Two number 17s were stationed at the bus stop, the first one pulling away as Naomi ran up to it. She boarded the second one, waving a handful of clutched possessions - flyer, phone, fiver - towards the driver, the top of which was a monthly pass. No protest came from the cabin, so she took her default seat by the front wheel well, opposite the stairs. Peeling the pass and other layers from the top of the stack, she filtered the phone out from the ephemera. Minutes went past with a progress spinner until the lack of signal won out and the connection failed.
No bars allowed the drift of her focus to detach from the tiny black rectangle, allowing the ambiance in, though the brightness of the screen against the evening washed out peripheral vision. No chatter filled the air, no boozed-up revellers returning from the pub. Quiet tonight. No chance for the almost as pleasurable fallback of people-watching. No calls or texts possible right now. Without a check-in, Granny would worry about her.
What was the point of putting two buses on the route if both had been empty? And the first one had been empty, or at least almost so. Wasn’t it supposed to be some quirk of traffic flow? Buses followed the same route, but the cars in between had different destinations, so they quickly thinned out, leaving buses back to back. Her brother had told her that. Privately, she suspected some drivers were just too impatient. Too competitive perhaps, or this guy was just being a dickhead. Or maybe… a new thought came to mind, and with it a sensation like she’d dived into cold water, surprised that it had never occurred to her before.
The bus was fake.
Well there was probably a good reason for it. Best not to question these things. The ‘Do not distract the driver’ sign, with the potency of a talisman, cut off any such thought. She remained seated, processing this insight. But now, with phone pocketed, she was alert. How had she known? If it wasn’t authentic, then it was a close analogue. Whatever made it not a bus, but a template of a bus, was occurring at some subconscious level. It was too much.
Only acting normally drew down the surreality to manageable levels. Ignore it and the feeling might go away. So she did so, thinking through weather, the weekend, clubbing and fashion. Which brought her back to people.
No-one else had got on. Nor even additional stops.
Outside reduced to vistas of only mud-spattered windows, wreathing any news of the world in an orange-tinted patina of filth. Twilight had fallen even before boarding and her world collapsed to something familiar in outline, if not in detail. No matter the times spent on this same winding route, shattered after a backshift on the ward or dropping in on friends, she’d paid no real attention. A bus journey was only remembered in the abstract, in tiny variances of the many. A minute early, a minute late, a dog, no dog, chewing gum ruining her jeans, that blond guy, the day it rained buckets, her brother never stopping talking about roleplaying games, the time she tripped, all smearing together into a single impressionistic mush.
Trying to see outside, a streetlamp glow at the boundary of the world, didn’t help. If Keiran’s roleplaying adventurers were here, lost, could they substitute garden lights for stars? Housing schemes for constellations? She had no idea where she was, the route being one of those late-night winding ones, swapping speed for completeness. It doubled back on the doubling back, maximising its catchment area. He had that mindset, not so far from hers back when they played at being explorers in the wasteground behind the industrial estate in the shadow of the hills. Everything had been mysterious. Keiran trying to find flying saucers and her trying to find faerie mounds.
And this? This would all turn out fine in the end. As he would say, a story you could buy drinks with. It was just one of those things.
How British of her.
Obviously there was a proverbial reasonable explanation, though what it might be escaped her. Habit caused her to fidget with the phone again. Again, no connection could be coaxed from it. Even holding it this way and that, more elaborate poses than she would otherwise do given the lack of people to tut tut and shake their heads. Because you weren’t supposed to that. Still less were you supposed to rise from your seat and strike the emergency door opening. That would get you in trouble.
Being attentive might at least pass the time, even if to improve the retelling. So observe, she told herself. She even had an observation badge once earned as a Brownie, which wasn’t that long ago. Not really. I promise that I will do my best, the motto had went.
Aside from the sign - an imperative keeping her in her place - there were no other posters. No public service information, no adverts. Naomi was sat in the buggy-bay, in the pulldown by the front left wheel arch next to where luggage ought to have been. A half-turn from the other seats, ideal for glaring at the notional person opposite and easy for quick panoramic scans. Checking out the distance to the next stop, sneaking a peek at fashion choices or listening to workplace secrets. But no people, or even evidence of them. No discarded fast-food cartons, or cola bottles. A bus having been in service all day and looking pristine. No, fresh. No cartons or used tissues. No spray of discarded tickets, or scatter of pizza brochures. Even the used ticket box was empty, without the corresponding spill on the floor.
