by Lauryn E. Nosek
Everyone at the local pizza place knew about Claire Heinde and her odd ways. Well, all the regulars knew about her. They knew that her closest confidante was the crazy homeless guy who collected cans and used the money from returning them to buy aluminum foil, which he would wrap around streetlights, telephone poles, and parking meters to mess with the signals the aliens were beaming to Earth. They knew that Claire had this way of looking at a person that could make them feel like the biggest failure in the universe or with such blatant admiration that they couldn’t help but blush. They knew that while Claire didn’t have regular days, she’d come into the pizza place twice a week, sit at the counter on the stool meant to be a seat for the elderly customers forced to wait in line, and after ordering a slice of cheese-less, toppings-less pizza and a chocolate milkshake, she would open up a black composition book, scribble furiously, tear the page out, rip it up and let the pieces blow out of her hand as she walked away from the Slice of Seventh Heaven Pizza Parlor.
The old timers would talk about how she’d always been a little daft in the head and that it was a shame since her parents had been bright enough. Every once in a while, a new addition to the regular crowd would ask what had happened to Claire that made her act that way. One would swear she’d been dropped on her head as a small child, a complete accident. Another would claim it was that car accident a while back and why was he the only one who remembered how she’d acted normally before but came in the week after getting out of the hospital and started scraping the cheese from her pizza. A third would call the second nuts and remind him she wasn’t even in the car that crashed, wasn’t even in town when it happened; it was abuse that had put poor Claire out of her mind. Perfect family like that had to be hiding something. There were chemicals in the area where she lived that leeched into the Heide’s vegetable garden. She was on a medication for something and it messed with her ability to interact with others. Too much therapy in her formative years. Not enough.
In truth, none of them knew much about Claire and that should have made them uneasy. It would have made them squirm if they had any idea how much she knew about them without even trying to discover anything (in fact, she tried very hard not to know more about them than they could ever know about themselves).
There are things in the world that defy all logical explanation. Claire Heinde is one of them. When other young girls would go to bed at night, they would dream of pretty things, pink and blue and green things, scary things, call-your-parents-in-to-comfort-you things, possible things, probable things, I-want-it-to-be-true-more-than-anything things, but never more than just-another-dream things. Anything bad or scary could be chased away by a favorite teddy bear or a hug or guarded against with a novelty dream catcher and a story. Claire never had a dream like any of the other girls her age. She never had a dream like anyone else on the planet, regardless of age. For some unknown reason, Claire had been left out of the collective unconscious.
When Claire’s head sank onto her pillow each night, she saw people. Sometimes they were people she knew, sometimes they were people she would meet, and sometimes they were people she would only ever see at a distance. She never dreamed about the same person twice and no two people followed the same course. Each night would start with a moment in a person’s life and a decision made in that moment. From there, Claire could only watch as she saw that person’s life unfold from that moment through to their end.
Before anyone can attempt to begin understanding Claire, they have to accept something about the universe. It isn’t something that arguing can change and it isn’t something that can be understood (so anyone who says they do is lying). In everyone’s life there is a moment. It isn’t at the same time for everybody like the moment a person turns eighteen or twenty-one and activities that moments before could have landed them in jail are all at once without taboo (though few judges would really grudge anybody a few moments in such cases). The moment in question isn’t as obvious to some as it is to others. It is the moment upon which a life is decided, when a path is chosen and cannot be undone.
Usually people cannot accept this idea. They look instead to one of the two extremes for comfort: either everything is pre-determined, fated, destined to happen a certain way and no other, or every single decision, action, impulse sets off infinite parallel universes in which each possibility results in an alternate reality. Either a person has no control over his life, and no responsibility for what he does, or he controls everything about his life and the lives of those affected by his actions, which is far too much responsibility for any one person to claim; either the enormity of it crushes a person into second guessing his every move or he lets it go to his head and turns himself into a minor deity.
