The Wheels of the Bus Go

Day 7

I hummed mindlessly. A nursery rhyme looped in my brain as I turned out of my complex’s parking lot. I was running late for work. Hopefully the blue route would be reasonable traffic this morning and I would only be my usual late. Hopefully. I drummed my fingers on my steering wheel. When was my kids’ pediatrician appointment again? Crap, did I email David about those payment requests? Did I feed the cat? I drummed and hummed louder turning back the pages of my mind organizing my day, trying to calm myself. Tasteful, expensive homes adorned in massive trees and manicured lawns sped past my windows as I bisected the Main Line.

 

I wished I had coffee, a pumpkin spice coffee and a bacon egg and cheese bagel. I stopped humming and drumming and dreamt of Wawa. The school bus in front of my car caught my eye. The bus was slowing. The tiny STOP sign swung out. The bus stopped. Craptastic.

 

 I knew never to look at a school bus. For the every one time you get a friendly wave there are nine times an angelic cherub shoots you the finger. The wheels on the bus… Humming, I wondered if I would be extra late or embarrassedly late. The bus’s doors slowly unfolded. Leisurely a group of children clamored aboard. It wasn’t the bus that caught my eye it was a little girl in the back window, her large brown eyes tired, her forehead resting on the cold hard glass, her hands clenched in fists by her face. I knew that face. I saw that face in the mirror when I took the time to look. That face is desperation.

 

The bus moved. Suddenly I was on that bus going to school to learn history and how to make others more comfortable. I wanted to tell her I knew how hard it was, some days, most days. The little girl and I locked eyes. Hang on it gets better.  Did she smile or was that the shifting light through the leaves?

 The school bus turned onto school grounds. The chain between us stretched and snapped. I drove out of the school zone and across the commuter lines towards the pike. It doesn’t really get better but you get stronger. Craning my neck past the red orange foliage to check for traffic, I edge my car forward. Go round and round, round and round.

Spring Heeled Jack

With one eye on the ribbon of highway and one eye on her phone, Quinn looked if her favorite true crime podcast had dropped its latest episode. Score! She thought and hit the accelerator as the spooky theme song filled her speakers.

 

“Hey cats and kittens this is your prince of primal fear, Spring Heeled Jack, here to get to the roots of what scares us all. In this week’s Serial Chiller I’m exploring four urban legends involving cars so let’s pop the trunk, kick back, and get started after this message from my wonderful sponsor Home Safe. Shouldn’t your home be HomeSafe safe…”

 

Quinn stretched in the driver’s seat. The idea of driving cross country was more fun than actually driving cross country. It was supposed to be an adventure, Girls’ Night/Road Trip, Quinn and Jen’s Excellent Adventure. Then Jenna got cold feet. At least the traffic had thinned out, Quinn thought humming the HomeSafe jingle.

 

“The Killer in the Back Seat was first published as a legend in 1965 but the tale is much older, a cautionary tale for women driving alone. This boogie man first appeared with the arrival of …”

 

Chugging a large iced coffee, Quinn pumped her gas. The station was nearly empty except for a creepy white van with a flat tire and a nondescript SUV.  The gas station attendant was ogling her through the convenience store window. She had taken the smaller highways and backroads in hopes there would be cool neon signs, kitschy diners with sassy waitresses, giant balls of string, anything exciting. Quinn looked up and the attendant was flicking his tongue at her. Her face flushed and she slammed the nozzle back on the pump.

 

“This old chestnut is a favorite around campfires in some telling it an escaped prisoner bent on murder in other versions it is a deranged runaway mental patient but what about that hook…”

 

Slowing her car a little, Quinn checked her phone for the thirtieth time. The SUV behind her slowed too. No text from Jen, no missed calls either, she threw her phone and it slid into the stupid space between the console and passenger seat. She turned to the backseat to reach for it swerving into the opposite lane. The scream of a truck horn shook her heart and she swerved out off oncoming traffic. A row of angry drivers in the other lane honked and shouted. Mashing down the gas, Quinn screamed and honked back.

 

“…I’ve always wondered what would have happened if the boyfriend never got out of the car. I’m not victim bashing but as the Morbid chicks always say fresh air is for dead people.”

