Bus Stop: A Brief Fiction
He was standing on the curb wearing his navy polo and a pair of chinos (flat-front, not pleated), rocking a kind of business-casual look. With neatly-parted hair and new(ish) shoes, Max was a study in perfection. He tried not to make eye contact with his companions at the bus stop. Idle conversation wasn’t his thing. The day had started well and the familiar anxiety of a Monday morning wasn’t as pronounced as it normally was. There was no point in inviting more of it. The bus ride itself would be unpleasant enough.
If loneliness made a noise, Max might have thought, it was surely the sound of an approaching bus in an overcast dawn. The creak and moan and shudder of steel and rubber rolling over asphalt; gears complaining as a weary driver coaxed and pleaded and, finally, forced the transmission into compliance; and the squall and whine of fatigued brakes joined together in a foreboding soundtrack for the day.
Max waited for the others to board like he always did, hoping his preferred seat would still be available on the bus. He liked to sit in the middle, where he could disappear into the drone of passengers chattering and rumble of the diesel engines. He took a deep breath, steeling himself, as he climbed the worn-rubber steps onto the bus and glanced down the walkway. Thank God. His seat was unoccupied. He could lean against the wall and peer out at the passing sights, enjoy just a little more peace before the real challenges of the day began.
It would be years later before Max would realize loneliness might even have its own smell. The alchemy of sweat, freshly shampooed hair, and cinnamon pastries (even though there was no eating allowed on the bus) joined the diesel fumes, birthing an odor he would never forget. But that would be later. This morning, he slid into the seat and plopped his backpack to his left, a hopeful barrier against the possibility of some other passenger wanting to join him in his sanctuary.
Max got on the bus at the corner of Journey Avenue and Rushing Street. Fortunately, there was only one remaining stop until his destination. Usually, only one or two passengers boarded at that stop, so the odds were good he would have the seat to himself this morning. Fingers crossed. This day might not be so bad after all. No one had said anything to him this morning. That was a good sign. Max looked for things like that. There were signs everywhere if you just watched for them.
But this morning, he had misread the omens. When she sat down next to him, Max was crestfallen, even though she had smiled, waiting patiently for him to transfer his book bag from the seat to his lap. He did it politely, somehow managing to hide his reluctance and fear. Max managed a muttered Welcome in response to her thank-you.
The scent of strawberries and lilac wafted from her, filling Max with an unfamiliar emotion. He didn’t recognize her—couldn’t even remember ever seeing her on the bus before. So he allowed himself the risk of quick glance, hoping to remain undiscovered.
In just minutes Max’s emotions had run the obstacle course of peace, fear, hope, and now he was facing shear panic. Oh, no. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. But gathering his dignity, as he always did, he managed a reply.
“Max,” he muttered. “Pleased to meet you.” Manners were important to Max. Even when you didn’t feel like being courteous, it was the right thing to do.
Max felt the bus gaining speed. One more left turn and his destination would be in sight. But for now, he was trapped.
“It’s my first day to take the bus,” she said. “We just moved. My Mom drove me the first couple of days. But she started her new job today, so here I am.”
Something in the way Lucy spoke, the sound of her voice, or how she smelled—like hope, maybe—washed away most of Max’s bourgeoning anxiety. Normally, Max would have just grunted a courteous reply. But he felt something unfamiliar in the moment—it wasn’t boldness—but something close to confidence. It was enough to allow him the gamble of a reply.
“The bus isn’t so bad. If you don’t mind the smell and the noise.”
Lucy nodded a smile. By now, Max was actually willing to make eye contact. He noticed Lucy poking the frame of her glasses, pushing them back onto her delicate nose. Max thought she was pretty, with her cherubic cheeks, porcelain skin and wavy black hair. He had never really talked to girls before. For that matter, he didn’t really talk to anyone. It was just safer that way.
His Mom had always told Max to be brave. She told him he was smart. (He was.) She told him he was funny. (In a good way.) And she told him that some day, even though he didn’t fit in now, he would. “Kids are mean sometimes,” Max, she said. “But it gets better.” All that was probably true. His Mom wouldn’t lie to him. But still.
As the bus doors opened, legions of pre-adolescent boys and girls poured onto the concrete sidewalks, some of the dragging wheeled book bags behind them, others stooped under the weight of book laden backpacks and expectation, Max waited his turn to disembark. He looked at Lucy who was gathering her things. He saw something familiar in her eyes and the way her eyebrows were drawn almost imperceptibly inward.
“Know your way around the building yet?” he asked.
“Not really. Especially finding my homeroom,” she said. “This place is a lot bigger than my old school.”
Suddenly, Max felt as if he had been transported away from all of the worry and fear and isolation—away from the taunts and judgment. The sound of children clambering off the bus somehow seemed silenced and for a moment, he stood with Lucy, alone on an island of anticipation.
“I could show you the way,” Max said. “If you want.”