Every ridge and pothole on the state highway broke up his rest. It hadn’t been an easy bus ride–twenty-two hours, fifty minutes total to get from Omaha all the way to Portland–and now they had hit a bad stretch of road work. Tim readjusted the inflatable pillow bought at the last minute, en route to the bus station. Gran Eccles had suggested and paid for it, along with a sleep mask. He thought she was overdoing it and hung back, embarrassed, as they checked out. Now he was thankful as he moved the black fabric onto his forehead.
“Hey, I’ve got an extra apple.”
A huge red apple was inserted into his peripheral line of sight. Tim glanced from the corner of his right eye. This kid with a mess of straw hair insisted on trying to make friends with him when all he wanted to do was read or doze. He was much younger than Tim, maybe fourteen, and he listened to rap on his iPod. Tim caught the heavy bass beat and had asked him to turn it down. The kid agreed but kept gabbing at him. Tim didn’t want to babysit. He was intent on getting through the hours with as little stress as possible. Buses were worse than cars (he’d sold his to buy the ticket and have some reserves) but better than planes. Trains he hadn’t even considered; too many accidents lately.
“Naw, I’m good.” He waved it away. “Thanks, man.”
The teen closed his eyes, then settled his head back on the bench seat and turned up his music. He stuck his hands in soiled windbreaker pockets. The jacket looked like it had been worn on a year-long camp-out. Tim tried to imagine the kid with rap music on. sitting with others around a fire, roasting marshmallows.
Not that Tim was much better off. He hadn’t bathed in a couple days, though he’d brushed his teeth. There had been no time to get his shoulder-length long hair cut before setting off for cousin Hal’s in Oregon. A shave might be good; he could do that at the layover in Baker City. But it’d be after five the next morning when he arrived in Portland. Hal wouldn’t pay that much attention. He’d drop Tim off and go to the law office, leaving him in the professional hands of Marie. Really. She was a hand model. The thought of someone who did that weirded him out. Hal had suddenly gotten married in Vegas and no one knew her so were taken aback by the picture of her at a turquoise pool in a white robe. Her hair looked persimmon-red, Gran said with a laugh but you could tell it worried her. It turned out to be a wig just for fun, they chortled on Skype. She sported very short auburn hair. Tim wondered who she truly was.
Hal was his own man; he didn’t explain things to anyone, naturally called the shots. He had ordered Tim out to Portland, saying only that he had to return to college. Hal and Marie had an extra room in their condo in the Pearl district (a place Tim looked up: glittering with money and high rises, crazy) until Tim found a job. He could help him find one if necessary. He made it all sound like a foregone conclusion; he was very firm about things in real life and business.
Unlike Tim. Twenty three years old, college drop-out, last working at Mac’s Feed and Seed the last two years, right after being sprung. There had been possession charges. An ounce of weed and some coke residue. Mac, who had known Tim’s grandmother his whole life, fired him after Tim was about to borrow a couple of big bottles of weed killer for a neighbor. He had wanted to do a good deed, he protested, he’d pay him on payday, but Mac called him a common thief. Gran told him it was time to move on and start fresh. It hurt Tim a lot more than her to go. And what would the payback be with Hal? Would he be like an beholden lackey? He shook it off as he repositioned himself on the bus seat.
A heavy man up a few seats roused himself from a snore session and squeezed through the aisle, working his way toward the restroom.
“You might try going sideways!” another guy yelled, snickering.
“You might keep advice and opinions to yourself in a public place,” a tall Native American woman across the aisle muttered.
“Don’t act so sensitive, lady!” he said as he looked her up and down.
She threw a frown at Tim. He half-lifted his hands in a submissive movement. What could he do about jerks on buses? He had things to add but seldom did. He didn’t want more trouble, period. Bus stations were even worse, random people loitering and sleeping, aggravating those who got to leave. He got it but he didn’t like it when he was minding his own business.
There wasn’t a full load on board but it was still way too much humanity. Only two had gotten on at Twin Falls, women more his age. They wore skirts with bare legs, cowboy boots and puffy down jackets, a combination he found odd. They sat behind him, made a few comments on a dramatic sunset but fell silent as it got darker. Tim heard rustling in a bag, something found and pulled out, he guessed. A book, maybe, a snack. He smelled banana mixed in with the ground-in staleness of the bus which was laced with citrusy air freshener. A small light above the seat was switched on.
The roughness of the road smoothed over as the countryside disappeared little by little into blackness. Tim liked sightseeing this way, structures and vehicles and geography a constant stream of colorful shapes and blurred edges. He’d tried to focus, though, to snap a picture of unique sights he might recall when he worked it out in his sketchbook later.
He hadn’t realized he could draw well until jail. That was something for the trouble he went through. There was so much time; he had to fill it to make it tolerable. Granny had brought a flimsy sketchbook and pencil with half an eraser and he used it daily, sketching memories, dreams and people he saw or missed. Practice was an exercise in discipline he needed. A semblance of solitude helped.
