“Camouflage” by Eden Robins
All around me, people are scratching off lottery tickets. I scratch at my palm with one fingernail, but I’m not fooling anybody.
The El platform is slick with plastered brown leaves, and I walk carefully. Leaves blow off the trees, sticking to the faces and pants of commuters, covering them from head to foot in stinking rot. I don’t like the way they stick to me, but for every one I peel off, two more replace it. Rain spits on everything, gluing the drab colors down into a single glossy layer. I’m still pulling leaves off my clothes and backpack when the train comes.
Today, I’m taking the train to the end of the line. Then I’m going to get on another train and another, and eventually I’ll end up in Wisconsin. And then? I’ll keep going north to where the trains stop. Is there a train to Nunavut? To the Arctic Circle? I intend to find out.
I’ve brought a four-season tent and a camping stove. Also a pocket knife in case I need to whittle something or stab something for food. Or cut out poison if something poisonous bites me. I can’t think of any poisonous creatures that live in the Arctic Circle, but the best way to greet change is by minimizing surprises, and the best way to do that is to be prepared for anything.
The things that live in the Arctic Circle — rabbits, foxes, geese, owls — are all white to blend in with the snow. We have their relatives down here, but they are brown and gray to blend in with us.
I don’t own a single white article of clothing, but I figured once I reach Nunavut, I’ll barter with some white creature for its fur and just wear that. Fur is the smart way to dress in Nunavut, and in exchange, I will give the creature my gray sport coat and khakis, the nice ones I got at Men’s Wearhouse, and send it back to Chicago on the train. I will tell it about our great museums and beautiful architecture, and it will be excited to start a new life. Chicago has cold winters too, which it should enjoy.
Nobody sits next to me on the red line to Howard, even though the train is packed, so I put my backpack in the empty seat. The backpack is shaped like me. I made it myself, in case I need a decoy to ward off wolves or polar bears. My plan, if I am attacked, is to throw the bag at my pursuer and then run in the opposite direction. The wolf or bear will be so preoccupied by eviscerating my cloth-and-zipper self that I will be able to escape unscathed. Of course, I can only use this trick once, and in the process, I will lose everything I own. I must choose wisely, and try to keep a cool head. With any luck, I won’t be forced to make that choice, but when you want to survive in the wild, it’s best to be realistic.
People avoid eye contact with me, though they nod and smile politely at my self-shaped bag.
Wisconsin is a lot like Illinois, except there’s more of it. It’s not until Minnesota that things start to change. A woman sits next to me, for example. She’s wearing a plain brown shirt and a gray skirt, and she’s not pretty, but her hair is yellow, and it melts down her face like margarine on hot toast. The more I look at her, the more beautiful she seems.
“I’m sorry about my bag,” I say, gesturing between my knees where it sits. “It takes up a lot of room.”
“What’s that?” she asks. I open my mouth to repeat myself, but she isn’t looking at me. She holds a large purse in the shape of a white rabbit up to her ear.
“My purse likes your bag,” she says. “She thinks he’s cute.” She holds the purse out to me. I know it’s just the skin and not the whole rabbit, but it’s like a little piece of Nunavut has come to me already. I pet its silky soft fur.
“Is that an Arctic hare?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. I can tell she’s impressed. “Her name is Harry, and so is mine.”
“That’s not a girl’s name,” I say before I can stop myself. She frowns, and delicate little lines carve up her forehead. I hold out my hand. “My name’s Wanda,” I say by way of apology.
“That’s not a man’s name,” says Harry.
I don’t usually give out my real name, and it hurts that she would use it against me.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” she says, stroking her purse. “It just seemed like a good day for an adventure.”
My heart thumps. “Ditto,” I say. “Me too.”
I think about kissing her all the way through Minnesota, but it’s like my lips are glued together. I want to ask her if she’ll go to Nunavut with me, if that’s where she got her Arctic hare, if she’d help me get one too. Every so often, we catch each other’s eye and smile, but then she’ll turn her buttered head away, and I’ll go back to staring out the window as the plains whoosh by.
