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Beck Finley

We're Sorry We Hit Your Dog

The Number Three bus is late, and this makes Lena nervous so she pushes her scarf deeper inside her parka, lifts her chin and pulls up the zipper as far as it will go. Inside her mitten four quarters jingle as her fingers tic. She gapes at the street and hopes this will bring the bus.

"We wait," she says. "Wait and wait." This time she speaks louder and the man in the pea coat looks at her and then looks away. Same as us. Lena shrugs. Everyday same as us. It is the anniversary of the first bus ride by herself and to celebrate Lena is going to the movies instead of to the school where she learns how to balance her checkbook, water color, cook spaghetti. If they ask tomorrow, she thinks, we'll tell them we were sick.

The man in the pea coat stands next to the bus shelter and there is a paper bag in one of his hands. The sidewalk is scraped clear of snow, but he stamps his thin dress shoes on the pavement. Lena considers going inside the shelter but doesn't want to go near the man. He pushes up his sleeve and checks his watch. The bag falls from his hand, hits his leg and then lands on the sidewalk. The man swears, picks up the bag, brushes it off with his other hand.

"Pottymouth," Lena says. The man glances at her, wrinkles his nose. He smiles for a second then relaxes his mouth.

"Stupid grin," Lena says. Stares at us like we're a girlie-girl. "Take a picture, picture. Why don't ya?"

The sun goes behind a cloud and the wind picks up, so Lena clenches her teeth and makes her way past the man into the shelter. He watches Lena pass and then turns his back to her, leaning his head forward. He pinches the bag between his knees, holding it there while he turns up the collar of his coat.

"Piece of cake." Lena rubs her mittened hands together and the cold quarters slide into her palm. She stands on tip-toe to check the schedule pasted to the wall; her reflection in the Plexiglass. Always surprised to see herself, Lena looks closer; white-blond hair and gray eyes made lighter in the seeming-absence of eyebrows and eyelashes.

We could be beautiful, she thinks and smiles at her reflection. She winks and before her eye shuts completely she detects a trace of silver in the iris. Quickly, she reopens her eye hoping to catch the light, but the iris stays flat-gray, holding on to shadows like corrugated tin.

Lena uses her teeth to pull off one of her mittens, the one without the quarters, and stuffs it into her pocket. Butterfly kiss, she thinks and flutters her eyelashes against the pads of her fingers. We're getting too old for that, she thinks and unzips her jacket. From the inside pocket she takes out her notepad and a pencil.

The pencil is thin and red. It came in the mail with a sweepstakes entry and fits perfectly in the spiral top of the notepad. In block letters on the cover of the notebook is written, "Lena Tyler." She opens the notebook to the middle and in the same block letters Lena writes, "Number Three Bus to Grandview Movie Theater." She is a good speller. She makes a note of the man in the pea coat. As she writes she presses the notepad against the glass of the shelter.

Two people, a man and a woman, tramp into the shelter. The man yanks the ink-stained sleeve of his tan coat over his hand and brushes the snow off the bench for the woman. The woman tugs at the bottom of her short jacket, trying to sit on the hem. The fringe of her skirt drags in the snow so she folds it around her legs. On her feet the woman wears hiking boots and short white socks. Lena would like to ask the woman why she isn't wearing leggings or hose. The man checks the schedule.

Lena marks the two down in the notebook and then slides the pencil into the spiral of the notepad and puts them both back into the inner pocket of her coat. Single-handedly she puts on her mitten. She shakes the quarters in the other mitten back down to her fingertips and arranges herself on the bench a few feet from the woman. The snow on the floor of the shelter is slippery, packed down and shiny like glass.

The man gazes over Lena's head, surveying the Taco John's and the comic book store behind the shelter. "You hungry, Audrey?" the man asks. He is buck-toothed, and since he has turned around, Lena sees there is a grease spot on the front of his jacket.

With eyes squinted the woman regards Lena. Lena settles into the bench and feels the powdery snow melting under her pants.

"Maybe just coffee," Audrey says. She runs her hands down the front of her jacket, pinches the bottom of the pockets. "I don't have much more than bus fare," she says.

"I got it," the man says waving his hand at Audrey. He steps out of the shelter and heads toward Taco John's. The man in the pea coat steps away from Audrey's friend as he passes. Lena hears Audrey snicker to herself. What's so funny?

Lena wonders what time it is; when the bus will come. She smacks her lips. There is a twenty-dollar bill pinned to the inside pocket of her jacket. "We'll get popcorn," she says.

"What's that?" Audrey looks at Lena.

"Popcorn," Lena says. "At the movies." Don't talk to strangers. Lena stares straight ahead, but Audrey doesn't remove her gaze.

"I love the movies." Audrey says. "What's playing?"

"Don't know," Lena says.

"It's been ages since I've seen a movie," Audrey says.

Reluctantly Lena returns Audrey's look and notices that Audrey's hair is coal-black and spills over her shoulders and down her back. if we could just touch it or comb it, she thinks.

