As I boarded the bus, the notion struck me that I had forgotten something significant. I inched down the aisle, hoping I could find a seat not too far back, hoping my worry didn’t show on my face. What had I forgotten? I ran through my morning checklist, even as I spotted an empty window seat by a preoccupied businessman. His gray eyes were unfocused, and I felt half-tempted to wave my hand in front of him. I settled for speaking instead.
No response. People tend not to hear me the first time.
“Sir? Excuse me.”
By now, three or four people had clustered behind me, peering beyond me, looking for seats of their own. I pressed myself against the side of the seatback in front of the man as they squeezed past. The motion caught his attention, and he shook his head slightly, as if to call his mind back to the discomfort and bustle of the bus.
“Yes.” Even as I said it, I knew it sounded stupid, and it continued to sound stupid in the answering silence. “Sorry, I mean – ”
He nodded toward the open seat. “Yeah, you can sit there.”
I started to shuffle past his knees, but his legs were long and his briefcase sat on the floor in front of his feet. He rolled his eyes and stood up. Avoiding eye-contact, I slipped into the far seat and stared out the window at the foggy bus stop. Everyone leaving the bus had cleared out except a small boy. His hair struck me at first – white-blond and unkempt – but as he looked down the length of the bus, his dark eyes took me by surprise even as they held my gaze.
“Huh,” said the man.
The noise brought my thoughts back inside as I instinctively glanced at him. He too was watching the boy. I looked out the window again, but the boy had turned his focus to the front of the bus. The doors closed, and the motor shuddered to life again. We pulled away. I watched the bus stop, and with it the child, disappear into the fog even as the window steamed up. The sensation of forgetfulness returned, so I drew patterns on the window with my pinky finger. Figure eights turned into vines and leaves, which spiralled into words.
“Rosemary? That your name or something?”
I had forgotten that I was on a crowded bus for the moment. “Something.” It struck me that I’d already been a bit of an inconvenience for the man next to me, and I felt adequately guilty enough to try explaining myself. “My baby’s name – maybe. I dunno.” I nearly started to tell him about the appointment today but decided not to.
Even with my focus still on the window, I knew he was considering my abdomen. “I’m not showing yet.” I started to wipe away the letters one at a time with my left hand, so he would see my rings, but – oh. That was it. That was what I forgot. I had been washing breakfast dishes, not a common occurrence. Usually I just leave them to soak until I come home again. But I had made French toast and the last slice had burned and stuck to the supposedly-non-stick pan. So, off came the rings. By the time I had made decent headway on the layer of burnt eggs and bread, I was already running late. Of course it would happen today, when I was meeting Chris.
I switched hands even as I heard the man say “huh” again, and my left thumb began to trace the spot where my rings usually sat. The skin felt unfamiliar; my hand felt lighter. I didn’t want to think about that. Instead, I let myself wonder if “huh” was his default sound, or if he only made it in judgment, and if so, what in the world he had against the lone child at the bus stop. I wished I was back at the bus stop, far away from the heat and the noise and the opinions of strangers.
He was still studying my remaining window sketches, head tilted. “It’s a good name.”
I sighed, giving up on avoiding conversation with this determined small-talker. “Yes, I’ve always liked it.”
“My next-door neighbor growing up was named Rosemary, but we all called her Mare.” His eyes grew unfocused again. “She could run faster than anyone our age and knew more ghost stories than I’ve ever heard.” He trailed off, quiet and still for a few moments. Then, he blinked and jerked his head, shaking himself back to the present. “It’s a good name,” he repeated.
I didn’t reply, and he didn’t try again. The bus slowed to a stop, the doors slid open, and few people got up to hurry down the aisle. No one new got on, but when I glanced out the window, a shock of white-blond hair among the departing passengers caught my eye. I wiped away the smudges on the pane to see more clearly, and sure enough, it was the boy again. But how? I had seen him stay behind at the last stop. His gaze met mine, and he smiled slightly. I was too confused to smile back, but as the bus pulled away I wished I had. I kept watching as the fog and increasing distance swallowed him again, deliberately not caring that my cheek was pressed up against the filthy window.
