Harper to St. Jude’s
Three women with backpacks are standing at the Harper Street bus stop on a Tuesday morning in May. Gwen, the tall one with white sneakers, recognizes the girl in a grey sweatshirt from her physics lecture. She’s the one who sits near the front with her boyfriend and laughs at the professor’s jokes so loudly it makes the rest of the class glance at each other and smile. Gwen missed last week’s lectures because of Jenji’s backyard funeral and wonders if it would be weird to ask the girl for notes. Perhaps, but she doesn’t know anyone else.
Morgan’s hair is wet. A bead of water from the tip of her ponytail travels down her back, making her shiver and stand straighter. There was no time to blow-dry this morning because she snoozed her alarm three times. She feels guilty for it now, being so lazy, and is nervous people will think her hair is greasy. She pulls up her sweatshirt’s hood and glances at the stork-like girl who is staring, big eyes and a square face. She is vaguely ugly in a cool way, like a model. She smiles, a dot of lipstick on her front tooth. Morgan debates saying something, but stays quiet. Spit will likely rub it off soon. If not, a friend can tell her. Does this constitute the bystander effect? Morgan got a B in psychology last semester and went to her TA’s office to argue back points on the final exam. The phrasing was unclear, Andrew, see right there, on question seven? He said she simply misunderstood on multiple accounts, sorry. Morgan wraps the string of her sweatshirt around her finger again and again. She is no longer graduating with honors and hasn’t told her parents who are flying in for commencement next week. Her index finger grows hot, turns purple.
Gwen’s pleased she got out of bed today. She even put on makeup! Lipstick the color of a grape. The tube is in her hand now, something to fiddle with. She thought about staying under her comforter with the lights off, looking at her phone, falling back asleep, repeat. But her roommates would have said something, knocked gently on her door, “Gwen, you okay? You’ve been skipping a lot lately.” This is why she got of bed, to avoid judgment masked as concern. It’s just a dead dog, she can be a functional person, like seriously. Her roommate found her dad crushed under a tree in middle school, and she still goes to her history seminar.
The number 28 bus is behind schedule. Two minutes late. Lillian honks at a silver van that cut her off. A passenger pulls the cord, and Lillian stops because she’s at the mercy of other people, always. The bus sighs. She tells the college students talking about the Bachelorette to move towards the back. Safety hazard. That, and she doesn’t want to hear spoilers. She finds the young man from Maine incredibly cute, his bowties and freckles like cinnamon. His heart is in the right place, Lillian has a sense about these things. Last week, she invited the other female bus drivers over to watch. They got drunk and ate hummus. When Lillian spilled a little wine on the couch cushion, she flipped it over with a finger to her lips. That made them all laugh. Her husband came home and saw the glasses on the wooden table, no coasters, and told her to pick up her brain, which she must have flung out the window. The laughter was different for him, nervous, and she scolded him while they brushed their teeth for trying to be funny at her expense. She stops again. Three young women get on at Harper, one of them in scrubs the color of mouthwash. Lillian closes the doors, keeps moving.
Petra is glad it’s the female bus driver today. It means she will get to the hospital on time. The two other girls at the Harper stop did not seem nervous about the bus being late, which helped ease Petra’s anxiety. No need to be nervous if other people are calm! The other bus driver on the route is unreliable. He never smiles and takes breaks whenever he wants, sometimes during rush hour, which should be reported. When Petra fumbles with her bus pass or puts it in the wrong way, he rolls his eyes. He frightens her. She would not be surprised if one day he drove the bus off the bridge on purpose. Petra squeezes her eyes shut and reminds herself this thought is irrational. Not being friendly does not equal being evil. Anyway, she prefers this bus driver, the woman, who is friendly and whose full nametag she missed though she thinks she saw an L. Petra sits upfront near L because it makes her feel safe.
Gwen takes a seat next to the girl from her lecture. She slips off her backpack and sets it on her lap so she doesn’t take up so much space. Their arms touch, apologies are exchanged. Gwen learns—from an engraved bracelet on the girl’s left wrist—that her name is Morgan. She wonders if her boyfriend bought it as a gift. A bit tacky if so. The silver bracelet makes Gwen think of a dog collar, which makes her think of Jenji, which makes her think of her little brother hugging the dead dog at the vet, saying he doesn’t have any friends now. Gwen asks Morgan if she is in Physics 214. If she is talking to another person, she can’t think of her brother sitting alone on a picnic table during recess, biting his nails and asking the teacher how much time is left.
