Someone else is still on the bus.
George squints at the rearview mirror. After ten hours driving, he's not in the mood to handle a drunk. The longer he does this job, the harder it gets dealing with belligerents. It used to be skill that gave him an edge, and now it's just size. Tonight, if someone is back there looking for a fight, George'll just get Security and let them deal with it.
Tonight's unwanted guest is not a drunk, though. It's a girl. The girl. The one he noticed getting on in Salina. Her coat is pink and too thin, and the hood, pulled close over her face, is lined with scraggly fake fur.
In the sea of humanity that comes and goes on his buses, George remembers this one, because of the sunglasses. Big black sunglasses covering her eyes, even though it was already dark when he picked her up eight hours ago. Sunglasses that are still on her face, even though it's now past two in the morning.
Her head is slumped against the window, probably passed out.
Trouble. That's what this girl is. They all are. He tries to tell himself that every time, and fails. This one, Gabe? he thinks. Is she the one that will help me let you go?
George heaves himself out of the driver's seat with a squall of hinges. The tinnitus in his left ear picks up the tone. He shakes his head to dismiss the incessant ringing and staggers a bit from the motion. The girl never stirs. He wedges himself into the aisle and climbs toward the back, one row of seats at a time. He has to stoop his head to avoid banging it on the roof as he gets deeper into the bus.
Damn runaways. Always carving up the plastic armrests, the Plexiglas windows. Inking cuss words and penises into the seat backs. Puking from the drugs they took or because they can't get any more drugs. But he snorts at the bitter thoughts, too tired to get away with lying to himself tonight. They are damned runaways, if someone doesn't help them.
He gets to her row and pauses. This runaway is too small, too young. The sunglasses are black against her pale skin, and way too big for her face. Wisps of brown hair curl into the fur trim of her hood, sweep along her hollow cheeks. She's asleep, her cheek stuck to the window. Her breath fogs the glass, a slow and steady rhythm.
Something stirs in his chest. He doesn't want to wake her. He can almost remember what it felt like to be a father looking down at a sleeping child. At something fragile.
He scrubs at his face, at the thick calluses around his eyes, scars from too many hits. He wants to tell himself that it's a trick. That as soon as he starts to trust these kids, they will stab him in the heart--run off again, fall back into a black hole of drugs or worse. He's tried to help every single one that will let him, every single desperate kid who has come through his station.
How many has he tried to save? He knows the answer well. A thousand. A million. How many kids does he need to save before it makes up for the one he lost?
A thousand. A million.
George reaches into the girl's row and shakes her awake, rougher than he means to. "Hey, you gotta get off." His hand covers her entire shoulder. His fingers tingle. He pulls back quickly.
She jerks awake. The sulfur lights of the downtown bus station's bay flash across her sunglasses, which come askew. She straightens them with both hands and presses them to her face, turning her into a gnat with giant bug eyes as she peers up at George. She tugs on her hood self-consciously, drawing it down over her face so that her hollow cheeks disappear into its shadow. "Where are we?" Her voice is as small as she is, a flute to George's rumbling bass.
"St. Louis. My last stop. Which means you gotta get off." He says it angrily. But she's not the one that makes him angry.
She doesn't flinch at his tone. Instead, she gathers up a plastic grocery bag from between her feet and hugs it close. She wears black leggings, too thin for January. And black flats with no socks. The shoes are covered in mud, which has splattered up to her knees.
She pulls herself to her feet and stands, waiting for him to get out of her way so she can move into the aisle.
George squeezes himself farther into the bus. Where is the fight, the protests? But she just trudges along the aisle, head down, grocery bag clutched to her chest with both hands. As if she expects nothing more than his contempt. As if she deserves it.
George stifles a sigh and pushes after her. This one, Gabe?
She reminds him so much of his son, it hurts. It's the resignation, the sense that she's already given up. He can see it so clearly now, simply because he never saw it in Gabe until it was too late. How old would his son be now, assuming he hasn't died? Mid-twenties, George guesses, surprised to find that he's lost count. He used to know the number of days, the hours, since Gabe ran away.
