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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Drama · #2319496
Anonymous travelers, ships that pass in the night, aren't always what they seem.

We first crossed paths at the Greyhound station in San Antonio. It was mid-summer, lousy hot, and she had tossed her duffel bag against an out-of-the-way wall and was reclining against it, maybe trying to catch a nap, maybe not. She was wearing denim shorts and a tank top to combat the heat, but from across the waiting room, I first thought she wore long sleeves and slacks. Numerous tattoos adorned her arms and legs, and but for that, her long blonde hair and elegant face would have made her stunning. Assessment complete, I went back to reading my book, a pulp thriller I had picked up off the station rack to while away the time.

         The station at San Antonio, like most bus stations of the day, was downtown, but in a rundown section where there were no neighbors to complain about the busloads of lost travelers being dumped into their midst on an hourly basis. As might be expected, these seedier parts of American cities were home to some of the less desirable elements of society, some down on their luck, and others seeking to improve their luck at the expense of others. We'd been waiting about a half-hour when a pair of these latter types swaggered in. Blue jeans, engineer boots, stained T-shirts, one sporting a leather vest with various emblems attached, they looked in the trash can by the entrance, then stopped to survey the crowd while one of them pulled a girlie magazine from the rack along the far wall, and started flipping through it while the security guard, old enough to be my grandfather, thin and frail, pretended not to notice.
          "Hey, Coffin," the other said, elbowing his literary-minded partner, "look what we got here."
          He lifted his chin toward the girl. Coffin followed his lead, and his eyes locked on her like magnets.
          "Maybe you can do better than that magazine tonight, huh?"
          Coffin tossed it to the floor, and they both headed over toward her. Trouble was imminent, and if the girl was going to receive any help, it would have to come from me, or the geriatric security guard. I didn't like her chances.
          "Hey, sweetie," Coffin said, "looks like this is your lucky night. You won't have to be lonely after all."
          "That's right," his partner added. "We got a flop right down the street. You just come along with us, and we'll show you the hospitality of old San Antone. Right Coffin?"
          Coffin let out a weirdly feminine giggle.
          "That's right," he said. "We got enough hospitality to go all night!"
          I saw her head move almost imperceptibly as she looked them over in turn before she spoke.
          "Fuck off."
          "You hear that?" Coffin said. "Fuck off! That's not very neighborly."
          "That's for sure," Partner said, reaching down to grab her upper arm and haul her to her feet. She pulled back against him, but he just laughed, stood her up, and gave her a good shaking.
          The security guard was at this point engaged in an animated conversation with the desk clerk, who was also remaining pointedly unaware of what was transpiring. It was going to be on me, then. Look, I don't want to make it sound like I'm some kind of urban warrior. I had recently received my brown belt in Shoto-kan karate, but these two had a lifetime of experience surviving on the street and were almost certainly armed. I would be facing knives for sure, and maybe a gun, but this girl was a fawn surrounded by wolves, and if I didn't do something quickly, she would pay a heavy price. I just hoped I wouldn't get us both killed.
          I stood up and came up quietly behind Coffin, trying to decide how best to defuse the situation. I decided on confusion.
          "Everything all right, honey?" I asked the girl.
