She sat at the bus stop, watching people huddled in their coats, their bare faces straining against the northern wind. The Greyhound bus to Quebec was late. She didn’t have his number to call him and tell him. She wondered if he would wait for her on the other side of the border.
She pulled her own coat tighter around her thin body, her pale skin beneath it revealing the map of pale blue veins that tried to hide there. She reached into her coat pocket, feeling for the crumpled pack of Camels and her lighter. Her thin, cheap gloves did nothing to mask the freezing north wind.
She opened the pack slowly, her index finger creaking as she flipped open the top of the pack. She slapped the bottom of the pack, a couple of butts moving up out of the top. She grabbed one quickly, and shoved the other back into its crinkled abode. She put the cigarette in her mouth, moving her eyes up from her lap quickly as she shoved the pack back into her pocket. She watched the people carefully. One woman walked by, tears frozen on her eyelashes. A man walked in the opposite direction, his phone shoved neatly between his shoulder and his ear. “Well, I’m sorry, but I thought you meant me,” he said irritably, rolling his eyes at the gray sky. A little girl holding her mother’s hand looked at her quickly and smiled as she passed.
She pushed herself back against the plexiglass of the bus stop, pulling her black Bic lighter from her other pocket. She cupped her left hand around the cigarette in her mouth and with her right she lit it. She could feel the heat from the small flame, a blessed relief against her face, a small minute piece of respite for a bitter day in February.
She heard a rumbling, the moaning of a bridge. She looked to her left, and watched the Greyhound bus finally arriving, slowly pushing through the ice and snow in the road and moving carefully along the pedestrians that crossed the street chaotically, cell phones diverting their attention. Jay-walkers. Someday at least one of them would curse their inattention. One of them would die because of their stupidity.
She shook her head.
The bus rolled up. One other woman moved around from behind the bus stop to stand next to her, and a man with no bags stood on the other side. She wished for a brief moment that these two strangers had been sitting with her in the bus stop – at least then maybe she would have had someone to distract her.
The driver, a man in his sixties, opened the door and stepped out of the bus, pulling his brown ushanka down tighter around his face. He tied it carefully under his chin before looking up at us. He rubbed his hands together quickly, blowing hot air into his palms. He smelled like cherry pipe tobacco.
He pulled black leather gloves out of his coat pocket, pulling them on quickly. “Jeeeeeesus, you folks must be chilled down to the damn bone.” They all nodded slowly, silently watching him. “Let’s get your bags into cargo and we’ll get you warm inside. I’ve had that heat blasting since Boston.” She smiled at him and felt the other two next to her stand up straighter. She figured they must be smiling too.
He pulled open the cargo door at the bottom of the bus, the hinges screaming in the biting wind. She tasted pennies when she heard that sound, sharp petulant copper at the back of her throat. She hated that sound. She flinched away from it.
“Sorry ’bout that,” he said with a shrug.
She picked her bag up off of the ground, pushing it on top of another bag before pulling her coat closer again, and checking her scarf. She pulled the hat her mother knit her for Christmas over her ears. The bus driver checked their tickets carefully, clapping his hands together and pulling his hat down again between each of them.
They walked up the slippery steps into the bus. The bus wasn’t very full, and everyone who had already found their seat was sleeping. In the very back, a tired mother tried to calm down her screaming baby. She sat down in a row with no people, taking two seats – she didn’t figure anyone would care. The bus was empty. Every passenger had the opportunity if they wanted it.
She pulled her phone out of her back jeans pocket, her headphones wrapped neatly around it. She untangled them slowly, letting the warmth of the bus heat up her body. It started with her fingers. She felt them tingle as feeling and blood made their way back into her finger tips, and then into her palms. They traveled through the map of blue veins thinly veiled beneath her pale skin.
She stuck the earbuds into her still frozen ears and turned on Tchaikovsy. She turned the music up as far as it would go, hoping to drown out the baby’s screams of frustration and terror. She smiled when she realized that all she could hear were the beautiful and haunting notes of an old piano. She liked to imagine it was a big old Lindeman that was played for these recordings, like the one that sat stoically in her mother’s living room.
She fell asleep silently and smiling. She was warm, wrapped tightly in her jacket. Dreams of summer pierced through her consciousness as she rode ragged in a Greyhound on Interstate 89 north towards Quebec.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. Her eyes tried to refuse to open. When they did open, fog blurred her vision. There was a man in a big ridiculous hat shaking her. “Hey come on, wake up. You were headed for Quebec, right? Time to get up.”
She blinked slowly. “We’re already here?” She sounded drunk to her own ears. She never fell asleep on buses. The noise and nausea of constant movement and strange people kept her awake.
The bus driver laughed, holding his beer gut while he leaned back. “It took us eight hours to get here. On a good day it takes about four hours. You slept through all of that shit?”
She squinted at him and shrugged. “I guess so,” she said, shaking her head.
She followed the bus driver off the bus, climbing down the stairs carefully. He pulled her bag out from cargo and handed it to her. “Well, hope you have a good trip,” he said smiling, pulling his hat down around his ears and clapping his hands loudly. “It’s even colder up here.”
