Sighing, Karyn looked up from her magazine. It had rained as they crossed the Cascades last night. Splatters of mud mottled the dusty windows. She hoped it would rain again.
A herd of Buffalo moved as a school of fish in the distance.
“Those aren’t cows Jeremy, those are Buffalo.”
“Buffalo mommy? They sure are big.”
Jeremy bounced up on his seat and sat on his knees looking at them. They were crossing through Wyoming on I-80. His toy man fell from his lap. Down on the floor he bounced searching for it. The man in the seat behind him winked and smiled. Jeremy smiled back.
“Jeremy, sit down in your seat!” She caught herself. They were traveling across the country to Nebraska to meet a man, her savior, the man who she knew was going to save her life. She needed to make sure Jeremy stayed his normal sweet self because everything depended on how Mark took to him. She frowned, Jeremy was the x-factor, but he was the most important factor in her life.
“Baby, stop bouncing around! Please,” she pleaded. “You’re bothering the man behind you.” She had glanced discreetly at the middle aged black man who had taken the seat behind her on the half-filled bus. She glanced back. He was a larger man and was staring out the window, pre-occupied in thought. The man must have felt Karyn’s glance because he turned to her and smiled. His eyes were timeworn, but his smile was genuine and full of grace.
“You and your son traveling far?” he said.
“Yes, to Omaha, Nebraska.
“No, I’ve never been there before. I’m going to meet a friend.”
Their little conversation quieted and stopped. The man turned and looked out of the window. The afternoon sun shone through cumulonimbus clouds that sailed slowly on high like so many whipped cream clipper ships. The clouds cast fantastic shadows onto the scrub lands. She looked at his hands. They were strong, working man’s hands, veined and nut brown. She turned back to the front and to her son.
Karyn turned back to the stranger.
“Let him play, he’s got a long way to go and he’s not bothering me.”
Karyn turned back. Jeremy was on his knees again, quietly rocking and singing to himself as he stared out of the window. She heard little clicks and taps on the dirty glass. Jeremy’s man battled some monster that lay just on the other side.
The bus lurched as Karyn found her place in her Glamour magazine. She had been reading about Christina Aguilera for the past 80 miles. She had almost named her boy James, which was a coincidence of a sort because Karyn had almost named her boy that too. In the end she didn’t, because Jack didn’t like the name. No reason, of course, there never was a reason for Jack hating something, he just did.
She wished she had realized when she met Jack that his ornery nature precluded him giving her, or anyone else, anything without a fight. At the time, she had been desperate for a man in her life. Jeremy had gone almost a month without a name. Poor kid. In the end, she just had given up and Jack named their kid Jeremy.
“We weren’t even married yet,” Karyn mused. “If only I could have seen the future,” she paused, “Hell, the names ain’t that different in the first place.”
She looked back at her magazine. She hadn’t finished the article and knew she never would. Christina Aguilera and her pregnancy. Christina Aguilera and her personal trainers. Christina Aguilera who counted her friends among the rich and the famous.
Karyn looked at the bus. It needed to be cleaned with a good stiff brush and lots of soapy water.
“Who is this woman ,” she thought, “and why should I care about her?” She shook her head, put the magazine back in the bag and nervously ran her bony fingers through scraggy blonde hair to push it away from her face.
Her ‘marriage’ to Jack had been another bump on her long road downhill. The only solace she had for three years of abuse was that, when Jack had been shot to death last year while gambling down at the docks, she had collected $15,000 in life insurance that his job had forced him to take. He had whined like a baby when the premium started coming out of his check, but after all, she thought, he had been a prison guard and a little insurance was probably a good thing. After burying him and paying off all their bills, she had taken the little money that remained and bought the one thing she had always wanted; a computer. She could have never bought one on her waitress salary and Jack never saw the need to make her happy. It was an old computer as computers go, about four years old, but she felt she had gotten a deal on it. That old Dell had made her twice as happy as Jack ever did, sex and all. She smiled at the thought.
