A schoolboy crouched in the alleyway, his red-rimmed eyes wild and desperate in his swollen, puffy face. He darted forward as Edmund passed, hand outstretched, fingers brushing his heavy woolen coat.
Edmund recoiled, snatching his briefcase out of the boy’s grasp. “Excuse me,” he said, his voice brimming with indignation and more shock than he cared to acknowledge.
“Sir, can you give—”
“Most certainly not,” Edmund said, and strode on, staring resolutely at the bus stop ahead.
He increased his pace, adding some distance between them, but the boy had already slunk back into his alleyway, to commit Lord knows what atrocities. Maureen probably would have stopped to speak to the boy, but she was naïve like that.
Edmund’s fingers ached, and he swapped his briefcase to his other hand. The skin on his knuckles had turned a translucent shade of blue. He could say it was the cold, but that would be a lie.
Ahead, at the bus stop, a mother jerked the arm of her small child, pulling him back from the edge of the road. The toddler screamed, his cries loud and piercing. Edmund looked away.
Maureen was lots of things, naïve, bitter, hostile, always needing something, incessantly complaining, always going to the doctor. But she’d been kind to their children.
He adjusted his grip on the briefcase and rubbed a patch of scaly skin on his knuckle where a scab was healing. This meeting was a transaction, that’s all. A simple exchange of cash for the sanctity of his marriage.
He joined the queue, as the bus approached, a hulking white brute of steel. His heart pounded. Catch the bus. Complete the transaction. Move on with his life.
And then the bus surged forward, lurching down the road, and roaring past the bus stop without even slowing. The wind from its wake rushed over his face and its taillights never blinked as it charged into the distance. Carrying Edmund’s sole chance at redemption along with it.
He hadn’t been home last night. Again. God knows what he was doing. The rage built inside Everly, and she pulled Noah’s arm, dragging him back from the road before the traffic flattened him into a thousand tiny pieces. Like roadkill. She sighed. It was a minor miracle anyone actually survived childhood.
Noah screamed and Everly picked him up, hoisting him onto her hip and angling him so the snot and screaming didn’t stain her jacket.
This was an important day. She’d much rather he'd left behind his beloved watch and not his snot-nosed, screaming kid. At least she’d been planning on taking that for good luck.
Noah whimpered and Everly sighed, turning him slightly so she could see his face.
“You’re okay, Bubba. Everly’s sorry,” she said.
She fished in her pocket for something to give him, her fingers brushing over crusty tissues and a battered flyer, before pulling out an old mackintosh lolly. The wrapper was only half closed, and bits of white fluff stuck to the caramel.
Noah reached for it, and she pulled off the wrapper, briefly wondering if he even had enough teeth for such a lolly. But his pudgy fingers curled around it, and the lolly disappeared into his mouth, which was now not screaming. Everly chalked it up as a life win.
The bus approached, and she stepped forward, careful to avoid eye contact with the doddery old man on the other end of the bench. It wasn’t the best day. It certainly wasn’t unfolding as she’d planned. But she was doing this and having Noah didn’t make it impossible.
She had a kid on her hip, and the shattered dreams of her future at her feet, but she could make the most of it.
Tip pulled his coat tighter against the cold, his fingers stiff, and smiled at the wee lass with the child on her hip. He’d tried to speak up, talk about what had happened, but he’d been met with a hard stare and reminder not to spread lies. But now he was bringing evidence, to the police no less, and even if they thought he was an old geezer, they couldn’t ignore that.
“How long ’til the bus?” he asked the lass, his voice cracked and gravelly, like leather that hardens from neglect. It surprised them both.
She flinched and pulled the child onto her other hip, dutifully avoiding eye contact, as though the conversation was an unfortunate set of circumstances best avoided. Though judging by her face, she had her own unfortunate set of circumstances.
Tip fumbled in his pocket for his handkerchief, his fingers brushing over his evidence, the metal cool and smooth and utterly unignorable.
He tried again. “It’s been years since I caught the bus.”
She glanced over her shoulder and then offered him the most fleeting of nods. He took his handkerchief out and mopped his brow; the story bubbling inside him. It was horror he felt, he told himself, and tried to ignore the twinging excitement and relief from the mundane.
“I’m going to the police station,” he said. “I—”
The lass shot off her seat, spinning to face him. “No. No. You can’t go to the cops.” She gripped the child and backed into the wall of the bus stop. “Please,” she whispered. “Please, I have a plan. Please don’t go.”
Tip shuffled to his feet, his knees creaking. The youth of today were confusing. He stepped onto the footpath, his heart thumping and chest tight.
He took several deep breaths and organized his thoughts. Last night he’d seen a big burley man get bundled into the back of a Mercedes by two even bigger, burlier men. He’d seen the flash before he heard it, lighting up the back seat of the car.
He looked at her pale face. No, the wee lass was worried about something different. This was a misunderstanding, nothing more.
Tip sat and ran his thumb over the smooth metal of the watch. It had fallen out during the struggle. It was evidence. The police couldn’t ignore that.
And then the bus thundered past without even slowing. Tip shook his head. It was a strange world. But he could wait.
Maureen eased the bus down a gear and flicked on the indicator, coming to stop at the lights. She was late on her run, but the passengers could wait a couple of minutes; she’d get them to their destination safely and with a smile. It was safer on the streets than at home.
The lights blinked green, and she edged the bus forward, parting the traffic like Moses and the Red Sea as the big white bus obediently picked up speed. Her beautiful white bus, her steed. She didn’t need prince charming to ride in and rescue her. No, she could do that herself.
She guided the bus round the corner, taking care to swing out wide enough to avoid the curb and changed lanes, eyeing the next stop.
Her throat tightened.
He was standing at the back of the queue. She pressed her foot down on the accelerator and the bus surged forward. She could mow him down. Flatten him against the radiator, reducing him to the fate of rogue sparrows and the odd, unfortunate hedgehog.
The police would understand. It would all come out in the wash. And even if they didn’t, prison couldn’t be worse than the thirty years of ‘love’ she’d endured.
She adjusted her grip on the steering wheel, guiding the bus forward, foot pressed to the floor. And then she saw her. A young woman, toddler on her hip, bruise blossoming on her cheek and a yellow flyer peeking out of her pocket.
She recognized that flyer. She’d been given one a couple of months ago. Details of a woman’s refuge and a promise of a free bus ride there; it had changed her life.
Family harm, they had called it. The story hidden in a story. The great silent blemish on our society. Just there, lurking in plain sight, if only people would look to see it. She eased her foot off the accelerator.
Unlike her ex-husband, she wasn’t a violent woman. Besides, she had the power now. When Edmund heard she had photos, he’d suggested a little exchange of cash in return for silence about his ‘love’.
And while she might have imagined various endings to this exchange, in the end, she just drove on by, leaving behind Edmund and his briefcase of worry. She was driving forward, out of a hidden story and into a better story.
Ahead, a schoolboy leaning against an alleyway caught her eye, and she braked.
Author's Note: Kia Ora Koutou. A glimpse into the schoolboy's story is hidden in the main text of this story using a Fibonacci Sequence. (Take the first sentence from the first scene, the first sentence from the second scene, the second sentence from the third scene and the third sentence from the fourth scene to get his story.)