A purple shuttle bus came and unloaded a full load of tourists. No one was in line to head back to the Tusayan Village. It was too early. But I could head back to the hotel.
Hide under the sheets.
The option sounded appealing until I saw the driver alight from the bus. He towered over my five feet nine form with his shiny bald head looking like an almond dipped in dark chocolate.
“Heading back so soon?" His voice reverberated like a bass instrument.
I staggered and stepped back. "I—"
"Why? The canyon not grand enough for you?”
Wow. Talk about fresh mountain air. I didn’t expect that kind of wind to slap me here where my shark instincts were down.
“Umm...forgot something.” I shifted and looked at his bulging chest in front of me.
“What, your family?” He chuckled.
I stole a glance at his face and caught his probing gaze. There was something about him that made me uneasy. How did he guess I had a family?
“Wedding ring and a pink backpack.” He pointed at my finger and at Annie’s backpack, which I realized still hung on my shoulder.
Scratching a non-existent itch on my nape, I looked away. Why did it seem like the crowd had withdrawn far from us and there was just this giant of a man and me enclosed in an invisible perimeter?
"Hop on the bus."
"I'm actually heading to the Visitor Center." I took out my phone. How did the battery get down to 10% that fast? I wished I had an extra battery pack with me. Or my iPad. And the laptop.
"I'm heading there, too." He slung a heavy arm around my shoulder.
I wanted to wriggle out of his clasp without looking stupid but his hand, although loose, easily maneuvered me into walking beside him like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Watch where you’re going, or you’ll fall into the Grand Canyon abyss."
"You know what, I changed my mind. I'm—”
“Heading back to Tusayan? C’mon.” He directed me to the bus almost against my will. Yet I could not resist the strength that drew me inside, and it did not come from his arm.
When the doors closed, I felt the acid from my stomach rise up my chest.
I held on to the rail and sat at the nearest seat. My heartbeat registered 110 on my watch.
“Relax, dude. You look like I’m gonna drive the bus to the cliff.”
“Aren’t you?” My voice croaked. Where was the confident Jeff Bazoon? Seemed to have launched off from a bazooka out of the window, leaving a helpless worm sitting inside the shuttle bus.
He broke into a hearty laugh. “Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to scare you. Tony.” He held out one arm while the other gripped the steering wheel.
I forced myself to stand up and took his hand. “Jeff.”
“So where are you from, Jeff?”
“Dallas.” I usually say New York or San Francisco but this guy made me tell the truth, and that was creepy. My legs wobbled back to the seat.
“My wife and I were just there for over a month. Bridal show. Bustling city. So how y’all taking the mountain air?” Tony chuckled. “Hope it didn’t blow you away.”
My arm hair stood. Did this guy read minds? “Um, nope.” That did not sound as casual as I hoped it would.
“Sometimes you need fresh air to gain fresh insights on life, my friend.”
There it was again. The voice held a timbre that seemed to have come out of a tomb.
“You sure you don’t want to go to the Hermit’s Rest and find rest?”
“Did you say Hermit’s Rest?” I said.
“Why? Your family there?”
I shifted in my seat. He sounded almost like Kate lately who seemed to talk in coded words.
“—unearthing hidden meanings. Hey, you listening?” Tony said.
“Yup, hidden meanings, you said.” I bolted up my seat. Okay, he was creepy. “Can I hop off on the next stop?”
“There is no next stop off the purple bus, Jeff.”
Did I imagine the hidden threat in his tone? No next stop off the bus. The words echoed like clanging bells in my wracked brain. I rushed to the door and banged with my fists. “Get me out of here.”
“Dude, don’t wreck the bus. I don’t want to pay the tab for that. Hey, what’s up with you?”
He looked genuinely surprised.
“I’m sorry. You sounded spooky back there, like that Hotel California song.”
“Wow. You in trouble, man?”
I felt stupid. I slumped back on the seat. “Fought with my wife.”
“Not my fault. It’s her and all these itineraries. Driving me crazy.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “My idea of a vacation is to get away from it all—the stress. Lounge on my sofa, cold beer, peanuts, watch the games. Know what I mean?”
“I hear ya.”
“Each vacation with the family needs another vacation. I wish I could get away from all these even for a day,” I said. “Can’t keep up with my life. With my wife.”
He chuckled. “Be careful what you wish for. You may just get it in this purple bus, beer and all. There’s even a TV monitor up there for the games.”
“You kidding me? I’d pay you for a day.”
“You serious, man? I could bind your words right now.”
“And Mrs. Bazoon could easily unbind it, I’m telling you.” I scoffed.
“My missus the same way.” He nodded. “Jeff Bazoon, uncommon name."
