Cameron jolted awake at the hiss of the doors closing and the coach dragging itself off the unsealed shoulder and back onto the highway. He peered sleepily through the scratched, filthy perspex window into impenetrable darkness. No lights, no road signs. No signs of life at all. Why had they stopped in the middle of nowhere?
He rolled his face away from the window, rubbing a line of drool off his swollen cheek. Sleeping on an overnight coach ride sucked only slightly less than staying awake. He’d have flown if he had the money but –
Who was he kidding? He didn’t have the money for anything better than this. He wouldn’t be crawling back home to his father if he did.
He blinked sleep tears from his eyes. They focused on an unexpected movement.
At the front of the cabin, a lean figure was silhouetted by the wan blue of the driver’s dashboard instruments. The shape stooped to whisper something to the driver, who seemed to think for a while before nodding slowly.
They must have pulled into a roadside coach stop. Cameron guessed the street lamps must have blown out; that’s why he hadn’t seen any lights. If so, the new passenger was damned lucky the driver had spotted him.
The passenger moved into the vague purple glow of the low aisle lights, which provided barely enough illumination for a drowsy passenger to make their way to the rear toilet stall and back. It was not bright enough for Cameron to make out the details of the new passenger’s face.
When the passenger ignored the empty seat next to Cameron and strode further down the aisle, Cameron licked his dry lips in relief. He shifted his shoulders, hoping sleep would return quickly. His watch put the hour at two-thirty. The next scheduled stop wasn’t until just before dawn. His stop.
He didn’t want it to come any sooner than it had to, but he sure as hell didn’t want to lie awake thinking about the coming Conversation with Dad.
The dull rumble of the coach had almost lulled him back to sleep when the passenger dropped into the vacant seat next to him.
“Can’t sleep, huh? Me neither. I don’t really have the knack.”
Cameron started. He hadn’t heard the man approach. Then surprise gave way to annoyance. “I was trying to get back to sleep,” he said pointedly.
The man chuckled. “Yeah, that was never going to happen. You’re all keyed up. I can smell it on you.”
Up close, Cameron had a better look at him. The passenger had Mediterranean features – the nose, the eyebrows, the lank black hair, and a dark complexion rendered sickly and drawn by the cabin lights. Something about the guy’s expression, which was somewhere on the spectrum from smug to bored, rankled Cameron instantly.
“Listen, I’ve got to get some sleep for tomorrow. Could you do me a favour and pick another seat?”
The new passenger considered the request. He tilted his head back and sniffed, as if testing a glass of wine in the air-conditioned chill. “All right.”
The passenger moved ahead a few rows, taking an aisle seat. Cameron bit his tongue hard to avoid saying anything that might protract the conversation. Trying to get the last word in had never worked for him in the past, had it?
A snuffling sound, like a basset hound dreaming of chasing rabbits, came from the seats ahead. Cameron felt a stab of guilt. Was the passenger hassling someone else now? Did he wake them for an unwanted chat?
While Cameron was caught in indecision between intervening and minding his own business, the new passenger stood up again. His lower face and throat were shadowed, giving his dark eyes a disembodied look. He returned Cameron’s gaze with a cheeky wink.
The man stooped toward his neighbour as if retrieving something from their lap. When he rose, he’d thrown a teenaged boy over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift.
He walked down the aisle carrying the limp figure effortlessly. As he passed Cameron, the dark patch on his face glistening on his skin and stained black the front of his white floral shirt.
“Back in a minute,” said the passenger in a cheerful whisper. “I’ve just got to stow this.”
“Christ!” yelled Cameron, scrambling in his seat. The passenger was dumping the teenager into the toilet stall and closing the door. “Oh my God! He killed that kid! Wake up! Stop the bus!”
Cameron’s panic was doing all the talking, shouting and exclaiming and pinning him to his seat. He wasn’t great in a crisis. He always said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing. One of his father’s favourite criticisms was that Cameron’s inability to hold his shit together would get him killed one day.
Nobody moved. The driver stayed where he was, the coach maintained its southerly heading, the passengers went on sleeping.
The new passenger, his front slick with blood so fresh Cameron could feel the heat of it, sat down beside him again.
“You heading south?” The passenger smacked his lips and licked at the corners of his mouth. “Me too. I love this route. Beautiful straight stretch of highway. No potholes, no towns. Barely a car or a cop for hours at a time. And it’s just long enough between stops for me to digest properly.”
Cameron, his eyes wide, yelled, “Hey! This guy murdered someone! Somebody help–“
“Save your breath mate,” yawned the passenger. “They’re all gonna keep on sleeping on until after I’m gone. Not you though. I like you. You can stay awake and keep me company.”
Fear smothered Cameron’s panic like a pillow over his face. “Keep you company?”
“Yeah, I’m stuffed, mate. Wouldn’t want to drift off on a full stomach and sleep through to sunrise, would I?”
Cameron thought of his Dad, waiting in his kitchen with two cups of tea and an “I told you so” to share.