Red trails of light glinted in the surface of the puddles of water outside of the bus terminal. Normally, tires whined on the dry pavement, but on this dreary day they made a sloosh sound.
I sat on a damp bench underneath an overhang and paid little attention to the hum of life that went on about me. My thoughts were interrupted by an elderly black man who cleared his throat and then said, “Mr. Wellspring?”
“Yes, sir? Is something wrong?” I asked, as I looked up at him. He tugged on the bottom of his vest, a navy V-neck that had pleats at the bottom of the cloth, and he nodded.
“Yes sir, I’d say so. Your bus is delayed. It broke down a ways from here, but we have another replacement bus coming. It’ll take some time, but we’ll get you on your way.”
“That’s fine,” I said as I waved a hand dismissively. “I’m not going anywhere in particular.”
“I see,” the man whispered softly. “Someone will let you know when the bus arrives.”
He nodded at me and took his leave. This new development in my travel arrangement didn’t bother me overmuch. I watched as travelers rushed into the terminal to escape the pelting rain. Across the way, I watched as a tall young man with a pockmarked face walked toward my bench.
Please keep walking. I’m not in the mood for company. The man came and sat down next to me, and he dropped his bag at his feet. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. I sat rigidly, my head and eyes focused straight ahead, and hoped the man could read my body language and realize I wasn’t in the mood for chit-chat.
My effort to appear unapproachable failed. The young man cut his eyes toward me and lifted a finger. I caught the movement in my peripheral vision, and he smiled.
“Hey,” he said in a friendly tone. “What’s on your mind?”
“Not much,” I muttered, my voice cold to his cheeriness. The kid was oblivious to my rigidity and didn’t realize I wasn’t in the mood for small talk. Instead, he extended his hand and continued, “I’m Gavin Lansbury, and you are…”
“Not interested,” I snapped. He stared at me with wide eyes and cleared his throat. I grimaced, closed my eyes, and shook my head.
“I’m Jayce Wellspring. You can call me Jayce,” I hissed, hoping my tone sounded apologetic. “I didn’t mean to take your head off, kid; sorry about that.”
He gave me a forced smile, and we sat in silence for a bit and listened to the hiss of air brakes and the sloshing of tires on wet pavement. After a few moments had passed, Gavin turned to me and asked, “Where are you headed?”
This kid just won’t quit. I rubbed my forehead and let out a long sigh through my nostrils before I answered him.
“I’m not headed anywhere in particular Gavin, but I’m taking a ride to Billings, Montana.”
Gavin cringed at my response and stayed quiet. I pulled out my book that I’d brought to pass the time, and I opened it to the first page.
“I’m headed to Kansas,” Gavin blurted out. I shut my book and took a deep breath. It never fails. I swear, this day just gets longer and longer.
I put my book back into my bag and asked, “Do you have family in Kansas?”
He shook his head and scoffed, “No. I’m an orphan.”
“Then, why in the world would you want to go to Kansas?”
“I’m getting married to the prettiest woman in the whole state,” he proudly proclaimed. “I met her on the internet. She’s got blonde hair and blue eyes, and the grandest smile I’ve ever seen.”
Ugh. I scowled and mumbled, “Well, congratulations on your upcoming nuptials.” The very mention of love made me nauseous. I fumbled around in my pocket and pulled out a container of antacids. I popped a couple in my mouth and looked around the terminal.
“Are you married, Jayce?”
I cracked my neck and said, “I was married once Gavin, but no longer.” The kid folded his fingers together and asked, “Oh? Did she die?”
Gavin’s response caught me off guard. I stared at him with my mouth agape, and then snapped, “No, she’s not dead! We got divorced. Why in the world would you think she died?”
He shrugged. I watched as he bit down on his lip and looked away. “Oh,” he muttered, “I just thought…you know what, never mind.”
Gavin scratched at his patchy beard, and in his eyes I could see more questions. I shook my head in disgust and looked for my bus to nowhere. It still hadn’t arrived.
“I tell you what, Gavin. I’ll tell you a story, but once I’m done relaying the story, I’m not taking any questions. Got it?”
“Yeah, I got it,” he answered eagerly.
“Well, I was once like you, all eager and excitable, and couldn’t wait to get married. At 18, I met a beautiful Filipino woman, and we fell madly in love. We ran off to Vegas to get married. Together, we made beautiful children and didn’t stop until we had half a dozen.”
“Wow,” Gavin said dreamily as his smile widened.
I continued by saying, “Things happened, and a war broke out. I joined the service in a sporadic fit of patriotic duty, and I went off to battle. I changed, and so did she. We grew distant and didn’t communicate. In the middle of the night, she loaded up the kids and left. The end.”
Gavin turned and looked at me, and asked, “Why didn’t you get remarried?”
“You missed the whole bit about not taking any questions, did you?”
I sighed and leaned forward until my forehead rested in my palms, and I closed my eyes. I really do not want to discuss this, but this stupid kid won’t shut up until I get it out. Fine, let’s do this.
“Gavin, I dated around a few times, but it never worked out. Perhaps, it had to do with the baggage from my divorce, or maybe even the war. Maybe it was fate, or timing, or whatever. Love is my nemesis.”
