The last night of August ended in a bitter, yet relieving way for Jefferson. Both hopeful and disappointed, the plainly suited man hung close to the bench that indicated his escape in a few short moments, straying away from the dark scene behind him by only the slightest vibrancy of his auburn hair that stuck around his ears. Keeping his eyes erect, he narrowed his pupils on passerby students who did little to hide their curiosity of the departing man, some passing with a triumphant sneer. It was the night of some sporting game and Jefferson mentally kicked himself for choosing that particular night to sit flashily on the front quad. Many of those who walked by could not contain their initial reaction to stop in front of the man and questioningly gaze at the amount of luggage that littered by his feet, yet none confronted him with the begging question: Where was he going?
Perched atop the wooden seat, Jefferson inhaled a full and lingering breath, taking in rustic oak, youthful pine, and a nostalgic scent of vanilla wood that before made him feel young, but now just made him sneeze. He could picture the past twenty-three years before him, through the fragrances he relived the scenery he was leaving behind and with a sick sorrow he recounted the influence the university had imprinted on him.
He daringly scanned ahead of him, stopping his gaze on the lake near the west wing dorms where he once sat on the jagged rocks that pierced into his legs, where he drank cherry flavored alcohol with his roommates. They were constantly paranoid of getting caught by the dean of security, but also aroused by the thrill at the same time. He remembered the countless bottles of Sherry buried underneath a chunk of drift wood, wrapped in old cigarette cartons and kept for those days when he felt less than infinite. He wondered if anyone had ever defiled his sacred hiding spot and stolen his treasure. The liquor would be deeply sour by this time and he imagined that had anyone discovered the stash in the present day they would surly give themselves poisoning, and that gave him a sense of pride and satisfaction.
Unlike the rest of campus, the dorm rooms were more accommodating to the students’ needs. The windows weren’t bolted shut so the smell of nicotine could be washed out by the chilling North Carolina breezes. The walls were hollow and served as a safe for money, shameful magazines and other vices of newly adult males. In Jefferson’s time, college was a utopia for anyone wanting to escape from hick towns, or a prearranged fate from crap parents. To him though, the university was a dead end, he could get a full experience and give back by teaching what he believed could point people with the same problems down a safe road. However, as time drew on he saw himself get closer and closer to this bench, a way out into a world that he had intended to hide away from.
Feeling a bit betrayed at his parting thoughts, Jefferson extracted the best memories he could conjure up about the old place. These insights came as fragments and pictures, but were meaningful nonetheless. He envisioned his English Professor and recalled his stale breath that enveloped over his term papers. That was generally a turn off to most students, but Jefferson had caught his professor on many accounts pouring over the pages, analyzing his every word with precision and took the overwhelming smell with gratification. The honey oak bridge, that was for the most part decaying into the ground, that led from the honors grounds to the regular college, snapped into mind. Jefferson replayed the night he and three of his roommates ran streaking across both sides of campus; his best friend Niall shouting about the uselessness of higher education in comparison to the universe, or something that only an ass hole already in higher education would say. The same night, Niall smashed the four hand carved posts of the school’s bridge to the lake, embezzled with the school’s crest, with a fallen branch and threw them into the lake before running into a tree and knocking himself out. Then finally, he replayed Adison’s last words. Words that had remained with him much after her departure from the school, yet words he never truly acted on.
At her words he snapped back to himself. Now, this was the line between fiction and reality, he had dreamed of this day so often he was not quite sure it was happening. His departure would break the routine and comfort he had been in since he was eighteen. Without direction or ambition, Jefferson remained in the security that was the university. The ecosystem within the institution allowed him to live a busy life, without the need of contributing the world outside and he could make judgments and assertions based on the very few experiences he was conditioned to. And at that moment of slight realization, the city bus clanked along in front of him, breaking the silence. Screeching like a withered siren, the doors collided with the side metal.
Slinking onto the bus, Jefferson boarded without a last look back, dropped a few coins near the driver and lugged his bags onto an empty seat a few rows back, and with a sigh relaxed his head against the seat. Through the paneled windows that reflected back the bleak, black of night and his own reflection, Jefferson eyed his dishelved appearance with fascination. His hair had grown around his neck and circled up into semi-spirals that gave him a childlike sketch. His eyes had lost their glimmer and had settled for a subtle distorted urine color, rather than honey as he was usually complimented with. Though he deceivingly looked much younger than his age that even he could not remember, patchy stubble of auburn and gray hair defiled his round face and had unmistakably and resentfully given him the appearance of an adult.
