I pride myself on being an observer. The beautiful things in this world, natural and man-made, have never ceased to amaze me. I love watching winter transform into spring, seeing a train pull into the station, smelling chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven, and listening to the dialogue of two sparrows at the crack of dawn. I love it all, but I enjoy observing people the most.
On this particular day, I was sitting at the back of a near empty bus traveling from Otega Bay, a seaside tourist hub, to Trayton, a rural town on the other side of the mountains. The bus had just made its last stop on the edge of town and it was now making its way towards the mountain road. On a normal day, this trip would take an hour and seven minutes, but it was raining and the bus was expected to arrive later than usual.
I watched as water droplets ran down the window to my right. Some of them fell straight and fast while others took their time, sometimes getting swept up in another droplet’s path to the bottom. Looking past the rain, I could see the road start to slope upwards and the roar of the bus’s engine signaled the start of its climb up the mountain.
This trip was the last run of the day and there would be no other bus until the next morning. The bus driver was tired and ready to end his ten-hour shift. He was looking forward to spending his weekend off with his wife and watching the fifth season of Mad Men, one of their favorite shows. Since it was raining, his wife would expect him a little later than usual and have a nice cup of tea waiting for him upon his return. Though it would be eleven o’clock and well past dinnertime, a warm meal would be placed on the dining room table, because his wife insisted that he eat a proper meal, not one from a paper bag. The bus driver was especially excited for tonight because he had finally saved up enough money for he and his wife to go to Hawaii and was planning on surprising her with the plane tickets over dinner.
This bus trip was not popular by any means and functioned primarily as a commuter route for the residents of Trayton. However, on this trip, a tourist couple sat two rows back from the bus driver and their six-year-old daughter lay sleeping across their laps. After much disagreement, they had elected to stay with relatives in Trayton rather than pay for a costly hotel in Otega Bay. The woman insisted that the long bus ride was a small price to pay for saving a hundred dollars a night and the man soon gave in.
The woman didn’t want to stay with her relatives either, but she realized too late that she had underestimated the cost of the trip and they could not afford to stay in a hotel for the next week and a half. She knew that if her husband found out, he would want to end the trip early and she would have to tell their daughter that she couldn’t see the dolphin show that she had very much been looking forward to. The woman planned on telling her husband about their financial trouble after the trip was over and then working longer hours so they didn’t have to worry about the money that they had overspent.
The man might have noticed their savings slowly disappearing had he thought to check, but he had other worries on his mind. He had been fired two days before the start of their trip, but by then, the trip was already planned and paid for. He knew that his wife needed a break from work because her accounting firm had just finished a busy season and she was exhausted. If she found out he had been fired, the man knew she would cancel the trip and insist that she work even more. He also didn’t want to disappoint his daughter who had been looking forward to seeing the dolphins for weeks. When planning the trip, his wife assured him that they had saved up enough money and he decided that they would be fine until he could find a new job. He resolved to tell his wife that he’d been fired after their vacation, and had already lined up several interviews for when he returned home. For now, he just wanted the three of them to enjoy their family vacation.
The bus was nearing the top of the mountain and the rain had started to pick up. The bus’s headlights forged a path through the shadows that clung to the rock wall and the mountain’s inhabitants vanished into small crevices to avoid the bright light. I found myself thinking that I might like to follow them and explore the mountain, but the thought was fleeting and vanished altogether as the bus rounded the corner.
There was a person, a woman, sitting at the middle most row on the left side of the bus. She had been there since long before I arrived and was a mystery to me. She sat quietly, gripping onto the backpack in her lap, and stared out the window into the rain. I did not know where she came from, why she was here, or what business she had in Trayton which was unusual for me, but I wasn’t one to give up easily. I managed to gather, from the pins on her backpack, that she loved marine animals and, from the faint song fragments coming from her earphones, she loved listening to classic rock.
It wasn’t much, but I was content with knowing that and turned my attention out the window. We had reached the top of the mountain and a view of the town of Trayton was barely visible through the rain. Lights from the town shone through the darkness in place of the moon and the stars which, on this night, were covered by the storm clouds. Most of the residents had gone to bed, and the few that hadn’t were either on this bus to Trayton or waiting upon their return.
At the last stop before the mountain, a lone man got on the bus. He had a tough appearance complete with an unkempt beard and weathered clothes. These features caused most of the passengers to shy away from him in discomfort. Noticing their gazes, the man had chosen to sit towards the back of the bus as to not disturb the others. It was amusing to me, their weariness of this sailor, because out of all those on the bus, he was perhaps the most kindhearted.
The sailor had been traveling up and down the coast of Peru with his shipmates bringing aid to civilians after a devastating earthquake. His disheveled appearance was a result of a mild storm he and the rest of the crew ran into on their way back up the coast. He had battled the storm all through the night and was looking forward to reuniting with his wife and son after three weeks of separation. After a good, long sleep, he was planning on taking them camping at a little cove in the mountains. There, the sailor would point out the different types of trees and, just like every time they had gone before, he would listen to his wife tell them about the different species of birds, and watch as his son attempted to catch squirrels that got too close.
