Photos littered my apartment floor. Snapshots of birthday parties sulked beneath the table, and a pile of headshots spilled its guts onto the kitchen tiles. I flicked through the ones in my hand and let them fall to join the others, snatching up my Polaroid camera as if it would give me answers.
At a loss, I did what came naturally to me; I raised the camera and took a shot. The image of a dirty, photo-strewn apartment slipped from its belly a few moments later. I let it fall to join the rest.
My phone buzzed. I frowned at the screen, but my options were growing few. Ignoring the text from my service provider reminding me of my dwindling minutes, I punched in a number with the ease of long practice.
“Hey, Mom. Can I come over later today?”
I scoured the attic like I had scoured the boxes of photos shoved into my apartment closet. Bits of metal pricked my fingers and discarded paper scoured lines along my palm. I pushed a box aside, ignoring the twinge in my back, and grabbed another. Dusty light peered in through a crack in the curtains on the attic window, slicing the room in half.
My mother appeared at the door, squeezing the knob in a white-knuckled grip. “Are you almost done, dear?”
She only called me “dear” when she was annoyed. She had called me that quite a bit throughout the years.
If it wasn’t here, it wasn’t anywhere. I had taken most of my photos with me when I left, but a few stayed behind amidst toys and other childhood memories. I clawed the box open, slicing my finger on the cardboard edge, and pulled out an old tissue box. The ancient material almost crumbled in my hands as I dumped out its contents.
Photos spilled onto the floor. There, amidst amateur shots of birds and empty playgrounds, sat a photo of a birthday card held open by a Band-Aid-riddled hand. The important part, the part I had come for, sat almost off the edge of the photo: a torn envelope. On it was scrawled a hand-written return address.
“Are you coming to the hospital?”
I looked at my mother, photo squeezed in my hand. Stress lined her face. She held her arms against her stomach as if she might keep in her grief. In the pale blue summer dress, lit only slightly by the hazy light, she looked delicate and worn. I got to my feet.
“Thanks for letting me look,” I told her, sweeping up my mess until no trace of my search remained.
As I passed her in the doorway she said, “Alex, he wants to see you.”
I hurried down the stairs.
Adelaide had gone missing a few days after the Fourth of July, almost two weeks ago. She had sent me a picture of fireworks above her house. That was the last thing I heard from her. We were supposed to talk every day, if only to say hi, to tell each other we were alive. It was a tradition so old I could not remember who started it. In some ways, we were reassuring ourselves of our own survival. Usually it would be on Skype, but sometimes one of us would be away from a computer and shoot the other a text. She had not answered my messages in either form.
We grew up with each other, bathed in the light of our computer screens. We had laughed together over bad movies, shared our secrets in the dead of night, and whispered reassurances through the click-clack of keys. Now she was gone.
I fished out my phone charger, gathered all the money I had in my apartment, and grabbed the keys for my bike lock. I had scrawled the address on my arm, but it was already starting to smudge. According to this, Adelaide lived barely a state away in a place called Springdale, Orgeon. It would take me at least a few days to get there.
I stared across the photo-strewn apartment. My camera was around my neck, though I couldn’t remember putting it there. I flicked the lights off and left.
Hotels were not cheap. I had known that already, but here, sitting on the bed and counting what little savings I had scraped together, the fact sunk my gut into my shoes. My phone buzzed again. Another text from my mother.
Ignoring her messages, I pulled up the Skype app and scrolled through my past conversations with Adelaide. It took me a moment to get past my own frantic messages, unanswered, to find the last thing she had sent me.
[7/6/2015 6:24 PM] Queen_Adelaide: happy belated 4th of July!!!
Beneath it was a cream-colored house, its dark roof lit by blue and red fireworks. A thumb smudged the corner of the photo. Her house sat not too far from the fairgrounds, which put on a show every year. Neither of us had ever gone to a fireworks show before, but she always said that she wished she could take me. I found fireworks too loud, and I needed special equipment to snap a good picture of them, but I would have gone with her.
Despite living just a few bus rides away on a reasonably planned trip, we had never met. It was a mutual agreement, one we did not discuss. We lived separate lives, connected by computer screens and photos, and that was it. To me she was Queen_Adelaide of Skype, not Alisson Burkeman from Oregon. I could not imagine shattering the deep connection we had formed by shaking her hand and calling her “Alisson.”
Yet here I was, sitting in a hotel on the Oregon border with a phone charger, a hungry wallet, and a photo of a birthday card from ten years ago. I could deal with shattered illusions, just as long as I found her.
My phone buzzed in my hand. I turned it off and went to bed.
Adi was the one who taught me how to use a butterfly bandage.
