The Bus Stop
Mary shuffled in front of the doors, eyes shifting nervously to the man on the bench. “He’s watching me again,” she whispered.
“No he’s not, Mary,” Allan replied.
“He is,” she hissed, pulling her leather purse tighter against her chest. “Every day he pretends to read his paper like he’s oblivious to the world, but I know. I know what he’s doing.” Mary first noticed him a couple of years ago on her way to the bus stop. Each morning since, his cold, dark eyes bored through her soul. What did he want with her? Did he know her secret?
Allan patiently untangled her trembling hand from his arm and directed her toward the door. “Look, Mary. Your bus has arrived.” His voice was smooth and calm, careful not to pass judgment. Nodding to the man on the bench, Allan waited.
Mary took a deep breath and one more glance at the newspaper man. With a flick of her hair, she hid her face from his conspiratory gaze and reached for the door. Allan never believed her. She could tell by the way he coddled her like a child. Every time they saw the man, Allan tried to distract her.
The smell of the bus sent a flutter of excitement through Mary. Old leather scents mixed with polished aluminum and worn rubber reminded her that this was her chance to talk to Harold and Leah. In private. They were a couple, or so they pretended to be. Mary met them a few years ago when they noticed her reaction to the newspaper man. Harold and Leah knew he was watching her, they had been victims themselves.
Allan gently escorted Mary to her seat and smiled. “I’ll be right over there,” he said, pointing to the other side. Mary nodded but she was already focused on her friends. Harold and Leah never spoke to Allan, presumably because they were wary of his presence. Pausing one moment longer, Allan walked away the moment Mary’s face came alive when she delved into her story about the man outside.
“Did you see him today?” Mary asked Harold. He was slightly younger than her, but his graying hair and tiny spectacles made him look scholarly.
“Indeed,” Harold replied as his eyes scattered this way and that to take in the scenery. Then he leaned forward, almost touching Mary’s face. “Did you notice what he was reading?”
“The New York Times,” Leah cut in. “From six months ago!” Leah’s youth and fascination with their secret sometimes got the best of her.
“Shh!” Mary scolded, repositioning herself to see if anyone heard the outburst. “There might be others listening.”
Leah covered her mouth with her petite hand and shook her head in apology. Mary had been a second mother of sorts to Leah, so she smiled and patted the girl on the shoulder. Leah was always so eager to please.
“Did you get it?” Harold whispered and Mary nodded. She opened the leather purse and pulled out a single piece of paper, tightly folded into a little square.
“I almost got caught,” Mary said. “Allan was acting funny all morning. I think he suspects something.” Mary turned her head just in time to see Allan smile and wave at her. She tried to return the gesture but it felt forced. “Do you see what I mean?” she asked her friends.
“Oh my God, Mary. He knows!” Leah broke into hysterics. Her bright blue eyes widened in fear as she tried to stand up.
Harold placed his hand firmly on the girl’s arm, holding her still. “Leah, we need to stay calm.”
Looking back at Allan, Mary felt anxious. “But what if he does know, Harold?” Allan was always somewhere nearby. How would she be able to shake him?
“We will deal with that when necessary,” Harold calmly replied. “Now show us what you found.”
Mary focused on the paper that would bring them one step closer to knowing the truth. “You see this date here?” She pointed and waited for her friends to nod. “I think that’s the rest of the message.”
Leah snatched the crumpled invoice out of her hands and held it an inch away from her face. “Yes. I think you’re right. 6-2-5-9…” She looked at Mary over the top of the paper, eyes glimmering. “You did it!”
“Was that the last part?” Harold asked as he pulled the invoice free of Leah’s grasp.
“Yes, we only needed a few more numbers,” Mary replied. Over the past two years, Mary and her friends had been searching for this. She knew those men had been secretly communicating with each other and now they could prove it. The newspaper man couldn’t stop her anymore.
The three discussed the deciphered message intently until an abrupt scraping noise beckoned for Mary’s attention. “He’s coming,” Leah screeched and Harold wrapped his arms around her.
“Mary, it’s time to go,” Allan said lightly.
“I’m not ready,” Mary argued, eyes pleading with her friends. She knew that Allan suspected her. She could feel it in her bones.
“It’s our stop,” Allan continued. “You don’t want to miss your stop, do you?”
Mary looked at her friends and then back at Allan. If she didn’t get off the bus now, the other men would be waiting for her. Harold and Leah had each other, but Mary was alone. It would be less of a risk to leave with Allan.
Conceding, Mary allowed Allan to help her stand. He waited in silence as though familiar with her hesitation. Mary hated to leave her bus and her friends, but they had a schedule to keep.
Once Mary reached the doors, her muscles tensed. She spotted the man on the bench. Her eyes narrowed and her clutch on Allan’s arm tightened in fear. “He followed me,” she breathed.
“Don’t worry, Mary. I’ll take care of you.”
Allan meant his words when Mary shuddered against him. He knew each day was a struggle for her. Not knowing what’s real or imagined. A hallucination or a friend. In the two years since she’d been here, Mary showed little improvement. The only time Allan saw her smile is when he’d take her into the break room so she could spend time on her “bus” with Harold and Leah.
They hobbled down the bland concrete hallway back toward Mary’s room. Allan could see her lips mumble with conversations to be had another day. She watched everything with an intensity akin to a hawk. Missing nothing and anxiously calculating. Allan acknowledged the orderly sitting at his post, flipping through the charts.
“Hey, Dr. Fletcher. I have Mary’s meds ready.”
“Thank you. I’ll go get her settled.”