Poor Orla’s never liked sitting up at the front. But Tina O’Connell got to the back first again with her gang, and even Michelle’s not brave enough to fight her for it a second time around, so they settle up close to the front of the bus, Erin and Orla in one seat and Michelle and Clare across the aisle from them and James stuck behind them next to some wrinkled old lady eating a bologna sandwich that she can smell from five feet away.
Orla’s dead quiet - quieter than usual - and she looks pale - paler than usual. Quiet and pale is pretty fuckin’ much the normal for Orla, but this is different. Unsettling.
And she was right to be fuckin’ unsettled, because they’re hardly twenty kilometres out when Erin starts pleading with Sister Michael to stop the bus. And that takes five minutes before Sister Michael stops it to shut Erin up and by then poor Orla’s wobbling down the aisle to the door, her pale little face crumpled up with tears trickling down her cheeks.
And Michelle’s not supposed to fuckin’ care. She can look after herself when she’s sick and Orla should be able to too. But she does fuckin’ care. Enough that she barely lasts a minute before she’s pushing Clare out of her seat to get into the aisle herself.
“Where are you going?” Erin hisses, her hands wringing nervously in her lap. “Not you too-”
Then Michelle finds herself rolling her eyes, a sudden and very unfamiliar protectiveness welling up in her chest. “The fuck kind of a cousin are you?”
“You’re not much better,” Clare pipes up, pointing behind her at James trapped next to the woman with the bologna sandwich.
“Well, he’s fuckin’ English, he deserves it - and anyway, we’re not talkin’ about James right now, we’re talkin’ about Orla. ” Ignoring half the bus watching her now, Michelle shakes her head, rife with sudden passion. “She was cryin’. You don’t - you don’t leave people alone when they’re fuckin’ cryin’, okay?”
She doesn’t hear any more arguing, so, as dignifiedly as she can, she steps daintily down the bus steps and strides over to Orla all alone on the side of the road. “Hey. Or. I gotcha.”
Orla turns to look at her with big wide eyes all round and flooded with tears, her face red from crying. Her hood is pulled down low, like a turtle trying to hide away under its shell, and it’s with more tenderness than she knew she could muster that she pulls the hood back and finger combs Orla’s hair into a decent ponytail. She doesn’t have a spare scrunchie - fuckin’ dickballs, why doesn’t she have a spare scrunchie - so after a second, she shuffles Orla’s heap of curls into one hand and pulls her own hair loose, securing the ponytail with her own scrunchie.
Orla stumbles forward with a sob, bracing her hands on her knees as she struggles to keep her balance, but Michelle stops her, helping her straighten up again before wrapping an arm around her waist to support her. “Hang on me, yeah? I’m not gonna let you fall.”
Orla does hang on her, hang on tight, and she’s surprisingly light. One arm is more than enough to hold her steady, and Michelle’s got two hands, so she puts the other on Orla’s back and rubs a slow, soothing circle between her bony shoulder blades. “Go ahead and spew if you’re feeling sick, Or. I’m not bothered.”
“‘S gonna be gross…” Orla half-whimpers, her skinny fingers closing around Michelle’s arm.
“So? I’ve been fuckin’ grosser, you’ve seen me do it.” Michelle inwardly cringes at how coarse her voice sounds - she didn’t mean to sound so fuckin’ brash , it just came out that way. She tries again, really, truly trying to soften her voice this time. “It’s okay, Or. I really don’t mind. Promise. Just get it out, okay?”
Orla’s hand squeezes down on her arm - she’s gonna have bruises in the shape of Orla’s fuckin’ claws, that’s for sure - and then she pitches forward and coughs up what Michelle can disgustingly only describe as a fuckin’ jet of sick, so hard she almost chokes on it and she has to thump her back to clear her lungs. “Christ on a fuckin’ crutch, Or, you’re like a busted fire hydrant - good girl. Better out than in.”
Michelle’s suddenly vividly aware that Orla is the subject of the attention of the entire bus now, a few dozen noses pressed to the windows trying to get an ogle in. She shuffles herself around so that her back blocks as much of Orla as she can manage - if they need something to fuckin’ goggle at, might as well be her ass.
Orla’s starting to taper off now, and Michelle gives her a couple of encouraging pats on the back, still just about holding her up with the arm around her waist. “That’s a good girl. You’re doing great, Or, really. You’re gonna be fine. Keep breathing, all right? All you gotta do for me is breathe, yeah?”
She finally straightens up and immediately stumbles back into Michelle’s waiting arms - she saw those shaking knees coming a fuckin’ mile back. “I’d give you something to rinse your mouth out,” she offers weakly, “but all I’ve got is fuckin’ vodka and I can’t see that doing you any fuckin’ good.”
Orla half-smiles, and Michelle takes that as a good sign. One arm around her waist, she helps her back up the steps and onto the bus. Sitting a shivering Orla down on the half-empty seat next to Clare, she shakes off her own thick green jacket and wraps it around Orla’s shoulders. It’s far too big for her; she’s a skinny little thing. But she sinks gratefully into the fabric, warmed by Michelle’s body heat, and then she leaves her for a second, striding down to the back of the bus where Tina O’Connell and her little friends have parked their tiny asses.
“Right then,” she says, folding her arms. “Up.”
“Or what?” Tina says, with the same little smirk she used the first day of school, ready for another round of this trap. But Michelle’s ready this time too.
“Or I’ll beat you up. And I don’t care about your fuckin’ giant of a sister, either. I’ll fight her too if I fuckin’ have to. And I don’t give a flying fuck if she tramples me. You’re gonna give us these fuckin’ bus seats.”
“Are you sure about that?” But Tina looks a hell of a lot less sure of herself, and her little friends look ready to run for the hills already. “Mandy’s one hundred and eighty-seven centimetres-”
“And I’m one hundred and sixty-seven and I’ll fight her anyway. I don’t give a fuck if I get trampled after school. Up.”
She cracks a few knuckles for good measure, and that’s all it takes to send them scattering and whispering to each other, leaving Michelle with five seats at the very back of the bus. She flops across one, wiggling her fingers invitingly at her friends up at the front.
Obviously nervous, the rest of them shuffle back as well. “How’d you do it?” Erin hisses, hugging her blazer nervously about herself.
“Oh, I’m fightin’ Big Mandy later.” Michelle shrugs, grinning proudly as she watches Tina flounce down into their abandoned seats up at the front. “She’ll fuckin’ clobber me. I’ll be lucky if I can drag myself back to your place for some bandages.”
“You’re gonna fight Big Mandy?” Clare’s eyes look ready to pop out of her fuckin’ head. “All by yourself?”
“‘N Tina too, I fuckin’ bet.” Michelle slides over to make room for Orla in the window seat, and she sinks into her favorite spot. A second later, her head makes itself right at fuckin’ home on Michelle’s shoulder, and she very well can’t go and push her off now. She’s about to get run over by Big Mandy for the little weirdo, she might as well own it, at least for today.
Trying to keep her resting fuckin’ bitch face as solid as concrete itself, Michelle wraps an arm around Orla’s shoulders without so much as turning her head in her direction. “And you better fuckin’ help me when Big Mandy turns me into pulp, got it?”
“Got it,” Orla says sleepily, her head hidden in Michelle’s shoulder and the oversized jacket draped over her like a cape.