Zeinab, a veteran Pronto! driver, snorted derisively. She crumpled the advisory into a ball and, making sure her co-workers were watching, pitched it, baseball-style, into the bin. A few people clapped.
Forty-three year old Alex, sitting at the opposite end of the break room, methodically folded the memo and slid it into his back pocket. Women Disappearing on the M Route. Since starting to drive buses last year, he’d seen a lot of things he couldn’t explain. Yesterday, he watched in the rear-view mirror as twin redhead teenagers became triplets during a midtown traffic jam. Last week, an oddly dressed young man literally turned into a garment bag for the duration of his journey. Put it this way: he wasn’t going to rule anything out.
Alex told his mother about these things over dinner — at first. She’d laughed, harder than she had for some time. With an imagination like that, she said, well, he should have been a writer! He reminded her (again) that he had tried. These days, he waited to tell Mike. Their conversations were infrequent since they worked opposite shifts; Mike drove night buses. He saw weird stuff too, and thought it was just him before meeting Alex. It was Alex who told Mike about The Wæccans (‘Stay Woke!’), a secretive group that tracked anomaly sightings in the city. Their hand-lettered pamphlets, which appeared in USave Marts on the second Tuesday of each month, claimed that the events were visible to only a small percentage of the population.
M was Alex’s route; he ferried passengers between the ageing airport and perpetually under-construction city centre. His bus was often full, usually when the morning shuttle from Easton arrived. At lunchtime though, he might have no passengers. Then, he tuned in to L-Talk for Speak Up. The show had been avoiding controversial subjects and Alex suspected government involvement. The topics would change at the last minute, without explanation. Nothing wrong with ‘Current Trends in Electronica’, but when it replaced ‘Inexplicable Things’, Alex had questions.
He thought about the disappearing women as he merged onto South Main. He knew some of these warnings were thinly disguised propaganda. Alex braked carefully as he approached the first stop; he prided himself on giving his passengers a smooth ride, despite driving one of the older vehicles in the fleet. A tall, thin woman in a magenta headscarf waited on the bench, pushing a large pram back and forth.
Alex lowered the front of the transport so she could board more easily. When she reached the top of the stairs, she waved her card over the reader and made her way carefully down the aisle. Alex watched in the mirror, pulling into traffic only when he was sure she’d immobilised the pram and was sitting down. She smiled at him briefly in the mirror before turning her attention to the infant, who emitted a high-pitched wail.
The pair disembarked at Richelieu, where a cool salt breeze blew in from the sea. Alex watched for a moment as they made their way to the grand staircase. At the next stop, a neatly groomed older man boarded, dressed entirely in worn corduroy. Once seated, he chatted a bit with Alex — he was a bell ringer, on his way to rehearsal at the Cathedral.
The rest of the shift was unremarkable. Lunch, beneath a tree in Kazan Gardens, was a cheese sandwich and thermos of green tea. At one point Alex spoke a few words of Spanish with a passenger. They’re predicting rain tonight. He’d visited his grandparents in Madrid a few times. For some reason, Alex had a sudden, vivid memory of his father slicing bananas, holding them just so in his strong, suntanned hand as the yellow discs dropped into the bowl.
Alex’s shift ended at three. NOT IN SERVICE. On leafy Borodino, where vendors set out their wares each morning, they were stowing everything in suitcases and shopping trolleys. Alex pulled into the depot, parking carefully in a vacant bay. It took a few minutes to transmit his fare data to Central — he liked the crude animation of golden coins tumbling through space — and then he was off. He left the depot on his old but carefully maintained bicycle. When he got home, he chatted briefly with his mother before heading upstairs for a nap.
After dinner, Alex put away leftovers and washed the dishes. Fishing around in the warm soapy water for stray utensils, he wondered why he was in such a good mood. After a few minutes, he realized what it was — his mother hadn’t nagged him about getting a haircut once during dinner. Progress, perhaps. She was in the living room now, watching Ivan the Terrible again. He teased her about this all the time. Wasn’t she sick of it by now? No, she always said — each time it’s different. Who knew.
