Bus Trip to Intel Village

Her parents sort of didn't want her to go.  When they said okay they didn't sound too 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, work to do.  But that wasn't enough to satisfy her parents – they gave her some extra money at the bus station and told her to stuff it inside her sock.  And stood like two guards on either side of her while she did so (to make sure no one saw).  That's for just in case, they said.  For emergencies, they said.  Because, 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.  But they wouldn't leave, they wouldn't go, just go.  It was stupid.  People are stupid, she thought.  But no, they said they'd stay with her – which was, ok, fine by her, 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, all of them with their arms crossed, 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.  She wasn't looking; she'd shut her mind off.  There were four or five of them, that's all she knew.

They sat silently for awhile, and then her mother began talking quietly to her father about something to do with the house, some repair that needed done, and that went on for awhile until finally some man came out and said the bus – her bus – was about to arrive, and she stood up and got her ticket out 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 her parents.  They smiled and said, Good idea, and her mother stepped forward and gave her a sudden quick hug which made her go rigid.  It was time to stop this.  This was getting 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 here, 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 the purse, then the jacket on top of that – and her hand always resting atop the whole pile – that was what she'd been taught.  Her parents were standing outside on the little cement platform.  They smiled and waved.  She smiled and waved back at them, muttering, Why can't you just go the fuck away! under her breath.  Now her mother was making motions, gesturing to herself and her father, then pointing towards the exit.  They were going.  Good.  She jerked her head at them in a quick nod and smiled broadly so they'd see how ok 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 in her head:  Her mind was back in tune.

Her eyes wandered over the interior of the bus.  It was dimly lit, but brighter than it would be later, when there would be only a few of the tiny overhead reading lamps on.  Narrowly spaced of course, and crowded, the seats jammed in close, two to each side of the aisle.  She looked around, mostly 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; there, at the women with their waves and curls and puffy clouds all smushed out of shape.  But beyond that – her eyes searched – 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 clambered in, wrote something down on a sheet of paper, and put the bus in gear.  The lights flashed off and everyone settled in – some, who hadn't yet taken their seats, even fell in – as the bus lurched forward.  She herself grabbed hold of the armrest beside her; she felt as if she were starting the slow take-off of a roller-coaster, about to climb a long hill.  She'd never been away from home before.  Now she was about to be.  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 to work – but still!  (I know, her father had said when he'd heard, I know.  Buses are from hell.  Her father 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.)  But for the time being all she had to do was settle back and ride.

For a long time she looked out the window at the passing scenery.  It was night already, quite late, and oftentimes all she saw were long tracts of fields or sometimes clumps of trees or groups of houses shrouded in shadow.  Occasionally there'd be lights on in some house or building they passed, and she'd wonder what kind of lives were being lived in these, imagining 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 reading something . . .  Then suddenly they'd be pulling into some town and the lights inside the bus would come on, brighter than they'd seemed before because of the long interval of darkness, and some of the passengers would get up and clamber off and new ones 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 would 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 at the next stop.  She kept her face turned towards the window the whole time.  Then she leaned back, just a little, and closed her eyes.  She hadn't looked at him at all; and yet she knew it was a man.  She knew it was a man, and she knew he was middle-aged – which meant, to her, a man of about forty.  Average height, more-or-less average build, a little belly on him, balding.  She couldn't see his clothes very well – but she had the impression of some sort of suit, an old, worn out, crumpled suit.

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 at the scenery flashing by.  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 legs relaxed; one of them even came to rest against hers after awhile:  she noticed their knees were touching.  She didn't move hers right away as she might have expected she would.  It felt oddly companionable, this slight touch, and he was asleep after all, so she left it there.  Though after awhile she felt the man's knee pressing against hers.  So he wasn't asleep!  She wondered about that.  A minute or so later the knee pressed again, harder this time, and with a measure of insistence.  Or, of inquiry?  Yes, she got that.  Cautiously, ever so gently and very curiously, she pressed back.  What could he want?

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 around them 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 manage, so far as he dared, partly under hers.  She thought about this.  She'd had boyfriends who'd done this sort of thing, at the movies or in a parked car.  She thought about it awhile longer.  She could feel his fingers wiggling, wriggling, tickling.  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 cupping as much flesh as it could – which admittedly wasn't much; but up and down his hand moved under her thigh, slowly exploring the few inches of flesh available to it, then stopping, resting, almost as though it were a separate, living thing that needed to catch its breath . . .

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.  She wanted to find out.

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

She had known that.

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 neighboring thigh; felt them twitching towards her jacket, tugging at it, pulling it bit by bit over her lap.  She moved about a little in her seat, making it easier for him to do so; but beyond that 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, if she tried; and what would happen if she did . . .  But by now he had tugged the jacket across her entire lap.  She waited to see what would happen next.

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 stiffened a little, but otherwise 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.  Neither did his hand.  She did not mind; in fact, she rather liked the feel of it, the heat of his palm and the stirring of her own, answering heat.  She'd let her boyfriends do this much, but no more – though their hands had been less sure.  Still, if he tried anything more, she knew she could just move away and he would stop.  She didn't think she would even have to do that much.  They were surrounded by people, and this man with the booze on his breath would be easy to scare, if need be.  She wasn't worried.

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 the flat his hand hard 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 apparent frustration.  She sat up straighter in her seat then, folded her jacket neatly on her lap, and looked out the window.

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 for everyone 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 she felt him waiting for her, but she did not move, and soon the press of people behind him swept him away.  By the time she rose from her seat she had no idea which of those bobbing heads ahead of her might be his.  Neither 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 go off somewhere with him.  She'd liked his nervousness – and 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.  It came first as a sudden rush of disappointment – his mingled with a little of hers, she thought – 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.  The drive was filled with a sort of conversational interrogation, a style of talk she would find characterized all of her interactions with senior Village members in the coming days.  They were inquisitive about her, but they didn't seem to mind too much if she was inquisitive about them in return.  It felt like a good beginning, this meeting of minds, this probing with words.  She hoped for more.  She wanted more.  But that initial sense of promise 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 when occupied with some specific task she'd been assigned, that she was being subtly tested, sounded out, but 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?  Sort of like personality quizes is how they struck 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 always aware, somehow always aware, like a buzzing in the back of her brain, that 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.  This worried her.  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 seem to notice, or maybe they had and it just wasn't the sort of thing that interested them.  Of course, it may be that they had noticed and would contact her at some future time . . .

One bad thing had happened though.  Very bad, in fact – 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 for sure but it had to have been that one time she'd peed out in the woods.  She'd been following a trail when she found 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 brushed against something when she was hunched down, 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 relentlessly when you didn't.

When she had that first, long, eight-hour layover she'd 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 as hell was 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, the other on her lap.  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 have plans to take her out to eat 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 she'd seen, very small), and 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 about what had happened at the Village – or how much she'd even be allowed to tell.  That's one of the questions that 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 probably be a blue jacket that turned out to be gray.  No, she knew exactly which jacket, exactly which shirt, which pants, which shoes, the color of his socks even.  And she knew . . . she knew her mother would be wearing earrings, and she knew which ones.  And her hair, it would be slightly undone, a little ruffled at the edges where it poked out from underneath a scarf.  For there would be a scarf.  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 – not 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 exactly as she'd known they would; and how they looked was happy, nervous, interested, anxious and uncertain, all at once.  And the way they were dressed, from socks to jacket to earrings to scarf, and the way they looked at her as she stepped off the bus . . .

Every detail was just right.

~ END ~