* * *
I wonder what Steinbeck's running away from. If he has no home, maybe no possessions except his clothes and that novel, does he have any money? What does he eat? And why am I half terrified that he’ll get on the bus at the next stop — and half desperate to see him?
Maybe, I think, closing my eyes as the bus makes its downtown Ballard stop, maybe he ran away from a perfect home in the suburbs to explore real life, real human living and breathing and thinking and striving, in the middle of the city. But maybe he’s running away from the grimy living, breathing, thinking, and striving — to find that perfect home.
The bus’s doors whisper shut and people shift as the driver pulls out into traffic. A light smell drifts under my nose: the smell of summer time, forest leaves. Blue sky and long afternoons with nothing to do but lie in the sun and dream. My eyes pop open. Steinbeck’s standing right next to me.
If I want to be sane (and normal and safe), I will swap places with the other guy behind me so that Steinbeck and I can’t even trade glances all the way up 32nd; but I am not sane and I don’t want to play things normal or safe. I pull the Steinbeck novel out of my bag.
“You left this in the doorway last night,” I say just as our eyes click together. A burst of surprise blossoms on his face, widening his muddy eyes, which are, this close, an unnatural mix of brown and green and gold. His lips fall open a little. His teeth are perfectly straight and white: he definitely ran away from the perfect suburb home.
“It’s not mine,” he says. His voice is like a golden summer breeze except it has a rougher edge, a husky note that makes me wonder if he’s spoken at all in the last week.
“You left it in the doorway,” I say again. “By my apartment.”
Steinbeck’s mouth closes. Opens. “Oh,” he says. “Thank you.” He takes the book, the other end of the book so our fingers don’t touch, and then shuffles back an inch or so. I can read that bus language: leave me alone.
But tonight is not his night.