The Girl With The Yellow Backpack

            Dark souls seem to loom within the dense clouds hanging low over the wrought iron gates that separated hell from the rest of the world. There was a time when these gates, gleaming with manmade finish, would open on a hot summer day, inviting masses of bickering parents, fanny packs strapped around their waists, and excited children, laughing and screaming and intoxicated with the scent of cotton candy and the excitement of an adrenaline filled day coursing through their young bodies. Those summer days were long forgotten. Ivy and dry brush reached in and out of the now rusting gates, tangled in a horror of thorns and dying October leaves. Any person brave enough to climb the gates, ignoring the sign condemning trespassers, would find his or herself strolling down a winding path of cracked pavement and a gloomy forest on either side that threatened to engulf strangers wandering into the unknown.
            One cold, October day, a trespasser found herself in the strange wonderland of this frightening unknown. Lost and unsure of where to go next, a young girl walked down the path, away from the gates and safety of the outside world. The girl stood hardly more than four feet tall and her pale blonde hair bounced above each shoulder in a carefully braided plait. To her chest she clutched Mr. Teddy, a blonde teddy bear who wore a blue polka dotted bow tie and felt like silk and assurance beneath the girls cold fingers. The girl walked slowly, gazing her big blue and curious eyes towards the dark sky and the shivering limbs of trees that swayed just beneath the clouds. The girl wore a navy blue peacoat that reached her knees covered by black stockings. A small yellow backpack containing schoolbooks and crayons bobbed up and down on her back as she continued further down the path. The little girl's name was Nora, and she was not scared of much.
            Nora walked for a long time in silence and only with Mr. Teddy for company. She hoped that the path would soon end as she was dreadfully bored by all of the walking. She entertained herself by skipping over cracks in the pavement and counting each skip she took. She was distracted from her game when she heard the friendly meow of a cat. The black and white cat looked at the girl with bright green eyes and darted quickly into the trees when she approached it with an outreached hand. Disappointed, the little girl looked up for the first time since her skipping game to see one of the most peculiar sights. Before her, a tall sign that read "Fun Land" stood high above several wooden ticket booths. A smile spread across Nora's face as she began to run towards the park entrance. Blinded with excitement, Nora failed to notice the man who sat in one of the shaded ticket booths, following her with his bloodshot eyes.
            Beyond the Fun Land sign, Nora stopped her running and looked around her. She was in an amusement park. Only, something was wrong with this park. The smile slid off of Nora's face as she realized that the park was empty. She listened as the wind groaned and rusty roller coasters that stood colorfully in the distance creaked. She was in the front of the park, where various abandoned game booths stood. The booths were littered with empty popcorn buckets and soda cups. The toys within were dirty and tired looking; bears resembling Mr. teddy were stained with dirt, some of them missing eyes or losing their stuffing through lose stitches. Nora became very sad looking into the booths of abandoned toys and she hugged Mr. Teddy even closer to her chest.
            Nora continued hesitantly through the maze of booths. There was once a time when these booths, on a warm July night, glittered and dazzled the eyes of the young with the brightest shades of red and pretty toys that would be loved by children forever. Teenage couples would pass the booths hand in hand and a pretty young girl of seventeen would cast her brown eyes up to her date, who would obligingly pay a dollar or fifty cents to win his girl's heart with an oversized stuffed monkey or a large bag of cotton candy. The girl would happily stroll away with her date tossing her hair back as she laughed and they would kiss before running to the tallest roller coaster they could find, the swirling red lights of the booths trailing after them in the night.
            Nora shivered as a cold breeze ruffled the bottom of her small peacoat. She stepped over the large ceramic head of a clown, its red nose was smashed and its blue and yellow eyeshadow was rather grimy. Nora did not like the rolling clown head and wondered where the rest of its body was as it smiled up at her with a welcoming grin that promised fun and jokes. She hurried away from the clown head, leaving it to roll back and forth at the wind's will. Nora was not pleased with the outcome of the park, but thought that if she continued farther into it, she might find a friend and a Ferris wheel. She passed an orange roller coaster and walked towards the coaster car. She jumped as she thought she saw a young girl who looked rather like herself sitting in the front of the car, but on a second glance, Nora saw that the car was empty. She shrugged her shoulders and continued walking, determined to find some company to point her in the right direction.
