24-Hour Short Story Contest
2nd Place Winner!
TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
The group of four tipsy teenagers were playing yet another loud game of Mixin' Fixion in the back of the commuter bus. After her contribution, the youngest girl turned her face toward the breeze coming through the window, enjoying the canopy of trees along the country road. Up ahead, she noticed a man flagging down the bus while slinging a large black bag over his shoulder. As he stepped onto the bus, he turned his head toward the bag, slapped it, and yelled, "...
by Vicky Bell, Ottawa, ON, Canada
The rest of the band is jamming at the back of the tour bus. Kate's not on bass, but harmonica, a high, sad wail like the call of a far-off train at dusk. Jamie's beating a train rhythm, clack-a-clacking his drumsticks on the table edge, and Dan strums it on his acoustic guitar.
I'm sitting in a seat further up the bus, my forehead against the cold glass. Although the landscape slips smoothly past, train music feels all wrong. Train music is full of anticipation and possibility, which I'm not anymore. "Let's go home," I whisper instead, in time with the clack-a-clack. "Let's go home. Let's go home."
"Claire!" Jamie calls. "Come and sing!"
I shake my head, even in the face of his wicked, sideways grin -- that grin used to be all mine, but then three years ago he hooked up with Kate in a turn-around that was a surprise to me. It wasn't to Dan. "You're so tense since we started getting big," he said. "It's worn Jamie down. You're supposed to be enjoying this, you know. We are."
Sometimes I wish I hadn't agreed to keep the band together. "The music's more important than personal dynamics," Jamie argued. "We can work through this." Okay for him. I learned I can't write with someone I can't sleep with. I had to stop my writing sessions with Jamie after it got too hard to watch him go home to Kate, me left with no one's body to write my love on but my own. I've told myself I'm not enough so often that inside, the music has dried up. Gone forever, when I used to live music, the songs in my head drawing me out of sleep like a muezzin's call. I faked my way through the last album, let the rest of the band carry me, but looming ahead is the prospect of the new album we have to write at the end of this long, long tour, and I don't know if I can fake it again.
"Come on, Claire, we need you," Jamie wheedles now, but I shake a no again and move away from him, to talk to the bus driver. The other driver, Joe, is asleep in his bunk, so Miguel is the sentinel of the road on this shift, bucket of coffee in the drink holder a reach away.
Miguel gets a kick out of my English accent and I love his Spanish one, although sometimes we have trouble understanding one another. He talks to me about Tijuana and I tell him what it's like to be a frighteningly famous rock star, and I think we'd both like to run away to each other's lives. I should be more grateful. This is what I wished for, so why do I want to go back and start over?
Suddenly Miguel says, pointing ahead, "Wow, where'd he come from?" We're somewhere in Pennsylvania, on a winding, misty patch of deserted road surrounded by national park, high up in the hills. It's almost exactly midnight, no other cars around, and the man spotlit by our headlights at the side of the road is inexplicable. He holds up a sign that says, "DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU'RE GOING TO?"
"Stop the bus," I say to Miguel.
It's the guitar case slung over the man's shoulder. It's his easy slouch: Jim and Van Morrison; Bob and both Elvises. It's the possibility that he might have an answer as well as a question.
"I'm not allowed to pick up hitchhikers -- "
"Stop the bus. I'll take responsibility."
"But -- "
He hears my desperation and steps down on the brakes. Hard. The music crashes to a halt behind me and Kate shouts "Ouch!" But we've stopped, and as Miguel hisses the door open, there are fast footsteps and then the man climbs into the bus, gait rocky in his biker boots.
"You're late," he accuses Miguel.
"What in the hell? Who's that?" Jamie says somewhere behind me, but I can't take my eyes off the man. He must be six foot three, with floppy black silk hair and black velvet eyes. He's dressed in black. When he looks me in the eyes, it's like no one else in the world exists for him.
"Claire," he says, and "Yes," I say, my heart beating up close to the surface of my chest.
He puts his guitar case down; from inside comes an electric chord, although the guitar can't possibly be plugged into an amp. But I feel the thrum in my belly, lighting the first curl of excitement I've felt about anything in a long time. "Vamos, Miguel," he says. Miguel pulls away from the curb without protesting.
My bandmates are in the aisle, mouths open.
"I'm Bill," he says to me. "I'm your muse."
I can't help crying out, "Where have you <i>been</i>?"
Bill nods. "They always ask that. Had to wait until you about gave up for good. There's not a lot of time, gotta get to my next appointment, but we'll get this done, okay?"
I nod. I trust him. For once I'm not looking forward or back, I'm just here.
Bill unlatches the case and lifts out a gleaming, black electro-acoustic. It purrs. As he puts it in my hands, it feels right; its body curves in the same places as mine.
"Play," he says.
"But I can't play guitar."
"Yes you can."
I try. Its strings are supple beneath my fingers, and the melody that comes from them, from me, washes away the damn dam wall at last. All the pent-up music and joy floods through me and out into the air.
I am enough.
My band and I look at each other for a while. Jamie's the first to turn and head to the back of the bus. I follow him. Jamie picks up his sticks; Dan starts to strum. As that rhythm drives forward once again, Kate and I dance through and around it, using my new melody to mend the tattered threads: mixing, fusing, united.
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