The small slip of paper slowly crumbled between the man’s fingers. His head rose to ask questions but found no one to ask.  The messenger had gone. He turned, searching the crowd; finding only the sterile white walls of the bus station; colors washed out by the pale blue florescent lights that cast a glow on every surface in view; people hurtling by, faces an unrecognizable haze. Slowly his body made a complete circuit leaving a brighter warmer light to fill his vision. He moved towards the light with a lurch, his feet moving sluggishly, as if being dragged through molasses.  One step, and then another; each movement heavier than the last, the man staggered towards the light filtering in through the bus station’s glass doors. A light that promised warmth, a warmth to stave off the ache he felt at his core.

He hesitated a moment before the automatic doors as they hissed open and a wall of heat assault his exposed skin, tugging at the heavy trench coat draped over his arm and the sleeves of his plaid dress jacket in its mad rush to reach inside the station. Breathing deep, he stepped out of the station and into the flash dying sunlight. Gradually his vision cleared and color returned to his eyes. The sun flared over the mountains painting the sky a series of orange, yellows, reds and pink; splashing the undersides of clouds where they sat on high in the sky. In contrast the earth faded from a benign orange brown into darkness the closer it moved towards the mountains. Struggling pale spots of green dotted the area, clinging to life in the barren badlands.

His eyes traced absently over the empty landscape until it came to rest on an empty weathered bench facing the road, the hue of its paint long since washed away. With tottering steps the man made his way towards the seat and dropping his worn trench coat over the bench back, before collapsing onto the seat himself; deflating as he settled, air rushing out of his lungs in one long protracted sigh. He became conscious of the paper still crumbled in his hand and carefully, tenderly, tried to smooth out the wrinkles. Flattening it as much as he could against his thigh, he carefully folded it once, twice, and began tracing the corners with his fingers, relishing the soft scraping against his skin. 

Taking one leathery hand he tentatively pushed back his brown felt bowler hat and began rubbing his temples. Dislodged by the furious motion, the hat tumbled backwards and off the man’s head revealing a crop of graying hairs still intermittently streaked with brown. Slowly he dragged his hand down his face, pulling the loose folds of flesh over his cheeks; feeling it stretch beneath his hold. Only when the stubble of his five o’clock started scratching the palm of his hand did he stop.

“The bus is leaving.” The man gasped, sitting up right as his hat was slapped onto his shoulder from behind “The bus won’t wait for us, and we need to be in Cincinnati by tomorrow morning.”  The man sitting on the bench trembled as he eyed the other dolefully, noting the similarly graying hair, the well pressed gray suit to match. Anders wore his years well; a fellow soldier, fellow companion.  They’d crossed and re-crossed the world together, met their wives, had their children.  Shared those memories with each other on those long rides across the country… The man blinked suddenly and furiously as Anders blurred in his vision. 

Giving his friend a closer look, Anders leaned in closer, his voice a whisper.  “Everything alright, sir?”

“Fine, fine, just fine. Just, ah, go on without me. I’ll see you somewhere down the line.” He stuttered in reply as he drew his hand across his eyes to clear them.   Looking unsure but mercifully silent, Anders gave the man’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and trotted towards the waiting greyhound bus.

Sunlight was gone, and with a fitful flicker and a hum, the bulb over the bench came to life bathing him with a tent of light.  Moments later the whine of the bus revved, then faded away.  Just like that, the world ceased to exist outside that circular pool of white. Leaning forward, he ceased the compulsive movement of his hands and opened up the slip of paper once more to read the words imprinted therein. The words washed out in a blur even as they came into focus. The piece of paper crinkled and crumpled again in his hands and was dropped as Joe cupped his face in his hands, shoulders shaking softly. The hat, left on his shoulder by Anders, teetered and fell to the ground in front of him where it sat, silent sentinel against the night.

The End

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