The Wheels on the Bus

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.

Photo by precinbe/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by precinbe/iStock / Getty Images

"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?"

Photo by LaraBelova/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by LaraBelova/iStock / Getty Images

No response.

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. "

A Friend in Need

            I must be hallucinating. That man across from me, the one with the dark curly hair, who’s far too calm and happy for an E.R. waiting room, has a shining aura.

            Shining Guy catches me staring and smiles. It’s a nice smile—warm, comforting, friendly. I smile back and pretend to study the wall behind him. The sign is in gibberish, but there’s no mistaking the Pepto Bismol wall color. If it’s intended to be soothing, it fails miserably.

            A nurse with a foghorn voice calls for a Mel Parris. An elderly man in clashing plaids shuffles past me muttering, “It’s about damn time.” He continues past the nurse into the clatter and din of the hallway. She shuts the door behind him, and the waiting room returns to its previous quiet rumble. For a moment, the florescent lights sound like cicadas, then the room tilts, and everything goes black.


            Shining Guy is kneeling in front of me, but his aura’s gone. Up close, I see his eyes are the color of chocolate pudding. I love chocolate pudding. “Are you all right?” he asks.

            “Fine,” I say, groggily pushing myself back into a sitting position. “Why?”

            “You just fell over. I think you passed out.”

             “Not possible. I’d remember something like that.” Even I can hear the slur in my words.

             His brow wrinkles in concern. “Who’s here with you? You’re not alone, are you?”

             “As a matter of fact,” I snap, “I am alone. I’m a grown woman. I can take care of myself.”

            “I can see that.” His voice makes it clear he doesn’t see at all. Damn. I usually flirt with cute guys, not attack them.

            “Who are you, anyway?” I ask. “What are you doing here?”

             Nurse Foghorn rolls up with a wheelchair. “Let’s get you into the chair,” Shining Guy says. “Can you stand?”

            I push myself off the plastic waiting room chair. The room spins, and my legs become marshmallows. Shining Guy catches me and holds on. I kind of like the way his hand grips my waist, firm but gentle. He smells good too—like Ivory soap. “You didn’t answer my questions,” I say.

            He guides me into the wheelchair. “I’m Jake,” he says. “Jake Grogan.” He turns to the nurse. “I’m coming with.”

            She looks at me, her lips pursed. “That’s not standard procedure.”

            I know he’s a stranger and I know I shouldn’t trust him, but right now, I trust me less. “Really, it’s okay,” I tell her, hoping that I’m right.

           Jake puts his hand on my shoulder and walks alongside while the nurse pushes me down the loud hallway, which smells of blood, vomit, and antiseptic. I start to gag but manage to swallow away the urge. I’m wheeled into an examining room. I can’t help noticing it’s the color of rotten eggs. Dear lord, who chose the color scheme around here?


            A sandy-haired teenager in a lab coat walks in carrying a clipboard. I suddenly feel old. “Anna Martin? I’m Dr. Hill. I understand you bumped your head.”

             “Something like that.”

            Dr. Hill uses a penlight to examine my pupils. “Tell me what happened.”

            “I tripped over a mop, broke my fall with my head.”

            Jake snorts. “A mop?”

            The snort is adorable, but the doc and I ignore him.

            “Your pupils are dilated,” Dr. Hill tells me. “Any other symptoms?”

            “She passed out in the waiting room,” Jake chimes in. “And her speech was slurred.”

            Dr. Hill raises an eyebrow. “That true?” he asks me.

             “So I’ve been told.” I hold up the remains of my glasses. “I also can’t read worth a damn. And I have a headache.”

            The doctor scribbles on the clipboard. “All right,” he says. “I’m going to give you three words. I want you to remember them and recite them back to me when I ask later. Okay?”

            “Okay.” I nod and pain shoots through my temples. When I feel Jake’s hand on my shoulder again, the pain recedes the slightest bit.

            “The three words are: pencil, hippo, razor. Got it?”

            “Pencil, hippo, razor. Got it.”

            “You’ve got a concussion,” Dr. Hill says. “The memory test will give us an idea of how severe. When I come back, we’ll discuss your treatment.”

            The doctor is hardly out of the room when I turn to Jake. “Why are you doing this?”

             “I’m a sucker for a damsel in distress. Especially when she’s got such perfect freckles and impossibly red curly hair.” He smiles, and my heart flip-flops.

            I twirl one of my red curls and almost forget what I wanted to know. “But why were you in the E.R. in the first place?”

            “I’m a reporter. I’m working on a story about local emergency rooms.”

            “Ah, you’re using me to get a Pulitzer.”

            Before Jake can respond, Dr. Hill returns. “Anna, those three words?”

            “Pencil, hippo, razor.”

            “Good,” he says, scribbling on the clipboard again. He hands me a paper cup with two pills in it and another cup with water. “Acetaminophen, for your headache. Don’t take any other kind of painkiller. Acetaminophen only. And rest. No exercise, no TV, no computer, no reading, no thinking.”

            “Um, okay.” It’s not, though. The doc had ruled out all my favorite things.

            “And no driving,” Dr. Hill adds.

            “I’ll make sure she gets home,” Jake promises.

            A nurse leads us through the discharge paperwork. On our way to the parking lot, Jake takes my hand. My heart does that flip-flop thing again. I actually hear myself sigh. What am I, a teenager?

            Jake settles me in his car—a coupe that’s clearly seen better days—and I direct him to my building. He insists on walking me to my door. My inner alarms should be screaming at this, but I only hear a faint buzz. But maybe that’s just my concussion. My hand finds Jake’s.

            He helps me up the stairs. My head is pounding so badly when we get to the top, I’m grateful we only have to climb one flight. My next apartment building will most definitely have an elevator.

            We stop at my door. “I’ve got it from here,” I say, but I don’t let go of his hand. My knees quiver when he kisses my forehead.

            “I’m going to check on you,” he says.

            “You better.” I hope my words sound as flirtatious out loud as they do in my head. Just to be sure, I kiss his cheek.

            He blushes and fishes a card out of his wallet. “Call me if you need anything.”

            I will, Jake Grogan. I will.


Click here to read the story behind "A Friend in Need."