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The Commuters

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It was a grey, cold Monday morning as Nic got on the bus. This one-hour commute was something she was slowly getting used to. Starting work in another town meant twice-daily bus trips, because she didn't own a car and wasn't planning on buying one any time soon. After the first few utterly boring trips Nic had taken a book along and started to read as soon as she'd settled into her seat. It made the journey much more enjoyable.

For the first few stops along the highway, Nic sat alone. But then, as the bus gradually filled with people, a young girl sat down beside her. The girl was blonde, long-haired, somewhat short, and looked to be quite a bit younger than Nic. She was wearing a light blue quilted jacket and black jeans, and on her back she carried a navy blue backpack, which she took off as she sat down, and placed on the floor between her feet. Nic shifted a bit closer to the window to make room, even though now she felt the chill from the cold pane of glass on her right side.

As the bus drove on at an unchanging speed, the young girl started to nod off. Nic was reading her book so she didn't notice it at first. But she certainly noticed the weight of the girl's head and shoulder as the girl leaned on her, apparently fast asleep. The contact, even through layers of clothing, made Nic feel warm despite the chill of the window. She was also rather surprised; strangers didn't usually fall asleep on her on a bus. Beside her, yes, but never this way, leaning on her. She felt oddly touched that the girl seemed to feel safe enough to sleep like this -- or maybe she was just dead tired and past caring.

Soon after the bus arrived into town, the driver began to announce the stops.

"We stop at three stops before the bus station. Those are town border, college, and town hall. Next: town border."

At this, the girl beside Nic lifted up her head, straightened and put her gloves on. As the college stop was announced, she got up and put her backpack on, and left without so much as a glance at Nic.

The following morning, same thing happened. Nic sat at her usual seat, reading alone, until the bus began to fill up and the blonde girl got on. She sat next to Nic again, and for a while, managed to stay awake. But as the bus droned on, she fell asleep and soon leaned on Nic's shoulder. Nic smiled to herself and kept reading. As the girl got off at the college stop, Nic looked at her go. She didn't look back.

Wednesday morning was windy. As the girl got on the bus, Nic noticed she was wearing a knit cap with a colourful bobble. As she slept, again, on Nic's shoulder, the bobble tickled Nic's ear. As she left, she adjusted the cap before hoisting her backpack on and hurrying out.

For a couple of weeks, nothing changed much. The girl got on at the same stop every day, sat down beside Nic and -- more often than not -- fell asleep. She woke up at the driver's announcement and always got out at the college stop. The few mornings she didn't fall asleep, she played on her phone, read something or exchanged messages with someone.

One Thursday, Nic heard someone speaking on their mobile phone as they got on the bus. "Yeah, these mornings are murder. Wish I had time to make coffee... or y'know, owned a working coffeemaker! Right... see you in an hour, bye."

As the blonde girl sat down next to Nic, she put a phone into her jacket pocket, zipped it shut and settled in. Within ten minutes she was asleep on Nic's shoulder again. As she left, yet again without looking behind her, Nic noticed a pair of colourful mittens on the floor by her seat. She picked them up and put them into her coat pocket.

On Friday morning, Nic kept an eye on the blonde girl as she got on the bus, made eye contact and lifted the pair of mittens as the girl stepped next to her seat.

"I guess you left these behind yesterday morning."

"Oh yes! Thank you - I wasn't sure where I'd dropped them", the girl said breathlessly. She gave Nic a quick little smile and sat down. This time, though, she fidgeted around, fiddled with the mittens, took out her phone and sent a message to someone, browsed through her photos on it and at last, took out a pair of earbuds and started to listen to music on her phone.

When she got up to leave, she looked back at Nic and smiled shyly. Nic returned the smile and nodded.


On Sunday, Nic went through her kitchen cupboards.

"I'm sure I didn't throw it away", she muttered, climbing up on a stepstool and rummaging inside the high corner cupboard. Finally she got what she was looking for, took it out, washed it and set it on the counter beside the coffeemaker.

It snowed on Monday morning. Nic recognised the bobble even before the bus pulled up on the girl's stop. The girl got on, looked Nic in the eye, sat next to her and mumbled a quiet "morning."

"Hi", said Nic. "How's coffee sound?"

At the girl's puzzled look, Nic lifted a travel mug up from her lap. "It's hot, with brown sugar. I didn't have any milk..."

"For me? Really?"

Nic nodded. "I drank mine at home before I left, but in case you want some..."

She shrugged, feeling suddenly very presumptuous. But the girl smiled and Nic was instantly relieved.

"That's so nice of you! Thank you!" She took the mug from Nic's hands, tasted the coffee and sighed. "Just what I need. My coffeemaker broke down a couple of weeks ago and I haven't got around to replacing it yet."

The rest of the trip passed in companionable silence, with Nic reading and the blonde girl fiddling with her phone, sipping coffee. As the bus driver started to announce the stops, the girl returned Nic's mug and thanked her again.

