‘I’m telling you, man. Given the chance I’d go back and change it.’
Steve laughed at his friend. ‘What would you change, Nate? You ragged on that kid for years and years.’
Nathan stared into his beer, watching tiny bubbles rise through the amber liquid. ‘Just go back to the start, I suppose.’
‘The start of school?’
‘I guess so. Terry was there right from the first year of Kindergarten.’
Steve laughed. ‘And you started in on him right away. You were born to bully, my friend.’
Nathan shook his head. ‘I don’t know why you find all this so amusing. The kid is dead. The man is dead.’
Steve laid a consoling hand on his friend’s shoulder. ‘The man was a loser, Nate. You think it was only you that bullied him? He was a weird kid and he grew up into a weird adult and people gave him a hard time. At the end of the day, Terry chose his own life.’
Nathan looked up sharply from the ceaseless streams of bubbles. ‘Did he?’
Steve raised an eyebrow, confused.
‘Did he really choose his own life? What if just one person had been nice to him? His life might have gone in a whole different direction.’
Steve shrugged. ‘What if he was normal looking? What if he knew Kung Fu and kicked the crap out of everyone that ragged on him? What if his mum and dad had lived somewhere else and he’d been popular there? There’s a million what if’s and none of them will change anything now.’
‘All it would have taken was for someone to treat him like he was worth something.’
Steve shook his head. ‘It’s easy to say that now, mate. But think about it. He looked bloody weird, he always smelled of that stuff he used on his shocking acne. He always had patches and bandages on himself. He ate the weirdest stuff in his sandwiches at lunch time. If you ever talked to him he’d freak you out with talk of some insect’s breeding cycle or something.’
Nathan raised a hand. ‘All right, all right. I get it. He was different.’
‘And that’s all it takes for kids to make someone’s life hell. Sure, we shouldn’t have done it, but poor old Terry copped it all his life. From everyone.’ Steve shook his head. ‘Poor old Terry,’ he again quietly.
Nathan was silent, staring into his beer. Steve watched him uncomfortably, with nothing else to say. It was apparent that nothing was going to stop him from feeling as bad as he did right now. Eventually Nathan shook his head and drained the rest of his beer in a single, extended draught. ‘I’m going home,’ he said sullenly.
Steve looked at the paper open on the table between them, beer stains and crumpled pages. Terry’s sad, oddly shaped face looked back at him from the obituary. Steve picked up his beer and began drinking in big gulps.
‘Don’t choke yourself, man,’ Nathan said, pulling his jacket off the back of his chair. ‘Stay and finish in your own time. I could do with some time alone anyway.’
Steve frowned. ‘You’re really affected by this, aren’t you.’
‘We’re all responsible for that.’ Nathan’s voice was strained as he pointed at the paper, Local Man Found Hanged.
Steve nodded. ‘I know what you mean, mate. We shouldn’t have bullied him. But it wasn’t just us. It was everyone, throughout his life. It’s sad as hell and it can teach us all a lesson, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.’
Nathan sucked a long, deep breath in through his nose. ‘I’m just saying that I wish I could go back. If just one person was nice to him it could have made all the difference.’
‘Maybe, mate. I guess we’ll never know.’
Nathan shrugged. ‘I’ll see you later.’ Without waiting for a reply he turned and walked out of the bar, past the poker machines and their zombies, mesmerised by flashing lights and empty promises.
With his hands thrust deep into his pockets, shoulders hunched against his conscience more than the cold, Nathan trudged heavily along the street, passing through pools of orange streetlight. At a junction he turned right and crossed the road. When he reached the harshly lit glass half-box of a bus stop he leaned against one corner. Staring at the tarmac of the footpath, he waited.
After ten minutes or so a bus pulled up with a creak and a hiss. Nathan got on board, paying no attention to anything in particular. There was only one bus on this route. He dipped his travelcard into the auto-reader and watched his feet overtake each other along the vinyl floor. Subconsciously taking the seat he always chose, opposite the back door of the bus, he slumped down. The bus revved, lurched and pulled away from the kerb.
A strange smell seemed to rise in the bus. It was a familiar smell, but familiar like déjà vu. It was an odour that seemed to stretch across years to reach him. Nathan looked up, not sure what he was expecting to see. He saw nothing and that surprised him mildly. There was no one else on the bus. The only other person present was the driver, silhouette behind the heavy perspex canopy of the driver’s pod. These suburban routes were always quiet, especially at night midweek. Nathan had been watching the time as he drank and talked with Steve, mindful that the last bus would save him a long walk home, but he had anticipated a few more people like himself, catching the last ride before morning. There was something strangely unsettling about being on a bus all alone, windows like dark mirrors, overhead lights too bright, artificial.
What was that smell? He looked behind himself. No-one there either and nothing that was obviously aromatic. Nothing but threadbare seats and greasy chromed grab-rails along the back of each one. Grubby yellow hand-holds swung lazily with the motion of the bus as it travelled along. Nathan’s eyes narrowed. Just how old was this thing? He hadn’t noticed that it was old when he had got on, but it was the most rickety looking bus he had seen in years. It was like the old buses in the seventies and eighties, with their low seats, upholstered in awful patterns of drab colours. Not the tall, plastic, garish seats on buses today. There were no air-conditioning ducts. There were no upright bars to hold onto between seats, no Stop buttons as there were no bars to put them on. Looking up Nathan saw a cable running the full length of the bus, hanging in pregnant bulges between eyelets screwed into the tarnished aluminium internal walls. Small signs periodically stuck to the walls, Pull To Stop – Fine For Misuse.
