It was hot and humid in the bus. The vinyl seat was sticky making me wish I'd worn slacks instead of a skirt. The windows were covered with a film of moisture distorting what little view there was. Mile after mile of barren land. Here and there a plowed field and occasionally a planted acre or two, but most of the land had gone to weeds and field flowers. It was a desolate sight and one that spoke of loneliness and broken dreams. “How ironic,” I thought.
Waiting for three hours for the bus to come, three long hours, had given me plenty of time to reflect, and to leave here was my only choice. The choice had been made some time ago but as to its soundness, till now, there was doubt. Actually it was more of a solution than a choice. This was home I was leaving. The only home I'd ever known. Until that fateful summer I'd been happy. There was family, friends, my job, my home, my history. When the bus finally arrived I held back and was the last to board as if hoping for some miracle to prevent me having to go, and then only after the driver asked, "Well Miss, are you coming or what?" while he impatiently tapped the steering wheel and the air brakes made their whooshing boarding sound. The last empty seat was the one across from him. A seat by itself with no one on either side. That was a good thing. I didn't want to talk to anyone and probably would have been rude if anyone tried to strike up a conversation.
I tried to sleep but nightmares woke me every time I dozed off. At one time I must have yelled or said something because the driver inquired if I was okay. I nodded “yes.” and his eyes went back to the road ahead. A long, long stretch of road to where? I didn't know. Hadn't asked. Just bought the first ticket out of town.
I'd bought a bottled drink and a sandwich out of a vending machine at the bus stop. The drink had become lukewarm and the sandwich tasted like cardboard but I ate and drank out of need and thought about what had brought me to this moment in life.
Because of my lack of experience I hesitated when my best friend, Carolyn, asked me to watch her three little ones one night so they could go out to dinner and then see a movie. When she noticed me hesitate she explained that her regular baby sitter was out of town. Then she literally begged me saying there was no one else she would trust with their care. I finally agreed hoping Bill wouldn't mind being left alone for an evening. Even when I was a school girl I didn't baby sit as most of my friends did so I didn't have much experience and Bill and I didn't have children yet, nor were there any nieces or nephews. We planned to have children, but right then we couldn't afford it. We were content. We had a lovely home, entertained a lot, travelled, went to concerts and the theatre, and both of us loved our jobs. It was a good life and our home had two spare bedrooms waiting for when the time was right.
What I couldn’t remember at the time I remember now, vividly. They were cute kids and all and all pretty well behaved. I fed them dinner, gave them their baths, read them a story and waited until they were all sound asleep. I left the door ajar so I could hear if one of them woke up. Then I went downstairs, found the liquor cabinet and made myself a stiff one and took it into the living room. The drink went down so quickly I made another. After the evening I'd had chasing the kids and listening to all the yelling, etc., I really needed a couple of drinks. The house was warm and their AC wasn’t working so I opened all the living room windows and welcomed the nice cool breeze. “During the next commercial I’ll go and open the kid’s windows too,” I vowed.
Finishing the second drink I felt more relaxed, lit another cigarette, pushed a pile of newspapers on the coffee table aside, set the cigarette in an ashtray and then put my head back to watch TV.
The next thing I knew I woke up and was in a hospital. Most of my right side was heavily bandaged including a portion of my face. I didn't know pain could be so intense. It was pure agony and pain killers merely took the edge off.
I asked the nurse who was adjusting something on one of the bottles hanging over my head what had happened. She told me she wasn’t allowed to talk to me about anything. Just then my husband, Bill, walked in. He walked up to the bed with a look of utter disgust on his face and told me I'd fallen asleep with a lit cigarette. "How could you Marilyn? Carolyn trusted you and because of you all her children are dead. I can't stand to look at you and I don't want to ever again. It should have been you who died, not them. Those poor helpless little kids. And Carolyn and Mike never will recover. How many times have I told you to cut down on the drinking? It got out of hand Marilyn. And to stop smoking? You’re a sloppy smoker. There’re cigarette burns all over our house. I hope they lock you up and throw away the key."
"I don't remember Bill. I honestly don't remember anything after putting the kids to bed. I would have tried to save them. I would. I wish with all my heart it had been me instead of them. Please believe me." I reached for his hand and he recoiled as if a snake were about to strike.
"When the shock and pain wear off you'll remember. I hope the memory makes the rest of your life hell for you. I want nothing more to do with you," Bill replied and left. I never saw him again.
The story was all over the hospital and it wasn’t long before a nurse couldn’t stand my insistent questioning any longer and finally told me what she knew. It seems a man was walking his dog, saw smoke in the window of the house, used his cell phone and called 911. They found me first. I was on the floor halfway to the stairs leading up to the kid’s rooms. Obviously I’d woken up and tried to get to them but had become overcome by the smoke and passed out. They took me out first then went back in for the kids but it was too late.
I spent seven years of a fifteen-year sentence in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Not one person visited me in all that time. Not my husband, mother, father, sisters or any of my many friends. Bill divorced me and has since remarried.
I was shunned by my fellow inmates. Not so much because of my disfigurements as for the fact that any perpetrator of a crime involving children was considered a monster and most lived in fear of being killed by one of the other inmates. I was no exception and was given a private cell for my protection. A guard went with me any time I was let out of that cell. I guess being shunned was getting off easy. Most of the guards felt as the inmates did and it would have been easy for one of them to look the other way for a minute or two.
And now I sit on this bus wondering where to go from here knowing all along that it doesn’t matter. There’s nowhere I belong, not any more.