Someone is hurrying through the crowd, a bright splash of aquamarine zipping through a monochromatic sea of coats, their collars turned up against the cold brought on by the overcast sky. Thomas is looking out the window, following its movement with a detached interest, his mind preoccupied with the paper he has yet to write. It had been a good weekend visiting his Dad in Lake Jackson, but like any good college student, he has successfully put off the most difficult of his assignments for last: A paper on objectivism, "In the light of this recent phenomenon of 'fake news,'" as his philosophy professor had put it. He glances down at his notebook, drumming his pencil restlessly against the paper as he scans the thoughts he's jotted down:
"Phenomenon of individual's perceptions negate possibility of objectivity?
Link w/ emotions --> can never look at anything w/out 'tint'
relativism [dictatorship of?]
any possible test of true objectivity?
What would the point of objectivity even be?"
The rest of the passengers are piling onto the bus, and he distantly registers the small thumps denoting the matching of another set of seats and occupants. Thomas has just pulled his phone out of his pocket to check the time, wincing at the 13% of battery remaining, when a tap on his shoulder brings him out of his reverie. He looks up to see a bright-eyed girl, rosy-cheeked and breathing as if she had just run a marathon, clad in an aquamarine coat. "Would you mind if I took the window seat? It's my favorite."
Thomas, slightly taken aback and known to display a strong preference for the window seat himself, considers denying her request, but she looks so excited about the prospect of getting to watch the countryside flying by that he simply sighs and nods his assent. He motions her into the aisleway, dumps his things into the seat she has vacated, then slides out of the row to allow the girl to make her way to the coveted window seat.
"Thanks." She says, as she brushes past him. He nods in response, settles into his new seat, and resolutely returns to his work as the bus finally lurches forward and out of the station.
He starts at the question. "Sorry, what?"
"What you're working on -" she gestures towards the notebook in his hand, "relativism is an interesting subject to choose."
"Oh, it's more on objectivity than relativism, but yeah - it's for philosophy."
"What are you majoring in?"
"Accounting, with a minor in history."
"That's an interesting choice - and you're in a philosophy class now?"
Thomas shrugs, "I needed a humanities elective, and I've always been interested in philosophy."
She hums and nods, and they fall back into silence.
It's halfway through cutting across Arkansas that Murphy's Law strikes. They've stopped in a small town to allow people to get lunch, but when they return to the bus, the driver is unsuccessfully trying to restart the engine. Once the driver has called headquarters to come up with a plan, the situation is revealed to the passengers to be an inexplicable case of engine failure.
"Look, I'm very sorry, everyone, but it will be about two hours until a replacement bus arrives," the announcement is met with a chorus of groans, "We'll be back on the road as soon as possible."
Next to Thomas, the girl pulls her phone out to notify an "Aunt Chiara" of the delay. Deciding he should probably follow suit and give his mother a call to let her know of the new arrival time, Thomas pulls out his phone - which is now displaying nothing but an empty battery icon when he tries to wake it up. Cursing his past self for forgetting to charge his phone last night, he decides he may as well ask whether he can borrow the girl's phone once she's finished talking. Thankfully, the girl soon finishes her call. He's about to ask to borrow her phone when he notices that she is plugging it into a quite impressively-sized battery bank inside of her bag - with multiple ports to boot.
"Say, would you mind if I plugged in to your battery?"
"Oh, yes, sure."
Thomas thanks her, and goes to rummage in his bag for a USB cable, but by the time he's popped back up with one in hand, she has already plugged a second cable into the other port of her battery and is waiting expectantly for him to hand her his phone.
"Wow, any chance you were an Eagle Scout?" He jokes.
She chuckles and shakes her head, "Not I; earned my Stars & Stripes award though."
Not entirely sure what this means, but assuming it means she's done something equally impressive, Thomas replies, "Oh, cool. Thanks again, by the way."
She nods absentmindedly, her eyes already looking out the window.
It's been thirteen minutes since the countdown to the arrival of the new bus began, and Thomas can tell by the bouncing knee in his peripheral vision that the girl is getting restless. It isn't much longer before she sits up, throws her coat on, slings her bag over her shoulder - with Thomas' phone still attached to the battery inside - and gets up as if to leave. "Where are you going?" Thomas can't help asking.
The girl shrugs in response, "Exploring."
"You can't go by yourself!"
