I felt a hand on my arm as the Greyhound started to slow. Turning, I looked into the eyes of the woman sat next to me, her face lined with age, hair grey and pulled into a bun. She had introduced herself as Esme a couple of hours ago. Said she lived in the next town from mine with her husband of 53 years. She was kind and gentle and very understanding. She was also a great listener.
“Try and relax, honey. We can’t go any faster than we are already.” I sighed and tried to calm the feeling of panic that was threatening to overwhelm me,
“If things don’t work out, you come stay with me a while. We can help you figure out what to do.”
I closed my eyes and laid my head back. It had been three years since I had seen my home town. Three long, lonely years. My only consolation was the correspondence from Mary Alice. I looked forward to my weekly letter, reading and re-reading until I could quote it by heart. I committed every sweet word to my memory and held them there like a light in a dark place. Until I had written I was finally coming home. Then they had stopped and I had no idea whether she would want me or not.
It wasn’t her fault, the way things turned out. I had often wondered how different things might have been, if I’d just asked her out on a date instead of hiding in a booth watching her day after day. I loved to watch her in the diner, floating between the customers as she served them, balancing piles of crockery in her arms and wiping tables. She was so tiny and perfect, her dark hair framing her face and her eyes shining with laughter. She was always so bubbly and full of life.
Trouble is, I wasn’t the only one noticing her. There were always men ogling her and making obscene suggestions. It made my blood boil to hear her being disrespected. She could always handle herself, though. Well, until that last night at least.
When I saw her in the bar, it was like kismet or something. I had all but made up my mind to court her, like the lady she was. When he approached her, I was watching, as usual, but this time things were different. He was big and mean looking, and he pushed her against the wall, putting his hands on either side of her, trapping her like a hunter after his prey. I was already on my way over when her frightened eyes met mine, silently pleading for help. He was even bigger up close, but that didn’t phase me. I may be slim, but I’m strong and my years in the army had given me plenty of training in combat. He didn’t stand a chance.
I tried to reason with him, truly I did, but when he told me to butt out and touched her with his filthy hands, I saw red. The fight, if that’s what you want to call it, didn’t last long. I broke his nose and maybe a couple of fingers, had him on the floor crying like a baby and begging me to back off. He would have had worse if Mary Alice hadn’t stepped in then and asked me to stop. I would do anything for her.
I wondered if she would be afraid of me, then. Violence isn’t pretty at any time, but when it happens right in front of your eyes, especially such beautiful eyes, well, it could’ve been a shock. She wasn’t angry, though. She just looked at me with such trust that my heart melted. All I wanted to do was take care of this woman for the rest of my life. We left the bar, then, her arm in mine. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was so focused on her, that I didn’t hear the others following us. It wasn’t ‘til we were in the parking lot that they attacked. Even bastards have friends.
She ran for help, but by the time the police arrived, it was almost over. They arrested me and even though the judge acknowledged it was in self-defence, he said I was dangerous and uncontrolled and he sent me down for manslaughter. Now I was a free man in the eyes of the law, but I was still a prisoner in my heart and Mary Alice had the key to release me.
I had told her in my last letter that I would be coming home today. There was a big, old tree just up from the bus stop that I used to climb as a child. I told her that if she still wanted me, that she should tie a yellow ribbon round it, so I could see it. If there wasn’t one there, I would stay on the bus and leave town, try to forget about her and blame myself for destroying her life.
Esme had been real nice and had kept up my spirits, but I couldn’t stop the tension now as we drove down the dusty road towards town. In fact, most of the bus was waiting, having caught my talking about the ribbon. It wasn’t ‘til Esme took my hand that I realised I was shaking. This was worse than any war. I almost didn’t want to look as we turned down the main highway. Maybe she had already answered me, by not replying. It was one thing having a relationship through a letter, but another thing entirely having a killer in your life.
Then suddenly, the whole damn bus erupted, cheering and clapping, big smiles on their faces. I looked out the window and could hardly believe my eyes. There wasn’t one ribbon on that tree. There were hundreds of ‘em, all yellow and waving. Every branch was covered, and a big, bright ribbon was wound all the way up that trunk like a bandage. Everyone was clapping my shoulders and shaking my hand as I made my way down the aisle of the bus. Then I saw her. She was all dressed in yellow, with a big yellow bow in her hair, her eyes light and shining, tears streaming down her face. I jumped off the bus and made my way slowly towards her, drinking her in like a starving man, wanting to keep this picture in my mind forever. She took my hands then, and smiled up at me.
“You’ve kept me waiting a long time,” she said.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” I replied.
Then I kissed her.