Jessica reached down for the backpack between her legs as the bus trundled along the deserted street. She hauled the heavy monstrosity into her lap as the brakes gave an aged squeal and the hulking mass of rusting metal skidded to a shuddering stop outside the weathered slate-toned exterior of the bus station.
“Sycamore Springs, twenty minutes” the driver drawled as he glanced up into his rear view. Jess glanced around behind her. The only other passenger was an older man in a thick brown coat curled up in the back. He didn’t appear to have heard. She shrugged the heavy bag over her shoulders, feeling for a moment like the weight was going to pull her over backwards. She shouldered the weight and made her way to the front of the bus. “This your stop, girl?” The driver questioned.
“Ah…yeah, thanks.” Jess responded, not making eye contact as she tumbled from the bus under the weight of the backpack.
“Whatcha got in there, kid, the Empire State Building?” The driver laughed at his own joke, not even listening to Jessica’s stammered response as he hit the lever to close the doors behind her. So much for twenty minutes she thought as he pulled out of the lot. Not that it mattered to her, and there didn’t seem to be anyone waiting to board the old bus. There didn’t seem to be anyone here at all, matter of fact.
Jessica headed over to a bench built into the wall of the bus station. She dropped into it, bag first, and let the weight pull the bag off her arms. She shifted to sit beside it, wrapping an arm around it protectively as she glanced up and down the dark street. A single street lamp lit the road a ways down in one direction, and a blinking yellow traffic light lit a small four way stop in the other.
With a sigh Jessica unzipped the smallest front packet of the backpack and slid out a small paperback book. It was old, and frayed, and had some air-brushed man in tight pants and flowing hair embracing a smitten looking blonde on the cover. She flipped it open to where she had left off, removing the old high school ID she used as a bookmark, and curling the front half of the book all the way back so she could hold it easily in one hand, adding yet another cracking crease to the already worn spine.
She had barely reached the end of the page when she heard a bang and rattle. She looked up, and a moment later an old volvo station wagon came into view at the four-way, its left blinker light on as it swung into the main road and headed in Jessica’s direction. She carefully slid the crinkled old ID into her spot and closed the book, sliding it back into the bag and zipping up the pocket. With a grunt she hefted the bag back onto her shoulders and stood up.
A moment later the volvo swung into the lot and slid to a stop in front of her. She barely had time to consider how she would open the door with the handle missing when the balding man driving the car leaned over the passenger seat to pop the lock and shove open the door. Jess stepped forward, slid her bag from her shoulders and slung it around in front as she sat down. She shoved it down by her feet with a heavy thud and pulled the door closed.
“Seatbelt.” The man grunted. Jessica nodded, reached behind her and grabbed the seat belt. Her hands felt numb and sweaty, and she struggled for many minutes trying to get it to click into the lock before the old man grunted again and shifted in his seat, reaching for the buckle. Jessica pulled her hands back before they could touch and stared out the window silently as the man buckled the seat belt and straightened back up in his seat.
“Your mother misses you” he growled, as he shifted the car and released the clutch, pulling out into the road and heading away from the four-way stop, towards the lone street light. Jessica gasped and whipped her head around to look at him, her eyes wide. “She can’t know I was ever here!” She shrieked.
“Yeah, I know that….” He seemed to struggle to say something for a moment. Jessica figured she knew why. She relaxed a little and turned her gaze out through the dirty windshield at the road as they slid out of town, back in the direction her bus had come from. As the small town was replaced by empty fields and farm houses, the man spoke up again. “She’ll just have to keep missing you.”
Jessica stiffened in her seat. Her hands fidgeted with the straps of the backpack, pale and shaking. The old man glanced down at the bag, looking pale. He shook his head and looked back at the road. “She can’t know. Not ever. You understand? You can’t… ever… you know…”
“I know, Dad. I can’t ever call her, see her… ever again. I get it.”
“Right. And when we’re done here…”
“You’ll never see me again either. No one will.”
He grunted, his knuckles white on the steering wheel. “You an call… Just… don’t say anything. I’ll know it’s you. I’ll know your okay. That’ll be enough.”
