1st Place – April 2018

Crossing the Line

by J.J. Rushmore

Hummmmmmmmm. I awoke to the low, angry growl of large tires speeding over a rumble strip. A glance out the window revealed us hurtling at high speed halfway into the breakdown lane. The travel bus’s headlights illuminated the guardrail, its white posts flickering past us in the dark at an alarming rate, all the while looming closer and closer.
I ripped off my seat belt and raced up the aisle a dozen rows toward the bus driver. The driver slumped in his seat, head bobbing gently with the swaying of the vehicle.
I shouted, “Wake up! Wake up!” as I leaned over and grabbed the wheel, turning it left. The driver snapped awake and started yelling. The speedometer quivered at eighty-five miles an hour.
“Hey! What the—? Let go o’ the wheel!” He swatted my arms away and wrested the steering wheel from my grasp. During our brief scuffle, the bus veered left across two lanes and back again. Several passengers cried out in panic. Finally the driver slowed the massive vehicle and guided it into the rightmost travel lane.
“Hey yourself,” I said. “You were sleeping—we were drifting off the road.”
“Was not. Don’t do that again. And what the hell’re you doing over the line?” he pointed to a white stripe on the floor. “Step back. You aren’t allowed up here.”
I kept my feet where they were and leaned into his face. “Listen—” I stared at his name tag, “—Mike. You dozed off. If I didn’t do something we would’ve crashed and died. I’ll step over this stupid line any time it’ll save my life.”
“What’s your name? I’m gonna report you.”
“You do that. Name’s Hooper. Tom Hooper. That’s Hooper with an ‘H’.”
He didn’t laugh. Nostrils flaring, he glared at me for a moment, and sullenly returned his gaze to the roadway.
Mike was the sixth driver we’d had since departing Jacksonville on our cross-county marathon two days before. I disliked him as soon as he boarded. He sported a pointed nose on a weasel-thin face, a face framed by scraggly hair that hadn’t seen soap and water in a month. His bent-over body slunk around like a beaten dog. Heavy-lidded eyes suggested drug use. I suspected a permanent cannabis-induced haze enveloped his mind like a San Francisco fog. I was sure he nibbled on magic brownies whenever he got the chance.
I begrudgingly sat down, selecting a seat in the second row. I sat next to the aisle and kept one eye on our surly driver and one on the window. Our last stop had been Quartzsite, Arizona. A route sign whizzed by that didn’t look right. I walked back to the white line.
“Hey, Mike,” I called.
“Whadda ya want now?”
“What happened to the interstate? I just saw a sign for U.S. ninety-five. I thought we were following I-Ten all the way.”
“Interstate’s closed. Eighteen-wheeler crash.” He pointed to a GPS unit. “Alternate route.”
Our laconic driver must have taken a Yoda pill. I returned to my seat, wondering what the detour would do to our schedule. Air travel petrified me, so I always took the bus. At this rate we would never make it to California in time for my sister’s wedding. We might not survive until breakfast.
Soon there was more loud humming as we again drifted into the breakdown lane. This time we weren’t on an interstate with a median to protect us from oncoming traffic. We were on a two-lane secondary road with nothing but strips of paint between us and the oblivion of oncoming traffic.
I stepped back to my designated spot behind the white line.
“Mike! Hey Mike!”
Weasel-face blinked and shook off some cobwebs. “What?”
“You’re dozing again.”
“Am not. Lea’ me alone.”
“Yes you are. You’re putting everyone at risk. Why don’t you stop and get some coffee?”
“Can’t. Behind schedule. Gotta keep goin’.”
“For Christ’s sake, you can’t keep your eyes open. Stop and take a break.”
“Can’t,” was all he said.
This guy was scaring me. I decided to call the police. Better to be alive, late, and foolish than to be on time to my own funeral. I dialed 9-1-1.
Nothing happened. The cell phone screen showed zero bars for a signal. The words ‘No Service’ appeared in the status line.
Soon we began drifting dangerously again, and my blood boiled. I tromped back to the front and boldly stepped over Mike’s ridiculous white line.
