The Tempter Comes

4) Bus Trips and Brothers



4         Bus Trips and Brothers


We must lean on each other because our burdens pull us too far crooked



After breakfast that Saturday Toni and Thomas walked to the downtown circle. Thomas figured that getting out into the sunlight and seeing old friends would help him forget about The Face. The downtown circle was throwback quaint. The center of town was a park that formed a large circle. A street ran completely around it and on the opposite side from the park were small shops shoulder to shoulder. In the center of the park was a gazebo.

It was a hot day and by the time they reached the park Thomas was thirsty. They went over to a water fountain but it had sand in the bottom and looked like it was whacked too many times with a stick.

“Is this water safe?” asked Thomas as he pressed in the button. A flaccid stream barely rose above the nozzle.

“Unless a hog died in the supply pond within the last two days then, yes, it is safe,” Toni said with reassuring confidence.

With his finger still on the button he looked over at her with his mouth open trying to read her face. Seeing nothing that would cause him to run, he turned back and stared intently at the water for a few seconds. He might have been looking for pig hairs but having seen none he went ahead and drank although very carefully. The water was cold and he could not detect any strange tastes or odors so he gulped down several mouthfuls.

Toni furrowed her brows and gazed intently at him. This rather unnerved him. Finally she said, “OK, you didn’t die. I guess the water was good this time.”

“This time? Was there a mass die off sometime this last year?”

She chuckled and led him to a picnic bench. It was surrounded by flowers that almost glowed like a cat’s eyes in a lamp. A hummingbird flitted from one to the next.

Toni was watching it intently. “You know, I think that hummingbirds and bumblebees must really be the same thing. When it wakes up in the morning it decides whether to put on feathers or fuzz.”

Thomas turned from the hummingbird to Toni. “That was, um, rather poetic.”

“Thank you,” answered Toni with a smile. “I have my moments rare as they might be. So how did your bus trip go? Usually it’s pretty uneventful.”

“I wish that it was that uneventful.”

“Uh, oh,” Toni responded, “What happened? You’re sitting here in front of me in on piece—as far as I can tell—so it couldn’t have been too terrible.”

“Well, for the first half of the trip I sat next to a woman who always needed to be connected. I think that she was afraid that if she wasn’t on her cell phone every second that her head would collapse like a deflating balloon and then fall into the hollow husk of her body. She was constantly on her cell describing in throbbing minutiae every detail of the trip.”

Then in a mock shrill voice he proclaimed, “We’re passing another hamburger joint. Gee, I can’t believe how many of them are out there. How many hamburgers can people eat? I didn’t know that this country had that many cows. Now the bus is slowing down. I wonder if we got cut off by some farmer driving his pokey tractor with enough hay bales to feed every cow in Texas for a year. I bet that stuff itches. And bugs! I bet they’re loaded with them. I itch just thinking about it.”

Returning to his normal voice, “I just wanted to shout, ‘What are you, announcing the World Series? Do you need to report and analyze every monotonous event? This is a bus trip across nowhere. It is not the Yankees versus the Dodgers.’ But I knew that she would merely pause and stare at me like I had just grown rat’s ears. Then she would spend the next half-hour describing the ‘nut job’ sitting next to her to the human microphone on the other end. Most of the time I merely sat in perturbed silence. And what really annoyed me was that she had the window seat even though she never looked out. Did I mention the word ‘throbbing’? Because that is what my head was doing most of the time.

He again assumed the voice, “Oh, we’re slowing down again.” Then he reverted back to his voice, “What could be her possible conjecture this time? Did we plow through a flock of penquins like an arctic icebreaker? Perhaps an oil tanker jackknifed and the bus driver doesn’t want to hydroplane the next 200 miles on the oil slick. It would be such a relief if she finally came up with a logical and sane explanation for once. Oh wait, it’s coming.” Back to the voice, “I can’t believe how many times we slow down. If we go any slower we’re going to wind up where we started. I wonder what it is this time?” Back to normal, “Wait, wait, it’s coming. I was like a hungry dog waiting for a bone. Here it comes.” Back to the voice, “I bet he’s gawking at some young girls in a convertible. I tell you, for these guys that’s the only excitement they get all day.”

