BEYOND THE INTERNATIONAL arrivals gate at Heathrow, welcome-to-London fanfare swirls like confetti that’s meant for someone else. Fellow passengers move past me toward families and friends and people holding signs with their names on them.
Only Pop’s memory has shown up to greet me.
He flickers like a hologram in my periphery, parting a sea of people with guitar riffs. A playful grin stretches through his wild, penny-red beard. He opens his mouth and sings off-key: Jojo was a girl who thought she was a loner. It’s on purpose—the changed lyrics and the fact it’s off-key—because of course it’s on purpose. Pop had pipes, and he regularly threw himself on the altar of humiliation to make me smile.
See, that is the Pop I remember. He wasn’t a die-in-a-hotel-room-with-a-needle-in-his-arm kind of guy. And I’ve come here to prove that.
Floor-to-ceiling glass stretches up one side of the terminal, dumping buckets of gray evening light inside. Pop always went on and on about the silver sky, and I get it now. Poof. The past tense in my head makes him disappear. He fades into the secret letter folded in my wallet.
A near-constant pain reverberates along my solar plexus. I try to ignore it, but it has the tinny, extended frequency of a crashed cymbal. Even when the song is over, the residue lingers.
I hobble over and take a seat in a chair next to baggage claim, and while I wait, tilt my phone’s viewfinder until my feet fill the camera screen.
Right foot: tucked snug-as-a-bug in a red ballet flat. Left foot: bare. Click.
Caption: shoe theft at twenty-thousand feet
My left shoe was missing when I woke up on the tarmac. It vanished at some point after I’d fallen asleep. I’d waited until the man-spreader beside me started snoring before I closed my eyes; he had a certain vibe from the moment he harrumphed into the aisle seat and trapped me in. My suspicion was confirmed when he rubbernecked the romance novel Lexie let me borrow for the flight. I always skip to the good parts, and he caught me, as evidenced by his sleazy eyebrow wiggle.
After that, he insisted on calling me little lady while hogging my armrest and regaling me on the success of his biz-niss in Chah-lutt. Frankly, he’s the kind of Southerner that makes the rest of us look bad. Everyone knows the type. It wasn’t what he said, but how he said it, all leering and obnoxious. Former Auburn football coach meets Foghorn Leghorn.
When I woke up, he was gone, along with my shoe.
I knew I wouldn’t find it. Two weeks ago, before I found out I’d be coming here, I dreamed I was standing shoeless in an airport. This odd little psychic dream phenomenon has been happening on and off for three years: I dream it, and then it happens.
Sometimes the details vary a smidge. I’m only missing one shoe; in the dream, I was missing both. And I’m standing on plain gray tile instead of gleaming white marble. I guess my sixth sense assumes European airports are fancier and shoe thieves are more thorough.
There have been times, though, that I’ve relived a dream exactly as it happened while I slept. The first time was right after Pop died. Mama and I had gone to the grocery store one Saturday afternoon, and while I was waiting on her to finish checking out, Pop’s voice whispered: You want some gum? A slant of sunlight broke in through the storefront and bathed the gumball machine in an otherworldly glow. I went to it. Without putting a quarter in, I reached up and turned the handle. It cranked one, two, three times, and then the whole thing poured out in my hands. A few smaller kids ran over and picked up the ones that slipped through my fingers—red and blue and purple hitting the floor in a chorus of pops and tinkles.
I knew I’d leave the store with my pockets full of gumballs before I ever touched the knob that day, because I’d dreamed it the night before. Pop stood on the edge of my periphery, giving me a thumbs-up. When I turned, he was gone.
There have been many of these dreams, but there’s one in particular that I’m desperate to make a reality. The dreams are the real reason I’ve come here, but nobody else knows that. On paper, I’m here to make college visits and skip a senior year elective. I can’t go around telling folks that Pop is sending me winks and nudges and beckoning me to the UK, through psychic dreams, to clear his name. People (like me) who have daily medication regimens know which things to keep zipped up. Faking normal is imperative. Faking normal is how I got my psychiatrist to sign off on five weeks between sessions so I could make this trip.
There’s one other suspicion I can’t tell anyone about—a less likely one—so I just need to disprove it: What if Pop is still somewhere in the UK, alive? And the urn in my carry-on bag is full of dust instead of his remains?
I’M SURROUNDED BY SHOES.
There are shiny oxfords and beige stilettos. Casual loafers and laced athletics. I guess the things you don’t have yourself are more noticeable when other folks do have them.
Passengers scramble to identify and collect their zippered clones. I wait for my own, a red Samsonite covered in sewn-on patches Pop brought me from his Walrus Gumboot world tour. It overflows with more thrifted clothes than I can wear in five weeks. And plenty of shoes, thank the stars.