          She gave me a blank look which went unnoticed because Coffin and Partner both turned to look at me.
          Coffin looked me up and down, taking in my conservative clothes, my Oxfords, my neat haircut, and sneered.
          "What are you, the boyfriend?" he said, moving forward to crowd me. "I don't think a girl like this would give the time of day to a piss-ant like you. What do you think, Mark?"
          Mark never had a chance to answer, because with both of them focused on me, the girl shoved Mark's arm, and when he turned to face her, she buried her wooden-soled platform shoe in his crotch clear up to the ankle. He went down, baying like a beagle in full chase.
          Coffin spun away from me, taking in the howling Mark, and reached high to grab, I presume, her hair, but she ducked under his outstretched arm and drove her stiffened fingers, led by four sharp nails, into his throat. He had started to call her something, but it ended suddenly at the impact, and what came out was, "You bi—urk!"
          As he stumbled back into me, she leaned back and stomp-kicked his knee, and down he went as well. She was on him like a cat, a three-inch blade that had appeared from nowhere at his throat, daring him to move. Now, with the danger seemingly passed, the security guard hustled over, very officious, demanding to know what was disturbing the peace of "his" bus station.
          "Nothin' we couldn't handle," the girl replied, including me along with her; I liked that. "If you'd like to call the cops, I've got a bus to catch."
          "Not so fast, little missy. You and your boyfriend here will have a lot of explaining to do."
          "Is that so? Well, I have a bus to catch that's leaving here in a few minutes, and if you cause me to miss it, I'm going to file a detailed report with your employer about how you sat on a stool and pretended not to notice when these two thugs were about to drag me off for a rape party."
          "You can't prove anything."
          "No? I'll bet this won't be your first complaint, and I'll bet your pal at the desk wouldn't mind having a real guard in here at night instead of somebody's grandpa."
          "Why, you snot-nosed little brat, I oughta—"
          "What you oughta do is cuff these two and call the police instead of harassing their victim," I cut him off, surprised to hear my own voice. "Let me assure you that if she has to write that report, hers won't be the only signature at the bottom."
          He looked back and forth between us, then, shaking his head, he cuffed Billy-Bob and Bubba together, right wrist to right wrist, and turned to the desk.
          "Call the police," he said, "and tell 'em to drop the donuts and get over here."
          "Already done that," the clerk replied. "They're on the way."
          The girl gave me a nod, and returned to her duffle bag, as calm as if nothing had ever happened. I went back to my chair, shaking with the effects of unspent adrenaline, and laid my closed book on my lap; I wouldn't be in the mood for reading for a while. The police hadn't arrived a few minutes later when the PA system came on with its announcement.
          "Bus for El Paso, Tucson, Phoenix, and points west now boarding at gate six. All aboard, please."
          I picked up my suitcase and crossed the lobby to door marked 6, arriving just as the driver finished checking the girl's ticket, and she headed out into the lot. He took mine, gave it a cursory glance, and punched a hole in the second box along the bottom.
          "Have a comfortable trip, sir," he said, waving his arm to indicate one of the five busses parked in the lot where, to my surprise, the girl stood at the door waiting for me.
          "I'm Laurie. Laurie Bracken," she said, extending her had for a shake. "I thought if you felt like it, we might ride together for a while."
          "I'd like that," I said, taking her hand to find an unsurprisingly firm grasp, given what had just happened. "I'm Ben McCoy. After you."