She tosses her head carelessly, "Why not? We've got nearly two hours left of waiting."
He hesitates, searching for a counterargument. Seizing the moment, she simply continues on her way out of the bus. Thomas hesitates for another moment or two, then throws his jacket on and hurries off the bus after her, reasoning that he doesn't want her running off with his cellphone.
She's stopped a few feet away from the bus, shading her eyes from the early afternoon sun as she slowly turns in a circle to survey their surroundings. There's a gas station nearby, and a few restaurants to which the passengers had previously dispersed for lunch. Not much else is visible from the bus, due to the surrounding forestry. As he approaches her, she seems to have found what she's looking for, because she sets off for a nearby crop of trees on a hill. He hurries after her, but by the time he's reached her, she's already halfway up one of the trees.
"What are you doing?" He hisses up to her.
She peers down through the branches with some surprise, "Are you following me?"
He shrugs self-consciously. "Er, you still have my phone," he offers the excuse feebly, still attempting to justify his departure from the bus to himself.
She is silent, the leaves obscuring her expression as he waits for her response. "Wait there," she finally says.
Thomas nods in acknowledgement, but she's already climbing up again. It's only another minute or two before she descends, looking supremely satisfied. She drops the last meter or so, landing lightly on her feet. She swings her backpack around to pull out his phone, then holds the device out to him.
It occurs to him, in the near-forgotten part of his mind that remembers what it was like to believe in magic and dragons, that they must make a striking picture: Two figures atop a hill beneath a blooming oak tree, one wrapped in a coat of darkness, the other cloaked in the bold colors of the blue sky, the March wind whipping around them and imbuing her auburn locks with a life of their own, and a choice offered in her outstretched hand. It might be a moment for destiny, but he casually reminds himself that he's well past believing in that. And Thomas reaches out and takes the phone from her.
He knows that all he has to do is thank her for the charge, leave her to her merry adventures, go back to the bus and spend the rest of the break working on his paper. So he surprises even himself when he says, "No, it's okay; it's probably barely cracked five percent by now," and holds the phone back out to her. She blinks, as baffled as he is at the fact that he has not turned around to make his way back to the bus. Her hand stretches out tentatively and he quickly deposits the phone back in her hand before he can start thinking too much about it. A delicate shrug ripples across her frame as she slings her bag back around to plug his phone back in. An awkward silence descends as she continues to rummage through her bag for nothing in particular.
"So, er, d'you want to walk then?" she tries.
Thomas gets the impression that she doesn't do this inviting business very often. "Sure."
Apparently, this is all she needs, because she turns and heads off down the hill, moving at an angle away from the bus.
Thomas is quite confident that he's figured out their destination as they gradually approach a steeple in the middle of the small town, and he is soon proven correct. They've reached a small church that has somehow captured the girl's interest. She swings open the heavy door and steps into the space as if it were her own home, dipping her fingers in the font and easily crossing herself before sliding into a pew to pray. Thomas clumsily signs himself as well, but decides that he'd best not disturb the praying girl, and settles for exploring the church's perimeter. Motes float suspended within colored rays, and his footsteps echo softly as his eyes follow the unfamiliar stories told by the stained glass. She shows up next to him after a few minutes, and simply gives him a smile. They tour the space in a comfortable silence, reverently drinking in the surrounding beauty. As they pass by, she gently pats the foot of a statue, gazing up into its face affectionately. It depicts a laughing man, the child on his left arm tugging on his beard as they look at each other, his right hand wielding a carpenter's hammer.
In startling contrast, their next stop is the playground of the attached school.
"Did you plan this?" Thomas asks her as they walk over.
She grins, looking almost embarrassed. "A lot of churches have schools associated with them, and the schools usually have playgrounds."
He laughs in surprise, "Why a playground though?"
"Tradition - Dad and I used to run to the playground every Sunday, right after Mass. Mom would remind us to keep our clothes clean, but she'd just end up laughing and joining us on the swings anyhow."
Thomas glances over, worried that he's upset her, but her face is serene - it soon breaks into a smile as she looks questioningly at him, "I'll race you?"
He nods, and her smile widens, before she puts on a burst of speed towards the swings. He lets out another surprised laugh and chases after her.