Back to normal, “It’s the leering reason again. As though this turbo-charged bus with its overhead cam overtook a carload of pretties in a Mustang. After hours of this kind of dialogue I understood what the phrase ‘throw yourself under the bus’ meant. She seemed to have an endless supply of phone batteries. From the looks of it she obviously saved money on clothes and luggage. Actually, I think that her well-worn, tattered luggage was stock filled with nothing but more batteries. She was a Zen master at being able to breathe through her nose and talk at the same time because she never came up for air.

“She eventually got off in one of those small, one-diner towns. It probably used to be much bigger but those who didn’t want to go deaf left. I think that every corner had a sign ‘Caution, deaf child.’ She could talk until the Mona Lisa’s ears melted onto the floor.”

Toni was clearly more amused by Thomas’ trials than he was. “So what about the rest of the trip? Was the second half any better?”

“Part of it I was by myself. I think that was God’s was of balancing the ledger although I still think that He owes me. I actually got to sleep some although it was only in five-minute nuggets: fall asleep, hit a bump, fall asleep, hit a bump.”

“That is certainly a moment to cherish. But now you’re here and it is a lot better.”

Thomas thought about last night but did not want to give anything away. “Yea, a whole lot better.”

“What about the rest of the trip? You said, ‘part of it’ you were by yourself. Did someone else sit next to you?” asked Toni.

“Well, that was another thing altogether something unto itself.”

“Huh? Was that grammatically correct? Was that even English?”

Thomas ignored her and kept going. “We pulled into a bus station with the waiting room modeled after the more dreary parts of Ellis Island. It had a small café that only the dead eat at because they’re the only ones the food can’t harm. This gentleman gets on and asks if he can sit next to me. He was fairly well-dressed (of course the competition of the rest of the crowd was deficient) and seemed normal and intelligent.”

“‘Seemed’ is a give-away.”

“Anyway, not long after he sat down I heard him mumbling. I thought, ‘not another cell phone sucker who’s going to haunt me the whole rest of the trip with his vapid, guess-where-I-am drool.’ But then I peered over and both of his hands were on his lap and I didn’t see anything in his ears. This was not a good indication. I considered the possibilities and, at my optimistic best, still felt queasy. I didn’t want to get his attention so I looked at him from the very edges of my eyes. He was just staring ahead with a slight intensity that only added to my concern. A few minutes later he muttered again. I was prepared this time and I listened closely. ‘If you mess up again the maestro will be very unhappy.’ This was unnerving. I was perhaps hoping for ‘Our Father who art in Heaven.’ Was he talking to someone in his head? Was he talking to himself? Or was he talking to me? Not good. No prize behind any of those doors was worth taking home. This was not reassuring. I positioned my face right at the seat in front of me and with one eye I tried to survey the scenery and with the other I guarded my life. ‘If you mess up again the maestro will be very unhappy.’ This recycled every five minutes.”

Toni commented, “Obviously he didn’t kill you because you’re here now. In fact, you’re not even marked so he must have been harmless.”

“Well, other than the emotional Apocalypse that I went through then, yes, I’d agree with that. Once I actually dozed off—against all of my survival instincts. When I awoke I turned my head quickly and he was staring at me. I froze, he smiled and turned away.”

“Maybe he was looking at the scenery.”

“No, it was dark out and besides, there was no scenery on the side of my face. He got off the stop before here. As he left he nodded and smiled at me.”

“Oh, that’s nice. You became friends in the end.” Toni was being quite facetious.

“But it was weird.”

“Why?” she asked more seriously.

“It was like a knowing smile. Like he knew something and I didn’t.”

