"If I don't hear from you after this, you're scum," Trish said with a wink in Tom's direction, handing her credit card to the clerk at the Greyhound bus station.
Tom hadn't asked her to front him the $203 ticket to get home. She had insisted.
He felt a little guilty for his debt to her. She had taken him into her home after his car accident, fed him, shown him some good times, given him a chance when she had no reason to, and now this.
He stood in the station with his bags, trying to project happiness and gratitude in spite of his heavy heart. If he had a choice about it he would gladly stick around Merced, California, with Trish, rather than blow the money for a miserable 24-hour bus trip with three transfers to get back to his mom's ranch in Big Piney, Wyoming. But when he thought about his mom, something didn't feel right. On one hand, he hoped he would arrive home and find everything was fine and that his worry was for naught. On the other, what if he got there and his fears were confirmed? Then again, what if it turned out he had made the trip simply out of paranoia?
"You're doing the right thing," Trish said, putting the ticket envelope into his hand. It was freaky how easily she seemed to read his mind.
The bus driver came inside and propped a glass door open on the other side of the waiting room. The rumble of the idling bus engine stirred the room awake. Passengers stood up from their heaps of duffle bags and began to form a line. Diesel fumes ripped Tom away from his thoughts. He shouldered his own bags and gave Trish a quick kiss.
"Thanks," he said. He couldn't find the words, but their eyes said the rest: See you soon, I hope.
She waved and watched him go out the door onto the bus.
Inside the bus, Tom shuffled down the aisle near the end of the line. Most of the seats were taken. His hopes for having a row of two seats to himself were dashed. He saw himself in a scene from the movie "Forrest Gump," where Forrest is looking for a place to sit among the rows of hard eyes and unwelcome faces. Tom pushed the thought away and did his best to stay in the present moment. Feeling sorry for yourself doesn't help right now. There'll be plenty of time for that later, he thought. His eyes settled on an open seat next to a fat black man in an XXXL Oakland Raiders jersey with his hair pulled back in cornrows. The man stared out the window with indifference.
"Mind if I sit here?"
"Sho' man." The guy hardly glanced at Tom.
Tom shoved a bag in the overhead compartment and squeezed into the seat, cramming another duffle down by his feet. The large man next to him, in all truth, took up more than the one seat. But that couldn't be helped. Tom leaned back with his book bag on his lap and sighed. At least his seatmate didn't stink. Yet.
The bad feeling about his mom started nagging him a couple days earlier, on Saturday night, the day after his trip to Pinnacles National Park with Trish.
He was alone in her home office, watching the creatures in the 20-gallon fish tank. She had been called in to cover a night shift, and her ankle was still tender from the sprain the day before, when she had tumbled off the rock.
"Hopefully I won't have to do too much walking," she said, doing her best to mask a slight limp on the way out the door.
With her gone, the silence of the room weighed on him. He couldn't help staring at the aquarium. A few fish swam hypnotically back and forth. A large, blue crawdad chased them with its claws outstretched.
The crawdad looked like an army tank, crawling all over the gravel and fixtures of the tank with its eight crab legs that all had pincers on the ends. The pincers enabled the strange, antennaed monster to climb vertical surfaces with ease, all while holding its big claws out front, spread wide to nab a fish. The crawdad spiraled its way around a plastic Buddha statue until it was crawling over Buddha's head near the surface of the water. The Buddha looked so peaceful in spite of the pincers clamping down on his nose, eyes and ears.
Tom tried to calm his mind, wanting to be like the serene Buddha, unfazed by the crawdad on his face, but he couldn't. Where was his mom? He'd been trying to call her for four days. He left Trish's home number on the answering machine at least three times (he'd skipped the conveniences of having a cell phone during his travels as a way to save money). He was very surprised his mom had not called him back by now. His sisters didn't seem to think too much of it, though his middle sister, Terry, told him something interesting.
"Did you know someone in our town won the $86 million jackpot?" she said. "I heard a rumor from Susie Dinkens that some people are thinking it's Mom."
Susie was a high school classmate of Terry's who stuck around and started a family not long after they graduated. Terry and Susie caught up on gossip and parenting matters on the phone every so often.
