It doesn’t matter what people say, I am going to walk my path, purple hair, a guitar slung over my shoulders, and a whole crazy world of crap behind me. Australia will take me. The people here are cool. They’re tough. Their ancestors were criminals, banished to Australia back in the day, sometimes just for stealing a loaf of bread. I think I had it bad? Kinda puts things in perspective.
Botany Bay—this is where the ships came in to drop off the prisoners. Not to put behind bars. More like, “Here’s an island continent. See ya—never. Don’t let the crocs bite your ass.” The prisoners survived, with nothing but the shirt on their back. Me? I have a guitar, and I’m gonna rock this place like an earthquake, and make them see me. I am Cali, I’m a seventeen-year-old girl, and I’m ready.
It all started I guess, when I was five, in a rural town in Oregon. I was finger painting in class, and got sent home for painting my face and hair, and my friend Erin’s too. Erin was awesome. She was my best friend. She always had my back.
“Cali, get in the tub! You’re an absolute mess!”
Man, my dad was pissed. I locked myself in my room and stared at the red blobs of paint in my hair, and that’s when I knew I had to be different. It felt incredible. I looked like a superhero. I felt like a superhero.
“Cali!” He pounded on the door and I could hear him rattling his keys, about to come in. So, being a superhero, I jumped out the window… and broke my arm. Guess flying wasn’t my superpower.
The cast was cool—everyone signed it. And everyone looked at me different after that, like I was really brave or something. I shrugged when people asked if it hurt. It hurt like shit but I remember pretending it didn’t. I told Erin though, about it hurting, and when we were alone in the bathroom I even cried, and made her swear not to tell. Only five and I was already totally fucked up.
Erin and I rode horses, and we did all kinds of daredevil stuff, like riding side-saddle, backwards, lying down or standing on the back of the horses, all with no saddle. Sometimes we rode with no reins like the Indians did, and made up crazy stories pretending we were bank robbers, or abducted by aliens, or caught in a whirlwind and whisked away to another dimension. We acted everything out on horses, or swinging from trees, or on the ground punching imaginary villains. Anyone watching thought we were crazy, but it was the best time of my life. I loved Erin’s blond hair and freckles and blue eyes. And she said she loved my dark long hair, my brown eyes and the way my skin turned bronze in the summer.
But she moved away to Thailand when I was twelve, and that was the beginning of the end for me.
I met Zoe, and she had a guitar. She wasn’t all wild like me and Erin, she was sweet and mellow, and she worried a lot. It was kind of funny to have a worrisome friend. I always did stuff that gave her a heart-attack, like the time I stole my Dad’s keys and drove her all around the neighborhood. The thing about Zoe was, she was scared but she did it anyway. That’s what I loved the most about her. We watched old movies and went for walks and talked about how stupid boys were, except for the boy from Japan (Zoe’s love interest) and the boy with the long hair (my love interest.)
Zoe showed me a few chords on her guitar, and she was really surprised at how fast I learned. Pretty soon I was writing songs and she’d dance and scream like a groupie. We both cut our hair all bad-ass. I shaved mine on one side, and she shaved the back of hers a little bit, just above the nape of her neck. That way, it didn’t show unless she wore a pony tail. She only wore a pony tail that first day, and then she grew it out again. Me? I had a different haircut every other month, each one weirder than the next.
My parents were shot in a pizza parlor. That’s all I’m gonna say about that, okay?
I didn’t want to cry too much about…it. So I found a cure for the pain. Weed. I moved in with Zoe for a few months but her parents were really worried I’d be a bad influence on her. When they found the weed—and I had a lot—I was put in the foster system. I’ll never forget Zoe, timid quiet mellow Zoe, screaming and fighting her parents when the car came to take me away. She even kicked her dad in the shin. I was glad she did, he was an ass. Her mom was cool though, and she let Zoe give me her guitar. Zoe hugged me goodbye, and said something that changed my life. She said, “When you get mad or sad, just write a song. It’ll work better than weed. You’ll see.”
She was right. Pretty soon I didn’t need the weed, but holy shit did I ever write. Morning, noon and night, when I could.
Yeah. About the foster parents—that lasted all of twelve hours, and for the second time I jumped out the window. I was three stories up, so I aimed for the bushes. I ripped open my cheek on a branch, and I didn’t dare go to a hospital so I ended up with a scar. I think it’s cool. Kind of like a bandit or a comic book hero. I named my scar Erin, and I named my guitar Zoe.
I was thirteen, and tall for my age. I had boobs, and with a little make-up I passed for 15. I hitched a ride to San Francisco and got a job waiting tables for a Chinese guy named Shen who never asked me for ID. I got to eat whatever I wanted, and he let me sleep in the back room with another family, the Lee’s, also from China. They didn’t have ID either. They all had my back, and never asked what my story was. If they had, I would have walked away. I didn’t like thinking about… the thing that happened in the pizza parlor.
I became friends with my room-mates the Lee’s, and after work I played guitar for them. They had a little boy named Tot, who would dance and rock out, and he reminded me so much of Zoe I ached all over. The owner, Shen, liked my music and he asked me to play for his customers.
I sat on a stool with my guitar case open, and damn if I didn’t make thirty bucks in tips! I thought I was rich! Every night after that, when the chores were done and the people were served, I’d play. I saved fifteen hundred dollars in four months, just in tips.