“Well, you’re here now and safe among friends. We’ve got you surrounded and covered.” She smiled.

That reassured Thomas more than Toni would have expected, but then she did not know about the night before.

“So how is Carl?” asked Thomas. “Last year he seemed to be getting a bit rough around the edges.”

“Well, whatever was on the edges worked its way down deeper. He’s really been a grief this year. Mom is quite worried about him. She tries to talk to him but it’s like he put corks in his ears.”

“What about you? Will he listen to you?”

She twisted her face. “Oh yea, like that will ever happen.”

“When is he going to turn 18?”

“That happened a few months ago. We both expected him to bolt on that day but to our surprise he’s still here. Of course we’re glad that he is. Mom’s hoping that by keeping him nearby she’ll be able to bring him back to our side.”

Our side? You make him sound like the enemy.”

“Sometimes I wonder. Right after father, umm, left five years ago he just completely buried his emotions.”

“Sort of like Pompeii?”

“He’s just gotten worse and worse.”

“Like how?” asked Thomas.

“You wouldn’t see any around much because we keep finding them and hiding them, but he’s been laying out traps to catch small animals. Most of them were pretty crude and wouldn’t have caught a squirrel on a suicide mission but that’s not the point.”

“Why is he trying to catch animals?”

“To do things to them. I don’t even want to know what he has in mind, but I’m sure that it is horrible.”

“Has he ever caught any?” Thomas was very much hoping for a negative answer.

“Not that we know of, but I doubt it. I think that we would have found something—remains or whatever—lying around if he had. Besides I’m sure that he would have not been able to restrain himself from making Mom and I squirm by telling us what he had done and perhaps displaying a trophy. We would have shut him up immediately but he would have told us enough to make us both sick.”

“When did he start this?”

“About a year ago.”

“What else has he been doing (as though that’s not enough)?”

“He’s has a great fascination with fires. That’s been going on for a while but it seems that he has higher goals than he used to. Right after Dad… left he would make large crisscrossed piles of lumber. Then he would put plastic soldiers on all different levels and then set fire to the bottom. He seemed to take a little too much glee in watching their tiny faces melt and then tumble into the flames where they would sizzle and crackle. I don’t know, it just seemed perverse to me.”

“I remember when I was young.” Thomas was speaking quicker and more excitedly. “I brought a piece of plywood into the basement and built two cities out of cardboard. Each city was on opposing ends with a no-man’s land in the middle. I made square houses and large town halls and laid them out with streets and everything. Then I rolled paper into balls and stuck them onto the ends of toothpicks. I made two piles; one for each city. Ultimately I was going to light the balls on fire and lob them back and forth from one city to the other. Whichever city wasn’t completely burned to the ground was the winner.” He looked a little wistfully. “Unfortunately my parents found out about it before I could do it. I had to dismantle the whole thing.” He seemed to have the regret of one who will never know what could have been. After a few seconds of silence he looked up at Toni expecting either an impressed “that was quite a project” or a consoling “gee, it’s too bad that they caught on when they did.” Instead, she was staring at him with a “are you some kind of idiot?” look. His face lost all emotion. He looked somewhere off to the left out of the corner of his eyes.

“Well, I was a lot younger then,” he said slowly and unconvincingly. “Anyway, you said that Carl has been setting higher goals. What has he been doing lately?”

Trying to pretend Thomas’ medieval war lust was never mentioned Toni went on. “A few months back an old abandoned shed burned down. Everyone knows that it was Carl but no one could prove it. He denied it but the smirk rather belied his sincerity. Another time a partially built house suffered some damage. We all know that it was Carl but it’s not like we have fingerprints or anything. My mother who loves burning candles now has them all hidden up in the attic.”

“No point tempting a fat man with a box of donuts, I guess,” added Thomas still feeling a bit beaten. “Is there anything else? Should I read anything into the fact that he wasn’t at breakfast?”

