Back on the bus. Ready to go. Gil’s mom had brought him a little cup of ice water. He sipped slowly from that cup for a lot of miles. I asked him if he was hungry.
“Not really,” he said. “Not anymore.” And then he turned toward the window again.
I hated myself at that moment, hated that I’d been so thoughtless—asking a question whose answer I already knew. Of course he wasn’t hungry. He was deathly ill. He was on this bus only because of his passion to see something he’d always wanted to see. And I had to go ask a stupid question …
I recognized Harriet’s voice whispering at me from across the aisle. I looked back at her, and she jerked her head, indicating she wanted me to slip over into the empty seat next to her. I looked up toward the front. Mr. Gisborne had told us not to change seats—and not to move around at all while the bus was moving, unless, of course, we had what he called “a waste-product emergency.”
I looked back at Harriet. She was frightened. I checked the front, saw that Mr. Gisborne had slid down into his seat—probably sagging and sluggish because of the massive meal I’d seen him eat at lunch. Lots of meat and potatoes, all Super-Sized. I guessed he’d be napping for a while.
I moved quickly to the empty seat alongside Harriet, who grabbed my hand and squeezed so hard I nearly cried aloud. “What was that?” she whispered fiercely.
“I’m not sure,” I said, trying to sound more certain and safe than I felt. “But I’m afraid it’s a who, not a what.”
Harriet gripped even harder. “Not again,” she moaned. “Oh, please, not again.”
We sat there holding hands and silent for a time that could have been moments, could have been an hour. Fear affects even the ticking of a clock.
Then I felt a movement behind us in the aisle. I looked up. Mr. Leon. I prepared a lie—but didn’t need it.
“You’d better get back, Vickie,” he said. He pointed ahead where I could see that we were approaching the tollbooths for the New York Thruway. The bus would slow, would stop. “He’s going to wake up soon.” I didn’t need to be told who he was. I gave Harriet’s hand another quick squeeze and slipped back across the aisle, where Gil seemed still asleep, as well.
And sure enough, as the bus slowed, Mr. Gisborne’s head jerked back up as if yanked by a puppeteer. He stared ahead for a minute, figuring out where he was, I guess, then looked back fiercely and saw … nothing out of the ordinary. That seemed to satisfy him. He took the microphone and said, his voice ragged with recent sleep, “We’re slowing because we’re approaching a tollbooth,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.”
Nothing to worry about …
I heard Harriet joke, “I wish it was The Phantom Tollbooth.” Probably not a joke, actually.
Gil stirred slightly, and I touched his shoulder. “We’re about to move onto the New York Thruway,” I said.
He looked back at me, smiled thinly. “Awesome,” he said. And slumped again into sleep.