Lightning lit the sky just long enough to transform the bus window into a mirror, allowing Bronwyn a muted glimpse at her reflection. Disgusted, she turned away, refusing to look at the scowl carved into her face. She sighed, taking her frustration out on her pillow, punching it several times, before trying to move into a more relaxed position.
Months of traveling on the old touring bus and you think she would have grown accustomed to the scratchy seats, but she hadn’t. Everyone else on the bus was already asleep. Listening to their rhythmic, heavy breathing only made her insomnia worse. They are the fortunate ones, making their escape from all life’s little displeasures. How she wished she could join them in their peaceful slumber. Frowning, she tossed the pillow to the floor and then leaned her head against the glass, knowing full well, sleep would offer no escape. It would only be an open door for him to enter her dreams as well, and for the life of her, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get Ryan out of her head. She wondered if he ever thought of her but doubted he did now that he was with Gabriella. The idea of those two together caused her stomach to ache. She shook her head, hoping to clear the painful image crowding into her mind. She knew she should probably talk about it, instead of bottling up her feelings, and trying to convince everyone she was okay. Truth was, she wasn’t. How could she be? Betrayal isn’t something you easily get over.
Sighing, she leaned forward and looked across the aisle, to see if Bethany was still awake. She wasn’t. Half disappointed, yet half relieved, she leaned back against the clouded window. Bethany wanted to talk about things for six months now, and for six months, Bronwyn put her best friend off, trying to convince the one person, who could see right through her, she was okay. Her refusal to confide and divulge her innermost pain hurt Bethany deeply. She hated that, but there were some things she wasn’t ready to share with anyone right now, not even her closest friend. Bethany should understand that, but she didn’t. Instead, she resorted to sulking, making it more about her than Bronwyn, and in doing so, piled on guilt to an already painful situation. Bethany’s insatiable desire to always fix things was beginning to annoy her. So, when Bronwyn accused her of meddling, Bethany withdrew to her corner of the bus.
Let her pout, Bronwyn thought, shaking her head in disgust. She usually wasn’t easily agitated, but tonight something had her on edge. Maybe it was the stifling heat. Maybe it was the lack of peaceful sleep over the past few months, or perhaps it was that every time she picked up a magazine, Ryan and Gabriella gloated at her from the front cover. Whatever the case, she could not shake the premonition of impending doom.
She wiped her hand across the window, cleared away the fog, and peered out into the darkness. The drama troupe did this same tour last summer, and even though it had been a year, she was certain she would have remembered this narrow two-lane highway, but she didn’t. That meant one thing. Walt must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, which also meant a delay in arriving at the hotel and getting off the cramped bus. Giving up on sleep, she slipped from her seat and crept down the aisle to the front.
“Are you lost?”
Walt startled, “Dang it Bronwyn! Don’t sneak up on me like that?”
“I didn’t sneak,” she took her eyes off Walt and looked through the massive windshield at the narrow two-lane stretched out before them. “You‘re on edge because you we’re lost, aren’t we?”
Just as she expected, he ignored her question, acting as if he were in an epic struggle with the bus. He pressed on the gas, pushing it to the limit and then nodded his head toward the thermostat. “I’m just a little nervous ’cause this ole bus is ’bout to overheat. I think this steep mountain road may be a little too much for the engine.”
She surveyed the emptiness lying before them and hoped to God he was wrong. “You better figure something out. It looks pretty desolate out there, not a great place to be stranded.”
“I know, I know,” he grunted, “I’d have turned this thing around but where? I’ve never seen such a narrow road, especially one without a shoulder.”
He was right, there wasn’t a place to change course and the thought of venturing any further up this formidable mountain road didn’t sit well with her. “So, where are we?” Again, he ignored her as he pushed the accelerator to the floor.
“What are you going to do, keep climbing the mountain?” She asked, casting her eyes on the deep ravines, running along both sides of the winding road.
“It’s all I can do for now.” He breathed a sigh of relief as they reached the top of a steep incline. “I saw a sign a way back that said, Moonshine eight miles, so I figure there must be something ahead.”
“Moonshine,” she repeated the name softly, wondering why her heart raced at the word.