She chose us seats midway back along the passenger side, and the police car arriving to deal with Coffin and Mark pulled into the lot as we were pulling out. We drove through a seedy, rundown area, with lots of vacant shops and broken down cars, everything coated in a layer of dust that made everything absorb the headlights instead of reflecting them. The whole area was depressing to look at, but soon we were climbing the ramp onto Interstate 10 headed northwest, and the scenery became a parade of headlights going the other way.

          "I sort of had you pegged for a back-of-the-bus girl," I said, offering an innocuous invitation to talk.
          "I used to be," she replied, a hint of a smile in her voice. "You don't ride these things long before you realize that if you sit over a wheel, you feel every pebble in the road. Sit between them, let the suspension do its work. How about you, my shining knight? Do you try to rescue every damsel in distress you see?"
          "Well, if I'd known how little distress you were actually in, I might have kept my nose out of it."
          "I glad you didn't," she said. "I knew there was going to be a dust-up, but you gave me the distraction I needed to surprise those two apes."
          She reclined her seat to the first notch, slipped off her shoes, and pulled her bare feet up into the seat.
          "Anyway," she said, "If you hadn't, we'd just be two lonely people facing a long trip on the same bus. This is much better, don't you think?"
          "Indeed I do. So, are you going all the way to Los Angeles?"
          "No. I'll change buses in Phoenix. I have a date in Vegas."
          "A date? That's a hell of a trip to take for a date. This must be some guy you're meeting."
          "Yeah, he's special. He doesn't know I'm coming. I'm going to surprise him."
          "Lucky guy. I bet he'll enjoy that."
          "I know I will."
          She excused herself to use the on-board rest room — "I would have done this at the station, but I got a little busy." — and when she returned, she shooed me over to the window seat and sat down on the aisle.
          "So, it's a good thirteen hours to Phoenix," she said. "What are we going to talk about?"
          We wound up talking about everything as we rolled toward dawn. My trip to L.A. to interview for a job wasn't exceptionally interesting, but I told her of my childhood in Austin, and my schooling. Mostly, we talked about her. She seemed almost eager to share her story. She was traveling, seeing the country up close. She'd stop in a town, get a job waiting tables or running a flower stand — "The more skin you show, the more flowers you sell." — or sometimes she'd just panhandle, and the same rule seemed to apply.
          Her tattoos were the journal of her journey. Everywhere she had a meaningful experience, everywhere she met someone who made an impression on her, she got a tattoo to commemorate it. I recognized the top of the Gateway Arch peeking out above the back of her tank top, and the Statue of Liberty rode on the outside of her right thigh. There were flowers and animals, and various structures that I didn't recognize. On the inside of her left forearm was a simple red heart that seemed out of place with the wild array of the others.
          "That's for mom," she said. "She died in an accident when I was eight. Dad and I never saw eye-to-eye, and I was passed around between relatives until I was fifteen. That was when I ran away the first time. I don't know why they kept bringing me back. None of them ever wanted me when I was there. Anyway, the heart was my first tattoo. The rest of them just sort of grew up around it."
          That thirteen hours passed faster than any night I can remember, and the morning was well underway when we pulled into Phoenix. It was a 45-minute rest stop, so we went to the coffee shop and I treated her to breakfast. As the time neared for me to board the iron coach to the coast, she stepped up and gave me a peck on the cheek and wrapped me in hug that belied her small stature.
          "Look," she said, stepping back and looking down at her shoes, "you've been great company, and I hate to ask you, but you meant to help me back in San Antonio, so maybe you can. Do you think you could spare a twenty? I've only got a dollar left."
          "Sure, I can do that. Your company on that long ride was worth more than that."
          I opened my wallet to see a single twenty in the bill pocket, started to take it out, then put it away. Fishing in my watch pocket, I pulled out a tightly folded fifty, unfolded it, and handed it to her.
          "Twenty bucks won't take you far these days. This here's my holdout money. Spend it wisely."
          "You're a saint," she said, pocketing the bill. "I hope everything works out for you."
          "And you," I said. "Take care of yourself."
          We exchanged another long hug, and I had to board my bus for a boring six-hour trip to the coast. I caught a nap on the way, and dreamed of Laurie Bracken. I wondered if she'd get a tattoo to commemorate me.


Twelve years had passed since that bus ride, and rather unsurprisingly, I had never heard of Laurie Bracken again. I hadn't gotten the job in L.A. The boss's son-in-law had lost his own job unexpectedly, and rather than put his daughter through a series of hardships, he gave the man the job that I had been headhunted for. The interviewer genuinely felt bad for bringing me halfway across the country for nothing, and wrote me a check for the cost of my trip; at least he had integrity.