He steps off the bus. Icy cold immediately invades his coat and stale exhaust fumes grab at his throat. Only one other bus is parked along the station bays and it's idling, warming up to leave. The engine roar bounces off the aluminum roof and temporarily drowns out the constant ringing in his ear.
Out on the curb, the girl swivels her head side to side, like she's assessing her new environment. Her breath frosts the diesel-loaded air. She turns away from the terminal, toward the parking lot.
There's only one place she can go in that direction, the park on the other side of the Metrolink tracks, behind the station. The girl will have to climb the fence to get to the park, a lost-cause renewal project bordered by abandoned warehouses. Once she makes it, she'll face robbery or rape--or both--before getting rousted by cops.
George steps after her, his heart aching. He calls out. "Hey."
She turns back, her face a blank of sunglasses and shadow.
He points toward the terminal. "There's food inside. You want something to eat?"
She regards him for a long time. He can feel her eyes on him behind the dark glasses, considering him. Weighing his motives. Finally, the overhead lights bounce off her lenses as she nods once.
Relief, another surprise, gusts through George's chest. He tries to help the kids who will let him, but he thought he had enough armor to protect himself from the real hard-luck cases. At least, until this one. He waits until she joins him at his side, carefully out of reach, and they walk together to the terminal. She takes two steps for his every one.
Once inside, he guides her to an empty bank of metal mesh chairs. Easy to find empty ones. At this hour, the place is dead. A handful of people congregate near the CRT monitor that will soon tell them when the Chicago bus, the only other one out of St. Louis before dawn, will be ready for boarding. The woman behind the ticket counter is deep into some smutty romance novel.
He points out a seat to the girl. Her hood turns down toward the chair and then back up to him. The fluorescent lights overhead glow in the reflection on her sunglasses. She doesn't sit.
"Look, there's vending machines right over there." George points at the two flickering boxes along the far back wall. One has a carousel with refrigerated sandwiches, conveniently placed next to the door marked "Employees Only", the other, a selection of soda bottles. "I'm going over there, and I'm gonna get me two sandwiches and I'm gonna come right back, okay? If you're still here," he shrugs carefully, trying hard to convey that he could care less if she stays, "then you can have one. Okay?"
Those eyes on him again. He stifles a shiver.
She sits on the end chair.
The one closest to the exit.
She's still there when he comes back, hood thrown back and glasses gone, head bent over her grocery bag. George is surprised to see her, especially with her face bare.
She looks as young as he suspected--maybe twelve or thirteen. Too young. He hands her a plastic-wrapped sandwich and a bottle of Coke and sits down on the opposite bank of chairs, two seats down so he doesn't crowd her.
She carefully unwraps the plastic, but her hands tremble and after the first bite she tears into the sandwich like a feral dog. When she's done, a matter of moments, she looks up at him and George sees her eyes for the first time.
Blue. Palest blue, like ice from the heart of a glacier. There is hunger in those eyes. And wariness--the kind that comes from living with fear for so long you no longer feel it.
Wordlessly, he hands her the other sandwich.
She snatches it from his hand. For a moment she looks like she might not even bother with the plastic wrap before devouring this one. Instead, a spasm crosses her face and she reluctantly tucks the sandwich into her grocery bag. She raises her gaze to his, that startling, icy blue stare. "Thank you." For one instant, she looks much older, maybe even older than George. Maybe ageless.
Adrenaline thrills through him. His breath catches, a pang that echoes in his chest. He's a knight, unbeatable. A Marine at the height of his training and youth. The heavyweight champion of the world. Everything is possible. Nothing can stop him.
He blinks, and the sensation vaporizes under the station's stark fluorescent lights. He struggles to hide the strange rush and its too-empty aftermath. "You looked hungry."
She seems to accept that, turning now to the soda bottle. The cap won't yield to her prying efforts.
Why doesn't she twist it? George holds his hand out, beckoning with his fingers.
She eyes him and slowly places the bottle in his hand, a mouse trying to judge the striking distance of the nearby cobra.
