Anna’s not waiting by the front door, nor is she in the kitchen with Susan and Boone. My phone tells me it’s 7:28. The bus doesn’t get in ‘til 7:37-ish, but Anna’s usually here five, ten minutes before now. I sit at the kitchen table until 7:34 before giving up and walking out the door with Boone.
Susan looks curiously at me and then at the empty chair, but has the decency not to ask.
“What’d you do?”
Boone, however, has never bothered with tact in his life.
I browbeat her with my petty hurt. “Shut up.”
His smirk twitches, like for a second it’s too heavy to hold up.
“Wanna take a ditch day to soothe your wounded soul?”
He shrugs and runs a hand through his hair. “Offer stands all-day.”
Ask me again!
I grunt and step onto the curb to wait for the bus. Anna’s not there either. The bus is running a few minutes late. Not a surprising turn of events. There are always assholes who go running up to the bus as it’s about to leave, yelling from a block away to hold the doors. Do that at every other stop and being late becomes the new on-time. Not that I would know from first-hand experience or anything.
The bus rolls up at 7:41 and Anna still hasn’t showed. I stall a bit, pretending I forgot a book and then rooting around my backpack a bit before “finding it”. She still isn’t anywhere to be found, so I shuffle aboard.
Anna’s sitting in the third row from the front, on my left and with her nose buried in a book. Literally, buried. She looks too close to be able to read more than one word at a time. Waves of heat ripple out from my chest and across my body and the hairs on my arms snap to attention.
She’d rather wake up early and walk an extra five blocks than wait at the bus stop with me?
Her ears are so red her hair looks dull and brown by comparison, but she keeps her head firmly down and her backpack in the spot next to her as I walk by.
Boone gives me a look over his shoulder. I ignore it. I plop down in the first empty row I find and stretch my legs out across the second seat. Boone wanders further back to sit with Shelly McCourtey and Danton Park. I pop my headphones in and close my eyes. Two stops and a song and a half later someone taps my foot. My eyes open immediately, completely sure they’ll see Anna, ready to bury all this shit in the backyard. Or beneath some water below a bridge. However this metaphor works. Instead, I see a placid looking girl, cupping her elbows in her hands. She’s tall and gangly and her crimped brown hair is pulled into a tight bun. I recognize her round, freckly face but can’t stick a name to it. Marissa? Melissa? Martha? I dunno.
I slide my feet onto the floor and pull one earbud out.
She shakes her head and settles in next to me. “It’s okay.” And after a pause, “Don’t you usually sit with Anna?”
I stare at her for a second, wondering if I’m really supposed to know this girl. I’m bad with faces (a side-effect of a lifetime of not caring) and can’t be sure so I don’t tell her to mind her own fucking business. My face must tell her for me because she backtracks.
“Sorry, that was rude. You probably don’t even remember me.” She waves a hand at me. “I’m Melanie.
Anna and I are friends.”
I nod and smile tightly (is it a smile or a grimace?). “Ah, Melanie. That was gonna be my first guess.”
She doesn’t seem to mind my forgetfulness or my flippancy.
“She looked pretty upset when I walked by. Do you mind if I ask why?”
Because I suck. “Sorry, I know you and Anna are friends, but I don’t know you all that well. Personally, you know?”
Did that sound as diplomatic out loud as it did in my head? Did I seriously just say something right?
Melanie nods. “That’s okay. Just thought I’d ask. Some people like to be asked.”
I tilt my head from side to side. “Fair enough.”
But I don’t put my earbud back in. I feel too hot and my mouth’s too dry and yesterday’s headache is coming back. Before I can remind myself that my problems are my problems, I start talking.
“I yelled at her, like really fucking yelled at her. She got mad and said something she didn’t mean and I blew up.”
Melanie looks over at me like I didn’t just blurt out something really personal to an almost complete stranger on a goddamn school bus. Like this isn’t weird. Her lips are pressed together and her eyebrows are scrunched up, like she’s listening to her best friend vent his troubles. She’s all patience and sympathy. I don’t know if that makes this better or worse.
“Did she apologize?”
I break eye contact. “She tried.”
“How can someone try to apologize?”
By having an asshole boyfriend. Or by being one. “She called. I didn’t pick up.”