 

Quinn’s stomach rumbled. She fished in her Hot Cheetos bag for crumbs. A battered road sign proclaimed Dr. Hooker’s All-Nite Gator Farm & Waffle House exit 13. Quinn laughed to herself and headed for adventure. Dr. Hooker was closed, more than closed it looked as if the restaurant had been set on fire, bulldozed, and then set on fire again. It was dark. Her map app had been recalculating for fifteen minutes. And Quinn had to pee. Badly. She maneuvered a quick K turn and hurried out of the empty parking lot. Quinn remembered passing a rest stop. In a switchback, a SUV waited patiently. Quinn sped past the switchback focused on her destination. The piercing glow of high beams filled her rear view mirror.

 

“In cars, in trains, in horse drawn carriages the disappearing passenger is a frequent yet elusive recurring character. I guess there is just something about traveling long distances that make people afraid of disapppearing . Good night murderinos. This is Spring Heeled Jack and I will catch you next week if you don’t catch me first.”

Slip Out Of the Night

Rafe gave the newcomer a friendly smile that didn’t reach his eyes and then returned to swabbing the bar top. Wrapped in a trench coat with a fedora pulled down over one eye, the slight woman came in out of the night.

“What can I get you, sweet—“

Rafe met the woman’s eyes and his words died on his lips. The bartender backed up, grabbed his phone and keys from under the bar top and hurried out of the front door. The woman pulled her coat’s collar tighter around her face.

“What is this a morgue of something? Rafe! Where’s that good looking hunk of eye candy I pay to wear tight jeans and pour weak drinks?” Kasper cackled and her trio of bodyguards joined in.

They settled into the corner banquette. The newspapers called Kasper, The Godmother of Green Street and the Unfriendly Ghost. Her lackeys called her Jabba the Gut but only behind her back. The stranger called Kasper a spider. Kasper had her tendrils in every shady operation on the East Side and in every local dirty politician’s back pocket.

“Hey Rafe you back there?” Kasper called again.

Kasper caught sight of the stranger alone at the bar. Slowly the stranger stood and turned to face her. Kasper hissed.

“Tru, I thought you were dead.”

“I don’t die easy. And I had a debt to pay.”

Tru took off her fedora revealing a fresh angry scar running down her forehead. One of Kasper’s thug began to stand but Kasper squashed his motion with an inpatient wave.

“Listen money doesn’t have to be a problem. Loosey was a nobody. Lubvitz was an idiot. Killing them was like smashing a roach under my red bottoms. You’re smart and an organization like mine always needs smart people. Identity theft, money laundering, oxys you name it and I can cut you in for a piece of the pie.”

“Louis, only his friends called him Loosey.”

Kasper stilled. Blood drained from her face.

“He knew he was going to die. He died to protect me. It’s Loosey I’m repaying.” Tru raised her arms slowly as police officers poured into the bar guns raised. Kasper the godmother, the deal maker, the queen pin, spluttered in rage as she was handcuffed.

Tru replaced her hat and headed for the back door. She headed for the police surveillance van that had been recording Kaspar’s confession. She headed into a long night of questioning and official statements. Tru pulled her hat low over one eye and headed into a new day.

One Night Only: Maximum Overdrive

On the edge of a mining town Jackson and Josh’s mom’s SUV squealed to a sudden stop as a lizard of some sort raced across the road. Caleb crashed from the backseat onto the floor.

“What the hell, man!” Caleb shouted. His almond-shaped eyes grew wide as he took in the scenery. An ocean of desert, a lonesome cactus, and a sun-beaten metal sign: Deadhorse, Ariz. Population 338.

“Look I told you to buckle up. If you got Mountain Dew all over the carpeting—“

“Dude, where are we?” Caleb said, “What the—“

Josh raised his hands in a soothing gesture.“Calm down, everybody chill.” Josh retrieved a package of baby wipes from the glove compartment and tossed it in to the backseat. Jackson pressed the gas.

“I’m fine by the way. Thanks for asking. Who cares if the drummer has a broken arm? Population 338. There were more people in my robotics club. 338. I should have taken that teaching job. I knew this trip was sus from the get go.” Caleb continued muttering from the backseat as he used his own shirt to suck up the sloshed soda.

“Dude where in the hell are you taking us? You said this gig was near Phoenix,” Josh asked. He rubbed his temples. Josh knew Jackson. He knew Jackson lied reflexively, never took responsibility for his bad decisions, and he could spin every disaster into an adventure.  Josh knew his brother like the back of his hand.

“No I said outside of Phoenix and we are outside of Phoenix. Maybe the venue is a little bit more off the beaten track, a little rough around the edges, but think what a terrific origin story this will make when we make it. Maximum Overdrive from Deadhorse to Top of the Charts.”