            As the sky grew darker, the wandering little girl came upon a carousel. Her eyes lit up at the intricate purple and gold designs that decorated the top half of the carousel, but she was most disappointed when she saw that the rabbits and horses upon which she could have seated herself were decaying and lifeless. Nora was suddenly overwhelmed by this big empty park and not knowing how to find her way out. She sat on the ground and hugged her little bear close to her. Nora was a strange little girl and although she never cried, she longed deeply for the soothing voice of her mother. She held Mr. Teddy between her hands and looked down at him. She thought of home and of her other toys and hoped that she would find her way home before her mother made dinner. As Nora had this thought, she heard an odd noise. It sounded like an electrical sort of buzzing, like something was being start up. She looked up at the carousel and hopped onto her feet when she realized it had begun to move. The purple and gold pattern was lit up by the white lights that came to life all around the carousel. A pretty french tune began to serenade the empty and darkening park, filling little Nora with Joy. She watched in amazement as the carousel slowly spun around and gave life to all of the pretty animals. The carousel spun around and Nora began to sway to the music, hypnotized by the only beautiful thing she had seen today.
            Then, riding on a tall white horse, Nora saw the first person she had seen in Fun Land. As the horse bobbed up and down and came closer to Nora's sight, she looked at the strange man atop of it. His long face was smeared in thin, cracked paint. Small blotches of red stained the mans cheeks and three black lines stemmed from beneath each of his red eyes. His black hair, sticking out in all directions, was curly and wiry. He watched Nora and did not take his eyes off of her. The horse disappeared to the other side of the carousel and Nora waited for it to come back around again. When it came back around,  Nora saw that he was a tall man with very long, thin legs that were dressed in purple pinstripes. Despite his thin legs and close fitting pants, his black shoes were quite clunky looking. Perhaps his mother doesn't know what size shoe he wears, Nora thought. His jacket was purple as well, though torn and ragged and sporting dark stains. Right as the man was passing in front of Nora, the music stopped and all of the pretty carousel lights disappeared. The man hopped off his horse and hopped off of the carousel, striding right up to little Nora and taking a very dramatic bow, so low that his nose almost touched the ground.
            "Mademoiselle," the strange man said. "Welcome!"
            Nora said nothing. She felt suddenly afraid.
            "I am afraid that Fun Land has not seen a visitor as charming as your young self in quite some time," the man said. Nora took a step back. The man's breath reeked of alcohol. "What's your name, Miss?" His voice dripped with faux pleasantries.
            "Nora," she said quietly.
            The man took a sharp inhale and stood very straight, a sly and untrustworthy smile widening across his face. "Miss Nora," he exhaled, emphasizing the "s" like a snake and drawing out the vowels in her name. "I am most delighted. Call me...hmm. You may call me Mr. Fun." He smiled again. "After all, I am the only clown here!" He exclaimed, stretching his long arms out.
            The clown's smile quickly faded as he saw that Nora was not amused. She was holding Mr. Teddy close and her eyes were very wide.
            "Do you not like clowns, mon petite cheri?" He said softly, crouching down to her level. Nora said nothing.
            From his jacket, the clown pulled a wilting rose. He offered it to the little girl. Nora didn't like his long, knobbly fingers. She took the rose anyway.
            "Mr. Clown," she said, twirling the dead flower, "Do you know how to get home from here?"
            "You do not want to stay?" He said. "It is very lonely here, and we could keep each other company, you know." 
            Again, Nora said nothing. She expected the clown to tell her which way home was. The clown looked very sad and his red eyes seemed to swell up as he looked at her.
            "I think we are very similar," he said. "You and I are lonely souls, wandering through this abandoned place with not one friend to be had." He came closer and Nora jumped back. His face was very close to her ear. "We could ride the roller coasters, you know. Make face paintings and balloon animals! Won't you be my friend, little Nora?"
            Nora nodded her head, eager to get the clown face away from her own. Perhaps if she became his friend, he would lead her home, she thought.
            The clown's grin reappeared on his dirty face. "Excellent," he said. The clown reached out for Nora's little hand with his own and she took it. The two began to stroll through the amusement park into the darkening night.
 