"This was just the way I like it. And hey, I didn't sleep on you this time!"

"I didn't mind that", Nic replied.

The girl left, this time with a smile and a nod at Nic, who nodded back, then started to gather up her things.

The following morning and every morning that week, Nic made a double batch of coffee and took the travel mug along for the blonde girl. They didn't talk much aside from greeting each other or saying thanks for the coffee. Nic wondered what the girl's name was but didn't want to pry or appear desperate. It was weird enough that she was bringing this strange kid a coffee every morning.

Luckily, the girl brought it up one day. She'd just accepted the travel mug and taken her first sip. After a thoroughly satisfied sigh she turned to Nic and said, "We haven't even introduced ourselves, but I've practically slept on top of you and you've been bringing me coffee every morning this week." At Nic's nod and a shy smile, the girl went on. "I'm Lisa. Nice to meet you."

They shook hands and Nic said, "Nic. It sure is."

They still didn't talk much, both content to spend the journey in silence; Nic with her book, Lisa with her phone -- and the coffee. This went on for another week without any changes.

Then, on a Monday morning, five weeks after their first meeting, Lisa didn't show up. Nic drank the hot coffee herself but she still felt cold. No sign of Lisa on Tuesday morning, either. Nic wondered if Lisa had suddenly been taken ill, if she'd quit school, got into an accident, started to drive (or carpool) to school... there were several possibilities. Sipping coffee, Nic mentally chastised herself. Stupid! She's just someone you share a bus with, you don't even know her. So chill.

Next morning, Nic was pleasantly surprised when Lisa got on the bus. She took a seat next to her, accepted the travel mug with a smile and thanks, and began to talk. Her voice was a bit hoarse and she kept sniffling.

"What a horrible weekend! Woke up in a fever early on Saturday morning, something like 3.30, took a couple of pills and made tea, drank it and went back to bed, shivered and managed to sleep for maybe an hour. Ransacked all my closets, took out blankets and pullovers, piled them on and slept two more hours, woke up burning hot and had to take a cold shower. Lived on tea and sandwiches that day, didn't much leave my bed. Y'know, sinuses blocked, nose dripping, headache, muscle ache and that damn temperature. Had a pizza delivered on Sunday, drank more tea, took my cold meds -- so glad I have a well-stocked medicine cabinet! - and lived until Monday. Then I had to get up and to a shop, I'd run out of tissues and tea. Bought ready-made soup, too, and chocolate. Was still too weak and dripping snot yesterday..."

"Thanks for that image!"

"You're welcome! ...But today I'm feeling loads better. I just wish I could have sent you a note or something, y'know", Lisa said and hesitated.

"Well... it's not like you owe me anything, you know. I was a bit worried... but... well, yeah..." Nic trailed off.

"Look, just in case", Lisa started, "something like this happens again... I'll give you my number, ok?" She took a notepad from her backpack, tore out a page and scribbled a number on it. She smiled shyly. "No pressure, nothing."

Relieved, Nic took the page, added the number to her contacts and quickly sent Lisa a text message. At the beep, she said, "Now you have mine. Just in case."

They didn't need to send any messages that week, or the next. Nic kept bringing coffee in the travel mug, Lisa would always drink it, and they'd spend the trip together, sometimes talking, most of the time not.


One Saturday, Nic got a short text from Lisa.

"Finally bought a new coffeemaker. Now I can return the favour. Be prepared for a coffee to go on Monday!"

Nic replied that she'd love to try it, and wondered if this could qualify as a date; they were actually planning to meet -- for coffee, even! Grinning, she dismissed the thought. They'd be on the same bus anyway, coffee or no coffee.

"Who messaged you? I've rarely seen you grin like that", Nic's friend, Olivia, remarked.

"Er... it's this girl I take the morning bus with. She finally got herself a coffeemaker so she won't fall asleep on the bus anymore. I mean, we've sort of become acquaintances since we usually end up sitting together on the bus, we've talked a bit. I think she's a student at the local college..." Nic winced; no matter how she tried to explain it, it didn't sound right to her ears.

"Talked a bit? And you have her number? Uh huh, sort of acquaintances, indeed!" Olivia chortled and sipped her drink. "Is she hot? How old is she? Do you..."

"Shut it, Liv! It's nothing like that -- she's way younger than me and we just sit together in the mornings. Would be impolite not to say a word to someone who's fallen asleep on y-- Anyway, are we going to wait for Sam and Laura to show up, or will you text them we'll see them at the cinema?"

"Fallen asleep on you? Does she like danger or did she notice what a big softie you are?" Olivia teased, gesturing at Nic's typical attire: black clothes and heavy combat boots.

Nic groaned and ran her fingers through her short, spiked hair. "This is exactly why I should never mention anything to you. We're not even friends! I mean, sure, she fell asleep on me a few times, but it happens. Early mornings are the worst, you know that."

