It was night when they arrived, Rota holding on tight to her worn action figure in one hand, and her sister Nev’s sweaty palm in the other. She carried clothes and toys in her school backpack, and Nev carried the tent, the sleeping bags and everything else.
After a full day of walking along the road, heavily burdened and drawing curious looks, they had finally reached their destination. Rota had doubted before that Nev really had a specific bridge in mind, she thought her sister was just trying to get them as far away from Seattle as possible. But Nev’s reaction made her start to believe that her sister really had seen this place before.
“This is it!” said Nev, peering through the moonlit night at a highway bridge that ran over a small ribbon of river, “Here it is Rota, do you see? And there’s not even anyone else under there! Perfect, isn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah, I suppose,” said Rota, finding it hard to sugar coat her response to the bridge. It was just a bridge.
But Nev was pleased enough for the both of them. She grinned at Rota, her uneven teeth picking up the light, then grabbed up her sister’s hand with renewed purpose and hurried her forward, off the parallel bridge they stood on, over the metal dividers and down the grassy ravine where the freeway sections joined.
“Here we are,” said Nev when they came to the underside of the bridge, “this is where we pitch tent.”
“It’s not very even,” said Rota, looking at the gentle downward slope, “We’ll practically be sleeping standing up!”
“No,” said Nev, exasperation coming over her sharply, “Don’t be silly. It’s not that steep at all. Look, it’s much better down there at the base, and if you’re so concerned about it we can dig out a level section.”
“We can’t tonight. It’s too dark and late…”
“No of course not tonight! But tomorrow. In the meantime, we’ll be just fine. Come.”
They picked their way down to the bottom of the incline, very near the small river, and Nev began to set up the tent a few feet away by the light of the small electric lantern they had bought, only occasionally asking Rota for help. Nev had never set up a tent before, so it took her a while to figure things out. As she did she sang little made up songs to herself and posed questions out loud to the unresponsive sheet of instructions. Rota found it comforting, and began to relax and play with her action figure.
Her action figure was a small red-bodied construction worker with jointed knees and elbows and a rubbed-off face. His name was Red Guy, and he’d been through an awful lot. Explosions, fire, falls from high heights, near drowning, chloroform. But somehow, he always made it out of his adventures alive and well (apart from losing his face to the wear and tear). When Rota told Nev about Red Guy’s adventures, Nev always just shook her head and said something like, “Poor guy, you really put him through the ringer, don’t you?”
Rota didn’t feel bad for him one bit. His adventures were always the kinds of ones that were glamorous and exciting to go on, and the geography always looked more impressive from so small a size. He was James Bond in a hard hat.
That evening Red Guy explored his new surroundings, taking a jaunt down by the river. All of a sudden a sniper shot through the darkness and caused him to jump in to the cold water and swim upstream so as to double-back and apprehend the culprit. There wasn’t much for the shooter to hide behind on the rocky shore- so where were they? Had it been an aerial attack perhaps? Or was some secret tunnel system used?
“Rota!” called Nev, pulling her out of her dream-like play state, “come check this out!”
Rota mentally saved her game for later and turned around to see Nev standing proudly by the tent, lit cozily by the lantern that hung inside. She hurried over, and peeked inside, where the sleeping bags and travel pillows were rolled out and unzipped invitingly.
“Are you hungry?” asked Nev, “we can have a snack then go to bed. It’s late.”
Rota needed no convincing, her legs were sore and ached with tiredness. Soon they were eating granola bars and sharing a bottle of water inside the tent.
“You know how day becomes night?” asked Nev.
“No,” responded Rota earnestly, though she knew that Nev often preferred whimsy over truth.
“It’s when the world closes its eyes and holds it breath until it gets blue, because for the world not-breathing is just as important as breathing. The more it holds its breath, the more twinkling lights it sees, and those are the stars. The moon is its timer, depending on what shape it’s in, it shows the world how long it has to hold its breath.”
“That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it? How do you know?”
“I just know because… because it’s not in the science books.”
“Been a while since we’ve read any science books.”
“That’s not my fault!”
All the laughter went out of Nev’s eyes.
“But I don’t mind, you know,” Rota said, regretting her words.
“You should,” said Nev, scooting herself in to the sleeping bag.
“Well… it’s not your fault,” said Rota desperately as Nev turned off the lantern and the only light that remained was the dim light of the glow-in-the-dark zippers on their sleeping bags.
