“Would you rather live in a box or sleep on a bed with no mattress?” Afra asked the stranger next to her on the bus, being careful not to lean too close to them. She had just eaten her lunch and the onions were pretty strong, so she didn’t want to knock the poor kid out. He didn’t answer her and she crossed her arms in front of her chest. What a prick. He was probably up in the clouds somewhere, bugging out on ham and cheese sandwiches like some kind of moron. Who even ate ham and cheese sandwiches anymore, honestly? Not Afra. She uncrossed her arms and poked the kid in the side of the head. “Hey, you.”
He looked up and took the earbuds from his ears. Oh. He had been listening to music. Or maybe a podcast. Audiobook? Afra peered closer at her seatmate. Was he the kind of boy who would listen to audiobooks? At any rate, his hair had been hiding the blocked ears. At least he wasn’t a ham and cheese sandwich prick though. “Hmm?”
“I said, would you rather live in a box or sleep on a bed with no mattress? Also, what were you listening to?”
“Why are you so chatty?” He swung his dark hair behind his shoulders and glanced at her mildly amused. “Had too much coffee or something? It’s barely seven in the morning.”
“That’s not fair. You have to answer my questions first.”
He sighed. “Fine. I was listening to Liberace and I would rather sleep in a box. Beds with no mattresses would essentially just be a springboard and a bed frame… which would be very painful. I think the floor would be the best option though, to be honest with you.”
Afra leaned back in her chair, impressed by the articulate boy. He had said more than three words, which was more than what Afra could say for the other boys she knew. “Liberace… and box. Okay. Now to answer your questions, I’m chatty because I’m lonely and you happen to be the person that I’m closest to.”
The boy’s amusement deepened. He was captivated by Afra; she was unapologetic. “Your closest companion in life is someone you met on the bus to a hiking trip? That’s upsetting.”
Afra narrowed her eyes at the boy. “Not what I meant,” she didn’t know what to call him, “um, what is your name? I can’t be expected to call you Liberace the whole trip, can I?”
“You’re assuming we’ll still be talking after this. What if I want to go back to listening to my music and leave you in silence?”
“You wouldn’t.” Afra unfolded her hands and splayed them across the fabric of her jeans. “Would you?”
The boy shook his head and smiled at her. He had a gap between his two front teeth. Usually Afra wouldn’t even notice that, but she had been looking at his lips, funnily enough, and he had a nice smile so there she was. Just staring like an ordinary bus perv. She met his eyes again and curled her fingers back together. Hm, talking to strangers didn’t often make her nervous, but here she was, curling and uncurling her fingers and wanting a mirror to make sure she didn’t have food in her teeth.
“No, I don’t like being lonely either. I’m Gervassi. You are?”
“Afra. I’m Afra. Where are you from? I haven’t seen you around town before. Here with parents?”Mine are over there.” She pointed to a couple nearby. “There.”
“No, not here with my parents. Just came by myself. Traveling the world has always been something I wanted to do so my aunts finally decided to let me go this year. I’ve had a rough year, didn’t want to stay home any longer than I had to, so I packed up at the beginning of the month and came here. To the bus station we just left from.” He smiled at Afra again. “I’m beginning to think it was a really good idea. Good way to make friends, hiking turns out to be.”
“You think so?”
Gervassi nodded, lacing his hands together under his chin. “Indeed I do.” There was a beat of silence and then he said, “So why did you ask that question about the mattress and the boxes?”
“Because I was curious to know what you thought. I’ve done both. Spent the first five years of my life sleeping in a fridge box.”
“Really? Why?” He wanted to ask her if she had been houseless before, but he had just met her and that seemed like a really personal question.
“For fun. I like boxes.”
“And the mattressless bed frame? What’s that story?”
“Oh, that was a lie, sorry.”
Gervassi tilted his head at his seatmate. “Lies?”
Afra did have a bit of an issue with stretching the truth at times. In fact, she wasn’t on the bus with her parents at all. They were still at home. She had gotten into a fight with them a few nights ago and stolen their credit card before finding the first trip she could get to. Hiking seemed like a great way to clear her mind. “Yeah, sorry.” She bit her left thumbnail. “I’m working on it.”
“You haven’t slept in a box?”
Afra met his gray eyes again and shook her head. “Nope. Never. And another thing, I wasn’t just curious about your answer.”
“No. I thought you looked familiar. Like someone I used to know and love very much, actually. They had a gap between their teeth just like you do.”
“Oh, really?” Gervassi leaned forward and smiled broadly again, showing the gap between his teeth was still there and well.
“Who?” He wanted to know her story. She was so brash and honest even when she was lying right in his face. He didn’t know why but he was drawn to the intensity of her presence.
“My, um, ex boyfriend.” Her ex boyfriend had had braces from age twelve to sixteen, so she was lying again, but she didn’t know how else to keep this boy’s attention with her and she wanted to keep it so badly. But the crutch of um staggered her speech and he caught on right away.
“That’s not true, is it?” He sat back against the faded seat and reached for his earbuds. “If you don’t want to talk to me, I have music I can get back to.”
