A yellow school bus, spackled with mud, races downhill between ancient redwood trees. Shards of light poke through branches far above. For every turn, the tires throw back lines of smoke. The trees thin out, the forest parting like a gate opening into new territory. Upon reaching flat ground, the bus is struck by sunlight.

Behind the wheel, Rick squints in reaction to the burst of light. Everything happens in bouncing snapshots. Rick looks older than his thirty-five years. His eyes are a burning liquid gray. His hair is long, brown, matted. A purple scar runs from below Rick’s left eye around his cheek and down his neck, the result of a technology failure in Iraq.

Ahead is the first stop sign between Rick and Suzanne’s isolated homestead, and what they refer to as The World. Rick says, “Malarkey.” He stomps the gas pedal and blows past the sign.

The bus’s seats are gone except the front row. Midway back, under blankets, Suzanne is on a mattress. She smokes a powerful joint. Before leaving their cabin, she swallowed one of the tranquilizers Rick gets from the V.A. hospital six hours away during his mandatory annual visit.

“It’s my own fault,” she says. “You don’t go using a hatchet when you’re high. Duh.”

Rick says, “This ain’t a fault type situation.”

Suzanne inhales. She’s sinking into drowsiness. She’s amazed by how dull the pain has become. “There’s nobody to feed the chickens.”

Rick says, “If something happens to Sailboat, or Chicken Little, I’m going to get really pissed.”

“Honey, what else is new?”

“Two fingers in a bucket of ice riding shotgun. I think that qualifies as something new.”

Ahead, another stop sign. Fences squaring off land. Families. Machinery, electricity and all of the other things Rick has mostly avoided for a dozen years. A familiar adrenaline gust tightens his chest. A car approaches from the left. There’s no stop sign when traveling that direction. Rick leans on the horn of the charging bus and says, “Malarkey.”

His horn blast is matched by the approaching car’s horn. The shrill duet sends colors jumping into Rick’s field of vision. He looks through popping lines of carroty red and bleached yellows. Rick tells himself to keep driving fast.

The World seems to appear all at once. The town of Ukiah. Old brick buildings, street signs, people moving about. Rick tries to shake off the jumping colors. A squarish concrete form springs toward him as the dirty bus enters a parking lot. The bus smashes No Parking sandwich boards–they scatter like birds–and halts with tires scraping a curb. Rick jerks open the bus’s folding door and goes to the only person he trusts. He picks up Suzanne, says, “Here you go,” and hustles inside Ukiah General Hospital. Sounds of the automatic doors bring inner explosions and flashes of silvery light. A woman in a pale-blue nurse’s uniform, standing sentry behind a counter, raises a hand. It’s like another stop sign. Rick mutters, “This goddamn world,” and carries Suzanne down a hallway. At an open door he sees a female and a male nurse being talked to by a guy in slacks wearing a white lab coat.

Rick deposits Suzanne on a bed behind them. Suzanne has fainted.

The male doctor, who Rick barely registers, says, “Sir? Sir!

The nurses turn. Their faces grow animated.

Rick says, “Her left hand.” He exits swiftly. He knows that when things get like this, once he stops moving, he’ll crumple. Rick passes through where he had come. Glass doors part. He’s outside. He shoves open the bus door and reaches for the passenger seat. Rick grabs the bucket and races back into    the hospital.

A security guard materializes. Rick thrusts an arm out. He knocks the security guard to the floor. The guard’s radio crackles, shooting exploding bomb sounds at Rick’s head. Rick stumbles into the room where he left Suzanne. It’s empty. He kicks open the next door. Suzanne’s on a bed with her left arm up. The male nurse steadies it. The woman nurse is carefully unraveling Rick’s hurried tape job.

Rick shoves the bucket at the doctor’s chest. The doctor takes it, looks down, and frowns.

Rick says, “Put ‘em back good, or I’ll hurt you.”

Half a dozen people have gathered near the oddly-parked school bus. People chat, and speculate, as a thickset man in a police uniform taps the narrow glass door of the bus. Sam Dowd, county sheriff and decades-long commissioner of the Mendocino American Little League, climbs onto the rubber step. His face owns a jowly scowl that manages to convey his approachable nature. He has enjoyed sixty-three years of good health and family. His older brother, Al, who Sam near worshipped while growing up, had not fared as well. He died   in Na Trang when Sam was a freshman in high school. Al’s letters from Vietnam are filed by date in a shoe box, which Sam stores in a place no one will ever find them.

