The girl was smiling at him.
Nelson blinked, body swaying along with the bus as it floated over some depression in the road. Suddenly tense, he turned his gaze away and studied the high-rises flashing past outside. Afternoon sunlight made rainbow mirrors of the transperiwalls. He counted to ten then glanced back around, as if casually taking in the passengers.
The girl’s smile was bigger now and Nelson felt his stomach twist nervously. She knew he had seen her. She wanted him to see her. Her grey eyes locked with his, and then he couldn’t look away as they transitioned slowly from the colour of rain-laden clouds to a dark brown.
It’s just those fancy contacts everyone has now.
But he couldn’t seem to stop staring. She was pretty, despite the lip and nose piercings he’d never really been into. Her hair was a sleek cap, pitch black. Her skin, so pale as to be almost translucent, had fine tracings of blue veins along her neck. She wore a conservative business suit in the traditional navy blue, but along the outside of her crossed leg, a glittering fish-scale tattoo made the shape of a snake.
He’d seen better looking women, sexier women, but it had been years and there was something about her that arrested him. As if a spotlight had descended from the heavens and picked her out. Here you go, Nelson, a voice said. This one’s looking for adventure. Go ahead and give it to her.
She gave him a little wave with her right hand. The left held her purse steady in her lap.
She’s ripe for the picking. How long has it been, anyway?
Seven years. Seven long, slow, mind-deadening years. Before he realised what he was doing, he nodded at her, the beginnings of an unfamiliar smile creasing his lips.
Then he realised her eyes had a far away look. Quickly, he dropped his gaze to her right hand. Her fingers tapped at silver-blue patch in the middle of her palm. Her nails were short and painted red. As he watched, the shifted to shocking pink. Heart racing, he looked back out the window.
Idiot. She wasn’t waving to you.
The world had changed a lot while he was away. He’d only been out a month. He’d forgotten the phones everyone walked around with. The face capture features they all possessed. Right now, Miss Adventure was surfing the net to find out everything she could about him. In a few seconds, it would all be ruined.
The initial chemistry that had sustained most people through the first hello in a bar no longer held sway. Now, a woman didn’t have to give you the time of day until after she’d vetted you. And Nelson Carter was damaged goods.
Sure enough, when he glanced back, her eyes were clear and there was a tight line around her mouth. This time, she broke the contact, fingers curling over her palm protectively. He looked out the window, blind to the scenery.
Well, fuck you too. But it was stupid to be angry, he knew. She had every right to not want someone like him around her. Hell, he couldn’t even stand himself some days.
Sometimes he wondered why he even bothered. He had yet to get a job; few were willing to take a chance on an ex-con. His bed at the halfway house was only good for two more months. His father had died while he was in and he had no idea where his sister Carrie had moved to. He was useless, broke and without a person in the world who cared about him. Was it any wonder a chick like that refused to give him the time of day?
Sometimes he thought about tossing himself off a bridge but they were all outfitted with auto-nets these days. He’d just get put into mental until they figured out he wasn’t crazy, only lonely, frustrated and completely without hope. Come to think of it, maybe that was worse than crazy.
Movement in the corner of his eye captured his attention. A young guy in a shiny suit had taken a seat next to the girl. He’d been standing a few feet away before, near the driver, but now he’d obviously decided to make a play for Miss Adventure. He turned a perfect smile on her and she gave him a polite one in return. Sweeping a tanned hand through his carefully layered hair in a practised, casual movement, Shiny Suit leaned in a little and said something. His dark hair fell forward artfully.
Miss Adventure’s body tensed. She’d read the play and wanted nothing of it. Her reply was short and precise and she turned her attention out the window. Shiny Suit’s relaxed reaction said it all. This was nothing new. They all resisted before they gave in.
Nelson clenched his fists. Asshole. He’d met a hundred Shiny Suits in his day. They’d never heard the word ‘no’ so they often turned it into a ‘yes’ in their own heads. And they didn’t back off easy. He’d learned that lesson the hard way seven years ago.
Shiny Suit said something again and brought his hand up to rest along the back of the seat. Miss Adventure shifted, and for one second, her gaze caught Nelson’s.
It was all he needed.
He made it to the seat in time to catch Shiny’s hand before he could place it on her knee. Startled, he looked up and his green eyes narrowed.
“Hey, what the hell–”
Nelson squeezed Shiny’s wrist, listening for the gasp of pain that cut his angry sentence short.
“The lady said no,” he told him.
Shiny removed his other hand from the back of the seat, but Nelson put some real pressure on his wrist and all Shiny could do was grab at his hand.
“Fuck man! Let me go or–”
“Or what?” Nelson tilted his head and studied him. “Your old man can’t help you now. All that time in the gym can’t teach you how to drop a guy on the street. I don’t want your money. I believe that cuts off your usual avenues.”
Nelson tugged hard on his arm, forcing Shiny to his feet. Anger and pain warred in the man’s face. “You fucking asshole.”
“I believe the asshole here is you,” Nelson replied, looking down at Miss Adventure. “Isn’t that true?”
Dark eyes wide, she managed to nod.
“Would you rather he sit somewhere else?”
She hesitated, then nodded. “Please. I mean, yes.”
Nelson slammed a hand on the bell button and the bus started to slow. “I believe this is your stop.” He let go of Shiny’s wrist and stepped back. He could feel the eyes of the other passengers on them, but he didn’t care. For the first time in a long time he felt–good. As if he was finally in the right place.
Shiny Suit massaged his wrist. “I don’t know who the hell you are–”
“That’s right,” Nelson interrupted. “You don’t.” He raised Suit’s uninjured arm. Sure enough, the phone-patch shone back at him. He positioned it so the reader could get a clear view and poked the capture symbol. “Look me up when you get home.” He shoved Shiny’s hand down. “Then thank your lucky stars and move on.”
The bus halted and the doors to their left hissed open. Shiny Suit looked it then at Nelson, all the while massaging his hand.
“Go on,” Nelson said.
Shiny only paused a moment longer. Then, under the silent stares of all the passengers, he went down the centre of the bus and out the doors. With a barely perceptible shift, the bus started moving again. Nelson looked down at the girl.
“I’m fine.” She studied him. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“No,” he agreed. “I didn’t.” But you wanted me to.
He started back to his seat.
Nelson looked back at her, eyebrows raised.
“You can sit here if you like.” Her eyes were grey again. A tiny smile curved her lips and her ever-changing fingertips touched the seat beside her.
Nelson stared for a moment, remembering another girl, another lifetime ago; a redhead with a pretty smile and great legs. She’d had an empty bar stool next to her and then an asshole who couldn’t be run off with a twist of a wrist tried to sit in it.
No smile is worth seven years. And you, Miss Adventure, you just like the idea of seeing how far I would go. Just like her.
“No thanks,” he said. “I think I prefer my seat.”
On his way back to his seat, it occurred to him that he no longer felt angry, or frustrated or bitter. He felt–different. Real. Present. As if the fog of the past had lifted and he could see ahead of him a new and unfamiliar landscape.
When he sat down–the reassuring plastic giving beneath him with a squeak–and looked out the window, he noticed his reflection for the first time.
He was smiling.