You ever look back at the end of a fight with someone you love and think “how did we get here?” It was almost 30 years ago and I don’t remember how the argument with Melody started but I will always remember how it ended: with me, packing my stuff and her, crying in the bathroom. If I had to guess, it was probably about money. We were in our early 20’s. Neither of us had much family. Shit jobs, shit apartment, shit life. But we had each other. Loved each other. They told me that would be enough but, fuck, it wasn’t even close to enough.
Three days of not talking to each other. Avoiding each other. I don’t even think either of us were mad anymore, just…tired. Too tired to push the wall down this time. And then I got a call from my aunt and uncle in Washington. Come to Thanksgiving. Work with my uncles through the holidays. They needed help on their tree farm.
I didn’t even think about it, I just said yes. When I told Melody, I could tell she knew what I was really saying to her. Something my aunt and uncle didn’t even know. I was going to Spokane for Thanksgiving and I wasn’t coming back afterward. Melody didn’t fight it. She just went numb. Like me.
I spent $42 on a bus ticket from Buchanan to Spokane which left me with $22 for food to eat on the three day trip. Leaving Mel, I was tired just thinking about it. My heart felt scalding hot, the one way ticket in my pocket as heavy as steel, pulling me down. But my bags were packed and I was here at the bus terminal.
The station was shit, as most bus stations were. No cell phones back then. No TVs. Just a smattering of humanity lounging in hard plastic chairs waiting for their number to be called. I took a long drag off my camel then pulled out my ticket, looking for mine.
Buchanan, Virginia – Spokane, Washington
I glanced at the clock on the wall 1:18. My eyes slid to the door involuntarily. I wanted to leave this station, go home to Mel. Find her and tell her I was sorry and that I wasn’t going anywhere. But a small piece of me, the stubborn piece, just kept me sitting there. We had done this dance again and again and again. It never worked. Love was a luxury the poor couldn’t afford.
“Bus 881 to Columbus, Ohio is boarding at Bay 7. Please proceed to Bay 7 for bus 881.”
Shit. No time to finish my cigarette. I smashed the butt into the nearest ashtray and stood up, my eyes going straight to the front door. What was I waiting for? The solution to our problems striding in, easy as pie? A sign? Courage to leave and go back to her? God, I wanted that. I wish I had that. Mel was everything to me. And not enough.
“You leavin’?” I turned toward the voice, a small woman with a smoke in one hand and a baby in the other. She gestured to my seat. I took one last look at the front door.
“All yours.” I picked up my bag and headed toward Bay 7.
There were six people ahead of me but the driver was quick, taking bags and checking tickets.
“That all?” He asked, waving toward my backpack.
“Buddy, you know you’re going all the way the other coast. Washington. It’s on your ticket. You sure that’s all you got?”
“Yep. I’ll just keep it with me.”
The driver shrugged.
I headed toward the bus door, waiting in line to board. I wished for the 50th time I could have afforded a flight. Buchanan to Columbus to Indianapolis to Chicago to Minneapolis to Billings to Spokane with bus changes in Indianapolis and some place called Whitefall in North Dakota. It was gonna be a long fucking three days.
As the woman in front of me boarded I looked back toward the bus station again. This was it. I would never come back to Buchanan. It was done. It was over. We were over. And that felt so wrong. It was me and Melody, always. We struggled but we always came back to each other. Poverty was a prison, but we were in it together. And now I was escaping alone, leaving her behind the bars. I couldn’t do this.
“Hey, you goin’ or what?” The guy behind me was short, a lot older than me, and clearly travel weary. He also didn’t smell the greatest, but that was par for the course on these buses. “Well? Come on, man, I just wanna sit down.”
I coughed and readjusted the bag on my back. “Sorry.” I turned back toward the door and stepped up onto the bus. My feelings were strong but not logical. I loved Melody but if I went back now everything would be the same. This was a chance for her, too.
I picked a seat near the front, so I could be first off for cigarette breaks. There was a window seat available, and I took it, hoping no one would sit beside me. I leaned my head against the window and watched the rest of the passengers board. Lots of men traveling alone, a few families and one girl who couldn’t be more than 18 or 19. She looked nervous and like me, kept glancing back at the bus station. Did she have reservations about leaving Buchanan, too?
The longer I watched her, the more certain I became that it was actually the opposite. She was nervous alright, but it seemed like she couldn’t wait to get on the bus. My guess was that she was running from someone. Her eyes slid to the bus station and back so often it was almost funny. She hopped foot to foot and inched closer to the bus door every second as the driver checked her ticket and took her bag. I was watching her close enough that I saw the little sum she made when someone came through the door. I noticed the movement in my periphery, someone bolting toward our bus.
I sat up, ready to go out there and intervene if things got violent between the girl and whoever was after her. But when I turned toward the threat, I recognized that long, curly brown hair, heart-shaped face, and wild, green eyes immediately.
I tripped over seats and legs in my desperation to get off the bus. As soon as I stepped down onto the pavement, Mel was there, throwing her arms around me, her slight body wracked with great, heaving sobs.
“Kris, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I thought I missed you. I thought you were gone and I wouldn’t get to tell you.”
“Mel. Mel, calm down, it’s alright. Shh. It’s fine, I’m right here.”
“I’m right here. I’m always right here.”
I ran my fingers through her long hair, letting the curls wrap around my fingers as I had done a million times before.
“I-I thought I’d missed you.”
“You didn’t miss me, baby.”
“You aren’t coming back, Kris,” she sobbed.
I had nothing to say. Because I didn’t know what I was doing. Or even why anymore.
“I was gonna let you go. I was. I knew it was what you wanted and you were dying in Buchanan. Suffocating. I was gonna let you go and never come back, I swear.”
“What? What’s happening, Mel?” I whispered into her hair.
The driver slammed the door of the luggage compartment and walked around us, boarding the bus. “Two minutes, Romeo, and we’re out of here.”
“Mel. Baby, what’s happening?” I asked again.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. It was an accident. I just, I was sick over us, and I wasn’t sleeping or eating, but I was still throwing up. Throwing up all the time. So I- I- I checked. I went to the dollar store and I checked. And I’m- I’m pregnant, Kris.”
My hand froze in her hair for a few seconds. Pregnant. Mel was pregnant. My sign from the door. My baby. My girl. “Ah, Mel.”
“I’m so sorry, I just, I thought you should know.” She whispered. I hugged her tighter and breathed into her neck. I was an idiot. I could never give Mel up and even trying proved how much of a fool I was. She was mine. They were mine.
“Shh, it’s gonna be okay. I’ll make it okay. This is our baby. Our family. I should never have left, Mel.”
“I hate this for you. I know you- you wanted a new start somewhere else.”
“No. There’s no new start without you.”
“Listen, buddy, we gotta go,” the driver yelled down from his seat. “Kiss your girl goodbye.”
I pulled back from Mel, running my hand along the side of her face. “Actually, I’m not going. I just need to grab my bag.”
“No!” Mel shouted, pulling away from me. “No, you should go. Go be with your family.”
My face tightened, pulling into a frown. “I’m not leaving you, especially now.”
“Make your mind up, kid, I ain’t missin’ my connection for this shit!” I recognized that voice as the travel-weary fucker that had been behind me in line.
My eyes went back to the bus driver above me. “You can go.”
“No! No.” Mel pulled my face down to look at her. “You wanted a new start in Spokane. Well.. well, so do I. You have family there. I’ll- I’ll keep working here and when I can afford a ticket I’ll come to you.”
“Fuck no. I’m not leaving you alone and pregnant in our shit apartment in our shit neighborhood.”
“I’ll be fine. I want this for you. For us. Kris, I don’t wanna stay here either. I hate Buchanan. You were always the best thing about it. And I have a piece of you with me,” she touched her belly and my hand went to cover hers. “I’m still staying with Mandy. It’s safe. It’s cheaper. I’m fine on the couch for a few weeks. Fuck the apartment. Go to Spokane. Work with your uncles. I’ll keep working at Freddy’s for awhile, save money, buy a ticket, and follow you.”
“Kris!” She pulled me closer and closed her hands around the sides of my face. “I don’t want to raise our baby here. Not here.” She looked close to crying. She was right. Buchanan was the prison, poverty was the bars. I didn’t want to raise our family here, either.
I took a deep breath.
“Let’s go, Romeo, last call!”
“I will call you every day when we stop.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“And every night in Spokane.”
She nodded, trying to blink away the tears that ran down her face.
“Three weeks. You’ll be in Spokane in no more than three weeks or I’m coming back.”
She threw her arms around me and hugged me tight. “You know Mandy’s number. I love you, Kris.”
I hugged her back. “I love you, too. Both of you. Everything is going to be okay.”
“Fuck, kid! Let’s go!” The travel-weary fuck. Only this time his voice was joined by the agreeing moans of the other passengers.
“You’ll call everyday?” Mel whispered.
“Everyday, baby.” I kissed her head and then pulled back, squeezing her hand one more time before letting go. “Three weeks.”
Mel nodded and then smiled for the first time in…I don’t know. I remember when Mel used to smile. It felt like years ago. I forgot how beautiful it was. Like pure light.
I bounced up the stairs, hopped over legs, and jumped into my (thankfully still empty) seat. Then I turned to look at my gorgeous girl out the window. She was still smiling, though it was less brilliant and more warm, content. And that’s how I felt, too. Fulfilled. Like no matter what everything was going to be alright. Because I was going to make sure it was. And nothing was going to stop me from taking care of my girl.
“Fucking finally,” someone mumbled nearby. The driver shifted into gear and with a stutter the bus began to pull away from the station. Mel waved to me. She was still crying, but she seemed at peace. Because she believed in me. We were going to make sure everything was okay.
I watched her until we turned onto 19th Street. The bus station and my girl disappeared around a corner but I continued to look backward because I could still feel her there. I wasn’t leaving her behind. We were a team.
“We’re 11 minutes behind, you know.”
“What?” I jerked forward at the voice. It was the Weary Traveler, sitting up in his seat and looking over the back of it. I finally gave him a good, hard once over. He was grizzled from the road but well-kept. He had to be in his 60’s. The man’s hair was an interesting spatter of brown and grey and his clothes screamed blue collar tradesman. His brown eyes were focused on me, narrowed and unhappy.
“We’re not 11 minutes behind because of me. I held up the bus for maybe 5. Sorry.”
“I got a connection to make. I better not fucking miss it because of you.”
I laughed. “I’m sure we’ll make up 11 minutes by the time we get to your connection.”
“You better fucking hope so. I’m going to Post Falls to see family.”
I just stared at him, wondering why he was volunteering this information.
“That’s in Idaho.”
“I know where Post Falls is, man, I just don’t care.”
The man shook his head. “Little shit.” He dropped back into his seat.
I leaned my head against the headrest and stared out the window, watching Buchanan slip away. The last twenty minutes had left me with a lot to process. I was going to need to convince my cousin Lloyd to take me on fulltime, not just through the holidays. I was going to have to work hard. Save money. That meant no drinking but I should probably cut that out anyway since I had a baby on the way. A baby. Holy shit. Mel and I were going to be parents.
“Good afternoon, everyone, my name is Bradley and I’ll be your driver all the way up to St. Louis, if you’re going that far. Our first stop is going to be Columbus, Ohio where those of you going to Pittsburg, Cleveland, and Louisville will make bus changes. That should be in about 6 and a half-“
I slung my headphones over my head and pressed play on my walkman, closing my eyes as the sweet notes of Guns N Roses ‘Patience’ drifted in. It was Mel and I’s song.
“Hey. Hey, wake up. We’re stopped.”
I jerked awake, folding upright in my seat. The Weary Traveler was giving me a dirty look.
“Everybody has to get off. You’re holding us up again.”
“Fuck.” I leaned forward and dragged my hands down my face wondering how long I’d been out. “Where are we?”
“Charleston. Come on, get the fuck off the bus so the driver can lock it. He needs to take his break.” The man grabbed my arm and began to pull me out of my seat.
“Get off me, I’m going!” I shook him off and stepped out into the aisle, grabbing my bag and slinging it over my shoulder. “Not trying to hold you up, goddamn.”
“Yeah, well you are. I have to make my connection.”
“Me too, man. We’ve all got places to be.” I climbed down off the bus and nodded at the driver. We were in a McDonalds parking lot. Fucking thank god. I could take down half a dozen big macs right now. Now that I had my girl back, my appetite was, too. I started walking toward the door, already tasting those amazing burgers. But then I thought about how I only had 22 dollars to eat for 3 days. Plus, I wanted to call Mel everyday. That would be long distance. And I wanted to talk to her for more than a few minutes… Maybe I should wait to eat until we got to Columbus. The bus station would probably have cheaper food like vending machines. It wasn’t ideal, but it would get me through.
I pivoted and walked over toward a crowd of smokers standing against a wall. I had nine cigarettes left and I knew I couldn’t afford to buy another pack on the road. So this would be it. Probably for the best, with a baby on the way and everything. Fuck. A baby.
“Excuse me.” I turned at the voice and looked down at a girl from my bus. She was the nervous one, the runner. She didn’t seem to be any more relaxed, but then again we were only a few hours away from Buchanan. Not far enough for her comfort, I’m sure. She was pretty, dark eyes and skin. Long hair. And though she was clearly on edge there was a directness to her. A strength.
“Um, I don’t have any money to spare that I can give you but I was wondering if I could bum a cigarette?”
I shook one loose and held the pack out to her. She took it with thin fingers.