But the universe is full of balance between extremes such as the ones thought up by humanity. The reality is that a great many of the decisions people believe to be “life altering” are opportunities that are always there or are opportunities that circle back repeatedly, if a person is willing to look for them. Maybe it’s because of these red herrings that so many miss the one decision that marks the break between what will happen to their lives and what might have been but cannot ever be thereafter. Many couldn’t pinpoint that moment if their lives depended on it; they would have a better shot blindly stabbing a tack at a timeline of their lives, a cosmic version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Of those who might be enlightened enough to recognize the moment in question (or were simply excellent guessers), about half lack the imagination necessary to picture their lives as they could have but never will be. Almost everyone goes through life blissfully unaware that their circumstances could have been drastically different if they’d chosen the other invisible path; only Claire knows just how many people choose wrongly.
It is to that world of non-existence that Claire goes when she drifts off to sleep. In a way, she has lived many more than the usually allotted years of life in her own bizarre Wonderland. It took Claire all of her adolescence and teen years to come to grips with her unusual sight.
Beginning young and with a seemingly endless supply of patience and optimism, Claire at first sought only to understand what it was she saw in the night. When she would recognize someone, a feeling came over her akin to déjà vu but with a greater edge of disappointment or contentment (it depended on how she had seen them). It wasn’t until she heard the mailman muttering about how he never should have agreed to help that manipulative cheering bitch in high school, he should have just studied for the SATs with his friends, that Claire recognized him from a “dream” the week before.
A girl in a letter sweater stopped by the locker of the promising student. He was still pretty new to the school and only had a handful of acquaintances, no one he was comfortable calling a friend yet. Some guys from his trig class had invited him to join their study group that weekend. He’d told them “maybe” because it was non-committal without being rude and played into the self-conscious, new-kid persona.
Joe had had friends just like them at his previous high school and while he had nothing but affectionate memories of his nerdy gang of friends, he couldn’t help but think that this move he’d fought against his parents so hard to prevent was an unmistakable sign that he should be changing things in his life, making new friends, changing his scene. Who was he kidding? He wanted to find different friends because he was afraid that he’d either feel more homesick than he already did or worse, that he wouldn’t and he’d be betraying his old friends.
The girl standing next to his locker had to clear her throat to get his attention. “Hi,” she began. “You’re Joe, right? The new guy?”
Joe nodded and knew that she was only talking to him because he was new and hadn’t found his place in the established hierarchy yet. He was still in that grace period before he was officially claimed and the cliques closed ranks.
“I think you live down the street from me. I’m Sandra. I was wondering if you could give me a ride home after my practice gets out this afternoon?”
“Oh, um, I was getting my stuff together to go home now…” he let himself trail off, knowing an opportunity like this would never come along again.
“I know, I’m sorry to have to ask. It’s just that my ride bailed on me at the last minute and I can’t miss a practice. We’re working on our routine for homecoming. Please?” She holds a textbook tightly to her chest with her arms as her hands clasp one another and she resorts to begging him. Joe wavers and she pounces on his indecision. “You could watch us practice, get an exclusive look at our half-time program. I’ll introduce you to the rest of the girls.”
Sandra preys on Joe’s social insecurities and he makes up his mind. “I’d love to but I really can’t. My mom’s car is in the shop so she has to use mine to get to work tonight and she can’t be late with all the time she took off for the move. I’m really sorry though. Maybe next time.” He grabs his books from the locker and shoves them in his backpack, checking his watch to make it look like his sudden rush is genuine. Sandra is not pleased with his response and makes sure he hears her disgusted sigh and parting words of “Forget it.” As she walks away, he knows that she’ll spread the word and everyone will know the grace period has ended, the geeks have claimed him. Joe is oddly at ease. He isn’t betraying his old friends by accepting the invitation to join the study group. The familiarity comforts him that night when he calls his classmate and asks for directions.
As the mailman puts the flag on the box down (with rust from exposure to the elements making the task more difficult than he was in the mood for), Claire remembered the rapid course the rest of the “dream” had taken that night. Good friendships formed in the study group, one that he went on to room with in college and who later introduced him to the girl he would marry. He was able to find a job he could do part-time from home and when his mother fell ill and when the hospital bills began to mount up he was able to take a second job with the Post Office to help make ends meet. But in the version Claire had seen, he’d been so happy, even during the tough times he was going through, she’d seen the affection, contentment, awareness that his circumstances could be worse and appreciation for the life he was leading.