One night I walked in the back room and the Lee’s were gone. Oh crap, I thought. They’ve been deported. But Shen told me that they’d saved up enough money to get their green card. I was surprised. And then he told me it was a “special” green card, as in a fake. He told me I could get one too—fake ID anyway. I really thought about it. I had the money. And superheroes always had a secret identity. I’d just turned 14, and I had a long wait to be an adult. But I wanted to be me. Just me, not fake me, the world be damned. So I didn’t do it.
I saw an ad for a band looking for a guitar player, so I went to audition, and I got the gig. There was a hot guy named Brad who played drums and bossed everyone around because he was the best musician. The bass player Fred was from France and he was pretty terrible. We called ourselves Head Trip and played a lot of Zeppelin. They liked the edgy stuff but I liked the acoustic earthy songs and we butted heads a lot. Fred from France was all about Heavy Metal and he’d head bang even if we were playing a ballad.
Our first gig was at some street fair at Golden Gate park where we just set up and jammed and got a guitar case full of tips, until the cops came and asked us if we had a permit. Here we had an audience and happy faces and we were playing rebel rock and they wanted a frigging permit. I mean, what happened to land of the free and all that?
On our second gig Fred head banged like an ass and Brad punched him, right in the middle of Going to California. Brad swore the timing wasn’t on purpose, but Fred got punched right when I was singing the lyrics Seems that the wrath of the Gods got a punch on the nose and it started to flow, I think I might be sinking. And that was the end of Head Trip.
Shen’s brother and family moved into the back and I was kindly asked to leave. By this time, I was almost 15. I met a lady named Julie who was a recovering alcoholic, and she had a couple foster kids. She asked me to live with her and I said, “Only if it’s under the radar, no paperwork, and I can go if I want.”
She said a really awesome thing. She said, “Under the radar, yes. But you go to school.”
Turns out she was a really awesome home-school teacher, and a Juilliard musician. She was a pianist but she could play guitar “a bit,” as she put it. That woman could rock, I’m not kidding. I never knew a Mozart-playing pianist could turn around and wail on Frank Zappa tunes. She said Zappa guitar was her drinking years, the Juilliard Mozart piano was her sober years. I thought that was funny. She spent hours every night with me, teaching me guitar licks, until I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my fingers.
My two foster brothers were cool. I was told they’d been severely abused by their parents, but they really seemed to flourish under Julie’s care. She gave us all attention—the kind we each needed as individuals. Bob, the youngest, was some sort of computer genius, and Julie had her brother Stanley the tech guru, tutor him. Timmy was gay, and she helped him with that too, we all did. He went from a sullen whipped puppy to a bright-eyed guy with a wicked sense of humor, who loved and accepted himself.
At fifteen I could finally get a work permit, and Julie let me put her down as my legal guardian. She had a soft spot for runaways, as the police soon found out. She was busted, which I thought was the real crime. She was the best thing that had ever happened to any of us runaways.
For the third time I jumped out of a window, at Julie’s house, when the cops arrived. This time my room was on the first floor so I got away without a scrape, but I heard later that Julie had to go to prison. So instead of Julie, me and the two foster brothers healing each other, we all got dumped. Me in the streets, Julie in jail, and the foster boys into the dysfunctional system. I’m the only one who wound up free.
I walked to Golden Gate Park and made my home there for a few weeks. It was creepy at night and I slept in bushes to avoid the muggers. By day I played my guitar, practicing the riffs Julie had shown me. My voice low and raspy like a blues singer, I played my own songs. They weren’t sad, most of them. They were about life and the streets and following your dream, that sort of thing. But many people told me there was a hidden sorrow behind the lyrics. Try as I might to find the words they were talking about, I couldn’t. I guess it was just the tone of my voice. A lady with a fancy hat told me my songs made her heart hurt in a wonderful way.
On a Friday before Christmas, something wonderful happened. Something completely crazy. There I was at Golden Gate Park, freezing my ass off. The guitar strings were like ice, but I was feeling the music and singing from my soul. A man in a trench coat said, with clouds of vapor coming out of his mouth, “How much for playing at my Christmas party tomorrow night? My band cancelled.”
I looked at his shiny shoes and fancy gloves. I don’t know what possessed me but I said, as casually as I could, “Five thousand dollars.”
He laughed and shook my hand, handing me his business card. “See you tomorrow at Seven. Don’t be late.”
“I won’t,” I said, as coolly as I could.
When he left I whispered, “Holy shit.” And the next night after the gig I had five thousand big ones in my pocket. I really didn’t think it was a good idea to sleep in the bushes with so much dough. I looked at all the nice hotels, the warm inviting restaurants, and I did indulge in a bagel, but I wanted to use the rest of the money for something more important. I gave it to Stanley to bail Julie out of jail. It was the best thing I’d ever done. Especially because Julie found the boys and eventually adopted them, so I heard.
I had enough tips saved from my days in the park, so I got a ticket to San Diego. I heard it was a lot warmer there.
Anyway, I stepped off the bus in downtown San Diego. Wow. Lots of homeless, like me. Well, not like me. Mentally ill, most of them, poor things, talking to themselves and sleeping on sidewalks. Just like San Francisco. I thought things would be different down south.
