by Steve Stormoen
this story originally appeared in Burnt Bridge Review #9
And yes, as it comes to him… as the truth comes, unwelcome, he does pray to a certain sort of technologically enabled futurism. Not necessarily that our next god-machine will solve all our problems from today, but problems we don’t even know about yet, such that the future will, haphazardly and despite itself, become a better place, and…
Mottle loses his train of thought. Seems to happen somewhat frequently lately – more due to indifference than absentmindedness, and the peculiar pace of his life: completely stationary at 65 miles an hour. Radio ads for plastic surgery and custom cell phone ringtones cut into the deepest crevices of the bus as we pass, yes, another Home Depot, another Wal-Mart, with twenty or thirty more of the usual suspects alongside – we pass these malls every fifteen miles or so. They proliferate like welts from a rash, spread by an impatient fingernail all up and down the California coast, a stucco/faux-adobe halo of white, tan, beige surrounding a placid black lake of a parking lot lit with streetlight buoys, white hash marks of “park here” empowerment now at mid-afternoon full to bursting, and then the shoppers. Swarms of them – no, Mottle. Swarms of us. Those creatures are still human, however disguised they are by the layers of fat and years of jaundice, yet a recognizably different strain or breed from those Mottle has seen recently in other parts of the country who, for reasons meteorological, have their arenas for consumption enclosed within one giant roof, and thus develop that squint in their eyes that says they’ve been in that goddamned mall for three weeks now eating, shopping, eating, shopping, the occasional shit – swarms of us sipping on the latest venti concoction and checking cell phones, iPhones, iPods, blackberries, PSPs, backseat TVs, trying to find a way to not actually have to interact with anyone. Mottle’s one to judge: he’s been on buses for three weeks solid, and hasn’t spoken to a soul, nor communicated in the least in any fashion beyond the demonstrative: here is my ticket; the implication being, I am a paying customer and I plan to board this here Greyhound, Megabus, Peter Pan Express, or any other name or brand operating on a regional or national scale to take him – actually, no, it’s more impersonal and nonspecific, for he does not matter to these buses beyond his paid fare, registration number, the seat he occupies (always the same: passenger’s side, eight back from the driver) – the correct assessment would be to say these buses move people, in a grand, oceanic migration from city-to-city and town-to-city, more rarely from city-to-town, and almost never in that fourth possible permutation, for what use is it to trade one’s bumpkins for another’s yokels? None, of course (or maybe this is some sort of grand revelation, punctuated thusly: “…none! Of course!”).
Mottle realizes once again that he has got to be the most boring teenage runaway in the history of teenage runaways. He could devote some time to think about how to do it better, or maybe get off the bus and find a library, do some research. That’s his thing, after all. Except spending all day in the library feels too much like home. Except thinking about how to better run away reminds him of why he’s running away in the first place, and that’s a place he’d rather not go. There were warnings, of course. Precursors. Like the time she insisted on doing his laundry despite his protestations, she grabbed his hamper and fished out a crusty tube sock, stained with off-white. She pulled it unstuck from itself and clasped it to her chest. Precious, she said. Smiled, coy. Eyes twinkled. Not a mom smile.