Her hand landed on Rota’s face and patted it, then settled on her shoulder.
“Sleep tight, love.”
The next morning Rota woke up chilled, thirsty and in desperate need of going to the washroom, only she knew there was no washroom, just the river or the shrubs that lined the entrance to the forest. Her mood was not high as she struggled out of the tent, waking up Nev in the process.
“What? Morning?” Rota heard Nev say groggily as she headed off to the shrubs to relieve herself.
When she returned Nev was stretching and rubbing her eyes outside of the tent.
“Morning Rotes,” she said as Rota approached, “not one for going in the bush, are you? Hope you didn’t rub your bum on any poison ivy.”
“What?” said Rota, alarmed even though Nev was chuckling.
“I’m only joking, I didn’t see any over there when I went.”
Rota still frowned grumpily.
“Rota, did you wipe your butt all over the grass?”
“No,” she said.
“Then you don’t have anything to worry about, do you? Speaking of, I have toilet paper- you know, for next time.”
Rota nodded, thinking that it would’ve been nice to know earlier.
“C’mon over here and we’ll have breakfast,” said Nev, nose inside her backpack.
She pulled out another bottle of water, Ritz cracker and cheese bits, an apple and a banana. They ate in the ground in front of their tent, staring out at the river with glazed eyes.
“Come to think of it,” said Nev at one point, “I don’t think we should have food in our tent at night. We need to stick it up in a tree tonight.”
“Why shouldn’t we have food in our tent?” Rota asked.
“Animals could smell it, I suppose.”
“Like bears?” Rota said, her frown growing again.
“Bears? Well, no, I don’t think so,” said Nev, glancing at Rota then squinting off across the river, “No, nothing like bears. Bears don’t come this close to the highway. I was thinking of, uh, raccoons.”
They finished up their breakfast in silence then Nev shoved everything back in her pack, even the garbage and went to river to splash water on her face.
“Alright,” she said, looking refreshed, “Want to know the plan?”
Rota had just brought out Red Guy to pick back up on the adventures of the previous night.
“I guess so,” she sighed.
“Hey now,” said Nev, looking at her sharply, “This is serious. It’s our lives and we’re both in charge of them. So I want you to listen, and I want you to give your input, because it matters.”
"I know, I will," said Rota, moving obediently over to Nev.
"Okay, so here's the plan. Not too far from here is a small town. It's sort of quaint and quiet- gets lots of tourists in the summer. I want that to be our town. This," she gestured at the tent, "is only temporary. First things first I have to get a job, so that's what I'll be looking for today. Then I'll save money and eventually we'll have enough to rent an apartment in the town. Hopefully by the time school starts, but even if we don't have a place yet, you'll go to the school in town. It's a good school. Smart rich kids and all that. Science books- so you can prove me wrong about more things."
Nev waited for her response, smiling with only one corner of her mouth turned up.
"But what about if they ask where I live?" Rota asked.
"You say you live in a little house just south of town. It's the truth."
Rota wrinkled her brow.
"Well, it's not a house, it's a tent."
"Then say 'home,' say your home is just south of town. But let's not worry about that now. Won't be for a few months."
"We have to go to town, first to the library to make a resume, then around the town to find a job. You can stay at the library the whole time if you'd like."
"Do I have to?"
"You don't want to?"
"No I want to stay here."
"I can't just leave you."
"So I have to come every time you have a shift for your job?"
"Well, I don't know-"
"I want to stay 'home,' if it was a real home I could stay here."
Nev laughed thoughtfully.
“I won't go anywhere, or do anything dangerous,” promised Rota, “Just play with Red Guy. I'm too tired to walk again today!"
Nev pressed her eyes shut for a few moments, thinking.
"Fine, fine," she said finally in a pained voice, "Help me take the tent down and obscure it behind the shrubs. I don't want the highway patrol to see it. And it'd be best if you played behind the bushes and kept yourself out of sight as well."
"Like camouflage?" Rota asked eagerly.
"Yes. Great idea. Stick leaves and branches to yourself. Then if someone sees you they'll only think you're a Sasquatch."
After they had taken down the tent and stuffed everything behind the bushes Neve gave herself some finishing touches in Rota's small plastic pocket mirror, put on her finest outfit (a clean blue t-shirt and jeans, along with some scuffed black flats), bid goodbye to Rota and headed off down the highway in to town.