I decided I didn’t want to end up like that, so I walked up and down every street, entered every bar, pub and restaurant, and auditioned. If they said they didn’t have live music, I said I’d play for tips. By the end of the first night I had seventeen business cards, five gigs lined up and fifty-two bucks in my pocket from an audition that turned into an hour, with claps and hoots and tips. And best of all, dinner.
I had enough money to stay at a hostel, and met a pretty Aborigine girl named Akala, which she said meant “Parrot.” It was perfect because she was kind of like a parrot, she always repeated what I said, and then laughed.
“Akala, why are you here?”
She answered, “Akala, why are you here?” She laughed, good and hard. “I am here, same as you. I am here to live.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean?” Again she laughed, and I laughed too, I couldn’t help it. She sat forward on her bunk and said, “The streets are dangerous. It’s safer in here.”
I nodded. “You have a cool accent.” I always did love Aussie speak.
“I like your accent.”
We laughed again. Funny how some people are connected by laughter. I felt like she was my sister in about ten seconds. She told me a wild ass story about her dad, some Aboriginal chief, and how it was time for her walkabout so she came to San Diego.
I was surprised. “I thought walkabouts were in the wilderness.”
She said, “Walkabouts are in the Outback. Yes. That’s what my dad said too.”
“So why did you come here?”
She looked at me all serious. “No coke in the Outback.” She touched the side of her nose and sniffed, daring me to judge.
I shrugged. It was cool if she did coke. Whatever.
But then she raised up a can of coke, and we laughed so hard we leaned into each other and knocked heads, and it hurt like shit and we laughed even harder. I’ll never forget that. Man, that was one of life’s moments where you just have to stop and say, “I’m remembering this.” And you can pull it out again and again when you really need some hope.
I don’t know what possessed me, I hated talking about the past, but I told her my story. I left out the pizza parlor thing. But pretty much everything else came up by the end of the night. Finally, she shook her head and said, “Crikey, Cali! That’s some Walkabout! You’re lucky to be alive!”
Crikey. She just cracked me up.
She shook her head. “You sure got some serious Mojo.”
“You know. Good luck. Here.” She pulled a string from around her neck and showed me a round stone with a sort of star painted on it. “This is my talisman. For good luck. What’s yours?”
I thought for a second and pointed to my scar. I even told her I named it Erin.
But she shook her head. “No. A talisman is something you carry.”
I lifted my guitar.
She shook her head. “Too big.”
Well shit. This was getting annoying. “Give me a fucking break!” I grabbed a pillow and hit her with it, and we had a big old giggly pillow fight. Then she stopped and said, “Come on. You got Mojo. I want to see what it looks like. What do you carry with you?”
There was… one thing. I used it every day but… I tried not to give it any thought. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a purple guitar pick with a flame on it.
Akala took it from me and examined it. “Where’d you get it?”
I shrugged. I didn’t feel like saying.
She caught my discomfort. “An enemy, or a protector?”
My throat tightened. “Protector.”
She nodded. “There you go.” She gave me a funny smile, all sly and wise, and said, “It’s three in the morning. I’m going to sleep. Goodnight Cali.”
I lay in bed with my throat all strangled and tight, trying not to think about stuff.
Akala whispered, “You should thank your protector.”
I didn’t answer. I pretended to be asleep, but damn if I didn’t start crying. Stupid Akala. I mean, it was silent tears and all, I wasn’t heaving and sobbing like an idiot. Truth be told, it did make me feel a little better, runny nose and everything. I stared out at the moon from our little window for an hour or so, and I finally whispered, “Thank you Mom.” She’d put that guitar pick in my Christmas stocking right after Zoe taught me to play guitar. I always took it as a message, that Mom liked me the way I was. Kind of like “It’s okay to have crazy hair and play Zoe’s guitar. Just be you.”
God I hate pizza.
I woke up to Akala walking out the door, looking really cool in a fedora.
She turned around, with some long tube-shaped case on her shoulder.
“Is that a bazooka or something?”
We both laughed, and she told me I wasn’t the only musician in the world.
I thought, what are the odds? I felt stupid that I’d talked all night about me and hardly talked about her, and here she was a musician.
I asked again what her instrument was, and she said, “Come to Balboa Park with me and see. Bring your guitar.”
We walked a couple miles at best and oh my god. It was like Disneyland. I mean, the buildings were all white rococo and fancy, there were botanical gardens and museums and one of those 3-D theatres and even a bug museum, I kid you not. There was a really pretty fountain and beautiful lawns and stuff.
Akala pulled a long hollow piece of wood from her case, called a didgeridoo. She said people made stupid ass fake ones and sold them to the tourists, but a real Aboriginal didgeridoo was a tree branch that had been hollowed out by ants. I totally thought she was kidding but she wasn’t. It was all smooth and perfect and painted with tribal symbols, it was the coolest fucking thing I’d ever seen.
She sat down on the edge of the fountain and put the didgeridoo between her legs and blew on the top of it. What came out honestly freaked me out, in the weirdest, best possible way. Like a groaning, rumbling, ache of a sound. I closed my eyes and felt the notes reverberate inside my chest. It took me somewhere. Shit, I think I went on a walkabout in my mind. The tone was so low, and floated into my ears and took all my pain and anger and loneliness that I didn’t even know was there and shook it out of me, out of my pores and expelled it until all that was left was just me and Akala and the music, somewhere in the Outback. I saw her people in my mind, with painted faces, staring at me with black eyes. I felt a bond, with them, and with the earth. I opened my eyes and there I was in a park by a fountain and I thought, now that was frigging awesome!