The bus driver, who had paid special attention to the sailor to make sure he paid his bus fare, would never know that the sailor also loved watching Mad Men with his wife or that he too understood the allure of a warm meal waiting at home. The couple, who shifted in their seats as he passed, would never exchange pleasantries with this man, or ask about his family waiting at home. They would never consider that this man could understand the selflessness behind the secrets they kept from one another, or know that he had a child the same age as the little girl who lay sleeping in their laps.
The bus started its descent and I turned my attention to the pine trees whose tops barely reached the edge of the road before dropping off down the side of the mountain. The rain was almost blinding and the once tiny droplets were now buckets of water pounding the side of the bus. The rain weighed on the branches of the pine trees, dragging them down, and the wind, which was starting to pick up, made even the strongest of trees sway. The bus’s metal walls had previously hidden the wind’s presence, but now the windows shook and the roar of the bus’s engine was lost in nature’s fury. It would be a stormy night in Trayton, but even then it was beautiful.
Otega Bay, where I had just left, was full of hazards, crime, and drunken mistakes. Though I visited often, I knew I would not like to live there. Maybe I was biased. I often visited larger, more chaotic cities, so maybe I relished the peaceful, isolating nature of towns like Trayton where nothing ever happened that would make headlines. Or maybe these small towns really were more beautiful. They always seemed more peaceful and inviting. Their sky always looked clearer, their birds more cheerful, and the people less burdened. Maybe one day I’d have to stick around and find out, but as for tonight, I had work to do.
The storm had by now turned violent with claps of thunder and streaks of lightning. The little girl had awoken with a cry and now sat wailing on her mother’s lap. Her father stroked her hair softly, whispering words of reassurance in her ear. The mysterious woman clutched her backpack tighter and was now looking at the road ahead. Maybe she often got car sick, or perhaps she wasn’t used to taking bus rides, especially in such conditions. I couldn’t tell. The sailor seemed the most at ease. He had been through many storms on open water and the events outside didn’t seem to faze him. Instead, he looked towards the couple comforting their daughter until he caught the attention of the little girl. The girl stared back at the sailor, rubbing her left eye with her fist. The sailor grinned, making silly gestures with his eyebrows, until the girl laughed and smiled back. The girl’s father looked back at the sailor and nodded his thanks before turning back to his family.
The bus driver had done his best to stay vigilant, but the ten-hour shift, combined with his restless sleep the previous night, slowed his reflexes. Lightning cracked above them on the cliff, illuminating the night sky for a fraction of a second. In the next instant, a large tree, with burn scars across its trunk, dented the road fifty feet in front of the bus. The driver slammed on the brakes, but the road, wet from the rain, refused to grip the tires. The bus slammed into the tree and was forcefully turned towards the guardrail. The little girl was crying again and suddenly, we were airborne. The family’s suitcases flew down the aisle towards the back of the bus where I was sitting and hit the wall to my right. The mysterious woman and the sailor gripped the seats in front of them, but slowly, they began to rise up off their seats. The bus driver was knocked out cold from the impact with the tree and would not wake.
After the bus hit the ground, it was about twenty seconds before it stopped rolling. By the time the bus had reached the bottom of the mountain, it had been completely destroyed. The windows were shattered, the right side was dented in, and the passengers lay scattered across its interior. I got up from the floor, though technically I was standing on the roof now. I walked over to the little girl and tapped her shoulder. She stirred and looked up at me.
“Who…who are you? I didn’t see you on the bus.”
“I’m sorry, the bus crashed. Come with me,” I replied and held out my hand. She hesitated, but finally placed her hand on mine and I pulled her to her feet. I said, “Let’s go get the others,” and began walking towards the front of the bus. The same thing happened each time I approached the others. They’d ask, “who are you?” and, “what happened?” and I’d tell them, then reach for their hand.
The bus, twenty-three minutes from town, would never arrive. The little girl would never get to see the dolphin show. Her parents would never know each other’s secrets, nor care to remember their own. The warm meal waiting for the bus driver’s return would eventually grow cold. The sailor had, unbeknownst to him, already visited his family’s camping site for the last time four months earlier. And despite it all, each of them would take my hand smiling.
That’s the strange, beautiful thing about death. Everyone, when their time comes, accepts it. They grab my hand and only a few ever look back upon themselves. If they do, it is only for a moment.
As I was leading the group of people away from the bus, slight movement to my right caught my eye. The mysterious woman was lying outside the bus and stirred as if waking from a troubled sleep. It all made sense to me now. I was not meant to know her story, at least not yet. Sometime in the near future, I would return to Trayton and see the mysterious woman again. On that day, her story would become clear to me, but not before.
I turned back to my companions. For today, my duty was to them. In life, people never stop and notice the little things. In death, I’d like to think they start to understand the beauty I see in the world, and I always take a little time to show them. I show them the beauty of the howling wind, the chilling rain, and the flickering lights of town from up above. I show them, then I move on, to another town, another group of people, and a new, beautiful day.
Katie Sarrels is a freshman at California State University Long Beach where she majors in both Film and English. She hopes to work as a producer for a major TV show, but her biggest dream is to one day write an original crime novel.