Rota focused her attention back on Red Guy. He stood now in a field of high grasses, enclosed on either side by towering rain forest. It was the next day, and his investigation of the previous night's attempt on his life had led him here, in to the wilderness. An anonymous tip had given him a set of coordinates in code leading him to the lair of the notorious animal poaching Rainforest Gang. There was only one problem: finding the Rainforest Gang would require entering the actual forest, the perfect setting, but she had promised Nev she wouldn't stray far from the bridge.
But surely Nev was more concerned about the road and the highway patrol officers, and not taking a little adventure in to the forest. Besides, what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her. The matter was decided; a rainforest adventure it would be. Rota plunged back in to Red Guy's small blocky shoes.
He would follow the river through the forest, it was the quickest way, and once he had reached the longitude he would follow the latitude.
He started down the right side of the river, along the soft bank and large slabs of rock that extended before him in to steep cliffs above the roaring chop of the water. After several miles of walking for Red Guy, and substantially less crouched steps for Rota, it was time to enter the treacherous rainforest, where any manner of poisonous snakes and insects could lurk - not to mention aggressive gorillas, which could be either friendly or deadly, depending on the individual ape's mood.
They encountered quite a few of all those things, as it turned out, and in several instances they nearly got the better of them, but in each showdown Red Guy's quick-thinking, bravery and brute strength prevailed and before long they were at the gang's hideout.
It was the perfect location- the base of an impressively large tree with a root that rose out of the ground and down again in an arch. That would be the entrance to the hideout, and Rota would pretend that everything past it up to the next large protruding root was indoors.
She took a short mental break from the game to look about briefly and memorize the location, as she had been careful to do all along the way. She could no longer see the river, but she could hear it, and easily knew what direction was back towards the camp. She was in a small clearing of sorts, the forest floor carpeted by pine needles from the conifers all around. But the tree with the large roots was not a conifer. From the distinctive red of its bark she knew it to be a redwood. She followed the trunk upwards with her eyes.
The words escaped her mouth even though there was no one around to answer. She picked up Red Guy and took several steps backward, wondering if the large wooden structure up high in the tree could possibly be what it seemed. A treehouse.
Ms. Redshed Spider came from a long line of distinguished Redshed spiders, so named because they had lived for generations in a red shed behind Leanne and Harry Tallicker’s house on Seawind Lane.
The Redshed Spider family had been the first to lay claim to the shed after its creation three years previous, but they were not the sole inhabitants for long. The Yellowbellies, the Strongwebs and the Longlegs families moved in shortly after, and the Red Shed became a veritable spider metropolis.
The Red Shed had everything a spider might want, it was dark, dusty, rarely used by the Tallickers, who were getting on in age, and above everything, filled with plump, buzzing flies- more than enough to go around.
Like many of her one hundred and two brothers and sisters, Ms. Redshed had made the decision early on to weave her web in the Red Shed and spend her days there, living happily amongst her family and the Yellowbellies, Strongwebs and Longlegs. She was the type of spider who didn’t see the point in change unless it was absolutely necessary, and had never once set foot outside the shed.
So Ms. Redshed, at exactly five days of age, set about weaving her masterpiece. She was a quick worker and her home was finished that same evening. It was exactly how she had dreamed it would be. Perfect in every single way.
She hung upside down happily, and went to sleep, envisioning inviting a few of her sisters and brothers over the next day, providing she caught some good flies during the night for them to eat.
But what she woke up to the next morning was not an array of delicious, buzzing flies stuck in her web, ready for parceling. It was a human child, and as human children are generally not very fond of getting caught in spider webs, it was thrashing about violently, tearing apart all her hard work and making a deafening squalling noise. Ms. Redshed had no choice but to jump web, or risk being crushed by the child’s gigantic flailing arms.
To her relief, and the relief of the general population of the Red Shed, the child ran out of the Red Shed only seconds later. Ms. Redshed Spider climbed up the wall, preparing to begin building anew, when Mrs. Leanne Tallicker came in to the Red Shed for the first time in a full year. Ms. Redshed had never seen her before, but she recognized her from the stories her mother had passed on to them as babies in the nest. Tall, bedecked in multi-colored scarves, sporting the reddest lipstick you would ever see and smelling noxiously of lilac. Yes, that was Mrs. Tallicker alright.
