I 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.
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.”
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.
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.