A/N: This novella is a collaboration with the amazing Lillybellis. I simply adore her. Much gratitude and love to mujisan for bidding on us and giving us a fun prompt but also for her willingness to share the story with you. The novella has seven chapters, and we'll post every few days or so. Lillybellis does Bella's POV, and I wrote Edward's. Thanks for reading!
Chapter One: Sycamore and Newcastle
I took a step and leaned forward, looking to my left. Seeing no sign of the bus, I straightened, checked my watch, and shook my head. It was late. Only a couple of minutes, but I was cutting it close as it was. My class started in twenty-three minutes, and the bus ride alone took nineteen to get to campus. I'd already walked in late twice, and class had only been in session a few weeks.
Being late unnerved me for more than one reason. For the last few years, running late simply hadn't been an option. In the Army, time had become so regimented that I literally tensed at the thought. I also didn't like drawing attention to myself, and inevitably, no matter how quietly I attempted to open the door, walk to my seat, and take out my notebook, people's eyes still drifted in my direction. If it had been anything other than an eight AM class, I would have attempted to take the earlier bus, but nothing was open on campus at seven-thirty, and the frequent rain prevented me from enjoying time outside.
The girl next to me shifted her weight, and moved her bag from her left shoulder to her right.
"I can't believe it's late again," she grumbled. She wasn't really talking to me, but I gave a short nod in her direction. We'd been riding this same route together since I started taking the bus to campus. I didn't know where she was going—work, class, or home—but I had learned that her name was Lauren, and she was a mess. She spent most of the bus ride talking on her little pink phone. She wasn't the kind of person to talk softly out of politeness; her conversations were entirely public. She and her boyfriend had issues, the biggest one being that she was a bitch, but I really wasn't in a position to judge other people's relationships.
I heard the bus before I saw it. I checked my watch again and felt some relief. If everything went well, I could make it before the professor started talking. Even if I made it before the end of attendance, I'd be golden.
Once the bus stopped and the door opened, Lauren made a beeline onboard. I followed, but I always found that I hesitated when I got to the top step. There was that moment when I knew I had to turn and face all those strangers. I had to figure out where it was acceptable for me to sit. I had to face people staring at me. I couldn't see inside their minds, but their facial expressions often told me what they were thinking.
My hair had grown out more, my posture was starting to relax, and I took to wearing long-sleeved shirts, despite temperatures that didn't warrant them. I did what I could to hide where I'd been. I didn't need pity, nor did I need congratulations. I just wanted an education and a ride. I avoided interaction as much as I could, but I tried to be polite. I would give up a seat for anyone, and if someone talked to me, I would answer them back.
Most of the people on the bus were regulars, like me. Not many people boarded a bus randomly in this city. Tourists rented cars or took taxis.
I tried to scan quickly, hoping to avoid eye contact with anyone. It was enough to recognize a few of the usual folks, and to see where the empty seats were. Lauren plopped down in row four. She turned deliberately before she did, in order to come body-to-body with me. She smiled and slinked her way into the seat. I tried to arrange my expression into something that said, 'friendly but not interested'.
I found my coveted empty row about halfway back. The bus had already begun moving, so I sat down quickly, but carefully. I propped my backpack up against the window and leaned on it. I knew I should pull out my textbook to finish the last few pages of reading before class, but honestly, the content was juvenile, and the professor would cover it all in class anyway.
A few minutes later, the bus came to an abrupt stop, and two of the newer riders boarded—both girls, well, women, I guess. The first I'd seen before. She took a seat toward the front of the bus, and clutched her bag tightly. Her body was half-turned so that she was sort of facing the aisle, as if she were preparing for a quick getaway.
I'd been able to peg most passengers on this bus inside of five minutes, usually less. People aren't all that complicated to read. Some have said I had a natural talent for it, and war certainly strengthened that skill. Observe, assess, anticipate. It was amazing how well that method applied to everything in life.
The difference here though, was that the information I gathered just led me to make unnecessary conclusions and judgments about the people around me. I couldn't envision a scenario where it would be handy to know that Lauren would inevitably check her phone every sixty seconds, even though it hadn't buzzed. And I never thought that knowing Garrett (the neo-hippie in the fifth row with the ponytail and Birks) was writing his Master's thesis on the American Revolution would ever serve a purpose.
Still, I'd gathered enough information to know that the people on the bus fell into a few categories. The seasoned riders, like Lauren and ponytail boy, developed systems. They passed the time by whipping out laptops and cell phones. They paid no attention to anyone around them. The bus was a means to get from one point to another as efficiently as possible, and they weren't about to waste their time on it.
Others seemed to have no destination. I was sure they did, but they didn't bounce in their seats, or watch out for the next stop. Some closed their eyes, knowing they would instinctually wake when it was time to de-board.