 
            According to legend, anyone brave enough to enter Fun Land may never return. But, the few survivors there have been have claimed to see awful things. The once gleaming Ferris wheel is still spinning around in circles on it's own, screeching like the screams of children into the cold and silent air. One poor soul even claimed to have seen a girl wearing a yellow backpack seated in the Ferris wheel, a most despondent and sad look upon her face and a teddy bear in her arms.
            Some claim to have seen a man dressed in a purple suit spinning around on a carousel or riding around the debris of the park on a unicycle, grinning at passerby and offering stale cotton candy or wilted flowers. As for those who did not make it out alive, they were never seen again. Some say that those lost children have joined the clown man and the little girl with the yellow backpack, doomed to roam the desolate Fun Land forever.


            I was eighteen and in the summer of my life, despite the cool November wind that whipped my long blonde hair around my bony elbows. I was blossoming, they said; Into a train wreck, a hurricane, a mouth full of blood, a disaster that could only occur within a beautiful young girl who's eyes shimmered with a luminous deviance that was more breathtaking than the stars shining in the ink blue sky. I embraced the talk of disaster. I wanted to live like I was a work of art, with no definite answer as to what I was meant to be. It was all art to me back then: my unbrushed hair, the red lipstick smudged on my lips, my girlish legs. I was a girl with no home, no permanent place to rest my head and I convinced myself that all artists began as nomads looking for home. The danger with a young girl like me was that I found home too often on the chests of men who would never be mine to keep.

             I was the sort of girl that doctors called "depressed" or "prone to experience episodes of mania". I think they were wrong. How could one possibly be in search of one's inner self and not experience such episodes? So life was panic, life was exciting and suicidal and filled with summers that lasted forever, only if you wanted them to. My life was a dizzying sort of beauty that spun around me in a hypnotizing dance of lovers and first kisses and the laughter of strangers. I knew it didn't have to be like this. I could have stayed in school, gone to college, became a nurse or school teacher or something dull. I knew in my heart that normality was not a state in which I would find my true self. I left the comfort of my father's home, including the comfort of his money. I had enough to get by but I never told him where I was going. I didn't want him to save me.

            What ensued leaving home was a long winter spent in the smoggy, dirtier streets of Seattle. It was Seattle because I wanted to be where the music was, where every other kid was living just like I was, right on the rope suspended on the cusp of heaven and hell. There were also older men, the men I found when I needed money, when I was desperate for somewhere safe to lay for one night when I had had too much. Too much adventure, too many close calls. They could stop my hands from shaking and usually gave me anything I wanted, even if I didn't love them. The problem with me was that I did love them. Before my mother died, she always told me that I was too soft. That I loved too much, that one day, I would be in trouble because of it. She was right. I fell in love with any stranger who smiled at me.

            I spent my nights getting into shows for free because I knew how to flirt with the right people. I made friends with the right people, acted older than I was to get free drinks. I danced with strangers and kissed them too, falling in love each and every time. I tried new things; almost every narcotic and prescription drug imaginable. I was never doing it for anyone else, and that was why I did it. I did it to feel something, to let myself go so I could find myself later. I didn't do it to get in with the right people. I was already with the right people. I drank when I wanted and fucked when I wanted. And I did it for me. I loved the underground holes we found; the grungy spaces that had been abandoned in the nineties. We made these places our kingdom. Old and peeling posters plastered the basement walls of warehouses and strobe lights  flashed on the thrashing heads and gyrating bodies of free kids, dancing and smoking and not thinking about anything else. I knew these were my people. At least for the time being, at least for tonight.

