I’ve always taken the seven-thirty bus to Hollenbeck Street to get to work every morning. I’ve always sat on the exact same seat (third row down, next to the window). I’ve always sat in the exact same way, pushed up against the window, my legs crossed and my earphones in. I’ve always looked straight ahead or down at my book, if I’m carrying one. If someone sits down next to me, I avoid conversation at all costs. Conversation is not something I’m especially fond of at seven-thirty in the morning. Sitting on the bus like that, that’s the way I’ve spent my mornings, for all of last year.
It’s currently seven-thirty in the morning. I’ve just boarded the bus. And all these thoughts are running through my head as I’m standing by the door, as the engine rumbles to life, looking at the third row window seat . I’m looking at someone else sitting there. Someone whom I’ve never seen before. Someone has taken my seat.
This is uncalled for. The seven-thirty bus usually has the same people on it every morning (I mean, how many people can possibly have business on Hollenbeck Street every day at seven-thirty?), and most other passengers know that that seat is claimed by me. No one sits there. On the contrary, people have seats of their own. Who is this person anyway? Fuming, I make my way down the aisle and sit on the window seat the fourth row down – which isn’t half as good as the third row, mind you.
I sit down and try to make myself comfortable. The seat already feels too hard, and I can hear the conversations taking place among the ladies at the back of the bus at a few decibels louder than I’d like. I tie up my long brown hair, stick in my earphones and turn up the volume, staring furiously at the back of this strange person’s head. Maybe if I look hard enough, I’ll burn a hole through it. Yes, that would be nice.
The bus is moving, and scenes of tranquil American suburbia pass by our window. And suddenly, this person is turning around. He’s looking at me, and he’s saying something. Or at least his mouth is moving. Why can’t I hear him? Oh, right, I have Florence Welch screaming into each ear. I pull out my earphones grudgingly. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
I still must have a pretty irritated expression on my face, because he says, “I was asking you why you were staring daggers at me as you sat down. Did I take your seat or something?” He’s saying this jokingly, with a half-smile on his face. I was so busy being angry at him, I hardly registered the fact that he’s a guy around my age, with shaggy dark hair, thick, straight eyebrows and a pointy nose, wearing a worn blue sweatshirt. And that half-smile of his never seems to leave his face.
“No, no,” I say quickly. How exactly am I supposed to admit that he’s taken my beloved seat without sounding horribly, horribly childish? “I’m just, uh, not a morning person.”
He shrugs, then twists himself sideways so he can talk to me more easily. No, no, please don’t try and talk to me now. You’ll regret it, for sure. “Hey, what’s the fastest way to Palm Waters from here?”
I blink. Palm Waters is three hours away. I say this to him matter-of-factly, adding, “and you sure as hell won’t get there any faster by bus.”
He grins and gestures to his side, and as I lean over and look, I see a blue backpack sitting on the seat next to him, stuffed to the brim, as if it has been packed in a hurry. “I don’t have a lot of choices, you see. I just need to get there fast.”
I look at him. “Why?”
He shakes his head. “Long, long story. Just tell me, am I taking the quickest route? Hollenbeck, to Springfield, then Palm Waters?”
I take a moment to think. “You know, I’d think you’d get there faster if you stop by Kingsley Avenue.”
He frowns, then nods briskly. “Alright. I’ll get off in maybe ten minutes and see if I can catch a bus to there.”
Good, I’ll be getting my seat back. I look at him again. Who is this guy? Why is he in such a hurry? “What’s your name?” I find myself asking. This is unusual. I’m not usually the one extending the conversation.
He squints, but says nothing, and I add, “My real name is Arielle. For obvious reasons, I prefer Art.”
“Why? I kinda like Arielle. It reminds me of The Little Mermaid.”
“Really? I hate The Little Mermaid.” Ariel is probably the stupidest Disney character I’ve come across. What kind of princess chucks out her life for someone she hasn’t even met?
He lets his jaw drop in mock surprise. “Are you kidding? Those movies were my childhood. The Little Mermaid is brilliant.”
As I’m about to explain to him the many ways in which this statement is a flawed one, there’s two loud bangs, and the bus lurches to a stop. It sounds like two of our tires have gone. Simultaneously? That’s odd. Daniel whips his head around, and when he turns to look back at me, his expression is so different that for a moment I can’t recognize him. He’s in total panic.