"Sure, whatever you say", Olivia replied, laughing at Nic's flustered expression and dropped the subject.


On Monday morning, when Lisa got on the bus, she had two travel mugs with her - one for herself and one for Nic. Her smile, wide and open, took Nic's breath away for a moment.

"So, here you go -- hope it's to your liking!" Lisa said, giving the black and red mug to Nic. "Black, with sugar, right?"

"Yes, that's it. Thank you." Nic took a sip and sighed. "Yeahh... that hits the spot."

The rest of the trip passed uneventfully. Lisa got off at her usual stop, as did Nic a while later.

The following days and weeks they commuted sitting together, occasionally with their respective coffees in travel mugs. Neither was very talkative in the morning so Nic still didn't find out very much about Lisa - or vice versa. Eventually, though, they started to occasionally message each other in the afternoons and evenings, first just to let the other know if they weren't going to take the bus the following morning.

Little by little, the brief messages got longer.

Nic: Gonna get a lift from a colleague this morning, so maybe you'll get both seats to yourself tomorrow!

Lisa: OK, thx for letting me know.

(morning)

Lisa: Yay, got 2 seats for myself! Spread out and lifted my bag up :-D

(that afternoon)

Nic: See you on the bus tomorrow!

Lisa: No taxi ;-) ? See ya!

Nic: Nah, that was a one-time thing. Sorry, you're stuck with me ;-)

Lisa: Did I complain? :-D

(a week later, late evening)

Nic: Maybe I'll be the one to fall asleep on you tomorrow! Just finished marathoning One Day at a Time and I'm dead tired.

Lisa: Good show, huh? Well I won't mind, turnabout's fair play :-)

Nic: So good! Funny AF but still very ...maybe educational is the wrong word here, but you get the idea. Will tell you all about it if I can stay awake.

Lisa: And if you can't, here's a living breathing pillow ;-) Good night!

Nic: Night!

(another morning)

Lisa: FFS, forgot to set my alarm, overslept and missed the bus!

Nic: Oh no! What are you going to do?

(later)

Lisa: My brother's an angel, he gave me a ride! And I only had to promise to dogsit for him next month when he's spending a weekend with some buddies.

Nic: How late were you? Or not at all?

Lisa: Just five minutes or so, no biggie.

Nic: *whew* Btw, dogsitting?

Lisa: Yeah, he has an Irish Setter. Lovely dog (good girl :-D !) but super energetic, can't take her everywhere you'd want to.

Nic: Ok. Wish I had a dog... *sigh*

(that evening)

Lisa: You like dogs? How come you don't have one?

Nic: Damn allergy. I'm not allergic to cats, though, but I'm SO not a cat person.

Lisa: No crazy cat lady ;-P ?

Nic: Crazy, yes. Cat, no. Lady, hell no :-D

Lisa: :-D Alrighty then!

(later)

Lisa: Hey, what was the name of that author? The book you were reading? I'm at the library and forgot...

Nic: It was Tropical Storm by Melissa Good.

Lisa: OK, thanks!

Lisa: Yay, I got it! Now do not disturb, I'm reading!

Nic: You got it :-)

(a few days later)

Lisa: Finished the book! It was GREAT! Anyway... Christmas is coming up and I'll be on holidays for a couple of weeks. Just a heads up, I won't be on the bus after tomorrow.

Nic: OK, thanks. See you tomorrow?

Lisa: Sure!


On Friday morning, they sat in their usual seats again, together for the last time -- before the holidays.

Nic remarked, "So you get two weeks off for the holidays? Nice!"

"Yeah, the students started their holidays today, but I still have one more day of work."

"Wait, I thought you were a student...?"

"Nope, I'm a teacher! How old do you think I am, anyway?"

"Uhh... best to not go there." Nic was embarrassed beyond belief. "Way younger than I am, anyway, and I'm thirty-two."

Lisa laughed. "Well, I am younger than you, but only by four years."

Nic soon recovered and took a small parcel out of her bag. "Anyway, I got you a little something, seeing as it's soon Christmas and all..."

"Thanks! And now it will be less awkward when I give you this!" Lisa replied and produced her own parcel. "Here, don't open it ahead of time!"

To her growing embarrassment, Nic blushed. "Thank you -- you really didn't have to... er... yeah, thank you."

As the bus driver started to announce the stops, Lisa got up and motioned Nic to do the same. Puzzled, she did -- and was immediately engulfed in a tight hug. Lisa's long hair tickled her face and she could smell Lisa's perfume -- something flowery, with a hint of spice.

"Happy Christmas, Nic. And... thank you for all these mornings! I'll see you again on the fifth of January."

"Thank you. And happy Christmas to you, too!"

Lisa's last words stayed with Nic for the entire day -- and they returned to her every now and then all through Christmas.

"So glad I decided to sit next to you that one morning!"