“You’re positive you didn’t forget anything?” The man eyed her carefully. She felt like she was being judged for a crime, waiting for a verdict.
In a way, she was. She wasn’t supposed to be here.
“Just myself,” Isabella answered.
The man, the driver, didn’t avert his hard gaze.
“The trip is eight hours, are you sure you’re going to be okay without any anything to bring? Not to mention, you have to purchase a ticket online.”
Isabella stared up at the driver, and he stared her down. He was more like a pig than a man, overweight, large nose, balding. Not the most friendly appearance.
Her chances of getting on the bus weren’t looking good.
She knew she had to start making haste. She already made the call, so she’d be finished if she stuck around for whatever the aftermath would turn out to be. Like a fire under her butt.
She had to go.
‘No one will ask any questions if you can cough up enough dough.’
The words of that lady, Wendy, came to her. The lady that saved her.
No use trying nothing.
She reached into her back pocket, and took out a small brick of cash. It was but one of four. The most amount of money she’d ever seen in her entire life. She flipped through it, pulling out two fifty dollar bills.
Isabella stuck out her hand, holding one hundred dollars.
“Is this enough for a ticket?”
The man’s eyes softened to those of wonder, then confusion. Then, a glint in his eyes.
He didn’t take too long to think it over, however. He moved his head.
“You sit in the back, and you don’t make a sound,” he said. Isabella took that as a sort of warning.
Wordlessly, Isabella got on the bus, taking the few steps to reach the driver. Smoothly, she slipped him the money, and he accepted it with a nod.
Gringos must really be easy to pay off.
Isabella moved down the bus.
The bus wasn’t full, she had her pick if the driver hadn’t given her stipulations. But, it wasn’t empty, there were people here she probably could not pay off.
A man in his late fifties, wearing a suit, talking on a phone. A teenage girl, fiddling with her phone. A boy with his mother, both already napping. There was another girl here, too, closer to her age, but she actually had luggage to bring. The rest started to blend together, the features starting to look too familiar. Unless they were famous, Americans all looked the same to her.
No one paid her any mind as she passed by, going down the aisle to get to the very back. The seats here were unoccupied, and she was able to make herself comfortable, lifting up the armrest in the middle so she could rest her legs.
The bus started, thrumming with life, then drove off.
Isabella leaned her head against the window beside her, watching the city pass.
At least I got a view this time.
She had barely just started getting used to things in Stephenville, and already she had to relocate. It was sudden, too, and now she was going to step foot in a new city, empty-handed. Again.
Well, she did have nine hundred dollars to her name this time.
Though, maybe she would have better chances if she moved elsewhere. The gang and cartel situation here was only marginally better than the one back home, but Stephenville still had way too much baggage attached, and it wasn’t very friendly to outsiders. Southern hospitality was as foreign a concept as she was.
All that, she learned in a week of being here.
Part of her did wish she could stay longer, though. She wanted to see the local celebrity one more time. La luna azul.
Isabella’s stomach grumbled. She massaged her shoulder.
Relocating might have been a good idea, but it was one she hadn’t planned for. That ‘Wendy’ practically pushed it on her. Nine hundred dollars might pull her through the next week, but there were so many other things to worry about. Like, where would she stay? What were the gangs like there? The cops? How would she make money? She was underage, no official papers on her. Illegal, in multiple senses of the word. Not many places would want to take her in, or they might get in trouble, too. Maybe an orphanage?
See, how am I to survive without a gang? They can provide for me, kind of.
The word ‘orphanage’ struck her again.
Her chest welled up. She probably was one by now, if she wasn’t already. It was why she had to flee, they were going to come for her next, and string her up. Isabella had given up hope on seeing her parents ever again, before any of this began. A harsh reality.
Isabella closed her eyes. There were no more tears to shed.
A lot to handle, more than she was reasonably capable of. But, it would have to come later. In eight hours, approximately. She’d deal, then. She would have to. Or she’d never survive.
For eight hours, she would rest. She needed it. To make the most of an unexpected, and shitty, situation.
The bus stopped.
Isabella half-opened her eyes.
That was fast.
She heard the other passengers. Whispers, questions. They weren’t in the know.
Meaning we’re not supposed to stop.
Other voices came into the mix. Outside, yelling, barking orders. Coming from her side of the bus. She checked the window.
She quickly ducked under her seat, cursing under her breath.
He, and a small crew of his Ghosts, were circling around the bus. Tapping at the windows, tapping at the door. Searching, looking for something. Isabella could only think of one thing they’d want.