Anyway, after that I was in. Completely in. I was the groupie. The thought made me smile, I was always the one who had “groupies,” like Zoe all dancing around, and little Tot from the back room at Shen’s. So I stood up and danced. But not rocking out—no screaming or jumping. Just sort of swaying and waving the air gently. The funny thing was, other people joined me! This goofy dance I was doing, everyone else felt it too and pretty soon Akala had a big-ass fan club! She told me she made more tips in that hour than she ever had before.
She asked me to watch her stuff so she could get some coffee. She shook her head at her hat full of tips and said, “You got some serious Mojo, girl.”
I laughed and said, “Hell no. That was all you.”
She said something cool. She said, “Maybe it was us.” And that felt good. Like we were friends. Really truly friends.
While she was gone I got out my guitar and just started fooling around, jamming, not really playing any one song.
Akala came back with two coffees and a big grin. “Yeah. That’s cool. Keep going.”
She sat down and played her didgeridoo while I played guitar, and we stared at each other with wide eyes, because it was fucking cool! Man that was an exciting moment, where we both realized something really amazing was happening. I kicked open my guitar case and made a shitload of tips. But that wasn’t even the craziest part.
A guy named Kai with a pierced ear and skinny jeans stood listening for a good hour. Then he gave us his card—he was the entertainment director for the House of Blues. He said he wanted us to play there but it was up to us to fill the place if we wanted to get paid.
After he left, Akala screamed, “House of Blues? That’s a big club!”
I was kind of freaked out, because all we’d done was jam. I said, “Akala, we weren’t even playing any real songs.”
“So we make a song list. What can you play?”
I shrugged. “Lots of stuff.”
Akala frowned and shook her head. “Lots of stuff. That’s a terrible answer. Are you a musician or not? Who are you? What music is completely you?”
“You mean—like songs I’ve written?”
“There. You answered your own question. Let’s hear them.”
I sat there with Akala and we played until the sun went down. It was unreal, how our music worked together. But what worked best were the jams where we just let the music take over. So I’d sing a song that would normally be four minutes long and we’d turn it into ten just playing off each other, my fingers flying, with Akala’s ethereal swirl of resonating sound in the background. Then she’d blow some wild percussive patterns and I’d stop playing and just pat the guitar with both hands like a drum.
We needed a band name. I said, “What about Outback?”
Akala looked around and laughed and said, “Girl this is waaaay Outback!”
So was called ourselves Way Outback. We played everywhere we could, every street corner, the park, pubs and coffee shops and everywhere we went we handed out flyers saying “Come to the House of Blues, March 13th!”
And come March 13th we had a full house and we each walked away with two grand in our pockets. Not only that, but Kai gave us a recording of the show!
Me and Akala bought I Pods and a little speaker and listened to the recording ten times that night, eating pizza and drinking coke in our hostel. It felt so weirdly normal, like we were every day average teenagers. Only we weren’t listening to our favorite rock stars, we were listening to us! Things were so great we talked about getting an apartment together. That was a great night, another memory to really remember. Akala gave me a lot of those—great memories, I mean.
Four days later it was St. Patrick’s day. Akala played at the park and I had a gig at an Irish pub. Everyone was getting wasted drunk so I played some Frank Zappa in honor of Julie’s “drinking years.” I got to thinking about her, and the foster boys Timmy and Bob, and how cool she was and how she was kind of like a mother to me. So after work I gave her a call, hoping she was still at the same house.
Timmy answered the phone and told me Julie had cancer.
I had ten gigs lined up but I canceled them all and got on the first bus back to San Francisco. And you know what? Akala came with me. Now that’s a friend.
Akala and I took a city bus over to Julie’s, but Akala hung back and sat on a bench in the yard. Timmy was there at the door. He gave me a big hug. He’d just turned fourteen and he was all GQ with his tight jeans and buttoned down shirt and his hair all slicked back. He was bad-ass handsome, and I told him so. He told me he had a boyfriend that had given him some fashion tips and taken him shopping. I teased him about having a sugar daddy and we both laughed. It’s weird how you can laugh when you’re scared. I wasn’t ready to ask about Julie, so I said, “Where’s Bob?”
He said, “Bob’s in the kitchen making Julie a grilled cheese sandwich.”
I felt like ten tons of bricks fell off my shoulder. Somehow I thought, if a person eats a grilled cheese sandwich they can’t be dying. I know it’s stupid but that’s what I thought.
We walked into the kitchen. Bob was thirteen by then. And he’d grown a bunch in just the few months I’d been away. “Geez Bob, you’re all tall and lanky!”
He gave me a big old hug, and he started crying.
Oh crap. That made me want to cry, but I blinked a bunch of times and ended up with just a tight throat. “So… what’s going on?”
Bob stood there with a grilled cheese on a plate sniffling and red-faced and it was all so surreal. He said Julie had some weird rare form of cancer. Some tiny little bump on her face. I mean, what the heck? A tiny bump?
“Come on.” And up the stairs he went, and we followed him. I didn’t know what to expect.
