A defeated woman helps a strange boy. Twisted tales contest, April entry 2986 words
|Audra's gazed fixed on the Batman mitten. |
It was half-buried in the snow next to the bus stop, probably dropped during an attempt to get on the bus amidst a tantrum. She felt her chest constrict with a new wave of bleak depression. Somewhere, there was a little kid with one cold hand.
She sniffled, tears rolling down her cheeks. "Well, that about sums it up," she murmured.
The old woman standing in the slush beside her looked at her suspiciously. But the murmur was a surrender. Audra had risen her white flag to the world.
The image of John gently sliding the ring onto the woman's dainty finger replayed itself endlessly through her mind. She was young, strawberry blonde and delicate, with a charming smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. She was the complete opposite of Audra's nearly masculine demeanor, dark hair, and olive complexion.
She wondered if "the other woman" knew about her, or if he had lied to her, too.
The thought of those pretty freckles in contrast with the frozen snot and tears which now adorned her own face ignited a slow, angry burn in Audra's chest.
"I deserve this," she thought. Her survive by-any-means-necessary instincts left a trail of men in her wake before she met John. He softened her up and took care of her, and in turn, she settled down.
She was proud of the years they'd spent together. She really tried, and she'd done everything right for a change. She gave him the best she had to offer after decades of giving the other men in her life her selfishness. She agreed to marry him in spite of that nagging feeling in the back of her mind that she'd still somehow make him sorry for it.
And apparently, she had, otherwise he wouldn't be with the ginger haired girl in the posh restaurant downtown. The restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows where anyone walking by could catch a glimpse of her husband of five years proposing to another woman.
Now he was somebody else's problem. He was somebody else's fiance.
Gazing down at her worn Doc Martens, she had almost forgotten that she was waiting for the bus at all when it hissed to a stop in front of her. She didn't know where she was going, all she knew was she needed some space and time before she confronted John.
It would definitely be messy. They shared a high-end flat, expensive furniture, a bank account, a life. The thought of having to tell his mother what had happened made her feel sick.
The old woman at the bus stop regarded her suspiciously once more before boarding the bus. Audra followed and scanned her pass. She made her way to the back, stopping halfway when she found an empty handgrip. The man seated next to her looked to be in his early thirties. He was balding and held his phone in his lap, engrossed in a video of a ranting Joe Rogan.
She had just tuned out, lost in her thoughts, when the bus jarred and tilted dramatically to the side, then came to an abrupt stop. Some of the passengers yelped with alarm. Other's gasped. Some standing passengers stumbled, gently supported by those seated.
"Some people's reaction is to be kind when threatened?" Audra puzzled in that suspended moment. "That's not what scientists say."
Behind her, a child cried out. Audra turned to see a boy, about eight, his wide eyes searching the bus. She realized he was unaccompanied, and terrified. She steadied herself and struggled practically uphill up the aisle to get to him.
"Hey, it'll be ok, I got you." She was a stranger, yet he threw his skinny arms around her neck. He was trembling, and her heart constricted as he clung to her. She shushed him gently. "It's ok buddy, let's get you off this sideways bus."
He pulled away suddenly with a look of panic, attempting to gather his belongings scattered around the filthy floor. "Ewww, kiddo, what are you looking for" She asked. "It's pretty dirty down there, is it important?"
The little boy looked up at her, his enormous caramel eyes filled with tears. "It's my key! I can't lose it!" He resumed digging under the seats on his hands and knees.
"Aw jeez, okay, just don't touch anything else, let me help you."
The two searched, leveraged against the seats for balance while the other passengers evacuated out of the emergency doors. She emerged with his backpack, but he was still frantically searching.
"You two, come on!" The bus driver shouted. "We gotta get outta here so we can get you onto another bus and the city can come get this one..."
"Hang on a second!" Audra yelled back, annoyed at the driver's lack of helpfulness. "The kid's lost something!"
"Found it!" He shouted and thrust his hand into the air triumphantly. A gold chain dangled from his tiny fist.
Audra took him by the hand, and made her way to the back of the bus. She jumped from the emergency exit, then lifted the boy carefully down to the snow-covered sidewalk. He was light as a party balloon, and she could feel his little sparrow's ribs under her grip.
She guided him to the sidewalk, kneeled in front of him, and zipped his puffy coat. "Let's get you home," she said. "Where do you live?"
The boy looked at the ground, the chain still hung from his closed hand.
"I can't tell you. I'll get in trouble."
This was the first good look she'd gotten at him. Beneath a fan of rich brown lashes, his tear-streaked cheeks were reddening from the sudden cold. Sandy blonde hair, long enough to suggest he needed a haircut, peeked out from underneath his knit cap.