On the bus he felt constrained, physically uncomfortable. The kid–Louis?–would watch every stroke and ask too many questions. Tell him how good he was when Tim seriously doubted it was all that. Or critique what he didn’t know. Maybe Louis would insist on drawing something of his own, interrupting Tim’s flow. Everyone had to share their ideas, make a statement in this world. He had done the same at times. It hadn’t gotten him many strokes except an undercut to the chin.
Tim put the mask over his eyes to oust the lights and shadows that played on surfaces as they passed though Boise, then Nampa, Idaho. At night it was quiet. He felt anonymous, good. Too, there was something comforting about sunlight hiding out there until it arrived with fanfare once more. Tim had always liked being awake in the dark, just another night creature, sitting still with no bother to anyone or thing on Gran Eccles’ broad porch. Or by the kitchen window with a mug of bitter, heated up coffee and a last apple muffin, hearing, smelling, eyes affixed to the starry canopy, examining weather behaviors. Sly raccoons, feral cats and quick dark birds gabbing–getting on with their work. He felt part of the night. The night accepted his uncertainties, gave him peace.
“But–I still miss Emily,” one of the women behind him said with a wispy voice.
“She should have come. Was supposed to.”
The second woman sounded peppery. Edgy.
“We planned this trip for six months. She was so sure she’d come, back then.”
“Goes to show you. Never plan too much that you might have regrets. Things change in a flash.”
“It’s worked out for us, so far,” Wispy said.
“That’s because I couldn’t let it go wrong! Who wants to live in Twin Falls their whole lives?” She muffled a cough with hand or sleeve. “Smelly in here, don’t they clean? I know, you had doubts, but everyone has doubts about changing things up.”
Louis squirmed in his seat, opened his eyes, closed them again. He slouched, feet under the next seat. The iPod started to slip from his hands. Tim eased it away, put it on the seat. Rap music played on.
He crammed his head into the pillow against the window and pulled the mask over his eyes. He hoped the women would get quiet, that everyone would chill. He had hardly slept the night before, not more than a half hour at a time for about three hours. He’d wished he could’ve smoked some weed when he transferred at Denver but of course he did not. He didn’t have it. It wasn’t his intention to locate any again. But he still wanted to sleep better, on buses and in beds. He wanted to be in excellent again. His cousin had promised in Portland it would be different. Mountains, rivers, forests all over the city, everyone working hard to get and stay healthy. As if Nebraska was nothing but a little concrete rolled out among corn fields. But Tim was ready to try anything that might ease the tension he felt in his chest, morning ’til night.
“I will never forget it,” Wispy said.
“Yeah.” Cough subdued.
“I mean it, wasn’t it too weird? I have sort of…dreams that are like nightmares. I never told anyone that.”
Tim heard fabric slide against the seat, one moving about. Then maybe looking right at the other one.
“I do, too, but they don’t bother me. You?”
“It’s not what happened so much as how she was.”
“You mean, looked?” Pepper cleared her throat hard. “Half-dead?”
Tim thought she was about to get emotional on top of being allergic.
“More how she acted. Like, in her own world.”
“She was in her own world. That was the whole problem. Nobody could figure her out before and then after–”
“Shhh, not so loud. Is and can, you mean, not could and was. She’s still alive.”
Silence. Tim thought Pepper had turned away, was looking out at the whizzing blackness that let loose a few stars. They flew across the sky. At least that’s what he had seen and would draw. He itched for his pencil and a table top with good light.
“I thought she was gone right off. From the tent when I got up all I could see was a nose and chin.” Pepper said. “Who wouldn’t be after bobbing around out there awhile? That spring got so deep, it was too cold, no one was with her, we were asleep when…”
“…you got up and got me to go with you to the spot where she was. Floating.”
Tim opened his eyes underneath the mask and saw her, Emily, in the spring, her nose and chin pointed up. Hair slicked back to her head, skin shiny with water. Regal and still. He crossed his legs at the ankles and his arms against his chest to stay still.
“She always loved to wear long dresses. Wears, I mean.”
“Why do you mention that?”
“Because I thought about how the dress might weigh her down and she’d go under fast if I didn’t go out there. No shoes but that long cotton dress from the sunny day before. She hated pants. So impractical. Especially when camping. Honestly!”
“Hates. Present tense, okay? She is not a sporty girl but she loves nature.”
Wispy acted unnerved by the talk. Like it had happened yesterday when it seemed it was some time ago.
Tim sat up taller. The pillow slipped away. He let it go. He should try to not listen so he leaned against the thick glass. The window was cool on his cheek. It had gotten so dark that even the birds couldn’t see, he thought. Only bats could manage. They liked the pole barn rafters at Gran’s since he was a boy. Their navigation powers seemed extrasensory in a way that Tim admired yet brought him unease. He’d watch them come out at twilight, try to keep track of them but always squatted on the ground when they swooped around the yard. They were smart predators. He’d felt so big and slow, dumb in comparison.