Annoyed, Jefferson avoided his makeshift mirror and dragged his eyes around the bus. There was an old woman in the front seat clutching her grocery bag to her chest, fast asleep against the cold window. A young man sat near the back, his eyes intent out onto the black road. A thin, dark older man wearing a fisherman’s hat aligned with pins and buttons from every state sat two rows behind him, his eyes darting through his book. And finally, a middle-aged man parallel to Jefferson, sat fixated on the newcomer. He bowed his head slightly at Jefferson’s startled acknowledgement of the curious man, and with a dirty and calloused hand shook the hair out of his eyes and gave a crooked, yellow smile.
“Peter Dunskin, Have we ever met before?” he asked in a dulled southern voice, extending his hand out.
“I’d think not,” Jefferson said put off, but patting the man’s hand as if it were a sedated animal.
“I coulda sworn, you worked at the lumber yard didn’t ya? I know ya did, I seen your face before.” He scratched his chin confused.
“No,” Jefferson said bluntly, angling his body away from the leaning man.
“Well I guess I must’ve been mistaken.” Peter pulled out a rusting flask from his pant pocket and took an unusually drawn out swig.
“Want a go?” he asked swaying toward Jefferson.
Peeling his nose back, Jefferson coughed at the stench of what seemed like spoiled milk and some of the foulest moonshine he’d ever encountered. The man looked fondly at Jefferson as though he were his brother, and now that he was safely aboard the bus he could rest easily.
“Hey! You can’t drink that here!” the bus driver shouted, glaring through the rear view mirror.
The man ignored the driver and continued holding his flask outstretched. Raising a quizzical eyebrow for a minute more before he shrugged and in between chugs mumbled, “Suit yourself.”
“So where ya off to at ten at night, comrade?” Imitating Jefferson’s stance he laid his head back, angled his knees toward the window, and pouted out his bottom lip.
Closing his eyes, Jefferson heaved a low breath. “Doing a bit of travelling.”
“Eh? Me too. Been travelling about for a while now… Ya know, after ya travel around so much ya just forget where ya going. I’ve exhausted all my outlets, ya know?” He slurred the beginning of his speech and locked his eyes on the flask before flashing it back to his tilted head.
Jefferson pitied the man. He felt he would pity anyone lonely enough to express their own faults to a stranger. However, he found this thought odd, considering he spent his life studying why people stressed themselves with the trivial and were not as open as they were simple. Here was a man drunk, not necessarily on alcohol, but on the horribly bitter taste of life.
“Were ya a student there?” he asked absentmindedly, his glossy doll eyes fixed themselves out Jefferson’s window and with a pain in his abdomen, Jefferson involuntarily pulled out a small glass bottle of honey-golden liquid and took it in one gasp.
“No, I was a professor.” The substance filled him quickly with artificial warmth that he was only too familiar with, no matter how long ago he had last felt it. “I taught philosophy and Religious World Views.”
“Religion eh? Ya know my mom always told me anyone who was paid to speak of the Lord ain’t as religious as they said they were.” Again, he spoke candidly and without social cues.
Jefferson snorted out a laugh and nodded fervently. “That’s a bright mother you’ve got yourself. Unless you can find someone who goes by without a single motive or incentive, you will never run into an honest man.”
This was a lesson he had taught his first year as a teacher. He trained his students to be cautious and aware of the flaws in the human condition, but recently he kept to the drawn out lesson plans and followed along with the University assigned syllabus for the classroom, growing lazier each year.
Peter grinned widely at the responsiveness of Jefferson and eagerly clung to the conversation.
“Hell, I’m not even an honest man. Used to play ball in the navy and was discharged on account of my fighting with them other players. But I wasn’t always a quick tempered man, I once loved poetry. A regular artisan in school, but look what I’ve come to now! I’m paralyzed in the mind and can’t spit out a line of poetry to save my own hide!”
Jefferson eyed Peter slyly; even the man sitting behind the pair raised a skeptical eyebrow at the idea of the damaged passenger creating poetry and rhyme out of his own mouth.
“Yeah . . .” he mumbled humbly. “I may not look like much now, but that’s just the moonshine, ya know? I went to the stuff when I needed some looking after and surprisingly I found a promise in it. Whiskey can’t never leave me and if I go, we go together.”
