Missile Base Road
By Becca Borawski Jenkins
Three hours earlier, their bus had coughed into motion and Arleta had finally exhaled. They'd pulled away from the worn old station that today's young people might label "retro," then beyond the perimeter of the city itself, though Arleta hadn't yet shaken the feel of it from her. She hadn't shaken the car exhaust, the homeless man begging in front of the convenience store, the constant harping of the pedestrian signals, and the way the buildings obscured the already hazy late-autumn sky. It was evening when they'd taken their seats in the pews of the Greyhound station and she'd felt as if the sky had won. It had escaped her eyes, her critique, her pleading for it to be bigger than it was. For there to be fewer of them.
In the Greyhound, there could only be fifty. She had counted the seats shortly after she'd boarded, second only to her brother-in-law. The piquant combination of sweat and off-gassing rubber surrounded her as she sat tall in her seat, like someone more than a few decades younger, anxious to just get moving, get out. Her eyes bounced from seat-back to seat-back, as she surreptitiously rubbed against the soft blue hatch of the fabric to satisfy the itch on the small of her back where her shirt invariably pulled up of its own accord. She tucked her sharply-cut gray curls behind her ears over and over again and counted the passengers as they came up the short set of awkward steps—three to be precise. Before long, she had concocted most of a story about each. Her mother, on one of her kinder days, might have called it an expression of prejudice, but it helped Arleta to pass the time.
23 people boarded the bus, including Arleta and her brother-in-law, Lonnie. He'd claimed the aisle seat, though he knew she preferred it. He'd collapsed in it before even letting her through and it irritated her all the more that she had to force her way into her own confines. Row eight, window seat. Row eight, jail for eight hours. But only 23 people. Far fewer than the city, which she'd set foot in solely because it was a step on the journey. Far fewer than the town where they'd started, too—a town of 8,742, where she'd lived for 29 years, 8 months, 1 week, and 5 days, a number she knew by heart as if she'd hatched it out on the walls—the town she had stepped inside and listened as the door locked behind her in exchange for love. The love which had been taken without anyone asking her permission or for her to make a choice.
Still, 23 was more than she expected for an eight-hour red-eye to—where?
"They have land there you can afford with our benefits," Lonnie had said, and so she'd agreed to this sortie, this scouting trip, this rendezvous with a future Lonnie craved and to which she was impartial. No, apathetic. Immune.
She'd wanted to say, "Our benefits?" She wanted to say "my" in a way that made his cheek sting. But she hadn't the energy to object, and she hadn't for some time. Her motivation was often low and she blamed it on all the inputs that depleted her ability to output much at all. Doctors, and money, and other people's family, the expectations of friends, and "arrangements," and grief.
Now, hours later and midway into their journey, she imagines herself inside a capsule, a dose of medicine that for once actually works sealed inside its shell, passing through the abdomen of North America, immune to the constant attack of invaders, inoculating the flesh where she lands. But the thought of medicine pulls her toward grief again, and if Lonnie notices, she will have to endure another of his attempts at empathy. Instead, she pictures the outside of the bus, the chrome greyhound reaching its paws into the night—a silver bullet, like the Airstream in which she'd always fancied she would travel the world when there was still much life left to plan. Before love convinced her to take off her shoes and stay a while. She wouldn't really have traveled the world, but at least Canada and 49 out of fifty states. If nothing else, this trip would take her from ten to a dozen total. Perhaps she could convince the driver to stop along the way, where the states came together, if she promised to run quickly to the line, to step one foot over and then sprint back to the bus so she could claim thirteen.
Still, she could tolerate 23 people. Twenty-one if she subtracted herself and Lonnie. It was fewer than had been at the funeral. And if all went well, with each stop it would become fewer still.
It was dark when they'd arrived at the Greyhound station, but it hadn't yet been 5:00pm. The night would be 17 hours and 58 minutes long. More if you counted civil, nautical, and astronomical twilight, dawn, and dusk. She hopes it means that at least 22 riders will sleep, but the fussing of the children in scattered seats bites at this dream. Lonnie snores beside her. She contemplates marking the minutes with her fingertip on the damp coolness of the window. Instead, she rests her head against it. She closes her eyes and imagines Lonnie's snores are those of her husband.
