Four Stops by G.V. Anderson

street-1233261_1280It’s the kind of night that beckons you home. A night for old pyjamas, the stink of burning dust from the storage heater, and the same four channels—but your stop is getting closer and you haven’t pressed the bell.

The two old ladies sitting together in the disabled seats always get the number thirteen on Tuesday evenings. The bus collects them from outside the bingo hall and deposits them God-knows-where. Whenever you shuffle past them to the door, you inhale the ammonia from their twin purple halos, and another iron scent that stiffens the hair on your arms. You’ve seen them often enough to distinguish one from the other: on the right sits the one with the slender, manicured hands, on the left the one with the broad chest and swollen ankles. Despite their age, they’re flourishing; and behind them you feel insubstantial, the atoms of your body rattled loose by the vibrating seat.

But—if you’re very honest with yourself—the seat’s not entirely to blame; you’ve felt empty for a while. Even the raw cuts of meat you gorge on the moment you close your own front door don’t fill your stomach. It withers the soul, this emptiness. You watch raindrops trace old routes on the windowpane and wonder how much longer you have left, before you flake like overworked skin and disintegrate. You’ve seen it happen to others, when they’ve tried to abstain . . . but it couldn’t happen to you. Never to you.

And yet, here you are, fading like old paint.

You grip the sides of the seat until your knuckles turn white and watch your stop whip past. No. It won’t be that kind of night after all.

The bus reels with every gear change, ejecting  passengers three times into the bitter evening until it’s just the driver, the old ladies, and you. You’ve never cared too much about the stops beyond yours before. You press your forehead to the cold glass and wipe it clear with your sleeve, but the bus might as well have been gliding through space for all you can see. The old ladies stand, laden with canvas bags, one of them dragging a tartan trolley, and you hesitate. Perhaps they are just two old ladies after all; perhaps your own exhaustion is driving you mad.

It’s too late, however, to turn back. As the bus trembles to a halt, the driver ducks under the Perspex divider and calls to you, Last stop! So you disembark—nodding your head in thanks as you pass him—onto a road lined with wild privet, the misty rain leaving teardrops on your jacket. The old ladies have a head start of ten feet, at least. They move silently, leaving ripples in the puddles, and disappear into the shrubbery on the right.

You hesitate as the bus rumbles away, leaving you alone and shivering. From beyond the tangle of balding hedge beside you comes the squelch of muddy boots and the huff, huff, huff of a dog. You hear something else, something tinny and undulating: earphones buried deep, but not quite deep enough. You wonder if this dog owner will be the unlucky target. They usually were. Easy to pick off in the dark, no fuss if the dogs were dispatched first. Lone joggers were another option, as were drunks staggering home from the pub, although their blood makes you feel light-headed and silly.

It’s been a long time since you enjoyed the heat in your mouth. The muscles around your eyes tighten. You wander ahead to the gap where the ladies vanished and slip through to a woodland cavity, a dark gutter of storm water and rotting debris. There’s nothing to see ahead, but you can hear rustling from the steep bank on your left. You grip the cold, slick branches and dig your toes into the muck, drawn to the sound, your tongue pulsing against your teeth. You expect a snarl any second, a blow to the face, as you reach the slippery peak and peer into the bush. The tartan trolley is propped against a trunk ahead, the canvas bags arranged on top to keep them out of the mud. As you recognise them, you hear the smack and crunch, the wet sucking, and your lips part in response.

There’s someone watching.

Who’s there?

It’s the one with the fat ankles who comes to challenge you. Shadow has softened the hills and valleys of her face—but her teeth gleam, stark against the red of her maw. You can’t stop your body’s reaction, no more than you can stop your guts twisting in anticipation: your own mouth gapes to match, expelling a hiss of breath.

You watch her face for any sign of offence, any twitch of indignation. Not everyone has the patience or the resources to pander to novices, and she might tear you apart for daring to scavenge from her hard work. But perhaps she sees how starved you are beneath your thick jacket, the extremity of your existence, because she limps forward with a smile, and slips a blood-soaked finger into your waiting mouth.

We wondered if you would ever follow us, she says. Come on, there’s plenty to go around.

END

G. V. Anderson lives on the south coast of England and writes a little bit of everything. She’s a lover of fantasy books, lazy evenings, and spicy pizza. Right now, she ought to be working on her novel—but she’s probably asleep. Poke her awake at @luna_luminarium.