Keep On Trucking

Author's Note: Here it is, the sequel to "Sorry Is The Hardest Word". It is finally. Finally. Done. Hallelujah. If you haven't read "Sorry" and its prequel, "Ribbons of Red", you oughta do so before reading this. If you have read them, it would be good to read "Sorry" again before reading this, because I reference it quite a bit. I hope you guys enjoy it.

The bus drops me off at the corner of 196th and Cross Street. They don't run any further than that for fear of someone taking their hubcaps, or their bus drivers. It would be a funny excuse if it hadn't actually happened before.

I'm numb with pain.

A silent scream is wrenching and twisting my stomach and my trachea is flexed as it fights to break free. I steady myself on the cracked wall of a nearby building and the setting sun floods onto my face. Somewhere on the ride home, the rain stopped. The clouds still hover less menacingly over my right shoulder, but the sun is making a last feeble effort in the absence of its cloudy quilt.

William Theodore Stronghold, that no-good sewer rat does not set foot in this house again!

It's a sort of silent lucidity I feel.

I look at the setting sun from behind a red brick building and sigh. My hands curl through the chain link fence. A wet newspaper greets me as it flies by. 'Double shooting in Ramps area'. Violence doesn't even register anymore with me. I look back towards the sky. Even the sun looks grimy nowadays. Glancing down the street, the only splash of real color in the washed-out sunset is the neon-yellow sign. 'Dead End.' Truer words were never spoken.

One thing's for sure. I'm going nowhere fast.

I run a hand over my face, feel the lines that are already there. Face lines, meet life line. It's not very long, so be nice to it. Rubbing my tired eyes, bloodshot and lined with dark circles, I wish I could sleep. Every night I come home from work, do my homework, climb into bed, pray for sleep. It never comes. Hours and hours of darkness, disappointment no matter which way I turn, how hard I toss, until the pale eyes of dawn shine down on the sleeping shingles of my house. It frustrates me so much that when I do drop off from sheer exhaustion, my subconscious conjures the monsters of my past to come for me. Now, though I long for sleep, I'm too terrified to attempt it.

Tonight I'll dream about an ambulance again, blood seeping onto the now red gauze wrapped around my wrists. The tourniquets squeezing the life out of my arms, pins and needles occupying my fingertips. The ceiling of the vehicle packed with breathing masks and scrubs and cloths. Things to put the dead back together. I'd vomited into the mask over my face. The quiet drip, drip of Demerol as the argent needle cajoled my ruined flesh together. Before I wake I'll dream about a man with an iron jaw, casting me out of his house. His son following me out into the rain, the darkness enfolding my mind. Thunder growls behind me. The storm isn't worn out entirely.

Will once told me that he always tries to get me to stay the night at his house because he doesn't want to send me back to mine, old and dilapidated, alone. He doesn't want me to go back to this part of town is what he means, but in reality it's not that bad down here. It's not the Stockholm Syndrome. You just have to know how to look.

Down here in the Ramps there's trash cans and cracked pavement and crude suggestions tagged on the walls of the empty stores. Or at least that's what it would seem to someone who lives in the beautiful, quiet, middle-class suburbs. Those of us who live here know there are also good things if you take a closer look at the bad. Formula for a new baby resides in that trash can, and dandelions spring from those cracks in the sidewalks. We try not to tread on them on our way to our jobs, 7-4, Monday through Saturday. Those milky flowers are us in plant form. We may be weeds but we're strong weeds. And when those phrases bloom on empty walls, we're always there to pull them off.

Ah, hell. What's a word on a wall? What, even, is important about a word coming from someone's mouth? More often than not, the Paper Lantern's back room and alleyway are quiet, but not a nervous quiet. A quiet that exists between old friends, full of meaning, but too exhausted to speak. All of us in the same situation, pulling together like a team of oxen, broad-shouldered and steadfast. If someone were to take a quick glance at one of us, that person would dismiss us immediately. We're not flashy or exciting. But if they were to look closer, he or she would see a strange devotion to the world and our place in it. It's hard to see; a certain set of the jaw, an unusual cast of the eyes. Words have no meaning here. Should they mean anything anywhere else, especially when they come from those who don't know what they mean? Emma Goldman once said that the most violent element in society is ignorance. She has a point.

Will doesn't really understand. I need to go back here every day to remind me of these things.

I turn and step onto the railroad tracks. Thick, broken slats of wood beneath my faded boots are shocked into place with narrow steel beams and iron nails wrenched into the rocky earth. We should all be like those nails, holding resolute as the train passes over us. Strong like the beams that bear the world on their back. Without these slats of wood and bent-up beams and twisted nails, the continent would never have been united. Years and years of sweat and coal and words flow down this abandoned track like an invisible current. For this track to thrive, it had to endure first. To bear its troubles away and unload them each in its proper place. Never hoarding them. Letting them go. What use is a train that keeps all of its cargo aboard? There would never be room for new things.

A jazz combo rolls out like the surf on the warm breeze. A flutist bends her notes gently as the electric guitar cries behind the smooth melody. A spin on an old rock song. Of its own accord, my mouth forms the words.

"Michelle, ma belle…"

The stars are out, and winking at me. In the distance, beyond the mournful flute and electric guitar, past the river and the bridge, a train chugs softly through the night.

"…sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble…"

I should take a hint from that train, receive the orchestral cues of my life from the flute and the guitar. I should draw on the silent strength of my kin down here on the streets. The only thing to do is square your shoulders. Keep on walking. To just keep on trucking when the way is rough.

"…tres bien ensemble."

Tonight I'll dream about the ambulance again. Gentle hands holding me together, lifting me through pain like electrical currents, burning and snapping, onto a stretcher, my friends being forced back by the hospital staff as they wheel me into intensive care. None of them verbalized their emotions afterwards, but they let me know just the same. For many weeks after that, either Will or Ethan was beside me nearly 24 hours a day. Zach and Magenta always brought the mood up around me, joking and gossiping away, though we all knew they were doing it deliberately. And Layla's always there to talk to. Safe in their circle, my father's face returns to his old, yellowing newspaper clippings. He's no match for them. I'll dream about my friends, perhaps. Tonight I'll imagine myself looking into my mirror for the first time in years. Who am I now?

Wren, come home.

Wren. I'm named for a small bird, common as mud, smaller than a pencil, stronger than a mountain. My friends gave my name to me a long time ago. I had never thought of myself as a bird before I met them. They seem to enjoy the nickname quietly, as if it had always been there, as if I had always been their little bird. It's funny 'cause every time their little bird falls they help it fly again. Whenever it's knocked out of its nest, they cradle it in their hands, soothe it to sleep, tell it everything will be all right again. And strangely enough, it listens. It believes every word they say, and every time they say it, it spreads its wings and flies again.

I untangle my hands from the chain link fence in the shadows of the evening and turn for home. Maybe tonight, I'll sleep.


A/N: Lol, thanks to my beta-reading sister, who caught a gaffin the story :) Love ya! And I love all of you reviewers! Thanks so much!