“No!” Afra reached for his hand. “Please don’t. I am lonely. I’m not supposed to be on this bus in the first place. My parents are probably so mad they can’t speak straight. But I do like this.” Gervassi thought she was talking about their conversation but then she pointed to her front teeth. “It’s very appealing. Like the mad hatter in Alice in Wonderland. Johnny Depp’s teeth were like that in that movie, you know? You’d look nice with orange hair.”
“Should I dye it?” Gervassi and Afra both ignored the fact that she hadn’t let go of his hands, still folded over the offensive earbuds.
“I don’t know. Why would I ever get to see you after we’re done with the trip though? We go today, camp three days, and then head back and go our separate ways.”
Gervassi yawned. “You could give me your number.”
Afra blinked and took a pen out of her bag. “I had to leave it at home so my parents wouldn’t track me down, but I’ll give you my number for after I get back to it. You can send me a picture of your hair if you ever dye it orange.”
“I’d send you pictures anyway.” He realized how terrible that sounded and blushed profusely, face heating up and eyes popping wide. “I mean, if I did get it dyed another color I’d send a picture. If it was blue or pink or something. You know what I meant.”
“Did I, though?” She uncapped her pen and wrote her number down on the sleeve of Gervassi’s worn jacket. “There you go.”
“You could have just written it on my phone.”
“Hm, well, that wouldn’t be nearly as fun, would it? Can I ask you another question?”
Gervassi nodded sleepily. It was still so early in the morning. On any other day he would have still been in bed.
“If you were a superhero, what powers would you have?”
Gervassi thought for a moment and then answered, “I’ve always wanted to fly.”
“Ah, ha! Same.”
“No,” she had guessed what his answer would be but they didn’t match, “I’d want to have the power of telepathy. Knowing what folks are thinking would be amazing.”
“Haha, well, if you ever want to know what I’m thinking, you should just ask me. Just say, tell me what you’re thinking about… and then finish the sentence. I’d answer, you know. I value honesty as one of my better virtues.”
“Oh, I can tell.”
They kept at their conversation long into the trip and by the time the bus stopped at the camping site, the two were better connected than most married couples are with months of marriage. It was a strange and deeply fascinating bond, the one of Afra and Gervassi, the tall girl from Philadelphia, with her flawed logic and tangled truths, and the boy from a small commune in Florida, sparkled with sun and eager to explore a world away from his aunts. They weren’t his family, but instead a group of women who took in young people who were headed astray and welcomed them into a life away from society.
Gervassi hated it and he was glad to be gone, especially now that he knew who he was gone with. There were late night talks by the fire, walks by the stream, and of course, loads and loads of uphill hiking. Once or twice Afra had tripped and lied about bruised ankles, meaning that Gervassi had to carry her and her backpack for over four miles. He didn’t mind terribly, but he did wish she wouldn’t lie; that she could trust him a little more than she had the days before. On the last day of their trip, they knew there would be rain but they stayed out by the fire anyway because it was, after all, the last night and they didn’t know what would happen next. There was really no way of knowing at all.
Afra warmed a marshmallow over the open flames, the sides of her face lit up by the orange glow. She could barely look at Gervassi as she prepared the treat. She was worried she’d say something crazy, or do something reckless, or even worse, start to cry about thinking they’d have to say goodbye tomorrow.
“Hey.” He had his hands on either side of his body, resting steady against the log they were sitting on.
“Hi.” She didn’t turn to look at him because crying really would be the worst thing she could do right then and she knew if she looked his way the waterworks would start. She knew it was absurd to feel so much for someone you just met… But it was a big time love and she knew she wouldn’t ever be able to think of her life without him in the pages.
“Would you rather sleep in a box or a bed with no mattress?”
“The box.” She still kept her marshmallow over the fire even as it burst into flame and melted down in a storm of ash.
“Why the box, Afra?” He loved her name. It was his new favorite word.
“Because,” she finally dropped the marshmallow stick entirely and turned to look at Gervassi and his ridiculous gapped teeth she liked so very much. “That’s where you said you’d be.”
Gervassi knew she was going to cry, and it looked like the sky was feeling the same way. Not wanting to get caught in the oncoming storm and still wanting to stay with Afra, he took his jacket off and wrapped it around her shoulders before pulling her whole body close to his chest and before they knew it the sky had split open and all they did was rock back and forth, back and forth, until their eyes clicked shut and the moon was falling through the stars.
In the morning, they loaded up their backpacks and got back on the bus. Afra was fully prepared to ride the whole way back as they had ridden the way there; chatting and laughing and singing, even, but instead they rode in a dazed, hazy kind of soft silence. They held hands the whole way back to the bus station and didn’t say a word while saying everything that was left to be said all at once. When the destination neared and they had to leave, it wasn’t Gervassi who let go first. In fact, he caught Afra’s fingers again as she stood up to leave him, to go back to whatever home she had known before the hiking trails became her temporary residence.
“You know I’ll see you again, Afra.” He knew he would. He had to know.
“I know.” She leaned down across the seats and kissed Gervassi once, twice, five times before laughing and standing up again. “I do have to go now, though.” She had no more tears to shed, but Gervassi had a full tank and he was running the engine, big, sloppy tears running down both beautifully sun sparkled cheeks.
“Promise we’ll find a way to see each other again soon?” He didn’t bother lifting a hand to swipe at his face. Crying was only a natural side effect of a broken heart.
Afra curled and uncurled her fingers and said, “If I said no, I would be lying.”