At 4:22 in the afternoon under an Autumn sky wrapped in clouds the colour of cigarette ash, the number 23 bus arrived in front of an average-sized school on the fringes of a small and mediocre town.
Three young friends stopped play-fighting and waited for the doors of the bus to pull themselves apart.
The Girl stood a few yards away, watching. Slowly she moved to stand behind them. She held her breath against the acrid taste of diesel smoke.
Jack was the first one onto the bus. Jack was a gentle and awkward creature fighting a losing battle against puberty. Newly elongated limbs competed with what remained of his youthful fat and conspired to make a faintly ridiculous creature to look at. Jack held his body inelegantly, his shoulders permanently drawn in and down. He displayed such obvious shame that it was painful to see and the other children in his world rejected him for it.
Jack did not know (how could he?) that one day he could regain an appearance of dignity; that his strong jaw and large dark eyes could make an attractive creature out of him. Perhaps he would never realise this and would become one of those rare creatures, humble and beautiful, who mistake the effect of their charming appearance for an innate goodness in other people and, reflecting this goodness back to them, become decent and loving human beings.
Or maybe he wouldn’t.
Jack and his indecision stood together for a moment. Soon his two friends rushed past, raced to the back of the bus and jumped onto the seats. Jack and his indecision gratefully followed. Previous experience had made him wary of sitting at the back of buses, but Jack had spent enough of his time sitting alone and the herds of children migrating away from the school-gates had long-since left: He was safe.
The boys were thirteen. Jacob and Olly, small and well-groomed things of around the same height, were wearing their school sports uniform. Jack was not. This bus ride home, so late after school, was a routine part of their week. Every Tuesday and Thursday, as Jacob and Olly had football practise for an hour, Jack would wait in the Library helping with whatever small tasks the Librarians could find for him until they ushered him out and he would go wait at the bus stop to play on his iPad until his friends came to join him.
From where she sat down, The Girl could see the profile of the bus driver. The same bus driver, it seemed, who was always stationed behind the scratched and dirty plexiglass screen between them. She stared at the man, at this alien creature made of mounds and pouches of fat, of sighs and of grey. At the sallow skin that hung over the worn collar of his shirt.
She thought of the boys sat behind her, of herself; she found it hard to believe that any of them could ever become such a thing as the bus driver but knew that they could; that a boy once existed with no idea that he would ever become the bus driver. The Girl began to feel the sensation, the one she had no name for: Life twisted and shaped living things in such strange ways. She thought of a rock pool near a beach, of the gnarled branches and roots of an old tree near her home.
She tried to think of the future, of what she would become, but this made her feel dizzy and nauseous, as if she were looking down from a great height. For a brief moment The Girl had a feeling that she would never return to herself, that she would be nothing but the nausea forever. She started to panic. Her heart beat faster.
The low vibration of the bus picked up and became a growl. The doors hissed and shuddered to embrace once again. The bus began to move slowly forward and The Girl returned to herself.
Then there was the sound of slapping hands and legs against the plastic windows: a teenage boy, a grinning fool. The bus driver and the bus let out a sigh so synchronised it was almost impossible to distinguish between them. The doors opened once again, the teenager leaped onto the bus, all laughter and energy and a faint sense of aggression; bag slung round one shoulder, grinning in the inane and arrogant way unique to teenage boys. It was Logan.
Logan was the product of three older brothers, a mostly absent father and a mother unable to exercise control over her temper or the amount that she drank.
Logan was becoming a dickhead, just like his brothers had.
The Logan’s were known by everyone in the school.
None of them had looked the bus driver in the eyes and the driver did not want them to. Nobody ever looked him in the eyes when he was behind the wheel and he had grown used to it, so much so that outside of work the expectation other people unthinkingly possessed – that they ought to be looked at directly – became an uncomfortable and laborious chore. He preferred to look at people indirectly. It felt safer. After the doors had shuddered together, back into their mechanical embrace, the driver set the bus into motion again and the great ugly beast stepped up its low vibrating growl into a roar.
Muscle-memory drove the bus. The drivers’ mind wandered away.
The Girl knew all about the boys. She knew more about them than they did, just like she did about almost all the people at her school. She knew their stories.
She knew why Logan acted like such a dickhead: he was raised by dickheads. She knew that Jack’s friendship with Jacob and Oliver would soon fade away, that the process had already started and it was only a sense of duty born of a few youthful years together that kept it alive. She even knew about the new sexual frisson between Jacob and Oliver; when they touched each other, as they where still permitted to do before they were no longer considered boys but adolescents, something subtle sent out a signal that went unnoticed by everyone but The Girl.
She knew all of this because she watched and listened to everything she could, and because she didn’t talk. Not talking made The Girl invisible to the others. No one at her school – even some of her teachers – would know she existed if asked. Invisible, she was free to observe them all.
They knew nothing about her, and she preferred it that way.
The Girl had stopped speaking after her mother died, but this was a fact and not the reason why. She remembers vividly the day she found out about her mother’s death, but what she remembers she has never told any one because she suspects that they would condemn her for remembering the wrong details: the benign indifference of the plastic chair she was sat on as someone approached the teacher speaking during a school assembly, walking trepidly and whispering into their ear; her name called; the merciless lighting overhead and the sterile, ugly flooring underneath as she was lead away to a room she had never been to; the voice of the person speaking to her dissolving into noise after the word ‘mother’.
Her mother had been ill for some time, and though neither of her parents had told her what the illness was, she knew that it would only end in one way.
Her father was waiting outside to take her home, and as they drove in complete silence she stared at the sky, passively allowing the words to leave her body, unsaid and never to return again as sound to be released but as something to retain inside her. All that remained in her mind was the conflict between two images: her mother in the hospital bed she would die in, and her mother gently stroking her hair.
She was eight years old.
Her father was a good man, but he didn’t know how to express his emotions, only how to suppress them. The death of his wife suddenly robbed him of this ability and he felt lost.
As he drove his daughter home that day, he didn’t know what to say. After a while, he asked if she was ok, but she didn’t respond. Unable to bear the silence, he turned on the radio, but the song that played seemed obscene in the context of their circumstances. He thought about trying to find a CD instead, but couldn’t think of one. He changed stations over and over again, searching for something appropriate. He found nothing, but when he landed on a classical music station he let the music linger a while. Soon he could feel the grief creep up from his chest. He couldn’t cry, not now: He fucking refused to cry.
So he turned the station off.
His daughter had always been the quiet type: shy, bookish, but diligent, well-behaved and she always did well at school. He knew she would soon be more intelligent than him. Maybe she already was. At times he worried about her, about her lack of friends. She seemed only to have one, another quiet boy who lived only a few streets away. He never knew what they did together. They didn’t go outside, only sat in her room. He left it to her mother to know what went on.
The boy’s family had moved to a different town the year before. It disturbed him how little his daughter seemed to care.
As the years after the death of his wife piled upon each other, he retreated into a taciturn bitterness. Although he always remembered to feed her, he thought less and less about his daughter as the grief slowly tightened its grip on him until it controlled him entirely. Eventually, he hardly thought about his daughter at all.
He hardly thought about anything.
All The Girl remembered from that day her father drove her home was that he asked her a few questions, questions she didn’t really hear. Except one: ‘Do you want to go and see her?’
The Girl thought about what it would be like to see the dead body of her mother. The thought made her feel sick.
She said ‘No’ and stared out of the window at the sky, watching the clouds drifting and the light drawing contours around them.
There were only two other people on the bus: a woman in her mid-fifties and a man in his thirties with a phone to his face like a feeding-bag on a horse, who incessantly bounced his left leg up and down.
As the bus drove on, the trees on either side of the road fell away to reveal a flat and empty landscape of crop fields and sheep pastures. Sudden light escaped the oppressive shroud of cloud-cover and the right side of the bus became exposed to an unflattering illumination along its entire length. At the the front of the bus, the old woman saw in the periphery of her vision the weak reflection of her face overlaid onto the scenery outside the window. The deep and shallow wrinkles and furrows, the sagging and blotted skin; all the signs of age that had inevitably accumulated upon her face; the secrets her carefully applied make-up could now no longer evade, all were mercilessly revealed in the unforgiving light. She forgot her composure, forgot that she was supposed to be discreetly aware of her surroundings and company. Her inner-child escaped and despaired for all the days that had left these traces, for her treasured youth and beauty so mistreated, and here in this place amongst the children it became too much. With pitiful sorrow in her eyes her hands explored her face, they stroked and stretched the skin around her eyes, along her jaw, beneath her chin and on her neck as she turned her head this way and that searching for an angle that would provide some small flattery.