Mrs. Leanne Tallicker stood in the door, brandishing a large broom. Ms. Redshed had heard of The Broom before, as well. It was a weapon humans used to sweep away homes.
She scurried in to a crack in the wall as quickly as she could, before Mrs. Tallicker began brushing away the homes of nearly every spider in Red Shed.
“I’m sorry,” she sang out brightly as she swept, “it’s nothing personal! My grandson is just a little afraid of spiders, that’s all.”
Once she had finished, grabbing a box of sandbox toys that held a large congregation of Longlegs on her way out, the place was a disaster. Nearly everyone’s web had been demolished and Ms. Redshed could hear the sorrowful voices of her friends and family overlapping each other in woe.
“What are you going to do?” Ms. Redshed asked one of her sisters.
“Well, rebuild of course,” said her sister, jettisoning off to the ceiling to begin.
“But aren’t you fed up?” Ms. Redshed called after her.
“Of course I am, but there’s no use fussing over something that can’t be changed,” said her sister, already weaving away.
Ms. Redshed didn’t share her sister’s, or the other spiders’, resilient attitude about the incident. Especially not after the first child and a bevy of new accomplices continued to raid the Red Shed of its belongings throughout the next hour.
“I’m going to take a day off,” she announced to the residents of the shed.
There was a stunned silence in reply.
“So long,” she said, putting on her hat and heading out the door.
When she woke up she was a ghost. She didn’t know how long ago she died. The end of her life had not been as black and white as she thought it would be. She had hovered on death’s doorstep for several months and when her light was finally snuffed out it was as if her eyes had already adjusted to the dark. She paused only to take a short rest in the nothingness, an after-life nap, as it were. After all, her 65 year existence had not been nothing if not exhausting. Emotionally, physically, spiritually. In all ways, a trial. A nap had been deserved, and when she woke up, it was in her own bed, but not in her own body.
She had read enough literary fiction to know she was a ghost, and to find that appropriate. She was a tormented soul, and she wanted the closure she had never been able to attain in life with one person and one person alone: her husband, Bagley Fullham III, who would be home from practice in a mere fifteen minutes, if he had stuck to his regular schedule after her death. She couldn’t imagine anything had changed. He loved that football team more than anything else. Easily more than her. He had given all of himself to being a professional football coach, with nothing left over.
She sat up in bed with some effort. It was much more of a struggle than she had anticipated, being a bodiless ghost. She hadn’t expected to feel quite so real still. Her feet nestled deep in to the plush beige carpeting of their master bedroom, her arms hung heavily beside her, and her head felt weightier than it had even in life. Did she wear chains like Jacob Marley in Dickens’ Christmas Tale? Had she unwittingly committed an evil that warranted such a punishment?
She looked down at herself to check for manacles, but where her hands should have been was merely a hazy shifting mass of light, dazzling in its spectrum of color. She thought she looked a bit like the shimmering heat rising from black asphalt in the summer. She wondered if she would be visible to Bagley. If he would see her and say “Virginia,” in the same cold, careless manner that he always had when he came back home, followed up by some demand issued as he sank in to his armchair in front of the TV and opened his laptop, in to which he would disappear for the rest of the evening.
Perhaps it would help if she put on something familiar, attempted to look like the human version of herself. She struggled up from the bed and to the mirrored closet which bounced the light of the large window on the opposite wall across the tastefully-decorated room. Upon opening the closet she saw her husband had not raised a finger in dispensing of her belongings, although she was a far way from being naïve enough to think that he had left the perfumed scarves and elegant pantsuits there for any sentimental reasons. He was not willing to do the work himself, what other reason could there be? He would have Melissa down the next weekend to divvy up her belongings amongst the rest of the kids.
She thought these things in the subdued manner in which she had lived, but there was an accompanying physical reaction that she had not been expecting. Her head, or where her head had once belonged, felt hot. Her hands clenched. An anger left behind long ago was returning to her, and enveloping her in its flaming embrace. She reached for the cloth closet-organizer drawer where she had stored her bras roughly, but the strength of her grasp was at least ten times what she had expected. Bras flew everywhere around her. White, beige, black, blue, even an ambitious pink. She dropped the drawer in surprise. She had not expected to be strong. She had never been strong in life, not ever.
