Maeve slipped past the bus door just as it started to close. She swiped her card without a thought or glance and then stopped short. Her usual seat—fourth row window—was taken. So was every other seat. Where did all these people come from?
She scanned the rows. No one would make eye contact. Movement and rustling caught her attention. Six rows down on the right, a seat opened up. With a sigh, Maeve made straight for it.
The man sitting by the window smiled at her. With his white hair, sweater, and glasses, he seemed nerdy, almost professorial. The tablet he balanced on his shopping bag added to the impression.
"Thank you." Maeve breathed as she fell into her seat, the tension bleeding out of her shoulders, the ache in her feet easing.
"Not at all." The man turned back to his tablet, but only for a moment before holding out his hand. "I'm Patrick, by the way."
She forced a closed-lip smile, her hands firmly gripping her purse. "Maeve."
Patrick dropped his hand. "Good to meet you."
"You, too." Maeve leaned back and closed her eyes. Her mind drifted back to her last customer: an obstinate woman who blamed the computer, the bank, and most of all, Maeve for her overdrawn account, as if it were some kind of personal vendetta. And then there was the issue of the woman's overdraft and returned item fees. Maeve was no stranger to cursing, but she'd rarely heard any woman curse such a deep blue streak as this one.
It was a scene that had replayed itself at least ten times this week alone: same story, different customers. Whatever happened to manners? To saying please, thank you, if it's not too much trouble? To personal responsibility?
Maeve chewed her thumbnail—what was left of it. Only eight years until she could take early retirement, if she could stick around that long. Days like this, she doubted she would make it.
"Rough day?" her seatmate asked.
Maeve's hand dropped to her lap, her fingers curled into her palm. "What gave it away?"
He waggled his fingers at her. "My wife used to bite her nails like that, too."
"Used to?" Maeve had tried everything to stop her nail-biting habit but had never been able to kick it. If Patrick's wife had found a miracle cure. . .
Patrick focused on his tablet. "She died, about five years back. Cancer."
Maeve deflated. "I'm so sorry."
Patrick nodded his thanks.
The bus's brakes squeaked. The door squealed. A young woman jostled Maeve's knee as she dashed down the aisle. With a frown and a sigh, Maeve scooted back in her seat.
"Do you usually take this bus? I thought I knew all the regulars, but I don't think I've seen you before." Patrick spoke with a lilt or a lisp or . . . something. Maeve hadn't noticed it earlier, maybe because he hadn't said this much at one time. It sounded soft, almost musical. Definitely a sound she could get used to.
But he'd asked her a question, hadn't he? "No, I usually catch the 5:40. I was running late today." She nibbled on her fingernail, but no, she wasn't going to let her mind go there. She dropped her hand, snuck it under her leg. Maeve nodded at Patrick's tablet. "What are you watching?"
"Not watching. Reading. A mystery. Still Waters by Duncan Ames."
If Maeve counted on one hand all the men she knew who read anything other than box scores, she'd have fingers left over. This Patrick was polite, a widower, a reader—what next? A gourmet chef? "I haven't heard of that one. What's it about?"
Patrick read the jacket copy, his lisp growing more prominent as he read.
Maeve turned in her seat. "I'm sorry, I have to ask. You have the loveliest accent. What is it?"
Maeve blinked. "I've . . .what?"
Patrick grinned, matching dimples forming in his cheeks. "I'm on my way home from the dentist—three fillings. I guess I'm still a little numb and tingly." His dimpled cheeks turned light pink. "I, um, have a bit of a sweet tooth."
Maeve smiled. "I guess we all have our own bad habits."
A crush of people pushed forward to exit the bus, knocking Maeve's leg this way and that, pulling her away from her conversation with Patrick. She bit back her discomfort, but couldn't hide her grimace. Would it kill these people to say excuse me? Did no one know how to say sorry?
Maeve rolled her shoulders and clenched her fists. She would not bite her nails. The urge was overwhelming, but she would not give in. She could not. Patrick had already called her out on it once. If she couldn't keep her fingers out of her mouth, what kind of impression would that make?