She cursed under her breath again. She made the call like Wendy asked, and told the operator on the other end everything the Ghosts were doing. The skirmishes for territorial expansion, the attempts to get their own slice of the drug trade, the screwed up initiation games for the newbies. And which studio apartment Lawrence was running the whole thing in. She told them everything. Everything she knew. And, through one way or another, Lawrence found out. Fuck.
From what she had seen from the window, she was barely out of the downtown area. Still in the city. Double fuck.
And she saw that the majority of the Ghosts had guns. Triple fuck.
Surrounded. Trapped. Isabella was the fish in this particular barrel. Even so, her mind still went to ways she could make it out of here. As alive as possible.
There was a restroom in the back, but they’d definitely check there, and that would make her a sitting duck, and another analogy. The emergency exit above also wouldn’t do, not with all the Ghosts still ‘haunting’ the area around the bus. The window beside her wouldn’t open, the most it could do was let a little air in. And there was still there issue of multiple hostiles outside. And their cars.
She was stuck here, through and through.
And with being stuck, it was better to be hidden than to escape and be instantly caught. Luck was all she had.
She stayed put.
If this was a setup by Wendy… she was gonna be pissed.
The yelling and knocking then ended, only because the door was opened.
Footsteps rushed in.
“Thank you, sir.” Isabella heard Lawrence thank someone, probably the driver. No brainer. If Isabella could convince the driver with some cash, there was nothing that said that Lawrence couldn’t.
Pudrete en el infierno.
She tried pressing herself closer to the floor, shimmying under the seats. Sticky, all around icky. Not a pleasant experience. And, while she was small, the space was smaller. Not much in the way of cover.
Isabella held her breath.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Finally, a passenger spoke up. Probably the old man.
“A not-so-routine inspection,” Lawrence responded, “But we won’t take too much of your time. We know you all have places you need to be, and you still have a long trip ahead of you. Ah, the door, please.”
The door closed, squeaking as it shut. Isabella cursed for a fifth time.
Lawrence continued with his orders. “Check every person, every row. Be thorough. We ain’t letting that bitch get away.”
She could hear them get to work, walking down the aisle and harassing the other passengers. Zippers were opened up, things dropping to the floor. Isabella wasn’t that small.
They’re taking advantage of those poor folk, all because of–
Isabella moved her head, shifting her gaze.
Someone also dropped to the floor, a row over. Facing Isabella. A leather jacket, light jeans, a choker. Short brown hair. Deep blue, almost indigo eyes, and something about them carried a feeling of mischief, not concerned in the slightest. Gringo.
The other girl her age.
She whispered, but excitedly, like she was sharing a secret she wasn’t supposed to, but telling someone was more fun.
“Mind if I steal from you? I’m lucky I made it here before he opened the door, or I woulda been a goner. Man, can’t go three steps without running into some trouble, am I right or am I right?”
Isabella blinked. Who…
The girl nodded fast. “Another good idea. We’ll communicate using nonverbal cues instead. Smart. Let’s do that.” She flashed a toothy grin, though a front tooth was missing.
Isabella blinked twice more.
The girl whispered again, already breaking her own rule. “Roger roger. Can’t be back here forever, since they’re about to find us. Mind if you follow my lead? I can take it from here. Oh, I wanna apologize now for the trouble. The Ghosts wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me.”
… ¿Qué haces?
Isabella blinked one more time. For good measure.
Things just took a weird turn.
The Ghosts were after her? This girl? But that didn’t seem right at all.
What did she do?
The footsteps were nearing them, louder, sounding like a stampede. More than one person, more than just Lawrence. To Isabella, she was as good as caught, maybe even dead. This was very much it.
I shoulda taken the money and went back to Lawrence in the first place.
Isabella was about to curse for the sixth time, but she looked over to the girl hiding with her. The girl’s face hadn’t changed. Her toothy grin stayed.
The girl then flipped onto her back. Isabella couldn’t see what she was doing, but she could hear it. A prolonged hiss.
It became louder, almost becoming something like a warning. The gang members noticed, asking about it.
Louder, then louder again.
It came to a crescendo.
The girl got out from her hiding spot. Isabella saw her feet. She was standing.
She jumped back.
One big bang, followed by crackling and popping. Also very loud. Screams, cries. Even Isabella shrieked. A bomb had definitely went off, and that girl was involved in a way.
Bomb. Girl. Loud. Ringing.
Isabella was being pulled.
Forced onto her feet, moving towards where the blasts were coming from. Too disoriented to resist.
“Push them forward, not down!” the girl called out, making herself known. “Make it snappy.”
Isabella followed, but she didn’t follow. She lagged behind as the girl let her go and worked, pushing the Ghosts, backing them up. Few tried to fight back, but they were in the midst of the explosions, stunned, susceptible to being pushed around. They stumbled backwards, the girl moving them like cattle.
