Jane sat at the back of the city bus making her regular morning commute to work and was using a permanent ink black marker to write her name on a new plastic water bottle. She’d chosen the fattest marker she could find to make her name bold because someone had taken her old water bottle at the office; it had just disappeared one day from where she knew she’d left it in the break room.
Jane sucked in her breath when she glanced up after the bus made a stop and saw Rita Hensley climb aboard and start down the aisle; she hadn’t seen Rita since they’d graduated from high school together seven years before. A flush spread through her and she found herself blinking rapidly. Jane turned her head and pretended to be absorbed with what was outside the window she sat against, but from the corner of her eye, she could see Rita continue to approach. The bus was crowded, and the only available seats were the one beside her and across from her next to a heavyset man.
As the driver pulled back into traffic, Jane heard Rita say, “Is this seat taken?
She turned and their eyes met. Rita’s mouth opened, and she put her hand over her chest. “Jane, is that you? Jane Anderson?”
Jane shrugged and said, “In the flesh.”
Rita looked the same: beautiful, those piercing eyes, that cascade of hair. She was as well-dressed as she’d always been, but in a more mature manner, in a mauve linen pants suit. She gave one of her familiar, haughty smiles and said, “May I?”
Rita settled in next to her, then said, “Well, I’ll be. So, how are you?”
“Fine.” Jane shrugged again. “Good, you know.”
“And Astrid? I haven’t seen her for a while.”
“Fine, too.” Astrid was Jane’s first-cousin. Jane’s family had moved in with hers during senior year after her father lost his job and his only choice was coming across state to work for his brother’s construction company. Astrid had been Rita’s best friend at the time, so Rita had begrudgingly accepted Jane into the fringes of the social circle she presided over. But, when Astrid wasn’t around, Rita rarely let an opportunity pass to disparage Jane’s looks or weight, her clothes, the boy she dated, her father’s circumstances. By the time her father had gotten back on his feet enough for Jane’s family to afford a place of their own, they’d graduated and no longer saw one another.
“So,” Rita said. “Last I heard from Astrid, you were working as a secretary.”
“Oh, of course. And you’re still doing that?”
Jane nodded again.
“She said you started college but didn’t finish.”
“No.” Jane pointed at the large diamond ring and wedding band Rita wore. “But, I guess you are.”
Rita held up her hand and studied the diamond with satisfaction. She said, “Yes. Very happily.”
Jane squeezed the marker she still held in the hand closet to Rita, and the water bottle folded into itself in the other.
“I don’t normally ride the bus.” Rita said. “But I dropped my car off back there to be serviced and it stopped right in front of the shop when I came out, so it just seemed simpler than calling a cab.” Jane watched Rita gaze around the interior with her lips creased into smile. “Interesting,” Rita muttered. “Diverse.”
The man across from them cleared his throat, and a woman in a hijab a few rows up snapped the pages of a newspaper she was reading.
“I’m not going far,” Rita said. “Just up to the Hyatt. Breakfast meeting for a charity board I’m on.” She looked at Jane. “Say, your hair looks nice that way. Slims your face down.”
Jane hoped the color she felt rising up the sides of her neck didn’t show. She lowered her eyes as the sound of a passing train nearby died away.
The man across from them reached up and pulled the cord that sounded the chime for the next stop. As the bus slowed, he entered the aisle, his girth nudging Rita’s hip against Jane’s, and the tip of Jane’s maker drew a line across Rita’s pants. The thick black mark was about three inches long and resembled a gash across the thigh. They both glanced down at it, then Jane looked quickly away out the window. Her breathing quickened as she heard the man make his slow, plodding way up the aisle, heard the doors clap open, heard him descend the steps, and heard the doors snap closed again as the bus pulled back into traffic. Jane held the marker tipped away from Rita, but left it uncapped.
Neither of them spoke for the next few minutes until Rita said, “Can you pull the cord for me?”
Jane did, and the bus eased to the curb and stopped at the next corner. The Hyatt was still several stops away. Rita stood and they looked at each other again.
“Well,” Rita said. “Take care.”
Jane nodded. Rita clutched her purse to her chest. Their eyes held, expressionless. Finally, Rita turned and headed up the aisle. She walked in what seemed to Jane to be an intentionally dignified way; she didn’t look down at the mark or try to hide it. The bus doors opened and Rita got off without glancing back. Jane watched Rita stare straight ahead starting up the sidewalk as the bus pulled away passing her. Rita still clutched the purse to her chest, but her lips trembled as if she might begin to cry. Jane smiled.
William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Conium Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.
© 2018, William Cass