From the sky, Arleta looks down on the bus as it rockets through black burnt squares that checker the land. Acre after acre that had been wheat now smolders in darkness. She envisions the tiny inhabitants, the mice and the rabbits, as one in a series of normal days suddenly gone awry, bursting into flames, destroying home and food and shelter and sky. Even up here, she can smell the remnants of what these tiny creatures might see as a severing of the universe, though it was simply the farmer's autumn fires. But the burnt fur, charred stalks, and dusty air—even months since it happened, she can smell it in the dark and throughout her dreams. She knows the life of a rabbit.
Her eyes follow the road beyond the nose of the bus, tracing it to the point where it strikes the mountains. The peaks grow higher even as she watches. They drive up into the atmosphere and pierce it. From the puncture, two small amber orbs emerge. One arcs to the east and the other to the west. She watches one, then the other, unable to keep her eyes on both as they shrink and fly farther away.
Then, as she turns her head left and right again, the orbs grow in size. They speed nearer and nearer. Their tails lengthen. The flames at the edges crystallize. The two comets head directly for her and each other.
She holds up her hands and closes her eyes.
She inhales. And waits.
Instead of an explosion, instead of the pain she anticipates, something warms her palms.
She squeezes the heat between her fingers.
She opens her eyes and uncurls her hands—a comet hovers in each, in the basket formed by her heart line, life line, and fate.
Suddenly, she is no longer in the sky. She stands in the road and the Greyhound streaks toward her.
A quarter mile away.
Then 100 meters.
She can almost make out the man behind the wheel. Black hair. Long beard.
The roar of the engine blows against her face. Her heart struggles to beat against it.
The orbs pulse in her hands.
She stomps her foot on the asphalt and the earth shakes.
The Greyhound stops and its lights dim. It huffs exhaust into the atmosphere.
Arleta awakens to Lonnie's repeated prodding.
"I don't feel well," he says.
She sighs and looks out the window. At the horizon, an orange flickering. The comets? She blinks, and the flickers disappear.
An old man walks down the aisle, bumping into one seat and then the next, as if they were on a turbulent airplane instead of a perfectly smooth road.
"My chest feels funny," the old man says and places his hand over his heart.
A wave of nausea rumbles through Arleta's midsection. Her stomach lifts, as if she were descending a roller coaster, then it settles back down, all the way back down into her ever-widening hips. She slumps into her seat and folds her arms.
"Are you okay?" she asks Lonnie from the corner of her eye.
"I don't know," he says and leans his forehead into the seat in front of him.
From the front of the bus, a little boy howls. Arleta considers standing until she makes out the shape of his words.
The Internet has stopped working.
Another man complains his computer screen has gone black.
The woman across the aisle smacks her lips and frowns. She catches Arleta's eye and her voices hisses past Lonnie. "They tell you there's WiFi so you buy a ticket, but if you don't sit in a certain seat, it's a lie."
The bus radio buzzes and the driver tells them there's a temporary interruption in service. He's rebooting. They're driving. They'll be somewhere else soon. Somewhere else might have Internet. They might have Internet. None of it is as stable as it seems. The Internet is not the Omninet. It is neither ubiquitous nor reliable, no matter how dependent upon it you become. It won't be here tomorrow no matter how much you think you need it. Nothing and no one will be here tomorrow, no matter how much he or it is intertwined with, burdened by your love.
Arleta shakes her head.
"What was that?" Lonnie asks, breathing deeply and deliberately, his forehead still mashed into the seat-back.
"He's turning the Internet off and on," Arleta replies. "To make it work again." She silently wishes a simple power cycle solved more things.
A few rows up a little boy holds a tablet in his hands. His sits next to his father who wears headphones and closed eyelids. The father doesn't seem to know there's a problem.
The little boy's index finger punches at the tablet's dark screen.
Punk. Punk. Punk.
His skin taps on the hard surface.
Outside the sky is somehow blacker than black, while Lonnie turns what she might once have sung as a whiter shade of pale.