"Hey," she said gently, coaxing his gaze upwards as she finished bundling him up. "How old are you?"
"It doesn't matter how old I am!" He exclaimed suddenly. "I'm running out of time; I have to go!" He walked away from her hurriedly, his moon boots making tracks in the slush.
"The fuck am I, Alice?" The thought made her chuckle.
"Listen little rabbit, I'm coming with you until we find your parents!" She called after him, although he ignored her completely.
She panted to catch up with him, but his short legs gave her an advantage. "Wait a second!" she huffed. "What are you in such a hurry about?" When he turned to look at her, his eyes were glistening with tears. The sight of his innocent face broke her heart, although she could've sworn ten minutes ago that she didn't have one anymore.
"I have to get home," he panted. "My mom will be mad if I don't get there by twelve"
Audra looked at her Apple watch to check the time and saw she had a new text. She ignored it. "It's only eleven thirty, kiddo, you've got time."
He stopped and turned to face her. He didn't look relieved. "It'll take me at least forty-five minutes to get home from here, even if I catch another bus."
"Do you know your mom's phone number? Let's go get a cup of hot chocolate and give her a call. We'll let her know what happened and everything will be fine, ok?"
He looked dubious, but nodded.
"Ok, let's go." She smiled and held out her hand. He took it, and they made their way to the nearest decent cafe.
"What an odd little boy," She thought. He had an air about him. He was so small, but his eyes were old, like those of a kid that had seen too much for his own good.
They cozied up in a booth and she ordered him a hot chocolate and a grilled cheese sandwich. When she ordered an Irish coffee, the server's eyes flicked from her's to the boy. Audra knew she was being judged, but she was never one to give a fuck about what other people thought of her.
"I'll take a shot of Jameson to go with it." She said defiantly.
"What's the number?" She asked, returning her attention to the boy. She retrieved her phone from the oversized tote she always carried and was confronted with the missed text from earlier.
It was from John. She ignored it.
She dialed as the little boy recited the phone number. "Oh! What's your name? I totally didn't even get a chance to ask you after our little adventure!" She exclaimed, nudging him with a giggle.
"Nice name." She smiled. The little boy looked pleased.
A woman's voice answered the phone with a brisk "Yes?"
When Audra introduced herself and told her what happened, the woman seemed irritated. "Where are you now?" She asked.
"We're at Ultima Pare on the corner of Jefferson and Goethe. I know he needed to be home by noon, but it's been a pretty scary morning for your little man. I didn't think you'd mind if we stopped for a cup of hot chocolate to regroup and calm down a bit before he came home."
There was a long silence on the other end before the woman replied. "Fine. Send him home when you're done."
Before Audra had a chance to register her indifference, the woman snapped, "He's not allowed to have sugar, he should've told you that." Then she hung up abruptly.
Audra didn't even have the chance to defend her new charge. "Wow," she thought. "What. A. Bitch."
She watched the boy nibble his sandwich, and wondered what kind of home life he had. She got the distinct impression it was a lonely one.
"What school do you go to?" She asked.
"I'm home schooled." He replied between bites.
"I see," said Audra. "Do you like it?"
The boy shrugged. "It's ok. Sometimes when I walk past the playground by my house, I wish I could go to school with the other kids."
She and Sean talked for the duration of their meal together, and by the end, they were laughing and joking like old friends. She learned that, thanks to his older brother, he loved eighties goth music. He watched adult cartoons like Bob's Burgers and Family Guy, and loved to skate and play his drums. Turns out, they had a lot in common.
The only questions he was reluctant to answer were about his parents. He told her he lived with his mother and brother, and had never known his dad. Audra could tell the subject made him uncomfortable, so she decided not to push the issue. Not right now, at least.
They finished up, and as he gulped down the rest of his hot chocolate, Audra wondered at how this little boy managed to turn her whole life on its head from the moment they met on the tilted bus. She was overcome with the realization that the world still turned outside of the microcosm of her misery, and she was almost embarrassed at how much self-pity she had been prepared to wallow in on John's account.
They walked in brief silence to the next bus stop. The text from John gnawed at the back of her mind, but she resisted the urge to look at it. The last thing this kid needed was to watch a middle-aged woman break down into hysterics over her demolished marriage. Somehow she knew it probably wouldn't have been his first rodeo dealing with adult drama, and he really didn't need hers too.
Their talks resumed, and he asked her about her job and her home life. She was careful to leave out the details of her imploding marriage. She explained how she worked for a large record label as a talent agent, and what that job entailed. He was riveted to hear about the ins and outs of her daily life. "Have you ever met anyone famous?" He asked with gleeful anticipation.