"Like a mermaid," Lena says. The hair is parted in the middle, the scalp underneath elegant and white.

"Thank you," Audrey says. "It's my pride and joy." She gathers the hair in her hand. "The only thing I have," she says. "Except George." Audrey drops the fistful of hair and nods toward Taco John's. "He's real good to me."

Lena folds her hands in her lap. She remembers the buck teeth and the grease spot. -Don't talk to strangers, she repeats in her head. She tries to remember why not. She smiles at Audrey. "We don't talk to you," she says and turns away, slouching down on the bench. All of that beautiful hair. Audrey stands up, her skirt falling to the snow. Lena holds her smile even though she doesn't mean it anymore and stares straight ahead.

The man in the pea coat looks to the left. He wedges the paper bag under his arm, takes a dollar from his pocket, steps closer to the curb. Lena cranes her neck to see down the street. The pea coat man is never wrong about the bus; it's half a block away. Lena takes baby steps out of the shelter.

"Oh, shit," Audrey says and waves at the Taco John's.

The bus stops, half-empty. No one gets off. Lena takes a seat on a side-ways bench behind the driver. The man in the pea coat sits a few seats back, takes out a newspaper from the paper bag. Audrey talks to the driver, gesturing down the stairs and toward the street. She hasn't crossed the white line into the bus, but she has paid her fare. The driver reaches for the metal bar that closes the door but Audrey takes a step down, stalls in the doorway.

Lena stands to look out the window. She can see George running from Taco John's. Not going to make it, she thinks. He's slowed down by a white take-out bag he carries in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Audrey claps him on the back when he makes it to the bus. She takes the coffee from him while he fishes for change in his pockets. The driver won't let Audrey bring the coffee aboard, so she peels off the plastic top, takes a swallow and then gives the cup back to George who leaves it in the dirty snow by the street. Lena sits back down in her seat.

George pays his fare and he and Audrey, ignoring the empty seats in the back, sit in the seats directly behind Lena. The couple faces the front. George rolls up the paper bag and slips it inside his coat. Lena turns her head when she sees Audrey pull George's hand into her lap and hold onto it with her own.

The streets pass. Lena can't read all the signs. The woman with the dog waits near the pet shop on St. Peter. She is a regular but has to show the driver the certificate to let the dog on the bus. The woman's epileptic and when she has a seizure the dog barks to warn her, keeps people away in case she goes unconscious. She carries the dog and takes a seat across from the man in a pea coat. The dog puts its front paws on the window, licks the glass. There are blue ribbons on its ears.

Lena takes out her notebook again. She scribbles, "Eppie and dog." The movement of the bus jogs her handwriting.

"Look at the puppy, George," Audrey says. She nudges George's leg with her free hand.

"Very cute," George says. He doesn't turn his head. Audrey, watching the dog, remains side-saddle in her seat.

Lena looks out the window. More streets pass. The Met Center, Ordway Music, the Public Library. The dog hops into the lap of the woman. It sniffs at the man in the pea coat across the aisle. The man shakes his newspaper at the dog, and the dog flinches. The woman leans forward, holding onto the dog. Her eyeshadow matches the dog's ribbons.

Audrey clicks her tongue at the man in the pea coat. 'That's a cute puppy," she says to the woman. "I was just telling George here what a cutie he is." She stands and leans over a seat so she can pet the dog.

"He's my darling," the woman says. She straightens the bows.

George pulls at Audrey's skirt. "Sit down, Audrey," he says. "Leave the dog alone."

Audrey hovers near the woman. She scratches the dog behind its ears. George stands in the aisle, still pulling Audrey's skirt.

"What kind of dog is it?" Audrey drapes her arms over the headrest of the seat in front of the woman and the dog. She rests one knee in the seat, the other foot still in the aisle. Lena sits at the edge of her seat and wishes that Audrey would sit down.

"A feist," the woman says. Her hand is across the dog's chest like a halter. "You really shouldn't crowd him." The dog is breathing heavily, its mouth opening and closing, the small pink tongue resting on its bottom teeth.

"He's a very good boy," Audrey says. She shakes her skirt loose from George and steps into the aisle between the woman with the dog and the man in the pea coat. The man slides into the window seat, shakes his paper again. The dog growls.

George comes up behind Audrey. "Sit back down." He pulls her hair.

"Not the hair," Lena yelps. She looks to the driver but he checks the rearview mirror and keeps driving.

"I'm looking at the dog," Audrey says.

The dog sniffs and begins to growl. It paws the air in George's direction.

"Do you have food on you?" the woman asks George. "He smells something." She holds onto the dog's collar. "Maybe you both should sit down.'

"Come on, Audrey," George says. He takes a step between the dog and Audrey. The dog barks. George raises his hand and swats the dog on the nose.

"Hey!" the woman says. She puts the dog down in the seat beside her.

"Shut up," George says. He pulls Audrey by her arm back to the front seat.