She wished she didn’t care so much about her appearance, but that didn’t change the fact that she did.
She recounted in her mind all of the things she had to be grateful for: the good job, early retirement with a healthy pension; the lasting (second marriage); her two beloved, successful children and their own children.
It didn’t help. She still felt like shit.
It was one of those days.
The man with the phone was shitposting on Twitter, simultaneously feeling pleased and disgusted with himself, oblivious to his physical surroundings. He didn’t need to be: his body knew every bend in the road, knew how long his journey would last, knew that the kids would push the button for him when he needed to get off the bus.
He didn’t think about what came after the bus ride. He didn’t want to.
The words “sad ugly bastard” shouted in his mind, so he wrote something awful and sent it to a stranger.
Loneliness was becoming too much for him.
When Jacob sat down on the same seat as Olly, as their bodies brushed together, they both felt a warm excitement spike through them. This had started to be a regular experience and though they still did not understand its significance they both took a secret pleasure in it. Neither boy knew what to make of it, so they ignored it as best they could. Both were unaware the feeling was shared.
As happy and carefree as the three boys were there was something beneath the surface of their interactions, some unspoken feeling hiding behind every word. Of the three of them it was Jack who felt it mostly keenly and while he could not recognise it nor understand it, it felt painful to him. He was frightened of the feeling. It made his stomach feel tight. It was too much like the sensation he had felt just a year or so back, when a group of older boys and girls had started talking to him during lunch. Some of the girls were his age but most of them were older. He didn’t like it when he saw them looking at him. None of them had said anything particularly mean, in fact they had been sort of friendly with him, but he didn’t like the sensation that gripped him in that moment when each gaze was upon him. The whole experience had suddenly felt detached, like everything had just unlatched and drifted away, leaving him behind. After that he had never felt the same again, he never felt safe around other people.
Sometimes, on those nights when he couldn’t sleep, he would look out of his window, out at what few stars he could see, and sharp tears, a bitter taste and a gnawing sensation in his stomach would all arrive at once to push him towards the edge of something unknown and terrifying.
It was on those nights that he spent most of his time of the internet.
Logan was 15. Logan had five brothers. He was the type that radiated testosterone and other boys submitted easily to him. If his eyes had displayed the bright signs of intelligence, Logan might have seemed truly malevolent, but they didn’t. Yet sometimes, just before the fire of aggression started within him, his eyes sent out little signals of fear and slight surprise: he was not without a need to be accepted…but the other boys had their own fear to confront and so none of them ever noticed.
The Girl did though.
At the back of the bus, Jacob and Olly prepared to interact with Logan. Jack prepared to be in Logan’s presence. For all three boys this meant doing the same thing: falling silent and staying that way. For Jack, it also meant downcast eyes avoiding Logan’s gaze; his stance, the aggressive movements, the jokes at his expense and a silent despair at Jacob and Olly. A despair that they wouldn’t join in with any bullying Logan might decide to plague Jack with, but wouldn’t prevent either. Logan announced his presence with a single, barked command:
The three boys moved. Jacob and Olly sat next to each other, Jack moved to the seat in front of them, as far away from danger as he dared.
Logan threw his bag onto a seat and fell into the one next to it.
He stared at the boys, enjoying the power he knew he held over them, and dreading the powerlessness that awaited him when he arrived home.
After enjoying his power for a few minutes, Logan demanded that Jack get out his iPad. Jack dutifully removed it from his bag, hoping his now sweaty palms and shaking hands would go unnoticed but hoping most of all that this wouldn’t end with his possessions broken. Again.
Jacob and Olly, suddenly at ease again, began to talk and laugh. They leaned over their seats to be able to crowd around Jack’s iPad, moving with a flexibility that was beyond him. For the first time it occurred to him that Jacob and Olly, his constant companions for years, had always been more physical with each other than they were with him. They had always somehow managed to be sat next to each other and not him; they would touch and push and joke with each other in a way that seemed so relaxed, so natural. That never happened to him.