“What is it?”
I looked up. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”
For the first time since getting on the bus, I looked at him. Really looked. He seemed to be in his late forties, or thereabouts, with gray in his thinning hair and on the fringes of his beard. Earlier, I had thought his eyes were gray too, but I was mistaken. They were pale blue, so light they were almost eerie. His knuckly hands fiddled with his jacket buttons, some of which were on the verge of falling off. I couldn’t help noticing he wasn’t wearing any rings either.
“Did you see that boy at the stop before this one? The one where I got on, I mean.”
“The one all by himself?”
I waited for him to ask what my point was, but he just watched me attentively. I went on. “He was at this stop too.”
He nodded. “And the stop before.”
“Wait, what? Why didn’t you say something at the last stop then?”
“You didn’t seem to be in a talkative mood.”
He had a point. I considered dropping the subject, since apparently I wasn’t ‘in a talkative mood,’ but I was too curious about the boy, and my seatmate seemed to have information that I didn’t. “So you saw him three times?”
“Yes. See, I got on the stop before you, but I don’t remember noticing him until I was on the bus. Then, of course, I didn’t think much of it, but at the next stop, I was surprised. Didn’t think anyone could run that far and that fast and not look winded, even a teenager.”
“A teenager? Sorry, I’m talking about a young boy, barely six, I’d say. I noticed him right away because he looked far too young to be by himself.”
“But that’s impossible,” the man insisted. “There was only one person standing around at the last stop and that was a teenager.”
I shivered, maybe from the cold, maybe from the apprehension of something incomprehensible. “Describe him?”
“Tall, skinny, barefoot. Hair practically white, eyes so dark they looked black.”
“That’s who I saw, I think. Only, younger, of course. Much younger.”
We sat in silence for a moment, unwilling to attempt to explain that which we already knew to be inexplicable. He flipped the handle on his briefcase from side to side, catching it each time before it could quite land against the leather. I drew zig-zags on the once-more foggy window with the tip of my fingernail. The thin lines turned into shaggy, unkempt hair framing a young face, and I was struck by a resemblance. While I hadn’t perfectly captured the likeness of the strange boy, my sketch looked remarkably like someone I had known in elementary school. His family had moved away the summer before we started third grade, but before then we had been classmates, neighbors, friends. I hadn’t heard from him since, or really thought of him until now. I wondered where he was, what his life was like, what his name was. I’ve always been bad at names.
“Louis,” I said, not realizing I said it aloud.
“That’s my son’s name,” the man remarked, as if that had anything to do with me.
“You really are quite rude, you know.”
I rolled my eyes. “Pardon me for not wanting to hear your life story.”
He shifted away from me in his seat. I leaned against the window again and exhaled, the steam from my breath erasing the face I’d drawn. The chilly glass against my cheek started to cool my temper. “Sorry. I guess.”
He didn’t reply.
I tried again. “That was rude of me.” The bus halted once more. “Also this is my stop.”
He stood up and let me slide out. My foot knocked against his briefcase and he winced.
As I started toward the front of the bus, buttoning up my coat to face the cold, he called out, “It’s a good name.”
I turned. “Which one?”
He shrugged. “Either.”
“Huh,” I said.
I was the last off the bus, and the doors shut behind me. Hesitantly, I looked to my right and there he was.
The bus was starting to move, but I located the window I had been sitting by, and spotted my erstwhile companion. He had shifted over into the window seat and was waving at me. Or perhaps, he was waving at the boy, who was waving back. I blinked, and the boy’s form shifted for a instance from a six-year-old’s frame to that of a teenager and back again. As the departing bus’ taillights seemed to grow smaller, closer, fuzzier through the fog, the boy turned to me. I took a step away.
“Lacey!” someone called.
“Chris,” I said, relieved. He came up to me, grinning. His cheeks were redder than ever, and I liked how the wind made his eyes brighter.
“Ready?” he said, putting his arm around me.
I tucked my left hand into my coat pocket. “Ready.”
We walked off, leaving the bus stop behind, with the boy and all that he might have meant. I don’t even know if Chris saw him. I never asked, and I made a point of never riding that bus again either.