The Stranger Beside Me


“Promise you won’t scream,” Cody says, fixing me with a steely glare.

“I promise.”

“Cause if you scream we’re both off the bus, ok?”

“Ok.”

He unties the heavy sack that’s been nestled between our feet since we boarded back in Oshkosh. “Go on,” he urges. I lean across the armrest and catch a whiff of body odour. Then I see it... a large snake, resting his brown, triangular head on a heap of questionable washing, forked tongue tasting the air, body as thick as a man’s arm. Inwardly I curse my seat selection; outwardly I press myself as close to the window as possible. “He won’t hurt ya, he’s a Boa, no poison in him,” he assures me.

I risk furtive glances at the other passengers. Diagonally across the aisle, two old ladies engrossed in conversation; behind the driver, a large man in a Packers cap noisily eating cheese puffs; on the back seat, a construction worker, head slumped, feet up, fast asleep.

No one sees me.

Cody re-ties the sack, cups his mouth and whispers: “I stole him.” A manic grin spreads across his pock-marked face.

I decide the most appropriate form of response is: “Why?”

Cody sits back in his seat as if it were a plastic lawn chair and I was his buddy round for a couple of beers.

“Back in the carnie I was a greaser – y’know, kind of a mechanic.” I nod sympathetically, as if day-to-day carnie operations were my forte. “Randall the boss, says he’s gotta let one of us go, carnie’s not making enough money.”

I discreetly begin to nudge my rucksack under the empty seat in front.

“How’s he choose?”

Nudge.

“There’s seven greasers, he says we gotta fight it out.”

Nudge.

“Guy I’m fightin’, he pulls a blade on me”

Nudge.

“Tore my arm real bad, look” He rolls back a grimy sleeve.

Oh God. Nudge.

A ten-inch vertical red scar, raised and clearly recent, adorns Cody’s forearm.

Bag is now safely in position.

“My arm’s all busted so I can’t fight. I lose. That seem fair to you?”

“Appleton, next stop Appleton,” the driver announces. We watch the old ladies bustle off into sleepy Appleton, exchanging banter with the driver as they go. I don’t catch what is said but he laughs and waves them off. I seize my opportunity.

“Cody, my bag’s slipped under the seat, would you mind moving so I can get it?”

“Sure.” Cody slides over to the adjoining seat while I negotiate the sack, which I do, gingerly. From the safety of the next row I relax a little. Cody pops a can of Apple Tang and takes several long gulps.

“That night they drank liquor, celebrate me goin’. I left ‘em to it, walked right into Randall’s trailer with my bag, took the snake, threw it over my shoulder and here we are. What you have to understand is, Randall’s in his fifties, huge guy, shaved head, moustache, big arms all tattooed up. Twenty years ago, he’s in prison with a cell buddy who’s doin’ time for murder. Asks Randall when he gets out to find Gus, who’s living with his girlfriend.”

The bus driver coughs loudly. Cody’s flow is momentarily halted. Like a creature emerging from a burrow, he looks around him. In the rear view mirror I see the driver absentmindedly rubbing his sweaty brow. He’s not listening. Cody is satisfied.

“Randall goes to the house and what d’ ya know, Gus is a God damn snake! He brings him to the carnie, treats him like a king and now I got ‘im!” His lips curl up at the corners as he says it.

Through the gap in the seats I whisper, “What next?”

Cody shrugs his shoulders. “I hear there’s a carnie down in Tampa, takes four days by bus.”

“What about Gus?” I’m suddenly concerned for his safety.

“You heard of a place called the Everglades?”

“Yep.”

“I’m gonna let him loose there.”

The bus swings wide and sighs to a halt.

“Green Bay. Final stop. Green Bay” the driver checks his clipboard. The airport shuttle is idling at the terminal. I hoist my bag and run to catch it. I take an aisle seat near the front. Cody’s in the queue for tickets south. He waves, I smile. The stranger beside me is gone, I’m heading home.



H Oakes

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