He can feel her eyes on him again as he twists the cap off. He leaves it on but a little loose as he hands it back to her.
She examines the bottle, twisting and untwisting the cap, finally removing it entirely. She looks up at George, delight on her face in one brief, unguarded moment.
He frowns, puzzled, and the delight disappears at once, replaced by careful blank.
She takes a long swig from the bottle and carefully replaces the cap, taking a couple of tries to get the threads to line up. The bottle gets added to the grocery bag, and then she stares at him again, weighs him.
He shifts on the seat, uncomfortable. "What?"
"Why do you help me?"
None of them have ever asked this question. And even if they had, the truth would never have been as close to his lips as it is tonight with this girl. He swallows thickly. "Because you need it."
"Are there many like you?" She asks it plaintively, as if she expects his answer will disappoint her.
George grimaces. "I'd like to think so. But around here?" He shakes his head. "Probably not." He almost adds, so you should really be careful. Instead, he clenches his mouth shut.
Why does he react to her like this? He wants to take her away from here, someplace safe. And deep inside, the adrenaline that still dances through his nervous system insists that he doesn't know any place safe enough.
She cocks her head at him. "What is your name?"
None of them have ever asked this either. He blinks at her. "George." He's too surprised to turn the question back on her.
"When you look at me, you are so sad. Why are you sad, George?"
She might as well have taken out a shotgun and blasted it into his chest. Tears burn his eyes, tears he never shed, even when the loss was fresh, even when he gave up looking. "You're in trouble. Lost, it seems to me." He clears his throat. "And it reminds me of my son."
She stiffens. "What happened to your son?" That look of long-suffering wisdom, of age without end, crosses her face again. For an instant, the barely-teen is completely gone. Her eyes seem to glow, an unnatural neon blue.
George opens his mouth to answer, the back of his neck prickling from the change in her and from her blunt question. He manages to find some words. "He left. A long time ago. When he was young, not much older than you."
She considers this, then nods once, cold eyes on him. "I know that kind of loss. I lost my brother." The resignation, a crumbling resolve, is back in her shoulders. "I used to look for him. Now, I just . . . keep moving." She shrugs. The glow has faded from her eyes.
"I tried to find Gabe, too." Despite the growing need to protect her, George's heart starts to race, like when his opponent would get a solid hit on him. That first skipping beat in his chest, followed by the growing certainty that the fight was already over and there was nothing George could do to stop losing. He fights to maintain his composure. "I just couldn't--"
She edges closer, glancing right and left along the length of the nearly empty lobby. She seems suddenly intent. "You are very kind. I wish to return your kindness."
This is back in territory George can comprehend. He leans away from her. "No. No, that won't be necessary."
She frowns. "Why does my offer frighten you?"
"Because you're too young for that, that's why." He glares at her, a flame of anger bright in his chest. "You don't even have gloves. In the middle of winter. There's nothing you can give me that you don't need more."
Understanding lights her eyes. She leans against the seatback and looks down at her hands, which she splays open in her lap. "Kind and true," she mutters.
Weird. And getting weirder.
George needs to be done with this girl. Quickly. She is too strange in a way that is too painful to bear. He yanks his wallet out of his back pocket. "Here, I got some cash. It's not much, but it's enough to get you out of here." He fishes out all the money he has on him--two twenties and a couple of ones--and holds them out to her. Somehow, he knows she won't spend it on drugs.
She places her hand over his, cupping her fingers around the bills, but she doesn't take them.
His hand tingles where she touches him.
Her pale eyes draw him in, freeze him. They glow neon bright. "I can help you."
He can't move. His hand is locked under hers. For one instant he understands why she wears sunglasses in the dark--to hide the icy fire that burns in her eyes. There's nothing you can give me that you don't need more. He wants to say it again but the words won't come.
And the barriers to his heart are all gone now, revealing his most desperate wish. He had given up the fights and the ring, the one thing he was good at, a long time ago. For Gabe. And he would do it all again--give up the small amount of peace he's found, the little bit of stability he finally reclaimed after Joanie left him--if it meant another chance with Gabe. The one he couldn't save.
