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.
This story is slightly choppy and episodic in nature, however, if you have ever made a 1,200 mile trip on a Greyhound bus, you'll know that these trips feel just like that.
This story is loosely based around my own bus trip. It follows my general itinerary, my stop in Oklahoma City was the worst, and there was puke on the floor for the entire layover. One of the stops in New Mexico was really nice, although at the time I got there, the sandwich shop was closed. The station is Phoenix was downright huge. There were a lot of weirdos, and I'm sure one guy was listing his qualities in hopes that I would marry him. Another guy decided to become my best friend and he was on the same route the entire trip. (He lost interest three-quarter's way through when a prettier girl came along.)
That's where the similarities end. Ben is a dude, while I am not. I have never been engaged. And no one asked me what I was running from. Truth is stranger than fiction, unless I'm writing the story!
EDIT: Good heavens! A DD on this old thing? I thought it would get lost in the pile of old stuff and be forgotten! Thank you very much Clockchat and neurotype!
As always, the preview image is an illustration drawn by me!
How did I not see this?!
Congrats on the deviation. Anyway, I must say that is not choppy, but it is not really episodic either. It is more like the flow of thoughts, skipping over less important matters, to concentrate on the more important details, even occasionally throwing out important things that more or less fit in. I did not find anything that didn't fit in.
But that's not the point, I must tell you that the title had me intrigued, even though I do not understand the meaning (if it has one).
Also I do believe the old woman is essentially only real to Benjamin, and as the story progresses, Ben's undermind starts clicking in features and key details, slowly working backwards until he meets Mae, where, as the two are so similar that it doesn't click until she voices that key piece, "love".
But it doesn't matter, it was still a lovely piece, I like it, congratulations on a good piece, I only wish I could write like that. Good luck. Have fun. Win more adoring fans.
Thank you for your kind words!
As for the title, it is the title of a Smashing Pumpkins song that started playing while I was in the writing process. I thought it sounded kind of cool and some of the elements in the song and story matched up a little, in the imagery more than the metaphors.
Well that's one way of looking at it! Technically, you can run away from anything, but it's usually not a good idea.
I'm glad you liked the story!
It's a neat story. Was the old woman Mae? And... I wonder exactly what that meant... If it was just a version of her that he had trouble recognizing, or if it was like the future coming back to haunt him or something.
I took an Amtrak trip around America several years back with my dad (mainly because I wanted to see what it was like to ride a train). It lasted eight days, but I think we made two 24 hour stops (I had fun planning it with a tight schedule). I think I might've followed a simliar route to California, but then I took a more northern route back. It was fun. Had a bit of trouble going up the California coast (the train at Santa Barbara was late because of engine trouble, and then the engine messed up and we were six and a half hours late to our stop. It was a large layover, though, so we didn't miss the next train - but we ended up canceling the hotel reservations and I had to take a short nap at the station instead). I found that I could read and write without getting sick on a train (I'd always started feeling odd when looking down, or away from the front, for more than a second or two in a car, but the trains seemed smoother than cars), and I worked on some writing while going through the mountains on the way back. But my dad ended up sick. I think it's because he was reading over my shoulder, and watching trees zoom by out the window. :P Afterward, I thought I would like to take a larger loop around the borders of the US sometime (and get the sleeper cars that time), but I haven't yet. I'd also wanted to try other types of transportation, like going somewhere by ship, plane, and bus, but I really like the train besides the non-reclining reclining seats.
I'm not actually sure who the old woman was. When I began writing the story, I knew I wanted to add a bit of a supernatural element, but I didn't know what until she showed up. After that I sort of ran with it.