She threw a quick glance at Patrick. "I'll let you get back to your book."
Scooping up her bag, she dashed across the aisle to a newly-opened seat.
"Was it something I said?" He tried to sound teasing, but there was a tinge of hurt in his words.
"Not at all," Maeve assured him. "After the day I had, I just need a little elbow room."
He nodded and turned back to his tablet. Even in profile, his face sagged with disappointment.
Damn it. Maeve turned to scoot back to her previous seat, but someone else—a shaggy young man with earbuds growing out of his head—beat her to it. Her heart fell into her stomach.
She rummaged in her bag for her book. She stared at the page. The words danced around, refusing to align themselves in an order that made sense, but then, she was only reading them with one eye. Her other one stayed on the young man who'd taken her seat. The young man to whom she'd taken an instant dislike. The one she willed to move somewhere else.
She glanced past the obstacle in her old seat. Patrick sat hunched over his tablet, a lonelier sight than Maeve had ever seen.
That was it! That's why he'd struck up a conversation with her. He was lonely—not at all surprising for someone who lost his wife. It was a feeling Maeve knew all too well. Her life hadn't exactly been one party after another since her divorce. And what did Maeve do to this sweet man who had shown her nothing but kindness? She ran away as fast as she could.
Her mother had raised her better than that. More importantly, she liked Patrick. She wanted to know more about him. She already knew he had a bad habit. But what about his job? His marriage? His favorite color?
Maeve had lived in her own little world these last three and a half years. She'd considered herself content, if not happy. Her customers, co-workers, and bus-mates had given her all the human contact she needed. Or so she thought. Maybe it was time to broaden her world a bit, to let someone in for a change, to make a connection instead of just contact.
That wasn't going to happen if she kept sitting here. The bus rumbled past the library. Only two more stops before hers. She better get moving. So why were her hands shaking?
Maeve took a deep breath and swung around to face the young man across from her. "Excuse me?"
She tapped his arm. He gave her an irritated look but removed one of his earbuds.
"Would you mind switching seats with me? I'd like to sit with my friend."
At the word friend, Patrick raised his head.
The young man shrugged. "Yeah, whatever."
Seat swap completed, Maeve gave her thanks to the young man, with more genuine gratitude than she'd felt in some time.
Patrick greeted her with a smile. "What happened to that elbow room you needed?" he teased.
Maeve blushed. "Overrated."
For a moment, a long moment, they sat in awkward silence.
The bus squealed to a stop. The next one was Maeve's. It's now or never, she told herself. "I hope you don't mind that I called you my friend," she said, "even though we just met."
"Not at all. It's much better than being called your enemy." There were those dimples again.
"I would like us to be friends." Maeve hesitated. She raised her thumb to her lips and then put it down again. "I hope that's not too forward."
"Forward? No. A marriage proposal would be forward." His eyes sparkled with humor. "Are you proposing marriage?"
Maeve opened and closed her mouth. There was always some truth in humor. She liked this man. She wanted to see where things might go, but marriage? She wasn't thinking in those terms. Not yet. Was he?
"I'm kidding." He put down his tablet. "I frightened you. I'm sorry. Ellen always said I had a strange sense of humor."
"Ellen? That was your wife?"
Patrick nodded. "I don't know you well, but I think you'd like her. I know she'd like you."
"Really? What makes you think so?"
"Because I like you."
That caught Maeve short. The words thank you stuck in her throat. She was saved by the squeal of the bus's brakes.
"This is my stop." Maeve smiled as she put her hand on Patrick's knee. "It's been lovely talking with you. I hope we can do it again sometime."
Patrick pulled a pen out of his pocket and reached into his shopping bag. Twisting away from Maeve, he scribbled something on whatever he'd taken out. He turned around and handed her a chocolate bar—with his phone number on the wrapper.
Maeve accepted the gift with a smile. She stepped off the bus with an extra skip in her step.
Click here to read the story behind "The Wheels on the Bus. "