“Got a light?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “I don’t have much at all, really.”
I lit it for her and then lit mine. “So, where you headed?”
She took a drag off her cigarette and looked away.
“Playing it close to the chest, that’s smart. You got a name?”
“Yeah. You got one?”
I laughed. This girl was gonna be just fine. “Fair enough.”
“Well, thanks for the cigarette. I usually only smoke when I drink but-“
“Aren’t you a little young to be drinking?” I smirked.
Instead of laughing or responding to my bullshit, she looked away again. The wind tried to carry her voice away but I heard her words anyway. “I’m a little young for a lot of things.”
Fuck. I shouldn’t have tried to tease her. This girl was not in a place for that. I cleared my throat. “Here.”
She turned back toward means frowned at my outstretched hand. “No.”
“Here, take ‘em.” I shook the pack of cigarettes at her again.
“What…what do you want for them?”
“Nothing. They’re yours.”
She continued to eye the pack warily.
“I promise. Look I just, I just found out I’m going to be a father in like…I don’t 8 months or something. I want to quit anyway.”
Her eyes jerked up to mine. “The girl at the station.”
“Yeah, that’s my girlfriend.”
The girls eyes drifted back down to the cigarettes. I sighed. “Her name is Mel.”
That seemed to be enough, just giving this girl that much of me. She nodded, eyes still leery, and cautiously took the cigarettes out of my hands.
“Thanks.” She pocketed the smokes in a ragged bag slung across her chest. We exchanged no more words. The driver eventually climbed back onto the bus and people began boarding. This was my last cigarette. Ever, if I was strong enough. Fuck, I just wanted to enjoy it. Savor it. But that meant I was the last person to board the bus. Again.
Weary Traveler took exception. As I dropped into my seat he shook his head at me. “Of course. You’ve got no respect for other people, son.”
“Fuck off,” I mumbled at him.
He shot out of his seat. “What the fuck did you just say to me?”
Louder: “I said, fuck off.”
He grabbed me by the jacket and shook me twice. For a small guy, he was stronger than he looked and my knees banged against the metal chair supports. I grabbed his wrists and squeezed, pushing back. “Get the fuck off me!”
“You entitled little piece of shit, you’ve made the entire bus wait for you three fucking times and you’ve only been on this goddamn thing for four hours.”
“Hey!” I heard the driver shout.
“Let go, you crazy fuck.” I hissed at him, shoving him back while trying to avoid the other passengers sitting in aisle seats.
“If I miss my connection I will punch your fucking lights out. I’ve got people waiting for me!”
“Hey! Knock it off right now and sit down!” The driver yelled again. No one was intervening.
“Look, I apologized for what happened in Buchanan. But last time I fell asleep and I’m goddamn sure I’m not gonna apologize for that.”
“Just now you held up the whole goddamn bus to smoke a cigarette!”
“I got on the bus right after that family sitting in the back. You’re the one holding the bus up right now, you sonofabitch.”
“Sit down immediately or you’re both being kicked off the bus.” This time, the driver stood. Weary Traveler released me instantly and shoved me back. I fell into my seat.
“You crazy asshole,” I mumbled. He gave me a disgusted look and sat back down in his seat in front of me.
The driver glared at us both. “If I see anything like that again, you will both be left on the side of the road. You’re scaring people. There’s kids on this bus. Do you got that?”
I saluted him with two fingers and the fucker in front just grunted something agreeable. The driver nodded. “That’s your only warning.” He sat down and put the bus in gear, finally pulling out of the parking lot.
I tried to fall back asleep but I was too hungry, too agitated. I stared out the window at the passing cars. Some had babies and I studied those intently. A little sedan went by, a father with his toddler in a carseat behind him. He was smoking a cigarette while his baby slept in the backseat. And even though the window was cracked I could see the clouds of smoke drifting back from the front to his sleeping kid. Hell no. That would never be me. I was done with cigarettes. I wouldn’t be like that dad.
More cars passed us. I started to make up stories about who they were and where they were going. The Lincoln: New York to oversee a company merger. The pickup with the trailer: Louisville to buy a horse. The minivan with the smiling parents: Disneyland on a family vacation. Yeah, I would do that, too. Take my kid to Disneyland. It was something neither Mel nor I had ever gotten to do. And, yeah, I wanted to do that for her, too.
“M&Ms?” I whipped my head around as someone dropped into the seat next to me. It was the runaway.
I was confused. “What about ‘em?”
She frowned. “Do you want some?” She held out a yellow bag. “Sorry they’re peanut, they were the only ones I could grab when I was… when I left.” She trailed off and then looked down at the bag. “So, do you want some?”
I held my hand out. “Hell yeah, I’m starving. Peanut M&Ms are the shit.”
She smiled then. It was small one, one that didn’t reach her eyes, one that was more of relief than happiness but there is was. And like my Mel’s smile, it was fucking beautiful. She tipped the bag into my waiting hand and didn’t stop until the bag was empty.
“Are you sure? Because I got no issue eating all of these but they’re your M&Ms.”
She nodded and then crumpled up the wrapper, shoving it into her big bag. “I’m sure.” She stood up and looked toward her seat at the back of the bus.
“Thanks.” I said as I shoved M&Ms into my mouth by the dozen.
She looked back down at me. “You’re welcome.” Then she leaned down a little and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Maybe go easy on him, though, okay?” She nodded to the seat in front of me.
“Oh come on, you’re on his side?” I whispered back, mouth full of chocolate.
She shook her head. “No. I just don’t think he’s trying to be mean. I’m pretty good at reading people’s intentions. I think he’s just anxious.”
“Anxious about what?! He said he’s going to visit family.”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Ask him.” Then got up and moved back to her seat. I rolled my eyes. I wouldn’t be asking him shit. With any luck he’d be boarding a different bus in Indianapolis. I wasn’t quite sure where Post Falls, Idaho was but I hoped to God it wasn’t by way of Chicago.
Night came slowly, the gray asphalt whizzing by outside fading to black and the cars alongside the bus darkening to unrecognizable colors. I could see city lights ahead of us, not warm and welcoming, but bright and sharp. Columbus. I could find something in the vending machine here. Fill up my water bottle from the fountain. Smoke a cigarette. Well, fuck, scratch that last one. I could already feel the inch until my skin. But I ignored it. Food. Water. Bathroom. Call Mel. These were the things I was focused on.
The bus took an exit and continued down several busy downtown streets before pulling up at the Columbus Bus Station. The doors opened and I stood to stretch, glaring at the clock in the front of the bus. I smiled. A few minutes early. Fuck Weary Traveler.
“Alright folks, everyone will have to disembark here, please do not leave any personal items on the bus. If you are continuing on Bus 881 to Indianapolis we will be boarding at 8:25. If you’re continuing on to other destinations it has been a pleasure traveling with you and thank you for riding with us.”
My first stop was the bathroom, then the water fountain and then the vending machine. I bought a pack of strawberry pop tarts and a bag of nuts, then sat down to eat. By 8 I was antsy to talk to Mel. I found a payphone in the corner and spent the 25 cents to call her. The line connected immediately.
“Hello?” I was disappointed when I heard Mandy’s voice through the line.
“Hey, Mandy, it’s Kris. Can I talk to Mel?”
“Hey Kris. She’s actually working right now, pulling a double. She said if you called to tell you she’ll be home around 2 in the morning.”
Mandy’s voice grew soft. “I know. And I’m sorry, I tried to charge her nothing for rent so she could save more money but she said no, she’ll pay. I have a feeling she’ll be working as many doubles as she can.”
“Is that..is that okay? Being on your feet so much when you’re…” I didn’t know what Mel had told Mandy
“Pregnant?” Mandy laughed. “She’ll be okay. Our girl is strong.”
“Right. Thanks, Mandy. Tell her I wont be able to call her until tomorrow morning. And tell her…tell her I’m right here. Can you?”
“Yeah, I’ll tell her Kris.”
“Thanks. Bye, Mandy.” I hung up, grateful I hadn’t wasted more than a quarter on a call where I couldn’t even talk to my girl. I noticed there was a line at Door 9 for Bus 881. I wanted another window seat so I got behind a tall, lanky guy around my age. He hadn’t been on the bus from Buchanan, but there were a lot of new faces. A lot of old ones, too, including Runaway and, to my immense disappointment, Weary Traveler.
I boarded after lanky guy and ended up across from him, in a window seat. As I flipped my GnR tape to the other side, I noticed Lanky Guy take out a notebook and start sketching. Or maybe doodling. It was hard to tell. I watched his hand move quickly and deliberately over the page. He must be one hell of an artist. There was no hesitation in his movements.
“It’s a landscape. A mountain range.”
“Huh?” I’d been so focused watching his hands I hadn’t even realized he’d caught me staring.
His eyes shot up to mine briefly. “My girl likes mountains.”
I nodded. “Cool man. You going to see your girl?”
“Cool.” And that was it. Lanky kept sketching and I relaxed back into my seat. Only a few hours to Indianapolis and I’d be changing busses. Hopefully I could stay out of Weary Traveler’s way. I smiled, noting I’d been on the bus before him this time. He was near the back, with Runaway about halfway between us. I drifted asleep quickly, hoping I’d stay sleep until we stopped again at midnight.
“Hey.” I jerked awake at Lanky’s voice.
“What?” I said, my voice raspy.
“You dropped your shit.”
My bag was on the floor, shit spilling out of it. “Fuck.” I bent over and started shoving stuff back in.
“You sleep heavy.”
“My girl sleeps heavy too.” He smiled a little then, looking down at his drawing which appeared to be finished.
“Haven’t seen her in awhile?” I guessed, sitting back up. I didn’t always like to get into conversations on trans-continental bus rides, but Lanky seemed cool.
“Yeah, almost a year.”
“What’s her name?” I asked.
He hesitated. I understood that. I didn’t give out personal details to strangers either. “Sarah.” He said finally. “She’s an accountant. Smart. Way smarter than me. She likes me anyway though.”
“That’s cool. My girl’s way smarter than me, too. How long you been together?”
“About four years, off and on. I think this time is for real though.”
“Yeah? Good for you, man.”
“Thanks,” he said, closing his notebook and shoving it in his bag. “Well, there’s Indianapolis.”
I turned to look out my window. We were definitely heading into a big city. I could use a stretch and a cigarette. I couldn’t even think about anything else. I needed nicotine. Fuck. But then I remembered the dad with the smoke clouding around his baby in the car. No. Bathroom, water, bus change. There was no point in calling Mel. It was only a little after midnight.
We reached the station and I bought another pack of pop tarts for the morning time. I checked my ticket and saw I was boarding bus 950 at Door 1 in about ten minutes. People were lining up already, so of course I did too, again hoping Weary Traveler was on literally any other bus. But there he was in line, near the front. When he saw me he shook his head in disappointment. Well, I don’t like you either, buddy.
Runaway and Lanky were also in my line. I was happy about these two. They were alright company. The driver checked our tickets and let us board. This time, I was near the back. Runaway was a few rows behind, Weary Traveler even further back and Lanky was closer to the front. I ended up without a seat partner again and smiled at my good luck.
After a few minutes the driver climbed on. She was pulling the door shut when we heard a loud bang on the glass. The woman frowned down at whoever it was and then reopened the doors. She nodded politely at the guy who climbed the stairs. He smiled and shoved his ticket at her.
“You almost missed the bus. It’s after departure.” The driver, a woman in her late 40’s, told him before smiling back. “Glad you made it.”
“Yeah, I gotta make it to Chicago. I wouldn’t miss my bus, baby.” He said to her and I automatically hated his voice. It slithered over your skin like a wave of grease, clinging and sour.
“Alright, well why don’t you take a seat.” She said, clearly put off at being called ‘baby’ by some nut sack in his late 20’s. Or maybe younger, with a hard life behind him. The closer he came, the better I could see him. He was scraggly, jerky, itchy, and possible high on something. And he stank.
The guy moved toward the back of the bus, studying everyone in every seat as he did. I had a sick idea of what he was looking for. I spun around to look for Runaway. She was sitting alone with a nervous look on her face as he came closer. She was getting the same vibes we all were. And she was the only single woman on the bus.
It was clear as day when Scraggle noticed her. His eyes lit up and he moved a bit faster. I started to stand up, hoping to move back to the seat next to her but he was too close. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and glanced back. Weary Traveler has moved up to sit next to her. He saw my intention and nodded at me. He had her covered. I looked back toward Scraggle who was now frowning. He, instead, took a seat directly behind her. Weary-Traveler and I exchanged a look that may as well have been a conversation. He would stay right next to her and I was there if he needed help. I fell back into my seat and saw Lanky eyeing the entire exchange. Scraggle wasn’t very big but he was likely volatile and unpredictable. The more people to help manage the situation, the better.
The driver, Sandra she introduced herself as over the PA, got the bus on the road and headed out toward Chicago. I was looking forward to getting there. It would be early morning and I’d be able to call my girl, and then again in Minneapolis.
Things were quiet for most of the ride as other passengers slept. The only sounds on the bus were quiet talking, light snoring, and Lanky scribbling. I still kept my headphones off in case of trouble and trouble was what we eventually got. It was early, just sunrise, when I heard Runaway shout.
“Don’t touch me!”
I spun around just in time to see Scraggle pull his hand back between the sheets. “You looked so peaceful sleeping there. Beautiful. Like a princess.” I heard him murmur.
Weary Traveler was already turned around, in the guy’s face. “You don’t touch women who don’t give you permission to touch them.”
