In the frozen time you’ve spent sitting alone on this bench, your tired mind has grown to ignore the noise of the occasional passing car upon the damp asphalt road. The adjacent hum of fluorescent bulbs in a four-month-old movie advertisement is but another whisper to your mind, and as you twiddle with your chilled fingers, brandishing a crinkled dollar bill and a firm, relieving quarter, you let out a tired sigh. A small cloud of mist departs from your lips and sparkles in the glow of September’s box-office disaster.
You check the time on your phone. Its battery is at 37%, and above a nostalgic lock screen photo of a distant weekend trip is a resounding absence of notifications.
7:37. The schedule said it would be here at 7:35. You unlock your phone with your fingerprint, knowing your fingers lack the dexterity to quickly type your password, and open the Transit App once again. Just as it were the last time you checked, Route 39’s schedule reads that a bus will reach your stop in two minutes. A skeptical thought flutters through your tired mind.
Today has been an exhausting day. You’re spent, both physically and mentally; your body is sore and you can’t bring your mind to conjure any thoughts beyond the idea of making it home.
Walking would take too long, and you would have to go through the dark. Not that you were afraid — you could certainly handle yourself — but you would have to remain alert, aware of your surroundings. You didn’t have the energy to be attentive to the peculiar people you would pass.
Maybe you shouldn’t have made the decision to stay out with them so long. No, no, you think, it was worth it. They were worth it. But that didn’t change the fact that, right now, you were cold and tired and alone.
You don’t notice yourself slip back into your mind. It’s the same way that you only realize you’ve fallen asleep after you’ve woken up. A sound is what does it, one that approaches, breaches your bubble of imperfect comfort where the environmental sounds of the night-fallen city never could.
Rocks and leaves crunch on the road as the bus slows ahead of you. For a moment, you entertain the possibility of the driver aligning the doors perfectly for you. But they don’t, and as your tired legs find the strength to stand, you cautiously gaze through the bus’s windows. The driver is a portly, stoic-looking man, and you see without sound as he calls something to the back. None of the maybe three or four other passengers react.
The bus hisses, as if an animal, when air escapes its giant hide and lights flicker on within. You flatten the dollar bill with your thumb and approach the opening doors, rejuvenated in a peculiar way at the arrival of your ride. Stepping up, you cross the threshold. A solemn nod and a hug of room-temperature air greet you as you instinctively loom over the farebox. It takes you a moment to get the dollar bill in, but once it and the quarter are deposited and your fare is paid, you look up.
Before you, the aisles of the bus are split by your path. An elderly woman sits gingerly in the first row, bag on her lap and eyes watching you as you pass. A shaggy, bulky man occupies the two seats in front of the exit; his eyes are closed, but he doesn’t look asleep. The doors hiss shut and the lights go out, leaving you only in a faint blue glow that seems to better illuminate the advertisements above than the many rows of seats.
Now in the middle of the bus as it begins to move, you look to the back in hope of a vacant spot. A young man in the very last row stares out the window, hood drawn over a pair of disproportionately large headphones as his leg, clad in torn black denim, hammers the dirty floor in a silent thrum. Occupying the column of three seats opposite of him is a quiet, tired man who does little to catch your attention.
Tense to keep your footing as the bus gains momentum, you grab onto a pole and pull yourself into the row directly beside the exit. You squeeze yourself against the wall and drop your bag in the adjacent seat to close yourself in.
Seconds later the bus has achieved its normal speed down the road. In your many years of life, you have grown accustomed to the sense of motion that fills your body when you’re inside of a vehicle. Now it seems to lull you closer to a rest that only the thought of missing your stop keeps you away from.
It’s quiet. The only sounds are those of the bus, the hissing and shaking and groaning of metal. The bumping along the road, the hum of the ventilation, the occasional monotone words announcing stops for which no one pulls the cord. Already the world outside seems to be nothing, for the darkness of the night conceals everything. You attempt for a moment to gaze out the window and learn of your surroundings; for this effort you receive nothing but quick flashes of distant light and vague figures of buildings. Your eyes return to the inside of the bus, to the dim, blue-tinted innards of this vessel that carries you and these strangers further into the end of day.
When the bus stops and shudders, it passes on its worry to you. You think of home. Green shines ahead. The bus continues.
Somewhere along the line, a beep interrupts the announcement of a bus stop. It isn’t until movement breaks into your periphery, the doors open with a hiss, and white light pours into the space that you realize someone has summoned the bus to stop. The tired man wordlessly steps into the void and vanishes into the shadows.
A vibration shakes your attention. You look down and wrench your phone from your tight pocket. A text.
The faintest hint of a smile forms on your weary expression as you open the message and type a response.
Almost. Im on the bus rn
They tell you to be safe, they’ll see you soon. With a tired breath you pocket your phone and sink into your seat.
There’s something about the presence of the bus that fills your thoughts for the remainder of the ride. As if it’s a threshold between realities, the bridge between your life and the solace of your home. There is no world outside; you see no existence beyond the smudged glass of your ride. All there are are ideas, concepts of memory unique to each person but scattered throughout the abyss. This vessel, this bus, with its dirty, basic cushions, trembling frame, dull azure glow, the purposeful quiet among you and these strangers all exhausted in the night. It’s surreal.
The blank voice says words that, were they not already significant to you, you would have ignored. As you once more exit the receding confines of your own mind, your hand finds itself above your head. You pull the cord, and a beep concludes the announcement.
The bus slows. You grab your bag and reposition yourself in your seat.
You stare at the doors. Nothing but dirt-ridden floor lay between you. You sit at the edge of your seat, bag on your lap and one hand on a pole.
There is nothing but darkness beyond. You see only the sidewalk, beaten by rain and bespeckled by soggy leaves. The rough surface of the concrete retreats into the shadows, trying to cling to the light emanating from the bus.
The bus comes to a stop. You stand as it hisses and light flicks into being around you. Cold wind kicks into the bus and beckons you to approach.
In full illumination, the bus contrasts even more what lay before you.
You throw your bag over your shoulder, then look over to the bus driver and shout your thanks.
Then you, feeling only humble reverence for that which has granted your passage, step forward. A cold embrace takes you into its jagged arms as your feet gently land upon the ground.
The bus’s light gives you guidance for your first few steps. But then the doors close, the glow evanesces, its hisses conclude, and its tires crush the gravel of the road, leaving you alone in the sounds that waver in the frigid air.
With another sigh that departs from your lips as a fragile mist, you steel yourself for the remainder of your journey. Figures loom in the shadows all around, and among them is your sanctuary. Home.
The bus continues down the still busy street. The orange glow of its headlights mixes with those of the urban dark, and soon it is gone, nothing but another flicker of humanity in a sea of waste.
You walk deeper into the night, evidently the same.