MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Ava was on a train called the City of New Orleans, on her way to the actual city of New Orleans, where her grandmother lived. She carried a backpack filled with books and a small suitcase of clothes. It was summer. She had finished the eighth grade four weeks before. Her mother had been dead for three. Louise had walked into the emergency room with a bad headache, and twenty hours later she was gone. A freak thing, the doctors said—a rare virus that attacked the brain stem.
Ava watched the green landscape flip past her train windows. She tried reading Harry Potter but she was too distracted, so she paced up and down the train cars. She’d never been anywhere besides her home in Iowa and one trip to Chicago. The country seemed too big. Ridiculously big.
Her mother’s roommate Kaitlyn had driven her to meet the train in Chicago. The three-hour trip from Iowa City had been laced with Kaitlyn’s endless stories about her boyfriend, who may or may not have been flirting with his neighbor down the block, whom Kaitlyn described as “one of those overgrown Girls Gone Wild sluts, I mean, she’s thirty years old for god’s sake”; Kaitlyn’s mother, who perpetually got on her nerves; and Kaitlyn and Louise’s bitchy boss at the factory, who had been unexpectedly kind when Louise got sick. It was easy to be with Kaitlyn because she never stopped chattering and did not require a response. Ava knew she was doing it on purpose, keeping things light. They’d been crying for weeks and needed a break. Ava was tired and numb, relieved to be away from the pity on everyone’s faces, and all the places where her mother should have been.
Kaitlyn parked in front of the train station in Chicago and handed Ava a sheaf of twenty-dollar bills.
“Keep it in your bra,” she said.
The girl gave her a look. Kaitlyn was always being embarrassing.
“Or your sock.”
“Thank you,” Ava said.
“I wish I could come with you,” Kaitlyn said.
“It’s okay. I’ll be fine.”
“Don’t let anybody talk to you.”
“People aren’t good, remember that.”
She’d heard Kaitlyn say this before, it was one of her maxims.
“I know,” Ava said.
Ava got out of the car. A printout of her train ticket was in her jeans pocket, creased and sweaty from her anxious hand. Her grandmother in New Orleans had paid for the ticket. Ava watched Kaitlyn drive off before she went into the station, found her platform, and boarded the train. She tried not to think about the speed at which it carried her away from home.
The train arrived in the afternoon. Ava had grown up hearing stories of New Orleans her whole life, and was half-surprised, now, to find that it was a real place. So far it was dirtier and uglier than she had pictured, the train station far less impressive than the ornate one she’d left in Chicago.
Ava looked around for her grandmother. She wondered if there would be a sign with her name on it, maybe some balloons or flowers like in the movies, when people arrived somewhere. She walked from one end of the station to another, scanning faces, more black faces in one place than she had ever seen before. No old ladies stood around waiting for her. She bought a Coke from a machine. She studied the mural that stretched above the ticket counter, a depiction, it said on the wall, of the history of New Orleans. The paintings were violent and disturbing, with dark colors and sharp angular figures doing terrible things to one another.
After a while she went outside and stood under the broad awning. A jumble of freeway overpasses loomed next to the building. The heat was shocking, thick. She waited there, trying to guess what kind of vehicle her grandmother might own. She imagined a plump gray-haired lady and a plush sedan, a jar of cookies, a guest room. She sweated against her backpack and her suitcase felt heavy and slick in her hand. She went back in to the air-conditioning.
Ava wandered around the station, past blue and brown chairs bolted to the floor. She found a pay phone and tried Lane’s number but it rang and rang. Ava waited through a series of buses unloading, each dispensing a throng of people into the station. She checked outside again. No luck.
Back inside she was pacing, too anxious to sit. People around her surged toward and away from buses, hugged and stretched and dragged their luggage. Ava went for the third time into the gift shop and studied the souvenir trinkets and T-shirts. The lady behind the counter spoke to her.
“Hey, babe, can I help you find something in particular?”
“No,” Ava said. “Thank you. I’m waiting for my ride.” She stood next to a shelf of real baby alligator heads. They’d been coated in some kind of shellac and they glistened under the fluorescent fixtures.
“You been waiting a while. Maybe they’re not coming.”
Ava said, “I was thinking that, too.”
“Where you trying to go?”
Ava opened her backpack and found the little book where she had written down her grandmother’s address. She read it out.
“Dang, that’s way Uptown.”
“Could you tell me how to get there?”
“You could maybe take the streetcar, if it’s running,” the woman said.
“What’s the streetcar?” Ava asked.
The woman frowned. “Maybe better if you have money for a cab. You have money?”
“Go see if there’s one out there.”
Ava thanked the clerk and walked into the humid heat and car exhaust of the Central Business District. She approached a waiting cab and gave the driver the address. He helped her with her case and she got in the car. A television played flashy celebrity gossip news in the backseat and Ava watched it as they bumped over rutted streets.
Ava had never been in a taxi before, but this experience was no less strange than any of the past three weeks. After the hospital and the funeral, the world was not what she had thought. Things happened and she observed them with a detachment that overlay a deep, unaccessed horror. Just get there, Ava thought. See what happens next.
Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Ginsburg