Only one other Ghost was unaffected.
“I’ll skin you for that!” Lawrence bellowed, though quieter from Isabella’s ears. “And for last time!”
“You need better hobbies, L-Boy!” the girl said back.
Lawrence started getting ready for his move. His counter.
“You’re up next!” the girl ordered, as she pressed on more bodies. “Get that last guy!”
Isabella woke right up. “I, I can’t do that! And he has a gun!” She hushed herself on that last word, as if she was trying not to remind Lawrence of the weapon in his hand.
“You’ll be fine!”
Is this girl freaking insane?
“Just go! I’ll back you up!” She sounded serious this time.
Reluctant, Isabella sprang to life.
She never considered herself to be agile, but she could move when the situation called for it. She could run. She hopped, pulling herself above the seats by the overhead bars. Putting her feet on the seats, she maneuvered over everyone.
“Get down! One more!”
The girl yelled.
Isabella dropped down, putting herself between the girl and the Ghosts, and Lawrence. He was a good three feet away.
She saw it fall in front of his face. Red cylinders, attached by a string, hissing. She’d played with those before, back in Mexico.
She didn’t see them go off.
It was loud, if not louder than before. But she was ready for it this time, she had turned and covered her ears. It crackled, popped.
Lawrence, however, wasn’t as prepared.
As soon as she was certain the firecrackers were done, she spun, then rushed to Lawrence. Isabella knew she wouldn’t be stronger than him, but the element of surprise was well in her favor.
Her shoulder rammed into his side. His ribs.
He cried out. More pain than she had expected. Sensitive? A previous injury?
As if severe burns weren’t sufficient.
Lawrence buckled, but Isabella held onto him so he wouldn’t fall. By the hair, she dragged him toward the front of the bus. He didn’t fight back.
They got to the front, and Isabella turned and kicked, and Lawrence tumbled down the steps. The top of his head hit the door.
Oh Dios mío that felt so good.
She looked at the driver, and he was drenched in sweat, bug-eyed. She wanted to hit him, too.
The girl joined Isabella, bringing the remaining Ghosts with her.
“Out of the chair, fatso!” the girl said.
Isabella took the initiative, putting her hands on the driver, pulling him up. Despite his heavy weight, he was out of his seat with ease.
The girl pushed past Isabella and grabbed the driver by the collar. She threw him down the same steps, atop a pile of sore bodies. The driver, the various Ghosts, then Lawrence.
We actually beat him…
“Nice!” The girl lifted a hand, and on instinct, Isabella gave her a high-five. “We’re on the same wavelength after all.”
“But next comes the really really really fun part. Keep an eye on the Ghosts, and try to calm the other peeps.”
She fell into the driver’s seat, and started moving stuff around, like she knew what she was doing.
Isabella questioned her. “Exactly what-”
The bus sped off.
Isabella grabbed for a metal bar, preventing a fall. The other passengers jerked forward.
“What is she doing?” one of them asked. The woman, the mother. She tried standing, but the bus did a sharp left, then righting itself. The ride was bumpy.
“Just stay seated, everything is fine!” It wasn’t true, but it was the only thing Isabella had to say.
Things just took another, actual weird turn.
What is she doing?
Gripping the bar, holding on for dear life, Isabella shouted her question at the girl.
“What’s the deal?”
“I’m taking us out of here.”
“Do you even have a license?”
“I’m not old enough for one, you dummy.”
Some of the others in the bus caught that. They raised their voices, protesting.
“Stop the bus! Stop the bus!”
“Why is a little girl driving?”
“Jesus, please, someone else take the wheel!”
The bus swerved, harshly getting on another street.
“Pipe down!” the girl shouted. “I’m not taking us super duper far!”
“Then where?” Isabella asked. The whole bus was shaking from the speeds they were reaching.
The girl paused, eyes on the road. She took a right, and a deep breath.
“Hmm… oh, how about a little window shopping?”
The bus veered again, but the girl didn’t correct the vehicle. Instead, it stopped very suddenly.
The opposite of slow motion. Everything happened so fast.
Glass crashing together. Metal and tires screeching. Deafening. A hard jolt, everything thrown forward. Violent. Too fast and too sudden to truly process. It just happened.
Isabella was standing when it just happened.
The abrupt stop made her ragdoll, and it was a rough fall to the floor, glass landing on and around her.
Blunt force and sharp stings. Pain of every variety, surpassing any known threshold. Inconceivable.
Isabella didn’t feel like moving. Couldn’t even twitch a muscle.
Couldn’t even question if she was still alive.
But it wasn’t her call to make.
“Dang, you’re still alive.”
