By Helen McClory.
Astral had missed the name of the city, or the town. One run-down area of the country had bled into another. Was she in the South yet? Plants here wanted to grow through concrete, cracked it apart with their pale fingers. The sun too had split the earth to help draw the flimsy weeds up tall. Glass shone painfully bright in the windows of the bus station. This is not the end of the world, this is a temporary extension of the end.
The bus shuddered, stopped. The passengers squeezed themselves out onto the pavement to find this was a place of wicked heat. Astral shivered, took off her hoodie. She felt like tying it around her head so she wouldn’t have to feel the omnipresence against her scalp. But once inside the station, which was long and low, she was cold again. Astral licked her teeth and pulled the hoodie back on.
A queue of new boarders were already waiting at the door, watching their bags being thrown into the belly of the coach. An older man reached after his grown son to say, don’t be gone long. His manner jaunty, short-sleeved shirt cheap but impeccably pressed. Astral at her age beginning to marvel at these things. A woman all in white and beige, carrying a lifetime polybag with a pink flower motif, swaying and muttering about the passage of time. Schedules of declining hours, of vague, black-mark deadlines. There was a sort of smut of stress on some people, not on others.
She moved between the press of them, further into the room, though she didn’t know why. This place held nothing but wasted time. Astral looked at her ticket for the list of stops. This to reassure that she was not lost in a recursive misery loop. They had been belting the width of Tennessee, it never seemed to end. But she had lost her place, that was all. The ticket had a slip attached which said ‘Not Good For Travel.’
She thought to wash her face. The ladies was clean, a white space and wide. Only a single stall closed. Astral went to the sink. Her eyes were frightful. And around them rimmed pink like she’d taken the eyeballs out for sleep and had to stuff them back in. She cleaned her face and neck with wetted paper towels. There was a flush, and a woman with mouth weighed down at the corners came into view in the mirror. Waddled, though she wasn’t overweight, not really.
“Hey,” the woman said loudly, coming closer, “hey, you got some money?”
This person in front of her: mortuary skin and eyes very hard and dull. No eyebrows. Hair just sort of there, wisps of dead-yellow.
“I need money. My boys. They ain’t et. They need dinner.”
Her breath was the dregs of a shit life. Her tee-shirt, old and grey, hung off her body. It said, Southern California Sunshine, 1978, though it probably wasn’t that old.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have much with me,” said Astral, doing her American voice, smiling a little. Probably a mistake. Astral churning inside. The woman opened her heavy mouth again.
“Well, what you going to do? You better hand me what you got. My boys aint et.”
“Okay, honey,” Astral made a show of taking out her wallet and looking in it, “I have five dollars. You know, I’m not working right now. I don’t have an income, at the moment.” Astral’s little ironic grimace to herself. Astral’s food money fisted, disappearing into the woman’s back pocket.
“Five dollars won’t feed um. You want us to starve huh?” The woman knocked the emptied wallet to the ground. Astral crouched to pick it up, kept her eyes locked on the woman. Looming figure. Mouth still open. Angry and breathing in thick snorts.
Astral was staring, forgetting to smile.
The woman narrowed her little eyes.
Pulled her head back and spat, hard. Then waddled out the door.
The door was still swinging, and Astral looked at her face in the mirror. She turned on the tap and bent to rub the spit off her cheek. The woman might come back, with a brick from the empty lot to smash at her face and smash it, stave it in.
The door swung harder and someone was coming. Astral folded the corners of herself in. The sink was very cold and clean. The little blue bar of soap milled by age into crusted ridges. It was a policewoman. Astral hesitated.
The officer looked at her, and then away.
Astral washed her face again white in her head, dizzy. Astral splashed water all down her front. Astral gathered up her things and left. Out in the low open, she kept her head down, walked tightly back to the bus to wait in its shadow for departure.
ABOUT THE AUHTOR
Helen McClory was raised in both rural and urban Scotland. She has lived in Sydney and New York City and is currently to be found in the South Side of Edinburgh overlooking a prehistoric cliff face. The manuscript of her first novel KILEA won the Unbound Press Best Novel Award 2011, and publication is currently being sought for it. To keep the wire steady, Helen is working on a second novel about the intersections of love, failure and technology set in New York, New Mexico and Cornwall. Progress on this at: http://schietree.wordpress.com/
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 28th, 2012.