His breath catches in his throat.
Her eyes grow sad, as if she tracked right along with the thoughts plowing through his mind. "I would want that, too. But I can't give it to you. It's not my nature. I can only give you what you already have." She hesitates, as if she's having second thoughts. But then her face hardens. "I enhance. I take the qualities inside you and make them more. Better. You were strong once, and fast, and smart. I can give you that." Her mouth twists into something bitter, a look George knows only too well. "But I cannot give you back your son."
He believes her. With her hand on his, her eyes locked on his, the truth is right there, so obvious it can't be questioned. "Who are you?" he breathes.
"What I am is something you can't pronounce. I enhance. That's as close as I can get." Something dark moves in her eyes. "It is a skill much prized among my kind, as my brother found." She shakes it off and tightens her grip on his fingers. "A warning, though. What I would do, it's permanent. I can't take it back."
He can feel it starting already. The tingling in his fingers works its way along his arm and down his chest. It lights his nerves on fire, sweeps life into muscles that had withered long ago. The tinnitus, a constant background companion, fades to silence. The lights seem brighter, the floor dirtier, as if her touch has upgraded his vision from analog to high definition. Across the station lobby, by the departure monitor, a couple bickers quietly while they wait, all in high fidelity. A gurgle of moisture drains in surround sound from the soda machine, fifty yards away. And the smells--he can smell traces of every person who passed through the station in the last four hours, trails that zigzag through his senses like scented bottle rockets. Perfume and sweat. Hunger and weariness. The stench of humanity, wrapped up into a desperate and hopeful milieu.
He shifts his gaze to her, to find the tattered remains of an illusion. He can see her. She's no girl--she never was. How could he have missed it? The eyes are the least of it--the oddly small chin like the girls in Japanese comics, the awkward length of her limbs. Those earlier glimpses of her age become permanent, etched into her cheeks, around her mouth. Her face is truly bare to him now.
George yanks his hand from hers, biting down on a scream.
Breaking contact sparks a power failure. Suddenly his head is too small for his thoughts, his body too weak and puny. The HD vision and hearing dissolve. He might as well be looking at the world through her over-sized black sunglasses. The tinnitus in his left ear returns, Old Faithful. He wipes his fingers on his shirt, the bills still crumpled in his hand, as if he can wipe away the temptation of her offer. "That's not what I am," he manages. "It's not what I ever was."
A part of him rebels. That rush. Her touch transformed his old beat-up truck of a body into a NASCAR racing machine. He wants to feel that again, so badly it hurts. His chest aches. His fingers vibrate unpleasantly.
He struggles to get a grip on himself. What would he do with that kind of power? Go back to driving a bus? He barely has a high school diploma. He's too old to start over, even with a chance like this.
Her damn eyes, watching him. She straightens, puts more distance between them. Disappointment darkens the icy glow. "I understand."
He opens his mouth to reassure her--it's not you, it's me. But that would be a lie. She scares him. And even frightened of her, he's not sure he can trust his mouth to say anything other than "Yes! I'll do it!"
Worse, he knows this feeling well. He doesn't just want her touch again. He needs it. He can imagine killing someone to feel that rush again. He's been here before. The precipice of addiction, but far more instant and brutal than the alcohol that sucked him in when Gabe ran away.
The girl gathers her grocery bag and pulls up her hood. She whispers, "Thank you for the sandwiches," and heads toward the door.
George watches her ragged pink coat disappear from his peripheral vision. Every muscle in his body screams at him to follow. He feels exactly as he did when he first saw her. He wants to go to her, protect her, take her someplace safe. How much of that is real and how much is it something she did to him? Maybe she gives off a chemical that inspires trust and protection, like a pheromone or something. He pushes himself to his feet and stuffs the money he tried to give her into his pocket.
