The 49

Walking out into the bright afternoon sun felt like an unburdening. It felt to Amalia as if she could float freely through and above the city. But the feeling was fleeting. As she crossed the vast lawn of the high school campus, toward the noise and the exhaust-fueled haze of Western Avenue, she could already feel the heat of the approaching summer suffocating her, the endless supply of empty aimless days stretching out in front of her.

Stopping at the edge of the small crowd surrounding the bus stop, Amalia took her place. She watched as an already-nearly-full bus pulled up to the stop and hoped she could possibly fit on the next bus to come through or maybe even get lucky and find an empty seat on the one after that. A group of girls stood nearby, some of whom Amalia knew by sight but were more or less strangers to her. They were excitedly discussing their plans for an end-of-year party. They rattled off names of people and liquor, some familiar, some not. In a strange way, a part of Amalia felt the slightest bit left out, knowing that she would never ever register on their social radar, let alone be invited to any sort of engagement. On the other hand, the thought of inserting herself into any sort of unfamiliar, unsanctioned social activity was enough to bring the taste of bile to her mouth.

From behind, Amalia heard the hollow sound of sneakers rushing across pavement. She braced herself as another body slammed into hers, skinny arms draping around her neck. 

“We made it!” Luis yelled in her ear, pecking her on the cheek as Amalia struggled to shake free of the boy.

“Get the fuck off me freak!”

Luis let go, giggling like mad.

“You love me.” He said.

“Not when you’re breaking my damn back.”

“Whatever ‘Malia. Don’t be dramatic.”

“Learn it from you.”

“Learn from the best.”

In the distance, the tall profile of another slow-approaching bus could be seen, wading down the street amid the streaming rush hour traffic. Amalia realized that she was eager to get home, get the day over with and finally put the school year behind her. Still, she couldn’t escape the feeling that she should have been more excited about this day than she was. 

The bus approached, hissing with hydraulic release as it settled and opened its doors. It was already half full and filled up well before the two of them had a chance to enter. Another hiss and the bus abruptly pulled away. 

Luis was talking, detailing his last day and going on about an interaction he had with his crush. In front of her, that same group of girls talked rapidly about spending the next morning at North Avenue Beach. Amalia knew some of their names, maybe: Kristen, Marisol, Jenifer… the rest were only semi-familiar faces.

“Oh my god ‘Malia, my heart… it… was… racing! And he smelled so fucking good, I swear!”

“Yeah?” Amalia craned her neck, looking around the corner, wondering if she could possibly see the lake from where they stood, knowing that she couldn’t.

“Are you even listening to me?”

“I am.”

“What was I talking about then?”

“A boy.”

“Which one?”

Luis had her there.

“You know what we should do?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“We should go to the beach!”

“You hate the beach.”

“No… I… “

“You said that the water’s full of dead fish and seaweed, which it is, and that the bathrooms always smell like stale piss, which they do.”

“Okay, but, like, maybe I don’t want to spend another summer at home, reading in my room, alone.”

“But you love doing that.”

“I know, but, I dunno… “

“You alright, girl? You oughta be happy, it’s the last day, summer vacation!”

“Easy for you to say, you’ll be in living it up in Puerto Rico in a couple of weeks.”

“Pfft. If by living it up you mean sweating my balls off in my tio’s unairconditioned-ass house, then sure.”

“I mean…” Amalia looked to the girls, laughing, mouths moving fast with excitement. “At least you’re going somewhere.”

“To be honest… I’d much rather be hanging with you… even if that means reading some boring-ass books or whatever.”

The next bus appeared in the near distance, its face distorted in the heat. It was an older model bus, yellow and brown stripes across its sides. 

“Don’t lie.”

 They boarded once the bus came to a rest. Unsurprisingly, the air conditioning inside was nonexistent. Surprisingly, there were a smattering of seats open toward the back.

“Hell yeah!” Luis pushed down the aisle, across the rubber accordion midsection connecting the double-length vehicle, finding a pair of cracked leather seats situated against a window. 

