My terror grew with each step I took, only the burning necessity to protect Eben keeping me going. I avoided looking at anyone as I proceeded forward, keeping my gaze just high enough where I could see where I was going. By the time I reached my destination, I was sure I was visibly trembling.
Briefly glancing at the man who had called me over, I noticed he looked fairly young, probably in his mid twenties. Auburn hair framed his face, contrasting sharply with his bluish eyes. He was dressed fairly well, wearing what reminded me of a sort of laid back business suit. The clothes made me think of Mr. Ashton, but I tried to ignore that thought. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to sit in the seat beside the stranger, slinging my bag from my shoulder and placing it at my feet. Turning to face the man, I attempted to smile, although it probably came out as more of a grimace.
Either not noting my distress or choosing to ignore it, he held out his hand with a smile. "Name's Winter," he greeted and I forced myself to hold out my hand, shaking his.
"Salem," I mumbled. It wasn't until after I had given my name that it occurred to me that I should have come up with an alias. Giving away my identity would make it much easier for Mr. Ashton to find me once he started looking.
"And who's the little one?" he asked, looking at the bundle that was Eben cradled in my arms.
With the mention of Eben, I tightened my hold on him. An unnatural surge of suspicion welled up inside me towards this man, almost as if he would take my child away from me if he could.
"This is Eben," I replied warily, knowing that if I tried to come up with a name, it would take me long enough for him to notice I was hesitating. Carefully watching the man, I tried to guess his motives. We may have been in a crowded bus, but that didn't mean he wouldn't try something. It had never stopped Mr. Ashton when he wanted something.
Winter just continued to smile at me. Did he really think his fake smile would put me at ease? "And Eben's your…" he trailed off, continuing with his questioning.
So he was interrogating me then? He probably already knew something was off and was trying to figure out what. Would telling him Eben was my son give too much away? I could tell that's what he was asking. Why else would a young boy, no parents in sight, have a baby with him? What else could I tell him though, that Eben was my little brother, that I found a baby on the street corner, on my way here? The street corner excuse was completely unrealistic and the brother theory was pushing it. Still, a teenage boy with a baby was highly suspicious. Heck, a teenage boy with a baby implied too much.
"He's my son," I told the man, not knowing what else I could tell him. While a part of me was screaming to shut up if I didn't want to be caught, I wasn't going to deny Eben as mine. If I did manage to pull this whole escape thing off, I'd have to learn to stand up for the two of us without hesitation.
Surprisingly, he didn't really react. He just continued to smile at me, expression not even faltering for a second. For some reason, this bothered me more than if he had said something derogatory. If he was going to interrogate me, the least he could do was give me some sort of indication as to what his intentions were.
"Your son?" a voice piped up behind me and I tensed. Cautiously peaking over my shoulder, I saw a teenage girl leaning over her seat, staring at me. "You the mother?" she mocked, eyes seemingly laughing at me. Great, people were listening in on my conversations. I felt myself panicking again, any sort of determination I might have gained from talking with Winter quickly draining.
The girl mocking me didn't bother me like Winter did. At least she didn't pretend everything was normal, like there was nothing wrong with my situation. At least she wasn't hiding any ulterior motives behind fake acceptance.
I didn't reply to the girl, instead choosing to ignore her. My determination had completely vanished, being replaced by depression and fear. Would the bus just start already? I was tired of being tempted with the thought of abandoning the plan and heading back to the mansion.
"Hey, you listening to me?" the girl asked, poking my shoulder and causing me to flinch slightly. Forcing myself not to curl in on myself, I continued to ignore her. If I didn't react to her prodding, would she eventually leave me alone?
"Did your parents not teach you it's rude to listen in on other people's conversations," I heard Winter comment. Looking over at him, I saw that his smile had been replaced by a cold sneer, confirming my suspicion he wasn't as sweet as he was trying to seem.
"I wasn't talking to you," the girl shot back and I blocked out whatever Winter said in reply. When their "heated debate" was starting to get to be a little too much to handle, the bus finally started to move. And by move, I mean abruptly lurch forward, jolting most the passengers and causing more than a few angry comments to be directed at the driver. Sadly, the sudden movement also managed to wake Eben, causing him to cry. The only benefit of Eben's interruption was that Winter and the girl had stopped arguing, the girl apparently decided it wasn't worth continuing, turning back in her seat with a huff. Winter, also deciding he was done arguing, turned back to stare at me. The idea of jumping out one of the windows was extremely tempting, but I forced myself to sit still, turning my attention to Eben and the task of getting him to stop crying.
Three hours. It was three hours before our first stop. Three hours of uncomfortable glances, awkward one-sided conversations with strangers that wouldn't mind their own business, and a fussy baby who apparently didn't like buses. Even when I managed to get Eben to stop crying from suddenly being woken, he spent the rest of the time alternating between looking up at me pitiably and crying some more. It didn't seem to matter what I did, he wouldn't calm down. The most I was able to do was get him to sleep for a very brief period of time by singing to him. This was, of course, extremely awkward with all of the people who kept staring.