I hated my last name. I had been called many names because of it, and those others names would have been preferable. Baboon, balloon, bozo. I should have changed it to something else when I got my certificate of naturalization, but Kate would not hear of it. We'd have to change everyone's name and that would be a hassle in all respects.
"Not originally from Texas?”
“Egypt, Europe. I’m from all over.” And that was true. Somewhat.
“Aren’t we all?” His eyes burned holes in my head. “Your wife, too?”
“No, she’s Asian. You married?” Best to steer the conversation away from my personal life. He was getting way too much information than I’d usually reveal a stranger.
"Yup. My idea of a vacation is this.”
“Driving a shuttle bus. No merger to think about. Just enjoying the mountain air.”
No merger to think about. Who was he?
“I’m a volunteer,” he said as though he heard my thoughts. “CEO by weekdays, shuttle bus driver by weekends and holidays.”
“Wait, what? You can do that?”
“Point directions to pilgrims who are lost from the path? Yes. Many of us out here.”
The shift in his tone made me rub my hands on my thighs. “And are there many..umm..lost pilgrims, Tony?”
“You won’t believe how many I’ve saved from the pits of Grand Canyon, Jeff.” He looked at me with eyes that probed my soul.
I sprung off my seat. “The next stop.”
“—is Hermit’s Rest.” Then Tony-the-shuttle-driver chuckled. “Man, you’re like a spring chicken, bleeding headless and running all over the place. Relax. Those pilgrims think they can navigate the Grand Canyon without a map, stand on the edge like there’s a safety net below and take a jump shot. Did you read this book, Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon?”
“Yeah.” I settled back and gazed at the hikers on the roadside wishing I was out there. “Saw that book on the gift shop at El Tovar while waiting to be seated last night.” A cold ripple crept up my spine as I recalled the stories. “Scared the brain off me..."
“Be careful, there man, you and your family. You don’t want to be lost in its beauty and realize the danger too late. Stop. Look. And listen.”
I gripped the rail so tight, my knuckles turned white. He eyed me from the reflection of the windshield. I evaded his gaze.
“You really want to have a break? I could give you that. A personal tour on this bus. All by yourself.”
His voice was like a dragnet. Without thinking, I said, “Yes.”
“Yes. Yes. Before I change my mind.”
“Done deal, signed with my blood.” He whistled to the tune of A Horse With No Name. “In the desert…hmmm… remember your name 'cause there ain't…tatataa…give you no pain. La, la…”
I joined in to dispel the eerie feeling that I just signed away my life.
“…lalalala, lalala, la, la.”
His rich bass voice merged well with my natural singing voice. I sounded like a pro all of a sudden. My spirits lifted.
When I looked out the window, there was Kate. And the girls.
She looked up from reading the map, waved at me in frantic, her eyes wide.
“Jeff.” She mouthed my name in muffled sound. The girls waved up their arms and shouted, “Daddy!” as we sped by.
"Stop, Tony, There’s my family.”
But he did not stop.
“Tony, I said stop.”
“I’m not a horse, Jeff, that you can bridle to stop. You said you wanted to get away from it all. You just signed a verbal consent, friend. Sorry. You’re now in for the ride of your life.”
His words were like a net that fell over me.
Cold sweat gathered on my temple. I wiped my clammy hands on my jeans.
I became conscious that there was just me, Tony, and silence.
“Why are you doing this?”
“You wanted to get away, right? I told you not to say words that can bind you, but you were too deaf to hear. Stop, look and listen, Jeff.”
My breathing became shallow and fast.
“Now you reached a point of no return. There’s no turning back.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Why, to Hermit’s Rest, as I said. To get some rest, away from it all.”
“Is that eternal rest, Tony?”
“Hey, man, I’m not a murderer. And if I were, would I kill you in broad daylight, with all these tourists? Geez, you have some imagination in there. Are you a struggling fantasy writer?”
I flinched. “Stop right there.”
“Hmm, looks like I pulled a trigger. Raw wound?”
“Nothing raw about five years.” Darn, he did it again. Made me say things I never wanted to unearth.
“Some wounds don’t heal unless you excavate the pus inside.”
“What are you, a doctor?”
“Dr. Tony Sparker, nice to meet you, Mr. Jeff Bazoon.”
CEO. Doctor. Sparker. Merger. My jaw dropped. “Dr. Anthony Sparker of Sparker Biotech Industries?”
“Why the surprise?”
“I—your company…my company.”
“Ah, I didn’t realize you’re part of the other company. Isn’t that a coincidence. But we know there’s no such thing as coincidence, right, Jeff?”
“What is this? Some sort of a conspiracy?”
“You’re hurling a theory. But you need evidence to prove that. Am I stalking you or are you stalking me?”
“I didn’t even know you were Dr. Sparker until now, but you’ve been talking in coded language since the time we met.”
