White Mantis By Kevin W. Perizzolo
She boarded the yellow bus, long drab dark olive wool coat hanging unevenly across her shoulders because of the shoulder bag across her neck. She was in no way old, having just barely turned 30. She was often mistaken for an old spinster, though. She did not care how she looked or what she wore, or how it looked on her.
Sitting near the front, she could watch the streets as they passed. Making sure she didnt miss her stop. Not that it was an issue. The buses in this town talked. A not so annoying female voice announced the upcoming stop a few moments before arrival. She wondered about it daily. How did the bus know? The city was new to her. She had moved recently from a much smaller town.
She knew no one and felt a twinge of sadness at the thought. Gregarious and talkative by nature, she was sure she did not fit in. This was a big city, full of self-important people doing self-important things (including those riding the public transport). She looked around her and noticed over three-fourths of the riders were on cell phones: texting, talking quietly (some not so), using whatever apps they had installed. To her it seemed as if people were tuning out the world around them and missing out on some great things. Like talking buses for instance. She pulled out her own cell phone. Nothing special. It made phone calls and allowed for texting and some minimal web access. It did what she wanted it to do and nothing more. She could not remember the last time it rang.
Two stops later, he got on. Tall and lanky, faded jeans, tennis shoes, long shirt with sleeves rolled up revealing multiple tattoos on his arms. Wearing a gray hooded jacket that covered short brown hair (not so clean) and carrying a backpack.
He sat across from her. He glanced out the window and then turned slightly, head down, and looked directly at her from inside the hood. Seconds later, he smiled; sort of a crooked smile hiding his thoughts yet displaying something. He leaned back, spread his arms across the back of the seat, and opened his legs slightly as if for balance. He seemed on edge. Almost like he did not like the skin he was in. Jumpy was the word that came to her mind.
She understood at once. She was the mark. In the eight years since the death of her husband, she had managed to pick three of the worst sort of human beings on earth. She even made a joke of it. Line up ninety-nine great guys and one loser; shed pick the loser every time.
And here he was sitting across from her on a bus in a city she had recently arrived to. She held his gaze momentarily and then turned to the window. Not this time, her inner voice said.
# # #
Over the course of the next few weeks she found her thoughts focusing on him. Torn between attraction and loathing, she felt maybe he was different. No, hes not, the inner voice replied.
He got on the bus a week later. He sat across from her. He leaned back, spreading his arms and legs wide across the seat. Then the sideways glance again. She noted deep blue eyes. The smile was immediate this time. Her face expressionless, she held his glance longer before turning away.
She heard him issue a deep-throated chuckle. Stop it, the inner voice ordered.
Two days later, he said Hello.
Two days after that he sat down beside her. She noticed he smelled of cheap soap. At least he was clean. You dont trust me, do you? he asked, looking straight forward and out the window across the aisle. She turned to him, noticed his face. Slight stubble of beard, left for effect (she figured). Scratch marks on cheeks. Her last residence before she moved to the city had been no more than a halfway house for crackheads, meth freaks, prostitutes, and thieves. She had had to resort to putting signs on her door to stop the residents from knocking at all hours.
What Part Of NO Do You Not Understand?
What You Want To Sell I Do Not Want To Buy
Knock After Nine, I Call 911
She figured he was a meth addict from the marks on his face. No, I dont, she replied, staring out the same window as he.
# # #
The stem of the red tea rose had been stripped of thorns. A plain white tissue surrounded it, tied with a strip of palm frond, the sort homeless people turn into roses and crosses and then sell to bystanders. I thought of you when I saw it. So I stole it from the garden next to my boarding house. The palm frond as well. He handed it to her.
The tissue was yours? she asked snidely.
Christ! Never mind. He hit the strip ten blocks from his usual stop and got off the bus.
That evening she pressed the rose between the pages of a Whitman collection and gently placed the book back on the shelf.
Two weeks later he got on the bus and walked past her without so much as a side glance. She quickly looked out the window, feeling the rebuke in the gut of her stomach.
Two days after that he nodded.
Then said, Hello.
After eight days passed he sat next to her. No glances, no smiles, no words. He just stared out the window across the aisle. He reached back and pressed the strip. I was homeless. I was a drug addict. I used people. I lied. I stole from people who cared for me. He stood and exited the bus. A light mist was falling. He reached up for his hood and pulled it over his face. As he did so, he glanced up into the window and smiled at her as the bus took off.
She sat stunned. Third casting of the net, the inner voice told her. But what if.... she replied out loud.
Maam. Your stop. The bus driver said politely.
Oh, thank you. I dont... I guess I wasnt paying attention. Thank you. She hurried off.
# # #
She began looking for him in earnest. Anticipating when he rode the bus and when he didnt. She adjusted her own routine so as to spend more time with him.
Always on the bus though. She figured her inner voice would be proud of that. The creation of a safety net for her to escape, if need be.
One early spring day she stood at the stop sipping a cup of coffee. The bus would be there in about ten minutes. He came running up. Out of breatha smile on his face.
Look, I just got a great photo of a crab apple tree in bloom. He shoved his phone towards her.
The screen was bright blue sky with pink blossoms lining the branch at a diagonal. It was nice, she admitted to herself.
You ran all the way from your stop to here. Just so show me a picture, nice as it is. You could have waited till you got on the bus. She lifted the hot paper cup to her lips and took a sip.
Tree was halfway between stops. I saw you a few blocks away, he said excitedly, grinning like a child. Waiting for the praise.