The stupid man across from me, Winter, even had the nerve to ask if he could try and calm Eben down. Obviously, there was no way I would let some stranger touch my child. I ended up glaring at him without thinking. The problem was some of my fear for him was slowly turning into annoyance, putting me in a false sense of security.
The worse part of the drive though was the pain. Sitting in the same position for three hours the day after one of Mr. Ashton's party was not a good idea. The pain was getting close to unbearable and every time I shifted to try and get in a more comfortable position, a wave of pain would shoot up my spine. It was surprising I was able to keep from crying out during those times.
I was lucky nobody said anything about it, possibly no one even noticed I was in pain. I was sure Winter noticed though, what with his whole staring at me half the time. He never said anything, but I could tell from the way he watched me that he knew something was wrong.
I somehow manage to make it through those three hours, despite all this. My nerves might have been completely shot, but I still managed. The area we stopped at for a break was one of those weird rest stops that looked like it could be a miniature park with a fast food center in the middle. While usually I would have stayed on the bus to avoid the temptation of never getting back on, Eben really needed to have his diaper changed and I figured the fresh air might do me some good. Slinging the strap of my bag over my shoulder while wincing at the pain standing caused, I carefully maneuvered my way out of the bus. Winter followed close behind, causing me to panic slightly, but luckily he went in the opposite direction once we were out of the bus.
Heading to the restroom, I debated whether I should use the men's side or the woman's. I knew from past experiences that most restrooms for men didn't have the luxury of a changing table, making using the woman's restroom more convenient. On the other hand, while I was somewhat effeminate, I wasn't so girly that I would be mistaken for a girl.
I decided I would just risk using the woman's restroom for its convenience. Plus, I would rather deal with a bunch of accusing woman than a group of men, especially in an isolated bathroom. No, I didn't think I would be able to handle being alone with a group of men for a long time.
When I went into the bathroom, a middle-aged woman was washing her hands at the sink. She gave me a weird look, but didn't say anything. I was slightly thankful for that, just wanting to get this over with. Strolling over to the changing table, I flipped it down and placed Eben on it. He fussed a bit when I set him down and I gently stroked his head while placing my bag on the table to try and calm him. Rummaging through the bag, I found what I needed and got to work. When I was finished, I headed back outside and gingerly sat down in the grass near the bus. When I decided that sitting on the hard ground was far too painful, I laid down on my side, laying a much happier Eben down beside my chest and pulling the bag close. Taking one of the canteens from the bag, I poured the milk into one of the bottles and started to feed Eben.
He hungrily drank the milk and I hoped he would be less fussy when we returned to the bus. I didn't know if I would be able to handle another three hours on a bus with a crying baby. I looked at the people around me as I waited for Eben to finish so I could eat whatever Margrette had packed for me.
Most of the other passengers on the bus had gone to the fast food to eat, but some had brought dinner with them and were sitting on the benches eating. One of the families had even brought a red and white checkered cloth to have a picnic on. I also noticed that Winter was leaning against one of the trees, cigarette hanging from his mouth.
I wondered if he was going to eat anything or just get his fix from the nicotine. Dad had smoked and he never ate very much. Mom would get mad at him whenever she made a big meal and he wouldn't eat. Despite the annoyances of smoking, I could see the use in something that kept you from getting hungry.
Placing Eben's now empty bottle back in the bag, I pulled out the lunch, or in this case dinner, Margrette had packed for me. A turkey and cheese sandwich, water, and potato chips, simple, but I was thankful none the less.
As I lay there leisurely munching on the sandwich, nerves starting to calm and feeling slightly refreshed, the bus driver walked over and sat down beside me. I immediately tensed.
"How ya feeling?" he asked, cheerful smile on his face which I weakly returned.
"Awful," I wanted to reply, but instead told him I was alright. I finished my sandwich and moved onto the chips, eyeing Richard warily, waiting to see what he wanted.
"The driver of your next bus is a good guy, so don't worry about that once we get to Harrisburg," he told me, apparently just wanting to talk. I actually hadn't been thinking about that, not needing to have another thing to worry about. I guess if this guy said it would be alright, I would just have to take his word for it. I briefly wondered how Margrette knew Richard because I certainly couldn't see Mr. Ashton approving of her associating with a bus driver. Then again, I don't think he really cared what she did. In fact, while I was glad he hadn't, I wasn't sure why he hadn't just gotten rid of her since he obviously didn't have any interest in her.
"I'll leave you two to your meals," he smiled before standing. "Just wanted to see how you were doing." I watched him retreat towards the food building before turning back towards the trees Winter had been standing at. Noticing he was staring at me, I turned my gaze downward.
"That man's weird," I whispered to Eben, who just giggled. "Hey, you won't think it's funny when he turns us into the authorities and your poor mother has to go back to your abusive father." Kissing him on the forehead, I went back to eating what little was left of my dinner.
Eventually, the time came for the break at the rest stop to be over. Richard ushered those he saw back towards the bus and, having seen me, handed me a bag before ushering me too.