So he looks out the window. He’s still getting used to the fact that, northbound, the ocean is to his left, and he’s considered switching his seat to see what at the moment is a gorgeous sunset with a few sparse tufts of clouds soaking up pinks and blues, reflecting off the front slopes of the waves below, over to a rib on the other side of the bus’s spine, and the buses seem to have taken on characteristics of organic anatomy lately. After long enough, the 78 inch floor-to-ceiling, the cushioned, barely-reclining seats, the stripe of ugly carpet along the aisle – these things take on the intuitive familiarity of a fellow living creature, like how a kitten can rub against your hand, yet look into your eyes to ask that hand to scratch it behind the ear, yes! right there. Even the bus’s round-edged windows seem alive, clouded though they are by the grease spots of generations of foreheads and cheeks once pressed up against, and if examined closely by a trained professional, these smudges – ah, we’ve passed yet another stucco clone shopping center – these smudges can be read as an archaeological, historical specimen. The expert can examine vibrations and spread patterns to determine what top-40 hit was playing over the bus’s unceasing Clear Channel broadcast, or, with a bit more diligence, trace the chemical makeup of the oil secretions and cross-reference with a database of physiological side-effects to the firings of certain pheromones to arrive at – yes, there it is: pure human thought. Actual telepathy. Mottle, obviously not such an expert, can only wager a guess as to what that thought is. He guesses: “Next time, I’m taking fucking Amtrak.” And yet, already he is almost certain he’ll ignore the wisdom of those previous generations and, when he gets into the next station, the most he’ll do is take a walk around the block to stretch his legs, buy a packet of six cheese-flavored crackers sandwiching tiny pats of peanut butter, which oozes impolitely up the tiny holes in said crackers – this is all Mottle has eaten for the last three weeks besides the occasional Big Mac because he knows he can buy these same crackers at any station around the country. He throws these wrappers away as soon as he buys the crackers to avoid any trace of evidence linking how long these things, more food dye in ‘em than actual food, have sustained his bus-bound existence. He’ll eat, he’ll walk, and then he’ll commit the grandest form of treason against the shared wisdom of those greasy-foreheaded forebearers of bus lore by hopping on yet another goddamn bus, continuing on north to, what, Seattle? Vancouver? Anchorage? He’ll run out of North before he runs out of cash – his mom had given him so much money since it all started, and it had just felt wrong to spend it on anything besides getting the fuck away. And just then, a funny thing starts to happen.
A phenomenal rumbling sound, like the honk of a golden goose amplified through a conch shell the size of a Volkswagen, shoots through the bus, tiny vibrations creep up through the cushioned seat to massage his butt the slightest bit, give his brain a pleasant little rattle, the passenger’s side tires of this here bus have crept over the little ridges in the asphalt marking the border of the slow lane, eying jealously the ditch to the side of the road; the tall, golden-brown California grasses laying dormant in the moonlight, patiently awaiting the next rain, some seven months off, for an opportunity to return, all green ‘n autotrophic ‘n shit – don’t you know tires just love that? And this must be true, because the sound and the vibration return, signifying that the driver’s side tires have got the same idea, see the highway 101′s wide shoulder as only a momentary obstacle. The sun set hours ago, and now it’s Late – everybody on the bus must be asleep. Including the driver, apparently. Everybody but Mottle. He could do something, maybe. No time to run up eight rows and grab the wheel (or is there?) but he could at least try screaming, something real obvious, like, “Wake the fuck up!” He doesn’t. Mottle sits and quietly watches – observes – the bus slip gently off the side of the road.
He stays weightless for a pregnant second. Then, birth. Events appear disjointed to Mottle, out of sequence. He sees everything that is about to happen a split-second before it actually does, but does nothing to preemptively react and as the bus tilts toward the passenger side; he doesn’t try but somehow narrowly misses getting hurt by the sleeping rag doll sliding into him from across the aisle, and together they almost crush the poor dozing man sitting next to him – he doesn’t even keep his elbow from banging (yup, that’ll be a sprain) against the window frame. Doesn’t plant his feet firmly on that window frame to lift Poor Dozer’s head from impact, 15 rows of windows exploding at once and the hair and skin and skull and brains being scraped away by the shards of golden grass, dirt clods, pebbles, and glass chunks speeding by below. Mottle briefly (very briefly, as we’re about to crash any moment now!) wonders what it would be like to die so instantly and so violently in your sleep, and considers waking the man up to ask him, then remembers that the man doesn’t know yet, and wouldn’t be able to tell him until it was too late. Mottle mulls. The bus crashes.
It’s all very loud as it happens. The initial boom as they land, obviously, and metal groaning as it bends against its will, engine revving high until someone thinks to turn it off, and thirty or thirty-five people who woke up screaming and still are. Four passengers are already dead. Now that right is down and left is up, Mottle is near the bottom of an uncomfortable pile. Beneath him is the sleeping man, with more than half his head ground away into jelly, spread across fifty yards of proverbial roadside toast. On top of him is the pregnant girl who was sitting across the aisle – couldn’t be a day older than he is. Skinny arms and short, skinny legs, terrified brown eyes, she kept a grocery bag and her handbag in the seat beside her to keep anyone from trying to sit next to her. She fell head first, arms instinctively protecting her belly, and landed with her shoulder buried into Mottle’s rib cage. His arm went naturally down along her back, across the soft hollow of her waist, hand gently onto her taut, second-trimester belly. Mottle notices their position, like lovers, and nervously slides his hand away. She lets go of her stomach and catches his arm in both of hers, presses it to her body. He can hear her praying in Spanish and English back and forth under her breath, and she crosses herself with his hand. The two of them spend a moment like that, amid all the noise and confusion, together.