The girl up front with the backpack was a little more enigmatic than some. For one thing, I didn't know her name yet. She never talked on the phone, and she didn't greet anyone before she took her seat.
From the way she sat, I'd gathered she wasn't quite comfortable, but I wasn't sure if she was just uncomfortable being on the bus or uncomfortable being in her own skin. However, despite her stance, she never failed to reach into the front pouch of her bag as soon as the wheels of the bus started turning. She would pull out a tattered copy of People magazine or a paperback like you'd find in the super discount section of the bookstore for a buck ninety-nine. She would lean over it, so that her long brown hair shielded her. It struck me as odd that someone who wanted to hide so badly would be so obvious about her ridiculous taste in reading.
Not that I thought much about her. She wasn't my type; I could barely remember what my type was at this point. I neither had the time nor the inclination even to think about women anymore. But if I was looking at women that way, I could say for certain she would not end up on my short list. She was pretty enough, sure. It almost seemed a shame that eyes that welcoming were wasted on someone who didn't seem to have anything going on behind them.
"Can I sit here?" I looked to my right, tearing my eyes away from the girl, and saw the woman that she boarded with standing beside me. I took a second to scan the area. The bus wasn't full, but I supposed it was full enough for me to be respectful and make room, so I shifted my legs and let her in.
"Thanks," she said, sitting down with a sigh.
I hoped she wouldn't be one of my least favorite bus types—a talker. Once in a while, I'd get a talkative seat companion. They asked questions; they prodded, they babbled. Usually they were older than this girl though, so I had high hopes for her.
"No problem," I replied. She didn't look back to me, and a small smile marked my relief. When my head began to drift toward the window, I was surprised to see someone staring at me. It was the girl with the dumb magazine. She looked away quickly when I caught her, and I wasn't sure whether to be amused or annoyed. The last thing I needed was a vacant girl checking me out on the bus.
I leaned against my backpack and stared out the window while buildings and cars passed by, a myriad of colors blurring into a near constant state of gray, which was a vast improvement over the neverending beige or tan or whatever color you call sand and the camo we wore to blend in over there. In theory, gray shouldn't be better, but I realized some time ago that it might be just as drab and lifeless, but its familiarity is comforting enough to make up for its lack of vibrancy.
For most of my life the other colors had been drowned out by the miserable glow of resentment. These days, I just didn't have time to see anything but the blur. I had places to go.
The history grad and I got off at the same stop. He scuttled toward the back door, but I opted for the front, passing by the gossip magazine girl on my way out. She didn't look up at me, but she moved her knees in as I passed, acknowledging my presence. She also used her arm to shield what she was reading, as if anyone cared. As if we didn't see her reading the same crap every day.
I launched my pack on my back and made a beeline for class. I was almost to the pretentious old building that housed the humanities departments when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and checked the display. When I saw Emmett's name, I dropped it back in my pocket. Even if I hadn't been in a hurry, I would have let that call go to voicemail.
Maybe once some other goals were met, I could take time to see those colors, but for now, family was all part of the gray.
I hated riding the bus.
The stiff, uncomfortable, posture-straightening seats made me feel like I was in some sort of mobile torture chamber, and I could practically feel my lungs constricting with every intake of air that smelled like years-old plastic and exhaust. The oval-shaped pieces of grayish-pink gum that bore the imprint of the soles of who knows how many shoes were a constant reminder of just how many people passed through on a daily basis, and those people, wearing the same faces and shifty glances every day, were not very friendly.
I missed my truck. The way the old leather molded to me whenever I sat down on the seat, and the rumble of the engine as it roared to life. I missed the loud, obnoxious squeal of the door when I'd open it, and the way people would turn and stare when it would backfire. The way it would die in the middle of intersections.
The freedom, though, I knew I'd miss that the most. And I did.
When she breathed her last breath and died a pitiful death in the café's parking lot, my period of mourning began. Even though it had been weeks now, I was still in the pit of it, wallowing in my misery every morning at the corner of Sycamore and Newcastle, right smack in the middle of Bus Route 2.
I was never very fond of living on someone else's schedule, but lately my life didn't even seem like it was mine anymore. Sure, I went to school and took all the classes I chose last semester, but the nights I spent working at the café during the week went from two to six, and struggling to find money for concert tickets turned into a struggle to scrounge up enough money for our rent and utilities.
Life could be very, very strange sometimes. One minute you're running across campus to make your next class on time, and the next you're running through cold, sterile hospital hallways to find out if your father's still alive.
One late-night stop at a convenience store. One idiot with a gun. One moment that changed everything.
