Chapter 11: Em and Me and the Deer

“Do you have the parking pass?” I asked Em.

“Yeah, it’s right here.”

“Don’t you think we should put it in the windshield?”

“I will. I’m just changing my shoes.”

“I just don’t want to forget and get a ticket and have to pay even more.”

“I will, in a second.”

“I really don’t want to forget, though.”

“Here.” Em fished the parking pass from her pocket and tossed it to me. I missed, and the wind’s long fingers caught the pass and pulled it over our heads. It twisted in the air like it had been enchanted, or more likely possessed, and then it dropped, landing two meters away and then three.

I lunged and missed and lunged again, this time catching the corner with my toe.

“That was…” I didn’t finish, and Em didn’t say anything. She tied her shoes and climbed past me onto the bus.

I climbed in, too, but kept quiet, feeling like there was a string tied around my throat and that my skin was made of zippers.

IMG_3594We were supposed to be happy now. We’d made it to Parc National de la Jacques Cartier just outside of Quebec City, and we were supposed to go on hikes and swim in rivers and see green, green, green for as far as we could see, only there was still something wrong with us.

Em was a mouse trap and I was a mouse trap, and every time we got close to each other, both traps snapped.

We wanted to be nice to each other. We wanted to run soft fingers across soft skin and whisper promises to each other like we were young and in love and newly married with our whole lives before us, but the day before, we’d sat in our unairconditioned bus in 35°C weather. We’d taken wrong turn after wrong turn through downtown Montreal rush hour, sweating and stressing and sure we would crash. We’d spent an entire week’s budget on gas, and had failed at our first night of free wild camping in Quebec City.

Now, we’d just paid $60 to enter the park and sleep in the parking lot for the night. We were beginning to suspect that the trip we’d planned would be nothing like we thought it would be, and I was beginning to suspect that I wasn’t the person I thought I was, either.

I put the parking pass in the windshield, and Em drove us down a potholed road with everything we owned slamming around in the back of our bus. We still weren’t speaking to each other, and every time our bus slammed into a hole, both of us winced like the other had yelled.

Em pulled the bus into a parking space at a trailhead and got out. There was a river to one side, and we were at the base of an enormous mountain, the earth in folds around us, and Em and I too small to ever matter to anyone but ourselves.

Screen Shot 2019-08-13 at 8.59.39 AM

I climbed out of the bus, too, to see green, green, green and sparkling water and Em standing there and the space between us that shouldn’t have been there.

We’d been married for less than four weeks by then, and maybe this was all a mistake, the trip, the marriage and every decision we’d ever made that had ever led up to this. Something had gone very wrong along the way, and this was my life now, and there was no way of getting out of it.

Em looked at the mountain instead of at me.

I studied the back of her neck and her perfect ear, so small you could keep it in your pocket and no one would know it was there, and I loved her. It was this aching sort of love like a meaty ball in the center of my chest, bloody and muscly and not always beautiful, but always there.

She wouldn’t look at me, and if she turned I knew I’d turn away, and I had no idea what we were doing there and how we’d turned into the sort of people who fought about when to put a parking pass on a dashboard.

I thought maybe there was no hope for anyone, that everyone is always unhappy no matter where they go or what they do, and then I saw a flash of white and Em reaching her hand to me. She was still looking at the mountain, but she pulled me forwards as she started to climb.

We stayed close together as we hiked, letting go of each other to gain our balance and then reaching out again. There were triangles of light on the path ahead, and we could smell the fresh scent of the forest that can never be recreated no matter how many candles you buy.

We walked in silence for a while and then we didn’t, one of us made a joke and the other added on. We almost felt like ourselves again, knowing each other and knowing we were there together, alive in the woods and part of everything like we were the trees and the trees were us, the plants breathing in what we breathed out, and up ahead we saw the deer.

The deer was frozen and we froze, too, then slowly moved forwards again.

Already, we’d never been so close to a deer before. We could see its chest moving as it breathed, and its black, intelligent eyes.

And then the deer moved, too, not to spring away from us, but to come forwards, cautious and curious like a child.

Em and I stilled again, but the deer kept coming. It walked until its nose was against Em’s leg and it was licking her knee.

