The bus was late. In the four switches Ben had made so far, he had come to accept lateness as an unavoidable part of this mode of travel. The first three times, he had been irritated. Now, at a little after eleven at night, he really didn’t care. If the bus was at least running, he would be happy. Working air conditioning was a bonus. Timeliness was asking too much.
He wished he could call Mae again, even though he had just talked to her half an hour ago. It had been a little over two weeks since he had seen his fiancée, and hearing her voice helped ease his frustration. But it was late, and she had gone to bed. She would still answer, he knew, and talk as long as he needed, but he didn’t want to keep her up.
Instead, Ben just sat at the little station, staring almost listlessly into his paper coffee cup. He let his mind wander. Of all places, it went to the station’s seating arrangements.
The orange plastic chair wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it wasn’t particularly uncomfortable either. Anyways, he liked it better than the exaggerated swaying of the last bus he had been riding. He enjoyed the steadiness of an unmoving floor.
Besides, there were worse things here than the chair. Someone had thrown up on the floor between the aisles of seats behind him, and the one worker that he saw seemed in no hurry to clean it up. He could smell the faint, sickly sweet odor, but it wasn’t nearly as overpowering as the unwashed, sweaty woman who had sat next to him on the last bus. He could breathe, at least. Thank God for small favors.
An old woman, just short of ancient and seemingly pleased about it, sat across from him unceremoniously. Although he felt her looking at him, he was too tired to acknowledge her. He wasn’t sure he could stand to hear another hour long tale about a brood of grandchildren he had no reason to care about. He began trying to think of reasons to politely excuse himself if the topic should arise.
“Why are you running, boy?”
Startled by the unexpected, and demanding, question, he looked up at her.
“What?” he asked blankly.
“I said, ‘Why are you running?’”
He shook his head slowly, confused. “I’m not running from anything.”
“Sure, you are,” the old woman insisted. She lifted an eyebrow and waited expectantly.
Bemused, Ben sat a little straighter. “Why do you say that?”
The woman gestured vaguely at the station, the wave of her arm indicating every other person waiting for their next bus. “What with planes and everybody having two cars these days, the only people who ride the bus are the ones who are running away.” She smiled as if she had made her point perfectly clear.
Ben suddenly felt uncomfortable with her yellow-toothed grin. He got up, muttering about having to use the bathroom and walked quickly away. He caught himself at the last second, narrowly avoiding the sticky puddle of vomit.
When he got his heart rate to slow and emptied what little was in his bladder, Ben left the safety of the men’s restroom. Back in the lobby, the woman was nowhere to be seen. He glanced around furtively to confirm her disappearance and breathed a sigh of relief. Her bus must have come and gone while he was away, and that was fine by him. He glanced at his watch and hoped that no other crazy person would appear before dawn.
At midnight, his next connection arrived. He sleepily stumbled up the dirty steps and shuffled down the aisle until he found an empty seat. As soon as he sat down, Ben rested his head against the window and fell asleep. Miraculously, he managed to snooze until the next stop.
He was slightly apprehensive as he followed the small crowd into this bus stop. When he saw that it was clean and airy, and even had a small sandwich and coffee shop, he relaxed and smiled a bit. New Mexico was proving to be a much better place than Oklahoma. Then he realized that his journey was halfway through. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The pang in his chest, a mixture of excitement and regret nearly overwhelmed him for a moment. It was interrupted by another pang, one in his stomach.
Making his way to the shop, he looked at the menu on the overhead boards. Emotion had to make way for hunger. A deep thought? Perhaps not, Ben mused, but it was true nonetheless.
He carefully balanced his bagel and coffee and found a seat by the wall. The wire mesh of these chairs was almost comfortable. He settled down and began to eat.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed someone sit down beside him. He didn’t look up or take his attention from his breakfast, but irritation registered in a small corner of his mind. There were plenty of other seats, so why did this person feel the need to take the one right beside him? With a mental shrug, he decided to ignore them.
Then she cleared her throat. “You never answered my question.”
Ben recoiled, nearly jumping up from his seat.
It was the old woman. She was looking at him, an amused smirk turning up the corner of her mouth.
“Where the hell did you come from?” Ben demanded as soon as he choked down the bite that had been nearly forgotten in his mouth.
“Ohio. So, what are you running from?”
Ben forced his heart rate to slow as he studied this intruder into his otherwise uneventful trip. She didn’t seem quite as old as he remembered, fewer wrinkles around her eyes and mouth and more red hairs peeking though the grey. He dismissed the observation as impossible.
“I’m not running from anything,” he growled. His grip on his coffee cup tightened, and he had to force himself not to crush it. He shot up from the seat and stalked away, uncomfortably aware of her stare digging into his back. Would she be following him to every stop? He checked the ticket and saw that four more remained before journey’s end. He wasn’t sure his sanity could handle her being at every one.
When his next bus was loading, he purposefully sought a seat that had occupants surrounding it. He didn’t want there to be a chance that she could sit beside him, asking that same disconcerting question for hours while he couldn’t escape.
She didn’t appear at the next stop, to Ben’s great relief, but she was in the station after that. It was the same question, and she was undeniably younger. Her hair was now more than half red, and her back no longer bent. The wrinkles on her face were reduced to the spider’s webs around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. He might have thought her a completely different person, but her eyes and grin were the same.
Ben’s hands shook as he backed away. “I’m not running away. I’m just trying to go home.” He turned to get away, but she followed.