“Goddammit, Mike. Pull over and stop this bus. You’re not fit to drive.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Pull over! Take a piss. Wash your face. Pinch your ass. I don’t care what you do, but you’ve got to snap out of it.”
Mike forced his words through clenched teeth. “I’m fine. Lemme me be.”
“How about calling your dispatch for a new driver?” I pointed to his CB radio.
“Radio’s broke. Now siddown.”
I needed help.
Thirty-one stops to San Diego sounded like a bad country song. Only three of us remained from the group that had boarded in Jacksonville twenty-seven stops ago. The first was Consuela, who bulged in extreme pregnancy. I expected her baby to pop out and say ‘Hola’ any minute. She was sweet and shy, and un-pregnant might have weighed all of a hundred pounds. Consuela would be no help.
The second was Rafer, my across-the-aisle acquaintance, a large man with no neck. Rafer had deposited his bulk across both adjacent seats. He traveled with his own seatbelt extension. Rafer had been headed to the NFL draft from college until he blew out his knee senior year. Now he was interviewing as an trainer.
The remaining half-dozen passengers were short-hoppers, only on for a stop or two. I didn’t know any of them.
I traipsed down the aisle to row 12.
“Hey, Rafe.”
“Yo, Tom. What’s going on up there?” Rafer was reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit. He was not your stereotypical football player.
I told him what I had in mind. He was dubious, but I convinced him we were desperate and in danger, and he agreed to lend a hand.
We made our way forward. Rafer had to shuffle sideways to navigate the narrow aisle.
We reached the white line.
I called out over the diesel engine noise, “Break time, Mike.”
I took a step forward and grasped the wheel with one hand, while unclicking his seatbelt with the other. Rafer grabbed Mike under his arms and effortlessly lifted him out of his seat like a Raggedy Ann doll, plopping him into the right front passenger seat. I slipped into the driver’s seat.
“Hey! You can’t do that!” Mike said. “That’s—this—this is mutiny, it’s highway mutiny, that’s what it is!”
“Quiet, Runt,” Rafer said. He shoved Mike up against the window and sat beside him. Rafer’s enormous frame overlapped Mike’s skinny one. Mike yelped in pain.
I drove while concentrating on keeping the gigantic bus between the white lines. I would deal with the consequences of our roadway rebellion later. For the time being we were safe.
Hummmmmmmmm. I awoke to the low, angry growl of large tires speeding over a rumble strip. A black-and-white cow the size of New Jersey stood broadside directly ahead of us in the breakdown lane. Horrified, I swerved sharply to the left, forcing the bus into a squealing, sideways skid. As the fifteen tons of steel pulverized the cow, the tires left the asphalt. The airborne bus rotated ninety degrees and slammed onto its right side with a tremendous crash. Horrendously loud screeching accompanied a sickening slide backwards into the opposite ditch.
The driver’s seat was now the bus’s ceiling. I released my seat belt and fell, crashing into the stairwell. Bruised but otherwise unhurt, I used a fire extinguisher to smash out the already cracked and crazed windshield.
Moans and wailing drifted from the rear of the bus. Mike grunted in short gasps, having been crushed by Rafer’s bulky body. The former football player heaved himself upright, and together we helped the other passengers out the windshield opening.
No one died. One lady suffered a broken arm, Mike had two broken ribs, and Rafer delivered Consuela’s baby. She named the little guy Juan Pablo Rafer Hernandez. ‘Tom’ didn’t even got honorable mention.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation found the aging bus had a defective heater under the driver’s seat. The NTSB said the heater produced an excess of positively charged ions, contributing to driver fatigue and drowsiness. Blood tests revealed Mike to have elevated levels of cannabinoids, confirming my suspicion about magic brownies. The police charged him with DWI in a commercial vehicle.
The police mysteriously failed to charge me for driving a bus without a commercial license. Whippet Bus Lines, however, banned me from their buses for life, citing me for operating a Whippet vehicle without authorization.
That was okay by me. Next time I would take the train.

Writers’ workshop and writing group