Em stood there and I stood there, and we looked at each other for maybe the first time all day, and then we looked back down at this wild deer who seemed to be telling us something that we maybe already knew but had forgotten.

I held out my hand and the deer came and licked it, Em and me and the deer, the three of us in the forest, and this reminder that whatever happened, whatever unknown and uncomfortable experience was ahead of us, there would also be moments like this.

There would be sweat, and there would be tears, and there would be real-life deer in the forest, licking our hands and reminding us of what we’d forgotten, reminding us that every decision leads to every other decision, and wherever we are is special and important because it’s where we are.

There were an almost-infinite number of other ways our lives might have gone, but instead they went this way, a whole world out there and a whole lifetime of yeses and nos, and some of them were maybe wrong and some of them were definitely right, and somehow we ended up in the middle of a forest on top of a mountain with a deer licking our hands. We could have been anywhere but instead we were there, and from there, there was no turning back, Em and me and the deer, alive and ready for whatever might happen next.

Read:

Chapter 10: If Strangers on the Internet Can Do It…

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Chapter 10: If Strangers on the Internet Can Do It…

A man standing on a roof is stepping over the window ledge on the second floor of a houseI slowed my pace and Em did, too. We both knew what we were doing, only we didn’t want to acknowledge the ropes of fear twisting through our bodies, tying our hearts to our lungs and our lungs to our stomachs.

For the past year and a half, our motto had been if strangers on the internet can do it, we can do it, too, only the dangers were different now. We’d parked our bus in downtown Quebec City and were following advice we’d found on a forum that said it was easy to sleep for free undetected in your vehicle in cities.

“Climb into your vehicle casually, keep the lights off, keep quiet,” we’d repeated to ourselves for the past three hours as we wandered through the streets of Quebec.

After staying at my brother’s for the past three nights, this was our first night on our own, and we were determined to prove to ourselves that we could hack it. We could do free wild camping, just like the people on the internet.

“Worst case scenario, there’s a Walmart fifteen minutes away,” Em had said when we parked.

“I don’t really want this to be the Walmart tour of North America, though,” I’d said

“Me neither, but it’s good to have a backup plan.”

I’d nodded, and she did, too.

“I’m sure this will be fine, though,” she’d said.

Now it was three hours later, and the city wasn’t quieting down like we thought it would.

Two owls are sitting on a branch as two sprite creatures sneak behind them to steal hats

It was a hot night in July, and the streets had turned to rivers of gasoline, black and shiny with colors running through them, threatening to light on fire at any second.

Em and I had lived in Quebec City from September to December a few years before, but a city in the fall and early winter is not the same animal as a city in the summer.

We heard drunken singing like a lonesome dog a few streets away, and watched cars whizz by, bringing lines of white and leaving lines of red as we slowed or pace even further, the darkend doorways whispering danger and our footsteps seeming too loud.

“It would be different if we didn’t have such a flashy bus,” Em said.

“And different if this wasn’t our first night.”

A man stepped out of a bar and called after us in garbled French, his voice sounding like a baseball bat wacked against a garbage can.

Em and I both jumped and sped up again, keeping our heads down until we reached the corner of the street our bus was parked on.

“We’ll just see,” Em said. “We’ll see how the street looks and if there are people there and how they seem, and then we’ll decide.”

“Right. We’ll do a walk by and then decide.”

“No one will bother us if they don’t know we’re in there.”

“Exactly.”

“Exactly.”

We turned the corner and there was our bus, right where we’d left it and totally safe aside from a group of maybe six people chatting outside half a block away.

They didn’t look like the kind of people who’d spontaneously decide to smash in the windows of a nearby bus and bludgeon its occupants, but it’s hard to be sure late at night when the city seems alive and untameable.

Em and I got a few steps closer, and then a few steps closer again, feeling the city’s restlessness, a car alarm going off in the distance and an anticipation like the night was about to rip itself apart, turning everything around us into blood and confetti.

Screen Shot 2019-08-08 at 10.25.25 AM

We walked past our bus and kept walking, around the block, back to the corner we’d come from.

I was out of breath and my clothes felt too tight. Em’s skin looked blue in the streetlights, and I couldn’t hold onto the blackness around us.

“Walmart?” I asked.

