It is only after the 4-hour bus ride, and the 45-minute train ride before that, and the 20-minute walk to the train station before that, that you realize you've woken up in a city that is not the destination you were trying to reach. It was an honest mistake, you think, to comfort yourself, as you look at your surroundings. The Greyhound dropped you off in a strip-mall parking lot, and the stores are identical to the ones at the strip mall you were meant to be meeting your ride. But was that the right color trim on those concrete pillars? Was the parking lot supposed to be one big square like this one, or circular, curving toward the entrance where you were meant to wait?
The dozen other passengers who descended from the bus with you hug their partners, their parents. They use their cell phones to call Ubers, or duck into the fast food restaurant on the corner. You think about getting back on the bus, but you don't know where the bus is headed next, and you don't have a ticket, and before you can consider this option further the driver is back on the bus, the door is yanked shut, the bus is pulling out of the parking lot, it is headed back toward the Interstate, it is gone. Slowly, the other passengers disperse, the cars disappear from the parking lot, and you are alone. Even the stores, with their blinking OPEN signs and mannequins back-lit by florescent lights, seem deserted. You imagine the sales associates hiding behind the clothing racks, peeking out at you.
There is no curve to this parking lot, but you go and wait at the entrance anyway. You look around for any distinct landmarks, but all you can see, no matter how far you squint, is flat roads with cars driving fast, and stubby, square buildings no more than three stories tall. The sky is overcast. It is that miserable non-weather, chilly and humid at the same time. Your hairline is wet with sweat; wild bits of hair stick to your forehead, the back of your neck. Your skin feels oily and slick. Under your wool coat, your bones feel ice-cold; the coat is too hot for this weather, but tomorrow it is supposed to be colder, and the coat wouldn't fit in your suitcase. You shift your backpack on your sore shoulders, switch your rolling suitcase from one hand to the other. Even with no one in sight, you hold your possessions close to you. You think of sitting on the curb, but your ride could come at any minute.
Maybe you had boarded the wrong bus because you went to the wrong pickup spot.
The names of two intersecting streets had been printed onto the ticket. You expected there to be a bus stop, a sign, a line when you got there. But the intersection looked like any other intersection, cars blurring past in all directions, no clear place to wait. You asked someone standing nearby, a tall man in a suit, face shadowed by the brim of a fedora, but he only grunted in reply. So you waited, and then the bus came only a few minutes after the scheduled time, and you boarded.
Or maybe you got the date wrong.
Maybe your ticket was meant for the day before, or the day after. The driver had barely glanced at it when he collected it from you. It's possible he saw the destination but not the date. And by then you were curled up in the padded blue seat.
Had the bus driver said something before taking off?
You think he must have, but you were so tired from waking up early that morning that as soon as you slid into that coveted window seat, you pulled your backpack into your lap, looped your arms through the straps, and closed your eyes. You, who always triple-checks your ticket, your calendar. Arrives at the bus stop early. Asks someone standing nearby if you are in the right place.
You must have known you were headed in the wrong direction during those first thirty minutes on the bus.
But after pulling away from that intersection and winding through the busiest parts of the city, the bus had entered a tunnel that seemed to take several minutes to pass through. You knew, because even though your eyes were shut, the bus was drowned in a darkness that seeped through your closed lids. When it finally exited the tunnel, and the sudden brightness forced your eyes open, the flat grassy planes outside the dirty window where you rested your head could have been anywhere.
You notice that the sidewalk running along the storefronts also runs down the side of the mall. Maybe there is another parking lot around back? You start to follow it only as far as you dare; you don't want to lose sight of the main parking lot. But the sidewalk ends a little way down, concrete disappearing under weeds and brown grass. Behind the mall: only dumpsters and a fence backing a busy road. You return to your original post. Above the sheet of grey clouds, the sky appears to darken. It's hard to tell for sure. You hold your rolling suitcase closer.
One time, years ago, when you were barely a teenager, you babysat a little boy as a favor to a co-worker of your mother’s. As you sat together on the living room carpet building LEGOs, he asked, "Who are you?"
"I'm the babysitter," you said.
"Yeah, I'm here to babysit you today."
That was when he frowned. Then a smile crept across his face.
"But I'm not the boy you're supposed to babysit."
"You're not? You look just like him."
The boy shook his head.
"You're the same age as him. This is his house."
"No it's not. This is a different house. I'm a different boy."
"Oh yeah? Then who are you supposed to be?"
But the boy only smiled wider.