Still facing the back of the bus, Audrey says, "We're sorry we hit your dog." When Audrey faces the front, Lena can see she's smiling, practically laughing. All a joke, Lena thinks.

"Real sorry," Audrey repeats.

The woman looks up from where she's been speaking softly and kissing the dog on its nose and scowls at Audrey and George.

George takes the seat by the window, and Audrey smoothes her skirt over her behind so she can sit. George leans toward her. He holds her arm down.

"Let go," Audrey says. "Somebody's liable to get the wrong impression."

"Fine," George says and lets go of her arm. "But stop making scenes."

Lena lets out her breath and can no longer see it. The sun has come out and shines through the windows of the bus.

Audrey's hair looks royal blue in the light. George holds her hand again.

There's a stoplight. Three men in suits and overcoats leave an Italian restaurant. Butcher, baker, candlemaker. one of them carries his overcoat. Brown slush covers the sidewalk.

A clerk from Walgreen's gets on. She hunts for change in her smock. She's using pennies. Lena writes her down in the notebook. The driver moves the bus, so the clerk lurches forward, holds on to the handrail, steps over the white line. She dumps in the rest of the fare, walks to the back of the bus. They pass the red-brick condos. Lena never misses them. Tax attorney, chiropractor, jewelry repair in the basement. Condo, condo. We want to live in a condo.

At the stop near the children's hospital Margaret gets on. He takes the steps one at a time. We know him from the hospital. Margaret works nights mopping floors. Wearing shorts and a tight down coat, he spills into all three bench seats facing Lena.

Lena sees George watching Margaret, hears him laughing. Audrey tells George to be quiet.

"How you doing?" Margaret asks.

"Fine," Lena says. She should whisper so Audrey and George can't make out what she's saying. She points her thumb in the couple's direction.

Margaret studies Audrey and George. He waves at the woman with the dog. The woman lifts the dog's paw and waves to Margaret with it. "Be careful up there," she yells.

"What does she mean?" Margaret asks.

"We don't know." Lena shrugs her shoulders, looks over at George and Audrey. George's teeth rest on his bottom lip. When he breathes, the air whistles through the teeth. Audrey's head is propped against the window, a few hairs stuck to the condensation.

Margaret holds the chrome bar to his left, then lifts his right ham-hock leg. Melted snow dribbles from his boot. He puts his foot back on the floor. He can't cross his legs, even at the ankle. Too heavy.

Margaret coughs. "Cover your mouth," Lena says.

There's an egg salad smell. Lena looks at Margaret. He looks at the dog. Lena puts one of her mittens over her nose and mouth.

"How's school?' Margaret asks.

"Not going today," Lena says through the mitten.

"Why not?" Margaret asks

"We're going to the movies," Lena says. She shows him the first entry in her notebook

"You should go to school," Margaret says. "Movies these days are all crap." He shakes his finger at Lena's notebook.

George is watching Margaret. Audrey's eyes are closed, but Lena thinks she's still awake. A ding from the pull-cord turns on the Stop Requested. The man in the pea coat stands at the back doors, the paper bag wrapped around his newspaper. He steps off at Grand and Dale. Margaret leans forward in his seat.

"It's too expensive," he says quietly.

Lena shakes her head. "We have money," she says.

George clears his throat. "Let the kid go to the movies," he says. Audrey opens her eyes and smiles at Lena. Margaret raises his eyebrows. The bus slows down at the hill past the Florist's Shack.

Lena's scarf and mittens are on her lap; it seems safe to breathe. She pushes them down between her hip and the seat. The notebook she still holds in her hand. The pencil is missing. She looks up and down Margaret. "Stand up," she says. The pencil is gone. They search the seat, the floor. Margaret cannot bend down, so George kneels to look underneath the seat. Lena checks her pocket again.

"Here it is," George says. He brings the pencil from underneath Lena's seat. "Must've rolled under when you took off your scarf."

"Thank you," Lena says. She slides the pencil into its place in the spiral and puts the notebook back into her pocket.

Margaret remains standing. He pulls the stop cord. "You should go to school," he says to Lena. "The movies are full of weirdos this time of day."

"Okay," Lena says. Okay.

She waves at him. Goodbye, goodbye.

Margaret disappears down the steps.

Audrey's eyes are fully open, her bluish hair sticking to the window. "We're going to the movies, too," she says. "We'll ride with you." George brushes the dirt from his pants. His knees are wet.

It's a few blocks from the theater, but Lena pulls the cord. She thinks she can lose them in the traffic on Snelling. Audrey and George file behind her.

"Does that dog always ride the bus?" he asks.

"Yes," Lena says.

"Good thing I found your pencil," George says.

"We thanked you," Lena says. She passes over the white line and down the steps and out onto the sidewalk.

Audrey and George flank Lena on both sides and move her down the street. The wind has picked up, and stupid, stupid, we've left our mittens and scarf on the bus

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