The girls across from Petra are discussing light particles and how their TA is an idiot who never responds to emails. Petra realizes everyone around her is talking to another person, and she feels heat in her cheeks. She is just sitting, quiet like a houseplant, and regrets not bringing headphones. She could have listened to a podcast or mediated or at the least just had white buds in her ears that signaled to people she was busy and okay being alone. She takes her hair out of its bun, combs it with her fingers. A man in a suit next to her says she is pretty, asks her name, is she a doctor? She says Petra, x-ray tech. He rubs the sleeve of her scrubs between his fingers, says itchy. Petra keeps her eyes on her knees but feels mild relief in her stomach like swallowed sunshine. Someone is talking to her.
The tall girl is going on about a cancerous dog but Morgan doesn’t care. She is too busy watching the people across the aisle. No one has ever said she was pretty unprompted, not even her boyfriend. The petite woman from the bus stop doesn’t say thank you, and Morgan figures it must happen to her a lot, compliments. She looks breakable like an antique doll with a serious face to match. The man, though handsome, seems like a creep. Maybe Morgan is still tired, but did his speech sound slurred? The bus only costs a dollar, sometimes weirdos hop on. Lots of college girls in a confined space. Shimmering fish in a barrel.
Lillian runs a yellow light. She has reclaimed the two minutes! Back on schedule. They pass the Arby’s where her husband works as manager and she honks three times, I hate you. The passengers go quiet and look up startled, expecting a collision.
The sudden noise makes Petra conscious of her heartbeat, too fast. It was just a honk, there’s no issue. She bobs her knee up and down, trying to calm herself with the rhythmic movement. Her calf muscle warms with each lift. The man in the suit claps his hand on her knee to stop the movement. “Fidgety, aren’t you?”
Gwen is annoyed. Morgan has turned down her request for notes. Handwriting too messy, wouldn’t be able to make sense of it. A flimsy excuse. Instead, she is watching the people across from them, the small woman in scrubs and the cute man who must be her boyfriend. He is holding her knee, rubbing the cap with his thumb. They look like they are fighting. Scrubs will not look him in the eye, actually looks scared or maybe just self-conscious about PDA. Gwen’s stop is next. She pulls the cord and doesn’t say goodbye to Morgan when she gets off, that bitch. In the library, she will email her TA requesting notes for three missed classes. He will respond twelve hours before the final. Greetings, Gwen. Sorry for the late response, hectic week. Can you please get them from a friend? Gwen will skip the final, go home, let her brother beat her in a game of horse. Who cares?
Morgan determines the best thing to do is pretend she knows the girl, rescue her from whatever weirdness the guy in the suit is trying. The audacity. She stands up and sees a tube of lipstick in her seat, the tall girl’s. Must’ve rolled behind her during a left turn. She pockets it and grabs the pole nearest the girl in scrubs for balance. Her presence makes the man retract his hand, cough into it. Our stop, right? She stares at the girl, hard, and the message gets through. They get off together, and the bus pulls away with a roar. Morgan asks if she is okay, men are trash. She nods, says something about freezing up then needing to get to work. Morgan watched her walk way then pulls out the lipstick, examines the perfect tip, hardly used. She will bring it to the physics final in hopes of returning it, but the tall girl will not be there, oh well. Morgan will wear the lipstick at graduation, bright purple to stand out. Her parents will ask why there isn’t an asterisk by her name in the program. Dinner afterwards will be tense. Morgan will take lots of sips of water during lulls in conversation and stare at the imprint of her lips on the rim. It wipes off easy, a simple rub of the finger.
The hospital is still half a mile away. Petra got off too soon and will be late, but what was she to do? She can still feel his hand on her knee, the small circles that would have felt nice if they were wanted. Why her, out of everyone? Her boss, during a team building activity, once said she reminded him of a chinchilla: small, cute, often shaking. She wishes she were something that could fly. No need for public transportation then, her own wings would suffice. Though driving makes Petra nervous, she will browse CarMax during her break, decide she is done with buses for a while. The salesman at the lot with colorful flags will talk down to her, ask if she wants to call her dad before signing papers. Petra will take the used car on the highway, drive too slow, get honked at. Once home, she will open the GPS app and click “avoid highways” under settings. Getting anywhere will take longer.
Outside St. Jude’s, Lillian takes her first fifteen-minute break and opens a bag of vinegar chips. The first one always shocks her mouth, so sour. In the side mirror, she sees a passenger from earlier, the one in scrubs, walking her way. Why did she get off so far back? Maybe she’s one of those girls with the bracelets that measures steps, wants to hit a goal, stay skinny. She walks past the bus and through the revolving door of the hospital entrance, disappears. Lillian decides she will exercise more, build some confidence, and then leave her husband, maybe. She puts the bus in drive, checks her mirrors, and keeps moving because she must.
Laura Schmitt is a fiction writer from Nashville. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grist, The Write Launch, and The Elm. She currently works as a fiction editor for the Rare Byrd Review, a literary journal for high school students. Her favorite word is perhaps. Perhaps, you should follow her on Twitter @LauraSchmitt_