The bus is not as packed as I would have expected – there were less people for the army to pick up than they had prepared for, so this third bus is only about half full. I am thankful for what little space that affords me. But it is both not enough and irrelevant. I can create as much emotional space as I want, and I am.
The only person I can stand being with right now is JJ. Of course to some degree, I am with all of them – even Jamie, whose presence makes me sick. But in my mind, none of them are here. I am alone, with the only person who can share in my grief, who does not try to console me, who does not make me feel guilty or out of place. The only one who understood Paul the way I did. We miss him together. And sometimes I shut him out, too.
They told us we’d be in Los Angeles by nightfall, only a day’s travel. Should be easy, we thought. But the war has made people crazy, and the bus is bringing it out.
Some people, you can tell, are relieved to be in the company of others. I would have been, a week ago. After spending a year with the same dozen other people, no new faces, no new places, something changes in you. Something has changed in these people. They cry with relief to see there are enough people to fill three buses, or at least two and a half. I suppose we would have cried when we met Aiden’s group, had it not been such a tense meeting. And of course we felt no relief when we met the gang in the woods. Zero for two, doesn’t give me much reason to hope any of these people will be better.
While many people are glad to know they aren’t alone, not everyone is enjoying the company. I do not notice them, or even the relieved people, until attention is called to them. Even then, it takes great effort from my surroundings to pull me out of my own mind, to stop the broken record stuck replaying Paul’s death over and over again. When I do return, it is suddenly.
One minute I am watching Paul collapse in the forest clearing, and then someone’s head is being slammed against one of the windows of the bus.
“Look this way again and so help me-”
“No, no I wasn’t-”
The angry one, a big tough guy, pushes the transgressor’s face harder against the glass (or whatever these windows are made of). “I saw you, I fuckin’ saw you glancing at our bags. You planning to grab one on the way out? Sneak something out while we’re dozing?”
“It wasn’t like that, man. I, I swear!”
Uninterested, I retreat again, directing my gaze out the window at the passing landscape – shades of brown and gray, mostly. Few distinct buildings remain standing, all else rubble.
JJ tenses next to me and extends an arm in front of me, barring me to the seat. I turn to him, but his eyes are ahead, and I follow.
A woman stands in the aisle – somehow, despite the din, the click of her cocking the gun silenced everyone. She trembles, and I wonder if she’s ever shot a gun before. If she could handle killing someone, or if it would destroy her. If she would regret it – taking the life of someone, without even knowing who loved him, who he loved.
I conclude that she hasn’t, but I’m not sure whether I think this makes her more or less dangerous.
“Just let go of him,” her voice quivers, “and I won’t shoot.”
“You ain’t gonna,” he starts, but stops himself. One of the soldiers on the bus is making his way down the aisle. The woman with the gun lowers it, hides it behind her back.
“If you can’t keep the peace, you can’t stay on the bus,” he says, looking slowly at everyone. “Is there a problem?”
All three are quiet. The antagonizer finally loosens his fingers from the other guy’s hair, and moves aside for him as he hurries back to the woman. “No. No problem.”
“Good,” the soldier says, turning to walk back to the front of the bus.
The pair makes a move to sit back down, but they are stopped.
“Don’t think this is over,” the big guy seethes. “Sit somewhere else if you don’t want more trouble.”
The two shuffle toward the back of the bus, and I look away, but in my periphery I am aware of how close they are to us.
“You two by yourselves?” a familiar voice asks. Jamie.
“Yeah,” the man says, rubbing the reddened half of his face. “We were hiding out near Eugene, last two of our group. Been on our own going on…what, two months now?”
The girl nods.
“Anyway, name’s Nathan. This is Sonam.”
They shake hands. “Jamie.”
“And are you alone, too, friend?” Sonam asks. Her Indian accent is only faint, but the way she says the words makes me think English isn’t her first language.
“No,” he says, shaking his head and almost chuckling. “This whole back of the bus is, uh, is us.”
A few of us, half paying attention to the conversation, give shy waves or nods of acknowledgement. I make a point of glaring at Jamie before turning my attention back out the window.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor plays through the headphones of my iPod, and I am angry when Jamie’s face invades my thoughts, handing me a car battery that first night; an interaction I lied to Paul about.
Paul was right to distrust Jamie – I was wrong. I defended him, but Paul could tell. Paul knew he was looking at the man who would ultimately be responsible for his death.
“We grouped up as we were leaving Portland, spent some time-” I hear him explaining to the strangers, but I turn up the volume until he is drowned out.
I want to think about Paul right now, before I forget. Because every second my brain is getting new things to remember – like Nathan and Sonam. What memory did they replace? When I am able to remember her, in the aisle of the bus pointing a gun at the man menacing her defenseless partner, what will be beyond recall? Paul, laying next to me as the dust we unsettled comes to rest on his face when we would sneak back to his house? Or something even farther back, before the war? We were just kids then, those memories are already fading. I can’t know for sure if they are even real, or if I’ve made them up.
But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world. Tim O’Brien.
And I guess if it brings Paul back to me, the memory doesn’t even have to be real. The Paul in my dreams, in the stories I tell myself, is more real than any of the people on this bus; more real than anything.