By Christopher Caldwell
The Nebraska plains were swallowed up in darkness, it was a moonless October night, and the stars seemed helpless to combat the disquieting blackness. The silvery bus would have seemed to onlookers to be swimming through the gloom; like one of those fish one finds in the depths that supply their own eerie internal light. There was no sign of the little town up ahead, but the two knew that their brief time as friends was coming to an end. They had passed a road sign a half-hour back, and that greenclad authoritarian had sternly insisted that Henderson was fifty-three miles from that point. The boy, (for he was little more than a boy, perhaps twenty) knew very little about his unkempt and unsmiling companion, but recognized that Henderson was the end of her journey. He had not pushed for details, and she had given him very few, despite her intuition that she could trust him.
She had watched her companion since the beginning of the trip, they had both boarded the bus in Los Angeles, she had watched this young man who kept himself neat after a day and a half on the road with no change of clothes and nowhere to sleep besides the uncomfortable seats on the silver mammoth. She had watched how he would now read a little of the slim volume he kept with him, then scribble in the large blue binder that sat in his lap like a pampered kitten and how he would only now and then drink from the bottle of water he carried, or eat a wheat thin from a small box. He did not eat at any of the stops, nor did he sleep much. He seemed to require little sustenance besides his own inner glow, and he reminded her of one of the Holy Hermits of legend.
She was strangely comforted by him and the sense of "otherness" that he carried. The girl was not able to sit by him until after Denver, when they changed buses again. She did not speak to him until a few hours later however, when the bus made a stop for lunch. The girl realized that the stranger neatly dressed in black may not be eating because he had no money. She gathered her courage around her like rather cumbersome skirts and spoke in awkward, unnatural voice.
"Hey. If you're hungry, I have a little extra change, I could buy you a hamburger."
The boy seemed grateful, but shyly declined. The girl smiled at him, her first smile since leaving Los Angeles. They still said little to each other outside that McDonald's but she, for the first time, was sure about his "otherness". They climbed back onto the dust-painted greyhound,
somewhat conspicuous in their silence, the other passengers were chattering about the weather, or relatives who had operations, or how those damn Democrats were ruining the country. After about an hour of riding through the nothingness that marks the Great Plains, he began to talk to her, somehow knowing not to ask too many questions, she let details of her life fall from her mouth like a careless gourmand lets scraps of food slide. The boy learned that she was on her way back to Henderson, Nebraska, what she described as a "dead town". The boy, perhaps having a bit more of the poet in him, would've called it a town whose soul has gone dry. The girl had run away at sixteen, rather than tell her parents about her "otherness". The boy pieced together that the girl
was now eighteen, and going back to face her parents, and perhaps, admit defeat. The boy, having lived ten years in Los Angeles, knew the city could be cold to foundling children. The girl learned that the boy was going to see a lover, that he fancied himself a poet, and that he was a self-admitted fool. The boy did not mention the sex of the lover. The girl smiled, she had been right about the "otherness". She spoke again, trying to make her lilting soprano into a whiskeyed alto.
"My parents, they wouldn't understand about something like that, they got silly ideas about 'perverts', no offense."
The boy nodded sagely, but said nothing else. Again they rode in silence.
"What's that you're reading?", the girl asked.
"The Little Prince, it was one of my favorite novels when I was small. I used to read it when I was very sad."
"Oh, were you terribly sad as a child?"
Silence again. The boy wrote in his binder until sunset. The girl played with one ginger-colored braid.
"I don't think my folks will be too happy to see me."
"I'm sure they will."
"You don't know my folks." The girl held back the tear forming at the corner of her eye, and wished desperately for the boy to touch her hand. He did not. The girl sighed upon passing the road sign.
"Fifty-three miles and I'm back in bum-fuck Egypt with all the rednecks."
The boy arched one of his elegant eyebrows.
"That's all they have in Henderson, rednecks and red-eyed strangers who eat in the cafe on their way to somewhere else. Truckers, mostly. And the people from the greyhound"
"No," the girl smiled strangely, "not like us. I'll buy you a coke in the cafe, if you want, k?"
The boy nodded, the first time he had agreed to partake in the girl's generosity. The girl smiled, they were friends now.
For a while, the darkness beyond the bus was total, but then there were the first glimmers of weary incandescent light. The boy looked out the window, the girl was right, Henderson was a dead town. Dry, dead cornstalks lined the road, harvest had passed. Every now and then that caught glimpse of a grim farmhouse, uniformly gray, although under the unforgiving floodlights that seemed to be on every roof, some showed evidence of once being painted white in happier times. The bus turned unto what must be downtown, a square redbrick post office, as squat and unlovely as an outhouse, a cinderblock building that was probably town hall, the city court and jail all in one, and the truck stop, lurid in the red neon glow of its sign that proclaimed boldly that it was a cafe. The bus stopped in the parking lot of the cafe. The weary travelers stumbled off like zombies and crowded into its dark, smoky interior. The boy and the girl knew that the time for parting was near, but said nothing. They grabbed one of the booths where the lining of the seats was not torn too badly. The girl looked at a menu, the boy looked at his hands.
"You've never told them, have you?" the boy asked pointedly, it had been his first question.
"No. but it's my funeral, isn't it? You getting something to eat?"
"Just a coke."
The time of parting came quickly. The girl grabbed the boy's had, after seeing the worry in his eyes.
"Hey, I'll be okay."
The boy nodded and boarded the bus. The girl stood in the road and watched the bus until it disappeared into the blackness once more, she knew the past two years had not been a fever-dream because of what she had clutched in her right hand, the copy of the Little Prince the boy had slipped to her as a symbol of their brief friendship. The girl smiled, and walked into town with the air of an exiled queen, with resignation, but not defeat. On the bus the boy watched Henderson recede into the night, and he did not weep.