This morning was redder than most, like it was a warning. I heard the heavy bus clamoring down the haggard road to my apartment complex. My roommate heard it too, and new look of eagerness came over his face.
“Matt, you don’t have to do this. There might be an opening at the plant in a few weeks, and I can cover your rent until then.” he said in a rushed voice.
I told him that I appreciated his concern, that he was a true friend, that I would never forget all that he had done for me, but that the dye was cast and my fate was rolling done that pitted road. The mundane life in the plant, the work-a-day world, wasn’t for me, we both knew it, and there was no sense in proving one more time.
One of my cats pressed against my leg with greed and affection. Bandit knew I was leaving, and probably for good. I scooped him up and smiled into his generous eyes.
“Goodbye little buddy,” I said with a melancholy tone I didn’t intend. “And thank you, Ron, for lookin’ out for these guys while I’m gone. Don’t let them get into the garbage too much.”
“You’ll be back soon. They won’t even notice that you were gone.”
I don’t know why, but part of me found Ron’s stubborn optimism kind of endearing. I smiled; we both knew it wasn’t true. The bus was now growling just outside the barricade of our complex. I stared calmly at my cramped duffel bag waiting by the front door.
“That’s my ride,” and with those words I left my little life, all the while hiding the anxiety that was turning over and over in my gut.
The front gate opened slowly and not without complaint. The belts were loose and they wined as they did their work. The monster on the other side shook as it idled. The armor plating that dressed it rattled with a low growl. The bus looked like war – singed and marred. Its wheels were thick and deeply grooved in order to travel the shattered and crumbling roads. There was a turret on the roof, and through the thick film on the glass I could make out the image of a woman. She seemed stiff, stoic, and angry. There are not many women on The Frontiers, and those working in the plants seemed like they were made of sorrow and porridge. This woman was young, beneath the angry twists in her face, and I found her very attractive. And at that moment I felt my first jolt of fear – like the recognition of something still human and soft inside me was the first loose thread of an unraveling confidence. But as quickly as this nagging unease had bubbled up, it was chased away by the hydraulic hiss of the bus door.
The Driver was perched over the wheel like a gargoyle. His wispy white hair stuck to his sweaty face. The Driver’s advanced age seemed as out-of-place as the Turret Gunner’s beauty and youth. Both of these human extremes had vanished from The Frontiers long ago. I had an unexplained impulse to give the old man a coin, like it would somehow improve my journey. I climbed the steps and the Driver gestured to rear of the bus with a jerk of his neck.
The armor on the windows made the galley dim and the sun that seeped in striped the faces of the other passengers with slats of gloomy light. Aside from a low watt fear, their expressions were stiff like a child who’s just taken some bitter medicine. No one’s eyes welcomed me or even acknowledged my presence. Halfway back, there was a strange character with his neck craned down into a book, resting in his lap. He seemed completely out of place in some kind of oblivious shell. So, I stowed my bag and filled the space next to him.
“My name is Matt.”
He turned his face from his book and scrunched his forehead as if this custom perplexed him.
“People just call me LT.” He said in a chalky tone. Then straightened his neck and the stream of light flowing in through the window swept across his peculiar grin. The light isolated it from the rest of his face and for a moment he reminded me of the Cheshire Cat without any of the charm. His floating smile told me, “look around, these are your comrades, Matt.”