Julie was in bed, looking pale but that’s all. Her eyes lit up so bright when she saw me, I’ll never forget that.
I leaned over and hugged her gently.
“I’m so glad you came.” Her pretty strawberry blond hair hung over her shoulder. I guess I’d been expecting her to be bald or something.
I felt so stupid, and helpless and mad and I just said, “What can I do?”
She smiled and squeezed my hand. “You’re doing it. You’re here. I was really worried about you.”
Oh damn. That did it. I just sat there and cried, so hard my voice didn’t work for about five minutes. Finally, I squeaked out in a weird voice, “I’m sorry.” I was. I was so sorry I caused her to worry. God I never for a minute had even thought about that. I just felt so selfish.
She frowned. “Hey. You have nothing to be sorry about. Life happens. I know that more than most.”
I whispered, because that’s all my voice would do, “Is there anything we can do to fix this? Anything at all? Chemo, radiation, surgery?”
She explained that her condition was extremely rare, and cancer wasn’t covered by her insurance. They’d even asked her if she had a house she could mortgage. The answer was no and that was that.
I stood up, burning mad. “I’ll get you the money.”
She shook her head with a peaceful smile. “Cali, it’s alright. Maybe it’s just my time.”
“I’ll put on a concert. A benefit.”
She nodded. “I’d like that. But not for me. Maybe for cancer research. Make them aware of this disease, that it needs funding.”
I could tell she’d given up. I could also tell she totally didn’t believe me about the concert. I wouldn’t have believed me either, just a few months earlier. But San Diego changed things. Suddenly I believed I could do it. I needed to at least try. I squeezed her hand. “How… how long?”
“A couple months or so.”
I sat there on her bed and told her about Akala and The House of Blues, and even my “Mojo,” which got a laugh out of Julie. I showed everyone the guitar pick and then I slipped it under Julie’s pillow. “For you.” I gave her a kiss on the forehead.
Julie looked very happy, in that moment. She said, “Where is this Akala?”
Next thing you know, Akala was sitting on the bed too, telling crazy stories about the Outback to the wide-eyed boys, and delighting the heck out of Julie. If Julie could have, I bet she would have adopted Akala too, right there on the spot.
We heard a tap on the door and her brother Stanley the tech guru walked in. “How’s my favorite sis?” He kissed her cheek.
She chuckled. “I’m your only sis.”
Turns out Stanley moved in when she’d gotten sick. What a cool guy. He’d even promised to take the boys if… you know—if the worst happened.
We played the House of Blues recording to everyone and Bob the computer whiz said “You need a website.” And he and Stanley built us one, with a store and everything, where you could buy a download of our recording. Stanley asked what we wanted to charge, and it was Akala who said, “A donation of their choice to the cancer research for Julie.”
Timmy took some pictures of us playing our instruments for the website and it ended up looking pretty cool! It had a calendar and everything, for our shows. Of course we had no shows. I pointed to the following Saturday. “There. Put our benefit concert on the calendar, at Golden Gate Park.”
Akala said, “Girl, if we do that, we need speakers, a stage…”
I got a big fat grin on my face.
Akala said, “Uh oh, what are you scheming now?”
Remember my band “Head Trip” and the hot, bossy drummer named Brad? Yeah. I called him. He said we could use all his gear, as long as he could play too. So that’s how we got a PA system and a drummer. As for Fred from France, he’d moved back to France. According to Brad, Fred had shouted in a huff at the airport, “I’m going back to Marseilles where people won’t punch me.” I tried not to laugh about it but I did anyway. Poor Fred.
Timmy gave me and Akala his room and he bunked with Bob and Stanley. Julie slept a lot, but when she was awake she always asked us to play for her. She just loved that didgeridoo! And she loved my songs. Her favorite was the one I wrote for her—a song called “Strawberry Smile.” People always assumed it was about a lover but it was really just Julie’s kind face and strawberry blond hair. Visualizing her sometimes calmed my nightmares: “A twisted fright in the cold icy night is soothed by a strawberry smile.”
Everyone else went to bed, but I checked on Julie one last time and she was still awake.
“Cali, I’d like to talk to you.”
She looked really serious and it scared me. I sat on her bed.
She took my hand. “I know you have things you don’t like to talk about.”
If it had been anybody else, I would have run, right then and there. My heart pounded like a hammer. The stupid pizza parlor flashed in my mind and I shoved it away. Julie didn’t know about that anyway. How could she?
Turns out… she did.
“Cali, do you know why I went to jail?”
“Something about the boys being runaways, or not being processed properly, right?”
She smiled. “The boys were processed just fine. I was their legal guardian.” She waited for me to figure it out.
I squeezed my eyes shut. “Shiiiiiit.”
“I wasn’t your legal guardian.”
“Shiiiiiit. Oh shit. Oh shit.” I panicked. I stood up but she gripped my hand and she said in a commanding voice, “Cali. Sit down right now. I mean it.”
What was I gonna do? Run away from a woman with cancer? I sat down, dying a thousand deaths in that moment.
“Cali, don’t you dare feel guilty about this. Guilt is a useless emotion. It’s a poison and I simply won’t allow it in my house.”
“I’m telling you this, not to hurt you, but to help you. Three words you need to hear are ‘Action, not guilt.’ Say it back to me.”