Then Logan made a playful attempt to take the iPad away from him and from pure instinct Jack knocked Logan’s hands away, but did it with such unintended force he sent the iPad crashing to the floor. All four boys fell silent until Jack let out a quiet whimper of dismay. His face flushed with sudden red anger and his muscles, or what he had of them, tensed and his wide shoulders pulled up and in toward his body. His two friends were held in shock by the moment: they had never seen aggression displayed by their friend. The moment passed though, quickly and without resolution. Jack averted his eyes, picked up the tech from the floor, and stayed as motionless as he could. His two friends looked at each other guiltily. They had worried about him recently, about his withdrawal into himself and away from them and everyone else. Now for the first time they had been frightened by him.
The silence held itself in the air between them as they all awaited Logan’s reaction, but Logan, after staring at Jack – who did not look back – just laughed, and threw an insult at him.
Jack wouldn’t look up at them, or at anyone. He simply sat quietly with his head held down and his iPad, gently placed back into it’s protective cover, on his lap.
Logan talked to Jacob and Olly about the football team, ignoring Jack, and got off the bus after a few stops. Turning to the other boys, he called Jack a pussy and muttered a simple ‘Bye’ to Jacob and Olly: a sign of respect.
Jacob and Olly looked at each other, then at Jack. They all remained silent.
As the bus drove off and Logan walked towards home, a familiar feeling hardened in his guts. Arriving at his door, he prepared himself before entering his own personal hell.
The bus stopped in the village square where Jack, Jacob and Olly had spent so many innocent childhood nights together. Jack, like the old woman at the front of the bus, held his mouth open as he caught sight of the scene of his happy youth. The two smaller boys gathered their things and stood to leave the bus.
Jack, caught in a limbo between nostalgia and shame at the awkwardness he had caused, looked up at them finally as they all muttered goodbyes. As they left the bus, Jacob and Olly felt strangely elated and marched happily away to their homes and talked of the past as if it were just another part of themselves. Jack, watching them go, let his eyes fall to the floor again. For a brief moment he had to restrain himself from crying.
Taking a deep breath he left his seat, stumbled twice, and just before he left the bus he stared at his reflection in the oversized wing-mirror. When he stepped out he turned his head to say ‘Thanks’ to the bus driver with a bitter tone to his voice that surprised them both. The driver, a man who was remembered by no one, had always felt that the boy was a gentle creature incapable of malice.
The driver felt a small twinge of pity.
Leaving the bus after Jack, the man with the phone looked up at his surroundings for the first time since he had sat down, and what he saw, without knowing it, was the meek walking off to be disinherited from the Earth.
The man marched home; the cold air, slimy leaves stuck to the streets, the wind stinging his eyes and making his nose dribble. The environment seemed to be maliciously conspiring against him. He hated the outside world. He hated his body.
He walked faster towards home, longing for incorporeal company.
As she watched the others depart, and those still remaining on the bus, the Girl thought about the day her mother had died. When the thought became too much she did what she always did and forced herself to think about something, anything, else. She thought about everyone she knew about; what would they would become before death came for them. She thought about light; about the the biology class when all the children grew cress exposed to different levels of light and the sight of those grown in a closed box with only a single pinprick on top.
Thoughts swelled to a crescendo in The Girl’s mind as sunlight pierced the clouds again, this time accompanied by a gentle rain. Thoughts became images, only images, in her mind.
A sadness so profound that it felt like a punch to the chest overcame The Girl. Too much detail: there was just too much detail everywhere. She wanted nothing more than to think about and to know everything, but she couldn’t. The Girl was overwhelmed. The woman, the bus driver, the other children, herself, her father. Her mother.
How could she continue to exist amongst all these other existences? The sensation, the one she still had no name for, took over every single cell of her. Overwhelmed by everything, The Girl tried to ignore as much as she could, but it wasn’t possible. The inexpressible took control of her.
Sometimes everything becomes just too much.
Too much, it was all too much.
Watching the raindrops falling in the refracted sunlight, The Girl realised something. Something she could not understand. She felt a lightness sweep her away and, unnoticed, as the light played it’s majestic game across, above and between the scene, The Girl began to slowly evaporate. All that she was, all that she would be, finally released itself into the Nothing that had been calling her for her entire life.
No one saw, but it happened nonetheless:
The Girl disappeared.