He wills his feet toward the door that leads to the employees-only section. Past that door and through the hallway, there is an employee parking lot, where his pick-up truck awaits. The one that will take him home to his empty apartment, where he can crawl into his empty bed and go back to a life that until ten minutes ago he hasn't thought of as empty in a long time. Lonely, maybe. But that's the price a life of purpose sometimes pays--even when the purpose centers on a sandwich or a phone call for some lost kid.
Every second he stands here she gets farther away. But his feet won't move. His breath comes in gasps, as if he's running out of air. She can change him, but she can't change his life.
I could change my own life.
He swallows hard. And steps toward the main entrance.
George moves away from the automatic doors so they will slide shut. In the depth of this winter night, the cold hits the back of his throat and stings his nose. His eyes scan the cars crammed into the crowded parking lot. The floodlights' golden tone turns every vehicle black, and the row of cars parked facing the main entrance stare at him with dead headlights. No head bobs among them, cutting through the lot toward the back fence. No flash of pink coat, its color washed away under the lights.
The girl is gone.
His hands curl into fists. He scans the lot again, listens hard for any whisper of movement. But his dulled eyes see nothing. The faint ring that is always with him drowns out any other sounds. Disappointment crushes his chest, makes it hard to breathe. He's been here before, too. Another stupid decision, one that could've changed his life and didn't. He's a sure thing when it comes to missed opportunities.
He stuffs his hands into his coat pockets. Head down, he trudges around the building's corner toward the employee lot. The entire way, the edges of his senses stay on high alert, as if some part of him believes that if he pretends not to look for her, maybe she'll appear.
He reaches his truck. Still no sign of her. He climbs inside, ignores the arthritic stiffness in his knees, and slams the door shut. His fingers tremble. His head aches and feels thicker than ever, worse than after the last bout and concussion that led to the end of his so-called boxing career.
Just visible over the edge of the building, one of the customer parking lot floodlights goes out.
Icy blue eyes glow up at him from the passenger-side floor.
George jumps, panics. His left shoulder slams against the window and his head bangs the ceiling. His right knee knocks painfully against the steering wheel. "Dammit!" His keys slither to the floor between the driver seat and the center console. His dive to catch them misses.
The girl cowers in the foot well on the passenger side. "It's here. Please don't let it take me." Tears dilute the glow in her eyes.
Another light goes out in the customer lot, closer.
George looks from the fading orange filament to the girl. "What is that?"
"I'm not supposed to be here. It must've followed me." Her eerie gaze doesn't shift from George's face. Her hands ring the life out of her grocery bag's handles. "Please. Help me."
He looks back at the parking lot, partially blocked by the corner of the station. Another light goes out, near the center of the lot. The path of dark lights doesn't seem to be heading toward his truck.
Behind the station, a dozen people exit the building, heading toward the Chicago bus. But it'll be another ten minutes before it leaves.
"Will it follow you here--or to the station?" he asks, his gaze fixed on the next row of lights in the customer lot.
The center light goes out, a beeline for the main entrance, the answer to his question. The faint scree of metal on metal reaches his ears. Two rows of cars, just visible around the building's edge, crowd together, jostling and stuttering into each other. Glass tinkles against pavement.
"What is it?" he demands. He paws frantically at his coat pockets. Where the hell is his cell phone? Will the cops do any good or will he only summon them to disaster?
The center light in the lot's front row goes out. A driverless car rolls past. It bounces over the curb and into some weeds, ricocheting off the chain-link fence.
She leans onto the passenger seat and grabs his hand. "Your kind cannot stop it."
George stares down at her, this little slip of a girl who is no girl at all. "Can you stop it?"
She shakes her head no.
With her hand still on his, adrenaline surges through him again. His body screams for it, revels in it. His breath comes slower. The blood through his body moves faster. And he can sense something in the dark. It's dim--awareness and purpose only. Intent so focused, it will roll right over anything in its way. Like the cars.
He shifts his gaze back to hers. "Can I stop it?"
She gusts a breath as if he punched her. "You could," she breathes. "But once I change you . . ."
An enormous crash of glass crackles through the air--the building's automatic doors. With his enhanced hearing he can follow the woman behind the counter. Her scream. Her feet, running through the building. The crush of cement and rending metal as something big forces its way inside.
