Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Few Steps Away (short story)

I am currently working on a collection of short stories that will be entitled Twisted Tales for Twisted Minds.
Here is my latest short story.  I hope you enjoy it!

A Few Steps Away
by Alisha Adkins, copyright 2012


Violet hadn't had time to change after her job interview, so she was still wearing a tight-fitting tailored grey skirt suit, cream-colored blouse, and uncomfortable strappy heals.  The suit jacket was wool, too warm for this time of year, and itchy.  She really wished that she had had time to change.
            She had been up most of the night nervously preparing for her interview and had planned to go home afterwards, shed these uncomfortable business clothes, and take a well-deserved nap.  Unfortunately, just before she was called in to speak with her potential employer, she had received a frantic call from her mother.  Her grandmother had had a stroke and was in critical condition in the hospital. 
            Violet had gotten through the interview, but she didn't really remember any of it.  She had been hopelessly scattered.  Her only possible hope of getting the job now lay in the possibility that her interviewer might have mistaken her apparent indifferent and distracted demeanor for haughty confidence in her own abilities.  This did not seem likely, however.
            Rushing to the Greyhound station as quickly as she could, Violet had bought a ticket on the first available bus, and was soon en route toward her grandmother, who had recently moved to a town several hours away.  Her mother was already there and would meet her at the station.
            As soon as the bus was in motion, Violet began to struggle to fight off the temptation to doze.   Her eyelids kept drooping, fluttering closed, and then, with monumental effort, Violet would force them to snap open again.   But what could a nap really hurt?  There were several stops before hers, and she was sure she would wake up whenever the bus came to a halt.


            "Last stop!  Everybody off!"
            Disoriented, Violet shook her head, trying to clear away the cobwebs of slumber. 
            "End of the line, Miss." the bus driver said, looking at her pointedly. 
            What?  What the hell was going on?  Violet was utterly bewildered.  She couldn't have slept for more than a few minutes, and now this man was telling her that they had reached the last stop.  Had she really missed her stop?
            Glancing around, she saw that she was the only one still on the bus.
            "Time to go, little lady." the driver said impatiently, walking toward Violet's seat in the rear of the bus.  He clearly intended to expedite her departure. 
            The more Violet thought about it, this man didn't even look like the same bus driver that had been driving when she got on the bus.  Could the drivers have changed shifts?  No, it just wasn't possible.  Besides, it was still light out.  She had gotten on the bus a little before noon.  She wasn't due to arrive in her grandmother's town until well after dark. 
            As the driver loomed over her, Violet anxiously collected her jacket and purse and began to make her way up the aisle to the front door of the bus.           
            Glancing surreptitiously at her watch, she saw that the time was 5:45.  This just didn't make sense.  An uneasy feeling settling in her stomach, she asked the driver, "What day is this?"
            He sighed, clearly annoyed by her inane question. 
            "Thursday.  Now, are you going to get off on your own, or do I need to carry you out?  I've got to get this bus to the depot before I can punch out, and you're holding me up."  He glowered at her.
            "I'm sorry... I..." Violet said as she exited to the curb.
            He abruptly pulled the doors shut and pulled out into traffic.
            Traffic.  There sure was a lot of traffic.
            Staring after the bus, Violet's mind raced.  She had gotten on the bus Wednesday morning.  It couldn't be Thursday evening now.  The bus driver had to have been teasing her.
            All of her attention had been focused upon the bus that had just inexplicably deposited her here, but now Violet began to look around to determine where "here" actually was.
            "What the...?" Violet thought.
            She was in an urban area.  It might have been New York City, although she couldn't say for sure.  She had never before been more than fifty miles outside of her own rural hometown.  But here she was.  The sidewalks were crowded with thousands of people walking hurriedly in every direction.  Tall buildings and neon signs loomed overhead.  And the traffic was bustling, bumper to bumper, full of people honking and leaning out of their windows yelling at one another.  Everything was moving at a frenetic pace; there was so much noise and movement that taking it all in made Violet feel a bit dizzy.
            "I have to get out of here." Violet thought to herself.  She began to rummage in her purse for her cell phone.
            A sense of panic began to rise in her chest as she frantically turned the contents of her purse over and over in her hands.  Her wallet.  Her house keys.  A pack of gum.  A small bottle of aspirin.  No cell phone.
            She needed to call someone. 
            "Excuse me, could I use..." she asked a woman as she passed.  The woman looked away and kept walking.
            "Excuse me, sir, I'm sorry to bother you, but..."
            "Get a job." the man said gruffly, walking quickly away.
            In total, Violet attempted to ask a dozen pedestrians if she could borrow their cell phone to make a call.  Only one of them let her get the whole request out before flatly denying it. 
            Exasperated, she gave up on asking a stranger and began to look for another strategy.
            She was standing directly outside of a large music store.  Maybe they would let her use the store phone? 
            Entering, Violet saw rows upon rows of CD's, multiple listening stations, and throngs of customers milling about the store.  As she stood near the entrance taking in her surroundings, a constant stream of people walked around her, frequently brushing against her or bumping into her as they passed. 
            Seeking an empty space where she could stop for a moment undisturbed, Violet weaved her way through the aisles and finally came to rest in a section labeled "Easy Listening Favorites."
            She set her purse down on the rack of CD's and made one final effort to find her phone.  It was fruitless, of course.  The phone was gone.  It must have fallen out in the bus.
            Without much hope of success, Violet asked a few passing customers if she could use their phones.  Her requests were met with mean looks or simply ignored.
            Sighing, she walked to the front counter to ask the clerk, a girl with spiky jet black hair,  who had small silver loop earrings in her eyebrow, lip, nose, and in large quantities in both ears.  Violet blinked at her for a moment, momentarily mesmerized by the girl's appearance, especially the tattoos that covered the girl's arms.  She was unaccustomed to seeing someone who looked like this back home.
            "Yes?" the girl asked impatiently.
            "Umm, I was wondering if I could use your phone?  I'm lost and..."
            "Phone is for paying customers only." the clerk said curtly.
            "Please..."
            "Buy something if you want to use it.  Next!" she said, ushering over a customer that had wandered up behind Violet.
            Violet waited until the transaction was complete, and then reengaged the girl.
            "You'll have to buy something." the clerk said slowly, speaking as though she believed that Violet might have a learning impediment.
            "Yes, I understand.  That's fine.  Do you have Marsha Fenright's new album?"
            "No."
            "Really?  Are you sure?  Because..."
            The clerk sighed exasperatedly.  She punched a few keys on her computer terminal.
            "We don't have it.  But it is in stock at our satellite store."
            Violet frowned.  "I'm on foot."
            "It's just across the street."
            Violet could feel the blisters on her heels throbbing. 
            " I don't want to traipse all over just so I can use the phone."
            "It's literally just across the street." the girl said, pointing in the direction of the other store.  Then she turned around and pretended to sort through some CD's that were sitting behind the counter while she waited for Violet to go away.


