My thighs cling to the plastic seats of Mr. William’s Wandering Bus Service bus as we swerve around on-coming traffic. I lean closer to the window and look out. I notice the hills slowly leveling out. The terrain repeats itself, field after field. I’m in Kansas. Just eight-or-so more hours of sweating my make-up off, and I will be standing in the air-conditioned hotel. I chew my lip with anticipation.
An elderly lady, smelling like floral perfume, sits next to me. I inch sideways and lean closer to the window. I want to avoid conversation, so I pull out my phone to act busy. I go to turn it on, but nothing happens. Great, it’s dead.
“Excuse me young lady?” The woman turns towards me and grins. Wrinkles form around her eyes and her thin eyebrows shoot up.
“Yes?” I sigh and turn towards her. I’ve never been too social, and I’ve always been much worse at conversation. I tug the hem of my jean shorts towards my knees.
“I was just wonderin’ where you’re from. You be lookin’ a bit young to be traveling yourself.” Her voice has a country drawl; her words a syrupy innocence to them. She reminded me of my step-mother. I shutter.
I roll my shoulders backwards and sit up straighter, “I’m fourteen. I’m coming from a small town in Missouri. What about you?” Maybe if I ask her a question or two, she’d finally leave me alone.
“You’re pretty mature for a fourteen year old. I have a grandson about your age. He’s just ‘bout to finish up eighth grade. Top of his class, he is.” Ignoring my previous question, she beams and pulls out her phone.“I must have a picture of him somewhere.”
My plan didn’t work.
“He’s handsome, isn’t he?” She shoves her phone so close to my face that it nearly touches my nose.
“Yeah, sure.” I turn back towards the window, hoping she’d get the message.
“What’s your name sweetie, you don’t mind me askin’?” She pulls a giant purse from under her seat and sorts through it. Finally, she grabs a crumpled dollar bill.
“Aretha.” The bus pulls to a stop and I jolt forward.
“Well, that’s a fine name. I’m Wilma.” She stands up and sticks her hand out. I take it gently and feel her sweat press against my palm as she squeezes my hand.
As soon as she turns around, I quickly wipe my hands on my shorts. Old-lady-sweat sticks to the cloth. The elderly women, Wilma, hobbles out the bus and into the sweltering heat.
I begin to enjoy the peace and quiet when a slender girl slides into the seat next to me. She acknowledges me with a slight head nod and pulls out a book.
After an hour or so of silence, she speaks, her voice like honey. I jump, startled, and turn towards her. Her big, blue eyes look into mine. I smile.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch what you said.” I stutter at the last word when I notice her beauty.
Don’t get me wrong, I know women are worth more than their beauty. They should be valued for their personality, success, actions, you name it. But, this girl was jaw-drop gorgeous.
The tips of her ember hair are bleached a light yellow; her hair falls just past her shoulders. When she smiles, her dimples shine, drawing you to her light spray of freckles. She has eyes that make you want to look deeper into them, so full of emotion and compassion...
“I asked where you were going.” She raises an eyebrow.
My cheeks turn red. “Oh, sorry. I’m going to Colorado. I have family there,” I lie. I don’t want her to know the real reason I’m traveling; I want her to like me.
“No need to be sorry. I’m headed to a boarding school.” She makes a face and I laugh. “My parents are too cheap for a plane ticket so I’m traveling across the country on public transportation. Boston to Goodland, Kansas. Five more hours and I’ll be stuck in some dinky school.” She rolls her eyes.
“You never know, you might like it.” I say and her eyebrows shoot back up. “It’s really that bad, huh?” I reply to her doubtful expression.
“You bet!” She leans in and drops her voice to a whisper, “I heard that they punish students by making them sleep outside.”
“You can’t be serious,” I retort.
“Okay, maybe not. But it’s still going to be awful.” I snort as she mimics a gag.
I realize that I haven't caught her name, but before I can ask, she sticks out her freckled arm and says, “My name’s Estelle. Fourteen years old.”
“Aire,” I beam. I can’t believe my luck. Not only is she nice, but Estelle’s my age.
“Alright, Aire,” my heart flutters as she says my name, “You wanna watch a movie? I downloaded The Princess Bride. I don’t know if you're into that stuff.” She pulls out a laptop from her bright pink backpack and starts to untangle a mess of cords. “I know my earbuds are in here somewhere,” she mutters.
“You know what, I’d really like that.” I bite the inside of my lip. She hands me an earbud and I stick it in my ear. As we watch the moive, the bus rumbles closer to my destination and closer to night.
The bus screeches to a stop, jolting me awake. Estelle stretches as I lift my head from her shoulder. I yawn and she frowns at me.
“What is it?” I ask.
“You're not really visiting family, are you?” She cocks her head and her hair falls to her shoulders.
“What do you mean?” My face heats up and I turn to look out the window. The stars were twinkling and the fluorescent lights from the bus-stop hurt my eyes.
“You talk in your sleep.” I can feel her piercing stare through the back of my head.
“I don’t know what you're talking about,” I mumble, holding back a wave of resentment.
“You’ve got to go back.”
A rebellious tear slides down my cheek, “No. I don’t want to.” I gulp, a fresh wave of frustration clogs my throat.
“Come on. You can’t just run away from your problems.” I face her and hold her gaze.
“You’re in no place to tell me what to do.” Another unruly tear wets the side of my face.
“I know,” She pauses, contemplating what to say next, “I just think that, sometimes, people don’t know what’s best for themselves.”
“Go away.” I swallow hard, but a gasp escapes my lips.
“I just don’t know what to do.” Tears stream down my face and I pull my knees to my chest. I let the tsunami inside take over.
“Why, why did you run away?” She tucks a wayward hair behind my ears. My heart flutters as her hand brushes my cheek.
“It’s going to sound dramatic,” I say and give her a tired smile, “But I hate April Fool’s. And my step-mom, she said she’s going to prank me. I got scared. She’s always detested me. I— I don’t know, I just assumed that her prank was going to be bad, or hurtful. It was rash, stupid, unreasonable—”
“No it’s not. You were terrified, I would have done the same thing.” She gives my hand a squeeze.
“I guess.” I wipe my nose on the edge of my sleeve.
“Last call for Goodland!” The bus’s intercom screechs.
“Isn’t that yours?” I sit up.
“Yeah, I have to go.” She pulls out a pen, “Here, contact me if you need me.” She jots a phone number down on the palm of my hand. The blue ink feels cold against my skin.
“Last call for Goodland! Any passengers who don’t get off now will be riding to the next bus stop.”
“Bye, Aire.” Estelle stands up and stretches her back.
“Bye.” I watch her walk down the bus’ aisle, her backpack slung over one shoulder. “I hope I see you again,” I whisper, more to myself than to her. The bus pulls forward and I lean my head on the window. I trace Estelle’s phone number with my finger as the intercom shrieks.
“For all passengers just boarding, Welcome! We are glad you have chosen to use Mr. William’s Wandering Bus Service this afternoon. Currently, it is April 2, and our next stop…” The driver’s words got drowned out by the hammering in my head.
I left this morning and took the bus to escape the wrath my step-mom might bring on April Fools.
It’s April 2nd.
I traveled across multiple states on a janky bus for no reason.
Oh god, what have I done?