My eyes brimming with tears, I said, “Action, not guilt.” I would have said anything at that moment, I felt so horrible, but I had no idea what it meant.
“Do you know a man named Carmen Jones?”
“My uncle in Wales?” What the hell?
“Yes. Your mother’s brother.”
I felt like I was going to throw up. I felt all sweaty and pasty. “Please stop…”
Julie patted her pillow. “Come here sweetie. Come lie down with me. We’ve said enough for tonight. Can you promise me you won’t run away until after you’ve heard the rest?”
I couldn’t. I was already out the door in my mind.
She saw my face, she read my thoughts and she said, all exaggerated and funny, “Please promise a poor old woman, dying of cancer.”
She gave me a ridiculous pouty face that made me laugh in spite of it all.
She grinned. “There you are. Now promise.”
Laughing at her totally horrible sense of humor made me feel better. “Okay. I promise.” I lay down next to her and stared at the ceiling. “Go ahead. I’m ready.”
“Your uncle put out a missing person’s report, after…” she waited for me to finish.
“After I ran from the foster home.”
“Tell me happened to your parents, Cali. You need to talk about it.”
“They… died. They were shot by some crazy guy in a pizza parlor.” There. I said it. Okay. That wasn’t so bad.
“Where were you?”
I felt like I was sucker-punched in the gut. I felt all sick and pasty again. “Spending the night with my friend Zoe.” I really thought I was going to throw up.
“You know it’s not your fault, right?”
I rolled over and buried my head in the pillow, and I just sobbed like an idiot. Julie rubbed my back and my hair, like my mom used to do.
“There’s nothing you could possibly have done, Cali. I’m sure if you could ask your parents, they would be so grateful that you weren’t there. Thank God you were at Zoe’s. Thank God you’re safe.”
I woke up the next morning—afternoon. I’d slept for twelve hours solid. How weird is that?
Julie told me about “Survivor guilt.” Whatever. I tried not to think about it, but ever since then, I couldn’t push it all away. Not completely, like I used to do. Julie told me my Uncle was still in Wales but he’d take care of me there. That completely freaked me out. I didn’t even know my uncle. And Wales? I didn’t know a soul in Wales. Julie said if I did things the right way, I would have more choices. And she was right. Was she ever right.
As sick as she was, she and Stanley took me to the police department and we signed a bunch of papers. The police said there was a letter in my missing person’s file, from Erin’s family! Remember Erin, my horseback riding friend? They said I could come live with them in Thailand! The letter was three years old. Man. I had no idea. I could have been riding elephants and eating Pad Thai the whole time instead of living in bushes and hostels.
Julie was granted temporary custody of me while we got things figured out. We left out the part about her cancer. They didn’t have a checkbox for that anyway.
We got home and got Julie straight to bed. She was exhausted. I felt really bad and I told her so, but she said with a beaming smile, “Don’t you see? Action, not guilt! You took action today, and now look at all the choices you have! You made me very happy today, and I couldn’t be prouder.” She really did look happy, so I let the guilt go.
Akala and I went to Brad’s house to rehearse and wow, live drums added a whole new level of cool to our band. He had a new bass player, a girl named Daisy, and she was awesome. She joined the project too. We decided to do both original and cover tunes. I always liked the song, “Dream On” from Aerosmith so that got worked into the show too.
You know something else? Brad and Akala totally had the hots for each other! It took about two rehearsals and they were already making out when they thought we weren’t looking. I was happy for Akala.
Turns out her visa was expiring. We called the Australian Consulate to try to extend it, but we couldn’t. At least she didn’t have to go back to Australia until after the concert. And hey, remember my first gig at the park where we didn’t have a permit? I thought, What the heck. And we did it the right way and got a permit.
We needed a stage. I’d played on a stage at that Christmas party where I was paid five thousand dollars by the man with the fancy shoes, so this time I walked to his house, knocked on his door and asked if we could borrow his stage.
He shook his head with a big ass smile and said I was the most brazen person he’d ever met, and that he thought it was cool. But it turned out he didn’t own the stage, he’d only rented it, so he wrote the name of the stage rental company on the back of his business card.
Now this is weird. There I was, for the second time holding his business card. It said ‘Dr. Carl Mills, Neurosurgeon.’ I’d seen it the last time but it wasn’t significant. This time it was. I said, “You’re a doctor?”
I told him all about Julie and the rare cancer and the benefit, and he stood there in his robe with a cup of coffee listening intently, nodding his head.
He said two really cool things. First he said, “Tell you what. I’ll donate the stage. And the lighting. You have to have lighting.”
That was Cool Thing number one.
And then he said, “And I’ll do some research and see if I can find an expert regarding this particular form of cancer. I can’t promise anything, but with cancer it’s all about finding the right doctor.”
That was Cool Thing number two, on steroids, with a cherry on top and a partridge in a pear tree. Holy shit.
Akala, Brad, Daisy and I ran all over San Francisco putting up flyers that Bob and Stanley made for us. Stanley even called a bunch of radio and TV stations. And you know what? When it’s a benefit, you don’t have to pay for advertising!
We went to a printer shop to make a big-ass banner but crap they were insanely expensive for the huge ones. Akala said, “Would you donate a banner? We will thank you on live TV in front of thousands of people!” Now we really didn’t think we’d actually be on live TV nor have thousands of people, but the owner was convinced and we got our banner free.