When Arleta awakens again she is not sure why. She is not sure how she fell asleep or for how long. Now that they are both awake, Lonnie wants to hear her "stories." He feels better and he had enjoyed it when she'd spun her yarns on the airplane. Sometimes she wonders if God had withheld a child because she'd already inherited one—the 29-year visitor in the extra bedroom, another of her husband's tumors, the only family she has now. She is happy to see his color back, though, and feels too guilty to refuse him. Guilty for his nausea that she had nothing to do with.
"Who is everybody?" he asks and she begins sharing her "stories," or, as her mother had called them, Arleta's spiteful, sinful, and unforgivable thoughts.
Clearly the half-dozen old women with cotton-ball hair who spill across rows are retirees headed for a casino. Probably the same age as her in years, she thinks, though not so wise as her in soul. She shouldn't judge, but if you didn't, then how did you know what to do? Who to talk with? Where to devote your time? Though maybe she wasn't such a good judge if she took a moment to tell a story about herself. The old women play with their cell phones with the screens so magnified Arleta can read the text from here. None of them seem to be getting any service.
The rough-looking men are oil workers. Or maybe fishermen working their way back to Alaska from the lower 48. They've been in North Dakota or Montana on break, between boat trips, because for them even that is warmer than the Bering Sea.
The man across the aisle from her and a few rows up, who sits tall in his seat but with his eyes closed, looks like he might be Lakota, or possibly Sioux.
"You can't know the difference," Lonnie interrupts, and she smacks his knee.
An old man wears one of those caps with the military emblems and numbers. So many pins and the letters vibrant in their gold embroidery. He must be a hero of some sort. At his age, which war would it have been?
"He reminds me of Albert," Lonnie says. Perhaps her husband, Albert, had also owned such a cap, but she didn't recall him wearing it and she would most certainly know if she held such a memory as she cataloged each and every one of them each and every day. The moment she met him, of course—the way he'd captivated her in every sense of the word. The first flower he gave her, a wild daisy plucked from a field. His love for re-hydrated potato flakes but with bits of real garlic. His need to quote Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. His incessant requests for a Labrador retriever they would never end up buying.
She knows Albert never had such a cap because she knows when she loses a memory. When a gap appears between his favorite cereal and his preferred spoon. When she can't remember which sock he put on first or if he hated the cologne she bought him that last Christmas or loved it. She'd saved it, regardless. If she squeezes at the base of her purse she can feel it.
The baby in row four begins to fuss again. Its young, blond mother cradles it in her arms and coos. Her device for playing music won't work right now, the mother explains to the people across the aisle. Arleta rubs at her cheekbone and wonders if mothers these days have no other recourse. She wonders if the lights in the cabin are dimmer than earlier, but maybe she is just tired.
"I'm not done with the stories," Lonnie says. "How many people are left?"
"Fifteen," she replies and looks to the horizon. Where earlier one tongue of fire had whispered, there now decidedly flickers two, then three. A garland of flames edging its way upward along the perimeter of earth and night. She glances around the bus, but no one seems to notice. Lonnie stares at her, waiting for another bus-rider tale but she already knows they all end in heartbreak and financial ruin.
"I have to go to the bathroom," she says and pushes Lonnie's legs aside.
Arleta stands in the narrow aisle at the last row of seats. A growing wind buffets the side of the Greyhound. She wobbles and looms over a young girl in the last seat. Arleta grabs the upholstered wall to settle herself and smiles at the child. The girl and her old-man companion. Bus-boarders sixteen and seventeen. The girl must be around eight or nine, though Arleta finds the older she gets the harder it is to judge the youth of others.
The girl tugs on the hem of Arleta's jacket.
"Will you take me to the bathroom?"
Arleta raises her eyebrows.
"My grandfather is sound asleep," the girl says. She pokes him hard to prove her point.
It's the old man who stumbled down the aisle and gripped at his chest. His hands rest on his knees and his head bobs against the window.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
His hands are a lighter shade of pale.
The bathroom door opens and the Lakota or possibly Sioux man exits.
"You go in and I'll guard the door for you," Arleta says to the girl and stands aside.
The girl is in the bathroom for an hour. For at least thirty minutes. Possibly three.
Arleta stares at the old man's hands. They are even grayer now than three minutes ago. She stares at his chest. It doesn't rise or fall.
