The scene is set for a comedy, a living room, middle America style, framed by a cross-hatched window. There is an electric candle on the inside sill, more suited for a brick colonial than this Midwestern rancher, but the occupants have deemed to bring a bit of the east coast with them. The candles are unlit now, the setting sun is still streaming through the western side of the house, the back end, and the husband, a frugal man, has chosen to keep the lights unlit until dusk. There's nothing to block the sun in the West, as their lot is backed against the expressway, and no one else has seen fit to build past it. The West appears to the husband completely empty.
An hour passes and the sun sinks halfway into the earth, the man rises from his chair and walks slowly through the house, plugging in the electric candles and switching on the kitchen light. His wife is dozing in the kitchen, half-watching a TV chef as he cooks an exotic looking ham. Though the man is slow he finishes the chore quickly, because there are only six windows, and no candle in the guest bathroom. The house looks more like a home now, the artificial candlelight giving off a more friendly glow than any light they have seen in a long while.
The man has a sense of worldly good humor, the wife of common good sense, and they would surely make a dazzling fine TV couple, all good advice and clean laughs. A comedy maybe, the old-fashioned kind.
Our bus broke down outside Lexington, Nebraska, right across from what looked like a retirement community, but then you could never be sure. One of the houses reminded me of Williamsburg, back in Virginia. It had the same fake candles you saw in every faux-colonial house. The ones that gave off a more unwavering light than any ordinary candle could hope to provide. It was something to look at I guess, better than the Denny's sign, and better than staring at my fellow passenger's faces.
When we broke down it was still light out, and there were probably a ton of auto repair shops that would just be delighted to overcharge a bus driver with thirty-eight teens and a long way to go. As it was, the bus driver spent forty-five minutes mucking around under the bus, and another fifteen mucking around in the engine, so that by the time he called a repair shop they were all closed up and gone home. Since the sun had set there were only the cabin lights on the bus and the Denny's sign to see by, and the bus lights were dull, cheap sodium bulbs that made us all look like two-bit mobsters. It wasn't a school bus at least, more like one of those tour buses that carries the elderly to Las Vegas, a kind of off-brand greyhound expressly chartered for the purpose of crossing the long hostile plains of the Mid-West.
I spent another fifteen minutes staring at the house with the electric candles, but the people inside had gone to bed, and the lights didn't even flicker interestingly like real candles, so I knew I had to find something else to do. I looked around the inside of the bus and tried to find someone to talk to.
I turned to a guy who looked okay, and asked him, "How long do you think we'll be here?"
He seemed a bit surprised, and he took a second to push up his glasses and generally look confused. After a couple of seconds of that he said, "Dunno, definitely all night, maybe some of tomorrow." His voice was low, mismatched with his slight frame. I nodded and turned back to face the seat ahead of me, but then I heard him say, "What's your name?"
I turned back around and replied, "Malachi." He smiled and said, "Okay, mine's Isaac." I was about to ask where he was from, just to stave off boredom, when suddenly the ceiling cackled at us, and the bus driver's voice came over the intercom saying, "Uh, hello, it looks like we're going to be staying here overnight, so uh, make yourselves comfortable, I'm going to turn off the lights now."
There was a pop as he turned off the intercom, and then the lights all went out at once, leaving just the glow of the Denny's sign to help us navigate. I reached under my seat and got out my blanket and travel pillow from my backpack. I figured that between the limited reclining ability of the seat and the incessant glare of the sign I wouldn't be getting much sleep anyway, so I turned to Isaac and asked, "Where are you from?"
He was already wrapped in his blanket and yawning, but he still managed to mumble, "Chicago", before he closed his eyes.
I took that to be the end of the conversation, and let myself relax a bit.
A bus full of thirty-eight gay kids, next stop, salvation.
My parents didn't hate me, they were quite explicit on that point. I had no reason to disbelieve them, none at all. Sure, they were Christians, and very serious ones at that. Sure, they disapproved of my … proclivities, and sure, there were times I knew they were sad for me. I didn't think they would ever do anything about it.
Long story short, they did. Not just reparative therapy, although certainly that was our first stop. Which I embraced, by the way, because I wanted it to be real.
But then that never works, does it, just believing, and then eventually just wanting to believe.
And now I'm sleeping by the side of the road in Lexington, Nebraska, with a bus full of my fellows, all waiting for morning so we can get on with the journey.
I woke with the first rays of sun, which would have been great if they'd been shining through the windows of the youth hostel, but we were still stuck outside of Lexington, so instead they shone through a fogged over bus window onto my sore and tired form. I stretched and looked around. There were a couple of people doing the same thing, and if I looked anywhere near as tired as they did then it was gonna be one heck of a fun day.
Soon everyone was awake, and the bus driver's voice came in over the intercom, a little groggy with sleep, "Hello, uh, we're still fifty miles out from the hostel, so, uh, feel free to go across the street if you want some breakfast."