“Walmart,” Em agreed.

We walked back to our bus a second time and drove away as fast as possible.

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Chapter 9: Welcome to Cartoon World

Chapter 11: Em and Me and the Deer

Chapter 9: Welcome to Cartoon World

PEC 1Everything felt like a story book, and it was hard to make sense of anything. I knew that one day I’d die and my flesh would separate from my bones and my bones would turn to a fine white powder that was absorbed by the earth, but everything seemed impossible right now, Em, my brother, and the field of flowers in front of me.

Two days before, Em and I had sawed a hole the size of a fist straight through the side of the bus. It had taken us three hours, and we’d sworn and cried and snapped at each other the whole time. We were trying to make a vent for our solar-charged battery, but everything was going wrong the way it had all week.

In the days before, we’d covered ourselves in hot glue, super glue, epoxy, and liquid nails, trying to put our screens in. We’d exacto-knived pieces of our fingers off and had broken more drill bits and jigsaw blades than we could count. Everything was harder and was taking longer than it was supposed to, and we were sure we’d never make it onto the road.

And then, two days later, there we were in Prince Edward County, Ontario. It was July 13th, 2019, day one of our year-long road trip across North America.

Em put the bus into park, and both of us climbed out like real-life characters who had been transported into cartoon land.

The sun was just setting and every color seemed too rich, like someone had painted them in just to fuck with us.

We were on the organic farm my brother lives on, works on and grows flowers on, and I could see the flowers bending in the distance and everything looking golden, golden, golden as my brother came up to give me a hug.

“You’re here!” he said, but I still couldn’t believe it as he led Em and I directly into the fields to show us flowers on top of flowers on top of flowers. There didn’t seem to be a way that you could take them all in and still breathe and speak and do normal human things after, and so I looked, but avoided looking too closely for fear of how I’d be punished for seeing too much beauty all at once.

Afterwards, we drank beer and ate tortilla chips and salsa, and that night Em and I slept in our bus and it felt like any other night sleeping anywhere at all, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me or with our bus or with our trip, but probably with me.

I think I thought that going on this trip would make me different in some way. I imagined myself instantly transforming into someone from the internet who drinks matcha and does yoga by the seaside and who is open and honest and welcoming to all, but going to bed that night, I was the same person I was when I’d left that afternoon.

Minutes before we left, Em and I stood in front of our bus and held each other tight like something was about to fall out of us.

“Is this happening?” I whispered.

“It’s happening,” Em whispered back. But I still couldn’t believe her.

We’d gotten married three weeks before. The week after that, we’d moved, and had spent the following two weeks working frantically to get our bus ready. For over a month now, my constant feeling was that I’d swallowed two to three tablespoons of baking soda and then climbed into the back of a pickup truck driven by a sixteen year old whose dad has given him the keys for the first time.

Leaving that afternoon, I was exhausted and overwhelmed and still gripped by the wedding, packing, moving, building, packing stress that had become my new normal, but I don’t think I realized it yet.

PECThe next day I woke up in our beautiful bus on that beautiful flower and greens farm on a beautiful summer’s day, and it still felt like my brain was full of sand and safety pins. While I wanted to hang out with my brother and see everything and do everything, I also wanted to lie in bed and watch TV and not talk to anyone.

That day and the next, we did stupidly idyllic things. We rode our bikes down country roads. We picked more flowers than we could carry. We ate sweet peas directly from their vines and swam at the beach. It was an absolutely perfect start to our trip, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like a pleasant weekend visiting my brother, and then we’d go home and go back to our regular lives.

I was starting to think maybe it would always feel like this. I imagined the year ahead as some lost year of my life. Years later, people would ask me about my road trip through Canada and The States, and I’d say how it was fantastic and how I had the best time like you’re supposed to say when people ask you questions like that, but really it would feel like something I saw in a movie once, or heard about from a friend of a friend.

I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t sad. I was the same person I always was, and I was also maybe no person at all, and already we were packing up, washing our dishes and securing our drawers, ready to head east and our next destination, Quebec City.