The bathroom door clicks and Arleta turns. The girl smiles and water drips from her hands.
"Is Grandpa still sleeping?" she asks.
"When I was a girl my mother smacked me if I woke up my grandfather," Arleta replies.
The girl clambers into her seat, flips down her tray table, and opens a coloring book. Her damp palm sticks to the page as she colors the red into the rainbow mane of a unicorn.
Arleta locks herself in the bathroom and exhales.
An old woman looks back at Arleta in the mirror. She follows Arleta everywhere. Frowning. Her resemblance to Arleta's mother is unnerving, but Arleta has yet to ask the old woman if she's a relative.
Arleta looks down at her palms where the comets burned. She presses her palms to her cheeks and feels the residual heat. In the mirror, her hands are red, as if she's hoarding the color from the old man's skin. Except for the dark circles under her eyes. She'd stopped wearing make-up after Albert was gone. When she'd first met him, she hadn't worn make-up either. Her skin had been smooth and her hair a dusty auburn. Some might say it was a full-circle thing, but it was a more of an ever-present and accelerating spiral.
She looks to her palms and her hands are bare, without texture, without lines.
She looks to the mirror again and Albert is standing with the woman who looks like her mother.
There are holes in his skin.
She can see his tongue moving through the side of his cheek. The cancer. The radiation. She is not shocked.
She reaches out to him, to cover his cheek so the air will flow out of his mouth and she can hear him speak. But the glass is flat and featureless. He is gone.
Arleta exits the bathroom without looking directly at the girl or the gray hands of the old man. The girl's red crayon works furiously at the unicorn's mane. But every stroke results in nothing. As if the red is being pulled from the universe the moment it comes into existence. The orange and the green tendrils of mane, too, begin to fade.
Arleta feels the flush in her cheeks. She is nearly back to her seat when a murmur sweeps through the bus, followed immediately by another wave of nausea somewhere in the deep recess encircled by her pelvic bones. She grips the seat next to her.
An Alaskan fisherman points out the window.
"Do you see it out there?"
The horizon still crackles with a line of orange and red, but now spears of green strike up into the sky. They form a soft mountain range. One that maybe was there all along and just nobody noticed. It loomed, waiting for the right moment, the proper illumination, the time to make its presence known. For those who would descend from the stars to require steps to the ground.
"Those are the Northern Lights," she says. "Shouldn't you know that?"
The fisherman squints at her, then looks out the window again.
"Those don't happen here," he says. "Not here and not now."
She'd like to chastise him again, but they both know he is right.
Arleta can't tell if the green glow in the sky is ruining her pupils or if the bus continues to grow dimmer. An old lady and a fisherman argue about latitude, cloud cover, and the angle of the earth. The bus driver has yet to comment, though the passengers continue to mill and point. But at what? Aside from the heightening peaks of green away on the horizon, the world outside is black. The stars cannot compete. The ground is dark and she imagines if she could somehow trail her fingers out the window the pavement would freeze her fingertips. She knows they are journeying through a part of America that is otherwise nowhere, with barely a dot on the map—but she'd thought where there was sky, where there were fewer souls bringing darkness, there would be light.
Barn lights, house lights, an occasional store?
There is nothing, and there hasn't been since she woke from her comet dream, which she guesses must be hours ago, but her watch won't keep time anymore no matter how much she winds it.
The bus radio buzzes and the driver tells them they'll be stopping soon. Stopping at the gas station in the town they are entering. It doesn't matter the town's name because it's nothing but gas. It's not much of a town, but they can use the restroom if the one in the bus smells, though they shouldn't wander far. Outside the town, it is dark and it might even be the edge of the world. And if they believe the Flat Earthers, they won't want to fall off and fail to reboard before their journey resumes. These are the things that can happen when you name a town for a starving Mormon.
Arleta shakes her head.
She doesn't understand how the driver knows where the town without light is, but the bus suddenly pulls to a stop and when she presses her face to the window she can make out a gas pump haloed in ambient green.
"Are there supposed to be lights along here?" Lonnie asks.
"One would imagine," she replies.
The bus driver fills the gas tank, but there is no one to pay.
"They probably have an account here," Lonnie says.