“Listen,” he says, eventually. “We need to get out of here. Do you think you can stand up okay?” She nods. She’s shaking.
“Good,” he says, “just stay here and don’t look down, okay? I’m going to open up the emergency exit in the window.” Mottle is amazed how easy it is to act calm, strong, and focused when he can do it for someone else. Almost like he’s outside of his own body, watching someone who looks exactly like him, except this person knows all the right things to do, and does them. He climbs onto his seat and grabs the red lever on the window above. He’s read the instructions on how to operate these exits maybe two hundred times over the past three weeks, yet checks it one more time to make sure. Lift the red lever, then pull the rubber insulation off the window, grab the pane, and toss it. He helps the pregnant girl out the window and down the roof of the bus to where most of the other passengers have already begun to gather, then he goes back inside the bus to see if anyone else still needs help. A young woman, white, wearing a sweatshirt with her university’s name embroidered on the front and an older man in a denim jacket and worn cowboy boots, greasy hair, are straining to lift a fat old lady through the window. He asks if he can help, then notices how bad she’s bleeding and almost vomits. No thanks, the blonde girl says. Except maybe head back outside and find a place where all the passengers can wait together, far enough away from the bus that they’ll be safe if the bus catches fire and the gas tank explodes, but close enough that the paramedics can find them. Mottle nods and wanders away. She goes back to talking to the man in cowboy boots in Spanish.
Mottle notices he’s shaking. Ambulances. Explosions. That first wave of cool focus and determination is wearing off. This is really fucking happening. Mottle looks around the bus, head tilted up so he avoids seeing the dead bodies. Sideways, the bus no longer seems like that comfortable, fellow living creature. More like the forgotten relic alien spaceship you see in all the movies about forgotten relic alien spaceships. Mottle starts to climb back out, notices the pregnant girl’s handbag and his backpack, brings them with him.
Mottle’s knees are knocking against each other; as he pulls himself through the window again, head to toe he feels himself transform: his Adam’s apple recedes, his armpits become smooth and odorless, he loses what little muscle definition defined his gangly arms and chest. Nobody else can see his transformation, of course – only Mottle knows that he is once again a little boy. A painfully awkward, unconfident little boy. Mommy’s little boy, who had to run away, even though he didn’t know how. He has no idea, as he’s sliding down off the roof, how he’s going to get everybody’s attention tell them to stick together move somewhere safe. He just wants to find the adult who looks most like his dad, stare at him, reach straight up and tug on dad’s pants at the kneecap, solve this for me please. Fortunately, everyone is already gathered together some 20 yards from the bus – somebody else had the same idea. This is the first time Mottle’s feet have touched dirt and grass in weeks. The night breeze is slightly moist with the beginnings of dew, and Mottle edges around the makeshift camp and sits down on a rock by himself, within eyeshot. Sure, they’re doing a headcount and he should be around, but if nobody notices him at first, Mottle’s okay with that. He stares at the sky, at the hills distant, a deeper shade of black, in awe of how large this country is and how many thousands of rocks he’s passed by exactly like this one and they have measured, even after he lost count, how far away he has managed to get from New Jersey—
It comes to him, but this time not entirely unwelcome – as if they’d been following him this whole time in a freight train, or on a competing bus line, as if they were waiting for him to finally sit still, he remembers why he’s running. That thing so important he’s had to forget it – it comes to him, and Mottle is too tired to run any longer.
Then Mom got laid off. Dad had to work nights and one day when he got home from school, there she was, in the doorway, on her knees, hair perfect, makeup sloppy. Come here, she said, soothing. It’s okay. She pulled down his zipper, touched him until he became hard, too firm a grip for him to tug away. The living room and the kitchen beyond were spotless and everything smelled like Lysol except for her. She smelled like the bottom of a bottle of white wine. My my my, she said. Oh, you’ve grown so big, she said, now breathless. But you’ll always be Mommy’s little boy.