“Calm down, old man,” Lanky smiled as he relaxed back in his seat. “I just brushed her hair out of her face.”
“That’s not all you touched!” Runaway hissed.
“Oh, you liked it, baby, I saw. You were still asleep and you purred for me.”
The curse was loud enough to wake most of the back of the bus. I stood up and nodded at Scraggle. “Maybe you should switch seats with me.”
Scraggle sneered at me. “I’m good where I am.”
“It wasn’t a request. The seats in front of my row are empty so you should be able to keep your hands to yourself.”
“Yeah? And what if she doesn’t want me to keep my hands to myself?”
“Believe me, I do.” Runaway spat.
Weary Traveler stood up and nodded in my direction. “I think you should go.”
“No.” Scraggle laughed.
“Then she can move up,” I said, and held out my hand to Runaway. She squeezed by Weary Traveler and dropped into the seat next to me.
“Now leave that girl alone.” A man from the back of the bus said into the silence.
“Pervert.” Another woman said quietly, though we all heard it. Scraggle turned around.
“Who said that? Who the fuck said that?”
“Let it go, man, we’re almost to Chicago.” I told him.
“Yeah? Well I ain’t gettin’ off in Chicago. Are you? How about that fine piece of woman you got there, is she?”
“Shut the fuck up, boy.” Weary Traveler said and Scraggle laughed. The PA suddenly boomed over us, waking the front of the bus, to let us know we were in Chicago and for those of us continuing on Bus 950 the bus would re-board within the hour. Not much time.
At this point I needed a cigarette – badly. I even thought of bumming one back off of Runaway, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the dad in the car, his baby in the back. I could be strong. For Mel.
As soon as I was off the bus, I was shoving a quarter into a payphone. Mel picked up on the second ring. “Hey baby.”
“Where are you?”
“Chicago. I know you just got to sleep a couple hours ago…”
There was silence.
“I’m sorry. I just needed to hear your voice.”
“I needed to hear yours, too. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. How are you feeling?”
“Good. Tired. Lonely. But I’m glad you went. We need to do this.”
I leaned against the pay phone. “I know. But I hate it.”
“So do I. It’s just a couple months…”
“Weeks, baby. It’s weeks.”
“PLEASE DEPOSIT 25 CENTS TO CONTINUE THIS CALL.”
I quickly dug in my pocket looking for another quarter. Shit. Long distance on a payphone was a quarter a minute? Fuck.
“It’s okay, I’m gonna go back to sleep. Call me from Minnesota?”
I sighed. Of course she was tired. I couldn’t keep her on the phone just to hear her voice.
“Yeah, baby, I’ll call in a few hours.”
“Okay. I love you, Kris.”
“Love you, too. Goodnight.”
I hung up the handset and ran my hand through my hair. Shit. Walking over to the vending machine I paid for a water and another pack of poptarts. If I had to eat nothing but poptarts all the way to Washington, I would. Nothing would stop me from calling Mel everyday for as many minutes as she would talk to me.
“Passengers traveling on Bus 950 to Minneapolis, please line up at Bay 16.”
I walked over to door 16 and was for once happy to see Weary Traveler in line. But unfortunately so was Runaway. And Scraggle a few people behind her.
“Hey Runaway!” I called. She looked around for a minute until she found me. “Why don’t you come back here with me?” Runaway saw where I was looking and eyed Scraggle as she passed him. He made a rude gesture with his tongue and she looked away.
“That guy is disgusting.” She said when she neared me.
“I know. Thought we’d let him pick his seat first.”
Runaway nodded. And then, “Thank you.”
I stepped a little closer, but didn’t touch her. “You’re welcome.”
Since we were at the back, there were only single seats left. Runaway, I was happy to see, sat next to Lanky. I ended up next to a woman who hadn’t been on our bus before and looked like she’d been traveling for months. She gave me a weary nod and then looked out the window. I closed my eyes for the first time in hours.
It was somewhere near Madison that the trouble started. I woke up to yelling and looked back to see Lanky taking a punch, Weary Traveler trying to hold back Scraggle in the aisle, and Runaway practically standing in her seat trying to get the bus driver’s attention.
“You ready to trade seats now, pussy?!” Scraggle punched Lanky in the stomach again, Weary Traveler not able to do much to hold him back.
“Fuck off!” Lanky hit back but it didn’t slow down Scraggle.
Weary tried to wrestle him down in the aisle. “Sit back in your goodamn seat!”
Scraggle knocked him off easily, then turned around and kicked Weary, a man clearly on the other side of 60. The entire bus erupted in outrage, but no one seemed to want to intervene. Lanky tried to push him away from Runaway again but Scraggle took him down with one punch to the face.
“Yeah? Anybody else wanna some?” Scraggle sat down in Lanky’s seat and stroked Runaway’s leg as she tried to kick him off. “Come on, baby, you can sit right in my lap.”
I was over my seat and down the aisle before he could yank her down on him. I grabbed Scraggle by his shirt and hauled him up. Weary was old, Lanky wasn’t accustomed to taking a punch, but I did manual labor for a living. And got into a lot of bar fights. Even high as a kite, and freakishly strong, Scraggle had nothing on me.
I dragged him down the aisle as he yipped and cursed. A few passengers got in a kick or two as he was pulled between them.
“Where the fuck you taking me?!” Scraggle squealed.
“You’re getting off the bus.”
“The fuck I am, they attacked me first! I was just trying to talk friendly to that girl!”
“Yeah, looked real friendly.”
Sandra, who must have caught some of the commotion, was already pulling the bus over.
“Get off me! Ma’am, ma’am? This man is assaulting me and I would like the police called.” Scraggle choked as I dragged him down the stairs of the bus.
Sandra scoffed. “Looked more like you were harassing that poor girl and kicking an old man. I don’t tolerate that sort of behavior on my bus. You’re getting off here.”
She opened the doors and I pushed him out. He landed on his feet and spun around quickly. “You can’t fucking do this! I paid! I’m calling corporate! Bus 950! And you can’t just leave me here, you have my bag!”
A backpack came flying out of the door behind me and landed in a dirty puddle further down the embankment.
“There’s your fucking bag.” Runaway said, and then turned and walked back to her seat.
“Safe travels.” I smiled at him as the bus driver pulled the doors closed in front of me. I watched Scraggle try to chase the bus and we pulled away. Other passengers flicked him off or insulted him out the window. Some gave me high fives or nodded approvingly at me.
Runaway was helping Weary back to his seat and Lanky was already next to him. I pulled out some Kleenex that Mel had put in my backpack ages ago and offered it to them.
“He got you good, Lanky.” I said.
Lanky laughed. “My name’s Dillon.”
“Dillon. I’m Kris.”
“Mack,” Weary interjected from next to Lanky. “I’m Mack. Nice to meet you, Kris. Thanks for stepping in.”
“Yeah, I was getting my ass beat,” Dillon laughed.
“Oh, you were not! That dude was just super methed out.” Runaway chimed in. “And thank you. All of you. I’m Gracie.”
“Well, that was eventful. Hopefully some of you are getting off in Minni for good.” I laughed.
“Nope, I’m going through to Idaho.” Weary – now Mack – said.
“Casper, Wyoming.” From Dillon.
Gracie hesitated. “Billings, Montana. I don’t know anybody there but…I don’t know. I heard it’s a nice place.”
I nodded. “Spokane for me. Looks like we’re all in for the long haul.”
“Here, sit.” Mack nodded at me.
“We need to clean that.”
“Clean what?’ I asked.
“He bit you in the arm.” Gracie pointed.
I looked down at my arm. Fuck, he had. Broken skin too. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. “Shit.”
“Don’t worry about it, I’m sure you’re fine.”
“Yeah, he looked real clean,” I rolled my eyes.
Dillon laughed and then poured hydrogen peroxide on my arm that he’d gotten from…god knows where.
I must have fallen asleep again because the next thing I knew Mack was gently nudging me. “Hey, you want some jerky?”
I blinked and sat up. “What?”
“Jerky. You look like you haven’t eaten in days.”
“He hasn’t.” I heard Gracie from across the aisle.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes, and then took the strip of dried meet from Mack. “Where are we?”
“The border.” Gracie said.
“We’re almost in North Dakota.” Gracie answered.
I shot up. “What happened to Minneapolis?!”
“You slept through it,” Mack said. “Soundly. Said you were going through to Washington, didn’t seem any reason to wake you.”
“No reason? I was supposed to call my girl!”
“Well, you can call her from Whitefall,” Gracie said. “That’s a terminal, a lot of people are changing busses there. Mack and me are.”
“Well how fucking far is Whitefall?” I asked, exasperated.
Dillon’s arm came over the back of my seat and hugged the headrest. “Couple hours. But you really didn’t miss anything. Payphone bank was crazy in Minneapolis. I was supposed to call my girl, Sarah. There wasn’t time. Call in Whitefall.”
“Jesus.” I knocked my head back against the seat rest. Goddamn it. I didn’t know what time Mel worked today. I was supposed to call her from Minnesota. What if she was worried about me? We couldn’t get to Whitefall soon enough.
Mack shared his entire bag of jerky with me – silently – and I was grateful. Maybe he wasn’t so back after all. Just had someplace to be – someplace important I’d guess.
The snow started just after we hit the border. First gentle flakes, then a flurry, and finally a full-on white out. I had no idea how the driver could even see through it. And even though Whitefall was only supposed to be about two hours or so from the border, it felt more like 5. It even seemed like the sun was setting by the time the PA came on. It wasn’t until then that I even realized we had switched bus drivers in Minni.
“Folks, this is Richard your driver, we’re pulling into the Whitefall station now. Looks like we’ve got a few other busses parked which is great for you folks making transfers, everything should move on schedule provided the weather cooperates which, as you can see, it’s pretty nasty out there. This is gonna be a twenty minute stop. Ordinarily I would mention some of the fast food restaurants in town if you want something hot to eat but I don’t recommend leaving the bus station in Whitefall, it’s a real blizzard out there.”
He was right, it was hard to see anything at all, in fact. Slowly the clean walls of the red brick bus station materialized out of the blinding white. It was a sizable terminal, though not quite as big as Indianapolis. The bus pulled to a stop and the doors opened.
“Please take everything with you off the bus, everyone must get off even if you are continuing on with us to Rapid City. We are going to re-board at 5:40, the current time is 5:20.”
5:20. This was supposed to be an unhurried 3 hours stop for me but it seems I would only have ten minutes to find and board Bus 414. Was the weather that bad? Had we been going that slow? I stood up quickly, hoping to be one of the first people off.
“Nice meeting you all, good luck. Mack, we only got ten minutes before our bus leaves.”
“I saw.” He grumbled.
The bus station was madness. There had to be 70 people inside, including us and it wasn’t as big on the inside as it had looked from the outside. Everyone was shouting, people were snapping at each other, a baby screamed bloody murder on the other side of the room, it was absolute chaos.
“What the hell…” I heard Mack beside me.
“Whatever, let’s just figure out what door we need to be at.”
The ticket window was empty of a station employee so I went to the board near the front of the room. I found Bus 414 but across from it – where the door number should be – there was nothing. It was blank. In fact…they were all blank.
“What the fuck is going on.”
The guy who answered my question was standing underneath the board, leaning up against the wall. He had on a Chiefs t-shirt and looked like he’d just pulled up in his daddy’s lexus. “Busses are canceled. All of them. Board has been like that since the first one rolled up this morning from Kansas City.”
“Fuck that, I have a connection to make! I gotta get to Post Falls!” Mack was red-faced and heaving. He was pissed.
The stranger laughed but there was no humor in it. “Start walking then.”
“You little shit.” Mack yelled, and tried to take a step toward the other guy. I put an arm across his chest.
“Relax, Mack, he’s just some guy having a bad day. Like the rest of us.”
“Yeah, we’ve all got places to be, Mack. So PLAY NICE.” The douchebag taunted.
He walked away and Mack shook my arm off. “‘Play nice’, fuck that guy! Are all the busses really canceled? I gotta get on the 414 to Post Falls. Someone is meeting me at 9pm. I told her 9pm. I can’t be late. I promised.”
Gracie appeared. “Shit. The 312 to Billings is cancelled, too.”
I looked back at the board and sighed. “Doesn’t look like any of us are going anywhere. Should we find someone to talk to?”
Gracie snorted. “I tried. There’s not a station employee or driver to be found. I even tried knocking on the ‘employees only’ door and no one answered.”
“Shit,” Dillon had suddenly appeared beside us as well. “I gotta call Sarah.”
“Yeah, I gotta use the phone, too.” I said. “Mack?”
“No…no. I don’t…I don’t have her phone number. Just an address. And a letter wont make it in time.”
“Shit.” I said.
I patted Mack on the shoulder and then followed Dillon to the payphones. There were two and only one was free.
“You go ahead.” He said.
The phone rang so long I didn’t think Mel was going to answer. And when she did, the connection was pretty bad. I could hear about 70% of everything she said but that was it. I apologized for Minneapolis and she understood. I told her it looked like there’d be a delay getting to Spokane and that I was stuck in a blizzard in North Dakota.
“That sounds terrible. How bad is it?”
“Remember New York four years ago?”
“Oh my god.”
She said something then I didn’t catch. I asked her to repeat it.
Distortion…distortion…”doctor”….distortion…”an appointment”…distortion…” maybe Monday.”
“You have an appointment on Monday?”