But when the driver returns from the bathroom, the bus won't start.
The radio buzzes and fizzles out before the driver can speak. He shouts from his seat, "If you'd like some fresh air, now is your chance. We might be here a while. We might be here forever. We might not last the night. Get off! Get off! I need space to think!"
Arleta shakes her head.
The driver shakes his handset then sets it back in its holster as if he's said none of those words at all.
Twenty-some passengers step down the three awkward steps, one at a time. Though it's not really true and Arleta loses count, because she counts each mother and child as one. Inseparable reflections. Siamese twins. The itch at the small of her back returns.
Arleta and the others line up along the curb of the street, what would be a street if they could see further than the parking lot, but instead is a hyphen, a pause, a flick along the journey from then to now to whenever. They watch the fingers of green crawl up the sky. Like the city buildings, they anger her—the way they obscure her vision and clarity, the way they mark the presence of other. An invasion of something into her nothingness. The green fingers reach from opposite ends of the sky, extending and grasping, crawling up the stars, as they now nearly touch the apex of the universe. The place she assumed the apex to be, directly above her, a point that now seems unlikely and even quite irrelevant.
The man in the military cap coughs beside her.
"We were on full alert here during the Cuban crisis," he says.
"Here?" she asks.
He points a finger toward the distant but growing flames on the horizon, a red and orange line spreading across the small bit of the world she can perceive. If it were brighter she would close her eyes to revel in the smell of the fires, in the embers, in the dirt, in the moment just before she recognized the scent of death. To remember the life of a rabbit, when she fled into her tunnels before she recognized the smell of the state where no one is an anomaly. She keeps her eyes open and waits for the military man to speak.
"There were nine bases, and this was one," he says.
"You know where we are?" she asks.
He points north. And as if his finger is able to guide the green glow, she notices a road splitting off at ninety degrees just beyond the gas station.
"That's Missile Base Road," he says.
The old, possibly-Sioux man walks up beside her. "They came through town. Slow, like safe water. We stood on the edges of the street and waved."
"They?" she asks.
He nods. "The chief said we should leave."
The bus driver emerges from the gas station holding a tire iron. He runs at the bus and strikes the Greyhound logo in the face.
He pummels the chrome Greyhound over and over again. Under the green dome, his black hair and long beard glisten like a raven's feathers.
Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.
The old ladies gasp. The blond woman screams and grabs at her cheeks. The little boy's tablet drops from his hand and the shattering of the screen zips through the air. Like static, it pricks at Arleta's neck. The hairs on Lonnie's head rise and stand on end. She holds up her palms and pushes at the mist that is slowly forming around them. As if now that the green has covered the sky it is falling down, filling in the spaces between them, the spaces they cannot. An ether that can electrify their unconnected hearts. The heat begins to gather again in her palms. She presses them outward like an innocent man pushing on the bars of a Faraday cage.
Above them, the tips of the green fingers firmly clasp. The green fades and intensifies, amniotic, embryonic, like they are all entombed in a single alveolus. The orange and red ring the horizon, the flames higher than before. An O-ring inferno.
Suddenly, the world is light.
The sky, one giant flash. The landscape so illuminated she cannot tell one thing from the next. Faces disappear. Pale, then white. One plane of existence, one tone, one shape, one cell. One final exhalation.
Their mouths return first, 21 of them gaping, but the sound has been sucked from her ears.
The ground vibrates.
Her nausea returns. Her ears pop. She gasps and the atmosphere rushes back in. Her lungs heave while the 21 around her fall.
She stands at the fulcrum of the line of bodies.
On the horizon, the red and the orange build into a column and tumble over. Her fingers race to her cheeks, to feel for the holes, but her skin is perfect and smooth, just as it was 29 years, 8 months, 1 week, and 5 days before. She reaches up, trying to make her limbs stretch, hoping her fingers can become long enough to entangle themselves in the green hands of the sky.
Becca Borawski Jenkins holds an MFA in Cinema-Television Production from USC and has short stories in The Forge, Cotton Xenomorph, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Menacing Hedge, and others. She made the wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions longlist in both 2017 and 2018, and received three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net nomination in 2018. She and her husband are full-time RVers, migrating with the wind and their whims.