It was a pleasant surprise, and exciting. She felt somehow that this was what she had been missing. This very feeling. To touch something with her anger and see it fall apart in pieces, rather than remain undisturbed and vaguely amused. She attempted to dress quickly, but her coordination was atrocious. In addition, her clothing no longer seemed to fit. The shimmering mass that was her body was over six feet tall and quite bulky, she could tell her dimensions more easily when she had tried on a few things and looked in the mirror. She still could not see herself, but she saw the floral print shirt she had tried on. It was stretched awkwardly, as if over a linebacker’s shoulders.
After a few more attempts, she eventually settled on a flowing caftan and her loosest gardening jeans, which she still couldn’t manage to entirely button up. She then walked to the adjoined master bathroom and to her sink, where she attempted to apply makeup to the area where her face should be. With much error and correction, nude lips were eventually drawn on, eyeliner used to crudely trace eyes and blush to highlight transparent cheekbones.
When she was done, her lipstick was broken off its stalk, her eyeliner worn down to a nub and her blush smashed in to little pieces. She moved to tidy them up, but then thought better of it. She was dead, and so were her wifely duties. God knows she was owed this little bit of cleaning.
She glanced at the clock before heading downstairs. 7:41p.m. Bagley should be home in mere moments. It was time for her to meet him and finally tell him what she needed to say. She had no plans for the words. They would come in the moment. She walked downstairs and took her place by the kitchen sink, simply out of habit. She sat gently on the counter, yet it sagged and creaked tremendously.
The hands on the clock in the kitchen moved slowly, ticking away. The clock was adorned with birds rather than numbers. Sweet little birds. She had always been bizarrely emotionally attached to them, but she felt only a shadow of that now. In fact, most of her emotional memories of her home had washed away. She knew that she had lived there for 23 years, but only in her mind. Her body felt a pull towards the door and out, in search of the real home she knew existed somewhere, with some other collection of souls.
Her husband appeared at the door, unlocked it and entered with a heaving sigh. He put the key on the key rack without looking up, then ran his fingers through his dignified white hair in the entry hall mirror. She didn’t feel like waiting for him to notice her.
“Bagley,” she said, but it came out “Sir.”
Or at least she thought it did. She wasn’t certain if the sound had even come from her mouth. It was a deep voice, a man’s voice, and it seemed to come from without her.
“Christ!” yelled Bagley, staring at her with his eyes bulging and clutching at his weak heart.
“I’m a ghost now,” she tried again, but instead the man’s voice said, “Your wife’s spirit is speaking through me.”
“LeDamion!” Bagley’s looked truly outraged, “How the hell did you get in here? What are you doing, dressed up like a goddamn transvestite? Is that my dead wife’s clothing?”
She beaded her brow. LeDamion? LeDamion Cameron was the linebacker on Bag’s team. One of the few who had paid any attention to her at functions. He had brought her flowers in the hospital. A very special young man. She touched her shimmering body in wonder and understood. This was no ghost’s plasma. This was the flesh of a young man in his peak physical condition. Flesh that she temporarily possessed.
It seemed as if the old woman on the bus knew that I would follow her. Before I knew it, in fact. The moment I laid eyes on her she looked wary. Her eyes held a subdued terror. There was something about her; I couldn’t stop staring. I didn’t know what it was. There was nothing truly remarkable about her appearance, not if I considered the many other noteworthy characters I had encountered on the bus, and yet she exuded a certain mysterious aura that strongly suggested she had a story. A proper story. One so valuable she kept it clasped closed against her worn skin lest some talentless hack attempt to snatch it away.
That was probably why she looked so afraid. She could sense I was a writer. A bad writer, but one nonetheless. It was in my cursed blood. I was born the daughter of two writers and doomed to repeat their fate. I couldn’t help but heed a good story’s siren call, even if I was due to mop things at The Warehouse at precisely two and it was two-oh-one.
I never took my eyes off the woman once as we trundled downtown towards The Warehouse. She wasn’t as old as I had first thought, just well-used and broken down like the soft felt ear on a sad old teddy bear. Mousey brown and grey hair (what little of it there was) was smoothed back in to a ponytail that came out the hole in the back of a pastel pink ball cap with “GAP” on the front. Large turquoise sunglasses covered half her face. Her thin, frail-looking frame held up a pastel blue sweatshirt and light pink golf skirt. She wore grey Northstars on her feet. Her clothes looked brand new though I could tell from their outdated style that they were not.