I said it was nice, she responded to his non-verbal request.
His smile vanished and his eyes lowered. Nice? Eyebrows furrowed. He turned away.
The yellow bus pulled up to break the awkward moment. She, not knowing how to make it right. He, not knowing if he should be insulted yet one more time. They got on the bus and rode in silence for a while, both staring out of different windows.
You still dont get it, do you? he said finally.
I guess not, she answered, almost flippantly, with the same noncommittal tone as the nice comment had been.
I hope you do soon. He reached to tap the strip for his stop.
# # #
He brought coffee the next morning. Two stainless steel, burnished containers designed to keep hot hot and cold cold. He handed one to her after checking the side. Yeah, this one. He smiled yet again, almost impishly. She looked at the container. In block letters, carefully stenciled, it read HERS. She laughed quickly and glanced at his, MINE. She checked his face and noticed he was blushing. She noted as well that his face was clean shaven and all his scratch marks were gone.
Very well done, she said about all three things. Though he did not know it.
Thank you, he said quietly as they boarded the bus.
When he pressed the strip, he handed her his container and whispered, Two sugars, one cream.
Two creams, one sugar, she replied.
# # #
And so it went. Weeks went by; they traded the coffee cups daily. Conversation always remained casual. Names were never exchanged. This gave her a sense of immense relief. He did not seem to mind. To her, he acted as if this were new territory and he was unaware of the rules, but glad to have something of value in his life. Even if just by chance.
Do you get it yet? he asked one day.
I dont think so. She looked up at the blue sky. Clouds rolled by fast. She had noticed that when she moved here. Clouds moved much more quickly than were she was from.
Well, you will.
Why dont you tell me?
I cant. It is against the rules.
Rules, she snickered. I was unaware of any rules.
Oh, there are, he said quietly. I am making them up as I go along. But they are easy to figure out if you know where to look.
I guess so. Promise me you'll tell me if I dont figure it out fast enough.
There is no fast or slow. It takes what time it takes.
# # #
She went on a cruise that year. A seven-day, all-expenses paid, fun-filled entertainment extravaganza on the Gulf with three ports of call. She realized after four days she should have done the five-day cruiseshe was already that bored. She read a book for the remainder of the cruise and vowed never to take another one.
He was at the stop the morning she went back to work, with two cups of coffee.
Good morning, she said cheerfully. She was, she realized, truly glad to see him.
Where were you? he responded sullenly. His hand was shaky as he passed her the cup of coffee.
I went on vacation, she said, quietly taking the coffee. A slightly puzzled expression on her face.
You didnt say you were going.
I didnt think it mattered all that much.
It did to me! He even startled himself. He turned away quickly. It does.
You remain an enigma to me. Why should it matter so much if I go on vacation or not? We ride the bus together. We share coffee. Thats all. She looked at him waiting for an answer.
He smiled and turned away.
Well, she said sharply.
There's no well about it. I just wish you had told me. I could have made other plans.
For what I do every day. Riding the bus. Sharing coffee. Talking to you. Seeing you, he finished.
You know that's kind of creepy? she responded after a moment.
I guess so. I apologize. Its just that you're part of my routine each day. Without it I'm unable to get through the day. And then you disappeared....
All right. Next time I go on a cruise, I'll ask if you want to go with me. She smiled.
Ive never been on a cruise before. Ive never even been on a boat. Of course Ill go with you next time. He sounded relieved.
I should have asked you beforehand, then. It was boring as hell.
In a year or so I can do something like go on vacation.
Why wait a year?
I need to finish some things here first.
Ill explain everything tomorrow.
# # #
She arrived at the bus stop early. The two cups of coffee in her hands. He wasnt there. She looked up and down the street for any sign of him.
She saw the small red stains first. Then the trail leading away, about fifteen feet up the sidewalk.
Her eyes moved slowly. In the gutter was a gray hooded jacket. Slowly walking towards it, she dropped the coffee. The red stains, which still had not entered her consciousness for what they were, increased until a pool, a foot round, lay next to the jacket.
Cocking her head sideways, she picked up the jacket. The inside of the hood was soaked with drying blood, and it stank of copper and iron.
Stupid homeless dude went and got himself killed last night, a shopkeeper said from behind her.
He wasnt homeless, she said absently.
Cops say it was a drug deal gone bad, he added.
She glanced at the fat bald man. He didnt use anymore.
He was always here, hanging around in the morning and in the late afternoon. Hood pulled over his face like some drugged-out street punk.
"He was waiting for the bus. He worked in a warehouse downtown, she said flatly, unemotionally.
Yeah, right, the man said, turning.
He changed all that in his life! she screamed. Gently folding the jacket in contrast.
And you know because...?
He told me! She turned away from him. Under the smell of blood she could detect cheap soap. And something new. Cheap cologne. She smiled.
They're all liars, lady.
I trusted him, and I never told him that. And he never lied to me.
She turned away and gently placed the jacket on the back of the bench. As she walked away from the store front, a tear rolled down her cheek.
I never even knew his name. But what if...?
Copyright 2012, Kevin W. Perizzolo
About the Author
With some 25 years in the publishing industry, Kevin W. Perizzolo took a decade- long hiatus and moved from the Rocky Mountains to an island off the coast of Texas. He figured it was safe as Galveston Island was not part of Texas, just near it. He now resides in Dallas, having decided a big city is more to his liking. He is pursuing his writing and publishing once again and thanks Rational Magic for publishing his work.
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