"Feel free to eat that during the trip," he explained, and I realized he had brought me something from one of the fast food joints. "A growing boy like you needs to eat more."
Thanking him with a slight smile and a nod, I headed back towards the bus, putting the food in my bag for latter. I dreaded going back, not looking forward to sitting in the same position for another three hours. I was worried I might not be able to walk if I got any stiffer than I already was.
Maneuvering my way back to the same seat from before, I found Winter already seated. "Feeling any better?" he asked as I slowly sat down, trying not to wince but failing miserably. "I'll take that as a no," he continued and again, I found myself both annoyed and fearful. He really was being far too nosey for a random stranger.
I leaned back a little, the thought occurring to me that I could try and sleep to pass the time. I instantly rejected the idea, not wanting to make myself so vulnerable. Besides, I couldn't very well protect Eben if I were asleep.
I continued to ignore Winter as I had been during the first half of the bus ride, not bothering to comment on what he had said. Instead turning my attention to Eben, I noticed that he looked fairly calm and on the verge of falling asleep. Hopefully, he would stay like this for the rest of the trip.
Without any sort of sudden lurch, the bus slowly started to move, easing its way out of the rest stop before speeding up once back on the highway. Eben didn't throw a fit this time and I stroked his hair, silently thanking him for being a good boy. Tired and sore, I mentally prepared myself for the next three hours, pretending this was going to work and that Winter wasn't staring at me again.
"We're there," I heard someone say before I felt myself being shaken. I jolted at the touch, almost falling out of my seat. The action wasn't a very good idea because I was instantly reminded of my condition by the surge of pain that racked my body. Looking around in confusion, I noticed that the bus had stopped moving and that people were starting to move towards the exit. Not remembering having stopped, I assumed I must have fallen asleep at some point during the trip.
It then occurred to me that I wasn't holding anything in my arms. Realizing I wasn't holding Eben, I panicked, looking around frantically to see if I could find him. When I did find him, I felt a mix of relief and terror. Held securely in Winter's arms was Eben, wide awake and smiling happily up at the man.
In the back of my mind, I noted that he looked okay, meaning Winter probably hadn't done anything to hurt him. But the larger part of me had gone into panic, the endless reasons as to why Winter was holding my child going through my head. None of them were good, most ending in blackmail or being turned into the authorities.
I was torn between lunging at the man to try and get Eben away from him and falling to my knees, begging for him not to hurt my child. Instead, I held out my shacking arms, hoping he would get the message and just give Eben back to me.
"I was just making sure you didn't drop him while you slept," he commented, passing Eben to me.
Clutching him to my chest, I stood on shacking legs, quickly grabbing my bag and hurriedly limping towards the exit. Ignoring my exhaustion, my throbbing backside, and most of all Winter, I headed outside, looking for the next bus I would take. Finding the correct bus, I all but ran towards it. Rummaging through my bag, I found the correct ticket and handed it to the new bus driver, hurrying past him to a seat in the back.
I duly noted there were only a few people on the bus, it being at least half an hour before the bus was scheduled for departure. The ones already there were staring at me as I passed. Ignoring them, I slumped in a seat, holding Eben close to me. Reaching to brush my hair out of my face, I felt that my cheeks were wet. I was crying, the despair over my situation catching up with me. This would never work, I wouldn't be able to make it to Mexico without collapsing from my steadily worsening condition or doing something stupid and giving myself away. It was so tempting to just try and go back, find some way to contact Joshua and go back to the mansion before Mr. Ashton returned.
I sat there in despair, body and mind slowly going numb as I gently rocked Eben, the motion helping to shut my mind down. People slowly started to mill inside as the time passed. I dully noticed that someone had sat down beside me, but I didn't bother to look. As long as they ignored me, it would be fine.
When I half-noted that it was about time for the buss to leave, Eben started cooing, wiggling around slightly to gain my attention. Slightly coming back to my senses, I looked down at Eben to see what he was doing.
He had his arm extended, making a sort of grabbing motion. Since he was looking at something next to me, I assumed whoever had sat beside me must have something that caught his attention.
Looking to my side to see what it was, I felt like screaming. Sitting beside me was none other than Winter. He had his attention focused on a book he was presumably reading, not staring at me for a change.
There was no way that this was a coincidence, the man was clearly following me. I glanced up to see if there was an empty seat anywhere, not caring if moving raised suspicion. The bus was again packed, and even if I had found another place to sit, it would have been too late to move for the buss chose that moment to move. Clutching Eben tightly, I nervously glanced over at Winter to see what he was doing.
He had set his book down and was now looking at me. "Thought I'd sit with you again rather than find a new bus partner," he smiled. It took all of the willpower I had not to run to the front of the bus and beg to be let out.
And the emoness continues. Sorry about how long this took. I don't even have a good excuse, I really am just incredibly lazy.
I'd like to thank everyone who has reviewed this story so far. When I started this story, I pictured nobody reading it and I posted it just to see what reactions I would get from the few people who stumbled across it. I never thought any one would actually like it. Thanks to all of you who have commented, and those who have even bothered to read this story
You know the drill, review please.