Nick dropped into his seat near the back of the bus, tucking his small carry-on bag under his feet. With a glance around at the other passengers, he noticed in dismay that his rather boisterous neighbours from the plane had managed to follow him on.
This day just kept getting better.
But then his gaze landed on the woman now entering the bus, the kind one he'd met during their plane purgatory.
Diane, her name was.
She had pretty blonde hair caught up in a clip and eyes that had seemed kind despite the tension tugging at their corners. Brief though their interaction had been, Nick couldn't help but admit she'd made an impression.
She took a seat near the front and stared out the window. He noticed that the seat next to her remained unoccupied. Perhaps he could…?
Nick was on his feet and halfway up the aisle before his thoughts caught up with him. What if she didn't want him to sit there? What if she hadn't liked him or thought him strange?
What if, worse yet, she simply didn't remember him at all?
Perhaps he should reintroduce himself in some way. Mustn't make it awkward though. Well, if it was good enough the first time…
"Do you mind if I sit here again? Those drunk people from our plane are snoring back there!"
She glanced up at him and – thank the heavens – she smiled in recognition.
"Hello, Nick! Please do!"
He slid into the seat next to her as the bus took off, jostling him a little closer to her than he'd originally intended. He could feel the warmth along his thigh where her knee had pressed into him. It was…pleasant. It had been far too long since he'd sat close with anyone, let alone a beautiful woman like her.
"I thought we'd lost you" she said, smiling up at him.
He flushed. She'd been looking out for him. Not only had she remembered him, she'd been looking out for him.
"No, no, I just needed to get an emergency prescription filled" he responded. "Uh, my medication's in my suitcase" he gestured his thumb over his shoulder, presumably back towards where the planes still held their cargo.
He thought he saw a flash of concern flit across her expression and immediately sought to reassure her.
"Don't worry, it's nothing serious!" he went on, though he felt a sudden reluctance to tell her what they were for. Heart medication didn't exactly set the sexiest of tones. Nick wasn't sure why, but he had the desire to come off as young, fit, healthy and cool (or even, dare he say it, attractive) rather than his usual awkward self.
Diane was still watching him so he went on jokingly "It's not like 'oh my god, he's off his medication!'"
He chuckled momentarily, until a further glance at Diane showed just how successfully that comment had gone over. The phrase "lead balloon" came to mind.
Nick felt himself turn a deeper shade of pink and shrunk down in his seat and mumbled "I'll stop talking now."
God. Nice one, Marson. Bail up the nice lady on the bus and then make her think you're crazy. That'll get her interested.
He gazed out the window in mortification until he felt a gentle arm at his elbow.
"It's fine" she smiled.
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, he thought.
"It's heart medication. I've got a slight arrhythmia. Nothing serious." Nothing sexy either, you old man he thought.
She nodded politely. He'd done it again, hadn't he? Blabbered on and overshared until he'd said goodbye to any chance of a further conversation with this woman.
"Well, there you go, everything you need to know about me" he huffed sheepishly. He returned to staring out the window, peering into the black for something to distract him, but it was just darkness.
Who knew where they were being taken. Hopefully, for both their sakes' it wasn't too far away and they'd be off the bus and he could find somewhere to curl up and quietly kick himself. This is why he didn't go out much back home. Not many friends, no girlfriend to speak of in years. Every time he tried to form a connection and went out of his comfort zone to open his mouth and speak, he'd start blithering on until eventually his awkwardness drove them away.
Best just keep to oneself.
Though this time it did seem a shame. Diane had seemed nice, kind even. And pretty, Nick couldn't help but admit to himself. Perhaps here he could have been different. But it seemed their chance at conversation was over.
"I'm allergic to bananas."
"Oh, and I've never had the chicken pox." Diane leaned into him conspiratorially. Nick felt the beginnings of a smile creep over his face as he gazed at her. Perhaps it wasn't over after all?
But then his momentary bubble of elation popped as he remembered something. She had someone already.
"Any news yet about your husband who was flying today?"
Her gaze turned sharp.
"My….no, he's…." she turned away. "Do you mind if we just don't talk about that? I haven't been able to get to a phone yet".
Nick felt awful. No wonder she'd seemed stressed and upset. Without thinking, he patted her elbow reassuringly.
"I'm sorry, I'll help you find a phone as soon as we get…wherever we're going!"
Wherever they were going turned out to be the local primary school.
Nick and Diane joined the queue of people slowly shuffling in through the small doorway to be greeted by a woman named Beulah. Welcoming though she was, her attempts at humour fell flat given the tension that had been clawing at Nick ever since the plane landed. It seemed the rest of the crowd was feeling the same way.
"Can you tell us what really happened?" one man asked.