Dad's recovery had been slow, but mine was even slower. He didn't want my help; he was too proud to take it. But he needed it, and even he was past the point of trying to deny that. So, every morning I'd hop on the two, sit through hours of classes, then walk a few blocks to the café, where I'd put in a six-hour shift, then get back on the bus to go home, where I played mother to my own father.
It was tiring, the constant go, go, go. As much as I hated the bus though, the fifteen-minute ride offered me the little bit of peace I got all day.
Some people slept. I never could, because I was too afraid that I'd konk out and wake up at the end of the line, missing work or class, or both. Some people blathered endlessly on their cell phones. I wasn't much of a talker. Besides, between work, school, and taking care of my father, I'd lost touch with most of the people I would've called anyway. I didn't chat randomly with whoever happened to be sitting next to me, either.
Nope. I put my free time to the best possible use. I read trashy tabloids and paperbacks. After all, what better way to get my mind off of my own problems than to read about ones that belonged to other people?
It was nice to have an escape, especially after a long day of lectures, and a neverending shift behind the counter of the café. Or to get away for a few minutes while I was waiting in the kitchen for water to come to a boil.
"Whatcha reading?" Dad asked, nodding toward the dog-eared romance novel that lay next to my plate on the dining room table.
He hobbled across the kitchen floor, the rubber bottoms of his crutches thumping loudly against the tile. He rested them both against the counter, then slowly lowered himself down, using the table for support. Once he was sitting, he breathed a cloudy, relieved sigh that made him sound like he was forty years older.
"Nothing." I casually reached over and slid the book off the side of the table, and laid it on the counter, face down. "It's nothing."
I stirred the noodles and the sauce together, then made each of us a plate. When I put the steaming hot spaghetti in front of him, Dad rubbed his hands together and looked at it like it was a winning lottery ticket. I hated making him wait until I got home, but he couldn't really cook for himself right now, and there was just no other way.
"Mmm-hmm," he hummed, and raised his eyebrow. I'd been getting that look since I was a child. "Sure it isn't."
"It's nothing bad," I said. Although, really, it kind of was. "It's not schoolwork or anything. I usually just read it on the bus."
"How's that working out for you?" His eyes stayed focused on his plate, and I could tell he was feeling guilty. When it came to having to choose between fixing my truck and putting food on the table, we put food on the table. We just didn't have any spare cash right now, and I knew that made him feel like a failure.
"I...I like it," I said, lying through my teeth as I scraped a bread crust across my plate. "It's nice not having to worry about driving."
"That's good." He took a bite of his dinner. "The doc says I'm healing up. Shouldn't be much longer now until I can go back to work. We'll take care of it then." That was my father's mantra. Soon. It was always soon. I thought maybe the 'soon' made him feel a little bit less helpless.
"It's okay, Dad," I said, forcing a smile. "I don't mind the bus."
I really, really hated the bus. But, we didn't have the money to spare right now, and that truck was beginning to be a money pit anyway. I'd put a sale ad for it in the classifieds this afternoon at school, but I thought it'd be best not to tell Dad until someone showed interest. If anyone showed interest at all.
Early the next morning, after a long night of studying, I dragged myself out of bed and shuffled to the stop through the light mist that fell, like spindly spider webs that stretched down from the sky. The cool, barely-there rain dampened my hair and my spirits, and I spent most of the wait using the cuff of my sweatshirt to stifle my yawns.
When the bus finally pulled up, a few minutes late as usual, my stomach dropped to my feet.
Trying to find a seat on there was my worst nightmare played out in public, sort of like being picked last in gym class. Most days it was full, and I was left with my eyes wandering from seat to seat, looking for a friendly face that didn't seem to mind having a companion. I rarely found any. Being the center of attention was never my favorite thing, and in this sea of strange faces, I felt judged. I felt like they could see all my secrets on display, just because I stepped onto a bus.
I knew that was a ridiculous thought, but I couldn't help thinking it. Especially when he looked at me; the guy with the reddish hair who somehow managed to ooze superiority while riding public transportation. He thought he was the better of the two of us: all piercing green eyes and bright, shiny new textbooks poking out of a pristine bag. He was probably right. Something told me he didn't sleep in an apartment he could barely make rent on, after working all day at a job that paid minimum wage.
I took the first seat I could find, and wanted to jump out of my skin when I felt his eyes on me, so I pulled my hair out of its ponytail. Brown waves fell across my shoulders, and I let them shield me from him; from everyone.
I closed my eyes and sighed. So many problems, so little time. Too much to do, and not enough sleep. I needed to take advantage of what little 'me' time I had, so I reached into my bag and pulled out a new-ish copy of People that I stole from Dad's doctor's office.
I cleared my head.
And I let myself get lost.
E/N: Thanks to writeontime for beta'ing. We'll see you in a few days for a bit more from these two.