“Okay.” She didn’t question it. She didn’t say she shouldn’t even call at all. That it isn’t safe, that none of it is safe. She shouldn’t even be here now. She looked down at the bag and shuddered. “Thank you dad.”
He grunted. She didn’t know what she expected him to say. You’re welcome? Not really the best response in a situation like this. She tried to look at him, but couldn’t bring herself to. After a few minutes he turned right down a narrow road. They followed it for almost an hour before he turned right again, then left onto a dirt road. It winded through the trees for about twenty more minutes before coming to a dead end. They’d only seen a couple houses since turning onto the dirt road.
“Where are we?”
“Old Hayward’s farm.” Jessica nodded, as if that answered everything. Her father stopped the car at the end of the road, turned it off and climbed out. It took Jessica a moment to unbuckle herself. She climbed out of the car and struggled to heave the heavy backpack up out of the car. She swung it over her shoulder. She looked up to see her dad pointedly looking at the ground, holding a flashlight loosely in one hand. When she took a few steps forward he turned his back to her and headed into the woods. She followed.
They walked for over an hour. Every now and then her father would look up at the sky through the trees. She found herself impressed that he knew where he was going based on the stars, or the moon, or something up there in the sky. The thought that he would never be able to teach her that made tears sting her eyes.
She followed him deeper into the woods until he stopped. He motioned with the flashlight to a small hollow a little ways away. He held something out to her and it was then she realized he was carrying a shovel, the kind of survivalist shovel that folds in half. “Good and deep.”
She nodded, choking up slightly as he again refused to look at her as she reached out for the shovel. She hadn’t thought of how much it would hurt to see her dad treat her this way. She took the shovel, brushing his hand as she did so. He drew his hand back and turned. He held out the flashlight for her and she took it. She headed down into the hollow, glancing behind her to see her father settle down on the trunk of a fallen tree.
Down in the bottom of the hollow Jessica let the tears come. She didn’t know what she had expected, but this wasn’t it. She would have preferred anger, yelling, screaming, even hitting. But not this. Not this… disgust? He couldn’t even look at her!
She threw herself into the back-breaking work of digging a hole. The heavy backpack sat against a tree, mocking her. Tears streamed down her face, and each thrust of the shovel made her hands hurt. She could feel blisters rising on her fingers. But she continued to dig. She wasn’t sure how long it took, but finally she had dug a hole deep enough that she could stand in it and it would go up to her shoulders.
She looked up and saw that the sky didn’t seem quite as dark as it had been.
She climbed out of the hole and walked over to the backpack. She reached down for it, holding it a moment, before rolling it down into the hole. By the time she had buried it with the pile of dirt she had dug up, and covered hat with fallen leaves and branches, the sky was awash with pinks and oranges. She climbed up the edge of the hollow, using the shovel as a walking stick, to find her father sitting leaning against the tree, arms crossed and head lolling to the side in sleep.
She watched him sleeping for a moment, not wanting to wake him. She reached out and touched his shoulder. “Dad?” He jerked away. He seemed confused at first, then he looked at her. For the first time since she had arrived here he looked at her. She must have looked a mess, covered in dirt and leaves and sweat and tears.
For a moment he looked like he was going to reach out for her. But he got up, took the shovel, and led the way back to the car. The sun was completely out, a burning ball of orange above the horizon as they pulled off the dirt lane and on to the road.
Her father pulled the volvo into a parking lot down the road from the bus. “Walk from here.”
She nodded, knowing that he didn’t want to be seen dropping her off. She undid the seat belt and slid out of the car. “Jess” he said before she closed the door. She paused, leaning down to look at him. He stared straight ahead, not looking at her, his hands gripping the wheel tightly. “Be safe.”
“I will, Dad. Thank you.” She tried to put as much feeling into the words as she could manage, silently begging for him to look at her. But he just nodded. She closed the door and watched as the Volvo drove off. She let it drive out of sight before she headed to the bus stop.
She dropped down onto the wooden bench to wait for the bus.
She would be three hours down the road, sitting in the back of another loud old bus when it would dawn on her that she left her book in the front pocket of the backpack.
(I didn’t feel like doing a second sculpture tonight. I finished one and then decided I was done sculpting for the evening. So I decided to write a short story instead! Hope you enjoyed it!)