Saturday came and oh my god. We all felt like rock stars. I dyed my hair green and bought a used jean jacket with rivets and cool patches. We had a killer stage to strut around on, scaffolding and lighting, a huge banner with Way Outback and our website printed on it for donations. And people came, and came, and came. Even Julie, in a living room recliner that the guys had carried and put right up front for her. Vendors came too, which was funny, because we had nothing to do with that. We had the boys run around and put jars and hats and anything we could find at all the vendor’s stations, for donations to Julie’s cancer research fund.
Julie couldn’t believe her eyes. None of us could. Brad and Daisy walked on stage and started playing a deep primal beat. I jumped onstage, strumming wildly, and Akala—she dove on the stage, did this crazy somersault thing that made the audience go crazy, and she did this incredible Aboriginal dance with a painted face. She was gorgeous and bright as the sun. Then she started playing her didgeridoo and the whole crowd hushed to a whisper, like they were all caught up in a trance. And then I started singing and we jammed and everyone erupted again.
People danced and between songs we’d talk about Julie, and people like her who needed hope. Stanley sat next to the stage watching the website donations. Man. The first fifteen minutes we already had a thousand dollars! It went up and up and by the end of the show we had seventeen thousand dollars.
Julie was in tears practically the whole show, and strangers were hugging her and praying for her and laying hands on her. Every religion under the sun was represented I think, each shining their version of God right into Julie’s heart. Maybe that’s what healed her. Maybe it was the guitar pick under her pillow. And along with all that prayer and mojo and love, was the oncologist that Dr. Mills found for us. And guess where he was located? San Diego.
The day after the show, Akala had to go back to Australia. She kissed Brad goodbye and then told him to go. When she was alone with me she said, “Brad is okay, but he’s too bossy for me. It’s you I’ll miss.” There I was at the airport, with my throat all tight again. Akala always did that to me. Anyway we hugged goodbye and she told me if I ever needed a home, to come to Australia.
And then me and Julie got on a bus to San Diego. Dr. Mills had explained our financial situation and the oncologist was surprised when we said we could pay seventeen thousand dollars. After all, it was for cancer research and he was the leading cancer research guy.
He had to cut her face, from her eye to her lip, but he very meticulously sewed her up, for the least amount of scarring. By the end he announced that he had got all of the cancer out.
I caught Julie looking at her stitches in the mirror. I gave her a hug and said, “Don’t worry, I have a scar too. It’s not so bad. I even named mine Erin.”
Julie laughed. “I’m not worried, I’m grateful. I’m going to carry this scar around like a diamond tiara. It saved me.” She turned to me and hugged me. “Actually, you saved me.”
“You saved me too Julie.”
She looked at me, her eyes all brimming with tears, and she said, “I found my mojo. It’s you.”
I laughed. “Akala said Mojo can’t be a person.”
Julie grinned. “Hmm. Is that so?” She studied her face again in the mirror. “Then I guess my mojo is my scar.”
I thought that was funny, because that’s what I’d told Akala about my scar, but Akala had said “No, Mojo is something you carry.” But Julie said she’d carry the scar around like a tiara, so I figured it counted, and Julie found her mojo that day. A scar that she decided to name “Cali.”
Julie and I got back to San Francisco and she kept trying to talk about the pizza parlor thing. She told me I shouldn’t call it the pizza parlor thing anymore, either. She said my mom and dad would want to be remembered. She said, “If I had died of cancer, I wouldn’t want you to call me ‘The grilled cheese sandwich thing.’”
Julie had a way of making horrible things sort of funny. Not even funny, just…okay to talk about.
She even said I should go back to my hometown in Oregon, that it would help me to heal.
It made me think of Zoe and I thought maybe it would be okay to give her a call. So I did.
I’d just turned sixteen, and you’d think I was all mature and stuff. But me and Zoe screamed like banchees at the sound of each other’s voices! I mean, I don’t think we said one comprehensible word for the first five minutes! And then I heard her dad in the background yelling at Zoe to be quiet, and her saying, “Dad, it’s Cali!”
Remember me saying he was an ass? Well I take it back. He got on the phone and he was just so nice and sweet and concerned and all. He also apologized to me for putting me in the foster system and he said he should have tried harder. That surprised the heck out of me. And Zoe was screaming “Dad, give me the phone! God!”
She sounded like a bratty teen-ager, it was funny! It sounded like… family. I ached all over like my skin was one big bruise. Zoe’s dad asked if I wanted to come visit. Or even stay. That maybe we could just get to know each other again. Zoe grabbed the phone with a “God, Dad! She’s my friend!”
She told me about her boyfriend and asked if I had one. I looked at Timmy and Bob and said, “I have two boyfriends, but one’s gay.”
Timmy threw a kitchen towel at me and Bob laughed his butt off. Then I told Zoe they were actually my brothers, sort of. She was all giggly and hyper and I thought, “Wow. That’s what a sixteen-year-old is supposed to be like.” It was weird because I wasn’t like that at all. Not anymore.
I took a bus to Oregon and did a bunch of school work on the long ride. Julie was back to home-schooling us.