A deep sense of foreboding began to seep into Nathan’s bones. Something just felt wrong. And what the hell was that smell? So familiar, yet seemingly ancient, as if it would be clearly recognisable if he could only blow away the fog of time.
Nathan cupped his hands around his eyes and pressed the edges of his palms to the window, trying to see out into the night. They seemed to have been going a long time without stopping. There were stops every few minutes throughout these dull, barren suburbs. As his eyes began to adjust to the darkness outside, Nathan caught his breath in a gasp. They were going incredibly fast, kerb and garden walls whipping past in a blur. Occasional streetlamps fled past, no time to see what they illuminated. Nathan tried to see further. He could make out silhouettes of houses, smeared into cartoons by the speed. They all seemed dark and empty.
He shot out one hand, grasping the rail along the back of the seat in front of him. It was cold and slightly slimy, grease of a thousand hands before his. His body began to feel the speed of motion that his eyes were seeing and his stomach became light. He was slightly drunk, he was perfectly prepared to admit that, but not this drunk. He began to feel queasy. He swallowed hard and pulled his eyes away from the window, staring down towards the front of the bus. ‘Hey,’ he yelled out, slightly embarrassed by the weak crack in his voice. He cleared his throat. ‘Hey! Why so fast, buddy?’ And why no bends? he thought to himself. They seemed to have been barrelling along in a straight line for miles.
Nathan grabbed the rail in front with his other hand as well, both sets of knuckles white and bony under the fluorescent glare. The sense of dread increased and it felt as though the speed of the bus increased with it. How fast were they going? It felt like a thousand miles an hour. ‘Hey, driver! What are you doing, buddy?’
That smell. What was it? It made Nathan feel like a kid for some reason. A smell from his childhood, but something else too. Like an old smell mixed with a bad smell. Memory and horror. Past and brokenness. A deep tremble began in Nathan’s nauseous stomach and spread slowly up his spine. Absurd thoughts began to circulate in his mildly drunken mind, At least take a bend! He wished for anything normal to break this spell of the bizarre. He yelled louder this time. ‘Hey! Pull over, man, I think you missed my stop.’
The rocking of the bus was becoming frantic, the speed increasing exponentially. Gripping with grim determination with his left hand, Nathan half stood, swaying with the motion of speed, and grabbed for the pull cord along the side of the bus. He saw his own reflection in the dark window as he stood, his face pale and scared. He looked wrong somehow, the reflection distorting what he expected to see. He reached above the window and grabbed the cord, pulled hard. Nothing seemed to happen. He pulled again, harder. Still nothing. A slight whimper of fear and despair escaped him as he began yanking frantically on the dirty, twisted line. With a twang it came free, whipping back and wrapping itself around his hand and forearm. One end came snaking through the air, aiming directly for his eyes. Nathan screamed and clawed at the twine with his other hand, pulling it free, throwing it as far away from himself as possible. With both hands taken off the bar of the seat in front, half standing, Nathan was at the mercy of the thundering speed of the bus. The back his knees hit the edge of his seat, buckled. He went down crookedly, grabbing for the seat back, but missed. He bounced off the edge of his seat and landed heavily on the floor.
The vinyl flooring was filthy and scuffed. Nathan struggled to his hands and knees and began crawling towards the front of the bus. His breath came in sobs and hitched gasps, his nose running, tears fell unnoticed from his cheeks. What was happening here? He looked at the front of the bus, trying to see the driver. Through the front windscreen he could see an impenetrable blur of speed. There was no detail to be seen, no recognisable shapes at all, just blurring smears of dark colours swirling by. ‘Stop the bus! Please, stop the bus!’
Nathan’s elbows, hips, shoulders bashed against the metal frames of the seats as he crawled along. His knees felt bruised as they slipped left and right, his hands hurt. That smell, it was stronger here. At least a part of it was stronger. One of the old parts of the smell, aromatic memory. It was a cleaning fluid, a disinfectant of some sort. It reminded him of school.
He was nearing the front of the bus. ‘For pity’s sake, stop the bus!’ he hollered at the top of his voice. Another part of the smell was becoming clearer now. A liniment of some sort. It made him think of changing rooms at sporting venues. But there was something medical about it too, something old-fashioned and disconcerting. The memories, the powerful memories of smell, caused the terror in his gut to spread like ice water through his legs. Slipping along on hands and knees, sobbing, Nathan shook his head. ‘No, no, no!’ And another part of the smell was clearer now. As he recognised one part, another part became apparent. This one was darker, more horrible. When his Grandmother had lain dying in a hospice last year, she had smelled like this.
Bracing himself against the chairs and the floor, sobbing out his terror, Nathan’s mind tried not to pull the threads of recollection together. He tried to think otherwise, but he recognised it all. Everything and the stench of death.
The speed of the bus was inconceivable now. Nathan felt as though his skin was being peeled back off his skull by forward momentum alone. He stretched one hand towards the edge of the little door that let the driver into his seat. As he reached he felt his bones twist and convulse. He watched in horror as his hand seemed to shrink. He felt the terror of a child, convinced the bogey-man was coming to get him. Nathan howled, his voice no longer that of a man. ‘I’m sorry!’
Terry’s face, green and pasty with death, leered down at him from the driver’s seat. His weird shaped ears stood out from his drawn skull, his eyes bulged, his greasy hair hung limp about his sallow cheeks. ‘Just how far back do you want to go, Nathan?’
(Originally published by The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror – www.theharrow.com)
Copyright (c) Alan Baxter