I shrug, still not sure what’s possessed me. “I was pissed, I guess.” And guilty.
“Do you want her to come to you and apologize?”
Jesus, who talks like this? “I don’t know.” And who answers?
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting her to apologize for hurting your feelings. You’re not trying to blame the whole thing on her. You’ll apologize too, right?”
Profusely. “Yeah.” I look up at her, still wearing that same calm, concerned expression. “You are being remarkably laid-back here despite the fact that a nearly total stranger is unloading on you and unloading about a friend of yours at that.”
She’s the one to shrug this time, glancing up at Anna. “Anna’s a sweetheart, but it’s hard to ignore how she gets when she loses her temper.”
For a brief second I see Patty Campbell in Melanie’s face, hear her words coming out of Melanie’s mouth.
Henry’s a good man, but—it’s just the accident. He can’t walk without pain sometimes and it’s frustrating and it just makes him do things he wouldn’t normally do…It’s really not his fault…
And then Melanie shrugs and it’s her again. No more Patty.
“Not that that’s an excuse, it just kinda is. She’s an intense person. Mostly, it’s a good kind of intense, but no one’s always cheery and wonderful. Although, that day after you kissed her she sure seemed like she’d be happy forever.”
I blink. “What?”
Melanie’s calm breaks for a second and a deep flush rolls up her neck. She smiles nervously and waves me off. “Nothing. I don’t think I should be spilling girl talk to a boy. I think it’s against some sort of code.”
I want her to go back. Go back and expand. Tell me exactly what was said and how it was said. Instead I try to remain composed (or as composed as I can after puking up all my feelings to a stranger).
“Is that why you’re over here with me?”
She shrugs. “I like her. She likes you. There’s a mathematical property that says I have to help you.”
“Is this what math teachers are always talking about when they’re telling us that math really is useful in real life?”
Melanie smiles, big and bright. “No, they probably actually think we’ll need to determine when a train will arrive at Station X, but I imagine they’d take credit for this anyway.”
An honest smile touches my face for the first time in twelve-ish hours. “Seems somewhat dishonest. What will become of us without good role models?”
Melanie giggles and it feels good to laugh with someone. Feels like all I’ve done with people of late has involved sulking or yelling. Or punching. I might need to get to know Melanie better so I can figure out a way to pay her back.
“I…I’m gonna go talk to Anna.” My smile tightens a little. “Thanks.”
I’m not really good at subtle or delicate, so I go for direct. I slide into the seat next to her, dropping her backpack onto my lap. Anna’s ears go a brilliant, painful shade of red. She’s still giving the book a colonoscopy with her nose, but I think her body eases up a little. Maybe.
Now that I’m sitting next to her and she’s not starting up a conversation and I still don’t know what to say, my courage starts to wane a little. The irony of this is not lost on me (or is this just weird instead of ironic?). I can face down knife-wielding muggers, drug dealers, and post-human crazies, but having a normal conversation like this leaves me flatfooted.
Something soft bounces off the back of my head.
I turn around and see a little ball of paper on the ground. When I look up, Melanie’s leaning out into the aisle, mouthing “Do something!” at me. I frown and turn back around.
My mind’s still a blank and I think someone’s jammed a bellows in my chest and is steadily pumping harder and harder.
Before I can completely meltdown, I reach out and take Anna’s left hand. Freed from one hand, her book sways drunkenly against her thigh. The pressure in my chest eases slightly. She doesn’t take her hand back, just looks down at it for a second before smiling a small smile and squeezing back.
I press my lips together. “I’m sorry.”
Nothing’s fixed. Apologies aren’t magical, no matter what your parents say. I’m still an asshole with anxiety issues, trust issues, abandonment issues, intimacy issues, whatever. And in one moment of intense anger, she still completely cut me down. But I guess that’s what caring for someone does, makes you stupid and reckless and willing to get hurt and show pain again and again because when she strokes my knuckles with her thumb I goo-ify a little bit. Or something. I think I got distracted.
For a few minutes, I decide to ignore my feelings on public displays of affection and slump down in the seat, resting my cheek on her shoulder. Anna must agree because she props her chin on top of my head. For a few minutes, things are okay.