The next day, the same thing, although with a bit less conversation.
The blonde college girl and the man with the cowboy boots reappear, carrying the fat woman, still bleeding quickly enough to leave a trickle on the ground and soak their shirtsleeves. The bus behind them does not explode as they walk away like it would in the movies, though Mottle imagines that would be pretty cool – the heroes, slow motion, carrying a body, backlit by fire but not silhouetted – you can still see on their faces that totally badass nonchalance. Mottle buries the urge to run up to them and ask for their autographs.
They find a flat area on the ground and set the fat lady down. Cars zoom by intermittently on the freeway and a couple pickup trucks have pulled over on the shoulder, looking to help. The blonde girl finds the guy she was sitting next to on the bus – he’s holding his broken left arm in his right.
“No, we did our own count,” he says. “Now that you two and that kid on the rock are back, that’s everybody. I mean except for the four who went in the crash. And except for the driver, too, I mean.”
“What happened to the driver?” asks college girl.
“Ran the hell away.”
“Hm,” she says. “I guess I would, too, if I was him.” They amble back to where he was sitting, and sit.
“There’s an ambulance on its way, and I guess we’re supposed to wait here for somebody from Greyhound to come by. Like, to bribe us, I think, so we don’t sue them.” He leans on her shoulder and closes his eyes, and she runs her hand through his hair.
Most of the passengers are on their cell phones now, and whatever quiet they had in their little camp buzzes away in twenty separate half-conversations. Mottle can’t believe how quickly this is all happening. It wasn’t even ten minutes ago that the bus was still upright and everybody was still asleep. And the dozing man next to Mottle, he was still alive. One of the men who pulled up in his pickup truck has EMT training and is tending to the most seriously wounded, which is basically just the fat woman and another lady, really old. The guy from the other pickup truck stands around, asking if there’s anything he can do, shifting his weight back and forth from foot to foot nervously until he gives up and walks away. Mottle is once again passive, an observer. He misses Mottle, man of action, savior of pregnant girls.
“Hey”, says the pregnant girl. She’s standing right in front of him – must have slipped away without him even noticing. Her arms are crossed, crushed against her chest. They are so spindly.
“Hey,” says Mottle. She has this kind of pointed stare which is uncanny, burning, and he can’t maintain it. Her eyes are too big and too brown. The grass is bent beneath her feet.
“Thanks for picking up my bag,” she says, and Mottle remembers he has it. Oh yeah. Hands it over. “Hey, um. Do you have anywhere to stay in Salinas?” she asks, eventually.
“Salinas. It’s where we are right now. Like five miles that way.” She points, even though she doesn’t really need to, down the highway, the direction the bus was heading, then she crushes her arms across her chest again. He shakes his head no. He doesn’t have a place to stay. Now that he has a chance to see her, in the meager scraps of light reflected off the moon, Mottle realizes she’s wearing almost no makeup. He’s surprised – she looks almost bookish. He never expected… Just who the hell is pregnant girl, anyway? How did she become— well, Mottle knows that answer to some extent, though he’s embarrassed to speculate on the specifics, especially while she’s standing right in front of him, fully clothed, arms crossed. She looks at him through one skeptical eye, and Mottle doesn’t have a chance, he couldn’t ever know. That this means she’s in love with him.
“You could stay with me, at my parents’ house,” she says, reluctantly. “I mean, if you want to.”
Mottle wonders what he’s going to do for food, now, for shelter, where he’ll go tomorrow, and what do his friends think and is he going to make new friends? Is there a way to go to school, and what about orthodontist appointments, and is it all really working like he thought it would? That his mom would get better and now this won’t break their marriage, and he won’t have to remember and hate that part of him that enjoyed it, that let it continue on for so long, oh god what about the dead man in the seat next to him, and at a certain point he just yawns and it’s a blessing, and he no longer has to care. He stretches out on the corduroy cushions of the couch beneath a pile of blankets, maybe too many of them. Marta, the pregnant girl – her mom made sure he was comfortable, and Mottle was surprised at how much he was able to eat, although he still winced at her maternal touch when she wrapped a bandage around his throbbing elbow. The nightmares have caught up with him, they’ll visit tonight, tomorrow, but he’s been waiting for this moment: with exhaustion, peace.