Afra stepped off the bus and sighed, her backpack heavy with laundry and memories of the last few days; of her wonderful fireside chats with the elusive Gervassi. She smiled and turned back around to wave at him from the ground. He already had his headphones back on but he waved at her anyway. Good, she thought, that way no one else will talk to him. Speaking of talking, Afra’s heart thumped wildly in a different way when she thought of facing her parents when she got home. Had they been looking for her? Were there police cars parked in the driveway and helicopters buzzing ahead? Probably not, but if anyone asked that’s what she would tell them. She’d tell them her parents loved her so much they couldn’t sleep at night not knowing where she was, that they hadn’t stopped worrying since the minute she left. As she walked home from the bus station, her eyelids grew heavy. How would she sleep not knowing where Gervassi was? He had her number, that was true, but it wasn’t the same. He could lose her number and never talk to her again, or worse yet, not want to talk to her again. She pulled her sleeves over her fingers and chewed at the fabric, soaking the shirt through to her skin.
Afra didn’t need to worry, because Gervassi was pretty much doing the same thing back on the bus. He didn’t bite his nails; they were already too short, but he did run his hands through his hair. Over and over again. He thought of Afra getting home and her phone getting taken away as soon as she returned to it. Left hand through hair. He thought of Afra getting her phone back and not responding when he finally got to call her. Right hand through hair. He thought of a mysterious and more attractive childhood friend swooping back into Afra’s town and taking her breath away with tales of adventure at sea and a mind blowing relationship with food. Both hands through hair and head thump against the back of the seat in front of him. What if she met a chef and fell madly in love with them and they had several beautiful and cultured children? Where would that leave Gervassi?
He took off his headphones and stared out at the moving, blurring landscape. His stomach growled and he ignored it as usual. He’d eat some almonds later and call Maggie when he got somewhere with cell service.
Maggie was his therapist.
He ran his hands through his hair again and slipped the headphones back up. Liberace’s keys lulled the boy to sleep; dreams of lioness girls and their wild stories filling up his head and letting him breathe free again.
Afra unlocked the door to the house very quietly. Neither of her parents were home. They must have still been at work. Part of Afra wanted to laugh at them for working even while she was missing because it was just like them to do. They were such steadfast little army ants, weren't they? Always working, never playing. Always telling others what to do and expecting them to fall right in line with them. Afra walked up the stairs to her room and sat down hard in the middle of the floor. She took the backpack off and pushed it to the door of her closet. Tim Gunn, her English bulldog, came bounding up the stairs and leapt into her lap, licking and grinning with all the passion of a midnight ferris wheel ride.
“At least you missed me.” Afra squeezed her dog and climbed up into her bed, pulling the blankets over her head and holding Tim Gunn close to her chest as she did so. He was so warm. He didn’t smell half as good as Gervassi did, and as much as she loved the dog, she couldn’t stand the incessant kissing. She scooted him down to her feet where he could sleep in peace, resting beside her hiker’s toes. “It’s been a while, bed. Did you miss me too?” She rolled over and reached under her pillow for her phone. It was dead, of course, and she didn’t typically sleep with the device under her pillow for caution of radiation waves killing her while she slept, but she had stored it there so her parents wouldn’t find it while she was gone. Though now Afra wasn’t even sure they had looked for it. Maybe they hadn’t been in her room at all. “I wonder,” she said to herself through a yawn, “what Gervassi’s room looks like?”
Gervassi’s trip home to Florida stretched for hours and hours but they all blurred together like the trees outside his window. He had woken up a few times, gone to the tiny bus bathroom and mastered the art of using the toilet while in a moving vehicle and fighting claustrophobia, eaten a bag of unsalted almonds, gone back to sleep, and now he was awake again. His ears weren’t popping. They were in the hills now. Afra would like this, Gervassi thought. Liberace’s albums had worn him down and now he was listening to another favorite of his. It was a niche little band, but it had a few devoted fans, Gervassi being one of them. They sang songs of jelly donut juicers and rapped about fruit snacks, all while dressed as impeccable stylish robots from the 18th century. Steam Powered Giraffes. Gervassi laughed out loud while remembering how he had met Afra. Just a question leading to conversation, just a spark leading to an unbeatable flame. What if he had been listening to this band instead of Liberace? Would he still be wondering how much his mom would like Afra? Or how nice her smile looked when she woke up first thing in the morning and forgot to look like a scary goddess queen 24/7? No, he decided. If he had been listening to anything but Liberace, nothing would have happened. She wouldn’t have even asked him if he’d rather sleep in a mattress or a box, and that was pretty much the start of it all. It was funny how he hadn’t even thought of Afra before she started talking to him, and now she was all he could think that was worth talking about. He held his phone closer to his chest and wondered when she would be able to ask him another one of her questions. He loved those questions. He never knew whether they would be simple to answer, like what’s your favorite type of ice cream, or when they would make him search his soul. Either way, he loved them, and he loved Afra too. He knew it was obviously too early (or too late?) to feel that way, but oh well. Gervassi had never been one to follow rules in the first place.