“I meant what I said ‘Malia” Luis started as the bus began rolling along Western. He leaned his head against Amaila’s shoulder. They stared absently at the slow-moving street beyond.

“‘Bout what?”

“Not wanting to leave you.”

“Whatever.”

“Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Push people away who give a shit.”

The bus hit something in the road, a pothole, hit it hard enough that the entire bus seemed to bounce into the air momentarily, lifting every passenger out of their seat for an instant.

“Yeah, yeah… “

The two friends rode the southbound forty-nine in a comfortable silence. There were murmurings made by unseen things throughout the ride, but Amalia could mostly ignore them. She could allow the small sounds to fall beneath the rumble of the engine, the peripheral movements blending with the passing scenery.

It was a route they had taken together over and over again over the past two years. Amalia watched as the same old intersections and storefronts rolled by. In exactly a year’s time, they would take this homeward journey for the final time. But at the moment, a year seemed to be an impossible lifetime away.         

Soon enough, the overhead tracks of the Blue Line approached in the distance. It was their last stop before they would have to part ways. As they stood, steadying themselves as the bus came to a stop, a slow-burning panic came over Amalia.

“Why you look so sad ‘Malia?” Luis asked, as they climbed the concrete steps up to the overhead platform. 

“I’m not.” She wasn’t, not really, not especially. She was more disappointed than anything, disappointed in the lack of fanfare, in the absence of a deeper revelation. It was just a day like any other, except it was the last… until the next first day rolled around. 

“C’mon, you got the whole summer ahead of you.”

“To do what?”

They found a bench. Luis once again let his head rest against Amalia’s shoulder.

“There’s a bunch of stuff you can do. Go out, meet people, meet a guy, a girl, get laid. Amalia, the summer is like… like your oyster!”

“My what?”

“I mean, you can do what you want with it.”

“Oh. I really can’t.”

Amalia saw her immediate future flash before her: endless hours in her closet of a bedroom reading or listening to her music through her mother’s old stereo headphones. Comfortable safety. How many days sitting in class had she wished for nothing more than to be alone on her own bed, tracks of Nevermind or Morning View or Dark Side of the Moon blaring in her ears. After all, there was no better method than the ingestion of loud music to combat the daily phantasms she dealt with. 

But now, faced with a near-unlimited supply of empty summer days ahead of her, Amalia found herself wanting something… more.

“Okay. So maybe not now. But we won’t kids forever. Next year we graduate, lord willing, and then… then we free.”

“Free?”

 Amalia knew better than that. There was a plan in place, concrete steps that she was destined to take, set in place probably before she was even born.

“Yeah, like, I know your moms can be kinda… difficult.”

“You mean a drunken bitch.”

“You said it.”

“She’s got it all figured it out, Luis. Don’t you worry.”

The bell announcing the next train rang above their heads. From afar, the sound of wheels clacking against rails echoed, brakes squealing as the gray colored cars rushed past.

“Catch the next one?” Amalia asked, staring out into the wide expanse of the street below.

“Sure.”

 Another train rushed through in the opposite direction, outbound. Its arrival and subsequent departure cleared the platform across the way of all human life. A relative quiet fell upon the station as the train whistled away. As with every empty space, it soon became another gallery of unintelligible whisperings and disembodied clunkings. Luis was entirely oblivious to the entities, his eyes closed lightly behind the light reflecting lenses of his glasses. Amalia knew that his presence helped her ignore these external forces. But she also knew what would happen once he left her.

“Do you still hear the voices?” Luis asked quietly.

“I don’t hear voices.”

“Okay, but, do you ‘see dead people’?”

“Shut up.” Amalia pushed the boy away lightly in mock exasperation. Luis laughed, pleased with himself. “It’s nothing like that. I just hear things or… feel them. It’s hard to explain. I’m not like my father, though. He sees it all so clearly while everything for me is… muddled.”

“What does he think?”

Amalia snorted.

“Do you really think I’d tell him?”

“Why not!? He’d probably be, like, proud of you if he knew.”