          Disillusioned with corporate ethics, I had gone home to Austin and set to work in my father's hardware store. I soon rose to floor manager, and it wasn't long before he made me co-owner, so I was never hurting financially. I think he always wanted his shingle to read "McCoy & Son," but he never pressured me about it.
          I married my childhood sweetheart, Jeanne Kidd, and we gave him a grandson two years later. He went into semi-retirement, and enjoyed seven years of bonding with young Justin before we lost him to Covid in the epidemic of twenty-twenty. Jeanne had long had a dream of owning a restaurant, a casual place where you could come as you are, and enjoy good, simple, American and Southwest fare without breaking the bank. I had long had a dream of making her as happy as was humanly possible, and when Dad died, I sold the store and bought a place in San Antonio. I was more worried than I let on, given that restaurants fail more often than any other business, but Jeanne had read reams and taken on-line courses, and when we opened The Real McCoy, I was pleasantly surprised to learn just how much she knew about running a restaurant.
          I hadn't thought much about Laurie in the past few years, and why would I? An attractive girl I had once shared a bus ride with a dozen years ago doesn't count for much against twelve years in a happy marriage. I'll admit, I thought of her occasionally, but when I did, I couldn't remember her face, just the artwork adorning her arms and legs. So, when she sat down at our counter on that hot summer afternoon, I knew her at once by the heart on her sleeve tattoo.
          "Laurie?" I greeted her. "Is it really you?"
          "It really is. You're looking good, Ben. Is this your place?"
          "Yes, it is. You're looking good yourself. What brings you to San Antonio?"
          "Funny you should ask. Is there someplace a bit more private we can talk?"
          It was that slack time between lunch and dinner, and I directed her to a booth in the back. She stopped before taking a seat, and pointed to a flower tattooed on the outside of her left calf.
          "That's a sweet pea," she said, sliding into the seat. "I got it to remember you."
          "Aw, that's sweet. But you didn't come all the way to Texas to show me that."
          "No, I came to pay a debt, and unburden my soul a little, if you'd care to indulge me."
          "A debt?"
          She lifted the flap of her leather bag and took out a roll of bills held together with a rubber band.
          "You handed me fifty dollars when I was down and out," she said, laying it on the table, "and you must have known that you'd never see me again. Ten percent interest on fifty dollars, compounded monthly for twelve years, comes to $331.00. I'm keeping the dollar for travel expenses."
          "I don't need this."
          "It isn't about what you need. I've crisscrossed this country for a decade and a half, and I can count on my fingers everyone who was nice to me without wanting something in return. It's about what I need."
          "All right," I said, picking up the money and tucking it into the pocket of my work apron. "So, is your soul unburdened now?"
          "No, that's another issue entirely. Can I tell you a secret?"
          "I guess, sure."
          "I'm serious, you can't tell a soul."
          "I feel like I'm going to regret this, but, all right."
          "All right." Her voice dropped in volume and she leaned across the table toward me. "Ben, when you met me, I wasn't just traveling randomly. I told you my mother died when I was eight, but she didn't just die. Three men came to our house that night. My mother must have known what was going to happen, because she swept me out the kitchen door and told me to hide when the knock came. I watched through the window as they slapped her around before they told her, 'Derrick sends his regards,' and shot her eight times."
          "My God, that's horrible!"
          "That isn't the half of it. Derrick was my father."
          "Keep your voice down," she cautioned, looking around. "Well, what I told you was true. I ran away several times, I learned some street skills, and when I was eighteen, I paid my father a visit. I sucker-punched him with a fireplace poker and broke his kneecap. I tortured him until he gave up the names of the men he'd sent, then I cut his throat."
          My face must have given away my horror, as she looked concerned for a moment, then continued.
          "It's all right, he deserved it. I found those names in his address book and visited each of them. They won't be killing any more helpless women. Then I decided, they have families, and they took mine away. An eye for an eye, like the Bible says, so I hunted them all down and did to them what their fathers and brothers and husbands had done to mine."
          This was unbelievable in the extreme. And I had befriended this woman when she was in the midst of her killing spree! I knew if I lifted my hands from the table, they'd be shaking like a man with palsy.
          "Are you okay? You look a little pale."
          "How many?" I finally managed to get out.
          "Twenty-five, thirty. I stopped counting. They're all recorded in my ink. So, Ben, I need to ask you something."
          My mind was numb, trying to comprehend what this woman who I had once had a little crush on was telling me.
          "Is there any chance you could use another waitress?"

The End
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