"Yeah – 'an accident in New York', that's all they told us" another chimed in.
After Beulah pointed them towards the televisions in the cafeteria, Nick took up a spot just behind Diane. He didn't know what it was but he felt drawn to her, felt compelled to remain near her.
As the news played out before them, showing image after image of smoke and rubble, Nick kept his eyes fixed on Diane. As such, he nearly missed the moment the plane struck, glancing up only when he saw Diane gasp and flinch involuntarily.
He was torn between his own horror and the impulse to reach out and comfort her. Something held him back, however. Remember, her husband was flying today. He felt hollow.
In time, Nick led Diane away to the room where an ever-growing number of telephones and computers were being set up.
"You see, I told you I'd help you find a phone once we got here!" he grinned at her in an attempt to lift her spirits, but Diane could only manage a tight, watery smile in return.
Not wanting to intrude, Nick left her to it and turned to walk out of the room. It was then that a woman bustled in carrying a tray of mobile phones and thrust one into Nick's hands before he could argue.
He stared at the device growing hot in his hand and was suddenly struck by the realisation.
He had no one.
No one waiting at home.
No one needing to know he was safe.
His gaze landed on Diane, hunched over and speaking urgently into her receiver. He hoped everything was alright. He hoped her husband was alright. Perhaps he'd landed safely. Perhaps that was even him she was speaking to now. Nick couldn't help but feel a momentary stab of envy.
Wasn't that ridiculous, being jealous of a man you hadn't even met?
Nick turned his attention back to the phone in his hand and dialled the only number he knew by memory – work.
It was mostly just to hear another voice, a familiar accent. To be able to tell someone that he was here, that he was fine. To be able to play along – just for a moment – with the idea that someone, somewhere, missed him.
The conversation was brief, perfunctory even.
"No….no I just thought… someone ought to know."
It left him feeling even emptier than before.
With a final, wistful glance at Diane, he left the phone on a nearby table, gathered up his things and left in search of a place to curl up and sleep at last.
Sometime later, Nick found himself perched on the edge of an army cot. The townspeople had managed to squeeze a few hundred of the things into the gym and many of the passengers had nabbed one for themselves already by the time Nick got there.
He had found himself an empty cot in a fairly quiet corner near the back of the gym. It hadn't taken long to arrange his belongings and lay out the pillow and threadbare blanket from the aeroplane.
Unfortunately this had meant he no longer had anything to do to occupy his time and despite his earlier exhaustion, Nick now found himself unable to sleep.
He found himself mulling, stewing, unable to escape the sense of loneliness that had set in after his phone call. It hadn't bothered him much before; the solitary nature of his existence, the quietness of his flat and the way that work took up the entirety of his focus had never been a problem.
But now, somehow, it was.
Perhaps it was simply seeing all those people with someone special in their lives, someone that would miss them when they were gone.
But a deeper part of Nick (the one that he didn't like to listen to - mostly because of how annoyingly right it was all the time) knew that it was seeing Diane with someone special her life.
During their few brief interactions, his more fanciful side had entertained the notion that they got on quite well and that a friendship might form over their time here, which could one day blossom into something more…
He sighed. She was special. But she was special to someone else already. And he was once again alone.
Besides, they would hopefully be back on the planes before too long. It was unlikely he'd see her again.
Yes, best put her out of your mind for now, Marson. Nip it in the…
"Do you mind if I camp out here?" a gentle Texan lilt broke through his thoughts.
Nick glanced up.
She smiled at him awkwardly before gesturing around behind her.
"Only, most of the beds are taken already and, well, it'd be nice to have a familiar face."
He stared at her a moment before jumping awkwardly to his feet.
"Yes! I mean, that'd be fine. Please, make yourself at home. Er, can I help you with those?" he reached for her luggage at the same time she did, their hands meeting briefly before retreating with an awkward laugh.
They repeated the same clumsy dance a further three times as Diane made up her cot, Nick hovering self-consciously in the background.
Later, as they lay side by side in neighbouring cots, Nick rolled over onto his side to face her in the dim light.
"So, did you manage to hear any news from home?" he asked.
"Yes," she responded with a relieved sigh. "All good news, he landed safely."
"Good. Good to hear it" Nick replied, refusing to examine the part of him that was disappointed.
She's not for you, Marson. Let it go. Besides, a holiday romance isn't exactly you, is it?
But a quiet sniffle made him glance up again. Even in the darkness, he could see tears quietly tracking down Diane's cheeks. He felt a pang in his chest and without thinking he reached out and took her hand, squeezing gently.
As she squeezed back, intertwining their fingers, he made a decision. He may not have anybody waiting for him back home. He may not be anyone to anybody.
But here, in this moment, he could be a comfort to her.