“I’d gladly take a swig of it right now,” He released a nervous laugh while steering along the curvy descent, down the other side of the incline. “Come to think of it, it’s probably just some advertisement for a still. We are in the Appalachians, you know?”
“Even so,” she half agreed with his assessment, “it might be a place to turn around.
“That, or a good place to fill up, and I’m not referring to the gas tank,” He released a long hearty chuckle until a loud clanging interrupted his lighthearted demeanor. Bronwyn watched in horror as steam billowed from underneath the hood. The headlights dimmed and then flickered, before leaving them in darkness. Her heart seized as she lost sight of the road and was certain Walt had too.
“For God’s sake Walt, stop the bus!” She clutched the back of his seat, fearing an unavoidable plunge into the deep canyon.
“I’m trying, damn it!” he stomped on the brakes, pumping them in desperation. Bronwyn watched in horror, digging her nails deep into the upholstery, as if the force of her grip could somehow help him stop their runaway bus. But even if he did regain control, with no light to guide him, disaster was inevitable.
Like an explosion, a fiery bolt of lightning ripped across the sky, before striking directly in front of them. Although the flash lasted only a few seconds, it illuminated the dark highway long enough for Bronwyn to see a man standing in the road ahead. Gasping in horror, she intensified her grip as she anticipated the bus plowing straight into the man.
Wild eyed, Walt released another string of profanity while he gripped the wheel, turning it with all the strength he could muster. The sky lit up again, giving Bronwyn, another glimpse. To her surprise, the man still stood in the road, unmoved by the bus speeding toward him. His hands were lifted high as if he were commanding them to stop. His saffron eyes penetrated through the windshield, invading her body with a sudden rush of heat. Then, in an instant, the light was gone, and darkness cloaked the highway once again.
Thunder, applauded the performance, shaking the ground and rocking the bus in an earsplitting crash. The deafening sound left a hollow ringing in her ears, preventing her from hearing the gravel and debris racing into the wheel well, spraying the sides of the bus, as it skidded toward the deep ravine. She felt detached, as if she was having an out of body experience while time switched into to slow motion. Maybe this was the life passing before your eyes, theory some people encounter right before death. Except in this instance, the images blowing past her were of a life she never lived. Events she’d never witnessed, places she’d never visited and faces of people she’d never met. Each scene played out like an unfamiliar movie across the screen of her mind.
Walt clenched the steering wheel; his arms trembling in his attempt to regain control. She watched his mouth contort in a hellish scream, but heard nothing, as the wheel turned in the opposite direction, nearly snapping his wrist. The bus jerked and skidded sideways spinning out of control and launching her into the stairwell. Bracing herself, as best she could, she struggled to grasp the handrail, all the while praying the door would remain closed. And while she prepared for the inevitable, the bus came to an abrupt stop.
Walt quickly shifted into “Park.” and sat still a few seconds, either offering up a prayer of gratitude or attempting to calm his nerves, she couldn’t tell. After regaining his composure, he faced her. “You okay?”
Grasping the rail, she nodded while attempting to stand.
Walt pulled out his hanky and began mopping the sweat from the back of his neck. “If it hadn’t been for that flash of lightning, I’d have driven this bus right off the highway. I had no idea how close to the edge we were.”
With wobbling legs, she climbed back up the stairwell and glanced out the windshield in search of the man, but the road was dark. “Do you think you hit him?” Walt rummaged through the utility box under his seat. “Hit who?”
“The man standing in the middle of the road,” she grabbed the light from Walt’s hand, shinning it through the windshield.
“I didn’t see a man,” He retrieved another light, from the box, and began shining the beam on his other eight passengers, jarred awake by the ensuing chaos.
“Is everyone okay?”
“What the hell happened?” Marcus made his way forward, shielding his eyes from Walt’s bright beam. Being the director of this small troupe, taking control over the situation was the obvious thing for him to do.
“Did you fall asleep at the wheel again?” Karley followed Marcus up the aisle, spilling her complaints in the blinding darkness.
“No, I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel, nor have I ever.” Walt was quick to defend himself, from the accusations of the troupe’s most opinionated and over-confident technical engineer. “I just saved your lousy ass. A little respect would be nice.”
“So, what happened?” Marcus jumped in quickly, attempting to derail another argument between the two.
