The Good Passenger.
Edmonton to Calgary. Calgary to Edmonton. I’ve taken the bus many times between the two cities and it’s become pretty routine.
Sometimes, there’ll be lots of empty blue seats on each side of the bus. On these trips, I get to sit by the window. On other trips, the bus will be packed and I’ll have to scale up and down the bus looking for an open aisle seat.
There was one evening trip where I got a window seat, but after the next two stops near the city limits, dozens of people suddenly came on board. Someone came and sat beside me and as we exited Edmonton, I noticed there wasn’t a seat left on the bus.
Once the bus got on the highway, I leaned back and put my headphones on. I didn’t have much room to move, but I was able to look out the window at least. I always enjoy listening to music, usually folk or country, on the bus and I started to relax as the Prairie landscape passed by and the hum of folk guitars soothed my ears.
I watched as aging brown farms on the rolling green fields and herds of cattle wandering the grass flashed by. It was summertime and there were a few green tractors in action and I even caught sight of a farmer walking out on the fresh soil after a long day’s work — but him and the tractors flickered by as fast they came too. The bus surged on and John Denver continued to sing.
After a few hours of driving, the bus pulled off into Red Deer for a little fifteen minute pitstop for the passengers. Feeling a little groggy and with one of my legs half-asleep, I walked into a hotel nearby and found a vending machine. When I opened a bag of chips I got, I saw a mother and a toddler behind me and realized they were also passengers on my trip. As I returned to the bus, I passed a pair of teenage girls outside the hotel and recognized them as passengers too.
It’s funny when you’re on a trip — whether it be on an airplane, bus, or train — you form this unspoken bond with your fellow travellers. You’ll never speak and may not even acknowledge each other the entire time. But you’ll remember their faces and sometimes even find comfort in their familiar presence after awhile.
I got back on the bus and put my headphones back in. I caught the scent of french fries and burgers and realized that some people had managed to make it to a local fast-food joint during the stop. As I sat there longing for a cheeseburger instead of the chips I’d gotten, the bus began moving again.
When we got back on the highway, I saw that the sun was starting to go down. Looking forward to seeing the Prairie sunset, I reclined my seat. I turned up the volume of my music — only to hear a scream cut through the song I was listening to. Startled, I pulled out one headphone and then heard another scream that rocketed off the walls of the bus.
I turned to look around and saw that it was the toddler I’d seen in the hotel. His mother was trying to calm him down, but he was quite upset about something. He continued to yell and then broke into screeching cries.
As the baby boy’s cries took over the once quiet bus, many people began shifting around uncomfortably. The crying seemed to get louder by the second. The boy’s mother desperately tried to calm him down as many of the passengers began to stare at her, unable to focus on anything else in the small space.
Two minutes of crying became four and four became six. Somebody mentioned something about a headache. Some people grew angry and started glaring over at the mother and toddler. Amongst the cries, there were also bitter mutters and shaking heads. The mother was trying her best, but it seemed like a lot of the passengers were blaming her for what was happening.
When it seemed like the toddler’s cries wouldn’t stop and the angry passengers would explode, a girl sitting in front of the boy suddenly turned around smiling. It was one of the two teenagers I’d seen earlier. She leaned over to the screaming boy and said in a warm and gentle voice, “Excuse me, do you want a juice box?”
The toddler yelled back at her “No!” and kept crying.
Unbothered by the rejection, the girl pulled something out of her bag and then turned back to the boy as everyone on the bus watched tensely. “How about chocolate?” she asked earnestly, still smiling warmly. “Chocolate always make me happy when I’m sad.”
As if a switch had been turned off, the toddler stopped crying and curiously looked up at the girl with his wide, watery, and very puffy brown eyes. He reached out with a little hand and took a chocolate bar from the girl. The boy held the chocolate up, stared at it for a few seconds, and slowly took a bite. He smiled widely and fell back in his seat, happily taking little nibbles from his new snack.
A massive wave of relief swept across the bus. It was quiet again. The boy kept eating and the mother leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. I turned away and looked out the window and noticed that the sun had been setting during the crying, bathing the massive Prairie sky in red and purple and orange.
The other passengers slowly returned to their devices and messages and business or whatever else they’d been doing before. Everyone was back in their own lives, on their own trips, and going to their own destinations. As day turned to night, we were familiar faces soon forgotten again, just passing sights on the side of someone else’s highway.