I had this system for getting exactly what I wanted out of people. I needed help. That much was clear. I needed money to pay the bus ride from this forsaken town to go to the big city. Such a cliché, but I had dreams and aspirations.
I looked up and down the street and back at the bus driver, trying to understand his gestures and thinking about how to use my skill for my benefit. I was good at reading people. Amazing even. I lowered the zipper of my parka and climbed the steps of the bus.
“Excuse me, Sir?” My voice was higher than usual and laced with sweetness too. He looked up at me grumbling something that I didn’t catch, but he waited for whatever I had to say. “I really need to take this bus, Sir.” He scratched his forehead, and I could see irritation form on his face. Before he could say something or kick me out, I leaned in closer to him. “The thing is, I got mugged tonight, and my money was stolen and,” I kicked it up a notch by trying to fake tears “Please. I will do anything you ask, just let me take a seat on your bus,” I whispered and waited in anticipation.
To my right, I heard a man chuckle. The man scrutinized the driver and me with a knowing look. I wasn’t above begging now, and the desperation must have shown on my face.
He shook his head and addressed the bus driver: “If you don’t take chances,” said the man in striped pants, “you might as well not be alive.” There was an insulting kind of wisdom in his words and the driver huffed. He shook his head, mumbling about not making him regret this and moved his head in a way that told me to move on and find my seat. I nodded my gratefulness at the man in the striped pants, who shook his head and turned to watch the people outside the window, not sparing me another glance. I hefted my backpack up in its designated place over my head and sat down with a sigh. My great escape from my overbearing home was a success.
Ever since mom had met Herb, life had changed. Mom had been overbearing from the moment I could remember. She had always been nosy and wanted to know everything. I stopped writing my diary because she kept reading it. I hid everything that was revealing about my personality because I didn’t want her to snoop around or know things about me that I didn’t know myself. She kept cleaning my room, changing my sheets, and fixing my clothes when they had a tear here or there. But when Herb moved in, things changed. Everything was different.
I remembered the first evening he spent on the couch as if the house was his. His feet lay on the coffee table, his disgusting toes visible through the hole in his sock. He smelled bad, and I was surprised that there weren’t any flies around him. He scratched his belly, burped, and asked me to go fetch him another beer. Stunned, I had gone to the kitchen, found a beer, uncapped it, and I had walked back to the living room. He grinned at me reaching his hand out for the brown bottle, and I snapped. I didn’t want him there. In my home, with my mom. She deserved better than him. I turned the bottle upside down, and the foamy contents soaked his pants. The growl and the gnarl were fierce, and Herb jumped off the couch. He raised his hand, and I waited for the blow, but it didn’t come. Instead, I saw my mom standing next to the couch with her hands on her hips. “What happened here?” She demanded. I looked at the bottle and thought fast, “I tripped,” I lied. Herb growled again but didn’t argue. “I’m going to change my pants,” he said, and I turned away from my mom, relishing my victory.
I was propelled back to the present when the bus began to move. I wasn’t interested in the passengers and didn’t care to look at those who moved past me. The seat next to me jerked, I did my best to hide my curiosity, but in the end, I turned to look at the stranger whose thigh was touching mine. He looked rough and raw as if he had spent the night on the streets. His lip was split, and his eyes were of an alluringly dark brown. There was a frown on his forehead as he rummaged in a bag on his knees. I kept staring. “Fuck,” he swore and let his head fall back. He must have sensed that I was observing him because he turned to me with a smile. He reached out a hand that was covered in fingerless gloves. “Hi. I’m Henry.” His breath smelled of fresh mint. “Sammy,” I offered, but I didn’t take his hand. I was rude on purpose. I didn’t like strangers, and I hated feeling physically attracted to someone I didn’t know. “Suit yourself,” he chuckled. “I’ve seen you before,” he continued speaking. I looked at him with an annoyed sigh. If I had seen him before, I was sure I would remember him. There was just something about him. Something magnetic. Magical. Rough but attracting. “I saw you standing at the bus shelter in the rain. It was pouring, wasn’t it? Good thing we didn’t get soaked.” I nodded. I still couldn’t remember him, but it was true that I had found shelter from the rain and there had been other people too. It was still pouring outside. I decided to ignore the stranger for the time being. The ride was long, and I needed a little bit of quiet to process these last days. I was exhausted.
I put my head against the window. It was cold against my heated skin. I closed my eyes and drifted off watching landscapes drive by. I am not sure for how long I was zoned out, but I woke up to the sound of Henry sobbing.
It had been a long time since I had seen a man cry and Henry wasn’t just crying, he was bawling. Intrigued I turned to him. He was still clutching his bag with one hand, in the other hand, he held a faded picture. I tried to get a look, but the light didn’t allow me to see anything. “Are you okay?” I asked, and he shook his head, wiping his snotty nose with the back of his hand. Of course, he was not okay, if he had been okay, he wouldn’t be crying. Henry tilted the picture in my direction, clearing his throat as if he wanted to speak but not finding the words. Two young men in uniforms had their arms around each other. They were laughing, I could almost hear the happy sound escape from the picture. It was a happy memory and yet, here sat Henry, crying. “I sometimes can’t help it,” he hiccuped, “I cry. It’s the stress. He was torn apart by a mine. I lost my leg. I wish I had died that day and not him. He was the best man you’ll ever know.” I nodded, not sure what to say. Henry was a stranger after all and I was on this bus to find freedom. I put my head on my hand on watched the blur outside again, ignoring the man next to me. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was such a thing as freedom. We were all prisoners of our memories, trapped in this moving vessel.