He joined her in the living room, sinking into the threadbare recliner opposite hers. Alex picked up his paperback, the latest by his favourite mystery writer. He didn’t really buy the central premise of this one though, and when he caught himself reading the same paragraph three times, he set it down on the coffee table with a sigh. He crossed the room to kiss his mother good night.
She was completely absorbed in the events on screen. Ivan was lying on a bed, an open book covering his face like a tent. He peered slyly out from under it to see who’d attended his ‘deathbed’. Alex knew this and every other scene by heart. He noticed (why only now?) how thin his mother’s arms had become — he’d have to check that she hadn’t stopped eating lunch again. On the way upstairs, he tripped on a worn bit of carpet and swore quietly. He made his way to the small bathroom, which smelled of tea rose and liniment. He put on red flannel pyjamas, set his alarm for four-thirty and turned out the light.
Alex had two dreams that night. The first was unpleasant, all misunderstandings and close calls. In the second, a long line of people approached him across a snowy landscape. They were carrying placards, but he couldn’t read what they said. He knew somehow that they’d come to ask him for something. The woman in front seemed to recognise him, and as she drew nearer, she began to disappear, becoming increasingly transparent the closer she got. By the time she was a few metres away, she’d vanished completely.
The next morning Alex, bleary-eyed and sniffling with hay fever, came downstairs at four forty-five. In the living room he found his mother, fully dressed, sitting in front of the TV. How had he not heard her get up? Her eyes were closed and she was clasping her white summer purse with both hands. Alex was puzzled; his mother’s outings were rather infrequent, and always planned well in advance. He went into to the kitchen and switched on the kettle.
Returning to the living room, Alex tapped his mother’s shoulder.
She opened her eyes, startled.
‘Mother. Why are you up?’ His voice sounded louder than he’d intended.
She looked confused for a moment, searching the room as if though the answer might be somewhere in the vicinity.
‘I, I, well…’
‘Sam — you know, Sam, the plumber — he’s taking me shopping. I’m going to get some of that soup. He wants to buy a toy for his grandson I think.’
‘That’s nice of him, but — it’s really early. It’s only quarter to five!’
‘Is it?’ Her expression was one of genuine surprise. ‘Well. I suppose I’ll have to wait. He said he’d be here at 8:30.’
“You could lie down on the sofa until he arrives.’
‘Yes. I know I could.’ There was the slightest hint of exasperation in her voice. Her face brightened as something occurred to her. ‘I could watch my film.’ She opened her purse and extracted a cough drop. ‘I really don’t know why I woke up so early.’
Alex was less worried by the outing than by his mother’s behaviour. Sam was all right — recommended by a family friend when their boiler packed up in February. Odd though, only hearing about the shopping trip now. He glanced at the clock; if he didn’t leave soon, he’d be late for his shift. No time for that tea either.
‘Mother, I’ve got to get going. Are you sure you’re all right?’
‘Yes I’m sure. You go on. I’ll see you this afternoon.’
Alex got to the depot with five minutes to spare. He watched Mike pull in and park his bus after the overnight shift.
‘Alright, mate?’ shouted Alex.
‘Just about.’ Mike chuckled. He looked tired. ‘You?’
‘Not bad, not bad.’ They wouldn’t have a chance to speak properly until Thursday.
Alex’s route was quiet at first; a few regulars got on at Richelieu, including the artist. The drivers called him Rembrandt, which seemed to amuse him. He didn’t have any canvases with him today, just a large pitchfork. In theory it was probably prohibited, but Alex let it go. At exactly 8:30, Alex was stopped at a traffic light. Glancing idly at a nearby storefront, he saw video screens of varying sizes, all showing the same thing: the scene in Ivan where he’s showered with gold coins. Then, the shot of adoring women in the crowd.
Alex’s jaw dropped as he recognised one of them.
It was his mother.
Somewhere behind him, a driver leaned on the horn.
