His backpack isn't a backpack, just a bag with a strap, gray, with strings flecking off it and a light spot where the Grateful Dead patch used to be. When he was a student it looked cool. He doesn't know how it looks now; the little signals don't attract his eyes anymore, and fashion has drifted - middleschoolers with plastic-gelled hair, they look like the nineteen fucking fifties - and he wishes he knew, wishes he could tell whether the coolness is all gone.
No. But he wants to wish that, sort of. He closes his eyes again and listens to the bumps in the road and tries to remember what it was like when they were music.
– and he's awake, a dark blue sleeve blocks his sight. Fullness in his throat, a bit of an ache. Freezing. Fucking freezing. He left the window open and the night air is too cold for Missouri (Kansas?); he reaches up and tries to tug it shut, and it sticks and then sticks and then sticks but eventually is all the way closed.
A text messenger, maybe. Yeah, a text messenger. He's seen them in commercials. The woman across the aisle is holding it in her lap with both hands and smiling, face a bit blue with the LCD glow, and tapping. She taps out a reply with thumbs and sends it -
- and folds it up and puts it away and reaches for her blanket again, nudges her companion and says something in her ear that's eaten by the bumps in the road before he can hear it, then pulls the wool over herself, past her shoulders and up, closes her eyes.
There's no blanket in the bag. He fishes again to make sure. He thought he had a blanket.
His eyes close again. He lets them.
Something jabs his arm.
It's a girl. Or a woman, maybe. She's in that indeterminate zone, somewhere between 14 and 26, goth eyeliner and black-edged pink shirt and tiny acne scars. Pretty, all said.
"What the hell are you looking at?" She seems more detached than angry.
"Uh, nothing, sorry."
"No, no, I don't mind, I'm fucking with you. You know you've been asleep since Topeka?"
"Yeah, I must have been tired." (He says it mostly to the window.)
"I was tired as hell. Took a no-doze. See?" She shoves her hand in front of his face; there's a little tremor.
"Why do you want to stay awake for something like this?"
"Why do you want to stay asleep? Dude, it's the Greyhound! There's, like, 50 insane people on here." He's not positive, but he thinks the dude is ironic, not mocking.
"Nice backpack," she says after a pause.
"Thanks. It's empty."
"Really? Completely empty? Like, not even condoms and Diet Coke?" She taps the ash tray.
"And you're still carrying it to wherever the hell you're going."
"I'm not going anywhere." He must be going somewhere, but he can't remember.
"So it's appropriate."
The plains fly past the window, yellow wheat and blue sky, bright like watercolors. He lets the sound of the road press him into his seat.
"That's really great, actually. It's like fucking modern art." Her voice is a bit quieter; she's unzipping her own bag, a little black Thingy. "I’m into modern art, you know. Have to be. I'm a dealer."
"Just pot, I hope. Don’t want to get yourself killed."
"Well, pot's not really the main commodity." She pulls out a sheet of paper, a wad of paper, really, and starts to unfold it with crisp efficiency, back and then back and then back. Eventually a tiny wad of black powder is revealed.
"Oh, you've got to be fucking kidding me."
She starts laughing, a perfect un-make-fun-able laugh. It goes on for at least 30 seconds before she manages to choke out, "No, it's not - it's not - it's just dirt. Heehee." She blows - the dirt disappears into the air - and hands him the paper.
It's a drugless sheet of stickers, all simple and black-lettered, all different.
"On the house," she says.
"Oldest trick in the book. You're just trying to get me addicted."
"Yeah, you got me. Don’t take 'em all at once."
And then something changes. It takes him a second to realize that the bus is stopped. He makes out a muffled "Kansas City!" over the intercom.
"Well, it's me," she says, flashing a smile. "Ciao."
And then she is gone.
He leans back, stretching, looking at the stickers. It's stupid. It's so fucking stupid.
Then why is he smiling?
His arm brushes something – the black thingy.
The black thingy.
He grabs it and jumps up, running down the aisle. "Wait! Your bag! You forgot your bag!" He can see stickers through the opening, sheets and sheets and sheets of them, jumbled and crossfolded, and about $50 worth of marijuana beneath. But she is gone, she is off, she’s disappeared into the world. He slows to a walk, stops, sighs, turns the bag over in his hands.
There's a sticker on the other side, simple and black lettered: Keep it.
"Hey!" shouts a man behind him. "You getting off or not?"
"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I’m getting off."