Stuff happening around me finds its way into my plots all the time. This time an altercation on the bus turned into a drabble, which turned into a little story. Enjoy.
Mara didn’t want to get dressed. In fact she never wanted to get up again. She stared at the ice flowers on the window and ignored Sister Anne’s every effort to get her to work in time. Mara wanted Sister Elizabeth back, whose gray hair curled in soft wisps around her face when she wasn’t wearing her cap. Who had held Mara as a child and routed her monsters, and for whom Mara had agreed to go to work and paint postcards that could be sold for clothes and rent money. It wasn’t fair of her to leave Mara all alone now. Mean and thoughtless, that’s what it was, and it made Mara so angry that she wondered if people could burst from wrath.
Nearly seven thirty; the Mother Superior would come in soon and scold Sister Anne, who still didn’t believe that Mara could read the clock.
“The child misses Elizabeth,” the Mother Superior said gently, when she finally came into the room.
“She’s just being lazy, and she’s not a child anymore,” said Sister Anne.
The Mother Superior sighed. “Why don’t you help with breakfast, Sister.”
She waited until Sister Anne had left the room, then sat on Mara’s bed. “Why do you insist on giving poor Sister Anne such a hard time, child?” she asked.
“She has stolen the stories and keeps them locked up, so I can’t get at them.”
“Sister Elizabeth always gave me stories.”
The Mother Superior sat for a long time, following Mara’s gaze and admiring the ice crystals on the glass with her. Then she said, “Stories can’t be taken away from you or imprisoned, child. They are a part of you. You will just have to learn to find them without Sister Elizabeth’s help. They might not be apparent at first, but they are there, and once you’ve spotted them, you’ll wonder how you could ever have thought they were gone in the first place.”
She stood and clapped her hands. “Now, time to clean up and get dressed. You’ll have precious little time for breakfast as it is.” She turned to leave, never doubting for a second that her commands would be followed, but then stopped again, one hand on the doorknob. “Shall I ask Peter to pick you up from the bus stop?”
“Oh yes,” Mara said, feeling a little better. She had been riding the bus on her own for three years now and wasn’t afraid she’d get lost anymore, but it seemed only fair to her that a familiar face would be waiting for her there, when a familiar face had been taken from her here.
The Mother Superior nodded. “I’ll tell him to include you in his route for now.”
Mara made sure she had a secure seat before getting the book out that the Mother Superior had given her. The floor of the bus was covered in slush and the thought of dropping the book in it horrified her. She carefully walked her finger through the pages, waiting for the stories to show themselves to her, like she had been told they would. But her patience was wearing thin, and finally she looked up with an exasperated sigh and idly watched a mother and child step off the bus and a man get on. His white hair and beard needed a trim and his silver-rimmed glasses had been fashionable thirty years ago, but his clothes, though a motley team, were new and of good quality, and the bus knelt to him like a squire to his prince.
He had pulled down the knitted ear flaps of his golf cap against the cold. Walking down the aisle he smiled and nodded to the people he passed until a young man with very short fingernails and a scrape on one knuckle offered him his seat, and the bus driver courteously waited until the prince had sat down and pulled out a paper.
As the bus began to move again, Mara went back to her book. But her gaze kept returning to the prince and the young man with short nails – the gamekeeper, she thought. He would be the gamekeeper. Unemployed of course, ever since the coup.
She began to study the other passengers more closely, trying to guess where their allegiances lay. The coachman was a royalist, of course. But the woman with the leopard print coat and faux tortoiseshell sunglasses struck Mara as odd. Despite her show of noblesse, there was something off about her. The carefully painted nails a touch too bright, the golden curls a hint too brassy. Secret service, no doubt about it. Mara tried to give the prince’s nurse a hint. The tiny, ancient lady who time had reduced to the barest essentials kept chatting much too confidingly to her dangerous neighbor. Mara squirmed in her seat until she saw the prince wink at her. Ah, of course, it was all a ploy. She nodded to tell him that she understood perfectly. Everything fell into place. The unruly bunch in the back might not be wearing uniforms, but she’d know them for soldiers of the usurper anywhere. It looked as if the general wasn’t content anymore with having stolen the throne. He probably felt threatened by the rising number of royalists and wanted to make sure the prince would never be able to return.
One of the soldiers took out a cigarette and a lighter, but when he was about to smoke it on the bus, the prince politely asked him to refrain. The soldier jumped up and stood in front of the prince, forcing him to look up. “Care to repeat that, old man?” he said.
Mara gasped at his unbelievable lack of breeding, but the prince nodded.
“I merely asked you to wait with that cigarette until you’re outside,” the prince said with a gently smile.
The soldier bent forward and shoved his face close to the prince’s. “And who said you could talk to me?”
Un-be-lievable. How dare he talk to the prince like that? Mara put her book away and went around the soldier so she could see his face. “Haven’t you been taught anything?” she shouted. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Show some respect.” The soldier turned towards her and raised his arm, but found it held suddenly by the gamekeeper. “Why don’t you do us all a favor and sit back down,” the young man said quietly.
The other soldiers had been laughing, but now two more of them got up and moved menacingly forward.
Just then, the bus stopped and the coachman made his way towards the back.
“What’s going on here?” he wanted to know.
“Shut up and drive,” said the first soldier, and the others laughed.
The coachman opened the door. “Out!” he said to the first soldier.
“I don’t have to,” said the coachman. “I just have to make a phone call and then we can all sit tight and wait for the cavalry, if that’s what you prefer.”
The soldier made a big show of not backing down, but his threats deflated to mere bluster at that point, and he finally left. The two who had started up to take on the gamekeeper left with him, the rest stayed and kept their mouths shut. The coachman returned to his seat, the gamekeeper looked at Mara. “You’re very brave,” he said. “but you should be a little more careful who you take on.”
She smiled at him and nodded once more to the prince, who said, “Thank you, my dear, you have a noble heart.”
Mara sat down just in time; the bus lurched forward and the rest of the ride went by without incident. There was still the secret agent in the leopard print coat, of course, who had been too careful to reveal herself. The prince might know about her, but even so, Mara vowed to keep an eye out for her.
Peter’s red and white minibus waited for her at the stop.
“Tomorrow,” Mara told him as she climbed in, “you don’t need to pick me up.”