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Chapter 8: Frank is Dead

Chapter 10: If Strangers on the Internet Can Do It…

Chapter 8: Frank is Dead

mapEm drove her car while I sat in the passenger’s seat clutching a bright green piece of printer paper with a hand-drawn map on it. The map had two road names, and the rest was a series of symbols showing cross streets, stop signs and churches where we were supposed to turn.

It was a sunny Sunday in June, 2019, six days before Em and I were supposed get married. We were planning on showing off our bus to our friends and family at the wedding reception. The only problem was that our bus was at a welder’s half an hour away, and there was a chance the welder was dead.

We’d shown up at our mechanic’s shop twenty minutes before, and our mechanic had come out to greet us with eyes like coyotes’.

“There’s a problem girls,” he said instead of hello or how are you?

Two weeks before, we’d asked him to put a three-point seatbelt into the passenger’s seat for us. While he’d promised it would only take a day or two, he’d run into problem after problem. In the end he’d sent the bus to a welder friend of his, only now he hadn’t heard from the welder in almost a week.

“Something about this doesn’t sit right,” our mechanic told us as we followed him into his shop. “Frank is usually so reliable, and the fact that I haven’t heard from him, well it’s just odd.”

He handed us a hand-drawn map to Frank’s shop and pulled on the tuft of wiry brown hair until it stuck straight up.

“You’ve got a spare key, right?” he asked.

We nodded.

“You go over there, and get your bus then,” he said. “I don’t know. I hope he’s okay.”

“So we just go and we steal our bus?” Em asked.

“It’s your bus. And you need it for the wedding.” He looked back down at the map, and then out the window behind us. “Jeeze, I hope he’s not dead.”

“Dead?” Em asked.A crowned skeleton symbolizing Death sits pensively on a globe, holding an arrow

“Dead?” I asked.

But another car had pulled into the lot, though, and the mechanic was waving us towards the door.

“I’ll call you in an hour to find out what happened,” he said.

And then Em and I were on our way with our bus’s spare key and the hand-drawn map, ready to steal our own bus back from a welder who was possibly dead.

Em kept her eyes forwards while I looked at green fields and golden fields and flowers on country houses and tried to think of something to say.

I’ll be honest, by this point, we’d stretched ourselves so thin we were almost invisible. It was getting difficult to remember we were supposed to be having a good time when we were in the middle of getting ready for a budget DIY wedding at her parents’ house while also moving, finishing up our jobs, and getting ready for our year-long trip on a bus which was still mostly held together with duct tape.

A few days before, a dam of some sort failed in my brain, and I found myself crying and laughing like there was a river inside me that needed to get out. Now, I felt like I would break open at any second, and blood would pour from my eyes and ears and mouth and nose.

“Try your best, forget the rest,” Em said after neither of us had said anything for what felt like too long. It was the line she’d given me almost a year before while we were painting our bus, but it was different this time. It didn’t hold the same joy, but she wasn’t saying it ironically either. It was more that she was flatly repeating a moment from our past, looking for a feeling somewhere inside, words rattling around in an empty can.

“Frank’s house is supposed to be just up here,” I said instead of responding.

The speed limit slowed to 50, and we drove past square house after square house, all with their blinds down against the heat of the day.

“How will we know it’s his?” Em asked.

“I’m assuming it’ll be the one with our bus in the driveway.”

“Right,” Em said. She turned down a side street, and there it was, a bungalow with seven different vehicles parked around it and a possibly-dead welder inside.

Our bus was parked on the side of the road, and Em pulled up close, but didn’t get out of the car.

We looked at our bus and then at the bungalow. The blinds were drawn like in all the other houses, but it seemed like this house was holding its breath, trying to keep in a secret.

A man sitting surrounded by scrolls of papers and books is handed a document by a ghostly figure“Do we knock?” Em asked.

“It’s Sunday morning. I don’t want to disturb him if he’s in there.”

“Yeah, but what if he’s dead inside right now?”

“Then he probably won’t answer the door.”

“What if he’s dead in our bus?” Em asked.

I looked at her, and then at the bus and then at her again. She’s afraid of ghosts and serial killers and the dark, and while I’m usually the sensible one in situations like this, something about the sun making everything look two dimensional and the patterned curtains on the house across the street was starting to get to me.