Would have been leading, Claire corrected. But he hadn’t really turned the cheerleader down and now he was the miserable mailman who had just dropped a handful of envelopes on the ground in his continued attempts to loosen the rusty flag down from attention. As she watching him fumbling and cursing, Claire knew he would never be as happy as she’d seen him behind her eyelids the week before. That was the moment when the reality of her gift, as she’d thought of it at that early time, hit her.
Claire believed that the muttering mailman’s regrets were about the moment she had seen and that his life course had altered drastically from what she’d seen, that perhaps he had married the manipulative cheering bitch, that things had gone sour, that maybe it was a divorce that made the job as a mailman a necessity. She possessed more imagination than most but even she was guilty of making circumstances more complicated than what actually happened.
Joe had not been referring to helping Sandra by giving her a ride home. His grumbling was in reference to a few months later when they were “friends” and she asked for him to help her best girlfriend study for the SAT. He’d given in and helped the friend. He hadn’t realized how much Sandra wanted him to help her friend until he went to ask Sandra to prom and she asked him to ask her friend instead. It was only then that Joe had awakened to the fact that while he’d been falling for Sandra and thought she’d been falling for him, Sandra had been using him for favors and tried to set him up with her friend to avoid an unpleasant scene, like the one at hand. She was sure that if her efforts at playing Cupid proved successful, she would have secured for herself the perks of his loyal service and gratitude.
In a move that occurs only rarely in high schools, Joe went back to his nerdy roots and joined the nerdy clique the next day, and to many untrained eyes, the path his life took from there appeared much the way Claire had seen it: rooming with a high school buddy at college, meeting and marrying his college sweetheart, etc. But Joe lost a great deal of trust in his dealings with Sandra. He had developed real feelings for her and despite her reprehensible actions, he’d still wanted to be with her. He’d moved on and loved his wife very much, but the disappointment with Sandra carried over to his later attitudes. When he’d made the decision to get involved with Sandra, he’d lost his ability to be content in life.
Claire was unaware of her mistake and it was entirely irrelevant to the path of her own life. The mailman’s incorrect story inspired her to begin experimenting with her power, become more familiar with how it worked. At first, she tried to influence the person she would see in her nighttime visions. Lying in bed each evening, she would pick someone she knew and concentrate all her conscious though on them as she drifted off. It didn’t matter whether she selected someone she had never seen in her “dreams” before of someone more familiar to her unconsciousness. She never saw anyone more than once and focusing on someone she hadn’t seen before didn’t have any impact on who or what she saw. She didn’t even see the same vision for a second time.
After trying for a month or so, Claire finally became discouraged in her endeavor. It was then that Claire realized she had no real power; she was just a helpless victim. Maybe it was the workings of a weakness between our world and a parallel dimension, a weakness concentrated around Claire’s bed (she’d become interested in science fiction during the daytime when there was little opportunity for making advances in her field research). This theory of Claire’s proved false when she spent two weeks at her grandparents’ house across the country while her own parents went on a tour of Europe.
Once she realized that its functioning was beyond her control, Claire rebelled against her non-existent tormentor. Her parents worried as she struggled to stay awake each night, turning to caffeinated drinks and chocolate when sheer will power wasn’t enough to keep her eyelids fighting gravity. Claire always failed to make it through the night. In fact, the lack of sleep made the things Claire saw more vivid, her reactions when she recognized people and the emotions that accompanied that recognition harder to control. It was during that tired time that Claire found herself crying on the bus to school, hugging the neighbor’s dog walker, and getting so upset with the principal that he nearly gave her detention for the week.