Toni shifted slightly back and forth and said, “Well, yes. I’m sure that he wasn’t there because he knew that you were going to be there. I hope you don’t feel bad. I mean, you shouldn’t take it personally or anything. I know that sounds kind-of stupid but he wouldn’t have been there no matter who was coming.”

“So where was he? Was he out with friends or something?”

“Friends?” said Toni incredulously. “He doesn’t have any real friends.”

“Really? Growing up he used to have lots of buddies that he would hang out with. What happened?”

“He got more and more aggressive. First it was just intimidation. Then he started pushing and slapping. Eventually if someone didn’t do what he wanted he would pick a fight with him. Who wants to hang around someone like that?”

“So what does he do with himself?”

“Sometimes he hangs out with some group that calls themselves ‘Misfit Among Freaks.’ I’m sure you don’t need a powerful imagination to figure out what they’re like. But we don’t really know where he goes. He’s either out somewhere, we don’t know where, or he’s up in his room with the door shut. It’s really breaking Mom’s heart. She doesn’t know what to do. He won’t listen to anyone. He always has a sarcastic or flippant answer. He thinks that he is always right and everyone else hasn’t a clue.”

“Maybe I can talk to him.”

“Good luck,” Toni replied without the slightest indication of hopefulness.

Both sat and watched a squirrel dash, stop, sit up, dash, stop, sit up.

“Hey look,” proclaimed Thomas, “here comes the gang.”

Coming within sight was a group of Toni’s friends that Thomas always hung out with each summer. When they saw Thomas they waved enthusiastically and walked a little faster to greet them. Before they reached the table Thomas and Toni got up and closed the distance in a couple of eager strides.

“Great to see you again, Thomas,” said Russell.

“Yea, has it been a whole year already?” asked Danielle.

Russell looked over at Sarah, “Did you know that Thomas was in town already?”

She replied, “I talked to him yesterday at the church picnic.” Then she knit her eyebrows and looked at Russell and his sister, “Now that I think about it, I don’t remember seeing either of you there. What happened?”

Russell tightened his jaw and started to get agitated but then saw that Danielle was watching him so he stopped, but his voice could not hide his grave disappointment. “Mom somehow heard that a lot of people were sick and didn’t want us to be exposed. So she kept us home all day.”

Danielle alleged more dogmatically, “The real reason is that Mom was afraid of what people would say about her so she made up the sickness excuse.”

“How do you know that?” Russell was rather indignant in his question.

“Oh come now, Russell, this is Mom that we’re talking about. When we do go to church she spends more time fretting about what people will think about her dress.”
                “Yea, well, she’s still our Mom, you know. We don’t have to wave our, umm, dirty laundry in front of everyone.”

“Come on and join us.” Thomas wanted to break up this contention, “we’re just sitting here chatting about the last year.”

Everyone sat down.

Sarah spoke first, “So what were you guys talking about?”

Thomas answered, “Carl.”

Russell seemed quite interested. “Have you talked to him yet?”

“No, I’ve only heard noises out in the hall at night as if light and people need to be avoided at every turn,” remarked Thomas.

“Carl has always been a night person,” responded Toni defensively.

“Along with a number of other creatures that are either stepped on or run from,” said Russell.

“Now you’re simply being mean,” interjected Toni with a slight flash of anger; after all, Carl was still her brother.

“Sorry,” came Russell’s meek reply.

Toni continued, “He’s changed since, you know, what happened to Dad.” She stared at the table top for a couple of seconds before looking up again. “But he’s been getting worse. Lately he’s been getting more and more obsessed with the whole theme of death and destruction.”

“See I wasn’t being mean.”

Toni strongly responded, “But when I see him I don’t think about stepping on him.”

Russell responded, “Well, I don’t think about stepping on him either.” And then leaning towards Thomas he whispered, “He’s too big.”

“I heard that.” Toni gave him a scold.

Thomas said, “To keep you two from bickering like an old married couple,” – Russell and Toni put on an exaggerated look of mortification – “What is this obsession with death and termination? And what is the difference anyway?”

