Because some of you asked…
It surprised me when I awoke and didn’t hear the bus’s engines. I’d coughed a little, taking care to turn my head and press the cough into my shoulder, the very model of good, ethical hygiene. When I dragged my puffy eyes open, I realized that the older gentleman who had been sitting next to me had left for parts unknown. So had the girls who sat in front of me. The pain meds had long since worn off, leaving me achy and febrile.
I focused my eyes and saw the face of the bus driver, angry and supercilious at the same time, floating above me. She was a thirtysomething Latina with a pretty face, but the kind of makeup I found theatrical: heavily lined eyes and eyebrows that didn’t look natural. She had a hard look, and she was glaring at me, which exacerbated it.
“Sir?” she demanded. I squinted at her. Apparently I was late for a party I didn’t know about. The light of day was gone, and rain sheeted down the closed windows of the bus. The air inside the vehicle was squalid.
“Are you sick?”
“I have a cold, yes.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“I just need to take some Tylenol, and I’ll be fine. How much farther to Santa Cruz?”
“You won’t be going to Santa Cruz.” She crossed her arms. “You need to leave this bus right now.”
Her dark eyes flashed. “I have thirty passengers on this bus, Mister, and none of them want whatever you got.”
“Is this because of that flu thing? I was in the hospital this morning, and they let me go.”
“Did you bring a medical release?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Then you need to get off this bus.”
I turned to look at the other passengers. None would meet my eyes except for the man who’d sat next to me earlier. He looked at me sadly, then glanced away as though something had caught his eye in the darkness outside.
The driver tapped her foot on the nonskid flooring. “I don’t want to have to say it again, but I will. I don’t want to have to ask the passengers to help you off, but I will do that too. Please. Get. Off. The. Bus.”
I stood and edged into the aisle, enjoying the fear that showed in her eyes when I rose to my full height. Nobody knew better than I did what a mess I was. I took a step toward the driver, and she flinched.
“Where the hell are we?” I asked. I could see lights past the window, but they didn’t seem like anything I’d recognize. A sign for a convenience store maybe. An off-brand gas station. It wasn’t exactly familiar. The water rippling down the window glass distorted and obscured whatever the other sign said.
“We’re on Highway 101 in Santo Ignacio,” the driver told me. “This is the SeaView Motel. We wouldn’t strand you in the middle of nowhere, but I’m telling you to get off my bus.”
“I’m going,” I said, walking past her. “Are you going to open the cargo hold of this barge so I can get my duffel bag?”
“I am. I’ll be down in a minute.” She reached under her seat for a container of bleach wipes and handed them off to the old man who’d been my seat partner. He took them from her but held them in his hands as if he didn’t know what to do with them. Or maybe he just didn’t want to do it in front of me.
I disembarked slowly. I was going to feel this day’s adventure for a long time. When the rain hit my skin, it began to dawn on me that I was being thrown off a Greyhound bus. How rich. If I’d thought for a second that finding my lover in bed with three men and then being beaten half to death by his ’roid-sucking, faithless ass had been rock bottom, being thrown off a Greyhound bus had to be below it somewhere. My very lowest ebb’s deeper, fouler, and more craptastic cellar.
I got my duffel out of the locker and watched as the driver boarded the bus. Soon the distinctive growl of the engine ripped through the silence. It rumbled for a minute, and then the bus’s pneumatic doors closed with a psssshhhht, and the bus roared off down the highway. Without me.
Fucking swine flu. If I’d had it, they wouldn’t have let me leave the hospital, would they? I counted myself lucky I’d only been on a bus. If I’d been with that same crew midflight aboard a plane, I’d be making a spectacularly wet, unscheduled thud on the ground right about then.
I turned to the motel. There was a flickering lighted sign on a pole that read SEAVIEW MOTEL. The V and the I in SeaView remained unlit. A red VACANCY sign welcomed travelers.
In you go, Jacob.
The doorknob on the motel’s small office turned easily in my hand, but the door was stuck. I gave it a tug and then pulled harder when I realized it was probably because of the humidity. Rain continued to spatter down intermittently. The old man behind the desk was reading USA TODAY and kept me waiting for a minute.
I cleared my throat delicately, afraid to cough in front of someone else that night, lest I have to sleep on the street like I had the plague.
Bring out your dead.
“I see you. Just a sec,” the man said, not unkindly, from behind the paper.
I waited until the pages rustled and came down to reveal an average face, about sixty years old, with half-moon glasses.
“Holy cow,” the clerk whispered when he saw my face.
Okay, that was going to get old. “That bad?”
“Worse,” the manager drawled. “What can I do for you?”
“I need a room for” — I realized I’d have to call Daniel, who might or might not choose to come and get me — “a while maybe.”
“Okay.” The clerk got out a registration form and handed it over. “Our rooms are all nonsmoking.”
“I’ll take it personally if whoever did that to your face blows up my motel.”
I got out my wallet. “It was domestic, so that’s highly unlikely.”
“All right.” The man didn’t bat an eye. “The little woman box professionally?”
“High-fashion runway model.”
“Oh.” The old man’s lips twitched. “Those are deadly; that’s why they hobble them in those spiny high heels.”
I laughed and glanced up. “I’d shake your hand, but I have a cold.”
“I have hand sanitizer.” The man held out his hand. “Carl Lents. I own this place.”
“Jacob Livingston. I…” I stopped talking when I felt a tickle in my throat. I coughed into my shoulder and then took his hand and shook it. “I just got thrown off the Greyhound for coughing.”
“I hope that’s not the high point of your life so far.” Carl’s lively eyes crinkled at the corners.
“Maybe it is.”
The man grinned while he checked my identification and ran my credit card. “Upstairs or down.”
I looked out the window into the motel courtyard, empty and slick with rain. At either side of the parking lot the two-story buildings had long galleries and stairs at the far end. Stairs. Shit. “First floor.”
“There’s an acute-care clinic in town, and it’ll be open at eight tomorrow morning.”
“I saw a doctor this morning at the ER.” Was that only this morning? “I have a cold, and I’m spectacularly beat to hell. Nothing a little Vicodin and some rest won’t cure.”
“If you say so.”
I bent to pick up my bag. “I appreciate your concern.”
“Yeah. Well. Dead people stink real bad.”
I shook my head. “I’ll try not to let it get that far.”
Carl frowned. “Look. If you need something, it’s okay to ask, all right? Call the office if you need…”
I paused at the door. “It’s fine. I’ll be fine, thank you. Really.”