As soon as Afra woke up again, she dove for her phone. It had been charging while she slept. Now it buzzed over and over and over, not just with messages from her parents but messages from her best friend, other close friends, random school acquaintances, and even… her ex boyfriend? It didn’t matter. What did matter was who she did not get a message from. Gervassi had yet to call, or text, or send a picture of dyed orange hair to, her phone. Afra cracked her knuckles and shook her head. There probably wasn’t service yet. The bus’s connection had to be kind of spotty, right?
He didn’t forget about her.
The very thought was ridiculous, but it made Afra want to hop a train and follow Gervassi’s bus to wherever he was. She couldn’t, though. She was seventeen and still in high school and she had a dog to take care of. She knew her parents would be home soon, too, so she got off the bed and began to pace the room, planning her conversation out like she usually did before an important happening.
The downstairs door opened and Afra jumped. There was less time than she thought to plan her conversation and to craft a compelling argument. She kicked her phone under the bed. “Um, Mom?” There was no answer, so she carefully ventured out of her room and crept softly down the stairs. “Mooom?”
There was still no answer, but someone was moving around in the kitchen.
Gervassi couldn’t stop checking his phone screen. Why was there no darn service, still? Well, they had to stop for food soon, and even if he didn’t eat after the almond break, he could most likely call Afra. That would be filling enough for him. He took his headphones off and tapped the shoulder of the lady in the seat in front of his. “Ma’am?” She was wearing a black tutu over her jeans and had softly dyed red hair. “Ma’am?” She turned around and nodded at him. “Do you know when we’ll be stopping next?”
“Uh, no. Why? Are you hungry?” She rummaged around in her huge purse and produced a giant bag of wrapped caramels. “You can have these if they’ll tide you over till we do stop.”
“Oh, thanks.” He didn’t take the caramel bag. “I’m not actually hungry though. Just need to make a call. The girl that was sitting here with me before? Um, Svetlana? I miss her.”
“And she misses you.”
“Right. Well, I hope she does. Anyway, I need to call her but there’s no service. That’s why I wanted to know when the next stop was. To call her.”
“Wanna use my hotspot?”
Gervassi nodded. Nice comercial there, lady in black tutu. “That’s okay. I’ll be fine until we stop. I’m Klavdi, by the way. From Russia.”
LIB grinned. “Russia, huh? There’s not a trace of Russian in your accent, my friend.”
“It’s because we’re undercover. We had to learn how to adapt to the accent here.”
She nodded back and grinned again. She thought Klavdi and Svalda were flaming liars, but she wasn’t one to meddle profusely. “Good luck with the mission then and let me know if you need caramels. Or a phone hotspot. Or tutus.” She blinked. “I sell them for a living.”
“Huh, okay.” Gervassi didn’t need a tutu and he had no money. “I’ll keep that in mind if I ever get the compulsion to run away from life and become a prima ballerina or suddenly change my stylistic choices to that of a prima ballerina.”
“Sounds good to me!” LIB turned back around in her chair, unwrapped a caramel, and straightened her tutu. Gervassi checked his phone screen again to no avail, because the spot of the road with an inkling of service had passed while he was busy talking to LIB about tutus, hotspots, and caramels.
Afra’s mother didn’t look at her as she walked into the kitchen. She didn’t answer her when she said hello, mother, hello, hey, mom, mom, mom, hey, over seven hundred times in approximately nine and a half minutes. There was nothing. Afra poked her mother in the ribs and the woman hardly blinked in her direction. Afra finally went up stairs and resigned to the fact that either she was invisible, had died on the bus trip and was now a ghost, or more likely, that her mother was giving her the silent treatment. She would have to wait for her father to get home if she wanted a chance at explaining her absence over the last few days. That was one good thing about her parents; they balanced each other out quite nicely. Afra sat at the edge of her bed with her phone balanced on her leg, still waiting for Gervassi to text or call or something that meant, “Hi, I’m still alive, I still want to talk to you!” Nothing said that so far. She debated going back to sleep, but she had to be awake for when her dad got home, so she decided instead to call her best friend.
“AFRA! WHERE WERE YOU?”