“Like…” I groped for his earlier words, but nothing came to my mind. “You said something about hidden meanings.”
“So you think I’m hiding something from you? Something you already know?”
“Why on earth would you hide something I already know?”
“Unearth, that’s the word. Excavation. The things hidden in the subconscious. Am I speaking words that blow life into those dead dreams, Jeff?”
“What dreams are you talking about?”
“Dreams of becoming a writer? Buried? Five years ago? Like pus? That keeps on nagging and causing you pain? You can’t run away from your dreams, Jeff. They will chase you.”
“Well I chased that dream, for the record and it slammed the door on my face and left me with swollen lips and broken nose, so I’m not telling you anything.”
“Ah, but you just told me everything. Burned once? Bitten twice? You should have tried the third time.”
“Then what? Somebody will magically turn up to pay me and publish the book?”
“The end is not to get published. If it is, you would have persisted since you self-published with a vanity press. The end is to become numb to the failure and rejection, so you continue to write even if you get rejected a hundred times…if writing was your dream.”
I looked at the window. He was right.
“Here we are.”
I headed to the door, but he snagged my arm. “Wait.”
The door rim sparkled and crackled with electric current. I staggered backward.
“What was that?”
“You activated the Dream Maker Prototype with your verbal consent. That successfully trapped you into this dream world and you cannot escape it without getting hurt. Touch the door, and you’ll know what I mean.”
"I don’t believe you. Dream Maker prototype,” I mumbled and grabbed the handle.
”Oww!” I sucked on my two fingers. The burning pain lessened.
“Why are you doing this?”
“You did it to yourself. Why do you keep on blaming people? I warned you three times, but you committed to it with your words.
I shook my head and covered my ears. “Stop. I want out of this bus.”
“Go ahead.” He pointed to the handle. It sparkled and crackled again.
“You gotta turn that electricity off, whatever that is.”
“Why? You want out the bus. Just yank it open.”
“But that’s crackling.”
“Should that prevent you?”
“Well, that hurt.”
“And the pain is enough to deter you from getting out of this…” he gestured to the ceiling of the bus, "...small world you entrapped yourself in?”
“There!" I pointed at him. "That’s the kind of coded language I’m talking about.”
He looked at me with most of the white of his eyes showing. “Do tell the hidden message.”
“My small world. My work. Escaping from my dream as a writer.”
“Well, I didn’t intend to say that. Must be your spirit talking to mine.”
“Alright, enough about this spiritual talk. Talk to my wife. She’d listen to you.”
“Ah, your Eve. So you think I should whisssper to her?” Tony’s tongue wiggled like a snake’s.
Holy crap! The man was possessed. I lunged at the door.
“Aaahh!” The door banged open, and I hit the ground with my palm and elbow. I groveled up and ran to the line of tourists. “Help!”
They gazed at me. The little girl holding her mother’s skirt buried her face in her mother’s thighs. The woman picked up her daughter and pulled her husband away from me. “Crazy man,” she muttered. The family I saw earlier at Starbucks stood at a distance, whispering, and then leaving.
Tony grabbed me by the armpit and addressed the crowd. “Sorry folks. First time to try weed.” The crowd gasped.
“Just kidding. He thought I’d bring him to the rim. Acrophobic.” Tony chuckled.
They all laughed.
"Come here, my friend. Let’s go get some food.” He pulled me to my feet.
“Hey,” one teenager shouted, “is that purple bus going somewhere?”
“Take the red bus, kiddo. That’s out of commission,” Tony said.
My blood turned cold, and I tried to wiggle out of his grasp.
He pulled me to the backside past the Hermit’s Trail sign and whispered. “You don’t make a scene here and expose me, you understand?”
I shivered at the hardness in his voice. This man can crush me right now, and no one would know. Leave me next to the overgrown cactus.
He looked behind and pulled out what looked like a penlight-ballpen from his pocket. After pressing the button, he poked a finger in the air, and it waved like a transparent curtain.
“Holofilm.” He entered, pulling me along. "Now, no one can see us.”
I scampered back, but the holofilm crackled and sparkled in front of me. I backed off.
“I wouldn’t if I were you. Unlike the bus handle, this one has a current that could zap you to oblivion.”
My fingers still tingled from the pain. I stood, undecided.
“Come, let’s talk without the veiled language. I promise I won’t hurt you. Only you can do that to yourself.”
Sirens blazed in my head. I wanted to run but where? I wasn’t about to risk the holofilm. My eyes scanned the perimeter. Behind Tony was the rim of the Grand Canyon. Dead end. There was also the log cabin to his right with a sign that read "Hermit's Rest.
Tony headed to the cabin, pulled the door and entered. “Wait,” I said, against my better judgment.