Her parents finally sat her down and asked her why she was doing that to herself. When she to tried to explain the truth to them, they thought it was her exhaustion talking and they sent her to bed. They began to take her to therapists, fearing the issue went deeper than mere parental scope allowed. But when it was suggested that it might be in Claire’s best interest that she be “placed in a facility with a staff and specialists trained to help people like Claire,” Mr. and Mrs. Heinde had a great enough sense of loyalty towards their daughter to dismiss the initial evaluations and continue their search for a more agreeable diagnosis. Of course, Claire’s case defied explanation and all were forced to simply accept that she was odd, not in a way that made her harmful to herself or others, just odd.
As with nearly all children, Claire went through a phase in which she was fascinated with cartoon super-heroes. She was determined, with all the determination an almost-teenager can muster, Claire’s oddity, if it couldn’t be controlled or bent to her will in its performance or execution, would still serve what she saw as the greater good. It was a painful and difficult lesson when Claire discovered that: 1) people are skeptical, resistant, and freak out when a young stranger knows details of their lives that it is impossible for them to know when reason is applied; 2) most people hadn’t placed the appropriate level of importance on the events Claire referred to and couldn’t be bothered to recall them; and 3) people don’t like being told they made a mistake by a complete stranger, regardless of age, let alone that it was the biggest mistake of their lives.
Claire intended for the newly enlightened to change themselves for the better or, in the rare cases where someone had made the “correct” choice, she expected to see a sense of pride in themselves, maybe even gratitude for having been relieved from self-torturing questions and doubts. Unfortunately, those who had already been questioning themselves enough to consider the apparent ramblings of a strange girl, found that it was too late to fix anything, even if that weird girl could have been right in the first place, which was, of course, impossible.
With her teen years came Claire’s apathy towards her visions. Hormones and high school were bigger than trying to control the uncontrollable. She didn’t care that everyone knew her as Crazy Claire, the one teachers and administrators kept an eye on during field trips so she wouldn’t approach any dangerous strangers (a precaution that was continued long after Claire gave up approaching people with her morsels of insight; it was a while before Claire noticed them doing this, but when she did, she found it amused her and took up wandering off to keep the practice going). Claire began to take pleasure in the special treatment she received, regardless of the motives behind it. She chose to find it entertaining and luxuriated in the unanticipated freedom of expectations that expected the unexpected, allowed the unallowable, permitted the inappropriate, and didn’t ask questions from someone inexplicable.
She did what no one else had the courage to do but would always wonder about. Everyone else walked past Anthony “Benny” Bennett on their way through the park, ignoring his warnings about the aliens and his generous offerings of aluminum foil for their protection; occasionally someone dropped change in the bag containing his cans (an action which amplified his racket and frequently called attention to their unsolicited act of charity). Claire stopped and listened to Benny’s reasoning, asked questions, and wound up having a conversation with him. She was shocked to find that while she disagreed, he’d thought his theory through thoroughly and there was logic behind his ravings, however twisted that logic might be. Benny was the first person who didn’t suggest committal, more therapy, or simply laugh when she shared her personal oddity with him. Maybe he knew on an unconscious level that it would be hypocritical for him to suggest such an action to anyone. But it didn’t feel like he was simply placating her when he explained that, as he understood it, her dreams of a reality never to be seen by eyes other than hers were really an alien experiment, trying to use humans as a communicative devices between dimensions. Claire saw that Benny sincerely believed her when he gave her an aluminum sleep helmet designed especially for her to block the aliens’ midnight communications (he even pointed out that he’d used his best recycled foil and some magnets he’d found behind the school in the helmet’s construction; the students using the magnets to mess with some aging computers were kind enough to toss them to him when he offered his expertise to help them destroy the machines so the aliens couldn’t scavenge the data or parts).
The first time Claire peeled the cheese off her pizza it was a way to get back at the cheese for having burnt the roof of her mouth. Turned out to be pretty delicious so she continued the practice, burning her fingers instead of her mouth. One day it occurred to her to get the disgruntled teen working behind the counter to do it for her and asked for her slice to come cheese-less. All she got for a reaction was raised eye brows. The owner and workers would simply scrape the melted mess off a slice of regular cheese pizza. Claire knew it, they knew it but no one said anything. If a customer asked about it they made Claire out to be crazy and/or slow, said she didn’t know and had yet to complain. But Claire didn’t care. She wasn’t uselessly burning herself on cheese she didn’t care for and she had the added enjoyment of watching people react when they heard her order for the first time. It was actually something that many regulars enjoyed watching too. When people “just passing through” encountered Claire, extra cups of coffee were ordered as an excuse to stick around longer and watch the show.
