Bus Trip to Intel Village

Her parents sort of didn't want her to go.  When they said okay they didn't sound happy.  But it was a thing, a lot of kids were doing it and seeming to like it, and it was only for three weeks, and she had money enough saved up to pay for the bus ticket herself.  And everything else would be paid for her – or given her, to put it more exactly:  food, shelter, and work to do.  But that wasn't enough for her parents – they gave her some money at the bus station and told her to stuff it down inside her sock:  and while she did so they stood like two guards surrounding her to make sure no one saw.  It's for just in case, they said.  Emergencies, they said.  You never know.

They had to wait forty-five minutes in the dry and dusty bus station, that was how long it would take for her bus to leave.  And they wouldn't go, they wouldn't just go.  It was stupid.  People are stupid, she thought.  But they said they'd stay with her – which was fine if that's what they wanted.  It was stupid but fine.  So they sat, the three of them, on one of the hard flat benches, and waited.  There were only four benches, and the few other people there who were waiting for the bus sat scattered about on these.  Fat, middle-aged, young, skinny, she had no idea.  There were four or five of them.

They sat silently for awhile, and then her mother began talking quietly to her father about some business of their own and that went on for awhile until finally some man came out and said the bus – her bus – was about to arrive, and she got her ticket and her one piece of luggage ready and as soon as the bus had pulled up and whoever was getting off had gotten off she gave the man her bag and he stowed it under the bus and even though there was still fifteen minutes to go she got on board right away to make sure I get a good seat, she told them.  They smiled and said, Good idea, and her mother gave her a sudden quick hug which made her go suddenly rigid:  it was time to stop this.  This was stupid.

The bus was half-empty, so it was easy to find two seats for herself.  She picked out a spot about three-quarters of the way back.  It felt a little more private there, but still wasn't too close to the toilet.

She sat in the seat next to the window and put her jacket and purse on the seat beside her – no, first purse, then jacket – and a hand always resting on top.  Her parents were standing outside on the little cement platform.  They smiled and waved.  She smiled and waved back at them, muttering, Go the fuck away! just under her breath.  Now her mother was making motions, gesturing between herself and her father, then pointing towards the exit.  They were going.  Good.  She jerked her head at them in a quick nod and smile broadly so they'd know how okay she was.  Then she looked away.

She felt it when they had gone.  She didn't even have to look to make sure.  She just knew they weren't there anymore.  She saw the empty platform with her mind.

Her eyes wandered over the interior of the bus.  It was dimly lit, by tiny overhead reading lamps mostly.  Narrowly spaced, of course, and crowded, the seats jammed in close, two to each side of the aisle.  She looked around, noticing the backs of people's heads.  They all looked crumpled to a more-or-less degree, their hair a mess.  She giggled.  There, at the old man whose thin gray hair stuck out from the back of his head in greasy spikes.  At the women with their waves and curls and puffy clouds all smushed out of shape.  But after that, there wasn't much to see.  The other people who'd been waiting with her at the station got on board and took their seats.  No one asked to sit beside her.  Then the driver climbed in, wrote something down on a sheet of paper, and put the bus in gear.  Everyone settled in, some even fell in, as the bus lurched forward.  She herself grabbed the armrest beside her as if she were starting the slow take-off of a roller-coaster.  She'd never been away from home before.  Now she was.  A thrill ran through her at the thought.

She had to change buses three times over the course of her trip.  The first time she'd only have a fifteen-minute layover; but after that there'd be a stop with a layover of two hours and then another one that would last eight hours.  Eight hours of sitting around in a bus station – of course she'd brought something to read and a book of puzzles – but still!  (I know, her father had said when he'd heard.  Buses are from hell.  He knew all about buses.  He'd ridden a lot of them during the last war.  Or the-last-but-one war.  Or but-two.  She wasn't sure.  Wars came and went.)  But for awhile all she had to do was ride.

For a long time she looked out the window at the scenery.  It was night already, late, and oftentimes all she saw were passing fields or trees or houses shrouded in shadow.  Occasionally there'd be lights on in some house or building, and she'd wonder what kind of lives were being lived in these, imagined people working late and drinking coffee, or lying on the couch watching some light-night show.  Or playing cards maybe, or a board game, or chess . . .  Then suddenly they'd be pulling into some town and the lights inside the bus would come on, very bright after the long interval of darkness, and some of the passengers would get up and clamber off and others would clamber on and find a place to sit.  Slowly, after having made two or three such stops, the bus began to fill up.  No one had asked to sit next to her yet, but she knew someone wold have to soon.  So at the next stop she put her purse between her feet and folded her coat on her lap.  She wouldn't need to speak to anybody then; they could just sit.  Anyway, she didn't really want to speak to anybody.  She just wanted to be surrounded by strangers riding through the dark.

