I’ll tell you this: Santa could’ve used a bath. Or maybe that velveteen suit needed steam cleaning.
“Well well well,” he said, grinning at me with crooked yellow cigar teeth, “this looks like the best seat in the house.” He heaved his striped suitcase to the luggage rack and settled his wide ass on somewhat more than half the bench.
I scooted as close to the wall as I could get without going through it and stared out the window.
“Tell me,” said SC, “what do you want for Christmas, eh?”
“Money,” I said.
“Oh? What does a youngster like you need with lucre, eh?” SC rearranged his hat and folded his hands over his belly.
I tried not to talk, I really did. But here was, well, SC, asking me what I wanted. I’d never had a chance to do the talk-to-SC thing. Not that I remembered, anyway. It all came pouring out. How I’d been raised in an orphanage, and how I had to mop floors at Forest Grove, how Chummy had tried to keep me from seeing my only friend in the world, and how I needed bucks so I could escape and be free. With a story like that, Santa’s gotta come through, right?
When I finished, I looked at his face, tears standing in my eyes.
“Pfft,” he said, rolling his eyes ceiling-ward.
Shocked, I started sputtering, trying to make him understand.
“What you’re telling me,” he exclaimed, “is that this private academy is providing you with room, board, and an education even though you have no ability to pay, is that right?”
“And,” he went on, “you are required to help out around the place, just as you would in a home with a family, yes?”
“And then,” he continued, “you became ill-mannered and disruptive in class. That’s what you said.”
“Ok, but listen…”
But SC would not be interrupted. “So the principal disciplined you for your misbehavior.”
“Discipline? That was cruelty!”
“And here you are whining about how you have to run away from that terrible place.” He looked quite thoroughly disgusted with me.
“It IS a terrible place.”
“Anastasia,” he said, “what you need at this time is NOT money to run away. What you need, sweetie, is to grow up.”
I spent the rest of the ride sulking and pretending to sleep. SC spent it sneaking sips out of a flask when he thought my eyes were closed.
When the bus shuddered to a stop in Portland, I screwed up my courage one more time.
“Hey,” I said as he pulled his case down from the rack, “are you the Scary…”
“Oh, I’m scary all right,” he interjected. “We all are.”
He stalked up the aisle and exited the bus before I had my pack slung on my shoulder. In the bus station I checked the clock: 7 am, December 22. The day Roman and I had arranged to meet.
I killed some time in a coffee shop, swigging down drip and reading the local alternative rag. At 9, Powell’s opened.
I wandered through the color-coded rooms, admiring the sheer scale of the place. At 10 am I grabbed a copy of On the Road and settled into a battered armchair to read and wait for Roman.
13 hours later I stepped out into the dark street, with no place to go and no one beside me.
Roman never showed.