Em drove her car while I sat in the passenger’s seat clutching a bright green piece of printer paper with a hand-drawn map on it. The map had two road names, and the rest was a series of symbols showing cross streets, stop signs and churches where we were supposed to turn.
It was a sunny Sunday in June, 2019, six days before Em and I were supposed get married. We were planning on showing off our bus to our friends and family at the wedding reception. The only problem was that our bus was at a welder’s half an hour away, and there was a chance the welder was dead.
We’d shown up at our mechanic’s shop twenty minutes before, and our mechanic had come out to greet us with eyes like coyotes’.
“There’s a problem girls,” he said instead of hello or how are you?
Two weeks before, we’d asked him to put a three-point seatbelt into the passenger’s seat for us. While he’d promised it would only take a day or two, he’d run into problem after problem. In the end he’d sent the bus to a welder friend of his, only now he hadn’t heard from the welder in almost a week.
“Something about this doesn’t sit right,” our mechanic told us as we followed him into his shop. “Frank is usually so reliable, and the fact that I haven’t heard from him, well it’s just odd.”
He handed us a hand-drawn map to Frank’s shop and pulled on the tuft of wiry brown hair until it stuck straight up.
“You’ve got a spare key, right?” he asked.
“You go over there, and get your bus then,” he said. “I don’t know. I hope he’s okay.”
“So we just go and we steal our bus?” Em asked.
“It’s your bus. And you need it for the wedding.” He looked back down at the map, and then out the window behind us. “Jeeze, I hope he’s not dead.”
“Dead?” Em asked.
“Dead?” I asked.
But another car had pulled into the lot, though, and the mechanic was waving us towards the door.
“I’ll call you in an hour to find out what happened,” he said.
And then Em and I were on our way with our bus’s spare key and the hand-drawn map, ready to steal our own bus back from a welder who was possibly dead.
Em kept her eyes forwards while I looked at green fields and golden fields and flowers on country houses and tried to think of something to say.
I’ll be honest, by this point, we’d stretched ourselves so thin we were almost invisible. It was getting difficult to remember we were supposed to be having a good time when we were in the middle of getting ready for a budget DIY wedding at her parents’ house while also moving, finishing up our jobs, and getting ready for our year-long trip on a bus which was still mostly held together with duct tape.
A few days before, a dam of some sort failed in my brain, and I found myself crying and laughing like there was a river inside me that needed to get out. Now, I felt like I would break open at any second, and blood would pour from my eyes and ears and mouth and nose.
“Try your best, forget the rest,” Em said after neither of us had said anything for what felt like too long. It was the line she’d given me almost a year before while we were painting our bus, but it was different this time. It didn’t hold the same joy, but she wasn’t saying it ironically either. It was more that she was flatly repeating a moment from our past, looking for a feeling somewhere inside, words rattling around in an empty can.
“Frank’s house is supposed to be just up here,” I said instead of responding.
The speed limit slowed to 50, and we drove past square house after square house, all with their blinds down against the heat of the day.
“How will we know it’s his?” Em asked.
“I’m assuming it’ll be the one with our bus in the driveway.”
“Right,” Em said. She turned down a side street, and there it was, a bungalow with seven different vehicles parked around it and a possibly-dead welder inside.
Our bus was parked on the side of the road, and Em pulled up close, but didn’t get out of the car.
We looked at our bus and then at the bungalow. The blinds were drawn like in all the other houses, but it seemed like this house was holding its breath, trying to keep in a secret.
“Do we knock?” Em asked.
“It’s Sunday morning. I don’t want to disturb him if he’s in there.”
“Yeah, but what if he’s dead inside right now?”
“Then he probably won’t answer the door.”
“What if he’s dead in our bus?” Em asked.
I looked at her, and then at the bus and then at her again. She’s afraid of ghosts and serial killers and the dark, and while I’m usually the sensible one in situations like this, something about the sun making everything look two dimensional and the patterned curtains on the house across the street was starting to get to me.
“Let’s check it out,” I said. I wasn’t sure if the sun would turn me to dust or not, but I stepped out of the car anyway. I ran my hands over my skin and looked out for eyes peeking through the curtains or blood spilling from our bus’s front door, but didn’t see anything, getting closer and closer to the bus and not knowing if I was breathing or alive or had turned to ash or not.
I imagined the welder’s dead body strangled by the seatbelt he was supposed to install for us and slumped over our couch. There was a smell in the air that was familiar, rotting flesh or else cow manure, and the sun was making everything look like a postcard from the 1970’s, the most gruesome of decades.
I tented my hand over my eyes and squinted into our bus’s windows, still eight feet away, and for a second I was sure I could see a bloody handprint on our bus’s front door.
I pulled Em back, then step forwards again and the blood disappeared.
“I’ll go first,” I said with a voice that didn’t really sound like my own. I pressed my face against the window, but I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and so I eased the bus door open and looked in through my fingers.
Was that a foot?
I inched my fingers away from my face and opened my eyes to see our bus was just as we’d left it two weeks before. Frank wasn’t dead inside, but he also hadn’t touched it.
Em and I looked at Frank’s darkened house and then at each other.
“Five days ago, he said he’s start on the seatbelt right away,” Em said. “Is it weird that he hasn’t done anything?”
I didn’t say anything, looking back to the house and imagining a welder lying paralyzed in the shower, just waiting for help to come.
“Should we call someone?” Em asked.
Em squinted at the perfectly quiet house in front of us, and the other quiet houses up and down the street. I imagined that each of them was a movie set, false fronts with nothing behind.
“Our mechanic’s calling in an hour,” I said. “We’ll tell him what we saw.”
Em nodded and took our bus’s spare keys off her key ring.
“We just go then, I guess,” she said.
I nodded, unsure, but not wanting her to know.
Em looked around one last time, then climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Rest in peace, Frank,” she said.
“Rest in peace, Frank,” I repeated.
She drove away, and I followed after her, watching green fields and golden fields and houses with flowers and the back of our bus, and feeling this strange calm. Frank was dead, or maybe not. In six days Em and I would be married and two weeks later, we were going to pack everything we owned into the bus in front of me and drive into the sunset.
It felt too overwhelming to have any emotion at all about, and so I didn’t. I held onto the steering wheel and followed after Em and hoped I’d make it out alive.