He doesn’t respond, but he hands me the backpack and says, “Put it under the seat. Now.”
“Why?” I ask, obeying anyways. As soon as the backpack slides under the seat, the bus bounces a little, and I look up to see that a tall woman has hopped on. The driver is still in his seat, looking completely bewildered. “I’m sorry ma’am, I think the tire’s busted, we might need to head on over to – “
And suddenly, she’s holding up a gun. I shift in my seat and swallow. What the hell is even going on? I look at Daniel, but he’s regained his calm, easygoing demeanor, as if he’s expecting this. The woman looks at Daniel, and her eyes seem to burn right through him. Then her gaze shifts to me, and I can’t help but shiver. She clears her throat, smiling lightly. “The busted tire is my doing, sir. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I had some business to get to.”
And suddenly she’s moved forward, and she’s looking down at both of us. The bus has gone silent, and I find that I’m struck speechless too. Only Daniel seems to regain his speech, and interestingly enough, he coolly smiles at her. “Hi, mom. What are you doing here?”
It’s all I can do to keep my jaw from dropping. Where is this morning going? Not only is my favorite seat taken, but the guy who takes it, is the son of a psychopathic serial killer? Or whatever this woman is. Why can’t she just keep that gun away? She doesn’t even look that intent on using it.
“I figured you’d do something of this sort.” She sniffs. “Where is it?”
“Where is what?” I almost want to laugh at his innocent expression.
“You know what I’m talking about,” she looks down, apparently searching for the blue backpack. “I know you have it.”
Before she can bend any further, I push the backpack further behind towards under the seat, hoping it stays hidden. Why am I even getting involved in this? For all I know, Daniel could be the bad guy. Suddenly, she looks at me. “You have it.”
“What?” My voice sounds two octaves higher than it normally is. “I don’t. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Mom, leave her out of this. She doesn’t know anything.” Daniel is scowling.
Suddenly, there’s a sharp thwack! And the woman falls over, on top of Daniel. I press myself against the window in alarm, before I see the bus driver behind the woman, standing with a heavy metal rod in his hand. He’s grinning. “Good thing I always keep this thing with me, huh?”
I’m still breathing hard, and so is Daniel. He flips his mom over, examining her. “It’s not bleeding, but she’s out cold.” As he looks at me, his expression is almost sad. “We need to call the police.”
The driver is already pulling out his phone. “I’ll do that. Just give me a second. You two just make sure she doesn’t get up.” He climbs back into his seat, dialing the number. In a few moments, the silence breaks, and people in the back are murmuring. I hear several high-pitched ‘what happened?’s and ‘who was that?’s. I look at Daniel.
“Are you sure you want to call the police? Isn’t she your mom?”
He looks down at her again. “Not any more, I guess. She doesn’t want me, just her money.” He motions to the backpack. “It’s not even hers, really. She’s stolen it. The police will recognize her the moment they see her. I won’t go into the details.”
I nod slowly, unable to take my eyes off of the woman leaned awkwardly against the seat, her eyes closed and skin pale. Her resemblance to Daniel is uncanny, I’m surprised I didn’t notice it before. “So you were running away? With the money?”
He nodded. “It was about time. I was heading off to my uncle’s. Mom would never have allowed it, she’d know I’d tell him about her, and the game would be up. She literally kept me prisoner. So I got out, first chance I got. And yes, I went with the money, but don’t worry, I’m not that crafty. I’m thinking I’ll return it, or donate it to charity or something. I just didn’t think she deserved to keep it. She sucked so bad at being a mom.” He makes a face. I would have smiled at this if I hadn’t seen how upset he was a moment before.
“So… you’ll go to your uncle’s?”
“Yeah, I will. I’ll get down from here, in fact. Find the right bus.”
The next few minutes pass by slowly. The police arrive, recognize Daniel’s mother, and take her away. The driver gets a couple of spare tires in the place. And Daniel stands up as the bus rumbles back to life, and as everybody cheers. He turns and looks at me, smiling. “See you later, Art. Keep in touch.”
“Yeah, sure.” I smile back. I have his uncle’s number in my phone. I’ve only met him this morning, but I feel like I’ve known him forever. He takes off down the aisle, hops out the door, and he’s gone.
I watch him as he runs down the street with that worn blue backpack and rounds the corner. I lean back and exhale, my throat tight. I look down at my watch. God, I think, cracking a smile. I’m really late for work.
- Swarada (Editor)