“Make sure to line up the edges,” she told me as I fought back tears of pain. It was the first time I had heard her voice. It was higher than I had expected, but that might have been the fault of poor sound quality.
I did not bother to give her the excuse I would give everyone else. She knew me too well for that.
“He was just angry,” I told her instead, covering the wound with a larger bandage to keep out dirt. I experimentally moved my arm and winced. “Do you think it will scar?”
“Anger’s not an excuse.”
I winced at the rage in her voice. “It’s fine.”
“No, it’s not.”
The wound healed slowly, leaving a thin white line that stayed long past its welcome. Other scars would come and go, but not this one. It refused to leave, like the residue of a resilient sticker, clinging to my skin as if it were somehow too sentient to simply die like the rest. Some things, usually the painful ones, refuse to fade.
I ran out of money on my third day. The last bit had gone to a bus ticket I snagged online. The bus station was a town over, at least an hour bike ride away, but it would get me the rest of the way there.
My clothes smelled and my muscles ached from constant peddling. I had no money for a hotel, so I locked my bike onto a park bench and curled up on the rough wooden surface. Even in summer, the cold bit at my face. Across from me, a concrete barrier separated the basketball court from the rest of the park. Graffiti littered its surface: names, vulgarities, crude caricatures. Directly in the center someone had written in black and red, “NO GOING BACK.”
I rolled over to face the back of the bench.
Something prodded at my shoulder, startling me awake. A pair of cops scowled down at my, eyes hidden behind black sunglasses. They looked like the eyes of beetles.
“This isn’t a place for sleeping,” one of the cops growled. Pre-dawn light cast shadows across his face.
I rose stiffly to my feet and looked towards my bike. It was gone.
The cops seemed to take pity on me after I had calmed down, or perhaps they just did not want to deal with me. They escorted me out of the park, told me to stay out of trouble, and went on with their business. I was just old enough not to look like a runaway, but too young to seem like a regular offender of trespassing on park benches at night. They had better things to deal with than some scruffy stranger.
An old clock tower reared up from the front of a bank. I had three hours to get to the bus station, and no bike to get me there. All I could do was walk.
A McDonalds burger dwindled my cash into the cents range, but my body needed the energy. I ate it as I walked, one hand thrust out towards the rode with my thumb peering at the sky as if searching for miracles. I was going to end up dead on the side of the road. This thought should have sent me reeling, but I had accepted my end long ago. When I was young I thought that I would never reach thirty. When Adelaide asked me why, I could only say that it was instinct. I always knew that a person would be the one to kill me, not a heart attack or a misplaced step on a mountain path, so I had decided years ago that I would decide who did it. If it was not me, then it would be a stranger in a pick-up truck.
The sun had risen into the horizon by the time a rust-colored truck pulled over.
“Going south?” the man said, grinning a gap-toothed grin.
John Sullivan was traveling from Yakima to visit his mother.
“She ain’t gunna last much longer,” he told me.
Beer cans and chip bags littered the floor of the vehicle. A pair of pink fuzzy dice swung when the car turned, glimmering in the dawn light.
John noticed me looking at them and said, “She gave ‘em to me when I bought my first car. Always had a sense of humor.”
When he asked, I told him that I was visiting a friend. I hoped it would not be a lie.
“Must be a good friend to be hitchhiking for ‘em.”
My phone buzzed.
“You gunna answer that?”
He did not ask again.
John spent most of the ride talking about his mother. They had not always gotten along, he told me, but they still loved each other. Every year in April they went to see the tulips together, even after John had moved away. Last year she had been too sick to go, so he had bought three bouquets and brought them to her in the hospital. I pulled out my wallet and showed him one of my favorite pictures: a purple tulip field in bloom. Early-morning fog melted the edge of the field so that it seemed to go on forever. John stayed quiet for a few minutes. I thought I had offended him until I noticed tears in the corners of his eyes.
When we were almost to the town, John pulled over to the side of the road. I had half an hour left.
“Would you do me a favor?” he asked.
My heart screamed at me to hurry. I nodded.
John got out. Before us the ground fell away into low, rolling hills covered in a thick layer of pines. A wide river sparkled in the morning sun. John stared at the sight for a few moments, and then leaned against his truck.
“I’ve had this beauty for almost twenty years. She’s been with me through a lot. But I know she ain’t gunna last long, and I don’t want to forget her. Can you get a picture?”
Though the clock ticked down by the minute, I took my time setting up the shot. John smiled, but his eyes were grim. The sun outlined his truck in gold.
John dropped me off directly at the bus station. He gave me a few dollars and a slap on the back for luck. I snagged another shot as he drove away, not quite sure why. Perhaps I, too, wanted to remember that nameless beauty of a truck and the man within it.
