She boarded the bus in a good-bye city, roots shallow as a water lily, a few coins to rub together, sites set back on simpler times.
Past the maze of town, the buildings stretched out and faded away, giving in to twilight, a few weary stars freckling the top of her dirty window. People settled into the dimness, part of a kindred clan, hurtling towards whatever dreams waited to disembark.
Hours later, there was a resigned weariness that settled on the riders as they pulled into another station. Blinking owlishly in the lights of the cafe, passengers ordered bitter coffee and strode into bathrooms overflowing with dirty cups and spent cigarettes. The travelers became strangers again outside the confines of the bus, and the girl stood in line with a few familiar faces, trying to look as though she belonged. In a dim corner, an old black man played mournfully on a harmonica, a bony knee keeping time through the frayed cloth of his trousers. A pork pie hat, upside down, kept company by his foot, a few coins made their way past the brim.
It was with relief when the doors opened again for boarding, the ragged tribe piling back into their seats. Travelers fell silent in their carapace, reuniting in space, the smell of diesel their escort.
A soldier with a duffel hoisted on his shoulder stepped up and into the shadows, peered around, and set his gear above her head, taking the last empty seat. There was no glance, no contact, as they lurched into motion, the skyline falling away into the open road.
His youth was etched in silhouette, head newly shorn, vulnerable looking as a fledgling, yet his body already powerful and grown. A war raged on a lifetime away, and perhaps he was joining the fray, another number on the counting stick of old men, and politicians. His uniform was stiff, new, not used to following orders, as it gathered around him and kept him rigid in his seat. He smelled of clean skin and boyhood.
Beneath the wheels, the road twisted, swaying into the lullaby of the vagabond, heading towards the Great Plains. The girl watched the pinpoints of light fall away from the window as the town receded, seeing her reflection, and his, in the ghostly portal. Closing her eyes, her body softened into slumber.
Towards dawn, she surfaced from restless sleep, sensing a change in the air around her. She felt the soldier’s hand on her hair, stroking softly. His breath swept the top of her head, gentle as a healer’s touch. She froze, a bird captured beneath his palm, heart beating like frantic wings. Her hair flowed through his hand, again and again, wound round his trigger finger, then uncoiled and set free.
Frightened, she shifted her shoulder slightly. His hand fell away, dropped back into his lap. She turned toward the window and curled within herself, eyes squeezed shut, pulling fear around her like a blanket. A shaft of light on the horizon lit the window sill and rent a tear in the fabric of the night, bringing with it a shift, as others began stirring in their seats.
Straightening, she looked steadfastly out the window, ignoring the heat of him beside her, watching the miles clock by and spin out past unsettled thoughts. He was reading a book, knees clamped together, feet straight ahead, no echo of the hand seeking solace in the darkness. Ahead, the driver shifted gears, and the riders leaned forward as they slowed, turned off the highway and on to an overpass, finally jostling along a thin winding road, tracing past farmlands and grayed barns.
The bus shuddered to a stop at a crossroads, amid rows of sunflowers lifting their heads towards the morning sky . The soldier swiftly gathered his duffel, and with no word spoken, strode through the aisle and down the steps, past her window, the back of his neck bare and tender beneath the stiff collar, as dawn lit the fields to a yellow haze, bringing with it the moist air of a jungle . She put her hand out and felt the back of his seat, still warm from his presence. There was a slow grinding of gears, the bus moved back onto the highway, heading west, tires humming in cadence like marching boots.
Header photograph: By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons