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Night Bus

Later they would disagree about which of them first noticed the newborn on the night bus. It seemed too strange at first to comment upon, a swaddled infant after midnight, lying unsupervised across two back seats. It’s also true they’d both had a bit to drink.

Even so, nobody else took the matter seriously. Their few fellow passengers gave the bundle no more than a passing glance, as if it might rather have been a misplaced handbag or a forgotten loaf of bread.

Enhancing the absurdity was the fact that a mere three hours earlier, between the first and second bottle of Bordeaux, they had at last begun to discuss (at first in the abstract and then with more intimacy) the prospect of having a child. She said she felt her instincts conflicted. On one hand, the idea of a fetus developing inside her—suspended for nine months in protective fluid, feeding off nutrients her body provided, expelling waste, sleeping, waking, growing larger by the day until it ballooned her gut and kicked the living walls of its prison—repulsed her. And yet there was no denying that some core part of her wanted it badly. If not now then soon, or at some point, eventually.

In anticipation of the next stop, an elderly man in a crinkled gray overcoat and frayed cloth cap (perhaps not sober himself) shambled from his side seat to wait by the rear door. They both watched as he turned to the infant, took hold of an overhead strap, and bent himself low. But they could only guess at what sort of face he pulled, or what whispered message he might have imparted; in the next instant, the bus braked and he was out the door.

As she had explained her reservations back at the bistro, he’d taken her hand over the breadbasket and made an effort to hold eye contact. He told her he understood, then corrected himself. Of course he didn’t understand, he said, and gave an embarrassed laugh. How could he ever hope to? She laughed also, unsure as to why, and then their server reappeared with a fresh bottle and they both fell quiet, pretending to forget. The occasion marked their six-month wedding anniversary.

After two more stops, the driver announced that there would be a break of seven minutes, during which time they found themselves alone with the abandoned child. Yes, by now the word abandoned had settled queasily in their stomachs, mingling with the rich dessert they’d shared and too much wine.

With the engine dead, they could hear the soft gurgling from four seats away. Outside, the driver smoked with his back to a side window, oblivious. He’d left the front door open, filling the bus with damp November air.

A moment later, the newborn began to cry, quietly to begin with, then less so. It lay grasping with its tiny hands the air above its head, its hidden feet kicking the brown blanket, or towel, that snugly covered all but the fruit-sized head.

They rose as one and moved together. The face when they first saw it was a pinched mask of pain, ripe red, mouth a dark wailing hole. She told him they had to do something and, ignoring his hesitation, carefully lifted the brown bundle and sat down on the seat beneath, cradling it to her. The effect was immediate. The face settled as the crying died down to a light bubbling of curiosity; the eyes grew huge and aware.

He asked her what in the world she was doing and she said what did it look like. Giving the same embarrassed laugh as earlier, he told her she was crazy, that she was being insane. He looked behind him, as if for help. It wasn’t theirs, he said, meaning it wasn’t their problem. It would get sorted on its own. They should just go. Without looking up from the eyes that held her, she told him he could go if he liked.

A woman entered the bus. She made a show of shivering as she tapped her pass and tightened her jacket about her shoulders. She looked nearly the age to be called an old woman, and the bright smile her face wore as she made her way down the aisle seemed incongruous with the time of night. It encompassed the three of them.

Would you look at this precious gift, she said with an accent that might’ve been Irish. Dreaming of its own little bed, no doubt.

Apparently it was true. The newborn’s eyes had at some point shut, and there was no mistaking that behind them lay some image of warmth, of a place far away from the back of the night bus. Politely, they agreed.

And would it be a boy or a girl?

Actually, ma’am, it turns out that—

A girl. She spoke softly, so as not to wake the sleeping bundle she held like a fragile thing.

The newcomer nodded, beaming. She had two of her own, she said, and took a nearby seat. Both grown now, of course, but you never forget them at this size. She pointed with her mother’s eyes at the cradled infant, mouth-breathing in sleep, and asked what they had named their angel.

A few seconds of silence enveloped them.

They hadn’t yet, she found herself saying. Every time they thought they’d decided, they ended up changing their minds. It was a difficult thing, naming somebody, giving something at birth they might feel compelled to keep forever.

The husband, still standing in the aisle, made some noise with his throat and was ignored. The bus began to move again, and he had to grab hold of a pole to stay on his feet.

The older woman spoke the names of her children. Pictures were produced. She had questions about ultrasounds and cravings, doctors and labor. For how long? At what time on what date? Weren’t the drugs a gift from God?

But it was difficult to pay attention. Their stop was coming up and the wife felt desperate to stay on the night bus. The face in her lap was like a fire you could watch indefinitely. From time to time, its eyes opened to find hers and the world went away until they closed again. How easy it could be, she thought, to leave without putting back what they’d found.

She stood preemptively and let her husband take her by the arm. He brought his mouth to her ear, but she turned away and pretended to cough. Beside them, the woman stood also. Well past somebody’s bedtime, she said, squinting as she leaned in close. The bus pulled up and the doors swung inward. They both agreed it was.

As the wife stepped out into the freshly rinsed air, the burden she carried seemed to weigh no more than a plaything. And yet she could feel the tiny limbs in their search for comfort, the head turning toward her for warmth. Maybe it really was a girl. Maybe it did have a name, given by someone unable to give anything else.

The husband kept pace at her side, the flat of his hand pressed hard to her back. She could almost hear the words on the tip of his tongue, but there was nothing to say. It had grown too late, and they were both too tired. 

At the entrance to their townhouse, she handed him the bundle so she could take the keys from her shoulder bag, and the way he winced as he held the child out in front of him, like it might detonate in his face, left her feeling unmoored on the doorstep, disoriented by a vague sense of shame that took more than a moment to pass.

Rory Say is a Canadian fiction writer from Victoria, British Columbia. His work has recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in "The New Quarterly," "Short Fiction: The Visual Literary Journal," and "The Four Faced Liar." A chapbook collection of his fiction, "The Marksman," is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. Read more by visiting his website:

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“Elegy with Two Trees,” “On Eschatology,” “Lines for the Winter Solstice,” and “Lines for the New Year (1)”

by Christopher Merrill


“Gal,” “Say What,” Communion”

by Adele Elise Williams