"Oh sure! If you could meet any rock star, who would it be?"
Sean thought for a minute. "Jello Biafra!"
Audra burst into uncontrollable laughter. "What?? I did not see that coming!" She said, squeezing the little boy's hand harder. "I'll see what I can do, but Jello's a pretty busy guy..."
He laughed with her, then grew somber. "Do you have any kids?" He asked carefully. "I don't mean to be too nosy or anything, you're just really nice."
"Oh my heart!" She exclaimed, laughing and slapping her palm over her chest. She gazed down with wonder at this adorable old soul she was lucky enough to rescue off a wrecked bus.
"No, I never wanted to." She replied. "But I would if I could have a kid as cool as you."
Sean looked as if someone had just given him a puppy.
The walk to the bus stop went by fast now that they were full of hot chocolate, whiskey, and the comfort of each other's company.
The bus ride was over too soon, too, and it was a short walk to his front stoop from the stop. Audra surveyed the building. It was posher than she expected, especially considering the shabbiness of the little guy's clothes. She expected something a little more modest.
"Ok, ring the buzzer and I'll introduce myself to your mom, just to let her know you haven't been hanging out with a serial killer all afternoon."
A look of brief panic spread across his face. "No, it's fine. She won't care, really. I've got a key!" He brandished the key on the gold chain they'd dug around for on the filthy city bus floor. Audra couldn't help but feel disappointed. She really wanted to meet this mother of his.
He began to let himself into the building when Audra stopped him.
"Here!" She fished a pen and piece of paper from her bag and wrote her full name, cell number and the direct line to her desk on it. "If you need to grab a cup of hot chocolate, or just need someone to hang out with, call me, ok? I'll drop whatever I'm doing and come get you if you need a friend."
Sean took the paper with both hands and put it in his pocket, then flung himself into her arms. He smelled like a sweaty little boy with winter in his clothes. "Thanks, Miss Audra. It was really nice to meet you."
"You too, buddy. I'm glad we met." She watched him go, her eyes brimming with tears as he let himself into the vestibule. She walked away only after she watched him get on the lobby elevator.
Waiting for the northbound bus headed for home, she realized she still hadn't looked at John's text.
"Hey babe," It read. "When u headed home?"
"On my way now." She replied.
Her mood sobered as she realized the mess that lay in front of her. He had no idea that she knew about his infidelity yet, and her mind scrambled to come up with the words to tell him. The closer she got to home, the angrier she became at the thought of his betrayal. For their whole marriage, he had told her how crazy she was- and how she was an unbalanced person who needed therapy.
And this whole time, she had bent over backwards to accommodate him. In that moment, she decided to stop fighting herself and show him just how fucking crazy she could be. By the time she reached the apartment, her nerves were steeled and she was ready to deal with him. She got to the door, took a deep breath, and let herself in.
The house was dim and quiet, not at all what she was expecting. Maybe he had run out for wine or something? No, they just got a case of his favorite yesterday.
Went out for cigarettes? No, there was a half-empty pack on the coffee table.
"John?" She called into the empty space. "You home?"
She shrugged off her coat and bag and hung them on the coat rack by the door.
If Audra had survived, she'd recall that the next few seconds seemed like hours. A muted pop accompanied by a blaze of white light and blinding pain. A snapshot later, she found herself numb on the floor, gazing up into the face of her husband.
"I'm sorry, Audra." He sighed, kneeling next to her limp body. "I have a new life now, and you don't belong there."
She managed a stifled "asshole," and extended her arm weakly to reach him. Excruciating pain radiated from her side as he moved away slowly, as if to taunt her. "Besides," he continued. "You're worth more to me dead than alive."
The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. She watched him determinedly shake out a tarp, carefully laying it on the floor next to her. He sprayed it with some chemical whose smell she didn't recognize, then rolled her awkwardly onto the plastic. As she rolled, warm, sticky liquid cascaded down her neck. She thought of hot chocolate.
Hot chocolate. The little boy who stole her heart this morning would never know what happened to her. If he tried to call, she wouldn't answer. He'd think she blew him off- just another grownup in his life with better things to do than pay attention to him. The thought of this little boy, feeling lonely and unimportant, brought a sob to her constricted throat.
"I love you, Sean." she managed to whisper. Her husband turned and looked at her quizzically as he unloaded three rolls of duct tape from a duffle bag nearby.
"Who the fuck is Sean?" He spat.
She managed a faint chuckle at the tragedy of the whole situation. "Well that about sums it up."
The room plunged into darkness. Everything fell away, and Audra went with it.