The nurse left work at 5:00. She hurried to the bus stop, pausing once to pull her orange sweater around her shoulders—cold for late September—stupid to buy a sweater with no buttons—but she’d liked the way it grazed her hips, liked the color—Clementine orange. Orange draws the eye, her mother said. You don’t want that.
Her mother was wrong—she did want it. She wanted anything that drew the eye to her, that made her somebody to notice. She grabbed at the sweater again and looked up just as the 5:12 pulled away. Shit. The 5:22 would be crowded, no chance of a seat, she’d miss her connection, and her mother would have something to say about that too. She wrapped the sweater tighter, stepped into the shelter, and slumped against the glass.
She didn’t see the boy or hear him until she felt him standing too close. She automatically stepped to the front of the shelter, not looking down, never really seeing him. He stepped up with her, still too close, but not touching. She hunched in her sweater, leaned against the dirty side wall and closed her eyes.
She felt the warmth of his narrow body before she realized he was actually leaning against her, his head resting in the crook of her waist, his bare arms folded across his chest. She put her hand on his shoulder to push him away.
“Hi,” he said in a voice as thin as he was. She kept the hand on him and held him back for a good look. He was a bony, freckle-faced kid with tangled hair, brown eyes, a slash of dirt on one cheek, eight years old, maybe nine, but slight for nine. T-shirt, no jacket, jeans, flip flops. He smiled. Missing a tooth.
He was alone. There was no one else in the bus shelter, no one bent against the wind hurrying towards him. She felt like shaking him, teaching him a lesson, telling him not to talk to strangers, but he was surprisingly warm. Somebody should take his temperature, she thought, then released him, crossed her arms over the thin orange sweater and turned her back on him as obviously as she could. Not her problem.
She peered through the filthy glass. No sign of the 5E. Looked at her watch – 5:19.
He was next to her again, as close as he could be without actually touching. “I ride free with you,” he whispered.
She pretended she didn’t hear him and looked out the cloudy window again. The wind had picked up a plastic bag and papered it on the glass, blocking her gaze.
“Missus?” his voice a whisper.
She was nobody’s missus.
“Missus, I ride free with you.”
“Oh you do, do you?” She spoke more harshly than she meant to, but she was nobody’s missus, and he wasn’t her boy. Somebody had taught him to sidle up to some respectable woman, somebody poor or in uniform, somebody tired, some nobody, somebody to get him on free. Not my problem. She looked up—the 5E had just turned the corner.
She moved away from him again, but now his warm hand was under the orange sweater, in her empty pocket as if it belonged there, as if he were her boy, and the two of them boarded the 5E together every evening at 5:22.
Not the worst thought she’d ever had.
She jammed her hand in the pocket, clenched her clean fingers around his dirty ones, pulled both their hands out and jerked him towards the bus as the door opened. “Hurry up,” she said, “You’re always so slow.”
~©2011 Kathleen Coskran