"I doubt that's true, though," Terry continued to tell Thomas. "I talked to Mom a couple times about who the lotto winner might be, and she wasn't very interested. And I can't imagine her NOT telling us about it."
"When was the last time you talked with her?"
"I dunno. Maybe last weekend?"
"Don't you think it's unlike her not to call me back by now?" Tom said.
"She wasn't too happy with you, last I heard."
Tom could hear what sounded like repressed glee in his sister's voice.
"I'm not so sure she really wants to talk to you so much these days, ever since you bailed on Thanksgiving with her," Terry said. "Maybe she's just avoiding you."
"Yeah, or maybe she's been kidnapped."
"You're so dramatic. I'll tell her you're worried about her when I talk to her tomorrow."
"Would you call her tonight, Terry?"
"Tom, I'm too tired to listen to that old lady ramble tonight. Listening to Cody whine and throw temper-tantrums all day is tiring enough. Besides, when Lance gets home, I'll have to hear him rant about work like he always does."
They hung up and Tom wasn't sure whether Terry would actually call him back one way or the other. He knew she would tell mom that he was worried about her, but he didn't count on anything beyond that from this sister.
The lottery? That was an interesting tidbit of information, though. Intuition fluttered in his stomach at the idea. Suddenly he was pretty sure that had something to do with Mom's silence. She might not be the lotto winner, but maybe she knew the person and promised to keep quiet about it. Maybe they'd gone on a little secret getaway or something.
Posh! Since when have you known Mom to go anywhere? His logic argued with his instinct until a small paperback on the bookshelf above the aquarium caught his focus. He stood up from the futon and plucked the thin book from the stack of titles.
"Don't Squat with Your Spurs On; A Cowboy's Guide to Life," he read the title out loud to himself with an amused grin. At four inches wide and seven inches tall, and maybe a quarter-inch thick, the book looked like something to read in the bathroom. He opened it to a random page and sat down. What he read seemed to speak directly to what was in his mind. The words were like a waking slap in the face: "If you're gonna go, go like Hell. If your mind's not made up, don't use your spurs."
He blinked and reread the page a few more times, letting the words sink in. He turned the page and found it spoke to him again: "The best way to find a lost stray is to go to the place you would go if you were a lost stray."
Suddenly he felt better. Yes, he would find a way to get home as soon as possible. There was nothing else to worry about until that was done, because there was nothing else he could do. He was still technically marooned anyway, with no real prospects beyond his budding love affair with Trish. When he told her the next day, she fully agreed. If there was any hesitation left on his part, she took it out of his hands. It was almost like she had a personal stake in the well being of his mother. He thought it odd that she would be so touched by a situation that shouldn't really affect her, but he didn't ask. Instead he asked her if he could borrow her book.
Once the bus got out of town, Tom pulled the little paperback out, missing Trish already. He even fantasized that she was the sweaty passenger pressing up against his hip instead of the big black man, who was still staring out the window in silence. Opening the book to a random page, as always, it affirmed a feeling he already had: "A woman's heart is like a campfire. If you don't tend to it regular, you'll soon lose it."
He sighed for the umpteenth time since getting on the bus, letting his head fall back against the seat. It felt like the Greyhound was speeding away, faster and faster, from the one thing he truly wanted, and toward the one place he had to go.
He tried not to think that at the end of the marathon bus ride he would have to hitchhike from Rock Springs, Wyoming, to Big Piney.
For now, it's all trouble ahead and pleasure behind, he thought as the coach bounced along into the night. Somewhere up front, a toddler wailed in misery and was silenced with a stern "Shush!" from the mother, who had her hands full with the newborn baby in her arms.
This bus across America – this bus ... ain't bound for glory (this bus). This bus ... don't carry no one holy, Tom thought, riffing off the Bob Marley song playing in his earbuds.
"And if it don't come I'm gonna go lookin ... for happiness," he sang under his breath in another sigh that got a look from his fat companion. For happiness, he thought, grateful the tears welling under his eyelids would go unnoticed in the dark. Up front, the fatherless tot kept crying.