The bus pulled into the sleepy hamlet just as the sun peeked over the horizon.
A young woman sat shivering on the bench in the dusty light. Her thin jacket had done little to keep her warm through the last few hours of the morning. Rubbing her hands together, she glanced around, her eyes wide and her mouth set in a firm line. The bus turned the corner and rolled to a stop in front of her. With one final look over her shoulder, she snatched up her bulging backpack and climbed onboard.
The heated air washed over her, enveloping her in its warmth. She glanced out the windows, searching, even as the doors closed behind her. She handed the crinkled ticket to the driver without a word.
“Morning, Miss,” he said. “Welcome aboard.”
Shouldering her pack, she mumbled, “Thank you, sir,” and glanced up the aisle.
The choice for seating was sparse. There were three open seats: one next to a large, wildly gesturing man in heated conversation with a razor-thin woman across the aisle; another next to a man buried in a book; the last next to a woman patting a crying baby.
Sighing, she made her way up the aisle, stepping gingerly over feet and weaving around the gesturing man toward the middle of the bus. As she approached, the reader looked up as he closed the book on his finger.
“Could I sit there?” she whispered, with a slight head nod toward the open window seat.
“Of course,” he said, climbing to his feet.
As she put her bag in the overhead, she raised her head and the hair fell back from her face, giving him a better view of her face. She’s kind of pretty, he thought. At a glance he guessed she was in her early thirties. She had delicate cheekbones, a small button of a nose, full lips, and an angular upturn to her chin, giving her face an almost elfin look. Then he caught a glimpse of the deep purple and yellow splotch under her right eye just as she closed the compartment. She dropped her gaze, her hair once again covering the right side of her face.
She slid into her seat, shrunk into the corner and gazed out the window at the small town. He then sat down just as the bus rolled away from the curb and closed his eyes, the book on his lap unread.
They rode along in silence for a while. After the town was twenty minutes behind them, she settled in, visibly relaxing. She looked around with wary eyes. Eventually they came to rest on the man at her side. She regarded him, tracing the curve of his face. He was average looking, aside from his deepening hairline and a largish nose that gave him an almost classical look. Her gaze drifted down, past his casual but expensive looking clothes. Definitely not a Walmart shopper, then, she thought. Her eyes fell to the book on his lap. Though his hand obscured the author and title, the cover art looked somehow familiar. A moment later she recognized it with a start.
“Are you reading Scott Sigler?” she exclaimed without realizing it. At the sudden sound of her voice, he jumped and almost dropped the book. He turned to face her, blinking, as she colored slightly and dropped her gaze. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“You’re not intruding,” he said, his voice soft. “Are you a fan?”
“Oh yes, I’ve listened to all his podcasts.”
“How long have you been a fan?”
“I’ve been a Junkie,” she said, using Sigler’s term for his rabid fans, “since about 2006… a year after he released Earthcore. How about you?”
“I’ve been one since around the original podcast of Nocturnal,” he said, holding up the book for her to see. “It’s one of my favorites…”
“… that’s my favorite one!” she said at the same time. They laughed at the awkward moment.
“What a small world,” she chuckled, her face lighting up and instantly chasing away the years.
This girl is barely into her twenties, he thought, reassessing. She is really quite beautiful when she smiles.
They spent the next forty-five minutes talking about the relative merits of Scott Sigler’s stories, his more over-the-top concepts, and other authors they both liked. As the topic drew to a comfortable lull, the man reached out his hand.
“Well, my fellow Junkie, it’s great to meet you,” he said, noting that she cringed a little at his sudden movement. “Um… my name’s Mark, but you may know me better as ‘PappaBearsItch’ on the Sigler forums.”
“I recognize that name,” she said, extending her own hand tentatively. They shook, her hand small and clammy in his larger warm grip. “I’m Melissa. ‘Drab_Duchess19’, though I haven’t been… well, very active lately.”
Her hand came up to absently rub her cheek under her flowing hair. A small shiver ran through her and her eyes and mouth drew more pinched.
“I think I may have seen you in some of the older threads,” he said quietly.
She’s so sad, he thought, someone’s seriously messed her up… big time.
The talk lapsed into silence as the bus pulled into the next stop. Several people debarked and a few more got on. As the new passengers settled in, the bus eased away from the curb. The moments rolled by like the wheels on the bus, turning round and round, eating up the miles.
Finally, she turned back to him.
“So, Mark, where are you headed?” she asked.