“So what? No, the second he finds out, he’s gonna want to put me on a flight. He’s gonna make me live with him in that goddamn swamp.”

“Wow. From what I hear, N’awlins is a pretty dope place.”

“Ever been there?”

“No… pero, the French Quarter seems nice.”

“You would. Seriously though, it’s hot and damp and… my dad’s there.”

Amalia saw herself sitting in that stuffy back office, the large windows covering the back wall awash with the standing army of cypress trunks stretching out to the waterfront. The tick-tock of an ancient clock punctuated the silence as she traced the patterns in the office with her eyes: the flourishes of the persian rug beneath her sneakers, the intricacies of the decorative moulding running atop the burgundy walls, the deep lines of her father’s forehead as he pored over some dusty memoir. In front of her, the gold-plated letters sitting on the edge of the man’s desk stared her in the face – R. A. Barnes, Ph. D.

 “C’mon, he can’t be any worse than my papi.” Luis leaned back against Amalia. She layed a loose arm around his shoulder.

“I mean…”

Luis’ father was a loud, aggressive bigot with a short fuse and a penchant for plowing through emotional roadblocks with violence. Amalia’s own father’s quiet, reserved nature stood in stark contrast to that. All the same, Amalia knew well enough that abuse wore many faces.

“…maybe not as bad but, if you knew him, talked to him, or, had him talk at you, you’d see.”

“Clairvoyance is a popular term for second sight,” Amalia could hear her father’s voice in her head as well as if he were sitting across from her in that office, “it is the supposed ability to see the past or the unseeable present or even the near future within the mind’s eye. But the ability I possess, that which my mother passed on to me, is something more opaque. It is an extrasensory perception which allows me to receive the electromagnetic energy signatures generated by all life, living or beyond.”

Just thinking about him brought Amalia fully back into that suffocating room, the harsh stiffness of the chair beneath her butt creating a numb tingly-sensation spreading through her legs down to her feet.

“Te amo.” Luis said softly.

“Huh? Oh. Yeah, me too.”

Luis laughed.

“Sorry. I forget.”

“I know what you said.”

“I know, I know. I mean, I forget that you’re physically incapable of saying it back.”

“It’s just, I dunno, it’s weird. I don’t even say it to my mom. But… I do. I do lo-”

“Don’t hurt yourself Amalia, I know.”

A voice overhead announced that another inbound train would be arriving in two minutes. In the far-off distance, Amalia spied the twin yellow eye-beams approaching.

“That was quick.”

“Wanna wait for another?”

“Nah. Get home. Get ready for your fabulous trip to Puerto Rico.”

“Ugh. Don’t even.”

Luis stood. The train barreled into the station. Luis held his arms out for a hug. With the smallest hesitation, Amalia encircled her arms around the boy’s smaller frame. The soft warm feel of his body against hers felt nice.

“Hey, we need to hang out after I get back. For real.”

“We will.”

Doors open.

“You got my cell phone number, right? Don’t be afraid to call.”

Amalia detested talking on the phone.

“Yeah, for sure.”

“Have a good summer girl! I love you!”

“You too!”

He boarded.

Doors closing.

He was gone. Amalia was alone. As if a switch had been flipped, the non corporeal noises began expanding, infesting every corner of her reality. Luckily, Amalia had a somewhat effective remedy for being alone. Pulling headphones from her bag, she searched for the play button on her compact disc player. The opening riffs of Smells LIke Teen Spirit drove away the spirits or whatever they were. 

She got back on the forty-nine, it was emptier this time. The sun had slowly begun to fall, hanging midway between its peak and the skyline. Amalia watched the city pass by without watching, saw the people board and depart the bus without seeing them. Without conscious thinking, she pulled the cord near her head to signal a stop. She moved to the backdoor in an act of automation. Backpack slung over one shoulder, Amalia balanced as the bus slowed to a bucking stop. Lights above the back doors lit up. To the drum beat of Lithium, she stepped out of the stuffy heat of the bus and into the humid heat of the slow-fading day.

 

 

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