Heard that voice before. Recently.
“People will be coming soon. Cops, more Ghosts. Can you stand?”
I can barely think.
“No go, huh? Here, I’ll help. I’d say we should take our time, but we can’t afford the luxury.”
Isabella felt hands on her, and she gasped. The stings. The pain. Intensified.
“Oof, okay. Looks like we’re gonna do this the hard way. Don’t hate me too much for this.”
The hands came upon her again, and grabbed. The pain reached newer and newer heights, and Isabella let herself block out what followed.
By blacking out.
Waking up was a long, nebulous process. She didn’t come to, not immediately. Instead, it was a long stretch of soft breathing, followed by the realization that she was indeed alive, and awake.
And with that realization finally becoming clear in her mind, Isabella opened her eyes.
Nowhere she knew. An old brick factory, somewhere. Was this still Stephenville? Streaks of dawn spilled through the cracks in the walls and ceilings. How long had it been?
Right. Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Help.
Even the stuff with Wendy. That felt like another lifetime. Was that all really the same night?
Oddly enough, it didn’t feel like this was the first time her brain had run this particular lap.
Isabella nearly did so herself, but her whole body seemed to scream in pain. Though, it was like a dull knife, now. Still hurt, but a bit of the edge had been taken off.
Standing was a great ordeal, but she had to do it. She was on her feet… after a minute.
No one. Nothing. Isabella was alone.
She checked her body. So very sore. Nothing broken, but scratches all over. It hurt. Small cuts across her arms and legs and face. And one really painful one on her forehead. From the way the skin was pulled, she could tell it was stitched up.
She was wearing a leather jacket, she didn’t have one before. Her shirt underneath, when she checked it, was more blood than white.
Oddly enough, she didn’t feel shocked about what she saw.
Lawrence. The bus crash. The girl. Wendy.
Piecing things together was hard, nearly impossible. She was worried that she was completely abandoned. It might have been quiet and calm in here, but she didn’t know what dangers might be lurking right outside, ready to screw her over once she stepped outside. She wasn’t sure what her first move should be.
Her stomach grumbled.
Maybe I should start with some food, first.
She started to leave, but she stepped on something. It was soft. Squishy. She stopped, and checked.
A teddy bear?
She picked it up, the pain coming back. She fought through it, because there was another thing there that caught her attention.
A note was attached, tied to the bear’s hand by a red string.
She undid the string, then opened up the note. She noticed how pretty the handwriting was.
Isabella read it.
‘To whatever your name is… sorry that I forgot to ask!
You can call me D, like Deep Throat, get it?’
Isabella didn’t get it. Perhaps it was a reference of some kind.
She kept reading.
‘Anyways, sorry again for the whole bus thing, I was actually on my way out of the city to wait for things to cool down. I know I cause too much trouble for my own good okay, I just get bored sometimes!’
So it was her fault that Lawrence came? Isabella still couldn’t believe it, her 9-1-1 call had to play a part, somehow.
‘Any-anyways, I crashed the bus into some clothing store to get the Ghosts off our trail. But nobody got hurt! Well, except you, Lawrence and those Ghosts, and the driver. I didn’t have time to check on the passengers so…’
‘D’ drew a face. A sad face.
‘You were bleeding pretty badly, but thankfully there was nothing serious. I didn’t have time to bring my stuff, but I did my very best to patch you up. A cut on your forehead was the worst of it. And you were pretty responsive while I worked on you, so that’s good! Whew! Other than that, you’re all golden. Just don’t bathe with any lemons!’
Isabella didn’t find that very funny. Everything stung.
‘So yeah, sorry about everything. I wanted to help you because you’re cute, and being a Ghost doesn’t fit you to be honest. You can keep the jacket as a gift, my way of making it up to you. Hope you dig it, it was originally Styx’s, if you know who that is.’
She did. How did she get a jacket from him? Who was this anomaly?
And… cute? And she knew Isabella was a gang member?
Like Isabella needed another reason to think this girl was something else.
Well, the jacket’s not uncomfortable, Isabella thought. She’d might as well hold on to it.
‘Okay, now here’s the sucky part. I know this is going to sound bad, but I still need to lay low in another zip code for the time being, and I left all my stuff and money on the bus…’
‘Alrighty, this is goodbye! I don’t know if you’ll be staying in Wanderland, but I’ll definitely be back. If you’re ever in the area, come chase me down. Let’s play again sometime!’
‘Love, D.’ She drew a smiley face.
Isabella immediately jammed her hands into her pockets, dropping the bear. Front pockets, then back pockets. Nothing. Empty. Nada.
She robbed me.
Isabella swore for the sixth and seventh time.