“It’s a long story…”
“WELL LUCKILY FOR YOU I HAVE NOTHING ELSE TO DO. TELL ME ALL OF IT. NOW. ACTUALLY,” there was a pause, and the sound of a door slamming, and then a car starting, “I’M ON MY WAY THERE.”
“Muz, I haven’t talked to my parents yet, You can’t come over right now.”
“SHUT. UP. I DON’T CARE.” She hung up and Afra sighed. When that girl got her mind on a track, there was no getting her off of it. If Muzical said she was going to be at Afra’s house in ten minutes, she’d be there in ten minutes. There was no room for moving around Muz, Afra had found. In that way, she was very different from Afra. With Afra, there was always room for interpretation. Kind of like with art. Afra smiled. She liked that description of her words. Room for interpretation; meaning all she said wasn’t lies rather it was art. Gervassi probably would have hated her for thinking that, but she did. Afra checked her phone. There was still nothing from him, but hopefully she would be distracted enough by Muzical’s antics that by the time she was done dealing with her, she would have five million missed calls from his number. “Tim Gunn, I guess I’d better change. Or get in the shower. Yeah, let’s do that.” It would be stress enough to tell poor Muz the adventures of the last few days, so why not help her out and at least smell good while breaking the news? It wasn’t that Muzical wouldn’t be happy for Afra, it was more that she was a super protective friend and she worried about everything. So Afra wouldn’t be surprised if her parents looked the other way and forgot the whole incident, but she was grounded anyway because of her best friend's mothering tendencies. Afra rummaged through her closet and found some starchy jeans and a black and white striped pocket shirt. Fan-blinking-tastic. Shower was down the hall, so she walked down and put her music on loudly. She wanted to play Liberace, but then again, it wouldn’t make sense to listen to anything you couldn’t sing along to in the shower.
“Attention all bus riders, we are stopping at the food truck valley up ahead. If you do not have your money out yet, please get out your wallets. This lunch break will be exactly thirty five minutes, so make sure you eat and are done with business by then or the bus will leave without you. I’ve done it before and it will happen again.” The bus rolled to a stop. “Row by row gets off.”
Once LIB left her row, Gervassi took the chance and raced off the bus with only his phone. Food could wait. Again. He jumped off the steps of the bus and headed towards the nearest bench. Ahhh, phone service. What a blessing. Gervassi unlocked his phone and called Afra. She answered on the second ring.
Gervassi almost jumped up on the food truck valley bench. “Hi.”
“Hey. Where are you?”
“At a food truck… place. I don’t really know. I’m not hungry. But there’s service here, so it’s a good place.”
Afra leaned back on her pillows. “You should eat.”
“I can’t. Um, that’s okay though. Don’t worry about it. How are you? How are your parents? Are you home? How’s Tim Gunn? How’s your foot? Did you eat?”
“Calm down, Liberace. I’m good now that you called and my best friend is coming over to talk, my parents have yet to acknowledge my return, I am obviously home, Tim Gunn is amazing, beautiful, and he loves you, my foot is back to a normal size and I can walk without screaming internally, and yeah, I ate.”
“That’s great. I met a tutu saleswoman. Her name is Lib.” Gervassi launched into the story of the caramels and the hotspot while Afra closed her eyes and pretended she was back at the campsite, sitting by the fire and listening to Gervassi ramble on in person. She listened until her phone buzzed again. Muzical had arrived.
He stopped talking about LIB. “Yeah?”
“My friend is here. Do you, um, just wait here. I’ll call you back in just a minute.”
“Oh, sure.” He hung up. There was still time before the bus left. LIB approached the bench and sat down beside Gervassi. He smiled politely at her and willed Afra to call him back sooner than later.
“AFRA!” Muz threw open the front door and grabbed the front of Afra’s shirt. “How could you leave and not tell me where you were going? I understand not telling your parents, but you have to tell me. I’m your best friend!” She let go of Afra and stormed up the stairs. ‘‘Come on! You’re going to tell me everything.”
“I have to call someone back. Let me see if we can FaceTime him, though.”
“A BOY. AFRA. YOU RAN AWAY AND MET A BOY. HOW COULD YOU.”
“Oh, you’ll like him. He has nice teeth. But we have to call back because the bus is leaving soon. And by the way, I didn’t run away to meet him. I just happened to. Because he was running away too. From a cult.”
“Why did you get involved with someone who has a past like that? Call them.”
“You’re so bossy.” Afra picked up her phone to call Gervassi back.
“Just because I love you. Now call. I want to talk to him face to face. You know I can get vibes through video calls just like the fortune teller by the boardwalk.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Afra called Gervassi on FaceTime and was pleasantly surprised when tea gray eyes and cute teeth appeared on the screen.
“FaceTiming now, are we? What a milestone.”