(“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)
Here’s how it ends. I’m on a bus in Guatemala, daydreaming about a woman I’ve never met and feeling slightly guilty that I’m not going to die today.
It’s about 100 degrees, I haven’t showered in at least a week, and everyone else smells as bad as I do. People standing in the aisles have been rubbing up against my shoulder, and the slightly overweight woman next to me has had her leg leaning against mine for the past half an hour.
And then the bus pulls to a stop.
We’re on the highway, for God’s sake. Why the bus is stopping is beyond me.
But five minutes pass, maybe ten, and people start getting off the bus. I figure it can’t be any hotter outside, so I grab my bag and go out.
The pavement is shimmering with heat, and there’s a traffic jam that extends up the road as far as I can see to a bend that sweeps behind a mountain. Somehow, though we’re miles from the nearest village, there’s a guy walking toward us on the road’s shoulder, carrying a cooler full of flavored ice. I flag him down and buy two tubes of the stuff, though by the time I get them open, they’re more like flavored cold water.
Still, they hit the spot. And I’m happy enough that I’m out of El Salvador to care too much about our current predicament. So I tilt my head back to finish off the last of my purple “ice” and relish the short inner chill as the liquid shoots down my esophagus. I’m imagining that it’s a margarita when an explosion reverberates through the mountains.
It’s close. It must be. Because I can feel my chest rattle and I can hear glass breaking. I squint to see beyond the bright reflections emanating from the cars stopped in front of us. In the distance, a cloud of black smoke plumes skyward.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I’m not. But knowing it would happen doesn’t make it less tragic. In fact, I’m suddenly feeling so sad that my knees buckle a little, like some involuntary part of me knows it’s not worth taking one more step forward. Might as well just fall down right now and die.
I’m not dead, though. And since nobody around me speaks English anyhow, I say it out loud. “I’m not dead.”
I think about how David patted me on the back in Jutiapa just before getting on his bus. “Doubt is a wonderful thing,” he said.
Now, David Schumaker is no more. The plume of smoke rising over the mountain is coming from his bus. I’m sure of it. David’s dead, and there’s nothing he or I could have done about it.
Still, I feel partially responsible.