When the cars speed past, their rumble grows and swallows Meg whole, only to let go as they pass and leave. The noise relaxes and she tumbles out of it, swaying slightly as they round the bend. Her hand is wrapped around the metal pole, the thin edge of it pressing a line into her skin. The old man in the rain hat next to her is peering into her face sideways, and she pulls on a smile for him, faintly and without much conviction. He grins at her under his bushy mustache.
The bus appears at the edge of the road, barreling down the hill with a roar. When it shivers to a halt before them, smelling of oil and metal, she starts and digs in her bag for coins. The bus doors are starting to close when she scrambles onto the steps and clinks the coins down. There is only one seat empty, so Meg plants herself there and hugs her purse to her chest.
“Hi there,” says the lady sitting at the window. “Are you a follower of Christ our Lord?”
Meg tries to put on a polite smile, and shakes her head just enough to see.
“No?” The woman’s eyes widen, wrinkles creasing her forehead. “Why you devil, then! Go take your red skin and your tail down under, into the sewers, flames and all.”
The words worm into her ears and she flinches, hunched and small in the bus seat. She looks straight down at the ridges of the floor, keeping her face averted. Her heart is pounding painfully in her chest. The woman leans closer.
“You think you can escape, oh no. You’ll be burning with the rest of them, oh you evil thing you. Nobody loves a sinner, you know.” The woman’s voice is grating, high and unwieldy. The bus lurches to a stop, and Meg gets up. She has to sidle around the crazy lady, ducking past her and letting her steps propel her onto the sidewalk and then a few paces more. When she peeps up, nobody has followed her. She begins to walk, sucking in a deep breath. The supermarket is at the next stop, but it’s only a couple of blocks. Meg slings her purse over her shoulder and scuttles around the homeless man draped over the curb, his cardboard sign tilting dangerously in the wind.
When she gets to the story, she swings a basket out of the stack and surprises herself with the motion. The first few feet inside the door are piled with pots of flowers, and she walks through the yellow-and-pink sweet-scented flurry – two for ten! – and then dives into the produce aisle. There the bushy handfuls of parsley and the streak of red in the rubber-banded chard calm her. This is familiar, gently dripping water, and perfectly ordinary.
After a moment judging weight and bruised spots, she reaches for a plastic bag. The quick movement of another person makes her cringe, but when she looks up it is the old man from the bus stop, with his rain hat and mustache. He looks just as startled by her for a moment, but then his face relaxes with recognition.
“Oh!” he says. “You again, hello!”
She feels so grateful to him that she smiles, her eyes vague, and can’t think of any words. He gives her a rather worried smile back and hurries away, leaving her lost, unsteady, clutching a bell pepper and staring after a stranger.