The rocking bus and alcohol lulled him into a light sleep. Jerome didn’t like to take the bus; he hated it, actually, and only did because he just couldn’t take a DUI.
Outside the window his cheek was pressed against the empty, dark city flew by him. He had already missed his stop but Jerome hadn’t noticed and the bus driver wasn’t about to ask. Aside from a vagrant sneaking in some sleep in the warm vehicle, Jerome was the only person there, on the verge of snoring when the bus jerked to a stop and shook Jerome from his sleep.
He stared dumbly at the middle-aged woman who walked on, bundled up against the cold. She walked up the aisle until she stood directly in front of Jerome’s seat.
“Do I know you?” he asked her, confused and a bit annoyed by this oddness entering into what had otherwise been a perfectly fine night of drinking.
A deep hatred emanated off of her, unmistakable and so unyielding. Even with how drunk Jerome was he could see her going through it in her head right then, whatever she was going to say to him she was considering it, had been considering it for a long time, probably long before she walked onto the bus.
“Look, you’re creeping me out,” he said to her. He knew she could hear the concern in his voice, the hesitance, maybe even a hint of fear. Jerome wasn’t afraid in the typical sense of the word, merely afraid of the unknown quality to what was going on, a fear of the complete lack of any control he had over the situation.
“His name was Francis Koster,” she spit out at him, the words like saliva making him recoil.
Before he could ask her what she was talking about he saw the gun she was pointing at him. She was sad, too, he could see along with the hate. The gun fired twice and the rocking bus slipped away from him as if it hadn’t been real to begin with.
He awoke to the bright glare of a light directly above his head. There were other people close by, walking fast, the murmur of conversations with a hint of urgency surrounded him like the hum of insects in the summer. His chest hurt, pain worse than any he’d felt before. He wanted to know what time it was. He had work to get to. Even if he had been shot, and yes, that memory was clear to him, he doubted Roy would care. The man would fire him no matter what the excuse if he stopped showing up.
“How are you doing?” a female voice asked.
He managed to tilt his head up with difficulty until he could see the nurse staring at him from an open doorway. “What happened to me?”
“You were shot twice in the chest.”
“Did you get her?”
“The woman who shot me. Did the police get her?”
“That’s something they wanted to ask you about.”
“What, identify her or something?”
“To find the person. The bus driver said he found you bleeding to death and called for an ambulance. You’re lucky you’re still alive. They don’t know who did it to you. I’ll try to find one of the police officers.”
He watched her go and eased his head back with considerable effort. He had heard the gunshots, loud and clear, in the empty bus. How could the bus driver not know she had done it?
He hoped they would catch her, but not so she could face justice or anything like that. Jerome just wanted to ask her why she had shot him.
An empty apartment, a depleted checking account, and unemployment greeted Jerome. It was hard to recall how much time he’d spent in the hospital, the days stretching into each other filled with crappy TV and crappier food. After the first week the police had stopped coming in to talk to him. They weren’t going to find anyone.
Bus driver didn’t even recall seeing a woman get on. To everyone but him the matter was dropped. Normally he wouldn’t care. Sure it was the first time he’d been shot, but Jerome had spent most of his life rolling with life’s punches. All he wanted to know was why.
She hadn’t been crazy. That much he was pretty damn sure of. The look in her eyes, she had known exactly what she was doing and she had known she was doing it to the right person.
He needed to find another job, get the income flowing, but being so close to rock bottom, the final drop didn’t matter, and once he hit, he didn’t have to worry about falling further. He had been there before. The concept didn’t scare him. There were jobs, especially for those willing to do pretty much anything.
“Francis Koster,” he said to the empty living room. He had told it to the cops, and they had looked into it. Francis was a two year old boy, his mother one Elaine Koster, single, who hadn’t even been in town on the night he had been shot. She, along with Francis, had been visiting her mother in New York. They had asked him if he wanted to see her, try to identify her, but Jerome had just said screw it. If she had been in New York, which they were positive of, then she had been in New York. Wasn’t much of a point in dragging her into something that didn’t concern her.
It didn’t matter anymore. So long as the woman didn’t come around again he could deal with not knowing what had happened to her or why she had shot him of all people. He lived. That was good enough.
He called Ryan. “You’re out?” Ryan asked.
“Assume you already know about Roy canning you.”
“I fought for you.”
“I know you did. Thanks. Feel like grabbing a drink? On you?”
“I’ll buy. Man gets shot twice and walks away from it he deserves to have his drinks bought is the way I see it.”
“You’re a good guy, Ryan. I’ll meet you in about an hour.”