“Let’s check it out,” I said. I wasn’t sure if the sun would turn me to dust or not, but I stepped out of the car anyway. I ran my hands over my skin and looked out for eyes peeking through the curtains or blood spilling from our bus’s front door, but didn’t see anything, getting closer and closer to the bus and not knowing if I was breathing or alive or had turned to ash or not.

I imagined the welder’s dead body strangled by the seatbelt he was supposed to install for us and slumped over our couch. There was a smell in the air that was familiar, rotting flesh or else cow manure, and the sun was making everything look like a postcard from the 1970’s, the most gruesome of decades.

I tented my hand over my eyes and squinted into our bus’s windows, still eight feet away, and for a second I was sure I could see a bloody handprint on our bus’s front door.

I pulled Em back, then step forwards again and the blood disappeared.

“I’ll go first,” I said with a voice that didn’t really sound like my own. I pressed my face against the window, but I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and so I eased the bus door open and looked in through my fingers.

Was that a foot?

I inched my fingers away from my face and opened my eyes to see our bus was just as we’d left it two weeks before. Frank wasn’t dead inside, but he also hadn’t touched it.

Em and I looked at Frank’s darkened house and then at each other.

“Five days ago, he said he’s start on the seatbelt right away,” Em said. “Is it weird that he hasn’t done anything?”

I didn’t say anything, looking back to the house and imagining a welder lying paralyzed in the shower, just waiting for help to come.

“Should we call someone?” Em asked.

“Who?”

Em squinted at the perfectly quiet house in front of us, and the other quiet houses up and down the street. I imagined that each of them was a movie set, false fronts with nothing behind.

“Our mechanic’s calling in an hour,” I said. “We’ll tell him what we saw.”

Em nodded and took our bus’s spare keys off her key ring.

“We just go then, I guess,” she said.

I nodded, unsure, but not wanting her to know.

Em looked around one last time, then climbed into the driver’s seat.

“Rest in peace, Frank,” she said.

“Rest in peace, Frank,” I repeated.

WeddingShe drove away, and I followed after her, watching green fields and golden fields and houses with flowers and the back of our bus, and feeling this strange calm. Frank was dead, or maybe not. In six days Em and I would be married and two weeks later, we were going to pack everything we owned into the bus in front of me and drive into the sunset.

It felt too overwhelming to have any emotion at all about, and so I didn’t. I held onto the steering wheel and followed after Em and hoped I’d make it out alive.

Read:

Chapter 1: The First Bus

Chapter 2: Ca$h Money, Baby

Chapter 3: The First Bolt

Chapter 4: Midnight Paint Job

Chapter 5: Building Will Be Difficult if You’re Afraid of Power Tools

Chapter 6: Making It

Chapter 7: Wheels on the Real-Life Road

Chapter 9: Welcome to Cartoon World

Chapter 10: If Strangers on the Internet Can Do It…

Chapter 7: Wheels on the Real-Life Road

A man with a billhook is kneeling at the foot of a banyan tree, threatened by a assembly of ghost

Em flicked on the four-way flashers and waved to me out the bus’s window. I was in our car following closely behind. We’d driven about 500m, and I wasn’t surprised that there was already a problem.

This was the beginning of June, 2019. We’d had the bus for almost a year by then, but aside from a few trips up and down a country driveway, this was the first time we’d taken our real-life bus onto the real-life road.

Following behind Em for the first minute, it didn’t seem like what we were doing should be allowed. All we’d done was call a few people (well a lot of people before we found someone who would insure us), signed a few forms, and paid some money for license plates and registration, and there we were, legally allowed to drive this contraption that we’d gutted and rebuilt on any road in the whole wide world.

I put on my four-way flashers and dodged a few cars speeding by before approaching the bus and bracing myself for the worst. While the insurance broker hadn’t stopped us from driving the bus, and the government hadn’t stopped us from driving the bus, I’d been sure from the start that someone would. If not a human, then why not God, reaching a great thumb down to crush our dreams? I didn’t actually believe in God, but fourteen years of Catholic school fucks you up in times of crisis.

Em opened the door for me, and I climbed the stairs with caution, quite sure that at any second the entire bus would burst into flames and I’d be flung 50 feet back like I was the villain in a low-budget Bond film.