Underneath the closest seat to the stairwell was someone’s forgotten black backpack, glistening as if wet from rain. An antiseptic smell added a note to the air, like a dentist’s surgery, vanishing as soon as she thought she perceived it. Something deeply encultured in her saw an urge rise to tell the driver about the unattended luggage. Do not approach it. Do not open it. The driver hadn’t spoken any words so far, himself authoritative and unapproachable. These minor fears competed with the greater one of being wrong and wasting his time. That would just be awful.
He was sitting up there, in the cab, a fraction from being in view, his shadowy arm working the steering wheel. The cabside mirror used to check on rowdy passengers should have worked both ways, but it was too dark for reflected insights. Only the faint green pulse of the diesel level and the orange wash of indirect evidence for streetlights. She counted as indicators blinked exactly seven times before she felt the pull of the vehicle around another corner. No variation, no gradual curves mixed with slopes, only gentle left turns. There were right turns too, though wider, less distinct.
So Naomi observed passively, listening for but not hearing outside traffic, only the low thrum of the engine. A higher note of unidentifiable music, escaping from a leaky speaker someplace, overlaid upon the rumble. Blame it on fatigue, she thought, just not thinking straight. Though it hadn’t been that hard a day. Maybe stress was cumulative over weeks and months. Sitting on an unreal bus had allowed it to escape in a torrent, washing away rationality and leaving behind only a fugue state. Granny would tut as usual, tell her she was away with the Faeries, but making an offering of a cup of tea as she did so. Would she feel like this if not for the thought of fake buses? A surprising and powerful idea which was now consuming her.
Not unreal like a knock-off, but unreal in the spectrum of purpose for which a bus should fit. The very essence of what made a bus at one end, this at the other. An artifact. A construct. Both built. Only one real.
That backpack… there was no reason for it to be there. Or every reason. Positioned where none should be, black by contrast with the mute orange and cyan patterning of the seats. Backpacks were left on seats, not underneath them. Another theory, then, that it was a subconscious fear of terrorism. But still she sat. Don’t make trouble. Get it wrong and look stupid. To run is to be embarrassed. Even with the potential of nothing mattering again ever, she sat. Don’t stand out. Don’t make a fuss.
How very British.
Naomi’s phone still had no signal, cut off from access to the world’s knowledge, from chatrooms and forums. Ever been alone on a bus, late at night, and it was fake? How could she be feeling like this? She elected to let the conceit of Brownie badge take over, mindful of how absurdly proud she’d felt being awarded it. The best in her troupe. For months afterwards, on car journeys, she would notice the patterns in registration plates, calling out letters which were in sequence. Now it was obvious how much she’d grown up.
It was a primary-school-level of observation but, she now mulled, the more effective for it. Expectations about how the world worked became a kind of mental filter. You didn’t expect something discordant so your mind simply bypassed it. Even normal bulk awareness in an odd context. Such as how she could now read her phone with ease, if not make calls. Normally it’d be a strain, bouncing all over as the suspension failed to cope with the potholed route. Drivers didn’t make the effort to avoid them.
And who or what was the driver? So commonplace that he wasn’t even recorded in her memory, just a mental marker in his place. Dark hair? Glasses? She tried to recall. A suspicion grew that her memory of ten minutes ago was merely a composite of her expectations: what a bus driver was supposed to be.
Being a Brownie had been the right age to imagine going on great adventures like in books. She hadn’t thought of that in years. Running around mist-filled railway yards at night, catching smugglers now had such a 1950s feel. She was a modern kid, though her childhood was filled with hand-me-down Eye Spy and Ladybird books. Books pooled with her friends, shared amongst them. They were mostly from her Brownie troupe too; the Kelpies. Named for a mythological creature, the Celtic water-horse.
Yeah, no wonder away with the Faeries.
From her wheelside seat, she leaned a touch leftwards and aimed a glance at the interior mirror. Normally the driver would use it to check on the occupants - captives - but she could look back into him. But if he was looking back at the same time, he’d see her. Naomi instead looked down at her shoes, behaving, upset at her failure even to do this. Faint music came from the radio, only loud enough to understand that there were lyrics, but not enough for the words. Some strange kind of rap channel or spoken-word.
Talk to the driver, she thought. Just talk to him. He was part of the background, part of the workings of a modern world, part of the Everyday, not part of a duck-blind. You didn’t pay special attention unless you secured a “hello” or a “how ya doing’” or anything which differentiated it from the visual noise of the world. What was she going to say, she asked herself. Hello, are you some kind of monster? A measure of fear began. The mind does not admit of qualifiers; the dentist saying this wont hurt, the ex saying he was not an idiot. The mind doesn’t hear the qualifiers of ‘wont’ and ‘not’. Only ‘hurt’, ‘idiot’, ‘fear’ and ‘monster’.