The phone disconnected. I stared at it a few seconds before pulling another quarter out of my pocket.
“Don’t bother. You’ll get the same shitty connection.” Warned a tall, blonde woman next to me.
I kept digging. “Well I at least want to try,” I mumbled.
“Save your money, son.” A older man said from beside her. “She’s right. The storm is interfering. Might as well wait until it calms down some.”
I took a look outside but all I could see was white. “You think it’ll calm down?”
“It better.” The woman said. “I have to get to Chicago.”
“Right. We just came from there.” I said.
The man next to her nodded. “Minneapolis bus. Saw you come in.” He stuck out his hand. “Name’s John Pollock. This is my daughter Emily.”
I shook it. “Kris Stikes.” I held my hand out to Emily and she took it as well in a pretty crushing grip.
“Better settle in for the night, Stikes. Nobody’s getting out of here until morning.” She told me.
“Yeah? Who said that?”
“Came over the PA, while you were on the phone.” John replied. I exchanged a look with Dillon. Not good. And especially not good for Mack.
“Nice meeting you,” I said curtly before Dillon and I headed toward the last place we’d seen the weary, old traveler. We found him sitting down in a chair near the door we had come in from. Gracie was next to him, smoking a cigarette. God, I could use one of those right now.
“How you doin’, Mack?”
“You talk to your girl?” He asked.
I shrugged. “Bad connection.”
He looked over at Dillon. “And you? You get ahold of your girl?”
Dillon shook his head. “Didn’t seem much of a point.”
Mack nodded. “So we’re all fucked.”
I sat down across from him noticing for the first time most of the people on our bus were seated in this area too.
“What do we do now? Just wait?”
Gracie nodded. “Yep. We’re stuck here until morning.”
“Anybody want anything from a fast food place?” A man I recognized from our bus asked. “I’m gonna chance the storm, see if I can find a McDonalds nearby or something.”
A few people raised their hands and handed him money. God knew it was tempting. But I needed to save as much money as possible for the payphones. I opted for a snickers bar from the vending machine instead.
I watched him walk to the front door of the station. He struggled with the wind and the door and in the end, all he left behind was a dusting of snow that escaped into the building when he left. I never knew his name. We never saw him again.
We all did our best to get comfortable in our chairs. The baby, wherever it was, stopped screaming around 9. Gracie, who was stretched out on the floor dropped off first, settled between me in a chair on her right and Dillon and Mack in chairs on her other side. The station quieted down and by 1am there were only whispers and wind to keep me company. I tried calling Mel again around 1:30 and I think I got Mandy but the distortion was so bad it was impossible to tell.
I finally feel asleep around 3am and didn’t wake again until 8. People were up and moving around by then. The sun might have been out but there was no way to tell. An impossible amount of snow seemed to have fallen overnight and the windows were almost completely covered by the drifts. There had to be 7 feet of it out there. It was ludicrous.
I rubbed my eyes and then looked over at a vaguely familiar man. “Me?”
“Yeah, you. What’s your name?”
“Okay, Stikes, well that guy took my money last night for a burger and he never came back.”
“Probably took all our cash and got a hotel for the night.”
“Well? What are you gonna do about it?”
“What do you mean? I didn’t give him any money.”
“Yeah, but you’re the guy who sorts problems. Like the meth-head on the bus. I got a problem, so you help me sort it.”
“Look, man, I don’t know where you got that idea, but I can’t do anything about your money. If he went to a hotel, he’ll be back this morning to board his bus. Take it up with him then.”
I left the guy and headed to the bathroom. The line for the women’s wrapped around the wall and that morning I couldn’t have been happier to be a dude. The bathroom was blessedly silent and I reveled in that, too. I could feel an undercurrent of anxiety and distress everywhere. It washed the terminal from wall to wall. In here, I was happy to be removed from it, and alone.
“Good morning, folks,” cracked the PA above me. “This is the stationmaster speaking on behalf of your drivers and the Greyloor Company. I’m sure you’re all very eager to board your busses and get on the road to your destinations. We sympathize wholeheartedly our passengers, so we are disappointed to have to inform you that the storm is not predicted to let up until this evening.”
I could hear groans, and curses, and even yelling from the other side of the door.
“Our vending machines are fully stocked with food and drink so we ask that you do not attempt to step outside as the winds are in the 65 mph range and visibility is zero. For your safety please do not attempt to leave the station.”
“Fuck you!” I heard someone yell through the door.
This was bad. Real bad. There were a couple of vending machines on each wall, but hardly enough to feed 70 people for an entire extra day. The one I had used last night was already almost empty. I dried my hands and walked out the door, heading back to our group’s section. As soon as I sat down, Gracie offered me a cigarette.
“I know you’re stressed.”
I nodded tiredly. “I am.”
“Are you sure you don’t want one?”
I eyed the pack hungrily. But then I thought of the man in the car.
“Hell, I’ll have one,” Mack grumbled.
The rest of the day passed slowly. We talked about TV, movies, video games, places we visited, but nothing personal. I ate poptarts and goldfish from the vending machine. Tried to call Mel again and exchanged maybe 8 words I could understand with her.
By nightfall, things were dire. We had been waiting all day to hear about the storm and our busses but no one showed up at the ticket windows and no one addressed us over the loudspeaker.
Around 6 I watched the stranger in the Chiefs t-shirt bang on the employee door with a couple other guys. They tried pounding on it, they tried shouting, hell, they even tried kicking the door in, but nothing broke. It had now been over 24 hours that we had all been stranded here. The baby screamed from somewhere, a man fought with another over the last moonpie in the vending machine, frustrated people tried the phones.
“What do you think, Kris?” Dillon fell down into a chair next to me.
“I think this place has a breaking point and we’re gonna hit it tomorrow night.”
“You give them that long?”
“If we don’t hear something over the PA before then, yeah.”
“What do you think they’re doing back there?” Mack asked.
I shrugged. “Drinking coffee, sleeping on couches, laughing at us.”
Mack looked out the window. “The storm doesn’t look that bad.”
I had to disagree.
Sleep came easier that night due to my sheer exhaustion. I slept from ten at night to eight in the morning and was only woken by shouting. A man was trying to leave the station and two people I recognized, the father and daughter I’d met two days before, were trying to stop him.
“I have to get out of here, I have money, I’ll find the cops or the red cross or something. I’ll send help!”
“Andy, no!” Emily Pollock yelled. “You’ll die out there!”
“I can’t stay in here anymore. I can’t.”
“Andy, stop!” Emily yanked back on his arm as he tried for the door again. “We need you!”
“More importantly, son, it’s not safe out there,” her father chimed in.
“Oh, let him go.” The stranger with the Chiefs t-shirt laughed. “He’s an adult, he can decide what we wants.”
“Stay out this, this has nothing to do with your people.”
“My people?” He asked.
“We’ve been on a bus with him since Arizona,” her father explained. “We’re concerned for him. Focus on your Kansas City people!”
“I’ve been on a bus with all these people,” Chief’s shirt gestured to a large group in the corner, “but if any of them wanted to leave of their own free will I would let them.”
Emily Pollock laughed. “That’s because you don’t fucking care. Now piss off you pretty, mama’s boy.”
“My name is Acker but thanks for the compliment, bitch.”
“Hey!” John interjected. “There’s no need for that.”
“Well, looks like you’re a daddy’s girl, too.”
“Go deal with your own group, Acker.” She snapped and the man she’d been holding hostage took that moment to jerk away from her, throw open the door and bolt through it. I was on my feet in seconds.
“What the hell? How did he get through the drifts?”
Dillon was behind me as we ran over there. It was impossible. The snow was higher than the windows. He should have ran into a wall of snow.
I threw the door open and found myself looking at a long, narrow hallway of snow, so high on both sides, I could hardly see the top. The passage went on so long I thought I’d lost it until I spotted the dark figure of a man hurrying away.
I was pulled back and the door slammed in my face. Emily Pollock was there glaring at me. “You fucking idiot, it’s bad enough he went out.”
“Who carved that path?”
“Who cares? It goes nowhere. We sent a girl out last night to see if she could find help and she never came back.”
“You sent someone out there?!” I asked, horrified. I address this question more to John, as he seemed the more rational of the two.
“I did not agree to that but the girl and my daughter did. She went out of her own volition.”
“That’s insane! You sent some poor girl out there?!” Mack hollered from my left. “She wont make it a hundred yards in this!”
“She knew the risks!” The younger Pollock snapped. “But it went nowhere, and now we’ve lost someone we actually needed!”
“What do you mean ‘needed’?” I asked her.
Emily clenched her jaw and stared at me. Her father just shook his head. Neither volunteered an answer.
“He was a nurse. She needed him.” Acker shrugged from the periphery of the argument.
“Needed him for what? Someone’s sick?”
Emily laughed. “Everyone is sick, or will be soon. This our 3rd day here with no contact with the outside world. The vending machines are practically empty. The women’s bathroom has overflowed. The people who are supposed to get us out of here refuse to open the door. Or even speak to us. They don’t care what happens out here. People haven’t slept. The phones aren’t working. If we don’t find a way to leave or get help, we’ll all starve.”
I looked around the station. My bus had come in late evening two days before. As I studied the room I noticed that people seemed to have huddled into four groups – one of them being ours, the passengers from the Minneapolis bus.
“There has to be another nurse or doctor here.” I said.
“Yeah? Well, why don’t you ask around the Minneapolis group. Because we had no medical professionals on the Kansas City side,” Acker said. “So if you have one, send them over.”
“I’ll ask around.” I said carefully.
“You do that.” Acker smiled and I had a feeling I was missing something. Mack pulled me back to our row of seats and sat me down.
“You ever read Lord of the Flies, son?” Mack asked.
“What’s going on?” Gracie asked, flinging some book she was reading onto the seat next to her.
“Look around,” Mack said. “Do you see how this station is divided?”
“Yes.” I answered. “By random groups.”
“Not random,” Dillon chimed in. “By bus.” Mack nodded and seemed relieved, as if the burden of knowledge was off of him. “Over there, the guy with the Chiefs tshirt. That group was on the bus that came from Kansas City. And over there, that dad and daughter we met the first night, that whole group is from Denver.”
“And what about that group?” Gracie asked, pointing to the largest group, all of whom sat against a wall on the far side of the terminal.
“Salt Lake City. I was talking to a woman from their group earlier. Went over to ask if anybody had a stamp. She was polite but basically told me to fuck off.” Mack grumbled.
“Right. What does any of this matter?” I asked.
Mack slid his eyes to me. “It means that ithe situation is devolving into every man for himself. More accurately, every camp for themselves.”
“I think we can assume the loudest ones are the self-appointed leaders.” Dillon rolled his eyes.
“Right.” Mack said. “The guy in the Chiefs tshirt – Acker – seems to speak for the KC group. That loud woman and her dad seem to run Denver. I’m gonna guess the woman who stood up when I approached the wall is speaking for Salt Lake City.”
“That leaves us,” Gracie said.
“Right. And that’s obviously Kris.” Dillon nudged me.
Dillon shrugged. “After the methhead incident, it just seems natural.”
Mack seemed to agree and simply nodded at me.
Later that night I woke several people up cursing at the phone. I still called. Mel or Mandy still answered. But I could never make out a word they said. But I still called. Because she had to know I was always here. And I was trying.
I slammed the phone back onto the cradle after it disconnected for the 3rd time and reached into my pocket for more quarters. Since all I had left were bills I decided to break one in a vending machine. I should probably eat anyway, it had been an entire day since I’d had anything.
I went to my favorite, the one with strawberry poptarts. The vending machine was against SLC’s wall. A woman sitting on the floor next to the machine narrowed her eyes at me as I approached.
“What?” I asked her.
“What are you getting?”
“Just a package. Why?” The tone of my voice was no longer pleasant.
“Because I need to know.”
“Lady, I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to explain why I’m buying a fucking poptart.”
She laughed then. It seemed to surprise her as well and was a pleasant sound. She stood up and stuck out her hand. “I’m Amanda Hughen. You’re Minneapolis, right?”
“Kris Stikes.” I said warily.
“Alright, Stikes, you in charge over there?”
“No one is in charge. We’re all just waiting for our busses.”
She didn’t say anything for a moment, just eyed me instead. “Let me give you a word of advice. No one here is your friend.”
“I got that.”
“Not even me.”
“No shit, I just met you.”
She stared at me a moment longer and then shrugged and sat back down. “Enjoy your poptart, Stikes.”
I ate my poptart in silence and watched the room settle down for the night. People were more restless. The baby cried louder, and for longer. I could hear fucking crying. The whole situation was disintegrating. Maybe that’s what Mack and Amanda Hughen and even Emily had been trying to tell me. Things were dire. Circle your wagons.
It seemed like an over-reaction and I went to sleep thinking so. Until I was awoken at 4 in the morning by glass breaking. I was out of my seat instantly, Mack, too. Some guy had just been bashed into a long, glass shadowbox on the wall and Acker and some other dude were screaming at him.
“Did you think we wouldn’t see you? That we wouldn’t have someone awake?” The other guy yelled in the dude’s face. “You try to steal from us?”
“No, man, it’s just a vending machine!” The now-bloodied guy stuttered as Acker held him in a chokehold.
“It’s our vending machine. Use the one in your area.”
“Ours only has soda in it!”
“So drink a fucking soda,” Acker laughed and punched the guy in the face again right before I got there. I yanked Acker back and the guy dropped to the floor. All of Acker’s group were suddenly out of their seats and surrounding us. The situation was getting out of hand. I felt Mack behind me and then Gracie and Dillon broke through the herd on my left.