Those who believed themselves to be educated might ask her if she was lactose intolerant. Claire always flipped a coin before going into the pizza place to determine what her responses to anticipated questions (like the above). Heads “yes,” tails “no.” The real fun was watching their faces when her order of chocolate milk arrived and she began to chug it in front of them. Wagers were made about the talkative strangers and whether or not they’d put their feet in their mouths. The most self-important rarely failed in such a feat of social gymnastics. One guy from New York City not only pointed out the obvious contradiction between Claire’s claim and her actions, he yelled at her for being insensitive and offensive. When Claire never faltered from her polite agreement with all the man said, every cuss, every derogatory remark, it proved fuel for the fire. A local cop who’d just won ten bucks told the young man to cool off outside and went along to explain that Claire wasn’t completely there upstairs.
Heads inclined to hear better, those closest to the windows strained their necks against the glare of the sun to see better. He was another person who decided that Claire would be better off locked up with padded walls. The regulars didn’t have to turn up the volume on their hearing aides to hear the New Yorker’s tires squeal, censoring himself as he drove away. The officer radioed a warning to an on-duty buddy to be sure the recently departed was given the speeding ticket he was sure to earn on his way out of town.
“You can also get him for dining and ditching,” the owner said as he’d placed the customer’s abandoned bill on the counter.
“Nah,” the cop said, putting the ten he’d won on top of the slip. “I’ll see ya later, Bob.” He went back on duty, forgetting his un-sipped cup of coffee on the counter. Claire picked it up, took a sip, poured in some of her chocolate milk, and finished it with her pizza slice.
People would ask her about most of her odd behaviors, but no one really asked about the notebook. Maybe she’d get a, “what’re you writing?” here and there, but the issue was rarely pushed past a response of “stuff” especially when it was accompanied by a shoulder shrug; for some reason, a shrug of the shoulders conveys that the writing is boring or irrelevant to all except the writer (this is the case the majority of the time). Even though they saw Claire tear up what she wrote, there is something so sacredly private about the writing process that they wouldn’t even disrupt it for someone like Claire. Everyone was dying to know the contents of the pages thrown into the wind on the way out of the pizza shop. Would they offer insight to what went on inside her broken mind? Would they even make sense when read? Could she even write at all or were there only scribbles on the page? That would explain why she tore them up when she was done. But Claire didn’t care or didn’t know any better so she wouldn’t feel shame over not being able to write. One spring day there was little breeze to carry the fragments far and it was determined she could in fact write, it appeared to be English and she had remarkably neat handwriting. The neatness of the handwriting was perhaps the most shocking, hinting at an underlying sense of order they couldn’t conceive Claire could possess.
Her writing was something Claire wished people would ask about. It was something she had answers for and, as long as she didn’t mention what inspired her ballpoint’s bursts, her answers didn’t sound crazy.
Claire was writing letters. In an age when computers and technology pushed for instant communication, Claire would have used postage and the loyal postmen and women to carry her sentiments to another person. If her letters had ever been sent. But that wasn’t the purpose of her putting pen to paper. She wrote letters of congratulations, condolence, and sympathy to the strangers she saw instead of her dreams. She didn’t do it for them (she tore them up so that they were never in danger of reading what could only upset or, at best, bewilder them). Claire wrote the letters so she felt better about what she saw, like she could do something if the opportunity presented itself (not that it ever would, but she continued to be optimistic).
On the wettest day of the summer, Claire ducked into the Slice of Seventh Heaven Pizza Place using the composition book as a makeshift umbrella. She dried the soggy notebook as best as she could with the damp sleeve of her pullover hooded sweatshirt. Her hair dripped down her back and puddled on the floor as she sat in her regular spot and ordered her unusual usual.
