B-Sides: Just Passing Through
B-Sides are short stories based in the world of Bytown. Every so often, I take a request from a reader and see where the story takes me.
Colleen knew a swarm when she saw one.
Up ahead, not far from the southern edge of the market, was an ever-changing bundle of young lads in rolled sleeves and waistcoats, angling to get a better view and a closer angle from which to spin whatever tales best suited them. Someone was saying something in a smooth and reassuring tone, which meant whoever was in the middle of the mess was in peril of losing their life’s savings...or worse.
On the one hand, Colleen had someplace to be—her father had farmed her out as a day-nanny for some friends down Corkstown way—but on the other hand...drama.
“Pardon me, excuse me, nudge a little to the...” she said, pushing through the crowd before stopping cold at the sight of their target: a bright young woman with a not-quite-right dress, a heavy suitcase and a look on her face that said I am desperately out of my depth.
Their eyes met for just a second before Colleen threw her arms wide and laughed: “Cousin! You made it!”
The woman—a total stranger, mind you—barely had time to react before Colleen wrapped her arms around her and gave her a close enough embrace to whisper: “Play along.”
Colleen scooped up the suitcase (which was remarkably light considering its size) and led the woman through the crowd and down south where the swindlers and scoundrels wouldn’t bother to go. “How was your trip?” she said, loud enough for most to hear. “Not too long, I hope?”
The woman just smiled and shook her head, clearly enjoying the show she was getting. Colleen continued rambling on about fictional family members and marriages and scandals that were rapidly escalating in absurdity, until they were far enough along that she could drop the act and get straight to the question she most wanted answered: “What do you have in this suitcase of yours? Feels like a teapot and feathers!”
The woman laughed, nodded. “Not far off,” she said. “One change of clothes. And a teapot.”
Colleen raised her arm in victory. “I’ve a gift!” she laughed, then offered the woman her hand. “Colleen, by the way.”
“Maggie,” said the woman. “Thank you for saving me back there. They were all speaking so much and so fast, I wasn’t sure what was going on.”
“Aye, they do that,” said Colleen. “Confuse you into parting with your money. Just arrived, I take it?”
Maggie nodded. “Longest boat ride of my life,” she said. “I’m never doing that again.”
“Where from?” asked Colleen, squinting like she could read the truth from the air if she found the right angle. “Your accent is...peculiar.”
“East,” said Maggie. “I’ve traveled a lot, too, so...”
“And what brings you to Bytown? The lumber? It’s the lumber, isn’t it. You look like a log driver. Aye, that’s it. Log driver in a skirt. World-renowned!”
Maggie laughed. “I’m just passing through.”
Colleen gave that a sour face. “Don’t say that! You just got here! Bytown’s a fine place to live! Look, see, we have a canal. And over there, a bridge. And over there, a drunkard heavin’ into the bushes, and...” She waved. “Hello, Hamish!”
Hamish waved back before vomiting some more.
“I really didn’t intend to stay at all,” sighed Maggie. “My overland guide was delayed on the road, so I was told to make do in town until he returns, but—”
Colleen’s eyes went wide. “So you need someplace to stay?”
Colleen stopped cold. “You can stay at mine. My father won’t mind. Hell, he’ll be overjoyed I’ve made a more appropriate friend!”
Maggie was bemused. “You barely know me.”
“Are you a secret polygamist?”
“Then you’re a more appropriate friend,” said Colleen and started back the way they came, into Lowertown. Maggie wasn’t sure what was going on.
“Wait, weren’t we headed...?”
“Oh, no,” laughed Colleen. “There’s nothing good to do in Corkstown except get pregnant and—” She froze, frowning as a thought came to the fore. “Pregnant, baby, day-nanny. Right.” She turned back again. “I do apologize. I’m engaged this afternoon, looking after a brood of small monsters.”
“Oh,” said Maggie. “I totally understand. I’m sorry to have—”
“No, I mean I apologize because you’re coming too,” said Colleen, and carried on back toward Corkstown. “I hope you like loud noises!”