Behind her lay her old life. Ahead lay her future. The bus driver had said that in an hour, they would stop in Cheyenne for a three-hour layover and a new driver who would take them on east. She looked at her watch. It was almost seven. Jeremy had fallen asleep against the window, clutching his man tightly in his six-year-old hand. She pulled his threadbare jacket from out of her bag and gently put his head on it. Then she covered him up with a baby’s quilt and reclined her seat back to rest some herself. She could see the man behind her read his book through the space between Jeremy’s upright seat and her reclined one. The bus droned on to Cheyenne.
The man looked up from his book.
“Is the light bothering you? I can turn it off.”
Karyn smiled, “No,” and closed her eyes, not knowing what else to say.
She imagined herself at the keyboard of her computer and thought of this trip. Allura was so lucky to have met Rampart. Karyn smiled to herself. She had spent so many wistful evenings talking to Rampart in the 3D chat. She had heard of 3D chat from a friend who had told her how nice it was to use a mouse to walk through villages and towns on the computer and how nice the people were that ‘lived’ there. One rainy evening she had come home after a hard day at work and decided to download it. It didn’t take long to realize she was hooked. She came home, turned on her computer, and became Allura. Allura was so much more beautiful than she was, with clear alabaster skin and royal features. Allura knew what to say and how to be beautiful and charming. But, she thought wryly, that was easy for her. After all, it was Karyn was sitting in a darkened room with peeling wallpaper manipulating an avatar in the world of Forestfall, not Allura.
And now she was on a bus with her son, looking out on the miles of nothingness, heading further east than she ever been in her life to meet a man that she only knew as Rampart. She shivered with anticipation and anxiety. It felt kind of like foreplay.
If only Allura could meet Mark, she thought. If only she could wave a magic wand and be her alter ego. It was so easy to be the person that she wished she were in real life when there was nothing on the line, no bills, no cares. That was not reality. Meeting Mark was reality. She wondered if Mark would care for her as much as Rampart cared for Allura. Karyn knew she shouldn’t compare herself to Allura’s beauty. Her eyes could have been her best feature, she thought, if they had been more deepset and a darker shade of blue. They looked faded, like a pressed flower found in an old book. Like her skin. And her hair! Karyn pulled out her makeup mirror and eyed herself critically. It was dishwater blonde. No color to it really, it was neither blonde or beige, but it was nondescript and dull. She pulled at it, twisting it one way and then the next.
Karyn knew that there was no way she could measure up to Allura’s beauty but planned to shut herself in the hotel bathroom and work on her face and hair for a few hours before she called Mark and told him that she had arrived. Jeremy could just watch TV. Maybe Mark would show them around Omaha the next day.
She hoped that the more beautiful that she made herself, the more Mark would love her, just as she already knew she’d love him. The memory of how they met was as real as sitting on the bus. She was talking to a fellow named Daniel Defoe when Rampart came online to talk to him. He said how lovely she looked. She typed back that she was smiling. Over the course of a few weeks, they became inseparable.
Rampart was so noble in his scarlet cape and leggings like a medieval scholar. When they walked together in Forestfall, he treated her with such kindness and defended her honor against those ‘Masters’ who would make her a slave.
Sometimes her fingered tired from typing and her hands cramped from using her mouse to move Allura around in Forestfall, but she never tired of Rampart. His sense of humor, his chivalry kept her by his side late into the night. She knew they had something special when he stayed on so long that she knew it must affect his real life. Sometimes Jeremy cried and she had to get off line but she always came back as soon as she could.
One night late into the morning hours, he turned to her and typed that he kissed her. When she typed back how she responded, she felt a tremor in her loins.
She had heard of cybersex. What happened next made her feel like a virgin.
She smiled and a soft moan escaped her lips. Startled by this, she opened her eyes and saw the man behind her glancing at her.
But instead of turning abruptly and looking at his book, he said curiously, “You okay?” He looked at her quizzically.
Softly, so as not to wake Jeremy, she said, “Yeah, thinking, that’s all.”
“Must be pleasant from the way you were smiling.” He leaned forward so he too could whisper. He grinned.
Karyn felt her face warm.
“You wouldn’t believe.”
“Yes I would. I’ve been married for, oh, twenty-seven years.” He looked out of the window. When he turned back, she could see him put his smile on again. There was a lump in his throat.