I sat next to an old man on the bus, hoping that he would not feel the need to make conversation. A few minutes into the ride, he fell asleep. I got out my phone.
Seven new messages. I did not have to guess who they were from, but I scrolled through them anyway.
Mom: You should really see him. I know you’re upset, but he wants to see you one more time.
Mom: Please talk to me.
Mom: Stop acting like a child. You’re an adult now. Ignoring your own parents is not the sign of an dult.
Mom: Come to the hospital.
The last one caught my eye:
Mom: He’s gone.
I leaned back against the seat. My arm itched where the pale scar still sat. I could count all the scars on my body and know where they came from, and most had come from him. I did not want to feel sad. I did not want to cry.
I curled up and went to sleep. My dreams were full of tulips.
Adelaide’s house looked more normal than it had any right to. It had seemed strange and mysterious in the pictures she sent, but now, as I stood before it, it just seemed like another house. It did not look like something I had traveled days to find.
Someone had written “Burkeman” onto the mailbox in neat print. It was stuffed full of mail. Adi’s parents were in Australia for the summer, as they always were, so she had the house to herself. I walked up the cobblestone path, past bowing yellow flowers, and stopped on the porch. Sweat trickled down my neck. I wanted to turn and run. Instead I knocked on the door.
Predictably, no one answered.
“Adelaide?” My throat burned. “Alisson?”
Silence. I hesitantly tried the door. It swung open.
I stepped inside. I was a stranger here, an intruder. But I shuffled forward anyway, eyes wide to take in my surroundings. I had seen snippets of this strange place in the backgrounds of Adelaide’s pictures, but seeing it for myself was an entirely different experience. It suddenly seemed real. I passed through the kitchen like a ghost and stopped in a hallway. A white door with the name “Adelaide” scrawled onto it stood before me. Drawings littered its surface: sketches of animals, ink-drawn portraits. A paper cutout of a cat was pinned to one corner. She had been on video chat with me when she made it. A few of my own photos stared out at me from the collage. I pushed the door open.
Adelaide sat slumped against her desk, ginger hair fanned across her back like a thread-bare blanket. Silver light slipped in through the curtains to outline her shoulders, her lips, her eyelids. A bottle of pills sat at the edge of the desk, as if a gentle breeze might knock it over.
For a long, excruciating moment, I wanted to take a picture. I wanted this moment caught forever in film, this beautiful tragedy cemented in history.
I was not sure if I actually made any sound, but she twitched. My heart slipped down from my throat. I slunk quietly to her, as if afraid to wake her, and touched her shoulder. She murmured in her sleep. When her hand twitched, she hit the computer mouse and the screen before her lit up.
She was writing her will. I grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. We both ended up on the floor as she jerked to life, gasping and tumbling from the chair with me beneath her. She scrambled to her knees, one digging into my chest, and stared at me.
“Alex?” Her voice sounded as if she had not used it for quite some time.
I grabbed her shoulder and pulled her to my chest, trembling. She whimpered apologies into my shirt. Said she didn’t want to go on. Said she couldn’t stay here anymore. Said the silence was killing her. I held her as she sun soared high into the sky.
That night we ate the steak her parents had been saving in the freezer, packed all her things into her car, and drove.
“Your dad won’t like this,” she said quietly. Her voice was deeper than distance had suggested. She did not say anything about her own family; they would not care either way.
She stared at me. The traffic light turned green, and she was forced to look away. She did not say that she was sorry for my loss. I was not sure what I wanted to hear at the moment, so I was glad she stayed silent.
“He wanted to see me.”
She shot me a glance. “Why?”
“I don’t know. To apologize? To say he did nothing wrong? I didn’t go, and now he’s dead. I’ll never know what he wanted to say.”
“Would it have mattered?”
I leaned back against the seat. Headlights passed by, coming the other way. The moon winked in the sky.
“I guess not.”
She reached out and touched my arm, right where the scar sat. This was the first time we met, the first time we were truly real to each other, and she knew exactly where it was.
“You don’t have to forgive him.”
We drove late into the night, and we did not look back.
Adelaide stood by my side at the funeral. I did not cry; I was not ready for that. When it was all over and everyone drove away in their somber outfits, my mother’s face creased with grief, we stood together before his grave and waited, as if he might reach out from the ground and tell us his secrets. I set a bouquet of tulips on the ground.
“You were an awful person,” I told the silent tombstone. “But those are for you. I won’t run away from you anymore.”
I raised my camera and took a shot; purple tulips on a fresh grave. Adelaide took my hand, and we left.