I sat back looked at the ground. Gavin stared at me for a long moment and then looked away. “Wow,” he muttered, and a heavy silence fell over us. Somewhere in the distance, the pop of airbrakes, and the clang of bus doors opening on a bus broke the silence.
“Look kid, I’m sincere when I offered you my congratulations. You’ve found love whereas I turned my back on it. Heck, it might even work out for you.” I snickered lightly, and added, “If it doesn’t, you can always get divorced!”
Gavin’s blue eyes hardened as he glared at me. He gnawed on his bottom lip; his eyes narrowed and piercing. I watched as his lips pulled back into a sneer, and he snapped, “I’m not you, old man!”
My face flushed red, and I fidgeted on the bench. The audacity of this freaking kid! I sat upright and returned his glare with one of my own.
“First off, kid, you have no idea what you’re talking about! I didn’t get a choice in the matter. She picked up and left without so much as a ‘by your leave.’ When the smoke cleared, I was left with a pile of rubble, and it took me the better part of a decade to come to peace with my divorce.”
“So?” Gavin hissed at me, as he leaned close until we were nose to nose.
“Furthermore,” I growled, my anger growing with each passing moment, “I tried again, and again, and again, to recapture the love I shared with my ex-wife. It’s not my fault so many people are hurt, or that others prefer to distract themselves with work or some other form of entertainment. I blame love for that.”
I leaned back and crossed my arms; Gavin turned and faced in the opposite direction. An empty bus pulled up next to one that had an illuminated sign that read “Kansas.” A loud voice came across the speaker and announced, “Now boarding passengers for Billings, Montana.” I reached down and grabbed my bag and slung it over my left shoulder. Then, I turned and extended my hand to Gavin.
“Safe travels, Gavin. Good luck to you and the future Mrs. Lansbury.”
He scoffed but shook my hand and muttered, “You too. Be well.”
I released his hand and walked toward my bus. The driver of the empty bus had put up a sign that read, “Montana.” After stowing my bag, I showed my ticket to the driver. Then, I walked down the aisle to the back seat. I shifted in my seat until I was comfortable, and then I pulled out my book.
“It was a pleasure to burn,” the story began.
The air brakes hissed, and the driver pulled out into traffic, and into the long shadows of twilight. I placed my book down and leaned back against the seat. My eyes grew heavy, so I closed them. Soon, I fell into a light slumber, and I woke when the bus driver pulled into a 24-hour truck stop.
“This is a half hour stop,” the driver yelled. “Do your business, but make sure you’re on the bus in time. I won’t be coming back to get you if you miss our departure.”
People scrambled to their feet and began jostling for position to disembark the bus. I waited for everyone to alight before I stood and stretched. My mind wandered to Gavin. He was mad in love, of that there was no doubt. Whomever his bride is, she could do much worse. Gavin had brimmed with the part of my life that’d been missing for far too long. It was pathetic and more than a little disgusting.
Or so I pretended…
I had wasted years searching for a companion who wanted to build a life together. Failure after abysmal failure had worn down my resilience. On my last night in my hometown, I’d gone to an empty church and sat on the back row. God, I know it’s written in your Word that it’s not good for man to be without someone. I think I might be the one person You meant to be alone. Please deliver me from this repulsive desire for companionship. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life as a bitter old man.
“Too late for that,” I muttered. In the months following my prayer, the acidic touches of bitterness had seeped into my heart. It tainted every endeavor and dream that I had. In the darkness of the bus, I prayed another silent prayer.
Lord, forgive my rage, my bitterness, and my hateful nature. Help me in my weakness.
Outside, a mass of people started for the bus, and passengers began to board. Down the aisle came a cute blonde; she sat next to me. I nodded and picked up my novel.
“Hi!” She beamed a magnificent smile at me and asked, “Whatcha reading?”
“Hi,” I groused. “It’s Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.”
She shrugged and replied, “I’ve never heard of him.”
“That’s nice,” I said as I opened my book. She smiled again and stuck out her hand. “I’m Maya,” she said by way of introduction, “and I’m traveling to Kansas.”
I sighed and shook her hand. “I’m Jayce.”
“Where are you headed?”
I closed my book and put it down, and then closed my eyes and tried to countdown from twenty. How could I be so unlucky as to have met and sat beside two chatty ninnies headed to the same place? I forced a smile and grunted, “Anywhere but here.”
“That’s nice,” Maya replied.
I stared at Maya for a long moment, and then turned and looked out the window. In the reflection of the glass, I saw Maya grin and then say, “I’m going to marry the most handsome man in all of Kansas!”
Oh, dear Lord…
I nodded and said, “That’s great. Good luck to you both.”
“Thank you! Have you ever married?”
I chuckled dryly and nodded. The first rays of sunlight painted the sky a soft tone of pink, and the sunlight chased the night away.
“Mmhmm,” I muttered.
“That’s awesome,” Maya replied gayly. “Is there anything better than burning with passion for your one true love?”
“I guess you will find out,” I said as I picked up my book. As we rode into the warm glow of sunrise, I considered my plight. I have a choice to make. I can choose to live a life of passion rather than succumbing to bitterness. Maybe these crazy kids have it right after all.
Bradbury was right. It’s a pleasure to burn, and I choose happiness over bitterness.
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