As the last word left her mouth, his face instantly lost some of the warmth. It was as though a black veil suddenly was drawn over his features so abrupt was the transformation.
“Oh… I’m sorry, I…,” she began, embarrassed though she didn’t know why.
“It’s ok,” he said, looking down at his clenched fists. He forced his hands to relax with a visible effort. “I’m heading back home to the city. I… I was visiting… my wife’s grave.”
As he said the last, his voice cracked a little, the final words coming out as a whisper. His eyes welled up and he turned away, looking toward the front of the bus. The awkward silence hung in the air for several minutes, punctuated only by the thrum of the bus on the highway.
Just as she was about to apologize, to say something, anything, to fill the uncomfortable chasm gaping between them, he wiped away a lone escaped tear and spoke.
“Yesterday was the third anniversary of her death,” he said, his voice barely audible.
“Oh Mark,” she said, raising her hand to her mouth, “I’m so sorry.”
The quiet wrapped around them like a mist. They were lost in their thoughts, unsure what could and could not, should not, be said. He stared off into the middle distance, pain riding on his features like a familiar companion. She sat quietly beside him, her eyes darting from her own writhing fingers to his wounded mask every few minutes.
“Do you… do you want to talk about it?” she asked at last, breaking the silence.
“No,” he said, “I don’t…”
Her eyes widened at the sudden gruff response.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to…” she interjected.
“… but I probably should,” he said as if he didn’t hear her. “It’s just that I… I haven’t had anyone to talk to about this.”
“I’ll listen if you want to talk about her.”
“I’m not even sure where to begin…” he said with a bitter laugh.
“Well, why not start by telling me what she was like or how you met?” she offered.
Tentative at first, he began talking about his wife, Susan, his eyes lost in the pathways of the past. He talked about how they met in their last year of college, how he was instantly drawn to her fiery attitude and green eyes and how she turned him down the first three times he asked her out. After they graduated from college, they had moved in together. He had fallen head over heals for her; with no surviving family of his own—his parents had died just after he finished high school—she quickly became his world, the focus of his existence. She was always the practical one, the steadfast one, balancing out his emotional tendencies and his more spontaneous approach to life. But despite her more sensible aspects, she was a gentle, kind soul.
“You see,” he said, a glimmer of moisture in his eyes, “she always wanted to help people. Even though she knew better, knew that she should be careful in the city, she always did what she could to help.”
“Not many people are like that anymore.”
“I know… and I tell myself that everyday. But I still wish that she hadn’t been so goddamn intent on helping people,” he said, his voice rising and breaking. After a moment, he said, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, it’s ok. Go on.”
“One night after a long shift, she stopped to help someone. From what the police said, several witnesses had seen a man moaning on the ground, though they hadn’t stopped to help. Not my Susan, though. She stopped. She tried to help. And what did she get for her big heart? The man… the man he… well… he stabbed her, grabbed her purse, and ran off.”
His voice trailed off even as tears cut furrows in his cheeks. That night ran unbidden in his mind again: the phone call from the police, the numb unreality, the frantic drive to the hospital, and the kind but distant doctor and officer.
“She… died in the ambulance. She died alone and they never even found the man. I know she died doing the ‘right thing,’ but I… God, I still miss her.”
He wiped his face with his free hand, smearing the tears. They rode in silence, each lost in thought and not knowing what to say.
“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping away a last tear. “You’re the first person I’ve really talked to about this.”
“Don’t apologize, Mark. You need to get it out, face it. No matter how tough.”
“I know. Life must go on, right?”
“Yes, it must.”
“It feels good to get it out, but I have no right to burden you with my problems,” he said, glancing at the side of her face before looking away. “Especially when you have your own troubles.”
The moment lay in the air before them, awkward.
After a moment, he added, “I’m sorry. I noticed the bruise when you sat down. I… I shouldn’t have said anything. Please forgive me.”
She dropped her gaze as she raised her hand and then stopped when she realized what she was doing. After a moment, she sighed deeply and raised her gaze to his.
“I… don’t mind, Mark. Truly I don’t.”
“You don’t have to talk about it, Melissa. I know it must be hard for you.”
“It is,” she said, her mind in a race with her beating heart.
She turned and faced the window, watching the landscape roll by. They were closer to the city now, perhaps only two hours away. Tears formed in her eyes, threatening to escape.
“I’m not sure if I can talk about this, not sure if it makes any sense… not even sure you’d understand.”
“You don’t have to do it if you can’t. There’s no pressure…”
“We do have some time left if you want to get it out, to talk about it. Plus, I am a pretty good listener.”
