I’m serializing a short story I wrote five years ago called The Last Stop, which will appear in bite-sized pieces over the next week. It’s probably unpublishable for a few reasons, but I put effort into the thing, so I’m posting it. You are the beta readers.
The Last Stop
© 2009 By Eric John Baker
Descending the hill Friday, Riley was disappointed at the light traffic. He’d make his turn faster.
Sophia faced the road, leaning against the light pole. The redhead was there again, second day on a row, but they weren’t talking.
Riley slowed, moving his head around to get a better view. Sophia seemed upset. What the hell? He braked to a crawl, scanning her face for an answer. Was that sorrow or anger? What could someone so perfect possibly have to be—
A horn blared and Sophia glanced toward him. Riley stomped on the gas and made the left. In his rearview mirror, her reflection shook apart from the vibrations of the pavement.
He thought of her all weekend. Her black hair curling under at the jaw. Her elfin face. Her narrow shoulders and curving hips hugged by a skirt terminating an inch above the knee. Her red lipstick and dark eye make-up, maybe too dark but urban chic on her. She could get away with it, a city girl like that.
He knew her wardrobe pretty well. She had ten outfits she cycled through every two weeks. Sometimes she mixed and matched.
Monday, he would stop and talk to her.
Riley crested the hill Monday in the right lane. If he didn’t get over soon, he’d be on the bridge! No turning back then.
Halfway down he thought, “What am I going to say?”
In a panic, he shot into the left lane. He glanced toward the bus stop, seeking Sophia out from the clutter of people and colors and shapes. Where are you?
He stopped, waiting for green, now directly across from the stop. With rising anxiety, he realized she wasn’t there. He held his ground, waiting, forgetting the traffic signal, feeling helpless. Sophia was always there.
The light turned green and a horn blasted. Damn it. I need time to think! The horn sounded again, probably the same asshole from Friday, and Riley made the turn. She’d be there tomorrow. No doubt.
On Tuesday, Riley slammed his fist down on the top of the steering wheel and cursed. Little dots of spit shot across his dashboard. Goddamn it! What was her game? Where did she go?
He felt guilty all day for blowing up at her like that. Guilt turned to panic when Wednesday morning once again revealed unfamiliar faces. Panic like when Madeline went missing and the cops were buzzing around and the mystery was new and unreal.
First Maddie, now Sophia.
Riley’s boss, Patrick, poked his head into Riley’s office at least ten times. Riley knew he was there but kept his eyes down, fumbling through papers. Staying in character grew more difficult. At a quarter past five, Patrick stopped him in the hall and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“You know what,” he said. “You haven’t taken a day off in months. Why don’t you relax at home tomorrow?”
Finally, Riley thought. It’s about goddamn time he offered. “Yeah, ok.”
“Good,” Patrick said. “Just sleep in and watch some TV or something.”
Riley nodded, but he didn’t sleep in or watch TV. TV sucks! He drove downtown at four thirty in the morning, parked at the Hilltop Tavern, and walked down the slope to wait for the bus. Five miserable hours waiting on that bench, and she didn’t show. He had to go on worrying and not knowing. Goddamn her. How could she?
Next day, Riley called out sick. Patrick didn’t sound too upset. Christ, Riley’s wife was a missing person. How could Patrick be upset?
This time he stayed out of sight. Patrick and most of the people on his floor made the same left every morning. All he needed was someone blabbing, “I saw Riley on the bus stop,” and then someone else saying, “Yeah, me too.” And then, suddenly, he’s the hot topic again.
People should get lives, he thought, hiding behind a poster advertising car insurance.
The 8:15 bus appeared at the top of the hill, but no Sophia. Riley watched it draw closer, squinting to see the bus driver’s face. Was he wondering what the hell happened to Sophia too?
The brakes squeaked and the big shiny rectangle slid to a stop a few feet past the rain shelter. The doors opened. Three riders lined up and shuffled on board. The doors began to close.
“Wait,” Riley called, shooting forward. The driver, staring straight ahead, opened the door again. Riley charged up the stairs then paused, fumbling for fare. The driver became melodramatic in his silence.
Riley scraped the money together. The bus was already moving before he started down the aisle.
An idea hit him: Maybe she gets on at an earlier stop now. A distinct possibility! She was surely on this bus already. He’d drop beside her and make some joke that she’d laugh at in spite of herself.
I’m Riley, by the way.
Hi, I’m Sophia. Nice to meet you, Riley.
The bus hit the bridge and started up the incline, sending him stumbling down the aisle. He pivoted into a seat next to a tiny guy with a long beard who didn’t look at him. Riley twisted around, scanning the passengers.
He turned and slumped into the seat. Maybe she was in the city somewhere. He gazed through the window, eyeing the cluster of skyscrapers drawing closer, trying to figure out where to look.
The buildings looked like big glass knives.
(to be continued)