A bit of flash fiction for Chuck Wendig’s Challenge: Pick a Five word title, write 1500 words. Mine is 1499, with one word in change.
“All the hookers on the pipeline wore patchouli,” she says, plopping down on the long bench seat next to me. “That’s when I stopped wearing it.”
I scooch my backpack closer. She wrinkles her nose. I am wearing patchouli. The bus driver smirks at this before pulling off the gravel back onto the road. I see him in the rearview mirror.
Dad talked endlessly about the pipeline when he called on Sundays after way too may beers. A welder since before I was born, he said the pipeline was created just for him to make a fortune. He drove his jeep all the way up there with a couple of pals. They went back home to Omaha, but he stayed. Each week I heard how he roller skated on empty roads, got in bar fights, made his own beer, panned for gold on the weekends, bought a ranch then lost it in a crap game, danced naked under the Northern lights and fell in love with Northern women. He was already an old man then living out his last great adventure.
Every call ended with, “I don’t know why she left me and took you girls away. Come see me.”
“Maybe in the fall Dad.” I’d say.
“Okay,” he’d say and I’d hear his breathing fade into the far away music from the honky tonk tavern below his apartment until it became the dial tone.
“It’s because you beat her every Friday night, you old son of a bitch.” I’d say to the phone. Whoever thought I’d miss those calls.
“What you got in there?” Pipeline gal says nodding to my backpack. “It smells.”
I look out the window. The bus is too full to get away from her. I wonder what she was doing on the pipeline. A kid toward the back has his Walkman on so loud even the bus hum and chattering of the four ladies still in their blue smocks from the assembly plant by the tracks doesn’t drown it out. It’s so loud I want to sing along like I do when I’m sweeping the floor, Jeramiah was a, then I realize I am singing it and hum the rest. I tap my toes in the air to the music.
It is a pleasant sunset ride to the beach. The shadows are long already. It will be dark by the time I walk out to the end of the jetty. I brought my flashlight. We pass the strip mall where I got my glasses last year. Most shops are empty now except the liquor store and some fast food joints. KFC wafts somehow through the windows lulling folks to sleep. Pipeline gal’s head nods forward.
There’s a bus stop out here in the middle of nowhere. We slow down. A young Mom with a baby stroller and grocery bags waits in the last golden light of the day. She is smiling. Then two guys slide out from the deep shadows of an oleander bush behind her, my heart pounds and everything goes into slow motion. Does she know them? Did she know they were there? Her smile seems sly to me now, suspicious even. The second guy is holding something next to his leg, a cane, a riffle? No, it can’t be, it must be a baseball bat, but they are in street clothes. They didn’t just play baseball. Did they? No one seems to notice. No one is paying attention. I glance around. Everything tells me this isn’t right, the hair on the back of my neck, on my arms say run, run now. I’m ready to jump up and run right out of here. Everyone moves gently together, swaying as we brake.
“Don’t stop.” I hear myself say. No one hears. Did I say it out loud? I’m going to sound crazy. “Don’t stop,” I say again louder, shrill, “he’s got a bat.” We slow to a stop. I look around in jerky motions. “Don’t open the door. The guy in the back has a baseball bat! Can’t you see it?” I say it to the driver, but he only sees her pretty smile. The doors open. I rise slowly, they will think I’m offering my seat to her. Then I jump into the aisle and run to the back door screaming, tapping shoulders, “Wake up, get out, save yourselves, he’s got a gun.”
I jump out and don’t look back. Then I run, run like I haven’t ran since the fifty-yard dash in sixth grade. I run and run. The strip mall and the telephone booth outside the liquor store is still so impossibly far away. Where did those people come from? There’s no grocery store nearby. There aren’t even any houses here, only chaparral and ravens. I hear screaming and gunshots. Did I hear gunshots? Are they screaming on the bus? “Oh my God,” I cry out “help me get to the phone.”
I run faster and the hard box in my pack slams against the small of my back. Cars have their headlights on now and whoosh KFC and honeysuckle as they pass. Then, as in all those movies where the girl running in high heels trips and falls I hit the gravel like I’m sliding in to home base with both elbows, arms and knees, barely saving my nose. I jump back up because I am the only person in the world who can save those people on the bus. I can feel gravel in my knees, my pants are ripped. My arms are wet, I’m sure it’s blood but there’s the phone.
I tear the door open. The light comes on and I dig for a dime in my pocket. I am shaking so hard it flips out of my fingers, lands somewhere on the floor and I can’t find it. It’s okay I can dial 0 for the operator without a dime. There is no dial tone. I dial again, nothing. This is supposed to work. There is a tap at the door and a silhouette of a tall man. I scream.
“You all right, hon?” He says. Now, I’m hysterical. “The phone’s out of order, why don’t you come inside?”
I open the door slowly, still crying. It sticks halfway and he pushes it open.
“What happened? You’re all banged up.” He says.
“The bus,” I point up the road but I can’t catch my breath now.
“Did the bus hit you?” He says.
“No, a man.”
“A man did this?”
I shake my head, crying. “I fell. A man got on the bus with a rifle, no, I mean a baseball bat. I saw him. I tried to warn them. No one listened. I ran. I heard screaming and shots, I think I heard shots.” He looks up the road. Nods his head.
“Is that what that was? Hmm. Let’s get you inside.” He says, taking my arm. “My wife will clean up your cuts.”
“Call the police.”
“We’ll do that.” He says. “The county Sherriff will be out this way in a couple of hours. Come on in now.”
I step out frantically, and look over my shoulder to the bus. Nothing is there. It’s gone. Are they safe then? Did I imagine all of this? No, I couldn’t have. Three big sleigh bells are tied to the door handle, they jingle as we enter. He nods to his wife.
“Oh my,” she says stepping out from the counter. “Come on in the back dear. I have some peroxide and Band-Aids, we’ll get you fixed up.” Her husband takes her place behind the counter, picks up the phone. There is a kitchenette in the back. I sit at the table. She wets a washcloth.
“Did you hear all of that commotion out there a bit ago?” She says. I nod. “Sounded like a surprise party.” I’m not sure how to respond to that, so I don’t. She carefully cleans my scrapes and cuts, then tapes a chorus line of blue Band-Aids on both arms. I stand and thank her.
“Whatever you was doing, you can do it some other time. Go home now.” She says. I nod. They trade places behind the counter again. He holds the door for me.
“Talked to one of my buddies down the line, got a little burger stand, says the bus pulled out of his place a couple minutes ago. They all seemed fine. Another bus will be along in a few minutes, both directions. You okay?”
“Thanks, yeah. Good to know.” I nod, swing my pack on and head out across the street. He waves. I see the bus approaching, lights on in the twilight coming from the coast to take me back home. What the hell was all that about?
“Well Dad, maybe we’ll try this again in the fall. You don’t mind hanging out on the mantel until then do you?” Yeah, I didn’t think so.