Sam works open the bus’s folding door, goes inside. Rick is under the same blankets as Suzanne had been. In Rick’s mind he is fishing the south fork of the Eel, the river he fished near daily as a boy. He casts a tapered blue fly-fishing line into soothing waters. He hasn’t heard the tapping on glass or Sam Dowd’s entering.

Sam says, “C’mon, you got to get up.”

Rick recognizes the voice. They have tangled before. Rick leaves the river. “What’re you doing here?”

Sam says, “They need you inside. As in right now.”

“They fixing her? I’m not going in there again till they fix her.”

Sam Dowd sighs. He reaches around his ample middle for handcuffs. “I’m going to read you your rights. Then you’re going in and signing some papers.” The sheriff throws off the blankets and pulls Rick to his feet. “Give me your hands. We don’t have time to hit each other today.”

Rick emerges from the bus. His bound wrists rise to block the sun; people step back. Rick feels eyes following him as he walks with Sheriff Dowd into the hospital. Rick says, “I gotta warn you. They got machines talking to each other in here. All kinds of weird shit.”

The security guard, his right eye puffy, his right arm in a sling, comes up and says, “That’s him. He did it.”

Rick has no memory of striking the security guard.

Sam grabs Rick by an elbow. He says to the other man, “I’ll take your statement in my office tomorrow. Ten AM.”

They move on, turn left down a hallway. At its end is a small office. The doctor in a white lab coat, and another man in a suit, stand near a metal desk.

The suit doctor says, “You have to sign for your wife’s release, to take her to Santa Rosa. We have a colleague there who specializes in hands. We can’t do it justice here.”

Rick says, “Where is she?”

Sam Dowd says, “Sign, and I’ll take you to her.”

The doctor gives a pen to the sheriff, who places it in Rick’s right hand, and guides his handcuffed wrists to the printed form.

Rick signs hastily. “Malarkey. Where is she?”

The white-coated doctor says, “Come this way. It’s faster than waiting for the ‘copter.”

Rick looks to Sam Dowd. His body tenses all over. “This isn’t to take me away, right? I need your word.”

Sam Dowd says, “You got it.”

They head out a side door to a wide, boxy white ambulance. Its motor is idling. The doctor opens the back and the first thing Rick hears is the hum of technology. First thing he sees are the instruments. One has red lines popping up and down, just like the red lines Rick sometimes hallucinates. He freezes. Sheriff Dowd pushes Rick up and in and Rick sees Suzanne, frizzy blonde hair like a nest, face pallid, eyes closed, on her back on a gurney that’s locked into the wall. Near her feet, sitting in a built-in white chair, is a male attendant wearing those pale blue nurse’s clothes. The vehicle is open to the front. Rick catches a glimpse of the driver.

Rick says, “Is she asleep?”

Somewhere behind him, the doctor says, “She’s had a little help. She’s fine.”

Sam Dowd climbs in behind Rick, who stares at Suzanne as if she might be dead, and in one deft movement Sam unlocks one handcuff and locks Rick’s right wrist to a steel side rail of the gurney. He guides Rick onto a seat near Suzanne’s head.

Sam goes to the front of the vehicle. “What the hell are we waiting for?”

They head out, siren wailing. The siren and the technology humming seem to press Rick’s ears together, squeezing his head, hindering his ability to think. Rick looks out a small window that’s above the bed. It’s about one-foot square. Pale blue sky whizzes by. Soon they’re on the highway. The siren cuts. This affords Rick a sliver of relief.

He leans forward, sliding the handcuffs toward Suzanne’s left arm, which is strapped to the rail. Taped around her hand is a sphere of clean cotton. Rick sinks from the chair to his knees.

The attendant, who Rick has forgotten is there, politely says, “You can’t touch her.”

Rick slides his hand down the metal rail a few inches. “She keeps me from losing it. Okay?”

The attendant is young. He has short black hair, parted on the left, bright brown eyes and a clear, living-in-the-present face. The attendant shakes his head: no.

Rick says, “Just the top of her arm.” He sighs. Catches breath. “Please?”

Rick stares at Suzanne with such anguish, and devotion, it moves the attendant to join him on the floor. They’re on their knees. The ambulance rolls south on Highway 101 at seventy-five miles per hour.

Sam Dowd calls back, “Everything all right?”

The attendant calls ahead, “Everything’s fine.”

Rick quietly scoots forward, sliding the handcuffs so he’s even with Suzanne’s strapped arm.

The attendant returns to his chair. He watches Rick closely.