            As she returned to the street, Violet reached up to brush her wavy brown hair from her shoulder and noticed that her hair was a disheveled mess.  It seemed to be sticking out at odd angles in some places and peculiarly flat in others, no doubt due to having slept with her head pressed against the window of the bus.  She tried to even out her tousled hair without drawing attention to herself as she walked down the street in the direction that the clerk had indicated.
            As she reached the corner of the block, Violet saw that, just as the girl had said, there was a similar music store right across the street.     
            Violet was mystified as to why there would be a need for two multi-story music stores within a block of one another.  Shrugging to herself, she entered the store.  Its interior was very similar to the one she had just left, although at least some of the featured displays appeared to be different.
            She approached the counter and addressed another apathetic-looking female clerk behind the counter. 
            "I need to buy Marsha Fenright's new CD and to use your phone." she said, speaking as clearly and assertively as she could.
            Expressionless, the girl responded "The CD is over there," gesturing vaguely in the direction of a display rack.
            Violet went over, retrieved it, and returned to the counter.  She reached for her purse and suddenly panicked as it dawned on her that she was missing something.  She didn't have her purse. 
            "Oh, my purse.  I don't have my purse!  I must have left it at the other store..."
            The clerk did not seem particularly interested.
            Violet ran back to the other store.  Her shoes bit into the blisters on her heels as she ran.
           

