Tuesday, 8:50 AM outside Mendota, Illinois
Riding a bus to Kansas City certainly seemed as American as a vacation could be. As American as apple pie? As long as it wasn’t called easy, Hannah could concede that over-used expression. She sat toward the back of the bus, hoping to have the double seat to herself. The idling engines geared up, the driver closed the door and the extra seat was hers – at least for the first leg of the trip.
She pulled out the schedule and followed the route with her finger. There would be frequent stops, one a lunch break in St. Louis. The clerk at the train station hadn’t mentioned the longer route, but immediate escape was what Hannah had needed and the bus had provided. With ten hours ahead of her, Hannah settled in.
She cleansed the armrest, the neck rest, the window ledge, her hands. She pulled her pack onto the aisle seat next to her, unzipped the top compartment, reached for her lunch bag with the American idea of a continental breakfast. She spread a napkin on her lap, uncapped her thermos and gave thanks that she had steeped the bag for only two minutes in the hotel while checking out. Hannah breathed in pungent bergamot. The tea was hot and calming.
The other passengers seemed in a quiet mood. The tall modern seat backs maintained a sense of privacy that Hannah appreciated. Perhaps people conversed somewhere in the bus, but if Hannah couldn’t hear over the sounds of the engine, she didn’t have to care. Just to ensure this wonderful peacefulness, she fished out her ear plugs and enjoyed her solitude and her orange.
The Midwest landscape filled her window and Hannah settled into her vacation. This was what she had planned. Simple food, simple sights, silence.
Outside of Mendota, Hannah noticed the grasslands laying themselves over acres of flat land, hundreds of acres, with no break except for a barn every now and again. Three types of barns were framed by her window: the busy, functioning barn, the newly-empty and sad-looking barn, and the long-unused barn with its beams ready to fall and the roof sagging at various angles. Hannah preferred the latter.
The first break came in an unnamed town. Of course, the place had a name, but since Hannah was enjoying her repose, she stayed in her seat, kept her earplugs in place, sipped the last of her tea, and never even thought to reach her toe down to the floor for leverage to stretch up and read the name off the station greeting sign.
As the passengers returned to the bus, they seemed to Hannah more boisterous. Through her earplugs she could hear syllables of excitement, words and parts of sentences and those provocative Midwest sounds for the letter ‘a’.
She heard someone talking about food in Spanish, then another asking about the bus route in the Arabic of Mediterranean North Africa. But more than any other, she heard spoken English – Midwestern English, English with a western twang, proper and improper English. In the space of a few minutes, through the filter of her earplugs, she could feel her tranquil mood begin to dissipate.
She traded her earplugs for the noise-canceling headphones and let music fill the space in her mind where sound always lay. She would have a choice over what she heard, and allow the tranquility of her day to continue. She touched the sensitive place behind her ear as the Gypsy Mandolin gave a perfect scratching of the clearest note she’d ever heard.
Out the window, Hannah noticed the water towers that punctuated every new town they passed by. People seemed proud of them. Some were decorated with the area’s crop: corn, wheat, soy. Or the town’s mascot, a whimsical representation of a pirate or a bird of prey, presumably borrowed from their high school or middle school. Every one of the towers announced the name of their town: Peru, Oglesby, Wenona.
Hannah pictured herself climbing up the painted metal ladder to the scaffolded walkway that surrounded the bulb of the tower. She thought of the view from that vantage point, how the land would lose even the slight variation that could be seen from the roadway. The sprawl of the plain would be a mirage of flat earth; the crevice of the ditches and small creeks would appear like a slight change in color, the mound of a small hill might become altogether invisible. Up high on the water tower, surrounded by metal and wood, she could escape from the noise of people speaking to each other, and therefore, from her own need to respond.
At Normal, Illinois, Hannah left the bus for a break to stretch her legs and use the restroom. She purchased a pack of Cheez-its and a club soda. She kept her headphones on, pretending to listen to the music, but in reality, she was using them as the hum she had not yet reclaimed. She could keep inside her cocoon of peace, and no one could interrupt her. As they turned from heading south on Route 39 to heading west on 70, their last leg toward St. Louis, Hannah allowed her eyes to close as she gave in to the ultimate consequence of quiet: sleep.
Tuesday, 9:10 AM Mendota, Illinois
Where was Hannah? Carlos and Cleo had waited for her to reappear through the front doors of the mini-mart. Certainly, she would have to come out that way. But she hadn’t.
Carlos had gone searching for her and Cleo had stayed by his truck and fretted. She had not even been away from home for two full days, but she felt strung out and trampled. She hadn’t packed for this kind of trip. She did not have her personal computer with its stored bookmarks and passwords. She did not have enough balm for her hair. She did not have her journal or her hand cream or her cucumber eye gel.
Most of all, she did not have control. There was no schedule to follow, no rules to learn. She didn’t know enough about this part of the job to ask intelligent questions and no one, aside from the inscrutable Carlos, to ask them to. Who had control over this venture? Not Cleo herself, not Carlos, certainly. Not Sandra, nor, it seemed, The Man himself. JS did not even seem to be giving any direction. Cleo was on her own in a place far from her comfortable life.
Could she just walk away? Was it time? Could she leave this muddle and walk back into her old life in Marion? Did she want to retreat?
She saw Carlos coming back from the far side of the mini-mart. He walked, but not rapidly, not as if there was any reason to hurry, not as if there was any good news. Maybe not any news at all. He stopped at the drivers’ side of the truck, stuck his happy face through the open window.
“She got on the bus,” he said, almost smiling, almost hopeful at the thought of Hannah resuming her journey. Almost ready to follow her anywhere.
Cleo held the bridge of her nose, pressed against the pressure point of her third eye. Unbelievable. Hannah had slipped through her fingers again.