She rubbed her face hard with her hands, wincing with the pain.
“Do you know what it is like to live in constant fear?” she asked.
His eyes widened. He was silent for a moment and then murmured, “No, I don’t.”
“I do, Mark. I know it only too well.”
Her hands closed into small fists, the veins standing out in stark relief on her frail hands.
“My father… was a piece of shit. He was an abusive, violent alcoholic. He used to beat my mother, severely, at least once or twice a week. Even though he was bigger and stronger than her, she did what she could to protect me from him. Until she “fell down the stairs” and broke her neck when I was only eleven. After she died, he got worse.”
“Oh, Melissa, that’s horrible.”
“Horrible? You don’t know horrible,” she said with an edge. “The beatings were only the beginning and were not even the worst of it. I could have handled it if it was just the beatings. He… he began molesting me when I was 13. Our little secret, he said, mustn’t tell anyone, he said.”
Mark shifted in his seat, silent.
“I didn’t even realize it was wrong until I hit high school, when I actually started making friends and talking about their lives. Up until then, I just thought it was part of family, part of being a kid. Part of being ‘loved’.” A bitter laugh of disgust.
“When I was sixteen, he died from cancer. I think I cried more from relief than from grief. But then I had to face reality alone, had to take care of myself. For the first time in my life I was free… and I was messed up. I… I was lost. Did things I shouldn’t have done. Drugs and sex mainly. Tried to end things a couple times. Typical depressed teen crap.”
“How did you make it through?” Mark asked, his eyes wide.
“I honestly don’t know. I had some friends who were doing worst things than I was. I started to see what they did, things much worse than I was doing. One was even prostituting herself on the weekends. But even though I wasn’t doing as much as they were, I started to see myself in each of them. It disgusted me. I started to ask myself what would my mother say. One day I just woke up and decided that I didn’t want to live that way anymore. By the time I was a senior, I had my life pretty much under control and as close to normal as any kid is. I finally came to terms with my horrible childhood and started looking to the future by the time I graduated.”
She paused, turning to look out the window. “And then I met Jesse.”
Several minutes passed before she turned back to Mark.
“When we first started dating, he was so nice, always a gentleman. I was his ‘princess’,” she said.
They met a few months after she graduated, when she was working at the diner. He was a few years older than her, a weekday trucker as they call them, and he just seemed so mature. They jumped very quickly into a heated relationship and were married within six months. She had never been so happy and it was bliss for a couple years. Then they started trying to get pregnant, “to start the next phase,” as she said, but they didn’t have much luck. She got pregnant a couple times but miscarried each time. They started seeing specialists to try and find the problem, which cost a lot of money. Jesse had to work longer hours, which started to put a strain on their lives.
“The abuse started a year ago, right around the time he got laid off and started staying out late. It was just little stuff: name-calling, getting angry. Small stuff. Stupid stuff. He would apologize the next morning and things would be good for a little while. Until the next time.”
“They say that’s how it normally starts,” Mark said.
“It is. Believe me, I know. I… I thought it was my fault, that I was doing something wrong. I started working harder to make things better, to make him happy. It seemed to work for a while. But then about two months ago, he slapped me for the first time. I don’t even really remember why, just that it was out of nowhere. Since then, he’s been more… physical, hitting me or pinching me when I say something he doesn’t like… or when I don’t give him what he wants. Especially in bed.”
She paused, the last statement hanging between them, untouched.
“I tried to make it better, tried to make it work. I tried to pretend I wasn’t being abused. Again. I tried to pretend that he wasn’t becoming just like my father. Tried to fool myself that he wasn’t sleeping around. It worked for a while.”
She reached again and touched her face, her eyes distant. Mark slowly shook his head, disgusted.
“But then he came home last night, drunk again and reeking of sex. And he punched me.”
She sat waiting in the kitchen, his plate of food long grown cold. Dishes were piled on the counter but she was too tired and fed up to even bother. Her head was in her hands, her eyes puffy from the long night. At last she heard the car pull up and the door slam shut. She looked over he shoulder at the clock on the stove.
She was on him as soon as he walked in the door.
“Where the hell have you been?” she demanded, their noses almost toughing. His eyes were hooded, trying to focus on her face. The stench rolled off him, the smell of alcohol and something else. Something musky. Something… hormonal.
“Who were you with, Jesse? Who were you screwing?” she demanded, her voice icy.
“Leave me alone, Missy. I’m tired and gonna go bed,” he slurred, trying to push past her.