Her hand, thin and tan like the rest of her, gripped the metal bar beside her tightly, and she shook slightly even when the bus was at a complete stop. Maybe it was this silent buzzing vibration that entranced me. She looked like she could, at any moment, break open and reveal her secrets.
I purposefully missed my stop. I’d figure things out with The Warehouse later. Or at least, that sounded reasonable.
I knew the woman saw me staring, but she never so much as glanced my way. It was curious. She stared straight ahead (as far as I could tell), her thin lips formed in to a pained grimace. Perhaps she had expected this day to come.
I watched her all the way out of downtown, through the hip neighborhood, out to the very edges of the fringe, a hard-baked urban desert of cracked concrete and trash piles, with not a Starbucks in sight. That was where she pulled the cord and slowly got to her feet. I followed behind her closely and realized with delight as I got closer that she smelled sweetly and strongly of coconut.
This attribute somehow confirmed what I had so far conjured up in my mind about the woman. She was cracked in several places, but she was not broken, and in fact, she might once have been perfect.
She limped awkwardly off the bus and continued at a painstakingly slow pace up the street. I dawdled behind. We walked to the corner and then turned left, then up several blocks. After ten minutes I became overheated and impatient. Where was she leading me? I’d never been in the area before and the quietness of it was off-putting. Even the homeless people sorting through the trash bags on the curb were going about their business in perfect calm silence. They did not look at us as we passed, didn’t even seem to be aware of our existence.
I was coming up on the woman’s heels due to my discomfort at the slow pace and I reminded myself to fall back. I watched my footsteps, making them smaller and smaller still. When I looked back up the woman was gone, and a grimy bowling alley sign loomed in front of me, as if out of nowhere.
I let out a disgruntled noise. The woman was clearly more spritely than she had let on, and much wilier. In a last hopeful effort to find her I pulled open the blacked-out bowling alley door and entered in to a cool, dark vacuum.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. My eyes searched for the light sources, which turned out to be two dirty skylights in the front area of the alley, a strip of dim bulbs above the counter where a man stood looking at me with disinterest and luminescent strips that ran down the length of six bowling lanes to glowing green pins in groups of ten. A rather dinky disco ball also hung in roughly the center of the expansive space, throwing a few meager spots of dancing light around it. Classic rock and roll played very lightly in the background, adding to the general outdated feeling of the place, with its chipped paint and worn carpet.
I searched for the woman. With a thrill, I spotted a hunched figure at the lane on the furthest left.
“Can I help you?” said the man at the counter.
He had already had enough of me, and I hadn’t even spoken yet. He was a large, heavy man with long wavy hair parted in the middle and a goatee.
“A lane please,” I said, taking off my backpack to get my wallet, “Second to furthest left.”
“Okay,” said the man, resting on his elbows on the counter, “But it’s not our best lane. Dips to the right. Most people can barely get a pin.”
“Sounds great,” I said, wanting to hurry him along, “I like a challenge.”
He looked me up and down slowly then shrugged.
“Your choice,” he said, then began to ring me up.
Five minutes later I had a pair of large, foul-smelling and damp pair of bowling shoes on my feet and was headed towards the second to furthest lane which shuddered to life with the disturbing creaks of a hastily set-up carnival ride.
My heart beat quicker in anticipation as I approached the lane and came closer to the figure which did indeed appear to be the woman from the bus. The story was close, I could just feel it.
As I set down my backpack I turned my eyes toward the figure. Yes, it was her, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Perhaps I should have spoken to her then, but something stopped me. It wasn’t simply nerves, though I was nervous. It was something else. The timing wasn’t right. For some strange reason I couldn’t articulate, I wanted her to speak first. Even stranger, I knew she would.
I picked up a bowling ball and my arm sagged pathetically. A lighter one, then. I picked up the lightest, and delicately approached the lane. After a moment’s hesitation I heaved it forward without any talent or style. The ball didn’t even make it halfway through the lane before dropping in to the right-hand gutter. I looked over at the woman’s lane.
The woman was preparing to bowl a ball. She was trembling harder than before, and still wearing her sunglasses. I felt very sorry for her, certain that it would be an even more pitiful attempt than mine. She took several steps forward, wound up suddenly and released the ball on to the alley in a crisp, fast spin. The ball rocketed directly in to the center of the pins and sent them falling in all directions. A perfect strike.
