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Window Seat by Lauren A. Forry

“I will cut you if you take that seat.”

    Whether she said it out loud or not, passenger after passenger settled elsewhere. The messenger bag in the empty seat beside her, the baseball hat pulled low, the dirt on her tan jacket – all projected a crafted air of low-level hostility. But as the bus filled with the final passengers, the vacant seat signaled her out like a spotlight, each shuffling person slowing – staring – before continuing on to safer ground. She felt that light growing stronger, burning, as she drummed her fingers against her thigh and examined, through the shadows of the parking garage, the faces of the last passengers waiting for the driver to scan their tickets. The bus smelled of wet raincoats, ammonia, and spicy fried chicken, the upholstery of her seat stiff and brittle, and she tapped her foot against the duffle bag on the floor, the light now an oven light, her body roasting on the rack with the temperature gradually increasing…

    A sharp ring. She jerked and smacked her hand against the window. The shrill, old-fashioned ringtone reverberated from her pocket through the near silent bus. Her fingers bobbled the phone, dropping it into the dark space at her feet.

    “Shit. Shit.”

    She grabbed the phone, hit ignore, put it on vibrate, and as she sat up saw a gray face waiting in the line. She stopped breathing.

    But then the line moved, and it was gone. She bit the inside of her cheek and pulled her legs up onto the seat and, hiding her face in her knees, tried to still the Tilt-a-Whirl inside her head.

    It had to be done. There wasn’t any other way.

    “You know there isn’t.”

    Her hands cupped the handle, unsure how to hold it.

    “Don’t make me do this.”

    “I have to. It has to be you.”

    Strike three. There wasn’t any more time.

    The seat shook. An obese man in a wet anorak was shoving his carry-on into the bin above her head. She pulled down her jacket sleeves, covering the cuts on her hands as he pushed and prodded the bag, dirty rainwater dripping onto the empty seat. 

    “Anyone sitting here?”

    He was the only one standing, hers the only spare seat in view. Even the driver had taken his. For an answer, she pulled her messenger bag into her lap and huddled closer to the window, exchanging the oven for a pressure cooker. She felt squeezed, her body compressed into a space too small for its size, for although anorak man tried to keep to his side, the seats were too narrow for his weight, and his arm and leg continuously bumped her. But she could do this – the engine rumbled – only four hours, and outside the window its long fingers wrapped around Gryson’s neck…

    “Hey!”

    The bus reversed out of the gate, and she ran up the aisle. The driver continued checking his mirrors, his prosthetic arm resting on the gear shift.

“Let me off.”

“Bus is leaving.”

“No, you don’t understand.” 

“I understand that the bus has started and it ain’t stopping until it’s supposed to.”

She read the name on his soiled uniform. “Hank. Please. I have to get off.”

He shifted gears.

“You can. At the first stop.”

Only glimpses of blurred concrete and low fluorescent lighting were visible through the dirty laminated glass as she stutter-stepped back to her seat. Anorak man stumbled into the aisle to let her in, but she barely noticed him, her eyes fixed on the window. She slid into her seat and fumbled for her phone, accidentally opening three different apps before managing to call Gryson’s number.

“Haley? I thought—”

“Where are you? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. What happened?”

“I saw it. I saw it outside the…”

“Don’t. It’s better if I don’t know.”

“I know. I know.”

She rubbed at the burn on her arm hidden underneath her sleeve. Anorak man stole glances at her as he texted, and she shrunk away even though she didn’t want to be near the window, pulling down the brim of the Phillies cap to hide her face.

“If it can still follow me…”

“It can’t. Not anymore. Strike three, remember? You beat it at its own game.”

The bus hopped over the curb on its exit from the port authority. Out on the street, she could see the emptiness, see that it wasn’t there.

“Haley? Are you there?”

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“Look, I’ve got to finish cleaning up here. Don’t tell me where you are until it’s done, okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Be strong. It’s almost over. You’re on third, headed for home. Rub my hat for luck.”

“Yeah.”

She couldn’t say anything else but goodbye. Her fingers tapped the brim of the hat, but her hand shook so badly, the phone clattered to the floor as she tried to stuff it into her coat.

“Shit.” 

Something was wrong as her fingers pried it from the sticky floor. This stain on her phone, which was now on her fingers, was dark red and the duffle bag – where was it? She smeared her hand on her jeans and jammed the phone into her pocket. Her breathing quickened as she felt the ground with her foot, trying to locate the strap. Her chest tightened, the familiar panic taking hold and she saw it behind her eyes, creeping up on her…

“Just do it, Haley! You have to do it now!”

The knife quivered in her hand, the strength leaving her grip.

“Dr. Niyesi said…”

“Forget him! He doesn’t believe. He’s another trick. Do it now, Haley!”

The toe of her sneaker hooked the strap of the duffle bag and she grabbed ahold of it as the bus lurched – a sharp left turn. The bag covered the stain on the floor, but the white rubber toe of her sneaker now bore a dark red smudge. 

A buzz in her side.