Whenever the door opened, Claire and her notebook were in the splash zone. A guy who had to be either passing through or visiting a distant relative was on his way across the street, holding an umbrella aloft, heading in the direction of the pizza joint. Claire recognized him in her unique way, uncapped a ballpoint pen and began, “Travis.”
His umbrella knocked her in the shoulder as he struggled with its stiff joints to get the contraption closed. Some rogue raindrops hit the page and the ink bled. Claire tore the sheet out and began again.
“Sorry about that,” Travis said when he heard the paper crumple in her fist.
“It’s fine,” Claire said with a smile, her eyes not leaving the fresh page until she was convinced he must have looked away or walked past. Instead her eyes found his and she couldn’t hide her one-sided recognition from his notice. She quickly refocused on the letter and hoped he was one of those people raised to believe it the height of rudeness to read over anyone’s shoulder. Even though she played at being crazy, she would have been deeply embarrassed if any part of her oddity were discovered (telling about it herself was an entirely different story; if she was telling someone about it, she was in control).
He took a seat in a booth across from where Claire sat alone at the counter. She could feel him staring at her from behind his menu. It wasn’t an unfamiliar sensation but not from strangers trying to figure out where she could know them from. A few times she glanced over her shoulder and on each occasion met with his furrowed brow and stare-glare. He didn’t look confused or suspicious the way she expected. Instead she saw a combination of anger, disgust and… self-loathing, maybe? Shame?
She thought about it as her pen kept moving. It was a good thing she used a ballpoint pen or she would have needed to start again when the ink bled through. Her pen stopped mid-sentence when she felt a finger lightly tap her shoulder.
“You didn’t even order anything,” she pointed out before closing the notebook and looking back over her shoulder at Travis who fought to conceal his surprise at her reaction. “You must be hungry or you wouldn’t have come in here.”
“Actually, I came in cause I was sick of waiting in the rain for my cousin to show up.”
Claire pushed her as yet untouched cheese-less pizza slice towards him. “Eat it. It’s better than you’d think. And you could have ducked into the library across the street so you might not think you’re hungry, but you are.”
“Where have you seen me before?” he whispered. He couldn’t have known that the reason everyone else had gotten quiet was because of who he’d approached, not him.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she muttered, folding the letter and putting it in the pouch of her hoodie.
He took a bite of the pizza slice she offered to show his good faith.
“That’s disgusting,” he said with a chuckle, trying to put himself at ease (or at least give that appearance). She smiled at him in encouragement.
“You’re wrong but entitled to your opinion.” He turned that over as he took another bite of the pizza.
“That makes no sense and it’s still disgusting. Now, come on; tell me where you saw me. I didn’t think the story carried this far but with the internet and all…” he trailed off with hunched shoulders and a few desperate glances at the patrons’ attempts to conceal their interest in a stranger talking to Claire (talking and apparently succeeding in the endeavor).
“I had a dream about you,” she said frankly. “I’ve never seen you before except for that.” He shook his head. “See. I knew you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Claire started to get her stuff together to leave (not a long or complicated task). She hesitated when the hand in the front pocket of her hoodie found the letter. It was hardly more than an impulse, but Claire put the letter into the hands of the unnecessarily nervous stranger before opening her notebook and holding it overhead to exit the establishment.
Travis fought an urge to crumple the page and toss it away unread. He tore it open when he saw his name written carefully above “read at your own risk.”
I can only imagine the regret you must feel for having decided to do something as stupid as getting behind the wheel after having had so much to drink. I should hope you learned not to do it again. It really is a brainless thing to have done. As soon as I spotted you just now, I could tell you’d been through something traumatic. I can only assume that you had an accident that night or later under similar circumstances caused by your own poor judgment. You really should be ashamed of yourself.
I feel the need to repeat that so much because I don’t want to condone something as stupid as drinking and driving. As a rule, I don’t. But you’re the exception to the rule. At least on the night I’m talking about, the night when you and your buddy went to the party and he told you about joining the army.