I flung Acker against the wall. “What the fuck is wrong with you? The guy was just tryin’ to eat!”
“Yeah,” Acker straightened and pulled his cuffs down like nothing at all had just occurred. “He can get food from Denver’s area.”
“You heard him, there’s no food there! It’s just a vending machine, man!”
“Really? Well then let him get food out of the one by your group.”
“He can! No one would stop him.”
“What about two days from now? Or three? Or a week? What about when there’s barely any food left? Then would you let him?”
“Then your group is totally fucked. Might as well let that 5 year old lead it.” He laughed, and pointed at a kid and his mom who’d gotten on with us in Columbus.
“You’re insane. It wont come to three days or a week. They can’t leave us here that long.”
“It’s been four fucking days, Stikes. No one has come. No one over the PA. Take a look outside, the busses are gone. We’re alone. We’ve been abandoned. Get that through your fucking head. Or don’t. Hell, it makes things easier for Kansas City. You hear that, everyone? When you’re hungry, make sure you use Minneapolis’s vending machine. It’s a free -for-all over there.”
His group laughed and then seemed to melt back into their territory. Mack grabbed my arm and led me away. Again. I could hear Emily screaming at the bloodied guy in the hallway. She seemed pissed he’d gotten into it with Kansas City. I also caught Amanda’s eye walking back toward our area. I could read what she was telling me in her eyes. Now you know the way things are. Be smart.
The next day seemed different. My eyes were open to the actual dynamics of the station, all the things that had been going on in the background while I ate my poptarts and pined away for Melody. Again, there was no PA announcement that day. And again, people tried to break down or disassemble the Employees Only door. The employee areas we could get to had already been raided. There was nothing useful.
That morning I asked Dillon to take everything out of our vending machines and stockpile it in the corner. When he said he didn’t have enough money, I told him to break the fucking glass, which he did. Within an hour, the other groups followed suit, breaking into their vending machines as well.
I tried like hell to get to the quarters, but they were in a locked metal box. I just wanted them for the payphones, to hear the line connect, to listen to the static. To tell Mel I was always right here. But I couldn’t get to them.
We didn’t have a doctor or nurse in our group, but we did have a nursing student named Miles. He was able to calculate body weights and, with Mack’s help, rationed all of our food individually. There were 12 of us. And we could last 18 days at minimum levels for survival. I hoped to God we didn’t need that long. I could only hope the other groups were rationing their food as well. And if not, we had a schedule of “sentries”, so that two people from our group were always awake and watching for trouble.
We melted snow for water. Tried to wash clothes. Everyone stunk, the whole station.
By the 5th day, the situation was critical. People cried all the time. Arguments, fist fights, yelling. I watched a woman from Denver shove a woman from Kansas City into the wall. It erupted into chaos on both sides. Kansas City came after Denver and soon dozens of people on from both groups were fighting, Kansas City having the clear advantage. I was halfway across the room when Acker finally intervened, calling his group back with a laugh and telling them to “play nice”.
On the 6th day, we finally got news. The crackle of the PA after so long probably scared everyone in the building, but we hung on every word that came after.
“Good afternoon, folks, Stationmaster here, just wanted to give you a quick update. We still have quite a blizzard outside so we are not able to depart any busses at this time, however we are hoping the weather will clear in the next couple days. So sit back, grab a cup of coffee or tea if that is your thing, and settle in. Please also remember that it is very important that you do not leave the station for your own safety. Thanks, folks, and we’ll let you know when we know something more.”
The room, which had been quietly gasping and cursing during the announcement, became loud and chaotic when it ended. I felt the same. A few more days. Days. The delicate ecosystem of human suffering would not support days more of this.
“Fuck is right.” Is all Mack said, and then sat down to work on a document he had been writing for the last few days. He was often writing or erasing and rewriting. I knew better than to ask him about it, but Gracie seemed to think he needed to do it.
“I don’t suppose you got anymore of those M&Ms, Gracie.” I asked one day when I caught her counting out individual nuts for the rations.
“Fuck, I wish.” She grumbled.
Most of the last couple days for me had been getting to know the other people in the Minneapolis group and playing cards. Gracie was the best at poker and often ended up with all the peanut shells, which we’d been using as chips. Mack played too, but seemed less and less his usual jovial (read the sarcasm there) self as the days passed. Dillon drew a lot and talked about Sarah. How he’d met her (work), why they’d broken up (his fear of commitment), when he realized he loved her (ran into her years later at a New Years Eve party), and how it was going to be different this time (which, he didn’t have all worked out, but he had faith).
The following day was the 7th day, a milestone, an entire week. We all had horrible headaches from the ever alight, bright, florescent lights. We weren’t eating as much as we should and we were all bored to tears.
This was the mood when Amanda and John Pollock approached us with two other Denver-ens in tow. The groups had all kept strictly to themselves since the night of the big fight between Denver and Kansas City so I was immediately wary.
I met them at the top of the aisle, with Mack and Dillon at my sides. “Pollocks. What can we do for you?”
John cleared his throat. “We are actually just taking stock of food. Our area had a cigarette machine and a soda machine, so we have run out of actual food fairly quickly. We were hoping-“
“We need all the groups to donate food to Denver,” Amanda interrupted. “We’re dying.”
“You’re dying?” I asked.
“Yes,” she hissed. “Or we will if we don’t get any food.”
I shrugged. “What do you have to trade?”
“Are you kidding? This is a matter of life and death, you heartless fuck.”
“Exactly,” Dillon said. “So what do you have to trade?”
“We’re not trading anything.” Emily hissed.
“Pity,” Gracie said, standing up on chair next to us. “You can’t get something for nothing, you know.”
“Cigarettes!” John said. “We can trade you cigarettes. And soda.”
“Dad, no. They don’t need any of that.”
“We’ll take it,” I shrugged. “Keeping up morale is important, too. Cigarettes and soda will help.”
“You got any weed?” Gracie asked as she leered over the exchange.
“Why don’t you just give us some food and when you want a cigarette-“ Emily started.
“No. We have 12 people to feed, including a kid. You have 15. You want food, you trade. And I’m guessing you really want food.”
“Fine!” Emily snapped. “We will make a trade.”
I walked back into the Minneapolis group and let them know what was happening. Most people were okay with a trade, as long as we got enough back, and as long as there was enough for us to survive for another week. The mother and her son were less enthusiastic about it, but as a parent, I wouldn’t trade food my child could eat for soda and cigarettes either. But there were other people in this station who could starve if we didn’t. I returned to the Pollocks with my offer.
“We want 20 sodas and 20 packs of cigarettes. We’ll give you 15 packs of nuts, 5 packs of trail mix, and 10 assorted candy bars in trade.”
“That’s absurd!” Emily yelled. “We need more – we have 15 people!”
“Then I suggest you ration it.” Mack responded.
Emily sneered and stepped up in Mack’s face. I tensed, sure she was going to try something but all she did but stare and then tell him, “You stink.” To which Mack laughed. All we’d been able to have were makeshift “showers” in the bathroom sinks. Everyone stunk.
We exchanged what was promised and then I watched as the Pollocks made a similar deal with Salt Lake. They had more people, so offered less but Emily kept her temper in check this time. Finally, I saw them make there way over to Kansas City. Before I could even wonder how that would go, Acker’s voice carried across the entire building. “Keep walkin’, honey, you don’t have anything we want.”
She said something back to him and Acker laughed. Hopefully whatever she got from us and Salt Lake would be enough to get by for a couple more days.
By the tenth day at Whitefall, no one was crying or screaming or fighting anymore. Most people slept a lot. Conversations were quietly spoken. I occasionally saw people quietly leave of the station when it was my turn for watch. They looked like they’d had enough. They never came back.
Salt Lake was the first to really struggle. They had the biggest group, but had still tried to share with Denver. They were down to half rations before any of the other groups. We offered them what we could spare. But still, on the 16th day a rumor spread that someone had died. I watched them haul the girl out into the snow. She was very slight to begin with, not an ounce of fat on her. Her skin looked gray. Amanda looked shell-shocked. I knew she felt responsible. The girl was hers, from the SLC group. I’ll remember that look for the rest of my life.
By the 18th day, I realized the baby wasn’t crying anymore. We were dangerously low on food. Miles had dropped us to half rations. I still called Mel just to hear the static. But I talked to her all the same. Told her how much I loved her, and our growing baby. Told her I was always right here.
The boredom had really gotten to people. They laid around staring at walls, half catatonic. They begged Miles, keeper of our food, for something to eat. He’d just shake his head every time, not say anything. He looked to be cracking, too. Mack worked on his pages. Dillon drew. Gracie counted almonds over and over again. People played cards. We waited for rescue.
On day 19, we were awakened from our stupor by the loud cack of the PA again. It had been weeks and most of us were too shocked to react to the noise.
“Morning folks! Just wanted to give you another update. We’ve heard from the national weather service that the storm shouldn’t let up for another ten to twelve days. Not what you wanted to hear, I’m sure. But chin up! Help yourself for a coffee or tea and please, of course, let us know if you need anything or have any concerns. We can’t wait to get you back on the road.”
Dead silence reigned after the PA shut off. Shocked silence. Appalled silence. Until some guy from Denver broke it.
“I have some fucking concerns!” He screamed, and ran full force at the Employees Only door, using his head as a battering ram, again and again. I could see the blood spreading across the metal door from across the room. People sprung up out of their seats, but not to help him. No, they flung him aside and began battering the door. Over and over, piles of people, running into the door, shoving against it again and again. I could hear the metal buckling from the other side of the room. I was honestly surprised people had the strength after eating so little but then I noticed most of those battering the door were Kansas City. They hadn’t shared any of their rations with the other groups.
A loud crack and the door broke in. People trampled each other to get inside, and Mack and I were hauling ass over there immediately as well. “Grab what you can!” I yelled to the rest of the group, who followed us in.
Beyond the door was fucking anarchy. People grabbing and tearing at everything, from coffee grounds for the staff coffeepot to rolls of paper towels to books. I could only hope my group was hoarding shit as well.
The inside of the room was pretty disappointing in the end. A carpeted room with lockers, a couch, and a few nicer chairs and another, smaller room with manifests, route maps, and the PA system.
“Where the fuck are they?” Dillon yelled. Where indeed. There were no drivers here. No one to make the announcement. There was nothing. No one. So where had they gone? Where was the man who had been speaking to us five minutes ago?
I became aware of a commotion at the same moment that Mack tried to clue me into it. Acker and a couple others of his group trying to push people out.
“What the fuck, Acker? This ain’t your show.” I said, coming into the main room. He turned to me and spat on the floor at my feet.
“This is Kansas City territory. This room, and everything in it, is ours.”
“Fuck you, that is not happening!” Gracie said, and then picked up an empty coffee pot and hurled it at the wall.
“Now, now, play nice, little girl.” Acker purred at her.
“Hey,” I snapped my fingers in his face to get his attention back on me. “You think you own this room because the door is near your so-called territory?”
“Yeah. But if you want to dispute that, we’ll gladly reconsider.”
I didn’t need to look around the room to know that would never happen. Acker’s group was surprisingly healthy looking and had more men than women or children. The other groups, even mine, were pale and tired. If he wanted carpet and a couch, he could have them.
“Books,” I said. “Let us take as many books as we want and we wont dispute your claim to this room.”
Some brunette standing next to Acker laugher. “Take the fucking books.”
“You got anyone knows radios in your group?” Mack asked him.
Acker narrowed his eyes at Mack as if debating if he should answer and then nodded tightly.
“Try to rig that PA system to call out. Or maybe look around for a system that will.” Mack said.
“We don’t want to be here any more than you do, old man.” Acker said.
“Fine.” I turned to my group. “Take the books, as many as you can handle. It’ll help with the boredom. Yes, everything, take everything.” I wasn’t about to leave them a single fucking page.
Amanda Hughen seemed to agree and her group, bigger as it was, took even more than we did. I saw someone with a copy of The Shining and plucked it right out of their hands. “I’ll take that one.” Why not? It fit the mood.
“The Shining, huh?” Gracie said, noticing the book in my hand.
“Yep. Stephen King. Genius stuff. Something to pass the time since we only hear from the PA once a fucking month.”
“Yeah. What I wanna know is where’s this fucking coffee and tea?”
The groups kept to themselves for the rest of the day – Kansas City locked behind the Employee’s Only door. I could only imagine what was going on in there. So far they hadn’t fucked with anybody so I was happy to let them keep to themselves.
It was a couple days later, maybe 9 o’clock at night that the first murder occurred. Most of us were reading, a few of us sleeping. Gracie and Dillon were playing cards. I was in a conversation with Miles. The food, even at half rations, would only last a few more days. Things were dire. It was time to drop to quarter rations, like Salt Lake and Denver had days before.
“What about boiling clothes or leather or something?”
He shook his head. “We’ll do it, but it’s not gonna be enough.”
“Maybe we can talk to Kansas City.”
“Why Kansas City?” I asked. “They’re fucking dangerous. Likely to stab me just for asking.”
“Because…look at them. They’re not weak. Not one person in that group is showing signs of malnutrition. They have food. Denver and SLC are as fucked as we are.”
I sighed and looked toward their door. “Shit.”
The word was hardly out of my mouth before the door was flung open and a guy from Denver was pushed through it. He was young, 20’s maybe, and he was small.