Eighteen months later, several postdocs at the University received funding to study the Filmic Anomalies. Two months into the project, they had a provisional timeline in which Alex’s mother was the seventh victim. At the occasional relatives’ meetings, Alex sat in a café with others who’d lost older female relatives the same way. At least, he comforted himself, he knew where to find his mother. Others weren’t so lucky.
Nadine, for instance. ‘My mother watched so many movies, and we were always busy with work. It’s hard to know which one it could be. We sometimes play her Broadway musicals on weekends, but so far, nothing. I told my son I’d buy him a new skateboard if he could spot her.’
In August, Alex was interviewed by the researchers; his session was the last of the day. He lingered in the lobby afterwards and approached the first researcher to step off the elevator. He asked if they were any closer to finding out what had happened. Tom, a large, quiet man to whom Alex had taken an instant liking, cleared his throat.
‘Please… Alex? Have a seat.’ He gestured at a small sofa near the window, and sat down himself.
“I know some of the relatives find this hard to hear,” he began, clasping his hands in front of him and looking down at them. “Everyone who disappeared was very involved with the world of the film. One, Mrs. Steeplejack, told her husband that she ‘wanted to be in it’. This desire, combined with repeated exposure to the same story line over a number of years, seems to have acted as a catalyst.”
Alex considered this. It was hard to deny that the world of Ivan had been more real to his mother in recent years than everyday life.
“And the plumber? Was he involved?”
Tom looked at Alex and hesitated.
“We’re, uh, working on that angle. I can tell you this — in every case there was a similar figure, a recent acquaintance who was very solicitous, very… helpful. Just the way you described. Am I correct that you never saw the plumber again?”
“Never. His phone was out of service the next time I tried it. He used to eat at our neighbourhood diner all the time, but after the disappearance…’
“That also follows the pattern. Look, I wish I could tell you more, but… ”
“It’s OK. I understand. I appreciate what you’re doing.”
“Thank you. And again, I’m sorry for your loss.”
When Alex got back from the interview, he grabbed a soda and texted Mike. They had dinner together once in a while, now that Mike had left Pronto! He’d taken a position at an environmental testing laboratory, and together they were working on a theory that rogue nanoparticles had some role in the anomalies. This was one reason Mike had taken the new job. So far, they hadn’t been able to find a direct link, but Mike was trying to get access to classified company documents. Alex did online research whenever he had the time, and attended Wæccans meetings when he could. Mike never mentioned Alex’s increasingly eccentric appearance — the small jutting beard that protruded from his chin and his wide-eyed, dramatic mannerisms. Sure, Alex got a lot of stares when they were out in public, but it didn’t seem to bother him.
While he waited, Alex sat in his mother’s chair and watched a bit of Ivan — the disk was always in the player now. Out of habit, he jumped to the banquet scene. All those swans! If his mother was there, she was certainly having the time of her life. He got up and walked over to the window. The vacant lot across the street was covered in buttercups this year. They waved in the wind, a sea of brilliant yellow dots in the late afternoon sun.
About the Contributor
Penny Schenk lives on a narrowboat in Oxford and is an enthusiastic participant in the #LossLit writeclub. She moved from the US to the UK in 2002, and has been writing short stories for several years.
In the Name of the People - Lara Pawson
More than the history of a brutal political crackdown in 1970's Angola, this book is also a fascinating account of how Pawson unearthed this 'lost' story. And the larger picture is one of loss, of hopes for a better government that would serve the interests of everyone.
More from Issue Six:
- Give Sorrow Words by Anna Vaught
- Pull me in by Melissa Fu
- Variations on Girl with a Red Balloon by Tessa Torgeson
- Written in Advance by Nathan Fidler
- Mrs Fox by Marian Womack
- Tomorrow by Vivienne Burgess
- The Kulaks Of Chelsea by Tadhg Muller
- Some Kind Of Happiness by Heidi James
- Dust Covers and Margins by Jennie E. Owen
- Sitting, Standing, Mending by Alison Jean Lester
- Ghosts by Catherine Mitchell
- And I was filled with such delight by Catherine Edmunds