It was the dull thunk that woke me up. I sat up in my seat, startled, and rubbed my eyes fiercely. Despite my worries and my fear and the images that would not remove themselves from my mind, I must have eventually fallen asleep. I didn’t remember doing so. All around me, the others were looking up too, peering out of the dusty windows.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
Confused, I craned my neck to look out the window, but it was so thick with dust and grime that I could hardly see through it. Thunk. Laughter. I froze. I knew that laughter. I had grown up hearing that laughter.
Leaning out of my seat, I tried to peer out the front window instead, which was much clearer. We were driving through part of a town, though I didn’t recognise it at first. There were shops to our right, and squat, red brick houses with perfectly cut lawns on the left. Thunk. Thunk. What on earth was going on? It wasn’t raining, so what was making the noise? Thunk. Thunk. It sounded like something was hitting something else. But what? I was definite it wasn’t raining, nor were there hailstones outside – the sun was burning the windows orange. That was when I noticed the signpost at the end of the street.
YOU ARE IN THE CITY OF
PLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY.
Birmingham. That’s where we were. It surprised me that we hadn’t crossed the border into Tennessee yet. I mustn’t have been asleep for long. Two hours? Three hours? I couldn’t be sure. I’d been to Birmingham before, of course, but only when I was small. I wouldn’t remember now how long the journey took.
Before I could register what was happening, a tin of paint collided with the window right next to me. I screamed involuntarily, and watched with horror as the glass began to splinter and crack where the tin had struck the glass.
I know I shouldn’t have been, but I was shocked. And I thought I had a pretty good idea who had done it as well. The laughter from outside – the gleeful, mocking, superior laughter – rang in my ears. My temper flared and my mouth moved, but nothing came out. Two seats along, one of the children started crying. My heart went out to them.
Red paint dripped down the window sickeningly, reminding me of blood.
“What are they doing?” I whispered to Terry, who had been staring into space, his eyes fixed on the back of the chair in front of us.
“They think they’re bein’ funny” he snarled. The fury in his voice made me recoil involuntarily. “Kids from tha’ town. We get tha’ all of tha’ time. Bricks. Stones. Bottles.”
“Paint” I added.
“Yeah. But don’ worry about it, Lydia. We’re used to it. It’s prob’ly a lot more shockin’ to you ‘cause you ain’t used to seeing it. But don’ worry. We can handle it” He turned to me, and gave me a reassuring smile. “I promise ya’, we can handle it.”
I wasn’t so sure.
As we came closer and closer to the Alabama border, I began to lose track of time. My old fears and worries were gripping me fiercer than ever, and I could not take my mind off what might happen if this went very wrong. The incident at the post office – it seemed like a million years away now – had made me realise that things were much more serious than I ever thought. It made me even more determined to fight, to look racism and violence and bigotry in the eye and smack it hard in the face. But it also scared me. If this was the kind of thing we were up against, then what would we have to do to make it back down? Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth I thought. And the thought made me cringe immediately. Would this really come to violence? I hoped not. It didn’t have to be that way – on either side.
The sun was setting low behind the outlines of the towns and cities and villages we passed now, burning orange in the sky and sending a rainbow of yellows and reds and pinks shooting through a web of greying clouds. It was oddly beautiful. I found myself staring at it, watching the evening dusk fade to ocean blue and darken to the colour of ink as the minutes, the hours passed. I felt myself becoming, however, much more self-conscious of being the only white person on the bus. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched my fellow passengers. Most were asleep; others were looking out the window, like I was, and others were watching me as sceptically as I was watching them. I liked to think that Terry had them convinced at the post office, but I wasn’t completely sure. I didn’t blame them. With all the horrors they had to suffer, I didn’t blame them for being nervous or sceptical. Were I in their place, I would feel the same way.
As my eyes began to droop and tiredness from the travelling overwhelmed me, I was aware once again of several pairs of eyes on my back, on my face, but I was suddenly so very exhausted that I barely registered their expressions. I would worry about it the morning, I’d decided. As long as they knew that my intentions were positive, defensive and in no way the acts of the enemy, I could sleep peacefully and be proud that I was doing the right thing. After all, that’s what mattered now. It was why I – why everyone on this bus – was here. I would fight for that until the end, even if it killed me.
I finally began to feel sleep creep up on me after struggling to keep my eyes open for a little while longer, and just before I closed my eyes, we passed a large billboard on the side of the highway.
YOU ARE NOW IN TENNESSEE.
One state down, four more to go was my last thought before my eyes shut for the final time and I let sleep take me.