And she didn't have to speak to him, the man who sat down beside her.  She kept her face turned towards the window.  She leaned back, just a little, and closed her eyes.  She hadn't looked at him at all; she knew it was a man though.  She knew it was a man, and she knew he was middle-aged – which meant, to her, a man in his forties.  Average height, more-or-less average build, a little belly on him, balding.  She couldn't see his clothes very well – couldn't know them:  it was too dark.

As the bus pulled back out onto the highway she let her eyes drift open again, straightened her neck and gazed steadfastly out the window.  For a long time she sat very still, just looking.  The man beside her, who'd been shifting about in his seat in a twitchy sort of way, finally relaxed.  Maybe eventually he fell asleep.  His relaxed leg came to rest against hers:  their knees were touching.  She didn't move hers away like she'd thought she might at first.  It felt companionable, so she left it there.  After awhile she felt the knee pressing against hers.  She wondered about this.  A minute or so later the knee pressed again, harder this time, and with a measure of insistence.  Or of inquiry.  Yes, she suddenly got that.  She pressed back.

The man shifted about in his seat.  His clothes made a soft rustling sound and she could feel his eyes slipping back and forth in their sockets, checking to see who was sleeping and who was not.  He shifted yet again, this time adjusting himself so that his hand lay, palm up, partly under his thigh and, so far as he could, so far as he dared, partly under hers.  She thought about this.  She'd had boyfriends who'd done this sort of thing.  She thought about it awhile longer.  She could feel his fingers wiggling, wriggling.  She leaned back in her seat a little – just a little; raised her leg up, just a little.  His eager fingers curled upward, his palm cupped as much flesh as it could.  Up and down his hand moved under her thigh, slowly exploring, and stopping often to give a gentle, needy squeeze . . .

She sat very still, still and quietly gazing, gazing out the window.

Suddenly – unexpectedly – the man stood up.  She heard him moving towards the back of the bus and wondered briefly what was wrong.  Then she heard a door open and shut:  he'd gone into the toilet.  She smiled to herself.  She could know if she wanted to.  Right now she could know.  But she didn't want to know.

When he came back and sat down again she could smell – of course! – the scent of liquor on his breath.  She wondered about that.

She wondered about all of it.

This time when he sat down he sat with his hand on top of his thigh.  She felt his fingers wriggling, dancing their way slowly, shyly even, onto her own thigh; felt them twitching towards her jacket so as, she eventually understood, to pull it farther over her lap.  She moved about a little in her seat, making it easier for him to do so; but she did not help him.  She could feel his eyes again, darting about in his head.  Almost she could feel his nervous thoughts.  She wondered if she could . . .  But by now he had the jacket tugged across her entire lap . . .

His hand moved in long, smooth strokes, first over the top of her thigh, then along the inner part of it, up and down, up and down . . .  Giving a little snort, or a cough perhaps, he slumped towards her slightly.  She did not move.  Slowly his hand slipped over her thigh again, then slid downward until it rested gently between her legs.  She did not move.  She did not mind; she did not think; she liked the feel of the heat of his palm and her own, answering heat.  She'd let her boyfriends do this much, but no more, though their hands had been less sure.  If he tried anything more, she knew she could just move away and he would stop.  But she didn't think she would even have to do that much.  This man could not handle the hassle.

He kept his hand between her legs for perhaps the next ten minutes or so.  Sometimes he would let just his fingertips run up and down over her, sometimes he pressed his hand against her, sometimes he gripped her in his palm and it was if she could feel the blood pulsating between them.  Then he'd relax and let his hand rest gently against her again, lazy and comfortable, as the bus rumbled on . . .

And she was right:  about five minutes before they reached the next station the man withdrew his hand.  She felt him strumming his fingers on the armrest in frustration.  She sat up straighter in her seat then and folded her jacket neatly on her lap.

When the bus pulled into the station she slipped her jacket on and put the strap of her purse over her shoulder.  This was the last stop so all she needed to do after that was wait patiently until the man got up and left, which he soon did.  She did not look at him.  He was real enough to her already; she did not want him to be more real.  After he got up he waited for her, but she did not move, and soon the press of people behind him swept him away.  By the time she got up she had no idea which of those bobbing heads ahead of her might be his – nor did she care.

As she waited, luggage ticket in hand, for her bag, she could feel him hovering somewhere on the cement platform behind her.  He wanted more, she knew; and she almost wished she could off somewhere with him.  She'd liked his nervousness, his boldness; and his hand, his palm, his fingers, felt like they had knowledge of some meaning she had yet to learn.  But she also had a bus to catch.

For her next bus was the one that left almost immediately.  As she moved down the platform, pushing through bodies, reading the numbers on the side of one long, fuming bus after another – for this was a large, busy terminal – she felt the man fading away behind her.  She felt first a sudden rush of disappointment, and then it hushed.  He was gone.  And here was her bus!  She had her bag stowed away again and climbed on board.  Only fourteen hours to go.