“Pollock!” Acker followed the stumbling man out. “Where the fuck are you, woman!”
She emerged from the hallway her group had been using, a bored look on her face.“What is it? What are you doing with Jeremy?”
“You mean your little spy? We caught him creeping through a vent, trying to get into our area. You know anything about this?”
“Of course not.” She spat. “Do you think I’m stupid?”
Jeremy, for his part, looked terrified. He said not a word, and tried to catch himself as Acker and the brunette – I think her name was Natalie – shoved him between them violently.
“You’re saying you didn’t send this little prick to steal from us?”
“No! We wouldn’t do that! You have nothing we want. You forget, we’ve all been inside your little room.”
Acker studied her a moment longer and then picked up Jeremy and shoved him at her feet. The rest of the KC group seemed to materialize behind her, looking healthy and strong, just as Miles had said.
“Then deal with him. In front of everyone here.” He spread out his arms and gestured to the entire station. “Show us how you deal with thieving spies. Or we’ll deal with you, since you seem to speak for Denver.”
“I- I wasn’t going to take anything-“ Jeremy protested, but then Emily kicked him in the ribs and he gasped.
“Yeah,” Acker smiled and leaned back against the wall folding his arms. “That’s a good start.”
Emily didn’t even hesitate. She kicked him again. And then again. And because she was too weak to do any more damage, she addressed her group. “Participate in Jeremy’s punishment, all of you.”
A couple members of her groups stepped forward, also looking hesitant. The others stayed back. Emily stepped away and gestured at Jeremy again, who was moaning on the floor and bleeding from his mouth. “Participate or you don’t eat today. Or tomorrow.”
“Jesus.” I mumbled and Mack who had appeared along side me agreed.
It was brutal. The kicks, the punches, they were weak. But Jeremy, like his attackers, was frail. It went on for an entire minute before I couldn’t take it anymore.
“That’s enough, Emily. You’re going to kill him!” I yelled as I left my group to approach the chaos.
“Yes, that’s quite enough,” John Pollock agreed. “I would say he’s learned his lesson. Everyone stop.”
“No.” Emily said quietly. But it didn’t matter that the words were soft. Her group wouldn’t have heard them anyway. They were mad with bloodlust, punching, kicking, angry. Angry at their situation, the hopelessness of it, their likely impending deaths. But not at Jeremy, who by now had gone silent. And when the last of them finally ran out of steam and collapsed on the floor next to him, Jeremy breathed his last death rattle.
“Oh my God,” I heard Gracie whisper from somewhere behind me. Emily ordered the body dragged outside, KC went back into their room, SLC looked on as if nothing had happened, and I dropped into a seat next to Dillon, who continues to sketch mountains for his Sarah.
“Everything is going to be different now,” he said without looking up from his book.
And he was right. That was the night the power went out. It had been over three weeks and we had all gotten used to the blinding, florescent lights, which never dimmed and always hummed. I didn’t mind the darkness so much at first. We had lighters and someone had found a couple candles among the books in the employee break room.
It was heat we missed most and that became an issue within the first hour. I had everyone pull out all the clothes in their bags and then assigned them so that everyone in my group would stay as warm as possible. Next, we inventoried matches and lighters. When that was done, we dragged two metal garbage bins in our territory into our area, and piled all the wood we could find – chairs, small tables, wall paneling – into the corner of our section next to the food.
I watched as the other groups did the same. Salt Lake City and Minneapolis each had piles and piles of books which would work for kindling. Denver, as far as we could tell, only had a few books, or none at all. No one had any idea what was happening behind the closed door of KC’s new territory. But it wasn’t long before we saw the orange glow of a fire underneath the crack in the door. That made sense. They has years of paper manifests and charts back there. The smoke, with no where to go hovered over us. We had to crack the doors for ventilation, which only seemed to make it colder.
Time became confusing. Miles lost track of when to feed people. My watch kept running but the time never seemed right. Day bled to night and back to day slower than I thought it should have.
Life became a slow, boring, painful nightmare. We burned the books slowly, took turns in front of the fire. Denver struggled with their fire. They started eating snow, which Miles had already told me was one of the worst things you could do. It burns energy to warm snow up in your body. We tried to tell them but Emily told me to fuck off.
And then one day Amanda came to speak to me. I’d just hung up the phone – my hundredth call to Melody, to listen to the static and tell it that I was always there. I hadn’t heard Melody’s voice in weeks.
I looked up to find the tall woman standing at the payphone next to me. She was pale and thin and her skin was purple in places. I imagined I looked much the same. I nodded at her.
“How you been?”
I shrugged. “Could be better, I guess.”
“I know the feeling. Have you…lost anyone?”
I shook my head. “Not yet. But soon.” Everything felt heavy in my chest. We would lose someone soon. An older woman name Valerie, or possibly even Mack, who was more absorbed in his letter-writing every day. People were starting to get sick.
“We lost someone last night.”
“I’m sorry, Amanda. You have a bigger group. It was bound to happen to you first.”
“Yeah…he got sick. Alex, he was, he was in his 30’s, healthy, but he just got sick…”
She took a deep breath. “When we went to bring him out to the snow, to bury him where we buried Andrea, she… she was gone.”
“What do you mean. She wasn’t dead?”
“No, she was definitely dead.”
My brain was cloudy, slow to work, slow to process. “Are you saying she got up and walked away?”
“No. I’m saying someone took her.”
“Someone took her body?”
“Yes, Stikes, someone took her body.”
“We don’t know. But, you know Natalie from Kansas City?”
“Yeah, I know that cunt.”
“Yeah. Well yesterday when she came out to use the bathroom, she was…she was wearing Andrea’s jacket. The one we buried her in.”
“Okay. So Kansas City stripped her corpse for clothes.”
“I think there’s more to it than that, Kris.”
“You think they’re…abusing her corpse?” I didn’t know a politer way to say it.
“No. Stikes, come on. Think about it.”
“They’re eating her.” I heard Gracie before I saw her. She had been standing next to me – for god knows how long.
“We think so too. Our wall is near their door. We smell…we smell meat cooking sometimes. Do you remember when they first moving into that room?”
“They were almost as starving as we were,” Gracie answered.
“Right. And have you seen them lately?”
“Oh fuck,” I groaned. This was something…this was wrong. Eating dead bodies.
“So what I’m saying is, be careful of Kansas City. Even more than you have been. Andrea is dead, Jeremy is dead, and now Alex. What’s gonna happen when they run out of…supplies.”
“I gotta talk to Mack.” I ran a cold, numb hand through my greasy hair. “Listen, maybe we can agree to some sort of alliance. We’ll watch your back, and you watch ours.”
She nodded. “I think that’s necessary at this point.”
I nodded goodbye and then stalked over to Mack, who was viciously erasing a sentence from his letter. “We gotta talk.”
“Oh yeah? About what?”
“What’d they do now?”
“Salt Lake thinks they’re eating the dead.”
Mack nodded and kept writing. “That makes sense.”
“Mack, this is a big deal. They got the first girl that died, and that kid Jeremy. And Amanda lost someone last night, but he was sick. Not sure if they’ll eat him.”
“You’re worried about what happens when they run out of meat stock.”
I recoiled at his phrased. “Yeah. If that’s what they’re doing. They’re stronger than we are.”
“Yeah, well, we’ve got a bigger problem than that.”
I leaned forward. “What problem?”
“I don’t know if you’ve been watching but Denver don’t have no fires today.”
I threw up my hands. “We have enough to deal with trying protecting our own people and now Salt Lake, I can’t be concerned with Denver getting cold!”
Mack stopped writing and flipped the page over. He looked up at me with hooded eyes. ‘What do you mean ‘now Salt Lake’. What did you promise them?”
“Just that we would watch their back and they would watch ours.”
“Are you kidding me? We don’t have the resources for that! Or the energy! They’re a big group and their territory has a strategic disadvantage, especially for defense. That Hughen women means well but that group is fucked.”
“They have huge numbers. We-“
“Huge numbers don’t mean nothing if they can’t even stand up!”
“What was I supposed to do, Mack? Huh? She didn’t have to warn me about KC.”
“Like I said, we’ve got bigger problems than some cannibalism.”
“Bigger problems than some… Like what?”
“Like that fact that Acker and the Pollocks have been talking an awful lot lately.”
“Fuck. Dillon!” Dillon was the most observant person I’d ever met. He was a good person to have in this conversation. “Come here!”
Dillon handed his notebook to Dan, the five year old in our group. Dan was pale and thin, definitely showing signs of malnutrition but he was also eating the best out of all of us, we made sure of it.
Dillon sat down next to Mack and nodded at the letter. “Get it right yet?” He asked.
“Getting there,” Mack mumbled. “Not like she’ll ever read it. Just passes the time.” I was curious what he meant, who it was for, but like Mack said, we had bigger problems.
“What do you think about the Pollocks and Acker?”
Dillon shook his head. “I don’t know. Looks kinda like they made a deal about something. Possibly food. More than likely a power alliance, though.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mack crossed his arms. “Denver is the weakest group. Acker couldn’t have chosen worse.”
“Not necessarily,” Dillon answered. “Denver is also the most ruthless of the three of us.”
“Which mean whatever deal they were trying to make, it was not good for us.” I sighed. “Fuck.”
Dillon shrugged. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“No. No we don’t. We need something to defend ourselves with. The metal from the chairs or something. We can break them and bend them into big fucking metal pipes.”
“If we have the energy, we can try,” Mack nodded.
So we did. It was exhausting and what we got out of it may not have been worth the effort. The fruits of our labors were seven, jagged, sharp, curved pieces of shiny metal. It wasn’t great, but it was better than nothing.
It could have been hours, or it could have been days later that the raid happened. By the time I was woken up, it was already over. Dillon and Jessica had been on watch and it seemed that was all they’d done.
“What happened?” I asked, looking over at the SLC group who looked scared and a little shell-shocked.
“Kansas City and Denver went over. Acker and the Pollocks exchanged some words with Amanda. It didn’t seem to go well. Emily grabbed some girl from Salt Lake and shoved her head into the broken glass of the vending machine. She was bleeding…everywhere. Salt Lake is big, they tried to fight it but…they’re just so weak. With KC backing them, the fight was quick, lots of injuring in Salt Lake. Denver and KC together… Kris, there was nothing we could have done. Even if you were awake.”
“I promised them… Fuck. What did they take? Their food?”
“Their books.” Dillon answered. And that was when I noticed that SLC didn’t have a burn barrel for warmth. And Denver did.
“Shit. I’ll go talk to Amanda.”
She was curled on her side, laying against a wall. When I had met her weeks ago Amanda had been a confident, strong, vibrant woman. But now she looked like a different person entirely. I kneeled down next to her.
“I heard about what happened last night. I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing you or your group could have done. Denver and KC together…we were too weak to fight it.”
“We’ve got a decent supply of books. Why don’t you come join our group. We’ll figure out food and then at least you’ll be warm-“
“I suggested that this morning, with what’s left of SLC. They don’t want anything to do with the other groups. Yours included.”
“Amanda…they’ll die. Do they realize that?”
“Yes. They’re tired. We’re all tired. No rescue is coming. They’ve accepted it. Before long, we’ll all be eating each other.”
“No. We won’t.”
She gave me a half smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Then she closed them and coughed. Fuck. “I hope you survive this, Stikes.”
I did survive it. But John Pollock didn’t. Days later Kansas City came out of their room, something they rarely did anymore. They dragged a desk out behind them.
Dillon and I were at the payphones. Me, listening to the static, Dillon talking softly down the line, to Sarah, or whom he imagined was Sarah, I assume. There was very little to keep us sane after a month at Whitefall.
Acker, Natalie, and a few larger members of Kansas City approached Denver’s hallway. John stepped out first, followed by his daughter Emily. The rest of Denver stayed back against the wall.
“So.” Acker started. “Denver. What you provided us, that wasn’t the deal.”
Emily folded her arms, tried to appear casual but it was obvious from the sweat on her brow that she felt anything but. “Holding out on you how? You got what was promised.”
Acker laughed. “Did I? Because it seems to me that while you got the books you begged for, we did not receive the payment you promised. So where is it?”
Emily shifted on her feet. “We delivered you the boy-“
“That was not the deal. You were very aware of the terms when we agreed to assist you in finding fuel for your fires. So, where. Is. The. Woman?”
Emily dropped her arms. “We’re starving, too. There are 14 people in my group, we need to eat. We only had cigarettes and soda in our territory!”
“Not my problem. Where is the woman?”
“She’s gone! She was gone days ago. You don’t know what it’s like in that hallway!”
“That is not my problem, either. I was promised an adult and I didn’t receive one. You lied to me. Deceived us. That won’t stand.”
Acker looked over at a large, red-haired man in his group. The man grabbed Emily by the back of her head and walked her to the burning barrel in Denver’s hallway. I moved to intervene, yet again, because this could only be brutal, could only end one way, but Dillon shot his arm out and shook his head. We had our own problems. We had been down to quarter rations for days. We were boiling clothing, eating leather. We needed to pick our battles, and we weren’t even a part of this war.
The red-haired man shoved Emily at Acker, who caught her by her hair. Emily screamed as Acker pushed her head down toward the barrel.
“Stop! Just stop, we will get you what we promised, I swear it!” John Pollock yelled as a woman held him back and another KC-en took a shot at his ribs. “Please, don’t hurt her, I swear, we give you twice what we promised for the books!”