            In time, I grew to become a part of something bigger than the dazzling dreams and visions that had ever filled my head. I travelled with a few bands over the course of a year. We went all over Washington and eventually all over West America. I spent a month in California and when it came time for the band to go home, I didn't go with them. I still had money I had taken from home, and once I had seen the sparkling streets of LA, I knew I couldn't go back to Seattle. It was beautiful, not being attached to anything. Not held down by work or a home. I didn't have roots. No nomad or artist did. I smiled myself to sleep remembering the people I had met and loved in Seattle. But there were so many more people left to meet and fall in love with. I had fallen in love with the idea of being in LA. I didn't have dreams of being on a silver screen or making money. I wanted to be the girl the silver screen tried to imitate, the girl they tried to capture in a glamorized glimpse of all her nomadic splendor.

            I spent my first few days in LA in a shabby motel in the outskirts of the city. The motel was painted in peeling peach, a green spanish style roof slapped on top of it. No one staying there spoke English, but I didn't mind. I had spent a few months in Spain and Mexico with my father when I was a little girl. I remembered how to be polite. I was suppose to meet a guy who would introduce me to life in California a week after I got there. He was a guy my Seattle friends knew, and I was meeting him at a show. I saw him once before, just once in my first few weeks in Washington. He was a musician and a tattoo artist in his late twenties. I didn't know much else about him.

            My second day there, I wandered into some ritzy part of LA. I was still dressed like Seattle, in ripped tights and cut off denim shorts and worn out high tops. I felt like I was in a movie, wandering down the glittering street lined with tall palm trees, their green leaves swaying like a dream around me. I cast my eyes up, past the palm trees and towering silver street lamps to the cloudless blue sky. I had never seen a sky so blue and beautiful. I was walking past some of the prettiest houses I had ever seen. They reminded me of home, of my father's money invested in our home in New England that would always be too big, too empty. I lit a cigarette and kept walking. Halfway through my cigarette, a beautiful vintage blue Corvette slowed down ahead of me and pulled to the side of the road. I walked up to the car and appraised the older man driving it.

            "Great ride," I said, leaning with my arms onto the passenger side door, smiling and batting my eyelashes.

            The man laughed. I liked his laugh: It was genuine, sincere. He must have been in his fifties, his silver grey hair and laugh lines showed years of some beautiful, youthful past that I yearned to taste. His eyes were a striking blue and looked as young as any twenty year old I had ever loved.

            "It would look a lot better with a pretty thing like you in it." He said, smiling.

            I smiled, and opened the passenger door. And suddenly, I found myself cruising through an LA dream, tossing my hair back and flirting with an older man because I knew I was making him happy. I was happy, tasting the salt in the air as we drove past the ocean, pushing ninety and talking about things and eighteen year old wants to talk about. His name was Jim. I didn't bother with his last name. He told me about his life; He was some successful business man in some successful corporation that bored me to death. But I smiled and listened because he had money, and money was something I might need soon. He seemed like the kind of man who was uptight about certain things, like he had grown too old with his body. I hoped that I could, at least for a little bit, riding around in his pretty corvette, make him feel young again.

            He asked if he could take me out that night, and I agreed. When he saw where I had been staying, he insisted that he put me up in a better place. I let him. The hotel he paid for was one of those beautiful skyscrapers in downtown LA. There were sparkling chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings in every room and I could have sworn the floors of the hotel must have been made with real flecks of gold. My room was a gorgeous pad, furnished with expensive couches and chase lounges and mirrors embellished with diamonds. Glass french doors opened to a balcony that overlooked the glistening city of LA. I stood on the balcony, breathing in the beauty of the sunset, shining over the city and into my eyes.

            I only had one dress with me: A black dress, with a deep neckline and long sleeves. It was form fitting and not shy to expose my too-thin figure. The black was striking against my pale hair and skin, and I hoped that he wouldn't mind me. I slid into my black high tops and met him in front of the hotel. He stood very tall, in a black suit and expensive shoes. I imagined him thirty years younger, and smiled when I realized he must be more beautiful now than he was then. I was a little nervous, but anxiety was never something to get the better of me. I walked arm in arm with him, and he walked me to his car.

            He took me dancing, in a ritzy club downtown. I loved it because I felt like I was in a film noir; The air around me was thick with cigar smoke and couples were swing dancing to the big band that was playing under the blue lights on stage. I had expensive cocktails and smiled at men dressed in pinstripes like I was as rich as they were. Everyone seemed interested in the pretty girl in the slinky black dress, but I stayed with Jim the entire night. When my feet began to hurt, I slipped out of my shoes and we slipped out of the club, drunk and walking back to his car. He didn't take advantage of me and I loved him for it. Before going into the hotel, I kissed him on the cheek and agreed to see him again. I could tell by his eyes that he was in love with me.

