Author: Chelsey Blair
Genre: YA Magical Realism
The whoosh of brakes at Penn Station drowned out the announcement informing passengers to collect their belongings. I should’ve been pressed against the window, straining to catch my first glimpse of the city of my dreams. Instead, I stared at the pixelating screen of my dying laptop, barely able to make out the conversation I’d been having on the Selective Mutism Messageboard.
If you could speak to her, what would you say?
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
“Move your ass, Kyra,” Jessica snapped from the door of the train car. I shut the laptop in time to watch her leap from the train, her ponytail of elaborate braids cascading down after her. If I didn’t hurry, she’d leave me to make my way to the dorms alone.
The conductor who’d chatted with Jessica all the way from Grott’s Crossing to Hartford came over to me. “Can I give you a hand, young lady?”
I let him help me lower things into the aisle. The duffel bag that held my art supplies clattered on the way down.
“There you go. Time to start your New York adventure.”
His expectant gaze made my stomach clench. Hadn’t he figured it out earlier? He’d come by to take our tickets and asked where we’d be going. I’d sat there with my lips glued shut. Jessica took her time intervening. She’d made a game of seeing how long I could last before total panic overtook me. Now she wasn’t around to take up the slack, and I couldn’t even say “Thank you” aloud.
But someone did.
I scanned the aisle. Everyone else had left the train. The conductor didn’t join in my search for a mysterious interloper. He nodded, and pushed past me to the door of the train.
So, unless somebody had said the words seconds before dematerializing, the person who’d spoken had been me.
To a stranger.
Without inducing serious psychological trauma.
I hadn’t done that for eight years.
I stood frozen, my focus zeroing in on my luggage tag. K. Anderson, it said in Dad’s neat script. He liked things tidy and predictable. So did I. But we could never have predicted what had just happened.
I had thanked the conductor.
If an impatient voice hadn’t broken into my thoughts, I might have stayed there, a breathing version of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, forever attempting to figure out what this meant.
“If you’re chickening out, you’ll still have to get on a different train.”
I met Jessica’s gaze, hoping she’d read what had happened on my face. She only scowled. She’d stopped trying to figure me out.
We banged our bags through Penn Station. Jessica’s long legs propelled her way ahead of me. I struggled to keep up, my mind still reeling.
I had spoken to the conductor.
This thought gripped me so tightly that I broadsided a man coming out of a coffee shop near the cab line. His coffee sloshed out and a brown stain coated his dress shirt.
“I’m so sorry!” The words came out of me without effort. They hovered for a second in the air between us. Then the man’s calculating gaze, one I recognized from the times I’d knocked into someone in a crowded school hallway, turned into an understanding smile.
“No problem,” he said, then continued on, dabbing a flimsy paper napkin against his shirt. He would never wonder about the random girl who’d collided with him and hurried off without a word. I stood still, waiting for my breath to catch—the calling card of the anxiety attacks that came from my smallest attempts to speak—but it didn’t. I stayed loose, relaxed, panic free.
I had to be dreaming.
Jessica cut her eyes back to me, her pursed lips radiating impatience, and I hurried to take my place in the cab line. It moved faster than I thought such a large group of people could. Fine, I based my expectations on the sluggish pace of the Grott’s Crossing cafeteria line, but I couldn’t believe how little time passed before we’d taken our seats in the back of a cab with a driver asking, “Where to?”
Jessica rummaged through her purse. I listened to the sound of crumpling paper for a beat and then reached into my messenger bag. Dad had put together a folder of all the paperwork we’d been sent. I glanced at the cards he’d made for these occasions. They had the address and cross streets all typed out. I took one out to hand to the driver. He twisted in his seat, impatience oozing from every drop of sweat the summer afternoon brought to his face.
I kept my eyes on the serif font on the card. “122 East 12th. It’s 12th between Third and Fourth Avenues.”
I ran my tongue along the edges of my teeth, letting them bite into it a little. It hurt. That should mean I wasn’t dreaming. I couldn’t believe it. Any minute now the conductor would shake me awake. I’d look into his eyes and my mouth would refuse to open. He’d—
A clatter from beside me brought me back to myself, and I turned away from the card in time to see twenty of Jessica’s makeup bottles tumble out of her purse.
“What the hell?” she demanded. “Did you just—?”
My brain filled in the talk, but the cab driver obviously thought I’d given him the wrong address. “Your friend lie to me?”
She slowly shook her head and he pulled into traffic. I’d bent over to pick up her makeup, but I could feel her bug-eyed stare on me. I wanted her to ask what’d happened, or maybe even to be excited about this development. “She’s my stepsister. Not my friend,” she informed the driver.
No shocked demands. No have you been faking all this time? No a cabdriver, but not me? No sign she cared at all.
I handed over her restocked purse and turned to the window. The nearest street sign said we’d turned onto Fourth Avenue. The no-smoking decal on the window mocked my jangling nerves.
“Those buildings are so oppressive,” Jessica commented. “They block out the sky. It feels so unnatural.”
Your tone is unnatural, I thought, sticking my nail underneath one of the rolled edges of the decal to help it along in the unsticking process. She didn’t exude half the passion I’d have expressed if I could. I stopped picking at the adhesive on the window. Could I now?
I licked my lips, focusing on the window, trying to pretend the driver wasn’t there. I used to be able to talk to Jessica alone, the same way I could talk to Dad, but for the past year I’d been gripped with anxiety attacks even around her. I clenched my fist, awaiting the familiar signs of terror, and ventured, “There’s a park over there. The natural tones of the flowers sort of balance out the manufactured grays next to them, don’t you think?”
At first, I thought I hadn’t been able to say the words. They echoed in my head the way they tended to because I couldn’t let them out.
“They are pretty flowers,” the cab driver offered. I smiled at the rearview mirror. He couldn’t know what he’d just validated.
Once-upon-a-time Jessica would never have ignored something I said.