I fall asleep, and when I wake up, she’s gone, and I’m in Canada.
It’s funny that I didn’t notice a Harry-shaped absence in my life until Harry showed up to fill it. Without her, my heart’s just not in this trip anymore. But now I’m standing in the Winnipeg ticket booth, and people are grumbling behind me.
“North,” I say, finally.
“North where?” asks the woman at the ticket booth.
“Wherever is most north.”
She sighs and hands me a ticket. I pass her some money and don’t ask for change. Canadian money doesn’t feel real to me.
The only empty seat on the train is next to a sniffling little boy who won’t stop staring at me. I put my bag on my lap and cover my face with it so he’ll stare at that instead, and the boy starts crying.
“You’re scaring my son,” says his mother, who is sitting across the aisle with a man.
“Your son should know the difference between a bag and a person,” I say. “If he doesn’t, that’s not my fault.”
The boy cries louder and the mother stands up to yell at me. All the passengers turn to look and shake their heads disapprovingly. My face feels hot.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Just forget it.” And I run off the train just as the conductor yells All aboard.
Winnipeg is cold and gets under my skin in a way that makes me feel I will never be warm again. I’ve had to put on three layers of clothes already, including the blazer and pants I was going to trade for fur. It’s impossible to tell the time — the sky is dark and gray and it could be noon or four a.m. or almost dinner time. I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting in this donut shop. I can only measure time by the number of hot cocoas I’ve had, which is three. Or maybe four. Even the clientele looks the same. Have they been sitting here all this time? The Arctic Circle is still hundreds of miles away, not that I’ll ever get there. And if I do, then what? My plan falls apart when I think too hard about it. How stupid am I, thinking I can trade my clothes for fur and survive in the wild. And yet I can’t go home, and I certainly can’t stay here, frozen in time like this, drinking hot cocoa.
I order another hot cocoa with extra whipped cream. It feels like everyone is staring at me, waiting for my decision. At every table, they’re watching me over their coffees and donuts, chewing thoughtfully, wondering what I might do next. They look like they want to follow me. Every time I move, they move. Their thoughts are tied up in my choices, and even my tiniest movements tug at them. This is too much pressure. I press my face into the whipped cream and watch as their lips twitch when I don’t wipe it off my face. One of them wipes his lip to let me know what he’s thinking, but I don’t care. I can see an eternity of this stretching ahead of me, and I can’t let that happen. I grab my bag and run out of the donut shop, licking my face once I’ve turned away.
I stick my thumb out to passing cars, and I know it’s pointless, but I’m hoping Harry will be in one of them. I regret that I didn’t kiss her, that I didn’t take her with me. I figured she would always be there, sitting next to me on the train until I worked up the nerve to speak to her again.
I feel stupid, standing here all alone. I look all wrong. I stand out and everyone stares at me, but no cars stop, so I hide my bag behind me where it will look more like a normal backpack. A garbage truck pulls up to the corner, and the garbage collector empties a trash can into the back of the truck.
“We are incapable of fully accepting that change is coming, even when we plan endlessly for it,” he says. “Every moment seems to last forever, and we think it must always be so.”
“Are you talking to me?” I ask.
“Are you talking to me?” he asks. He asks it angrily.
“No,” I say. I throw my decoy bag at him and try to escape, but he catches up with me and punches me in the gut, tossing me in the back of the truck with the garbage.
The more I struggle, the more covered in trash I become. Wet newspapers are slicked to my face and arms, leaving inky tattoos. I kick plastic bottles and slice my hand on glass. My clothes smell awful, and I want to take them off, but they are the only things I have left. I can’t believe my bag is gone — lying in the middle of that street in Winnipeg, or stolen, or run over — filled with all the things I need to survive. It makes me sick to think about.