The woman hummed a tuneful sigh.
“I learned how to do that on yours,” she said, the suddenness of her gentle, gravelly voice surprising me.
“Really?” I said, anxious to keep her talking, “why?”
The woman sighed again.
“He gave me a discount,” she said, jerking her head towards the man at the counter.
“He didn’t give me a discount,” I said with a slightly offended laugh.
“You don’t look like you need one.”
It wasn’t meant to be an insult or a compliment, just a fact.
“That’s true,” I said, my smile fading.
The woman looked at me and I saw myself reflected in her reflective sunglasses.
“Let’s switch,” she said.
“Are you sure? You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s fine. This one’s too easy anyway.”
I grabbed my backpack and we switched lanes, her coconut perfume enveloping me for a brief moment.
She picked up another ball, not nearly the lightest I noticed, and I watched intently as she inhaled a rattled breath, bowed her head to the ball three times quickly in succession then stepped forward and threw the ball rocketing up the lane with a mean left curve.
The ball hooked down only at the very end of the lane, bursting in to the pins with a satisfying smash. Most were knocked down, but three remained.
“Wow!” I exclaimed.
“Hm,” said the woman, clearly displeased, “I’m losing my knack for it. I’m glad you gave me this lane. I need to practice.”
“It’s no problem at all… I- I hope you didn’t mind my following you,” I said, unsure of my footing.
The woman shrugged.
“It’s not the first time.”
I sensed my opportunity.
“People have followed you before?”
“Same reason you followed me,” she said, suddenly cracking a smile, revealing perfectly aligned teeth but not nearly enough of them.
Her gums were receding and she didn’t have many molars on her top set. No wonder she hadn’t smiled yet. It was likely a rare occurrence, borne of an impulse that couldn’t be restrained. I felt honored, and I felt confused. I only wanted her to reveal her mystery, but my skills were rusty from months of mopping and little to no proper investigation.
“I don’t know why I followed you,” I said.
She shrugged and prepared to throw another ball.
“Me either, then.”
I felt the window of opportunity closing and felt a sudden rush of adrenaline. I couldn’t let her go, not when she was so close.
“That was a lie,” I said boldly, “I do know, it’s because you have a story and I want to know it.”
The woman sent out another fast curve ball and smiled slightly again, whether it was because her shot had just downed the last three pins or because I had admitted the truth to her, I could not tell.
“You’re a writer,” she said, a question though not intoned like one.
“No,” I said, “Well, not right now, anyway. Right now I specialize in mopping things. But it’s in my blood. My parents were writers.”
The woman nodded as if this made sense.
“What happened to them?”
“Oh, nothing, they’re fine,” I said, realizing I had given her the wrong impression.
“What will you do with my story if I give it to you?”
I had not been prepared for this.
“Well, um, I’ll tell it I suppose.”
“You can do that while you’re… mopping things?”
“Yes,” I replied eagerly, “I can choose when to do the mopping. I was supposed to do it today, actually, but I chose to follow you instead. It’ll be fine.”
That wasn’t necessarily true, but it felt that way in the moment.
The woman was quiet for quite a few moments, standing, ball in hand and looking thoughtful. Eventually she began to chuckle. It was a strange sound, halfway between the purr of a motorboat and the cackle of a witch.
“What’s funny?” I asked.
“I’ve kept my story so long, all to myself. I’ve kept it from distinguished journalists and Pulitzer prize-winning novelists, all because the time wasn’t right. Today I woke up and I knew it was the day. I didn’t want it to be the day, not here, not now, but I knew it was. And here I am, with you, in this dive of a bowling alley about to give away my most prized possession. You’re not even a writer. You mop for a living. Mopping, of all things! It’s ridiculous to the point of hilarity.”
I was stunned. I had hoped, I had dreamed, but I hadn’t dared to expect this woman would actually me reveal her story to me. I felt a little guilty about my inexperience and lack of qualification for the job.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be. You’re the one. I knew it the moment you walked on that bus, and I know you did as well.”
“Then that’s all there is to say about it.”
“Should I get a notepad out?”
“You won’t need one.”
“I know,” I said.
And I had known. She took a deep breath, bowed her head three times, then bowled a strike.