My short fiction story, "Five Rows Back" was today recognized by the Inlander as one of the Top 12 stories submitted for their 2012 annual fiction contest. Not too bad considering they received 200+ entries. One of the editors sent me a direct message on twitter and shared the news that they liked it. You won't see it published in the Inlander, so you can read it right here first.
The rules of the contest are simple: 2,000 words or less with a theme of "the end," however the author interprets it.
One caution. This story isn't for kids.
Five Rows Back
Melissa could see the back of his disgusting, blotchy head from five rows back. Always five rows. She watched it bob and sway as the bus ambled down the street. The razor burn and leftover strands of hair hanging over his coat collar told her that he’d recently shaved off his businessman locks. He’d cut himself in the process. Dried blood filled a toothpick-sized divot where he’d dug the razor into his scalp.
She hoped it hurt. Hurt like hell.
He hadn’t even looked up when she walked past him. Not that she expected him to. For the last four nights he’d not once looked at her as she passed him. Tonight was the fifth night. Nothing.
She wasn’t trying to blend in. Wasn't trying to hide. Not anymore. Her bright red leggings, black skirt and pink hair usually garnered a few stares, but never from him. His eyes alternated between the newspaper open on his lap and the blur of headlights outside of the bus. She could see his face reflected in the bus window.
Melissa pulled at the red leggings and fidgeted in her seat. She was having trouble getting used to them. Her new uniform, as it were. The hair came easier to her. She had trimmed it herself by pulling her long blonde hair back into a ponytail and mashing the scissors down until the cuts were complete. It took six slices. One more than she intended. She had to add four more slices to make it an even ten. The numbers had to divide by five. What remained of her hair was a ragged shoulder-length mess that she decided not to clean up. Instead she bought a bottle of the brightest pink dye she could find and transformed her look.
The reaction from her friends? Non-existent. She was 15 and didn't have a friend in the world.
Someone pressed the “Stop Requested” button and the bus jerked to the right. Melissa tapped out a pattern with her hand as she watched. One, two, three, four, five. Repeat. Two people got on as others exited. A young mother held her toddler with one arm and lugged a stroller onto the bus with the other. She leaned the stroller onto the fare machine to swipe her bus pass.
The driver pulled the bus back into traffic before the mother could take her seat. The stroller skittered down the aisle, only stopping when it hit the bars below a row of seats.
His row. His seat. The man in the disguise, a newly-shaved head, looked down at the stroller, then up to the mother, then back out the window, ambivalent.
“Sir?” the mother called, “Sir!”
He continued to look out the window.
“Excuse me?” she called to him. “Would you be so kind as to bring me the stroller?"
She held up the baby ever so slightly to show him why she didn’t just retrieve the stroller herself. He glanced her way again and Melissa winced.
He took his time standing up, holding onto the seat in front of him and then the silver railing overhead. His coat was tan and thin. He wore gray slacks and black dress shoes. The shoes were new. Or at least Melissa hadn’t noticed them before. She opened her notebook and scribbled herself a note to go along with her other observations from the past few days. The notes were evenly spaced with the appropriate number of blank pages between them.
She’d managed to fill eight pages of notes about him from five rows back. What section of the paper he read – Business, but sometimes Sports. What he carried – a briefcase and umbrella. How he dressed – like an accountant. The details were mundane, but vital to her. She needed to know. There was no turning back. Writing it down meant making it real.
When he moved, Melissa had to move too. She was anxious, but that wasn't new.
He picked up the stroller and dragged it along the rubber floor back to the mother who had taken the seat closest to the driver. A bright smile flooded the mother’s face as she reached for the stroller and thanked him. Her eyes lingered on him like an invitation. He took the seat across from her like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Melissa quietly moved three rows up, just as he had. Still five rows back. She touched each row and counted as she moved, just to be sure.
Melissa knew how the woman felt. He was handsome, at least she once thought he was. His attention was focused directly on her. Suddenly no one else mattered but her and him. Those piercing green eyes. She could imagine his cologne enveloping her.
Yes, she knew how the mother felt. Melissa pulled her backpack to her chest, feeling the tool inside. Knowing her intent for it. The thought made her forehead hot. Was tonight the night she’d finally do it? Did she have the courage?
She wanted to scream to the mother, “No! Don’t talk to him!” But she couldn’t. It wasn’t in her plan. The plan was all that mattered now. It was written down neatly in her notepad. Step by step. She knew it would one day become evidence, but she didn’t care.
The notepad had become her sole means of expression. She'd missed school to work on it. Her clueless parents asked about it. But was her experience alone.
