Em and I stood under the heavy sun and looked at the real-life short school bus we’d just spent $4,600 on and knew we were fucked.
It was the beginning of July, 2018, and we had six weeks to turn the bus into a motor home. After that, the bus would go into storage, Em and I would work for a year, and the following July, we’d start our road trip across North America.
“Where do we start?” I asked. My throat felt like there was sand in it, and I wasn’t sure if I had hands anymore.
Meanwhile, Em didn’t say anything.
For the past two months, Em had burned shining lines of pure confidence and enthusiasm across half the roads in Southern Ontario. She was our intrepid optimist as we looked at bus after bus.
Now though, she was completely silent. It was either the shimmering silence of someone in awe at the majesty of the real-life bus they’d just bought or the shimmering silence of someone in awe over how fucked they are.
She opened her mouth then closed it while I wiped sweat off my forehead.
“Em?” I asked, but she didn’t move, and she didn’t say anything.
We both just sort of stood there with our bones feeling hollow and our skin feeling too small, and then I turned and walked once around the bus.
The bus was parked in a lot behind a mechanic’s shop owned by friend of Em’s parents. The mechanic was waiting to get in a few parts our bus would need to be road ready. In the meantime, we were allowed to work on the bus after hours behind the shop.
I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. The bus looked like a bus, like a real-life school bus that we’d just spent $4,600 on, and now we had to somehow turn it into a tiny home. Em had used a drill once before in her life, and I had never touched a power tool, and everything was bad, and we didn’t know how to do anything, and this was the stupidest thing we’d ever done.
When I got back to the front of the bus, Em was still standing there. I tried to look at her close to see if there was still light coming out of her, but the sun was too bright and my eyes didn’t seem to be working right because from what I could tell, it really looked like we’d just bought an entire short school bus.
Em pulled on her T-shirt where the sweat had stuck it to her back. She looked at the bus, and then she looked at me.
“Well,” she said, sounding a little strangled, but not too bad. “We know we have to take the seats out.”
“Right,” I said, just because it felt like I needed to say something.
Em turned, and I followed her to the car and pulled out the 121-piece tool set we’d borrowed from my dad. The latch on the set broke open, and all 121 pieces dropped into the dirt.
Our plan was to take out the seats at the back of the bus first and work our way forwards.
Em had watched a YouTube video on how to take the seats out, and I followed along blindly, obediently crawling under the seat at the back of the bus while Em crawled under the bus itself. She had one wrench, and I had another.
“Okay,” Em called. “Twist the bolt closest to the middle, so I can figure out which one to hold onto.”
It was evening, but breezeless in the bus and at least 30°C. My hand was sweaty on the wrench’s metal handle, and as I shifted to hook the wrench onto the top of the bolt, random shit trapped in the bus seats started falling on my head. First it was unidentifiable orange crumbs, then a playing card, then a quarter of a cheese sandwich, looking alarmingly fresh.
“Do you have it?” Em called up at me.
I breathed through my nose, trying to filter the dust and dirt coming down, and pulled on the wrench.
“It’s not working,” I called.
I pulled on the wrench again, and still nothing. More dust fell into my eyes, and the dirt on the bus floor was mixing with the sweat on my skin to make a filmy black paste over my body.
“Hang on,” I called. I crawled from under the seat and readjusted by body so that my back was on the back wall of the bus and my foot was on the wrench. I kicked and the wrench twisted. I pulled the wrench back, and kicked again. It was working. It was actually working.
Under the bus, Em held onto the nut securing the bolt while I continued to wrench.
The bolt was looser now, and I could use my arm, so I crawled back under the seat, lying on my stomach directly on a piece of chewed-up gum beside that eerily perfect sandwich quarter.
Sweat drew lines in the dirt on my skin, and already my arm was aching and my back was aching, and my legs were aching.
I wondered if it was possible for a person to melt, and what that might look like. I imagined a soupy puddle the color of erasers with a few teeth floating in it and a dusty pile of singed hair just above, but I figured if people could actually melt, someone would have told me by then. Em and I were probably more in danger of heatstroke and dehydration. Not nearly as romantic.
“Is it coming?” Em called from under the bus. I was breathing hard, and I could hear her breathing hard as well.
“Sort of.” I had no idea how long the bolt was or how long I’d been wrenching for. I thought maybe I’d always been wrenching. Maybe we were dead, and this was some fucked up netherworld we’d been sent to as punishment for our optimism and our hubris.
Pain like electricity shot through me, and I put a white-hot focus on the bolt in front of me, turning and turning, wiping my sweaty hand and turning again.
“You can do this,” I heard coming muffled from under me.
I grunted, but I couldn’t say anything, wiping the dirt out of my eyes and stopping for a sip of water.
Little white floaters made a conga line across my vision, and I’d completely lost track of time and space by then, but this time when I pulled up the wrench, the bolt was noticeably longer, and when I started wrenching again, the blot seemed to come up easier than it had before.
The wrench still slipped in my sweaty hand, and my palms were raw, and my fingers still ached. I shook out my hand and kept wrenching, and then, in a moment that felt like magic, the wrench fell to the side and the bolt was out.
I heard the nut drop under the bus and Em give a yelp.
“We did it!” she called.
The bolt was warm, and I felt its ridges under my soft skin. It was five inches long, rusty, and almost as thick as my pinky finger, and I’d conquered it.
Em climbed back into the bus and kissed me. She was covered in sweat and grease, and I was covered in sweat and dirt, and our kiss was like fireflies pinging around in a glass jar.
We’d done it. The first bolt was out of the bus, and we were on our way. We were actually turning this little bus into a tiny home that we would live in and travel around in. It was real, and we could do it.
Em and I leaned against the back door of our bus and looked out at all the seats. They’d be gone soon, and there’d be an entire house in their place. I could see it now, the bed, the kitchen, the desk at the front where I could do my work.
I looked long and hard at the seats, and then down at the bolts holding the seats to the bus floor. There were seven bolts holding each seat in place and there were ten seats.
We’d gotten one bolt out. Only sixty-nine more to go.
I knew we were fucked, but there was nothing to do but keep going.