Stuart watched the kid shake and mutter to himself in the seat across the aisle. His skin looked waxy in the dingy interior bus lights, and Stuart was sure that if he reached across and caressed the kid’s forehead with the back of his hand that skin would be near to scalding. He ran his tongue along the back of his teeth and watched the kid carefully. No one else in the general vicinity seemed to be concerned. Stuart noticed an old man dozing in the seat behind the kid, and a young couple murmuring to each other beneath a blanket in the seat ahead of him.
“Scourge of the panhandle,” the kid muttered, and Stuart looked away. He stared out of the window into the emptiness of the night. There was absolutely nothing to see; there was no moon in the sky and nothing to illuminate beyond the arid brush and gravel that lay on either side of the road to Flagstaff. Blackness rushed by like a hurricane wind and only the occasional light shining wanly from far off allowed for the recognition of motion.
When the bus passed the exit to Twin Arrows the kid moved violently in his seat, thrashing like a person trying to get comfortable when assailed by pains in every joint. By the time the exit sign for Winona passed the bus window, wreathed in shadows, the kid began moaning in a low animal tone. Stuart watched the others to see if they would notice and take action but the old man continued to snore softly and the couple in front of him continued to murmur and giggle lightly. The man in that seat had begun to breathe in quick, short bursts, and Stuart didn’t have to think very hard to figure out what was going on. Grimacing, he leaned slowly across the aisle and gingerly put the back of his hand against the kid’s forehead.
As he suspected, his flesh was burning to the touch and uncomfortably dry. The kid’s moaning grew louder, and Stuart drew his hand back with a hiss. He retreated back into his seat and ran his shaking fingers through his thinning hair.
“Faster,” the boy in the seat in front of him whispered loudly, and Stuart leapt out of his seat and strode up the narrow aisle. He approached the driver, a heavyset man with a fuzzed-out crewcut and a hypertensive tinge to his complexion.
“Do you have any aspirin?” Stuart asked. The driver kept his eyes on the road.
“Sorry, I drive the bus. You want a pharmacy, we should be stopping and getting off for a minute in Flagstaff.”
“There’s a kid back there who’s burning up,” Stuart confessed. “I think he might need a doctor.”
“We’ll be stopping in Flagstaff before long. You can take him to a doctor there.”
“Lord, no. The stopover in Flagstaff is only for an hour. After that we’re heading out again. I have a schedule to meet.”
“Is there another bus behind this one?”
The bus driver said nothing for a moment. The cracked and weathered visage of the old Route 66 slid by under the hard glare of the headlights.
“Word on the radio is that no, there won’t be, at least for a while. The governor is extending martial law out to the Okie border. He wants to stem the tide of ’em coming over and making trouble on their way to California.”
The driver stole a glance at Stuart, and Stuart shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“I’m from New York,” he said, the words falling flat as they left his tongue.
“Don’t really care,” the driver replied. “Just letting you know that it’ll be a while before the next bus comes along. Long enough that you’ll have to either settle or move on some other way.”
Stuart returned to his seat without saying anything further to the driver. The kid was breathing and seemed to finally be deep asleep, but it was hard to tell. Stuart quickly checked the kid’s temperature and found that, while it hadn’t abated, it hadn’t gotten any worse in the meantime. He shrank back into his seat and pulled out his phone. There was still some room in his data allowance, so he searched for pharmacies in Flagstaff and found one that was near to the bus station, nestled in a Wal-Mart. He slid the phone back into his pocket and waited, watching the kid out of the corner of his eye.
When old Route 66 separated from the I-40, the bus followed Route 66 into Flagstaff. Like the highway before, there was little to see out of Stuart’s window once in town. What buildings there were crouched close to the ground, well back from the road, creeping like rats in the distance. Eventually a shopping mall ran past the window, but in the dead of night it looked patched and forlorn. When the bus eventually slowed and came to a stop, Stuart was confused as to where they were.
After the driver called out their stopover in Flagstaff, Stuart rushed out the door and into the cold Arizona night. He was shocked to see his breath in the glare of the bus lights and rubbed at his shirtsleeves. His phone reported that the Wal-Mart was on the other side of the road, set on the far side of a sprawling black parking lot. There was no traffic although the parking lot was populated with cars. Inside the store, a few midnight shoppers ambled down the aisles, their ruddy, wrinkled faces kept firmly towards the floor.
There was no pharmacist on duty, so Stuart picked up aspirin so he could at least bring the kid’s fever down. It was more expensive than he’d initially thought, and he mentioned it to the cashier, who shrugged and said that the cost had gone up around the time the army had been called to the border. Stuart weighed his options and put the charge on his sole remaining credit card.
Across the street, the bus had been driven beyond the gate that allowed entrance to the station. A pair of guards loitered on either side of the gate and came to attention as Stuart approached. They demanded his ticket and, when presented with it, continued to eye Stuart suspiciously even as the gate opened behind them. The space between his shoulder blades crawled as he walked up the laneway toward the bus. The driver was scrolling through something on his phone and the other passengers were either sleeping or engaged in the same activity.
The kid was breathing evenly through his mouth. His face was turned up toward the overhead light, and his eyes were closed. Stuart retrieved a plastic bottle of water from his carry-on bag and moved across the aisle. After a bit of shaking, he managed to wake the kid up enough to acknowledge his presence.
“Sal?” the kid asked. “Sal, you’ve lost weight.”
The kid’s eyes were unfocused, like he’d taken too many hits to the head. Stuart popped a couple of aspirin into his palm and unscrewed the lid from the bottle of water. He motioned to the kid to take them.
“It’s poison, Sal,” the kid raved. He looked away and shook his head. “I’m the last one; I won’t take it. I’ve seen them all take it already.”
“No,” Stuart said firmly, “it’s medicine. You’re burning up, you need to take it.”
The kid looked at him, his expression uncomprehending. “I’m on the bus,” he said, blinking rapidly. “Who are you?”
“Introductions later,” Stuart said. “Just take this and relax. Don’t worry, it’s just aspirin.”
The kid stared at Stuart and then took the tablets from his hand.
[Interstitial Burn-Boy Blues is available on Amazon in ebook and paperback, as well as from the Across The Margin site directly]