Millie watched Tracey as she walked across the parking lot toward the bus station. Lacy flakes were drifting out of the sky and slowly covering pavement, walkways, and the tops of cars a thin layer of white. Sunlight was sparkling in a glittering display.
The bus started to move and was soon winding its way around a small city park. Snow was threading through the trees and frosting branches and bushes. There were only a few tufts of dead grass poking their way up through the white oasis. Footprints were making paths in the fresh snow as people walked their dogs. Millie imagined small, meandering tracks by mice, chipmunks, and birds barely visible on the snow’s crust. And, further out of town, in the country side, deer, rabbit, and coyote prints were making trails in the woods. “If this continues, cold winds will force the snow into drifts. I hope we can stay on schedule.” She said to Molly who was staring outside her window at the developing beauty.
The snow brought back happy memories of childhood: sledding, making snowmen, playing outdoors, etc. Millie hoped this gift from nature had the power to pull her out of her dark thoughts long enough to notice and appreciate its beauty.
Millie stared at Molly who was still seated across the aisle next to the window with Tracey’s empty seat beaconing. The twelve-year-old was also staring, but not at her mother. She was staring toward a Costco as the bus crossed the 276 bypass. Was she thinking about their recent trip to the warehouse club, and what Christmas would be like this year?
The Costco Christmas shopping trip had started three-years-ago, December 2016, a week after Millie invited Colton to move in with her and eight-year-old Molly. What a mistake. But, like many things in life, it had started out good, even exhilarating. Memories of that first trip appeared: Colton, the carefree, respectful, loving lumberjack of a man insisted he pay for whatever Molly chose. The precocious child had long ago concluded Santa was a myth, so secrecy and surprise wasn’t a part of the game.
December 2017 was another fun-filled Saturday, the last of a three person, short-lived tradition. In early 2018, the verbal assaults began. That year ended with the first physical assault, and Millie and Molly, alone, Christmas shopping at Costco. This year, 2019, had been the same.
Molly reclined her seat and inserted her ear plugs, listening to music. Millie kept staring toward her daughter and through the window at the deepening snow. She hoped she’d made the right decision. A week ago after her and Molly’s Costco shopping trip she arranged for the giant retailer to gift-wrap and mail the items to Bird & Foley in New York City. Millie had bantered her options back and forth—torn between transporting them via car, or shipping them via FedEx or UPS—finally letting Molly flip a coin.
Now, she was convinced chance had chosen correctly. Storing them for a week at home would have been too much of a temptation for Colton. He’d ask too many questions and, if suddenly outraged, might destroy the items. And now, there was an equally persuasive reason that chance had done Millie and Molly a favor. Although there weren’t that many packages—two were rather small: the ones containing the Apple AirPods and the Wacom Digital Drawing Tablet–transporting them by Greyhound bus would have been problematic, especially given the Sofa Chair Molly had selected. It was pink, with no legs, had a high back, and didn’t fold. To say the least, even if Greyhound allowed, it would be rather bulky. Millie imagined that chance somehow knew the Sentra would die somewhere along their 900 mile journey.
Millie reclined her chair and smiled, determined she wouldn’t let anything, her mental health or the dark side of chance, interfere with this year’s Christmas holidays. Since Molly was born, Millie had never had two weeks off work during the Christmas season to spend with Molly. Yes, this year was shaping up to be the best they’d ever had.
Millie closed her eyes and imagined how it would be. Tomorrow, they’d do nothing but rest and buy groceries. On Monday, the two of them would hire an Uber and travel to Bird and Foley and retrieve the packages. While there, hopefully her boss, Stephen Canna, would give them a quick office tour and introduce them to other staff members. After returning to their apartment, they’d spend the rest of the day—and probably Tuesday—shopping and decorating their new apartment. Wednesday, Christmas Day, would be spent opening presents and trying out a few new recipes, Starting Thursday and for the next twelve days until January the 6th, they’d explore Manhattan, eat at fancy and not-so-fancy restaurants, and spend quality time together, forgetting the past and planning a wonderful future, wholly devoid of Colton Lee Atwood.
Molly inclined her seat and edged across the aisle. Her mom was in a deep sleep. “Mom, wake up, we’re in Philadelphia.” Molly nudged her shoulder, moving aside to let other passengers disembark. “Mom, we only have forty-minutes.” Slowly, Millie’s eyes opened. After a sixteen-hour day [RF, CHECK THIS], her eyelids felt like broken window blinds, rising and falling unevenly. She grabbed her phone, focusing a little. It was almost one PM. For several seconds Millie looked at Molly and her surroundings, believing she was still dreaming. “Mom, I’m hungry. Come on.”
