‘Don’t s’pose I could bum a coupla smokes?’ asked the stranger.
‘How’d you know I smoke?’ the backpacker replied, rubbing his eyes with his palms.
The nicotine-starved stranger steepled his blue fingers. The backpacker flattened his matted hair with one hand, rummaging in his dirty frame backpack with the other. Producing a half-empty pack of bent Parliaments, he sighed. He’d vowed to make them last.
‘Care to join me?’ the stranger asked, jamming his scarf deeper into his jacket, scanning the edge of the bus terminal.
The backpacker shrugged, following the stranger, threading a course through a scattering of docile bodies, skirting a news stand selling copies of The Salt Lake Tribune. The previous day’s front page told of a female hiker claiming to have been abducted by aliens in City Creek Canyon. Noticing that the stand was making a killing on face coverings, the stranger muttered about the blanket bus cancellations, saying Cheyenne might as well have been on the moon.
Comatose travellers were antisocially sprawled across the polished chequerboard concourse at all angles, an ocean of dead eyes blinking at the overhead information boards. A young couple had made a playpen for their toddler with their laid-low luggage. A skateboard-hugging teenager, lips twitching beneath his snood, was mumbling in his sleep.
Bus arrivals were listed on the left of the boards, departures on the right. Every single listing had CANCELLED flashing in red beside it. The automatic doors had frozen shut, but a boarded-up side door stood ajar. A laminated piece of A4 card stated that only two people were allowed in the smokers’ compound at a time.
The stranger and the backpacker were the only two desperate enough to brave the elements. Filing out, they discovered that the compound overlooked a near-deserted parking lot blanketed in snow. Two young boxelder maple trees huddled in the far corner, their leaves ablaze. There were just three cars visible, all effectively colourless, all parked some twenty yards from one another, forming a lopsided triangle. Beyond the lot, a scrum of grey Art Deco skyscrapers fringed University Boulevard. An office light near the top of the tallest was flashing irregularly.
‘You in for the long haul?’ queried the stranger, hunching his shoulders, crossing his arms, burying his hands in his armpits.
‘Weather the way it is, I reckon we ain’t no choice,’ the backpacker said, retracting his hands into his hoodie sleeves. ‘Just wish I’d stumped extra for Amtrak.’
‘I got me a cousin in Laramie. Dude says he can’t open his door. Sounds like I-85 east o’ here is totally backed up with drifts blasting off the fields.’
The backpacker dipped his head, posting his stub in a silver wall-mounted cigarette bin before making for the door.
‘Hey, how ’bout you let me shout you some food?’ the stranger hollered, flicking his smouldering stub into a heap of gravelly slush.
The backpacker’s ten-second head start made all the difference, for he was now lost to the faceless crowd. Spotting him at the back of the Burger King queue, the stranger stepped as close to him as the latest regulations allowed.
‘Don’tcha think it’s funny, the hungrier a person gets, the less taste they have?’
‘Can’t say Taco Bell does it for me,’ the backpacker said. ‘And Ronald and gang plain creep me out.’
‘I get you,’ the stranger said, squinting at the fast-changing digital menu boards angled down behind the counter.
The queue jumped forward, then suddenly backstepped. The previous customer had forgotten to grab mayo for his wheelchair-bound wife.
‘So how come you’re not flying?’ the backpacker asked.
‘You never seen Air Crash Investigation? How ’bout you?’
‘Heading back to Colorado Springs. No way my folks would sub me a second air fare this semester.’
‘You ever seen The Terminal?’ asked the stranger.
‘Ah, forget it.’
It was their turn. The stranger pulled out a banded roll of fifties from his back pocket. ‘Been working overtime,’ he winked.
The plastic countertop was strewn with used order receipts, along with an unclaimed tray crammed with two Steakhouse Angus meals, two portions of chilli cheese bites, a Fanta, and a Sprite Zero. A bulletproof screen segregated customers from employees.
The backpacker ordered a Halloumi King burger, the stranger nothing more than a small Americano.
The stick insect of a counter assistant frowned at the sight of cash, placing the proffered note into a counterfeit note detector. She immediately beckoned her bearded, black-shirted line manager.
‘Seems there’s an issue with your fifty,’ the manager said with searching eyes.
‘How ’bout I try contactless?’ the stranger replied, reaching for his Glock.