Josh pressed his forehead against the glass of the passenger side window. He could see another string of empty seats and cheap beer, counting change to buy a burger, coasting back home on fumes, and explaining to Darcy why he would be late with the rent. Again.

Josh checked the backseat. Caleb aka Chaos had fallen back asleep his long black hair smushed to one side, his yellow stained band tee stuck to his skin. The nickname was Jackson’s idea to create mystic and social media buzz. In public Caleb was Chaos, Jackson had to be called Ajax and Josh was Jinx or Jet or something else he always forgot. Mostly he was Just Josh who played bass and maxed out his credit cards for the band. Josh reminded himself to check Caleb/Chaos’s meds after practice.

Jackson and Josh’s mom’s SUV turns onto the Main Street of the tiny mining town, a desperate sliver of mom and pop stores and low slung houses. Josh waited for Jackson to start up his spiel again about their bright future and Jackson’s big plan.

“I can feel it this time things will be—“

“Different.”

The Wrong Turn

Plates clatter on the dining room table. Chairs scrape across the oak floors. Cousins laugh as they race around the sofa. Pat and Pearl drive down the highway.

 

Mary Grace sets down the turkey. Uncle Joey applauds and loosens the belt on his favorite stretchy pants. Little Sophie kicks Taylor under the the kids’ table. A car horn jolts Pat back into his own lane as Pearl searches for a familiar landmark.

 

Jerry carves the bird. Nikki and Omar roll their eyes at Uncle Joey’s jokes. As the sun sets, Mary Grace stares out at the driveway nervously. Pearl strokes Pat’s shoulder as he takes yet another exit.

 

Uncle Joey snores in the easy chair. Omar pretends to watch the kids as he plays with his phone. Jerry turns up the game. Over the kitchen sink, Nikki and Mary Grace argue over what to do about Mom and Dad. Pat and Pearl hold hands in the dark as they head back to the highway.

 

For Fluffy

“She had two legs when the ambulance took her from the house!”

“What am I supposed to do! She had one leg when they admitted her.”

Bradford turned in the direction of the raised voices. He turned to head nurse Selina. Selina didn’t look up from her report but quirked an eyebrow that meant she had dealt with the last big crazy and it was his turn. Sighing, Bradford headed towards this big crazy.

Bradford was a big man, stocky and well muscled, with a cat portrait tattoo snaking his left forearm, a trio of silver rings in his right ear, and a fuchsia streak tucked into his man bun. In his pink scrubs, Brad stalked into the Room 8 and crossed his arms. Rev. Robinson and Nurse Bree stopped shouting at each other and started shouting to be heard by Bradley. He headed for the patient, Poletti, Giuseppina. She was very old, small, and as fragile as a china doll. Poletti was in a coma, her face slack with translucent skin framed by neat snowy pin curls. She reminded Bradford of a baby bird that had fallen from a nest. He thought when she was a little girl people probably called her Gia and now her neighborhood probably called her Mrs. P. Bradford examined Mrs. P’s well worn hands with perfectly polished nails.

“Mrs. P. wouldn’t want this. Bree hurry down to the cafeteria and find the paramedics who brought her in. They are probably by the vending machines. Have them find that leg and get it up here. Rev wrangle all the family into one room and stall for a few minutes, pray, sing, whatever but keep them out of this room until I give you the word. Let’s make this right for her before her family comes to say their goodbyes. Go!” The nurse and the clergyman rush out. Petting his forearm, Brad headed over to the floor’s central supply for some tape.

Coming Attractions

“Danny, Danny, over here, Danny,” Em hooted.

The movie theatre swaddled me in darkness. The air was close with the smells of buttery popcorn and anticipation. This is it, yet another long awaited blockbuster of two dimensional comic books turned into two dimensional action heroes. Juggling the sodas and snacks, I crept down the red light lit thickly carpeted aisle looking for row D seats 32 and 33, looking for my best friend Em. After countless movies and a lot of bickering we came to the conclusion that row D seats 32 and 33 were our favorite seats in this our favorite theatre in this our favorite multiplex. As I carefully maneuvered into our row Em waved her arms at me.

 Even though the curtain was still down, a few audience members shushed her. We gave the shushers a well practiced stink eye and then ignored them. We’ve come to this theatre since we were kids back when the seats were splintered wood and smelled of ancient cigarettes.This is our place and we would not be shushed.

“Nice whisper you got there, real ladylike, Princess,” I said as I claimed my seat.

