“We can’t go back,” Sheila said.

“I know, I just,” but he didn’t have an answer for her. He just wanted to? Wanted to what? Send his girlfriend and child home on a bus alone so he could go back and join the drum circle? Or hang out around the beer gardens he couldn’t get into? 

“Nicky!” Rusty stood wavering on the curb, his face deep red with sunburn and alcohol. “What’s up man? Y’all goin’ home?”

Madrella was selling “fresh” raspberry lemonade, a favorite scam of hers where she mixed Kool-Aid into cups then acted like a she’d made it herself. The plastic cups were lined up on a cardboard box. “Hand-squeezed today!” she called out to passersby.

“Sheila’s beat,” Nick said and immediately regretted blaming her. But then, Sheila seemed to have given up on him and was walking slowly down the street toward the bus stop. Fuck her. He felt like the mean magician in desperate need of a cigarette. “You got a smoke?”

“No way, man. We got one left between the two of us.”

A couple walked by, and the woman glanced at Madrella’s drinks briefly.

“Fresh squeezed!”

The woman quickly looked away, as if trying not to be sold something.

“Fuck you!” Madrella screamed, and Rusty laughed, the light falling across his face turning him into a creepy clown.

“Fuck you, too!” she yelled at Rusty.

Maybe Nick should laugh too, but inside him was a space of silence, and that silence had a new protectiveness; it pressed Madrella and Rusty out. He felt a deep sense of shame, and that’s when he saw Sheila crossing the road in front of the offended couple. He pushed the baby bag further up on his shoulder and ran toward her.

Sheila was slumped against the wall of a cement office building next to the bus stop. From far off, she looked like a bag lady, Michelle and the baby sack just another layer of junk covering her body. When he reached her, she was crying. He took Michelle out of her arms and Sheila leaned forward draping her arms over her knees and bawled at the ground, which smelled of dust and cigarette butts and piss. Michelle’s arms and legs flailed about as if she were blind and lost until they settled on his chest.

“Sheila?” He bent beside her.

“I’ll never go to college,” she said finally through tears. “I can’t do this. I didn’t know it would be so hard. I really wanted to go to school.” She held her hands up to her face as if embarrassed by her tears.

“You’ll go, Sheil. You’re the smart one, remember?”

She looked into his face, and he could see that the earlier angst had turned to panic had turned to fear had turned to vulnerability. “I’ll never go.”

“We’ll figure something out,” he said.

“We don’t have any money.”

“I can try harder to get work,” he said.

“It won’t be enough,” Sheila said, rubbing her eyes with the base of her fist. But the tears leaked out the edges of her eyes still.

Michelle’s fists grabbed Nick’s shirt as she adjusted her head on his shoulder. He felt the shirt pulling across his chest. The baby bag still hung off his other shoulder.

“Maybe we could talk to my uncle in Port Angeles. There’s a community college there.”

Sheila studied him carefully. She wiped her face with her sleeve. “You’d talk to them? Even though we spent their money on rent?”

This was not an option Nick had considered until now. And there was no way of knowing whether it really was an option, but then deliberate change hadn’t seemed an option until now. Until now, Nick had spent his life waiting to see what would happen next: would his father lose his job again? How blasted would he get? Would he even come home? Where would the family move next? Nothing he had done, like comforting his mother when she wept, had made a difference, and so he’d waited. Until now, he couldn’t imagine the thought of leaving his friends, of not being king of the city he grew up in, not having the clubs or the festivals or the concerts, not following the rush of every moment’s beat as if devouring every moment were about pushing the past and the future farther away. But watching Sheila slumped against the grimy stone of some anonymous office building surrounded by the smell of exhaust and the far away sharp laughter of drunks piling in and out of bars surrounding the festival, it seemed to him that something he couldn’t imagine might be exactly what was necessary.

“They like you, Sheil,” he said finally.

“You’d leave Seattle?”

“Sure,” he said. “I’m not saying it’ll work, but we could try.” He thought of the quiet curve of Sequim Spit, the way the wind in his ears made sound disappear and the perfect discs of sand dollars and the spiraling circles of moon shells he’d found there.

The bus pulled up, and Nick helped Sheila off the ground. She took the bag, he put his arm around her, and as they stood in line she rested her head against his shoulder, just as she had that hopeful night when she was pregnant and they watched drops of water shoot into the air and disappear. She had not completely stopped crying, but at least they were on their way home.

The bus sighed as the door squealed shut. The floor moved beneath him. Sheila leaned her face against the window. Her sobbing stopped, and soon her head fell back, and he could hear her deep-sleep breathing. Michelle lifted her head, and he supported it with his hand. “Hey there, Little Buddy,” he whispered, taking off the hat. She looked up into his eyes, perhaps fully for the first time, and stared at him as if she had never actually seen him before. She didn’t blink, even as the city lights passed across her tiny face. It was as if she were hypnotized by him and he by her. He imagined they were playing a game of who can stare the longest when quite suddenly he saw a person looking back at him, gazing into his eyes, curious and trusting and open.

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