            For the following week, I spent every day and night with him. We had expensive dinners and went to parties on yachts. He admitted that he loved me, and I became scared for the first time in my life. We cruised around in his car, smoking cigarettes and sharing secrets. He told me how his wife and young son had died twenty years ago and how he had been alone ever since.

            "But something about you," he said, looking at me from the driver seat, "Something about the way you walked told me you were just as lost as I was."

            Jim had to go on a business trip for a couple of days, which allowed me to go meet the guy at the show. The week I had spent with Jim had been a full one, one I wasn't sure about. I headed to the show, which was close to the motel I had been staying in. I walked down the street, busy with pedestrians and lit up with sex shop signs and fast food joints. I found the building the show was in, an abandoned brick building with a small sign on the door that said "Closed". I lit a cigarette and leaned my back and right foot against the brick building, waiting for him. "Bailey" was his name. The sky was a pretty purple and music was already vibrating through the walls of the building. I wondered what the hell I was doing hanging out with Jim.

            I saw the only familiar face I had seen in California across the street. Bailey was standing at a crosswalk, wearing a leather jacket and black jeans. His blonde hair was pulled into a low ponytail on the back of his neck. As he crossed the street and came closer, I choked a bit on my cigarette as I noticed how handsome he was. He was tall and his face was perfectly chiseled, and his green eyes sparkled under the street lamp when he reached me.

            "Hey, there." He smiled and my heart raced. I was falling in love.

            "Hi," I smiled back.

            Bailey and I fell in love surrounded by flashing lights and thundering bass, pressing our bodies against each other among the crowd, each of us wandering what to do with our hands in the undeniable magnetism of attraction. We danced and drank and kissed until I wasn't sure of what was real anymore. He pushed me onto a bed and took off my jacket. I took off his and clung to him as if I had never clung to any person before. I kissed every inch of him and loved him with more desperation than I had ever had for any man. Long after he was asleep, after we had loved all night, I looked into the parking lot of his apartment complex. I could see the city sparkling in the distance, and the mountains, and I thought about Jim. How I couldn't bear to break his heart.

            In the morning, I woke to Bailey sitting at his window, writing in a notebook and smoking a cigarette, a black cup of coffee sitting in front of his crossed legs. He smiled at me when he had seen I was awake. I looked around his small apartment: The white walls were covered in band posters and beautiful, colorful artwork. I assumed it was his own. The mattress I laid on was on the grey wooden floor, with only a sheet covering my body. Bailey was not a boy with money and I loved him for it. He stood and walked to his kitchen and returned with a cup of coffee for me. He smiled and kissed my forehead and I felt at home.

 

            I returned to Jim, to tell him I was sorry but that I couldn't love him. I told him I loved someone else. We stood at the gates of his mansion, on a dark and wealthy street in some fancy neighborhood in California. It remind me of where I grew up and all I wanted to do was run as fast and as far from it as possible. 

            "I don't know if you're running from something, or to something. But I can tell you are running. And it is going to exhaust you. If not kill you," he said.

            Jim kneeled in front of me and placed his old hands around mine. His eyes sparkled blue and wet. "Please, stop living like this. Let me take care of you. Let me give you a home, let me love you and give you everything you need. We can do anything you want, go anywhere you want."

            I slid my hands from his and knelt down in front of him. I kissed his forehead.

            "I'm sorry," I said. I stood and left without looking back. I walked down the street and listened only to the sound of my sneakers hitting the pavement. I jumped on the first bus I saw and took it to Bailey's neighborhood. When I reached his apartment, I could hear music booming from inside. I knew I wanted to spend my time in California with him. He made me feel alive, like I could be myself and be free. Live on the edge and make myself the piece of art I had been striving for. My high tops stomped up the stairs to his apartment, and when I opened the door, I let the sound of freedom engulf me.