“Sarah, are you okay?” Mr. Davenport stopped her at the doorway, trig textbook in hand. “You didn’t answer questions eleven through fifteen on your quiz last Monday. I hope you didn’t skip over answers on this week’s quiz.”
“I didn’t feel very good.” Her chest had grown tight that day. The numbers blurred in front of her face, little animated Star Wars figures chasing each other round and round the page.
“The math-bowl is next week, and we need you at your best. We wouldn’t want to miss our chance for a fourth state-championship. We’re counting on you for another win.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be ready.” She shuffled her backpack and pushed past him toward English.
What if she wasn’t ready? What if all she saw were more Star Wars figures? The hairs on the back of her neck rose. Think about it later, not now.
Mondays meant a new essay assigned in English. Today’s topic: If you could go anywhere, where would you go and why? Minimum 800 words.
The topic made her chest tighten even more. She tapped her eraser against her paper. The other students scrawled furious words across their pages. Their arms moved in rhythm, their heads bobbed in unconscious unison. What if she were sucked into a book? Would that count? She’d rather read than write anyway. She doodled vintage suitcases and Parisian buildings in the margins.
Mondays were extra-long running days, six miles instead of the normal three. She tugged on running shoes. The grass was dying and looked like a patchwork quilt. The faded track ran in circles, never stopping, always circles, never stopping. Cracked colorless concrete ran alongside it. She set her watch. Six-mile Mondays.
She was halfway through mile four when a torn paper caught the wind and pressed against her shin. She snatched it before it could fly away. Her heart seemed to skip a beat. Part of a map of Chicago. Was her irregular heart rate due to the miles or the map? She squinted at the tiny names, places she’d never been. Someday, maybe someday. When there wasn’t a math-bowl or essays to write.
She folded it into four squares, matching the corners, and tucked it against her waistband. Her chest seemed to loosen a little.
Six o’clock. Dinner was ready.
The kitchen was bland, as if someone had forgotten the salt when decorating the room. The walls were off-white with pictures centered every two feet in yellowing frames, otherwise they would scratch each other when the train sped past. The table had a blue toil cloth covering with four glass settings, the same forks and knives set in the same places on top of the same tablecloth for almost eighteen years.
At six thirty, her dad rested his fork against his napkin and coughed.
She handed over the Progress Report, her chest feeling like it would crush her lungs. Did students in Chicago have monthly Progress Reports? Maybe they didn’t have Report Cards at all. Or math-bowls.
“What’s this?” He pointed to the only non-A on the report card.
“It’s a B+, Dad. I don’t like English.”
“You know what we expect from you.” He frowned over the stiff sheet of paper. “We want you to acheive what you are capable of, and you’re capable of more than this. Your brother never brought home anything less than his potential, and neither should you—we raised you to aim above the limits, Sarah.”
“Yes, Dad. I mean, yes, sir. I’ll do better. “ She hung her head to hide her rolling eyes. She massaged her sternum to relive some of the chest pressure. The six-thirty train rumbled past.
Her father looked her up and down. “Good. I’m glad we had this talk. You’re excused to finish your homework.”
The ivory sign on the door greeted visitors into her whitewashed room, bare except for two science posters pinned neat in the corner: the periodic table and Einstein’s E=MC whatever. Her desk was fairly new, scratchless, with separate color-coordinated canisters for pencils and pens. Her was backpack stored in the space between the desk and the wall. She straightened the idea-sheet for her English essay, aligning it to the bottom corner of the desk.
The essay was due tomorrow. She should start it.
An hour passed.
What was Chicago like? Didn’t they have tall buildings? So tall you’d have to tip your head back? And tracks that weren’t cracked and always circular? She could write her essay about Chicago.
She pulled out the map from her backpack. A piece of Chicago in her hands. She traced the yellow, blue, and red lines with her fingers and inhaled the musty fragrance. Despite the tightness, her heart really did beat irregular around the map.
A train whistled. Five minutes to departure.
She squeezed the map so tight her nails burst through it.
She sprinted to the front door, ignoring her mom’s “Did you double-check your homework?” and didn’t stop until she reached the station down the street. The empty graffitied station grew above the mist, a lonely yellowed lantern illuminated a singled out train car. The train lurched forward, shrieking its goodbye to the town. She hesitated and then grabbed the silver rusted handlebar.
The thrill felt like the tingles when a numb body part finally woke from sleep, but softer and more pleasant. They started in the base of her spine and rose into her cheeks. She was riding the train. Somewhere.
She clutched the map to her chest. The iced wind slapped her face, the mixture of crisp air and oil filled her nose. Beyond her, in the darkness, trees and looming rust colored mountains clashed where the sapphire rivers tumbled, a vision of clarity in her mind even though she could not see it.
Every moment, every desire, every wish, all for her taking.
She clambered down when the train finally rolled to a stop, walking behind the last car and onto the tracks, facing where she had came from. The tingles were gone, and instead of the usual tightness her chest relaxed. Peace. She had never breathed so easily.
She opened her fist and let the breeze flutter away the map.