I peeked into the back of the bus with one eye and then the other. The barn door we’d built in front of our sink had fallen off. It had scratched the entire front of our couch, and all of our kitchen drawers had flung open.

The road we were on was a country road, but it was still pretty narrow and pretty busy. While Em and I stood by the driver’s seat, trying to figure out what had happened and what we were supposed to do now, cars honked and swerved around our bus-car convoy.

“Should we go back?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.” Em’s skin looked more grey than white, and I imagined all the blue veins under it, bringing blood sucked of its oxygen back to her heart.

Another car honked, and I glared at them out the side window, then looked around the bus. We had two wrenches, string, two cloths and a roll of duct tape.

“Right,” I said grabbing the tape and ripping off a long piece with my teeth.

“I don’t think this is going to work,” Em said.

“Well, did you want to go back?”

“No. I don’t know.”

I knew this was a bad idea. I knew we were idiots and we’d been delusional from the start, but as Em stood by the driver’s seat, looking more like an old-fashioned photo with every second, I felt a cinching inside myself. It was like the laces that held my brain to my skull were tightening to keep out anything but the broken door in front of me and our beautiful drawers with their mouths wide open.

I ripped off piece after piece of duct tape, drawing long lines of silver across the barn door, the counter and the drawers. I was sweating maybe, or swearing, or else absolutely quiet, trying to get the job done.

Another car honked, but I could hardly hear it, and I could hardly hear Em. It was the bitter taste of duct tape, the glue against my fingertips and the wood that had to hold still or else the bus would fall to pieces and Em would fall to pieces and I would fall to pieces and everything would be terrible, terrible, terrible.

“Everything’s falling apart, and the couch is all scratched,” Em said, sounding 300 miles away.

A jester carrying a lute stands laughing in the rain pouring from a sky filled with clouds“Everything is not falling apart.” I said back. “We’ve got tape and nothing broke, and if it does, we built it so we know how to fix it.”

“It’s all ruined.”

I had another piece of duct tape in my mouth and didn’t respond.

Another car honked and narrowly missed us, and I handed the duct tape back to Em.

“We’re only going 40km, right?” I asked.

She took the duct tape and climbed back into the driver’s seat.

“What about the scratches on the couch?” she asked.

“We’ll deal with it,” I said. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

I kissed her and closed the bus door behind me, dodging into our car again and waiting for a break in traffic when we could pull onto the road again.

I watched the cars whip past with my head against the headrest, taking note of the dents in the back of the bus and the way my heart felt too small and too quiet for my chest. We were leaving on our trip in just over a month, and the bus was mostly held together with tape. We had no idea what we were doing, and everything was bad, and I’d known it from the start.

Another car drove by, and the bus pulled forward.

Here we go, I thought. There was nothing I could do but follow after and hope for the best.

Read:

Chapter 1: The First Bus

Chapter 2: Ca$h Money, Baby

Chapter 3: The First Bolt

Chapter 4: Midnight Paint Job

Chapter 5: Building Will Be Difficult if You’re Afraid of Power Tools

Chapter 6: Making It

Chapter 6: Making It

PlansI shivered in the hardware store’s air conditioning and handed an old receipt to a man who worked in the lumber section. The man was in his fifties, a little bald, and a little fleshy like someone who had been lightly poached.

On the back of the receipt I’d sketched out the kitchen unit Em and I were planning on building in our bus. The kitchen plans were ambitious, I guess, but you don’t decide to turn a school bus into a tiny home without ambition leaning towards delusion and optimism leaning towards madness.

In the kitchen, we were going to make a sink out of an old enamel pot. Below the sink, would be a cupboard with a barn door that could flip up to turn into a table. Beside the sink, we were going to have a counter for food prep and six drawers with faces made of reclaimed wood underneath.

“I’d like to know what sort of wood I need to build this,” I told the man in the hardware store.

He looked at the receipt and then dragged his eyes from my head to my feet to my head again.

I’d just come from brunch and was wearing a cute skirt, strappy sandals and a nice top. I gave him my very best beauty pageant smile, and he looked back down at my sketch.

On our first trips to the hardware store, Em and I dressed to impress. We wore ripped jeans and plaid shirts, and we tried to make our voices louder and more confident as we told the employees that we’d bought a short school bus and wanted to turn it into a tiny home.