An Amtrak trip sounds amazingly fun. I haven't been on a train in a very long while, and I imagine writing on one would be much easier than writing on a bus. (I did try on the bus, a different story than this one, and I couldn't read my own handwriting because of the bumping and swaying. Not a smooth ride, greyhounds.) I love traveling by plane, besides the getting through security bit. The bus was an unforgettable experience, but I'm not eager to repeat it. Never done legitimate travel by boat before, but I'd love to give it a try as well. Perhaps one day we can share travel diaries! lol
What a ride for all involved, reader included. I dig our protagonist's observant nature, focusing on things most would ignore, while adding hilarious personal commentary; quite reminiscent of Holden Caulfield. The story begins by setting the mood of Benjamin's isolated trip, and before we get kick off the conflict, we're treated to many jewels in what's a delightfully witty narration. "He could breathe, at least", followed immediately by "Thank God for small favors". The only worker in the place not giving a damn about what's stipulated in his contract. The description of an elderly lady as "just short of ancient". That jaded POV hooked me in from minute one.
It wouldn't be one of your stories should it follow an ordinary route, and the aforementioned not-so-ancient lady turns out to be more than it meets the sarcastic eye. She's one to challenge Ben's motives, seemingly out of nowhere, without motive. This scares the lad off, something his apathetic attitude wasn't prepared for, and so he retires, to "the safety of the men's bathroom". If he wasn't escaping already, he is now.
After this episode we see him enthusiastic to be in New Mexico, yet simultaneously regretful to the point of feeling physical discomfort. The natural development of his emotions, believable and accomplished in such a quick pacing, had me anchored to the screen by this point. I've mentioned the humorous touches through the narration, but let's not forget the enjoyable descriptions centering on Ben's mind: irritation registering in a small corner within. Emotion making way for hunger. Mental shrugs, of which the lad exhibits plenty through the story.
Your ability to hand out important information while pushing both the plot and the characterization forward is a treat; the lady reappears, and does so with a new look that Ben's eyes take notice of right away, but the lad refuses to accept as real...Ah, the utterly stupid grin that took command of my face when I saw The Zone referenced, good 'ole writing genius Serling included! I'm a complete sucker for that mythical series' scripts, and was going to make a direct comparison to it with this story's events moments before I spotted it.
Mae's call comes as a momentary break from the surreal, to get back into an area of his life Ben is (believes to be) in control of. Once he feels secure, Benjamin can shrug off what had him so anxious minutes earlier, with a more relaxed mindset. A cellphone to distract you from reality doesn't have eternal battery, though, and the young man's forced to get back to the here and now. Unwilling, though, and lamenting the fact, even wishing he was more of a reader, as it'd allow him yet another
Ultimately, Ben simply can't refuge from reality so long as he keeps being a part of it. He's got both the bathroom's safety, and Mae on the line, but the dame's destined to appear. The lady's true nature is marvelously revealed, not outright, but at the very end of the story, once Ben's physically back with whom, he realizes (yet tries once more to deny), has accompanied him all throughout the tale. At which point I could listen the Zone's music theme playing in my head.
This is a story that rewards rereads. Immediately after finishing it, I went back and so many aspects acquired further meaning. Take the second paragraph. Ben feels like talking with Mae, who, he knows, will be more than eager to talk back, despite the lateness of the hour. But he refuses, deciding not to keep her up, not to wake her from a dream...What a contrast with the events that unfold. Mae's voice "helps ease his frustration". The mere sound of her provides comfort, she's his preferred break from reality. "...a brood of grandchildren he had no reason to care about". This last one was funny on its own merit, but now went perfectly with Ben's ultimate detachment from family matters. "He enjoyed the steadiness of an unmoving floor". Yes, Ben does like it when things stay the same, unchallenged, offering him no unwanted surprises, no exaggerated swaying to speak of. Even if reeks of vomit, at least he's safe, right? And of course, one last realization; Mae is Ben's fianceé. The two of them will become family, the young man's effectively embracing something which he believes, he's escaping from.
Tool Time! “Ben started at her use of his name”. “I just want to go home,”.
What a story. What a blast. What a talent, Brietta!
Oh my goodness! It's been so long since anyone has given this story notice, I had almost forgotten about it!