“Make it two and you’re on.”
They always met at Red Lights. It wasn’t always just the two of them. Just a few months before Jerome would’ve gone there with all the guys from the warehouse. Ryan was just the only one he had thought would actually buy his drinks.
His month away from life hadn’t been long enough to drive off the cold. His gas tank was full. At least he had that much going for him. That was one of the pluses to being too drunk half the time to drive. He’d gone a month without alcohol. The forced sobriety hadn’t been particularly appealing.
He still had plenty of time before Ryan would be ready to go, but Jerome didn’t feel like hanging around the house, and if Greg was working the bar, he could probably get a free drink out of him as well.
He glanced at the city flying by him; the sidewalks largely empty thanks to the bitter cold wind and the onset of evening. He flicked on his headlights, eyes still drawn to the buildings outside his window. Something nagged at him, a memory, he thought. Signs lit up as the sun continued to sink. It looked familiar, he thought, which was a stupid thought given how long he’d lived in the city.
But the last time, he thought, and saw a glowing liquor store sign both in the present and through the window of a bus a little over a month before. He was staring at the light when he heard the scream and felt the vehicle shudder, felt wheels hitch up, roll over something.
He didn’t look back at first once the car had screeched to a halt. He stared at the glowing signs and the flurry of snow dancing through the air. That voice was still screaming, calling for help.
The cold couldn’t numb him anymore than he already was when he finally got out of the car and stared at the mother in the street behind him with a young boy in her hands. Others were hurrying over. Shouts split the calm of the winter evening. She ignored them all to stare directly at him, to inflict her rage and loss like a physical force that could actually cut him.
He reached up into his shirt, the fingers on his right hand running slowly over the scar tissue where two bullets had torn into him.
“That’s not possible,” Jerome whispered.
Whether or not it was possible didn’t seem to matter as much as what had happened. He recognized two of the police officers. One of them recognized him.
The man paused upon seeing him, mentally searching for where he’d seen Jerome before. The light clicked on while he was talking to another officer. Other cops were huddled around the woman in the street still holding onto her boy, cradling him as if he wasn’t what everyone knew he already was. Suddenly the officer’s face scrunched up, confused, and then slightly pale, Jerome thought.
He was the first man to walk over to Jerome, lead him around the back of a cruiser. In the street an ambulance had arrived to act as a hearse. The woman was screaming the name Francis over and over again.
“What the hell happened?” the officer asked him.
“I hit him,” Jerome said. “I got distracted and I hit him.”
There was something in the man’s eyes. Jerome recognized the disbelief that had made him pull Jerome over to begin with. “The boy,” the officer said. “Do you know who he is?”
“I’ve never met him, but if I had to guess, I’d say his name is Francis Koster.”
“Yeah,” he said, and he no longer looked directly at Jerome. He stared at the stretcher being wheeled into the ambulance for a long time before finally looking back to Jerome. “She’s the one, isn’t she?”
“You never met her?”
“Not even in passing.”
“Until you told it to me I didn’t even know her name.”
“She was in New York,” he said, just like he’d said to Jerome three weeks earlier. “I looked into that myself. There’s no evidence to suggest she could’ve been here to shoot you.”
It felt as if the man pleaded with him. He wanted Jerome to take it back, to make sense of it. One thing he didn’t bother telling the man was the reason he had been distracted was because he had been thinking about that night. It felt almost too important to tell anyone and too important for Jerome to understand.
“She shot me for killing her boy and now I’ve done it,” Jerome said. “I don’t know what else to tell you. What’s going to happen to me?”
“I don’t know, something, we’ll see. But I have to tell you first, just between the two of us, this thing reeks.”
“I’m not lying to you. I don’t know what’s going on anymore than you do.”
“I believe you. That’s why it reeks so badly.”
He stepped back and motioned for Jerome to do the same. The woman was gone now, but in his head Jerome could still see that look in her eyes, the mark of his damnation, and the gun held out in front of her. The officer opened the back door of the cruiser for Jerome, but right before he got in he stopped and turned to the man.
“Are you going to check to see if she owns a gun?” he asked him.
“I intend to ask her.”
“And what if she does and what if you can match the bullets from it to those you pulled out of me?”
“Then I’ll let someone else handle it. This shit has already gotten too weird for me. Get in.”
That part of it felt just as unimportant as the idea of going to jail. Even if they did match up those bullets, it didn’t matter to him. He sat alone in the backseat of the cruiser and thought for the first time in his life about fate. He had never had much of a spiritual side, never considered any God or divine justice. All of that had changed. For better or for worse, his eyes were open. Open to what was a damn good question.
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