Toni started, “Ever since dad,” – she paused – “left, Carl’s become more consumed with the idea that things disappear and never come back and that stability stands right up there with flying pigs as a hope that you can count on.”

Sarah spoke up, “He really freaked when he read an article about how the sun will burn out in 13 billion years and that it loses four million tons every second. When we hung out once last summer we went exploring in the woods we found a new valley of sorts and all he would talk about was how one day every living thing would be gone and this would be nothing more than frozen solid ground. There would no trees, no water, no birds—just blank, gray rock. He would stand there not admiring the beauty that is there now but picturing the deadness that it might become. It really creeped me out. That might have been the last time that we did anything together. I mean, who wants to stand around and talk about death?”

Russell added, “That was until he found out a few months after that that the sun wouldn’t just flicker and die out like a candle but will instead probably first expand until it has engulfed the Earth and then will contract into a cold, dead ball. Now he saw everything as first charred and then frozen. Not unlike my mother’s cooking I might add. But somehow this scenario was even more frightening and disturbing. I don’t know why. It seems like gone is gone.”

“Maybe it was because the sun flaring up first is an active and, I guess, more sudden destruction,” remarked Sarah.

“Like dying in your sleep versus being hit by a train,” added Russell.

“He told me that when he looked at people he would see them in their coffins rather than what they are standing there and have ahead of them in life,” Sarah continued.

“Death and termination,” said Thomas.

“Rather than life and potential,” finished Sarah.

Toni cut in, “Another thing that he was a bit obsessed with (if you can only be a bit obsessed with something) is scary pictures.”

“I can believe that,” remarked Thomas. “I can imagine his room being covered with posters of carnage and monstrosities. Probably lots of demons ripping the heads off of hopeless victims.”

“No, not that way,” said Toni. “Actually, kind-of the opposite. He would avoid photos of things like spiders or scorpions as though if he touched them they would pull out from the page and run up his arm and bite him in the face. I would watch him reading his school biology book and when he can to a picture like that he would get all nervous and quickly turn the page.”

“Well, that one is different,” said Thomas.

Russell remarked, “I’m surprised that he even comes out of his room. I mean, what would he do if he encountered a real spider?”

“Well, being stuck in the same house with us all of the time is probably even more horrible to him than becoming a briquette by the sun or being bitten by something venomous. How much more scary can you get than mom and I?” said Toni with no hint of humor.

“I guess, to him, rolling around on a nest of cottonmouths might even be more appealing,” said Thomas with a wry smile.

Toni jumped in, “All right already. Let’s change the subject. Being compared unfavorably to bugs and snakes just isn’t building up my self-esteem.”

Russell said, “Actually we have to get going. We’re on our way to watch a game. The Wildcats are playing. This is one of the few seasons that they are giving us something to cheer about.”

“They’ve almost won 25% of their games,” Sarah added with a false sense of pride.

“Still,” Russell responded, “it’s an improvement. Twenty-five percent of actual wins is better than 100% of moral victories. Would you two like to join us?”

“It sounds like fun but maybe next time,” answered Thomas.

At that Russell and Sarah got up.

“We’ll see you later. You’ll have to tell us about your bus trip,” Sarah said with a wink, “I mean, is there anything more boring?”

Thomas and Toni just looked at each other as the other three disappeared down the sidewalk.

“I’m still a bit thirsty. You want to go get a soda?” asked Thomas.


Thomas put his hand on the edge of the bench to get up.

“Ouch!” He jerked his finger up to his mouth.

“What happened?” Toni asked.

Thomas took his finger out of this mouth and looked carefully at it. “There was a splinter in the wood and it poked into my finger.”

“Let me look at it.”

Thomas held up his finger. There was a faint bit of red.

“There’s hardly anything there at all,” proclaimed Toni.

