FICTION: No Man’s Land by Stephen Ground

There were two in the station, a dreadlocked twenty-something who smelled worse than he looked and a girl, maybe fifteen, concealer-choked cordillera of acne ridging cheekbones. A Hannah Montana backpack, relic from another life, pinched between scuffed Adidas All-Stars, a life-preserver in the ocean of downtown; sweater, sandwich, a pair of fresh gitch – worldly possessions on a derelict scale.
She wandered to the vending machine, starring KitKat, EatMore, and two bags of peanuts; retreated to her seat, empty-handed. Dreadlocks slept, making her the sole occupier of the territory between behind and ahead. She just closed her eyes when the door swung open, precursor to the worst twelve and a half minutes of her life.
He peered inside, hunger penned in dark eyes, bushy salt-and-pepper brows. He took a few steps, tugged at a drooping collar loosened by drunken tussles, scanned the seats. Dreadlocks, a ticket agent nose-deep in Us Magazine, and her. She gripped her backpack, white-knuckled, held her breath as he lurched towards her, gait snitching on sobriety. He splashed next to her, constellations of dinner spotting his shirt. He rotated, heavy-breathed, eyelids tortured by gravity – lightly dragged a fingertip across her fleshy belly, baby fat a repellent to boys her age but magnetic to men of a certain perversion.
Her nerves burned, a downwind wildfire – he leaned in, prickly purple lips scratching her cheek, whispered into her ear something hoarse and undecipherable. She cowered; he pinched her fleshy paunch until she whimpered.
She appealed silently to the ticket agent, whose eyes were the only feature visible behind an image of the latest boyband to break up. Engrossed, he ignored her, as he had when she crept into the station after midnight on a Tuesday, bought a ticket to North Bay, Hannah Montana backpack shouldered like the first day of grade three. She didn’t know what she was thinking, expecting a saviour at a grimy bus station in the middle of the night.
His hand slipped off the cliff into the valley, and she cried. Painful, wrenching, silent sobs. Dreadlocks murmured and rolled his head to the other side, as tears streamed down her face. After years his hand withdrew, slumped back in his chair, eyes rolled into his head. His mouth moved like he was saying something, then he passed out, head tilted towards her. She snatched her bag and slid across the room to safety.
They announced her bus a few minutes later, startling her from a nightmare – she shuffled towards the platform, bag clutched to her chest. Awaiting its arrival, she glanced inside and saw the drunk stumbling towards her. She looked for help but it seemed no one went to North Bay after midnight but her and possibly him. She watched him burst through the doors, veer in her direction – frozen with fear, she waited for him to arrive, breathless and wishing for her parents, most surprising of all. He grabbed a fistful of hair and wrenched her head sideways; instinctually she resisted, striking him in the groin with Hannah like they taught in school. He pulled hard, twisted harder, but she counterbalanced, swinging him onto the road as the bus pulled into its spot along the curb, crushing him like a beer can under a boot heel.
When the cops finished their questions, they had no choice but to take her home. She found satisfaction in her parents’ embarrassment admitting to the constables they had no idea she had climbed out the window. It wasn’t the happiest ending she could imagine, though – she missed the last bus. North Bay wasn’t going anywhere, but then again, it’s a big country, with places a lot further away than that. Next time, she thought, I’ll take an earlier bus.

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Stephen Ground

Stephen

Born in Milton, Ontario, Stephen Ground spent a decade between Toronto, Saskatoon, and Canada’s far North in a remote, fly-in community. He has since landed back in his hometown. His work appeared on The 1888 and Here Comes Everyone, and is forthcoming from Memoir Magazine and Temenos Journal.

If you enjoyed ‘No Man’s Land’ leave a comment and let Stephen know.

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