Key words. Important words.
She felt her heart rate increase.
He had CCTV monitors anyway, one way, so why would he bother with mirrors?
Expectations. She had looked around, seen the small spider-eyes of the black domed cameras. Always there for her safety, part of the noise of the world. She looked again. Closed her eyes. Opened her right eye. They were cameras. Opened her left eye. They were mirrors.
She didn’t want to speak. Making a sound, even a word, even a ‘hello’ would draw attention to herself. How absurd, being the sole occupant of an observation platform and not wanting to draw attention to herself. Don’t stand out. Don’t make a fuss. And with extreme provocation, the British Yes, well.
Someone ought to say something.
There was no-one.
She wished Granny was here, setting the world to rights, understanding any situation with one glance and knowing exactly what to do. She had told Naomi where the Kelpies came from and a whole lot of other creatures beside. Tales from years past, told by her grandmother and by her grandmother before that. The Good Folk, the Faeries, a race living one remove from our world. Flighty, mercurial. Washed away by the cold iron of industry, as the Sons of Adam had spread across the world. Humans had learnt medicine, increased their longevity and increased their numbers.
Well perhaps they had been learning and modernising too.
Such as making their own buses.
Even without any use for it, she was now gripping the phone tightly, her virtual trail back through the maze of the Minotaur. She pocketed it. Took it out again. At least she could take some photos, her phone didn’t need a signal to do that. Yet what would that prove, a picture of an empty bus? One camera amongst dozens that a modern bus seemed to need. Aside from its primary function of scooping up post-closing time drunks, a bus was an effective observation platform. Late night winding routes for maximum catchment area of suitable subjects for study. Was it her expectations? This phenomenon was filtered to her as the mythology she grew up with and that was how she saw it. Another panoramic scan, this time only using her left eye. That was how you could see the Good Folk. Did that make her an ambassador for humanity or merely a lab rat?
Seems they’d found one.
She began wondering how she was going to escape, accompanied by an abrupt tightness in her chest at the prospect of getting into trouble. Leap up and dive out of the door?
That music again, like from a tinny phone or leaky earphones. As an experiment, Naomi cupped her hand over her left then right ear. She could only hear it with her left ear, no matter which way her head turned. With both it was faint music, with only the left it was only words which only might have been English. Did that work for smell too, by pressing a finger to squash the left then right side of her nose? Normal smells were blocked, though what counted as a normal smell she couldn’t say. Her olfactory worldview was limited to perfumes and sledgehammer scents like burger with chips and espressos. No food to be consumed on the bus, but that notice was absent too. (Ah, she’d just missed it.) Societal smells, not machine smells like diesel and oil. That hint of grass and honey could only be smelt with her left nostril.
It worked. What was it about the left?
Was she having a stroke?
Conscious action was in abeyance, as she took flight up the stairwell to the top deck, each footfall bustled, swaying as on a boat, checked out her face in the distorting circular mirror at the top. Naomi clawed at her cheeks, measuring fingerfuls of face against any hint of asymmetry. Speak into her phone, she thought, ask it something; her voice wouldn’t be comprehensible to the device if she was slurring. Maybe it could detect something wrong with her.
But that would require a signal.
“Aye, bee, cee, dee, eee, eff…” she said in short breaths, cycling through the rest of the alphabet twice, then “one, two, three, four…” all the way up to a hundred. “I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m OK.” But the situation was not. More deep breaths as she convinced herself that she was undamaged.
How embarrassing she thought, her cheeks reddening in the mirror, to have made such a scene. In front of nobody but the observers in the time through the mirrors. Mirrors that might also contain a reflection of whatever was behind her.
“You don’t scare me,” she lied, turning and looking to the rear of the top deck and seeing nothing but pristine seats.
Even this high, the outside grime of the roads coated the upper windows. Nothing could be seen save the orange glow of streetlights floating past. No-one occupied the top deck and for a brief, dizzy, instant, it seemed a foolish idea that the number of decks stopped at merely two. But now that she was moving, she may as well keep going. Ducking down to the floor revealed nothing underneath any of the seats, as did jogging to the back and systematically checking the rears of the seats. Not even the expected graffiti at the extreme rear of the deck; crude insults, love hearts and dates, teenagers only shot at notoriety. Their behaviour and, once, hers.
Was her behaviour the point of all this?
She gripped the handrail with both hands, her right feeling cold unyielding, ordinary, everyday, orange and blue textured plastic. Her left felt the same. But with an extra, subtle, electric thrum, only noticeable because she was looking for it. If this was real - if - then her left-handed senses were touching that part of the bus which wasn’t in the real world. An astral part. She had eliminated herself as the source of the problem, she told herself, which was nonsense but the least frightening alternative. Which meant her working hypothesis was that she could perceive the Otherworld.