Interested, she asked, “Do you have a good marriage?”
“Oh, the best. Here’s a picture of my wife and son.” He took a picture out of his book. “I was using it as a bookmark. When I get tired out reading, I just look at them. Yes, I’d say I have a good marriage.”
He passed her the picture. It showed a moon faced, smiling woman standing on the steps of a modest well kept home. Next to her was a picture of his son. Karyn looked at the man and back to the picture. The boy was a handsome mixture of his two rather plain parents.
“Nice family,” she said, passing the photo back.
“My son is in the army, he caught bacterial meningitis and had to go to Portland for treatment. It was touch and go for a while, but he’s going to be released next week. I wanted to stay, but I had to get back home.”
He looked at the picture and smiled, but Karyn could see moisture in the corner of his eyes. She leaned on one elbow, “What’s wrong?”
“Oh nothing, well, no, well just thinking about how nice it would be to get home.” Actually he was thinking how nice it would have been for both he and his wife to have made the trip to Portland , but his old piece of car wouldn’t have made the trip. Meris and he had drawn straws to see who would make the trip out to Portland to see their son since money was so tight.
Wryly, he thought “Well I guess I won.” He looked back out of the window and then down at the picture tucked in the closed book. Money had always been a problem.
Karyn closed her eyes.
After a while the man turned back and spoke. Their conversation had continued in low tones until the bus slowed and downshifted, circling down into Cheyenne, high in the western plains. Jeremy stirred and woke. Still tired, he wanted to be held and Karyn busied herself with him. Behind her the man squeezed into the aisle. His name was Bill, Bill Hawkins.
“Your son dropped this,” and held out Jeremy’s precious man. Jeremy immediately brightened and grabbed it out of his hand.
“Thanks,” Karyn said to Bill’s back as he left the bus.
When Karyn and Jeremy got back on the bus, Bill was already there reading. He didn’t look up.
She fingered through her magazine until Jeremy fell asleep and then slept herself.
She woke at four in the morning and padded back to the bathroom. Everyone was asleep. But when she returned, Bill was looking out of the window, drinking water. He got up and used the bathroom himself. When he returned, she reclined her seat and tried to go back to sleep. Bill seemed to be awake too and they slid into easy conversation. Karyn was curious on how he was holding up. While he may have been a bit better off than she, he too struggled to make a living. He said he was a laborer in a casting plant as in Gary, Indiana. But somehow he was different than her; more at peace, more accepting of the lot that life had cast him. He had a quiet faith in life, a sureness of his actions. When she asked if he was a religious man, he had said, “no, not really.” Somehow that didn’t surprise her, but it did impress her. He had reached down into the bedrock of humanity and gathered strength from his own mortality and his own reality. He lived his life with purpose, yet he wasn’t driven. He seemed to enjoy a good time, but wasn’t hedonistic. He was a good man.
Their conversations turned to each of their pastimes. Karyn eagerly described her computer and how she had met Mark online. She was surprised to find Bill owned one and avidly used it, mostly to research his genealogy and to stay up on the happenings in the jazz world. He said he was on it every day.
Her voice became animated as she described Forestfall and all the pleasure it brought her. Bill looked amused as she told him that she was traveling to meet her online lover. However, he was not judgmental, only curious as to why she would travel so far to meet a man when there were literally millions of men between Oregon and Nebraska. When she told him of her troubles with men and how Rampart was different, he wished that her meeting went well and that Mark would be all that she hope it to be.
Suddenly, he leaned forward and said, “Don’t be disappointed if Mark is not Rampart. You are not Allura. But you are real and your son is too.” He paused. “Mark will be what he will be and no matter how much you wish, you are and will be what you will be. Don’t let anxiety or anticipation ruin a perfectly good road trip.”
Then he stared at her closely as if daring her to anger. After a moment, he smiled said they were outside of Omaha.
Karyn turned and looked out. The sun had just rose above the horizon. It peeked through the quiet trees and cast long swatches of gold on the still dark ground. At peace with herself, she turned to play with Jeremy. She decided to check into her motel, wash up a bit and take Jeremy out and see the city. Mark could wait It was too nice of a morning to spend primping in the mirror.