Lindsay Pugh

Bus Fare

The goblin got on the bus at Rosemont. It did not pay its fare, and it sat three seats behind Gregory.

The regulars got on and held their magnetic cards up to the fare box. The box clicked green for each of them in turn and they shuffled to their usual seats. The nurse in lavender scrubs clasped Gregory’s shoulder and asked how he was.  She always sat in the seat diagonal across the aisle from Gregory’s driver seat, and she made conversation on the days she hadn’t fallen asleep. He always woke her up before her stop at Clarewood, where St. Lucia’s was.

The goblin’s green eyes glowered at Gregory, who stared at it back in the rearview until the last person had boarded. Goblins had to be noticed, or they would never leave.

Gregory wished that if the goblin was going to board, it wouldn’t board at Rosemont, at the bench by the rose garden where he and Janet liked to sit after Saturday-morning walks. It had started at the edge of town, and each morning the goblin boarded a stop closer to Gregory’s house, the five-room place they bought in the housing crisis and didn’t pay off for fifty years (tiny den, decent kitchen, Jack’s old room, their room, the bathroom they’d all shared).  Janet was there now. He’d left her this morning, her long gray hair stretched across the pillow, and when he slid out of bed, she curled into the warm depression where his body had been.  It’d been a quiet night, no coughing.

Gregory had started the bus this morning at 4:30 A.M., like he had for twenty years. The old bus grumbled when she woke. Gregory preferred the days he was assigned to the old school buses, the Marys, they called them, a joke that they’d been chugging along since the Virgin Mary’s time. The new buses, the ones implemented after the Emergency Emission Act, were purple, with chrome detailing, and Gregory felt like he’d walked into the maw of a dragon when he got on one. He called them Fangfaces privately, but the official name was Glideboards. Glideboards almost never took routes east of Highway 86, which passed through the new Town Center, full of sleek buildings that had been erected in the last twenty years. They boasted about their eco-friendliness and only hired people with two college degrees, minimum. The mayor wanted visibility on the Glideboards. Here we are. Our city isn’t going to sink into the ocean, because we have 94% zero-emission vehicles on the road! 90% of citizens use public transport!  The Marys were kept on the side of town where everything else was run-down, too: houses with peeling shutters and plants desperately trying to hide the state of the porches they sat on, businesses with signs blinking out quietly, like a heartbeat fading away.

“How’s your wife?” The nurse asked, and Gregory smiled, said she’d been knitting caps for newborns. The goblin snarled, and no one heard.

Today the goblin sat on a woman’s lap, its long fingers pawing through the contents of her handbag: a tampon, a quarter, a Chapstick, a crumpled Kleenex. She stared out the window, eyes passing over the untrimmed brush on the side of the road without comprehension.

Marlene was doing homework behind Gregory. She took his bus halfway to the Catholic school her parents couldn’t afford and then switched at the terminal for the rest of the ride to the building, which was old but gleamed with privilege.

“School going well?” he asked her. She nodded. “Gotta pull up my Trig grade, though. Mami will beat my ass if I take home a C.” He smiled and told her to ask her teacher for help during lunch. Marlene was the age of the grandchild he might’ve had.  Jack had died in Iraq before there was a chance for grandchildren. He kept a thumbnail photo of Jack in his pocket. There was a larger one framed on their bedside table at home. During nightly prayers, his wife would reach out and caress it when she said, “And tell Jack hello from Mom and Dad.”

The goblin had climbed over the seat and was rubbing the forehead of a janitor who had gotten out with a worn smile, saying bleach fumes had given him a headache. The goblin rumbled, disquieted, his green teeth dripping green, oozing, like disease.

“How is your wife?” the regulars ask. They ask because it is a safe topic. It is something they can talk about on an outdated bus in a bad part of town heading toward jobs that only pay enough to make rent sometimes and schools that don’t care if they drop out. They ask because they know Gregory’s son is dead because of the flag they still have hanging in his window thirty years later and Gregory lives in the same neighborhood they do and the savings from greater fuel efficiency don’t go into his salary.

And so Gregory tells them about the books Janet reads, the volunteer work she does, the scarves she knits, the dinners she cooks, the 1000 piece puzzle they work on at night. He does not tell them about the heart medicine they can’t quite afford and the way she gasps at night. He does not tell them that Janet, the woman he married when they were twenty-five, the woman who supported them through his cancer, the woman who bore his son and the only person who can grieve him like he does, will leave him, and she will leave him soon.

“She’s doing great,” Gregory says, and the goblin hisses, shakes its head, the burden of knowledge shared in their stare in Gregory’s rearview mirror.

Gregory sits in the bus depot. His Mary is the last to pull in. He has taken more hours to pay for the expenses of the funeral.

“My wife died,” he says to the empty seats and the goblin. The goblin scurries down the aisle and climbs up his leg, into his lap, and it keens. Tears wet his shirt. He leans down, and its bat-liked ears twitch against his skin, soft as the petals of a lily. He breathes in and smells the baby-powder scent of its head, thinks of his son, thinks of his wife, thinks of tomorrow’s shift, and he holds the goblin closer and begins, softly, to cry too.  


Lindsay Pugh is a Master’s of Social Work student at Virginia Commonwealth University. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, with a White’s tree frog and an orange tabby cat. She loves writing urban fantasy and reading anything and everything.