Tabitha looked out the window resolutely, the bus trundled onwards, slowly making its way to her destination. Her neck was starting to feel a little sore, but she didn’t want to turn it. Her headphones were firmly placed over her ears, but she wasn’t really listening to the music anymore. She was just waiting until she could finally get off the bus. She shifted slightly in her seat, moving closer to the window. Beside her the old woman didn’t move.
Tabitha didn’t know why the woman chose that seat of all the others, the bus was practically empty, when the woman got on there were only two others sitting upstairs. She had been surprised when she saw the old woman at the top of the stairs, the woman looked to be at least in her late eighties and seemed to be very unsteady on her feet. If Tabitha had of been her she would have sat downstairs, and at the very front. The woman had scanned the upper floor and started walking down the aisle. Her skin was wrinkled, more deeply than Tabitha had seen of someone outside a care home, thick furrows lining her mouth, eyes and forehead. She didn’t look like a pleasant woman either, the wrinkles looked as though they had come from years of frowning and pursing her lips. The woman had a smell about her too. Not a smell of body odour, it was a smell of old books and dusty rooms. She was bundled in layers of clothes too, thick jackets that seemed to go on and on. If Tabitha had seen the woman on the street, she would have thought she was homeless. The woman had tottered over to Tabitha’s seat and sat down next to her. Pulling her coat around herself a bit tighter and placing her handbag in her lap. Tabitha had moved over when the woman sat down, but she could still feel the coats bushing into her and an elbow that was uncomfortably jabbing into her side every time the bus turned. It was always a short jab though, never long enough that she could reasonably complain. The woman hadn’t spoken to her at least, that was something, she always found bus talkers to be the worst, always going on about people she had never met and would never meet. There was never a polite way to tell them stop talking either. Tabitha hadn’t minded the smell a whole lot when the woman sat down, it wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t actively bad either but the longer the woman sat beside her the worse it got. There were layers to the smell and the dust and old books were only the top of it. Underneath there were wafts of some old, stale perfume, a the scent of mildew and damp and a low smell of a rotting sea creature. Obviously the woman was old, so she probably wasn’t washing herself all that well, then there were the piles and piles of coats on top which most likely hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in decades.
The old woman opened her bag, Tabitha was jostled a little bit as she was opening it. A deep stench of old cigarette smoke emerged from it as the old woman started to dig through it, looking for something. Tabitha took shallow breaths, breathing through her mouth rather than her nose. She wondered why the woman didn’t smell like cigarettes, but the bag did. Maybe she’d stopped smoking and the bag just never got the message. The woman finished rummaging and closed over the bag again, as far as Tabitha could tell she didn’t actually take anything out or put anything in, she seemed to be just having a good look around. Tabitha stared out the window, it would only be another fifteen minutes until it was her stop and who knew, maybe the woman would get off before then too.
Tabitha’s stop was coming up, finally. The woman hadn’t gotten off the bus, but that didn’t matter, soon she’d be free and outside in the fresh air. Though she was worried about the smell of the old woman clinging to her clothes. As the time had passed she had started to feel a little bad for her, after all she was so old, maybe she didn’t have anyone else. Maybe she sat beside Tabitha because it was just a bit of human contact. Of course Tabitha hadn’t tried to start a conversation with the woman, that would be taking things a bit too far for Tabitha’s liking. She shifted slightly in her seat, getting ready to stand, the woman didn’t pay any attention, “Excuse me?” The woman stared ahead. “Sorry, but my stop is coming up and I need to get off here.” The old woman didn’t move and gave no indication that she heard Tabitha. Tabitha sighed, she was probably deaf, as well as mostly blind. She reached down and tapped the woman on the shoulder, trying not to shudder as she did so. The outside jacket didn’t look too clean, but she could find a bathroom and wash her hands once she was off the bus. The old woman didn’t react. Tabitha sighed, trying not to get too angry, if she didn’t get out of here in the next few seconds she would miss her stop, but the woman was too old to just barrel past, what if the old woman fell out of the seat or something. She reached down and gripped the woman’s shoulder and shook it, hard enough to get her attention but gently enough that it shouldn’t cause any problems. The old woman slowly turned her head to look up at her. Tabitha gasped and fell back into the window, she collapsed into her seat. The old woman moved her head back and continued staring forward. Tabitha’s heart was beating wildly, she didn’t notice as the bus pulled out from her stop. She forced herself against the wall, as much as she could to be as far as possible from the woman. The seats were too high to climb over and if she tried she might attract the old woman’s attention again. Tabitha was shivering uncontrollably.
The old woman heaved herself up from her seat about ten minutes later, she made her way down the aisle and finally started going down the stairs. Tabitha didn’t look at her, she stared straight ahead. As the old woman turned for the stairs she looked back at Tabitha. Tabitha could feel the old woman’s eyes on her skin. She didn’t look, didn’t glance. She watched out the window as the old woman stepped off the bus and started walking, as the bus doors closed and the bus pulled away Tabitha shuddered. Her hands were still shaking, her breathing was laboured. Tabitha reached up and opened the windows, hoping, praying it would get rid of the smell that still lingered. Tabitha stayed sitting where she was, waiting until the bus had passed a few more stops. She didn’t feel strong enough to stand and she wanted to put as much distance between herself and that woman before she got off the bus.
Outside in the fresh air she felt a little better, though she was still shaken. She looked around, unsure of exactly where she was. She looked back up the street, where the bus had come from, half expecting to see the old woman toddling towards her. Suppressing another shudder, Tabitha walked to the small shop nearby, there she bought herself a can of coke and a chocolate bar. She was in shock, sugar was supposed to be good for shock. Outside she unwrapped the chocolate, as the smell of it hit her so did a wave of nausea. She quickly threw it into the nearby bin. After a few deep breaths she opened the coke and took a sip. That seemed to help settle her stomach. There had been a few things she wanted to get done today, but there was nothing important. Tabitha crossed the road and hailed a taxi. She would go home, go straight there and lock her doors. Already deciding that she wouldn’t be getting that bus again. She got into the taxi and gave her address, she didn’t look out the windows, she was afraid she might see the old woman. When the taxi pulled up outside her house, Tabitha paid and ran to the door, not worrying about the strange look the taxi man was giving her. She opened the door and locked it behind her, then she slid down it and onto the floor. She was shaking again. She got a flash, a brief flash of the woman’s face when she looked at her. What ever it was it hadn’t just been an old woman, and it had seen her, actually seen her and Tabitha prayed to god it never saw her again.