Jason Beech, author of A Detour, is a New Jersey resident, but was forged in Sheffield, England. He’s the author of five crime novels and three short story collections which span crime, noir, historical, and supernatural. His short stories have featured in The Flash Fiction Offensive, Punk Noir Magazine, Spelk Fiction, Plots with Guns, Close to the Bone, and Shotgun Honey.
Down Interstate 71, in the middle of a bus that stank of coffee, cigarettes, and desperation, I mouthed answers to questions I always flubbed in job interviews. Regurgitated nonsense about where I’d wanna be in five years when I couldn’t think past next week.
That’s when he came at me like a puppet without strings, wiry arms out of a t-shirt showing off a band I’d never heard of. The ache in my jaw told me my face forced the other bus passengers into any available seat except the one next to me. But not this big dope.
If I breathed through my nose, his Axe would live in my nostrils for days. If I breathed through my mouth, I’d choke and leave my family alone with a mortgage and no life insurance.
He swayed his ass this way and that until it fitted the seat, and twirled his face my way. “You in for the long haul?”
He knew language. “Three hours in.”
He whistled, somehow a more musical sound than the heavy bass of his regular breathing. “You off to see a loved one?”
I shook my head. He duck-billed his lips at my lack of follow-through and scratched at the beard I reckoned he should take off in this heat. He rubbed his bony hands, both self-tattooed.
“That’s where I’m heading. To my woman.” He lifted the arm nearest to me to adjust the settings to blast cold air. That Axe suffocated my senses for a moment.
My couldn’t-care-less nod should have discouraged him, but he took heart instead. Stretched his body straight in the seat and dug into his pants, so deep I expected him to come back out with coal. He leaned into my shoulder and displayed a picture on his cellphone. I could make out a pretty blonde amidst the wavy lines, a photo from a computer screen.
This man towered over me. A crumb from his breakfast threatened to fall from his facial hair and crush my bones. A dating app love story. If that photo is real, did he use a truthful picture of himself in return? If I had money in my wallet to spare, I’d pay to see her face when this man lumbered into her presence.
“She’s hot, right?”
“She’s a good-looking woman. You need a stranger’s opinion?”
That slow-punctured the man’s enthusiasm. “No, man, it’s just, you know, I never met her. And you know, I’m no Paul Newman, am I?” He didn’t wait for my answer. “Today’s the day. Got butterflies in my belly.” Laughed the edge from his nerves away the best he could, but only exposed the jagged remains all the more.
“Look, I gotta prepare for an interview.”
“I wouldn’t call it big, but it’s do-or-die. Bills up the wazoo … and all that.” My grandma always said when poverty worms through your door, love jumps out the window.
My stomach flipped at how I exposed myself. I pulled out the phone to advertise my unsociable mood, but his shoulder smothered mine all the more.
The horizon never ended. Ahead, a thousand miles of scrubland, cornfields, and gas stations more used to tumbleweed than custom. Nothing to divert me from this man.
“What does your lady look like?”
I rolled the news feed up and down, the headlines card-flipping past my attention. He bounced his knees up and down, turned from my phone, not at all discouraged by me withholding info. My wife didn’t show her anger at the way I got fired, showed even less when I headed out of state to find work, but she sure as hell would flare up at the knowledge I showed her off like a prize cow to this man.
“Oh man, my lady, she’s in for a surprise.”
The man used a Brad Pitt-style photo … I knew it. “She’s seen your picture?”
He bit his lip. “Sure she has. Yeah.”
“But?” I don’t know what dragged me into his story. Did the woman actually expect Paul Newman?
“No buts. She, she doesn’t know I’m coming, is all.” The cog in his laugh cranked a little hard, missed a gear.
He slid a touch down his seat, folded his arms over his belly, and closed his lids. A snore revved from his open mouth, and he leaned in to squish me against the window. I squirmed out of his unconscious entrapment and stretched my legs. His stop came before mine. He stretched his arms, armpit hair sprung out of his t-shirt, and he reassured himself.
He nodded as he walked past me. “Wish me luck.”
I saw bailiffs at my door, my wife and kids moving into a one-bedroom apartment, eating beans from tins, but none of it compared to this blonde woman on a morgue’s slab. I slid into his slipstream to see what I could do to help the poor lady.
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