“It’s too late for that. Denver betrayed our arrangement and Emily Pollock speaks for Denver. Therefore Emily Pollock will take the punishment.”
Acker shoved Emily’s head deeper into the barrel and we heard the hiss of flame meeting skin and the smell of burning hair. Emily didn’t scream, she moaned, the sort of moan a dying animal makes as it’s being consumed but still lives to feel the viscera being ripped from its body.
“Please! Please stop!” John yelled again, tears running down his face. Dillon looked away but I had to watch. I spoke for Minneapolis. I had to watch. For them.
“Pity. You were really quite pretty. Can’t imagine what you look like now. Should we finish it? Burn you in this barrel? Your group will be warm for days, wont they? A leader should sacrifice for her people.”
Emily moaned again, but still she fought him with her legs, kicking and jabbing. Acker laughed, pulled her head out of the barrel, and threw her back against the wall. Her hair was burned away from the front half of her head. Her skin was melted, curled, and grotesque. But she lived.
“So,” Acker started, and helped Natalie tie a long cord over the ceiling beam that ran above the desk. “Who speaks for Denver?”
The people in the hallways said nothing. John was docile, limp, as if all hope was lost, his daughter already dead. “Well, come on, tell me.” Acker insisted, climbing on top of the desk and securing the cord while Natalie had somehow expertly tied into a noose. “Who speaks for you? Is it Emily Pollock? She’ll be dead within days with those injuries and she knows it. So. Is it her?”
Silence. And then:
We all heard it, we all heard Emily try to speak as her bulging eyes watched Natalie twirl the noose. Acker jumped down from the desk and squatted in front of her, hands on his knees.
“Seems you’re the only one willing to make a decision, cherry pie. So I’ll ask you. Who speaks for Denver?”
“Again, sweetheart, and speak up.”
“Are you saying your father?”
Emily nodded weakly. John lifted his head, the expression on his face one I can’t even describe. Pain. Total devastation. His daughter was selling him out when she had no hope to live for herself.
“Disgusting,” Mack whispered beside me.
Acker rose. “Do you agree?” He asked the rest of Denver, who still cowered against the wall in the hallway. “Is it John Pollock that speaks for you?”
At first no one moved. But then there were a few nods and weak agreements. Acker shrugged. “So be it.” He nodded to the woman holding John and she dragged him toward the table. John didn’t fight, didn’t seem to want to escape his fate.
Natalie and the red-haired man hoisted John on top of the table and put the noose around his neck. Dillon was shaking next to me and I turned him away, pushed him toward Gracie, who caught him in her arms but she continued to watch the lynching.
Acker addressed the rest of the room. “Promises are very important in survival situations. They are often the difference between life and death. Denver betrayed us and John Pollock will die for that. This is a lesson to everyone still alive. Do not fuck with Kansas City.” Acker leaned in close to John and told him something not meant for the entire room to hear. But I heard it. “Once you’re dead, we’re going to eat you. And then we’re going to eat your daughter.”
John remained stoic, unmoving and unspeaking as Acker hopped down from the desk. With no ceremony at all Natalie and the red-haired man pushed the desk out from under John. The rope dropped half a foot and grew taut. John kicked and wheezed, and pulled at the noose around his neck. It lasted full minutes – several until he stopped moving. And I watched it all.
Emily died the next day. From what we heard she’d never spoken again, her last words the ones that ordered her own father’s execution. In further penance for their crimes, Kansas City had taken all of Denver’s books and wood and half of their remaining food which left them with one packs of nuts for 12 people. They began to die, one by one over the next three days. Most were sick already, like Salt Lake, and as they died the bodies were either tossed out into the snow or hauled away by Kansas City, depending on if they died of sickness or starvation.
“We’re dying.” Mack told me one night. “Some of us wont last to the end of tomorrow.”
“I know,” I said. “But I don’t know what to do about it.” I said and the scratch of Dillon’s pencil stopped when the words left my mouth.
“Yes, you do.” Dillon said.
“I’m open to suggestions. What do we do then?”
“Whatever we have to.” Gracie told me, a surprisingly amount of fire in her words for as weak and broken as we all were. “I did not survive everything that happened in my life only to die in a fucking bus station.”
“What do you guys want to do? Eat people? Is that it? You want to become cannibals like Kansas City?”
“It’s not just Kansas City,” Gracie said. “It’s Salt Lake, too.” She nodded toward the wall that had once supported over 20 people. But now there were only 13. I was starving, I was unfocused, I hadn’t noticed. But it was true. I watched in horror as a man from Salt Lake carved strips of flesh out of a dead woman’s leg and handed it over to another woman and what looked like her daughter They draped the pieces over a metal rod above the meager fire they could afford and watched them cook.
I rose and walked went to talk to the man with the pocket knife. “You’re eating the dead.” I accused him.
“Yeah.” He said, without bothering to look up at me.
“Amanda is allowing this?”
The man wiped his face on his sleeve. His eyes were runny. They were also blank of emotion. “Amanda’s dead.”
“When?” I asked quickly.
“But how could you.. Why would… She would never have wanted this.” I insisted. “It goes against your humanity. It goes against-“
“She’s the one who insisted upon it.” He said and then gestured to the body he was carving. And it was her. There was a t-shirt draped over her face but I would have recognized her long, auburn hair, now dull and brittle, anywhere.
I stumbled back. “Christ.”
Mack grabbed my arm and dragged me back to our camp. He shoved me into a chair. “Son. Listen to me. We can’t afford humanity anymore. Those people want to survive. And so do ours.”
“You’re saying we should…we should just…”
“I’m saying that I’m dying here anyway, so I wont. But you should. They should,” he said, gesturing back to our sick and dying group of bus mates.
“You’re not gonna die here, Mack.” I protested.
“Yes, I will. Maybe we all will. But you should at least try for it. You’ve got something to live for, don’t you?”
I swallowed. My mouth was dry. My lips were cracked.
“Who is it that you call everyday?”
“Mel.” I answered. “Melody. My girlfriend. She- she’s pregnant. With my kid.”
“A family? That’s enough. That’s worth living for.” He nodded sadly.
“What about you, Mack? Who’s that letter for? What’s in Post Falls?”
Mack leaned back in his seat and smiled, the first time in weeks. “My daughter.”
“Yeah? You got grandkids, too?”
The smile fell a little. “I don’t know. She wouldn’t say.” He was quiet for a moment. “I was a dumb kid. Knocked up a girl a knew. Nice girl. But I didn’t want to be tied down. I left her some money and my car and I spilt. Never came back. Never saw her again. Thought about my kid a lot over the years. Finally did some digging about ten years ago, found out I had a little girl. Elaine. She’s in her 40’s now. Took me a decade to gather up the courage to reach out to her. She was mad.” He laughed, a brittle sound. “She’s still mad, not that I blame her. After a couple years of me bothering her every few days she agreed to meet me. In Post Falls. Just her. If she has kids, she don’t want me around them, and I don’t blame her for that either. I don’t deserve to know my grandkids.”
I was silent for a few minutes, thinking about Mack when I’d met him and how desperately he’d wanted to make his connections and get to Post Falls on time. “You’re gonna meet her, Mack.”
“What I’m gonna do is finish my letter before I die. And when I go you have permission to use my body to fuel yours.”
“I have faith in you, Romeo.” He said, and patted me on the shoulder before laying down on the floor to sleep. Mack slept a lot these days.
“Denver is gone.”
“Denver is gone.” Gracie repeated. “The last four decided they’d rather die making a run for it then expire here against a wall and be eaten. I watched them all leave an hour ago.”
I nodded my head. “That I can understand.”
“Kris, we have decisions to make. When I was in the bathroom I heard Kansas City through the wall. I heard them say that the people dying of natural causes had no muscle and it wasn’t enough to eat. They were arguing.”
“Arguing about what?”
“About who in their group to sacrifice for food.”
“In their own group?”
“Yes. Kris, things are really bad. They’re cannibalizing themselves because they aren’t getting enough meat off the dead.”
“We’ve been starving for a month. Maybe more. I don’t even know how long it’s been.”
“I know.” She said. “ But we’re out of food. Completely. The peanut shells, the leather, everything is gone. We have to do what we have to do to survive.”
“Hey Stikes,” Dillon interrupted. He sat down next to Gracie and gaze me a long look. “We, ah. We lost somebody last night.”
“What? Who? Who did we lose?” I asked.
I ran my hands down my face. “Fuck.”
“He wasn’t eating all his rations back when we had food. He was trying to make sure there was enough for Dan and his mom.”
“Aw, fuck, Miles.”
“We need to…before he died Miles explained to me how to…prepare meat for consumption.”
I heard him. I knew what he was saying. I looked around the 11 remaining members of my group. We wouldn’t last much long. Miles was only the first. “Okay,” I sighed. “Do it.”
It happened at what I can only assume was night. The fire barrels were burning low. More people were asleep than awake. In fact, we had long given up the idea of sentries. No one could stay awake more than an hour anymore. Our bodies were shutting down.
I woke up to screams. Half-hearted, weak ones from my own group. It didn’t take long to figure out what was wrong.
The entire Salt Lake City group had been slaughtered while everyone slept. Most of them had their throats cut, their necks draining blood onto the floor. Kansas City’s door was wide open. I could see the bodies being harvested inside. I stumbled to my feet and crossed the long room to the door. I could sense Dillon and Gracie at my back. I saw Acker immediately. He was standing over a grill – an entire webber grill – flipping pieces of meat over with a fork. Everything smelled of dead flesh. Paper plates full of meat lined book shelves. The scene was absurd.
“You murdered them?” Was the only thing I managed to push through my teeth.
“Hey, Stikes. Yeah, we found this thing in the closet. A whole webber grill! Better than the garbage cans Salt Lake was cooking over, right?”
“You murdered them!” I launched myself at Acker, ready to tear him apart, but the red-haired guy caught me in the chin with a fist. I went down against the wall. Dillon helped me back up.
“Easy. Place nice.” Acker handed the fork over to someone else in his group and approached me casually, hands in his pockets. “It was mostly a waste, you know. A lot of those people were sick. And those that weren’t barely have any meat on them. They weren’t going to survive, Stikes. Most of them had only hours left. What we did was humane.”
“None of this is humane! How many people have you murdered in this station by now?”
“We’re surviving, man. Look around. Look at our group. We’re alive, not at death’s door. Nobody’s running a marathon but we’re more healthy than your people. And the other groups. We do what we do to survive. At the end of the day we’re all animals. Would you blame an animal for killing to survive?”
“Animals aren’t people.”
“No. But people are animals. And you’re starting to figure that out. We saw. Last night we saw you. Your people were cutting up that kid in the jets jacket. You’re gonna eat him. It was always gonna come to that. You should have done it sooner. Now it’s too late, just like Salt Lake.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Maybe it would have been. But judging by what we’re getting off of these fucking people it wouldn’t be worth it.”
“Let me ask you something, Acker, what’s the point of surviving if you lose your humanity?”
He leaned into me and I could smell the stench of the people on his breath. “That’s easy. Surviving.”
I stared at him as he reached back and pulled a strip of meat from a paper plate a nd held it out to me. I tightened my jaw and he smiled, shoving it into his mouth and chewing, never breaking eye contact with me.
“Come on, Kris, let’s go.” Gracie whispered.
The smell of cooking meat was strong. It permeated the entire building by now. As much as I hated it, my mouth watered and my mind could think of little else. Miles had been stripped and prepared. The meat was cooking nearby. Dan watched it excitedly as did other members of my group. My only request had been that Dillon and the others harvest the body away from the site of our little camp. But Dan was a smart kid and he probably knew. But he was beyond caring. Most of us were.
The meat was passed around, but I declined. I’d known Miles. Talked to him. Strategized with him. I knew he’d been on the way home from college for Thanksgiving break. He was excited about seeing his mom and his twin brother. So when the makeshift scrap of metal serving as a plate got to me, I passed it on. Yes, I was starving. But this was a person. And me? I couldn’t eat a person. Especially not someone I knew.
Kansas City kept their door cracked most of the time to allow the smoke from the webber to escape. Sometimes we would hear arguments, sometimes out and out brawling before things would go quiet again.
Mack didn’t work on his letter much anymore. He spent a lot of time listening to Dillon talk about Sarah. Mack had a fondness for young love, I think. Gracie hung out with Dan a lot as his mother was getting weaker and sicker by the day. She had also passed on the meat, though she encouraged Dan to eat his fill and forbid anyone from admitting what it actually was. Or who. Dan had liked Miles.
For my part, I still called Melody everyday and told her I was always right here. I also told her I was sorry that I was never going home, that I’d never see her again, know our child, get to watch how great of a mother she would become.
Time was strange. It drifted by in unfamiliar increments. Hunger was constant. The cold relentless. Even the fires seemed to lose much of their heat as the hours passed.
We were out of meat from Miles’s body on the first day. Then an older man, Harry, died in his sleep. His wife told us it was his wish to contribute. So we cooked him and ate him, too. Except for me. I couldn’t bring myself to eat a man in front of his wife.
And then came the last day. The very last day we spent at Whitefall. Who knew what day that was.
It started with a lot of yelling. It was Acker, of course, and some of his people. A kid who couldn’t have been more than 18 ran out of the employee breakroom. He seemed to be going for the front door, but Acker caught him, and threw him on the floor.
“You know the rules, Clarkson, you’ve been enjoying them long enough.” He turned to Natalie. “Get the hammer.”