I field a few disapproving glances as the crowd thins. My toes curl under, and I stare a hole through the curtain at the end of the conveyor. My phone blares Her Majesty from my back pocket and makes me jump. Heads turn as I scramble to answer it. All of my ringtones were chosen to showcase my status as Beatles Fan™. But as I stand here absorbing the side-eyes, I realize my credibility isn’t quite landing.
I answer the FaceTime call before it stops ringing. “Hey.”
Mama’s frantic face appears. If the antidepressants hadn’t dulled my ability to read auras, I’d bet hers has turned from pale pink to ink black. I concentrate for a moment. Squint my eyes. Stare hard just past her—but no. Still nothing. It’s been two days since my last dose. Might take a little longer.
“Josie Michelle Bryant!” she hollers. “You promised you’d call the minute you arrived! Flight tracker says you landed forty-six minutes ago!”
She’s louder than the ringtone. I rapid-fire the volume button down.
“Don’t have a fit, Mama. I had a slight technical difficulty.”
I pan the camera to my feet and back again. Her pencil-thin eyebrows make a V on her forehead. “Where’s your shoe?”
“Someone must’ve picked it up by accident.” I say this a little louder than necessary for the benefit of the gawkers. “I woke up on the plane and it was gone.”
I know better than to mention Foghorn Leghorn. She’ll go broke hiring a security detail to follow me if she thinks perverts are stealing my shoes.
“You’re walking around He-frow barefoot?” I hear our exchange student snicker in the background before his grinning face appears next to Mama on the screen. Though he’s standing in my country and I’m standing in his, Patrick’s accent jars me. Pop didn’t speak that way. You would’ve never known he was born in Liverpool except when he was drinking. Twenty-five years in the states all but erased it. “People are going to stare.”
I laugh. “They’re way ahead of you.”
Mom cuts in. “I find it interesting that you texted Dylan when you landed, but you couldn’t do the same for me.”
I roll my eyes so hard I see my brain. The only thing that irritates me more than Mama knowing things about me I didn’t tell her myself, is Dylan—boyfriend extraordinaire—being a suck-up.
“He called me the minute he heard from you.” Her smile borders on taunting.
Dylan likes to cover his bases. We’re both pretty sure the only reason Mama finally agreed to this trip is because she’s figured out we’ve been sleeping together, and she’s not ready to make me confess it to the church just yet. Putting an ocean between us is easier.
“I texted him but then had to look for my shoe…” I lose my train of thought as more bags disappear from the conveyor; there’s still no sign of mine. Another flight crowds in, and the carousel’s obscured. I stand on my tippy toes. “Then it took a while in customs,” I continue, searching, “and… Look, can I call you back?”
She huffs that okay-fine-whatever huff.
The background swirls and Patrick takes the phone.
“Wait, love.” I met Patrick all of twenty-four hours ago, but he already feels familiar in a way I can’t explain. “My brother is coming to meet you to ride the tube back. So you don’t get lost between stops.”
I haven’t even been gone a day, and Mama has already lost faith in me to take a train from point A to point C. I siphon a deep breath, filling my lungs with all the things I want to say. Like that I’m seventeen years old and will be off to college in a year. She can’t micromanage me then. But the jet lag is setting in. My will slips away like the empty conveyor belt. Where my luggage is supposed to be.
“Fine.” I exhale the unspoken words. “Where should I look for him?”
“I gave Henry your mobile number,” Patrick says. “He’ll text if he can’t locate you.”
I’ve only seen photos of Patrick’s bruvah, as he so eloquently pronounces it, on the Instagram page Dylan and I found. Most of Henry’s timeline was landscape photography with vague King Arthur references. Dylan settled down a little after we discovered this. The fact that the guy looked a little homeless in the one selfie on the account didn’t hurt either. Beanie, sunglasses, dingy white hoodie. Probable weirdo. Definite introvert. The antithesis of Dylan, who doesn’t own a shirt without a tiny whale on the breast pocket.
“And Jo,” Patrick adds, “he’s sort of a wanker. Keep conversation to a minimum and you’ll be just fine.” His blue eyes power up when he laughs. Lexie and Maddie, my neighbors back home, will be competing for his attention before I even leave the airport. They’ve been talking about the impending arrival of the English boy for a month.
“Wanker. Got it.” I chuckle as he hands Mama the phone. But she isn’t laughing.
Her hard expression makes her seem older than usual. I have her round face, honey blond hair, and brown eyes, but the similarity ends there. The sprigs of wrinkles beside her lashes have spiderwebbed and spread. The more she worries, the less her face cream works.
“Call me when you get to George’s.” And without ceremony, she ends the call. Before I can even say I love you.