.
Andromeda from the Greek myth kept pushing itself to the forefront of my mind. I could still see the shiny, silver book quietly shelved away, reflecting light straight into my eyes as though on purpose. It didn’t make any sense for the girl to be her, yet a coincidence seemed too unlikely. Then another thought came to my mind: if she was Andromeda, why was she only a preteen when the myth narrated her as an adult?
On a whim, I decided to later follow Dirk’s suggestion to lucid dream. While it was his suggestion, I don’t have to follow it verbatim. I was perfectly capable of taking things into my own hands. And absolutely not resorting to violence. All I wanted to do was talk to her.
My headache found its way back. I mediated it by sipping water and staring out the window as people hustled and bustled on and off the train. As Poughkeepsie drew closer, my anxiety became stronger.
A horrible thought suddenly sprung into my mind. Did Dirk see Stephen’s face? Would he attempt to track Stephen down or approach him and ask for information about me? I wasn’t sure. Either way, whether or not Stephen was now safe, I prayed he’d have the good sense to deny knowing me. My gut assured me he had understood. Even still, the last thing I wanted was for a genuinely good person like him to get caught out by a sadist like Dirk. Especially at my expense. I wasn’t sure exactly what Dirk was capable of, and simply wondering about it made my stomach churn.
After a while, the train rolled into a station next to the river: Poughkeepsie. The river, the same shade of grey as the sky, sent chilling winds onto land. My hands were chapped, dry, and frozen once I gripped my bags and exited the train. I made a mental note to buy gloves the next time I saw them.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been in Upstate New York, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was familiar with it. I went to the Adirondacks to go camping once, a very long time ago. Poughkeepsie was definitely nothing like it, nor anything like Long Island.
I half-dragged, half-carried all my cargo into a coffee shop. There, I refilled my water bottle and nibbled on a chocolate granola bar I’d taken from Diane’s. The plan was to wait for the bus. There were a couple of options from there: I could get a spot in a shelter or move into an apartment. The more I thought about it, the more the latter seemed unlikely. You usually need a deposit and good credit to move into an apartment. In other words, it’s a process. One I didn’t have time for. Shelters were mostly utilized by the mentally ill, drug-addicted, and the homeless, but I figured they would accept me.
At that moment it hit me. I was actually, officially homeless. Going back to Diane’s would no doubt result in repercussions from foster care, smug arrogance from Diane herself, and a sea of tears from Tori and Jake at how I’d left them. Not to mention being faced with Dirk’s apparent psychopathy again.
While I may be homeless, I knew I wouldn’t be for long. I was a resourceful person (I had to be) and would figure out a long-term plan soon enough.
My only regret, albeit a serious one, was not finishing high school. Not because I didn’t want to, but because recent circumstances made it difficult. I’d even maintained honor roll for three years.
Maybe there was a way I could take my finals and receive my diploma early. I was fairly sure people did that. I’d find out if I was eligible once I’m settled in.
I gazed out the window, where the flutters of the first snowflakes of the year fell onto the ground. They were too big to stick, and rather clumsy, like a baby’s first steps.
Finally the bus showed up. I climbed up the steps, gripping on tightly to my bags and guitar, all too aware of the judgemental looks coming from the few people on it. I sat down without giving them the satisfaction of a single glance their way.
What was Stephen doing right now? In his store, in class at CUNY, or telling his friends about this girl that showed up at midnight out of nowhere? Who left as quick as she came, who never said a single word about her past?
With a strange drop in my stomach, I thought, that’s me: painfully private. I’ve only talked to a couple souls ever about my life before foster care. Mostly because I’ve trained myself from a little kid to only depend on me. I’d been disappointed and hurt too many times before by people who were supposed to never let me down. Now I’m my own best friend. From it, I learned that self-esteem and confidence originates from within. It cannot be maintained by others.
In my experience, putting too much trust in others or depending too much on others is a dangerous, risky business with a low success rate.
For the second time I raised my hood over my head and closed my eyes. I needed a cell phone. I had to contact the shelter and book a bed. I had difficulty concentrating, though. The memory of the warmth of Stephen’s arm underneath my hand interrupted my thoughts. The black-and-gray plaid shirt he wore. The look in his eyes I couldn’t exactly explain: like he knew arguing with me wouldn’t matter, though he certainly wanted to.
Outside, the rate of the snow flurries increased. It wouldn’t stick, I could see that, but it didn’t try any less hard. Tonight would be very cold. I swore it dropped five degrees more each day, but there was heat on the bus at least. It blew against my legs and warmed up my feet in my boots.
Lying with my head back against the chair, I daydreamed of a bed to sleep in and some hot food. I couldn’t help but worry there wouldn’t be a bed available for me. Then what would I do? I doubted finding another Stephen Chase. Even though I would have liked to, if life has taught me anything, it’s that I wouldn’t be so fortunate.