Sneak Peek of The Struggle Bus, Ch. 1

1: The Border

Tumbleweeds roamed the desert – large, round balls, weighing next to nothing. They rolled across the baked ground, bounding high before the hot wind as if to leap for joy – exulting in their freedom. Their tiny withered root was broken; a single dry thread that bound them to their past lives. They were free to run, free to spread their seeds across a blighted cityscape.

The desert also had thorns. Tiny bullheads lie everywhere on the ground, waiting for their moment to strike the feet of passing animals and children. Bullheads were nothing less than weaponized seeds – diminutive rock-hard kernels bristling with spikes, cleverly designed to attach to anything that came into contact. They inhabited even the widest patches of concrete and asphalt. Bare feet had no place here, and even bicycle tires fell prey to them.

Horny-toads skittered here and there, darting in and out of the sun, rapidly crossing vast patches of rocky ground in search of nutrients. They were spined with thorns of skin, hardened protrusions that looked as if they had been borrowed from the bullheads. Stalwart desert insects buzzed about, surviving despite the distinct lack of water.

Fine molecules of dust blew, collecting on every surface. The city contributed its own touch to the desert air – the acrid smells of hot asphalt and heat-softened tires. The natural desert scent of sage and other wild plants were all but undetectable.

El Paso lay sprawling and massive under the hot sun, and the din of it reached Grey’s ears even here on the outskirts. Exhaust fumes boiled in the heat and released their poisons over the dirt parking lot, making his eyes water. He stepped off the bus, and the heat hit him like a slammed door. His skin itched, drying in the furnace of wind. Gravel and dead thorns crunched beneath his feet.

Their home was parked behind him, motionless at last. The retired Ford school bus softly ticked as it cooled, the old iron engine releasing heat in slow metal-on-metal contraction. Being well past its prime had not stopped it from making the journey from Northern Washington state down to El Paso, by way of southern California. Over two-thousand miles had been added to the old iron beast, but not a soul would ever know; the odometer never moved. It read a dubious 90,401. How many times had that number restarted from zero – cycling completely over before stopping forever? Dad said couldn’t tell.

The bus rested in a bleak landscape: a gravel parking lot. Around the perimeter were parked more buses, mobile homes, semi-trailers. Many of the buses could be categorized as antiques, and each semi-trailer displayed the words “Heaven Is For All” hand-painted on the side in huge, green letters. A tall chain-link fence circled everything, six feet of protective wire.

“Hey, you made it!”

A young lady exited a squat, low building that looked as if it had been a dentist’s office in a past life. She strode purposefully across the dirt over to where Mom, Dad, and four bewildered kids were standing, eyes shielded from the sun.

Dad and Mom shook her hand, and she beckoned them inside.

“Are you hungry? Come on in and we’ll have lunch!”

Grey’s ears perked up. He was indeed getting hungry. He seemed to be hungry all the time now. His stomach rumbled at the thought of food.

Inside, a commercial kitchen full of well-used stainless steel counter-tops glistened, and the nice lady made them all peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.

Grey and Asher gazed at their first Texas lunch with carefully-veiled disappointment. The sandwiches lay in a heap on a thoroughly unappetizing green plastic tray. They had eaten too many PB&J over the years; and frankly, Grey reviled them. But, he and his brother Ash knew better than to complain out loud. With mumbled thanks, they each took one and ate, trying not to think about what they were eating. The food here couldn’t be all bad.

They met Bob Mackie, the leader. He was tall, bald, and had skin like picante salsa – baked and spotted red from too much sun. He was loud and overly friendly – like a used-car salesman with a sick wife at home. His bold mannerisms blasted Grey’s delicate social skills, and caused the younger kids to shrink back behind Mom. Ash put on a brave face and shook his hand, and Grey followed suit, a bit guiltily. He couldn’t have his younger brother outdoing him.

The sandwich-making lady was his adult daughter.

The talk was loud but friendly. While Mom and Dad were getting acquainted, Grey and Ash went back outside to look around.

Behind the squat building, a tiny yard sat enclosed by a chain-link fence. The square of short brown grass contained a picnic table and a metal swing-set. The chains creaked softly in the hot desert breeze, and the whole place felt deserted. No green grass had survived its initial spring growth, and there was no creek or river in sight.

“Who’re you?”

Grey looked up. Three boys stood outside the fence. Two of them were Greyson’s age, and one seemed about Asher’s age.

“Hey,” Grey said, nonchalantly. He didn’t like the way these guys stared, like they were watching freaks in a circus. And he happened to be in the freak show.

“I’m Grey, that’s Asher,” Grey said. This was moving way too fast for his comfort. “We’re new.”

One boy was the apparent leader. “I’m Zach” he said. “Zach Mackie.” He was about Grey’s size, and looked sorta like Mr. Mackie, and a little bit like the sandwich lady. Grey knew that they must be related.

“This is Pete, and Billy.” Zach continued, motioning first to the older boy next to him, then the younger one. “They’re brothers.”

Grey nodded to Pete and Billy. They did not look like brothers. Pete was stocky, and looked tough, face flattened as if hit repeatedly by a brick wall. He had thin blonde hair. Billy had dark hair and a face that reminded Grey of a marmot.

“My dad runs this place,” Zach added. “Are you guys staying or just visiting?”

Grey nodded, and pointed out to their school bus, parked in the very center of the big lot. “That’s us,” Grey said. “We’re going to live here for awhile.”

Pete laughed, scornful. “What a piece of junk!”

Grey cringed inwardly, taking offense for some reason. He had no love for Dad’s old bus, but to hear this “Pete” kid make fun of it made his blood run a little warm.

“Yeah…” Grey said with a forced chuckle. “It’s kinda old.” He didn’t know what to say. How did one respond to such insults like this? It’s almost like the Indian reservation all over again.

Before Pete could answer, the door behind them burst opened and Bob Mackie strode out purposefully, followed by Dad and Mom. Mom was struggling to walk – the little kids hung tight to her legs, hindering her mobility. They looked about with wide, scared eyes.

“Zach, go tell Carlos we have new arrivals,” Bob ordered, motioning to an old mobile home further down the gravel lot.

Zach nodded to his dad, and he sauntered away; accompanied by Pete. Billy followed them.

“What a bunch of weirdos,” Ash whispered to Grey.