I checked my pockets to make sure the money was still there, then got up and started heading down the aisle. A couple of the kids, I think from Savannah, or some city, didn't look too enthusiastic about breakfast at Denny's. I noticed though that Isaac was quick enough to get up, and everyone shuffled out eventually. We certainly made a fine sight, all crossing the road in a pack.
There were only three waitresses, and by the time all of us squeezed into the restaurant there were no seats left, and about a quarter were left standing. I got a booth, along with Isaac and two of the Savannah kids, and since the Savannah kids had their own conversation going from earlier, I faced Isaac and said, "Hey, what are you getting?"
He looked up, the gel in his blond hair catching the light, and replied, "I dunno, I've never been here before."
I nodded, and then we lapsed into an awkward silence while we waited for menus from the waitresses. After about five minutes he suddenly asked, "Where are you from? You never said yesterday."
I smiled and answered, "Fairfax, near D.C.?" and for some reason the last part came out as a question. He just nodded, and we waited in silence again until the waitress came over and got us menus. We ordered on the spot. After the waitress left the Savannah kids took pity I guess, and decided to talk to us. One of them was tall, with short, dirty-blond hair, and he asked, with the most minimalist southern drawl, "Where are y'all from?"
I told him, and he just nodded, but when Isaac said he was from Chicago the guy brightened up and said, "My aunt lives outside Chicago!"
Isaac turned and said, "Oh? Have you seen Wait wait don't tell me live?"
The guy looked confused, and replied, "What's that? A play?" I interrupted then, because I was surprised, and asked, "Do you guys have NPR where you are?"
The other Savannah kid, the one who hadn't spoken to us yet, laughed and said, "Who listens to NPR?"
I was vaguely put out, and the other Savannah kid looked a little embarrassed, but Isaac was definitely mad, and the conversation just died after that.
The town would forget them, had nearly forgotten them by the time the last leaf settled in their wake. The only notable thing about their passing was that they had spent more money than the buses usually did, but then they were wealthier than the truckers who passed through, and had a much more ravenous appetite than the elderly headed towards Vegas. That was the other odd thing, the way anonymous travelers seemed drawn towards the town, in packs and droves as often as not, regardless of whether their route should have taken them near.
It wasn't quite accurate to say that the whole town would forget, because there was one old man, formerly a fireman, since retired, who was once an avid trainspotter. He was housebound in his later years, and half a town away from the nearest tracks, but he was a habitual creature, and so took to watching the highway for interesting flotsam.
He had a journal, a box of them actually, in which were recorded only the more interesting of the travelers that passed his window. On the fifth page of his third journal of the year was written the only existing record of the bus's passing, a single line smudged with time and the remains of a jam sandwich.
The bus was recorded forever as- "10:00 A.M. Bible bus 'Chestnut grove' followed by load of fruit from Omaha"
It would be a beautifully ironic scene, but for the lack of a plot. I would have liked to see it.
I woke just as we turned north outside of a town called North Platte, and for the briefest second I felt as if I had been watched, but was now unseen. I stretched, an action made possible by my lack of seat-mate, and looked around the bus which, unsurprisingly, had not changed since I started my nap. Then I looked out the window at the landscape which had changed, but only imperceptibly, so that I knew we had moved, were moving, but I had no sense of how far or how fast we had traveled, only that we were in a different place, but not entirely. I was, in short, somewhat disoriented.
Suddenly someone spoke behind me, saying, "Where are you from?"
"Virginia" I said and then, not wanting to sound standoffish, "you?"
"Texas, lately, but before that it was South Carolina for a while. Military, y'know." I twisted around to see who was talking and was met by a pair of light brown eyes staring through the gap between my two seats. "We move a lot"
I nodded, and, because there was nothing else to say, asked, "Why are you going?"
It was a stupid question, we were all here for the same reason, presumably, but he just laughed and said, "I'm going broken, coming back fixed, going to be a real boy Gepetto." I laughed, though I didn't understand, and replied, "So same-old, same-old?"
He nodded and said, "My name's John, what's yours?"
"Do you have a book?"
I stared, then started to shake my head, and then remembered my parents parting gift.
"Does Wildflowers of the Mid-West work?"
"Only if you'd rather have Dickinson"
I nodded, then reached under my seat to retrieve the field-guide. He already had his book out, and we silently traded through the gap in the seats. The cover was ornate, and the words The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson were raised in gold lettering. I sat for several minutes, staring at it, before it occurred to me to ask the sensible question-
He looked up at me from the guide with an intense look and said, "Why what?"
I considered for a moment, and then said, "Why trade? Why not keep your book?"
He didn't even blink, just said, "Why not indeed?"
I tasted the sea and it was bitter; I retched. The waves were under, now over, now of me, and with each dunking I sank longer, was shielded longer from an endlessly searching sun. I was up again, the water black now, but patched with fierce white where the waves rolled. The sun was gone, and the moon also- I could see only with the light clutched in my hand. I opened my hand to release the it and prepared to go under, for, I thought "'Tis better to die a quiet death than to struggle against it loudly." As I sank, however, I noticed that the light was still on my palm, pulsing gently to some arcane rhythm, and now, speaking low, melodiously, said,
"There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away"
Again I surfaced, struggling, and this time a strange ship lay alongside me, it's sides sheer and steely and the captain, a portly man, seated at the front. I lunged and grasped the side with my free hand, but it was already moving and the handle, slick with sea-water, pulled from my grasp.