This may have been the second easiest story I've ever written (Last Stops being the first), because very little of the background was made up. In the end, I took my two day long Greyhound trip and made it slightly more interesting, although I was merely taking a vacation trip to see a friend, nothing to do with funerals. In several places, Ben's thoughts were mirrors of my thoughts and observations. The hardest part was deciding if Mae and the crazy lady were actually the same person. At the end, I'm still not sure!
As a tiny little critique, I would say that the story works wonderfully, but it slows down a tiny bit in the opening sentence. Actually it's the second sentence. The fist sentence is very immediate, almost visceral, but the second sentence actually takes away from that when you slip into past perfect tense.
You wrote: "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."
The only change I'd suggest is remove the past-perfect tense. Just take "had" out. I only point this out because the first sentence gave me the impression that the story was going to move quickly, because that sentence itself moved quickly. It was short and to the point. And then the second sentence, which was as immediate and important, and actually filled in a few details, slowed down a little bit; really, that's a minor detail and it's not even anything to fret about or worry about in any way. The thing I'd just keep in mind is to keep as much of a story as immediate as possible, so you could just as easily go with: "In the four switches Ben made so far, he came to accept lateness as an unavoidable part of this mode of travel." With the sentence immediately following: "The first three times, he had been irritated." You can leave "had" in there. It seems like a little quibble, and--really!--it is, but the reason I brought it up is because you did a really good job with the whole story. I liked it a lot, and I love the way it danced around the supernatural without really spelling anything out. You left a nice sense of mystery that remained, even when you gave hints to what it was all about. I love the fact that you revealed the kicker ending while also leaving a little bit of a question. For me, that was brilliant. I liked this story a LOT. And now, I'm gonna shut up.
As for your suggestions, I shall sleep on it a while. You make very valid points, however, my brain has turned to a few other projects for now. I will definitely keep it in mind, however, and take a look at it in the future when I settle some of these new things down. Thank you very much for pointing it out!
Anyway, I'm rambling: as for the suggestions I made, I only pointed them out because I remember a writer once telling me that the easiest way to kill a story is to go passive with it. "Keep it active," he said...and it stuck with me. Of course he also said some things I don't agree with, but that's a rant for another comment.
Ironically, I have also been considering a foray into zombies. However, I tend to agree with your assessment of what is out there right now. World War Z (the book) was interesting, but that was because of the format it was written in, rather than the take of zombie lore. I am reading a series now that is pretty good, too, but the 'zombies' are more similar to Splicers from Bioshock than zombies. It also has a lot military and scientific references and lingo that I appreciate.
I also tend to do a good deal of research for my stories. With how short they are, the knowledge I acquire rarely gets to be much more than a snippet, but I don't like writing about things I don't know about.
I'm still toying with my idea, but I'm just not sure I want to jump on that bandwagon. I think part of it that I have actually found literature in the genre that I can enjoy, so I don't feel the need to write it as strongly now. Also, my latest completed story already deals with the end of the world, albeit from a very different perspective and in a very different way, so I kind of want to explore elsewhere.
I think the reason I'm doing a "zombie" story is because I don't like zombie stories: not the ones about the alleged, vague Zombie Apocalypse which just seems, well, cheap. The approach I'm taking is totally different. The story is actually a followup to one, but it'll serve as the introduction of the characters and their world, since I want to re-write a few things in that world, but a version of the story is posted in another gallery and I don't want to remove it. So I'm "starting over" basically and writing the story as it should be and not the short-short version that's good, but a bit too short. The fuller version I'm working on now is still VERY short, but it's fleshed out more. Basically it's not "brain eating apocalyptic zombies" at all...it's more like...well...post-post-post-post apocalypse people who have re-assembled human society. Zombies had nothing to do with that particular apocalypse, they're just a casual element of the "current" world. Nobody's afraid of zombies and kids throw rocks at them, pick on them, try to set their hair on fire, etc. before their mothers snatch them away with parental threats and stuff like: "Joey! Stop setting them on fire! That's not nice." It's that kind of story.