“Bite me, Big Boy,” Em countered and mock punched my leg. She took the refreshments while I wriggled out of my heavy coat. She handed me back my soda and helped herself to a handful of my popcorn as I helped myself to her pretzel bites. Our heads bent together conspiratorially as we slipped each other contraband red licorice and sour gummy bears smuggled in her purse and my cargo pants in the dark. I inhaled Em’s sweet scent with hints of cocoa butter and cherry vanilla lip gloss.

The curtains parted and the screen sprang to life. From the corner of my eye I watched Em’s face glow from the light of the coming attractions. Her arm snuggled against mine on the shared armrest, her fingers rested on my wrist. Em turned to me.

“Excited,” she asked.

I sipped my soda hiding my face.

3 is a Magic Number

Three days left of Inktober and then because I’m a girl who likes a challenge, Flash NaNo. FlashNaNo is a writing challenge where you get thirty days of flash fiction inspired prompts and you write each day. And in more exciting news this November I will share each and every one of my pieces on this site (drumroll please) and link to Facebook. Looking forward to the writing, dreading the sharing, but I want to strengthen my writing skills and build a consistent writing habit for my soul. Stay Tuned.

Thanks for Asking

“How are you?”

Suddenly, an everyday walk from my cubicle to the copier flipped into an unexpected conversation with my coworker. Her question stymied me. Lately, I go through my days on auto-pilot keeping each moment as busy as possible to not have a chance to think too much.

How am I doing? I thought as I peered into my office mate’s friendly smile. Normally simple questions would not be difficult for me. At the beginning of summer, my husband, Kev, suffered a stroke out of the blue. In the weeks that followed, acquaintances asked me about him all the time, always him. I shared his recovery and his struggles. Then people ask how the kids are doing and finally people ask about me as an afterthought. It has been a while since someone asked how I was holding up first.

How am I doing really? I thought as my mind reeled. I went from summery plans of eating too much barbecue and watching never-ending middle school baseball games to a well-worn patient room. Day after day, I was marooned on a slick plastic enrobed lounge/bed/torture device with bright lights, beeping medical machines, surrounded by a river of doctors and incomprehensible medical jargon. Watching and waiting as my beloved fought for his life, I was a frenetic ball of anxiety.

After Kev’s transfer from intensive care to rehab I slipped from wife to health advocate, from partner to single mom. As my husband re-learned walking, I split in half.  One side of me was an over-enthusiastic cheerleader boosting my husband’s spirit and soothing my children’s fears. The other side of me was a frighten shell. Every day I thought, What’s going to happen to him, to us, to our life? How do I do all the things I already do and the stuff he used to do? Wait did anyone feed the cats? Hey coworker betcha didn’t know I was a crazed hamster running on a spinning wheel of despair?

At summer’s end, Kev was discharged home. Once again, I transformed this time to caregiver. My boys had also metamorphized from irksome kids to inexplicable troubled teenagers. Thanks, puberty! Juggling his care, our kids, their troubles, my job, and the perpetual loads of laundry, my life became a series of waiting rooms, trips to the doctors, trips to schools, and trays of medications. By fall every call was from a pharmacist or a vice-principal.

I’m tired. I’m dead dog tired. I’m sleepwalking through the day with an insipid smile on my face tired. I’m a zombie all day, yet I still can’t sleep at night. I worry about the bills.  I worry about my kids bungee jumping into stupidity. I worry about what comes next. I listen to my husband’s breathing at night interpreting every sigh. I replay the constant fights with our boys as I pull them closer and they push away harder. Hey coworker! my life soundtrack is whining and complaining punctuated with the angry slam of doors. How am I doing I want to scream and kick things is how I’m doing.

I stared down at my office building’s sensible beige carpet tiles and remembered my first date with Kev. Over dinner, he asked if I was a people person.

“Well I wouldn’t wheel anybody’s mom down a flight of stairs while laughing maniacally so yeah I’d say I’m a good person but not a people person,” I joked.

“I like a woman whose definition of good starts way back at Richard Widmark,” he said.

“I like a man who gets my noir movie references.”

I smiled at my memory. Despite my current emotional crapstorm I’m still a good person. I know people don’t ask how you are doing to get a Dumpster fire of terrified truthiness poured on their heads on the way to the coffee machine. People ask how you are doing because they care and they want to know you are okay in an inspirational Hallmark movie kind of way. My coworker wanted to know that I was okay first.

“I’m fine. It’s–.”

She interrupted, “No, I asked about your husband. How’s he’s doing?”