(Fiction) The Bleeder

The bus pulled onto the shoulder to report the bleeder on the side of the highway. At some point, a car had clipped the man’s leg, which was bent awkwardly to one side. His hands were frozen into fists and his feet had gone completely limp. The tips of his loafers wobbled over the ice and gravel like a record needle as he dragged himself forward on his elbows, one after the other, as if fleeing for his life in slow motion. He felt neither cold nor pain, and his frosted eyes remained fixed on some distant salvation even as the gargantuan bus pulled to a stop immediately behind him.

“I dunno why we gotta wait for this,” a white-bearded man in overalls declared loudly from the back.

“It’s the law,” someone whispered.

Nio heard the bus conductor speak softly into the radio as passengers leaned into the aisle to peer out the high windshield. In the distance, the overcast sky was beginning to clear. A pair of teenagers, too young to remember the outbreak, snapped pictures of the awkward, broken man now illuminated in the alternating flashes of the bus’s hazard lights. On the freeway, the tires of a passing car sprayed icy slush across the shoulder. It struck the bus’s undercarriage in clumps and nearly doused the disheveled man, who paid it no mind. He simply lurched forward again, dragging himself limply along.

“That poor man,” a woman near the front told her companion.

“He shoulda lined up like everyone else,” the grisly bearded man declared. He removed his red NRA cap and held it aloft like a free pass. “Let’s get goin’ already. I gotta take a piss.”

There was a click of static as the conductor announced over the speakers they would be waiting approximately ten minutes for the highway patrol to arrive. The grisly man threw up his arms.

After a second passing car honked its horn repeatedly, the baby in the seat across from Nio, one aisle ahead, started to cry, softly at first, then much louder.

“Great . . .” The bearded man shook his head.

The infant’s mother rocked her child gently and tried to quiet him, but he was hungry or cold or had simply had enough of the bus and was letting the whole world know. Several passengers shuffled in annoyance.

“Shhh . . .” the young mother intoned. Her round, smooth face was darkly complected and bore equal measures of patience and fear.

Nio leaned forward across the aisle with one hand extended. “He’s beautiful. May I?”

The young woman nodded, happy to have an ally, but was awkwardly surprised to see Nio press a hand to the child’s forehead, as if feeling for a fever, rather than caress his scalp as she had expected. Almost instantly, the child quieted. After another moment of contact, his eyes fluttered and he began sucking an invisible pacifier. Nio heard quiet exhales of relief. As she leaned back into her seat, more than one person turned from the front to peer at her through the gaps between the seats. She certainly stood out, with a shaved head and heavy loops in her ears. She turned up her puffy jacket’s nose-high collar and crossed her arms.

Colored lights flashed across the ceiling as a patrol car pulled around the bus and parked at an angle, partially blocking the road but also shielding the bleeder from oncoming traffic. The trooper got out and walked around to the door of the bus, which opened with a hiss. Cold air whipped up the aisle and around Nio’s ankles. After trading a few words with the conductor, the trooper thanked him and waved him on.

“Finally . . .” the grisly man said. “My teeth are frickin’ floatin’ back here.”

The bus tires carved valleys in the roadside slush as the big vehicle pulled onto the highway and began accelerating smoothly. Several passengers clapped.

Nio watched from the half-frosted window as the bleak landscape passed. Tufts of brown grass poked up through a fondant of white. Low hills were cut into barbed-wire squares. She had traveled nearly 300 miles across the high plains of North America. Somewhere ahead, a woman she had never met was dying. She took out the unopened letter from her coat pocket and stared at it.

Pasture and fields gradually gave way to repair shops, fast food chains, and half-derelict shopping centers, but it wasn’t until they passed a boarded Dollar-Savr that Nio noticed the damage. It looked like a tornado had hopped across the little town on a pogo stick. A dead tree had left a three-meter hole in the earth after it was uprooted and dropped onto a snow-topped house. A plump Buddha had fallen from its perch over a Chinese buffet and now golden-mooned passersby from the parking lot. Ice-covered cars were scattered about the ditches and parking lots like a giant child’s abandoned toys.

The bus pulled slowly past the cluster of low buildings at the center of town and stopped in a parking rectangle near a 24-hour diner. The engine rumbled gently as the conductor announced a thirty-minute break for those continuing to Jamestown. Nio lifted the strap of her rolled bag over her head and stepped down to a sidewalk pockmarked in frozen footprints, like the fossil of prehistoric riverbed. Her breath billowed over her puffy coat’s high collar, and she huddled into it for warmth. It was the fourth day of record-setting April cold. It was supposed to last another four. The few townspeople that had ventured outside looked like they were preparing for an inland hurricane. Storefront windows were being taped in large Xs. The sidewalk display in front of a nail salon was being chipped from the ice so it could be brought inside. A handwritten note on the door of an old-style pharmacy announced that it was closing early for Moving Day. A similar announcement was posted to the door of the diner, next to the one that declared it was for Red Staters Only.

selection from my novel-in-progress, tentatively called Science Crimes Division

cover image by Simon Stalenhag, used without permission