He had the same feeling now. He wanted to know what happened to Emily in the cold spring. Why she was floating. Who she had become out there. But it made him anxious, too. And he felt incompetent when that happened, still. It was the similarity to something that had happened to him, maybe. He had dropped off a rope swing and landed too forcefully, went too deep, thought he would never get back up to the air and sunshine. But he did–after an eternity of adrenalin-charged propulsion to the distant surface of river. Sputtering and coughing. And he stopped going there that summer, afraid of breathing water.
“Here’s the thing,” Pepper went on. “She’d just been floating awhile, that’s what she said. Trying to reassure me. After she dove in and thought about not ever coming back up. She had thought about that the whole time we camped out there. It makes me sick to think about it even now. But then that…that thing happened.”
“We’ll never know exactly what she saw.” Wispy’s voice became more delicate. “Along the bottom, a glimmer that grew, she said, a light that took on a form…or was already something. And it grabbed her and pushed her up.” She paused several seconds, breathing was audible. “A water angel, she said. A water angel!”
“She said. She said! She was about half-drowned. She had thought about suicide! Crap. Maybe she totally lost her mind down there, do you think of that? Huh?”
Tim took off the sleep mask. He could see their friend, fragile, astonished Emily, as clear as could be. Her feet drifting under the water, hands lifting and falling, long dress graceful but maybe deadly as it caught currents, pulled at her body. But she was stronger, afterall, and resting, face an oval of luminescence above the surface of water, her body calm. She was not afraid. She had seen an angel in the sheerness, the clarity of the depths and it had changed her.
He was about to turn when Pepper spoke again, voice in a near-whisper as if telling a secret. But it was no longer hidden to Tim at all.
“It’s just this: she almost died, I agree, something happened in that spring. She’s not the same person today. It’s like she did die…came back someone else.” She gave a gasp and shudder that sounded like the awkward start of tears. “She seems religious now, that’s what everyone says. Not at all like before. So we have to let her be. Let her go, even.”
“Maybe she just woke up from her misery. With God’s help.”
The sound and force of his words threw him off as much as it did the shocked young women. He turned around in his seat. “Maybe Emily had gotten so sick and tired of being sick and tired that she knew something big had to happen to her, even get close to death. She was tired, let her body sink and sink. And then she was, well, okay, yes–saved. Right? Because she had to live differently or nothing would be good, nothing would even be left of her. And now she can start again.”
Louis stirred and sat up. “Man, pipe down! What’s up?”
“Eavesdropper. Really!” Pepper glared at Tim.
“Well, I don’t know, he’s probably right,” Wispy breathed.
“I agree,” the Native American woman added, sitting with elbows on her knees as if she had been like that awhile. “If we’re offering opinions, afterall.”
The heavy man paused on his way to the back again, waited for the Native woman to let him through. He studied her and Tim, then continued.
Pepper turned to the window. “Me and my big mouth.”
Wispy fiddled with her hair. Looked down.
“Sorry,” Tim said as he turned back around, embarrassed by his intrusion. But he had to say what he felt about it since it was out there now, Emily’s story, the woman’s life being torn apart by people who didn’t understand. Or were unwilling to accept.
“That was good.”
He looked across the aisle at the woman with the black shoulder-length hair and dark bright eyes and shrugged.
“Good story, I mean. And your understanding. Appreciation.”
“I feel for that Emily, is all. I get it.”
“Me, too, man. Me, too.”
She left her eyes on his a good few seconds. He thought they smiled so he let his crinkle up some. His face and neck prickled with warmth. He slouched into his seat.
The big man came back. “So you know: in Oregon now. Ontario, then Baker City, La Grande. By Pendleton it’ll be a new day, just after midnight. I’m off at La Grande. Have a good one, wherever you’re going.” His thick lips spread into a grin, revealing straight white teeth. He plopped down at his spot.
Louis yawned, took the ear buds out.
“You headed to Portland?”
Tim lifted his eyebrows. The kid going there? Good for him. Maybe his mother or dad or both lived there, would make him a good breakfast. He could use more meat on him.
“Cool. Me, too.” He turned up the volume and plugged back in.
Tim stole a glance at the Native American woman across the aisle. She seemed to be sleeping. He put his eye mask on, positioned the pillow. It sure was a long ride. Pretty uncomfortable but it was going to be worth it, he felt. He thought about Emily, hoped she had found her way, at last. Thought about Gran, how she’d tried her best to help him.
“Yeah, me, too. Portland. Quite the journey, huh?”
Her confident voice slid through the dark, crossed the aisle between the bench seats and met him like a friend. He felt tears rise up from a place he had long forgotten. Tim let a couple seep into the mask, then a few slid into the darkness, granting relief. Sleep at last.