The Intel village, when she eventually got there, was . . . okay.  Basically, it was three weeks of unending okay.  She was met, shortly after she arrived at her last stop, by a stern, rather pretty woman maybe in her late-twenties or early thirties, who drove her to the village, about a half-hour away, in a truck.  It was a drive filled with a sort of conversational interrogation, as were all the interactions she had with senior village members in the coming days.  They were an inquisitive lot, but they didn't seem to mind too much if she was inquisitive in turn.  It felt like a good beginning, this idea she was getting of a new kind relationship between people:  mind to mind.  But that initial flush of hope was really the high point of her stay.

She was aware, for instance, that at various points during her work day – highly scheduled, but with plenty of free time scheduled in as well – or vis-à-vis some specific task she'd been assigned, that she was being subtly tested, sounded out, in ways she could not quite comprehend.  There were two (one at the beginning of her stay, one at the end) old-fashioned sit-down pen-and-paper style tests, full of What would you do ifs? and Which do you prefers?  A sort of personality quiz is how it seemed to her.  She was surprised at how silly the questions were.  Maybe, she thought, there's a test inside the test?  Well, she hadn't been able to read it if it was there.  Mostly her time was spent doing manual work, gardening mainly but also helping out with the animals once or twice and in the kitchen some days too, chopping vegetables.  Also she'd had to wash dishes.  A lot.  All the newbies had.  And they had all helped out in the garden.  A lot.  And it was all okay.  Relaxing.  Sunny.  Pleasant.  She also got the chance to shoot some weapons once, which is something she'd never done before.  She liked it.

But still she was aware, somehow, like a buzzing in the back of her brain, that always she – they, all the newbies – were being monitored, or at least periodically observed, studied almost.  Her mind groped its way towards the cause of this awareness but came up empty-handed.  At any rate, she did not feel that anyone was noticing anything special about her.  She did not feel selected, or singled out in any way.  Perhaps it was because here, she did not seem to know.  She felt that, given a little more time, she would.  In fact, by the end of her stay she was getting a lot of flashes.  But it was too little too late.  They didn't notice, or maybe they had and it just hadn't interested them.

Or, who knows? maybe they'd contact her at some future time . . .  In any case, one bad thing that had happened – very bad – was that she'd gotten a case of poison ivy or poison oak or poison something all over her butt.  How she'd gotten it she did not know but it had to have been that one time she'd peed in the woods.  She'd been following a trail when she had to go so she got off the path and squatted behind some trees, and either the bottom of her pants had come in contact with something that got on her or her butt had, when she was hunched down, but either way by the time she started for home the worst places on her body imaginable considering that she'd be sitting on bus seats and wooden benches and plastic chairs for the next eighteen hours were covered in red bumps that burned when you scratched them and tickled mercilessly when you didn't.

When she had that first, long, eight-hour layover she had to sit in the remotest part of the station possible just so that she could, whenever nobody was looking, stick her hand down the back of her pants and scratch . . .  She scratched even when it burned, especially when it burned.  At least it wasn't itching then.

Buses are from hell, her father had said.  Well, he was sure right about that!

As it turned out, once she was actually on the bus it wasn't quite so bad.  The jiggling helped.  And the bus never got completely full, so she never had to give up her second seat.  She even managed to sleep a little, in between scratches, one hand resting on her purse and jacket beside her.  Going home, she thought, as the tires hummed beneath her.  Going home . . .

Her parents would be waiting for her of course, no matter the hour.  They'd planned to take her to breakfast probably.  She could see them already; she knew just how they'd be standing at the bus station (it would look to her, compared to the others, very small), just what the expression on their faces would be:  smiling, nervous, interested, happy, anxious:  they would look like all these things.  They would not know how much she'd be willing to tell – or how much she'd be allowed to even.  That's what would be in their eyes.  She knew exactly what they'd be wearing too – exactly.  It wasn't a case of her father wearing what she thought would be a blue jacket that turned out to the gray.  No, she knew his shirt, his pants, his socks, his shoes.  She knew her mother would be wearing earrings, and which ones.  And her hair, it would be slightly undone, a little ruffled at the edges . . .  Yes, she knew all this.  She knew.

She didn't even understand how to describe it to herself, this knowing.  Was it being able to see the truth, or a kind of truth?  Yes, but . . . as compared to what?  To its shadow, perhaps.  Whatever that meant . . .  She shook her head.  She didn't understand yet – but she knew she would.

And when the bus pulled into her hometown station an hour later, there they were, her parents, standing exactly where she'd known they'd be, looking just as she'd known they would, and how they looked was happy, nervous, interested, anxious and uncertain, all at once.

Every detail was just right.

~ END ~