Maggie laughed and hurried to keep up. She tried to take the suitcase from Colleen, but met with resistance...so instead they both held the handle together, walking awkwardly along the dusty path south.
“Why are you helping me?” Maggie asked, after a time.
“You seem odd,” said Colleen, in a giddy way. “Not in the Bytown sense, though. Bigger than this. It’s intriguing.”
“I’m not that interesting, believe me.”
“Ah, you only say that because you’re new here. Once you get settled, you’ll see how interesting you are.”
Maggie grimaced at her. “I’m only passing through.”
“So you say,” said Colleen. “Passing through to where? Where are you headed?”
“West,” said Maggie. “A place called Cloyne.”
Colleen scrunched up her face, making a good show of thinking this through. “Never heard of it. Sounds dull. Does it have lumber? We have a timber slide. Have you seen the timber slide? You’ll love it. I can tell already.”
“I haven’t seen the lumber slide,” Maggie laughed. “But—”
“Then we have our schedule for tomorrow planned already!” She leaned over and gave Maggie a nudge with her shoulder. “Oh, what great friends we shall be!”
“I really can’t stay, though,” said Maggie. “My guide will be back any day now, and then I’ll—”
Colleen stopped, gave Maggie a serious, serious frown. “How long ‘til your guide gets back?”
“A few days, they said. Three or four.”
“Three or four days,” said Colleen. “So I’ve three or four days to convince you that Cloyne is rubbish and Bytown is like heaven on earth.”
“And is it?”
“Absolutely not,” said Colleen. “Absolutely not even a little. But I’ll tell you what it does have that Cloyne does not: me. And I am a wonderful best friend. Truly. If you leave, you will forever regret passing me up.”
Maggie was laughing yet again, and seemed to be easing into a more relaxed version of herself, which gave Colleen hope. “You must have so many friends, though,” Maggie said. “A personality like yours, you must have too many friends.”
Colleen’s smile took on a melancholy tone. “There’s a difference between friends and friends,” she said. “Very few women my age in town. And the ones that are...they’re not exactly...” She shrugged. “Have you ever been in love?”
Maggie lowered her gaze. “Married,” she said. “Widowed.”
“Ah,” said Colleen, giving the moment the space it deserved. “My love—we were never married, mind you—he died out on the river. Three years now, out on the river.” She frowned, chewing the memories up until they couldn’t hurt her anymore. “They said I made him do it. He was trying to impress me. With my words, I made him take a needless risk and he...” She shook her head like she was arguing with someone not present. “I don’t have a lot of friends, here in town,” she said. “Not after that.”
“But I’m just—”
“From somewhere else,” said Colleen. “From a time and place where who I was is not the same as who I am. With you, I get to be the new me. The better me.”
Maggie nodded, solemnly. “Does it ever stop hurting?” she asked.
Colleen shrugged as she met Maggie’s eye. “I don’t think it’s meant to.”
They walked in silence for a while longer before Maggie said: “I really can’t stay, though.”
“If it’s the smell you’re worried about, I promise it gets—”
“No, I’m just meant to—”
“Oh!” she said, and let go of the suitcase so she could wave with both arms, and flag down the young man heading their way down the path. He was drenched in sweat from working hard in the heat, his hair a mess, and Colleen had a hard not not staring at him as he walked with purpose. Heavy, determined purpose.
He saw her waving and moved to intercept, stopping shy with a curious smile on his face.
“Colleen?’ he asked. “Everything alright?”
“Aye, just fine,” smiled Colleen. “I’d like to introduce you to my new best friend and woman who is definitely not leaving anytime soon. This is Maggie. Maggie, this is Liam Kelly. The best reason to stay in Bytown forever. Next to the timber slide, of course.”
Liam laughed, and Maggie laughed, and in that exact moment, Colleen knew everything would work out fine. She knew a swarm when she saw one, but true love blossoming? That, she could feel a mile away.