In those early days, it felt like our entire future was held together by Popsicle sticks and band-aids, and if anyone found out we had no idea what we were doing, our entire project would fall apart. What we found instead, was that most people we talked to were just as excited as we were about the stupid, enormous project we’d taken on.

As we built more of our bus, Em and I had stopped worrying so much about looking like we knew what we were doing. Not only were we more confident in our abilities to figure things out as we went along, we were less embarrassed about admitting that we’d never done anything like this before, and we were taking a chance on something big.

Now, on what I felt like was my 48th trip to the hardware store in the past two weeks, I stood in my skirt and strappy sandals and waited while the man in the lumber section looked between me and the little drawing I’d just handed him.

“This way,” the man said eventually, and he brought me to the back of the store where they sold premade kitchen units.

“I’m not sure if they’ll have exactly this,” the man said, “But our kitchen specialist should be able to help you out.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I actually want to build this myself.”

He looked back at the drawing, then at the sea of prefab kitchen units, and then at me.

“Have you ever built anything like this before?” he asked.

“No.”

“Do you have any building experience?”

“Two weeks.”

“What?”

“I have two weeks of building experience.”

UntitledI guess I should give the guy some credit. For one, I didn’t tell him that in those two weeks Em and I had built a bed, a couch, a coffee table, a desk, a toilet, and more. That, and I guess the guy was trying to stop me from throwing my money away on building supplies I wasn’t able to use, but I had a feeling that if I was a fifty-year-old man, I wouldn’t have to go through the same runaround.

“It would be easier to buy a premade unit,” the man said.

“Maybe.”

The man ran his fingers through the little bit of hair he had left and looked me up and down again like my skin was suddenly see-through and he was watching the blood travel through my veins.

While Em and I had gotten a ton done in the past two weeks, we knew that building the kitchen would be the hardest part. With our bus going into storage in just seven days, I didn’t have time for stare downs with old white men.

“I just need to know what type of wood you’d suggest,” I said. “It has to be durable, obviously, but it only has to last a year, and it has to be as light as possible.”

“This would be challenging even for someone like me.”

I shrugged and wondered if he would walk away or I would walk away or if we’d be there until closing, standing in the middle of all those cabinets and counter tops, staring and staring at each other. I imagined our bodies seizing up and paramedics wheeling us out on our sides, still frozen in position.

The man shook his head and finally led me back to the lumber section.

He most definitely thought I was an idiot, and I thought about telling him about the bus and all the work we’d been doing and how much I’d learned, but I suddenly didn’t care.

I’d spent my whole life trying to look like I knew what I was doing, but Em and I had turned an entire bus into a tiny home without having any idea what we were doing. Maybe not knowing what I was doing wasn’t the worst thing as long as I was still doing it.

Throughout our build, Em and I made a lot of mistakes, and I sure that as we get on the road, we’ll find more and more things that we’ll wish we’d done differently, but in the end we still did it. We, who had no experience and no guidance aside from YouTube, bought a school bus and turned it into a kickass tiny home.

Once the kitchen unit was finished and everything was in place, Em and I sat in the bus with beers and looked around at what we’d built.

“I know we made every single part of this,” Em said, “But when I see it all together, it seems impossible.”

I nodded, but I wasn’t sure if I remembered how to speak. It all seemed so much better than anything I ever could have imagined. Even while we were building the bus, I hadn’t realized we were capable of something like this, but here it was.

We’d crowbarred up moldy floors, hauled bus seats and sheets of plywood. We’d sawed and screwed and grinded off, and in the end, Em and I had made a little home for ourselves, and I could only imagine what else we could do.

Finished bus

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Read:

Chapter 1: The First Bus

Chapter 2: Ca$h Money, Baby

Chapter 3: The First Bolt

Chapter 4: Midnight Paint Job

Chapter 5: Building Will Be Difficult if You’re Afraid of Power Tools

Chapter 7: Wheels on the Real-Life Road

Chapter 5: Building Will Be Difficult If You’re Afraid of Power Tools

“This baby can do real damage if you don’t handle it correctly,” the tiny man on Em’s phone said. He was holding a circular saw the size of a toaster and was going over where to put your hands and how to lift the safety guard.

