A short story by Vivienne Kruckow
The bus hisses to a halt. It is all but empty, aside from the two strangers that sit opposite each other in the third row.
The driver gives them a pointed look in the rear view mirror, and pulls the lever for the doors. “Have a nice day,” he rumbles, before they begin to stir.
One of the strangers has their head resting against a tattered backpack, gazing blankly at the seat in front of her. The other stranger is also in no great rush to depart.
The driver clears his throat loudly, and pauses dramatically. No reaction. He turns on the wipers and deliberately doesn’t add water. The screeching echoes down the aisle. He blasts the horn, booming “You kids need to get off!”.
The strangers scramble for their belongings, carefully avoiding each other’s eyes.
The girl shuffles off, her backpack clanking with each step. The boy follows at a reasonable distance, muttering a quick thank you as he descends the steps.
The bus tears off down the dusty road, leaving a cloud of dirt and an air of annoyance in its wake. The strangers look anywhere but each other. They take in their new surroundings.
A storm is brewing in the east. Dark, ominous clouds hang low in the sky. A warm breeze dances amongst the sugar cane. There is nothing but the road, sky and cane to see.
The girl inhales deeply, welcoming in the familiar scent. The boy, on the other hand, takes short, shallow breaths, for the cane is too sickly sweet for him to enjoy.
They stand in silence for a minute or two, kicking imaginary rocks and pretending to seek the time from an empty wrist.
Finally, the boy speaks. “Are you heading into town?”
The girl is still scuffing her boots distractedly. “Nope.” Her eyes remain on the red dirt.
The boy tries again. “Yeah, me neither.” Rubbish. He’s lost all ability to start a normal conversation. This girl, for reasons yet to be known, is putting him on edge.
He braves a last attempt. “I’m heading to the beach. Do you know the best way there?”
The girl pauses at the word ‘beach’. She gives him a sideways glance. “Why should I know?”
Shit, bad call. He’s accused her now. “I, oh, I…I didn’t mean to assume…I thought I’d check…you know?” All attempts at being cool are carried away with the breeze.
He takes a long swig from his water bottle and adjusts the straps of his bag. “Sorry for bothering you. See you around.”
He charges off in the opposite direction of where the bus had come from, hoping that she didn’t notice the sheer embarrassment slapped across his face.
Never again, he thinks to himself, no more pretending.
He is twenty metres down the road when she calls “I do know the way!”
He stops in his tracks, hesitant to turn around. Was it an invitation? Or a goodbye? Or was she simply –
“You coming or what?”
He spins around, trying not to inhale the dust cloud he has created. The girl is standing at the edge of the cane scuffing her boot once more. The boy walks as quickly as he can, trying not to look overly keen. He fails.
The girl smiles to herself, but makes it disappear before he notices. “This way.”
They trek through the cane with the girl in the lead. The howling wind and the crunch of their shoes fills the void in conversation.
The boy briefly considers the perils associated with following a stranger, well, anywhere, but lands on being unconcerned. She seems tough, sure, but not sinister. The worst case scenario is that she is mad and has no idea where she’s going.
They continue like this, each lost in thought, for another 15 minutes. As the walk, the storm grows. The entire visible sky is gunmetal grey and threatening a downpour.
The boy has a raincoat but doesn’t want to seem overly cautious by whipping it out.
The girl is unsure of what she’ll find at the end of the path. Memories swirl around her head like smoke, obscuring the elements but stirring things in her stomach nonetheless.
Is she still welcome there? Will there be anyone left to welcome her? Did anyone even remember?
The boy starts humming an old pop song. The girl smiles to herself (again) but makes sure to keep it hidden (again). He seems harmless, and maybe even a little sweet like the cane, but any further musings would be pointless.
He just needs a guide. She was the only one around. That’s all.
He analyses her as best as he can; the cane only allowing glimpses here and there. An ear of silver hoops. A band patch on her backpack. A tattoo inching above her boot.
He is, undeniably, intrigued.
The boy has always enjoyed making up elaborate back stories for the strangers he comes across, but he has a feeling nothing he’d conjure would ever come close to the truth with her.
She reminds him of a book with infinite twists and turns. But will he get to the end?
At last, the salt hits their nostrils and the breeze picks up. The crashing and slapping of waves against rocks replaces the sound of their footsteps.
The beach is long and flat, subtly arching into a cove on the right. To the left are the twinkling lights of what is assumed to be a town. The beach is quite, with the remaining visitors packing up in hopes of beating the storm.
Lightning starts to illumate clouds just above the horizon. It won’t be long now.
“Well, here we are. The beach”. She sweeps her hand briefly, revealing yet another flash of a tattoo. This one looks like a wave.
“Of course. Thanks,” the boy fumbles. He is distracted by her ink. Her voice. Her everything. He doesn’t want their encounter to end, but also has no excuse for her to stay.
“Are you meeting someone?” she blurts boldly.