He didn’t say this morbidly nor to make Jefferson feel uncomfortable, but was giving out information he thought important enough to share to his new friend.
Stunned, Jefferson didn’t believe that people could ever drop so low that they would be grateful to find someone to talk to on a city bus. Peter looked wide eyed at his flask, then back up to Jefferson and with a breath of realization Jefferson saw this man, much less than he was. Not in a degrading sense, but a youthful and innocent one. For Jefferson it was as if this man was not truly an experienced man, but a boy, or a creature that was tempted with comfort and faux serenity.
“Who are we to judge?” the older man piped up from the back seat shaking his head with a small smile. His voice was shrill and enthused, giving away his excitement to be a part of a conversation.
“I can’t understand how some people can believe they have no toxins in their life. It frustrates me to see smiling as a resolution to everyone’s problems. Those are people who are afraid of the dark.”
The older gentleman was beaming. Something told Jefferson that this could had been the most interaction the man had had in a while, despite the picture of a large smiling family that peeked out of his book as a bookmark.
“Thomas,” he said stretching a long dark hand out to Jefferson.
Jefferson leaned as far back as he could he grasp the warm, soft hand of Thomas. He shook it firmly, but also soothingly, as is he were attempting to communicate to Jefferson that he was safe and a friend.
At this time the bus had made an obscure stop at a dim pub, they waited for a few seconds before a statuesque red haired woman came staggering out, accompanied by a burly man. The man kept a firm grasp on her forearm and Jefferson at first mistook the gesture as protective, but as they drew closer he could see it was in an effort to restrain her. The bouncer gruffly spoke to the driver, forced two crumbled bills into the old man’s hands and thrust the woman onto the bus, shoving her into the first empty seat. Waving a sausage finger in her face, he urgently whispered at her, his eyes malicious and warning. Hiccupping, she yawned and fanned him away before passing out on the seat, orange heels peeking out the aisle towards Peter.
Astonished Peter stared at Jefferson with wide eyes, mouth agape.
“I think she-” But he was cut off by a fierce roar.
“You selfish leech! I hope you die of liver disease, you horrible, rancid drunk!” The bouncer screeched at the nearly unconscious woman.
Looking onto the other struck occupants, the bouncer bowed his head in apology, thrust his hand into his pocket and pulled out a few more bills and gave it to the enthused driver who happily grabbed the money.
“Comrade, I think that girl there could be a prostitute,” Peter whispered in an excited hush.
“You think so?” Jefferson questioned halfheartedly and rather than stare fixedly at the girl, he kept his eyes on the receding bouncer who slithered back into the pub full of lavishly dressed women, while the men filtered through dressed like Peter and himself, which he found disastrously unfair.
“Hey, what ya looking at? Don’t ya see this!” Peter nearly shouted gesturing toward the falling stiletto.
“Hard to miss,” The younger man in the back piped up.
Jefferson whipped his head back, immediately regretting the decision when he heard a strange clink sound in his neck. He just wasn’t young enough to make such snap movements. He snorted out ironically when he thought of that. Here he was, making the biggest snap decision of his life to leave his only known comfort.
The younger man seemed maybe twenty, no he looked more like eighteen to Jefferson. He had seen enough students to recognize the arrogance that sparked in his eyes and the tight line of his smirk. Up until now, the young man was utterly unimpressed with the occupants of the bus, but now clutched the seat in front of him, craning to get a better look.
“Son, you best sit back down,” Thomas said with a kind, yet serious voice. “That situation needs no more attention than we’ve already given it. No need to go ogling at someone whose had a rougher day than you.”
Peter slumped in his seat sheepishly at Thomas’s words. The young man stayed half upright.
“Ya know, I wasn’ tryna to make fun of her. I’m just sayin’ she fits what I was talking about,” Peter said after a long silence.
“How do you figure?” Jefferson prompted a little hesitantly.
“Well, like I was sayin, I don’t look like much, but I have a lot more in my head than you’d think. She tries to look like a million bucks, so she might be like me, hit hard with a crap life and crap mistakes. Or she could be hidin’. Maybe she figures no one would ask for much when don’t present much.”
“I think she presents a lot,” Jefferson answered confused.