He closes his eyes. This is another one of those moments, the ones in his life he keeps screwing up. And he is a rowboat on the ocean, with no stars to guide him and no way to steer, even if he knew where to go. Everything he's never done has been a mistake, and everything he's done has been a disaster. Even Gabe, the one he couldn't save.
More destruction from inside the building--the lobby benches being ripped from the floor, the CRT screen crashing to the floor. Can he really cower in his truck while that thing aims itself at the oblivious people milling around out back?
No. He cannot.
He curls his fingers around hers. I can change my own life. "Do it."
She nods and closes her eyes. The blue glow penetrates, as if her pupils are lasers burning through her eyelids. The glow becomes painfully bright.
The tingling surge in his hand cracks through his body like a whip, snapping every nerve, every muscle tight. His arms spasm, his legs cramp, he's wedged into the driver's seat. He gasps.
Power. Oh God, so much power. What he felt before was just a taste. And it keeps coming. His junkie nerves wallow in it. His body sings. His mind can't hold it all.
She lets go and opens her eyes. The glow is gone. Inside him, the surge stops, but it doesn't fade.
Slow and fast, all at once--so fast that everything is slow. His heart beats, each pulse the slow rolling boom of thunder. Each platelet and blood cell brushes against his veins in their headlong rush through his body. He sees every move the girl will make before she makes it, as if he can follow the electrical pulses transmitted by her nervous system--a different frequency than his own. He anticipates the tilt of her head, the way she narrows her eyes at him.
His gaze shifts to the building. The counter woman bursts out the back. The people queued up to put their bags in the bus's storage scatter like swallows avoiding a falcon--he can predict the pattern they will take and watch them take it. The woman will grab the driver by the arm and scream hysterically at him. The driver will turn to the building and take a step toward it, prelude to going inside to his death.
George opens the truck door. He can smell the creature now, flesh and metal. Its power source tastes electric on his tongue.
The girl clutches at his coat. "If you destroy it, they will only send another to hunt me down."
Possibilities and implications slide through his head in a blur. At the same time he considers every scenario, plays it out to a conclusion, rejects each outcome. So fast and so slow, all at once.
In the end, there's only one possible outcome. "Is your ship far?" he asks.
"Back the way I came." Her eyes flash and he knows she sees it too. Resignation transforms into resolve. "Once I leave, they will not send others to this planet. They're not supposed to be here either."
"I can drive you--"
She shakes her head. "Even as you are, I can move faster without you. The bus--it was just a place to be."
He nods. "Will I see you again?"
She shrugs, a small, furtive movement.
He rests his hand on hers. "Thank you."
She grabs on, squeezes tight. "Be careful." She lets go.
He steps out of the truck, his plan of attack, complete with contingencies upon contingencies, already formed and set. He can see how it will play out, the creature's weak points and blind spots, its speed used against it.
And when it's all over, when he returns to the truck--
His heart goes cold. Despite what she said, she has given him far more than he ever had. He wishes he could do the same for her. Because when he returns to the truck, she won't be there. And the road ahead of her is cold and lonely, a road he knows well.
As if she can read the thoughts in his head, even at their current dizzying speed, she catches his gaze. "As you are now, how many more can you help?"
He grunts. "A lot."
She smiles at him, the first real smile he's seen in a long time. "You have given me something, George. Something I had all along and could not see."
His thick brow furrows. In his heightened state the answer should be obvious, but it is not. More crashes and thuds drift from the station. He's running out of time. "What's that?"
Her gaze narrows to something fierce. "Like you, I may not be able to save the one I love most, but that doesn't mean I am helpless. There are others on the run or hiding. Others like me. You have given me hope. And purpose."
Something loosens in George's chest, a muscle clenched so tight for so long that he doesn't know when he stopped feeling it. This one will be okay. Not safe, but saved. Is that good enough, Gabe? He thinks his son might believe so.
George shifts his gaze to the building. He has some saving of his own to do.