She elbowed fat anorak man, but it was only her phone again and she let it buzz in her pocket even though each vibration rattled every nerve in her body. Her jaw ached as she grinded her teeth, her fingernails cutting into already sore palms. Only four hours. Only four. The bus pumped freezing A/C out of the vent alongside the window despite the rain, yet she was sweating, her palms clammy, and her head felt like it was wrapped in a woolen blanket. She wiped the back of her arm across her forehead, kept the strap of the bag hooked on her foot and Gryson’s hat pulled low. The cold air felt like recirculated plane air. It had been years since she’d suffered a plane ride – ears popping, vertigo, nausea. Too young for the Valium Mom gave her, thinking back then that nerves were the problem when her problem did not come from within and no medication could fix what wasn’t wrong. But the cold air helped, at least, with the smell. It had only started to reach her, a faint whiff of rotten eggs that she could pass off as gas if she needed to. Her phone buzzed again, but her muscles had remained tense, as if in anticipation, and it didn’t shock her as before. She crossed her arms tightly over her chest. Four hours until the first stop. Then an hour’s walk to the cemetery, according to Google Maps. The walk she wouldn’t mind, even though the bag was heavy. The bus careened over the waterlogged highway, the glow of the hyperloop in the distance. That would have been faster – half an hour instead four (five or six if there was traffic) – but she never would have made it onto the train. People cared what happened on hyperloop trains, sonic jets, but no one cared about old, gas-powered buses. A nervous laugh escaped her at the thought of a security check, and she risked a glance at anorak man to see if he had noticed. His head was tilted back, lips slightly parted as he slept, or feigned to. Weight restrictions, she thought, her inner voice a pretentious sneer – much like her mom’s – that would’ve shamed her dad. That’s why he’d had to take the bus. People should take better care of themselves. And she wanted to shut off her Mom-voice, so she turned her head back to the window and stared into its eyes.

Fat anorak man had disappeared, the reflection instead its creeping, elongated face, dark mouth curling its lips into a smile. Pain seared her arm as she whipped her head towards the man to see him still asleep, drool escaping the corner of his lips. But she could feel its presence there, hovering over her shoulder as it had since that night on Goddard House. Awkwardly turned in the seat, trying to keep her toe on the shifting bag without looking at the window or elbowing what sat beside her, she wriggled her right arm from the jacket and pulled up her torn shirt sleeve. Long red fingerprints burned into her skin. The space around her compressed to nothing. Strangled her.

Clutching her messenger bag, she pushed anorak man’s legs out of the way, rudely waking him as she climbed over his bulk and into the aisle, but the bus hit a pothole and she stumbled back into him. He touched her lower back, his hot fingers marking the skin beneath her jacket and she pulled away, moving like a drunk on the unsteady bus, falling through the thin bathroom door.

At first, the door wouldn’t lock, and she yanked on the cylindrical handle until it finally clicked and the harsh fluorescent light cast her sweating skin in yellow. Her jacket still dangled from one arm, but she needn’t look to know the mark remained. It always remained. She pulled the rest of the jacket free and tossed it to the floor then sat on the closed plastic toilet lid, listening to the disinfectant and waste sloshing in rhythm with the movement of the bus.

A square glow and soft buzz emanated from the jacket. This time she clawed at the fabric to free it, hoping to see Gryson’s name but it was Dr. Niyesi, so she waited until the ringing stopped then scrolled through her missed calls – three from Dr. Niyesi, two from Mom, four from Dad – swiping past them all, ignoring the voicemail notifications. She pressed the phone to one ear, her hand covering the other, trying to block out everything but the sound of his voice.

“It’s here. It’s still here. It’s on the bus. Gryson, it’s on the bus.”

“Slow down, Haley. Tell me what’s going on.”

She explained what she had seen, explained she was on a bus and where it was going even though he’d told her not to tell her.

 “Listen. Listen to me. This must be its last hurrah. Its final death throes, you know? As soon as you bury the head in sacred ground…”

“But what am I supposed to do now? It’s going to be another four hours, I think. Maybe three? I can’t tell how long we’ve been driving. And Gryson, I don’t think…”

“You’ll do what you have to. What you’ve always done. Fight back.”

“If it’s possessing that man’s body…”

“Then there’s only one action to take.”

The phone went dead. Had she ended the call or had he? What did it matter? She cupped her hands over her nose and mouth, took several deep breaths then stood on shaking legs and set the messenger bag on the sticky, little counter. She rubbed the brim of the cap then unzipped the bag. The knife had fallen to the bottom, her blood and the other’s still staining the blade and handle. The gun, too, clanked at the bottom, her father’s small automatic something-or-other that he must now know was missing. But she couldn’t fire a gun on a bus, could she? What if she hurt someone else? Someone innocent? And the knife – if he started to bleed someone would notice and they would pull over, and she’d never reach the cemetery. The bus shook, and her hand fell on her diabetes medication, and the insulin syringe. Years of insulin overdose warnings popped into her head. Seizure then death. Not painless but better than being stabbed. And if she didn’t, if it took over the man in the anorak and it gained strength and spread to the rest of the bus… It would be Goddard House all over again, and no matter what Dr. Niyesi said, Goddard House was her fault. She hid the filled syringe up her sleeve. 