Em looked between the man on the screen and the circular saw in front of us.

Amputation of the Leg

The man turned on the saw. The blade whirred to invisible, and Em paused the video.

“That seems pretty easy,” she said.

“Pretty easy to cut your leg off.”

She smiled, her mouth spreading wide and her eyebrows coming in close like her face was turning into a fan. It was a smile I’d learned to be cautious of.

“Hold the wood steady, okay?” she said. “I want to get the floors done today.”

Minutes, and I mean literal minutes, before, our bus had been towed to her parents’ house where we’d be working on it until it went into storage in just three weeks. In those three weeks, we had to put in flooring and walls and build a bed, couch, desk, table and full kitchen unit.

I looked between the frozen man on the YouTube video and the saw in front of us, and I tried to remind myself that the man in the video was a person just like Em and I were people.

Still, there was an earwig of an idea pincering its way through the back of my brain.

While Em and I had watched at least 50 YouTube videos of people turning buses and vans into tiny homes, in the few videos that actually had women in them, the women always seemed to be painting and making curtains.

It didn’t make sense that men would somehow be better at building, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that most of the men in the videos had an advantage.

While my parents always told me I could do anything I wanted, if a tree needed to be cut or a fence needed to be fixed, my dad would go to one of my brothers for help over me. Now, I’d been alive for 29 years, and my power tool experience was isolated to seeing them used for unspeakable means in the trailers of horror movies. Yes, trailers, because I’m too scared to watch the actual movies.

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I looked at the collection of rented power tools Em and I had assembled in the garage, and every single one seemed too loud and too heavy, equipped with a whirring death blade and eager to turn the ground into a Jackson Pollock painting.

“Now?” I asked. “You…you want to cut the wood now?”

“What did you think we were going to do today?”

“I thought we’d have more practice or something.”

“This is practice. If we get the floor wrong, we’ll cover it with furniture, so no one will see.”

“And if we cut our fingers off, we’ll cover them with gloves, so no one will see.”

“Exactly,” Em said. She rewound the video to watched it again with this look on her face that scared me as much as it excited me. It was a look that said every single one of her bones was hollow like a bird’s, and any second now, wings would burst from her back and she’d fly into an infinity more beautiful than anything I could ever imagine.

I knew we didn’t really have time for me to be nervous, but that had become my role in our relationship. I had become the rock Em tethered herself to, her flapping us from one big idea to the next while I made sure we didn’t starve, or get lost, or accidentally chop our fingers off.

Em pulled her gloves on and used two hands to lift the saw. Her skinny arms bowed under the weight, and she almost stumbled as she lined up the blade with the pencil line we’d drawn on a piece of plywood.

“Get into position,” she said.

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“Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” I told her even as I made my way towards the wood.

We’d clamped the sheet of plywood to a folding table set up on the gravel driveway. The clamps bent the plastic of the table, and the whole contraption was so rickety that the only way to hold the wood still was for me to lie across the table and hope the whole thing didn’t break under my weight

“Hear ya later,” Em said. She snapped on a pair of ear protectors, and I did the same.

The saw roared on, and a tablespoon of sawdust flew straight into my mouth. I choked but held tight, blinking back more sawdust, and hearing nothing but the deafening gnaw of saw on wood.

Em was slow and precise, leaving a line of cut wood behind her and she moved along the plywood. There was sweat on her forehead and her arms were shaking under the weight of the saw. She was about half the size of the man we’d watched on the YouTube video, but by her own will and the rule of the universe that said that she was a mythical creature as much as she was a human being, it was working.

The saw slid across the wood, and when Em turned it off a minute later, the line we’d drawn in pencil on the plywood had been cut. It was a little wonky, but not too bad.

Em put the saw on the ground, unclamped the plywood and reclamped it so that the next pencil line we’d drawn was ready to be cut.

And then she nodded to me.

“Your turn,” she said.

I bit my lip and tasted blood, but I knew she was right.

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Read:

Chapter 1: The First Bus

Chapter 2: Ca$h Money, Baby

Chapter 3: The First Bolt

Chapter 4: Midnight Paint Job

Chapter 6: Making It

Chapter 7: Wheels on the Real-Life Road