When I got off the bus, there was Zoe, this beautiful woman of a girl, with bright blue eyes and light brown hair all short and bouncy. There was my mellow friend. We hugged and even cried a little. And she had her driver’s license! She reminded me of when we were twelve and I drove her all over, and now she was finally gonna drive me around and scare the hell out of me! She was so funny! And cool. Really honest to god cool.
We got ice cream, and I freaked out when we got near the… street. You know. The pizza parlor. Zoe held my hand and said, “Don’t worry, that place is gone. It’s a flower shop now.”
A flower shop. That made me feel better. That felt right. So we walked in the flower shop and I bought two roses. When my parents were cremated their ashes had been sprinkled in the Willamette River. I’d blocked out the memory for so long, but suddenly I remembered sitting on a park bench, crying, because I didn’t want to see the ashes go in the river.
Me and Zoe walked to the river and sat on that park bench with our ice creams. It really was a beautiful river, the water all raging and majestic, surrounded by dogwood trees with their new leaves and flowers budding out all over. We finished our ice cream and walked to the edge of the river and I gently set the roses down and watched them float away.
I said, “I love you Mom and Dad. I miss you so much. I’m sorry I forgot for a while. I’m back now. I’m okay, you don’t have to worry about me.”
Zoe put her arm around me and we just stood there and watched the roses swirl around and float down the river until they vanished around the bend.
When we got back to Zoe’s house, her dad sat me down all business-like. “So, have you thought about where you’d like to live? I understand you have several choices.”
I told him about Julie and the boys in San Francisco, and my uncle in Wales whom I didn’t even know. I even told him about Akala inviting me to Australia, though I didn’t know what her father the chief would have to say about that.
Zoe’s Dad said, “And us, of course. You seem to have managed okay. Any kilos of weed I should know about?”
Zoe punched her dad in the arm, but I just laughed. “No. Now I just write music.”
“And what about school?”
I opened my backpack. “I’m being home-schooled. My curriculum is kind of messed up, and I missed a lot of school, but I’m on a sort of catch-up program.”
He nodded, and browsed through a math book.
“I like math.” I don’t know why, but it’s true.
I stayed with them for a whole year. I even went to public school which was weird and sometimes uncomfortable. There were rich kids there who had so much stuff and thought that made them cool. I felt sorry for them. They’d probably never feel the thrill of living truly on their own, hand to mouth. I mean, yes being broke sucked but it was also very freeing.
I hung out with Zoe of course, it was like I never left. We watched old movies and went for long walks. She went out with her boyfriend a lot but that was cool. I liked alone time to write music. Being back in my hometown brought a different level to my music. I guess if I had a word it would be my music matured. I felt safe and comfortable. And restless, if I had to be totally honest.
By the next Spring I was really restless. Zoe held out my birthday cake.
“You’re seventeen. Make a wish.”
I loved Zoe with all my heart. Her family was great, and had been unbelievably kind and generous. But I wished… to go. I didn’t know where. I just felt like I didn’t quite fit in the town any more. I thought about Julie and San Francisco. I thought about Erin and Thailand. It sounded so exotic and exciting, but not quite right.
Later that night I talked to Zoe about it. Zoe was amazing, I could tell her anything, she had a heart of gold. She’d heard all the stories about Julie and Akala, even Mr. Shen.
I said, “Zoe, do you remember me telling you about Erin, from my childhood?”
“The one you rode horses with? Sure.”
“Yeah. She asked me to go to Thailand. But that was three years ago.”
“She doesn’t live in Thailand anymore.”
I stared at her like—huh? I asked, “How would you know?”
She shocked the hell out of me by saying, “When we were looking for you, Dad said he saw your missing person report, and a letter inviting you to Erin’s house in Thailand.”
I felt all choked up again. “You were looking for me?”
Zoe hit me with her pillow. “Of course we were! We were worried sick!”
There was that guilt again. I felt horrible. “I’m so sorry, Zoe. I don’t know why it surprises me when people say that. I feel so stupid and selfish.”
She gave me a hug. “Not stupid, not selfish. Grieving. I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost my…”
I answered for her. “Parents. I know. Thanks, Zoe. You’ve been such an awesome friend.”
“I know.” She laughed softly.
I laughed too. I felt much better after that.
She smiled. “So you want to go somewhere else now? What about Australia? You have two friends there now.”
“Yeah. That’s where Erin moved to. My dad called them to see if you were with them. He has their address and everything.”
Holy crap. It turns out Erin’s family had this great big sheep farm, about thirty kilometers from Akala’s house! Fate is a funny thing, for sure.
I made two expensive calls. One to Erin, and we screamed even louder than me and Zoe did, if that’s possible! Erin said after school she rode horses and herded sheep and it was the most freeing thing in the world. She said I was still welcome to come, and I’d actually get paid a little for working on the farm. I was sold. I was already packing in my mind.
Call number two. Akala. Oh my god it was awesome to hear her voice! She said, “Girl, we went viral! Our show in San Francisco? We are on the radio now in Australia! You get your ass over here, we need to do some shows!”
Okay. I pulled my guitar pick out of my pocket and held it up to my face and said, “Damn, you are some serious Mojo!”
And here I am, back at the beginning of the story again, standing at Botany Bay in Sydney Australia, with purple hair and a guitar named Zoe over my shoulder. I’m Cali, I’m seventeen, and I think I’m finally home.