The cylindrical lock pulled back with a click and the light in the bathroom dimmed. She used her free hand to grip the stiff headrests and make her way up the aisle – bus rocking, lights flickering, sulfur smell growing stronger. The plastic syringe threated to break in her fingers but she was too afraid to relax her grip. Another two rows. Did she stick him in the aisle or once she was seated? Why hadn’t she thought of his before? He slept, head dropped to his chest, arms crossed, no sign of a neck. She stood over him, her shadow cast over his face, beside him a reflection in the window she refused to see. Just stick him, that’s all she had to do. Just jab the sharp end into his skin…

The knife went in and out and in again. And each time she punctured its flesh she thought she would never be able to stand that feeling again. The blade nicked her finger once, twice – and she wanted to stop, if only she could stop…

Anorak man snored and woke himself, blinking up at her with bleary eyes. He sighed and hauled his heavy body from the seat – rising slowly, like an ogre in a cave, towering over her as he side-stepped into the narrow aisle. He watched her, waiting for her to move. She could swing her arm up, jam the needle into the fatty tissue at his neck. Her eyes stared into his, his hand curled into a fist. One punch could break her cheekbone, crack her jaw…

“Are you gonna sit down?”

She slid into the seat, nearly jabbing her own leg with the needle, stubbing her toe on the duffle bag. But as he started to take his seat next to her, she couldn’t breathe. Her lips tingled. Another marked burned her. She felt it on her back, another on her leg. Hands all over her, trying to pull her to pieces, and if she looked at the window, she knew the reflection she would see. It knew what she was planning and would jump to someone else, person to person, and she’d never win this way. She couldn’t withstand the rest of the hours-long journey. She had to bury it now. 

She shoved the needle into the outside pocket of the duffle bag then hefted it into her lap and slid out of the row as anorak man tried to sit. He grunted something at her, but she didn’t listen, only carried the heavy, dripping bag back to the bathroom and locked herself in once more.

It wasn’t sacred ground, but the disinfecting chemicals in the toilet, they had to do something, didn’t they? She lifted the plastic toilet seat. The phone rang and she only answered because it was Gryson. She rubbed the brim of the hat.

“Did you do it? Is he gone?”

“I can’t. If it leaves his body before he dies…I can’t be responsible for someone else. You said it, Gryson. I only have one strike left. One strike before it takes over, and if I…I can’t risk it. I’m sorry.” She balanced the phone between her ear and her shoulder and unzipped the bag.

    “No, Haley. I’m sorry.”

    She stumbled back into the wall. The phone clattered to the floor. The top of his brown, blood-stained hair was just visible, but she could still hear its voice in her head, where it always was. Where it always would be.

    “I’m sorry you didn’t realize you struck out a few hours ago.”

    The phone started ringing. Dr. Niyesi. Now she wanted to answer it, but she couldn’t. It was too far away. She took off the hat, noticed for the first time the blood staining the inside of the brim. 

    Alone in the kitchen, the Phillies game echoing from the other room, he held up his hands, blood dripping from his cut lip, tears from his eyes.

    “You don’t have to do this, Haley. We can find a way to stop it. There has to be way.”

    “You know there isn’t.” Her hands cupped the handle, unsure how to hold a gun. Gryson grabbed a knife from the counter, pointed it at her.

    “Don’t make me do this.”

    “I have to,” she said. “It has to be you.”

    She fired the gun and missed, shattering a mug on the counter. He charged at her, knocked her to the ground, and the gun slid under the table. They wrestled for the knife and it found its way to Haley’s hands, as if it were meant to be there. Its reflection appeared outside the kitchen window as Gryson cowered at her feet.

    “Just do it, Haley!” It spoke in Gryson’s voice. “You have to do it now.”

    The knife quivered in her hand, the strength leaving her grip.

    “Haley, don’t. If you kill me, that’s strike three. Game over. You’ll belong to it.”

    The voices sounded so alike. She didn’t know who to believe. Her mouth was dry, and it was hard to focus.

    “Dr. Niyesi said…”

    One of the Grysons spoke. “Forget him! He doesn’t believe.”

    “No, Haley. He’s another trick. Don’t listen—”

    “Do it now, Haley!”

The knife went in and out and in again. And each time she punctured his flesh she thought she would never be able to stand that feeling again. The blade nicked her finger once, twice – and she wanted to stop, if only she could stop…

But she would never stop. Not anymore. Goddard House had been her introduction. And Gryson had only been the beginning of more. There would always be more. It would never let her stop.

    “Now I can always be here, Haley.”

    She fumbled for the lock. There was blood on her fingers and they slipped again and again on the latch until finally she pulled it back and staggered into the aisle. Each person turned to stare – each face gray, dark elongated eyes, mouths wide and vacant and grinning at the corners.

    “We’ll always be here. Together.”

    She pressed her hands to her ears and screamed but no one heard because the bus lurched again and lost control. A loud crash. And she was thrown backwards through the bathroom door onto the floor, the duffle bag falling to the floor, Gryson’s head rolling into her lap as the bus became airborne, the last thing she saw before it hit the water her gray, elongated reflection grinning in his lifeless eyes.