“Why did you leave home in the first place?” she pressed.
“Just leave me alone!” he pleaded, moving faster. For the second time, he sought refuge in the one place she couldn’t follow, the men’s restroom. He didn’t leave until he heard the announcement for his bus’s departure over the intercom. As soon as he went through the door, he sprinted to the bus.
He settled into the seat and closed his eyes. Was he going crazy? Any second, he half expected Rod Serling to appear somewhere and start to talk about this episode of the Twilight Zone in his smooth and condescending voice.
It never happened, but his phone rang. Quickly, he dug it out of his pocket and answered. “Hello?”
He sighed when he heard her voice, simultaneously soft and cheerful. It was Mae. His fiancée immediately brought him to reality, and he began to relax.
“Why are you up so early?” he asked. He glanced out the window. The sun was barely rising.
“Too excited to keep sleeping. Where are you now?”
“About an hour from the Arizona Border.”
She chuckled. “Almost home. How is your trip?”
Ben thought about the old woman, but decided not mention her. Talking to Mae, he felt sane again, he figured that the old bat was nothing more than a kook, and his fear a product of the late night, isolation and unfamiliar surroundings.
“Good,” he said. “I’m just glad it’s almost over.”
“I’ll bet.” She laughed again, and Ben smiled.
They talked until his phone bleeped a warning that that battery was low, then reluctantly said goodbye.
He exhaled softly as he stared at the black screen. Two more stops. Six more hours.
He leaned his head back against the seat and wished he liked reading more. The New Mexico landscape was interesting on the outgoing trip, for about three hours, but, coming back, the desert hills all looked the same. He had nothing to distract him from the monotone of the passing landscape.
Ben felt his heart lift a little when the bus crossed into Arizona. There were still four hours of road left, but it just felt that much closer.
The last stop before home was in Phoenix. The station there felt as big as an airport compared to the others. He went to the bathroom then found an empty wall socket to charge his phone. The tile wall was cool against his back. His final bus was scheduled to arrive in less than fifteen minutes.
Of course, a tired voice came over the intercom and announced that it would be delayed for another forty-five minutes. Barking a wry laugh, Ben relayed the message to Mae.
They chatted via text until Ben noticed a shadow over him. He looked up.
The woman was there. Now, she appeared not a day older than thirty-five. The crow’s feet around her eyes were just at the beginning stages, and her hair only streaked with grey. Her hands were on her hips, and her eyebrow rose questioningly.
“Have you figured it out?” she asked.
Ben got to his feet. He was much taller than the woman, but he couldn’t help the cold chill that slipped down his spine.
“What do you want from me?” he asked, glaring.
“I want you to answer my question.” She was no longer smiling and playful. Her look was stern and her voice earnest.
“Nothing!” Ben insisted. “I’m not running from anything, except maybe you!”
She sighed and shook her head disappointedly. “Come on, Benjamin.”
Ben started at her use of his name. “How do you know who I am?” he asked faintly.
“The same way I know that you’re not telling the truth. Now think carefully before you answer. What are you running from?”
Ben yanked the charger from the wall and walked away. The woman followed him.
“Benjamin,” she said sharply. “Benjamin!”
He kept going, getting angrier. He resisted the urge to turn and swing on the woman. He had never wanted to strike a member of the opposite sex before, but he was scared now.
“If you don’t figure it out now,” she warned, her voice growing faint as she fell behind, “You never will.”
Ben found a corner and stayed there until the line for his bus was called. He didn’t see the woman again as he stepped into the queue.
Mae was waiting for him in Tucson. Ben pushed his way through the small crowd of people exiting the bus as soon as he saw her. When she was close enough, he scooped her into a hug.
She laughed and held onto him tightly as he buried his face in her gleaming copper hair. He pulled away and smiled at her, the anxiety of his trip starting to slip away. She reached up and brushed her fingers over his face.
“Did you miss me much?” she asked. Her grey eyes were bright and her skin nearly glowing in the sun pouring in from the skylight overhead.
“You have no idea,” Ben said, pressing his forehead to hers.
Mae stood on her toes and kissed him gently, just enough to convey her longing. Then she broke away, took his hand and led him to the parking lot. Ben followed her. He surreptitiously glanced around for the woman, but she wasn’t there. By the time they reached Mae’s car, he had almost forgotten about her.
“How was the funeral?” Mae asked quietly as she guided the Neon out of the parking space. She glanced at him, her forehead wrinkled faintly with concern.
Ben sighed. He held Mae’s hand and studied it for a moment. “Like I expected. There was fighting, and my brother asked for money.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“My dad killed himself, and everybody couldn’t act right for just one day.” He laughed bitterly.
Mae was silent. Even in profile, Ben could see the sadness etched on her face. He made a decision then.
“I think that was the last time I will go back there. They’re like a poison, and I don’t want you or our kids subjected to what I grew up with.”
Mae glanced at him. She squeezed his hand. “You can’t run from your family, love.” She gave him a sad smile.
Ben’s nostrils flared, and he froze. “What did you say?”
“What?” Mae’s gaze flicked between him and the road.
Ben tried to swallow past a knot in his throat. “What did you say?” he repeated.
“I said ‘You can’t run from family,’” she blinked several times. “Why? What’s wrong?”
Ben shook his head sharply and coughed twice, fighting the bile that rose from his stomach. He leaned across the console and pressed his face into Mae’s shoulder. “I just want to go home,” he whispered.