“What do you mean? My finger is throbbing in anguish. I’m surprised that I haven’t fainted from the blood loss.” Thomas sucked on his finger some more.

“Oh, please. Save your theatrics for Hamlet.”

“Getting sympathy from you is like trying to rise a river by throwing pebbles into the water.”

Toni merely rolled her eyes and sighed.

“Pity me,” answered Thomas meekly.

Toni got up with a sigh and walked away from the table. Thomas looked at her leaving, then back down at his finger, and finally jumped up and hurriedly caught up with her. By then he had forgotten about his finger.

They crossed over the street and into the small food store.

“If you grab some soda, I’ll get the chips,” offered Thomas.

“Chips too?” said Toni with a bit of a smile. “OK, but don’t get too big of a bag.”

Toni went straight to the back of the store while Thomas wandered down a couple of aisles. Deciding that he did not want to waste all day finding the chips section he went over to someone stocking a shelf. “Where are potato chips?”

The clerk held up one finger to tell Thomas to wait. There was no one else in the store so this seemed strange but then the clerk stepped around the box on the floor and silently signaled to Thomas to follow him. Thomas obediently tucked in behind him and followed him to the fourth aisle, which the clerk turned into and then, halfway down, stopped, and motioned to the chip area like a game show host. Thomas thanked the clerk who smiled and headed back to his aisle. Thomas spied his favorite—sour cream/green onion chip—and grabbed the biggest bag. Back at the counter Toni was waiting for him. They paid and thanked the clerk who was now working the register and who nodded appreciatively.

Once they were outside of the store Thomas said, “Is the clerk able to speak? He is either really shy or he can’t talk.”

“Oh, he can talk alright,” said Toni. “He just doesn’t anymore.”

“He doesn’t talk anymore?” Thomas was incredulous. “Why doesn’t he talk? Does he have some disease?”

“Tim, that’s his name, has always had a really bad way of thinking about himself. All the time that he was growing up both of his parents would always put him down. He could never do anything right in their eyes. He was too clumsy for sports they told him, too ugly to ever get married, and too stupid to ever make it in the world. Even when he would do well they would tell him that he could have done better. He really is a pretty good kid but they did nothing but beat him down.”

“Why did they do that?”

“Probably because they are insecure jerks. Not every idiot in this world happens to be a teenager, you know. Anyway, he came to believe that nothing about him was any good. One day, about a month ago, he heard himself on a tape recorder and thought that he sounded really awful.”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

“True, but he took it further than most would since he already had such a lousy view of himself. He thought that his voice was grating and annoying and only irritated people. He figured that nobody ever said anything to him about it only because they were being polite, but he was sure that people were saying to each other behind his back, ‘Boy, I can’t stand it when Tim talks. It really gets on my nerves.’ This was never true but he was convinced that it was so he decided to spare everyone the anguish and stop speaking altogether. Supposedly the last thing that he ever said was, ‘I’m being erased.’ A couple of times I tried to tell him that it just wasn’t so and that no one ever said anything about his voice, but he said that I was just being kind.”

“Wait a minute, if he stopped talking then how did he tell you that you were just being kind?” Thomas thought that he had indisputable proof that she was just telling a tall-tale. Tim probably only had laryngitis that day or something reasonable like that.

“He wrote it down. When I told him that he was not perceiving things correctly he turned over the pad by the register and wrote, ‘You’re just being kind.’ So see, I’m not making this up as I go along, it’s true.”

“It’s rather sad. Hopefully sometime soon he’ll realize that the problem isn’t with his voice but with his parents’ attitude and snap out of it.”

“Me, too. Of course, a big part of the problem is his own attitude and perception. People will affect us only as we allow them to. Tim needs to find his good points—of which there are many—and focus on them rather than sinking into his perceived weaknesses.” Toni looked at Thomas and smiled, “Maybe you can make Tim your second project—after Carl, of course.” Thomas merely grimaced.

Copyright Bob La Forge 2011        email: