By Brad Kelly
As she ate her sugary cereal, during her grand rebellion against dolls and the scabbiest knees of her life, Talia remembered the people she knew from a time before all this. A mother distant-eyed and radiant and hilarious—the one she lived with now tyrannical and peevish—and a father much like this one, rough-handed and simple and kind. And memories of a forested skyline imposed over the sparse backyard she saw from her bedroom window. And her neck aching at night and this stooping her over through the day until she held a tiny, private space at her chest, where she kept her past life as if safe in a heavy locket. No one believed her. Not mom or dad, not the doctor or her friends. Her life up till now like a glacial calving, like a tremendous mountain of ice splitting up…
Between cities, the country groaned under its own weight. Talia thought of it as a vast theater after the curtain has dropped—quiet and empty and echoing as they trundled across it very small and slow. Sometimes there were hills or a stand of trees far off the road as if painted on the backdrop, sometimes the rocks and rivers were practically under their wheels.
She didn’t sleep well on the bus. She’d nod out for an hour or two in the cramped seat and then they’d hit a bump that stabbed her with the armrest, or a siren would flood by, or a child would begin to scream. Always a moment of uncertainty about where she was, a landscape passing by with no reference in the wildly inaccurate map in her head. The skies were gray, as they’d been the entire trip, but she could tell it was the morning by a whiteness in the light and the taste in her mouth.
Beside her, in the aisle seat, sat a creature that must have slipped aboard in the night. He was forty-something going on sixty and pieces were beginning to fall off. His rail-thin arms were like prosthetics jutting from his sleeveless T and his shoulder-length hair, composed of mostly ash and a few sun-faded beads, partially hid a disfigured ear. He looked at Talia with pea-soup eyes, smiling secretively with slimy teeth. His name was Gary, she guessed, but he’d changed it to Moon or Zap or Lake Trout.
“You look like my daughter when you’re sleeping,” he said. “She fourteen now, how old are you?”
The plan was to make the entire trip without saying a word. But in her travels so far, Talia had come to understand that she’ll be next to this man all day. If she didn’t respond now, the awkwardness would swell up like a balloon. It is how the woman who claims to be her mother would handle the situation, though. She’d sit stiff-lipped and fume and then gab bitterly about this seatmate to her friends for the next three weeks. Still, Talia felt she’d rather let a fart squeak through, or a garlicky burp, than say anything that might expose her.
“She fourteen. Going to see her. First time on the same side of glass since she was too young to know who I was.”
“Prison?” Talia asked. She had never met anyone who’d been in prison. She tried to sink through the fabric of the seats.
“Almost twelve years. Not sure if I was ready, but some point they gotsta let you go. Bar fight. Could have happened to anyone.”
“I’ve never been in a bar fight.”
“That’s ‘coz you full of love, dear,” he said, reaching into the tiny private space at her chest to point at her heart. She froze tight. “I’m working on that. Got all the hate almost out of me.”
The bus began to climb with a strained rumble down in its bowels. Up out of the flats and into the hills.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
She had pored over maps in recent years, seeking a name that struck her, googling images of places for something that resonated. She had died as a child and never knew, or nearly forgot the irrelevancy in the bardo, the word that meant her real home.
“Oregon,” she said, timidly, a shake to it. “The Dalles?”
“Oh. . .ways to go yet.”
Four rows behind them, and on the other side of the aisle, a young woman whistled a three note tune.
“Guuuuuaaaood morning!” she said. “This is Vonda Carlson, your host for Transcontinental Today. Today on Today, we’ll be talking with passenger 11A, plus news and weather, and I’ve got a fantastic fall pie recipe your family will go bananas over. Outside, it’s about 54 degrees, and we’ve got a day of clouds and rocks and wind. Be sure to stay hydrated folks, whether you’re eating a bag of pretzels for breakfast or just staring out the window.”
Talia walked past Vonda during the show once, on her way to the overflowing toilet, and watched for a moment as this thirtyish woman with a smart navy blazer and a blonde hairdo she’d glazed into a power-lunch helmet spoke into her mobile like a microphone with a meteorologist’s accent. She’d been working her way up to row 10, where Talia sat. No one has refused to chat with her.
“As you know, Transcontinental Today is dedicated to bringing you candid interviews with your fellow passengers. If you know a story you’d like us to cover, please stop by row 14 and meet with our producer—Vonda Carlson!”
Talia put in headphones. She’d been listening to a book on tape about Buddhism because they were the ones that believed in reincarnation. It didn’t make much sense to her, though some of the lines were beautiful and a few of the words made her feel a little less afraid. She wanted a technical explanation, the wisdom of someone who knew what she knew but could put names to it and tell her how to find her real home. Within moments, the battery died and the tiny screen went blank. She thonked out the earbuds in a huff, wrapped them up, jammed them into her bag.
“Hey, young lady,” Gary Moon said. “Anything to eat?”
At dinner, squeezing ketchup for the meatloaf: “You’re not my real parents. Why don’t you tell me where my real parents are?”
Her mother: “You leave and you can’t come back. Walkout that fucking door and that’s the second I stop worrying about your stupid ass.”
Crying: “You’re scaring me. Do you hear that Talia? You’re scaring us and all we ever wanted was to—”
Packing the bag that now lives at her feet: “If I lie about this even once, it’ll be like I never believed it in the first place.”
She’d brought some hygiene products and a couple changes of clothes, a grocery bag of dwindling snacks tied up like Chinese take-out. In the front pocket, she had a notebook half-full of memories from back then: images and smells and moments that had appeared fully-formed in her head. There were two hundred dollars—a gift from ‘Dad’—hidden in the tongue of her shoe. She did not bring anything of sentiment but some music on the player and a few stains on her clothes.
Talia gave Gary Moon a package of honey roasted cashews and split her frosted cinnamon bun in half. Something about being on the road made her want to eat nothing but sugar and salt. She managed the hand-over steady at the controls, undilutedly herself, but it was like she could still feel the finger that pointed at her heart, accusing her of a subterfuge and a holding back his words taken honestly did not speak. Gary Moon ate the nuts peckishly and then poured the remnants into his grimy paw and tossed them into his mouth.
“They say my daughter got diabetes. Has to stick a needle in her arm every day.”
Talia imagined a syringe stabbing through her skin, a tiny periscope probing her interior. Gooseflesh pebbled her arm.
“Say she fearless about it. Say she doesn’t think twice. Eight years old, don’t need no help. I say it ain’t a good thing to not be afraid of. You ever try heroin?”
“You know. . .not really.”
Gary chuckled at this like she’d never tried ice cream, never kissed a boy. He tossed his half of the cinnamon bun in his mouth, chewed it once or twice, and swallowed the whole thing like a big, gooey pill. Talia moved to put the earbuds back in, hoping that even with Gary Moon’s twelve years of stonehouse isolation he’d take this as a sign to keep to himself.
“So what you tripping on?” he asked, still smacking his lips.
“White folks would say it: ‘And what’s the reason for your trip, ma’am?’”
Talia looked back through the space between seats, trying to glimpse Vonda Carlson. Passenger 11A was telling her about a car wash her nephew owns and the job she’ll have when she arrives. “Been looking for work a long time,” said 11A.
“Did you try the last place you left it?” Vonda asked, a cheerful, morning-voiced jibe.
Talia fought back a shivering and looked out the window to slip from under Gary’s muddy eyes. Clouds, rocks, a cloud-dense sky. Just as Vonda had said.
“Funeral. . .birthday. . .headed to see your great aunt Tilly before she passes from this vale?”
“You. . .you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Oh, sister. . . I can believe all kinds of things on a day like today.”
She wouldn’t touch his thingie no matter what he said. Gross and wrong and the pit in her stomach that was partly wanting to do it. She was allowed to say no, that much she knew. And apparently he was allowed to push her into the gulch, her head was allowed to strike a rock and the three vertebrae of her neck were allowed to pop in quick succession like ripping off buttons. And she was also allowed to lie there blinking a long time. More moments than simply one as the darkening blur seeped in. And her father was allowed to rush to the rim up there and pull at his hair and scream. And then the light, the slow-pulsing crystal of her hereness, was allowed to flood from her all at once.
A truck stop in a flat town so wind-torn the ramshackle buildings leaned to the east. Buying fried drumsticks and mozzarella sticks in a cardboard tray and Gary angling for a bite like a courteous vulture. She blew the dust from her can of orange soda and watched the day burning off out at its fringe, dusk coming over the hills like locusts. Back on the bus with three hours until another stop, maybe four. She looked out the window for something in the way of things, and as night grew she found a solace out there in the star-paled space between rocks, in imagined lean-tos hidden from the road where she could live until her grocery bag of snacks ran out and it got cold. She had not counted on the loneliness and confinement of this trip, the way one insulates the other. She’d thought the nervousness and withdrawal would cease and she’d glide across these vast roads knowing exactly who she is.
Gary Moon slept with an impressive dexterity and depth. She almost admired it, the way he fell out of consciousness like a rock into a bucket. The afternoon had proved him harmless, entertaining even, and now that he was out she sympathized with him. Felt something cold and flat like sadness.
“WHOOOMF. . .wuddawuddawuddawuddaWHOOMF.”
It was Vonda Carlson again, introducing her hard-hitting evening program “Realities with Vonda Carlson,” a mix of feature-style reporting on phenomena from Vonda’s life—the dangers of gluten, discrimination against childless women, a purported expose on the dubious benefits of her current medication—and pressing interviews with passengers slightly less lucky than those in the seat beside them. Soon, it will be Talia in the hot seat; no one has refused yet. Even the eight year old in row 14 came on Realities and divulged his goblin-like penchant for eating marshmallow cream out of the jar with his bare hands. Even Cowboy Bob had a misty-eyed moment talking about his Stage 3 mother. Talia scanned ahead for openings near the front.
Vonda Carlson asked passenger 11A how her life had changed since the divorce, whether she felt she could ever love again, what would become of the child she’d left with the father back in Ohio. Talia’s real father lived somewhere near the woods. His worn hands would tussle her hair and then set it straight again—curly then, the sun shining off it like copper. He would take her round to all the things growing in their yard with his big hand enveloping hers. He would tell her the name of every cloud.
“But you’re my damn daughter,” he said. “I was there. . .”
And eavesdropped through late-night walls. Aunt Dorie, Mom: “Maybe she’s right. I tell you what, that girl wasn’t my idea.” “Oh, come on.” “It’s not enough I lie to her I’m supposed to lie to you, too?”
To Cassie: “I just want you to believe me. You’re my friend, we’re supposed to be on each other’s side.”
“Guuuuuaaaood morning! This is Vonda Carlson, your host for Transcontinental Today. Today on Today, we’ll be talking with passenger 10B, plus news and weather, and I’ve got an inventive new use for all those cigarette butts that will blow your mind. Outside, it’s about 52 degrees, but the forecast today calls for trees and boredom and perhaps a moment of harrowing introspection…”
Talia woke to this and saw Gary Moon staring absently at the back of the seat. She dug something sandy out of her eye, shifted to let a cascade of pins course her arm.
“What did she say?” Talia asked.
“I don’t know who that is.”
“Okay,” Talia said. “Uh, how did you sleep?”
“Like I might never come back. You?”
“I never get more than halfway there on the bus. Dreaming without sleeping.”
Waking up always held a tension of unreality, like she were now in some dream above or below the other and would momentarily wake again.
“That’s crazy talk,” Gary said, his mouth half full of something. “You believe in angels?”
“I don’t know I—”
“Saw one twice. Last time was the day before my arrangement. . .I’m shotgunning beers with Fred out back of his junkyard. Now Fred, he’ll claim he didn’t see nothing, but I tell you there it was. . .Stretched from one end of the county to the other. Shaped like a tear-drop, curving as it flew. Same colors you see on a little oil-sheen in the parking lot—shifting, green like a bottle fly, purple like a beetle.”
At the break, they got out at a truck stop hewn together from logs. Talia pretended to smoke a cigarette, like half the bus was doing for real. She flexed her knees and straightened her beaver brown hair in the dusty aluminum of the bus with finger-nails chipped to reveal their native pink.
It seemed she was exactly where she ought to be. All of them—Gary and Vonda, the driver there stubbing out his smoke, the wiry owner of the road-side store even—buying a proposition to which they had no say, steered through their time here by a part of themselves they did not control. And what would they be if they were to pretend otherwise. She watched them file onto the bus, knowing which way to stagger without a thought. She could bail out at the next crossroad; there is always some crossroad to bail out at, but then you will never get there.
After dusk, Vonda interviewed Gary Moon and he spoke redneck eloquence about dull-edged survival in the joint—a scar cut into his chest by the honed edge of a butter knife, solitary confinement like being tightly swaddled in dark wool and left to argue with yourself. He said there are angels flying over us and through us all the time and that they know you better than you know yourself, but you are not allowed to ask them questions. You have to simply see them and know. Vonda asked him what he would say to those who thought him crazy and he said that well, then, the moment he went crazy is when he found peace.
“How was the old dodger?” he asked Talia, coming back to his seat.
“Good. You’re good at that.”
“N.A., we share all the time.”
“Narcotics Anonymous. I thought those’d be the guys inside that knew how to get dope, you know. Turns out there was a higher authority running things. . .You know what you learn in there? What I learned?”
“No. . .I. . .”
“Everyone itchy. Moment you’re born you’re wanting something, thinking it can be different than it is right now. Mine was drugs until I learned inside to sit still. That young lady back there. . . her itch, I don’t know—attention, maybe. That’s fine. Maybe it’s wanting to know people. Everybody, you gotta scratch, see. That’s humannessity. But you gotta try to keep your nails trimmed.” He held up a hundred year old hand with perfectly clipped nails. “Or you’ll scratch right through to your insides.”
At their midnight stop, Cowboy Bob in the back row—a sharp tanline on his skinny arms, spurs jangling on his boots, a hat the size of a pumpkin—kneeled in the aisle and wretched. A man dressed like Robin Hood tried to pull him to the toilet, but he broke loose, hacking and sobbing—no, laughing—and sprinted for the front. The lights came on and the driver—a rangy whisker of a man with yawning eyes—stood to stop him, but Cowboy Bob blew by and crazied all over the parking lot. The passengers cowled their eyes at the glass to watch and Talia had the best view of all as he staggered beneath her window—moving as though chased by wasps—and dropped to a knee, tearing items from his pockets and casting them to the ground like they had become extremely hot. He stood again and stalked a car for a moment, careful to stay out of its view, and finally lunged to tear free a side mirror and dash it ineptly against the window.
In his interview on Realities, Cowboy Bob had talked about working oil rigs, about how he needed to sweat to keep things from accumulating. He’d gone first or second and thought the show was some complicated flirtation. He was bursting out of his pants from months in the field but eventually settled down and said he was ready to move on to better things, that as far as he was concerned, he’d filled his nostrils with all the oil he cared to smell.
When the cops showed, Cowboy Bob was standing waist deep in a dumpster throwing trash out like he was bailing water from his sinking dinghy. They dragged him out, slammed to the pavement, wrenched his arms behind him. And then the bus was moving again and Talia could taste something bitterly metallic on her tongue that was the fact they were leaving him behind. That he couldn’t handle the accumulation any longer and though they had to move on, he had to stay here in Bumfuck, Wyorado and it would be the worst night of his life, barely memorable to her years from now.
She fell asleep with her eyes on the sliver of the moon and dreamed about watching it slide effortless from behind those tall trees that framed her backyard, dreamed she was tucked-in and home and warm.
The sunrise, finally, was beautiful. Talia couldn’t recall ever really seeing it back in the suburbs. It seemed like to footage to her, the latest in laser-tech, the H-ist of Ds, as it came up and the edge of daylight slithered across the hardpan. She watched until the world lingered purple when she looked away.
Vonda cleared her throat and, after half a minute, cleared it again. It was Talia’s turn. Gary Moon made room for her to access the aisle and it seemed a lot of eyes were on her walking the few steps to Vonda’s “studio.” Talia thought she’d been a nearly invisible passenger, but every glance spoke of some association. The young squirrel in row 10, the girl all alone, the highway orphan. If you lie about something like this, then you must have never believed it to begin with.
Vonda and Talia exchanged pleasantries and then the host asked her name.
“They call me Talia, but . . .”
“Talia Butt?” she interjected with a clever grin.
“They call me Talia, but I can’t remember my real name. I’m on my way home.”
“We’ve seen you on the line for a long time, where is home?”
Talia, in the aisle seat, leaned out to look around. The man in his Robin Hood outfit, a moccasin boot jutted out and a wad of blackish gum stuck to the sole. Gary Moon turned and looking back at her as though he’d never seen her before in his life, as if she was something materialized from a dimly remembered dream.
“Talia? Where is home?”
“I don’t know, really. I don’t know where I’m going. I lived before this life, is the only way I can put it.”
“You believe you’ve reincarnated?”
“You would too, if things felt like this to you.”
“That’s amazing,” Vonda said. “And how will you know when you’ve found it? What will you do?”
In the afternoon, just over the line into Oregon, she bought hamburgers for herself and Gary and they ate them in the seat as the bus pulled out of the lot. There was a new driver or the old driver had reverted in age a decade. Gary had come to rattling off errant towns he’d seen in his day. At first, quizzing Talia whether she knew of them, but now just mumbling their names like they were a mantra that proved he’d taken some route in this world. The country now not so much a theater but a poem: Green River, Hampstead, Elko, Praetoria, Bloomington, Corvallis, Rapid City. . .
At dusk, the sun pink and orange and the bus as if drawn to it, Gary pointed out her window:
“There’s one,” he said, referring to a blank patch of sky. One of his angels.
“You see it there, big as an airship. You see it moving, you see it grooving, all of us right this second blessed or doomed, right?”
“Right there, you can see it if you just look. You see it?”
She looked and looked, tried seeing as if through his eyes. Nothing there but the empty sky draining of light.
“I don’t see it, Gary. I’m looking, for real. I’m sure it’s absolutely beautiful.”
About Brad Kelly
Brad Kelly is an alumnus of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. His work has appeared in *Midwestern Gothic*, *Cobalt, The Underground, Barnstorm, *and elsewhere. He currently makes a living as a sewer engineer in Detroit and will soon be releasing his novel *House of Sleep* one way or another. You can follow him on Twitter at @BradKelly.