“No you asshole, you will tell me now, tell me why you are throwing us away!” With that she put her small hands on his chest to stop him.
Her touch seemed to sober him a little. He stopped trying to move past and instead looked down at her hands, than back to her face. The slur all but dropped from his voice as he quietly said, “Don’t. You don’t want to do this.”
“Yes I do, Jesse,” she snarled, “I’m tired of being pushed around by you.” She had thought about this confrontation all night, thought about and rehearsed her words very carefully. She was tired of being pushed around and used. She was even willing to deal with the slaps that he was likely to give her for standing up for herself. She had anticipated his temper getting the best of him.
What she hadn’t anticipated was that he would actually go so far as to punch her. As his balled fist connected with her face, rocking her head back, she flailed backward, knocked into the counter.
Mark just watched her, his mouth slightly open.
“He actually punched me. Just because I asked where he’d been. And that’s when I knew it was finally time.”
The force of the punch knocked her against the counter, twisting her. Then he was on her, slapping and hitting, all the while swearing at her dazed form. She put up her hands to block his blows, but they were knocked aside. She reached, groping, and her hand wrapped around a slim handle. She then swung the handle with all her might at his head.
The iron skillet connected with his skull with a resounding BONG.
He fell away from her, falling hard on his rear, his head lolling to the left. She pushed herself off the counter and without a thought brought the skillet around again, knocking him flat on his back, unconscious. Panting heavily, she dropped the skillet next to him, and put her hands on her knees, out of breath. She looked down at him, disgusted. With deliberate movements, she spit on him and, rearing back her foot, kicked him between his splayed legs. He only moaned, barely moving.
“No more, asshole. I’m done with this shit.” With that, she walked out of the kitchen to the bedroom.
She looked off into the middle distance. Tears flowed down her cheeks to pool in droplets on her chin.
“Things have… recently changed, giving me a new perspective. There’s more than myself to consider, now.”
Her hand moved to her stomach, rubbing it as she turned to stare out the window, wondering if this time would be the time, if she could keep it. A small, sad smile dragged at her face.
“I just can’t do it anymore. Not now.”
She wiped away the tears and turned to finally look Mark directly in the eyes for the first time. A small smile turned up the corners of her mouth.
“After he… passed out, I called my friend who lives in the city. She’s willing to put me up until I can get on my feet, long enough to get my life started over again.”
“What will you do?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“What I have to do… what I should have done years ago. I’m done being scared. No more. Not ever again.”
“Will you be safe?” he asked, concern etched on his face.
“I think so. He’s a coward when it really comes down to it. I think he’ll be grateful, if the truth be told.”
“I’m so sorry, Melissa,” he said after a moment. “It sucks but it sounds like the right choice.”
“I think so too. It’s time. We’ve both known it for a long time.”
They sat in silence for a while, the miles passing underfoot, both lost in thought. Outside, the edge of the city slowly moved past the window as they neared the end of their journey. After a few minutes, the silence was replaced with small talk and period of quiet. For another hour, there was no past, no future. Though strangers, they took comfort in each other’s company, happenstance, pain, and common interest filling the void for the moment.
When the bus rolled to its last stop, they disembarked in silence, the moment heavy. Awkwardness descended like a stage curtain as they stood in silence, unsure what to say. Finally, they exchanged a few mumbled “goodbyes” and “good luck,” before they turned and walked their separate ways.
Melissa walked through the terminal, toward where she knew her friend waited. She walked with her head held high. As the station doors swung shut behind her, she saw her friend across the way waving to her. Even as she raised her own hand in greeting, she heard a voice behind her.
“Melissa, wait up for a minute.”
She stopped, her heart instantly thumping in her chest as she turned.
“Yes, what is it, Mark?”
He came to a stop a few feet from her, his face flushed and slightly out of breath. For a moment he just stood there, as if unsure what to say.
“I… I just wanted to say thank you. It’s not too often that I… well, that I meet a fellow Junkie. I’d like you to take this… from one fan to another.”
With that he handed her the book. She tried to protest, tried to give it back to him, but he was firm, telling her that he had another copy at home. After a few moments, she finally relented, accepting it with a smile. He returned the smile, said, goodbye, and then walked away.
She watched him go. Only after he was out of sight did she look at the book in her hands. She opened the book to the first page, the hastily scribbled words drawing her eyes instantly.
~ When you get settled, if you ever want to talk,
give me a call (548-695-2376). Your friend, Mark ~
She closed the book, turned, and walked to her waiting friend.