She watched them for the next few blocks – the mother, baby and him. Their bodies rocking back and forth from the soothing motion of the hulking bus. He was doing it again. Reeling the woman in. It was so easy.
* * *
Just one week earlier Melissa walked past the downtown bus depot on the way to her mother’s office building. She’d stayed after school to study, she’d said, and needed a ride home. The library was always quiet, and lately she’d been comforted by its musty numerical bookshelves and endless isolation. She didn't have to talk to anyone or tell them why she needed to count.
She saw him at the bus stop across the street. Someone slammed into the back of her as she stopped dead in her tracks. A teenage boy, no older than her, apologized and helped her up. The pills in her backpack spilled to the ground. Had the boy seen the label? Did he know what she was on? By the time she found her wits and collected her things from the ground, the bus had gone.
Very recent memories were ripped to the surface. Her insides ached. Her body felt like the ashtray of a chain smoker’s living room - full, dirty and used. It had been that way since the night that he . . . the night everything changed.
She came back day after day and watched him. First it was from across the street, then from the adjacent bus line. Finally she’d gathered up the strength to get on his bus.
There, she’d drafted and re-drafted her plan in her notebook.
* * *
The party two weeks earlier was supposed to be for high school kids only. That's what Abigail, a girl in her science class, said when she asked her to come. Abigail needed to tell her mom she was staying over at someone's house - would Melissa do it? She agreed because she'd never been invited to a party before. Nobody ever invited the weird girl who had to count everything.
Melissa felt like a princess from the moment she walked into the house. Someone always wanted to talk to her. Not teens, but men. They kept refilling her cup. She didn't know what she was drinking, but it was sugary and fizzed. She didn't like the taste, but at some point the flavor didn't matter. Everything became numb.
She lost track of Abigail about the time he found her. Those piercing green eyes, focused on her alone. She didn't want the night to end. He was so sweet. He brushed her hair back behind her ear and said nice things. She wanted to remember that moment, not the rest.
A wet towel was forced over her face as she hit her head on the basement floor. She kicked and slammed her fists into his sides, but he tightened his grip on her neck and she couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t resist.
She couldn't forget the rest. The blood on her pants. The rotten taste of the towel in her mouth. What he did. How he ended her innocence.
* * *
One more stop until he gets off, Melissa thought. She'd been counting down on her fingers. This is it. She rummaged through the backpack and felt it. Her weapon at the ready. She could do it.
She let him get off the bus first, like always. Following his routine, he walked two blocks and entered the apartment building on the left. He was on the second floor, halfway down the hall. Apartment 2C.
Melissa hung back, her pace slow. Five steps. Pause. Five steps. Pause.
She dialed the number of the woman who interviewed her in the hospital. Told her that she was going to end it. She was the only one who knew anything about what had happened. She had to tell someone before she did it, to explain why. They needed to know why.
"Please, not like this," the woman said as Melissa hung up the phone. She couldn't listen anymore. She'd decided. He needed to pay. Tonight. It was in the plan. She already wrote it down.
The hallway was long, but she lingered at the end. Trying to build up the courage. Time stopped.
Getting the matted gray pistol from her parent's closet was too easy. And she knew how to use it. She gripped the weapon in her right hand. It was heavy. She felt powerful. In control.
She knocked five times on the apartment door, the sound rattled down the hall and disappeared. The floorboards inside the apartment creaked as he walked to the door.
It felt as if her heart was going to explode in her chest as she stared at the peephole, knowing that he was looking at her through the fisheye glass. She tapped out a pattern with her foot that the doctors said would calm her. It didn't.
The latch flipped. The chain unhinged. And the door opened.
His green eyes looked small and dark. She watched the recognition spread across his face. He knew who the girl with the pink hair was. Knew what he'd done. And what he was about to be punished for.
Melissa pointed the gun at his chest and squeezed the trigger. It didn't fire. The safety was still on.
"Melissa, no!" came the voice from her left. Footsteps pounded down both ends of the hall. Police officers.
She dropped the gun and stumbled backward until her back hit the wall. She slid to the floor. An officer kicked the gun away, but then ran past her into the apartment leaving her crumpled in the hall.
Her vision blurred as the tears came. She felt a hand on her arm and heard the familiar voice from the phone.
"I couldn't let you do it," the woman said. "He'll be arrested now."
"Why did you take this away from me?" Melissa whispered, pulling her knees tight to her chest and burying her face.
"Because you're better than this," she said. "He's the monster, not you."
It was supposed to end tonight. She shouldn't have to see him again, but it wasn't over. A trial. Testimony. Facing him again.
"If you want him to really pay, you need to be stronger than him."
Melissa pulled out her notebook, turned five pages in and wrote herself a note. She changed the plan again. And started counting.