The bus station was the worst one so far. A concrete landing with a covered awning reminded Millie of an old train station. Just outside the entrance was a giant metal garbage can with crumpled food wrappers, paper coffee cups, ticket stubs, and cigarette butts overflowing onto the ground.
Inside was somewhat better, just garbage of the human kind. Millie scolded herself for such a thought. People of all shapes, sizes, and colors were laying prostrate on black, metal benches scattered along the outer walls. Some had opened newspapers blanketed like bed-covers over their heads.
“There’s a Subway.” Molly pointed, pulling Millie along. The modern day fast food joint seemed out of place. The floors and walls were relics of times gone by, probably to a train station a hundred years ago. Molly made a mental note to record the contrasting elements into her writing notebook, and became sad. Sad that she’d never see Ms. Thornton again. Sad, that she would never again have such a caring, compassion, and competent writing teacher, one who’d take such personal interest in her students.
While the server was preparing Molly’s six-inch turkey on wheat, Millie’s cell phone rang. Since she hadn’t entered any Contacts, the cell screen read, “unknown caller.” She almost didn’t answer but then assured herself it had to be from either Matt or Catherine. They were the only ones she’d given her new number to. “I need to take this. All I want is a bag of plain chips, and maybe a cookie.” She turned, walked to the corner booth, and pressed the red answer button.
“Hello.” Millie said, sliding into the booth.
“Millie, it’s Catherine. It’s nice to hear your voice.”
Work. The past. Gone. What a blessing it would be to have such a supporter at Bird and Foley, Millie thought before replying. “Hey girl. Thanks for checking on us.”
“How’s New York?” Catherine asked, obviously not knowing about the Sentra’s death, or the nearly-as-painful bus slog.
Millie laughed. “We’re in Philadelphia. At a Greyhound bus station. The Nissan died.”
“Oh my gosh. I’ve never ridden a bus. You should try flying.” Catherine liked to poke and joke.
“So, how’s Houston?” Millie asked, thinking of how silly her ploy had been to misdirect Colton.
“Okay. A good place to visit, but I’d hate living here. Four too-many nosy parents. Catherine and husband Brett had grown up in Houston, and both sets of parents were still living.
Molly arrived and sat across from Millie. She secured her phone between her should and ear, and opened the bag of Lay’s. Molly opened her sandwich and moved half of it to a napkin and slid it across to her mother. “Eat.” Millie shook her head in the negative and pushed it back.
“I hate to tell you but felt like I should. Colton just called me.” This shocked Millie although she had known he would.
“I take it he didn’t buy the airline tickets ruse?” Millie crunched chips, looking into an already near-empty bag.
“You’re right about that.” Catherine paused. “Millie, I’m a little scared.”
“What? What did he say?” Millie regretted bringing this attention onto her best friend. It had been so stupid.
“He obviously asked where you were. You know I wouldn’t dare say. Then he said I had two days to get my mind right, or I’d be sorry.”
“So, you took that as a threat?” Millie had never fully shared how mean Colton could be, even though Catherine had seen the bruising.
“How else was I to take it?” Millie tried to make out voices that had entered the conversation. No doubt from Brett and their two girls. “You’ve said he’s capable of doing anything.” Even though Millie had told Catherine about the pending criminal charges against Colton and his friend Sandy, she’d stupidly shaped the story to indicate the two men had an alibi.
Molly was half-finished with her sandwich and scrolling her phone. But, this wasn’t the time to be completely open with Catherine. Molly didn’t know the full truth and Millie believed that was for the best. “I really don’t think he’d do anything rash. He’s smart enough to know that will would come back to haunt him.” Millie decided she’d call Catherine back when she could speak openly. For now, her best friend and her family were safe. They’re in Houston.
In the background, Brett was arguing with Carrie and Connie. Something about Joel Ostein and his wife Victoria. “Okay, if you say so. I trust your judgment since you know the man.”
Suddenly, the intercom crackled and a gruff man’s voice said, “let me have your attention.” Millie now was well aware of the two announcement process at five minute intervals: “all-aboard bus 684 bound for New York City.” Molly stuffed the last bite of her sandwich in her mouth headed to the drink fountain for a refill. “Catherine, I’ll call you later. You guys enjoy your time in Houston.”
Five minutes later, after a quick stop at an ancient, wood-floored restroom, Millie and Molly boarded the bus, tired, and anxious to end their twenty-eight hour nightmare.