I watched 'till the waves obscured it on the horizon, then prepared to sink once more, but was interrupted by the light. It said, in a voice at once higher and more melodic than before,
The waves slowed, still rolling higher, but now solid, earthen. I was standing atop one, and it had become a hill, and below was a stream that ran under a stand of trees. The wind had picked up, it was cold and dry and sober, and it plucked at my skin and my face. I looked up, and the sky was bright and clear, but the sun was gone, replaced by the odd pulsing light.
I tried to start down the hill, but the wind grew stronger, howled in my face until I was forced back up it. Then, as I stood on the crest of that hill, little bits of me began to tear off in the wind, starting slowly with my fingers and accelerating until, like a burst of confetti, my torso disappeared in a cloud of flecks.
I disappeared and was left a silhouette.
"Malachi, Malachi wake up."
I felt a tap on my shoulder. I peered through half-shut eyelids and raised my hands to rub the sleep away from the corners. When I finally looked up, I saw that the bus was mostly empty, except for John, who was standing in the aisle. He gestured towards the front of the bus and said, "There's a convenience store, if you want anything before we get there..."
I nodded, then hauled myself up by the front of the seat. The others were all gathered in a group by the entrance of the store and I could see a man working to unlock the sliding glass doors. The parking lot was otherwise empty, and though I couldn't be sure, I suspected that we would be his only customers that day.
I stumbled down the aisle, caught off guard by the apparent degeneration of my walking abilities, and caught myself, barely, by the seats in front of me. My walking abilities did, however, support me enough to prevent a collision with John, which was especially important because I could very well have knocked him down the exit stairs and into the parking lot. I straightened myself and continued walking with what I hoped was a semblance of decorum, then descended the stairs after John and followed the crowd into the convenience store.
It had been temperate in the parking lot, a mild 75 degrees with no humidity to speak of, but inside the store it was downright freezing, as if the owner might be considering setting up an ice-skating rink. Otherwise the store was just like any of the other millions of convenience stores across the country, maybe a little shabbier than the average, but still clean enough in an industrial way. The first thing that caught my eye was a drink cooler, and so I reached in and grabbed an ice tea, and then above that was a rack full of playing cards, so I grabbed a pack of those too. Then I just wandered around the fluorescent-lit aisles for a while, trying to limit myself to a reasonable number of candy bars. Isaac was two aisles down and appeared to be getting an enormous cup of coffee from a machine that sputtered and spat coffee out in erratic gasps. I briefly considered getting some too, but then remembered the ice tea I already had and thought better. I slipped the cards in my pocket to make room in my hands for one more candy bar and a bag of Cheetos, then headed for the checkout.
There was a line of course, I hadn't been the fastest, or the slowest really, but still there were about seven others ahead of me, each thankfully with fewer items than I had, and so I only had time to give a cursory inspection to the store's cracked linoleum before it was my turn to dump the bags of chips and chocolate from my arms and wait for the cashier to ring me up. I paid quickly, cash of course, then left through the sliding doors in a rush to be warm again.
It wasn't until I was back in my seat that I felt a lump in my pocket and realized that I still had the deck of cards.
I took another nap after we pulled out of the store's parking lot, not because I was tired, but because it seemed at the moment that there was nothing else to do.
And I dreamt.
It was a field, gray and dank and swept by a wind that rose from where the field dipped into a void. The vegetation of the field, if the thorny stuff could be called vegetation, was swaying violently, and as the gusts passed over it seemed to suggest a rolling sea. I stood on what could then be called an island, if this field was a sea, because it was a small hillock, from which I could see over the edges of the meadow, and which was bare and sandy.
Then, as I stared out on the void which seemed to approach me even as I watched, the hill gave a great heave and threw me off and down into a mass of thorny bushes, which seemed to tangle me whether I struggled or lay passively. I decided that I was too tired to bother fighting, and so I let the shrub cover what little sun seemed to shine on this field. It had been dark for some time, exactly how long was impossible to know in the dream, when suddenly my palm started to glow as it had before, and I felt a sharp tug upward, accompanied by the word
"Nor any courser like a page
Of prancing poetry"
There was above me then an immense iron horse with windows cut into its flanks, and though its insides were shrouded in shadow I could feel the gaze of whatever was inside. Still I reached out to haul myself up by its legs, and ended up falling over myself and into another bush.
The horse regarded me for a moment and then gave a great whinny that echoed with overtones of metal and distortion. I started running at it but I was too late, and it began galloping off with a sound like a thousand freight trains, until it finally pitched over the edge of the meadow into the void.
And there was no sound but the howling wind which tore at me.