Rick touches Suzanne just above the elbow. He whispers, “Oh, Love,” and runs fingertips in a slow circle over the miraculous skin. Her arm is dotted with white spots born of living mostly under sunlight, and bronzed freckles. The insistent humming in Rick’s head diminishes. He slides back into his chair.

He whispers to the attendant, “Thanks, man.”

Rick closes his eyes and goes back to fishing the Eel River. He casts his line. Ben Lapp, his bomb-sweeping partner in Iraq, comes into view. Ben is sitting in a Jeep with a deer. Rick notes the deer’s antlers. Rick leaves the river before Ben blows up again.

The attendant does not cease watching Rick. Rick returns his gaze. Right of the attendant, against the back wall: The source of the humming Rick hears in tandem with the hum of tires racing over asphalt. It’s a stainless-steel box, a small refrigerator/freezer. Rick looks at it, and his chest seems to open like a pair of doors swinging out from the center. He jolts uprightat Suzanne’s disembodied fingers touching him. He knows they’re in the steel box, and yet they caress Rick’s tense chest. They touch him like they do on those nights red and yellow detonations fill his head and he can’t sleep.

“Mister, are you okay?”

The small square of blue seen through the window whizzes by. Rick sees the Ben Lapp he saw at the river sucked out of the window, a tiny figure flying backwards. Ben fades, he disappears.

Rick says, “Goodbye. I thought it was clear. The screen said clear. I ran the sequence three times, just like they said to.”

The attendant doesn’t say anything, though he looks ahead to see if the driver or Sam Dowd has heard this. Neither of them look back.

Rick again says goodbye aloud to Ben and realizes he has never said goodbye to him, has never been able to let Ben go, until now. Rick returns to his safe spot, the green waters of the Eel River. He’s in waist deep. He casts his line.

As if she’s far away, Suzanne says, “Nothing’s different from anything else. I mean nothing’s separate. I think I always knew it.”

Rick’s eyes open. Suzanne’s eyes are closed. Rick looks to the attendant and puts a finger to his lips.

Rick whispers, “Sometimes she sees things. Sometimes they come true.”

The attendant rises, just an inch; he doesn’t leave the chair. His eyes shoot a darting look toward Sheriff Dowd and the driver, then back to Suzanne. It’s as if the attendant and Rick and Suzanne are sharing a secret.

Suzanne’s words grow stronger, filling the back chamber of the racing ambulance. “If we just quit getting in the way, we’ll make it.”

Rick says, “Are they going to be able to fix you? Love, what do you see?”

“Something yellow in the sky. Everything’s okay.”

Sam’s brusque voice arrives as if from above, like when Rick was under the blankets in the bus: “What’s going on back there?”

Rick says, “We’re talking. How much longer till we reach them doctors?”

“Soon enough. Listen, I got to talk to you about that.”

In front, Sam unbuckles. He balances himself against a wall as he goes into the back of the speeding ambulance. The attendant offers his seat; Sam waves him off. Sam looks at Rick’s prematurely-aged face, its awful scar, the bloodshot eyes, and wonders what his brother Al would have been like at Rick’s age if he hadn’t killed himself.

Sam says, “They say she’ll have use of her fingers, but like fifty percent. Maybe more, maybe less. Prepare yourself to hear it. You punch somebody in Santa Rosa, they’ll lock you up.”

Rick says, “Get us to them doctors.”

They exit the highway, the siren re-commences, they weave through streets. The ambulance halts. People rush in and before Rick can gather his thoughts, Suzanne is taken away. Rick is walked down a hallway and shown where he is to wait. He hears himself say “thank you” to people he doesn’t fully see. Nor does he see the people who pass by, their heels clicking across a tile floor, their words like whispers floating down a canyon back home in the woods.

Rick returns to casting his fly-fishing line into the Eel River. He tries to picture every bend, boulder, every churning green eddy. He is brought to his feet by the voice of Sheriff Dowd.

“Hang in there. It should be a couple more hours, maybe less.”

Sam Dowd touches Rick on the shoulder. Sam’s face is blotchy like Rick’s and, duties completed, equally sad looking.

Sam clears his throat. “I’m counting on you to keep it together, for Suzanne. No matter how her hand turns out, you keep your head together. You hear me?”

Rick sees the redness and strain on Sam’s face. He says, “I want to quit reminding you of your brother. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Sam steps away. He scratches at a cheek. He swallows, collects himself. “I catch you fishing without a license again, it’ll cost you five hundred bucks. And I want to see a current registration sticker on the bus. From now on, you’re straightening up.”

Rick touches his chest. He doesn’t mention Suzanne’s fingers caressing it. Rick says, “I think I can be different. Will you help me be different?”