It occurred to me some time ago that there are no markets for Long Stories (20,000-80,000 words); but a writer does not know when beginning how long a story is going to be. I thought a Monday morning post to get the week started, and a Friday morning post to take away for the weekend might work. Enjoy.
Series: Strange Tales Story: Ghosts by M Kizzia 1 of 17
Nathan managed a foot on the platform, but then he had to hold on to the rail to drag the rest of his decrepit body up the steps. It always took too long, and though the bus driver never said anything, the other passengers gave him hard and cruel looks. He couldn’t help it. He was eighty-four and no longer allowed to drive, so it was the bus or nothing and he feared that soon enough it would be nothing. God knew how his knees hurt. He sat heavily on the bench just behind the driver where there were plenty of metal bars to hang on to in the turns. Once he was settled, his lower back shivered as the muscles let go of their great effort to keep him upright against the hard pull of gravity. Of course Lisa, his nag of a daughter wanted him to take the metro, but there were steps there, too. Besides that, even if the walls were white and the lights were bright, there always seemed to be something of a going down into the pits of Hell about the place. Nathan much preferred the sun, even if the bus windows were terminally dirty and it looked like rain.
Nathan looked down at his suit jacket. It was terribly wrinkled. He supposed he should have it dry cleaned but he had long since given up on getting to such places on his own. He knew he could ask Lisa. She would do it, but she would also pay for it and more important than that, he would pay for it because she would use that as an excuse to start going through all of his things and weeding out what she did not like or what she did not think was important. His hand came up to smooth out some of the worst wrinkles in his suit, but all he saw was age spots and more wrinkles where his hand used to be. Getting old was as hard as gravity. He let the winkles lay, like sleeping dogs, and decided that no one would notice an old man in a disheveled suit, or if they did, they would not care. He might have sighed, but he used up all of his sighs ten years earlier.
Nathan looked at the other passengers to pass the time. There was a young man about mid-way to the back. Ha! Young? He had to be forty or thereabouts even if he was still clinging to the outrageous clothes of youth and still projecting the attitude of the disaffected and disenfranchised. Nathan could read it in the man’s eyes. He felt sorry for the man who was probably convinced from a very young age that he was incapable of doing anything. Ha! He should not feel incapable of doing anything until he was at least eighty!
With that thought planted firmly in his mind, Nathan turned to look at an elderly woman who was probably older than he was, and she was smiling, for Christ’s sake! Nathan remembered the ninety-three year old he ran into in the supermarket the other day. She had two gallons of cherry vanilla ice cream, a can of cat food and some other stuff that he could not remember. When he remarked on the ice cream while they waited in line, that she must really like that flavor, her response was interesting.
“Two scoops doused in two jiggers of brandy is really good. How do you think I got to be ninety-three?”
Nathan had not thought, so he just smiled and she checked out first.
Now this elderly woman was like that one, smiling, and Nathan concluded that it must be the brandy. He could not imagine any alternative that would cause such an old woman to smile and concluded that the little-old-ladies club must pass around recipes. Nathan rubbed the back of his hand a little as if the age spot was a bit of dirt. Then he rubbed the back of his stiff neck and held on while the bus came to the next stop.
“Stupid car!” The man virtually swore and Nathan heard, everyone heard, before they saw the man. Nathan noticed the collar right away, and he supposed that the man was a priest or a minister of some sort. He had practically shouted the words “Stupid car!” as he dug for the cost of the bus ride, making everyone wait and dig out their hard and cruel looks in response; but evidently the man wanted everyone to hear and see. Nathan understood that it was the man’s way of saying that he did not normally ride a bus and he would not be caught dead on one now if his car had not behaved stupidly. Nathan was not sure it was just the car that was behaving stupidly, and he watched as the man looked down the aisle, noticed the young man and the old lady, looked at Nathan, and took the seat in the front, opposite. Before Nathan could speak, just in case he had something on his mind to say, the minister pulled the Washington Post from under his arm and ignored everyone. The bus started again.
Nathan coughed and produced a large bit of phlegm. He even disgusted himself, but he had a handkerchief in his suit pocket so he kept his disgust to a minimum, and while he was at it he rubbed his nose before putting the handkerchief away. He imagined that it was a remarkable thing that he did not embarrass himself more often. He had lived alone for too many years and was of an age where he should not care, yet he did care about others – not what they thought of him, but to not disgust them if he could help it. Too many men, once alone, went to pieces. At least most of Nathan’s dishes were currently clean and put away.
Nathan straightened his shirt collar and sat up a little straighter for a minute. He had not worn a tie, of course, since he retired all those ages ago. He leaned out to look down the aisle once again and noticed the minister with the newspaper slid a little closer to the window which was beyond touching distance, just in case Nathan wanted to touch, and the man turned the newspaper page as if to say, “I’m busy, leave me alone.” Unfortunately, there was little more to see beyond the young man and the old lady. There were other passengers, but they were hunkered down to where Nathan, with his not so good eyes, could hardly catch their hair color.
A man stood. He was a big, burly kind of a man; the kind of man Nathan never was. He staggered a little in the swaying bus and jerked a bit as the bus came to a stop. He sat behind Nathan and Nathan guessed he would be getting off at the next stop.
The air whooshed and the bus door opened. Nathan turned to see a little girl who came slowly up the steps. Nathan waited for the mother or father to follow, but none came while the bus driver asked for his money.