She never liked when people told her the obvious. She was about 250 miles north of where she started; of course it was going to be colder. She grimaced at him. “Yeah, thanks.” She threw her bag over her shoulder and walked out of the terminal.
She looked at her phone. 11:29 pm. In a few minutes she would go through with it. She took a deep breath. She had never agreed to meet anyone she had just talked to online. She hoped he would still be waiting for her.
She walked to the street, the streetlights flickering like dying suns across the dirty snow. A few flakes started to fall and she wondered if there would be a blizzard. For a brief moment she worried what she would do if he didn’t show up.
She saw a guy under a street light watching her. She walked up to him slowly. “Are you Owen?” she asked carefully.
He smiled, a quick surprise on a clearly cold face. “Yes! You must be Faye?” She nodded. “Wow, you are a lot later than you thought you would be. What happened?”
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. I fell asleep almost as soon as I got on the bus. That’s never happened to me before. The bus driver said it took him eight hours to get here when it normally takes four? Um, I’m really sorry. You didn’t have to wait.”
He shrugged, laughing. “I didn’t want to not wait and leave you stranded here,” he said chuckling. “That would be rude. And kind of terrifying.”
She smiled back at him. “I guess so.”
“Well, we should probably get going. It’s going to get cold out here.” He smiled again.
They turned onto Rue des Tournelles, moving silent along the sidewalks covered in slush. She could feel the dirty water seeping into her boots and felt annoyed. They cost her over $100, and they were supposed to be waterproof.
They turned onto Rue des Gradins. She noted each turn carefully, filing them away in her memory. He stopped her at a bus stop. “We have to wait for the 803 bus.”
“Okay,” she said. She smiled at him again. She could trust him. She pulled the Camels from her pocket and looked at him. “Do you mind?” she asked, holding the pack up.
“Oh, no, not at all.” He pulled his own pack of Camels from his pocket, displaying them for her. “I’ll have one too.”
She smiled, tucking the cigarette between her lips. She ran through her routine, cupping her left hand around the cigarette to keep it safe from the wind while she lit it with her right hand. She sucked in carefully, letting the smoke escape from her nose. The cool air made it especially thick, lingering with the hot air from her lungs.
The bus came down the street, splashing ashy water up onto the sidewalks. It came to a screaming halt, and Owen took her bag from her. “Thanks,” she mumbled, tossing her cigarette into the puddle behind the bus. He threw his at the base of a trash can.
They climbed on the bus. “Bonsoir,” the driver said. She seemed bored. They both nodded to her. Owen shoved enough coins in the meter for both of.
“Thanks,” Faye said again quietly.
“Merci,” the bus driver said, pulling the door shut and pulling away from the corner before either of them had a chance to sit down.
Faye counted seven, eight stops. Owen got up. “This is our stop,” he said, grabbing her bag again.
They stumbled back out into the cold night. The streetlights buzzed above them. Somewhere around the corner, a drunk was yelling in slurred Quebecois French that she couldn’t quite decipher. Owen laughed. “Fucking drunks.” He took her arm and led her down the street, making three rights and two lefts. She counted carefully.
They walked down an alley. It was oddly clean and smelled like woodsmoke. “Almost there,” he mumbled. She could tell he was tired.
He took a keyring with only three keys on it out of his pocket. He picked the gold one out of them carefully, and walked up to a door with a large “67” painted on it. He unlocked the door and let her in. There was a gate inside the door, so she waited while he closed and locked the big door behind him. He took the silver key to the left of the gold key and unlocked the gate. “Sorry about this… landlord is kind of paranoid.”
Faye shrugged. “No big deal.”
He got the gate locked and led her up the stairs. “What floor?” she asked.
“Third… sorry. There’s no elevator.”
She shrugged again.
They walked up the stairs in silence. There wasn’t much to say and she never liked to be the one to break the silence.
They got to the third floor and pushed a door open into a long, narrow hallway. He led her down and to the left, stopping at a door painted black. “10A” was painted in the same florescent white as the door outside. He took the last key and unlocked the door, flipping on the light switch just inside before holding the door open and letting her in.
He smiled at her. “Well, you made it!” He placed her bag carefully beside the bench behind his door. His apartment was small, just a one-room studio with a bathroom off the kitchen. The floors were beautiful wood, probably cherry and probably the original floors. She guessed the building was built at the turn of the century, latest around the 1920s.
He had a small kitchen. A block with four big cutting knives stood alone on the island. Faye looked at them carefully. She looked at Owen. He was looking out towards the large studio windows, talking about when he first moved. She moved quietly to the island, and slid out the seven inch blade. The windows had a beautiful view of the brick structure next to his.
She moved towards his back, his muscles flickering underneath his worn coat as his gesticulated wildly towards his artwork littering the walls. The floorboards creaked loudly. If this had been any other time she would have cursed the noise, but she smiled now. This would make it more fun.
He turned when he heard the noise, and his smile fell quickly into a grimace and then into fear as he registered the knife in her hand. She smiled cheerfully at him.
“It was really very nice of you to invite me into your home,” Faye said in a near whisper.
“What are you doing?” he asked. He seemed confused.
Owen half screamed, his voice cut in half by the blade. There was a thump.
The creaking floorboards fell silent.