Back at the bottom of the stairwell. Naomi read off the public information notice, “Do not distract the driver” and a list of fares and destinations to prove, again, that her mind was working. Only… the notice hadn’t been there before, had it? In her haste to get a health check, this had momentarily overridden the situation. Enough that anticipations of being a notice had been borne out.
She put a hand over her left eye, looked with the right, did the reverse. Left colours had a different quality. More saturated, like a TV with the colour dialled all the way up.
Faerieland. One night spent in Faerie Mound with the Good Folk was a year in the real world. Even now she might be isolated in time from her family. Having heard the tales, having understood in some deep way, combined with being alone had allowed her to perceive. What would Keiran, adventuring on paper, do? Or Granny? Weren’t you meant to throw salt at Faeries? And did she have any sachets in her handbag, palmed long ago from hotel breakfasts?
She jumped downstairs two step at a time, the steepness of the steps undoing her at the last as she took a misstep and fell onto the deck. She pushed herself up, mind burning with the thought that she’d been attacked, but it was only her own doing. She raised her head, and suppressed a scream.
Her head was right next to that black backpack. Monolithic. Out of place. Rain-soaked, glistening as if not made but born. Safety-valve laughter bubbled up from somewhere deep within her. That here she was surrounded by the supernatural, likely trapped in the Otherworld for a year and a day, perhaps for all time and - so funny - it was this which had affected her most.
Alone on a bus, with unattended luggage.
She unzipped the backpack.
Expectations. Her own doing.
She expected to die. Expected wires and dynamite and a cartoon-sized clock ticking down with seconds to go. Expected to be able to use it as a bargaining chip to let her go. After all, that’s what people were: brutal, stupid, fearful animals, not deserving of their mastery of Earth. Ghosts and Spirits, Nessie and Bigfoot, Flying Saucers and Aliens. All had lost their power to burrow into the mind: they lived only in cartoons.
But not terrorist bombers.
“No,” she said softly, “I will not respond with violence” and cleared her mind, forced herself to think with the left part of it. Analytical, considered.
Naomi pulled apart the top of the backpack, wanting to see… a lunchbox with bread, pancakes and butter, water bottle, blank parchment-like notepads. She opened the clasp of her handbag, took out a couple of oat energy bars left over from her duty shift and placed them in the lunchbox as an offering.
She zipped the backpack up.
The sway of the fake bus ceased, as if pulling to a gentle stop. Not the kangaroo start-stop jarring of being in dense traffic, but as if momentum had simply been revoked. Behind her the pneumatic sigh of the door opening. Turning, she measured out a step, then another until she was at the exit. With an absurd desire to express how sorry she was for causing any bother and that it wouldn’t happen again.
Even more carefully, she avoided looking at the driver, still afraid of what she might see. Not carefully enough, the roadside wing mirror reflected back his outline, as she rubbed her tired eye letting the left image in; she jumped off of the platform in fright. Another pneumatic swishing closed the portal as the bus pulled away in silence.
Naomi stood at the stop on the end of the cul-de-sac, fighting to retake control of her breathing. In the interim, a fall of rain had coated the pavement, a slick of oily rainbow coaxed from the tarmac. If she turned around right now, would she see the bus fading into the Otherworld? Or simply turning a corner? Would watching with both eyes mean a fading of the colour saturation in the left, leaving only the base reality?
The sky was pre-dawn purple, the shower a herald of more unsettled weather. Soon she would gain the courage to check her phone, to prove to herself that it had indeed only been a single night, that this wasn’t a dawn drawn down from an accelerated future.
Elven. (Alien). Driver (creature). Circles of torches (arrays of LEDs). Rows of windows on a bus (portholes on a saucer).
She had been in the Otherworld. Granny, too, would have seen it as such. Keiran would have described a flying saucer.
In Great Grandma’s time, nights became years in a Faerie Mound.
In Granny’s time, hours became days in a Flying Saucer.
In Naomi’s, minutes became hours in… what?
You saw what you were intended to see. For as long as it could be sustained.
She closed her eyes, brought the phone up just beyond end of her nose, prepared to face down the date. A series of bings heralded the late arrival of queued text messages as the phone happily reacquired a signal. But don’t look at the date yet. Opening her eyes could wait.
The Good Folk had been here before; had been here all along, had been preparing. They could rarely be seen because both worlds were misaligned. But the overlap was getting closer, their synchronisation improving.
And shortly, she now knew, they would no longer be afraid of us.