Walt collapsed in the driver’s seat, defeated. “We lost the engine.”
Simultaneous groans sounded throughout the bus.
“Everyone just sit tight and stay calm,” Marcus sighed, not at all pleased with the situation. “Are you sure it won’t start at all?”
Walt attempted to re-start the engine to prove his point.
“Dead as a doornail.”
“Did you try calling for assistance?”
“Haven’t had cell reception for the past fifty miles.”
“Karley?” Marcus looked hopeful.
“There ain’t nothin’ I can do. I’ve been warnin’ Wilbur this would happen. He knows this bus is a pile of crap, but he’s so dang cheap, he thinks duct tape and a coat hanger can fix everything. Now look at us. It’s damn near midnight and we’re broke down, stuck out in the middle of nowhere.” She looked through the windshield, “Where are we anyway?”
Walt cleared his throat nervously, “I’m not sure of our exact location. I think my map is an old one.”
“We’re lost.” Bronwyn admitted to Marcus.
“Not entirely,” Walt refused defeat. “I saw a sign a way back that said, ’Moonshine eight miles. If there is a town ahead, there should be something on the outskirts. I guess we could do some hiking.”
Karley crossed her arms in front of her and cocked an eyebrow. “We? Don‘t be lookin’ at me and sayin’ we. I‘m keepin’ my lousy ass right here on this piece of shit while you, Mr. Wrong Way Walt, go get us some help.”
Walt continued to look out his window, rubbing the back of his neck the way he always did when he was nervous. Keeping his eyes closed, he pinched the bridge of his nose, as if embarrassed by his next statement. “I hear there are a lot of eerie legends and folklore told about the Appalachians. They say these mountain people can call down curses on you and you’d never know it.”
Just as expected, Karley mocked his jittery behavior. “You tryin’ to blame some poor mountain folk asleep in their beds for disabling our bus. The only people you need to blame for this mess is you for takin’ a wrong turn and Wilbur Hogg for not puttin’ the money in this bus and fixin’ it when I told him too.”
Walt shoved aside the accusations again.
“All I’m saying is something kept us from plunging over the side to our death. I was not in control. Believe me when I say it wasn’t me who stopped the bus.”
The same feeling of impending doom that invaded Bronwyn earlier swept over her again. Walt still hadn’t mentioned seeing the man in the road. Now his declaration had her believing that maybe she did see their guardian angel. But if that was true, then why did she feel such unrest?
Walt continued his morbid warning. “All I am saying, is a person could bring a hex down upon themselves, venturing out alone, accidentally stumbling upon some ancient, sacred ground.”
Marcus sighed, and Karley laughed. Bronwyn felt for Walt, sensing his anxiety steadily rising due to Marcus’s frustration. She knew he was skittish about venturing outside, so despite her premonition, she came to his rescue.
“I’ll go with you Walt.”
He blushed, “You wouldn’t mind coming along?”
She smiled. “Not at all.”
“Are you sure about this?” Marcus stepped forward, needing some reassurance before allowing a female member of the troupe to venture out into the forbidding darkness.
She wasn’t sure, and had no idea why she volunteered to go, except for the disturbing feeling, something beyond her control was luring her away from the bus. In any case, she would give Marcus the excuse he needed. “Actually, I could use some fresh air. The curvy road made me nauseous. I think I need to walk it off and stretch my legs. Walt’s right, there should be something up ahead. I’ll be fine.”
Giving his light to Marcus he took the other flashlight from Bronwyn, opened the door, and lit the path outside.
The thick, humid air wrapped around her like a damp blanket as she stepped from the bus and into the night. Thunderclouds hung ominously in the night sky, obscuring any light the moon had to offer. Another flash of lightning ripped through the darkness of the night. A slight shiver invaded her. The road was empty and the man she saw earlier was nowhere in sight. Only ghostly trees moved in the breeze, standing vigil, barring entrance to the dense forest, bordering both sides of the forgotten highway.
A slight glow of moonlight escaped its lunar entrapment as the wind picked up, scattering the hovering clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance, giving a subtle warning not to leave the protection of the bus. Despite the hot, muggy air, a cold chill made its way up Bronwyn’s back and, in the eeriness, she wondered if accompanying Walt had been a wise decision.