            She knew that she must have left it on the rack when she set it down to make a final search for her cell phone.  But it was gone.
            "My purse -- it was right here!  I left it right here..." Violet lamented.
            A store employee walked up behind her and said, "You can't just expect to put something down, walk away, and have it still be there later."
            "Yes, I know.  I realize that.  I didn't mean to..." Violet trailed off.  She was flustered and on the verge of tears.  She had no phone, no money or credit cards, no way to get in touch with anyone she knew, and she had nowhere to go.
            A soft voice behind her asked, "Are you OK?"
            This small vestige of kindness took Violet by surprise.  She turned to address its owner.  She was a petite woman in her mid-twenties with short hair dyed vibrant red and was wearing a faded t-shirt, leopard skin jacket, and ripped up jeans.  She was also wearing black leather wristbands and a lot of silver rings, and something about the way she carried herself gave Violet the impression that the girl might be gay.  Not that there was anything wrong with that.
            Trying to keep her voice steady, Violet began to explain her predicament.
            "Calm down -- it'll be OK." the woman told her.  "It's going to get dark soon, and you shouldn't be out on the streets by yourself.  You can stay with me tonight.  I was lost once, and someone took me in.  That person saved me; I don't mind doing the same for you."
            It struck Violet that this woman had a strange manner of speaking.  She was unsure if she should take her offer.
            "It's OK, really.  No need to feel uncomfortable.  We all wind up in a bind sometimes.  I'm Ursula.  Come on, we'll go to my place."
            Confused, Violet began to follow her.  She hated to rely so completely upon the kindness of a stranger, but it didn't seem like she had much choice.  And there wasn't a whole lot of kindness being offered right now, so she figured that she better act upon it while it was available.
            Worrying that Ursula might be expecting something in return, she said awkwardly, "I'm not gay."
            "That doesn't matter." Ursula said.
            "I'm sorry for bringing it up.  I do really appreciate this.  I just didn't want to misconstrue..."
            "It's really OK.  Just relax." 
            Ursula's voice was low, smooth, and had an earthy quality.  It produced a calming effect upon Violet.  She nodded and continued to follow Ursula.
            Another thought occurred to Violet.  "Do you have a girlfriend though?  Will I be in the way?"
            "She's out of town.  Nothing to worry about."
            After walking what must have been a couple of miles, they reached Ursula's apartment.  It was nearly dark now, and the streets were looking increasingly ominous to Violet.
            The apartment was a small efficiency with cloth-draped walls and a Bohemian feel.
            Almost as soon as she entered, the enormity of her situation finally hit Violet.  Confronted with a moment in which she could pause and breathe, Violet felt suddenly overwhelmed.  She closed her eyes to fight back tears. 
            Taking a deep breath, she let the moment pass. 
            "Do you have a phone?" Violet thought to ask.
            "No." Ursula answered succinctly.
            They stood in silence for a few minutes.  Then Ursula said "You're tired.  It's getting late.  You're safe here.  Let's just turn in"  She dug in a drawer, pulled out a worn and faded cotton nightgown, and offered it to  Violet.
            Violet took it and changed in the tiny bathroom.  When she came out, Ursula was in pajamas. 
            A simple twin-size bed sat in the middle of the one-room apartment.  Violet got under the covers, trying very hard to take up as little space as possible.  Ursula lay down beside her, facing her back, and put her arm around her. 
            Although she had no idea where she would go or what she would do in the morning, Violet found being spooned by this strange woman oddly comforting.  And despite having apparently slept for an exorbitant amount of time on the bus, she felt exhausted.  She shivered for a minute, but then quickly slipped off into sleep.


            An angry woman with a rigid face and sharp features hovered over her.
            "I come home and find this in my bed?" she growled.
            It occurred to Violet that this woman might be preparing to hit her, and she shrank away from her, trying to cover her face with a blanket.
            Ursula was up, standing next to the belligerent, stern-faced woman, trying to put her hands on her shoulders and calm her.  "She just needed a place to stay." she said. 
            "Well, this spot's taken.  She needs to go." she snarled, grabbing the bedding and tossing it on the floor.
            Violet hurriedly got out of the bed.  She looked around for her clothes, but found herself being pushed to the door before she could gather them.
            "Sorry, you'll have to go." she heard Ursula say.  And then she was on the outside and the door slammed behind her.
            She stood for some time, in her bare feet and a ratty, tattered nightgown, staring at the door.  She was alone, penniless, and confused.  She had never felt so completely disconnected from her world, from everything familiar and safe.
            Without a cell phone, credit card, or even presentable clothing, she had nothing -- no clout, no control, no identity.
            "How ironic." she thought wistfully.  This morning, her future had seemed to hold so much promise.  But success is never more than a few steps away from failure, she told herself.   A charmed life is merely a few steps away from catastrophe.  And her bright future was turning out to be only a few steps away from her own doom.
            She had been on the verge new prosperity in her life, but then her grandmother had suffered a stroke, and that one event had set off this chain of reactions.  Her good fortune had been separated by only event from her ruin.
            She wondered how her grandmother was doing.  She might never know now.  It seemed pessimistic, but she doubted that she would see any of her family ever again.  Her life, her friends, her day to day routines -- everything that had made up her unquestioned reality only a day ago -- now all seemed very far away, as if it had belonged to some other person.
            Violet stood for a full ten minutes just staring at the shut door, blinking.  Then she turned and looked up and down the dark, deserted street.  Gazing up at the foreboding night sky, she mused sadly, "A few steps away from coming unhinged.  A few steps away from being irreparably lost."
            Violet took the only course of action available to her.  She sat down on the curb and waited for something to happen.

            Eventually, something happened. 
            A band of ghostly figures emerged from a nearby alley.  They surrounded Violet, wrapping their arms around her small body, swallowing her up.  Then they began to pull at her, dragging her toward the shadows, forcefully delivering an invitation to her to become one of them, to join the ranks of the city's lost. 
            Violet chose not to struggle; she resigned herself to this new path, the only path now available to her since she had veered a few footfalls off of her designated trail.  She accepted her fate, and took a few steps away from salvation -- a few steps into the shadows. 
            The figures ceased to tug at her; she went willingly, turning her back to everything she had ever known and following the denizens of the lost without so much as a single farewell glimpse over her shoulder.  She knew that she would be transformed, unrecognizable to those who had known her in her previous life, including herself.