“One may not reach the dawn, save by the path
of the night.”
Head bent. Shoulders bowed. Eyes shut firmly against the encroaching night. Curled up tight against the cold frame of the window. Almost invisible.
The hood of her black sweatshirt is drawn over her hair. Only a few crimson wisps are visible. Turned carefully away from the rest of the passengers, she goes unnoticed by most. They pass her by with barely a cursory glance.
The seat beside her is vacant. Her own seat might as well be; she barely takes up half of its space. Even though the bus is crowded, no one makes a move to take the empty space. Somehow they know. They can sense it by the way she is holding herself – tightly, as if about to shatter – the seat must remain empty.
She is waiting.
A man passes next to the row she occupies and pauses before the vacancy. She looks up at him, and he stops in his tracks. Eyes, gray as clouds filled to bursting before a storm, bore up and into his. They are brilliant, but somehow lacking. Despite their beauty, they have a desolate quality to them. They suck him in like a vacuum. He shudders at the emptiness he sees in her eyes. The woman before him is broken somehow. Her soul lies exposed in her eyes, but it is incomplete. She is only half a person.
Below the loss, he sees the remnants of an amazing woman. The intelligence she possesses has not been destroyed, only muted under the pall of oppressive sorrow. Once upon a time, she was a force of nature, a woman to be reckoned with. Below the void, below the pain and the sorrow, below these things and the many other burdens that fill the pools of her eyes, there is something else. It is barely distinguishable, only a remnant of what it used to be. Slowly, this thing is dying, being smothered by the prominence of all the other emotions warring within her.
Fighting to break free of the oppression restricting it is a glimmer of hope.
He takes a step back, distancing himself from the grief that radiates off this tiny woman in waves. He won’t take the seat that stands empty. He decides to stand instead.
Turning away, she resumes her study of the now black scenery that moves rapidly beyond the window. She has dismissed the man and his presence. She is absorbed in a world all her own.
The bus journeys onward; all the while, she is slowly shrinking, striving towards invisibility. She pulls the hood more firmly over her head, tucking away the crimson strands, depriving her face of their color. Her skin is pale and drawn. She has been through a horrible ordeal, seen one too many horrors. The first scattering of tiny lines marring a too-young face sing as testament to her hardships.
The hours tick by in painful monotony.
The man who was standing departed three hours ago. He reached his destination and left the bus to be met by the welcoming arms of a woman. Smiles and tears of joy were his welcome home. She watched this from her window, seeing his joy, the peace he had found.
It is still dark, but it will be light soon.
She is in the flat land of the middle country now. It makes for a less interesting landscape. Most of the passengers sleep the hours away, glad for the escape from the burdens of travel, uninterested in any of the dark things they might see out in the night. A few remain awake, some talking in hushed tones amongst themselves, none paying any heed to the silent woman.
Her eyes never leave the pane of dirty glass.
In the distance, the lights of a town rise from the dust of the highway. They will be stopping soon. As they near this destination, the passengers awaken, anticipating food and a trip to use the restrooms.
As they near this destination, the woman anticipates something else.
The glimmer of hope that was before so completely smothered, makes an attempt to surface, peeking out from behind her eyes. It is only a small town. Barely anything more than a rest stop. It doesn’t even appear on most maps. But, they will be picking up passengers here.
This is the only stop for miles in the area they are in. People from towns nearby travel to this place to intersect the path of the bus. Purchasing a ticket, they climb aboard bound for someplace else, to visit relatives, or friends, sometimes to find a better place. Some of the passengers have reached their final destination. They are home. There will be more smiles and tears of joy.
The bus pulls into the parking lot of a depot. Chattering children, eager to leave the confines of the bus, move about restlessly. Some of this restlessness is contagious; the woman stirs for the first time since the trip began.
Pulling into a parking space, the driver swings the doors of the bus open. They creak with a rusty squeal, as they open onto the dry air outside. A handful of people rise from their seats to leave the bus. They are stopped for almost ten minutes. Outside, in the still lingering darkness, a line begins to form. New passengers, tickets in hand, await their permission to board. The line grows as the bus sits.
Their rest stop is over. The driver returns to the bus, as the passengers return from their break with legs stretched, bladders empty, and hungers sated, ready to resume their trip. After they are settled, he begins to admit the new line of passengers waiting outside.
The woman rises in her seat, standing in the aisle she occupies, studying the line of people as they step on board.
Many of her travel-mates notice her for the first time.
A mother and three children join the group in the bus. Then, an elderly man. Two young women. A married couple. A single father with a baby. She scans the face of each one as they enter the bus. Searching. She is searching for the face of one who is familiar. She does not find what she is looking for.
The hope in her eyes begins to fade. Once it dies, there will be nothing left.
The driver does not close the doors. He will wait a few more minutes. There are always a few stragglers who wait until the last moment. He has the time to waste. He is not eager to rejoin the dry highway.
The doors begin to close. Their time is up, and she utters a small cry. A few seated near are able to hear, but say nothing of the noise. Then, an interruption occurs. A hand snakes in to stop the door’s progress. The driver looks up to admit one last traveler.
The woman holds her breath.
A middle-aged woman steps up into the bus.
The woman sinks into the seat behind her, crumpling. She buries her face in her hands.
Behind the woman, delayed by the porter who was loading his single dusty bag, a man follows up the steps.
He is tall and wind-beaten. His eyes are haunted, like the woman’s. They, too, hide many demons. His lanky frame shifts as he hands his ticket to the driver. He moves to gaze out over the sea of heads that lies before him. Searching, he searches for a familiar face. Slowly, fearing the discovery of nothing, he advances towards the back of the bus, stopping at each row to study the occupants. Several flush under his intense scrutiny. His eyes are penetrating, laser sharp.
He comes to the row the woman is seated in and stops. All he can see is the bent black-hooded form of a diminutive woman, but it is a familiar form all the same.
Silently, he beckons, “Scully?”
The voice startles her. It is painfully familiar, conjuring images of love, loss, and betrayal. She has heard that voice drop to a monotone when reciting the grisly facts of a case, burst with unexpected laughter, tremble with drenching sorrow, shake with unchecked rage, and break on the sound of her name. It is a voice that has haunted her dreams for the last several months.
She has been waiting.
She raises her head to search out the source, fearing what she will find, fearing that it is only her imagination, the beginnings of the dementia that will surely ensue if he is truly gone.
She is not crazy.
The gray of her eyes shifts to the blue of tropical seas. The lines shadowing her face fade silently into nothing. The dull nothingness disappears. Her other half has been returned to her.
She stands abruptly, shaking with the intensity of his arrival. He reaches for her as she speaks.
She collapses into the shelter of his arms, welcoming their long-lost comfort. She feared she would never know this again.
“Yes. I know. It’s over now.” He murmurs against her ear, bending, punctuating his words with soft kisses along her face. He looks less haunted now. A light appears in his eyes. He was empty, too.
They stand there for several minutes. The bus has not moved; the passengers and driver sit silently watching the exchange of emotions between the two weary figures standing in the aisle. A tiny drama unfolds before them.
They realize the spectacle they have become and settle quietly into their seats. Speaking in hushed tones, they try not to be overheard. His arm is wrapped around her, her hand entwined with his on his lap. They are at peace.
The waiting is over.
The seat is empty no longer.