“No no no, she chooses how to show herself. Ya know? Give her some credit comrade, that’s a choice. She has the power in that, friend,” Peter added, defending himself. “I bet you she has nothing tying her emotionally and like us she’s wound up on this bus, travelling, but instead of spitting out theories in a stupor she is asleep on the seat! Without a damn care in the world,” He trailed off staring wistfully at the long pale leg now extending onto the adjoining seat.
The small woman in the front cringed at each of the sleeping woman’s movements and clutched her groceries even tighter, fearing she would awaken and steal the newly bought canned food that was puncturing her tiny torso under her grip.
Thomas straightened in his seat and let out a breathy laugh.
“You have a kind heart. I agree with you, everyone has their own agency, especially her. I have got a lot of respect for people who work with life however they see fit, but I don’t think she would respect us much if she knew we were talking about her like a case study while she slept,” Thomas interjected.
Peter bowed his head respectfully toward Thomas in recognition and then to the woman, who could not see her, but the gesture was sincere in Jefferson’s eyes.
“If she doesn’t want to be stared at, she wouldn’t have worn something so tight while laying like that,” The young man said, loudly enough for the driver to look back in the rearview mirror, eyes rolling.
Jefferson hadn’t noticed how irritating the newcomer was in appearance until he was pompously leaning against his bus seat. He had a long, greasy face with uneven eyebrows that added extra animation to his already childish face. Jefferson envisioned him with a handle bar mustache and stifled a laugh. He would be the ideal star as the villain in a silent movie. If only he were silent.
“I bet you she presents herself for herself, and your judgments are fairly unfounded, friend. People don’t belong to the public. She doesn’t belong to your eyes. Hell, we don’t own anything, and you just sound foolish,” Thomas said with a hint of a rougher tone, but he continued to fiddle with his hat and the movements of his fingers appeared to soothe him.
“You sound like a bitter old man who has nothing from his own damn fault,” the man quipped back, with a whining tone.
Thomas shrugged and resumed fiddling with his belongings.
Jefferson grew agitated and stared out the window. Just barely he caught a slip of reflection of the young girl’s window through the gap between the seats and the metal frame. He saw a small pointed jaw jutting out, her mouth shaped into a small o, her lips painted with an unspeakable pink plaster. Half of her face was visible and straining his eyes Jefferson saw a cheek heavily covered in milky cream that piled unnaturally in certain areas. Her cheek was flushed in coral paint that stained into the cream and left a blurry masterpiece. Part of her face was smeared and flakes of the cream had scratched off, revealing sun marks and a few littered freckles. From her eyes he could make out mounds of black liquid that had frozen onto her lashes forcing her eyelids to droop lower onto her face than usual. Underneath stains marked where silent tears had inevitably escaped her control and left a trail of black dismay. Jefferson wondered when she would wake up and doubtfully presumed it would be soon, because one simply could not sleep during the careless driving through the jutting road, unless they were finished off like Peter from the effects of alcohol, and unfortunately he believed that it could just so be the case for her.
After an immeasurable amount of time the bus came to another stop, this time in a city quieted from the time of night. The bus driver pressed hard on the breaks, heaved himself off his seat and turned toward the aisle. Looking hesitantly down, he grimaced before prodding the girl on the thigh which was covered by the light fabric of her dress. Dead weight, she did not budge. Looking up for help, he poked her shoulder hard.
“Hey. Hey ma’am, this is your stop,” He said loudly, but faltering when he caught a glimpse of the rest of the bus. At this point the man behind Jefferson stared intently on the scene.
Jabbing her without much mercy this time, the girl stirred and finally shot upright, sitting against the window, she stared startled at the dirty man before narrowing her eyes.
“This is your stop,” He said barely audible.
Nodding she gathered her sprawled out belongings and staggered off the seat toward the exit. With a flourish the man leapt behind Jefferson and in a hurry rammed into the sleeping Peter, nearly knocking him onto the floor, and followed the girl out. Throwing a fat arm out to stop the man, the driver glared at him and began pushing him backward. Hastily he grabbed the last of his money, empty his pockets into the drivers hand and with a sly bow exited the bus. Jefferson watched after the man, fake a left turn until the roar of the engine echoed and then immediately pivoted and took off after the girl.
Disgusted by what was about to happen Jefferson turned onto his seat, fell onto one of his duffle bags and shut his eyes with a force so tight it left him blind for a few seconds.