We drive and drive, and I feel that my world will always smell like rot and death. Worse, I don’t care. The truck finally stops, and when the back hatch opens, I play dead. The garbage man tosses me to the side of the road and my shoulder connects with the frozen ground. Pain bursts through my arm, bright and yellow behind my closed eyelids. I bite my tongue to keep from yelling, and my mouth fills with blood. I feel him staring at me, then he drives off, and I am alone. No I’m not. It’s dark and I see the glowing eyes of some animal. To him, I smell like food. I curl up, trying for small and inconspicuous. The cold is merciless. I hope for a quick death and dream of fur.
When I wake up, I’m not covered in garbage anymore. I’m curled up in another small space, this time the trunk of what feels like a small car, and I’m wearing new, clean clothes. They are furry, and they smell better than I do. Like snow and clean sweat. The road rumbles beneath my back. I can hear muffled voices.
“Hello?” I yell. “Where are we going? Am I being rescued?”
A thin beam of light shines into the trunk. Someone has pulled down the back seat. A small round face peers in, but I can’t make out the features.
“Home,” says a woman’s voice.
“I can’t go home!” I say. “Please, don’t take me back.” I squint at the face. “Harry? Is that you?”
The seat slams shut and the light winks out.
I toss and turn, never quite sure when I am awake or asleep. The car stops infrequently, and only for gas. I pound on the trunk, not to escape, I assure my captors — or my saviors, or whoever they are — only to relieve my bladder, but they ignore me, and now the trunk stinks of piss and wet fur. “I can’t go home,” I yell. “I’ve come too far.” But no one answers.
I’m trying not to cling to hope, trying not to imagine Harry sitting right on the other side of this wall, her hair slick and yellow. I’m not dead, I reassure myself. I try to believe it.
Finally, the car slows to a stop. The trunk flies open and the sky is so bright that I cry out and cover my eyes. The air freezes inside my nostrils, but the fur keeps the rest of me warm, even the wet parts. No one speaks but I can feel their presence.
“Who are you?” I ask. Slowly, my eyes adjust. Everything is white. White snow, white clouds, pale, white sky. Short spindly trees covered in snow. White fur covering my body.
“Get up,” says the woman’s voice from before.
“Harry?” I ask. I don’t see her anywhere. I don’t see anyone anywhere. My legs shake as I swing them over the edge of the trunk, but something strong and muscular on the ground supports me and keeps me from falling.
“Steady, steady,” says a male voice from below. I look down.
A hairless wolf in my sport coat and khakis is straining to hold me up. A bald Arctic hare wearing a gray skirt and a brown shirt just like Harry’s sits next to us in the snow. I take a step away from the wolf and he bares his sharp teeth at me. My heart quickens, and I curse myself for using my backpack on a stupid garbage man. My one safety net. Stupid stupid.
But he doesn’t attack. And then I think — maybe he’s just smiling.
“Welcome to Nunavut,” says the wolf.
The hare tugs at her skirt. The wolf shivers. They look awkward and drab against the snow.
“Chicago has beautiful architecture,” I say. “And great museums.” They look at each other, the hare cocks her head dubiously. I put my hand on the wolf’s padded shoulder. “Sometimes you just have to take that leap,” I say. He nods. We have an understanding.
“No need to stand on ceremony,” he says. “No need to be polite on our account.” So I run into the whiteness, mouth open, arms wide like I’ve always wanted to. I trip, and fall, and sink. The snow sticks to me like cotton candy and tastes just as sweet.
|Eden Robins lives in Chicago but is known to occasionally hop trains to strange places. Her stories have appeared (or will soon) in Farrago’s Wainscot, M-Brane SF, Fantasy Magazine, and Shimmer, and she co-founded the now-defunct semiprozine Brain Harvest. Eden is currently working on her second novel, a weird Western. Find her at monkeythumbs.com for infrequent blogging or @edenrobins for frequent non-sequiturs.|