I rose to my feet, shaky and weak. I hadn’t eaten anything but leather in days. But whatever was about to happen would be bad. If I was going to die anyway, maybe I could stop it. Stop this one bad thing from happening.
“What are you doing?” I asked as I reached them. Acker did a table take and then started laughing.
“Holy shit, Stikes, is that you? You look fucking horrible!” Acker chuckled as I pushed my way into the middle of the melee.
“What is all this? What are you doing to this kid?”
Acker shrugged. “Nothing to do with you.”
“I want to know anyway.”
“Sure you wouldn’t rather just tottle along? Go finish dying in the corner?”
“What are you going to do to him?”
“Well, see, in the Kansas City group we have a rule about the greater good. And whatever the greatest good is that you can offer the group, well, that’s what you’re gonna do.”
“And what is his greatest good?” I spat.
Acker took the hammer from Natalie and pointed it at the kid. “His meat. That’s all he’s got left to offer at this point.”
Gracie’s voice rang out from behind me. “You’re going to kill a perfectly healthy person for their meat?”
Natalie laughed. “Oh honey, it wouldn’t be the first time.”
“You’ve been cannibalizing your own group?” I asked Acker.
“We’re surviving, aren’t we?”
“You’ve fucking snapped, Acker. That kid can’t be more than 19!” I yelled. “Pick an older person!”
“Our older people have other skills we can use. He doesn’t. Anyway, this isn’t a debate, Stikes, I’ve satisfied your curiosity, now fuck off. Boomer, hold him down.”
The large, red-haired man flipped the kid over and sat on his back, holding his head between his meaty hands. The kid screamed bloody, terrified murder. I don’t think I’ve ever heard more fear in a voice before or since. It was all too much for me.
As Acker turned toward the kid I rushed him from behind and sucker punched him in the back of the head. He went down, and the hammer skittered across the floor. They were on me in an instant. Kicking, punching, fuck, even biting. And I couldn’t fight back. I was big guy, but I was thin now, drained of energy. I didn’t have the strength. I heard Mack there, fighting, trying to pull them off of me. Mack wasn’t a great fighter in the best of times but now, days from his death…
I heard them beat him, I felt them beat me. At one point I was lying on the floor looking across it, getting kicked from behind. Mack was in the fetal position, covering his head. Gracie was trying to get to him, throwing punches of her own. She really was a little scrapper, but the hits seemed louder when they made contact with her body. I tried to call them off, call them all off. But no sounds came out of me. That’s where my memories end.
I woke up to someone dumping water down my throat. It was Dillon. I was on my back on the floor in our camp. I would recognize those ceiling tiles anywhere. I’d been staring at them for what felt like years.
“Take it easy. You got it pretty bad.” Dillon said. I sat up anyway with great effort. My vision was blurred and my mind was slow. Everything fucking hurt.
“Gracie.” I croaked.
“She’s okay. A little banged up but she’s tough.”
I nodded. That sounded like her. He handed the bottle to me and I took another sip of water. “And Mack?”
Dillon didn’t respond. I looked over at him but he was looking out the window, at the pane of black snow. “And Mack?” I asked, louder this time.
“Mack…Mack was hours away from dying, anyway, Kris.”
Dillon nodded. “The fight was too much for him.”
“Fuck. No, Mack. Not you.” I moaned.
“He said to tell you that he finished his letter.”
I pushed my palms into my eyes. “Where is it?”
“I put it in your backpack. Seemed like you would know what to do with it.”
“Right. And everyone else?”
“They’re scared. But… they seem a little stronger. They’re eating…”
Dillon said nothing.
Dillon took a deep breath. “Speaking of… you need to eat, Kris.”
“What about the kid. From Kansas City. Did he…”
Dillon shook his head. “They were never going to let him leave. You know that.”
“So he died anyway. After all that.”
“And I got Mack killed, too.”
“Mack was done for anyway.”
I said nothing and drank more water. Gracie was nearby, I could hear her singing to Dan. At least I hadn’t gotten her killed. Only by the grace of God, though, I was fairly sure God had long ago abandoned Whitefall.
“Kris, you need to eat. You’re weak. You body needs to repair itself.”
I looked down at the plate in Dillon’s lap. It was filled with chunks of gray meat that smelled like rot and death. But also made me salivate with need. “I can’t.” I said.
“I heard what you said to Mack. About your girl and your baby. Have you ever told Melody that you would do anything for her?”
My eyes snapped to his face. “Fuck you.”
“Would you do anything for your kid? He or she is going to need you. Melody is going to need you.”
“Is that why you do it?” I asked him.”For Sarah?”
Dillon was quiet for a minute. “No, not for Sarah. There is no Sarah. There never was. I do it for Sam.”
“There is no Sarah.” I repeated.
“Everything I told you was true. But, about Sam, not Sarah.” He took a breath. “I love him.”
I looked down at the meat he was holding. He really must. To do this. To go against nature. Everything that made him human. He did it for Sam.
I lifted my eyes to his face. “Sam who loves mountains.”
Dillon nodded and his eyes fell back to the meat.
“He sounds great, man.”
Dillon smiled a little at that and offered the plate to me again. “Do it for her. Do it for them.”
I let out a long, slow breath.
“You know Mack would smack you upside the head if you didn’t.”
I wanted to laugh but it wasn’t in me. Mack had never eaten someone he’d known. He’d died before having to suffer than indignity. I knew what I was eating. I had a good idea of who I was eating. And I couldn’t do it.
But…it didn’t matter if I couldn’t. Because I had to. I was starving. I was dying. Mack died for me. Mel needed me. Our baby needed me. So, I reached over and picked up a chuck of silvery meat. It was well-done and looked like it was cut for a stew. The smell was sickening, but saliva filled my mouth just the same. I set the cube inside and began to chew. It was tough, and tasteless but I still swallowed it practically whole. I took another piece and ate that. Then another and another. Then I was rabid, feral. Fucking starving.
I saw him, as I consumed more and more of the meat. Acker. Standing in the doorway of his room. Watching me. A smug smile on his face. But I didn’t care. I ate until only one piece of meat remained. And as I reached down to take it, the cackle of the PA popped overhead. Some of us screamed in shock, others gasped. Then we all fell silent.
“Good evening, folks. I’ve got good news! The storm has let up and the snow has been dug away from the bay doors. We’re gonna get you on out of here within the next 30 minutes so please check the overhead board in the terminal and line up at the corresponding doorway to your bus. I know many of you are making bus changes in Whitefall so please be sure to double-check your ticket before lining up. Our drivers have the busses warming up for you as we speak and we will all be on our way in a few minutes. We’d like to thank you for your patience during this delay.”
It was over. It was over and we were leaving.
The power in the station suddenly clicked back on and we were washed in bright, white light. And in it, we could see our crimes more fully. The half-eaten bodies. The pools of blood. The glass. The broken things. Our sunken cheeks and the ribs in our chest. The gray piece of meat in front of me, once my friend. I could see the sinewy strings of muscle. And I ate that last piece right then. Because we were leaving, but I was still hungry.
We all rose, picked up what was left of our bags, and checked the board in a trance. I was at door 4. Dillon was at 2. Gracie, 1. We stood next to each other as we read the board. And we stared at each other as we got in our respective lines. But no one spoke. There was nothing to say. Not even goodbye.
All I had left in my bag was Mack’s letter, some scraps of clothing, and $6 in cash. In a daze, I watched the bay door open and dug in my pocket for my ticket, which was still there, after all these weeks, now bloody and torn.
Richard, our bus driver from before, took my ticket and punched it without a word. I boarded the bus and took a window seat facing the station. There were only a handful of people on the bus. Everyone else was dead or lost. We were all in shock, not quite believing it was real, that we were escaping, that we weren’t going to die in Whitefall.
As we pulled away from the terminal I noticed that the blizzard was over and I could see for miles. There was no town beyond the bus station. There never had been. Those that had ventured out had never returned. They were lost in the white nothingness.
I felt a body fall into the seat next to me and my eyes snapped over to find Acker shoving his ticket back into his backpack. “Hey, Stikes, didn’t think you’d be on my bus. You headed to Seattle, too?”
I stared at him. “Spokane.”
“Nice. I’ve going to see my girlfriend. My family lives there, too, but Thanksgivings at my dad’s are always un-fuckin-pleasant because of his wife. I didn’t even tell them I was coming. Just gonna hide out at my girl’s house.”
I didn’t respond.
“You going to see your girl?”
“My family.” I answered, my words slow.
“Ah, sucks to be you, then.” He unzipped the top of his bag and dug around a bit and then pulled out a king size Milky Way. “Want one? I have a couple.”
I stared at the candy bar. “You had fucking candy?”
Acker shrugged. “I was saving it. It’s my favorite.” I tore it out of his hands and stood, then pushed against his legs to get out. “Name’s Luke, by the way.” He said.
I didn’t answer, just moved to the back of the bus and sat in an empty row. I tore into the candy bar and it was gone in under a minute.
The first stop we made with a fast food restaurant, I got off and bought the 3 biggest things on the dollar menu and then filled my water bottle for free. I couldn’t think bout the events at whitefall. My body told me to eat, rest, eat, Mel. Whitefall would get it’s time later.
The first thing thing I did when I got the receipt was glance at the date. It was Tuesday the 20th. Two days before Thanksgiving. That would mean we were only at Whitefall for one night. One. Night. It was impossible.
I ran straight to the payphone on the outside of the building, inserted the quarters I had made sure to get as change, and dialed Mandy’s number.
“Hey, baby. Where are you?”
“Mel, when was the last time you talked to me?”
“What?” She asked, confusion in her voice.
“When was the last time I called?”
“Um..it was yesterday. The connection was bad, I was trying to tell you about my doctor’s appointment. Did you hear me? The line was really bad.”
I tried to breathe deeply. “Yeah, baby, I heard you.”
“Good. How’s the trip?”
“Mel, did you hear me? On the line?”
“Yes. You told me you loved me and that you were always there.”
“Yeah. And I am, Mel.”
“I would do anything for you. For you and our daughter.”
“Oh, it’s a girl now?” She laughed.
“Yeah. I really think it is.”
I heard the driver whistle then and told Mel I loved her again and that I would call her from Billings.
I tried to stagger the burgers so that I wouldn’t make myself sick. I was still starving and weak. The first burger almost made me throw up. I ate half a burger every few hours after that.
I was nervous about Post Falls. We arrived in the evening, close to 9. It was cold, but not as cold as the terminal at Whitefall had been. I clutched Mack’s letter in my hand as I exited the bus. I saw her immediately. She had dark hair, and was short like Mack. But the thing that stopped me dead were the kids in her arms. A toddler on her hip and a little boy holding her hand. And he looked a whole lot like his grandfather. I took a deep breath.
The woman looked nervous but excited. She rocked from foot to foot and a man behind her rubbed her shoulder and whispered into her ear. I was glad he was there. She would need the support after I gave her the letter.
I walked over to Mack’s daughter and waited for her to notice me. But she didn’t even see me, so intent was she on watching the stairs of the bus. “Elaine?”
She started and her eyes shot to mine. Her eyebrows pinched in confusion. “Yes?”
I held the letter out to her. “This is from your father.”
She took it slowly, and then glanced back at the bus. “Where is he?”
“He, ah… He really wanted to come.”
It was all I could say, I could only hope that Mack had told her the rest.
“He’s not coming?” Tears filled her eyes.
“No. But he really, really wanted to, Elaine. More than he wanted anything else.”
“I..I don’t understand.”
I nodded at the paper in her hands. “Read the letter.” I turned and headed toward the payphones.
“Wait!” She called. I turned back to her. “Do you know my father?”
“I’d like to think so” I shrugged. ”Maybe. He never told me his real name.”
She was quiet a moment. “Arthur Warren MacKenzie. That’s his name.”
“Thank you for the letter.” She said, and then turn back to her husband. I walked toward the phone bank, ready to call my girl. “You were wrong, Mack. Your whole family was here waiting for you.”
When I got off the bus in Spokane, I didn’t turn around. Acker was still on it, though he spent most of his time listening to his headphones and playing pocket poker. My walkman was long gone, fed to the fire weeks ago.
But then, I changed my mind. I climbed back onto the bus, walked right to his seat, didn’t wait for him to see me and punched him in the face, then kneed him in the nuts. I used his hair to jerk his face upright. His nose was already bleeding.
“How’s that for playing nice, Acker?”
I threw him onto the floor while Richard the bus driver yelled at me to get off, promising I’d never ride a Greyloor bus again.
My family was there to meet me at the Spokane terminal. They took me home. I ate, rested, and eventually got my strength back. My uncles gave me a job, I worked it three weeks and then used the money to buy a ticket for my girl. A plane ticket.
Mel gave birth to our daughter in May. We named her Amanda Gracie Stikes.
The bus company thought I was crazy when I called when I called to “complain”. They told me there was no station in Whitefall. In fact, there are no stops between Fargo and Great Falls, Montana. Furthermore, they said, there was no city called Whitefall anywhere in the continental US.
Since my ticket was long gone, there was no way to prove it had been real. Other than the deaths. And I often wondered about those missing persons investigations, and where it had led the detectives. If there was no Whitefall, there was nowhere to look. They must have decided all those people had simply vanished into thin air. And maybe they had.
I try not to think about Whitefall, anymore, thirty years later, but it’s there at night. In my dreams, the ones that turn to nightmares. I never really escaped. Because I aways go back. And in my dreams, I always will.