“Please, sir.” The little girl spoke softly like she was shy or embarrassed and Nathan would have had to turn up his hearing aid if he had not been sitting so close. “I missed the school bus, but I have to get home. My grandmother is very sick. My mother will pay you when we get to my stop.” That took real courage. Nathan admired the little girl
“Sorry kid. You’ll have to walk.” The bus driver looked sympathetic, but it was his job, and Nathan wondered how many rotten things were committed in the name of doing one’s job. He hated that expression. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.” Here is the little secret. Business or not, everything in life is always personal.
The little girl looked about ready to cry. “I can’t.” She said and both Nathan and the bus driver were drawn to her feet where one shoe looked stiff and metallic. Nathan did not know if it was a club foot or the result of some disease or accident, but come to think of it, the girl did seem to limp up the steps.
“Listen, kid. I’ll lose my job. I’m sorry.” The bus driver spoke kindly but shook his head before looking back into the bus as if to suggest that someone from the city might be there spying on him. Nathan knew no paper pusher would leave the warm security of an office to ride a bus, but he allowed that the bus driver might have thought this was a set-up to see who they could fire, given the current state of the economy. “I need my job.” The driver said honestly enough.
The little girl began to cry, softly.
“Look, I’ve got family too. I have to get home.” The burly man spoke over Nathan’s shoulder.
“Yes, can we get on with this?” The minister spoke from behind his newspaper.
Nathan glanced back and saw the young man turned toward the window, ignoring the whole scene, while the old lady was digging through her purse. Nathan preempted her, pulling a bill from his pocket. “Here, child.” He said. “You sit right up front with me and sit by the window so we don’t miss your stop.” Nathan pulled himself slowly to his feet while the bus driver made change. The little girl hesitated and looked once into Nathan’s sad, old eyes while he looked into her sad, young eyes. They understood each other in that moment, and the girl scooted past him to sit next to the window. Nathan barely got his change pocketed and sat down again before the bus driver shut the door and took off.
After that, Nathan put the rest of the bus out of his mind as he looked at the back of the little girl who was dutifully staring out of the dirty window. He judged her to be about seven or eight and he wondered what kind of world we had become to have school busses leave without their passengers accounted for. Surely the school must have some resources for those inadvertently left behind; and especially for a little girl like this, lame as she was. Nathan understood being lame even if both of his feet were normal for his age.
“Do you know which stop is yours?” Nathan asked, not certain if he would get an answer out of the child. She had to be scared, all alone with strangers as she was. He was pleased to see her able to respond.
“Yes, thank you. I have ridden this bus before, with my mother.” The girl said as she gave up on the dirty window and turned to face front and the hard plastic translucent board that separated her from the bus driver’s back. “And thank you for paying.” She added as if remembering her manners. She looked up into Nathan’s old face as if seeking his adult approval of her polite words and Nathan, catching that look in her eyes, smiled in response.
“So what are you, eight?” Nathan asked.
“Seven.” She said. “I’m in the second grade.”
“Second grade.” Nathan repeated as he thought a long, long way back. Fortunately, the ancient days were easier to remember than that morning’s breakfast. “So you know all about reading and writing.”
“Oh, yes.” The girl said. “I love to read, but my writing needs some practice.”
Nathan nodded. “Do you stick out your tongue when you write?” He asked.
“No.” The girl shook her head. Clearly she did not know what he meant.
“Like this.” He let his tongue a little way’s out of the corner of his mouth and pretended to have a pencil in his hand. “You see?” He pretended to write on the translucent plastic in front of them. “A-B-C.” He spoke as he wrote.
The girl put her hand quickly in front of her grinning mouth. “That’s silly.” She said.
“But it helps.” Nathan insisted. He did it again. “D” he said, and he pretended to have trouble with the letter and let his tongue move as his hand moved. The little girl giggled and Nathan smiled again. He had a grand daughter – no – a great-grand daughter that was seven. “My name is Nathan.” He introduced himself.
The girl paused to examine his face before speaking. “Mine is Mya.” She said as she lifted her little hand up to touch his wrinkled, craggy face. “You are very old, like my grandmother.” She said.
Nathan lost his smile, but slowly. “You grandmother is not well.” It was a question though he said it like a statement.
Mya nodded. “She is in the hospital. My mother is going to take me to see her tonight. I think Grandma is dying.” Mya took her hand back and straightened up. Her eyes looked once again near tears. Nathan thought we are all dying; only some of us are closer to it than others. He forced a smile.
“Now, enough about dying.” He said. “You just give her a big hug when you see her and tell her that you love her. That is all that really matters.” He wanted to hug the little girl himself and pat her hand to comfort her in her distress, but he did not dare. Surely someone would accuse him of terrible things, and he wondered again what sort of world they had become. All he could do was lift his heart in a kind of prayer for this little soul while the bus brakes brought them to the next stop. The big man started to get up as the doors opened, but before he could move far, someone jumped in and ran right past the driver babbling something about paradise and Satan and you demons. The minister hid behind his paper. The Bus driver grabbed and missed. The big burly man also made a grab, but it was too late. Nathan instinctively threw himself over the little girl like a shield of flesh and blood. There was a deafening sound, a moment of pain, a brilliant, blinding light and then nothing.