“I’m supposed to, but I don’t know who, or where, exactly.”
The girl screws up her nose in suspicion. “Why are you meeting someone you don’t know?”
“I was, uh, just following instructions.”
“Do you do that a lot – just follow instructions?”
The boy considers this, as if he doesn’t already know the answer. “It’s usually easier that way.”
The girl both pities and envies him at the same time. “I suppose it is,” she mutters.
They stand side by side, watching the lightning dance in the sky, unsure of what to do. Neither wants to go on the next leg of their journey, but can’t share why. You don’t share those kinds of details with a stranger, after all.
“Am I holding you up?” The boy asks shyly. He sneaks a glance at the girl and is pleasantly surprised to find her starting back. Her eyes are the colour of the sea.
“I’m glad you are.” Breaths in deeply. “Do you want to sit somewhere dry?”
The boy nods and smiles. Pepperings of raindrops are starting to escape from the canopy of clouds above. He really doesn’t want to reveal his raincoat (or more specifically, the hideous colour).
The girl quickly leads him to the cove, which upon closer inspection, is filled with little caves, no doubt sculpted over many years by the ocean. The girl navigates along a jutted rock wall, beckoning the boy into a cave above.
It is modest, but large enough for two people and deep enough to avoid the slanted rain. Having reached shelter, they pause to admire the sweeping view before them.
The ocean has become a bubbling cauldron, threatening to swallow the sky.
The boy gapes in awe. He’s never seen a storm over the sea before. His versions are usually masked by power poles and skyscrapers.
The girl shivers as she sits, and pulls her favourite jumper over her head. The boy does the same with his own knitwear. They sit with their backpacks between them.
“Are your instructions going to be mad that you left the beach?”
The boy sighs overdramatically. “For sure. But I’m plotting an excuse.”
“Yeah, it should be done before the storm clears, I reckon.”
“Well how’s it gonna start?”
“‘Well Dad -’”
“-Oh so it’s you’re dad?”
The girl nods, knowing all too well. “Continue.”
“Cheers. ‘Well Dad, I know I was supposed to meet that advisor, but I ran into this beautiful girl and she-’”
“You don’t need to say I’m beautiful.”
“Well that part is actually true.” The boy grins and she returns the gesture with a warm, flushed smile.
“‘And she took me on this wild goose chase to find the beach and…’” The boy trails off and opens his palms. “And that’s what I’ve got so far.”
“What?” The boy spins around so he’s facing her. She really is beautiful.
“I feel like it needs to be a little more elaborate.”
“Well, it’s just not a very good excuse, is it?” She rolls her eyes. “At least, not from a grown up’s perspective.”
“Technically I am a grown up.”
“Yeah, so am I, but not that kind.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
They ponder this for a moment as the thunder kicks in. It booms through the cave, causing the girl’s leg to twitch.
“Are you alright?” the boy asks tentatively.
“Why lie at all?” She crosses her legs to hide the twitching.
“It’s usually easier, to tell him what he wants.”
The conversation is bringing up more ghosts for the girl. Reminding her of her own father and the night he became absent forever.
“What about you?” The boy is eager to divert the spotlight. “What are you going to tell your folks?”
“I don’t live at home anymore.”
“Right. That’s pretty cool. Do you live in the city too or-”
“Do you want a biscuit?”
The boy nods, distracted and suddenly ravenous. He doesn’t remember eating today.
As the girl rifles through her backpack, he spots a corner of metallic blue. He squints, recognising the paper at once. He begins to rummage through his own bag and pulls out a card.
He wordlessly hands it to the girl, trying not to physically react as their fingers touch. She stares at it, puzzled. She pulls out her copy and gives it to the boy.
Meet him by the beach at 4:05pm
Meet her by the beach at 4:05pm
“Weird,” they say together.
“Who gave you this?” she waves the card around like its dangerous contraband.
“It was left on the kitchen bench this morning, I assumed it was left by my father’s P.A. You?”
“Slipped under my door at the dorms.”
The cave suddenly feels very snug and there’s not enough places to look. How can they explain such a bizarre occurrence?
“Maybe we have mutual friends? Or know people who both print on metallic paper?” The boy is scrambling for an explanation.
The girl rolls her eyes once more. “I don’t know anyone who would use that kind of paper.”
“Then why did you follow it then?”
“I know the town, and I was bored. I actually grew up here.”
“Right, right. That makes sense. But still, this is really weird.”
“But as strange as it is, I’m also kind of glad. You know, that we met.”
The girl looks at him – really looks at him – and instantly feels at home. “I’m glad we met too.”
She grabs his hand in a rush of adrenaline. The boy squeezes back gently.
There’s so much to figure out. So much to explain. They don’t even know each other’s names.
But somehow, despite the lack of answers, them, sitting here holding hands in a cave in the middle of a storm, feels right.
And so it should.
It was fate.