I don’t know what actually happened, but if you had called a cab to take you guys home, he would have talked you into joining up too. You would have been in the same unit sent overseas. A car would have blown up at a check-point you two would have been assigned to and that buddy of yours would have died in your arms. You would have beaten yourself up over it, told yourself it was your fault cause you should have convinced him not to join in the first place. His family would have been so grateful to you for being there with him in the end, they would have been so understanding that it would have made you feel worse. You would have felt so guilty you would have killed yourself.
This probably doesn’t make any sense, especially coming from a total stranger, but I tell you about it to help you. Whatever happened that night, don’t beat yourself up over it too much. It may have been the stupidest thing you’ve ever done (and under no circumstances should it even be repeated), but it was a stupid decision that saved your life.
Travis looked up abruptly when he’d finished reading and rushed out the door to catch up with her. He was a much slower reader than he liked to believe himself to be and she was long gone. As he started up and down the road, straining to catch a glimpse or remember which way she’d gone, someone across the street waved as if he was trying to rid himself of the pesky appendage. When Travis ignored the waving man (and who wouldn’t? he looked absurd), the seeker crossed the street and began calling to Travis by name until acknowledgement was finally achieved.
“Where are you man? Who’re you looking for?”
“Are you sure no one around here knows about the accident?” Travis demanded of his cousin. “No one knows about Freddy and the lawsuit?”
“Travis, it was out of state. Way out of state. The story wasn’t on any of the local stations or in any of the local papers. You don’t have to worry about any of that here.” Austen gave him a pat on the shoulder and motioned for him to follow. “So what time did your bus get in anyhow? Did you get a locker for your stuff or is Aunt Liz sending it later?”
But Travis wouldn’t be deterred. “There was this girl. She knew something. She knew Freddy wanted me to enlist with him and… she…” Travis was shaking his head because none of what she knew made any sense. She wrote about an accident but didn’t go into the specifics of Freddy’s injury or that neither of them would be serving in the army any time soon, and Freddy wasn’t even speaking to him, but alone his family.
“Calm down, Travis. Who’re you talking about?”
“A girl with a notebook,” he looked at the letter she’d given him. “Claire. Her name is Claire.”
Austen started laughing. “Claire? She’s crazy. Really. Her parents refuse to commit her but like twenty different doctors have recommended it. She hangs out with the crazy guy at the park who collects aluminum cans and babbles about aliens. I wouldn’t think too much about her knowing anything and if she does, no one would believe her anyway.”
Travis followed Austen’s guiding arm but held on to the letter, putting it in his pocket where it wouldn’t get wet. He kept his eyes open for any sign of Claire.
That night Claire’s patience paid off. She finally saw something useful. When her eyes closed on her pillow that night she saw the pizza parlor as it had been that afternoon. She saw herself sitting there at the counter in the seat that isn’t really a seat and she watched as Travis came in and sat in the booth to watch her. Because it wasn’t really a dream, Claire was aware of what she was seeing; she knew that she was watching the defining moment of her life and held her breath anticipating a change from what had happened that afternoon. Would she say something differently? Walk home a different way? Stay at the pizza shop longer?
She watched herself get up from the counter and walk out where she tore up the letter she’d actually given to Travis. The shreds of notebook paper fell into the small stream making its way to the rain drain where they went over the edge one-by-one like lemmings. Claire saw herself walk away the way she had that afternoon and then witnessed the future she would never have. It wasn’t horrible and it wasn’t fantastic. She saw herself doing the same things she’d always done, her same routines, her same habits until she died (it wasn’t a spectacular or even note-worthy end).
Claire smiled in sleep. She knew she made the right choice. There was no way to know if she would be happy from now on or if she’d be absolutely miserable. She couldn’t tell how Travis’ having the letter would change her life yet, but she was excited by the prospect of finding out. Maybe Travis would be the one who finally said something that would get her locked up. It was hardly ideal, but a distinct possibility. So many uncertainties loomed before her, teasing her, enticing her. All she knew was that she had escaped a life of monotony.