They've been on the swings for a while, when Thomas suddenly remembers their time limit. She waves it off, saying, "It can't have been that long." Almost comically, the bells in the steeple chime 3 o'clock as she finishes speaking. Thomas runs through the numbers in his head: they had stopped for lunch at noon, gone back to the bus and been informed of the delay at 1, and had been given two hours thence. She must have reached the same conclusion as he has, because her eyes widen as she looks at him. What follows is a mad dash back to the bus.
Surprisingly, they aren't the last ones onto the replacement bus, but it doesn't stop some of the other passengers from grumbling in annoyance as they rush up the steps and find their seats, breathing heavily. Thomas finally calls his mother to let him know about the new arrival time, and sits back as they finally resume their journey to St. Louis.
He nods, "Yeah. Just wanted to let her know that pickup will be more like ten than eight."
"Where are you coming from?"
"Just visiting my Dad over the weekend."
"Is he on a business trip?"
"Ah, my parents divorced when I was fifteen, actually."
Her face falls in pity, "Oh, I'm so sorry."
He shrugs uncomfortably, "That's life. What's your family like?"
"My Mom and I live in Lake Jackson, Dad was a firefighter - he died on duty when I was thirteen."
It's his turn to apologize, but she assures him that it's fine, and eventually, the conversation turns to their little adventure.
"Have you been there before?"
"To the church?"
"No, never. Why?"
"You seemed very at home."
She nods thoughtfully, then asks, "Did you look at the ceiling?"
The seeming change of subject throws him, but he replies, "For a little bit."
"Did it remind you of anything?"
"Maybe an enclosed battering ram?"
She looks at him with some confusion.
"With the shielding? To protect the men holding the ram from arrows?"
She laughs, "Anything else?"
He thinks for a bit, "Perhaps the inside of a boat?" By her smile, he can tell he's hit on something. "But why would it be upside-down?"
"You're a history minor; when would a crew turn over their ship?"
"Almost never, cutting off their only point of escape would be unthinkable unless they knew they had reached safe harbor -" realization hits him, "- unless they knew they were home."
It's so anticlimactic when it happens that it catches him off guard. He's merely glanced over to her, intending to respond to a question that she's asked him, when the light comes in from the other side of the bus and paints her silhouette gold as she gazes out the window. She turns as he tries to collect himself, tilting her head inquisitively, squinting against the sun. He quickly shakes it off, and their conversation continues for the duration of their journey.
It's late when they arrive at the station, and they are bathed in the yellow glare of streetlights as they disembark.
"Well, here we are," He states.
"In a yellow wood."
"Two roads diverging." Thomas, a self-identified cynic since the age of fifteen, feels almost as if this whole day has been a wakening, and this parting seems like a death knell.
"It was nice meeting you - ?"
"Thomas," he supplies, realizing that in the rush of everything, they'd never got around to exchanging names.
She nods, smiling, "I'm Mariana."
"It was nice meeting you. I hope we'll run into each other again someday."
She laughs, sensing his gloomy mood, "Yes, hopefully. I'm transferring up here, actually - to Fontbonne in the fall."
"What - really?" He's not entirely sure that he should believe her.
"Yes, I'm staying with my Aunt to finalize a few things up here. I'll be finished at Alvin Community College this spring."
"I go to Washington University!" He exclaims excitedly.
She laughs at his excitement, and shakes his hand very formally, then wishes him farewell and turns to go. He's turned around himself, still processing his good luck, before realizing that he's an absolute idiot and turns around to sprint after the girl. "Hey, wait, wait - may I have your number?"
She grins, scribbles her name and number down on the proffered notebook, bids him adieu and they go their separate ways.
Late that night, Thomas types away furiously.
"It seems then, that due to the simple fact of our finite nature, we can never prove the absolute. For all we know, what is true for us during our entire lives may change the instant we die. It is illogical, however, to assert that it is only in perceiving a value in an object that gives it its value. It is often said, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," for example, to justify a man's atrocious taste in art. But when the same is said about persons, perhaps it is not that a man's emotions regarding his bride make her appear to him to be the fairest among women. Perhaps it is that all persons are breathtakingly magnificent in their own unique way, and the husband has simply opened his eyes to the beauty that was always present. Beauty cannot be touched. It cannot be measured or proven. It cannot be bottled or sold or stolen. But in the midst of a culture that proclaims, "what may be true for you, may not be true for me," or the famous phrase, "only a Sith deals in absolutes," it seems that the only response capable of building authentic common ground is that there must be some things that are true, in all times and all places, and the question is whether or not we are open to it."